Foodie Fatale….Eating Las Vegas at the Aria Resort and Casino
Looking down from the plane, the dark red sand of the desert below appears to be an abstract painting in progress, constantly moving as though perpetually drawn by an unseen brush. Mesas and mountains rise out of the sand, as well as lakes whose bright blue stands out against the sienna colored canvas. And then, although I expect it, the startling vision of Las Vegas rising up the distance amidst the raw nature of the desert – an incongruous and artificial city, shimmering in the desert sun.
I have taken frequent trips to Las Vegas over the past 10 years, trips that revolved around meetings in generic conference rooms. I dreaded them all. I hated the city’s slot machines and smoky recycled air. The bright lights and manufactured entertainment of the “Strip” seemed garish. But when I recently learned I would travel to Vegas for a business trip, I decided that I wanted this trip to be different. I had heard for years that Las Vegas had evolved into an important food city. So I researched menus, read articles, and spoke to friends about their favorite dining locales. Slowly, I became more and more excited by the thought of eating Las Vegas. I decided to give it a chance.
I stayed at The Venetian, where the view from the room was of Black Mountain, as well as the cranes and trucks working a construction site. New construction is a familiar part of the Las Vegas landscape. The hotel is a Disney-esque tribute to Italy’s Venice, replete with Italian music playing from loudspeakers, replications of marble sculptures, and a diminutive, sunny St. Mark’s Square.
Here in the land of artifice, surrounded by a tribute to Italy, it somehow made sense that I began each morning in Paris. As I crossed a threshold flanked by faux-gas lamps to enter Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro, I was immediately transported. Gorgeous mosaic tiles line the floor, and the spacious dining room is edged with plush blue leather banquettes. I sat at the mahogany bar while my server, Kevin, made me a frothy (and flawless) cappuccino.
Although the menu bragged Truite Poêlé and Oeuf & Boudin Blanc, I opted for a simple selection. An exemplary plain croissant is rare. I was spoiled by my time in Paris while in college and later in New York by my favorite curmudgeon, Claude- whose croissants nourished me during my first years there. Warm from the oven, the Bouchon croissant was flaky on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. It was accompanied by two small ramekins filled with high-quality butter and intensely flavored apricot jam so smooth it was almost syrup-like in texture. When I eat a croissant, it just doesn’t feel right if I don’t end up with flakes on my shirt- and Bouchon’s was satisfyingly messy. And really the best way to start the day.
As I left Bouchon, I paused at the front to say how much I had enjoyed my cappuccino. The manager brightened, explaining to me how long it took for “Mr. Keller” to choose the espresso bean with just the right flavor — not too much bitterness. She was genuinely thrilled and volunteered that she would “tell Mr. Keller” how much I enjoyed my cappuccino. What a pleasure to experience staff excited by and proud of what they serve.
Under the constant-blue sky of the Venetian’s St. Mark’s Plaza, I enjoyed lunch at Otto, Mario Batali’s Slow Food enoteca. When a friend mentioned seeing Mario there just the day before, I felt confident that the food would match my expectation. I followed instinct and ordered the first item on the menu that caught my eye: fusilli with oven roasted pumpkin and smoked Luigi Guffanti ricotta. I tend to not like a smoked flavor- but in this case the taste was quite delicate and subtle. The pumpkin was grown at nearby Gilcrease Orchard and had been cooked perfectly. The outer skin was firm and slightly crusted, while the interior flesh remained soft and yielding. All topped with freshly shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. I adored this dish.
Later, just across from Otto, serenaded by Carnavale performers singing Christmas songs, I dined at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio Bar & Grill. There, I was truly swept away by the Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels Guanciale.
Although I’ve always thought of mussels as a fool-proof home meal, this dish made me realize how much skill it takes to produce such a tender and succulent result. The mussels were served in a white wine sauce, enhanced by butter, garlic and shallots. And at the base of this sauce- Guanciale. Derived from the Italian “guancia,” (for cheek) from which it is made, the unsmoked bacon has a rich, almost buttery taste. Its flavor dominated. The mussels were augmented by Fresno chile peppers, which added not only a faint heat, but beautiful color.
