by Stephanie Zonis
When an opportunity came along to attend a dessert and pastry conference in Las Vegas, I packed my bags and wended my way thither, allowing a few extra days to check out at least some dining establishments and sections of a city I'd never before visited. My impressions and opinions follow...
It used to be possible to eat very cheaply in Las Vegas, but my understanding is that the food was normally less than stellar. These days, there are still some bargains to be had, but many famous restaurateurs have brought branches of their establishments to this city. Such branches are often expensive (or very expensive), but sometimes they offer very good food. Two things to get used to are bread baskets that include flatbread or crispbread (usually with cheese and/or herbs) and focaccia, and creme brulee as a dessert offering. In addition, almost all of the resorts either have or are building noodle houses, great places to get dim sum. Strangely, it is not uncommon to find a fine restaurant mere steps from countless rows of slot machines. It's also worth noting that reservations are essential at many restaurants, especially on weekends; where reservations are not accepted or the place is more casual, it pays to go at off-peak hours if you don't like standing in line. The restaurants I review below are in no particular order.
Wolfgang Puck's Cafe (in the MGM Grand). In the midst of casino confusion sits this cheerfully-decorated, small cafe. I went in for lunch at about 3 pm on a Thursday, and only a few other people were eating at that time. There are pizzas, pastas, salads, rotisserie specialties, and some entrees; the menu had a good variety of dishes, including some that were vegetarian. The wait staff is generally cheerful; I heard a waitress discussing betting odds on an upcoming football game with a couple a few tables away, and they were talking like old friends. The bread basket included a nice crispbread with cheese (probably Parmesan), and an olive bread. I ordered M. Puck's Original Shrimp BLT Club Sandwich, and it was delicious. Rather thick bread slices, shrimp, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions...a great combination of flavors and textures in a large portion. The sandwich came with fries that had been sprinkled with salt and herbs. The fries were good, if a bit heavy as an accompaniment. The chocolate truffle cake was a huge individual portion of that dessert served warm with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. While the sauce was excellent, I found the truffle cake a bit dry--but then again I've never had a truffle cake that wasn't a bit dry. I rather like this little place, and the prices, while not cheap, are quite reasonable by Vegas standards.
Olives (in Bellagio). A branch of Todd English's restaurant in the Northeastern US, Olives is a casual place with light jazz and nondescript decor (except for ugly lamps and an uglier wall mural). I came in at 11:50 am, when the place was beginning to fill up for lunch. Nonetheless, service was prompt; once seated, I waited less than 5 minutes before one of the wait staff came over to my table. I was asked if I wanted some imported Italian drinking water. I thought this rather silly, but then I decided perhaps it was all they offered their customers, so I okayed it. It wasn't until later that I figured out that tap water was available, too. The bread included the usual cheese crispbread, a nice roll with golden raisins, and some sections of focaccia. I ordered beef carpaccio as an appetizer; it arrived only 5 to 7 minutes after I ordered it. The enormous plateful of carpaccio, prettily set up, included several roasted cipolline, shavings of decent Parmesan, balsamic vinegar drizzles, and a couple of other dressings in minimalist zigzag patterns over the top. A mound of dressed baby greens in the center of the plate, under the carpaccio, concealed a surprise: two squares of hot polenta. This was a clever rendering of the old standard, and it was extremely good. My main course, a flatbread with portobella mushrooms, fontina, and red onions, did not achieve the same high standard. The bread itself, the size of an individual pizza, was fine. The mushrooms were both puréed and in slices, a nice visual contrast. But the dish as a whole was unsuccessful. Kosher or sea salt had been sprinkled too heavily near the perimeter of the mushroom-cheese-onion portion, and the salt unpleasantly dominated the taste of everything else. I did not have dessert here, in part because neither of the two desserts offered involved chocolate. In addition, I thought the prices were a bit steep.
