Las Vegas- July 2016

I don’t drink and I don’t gamble, strip clubs are just sad places for sad men if you’re older than about 25, and I would rather take a bullet to the back of the head than sit through a fucking performance of one of the 54 varieties of Cirque du Soleil currently being performed in Las Vegas.  So it’s a reasonable thing to note that finding myself out there for five days on short notice was a bit of a stretch. But it definitely happened. The circumstance allowed me to cross a VERY big item off of my bucket list….I was invited by a cigar magazine I’ve written for to attend this year’s trade show and convention for the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailer’s Association (IPCPR).  I may or may not cover that in another post, but I will say that as someone who has been into smoking, collecting, reviewing and writing about cigars for nearly 20 years, it was nerd paradise to wander among the 200 booths and meet the biggest names in the industry while working on the magazine’s social media for the duration of the show.

I’ve done my best to think of words that either obliterate or make a case for that town, and I’m kind of lost. It’s definitely not my town….I want to say it possesses zero humanity, but it does have heart.  The people I met who were actually from vegas were all pretty cool; the type of decent folks I love to meet when I travel. People who have a  lot of insight, opinions and suggestions on how to approach their city…as well as a sense of humor about what makes it a destination. Being a food guy, most of the people I’m referring to are connected to the Vegas service industry.  They earn their money.  They really, really fucking earn their money.  Because the counterpoint to an abundance of hospitality is the re-generating zombie apocalypse shitshow as the absolute worst, loudest, most entitled and stupid customers from AROUND THE GLOBE descend on that city 24x7x365. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed. Swarms of people with zero regard for basic civility. 115 degrees outside and everyplace so over-crowded that you have to wait in line to wait in the line to cross the street…and then you’re dodging drunks, baby strollers and packs of tourists who stop suddenly and clog the flow of traffic in order to take selfies.  It’s busy like the streets of New York with the exception that nobody in Las vegas has a clue where the fuck they are going. So my trip every day was basically: Wake up and interact with Vegas (the fucking worst)- the Trade Show (incredibly awesome)- interacting with Las vegas again (the fucking worst)- great meal somewhere (the BEST!)- final interaction with Las vegas before bed (fucking kill me).  I could go on for a whole long time about the Tramp Stamp of the United States, but I’ll summarize this section by saying…the legend of Vegas is built on the illusion of exclusivity. You get people through your doors by giving them a glimpse of what the people in the high roller suites enjoy, and you do that by giving them some little token, a comp, something that is a hook that makes them feel more important than whoever doesn’t get that little token. The problem is, there are so many fucking people and places for them to visit in Vegas, that someone has to dream shit up in order for EVERYONE to get some goddamn thing….and on the other end of that equation, in order to keep that “comp bubble” from bursting, you charge, overcharge, surcharge, upcharge and upsell in every possible way to make sure for every penny going out in comps you’ve got five coming back in.  It’s not as simple as counting on just the gambling anymore.  It’s a painfully transparent and impersonal relationship that is the glue keeping the constantly replenished zombie apocalypse humming along. But I don’t drink and I don’t gamble, so maybe one or both of those things would change my tune. Until then, what a fucking shitshow.

The whorish sister of Branson aside, Las Vegas has great food that would make it well worth another trip if I go back to IPCPR. The food in Vegas started in Kansas City…by that I mean owning Kansas city has its advantages.  My friends are great chefs who know other great chefs, so my tradition of being a word-of-mouth diner was kept alive and well for the duration of the trip. With the exception of breakfast at Bouchon on Sunday and my final meal at the Montecristo Cigar Bar on Thursday night, I went where friends of mine told me to go. And as always, remaining dedicated to my tried and true method, I did very well.

BOUCHON – The Venetian

So yeah, first meal was at Bouchon at The Venetian. My plane left KC at 6:20, got in around 7:40 pacific, so the first thing I did was drop my bags off and piss myself off for an hour or so trying to find the route between Harrah’s next door, and Bouchon.  That was pretty much all of Sunday…finding my way from the hotel to the trade show. It doesn’t sound that difficult until you factor in the fact that Las Vegas doesn’t want you to ever know where you are, how you got there, how to return, or what time it is. The distance between Harrah’s and the Sands Expo Convention Center at The Palazzo is longer than you can possibly imagine.