And then, the epitome of fine service: a busser refilling my water carefully held a neatly folded cloth napkin on the side of the glass that faced me as he poured, so as not to splash. That kind of service makes my heart beat a little faster. Bravo to Chef Puck for training his staff so well, even in this casual setting.
Next up, a more formal dinner. I looked forward to the opportunity to visit Sirio in Las Vegas after a splendid experience at the recent opening of Sirio at the Pierre in New York.
My Dinner Companion at Sirio, Incognito…
In keeping with the bizarre juxtapositions that are so common in Las Vegas, I was greeted at the Aria Hotel by a vision from the natural world: a sparkling waterfall surrounded by thriving grass and red flowers. As might be expected, on the other side of the waterfall awaited endless gaming tables, retail storefronts and long mall-like escalators. And then the odd apparition of Sirio, which stood out as a sophisticated haven.
There I found what one can expect from any of Sirio Maccioni’s restaurants: elegant design and a solicitous staff. Chef Vincenzo Scarmiglia serves both traditional and contemporary Italian dishes and I had a wonderful meal. I particularly loved the mixing and matching of the antipasto course. I chose one from each of three categories: meat, cheese and vegetable. The thinly sliced pork Finocchietta was infused with aromatic fennel, with its lovely anise taste, and was well-matched with the sharp aged Emilia Romagna Pecorino Di Fossa. I am an artichoke lover, and the Marinated Artichokes didn’t disappoint. Prepared Romana Style, with mint, garlic and wine, they were still simple enough to allow the artichoke flavor to dominate. The antipasti were served with accompaniments of honey and saba (grape must reduction), an Italian staple that was sublime drizzled on the cheese and dried sausage.
In addition to serving splendid wines, sommelier Kathleen Thomas surprised us by unconventionally serving beer in a champagne glass as a “palate cleanser.” It was a delightfully playful experiment that did indeed stimulate my palate.
I ended the week with a 20-minute trip beyond the Strip, past pawn shops and wedding chapels, to visit a new restaurant called Honey Salt, created by Las Vegas luminary Elizabeth Blau and her husband Chef Kim Canteenwalla. Part of the pleasure of the restaurant had to do (once again) with an unexpected contrast: I found it tucked away in a strip mall between chain stores, opened its door – and “presto!” — a vast dining room filled with people, lively music and a party atmosphere. Decorated in muted hues of gray and beige and plenty of mirrors and glass, Honey Salt is chic and casual. Just look at this lovely cloth napkin:
Although only in its 6th week, the night I dined there, it was already packed with an eclectic collection of customers. Groups of stylish 20-somethings, couples on dates, families with children. And next to me, a table of elderly men who found it positively hilarious that I took photos of my food; they smiled and held up their cell phones to show me their cameras as they left.
I ate a fine meal from Chef Canteenwalla’s “farm-to-table inspired menu.” The dish that really captured me was as simple as it was delicious: Burrata.
I never miss an opportunity to try Burrata. It just might be the sexiest food there is. This delicate fresh Italian cheese has a thin, firm mozzarella exterior. Inside, a luscious and creamy center comprised of both mozzarella and cream, which is released once the outer shell is punctured. Its texture is heaven and the taste incomparable.
At Honey Salt, the soft heap of cheese was dripped with blood orange balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil, and tossed with flavorful Rosso Bruno and Teardrop heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs and basil. It was a stellar fusion of ingredients, all supporting the velvety, irresistible Burrata.
As the taxi carried me back to The Venetian, past the bright lights of the Strip, I felt well-fed and appreciative of the city’s edible offerings. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of synthetic and natural that makes the food shine that much brighter. Amidst the neon and plaster, my palate reveled in the very real food of Las Vegas.