Las Vegas Eatings
- Please send as far and wide as possible.
Editor, The Konformist
Robalini's Note: Las Vegas may be hurting more than most metropolitans right now, but one thing not hurting is the good eatings here...
The economy of dining remains strong
Because even in a recession, people will always be hungry
Thu, Jul 16, 2009
It's been a long road, but dining on Vegas has never been better
"If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches, but take away from his desires." Epicurus
Deliciousness breeds optimism. This is the best way to explain the ever-upbeat attitude of the quoted philosopher and his faithful Las Vegas following, for despite this epic recession and the lack of visitors dropping coin in our machines and at our restaurants, those who specialize in the creation and consumption of deliciousness insist things are looking good in this city.
Only the stodgiest observer will hesitate to call Vegas a great restaurant city. It is a food destination, one constructed in unique haste without the strongest foundation. Could it all come crumbling down in this economic free fall?
"I don't think it will affect it at all. It's going to be a blip on the radar screen." So says Elizabeth Blau, who has done as much as anyone to build Vegas' culinary reputation. She is a partner in three restaurants here, runs her eponymous consulting firm and helped open Bellagio, the resort that took Vegas dining to new heights.
If she says we're okay, we're okay. Right?
Let's retrace our steps. Up until about 1990, every hotel-casino had the same four restaurants: a buffet, a coffee shop, a steakhouse and a gourmet room. Around then, some national franchises arrived, like Ruth's Chris and Morton's steakhouses. In 1992, Wolfgang Puck brought Spago to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, starting the "first real celebrity-chef wave." (This history lesson comes courtesy of John Curtas, who has been writing and talking about restaurants in Las Vegas longer than anyone else.) "After that, you've got Emeril coming to the MGM and many other things happening, and that was the case until Bellagio opened in '98. That was the second wave, and it was a tidal wave. That begat Mandalay Bay, the Venetian and more." Real restaurants, great restaurants were all over the Strip (and popping up off-Strip, too), and the tourists were literally eating it up. "Then in the last four years, the French chefs show upHubert Keller, Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon," Curtas says. "No place on Earth has the concentration of great restaurants and great chefs we have in three square miles. You can walk from place to place, where you've got maybe 30 of the greatest restaurants in the United States. You can't get that in San Francisco or New York, or even London or Tokyo."
So here we are, our great name being bandied about with those world-class cities, a haven for big names and a natural for the next season of Top Chef. Industry insiders and critics agree the growth can continue, although it might not be based on the trends of our past.
"It's better now than it's ever been, but the trend at this time is away from high-priced, expensive fine dining, toward far more reasonable casual dining," says Robin Leach, now a longtime Las Vegan. "Visitors to Vegas are getting a better deal than in the recent past. Provided the restaurants learn not to gouge customers again and provide true value for their money, the customers will be there. This temporary, painful hiccup is not going to stop us from growing, and it's not going to stop star chefs from coming in."
Leach points to the planned arrival of Pierre Gagnaire at CityCenter's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, another multiple Michelin star-winning modern French chef to add to Vegas' stable. Leach recently reported Gagnaire's restaurant would open on December 5. Restaurants planned for the neighboring Aria resort include Bar Masa, from New York's acclaimed Masayoshi Takayama; Sage, from Chicago's famed Shawn McClain; and eateries from Vegas mainstays Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Sirio Maccioni.
So if we build it, somehow, the French masters and celebrity chefs, they will come. Still. But maybe not as much. Curtas estimates food and beverage is around 30 percent of gross revenue at big resorts these days. "Even with the recession, there's 30 or 40 million people coming here," he says. "I just wonder whether the super-high end will sustain itself. Are people still willing to pay $300 for dinner for two anymore? All these restaurants have to retrench and recalibrate their menus and price points, because people won't pay like they did three years ago."
But let's not jump to conclusions. That doesn't mean we're all going to revert to the Vegas of old, where the drinks and steaks were comped, and the buffets were scary. Or does it?
Todd Clore might know. He might not be a celebrity outside of Henderson, but he's a great chef with years of experience on and off the Strip. "From rumors I'm hearing, some of the hotels are going back to the way of old Vegas. It was unheard of to pay for food and beverage if you were a player then. A lot of that stuff has disappeared," Clore says. "In the '90s, all the corporations came in, and they had to make money. Food and beverage always was a loss leader for hotels. Now the gamblers are rethinking the value for their dollars. I believe a lot of them will find themselves going back to the past where there were more freebies for players."
