City Snapshots - Las Vegas Dining
Our experience at é by Jose Andres was the most exceptional of our recent Las Vegas visit, but it certainly wasn't our only good meal. Some like to deride Vegas, including its culinary options, as phony and Disney-esque. And that's understandable: while many big-name chefs have established outposts in the desert - Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Masa Takayama, among others - they are satellite operations, with perhaps varying degrees of attention and inspiration.
And yet we've always eaten well in Las Vegas, and not necessarily always on a high rollers' budget. Indeed, sometimes you have to get off the Strip and back into the real world to find it, but even in the belly of the beast, there is much good eating to be had. Here, then, some briefer snapshots rather than full posts on some other fine meals we had in Las Vegas: Sage, Aburiya Raku, China Poblano, and Lotus of Siam.
On our first night in town we were looking for something easily accessible from our home base at the Cosmopolitan, and Sage, in the Aria resort next door, fit the bill. Like most Vegas venues, it is a second project of an out-of-town chef, in this instance, Chicago's Shawn McClain (Green Zebra, Custom House). On the slow Monday following Christmas weekend, it appeared they had the main dining room closed and were serving only out of the lounge area in front, which was fine by us. With lots of leather settees, dark wood, and soft lighting filtered by pleated lampshades, it was comfortably posh without feeling stuffy. Also nice is that the restaurant is not situated right in the middle of the casino area, and has the feel of a sophisticated, placid refuge from all that hubbub.
(You can see all my pictures in this Sage - Las Vegas flickr set).
It was just as well we were sitting at the bar, because Sage has an excellent cocktail menu featuring both traditional and contemporary concoctions. Their Sazerac, made with Sazerac Rye, Marilyn Manson Absinthe, and Peychaud's Bitters, was as good as any I've had in New Orleans. They carry an extensive absinthe list and are fully equipped for a traditional service, absinthe fountain and all.
Sage's four-course "Signature Tasting Menu," at $79, is a relatively good bargain, even if adding the "Foie Gras Brûlée" for a $10 supplement makes it slightly less so.
It's still a good call: this is an excellent, if more than a bit decadent, dish, a rich foie gras mousse topped with crispy burnt sugar crust, a little fruit jam tucked underneath a shower of shaved torchon of foie gras as the final garnish.
The rest of the tasting menu was equally refined, if not quite as exciting. A bacon-wrapped rabbit loin was perfectly cooked, paired with multi-hued roasted baby carrots and herb-flecked, cheese-filled ravioli, but nothing about the dish really jumped out to grab your attention. A pork-on-pork-on-pork composition of Iberico pork loin, pork-stuffed cannelloni, and thin shavings of Creminelli mortadella, served over tender baby eggplant with a dark pan sauce, was every bit as precise with its cooking, with the cannelloni in particular standing out for the lusciously soft but still intensely flavored filling of braised pork shoulder.
This is classy, refined cooking at a very good price point in comparison to many of its neighbors, at least if you go with the tasting menu. Maybe not so much with the regular menu, where appetizer prices hover close to $20 and main courses congregate around $45. If for no other reason, I'd go back just to have a cocktail and another taste of that foie gras brûlée.
3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S, Las Vegas NV (Aria Resort)
I've written before about Aburiya Raku and won't do so in great detail again, other than to say that this is easily one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas, and if it were in my town I'd be there every week. You can see the photos from our most recent visit in this Aburiya Raku flickr set. A few favorites from this meal:
Gorgeous kanpachi sashimi off the specials board. The aji was also outstanding.
An unimpressive looking, but deeply satisfying, bowl of uni and wakame soup. A simple combination of dashi, wakame seaweed and a couple pinkish-orange tongues of uni made for a majestic end result. This was umami at its finest: incredible depth of flavor, without any heaviness.
One of my favorite single bites anywhere: Kobe beef tendon robata. Gelatinous, sticky, crispy on the edges, intensely meaty and rich. Great stuff.
Raku is truly an exceptional restaurant and a highlight of any trip to Las Vegas.
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas NV
José Andrés has not one, but two restaurants in Las Vegas, both in the Cosmopolitan (actually three if you count é). While Jaleo is another iteration of the Spanish tapas concept that he's already rolled out in a few venues in and around Washington, DC, China Poblano is something new. Creating a hypothetical meeting point of Chinese and Mexican cuisines seems like some sort of culinary parlor game, though Andrés notes that trade routes connected the two cultures more than four centuries ago.
(You can see all my pictures in this China Poblano flickr set).