I’ll be honest, my master plan before I left Kansas City was to get up a little early each day and start off at Bouchon for some pastry and coffee.  In most towns that would not be unheard of, but in Vegas, even at 7am it’s a shitshow of crowds of people and lines upon lines….as far as I know there is no quiet donut and coffee to be had on the Strip.  It quickly became obvious that starting my days in a quiet corner of Thomas Keller’s Vegas outpost wasn’t going to happen.  In fact, with the exception of my Sunday arrival, I grabbed a Red Bull from a newspaper kiosk inside the Venetian and drank it on my way to pick up some crappy danish from a vendor just inside the trade show.  BUT ON SUNDAY I got a croque madame from Bouchon….and it was fucking great.  The place is as hectic and impersonal as a hotel coffeeshop, but everyone is a professional and great at their job.  You want for nothing except some solitude with your carbohydrates.

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Croque Madame

Portofino- The Mirage

Portofino was an excellent chef recommendation.  I would have never even known about the place if I were left to my own research.  As wrong as I was about Bouchon serving as my morning oasis everyday, I was just as right about starting my trip with a bunch of pasta in a beautiful Wynn-designed, quiet dining room.  Again….from the room, through Harrah’s, across the street, and through The Mirage to Portofino when measured in feet isn’t that big of a deal.  But when you measure it in Vegas distance, it’s a solid thirty minute dick punch. Which makes the comfort of the dining room even more appreciated.

The service was great, the food was great, I had a solid conversation with Chef LaPlaca, and overall it was exactly the type of relaxing experience I needed after a day that started way too early and was way too long.  I doubled up on the pasta because neither sounded like something I could skip, and the comfort food angle was the way to go. Even the smaller tasting portions I asked for were huge, and both were extremely rich.  The textures and balance were spot-on, but the star of the dinner was the grilled octopus appetizer.  While I may have eaten overall “better” dishes before, the balance of fat and acid was perfect and the octopus itself may have been the best I’ve ever eaten.  Perfectly and deeply grilled on the outside and scallop tender on the inside.  Sunday night was a solid start for dinner, other than the inevitable walk back through the same zombie maze.

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Grilled Octopus, Calabrian peperonata, crisp fingerlings, salsa verde

 

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Caesar Salad

 

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Grilled Onion Gnocchi, green garlic butter, charred artichokes, crispy frog legs

 

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Burrata Agnolotti, lobster, chanterelles, roasted corn butter

RakuSpring Mountain Road

I skipped a Fuente-Newman dinner to have my evening to myself and eat at Raku.  If you know cigars then you understand the weight of that sentence.  This was the most highly recommended stop of my trip…multiple chefs and civilians told me this was the must-not -miss restaurant in all of Vegas.  So I reserved for Monday night  in case I’d end up wanting to go back another night for a late/2nd dinner.  My only regret was not digging up a couple more people to dine with me….or I just should have ordered twice as much and eaten half.  I did the best I knew how as far as ordering, and I was pretty proud of myself when I saw the cook in the back reading over my ticket and he stopped to look out at me and nod his approval.  I basically went with texture, stuff I probably wouldn’t see anyplace else, and strong recommendations.  The number of Asian restaurants between the strip and Raku that looked like places I’d eat every day was unbelievable.  One after the other, all the way there.

As far as tasting notes, the biggest hitters were the uni, liver, tendon and tofu dishes.  Texture was the thing.  With the uni, egg and roe dish you mix it all together….with the raw okra, little mushrooms and chopped raw vegetables in there it was through the roof with texture and flavor. The server warned me with several of these dishes that “not everyone likes them, but they are some of my favorites”…and I can definitely understand how they would not be favorites for most people. Especially the raw liver.  But the liver was outstanding.  It takes ninja level chopstick skills, but you dip it in a mix of light sesame oil and soy after dusting it with a little salt.  The slice of raw garlic really sets it off, and it’s served pretty much ice cold which emphasizes the natural crunch of the meat, but overall it’s incredibly mild and mellow. The liver flavor only really comes in on the back end and it’s rich and buttery.

The robata grill selections deserve multiple visits by themselves, but Chef LaPlaca specifically recommended the beef tendon.  It’s pretty crazy. Unlike the usual thin slices most are familiar with, it’s cooked in a much larger portion that requires two skewers.  The main flavor is the char on the outside, the rest is all mild marshmallowy and gelatinous texture.   Pretty unreal.  And finally the housemade tofu is without a doubt the best tofu dish I’ve ever had.  Very rich with all of the broth, briny with the roe, crisp on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.  Raku is a place I recommend as a can’t-miss when in Vegas.  It’s cheap and it’s genius.

