Showing posts with label Las Vegas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Las Vegas. Show all posts

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Great Caesar's Ghost: Caesar's Palace Bacchanal Buffet

On my annual long weekend trip to Vegas, I usually ignore the buffets. There is so much good food there, both on and off strip, that I've got a full meal plan without diving into the world of stand-in-line-to-gorge-yourself action. Of course, buffets have come a long way since the $6 all you can eat rib deal. About a decade ago, the Bellagio introduced the first upscale buffet, followed by the Wynn.

A few weeks ago, Caesar's Palace relaunched their buffet as the Bacchanal Buffet, a foodie-oriented paradise of xiao long bao, posole and other delicacies. Well, I finally broke down and gave a buffet a try.

Showing up at 4:45 pm, we spent an hour and a half in line. I assume that had we come later, it would have been much longer. The buffet itself is immense. Like most buffets, it's broken down into stations, but unlike many buffets, each has an open kitchen. The food is cooked and immediately plated, which means no carting food through the dining room, and you can see the action in the kitchen. Here's a breakdown of the seven kitchens.

  1. Seafood: King crab legs are the big thing here and they were really quite, rich, buttery and full of meat; you can eat them cold or the cooks will briefly boil them for you. There are oysters too, usually one of my buffet favorites, but they were small and gravelly; the oysters in the oyster shooters were better as it seems they had picked the plump ones for those and thoroughly cleaned them. I didn't much like the shooter itself, which was mostly tomato sauce, but the oyster was good. There was also shrimp, seafood gazpacho and all manner of fish dishes.
  2. Meat: There was all manner of food at the meat station, including lamb chops, prime rib, and a barbecue selection of spare ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken. The ribs and brisket had wonderful flavor though were a bit tough; I also enjoyed the sausage. This station also had all manner of small sides, including tater tots (regular and sweet potato), potato skins, fish 'n chips, sliders, onion rings, beans, mashed potatoes, etc., etc.
  3. Mexican: The Mexican station was definitely one of the highlights. Carne asada was perfectly medium rare and nicely spiced. Corn tortillas are made fresh in front of you and there is a large salsa bar. Unfortunately, I didn't get to the posole (such is the tragedy of the buffet), but I've certainly heard good things about it
  4. Italian: Pasta, meatballs and pizza. I didn't indulge. You've got to choose wisely.
  5. Charcuterie: This station featured six types of charcuterie, all of which were pretty tasty. As with the oysters, this is one of those times where the gourmand in me comes out; how often do you get to just load your plate with prosciutto?
  6. Asian: This was another great and very diverse station. Obviously, covering a huge continent in one station is challenging, but there was sushi, various chinese dishes and dim sum, Japanese beef curry which was quite good, and a noodle bar featuring ramen, soba and pho. The xiao long bao wrapper was gummy but the filling and broth were competent renditions.
  7. Dessert: This was another stand out. The crepe station featured freshly made crepes with a choice of toppings, and as per usual, there were all manner of mousses, cookies, cakes, bread pudding, bananas foster and a gelato bar (though I didn't care for the gelato).

So after an hour and a half odyssey (I pledged to spend as much time eating as I spent in line), here are my thoughts on the whole feast.

Overall, it's very well done. As with most really good buffets, there were a few prizes really worth searching out (the barbecue, carne asada, crepes, sweet potato tater tots, etc.) and everything else was at least competent. I appreciated that the portions on offer were very small, so you didn't have to waste a lot of food if you wanted to try something, and of course, you could always take more. This isn't a meal that is comparable to the finest eateries in Vegas. It's still a buffet, but certainly, a very good one and a fun experience.

One downside was the service. We were thirsty the entire time and we had to practically stalk the waitstaff to refill our water glasses. We suggested a pitcher, but were told that would violate their policies. I'm not sure if they skimp on service to save money or not giving you drinks is a policy to make people eat less, but it was an unpleasant aspect of the meal.

The buffet is $40 per person with an additional $15 for all you can drink beer and wine option (we declined). Value-wise, as with most buffets, it's hard to beat.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Vegas Journal: Whiskey & Chips at Delmonico

I always try to sniff out a good whiskey list while in Vegas. Last year, the best I found was the excellent bar at CraftSteak in the MGM. This trip I was staying further up the Strip, but found a very good whiskey selection at Delmonico Steakhouse in the Venetian, an Emeril Lagasse restaurant.