At his suburban stronghold, Todd's Unique Dining, Clore is doing better than just holding on. "The effect [of the economy] is noticeable, but it's a relatively small place, so I might lose three or four people every day instead of three or four hundred. But I've noticed it." And he's implemented some options to keep 'em coming in, but not at the expense of quality product. That's one sacrifice Clore refuses to make. "My philosophy always has been the Strip never did justice to a local. We have a lot people that live here, and whether they dine at a buffet, a coffee shop or a nice restaurant, the choice is casino or out-of-casino. In this economy, when you're not going out as much, would you rather spend it someplace that treats you like a decent human being?"
Blau believes keeping it real is the secret to survival, no matter the venue: "It's authenticity. Whether you're doing comfort food or fine dining, you have to be authentic and have a passion for what you're doing. You've got to be best you can be. No shortcuts."
One of Blau's partners and a true celebrity chef who actually lives in Las Vegas, Kerry Simon, says Vegas' past and the bumpy present make it hard to predict what direction the industry will take next. He's worked with Steve Wynn and Vongerichten at Bellagio, just off the Strip at the Hard Rock and the Palms, and back on it at Luxor.
"Casinos can withstand certain things, and certain restaurants never have a hard time," Simon says. "But I'm open to going back to what Vegas was, more approachable for everybody, because it seemed it was getting up there [price-wise]. Vegas should be more approachable. That's where I'm at already. I want to be able to have people come and enjoy themselves."
Easy for him to say; if there is a trend ready-made for today's more casual food attitude, it's a modern menu of nostalgic comfort cuisine, the combination of familiar tastes and upscale experience that Simon specializes in. You can find this vibe at his Palms Place restaurant, at Blau's husband Kim Canteenwalla's Society Café at Encore and at the new First Food and Bar at Palazzo, among others. "Look at what Rick Moonen is doing at [RM Seafood at] Mandalay Bay," Curtas says. "He's completely revamped the menu; everything is well-prepared with high-end ingredients, but fundamentally, it's finger food. I call it gourmet bar foodchicken fingers, pork sliders, a tuna melt he just takes to another level he's a gourmet chef taking everyday food and making it sing, and everybody is on board. It's not about Coquilles St. Jacques anymore. Only snobby critics like me still get into that kinda stuff."
Leach, maybe the most famous restaurant snob in the world, takes it a step further. If there is a trend, he thinks it's that Vegas food and beverage has becomeor is becomingfar more realistic, far more dedicated to customer service, and acutely aware that high-end can exist as long as the top-tier diner is willing to pay.
For everyone else in the middle, it's survival of the fittest. Some restaurants have closed. Others are opening. This analysis makes sense in any era of Vegas development, not just today's doom-and-gloom climate.
"Vegas may have to go through another transformation, not in physical structure, but how tourists think and, especially on the Strip, how restaurants think," says Clore. "There is the mentality of the single-transaction guest, the idea on the Strip that we don't have to kill ourselves once they're here. Now everyone should be thinking it's not just important to get them in, but that they have to come see us, and we want them to visit us twice next time."
Man vs. big food
The verdict's in: NASCAR Cafe's Bunyanesque entrees and not-so-subtle roller coaster are more fun with a sexy woman nearby
Thu, Jul 16, 2009
Elliott Kleven attempts to eat the B3 burrito at the NASCAR Cafe at the Sahara. The burrito weighs six pounds and has only a handful of conquerors.
What can i tell you? the signs said "Come Get Pounded." Naturally, I had to invite Laura Croft.
Oh stop. Laura, Playboy's Miss July 2008 (and becoming even better known as "Holly Madison's roommate"), talks about loving greasy food and roller coasters so much you'd think she was sponsored by the Tomboys Against Anorexia lobby. Seeing NASCAR Café's boldfaced ads, with lines like "Our BLT is Heart-Stopping" and "The B3 Burrito/It's Child Size. Literally," you could hardly criticize my eagerness to give the girl what she wanted. A lot of it.
Because, even in a town where one-upmanship is a given, the Sahara's eatery-cum-amusement experience tops them all. Huge finish-it-and-it's-free foods have been around for decades in the world of novelty nutrition, but one would think, in the face of America's government-acknowledged obesity epidemic, that they might be fading.
Nuh-uh. Sure, the Plaza hotel has retired its legendary 9-pound burger. But the Peppermill still delivers its eight-to-10-egg omelets. Hash House A Go-Go griddles weapons-grade pancakes. Napoli Pizza offers a healthy 30-inch pie. And in the ever-changing big-burger contests, deal in Cheeburger Cheeburger (20-ounce) and Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Angioplasty (32-ounce). For sure there are others.