The theme is literally played up as soon as you walk in to the restaurant, where take-out windows on either side of the entrance hawk "Mexican Food" and "Chinese Food." Cooks (all of the appropriate ethnicity, which is a little weird and Epcot-y) toil behind each window, assembling dumplings on one side and tacos on the other. The menu - divided among "Dim Sum," "Noodles and Soups," "Tacos," "From China," and "From Mexico," has some items that stick exclusively to one side or the other, and several that seek to bridge the gap.
From my very limited experience of one solo lunch there, I'd say to stick with the tacos. The har gau dumplings I tried, filled with shrimp and pork belly, were small (at $12.88 for an order of 6, anyway) and bland. The tacos, all using freshly made corn tortillas pressed right at the station in the front of the restaurant, were much better.
For my first round I went the East-meets-West, China-meets-Mexico route. The "Viva China" included beef tendon, Kumamoto oyster, scallions and Sichuan peppercorn sauce, while the "Silencio" featured braised duck tongues and fresh lychees. Both were good - and kudos are deserved for the use of neglected bits and pieces - but the real standout was the "Viva China." Puffy, chewy, slippery tendon played against briny oyster, all cut through with a zingy sauce, a great combination.
I went with a couple Mexican standards for the next round, carnitas and lengua. The braised baby pig was silky and tender, topped with chopped onion, cilantro, crispy pork rinds, and what was described as a "spicy salsa verde" but tasted more creamy than spicy to me. The lengua (beef tongue) was also braised to perfect tenderness, topped with slivered radishes and a ruddy pasilla salsa.
At $4-$5.50 a pop, these tacos are a far cry from your traditional taco stand - but then, so are the ingredients and the surroundings. But if you get three or four, and maybe split one of the noodle dishes with a friend (which I missed out on), you can have a pretty good $20 lunch in one of the most expensive restaurant towns in the country.
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard S, Las Vegas NV (Cosmopolitan Resort)
Though it's a few miles away from the bright lights of the Strip, many savvy eaters know that Las Vegas has what some consider to be the best Thai restaurant in the United States - Lotus of Siam. (Indeed, Chef Saipin Chutima picked up the James Beard Best Chef Southwest award last year, in an unusual tie with Tyson Cole of Uchi in Austin, Texas). I have to trust those with a basis for comparison who say that L.O.S. serves some of the most authentic Thai food you'll find outside of Thailand. What I can say on my own is that it is leagues better than the blandly generic iterations I've typically run into here in South Florida.
It's a bare-bones place where the focus is on the food - and the wine. If fantastic Thai food in a strip mall on a nondescript stretch of road were not surprise enough, Lotus of Siam has one of the deepest - and most reasonably priced - compilations of Rieslings I've ever seen, and they make for a great combination with the food. By way of example, we paired our meal with a 2003 J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese which, at $70, was priced at not even 2x average retail.
(You can see all my pictures in this Lotus of Siam flickr set).
One of the things that makes L.O.S. special is the breadth of the menu, featuring dishes beyond the customary repertoire. One of those is the Nam Kao Tod, a crispy rice salad studded with chunks of a sour fermented sausage, along with slivers of red onion and fresh ginger root, green onion, dried chile peppers, peanuts, and a shot of fresh lime juice. There's a great interplay of bold flavors and textures, reminiscent in some way of Indian chaats but lacking the typical sweet component of those snacks.
Yam Woon Sen is a salad of glass noodles, minced chicken (sometimes pork), shrimp, slivered onions, and greens, tossed in a fiery chile lime dressing. On our first visit to L.O.S. a few years ago, they asked your desired spice level "from 1 to 10," and I recall that anything over 6 could trigger perspiration. No number system was proposed on this visit, and while we requested "Spicy!" I didn't find that anything had that sear-your-face-off kind of spice this time around, though the dishes were not lacking for punctuation.
Nam Prik Noom is apparently a typical Northern or Issan Thai dish, a dip made of fresh green chiles, garlic, onion and tomato, all pounded together with mortar and pestle. It's served with pork rinds and various crudites (cabbage, cucumber, green beans) for scooping.
I think we actually could have done better than the Kang Omm, another Northern style dish with chicken and various vegetables in a red curry broth (made without coconut milk), sprinkled with toasted rice powder. The best part was that broth, redolent with spice, but the dish didn't really feel like it came together as a whole.
That misfire aside, L.O.S. is a refreshingly authentic experience amid all the artifice of Las Vegas, and along with Aburiya Raku, one of its essential off-Strip dining destinations.
Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas NV