The Delmonico whiskey list didn't include the absurdly upscale rarities that CraftSteak had (e.g. Macallan Lalique and malts from the '30s) or the selection of independent bottlings, but it had a very nice selection of currently available distillery bottled whiskeys. The list, kept in a small binder and divided by country and region, included at least a half dozen Springbanks and all of the currently available Ardbegs (including the Alligator). The American whiskeys included the complete lines of Van Winkle (including the 23 year old decanter) and High West. Prices at Delmonico are fairly reasonable for Vegas, and the bar staff was friendly but not that engaging about the whiskey list.

And if you sit at the bar, grab an order of the homemade truffle parmesan potato chips, which are possibly the world's best bar snack. The chips are thin cut and covered with crumbled parm. The truffle flavor is probably from a jar, but it's just lightly sprinkled and not drowned in truffle oil like so many other dishes. Each bite gives you crunchy chip, salty cheese and a bit of truffle funk....good stuff.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Random Vegas Thoughts - Coffee & Gelato

In reflecting on my Vegas trip, there are a few things I wonder about.

Why is there no great coffee in Vegas?

There is probably a greater concentration of good restaurants on the Strip than in any other similarly sized area in the country, but the coffee choices are downright embarrassing. There are passable espresso drinks but not a single third wave type coffee joint. It's ridiculous to go to places of the caliber, for instance, of Bouchon Bakery and have your pastry accompanied by a cappuccino that's not much better than Starbuck's. Even though the Strip is chronically unhip, this should still be a no-brainer for someplace like Intelligentsia or Stumptown. They would be swamped.

What's with all the gelato?

The other weird thing about Vegas is the plethora of mediocre gelato. It seems like each casino has three or four gelato places. Why gelato? When did it become so popular? And do you really need the 80 flavors that most places seem to carry? The cure for this is the awesome frozen custard at Luv It which is a bit north of the Strip and has become my regular stop for dessert after Lotus of Siam. If you go, order a Western sundae or a heavy shake. These are especially satisfying given that we really don't have any frozen custard in LA.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vegas Report: Bouchon Las Vegas

Last time I was in Vegas, the Bouchon Bakery was our go-to breakfast and snack spot. This time, we tried the Bouchon restaurant for breakfast, twice. (Yes, they have Bouchon in LA, but it doesn't serve breakfast.)

Bouchon is located off the Venetzia lobby, which is one floor above the Venetian lobby. The ambiance is a bit more laid back than the Beverly Hills location. Since one of my favorite dishes in LA was the boudin noir, I thought I'd try the boudin blanc for breakfast. I was not disappointed. Served with perfectly prepared scrambled eggs, the white sausage was butter-soft and had a melt in your mouth quality that I've seldom experienced with breakfast sausage. The spicing was mild, but there was an essential meatiness that came through. It was almost like a pate in a casing, but fluffier.

The corn beef hash was also excellent. Consisting of perfectly brunoised cubes of corn beef and potato. Unlike some hashes which are more of a mush, the individual cubes made this more like a beautiful meat succotash, dotted with parsley and nicely spiced.

The hash comes with two eggs; I had them over easy and they were utterly perfect- whites were soft but not runny and a mere pin prick of the fork released the yolk. Bouchon definitely knows how to cook eggs.

The toast and croissants were fine though not exceptional, but slathered with the sweet and tangy marmalades (we had peach and pineapple) anything would have been good.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vegas Report: Hot 'n Juicy Crawfish

Had a long weekend in Vegas and made my way to Hot 'n Juicy Crawfish in Vegas' Chinatown. Hot 'n Juicy specializes in Louisiana style shrimp and crawfish boils. You pick your seasoning and spice level and they come in a big plastic bag which you eat right on the table with a roll of aper towels to sop up the grease.

We got 2 pounds of crawfish with the hot 'n juicy seasoning (a combination of all of their seasoning). At medium spice, these things were lip burning hot and had tons of flavor. They are weighed down with what must be a pound of garlic, butter and various spices. The seasoning was as good as crawfish boils Ive had in Louisiana, but the mud bugs themselves were pretty puny. Even in the best of circumstances, you get a pretty low yield for your work when shelling crawfish, but with these tiny characters, it was more work for less fish. The corn, cooked in the same boil, was excellent, sweet and juicy and spicy but not too soggy, which can be a problem for corn in a seafood boil.