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Poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe

 

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Kobe beef liver sashimi

 

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Enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon

 

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Kurobuta pork cheek

 

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Kobe beef tendon

 

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Duck with balsamic soy glaze

 

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Agedashi tofu

Bazaar Meat – SLS

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I’ve enjoyed the food of Jose Andres for a while now…my wife and I had our first date at his restaurant minibar in DC.  Molecular gastronomy can be too precious and technique can far outweigh taste, but his food has always delivered on flavor and was never meant to be taken too seriously.  I had no idea how his version of a “steakhouse” would work, but honestly I don’t think I’d ever go back to Vegas without having a meal at Bazaar Meat. The fact that it is at the end of the strip at SLS helps a lot…there aren’t the crazy crowds and the hotel and casino are about as calm as you’ll find in that town. Everything about the restaurant is huge….the entryway, the dining area, and a kitchen unlike any I have ever seen before. The menu goes deep…I think it would take me about five trips to really cover all of the bases.  This was another chef hookup, so I had the good fortune to work with my server and the manager to kind of build my own tasting menu based on the sections of the menu I found most appealing and leaving out dishes I have already tried in some form at other Jose Andres restaurants.

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View from my table…

The main thing I want to communicate before getting around to the food is the quality of the overall experience, especially as it relates to the world class Bazaar staff. They were expecting me and I got some nice additions to the meal, but it wasn’t a level of preferential treatment that stood out from service throughout the dining room. The main thing for me was…the staff loved the restaurant and the food, there was no question about the restaurant or the food I had that wasn’t easily fielded by anyone on the floor, and there was an obvious sense of ownership and pride among the staff that set it apart and reminded me of what brings me back to a restaurant over and over again. Everyone had their favorite dishes and personal recommendations, and managed to be personable while everything moved along with seamless perfection. Food aside, I’d come back just to escape Vegas, relax, be taken care of, and watch the show. It’s legit and would stand out in any town, it’s not just a Vegas outlier.

I won’t go nuts with tasting notes, it was a ton of food. Everything was top notch, I pretty much got to pick the things that looked most interesting and then trust the staff to fill in the rest. It was a bit of a shock, many courses into the meal, when it came time for the tasting sized mains and sides to come out and the giant plates of full, shareable portions hit the table all at once with a “Welcome to Vegas!” from my server.  But I had the best late night snack ever enjoyed by a human. And they didn’t even mention or offer dessert, they just brought me a to-go box full of treats. Because they know how it’s done.

The selection of housemade charcuterie was unbelievable.  Some of the best cured meats I’ve eaten, and I am fanatical about meat boards. There were some serious discussions about my favorites (the bottom middle one was based on a mole I believe), and as we talked several of them were replenished as if by magic.

The best single bite of the meal may have been the Spanish morcilla and uni….the texture of the blood sausage was slightly firm with a little bit of graininess vs. some that remind me of literal blood “pudding”, and the addition of uni is genius.

The balls-out dish of the night was without a doubt the omelet. They break that yolk and mix everything together at the table, and the offals are cooked individually for maximum texture perfection.  The kidneys are from the suckling pigs they process in house, so that slight bit of funk and texture with the fatty marrow and creamy sweetbreads made it a perfect dish.  An any time of the day or night dish. Honorable mention goes to the confit piquillo peppers…no question the best peppers of any type I’ve ever eaten.

Overall, I’d do this exact meal again, but now that I’ve made friends I’ll probably have them pick out something completely new next time.  Man, the money that comes through that place has to be unbelievable….a party of sixteen dudes came in while I was there and I gave a congrats to my server when all of the wine started hitting their table. “Yeah, that’s a good table…we’ve got a couple parties of 20 coming in later too.”  That’s Vegas.