Napa (in the Rio Suites). Jean-Louis Palladin comes to Las Vegas, and after the glitz of the strip, Napa, with subdued lighting and a restful atmosphere, can be very refreshing. The restaurant looks airy and open, and, from where I sat, there was a partial view of the kitchen. Throughout my meal, the staff was unfailingly courteous and gracious without being condescending in the least. The bread that evening began with a good homemade brioche; more bread was offered later in the meal, a choice of sourdough or roasted garlic. I started with a special that evening, roasted foie gras with rhubarb purée and rhubarb coulis. The foie gras was beautifully rosy inside, and the rhubarb purée and coulis provided an accent of just enough sweetness to offset the meat perfectly. It was glorious. I chose next a cold soup, a pea tendril broth with spiny lobster. A large white bowl with chunks of vegetables (green onions, peeled tomatoes, and others) and lobster meat arrived, followed closely by my waiter, who poured the broth into the bowl from a silver pitcher. The slightly-thick broth had an intense pea flavor and was peppery; it was like eating pea gazpacho with small chunks of lobster in it. Unusual, to be sure, but very good. For dessert, I had a trio of ice creams with hot chocolate sauce and butterscotch caramel sauce, garnished with a tuile and some baked crunch, like a streusel made with white sugar instead of brown. The ice creams were a Tahitian vanilla, which I found too assertive in flavor; a milk chocolate-gianduja, which was excellent; and a roasted corn, which was even better. The latter ice cream contained a purée of roasted corn. Don't ask me how anyone came up with this combination; you just need to know that it works very well. The hot chocolate sauce was very good; the butterscotch caramel sauce was outstanding. There was a small plate of petit fours to finish, including a homemade marshmallow. The pastry chef, Jemil, is a young man of considerable talent, and I think he's going to be famous in his own right in the future. Did I have any complaints about this place? Yes. I should have been told that the foie gras starter was $32, considerably above the cost of the other appetizers on the regular menu. The bowl in which the pea soup was served was too big for the portion, and its configuration made it difficult to spoon the soup out when you were getting down to the last of it. and $12 per dessert is very expensive, too much so considering the small portions of each ice cream I received. Overall, however, this is a restaurant with very good service and some inspired, innovative food.
Noodles (in Bellagio). Dim sum were my objective here; they are served (as of this writing) between 11 am and 3 pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I entered Noodles at 11:20 on a Saturday morning, and the place was already half-full. Almost before I had sat down, a waitress approached with a cart with a large selection of dishes. My choices were Dried Shrimp Rice Rolls (rice noodle pancakes rolled with shrimp filling--very delicately flavored, and just OK); Steamed Vegetable Dumplings (with a crunchy vegetable filling and a definite mushroom flavor--a bit unusual but very good); and my favorite, Shrimp and Pork Dumplings (fried crunchy on the outside, slightly doughy and a bit sweet inside--wonderful!). A regular menu is always available, and congee, a traditional-for-breakfast rice porridge, was being enjoyed by a man at the table next to mine. Noodles is a pretty place, with lots of wood and light; jars with ingredients line the walls. It's only a few paces from the slot machines, but you can enjoy some good food inside this little oasis.
Royal Star (in The Venetian). This is a branch of The Royal Star Seafood Restaurant in Santa Monica, CA. Located along Restaurant Row in one of the most upscale resorts, Royal Star serves dim sum (again, as of this writing), daily between 11 am and 5 pm. The restaurant is sparsely but pleasingly decorated in black, jade green, and white. As was the case in Noodles, I had hardly sat down when I was approached by a waitress with a cart full of dishes. My first choice was a Chicken Pie, a small, browned, round turnover-type pastry made from a sweet dough with a savory filling, served at room temperature. I did not enjoy this; to me, the filling and the dough belonged to different dishes. However, the Vegetable Spring Rolls were a different story. I knew they'd been fried, but they were so crunchy, so light, and so non-greasy that every bite was a pleasure. Finally, I tried the Barbecued Pork Buns. These steamed dumplings, with a terrific slightly doughy consistency, held a filling of sweet barbecued pork--definitely a good choice. Service was brisk and efficient without being rude. This is a nice, quiet place for those times when your dim sum level is running low (a constant condition in my case); you can also get a regular Chinese menu here.