We also got some nicely fried catfish with a cornmeal breading and some acceptable fries. There are two Hot 'n Juicys on Spring Mountain Road just a few blocks apart. The closest one to the Strip is about a mile and a half west of mid-Strip (where the Mirage is). My only real complaint was I wish they had better beer. These hot and spicy crawfish would have gone well with a full-bodied, flavor-forward beer, but all they offered were the big brands.

Hot 'n Juicy Crawfish
3863 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102
(702) 750-2428

4810 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102
(702) 891-8889

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Vegas Journal: Bouchon Bakery

As a last post on my Las Vegas trip, I must pay tribute to our regular breakfast stop: Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in the Venetian. The Bouchon Bakery is a small stand near the Phantom of the Opera theater. Since I enjoyed Bouchon in LA, I figured I would try the bakery. Sweets are done well here, including large macarons of various flavors (I liked the chocolate, mint and coffee versions the best, but all were good), eclairs and assorted cookies. Croissants were a bit dry, and I would have expected more from someone known for his French cuisine. The trademark beignet had a wonderful raspberry jam in it, but the doughnut itself could have been fresher; beignets really need to be cooked a la minute. Coffee was so-so, but pretty good for the strip. One of my favorite items was a simple ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette with a dab of dijon, simple, straightforward and tasty. Oh, and everything was very expensive.

I hope you enjoyed my romp through Las Vegas. Now it's back home for a spell.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vegas Journal: (Slightly) Off-Strip

While staying on the Las Vegas strip, we took a one-night jaunt off strip, back to the real world for Thai food and custard.

Lotus of Siam

There may be no more universally heralded restaurant in Vegas than Lotus of Siam. Praised by Jonathan Gold as the best Thai restaurant in North America as well as the best restaurant between the coasts, this Sahara Avenue strip mall Thai spot is a regular pilgrimage for visiting foodies.

Lotus of Siam is only slightly off strip. If you take the Las Vegas Monorail to the last stop, you get off right at Sahara and it's just about a mile walk east to Lotus of Siam.

If you frequent LA's great Thai restaurants in Thaitown or North Hollywood, you will immediately see a couple of differences from what you are used to. First, Lotus of Siam is the first Thai restaurant I've been to in a while that is mostly patronized by non-Thai people, or at least that was the case the night I was there. Second, they have an extensive wine list, focusing on German Rieslings. The crisp, sweetness of Rieslings, it turns out, are perfect for the spicy Thai flavors.

Now, I am sorry to disappoint, but I don't feel I can do justice to Lotus of Siam. Usually, to review a Thai restaurant, I would order at least five or six dishes, but our party was two people without a refrigerator in our hotel room to take food back to, so we were limited in our ordering.

Because of our limitations around quantity, we opened the extensive menu and skipped directly to the Northern Thai section, reputed to be home to the best dishes. The two dishes we picked from that menu were very good. The Northern Larb, a pork larb, similar to other larb's I've had but without lime, was excellent. The sourness of a traditional pork larb was replaced by a deeply, rich, meaty flavor, the type of flavor that appeals to your most basic flesh-eating instincts; I sopped up the juice with my sticky rice. The second main dish was a red curry with vermicelli and coagulated pork blood. It was very good, with deep, earthy flavors of pork and blood and some good spice. We also got a fried catfish salad from the regular menu; there were nice bites of fried catfish, but the salad was less interesting than the other dishes and didn't really come together as a whole.

While all the dishes were very good, I wasn't struck by lightening, as I sort of expected since this is the best Thai restaurant in the world, etc., etc. But as I said, I don't want to judge on this limited exposure to the menu; mostly, I want to go back and try more, especially some of the sausage dishes.

Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Ave. Suite A5
Las Vegas, NV 89104

Luv-It Frozen Custard

For dessert, we meandered northeast to Luv-It Frozen Custard, a little stand just off Las Vegas Boulevard in the seedy area north of the strip. Luv-It has a variety of custard flavors and toppings. I ordered a Western: vanilla custard with hot fudge, caramel and pecans. This was good custard. Creamy without being slick, a nice vanilla flavor with no chemical aftertaste. Good frozen custard is hard to find in Southern California, so I was very happy to have this treat. Both the smooth, luscious flavor and the stand-around-eating-it ambiance brought me back to my days of eating Ted Drew's in St. Louis. Good times, good custard, and a perfect off-strip dessert after the spicy Thai food.