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Foie Gras cotton candy

 

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Caviar cornet

 

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Modern and traditional Spanish olives

 

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Cheese filled “air bread” topped with A5 Kobe

 

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“Beefsteak” Tomato- tomato, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cucumber, black olive, romaine leaves

 

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An assortment of house cured charcuterie

 

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Spanish blood sausage topped with fresh uni

 

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Tortilla “Sacromonte”- farm egg omelet with sweetbreads, bone marrow and kidneys from suckling pig

 

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Croquetas, bechamel filled, one with chicken one with jamon

 

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Wagyu beef cheeks, mojo rojo, oranges

 

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Grilled baby corn, mayonnaise, chile piquin, popcorn powder

 

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Confit piquillo peppers

 

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Assortment of treats to-go

Carnevino – The Palazzo

For my next to last night in town, I went with a Batali-Bastianich restaurant that was strongly recommended by a couple of people. A for-real Vegas steakhouse that wasn’t a Capital Grille or the like seemed appropriate considering I was there for a cigar trade show.  It’s a great room just off of the casino with seating that sits back far enough to be a good barrier between you and the hordes.  They hit all of the right notes with ambience and service, with the only thing that really stuck out as a negative was hearing the same recitation of the same “90 days of aging” speech as each server explained the in-house aging program to their tables.  It didn’t make any difference in my experience, it was just noticeable when dining alone. I will say that people who are about to drop at least $75 per person for most of their a la carte premium steaks deserve to hear the entire story.

I’m generally going to get the meat tray anytime a restaurant does their own charcuterie. Everything was top notch, although a little too cold.  The texture of the testa was pretty unbelievable, very different…they chop the meat way finer than I’ve had anywhere, and it brings out the earthy funk much better.

The crab tagliatelle was legit….being a B&B property, you know they aren’t going to fuck up pasta. The texture was perfect, the amount of crab was over the top and the level of spice was a notch above comfortable for most tourists.  Best $30 serving of pasta I’ve had in recent memory.  For me the veal tongue was a no-brainer for my entree selection…I can’t put away a huge ribeye and I usually order offal anytime I see it on a menu.  Again, a total winner.  I’d go back to Carnevino anytime, but with at least one more person so we can go with something that warrants the “meat speech”.

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House cured charcuterie

 

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Crab Tagliatelle- corn, fresno peppers and mint

 

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Veal Tongue with lemon gremolata with a side of grilled corn with pickled peppers and lime salt

Montecristo Cigar Bar – Caesar’s

By Thursday night I was pretty fucking fried.  I had every intention of either dining at a place called Other Mama that was recommended by Chef LaPlaca as well as the staff at Bazaar, or the outpost of the Chicago ramen restaurant Yusho.  That shit did not materialize….after the trade show was done at noon my plan was to desk my check luggage and find someplace to sit on my ass as much as possible as I waited for my 1am flight. I had managed to smoke a surprisingly low number of cigars during my stay, so I needed to change that.  I’d stopped at Montecristo earlier in the week and didn’t stay too long because it was insanely busy, but figured at 1pm on a Thursday it may be manageable.

I’ll probably do another post to talk about aspects of the show and the individual cigar spots I visited, but the Montecristo Cigar Bar was without question the best of the bunch.  It’s only a few months old, and they get everything right.  When I showed up there were only three other people in the entire place, so the server/bartender was good and bored and chatty.  He made me the best mocktails of the trip…virgin blackberry mojitos (the default mocktail in Vegas is a mojito), and only charged $6.  In that town I always offered to pay the same as a cocktail because a seat is serious real estate, but most of the time they were just happy to have a friendly person taking up space vs. one of the apocalyptic zombies just outside the door.

 

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Huge cheeseburger with a bone marrow buttered bun and duck fat fries

I’m not kidding, I ended up spending a solid six hours in that bar, on my ass in a comfy leather seat.  I waited until 5pm when the one non-snack menu item was available.  It’s not every day I spend $30 on a burger and fries, but it’s also not everyday I’m hiding from 115 degree heat and have been allowed to sit and drink cheap mocktails all day long. And it’s a hell of a burger, I’d do it again anytime.  Another writer from the magazine ended up arriving so I don’t think I got out of there until around 8pm, at which time I wandered the halls of Caesar’s until it was time to claim my luggage and head home.

I give Vegas a ton of shit because it’s horrible, but at the same time the trade show was truly a bucket list opportunity. And the food….the food is no joke.  If and when I end up going back I’ll play it a bit differently now that I’m wiser on how things work, but for a first visit in 25 years I think I did ok.

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Virgin Blackberry Mojitos….for 6 hours

 

 

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Categories: Food, Las Vegas, New

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One Comment on “Las Vegas- July 2016”

  1. August 5, 2016 at 9:32 pm #

    Sounds like you had an amazing gastronomical adventure. Well done.

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