Tre Visi (in the MGM Grand). I had read good things about Tre Visi, so I decided to try it. On a Saturday evening, the place can get rather busy (and noisy), but our service was pretty good throughout the meal. This place is decorated a bit oddly; the chairs are covered with fabric in brown zebra-stripe patterns. It's not unpleasant, just unexpected. My companion and I were given some good ciabatta to start, with decent olive oil and balsamic vinegar as a "dip". As an appetizer, I ordered the pappa al pomodoro, an old favorite of mine. It's essentially a tomato soup thickened with bread, which dissolves in the soup. The dish had a nice thickness to it, but it was far too acidic. As a main course, I had an insalata giardiniaro (garden salad)--mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, and shaved Parmesan. It was OK, but nothing out of the ordinary. My companion's spinach ravioli, however, were very good indeed. For dessert, I selected a chocolate creme brulee. This had a decent chocolate flavor, but it had been overcooked. There was a darker layer of chocolate on the bottom of the dish, with the consistency of scrambled eggs, which was not pleasing. My companion ordered berries with unsweetened whipped cream; when they arrived with sweetened whipped cream, she sent them back; the kitchen got the dish right the second time around. with so many other dining choices in town, I'm afraid Tre Visi requires some improvements in the kitchen.
Fiore (in the Rio Suites). I can see how Fiore can be a very romantic restaurant; it's a pretty, classy place with subdued lighting. But what won me over was the thoughtfulness of the service and the food. The wait staff are quite attentive without being overly-solicitous, and they know enough about the food they serve to answer almost any question you might have about it. They also work in pairs, apparently; my waiter, Roger, introduced his "partner", whose name I didn't catch, at the beginning of the meal. You're offered a selection from a large basket of breads when you first sit down; I chose a slice of Parmesan bread (excellent) and a slice of potato bread (good). I tried to order a grilled filet of ostrich as a main course, but I was told that it wasn't being served, as it had been coming out too dry lately. I'm not sure how many restaurants would stop serving a dish that hadn't been turning out up to their standards. Instead, I decided on the roasted foie gras with raspberry coulis as an appetizer, and the hearts of romaine lettuce with blue cheese vinaigrette as a salad. I carry little notebooks with me into restaurants, so I can write down my impressions, and I often do a lot of writing while waiting for my food. Without any knowledge of what I do or what I was writing (which happened to be a review of his restaurant), the manager, noticing my scribbling, brought a small lamp over to my table so I'd have more light for writing. See what I mean about thoughtful service? My foie gras was 4 slices of roasted meat over dressed field greens, sparingly decorated with the raspberry coulis. The foie gras was meltingly tender, and this was a lovely dish, though I thought it could have used a touch of salt (no saltshakers on the tables here!). My salad was absolutely simple--two perfectly fresh and crisp hearts of romaine on a plate, and my dressing in a silver sauce boat (I had asked for it on the side). I've had a lot of bad blue cheese dressing in my life, so this vinaigrette was a most welcome surprise. The dressing had a definite acidity to it, but not too much, and it was a beautifully creamy contrast to the bland, crisp lettuce. Roger even brought me some extra blue cheese, of which I am overly fond. Fiore has some chocolate desserts, but I ordered the Tower of Mixed Berries with Sorbet and Berry Sauce. A large margarita glass was partly filled with mixed berries in a berry glaze. This was garnished with two paper-thin tuiles of clear almond brittle; small scoops of litchi, mango, and raspberry sorbets; a pouf of whipped cream; mint leaves; and two chocolate "twigs". This was a gorgeous creation, and it tasted even better than it looked. The textural contrast was great, as well. The sole down side to my meal in Fiore involved the issue of smoke. I am an adamant nonsmoker, and I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. I was seated in the nonsmoking section, as I'd requested, but there was a strong smell of smoke there nonetheless, which had no doubt drifted in from the smoking section. There are many reasons to dine here; if this problem can be fixed, there will be no reason not to.