Luv-It Frozen Custard
505 E. Oakey Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89104
(702) 384-6452

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Vegas Whiskey at Craftsteak

While I report on my Las Vegas food adventures, I wanted to give a shout out to the best whiskey bar I found on my trip. On a great tip from my colleagues at the LA Whisk(e)y Society, I headed to Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak at the MGM Grand. (You can read about the Society's decadent whiskey paired meal here).

Craftsteak has and excellent list of single malts, divided by region, as well as a very impressive selection of American whiskeys. The bartenders are helpful and will even let you nose the bottle prior to making your decision. The whiskey menu is quite varied, but includes some great deals; I found a 16 year old cask strength Mortlach bottled by James MacArthur's Old Master's for only $17.

There is also a lovely glass case of extremely rare and expensive whiskies, including some distilled in the 1930s, and while I didn't partake, they were fun to look at.

So if you're in Vegas and wanting some fine whiskey, head to Craftsteak, and I hear the food isn't bad either.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Vegas Journal: The Lion, the Witch and Joel Robuchon

Deep in the heart of the MGM Grand, right off the casino floor, not far from the lion habitat housing actual lions, lies one of only two Michelin three star restaurants west of the Hudson River (the other being, of course, the French Laundry). To walk through the large doorway is akin to entering a new dimension. The sights, sounds and smoke of the casino are gone, and you are now in a more tranquil world.

The aesthetic of Joel Robuchon is unique, far different than any American restaurant I've visited. It is as if the designer was a pre-teen girl. The centerpiece of the room is a gigantic chandelier hanging much lower than seems wise. There are pink and white flowers everywhere, and each table includes a bird cage containing pink birds and butterflies made of feathers. The decor caused me to wonder whether they used the same designer as the American Girl Cafe.

There are a variety of tasting menus offered, starting at $109, but this may be the only time I ever set foot in a real Michelin three star, and it's a very special occasion, so we opted for the 16 course tasting menu for around $400 per person (and that's without wine!).

Robuchon makes ample use of carts and the first presentation was the bread cart, a massive, elaborately decorated cabinet housing what must have been twenty or more different breads. There were baguettes, focaccias, rustic country breads, flavored breads, soft buns. It went on and on. We sampled a selection throughout the meal. All were excellent. The rustic country baguette is all you would want it to be, deeply crusty, light and airy. The bacon bread tasted of smoky bacon with thick cut pieces studded throughout. Various cheese breads were also very good.

Then came the parade of courses. As with everything at Robuchon, there was an attention to presentation beyond anything I'd seen before. Each plate was a work of art (I'm not talking about the food here, but the actual dishware). There were props and accessories and spiral wires that wrapped around each bowl and saucer. An asparagus dish came with a glass framed picture of asparagus, a seafood plate included a starfish and piece of coral on the tray, and on it went.

Much of the food was very good, but in general, while the experience was exciting, the food was not better that at other great restaurants; in fact, it was a bit hit and miss.

Many dishes blended French technique with Asian flavors to good effect. One of my favorites was a starter of tender uni in a carrot mousse topped with a chilled, beef consomme. Interplay of textures, as evidenced in this dish (soft uni, smooth carrot puree, and gelatinous consomme) was another motif that we saw throughout the meal. A roasted lobster ravioli in a foie gras foam was hard not to love.

Another very successful plate was a trio of asparagus dishes - a savory pana cotta, a lightly scrambled egg with asparagus presented in a thin "toast" and an asparagus flan with morels.

The main course dishes were weaker, particularly around texture. Foie gras with bamboo shoots wrapped in green cabbage was a bit too mushy, and a veal chop, while tasty, was very tough.

Mid-way through the meal, I was shocked to see the man himself, Joel Robuchon, clad in black shirt, making his way through the dining room greeting what I can only assume were VIPs and studiously ignoring the rest of us who were merely ponying up several weeks' pay for a meal. It never occurred to me that Robuchon, who has restaurants in six countries over three continents, would actually be in the restaurant while I was dining there.

