With New York behind us we jetted back to the west, landing in a desert town I’ve never had a huge desire to go to, wanted to see and tick off the list. Las Vegas. The only remote fascination I’ve had with Vegas is the unique architecture that can be found up and down the strip.
It’s like Disneyland and debauchery combined. Over-the-top buildings and casino’s, seedy folk handing out cards for rental and barely legal girls, people driving mobility scooters all over the place and addicts feeding dimes into slot machines, sipping bourbon & coke and sucking on cancer sticks at 7am.
Vegas is fabulous.
While the city itself may not have a soul it sure doesn’t lack character. If you’re into the gambling thing you’re covered. If you’re into the shows you’re well covered. Hell, if you’re into the food you’re covered as well. All-you-can-eat buffets, fine dining, diner-style, fast food, it’s all here. Real coffee? Well, that seemed a bit of a struggle.
Lucky for us there was a familiar face downstairs in our hotel. Espressamente. When we’re in KL we always make sure we drop by that outlet and finding it in Vegas was a breath of fresh air. Macchiato caldo, cappuccino, capo triestino, it’s all pretty decent. There isn’t much going in the breakfast food stakes other than a few Danish-style pastries and various types of toffee apples but not too far away is the Grand Lux Cafe, as part of The Palazzo where we were staying.
I know the Grand Lux has more on offer other than the breakfast we went there for. What it dishes up in its elaborately classical European-slash-Vegas style dining room is very much of the American burger and steak genre with splashes of Asian, European and Caribbean flavours.
I’m loving the deluxe breakfast sandwich (10.95) that’s packed with scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, grilled tomato, Havarti cheese and mayo. This truly is one for the die-hard vegan. Not. It all comes wedged in sliced and toasted brioche with a massive pile of golden hash browns. Let’s just say that the hash browns are more like one large mound of potato frittata that was as large as the teetering sandwich. Delicious!
Sit in the bar and have your mug of Americano with a beer, as I spotted with one particular customer, or take a booth in the ornate and sprawling cafe where I’m guessing it’s ok for the wait staff to chew gum as they serve you.
The Grand Lux Express Breakfast is pretty good value at $16.50, giving free reign at the buffet of fruit, cereals, sweet cakes and pastries, breads, egg dishes, meats and beverages. Sustenance for a hard days gambling.
Over at the sprawling Bellagio complex, the one with the fountains, is Todd English’s Olives restaurant. The renowned American chef has put his name to a bunch of venues along the east coast of the States plus a couple of Cunard cruise liners. The Vegas digs overlook the Bellagio fountains and as most of his restaurants have a Mediterranean flavour, this one is no different.
A generous bread basket and a couple of cocktails each kicks off lunch and the most enormous beef carpaccio (8) I’ve ever seen. I guess there’d be a class action if food portions reduced in size in this nation. Gorgonzola rösti cake, balsamic reduction, parmesan, cipollini onion, scallion cream and garlic aioli. The meat arrives a little icy but once it fully thaws it’s a pleasure to eat.
It cracks me up that there’s even a health warning attached to the carpaccio due to the meat being raw, increasing the risk of illness. I didn’t see any health warnings when I’m forced to walk through a smoky casino just to get to hotel reception.
The experience with our other dish was as flat as the bread it sat on. Fiery chicken sausage flatbread (17). Bland in more ways than one. Herbed ricotta, balsamic onions, roasted tomato sauce that had a mild Mexican flavour about it and some not-so-fiery chicken sausage.
Aside from the kick arse cocktails, the winning component of this lunch set is the Hawaiian ahi tuna (25). Pan-seared to rare perfection with confit fennel silk, hazelnut basil pesto and sweet chilli glaze. Off to the side is a mini heirloom tomato panzanella. The tuna is top quality and simply dissolves on the tongue. Sadly the glaze overwhelms the beautiful tuna with its gingery and smokey bbq flavour. Is there bbq sauce in this?
There’s room for just one dessert so to keep it light we share the pineapple passion panna cotta (9). Far from being the pineapple blackberry compote as promised on the menu, the accompanying berries and diced pineapple add a nice freshness to the rich, creamy and decadent panna cotta donning a sweet pastry mohawk.