But none holds a candle to the NASCAR Café's mega-menu. Yes, they have a 2-by-4 burger (two meats, four cheeses) made with two half-pound ground rounds. And a BLT with a full pound (post-cooking weight, mind you) of bacon. And a 180-ounce beer tower. But nothing tops the B3 6-pound burrito. This is a serious contest: Clean your plate solo in 90 minutes, and you get not only a winner's T-shirt (guess what size it comes in?) but alsoheh-hehtwo unlimited ride passes to Speed, that roller-coaster thingy that sticks out of the front of the building.
All these are the brainchildren of one dangerous man, Sahara's Tim Emert (a Certified Executive Chef, thank you very much), who can't quite explain how he landed on six pounds, but estimates the calorie count as somewhere in the 8,000-9,000 range ... or about a week's worth for your average thinspo. The one he and an assistant made us (yes, it takes two) was roughly the 250th. To date, four people have won the challenge.
"NASCAR fans really love to eat," said Emert, straight-faced. "So we figured, `Eh, let's give 'em something to eat.'"
Was Laura up to taking on the whole burrito? Perhaps, especially with understudy eater Keltie Colleen (one of Peepshow's three little piglets) before Emert brought out all the other items, too, and then his top-selling appetizer sampler, sporting a toasted sourdough ball filled with spinach artichoke dip, Italian sausages, jalapeno-cream cheese poppers, hot wings, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders and onion rings, atop their signature curly fries. "I drank a cup of pickle juice, cheese whiz, somebody's loogie, egg, guacamole and beer for a hundred dollars once," says Croft, unconcerned about testing her impossibly flat stomach.
"This is obscene," Emert admitsthough not a bit apologetically.
To my surprise, the food wasn't just big, but actually not bad. The burrito's top round beef was stewed slowly with peppers and spices. The Angus burger was solid but savory the BLT (which took the biggest hit in our blitzkrieg) had crisp lettuce, ripe red tomatoes and thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon perfectly cooked to that decisive moment between chewy and crisp. The Italian sausage on the sampler plate was good enough for mama's Bolognese.
But the pièce de resistance was the pound of chipotle-seasoned curly fries topped with chocolate and pineapple. Yeah, let the expletives fly. Then try them. Chef Tim may be, as Keltie called him, an off-season Santa. But clearly there's a bit of Satan in the man. And Satan has discovered a taste fusion that is well, kinda sexy. It would work better with crushed instead of chunk pineapple, but that's nit-picking. "That burrito is so five minutes ago," said Keltie, digging in with a vengeance.
We of course finished our afternoonas alcohol, insulin and lipids coursed through our arteries like a microbial biker gangwith a necessary spin on Speed, the ride best described as a roller coaster on ADD. The way Speed shoots off instead of slowly climbing, you don't have time to panic. But my stomach sure gave me a big "WTF?" as we got aboard. It ended, honestly, too fast to cause hurlage. Another round and I would've been there for sure. Laura admitted to feeling badlybut only about not eating more. She confessed to pulling her punches. "I have a nude photo shoot this weekend."
Excuse me? Most women wouldn't eat this way a month before a nude photo shoot. But 72 hours?! Clearly, Daisy Dukes-wearing, beer-loving, NASCAR- and UFC-endorsing Laura Croft was created in a frat basement laboratory by Spuds McKenzie's evil med-student disciples. Either that, or cloned from Kelly LeBrock's character in Weird Science. And though she was awarded the loser's pink "weenie" T-shirt instead of the black B3 "winner" one on her way out, Croft was unflappable.
"I like weenies."
The B3 Burrito Proportions
Flour tortilla - 20 ounces
Rice - 18 ounces
Refried beans - 20 ounces
Cheese - 10 ounces
Lettuce - 6 ounces
Shredded meat - 12 ounces
Ranchero sauce - 5 ounces
Diced tomato - 2 ounces
Guacamole - 4 ounces
Sour cream - 6 ounces
Anatomy of a dish: The Fat Elvis
Thu, Jul 16, 2009
RM Seafood's dessert The Fat Elvis combines chocolate, banana and bacon inside a deep-fried egg roll with delicious results.
Food can trigger all sorts of reactions in peoplejoy, disgust, curiosity, comfort. When Rick Moonen of RM Seafood handed over his pastry department to Executive Chef Adam Sobel in February, he wanted to create something specific that went way past tasting good. He wanted nostalgia.
"Rick wanted things to evoke more of a childhood memory," explains Sobel. Well, if you palled around with Elvis during his heyday, welcome to your tasty trip down memory lane: the Fat Elvis.