For some inexplicable reason, the tasting menu does not include a cheese service, although a cheese cart was in evidence, so we moved directly into dessert. Dessert at Robuchon successfully combined the qualities that were sometimes lacking in the main part of the meal: consistency, originality and the wow factor.

I'm generally a chocolate guy, and while there was a fine chocolate mousse, the best dessert was la verveine, a tangerine cream with candied kumquats and a lemon verbena sorbet.

And then came the candy cart. The end of service candy cart is a thing of children's dreams. A massive cart filled with dozens of candies: chocolates, caramels, jellies, marshmallows, cookies and even lollipops. The server then fills plates and plates based on your request. I was tempted to order "one of each" but I reined myself in. The chocolates were rich and tasty, especially the chocolate macaron, but everything was quite good. If I was left with one strong sentiment from the meal, it's that I want a candy cart. Yes, after each meal, I want some guy to wheel in a candy cart and serve me rich, delicate sweets to my order. Now that would be living.

We finished our candy and coffee, and then we were done. The portions were small, so I was certainly satisfied, but not stuffed. We set out past the flowers and bird cages, through the doors to the hustle and bustle, the ring and the bling of a Vegas casino. I looked back, half expecting the entrance of Robuchon to have disappeared, like the door to Narnia, another strange, mystical place that lives by a different set of rules.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vegas Baby: My Birthday Journal and a Fabulous Steak

So, I had a birthday recently, one ending in a zero. To celebrate, I spent a long weekend in Las Vegas, eating my way through the strip and environs. I hadn't been to Vegas for a few years, but in this town, things change so much that a few years can seem like a lifetime. I'll begin my series of reports on Sin City dining with one of the best meals I had on my trip: Carnevino(at the Palazzo).

Mario Batali's Italian steakhouse Carnevino was a tour de force of a meal from start to finish. I mean, how can you not love a place that serves its bread not only with butter but with a little tub of lardo. Yes lardo, pork fat, whipped up and seasoned with rosemary and salt. It had the texture of a very creamy butter and the taste of a rosemary butter with an underlying porkiness. The stuff was addictive. It made me want to lick out the tub, to take it home with me or to buy a brick of manteca and try to make it myself.

Given my experience at Batali's Osteria Mozza, we expected the pasta appetizer to be good, and it was. We opted for the cannelloni, stuffed with braised rabbit, spring garlic and lemon zest and topped with cheese. The pasta was Batali-perfect and the stuffing was a delightful fusion of sour, salt and garlic.

But beef is the thing here, BBL Beef to be specific. BBL is still sort of a mystery to me. As far as I can discern, it stands for Belgian Blue Lefaivre, which appears to be a proprietary breed; a hybrid between a particularly lean breed and a fattier cow which is both lean and well marbled, if that seeming contradiction makes sense. The menu states that BBL is "often beyond regular USDA prime standards for marbling and flavor and is hormone and antibiotic free."

Whatever the stuff is though, it's tasty. We ordered our favorite cut, the porterhouse, which was stunning. The beef tasted like no other I've had. The marbling, evident in the bone left on the plate (all steaks are carved tableside) was more similar to that of Wagyu steak than any other steak I've had in the US. The flavor was much more beefy, almost gamey, than a standard cut. This was one of the best steaks I've had, ever, and I like steak. And yes, I picked up the bone and tore the last bits of meat from it caveman style, to the amusement of surrounding tables. I'm sorry, but if you're going to give me the bone on a plate, I'm going to eat it.

Dessert was also excellent. Caramel date fritters, were warm and perfectly fried. The date and caramel, which you might think would be an excessively sweet combination, came together perfectly, the date puree adding some texture to the burnt sugar of the caramel.

My only complaint of the meal was that one of the sides we ordered, a fregula pasta (a sort of large couscous) with fava beans and pecorino romano, was too salty. The pecorino, cut into little balls and mixed in with the fregula, overwhelmed with their saltiness and there were too few favas in the dish to make an impression.

The more I eat at Batali restaurants, the more impressed I am that this seemingly class-clown type of a guy with a television, restaurant and cook book empire is still putting out food of this quality. This was a meal that was worth a pilgrimage. If you are a steak lover, you need to check out Carnevino.