Done in true over-the-top Vegas style is the über cool TAO, tucked away in The Venetian at the end of the canal. In terms of its scale and night club vibe it reminds me of Buddakan in Manhattan. Dimly lit, lounge bar at the front, candles flickering everywhere you look and a large open space in the centre of the restaurant. Rather than Buddakan’s massive chandeliers and long communal table, here at TAO there’s an over-sized seated buddha perched above a koi-filled pond and large bamboo lanterns suspended from the ceiling and asian posters up on the walls.
An extensive Hong Kong Chinese, Thai and Japanese pan Asian menu makes choosing a little difficult when you’re someone like me that just wants to dig into most of it. Between two of us we settled on a few plates to share, starting with these pretty decent pork pot stickers (14) with chilli sesame glaze and rather large spring rolls (16) filled with Peking duck squirted with hoisin. Not bad.
The lacquered roast pork (13) is succulent and caramelised on the edges, much like the stuff you get in Chinatown, with some curious toasted almond flakes on top. My favourite plate of the night was the salmon, tuna and Albacore tataki (15). A trio of seared fish draped over three different types of seaweed. Just brilliant. The final savoury dish is the TAO angry dragon roll (16), filled with eel and cucumber and topped with avocado and kaboyaki sauce.
Dessert. What to have? Chocolate spring rolls? Mochi tasting plate? Six-pack of chocolate buddhas? How about the giant fortune cookie (12)? Standing about 15 cm tall, this thing is like a mini mountain dusted in sugar and filled with white and dark chocolate mousse. Theatrics aside, it’s nothing more than ordinary mousse with a great big pastry wafer parked on top of it. The lemongrass crème brûlée (10) is much more interesting in my books; perfectly set, perfect sugar crust and nice little macadamia biscotti on the side. Oh look, more fortune cookies with the bill.
Once or twice I asked myself this question: where do the locals eat? I can’t imagine the locals would waft about with the tourists at the plethora of casino buildings that are packed with (predominantly themed) restaurants. For the short time we had in town we didn’t explore Vegas enough to find any areas away from the Strip and downtown that may be brimming with beaten-up eateries, or some really good ones, that just the locals went to.
I think the closest we came to a local eatery was Tacos el Gordo. There are two of them in town and the one that we stumbled upon is not all that far from the north tower of the Wynn complex. Finally, some food in a place without the bells and whistles. The formula at Tacos el Gordo is simple.
There may be one kitchen but it’s separated into specific areas with certain people looking after specific ingredients. Want the offal? Then go to the cook that looks after it. Want the adobada? Then head for the dude with the big knife standing at the rotisserie.
You simply order what you want from each person, wait for it to be constructed, then move on to the next station if you want something else. Grab some radishes and fresh lime from the condiments bar, don’t forget to grab a plate of roasted peppers and spring onions, a drink from the fridge and finally pay up before sitting down.
The tacos here are perfection. Taco de suadero (beef shoulder $2), taco de lengua (beef tongue $2.25), both filled with glorious meat, onion salsa and sauce. The tostada de cabeza ($2) adds some crunch to the lunch set; crispy fried tortilla loaded with coriander and beef head. Yes, that’s meat from the head of a cow. Meltingly tender and rich. I reckon the most popular taco is the adobada ($2). Marinated pork cut straight from the rotisserie and lovingly finished with salsa and avocado sauce.
I couldn’t go to Vegas and not try one of the famous buffets. While there are many to choose from the one that we settled on can be found at the Wynn. It really is geared for the crowds with wide walkways and sprawling self-service cabinets and counters.
I started at the charcuterie corner, sampling the cured and smoked meats and herbed parmesan crisp bread with pesto and roasted mushroom relish. The most popular item at the buffet had to be the Alaskan Bairdi crab; constantly topped up by kitchen staff as people piled their plates high with the golden legs. I couldn’t see the appeal as I found the meat dry and water-logged. Clearly frozen and of average quality.
Tandoori game hen was next, tumbled with mango relish and naan with a couple of glasses of salads. Thai beef and Greek style. Cornflake chicken is always a winner. Crunchy, deep-fried goodness.
The dessert area has a room of its own, tucked off to the side of the main service floor. It’s almost like walking into a patisserie and despite the array of sweet offerings I thought the one I created was the best one. Chocolate gelato sandwich. Grab a couple of chocolate chip cookies from the cookie counter, ask for a scoop of chocolate gelato and sprinkle over some M&M’s. Voila! Now I just needed to try and eat it without making a mess of myself.
Thanks, Vegas, it was fun. Would love to hang around but we’re off to the airport to pick up a rental car and hit the road.
Nevada, here we come!