Cafe Spago (in Caesar's Palace). Wolfgang Puck hasn't quite taken over Las Vegas, but this is another of his places there. My companion and I arrived at 1:30 pm on a Sunday, and, as the old song goes, the joint was jumpin'. It was crowded and rather noisy, and that remained unchanged throughout our meal. The bread starters included a decent wheat bread and the ubiquitous flatbread with herbs and cheese, which was just OK. My companion ordered Puck's signature pizza, with creme fraiche, dill, smoked salmon, and osetra caviar, while I opted for the fresh papardelle with chicken sausage. Presentation is important to M. Puck, and both entrees looked quite appetizing. Mine was a "tower" of curled pasta with sauce. The pasta was nicely al dente, and the tower was interspersed with bits of roasted garlic and not enough cheese, then topped with fresh basil. The whole link of chicken sausage, which also contained pistachios, was presented on the side and sliced almost through into smaller sections. I enjoyed this dish, though the sausage was too spicy for my taste. I didn't think the combination of toppings on the pizza worked especially well, but my companion loved it. For dessert, I chose the Almond Butter Crunch Tart. This turned out to be an individual, round tart surrounded by small circlets of creme anglaise and bittersweet chocolate sauce. Oddly, the chocolate sauce was not smooth, but seemed on the point of "seizing," that is, becoming lumpy and separated-looking. The tart was topped with whipped cream, almond brickle, and an almond fudge ripple ice cream. I didn't think the tart's pastry was the best I'd ever encountered, but the smooth, browned butter filling, with chunks of chocolate in it, was good. To my annoyance, our service got slower during the meal. In addition, we were seated in the nonsmoking section, but our table was quite close to the bar, where smoking was allowed, and both of us were glad to get out of what should have been a smoke-free environment by the time we left.
The House of Blues Gospel Brunch (in Mandalay Bay). I'm big on irony, and I decided that a gospel brunch in a casino in Las Vegas (on Halloween, yet), was too good to pass up. Besides, I'm very fond of gospel music, frequently causing those who know me best to scratch their heads in bewilderment. Note that you MUST reserve in advance for this brunch. There are two seatings every Sunday, at 10 am and 1 pm. Both usually sell out, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, so getting there early is a good idea. Also, there are no refunds, exchanges, or cancellations, and you must bring a picture ID and your credit card to pick up your tickets. I find this picture ID/no cancellation policy is absurd; it's not as though you're applying for a government document, after all. Anyway, the House of Blues in just off the casino in Mandalay Bay. The food stations included one for carved meat and a small one for dessert, and, unbelievably, champagne and mimosas were offered (alcohol at a gospel brunch?), though of course there were non-alcoholic beverages, too. The buffet spread itself was plentiful enough, with your choice of fresh fruit; scrambled eggs; scrambled eggs with dill and smoked salmon; cornbread with a bit of jalapeño; turnip greens; fried chicken; jambalaya; some salads, bagels; cream cheese spread; sliced smoked salmon; and a few other platters, and most of the food I tried was decent, if not stellar. But the big attraction here was the music. I was informed that a group called "The Sons of Christ" would be performing, but instead we were entertained by "Visions of Praise", and even a thorough-going cynic like myself has to admit that they were wonderful. They are from a local church, I was told; if this is an example of the singing in local Vegas churches, I'll bet there's not an empty seat in any of them on Sunday mornings. My biggest problem with this brunch was the fact that "Visions of Praise" performed for only 40 minutes or so. This brunch will set you back almost $38 per person, as of this writing. For that amount of money, I would hope for a longer performance--perhaps two half-hour sets with a break between them.
There is some good chocolate to be had here, but much of it is in desserts in restaurants. For non-restaurant European-style chocolate, the only real possibility I found was Gaston Lenotre, a branch of the famous Parisian bakery, within the Paris in Las Vegas resort. I tried a chocolate croissant and three pastries, an "Opera," a "Concerto," and a "Charlotte Cecile." None was very good except for the "Concerto." Lenotre's truffles are good, too, but I wasn't much impressed by the assorted chocolates. For American-style chocolates, try Ethel M Chocolates, with at least several branches along The Strip. They use no preservatives in their candies, and the ingredients are of good quality. There's also Danielle's Chocolates and Ice Cream, at 6394 West Sahara Avenue, (702) 259-7616. It's a long cab ride from The Strip, and I haven't tried the ice cream, but it's a friendly little place with a good variety to choose from.
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