A take-off on Elvis' supposedly favorite sandwich of peanut butter, bacon, banana and honey, the Fat Elvis switches the peanut butter and honey for chocolate and wraps it all inside a deep-fried egg roll served with a passion fruit caramel sauce that could easily pass for duck sauce.
The unusual pairing of bacon and dessert has elicited a mix of reactions in guests who've decided to sit down with Elvis, but Sobel says he isn't doing anything particularly revolutionary. "Smokiness with chocolate, that goes back to 2,000 years ago in Mexico."
Man vs hot thai
The Weekly's Brett McAfee tries Lotus of Siam's Level-10 spiciness. That's not a dry heat, people.
Las Vegas Weekly Staff
Thu, Jul 16, 2009
The Weekly`s Brett McAfee goes up against Lotus of Siam's level-10 spiciness, bite by mouth-searing bite.
Weekly reporter Brett McAfee likes Sriracha. A lot. He puts it on everything, and not a dainty daub either. McAfee lays on the spicy garlic chili sauce thick; he says he hardly even tastes the stuff anymore.
Still, when McAfee volunteered to take on legendary local Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam's level-10 spice, we were a bit concerned. Lotus uses Thai chilis, bird chilis and the granddaddy of spice, habañero peppers, to spice up the authentic Thai cuisine that has earned them accolades from places like Gourmet magazine and Food and Wine and visits from famous Strip chefs like Mario Batali and Joël Robuchon. When we asked the restaurant's staff to dish out their spiciest stuff for our Food Issue challenge, we were met with skepticism. "We'll send out a five first," they told us.
The five was delicious. The restaurant's popular crispy rice appetizer with sour sausage balances the spice of tiny bird chilis with sour meat and cilantro for an addictive mix that is easily enjoyed despite the smoldering heat. McAfee, snacked with confidence. If this was five, 10 should be totally doable, delicious even.
But the 10s take things up a notch, or five. Habañeros feature prominently in some of these dishes, and the peppers are so spicy that Lotus flash freezes them, so the chefs won't be stung by their hot oil when they chop them to heat up certain dishes.
For a full understanding of McAfee's response to Lotus' level 10, view the photo gallery or watch the video of his fiery food challenge at the URL above. Or perhaps this will sum it up best. After McAfee had finished his tastings, wiped his brow and succumbed to a glass of water, Lotus' staff had this to say: "You're a tough one."
The Creole Julep
Created by Maksym Pazuniak, Rambla/Cure, New Orleans
Thu, Jul 16, 2009
The 2009 Official Cocktail of Tales of the Cocktail was served up amid a gentle, passing Louisiana rainstorm last Wednesday as founder Ann Tuennerman kicked off the event outside New Orleans' Monteleone Hotel.
2.25 oz. Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum
0.5 oz. Rhum Clement Creole Shrubb
0.25 oz. Captain Morgan 100 rum
2 dashes each, Fee Brothers peach and Angostura bitters
8-10 mint leaves
1 Demerara sugar cube
Muddle sugar, Rhum Clement and bitters in a 10-ounce tall glass. Add mint and press. Add cracked ice, then Cruzan and Captain Morgan; stir. Garnish with a mint sprig.
E-mail cocktails@... to submit your bar or nightclub's signature drinks!
July 17, 2009
Sammy Hagar prepares to open Cabo Wabo in Planet Hollywood
By Robin Leach
It's now been officially confirmed! As Vegas DeLuxe first reported, rocker Sammy Hagar is bringing his Cabo Wabo Cantina this fall to center Strip, replacing Trader Vic's in Planet Hollywood. It will be a two-level, 15,000-square-foot nightclub and restaurant -- and, as Sammy himself says, he's ready to rock Las Vegas Cabo-style!
"It will be a hard rockin' dining and nightlife experience," Sammy commented. "Just as Cabo Wabo Cantina transformed Cabo San Lucas from a sleepy Mexican town into a major tourism and party destination, this new Vegas offshoot will have the same vibrancy and laid-back attitude. We'll have live music and coastal Mexican fare served up as an all-day, all-night party at a price that won't break the budget."
The interior of Cabo Wabo.
Obviously, Cabo Wabo will be laced with Sammy's favorite spirit, tequila, with an array of margaritas! "I am ecstatic to finally introduce Las Vegas to the Cabo Wabo lifestyle," said its Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and founder. "The cantina's fun-loving, fiesta atmosphere will bring a rock and roll vibe to the heart of the Strip like people have never seen before."
Cabo Wabo Cantina in Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile will be the flagship U.S. location. The original opened in Cabo San Lucas nearly 20 years ago.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world's premier platinum playground.
From Vegas Deluxe