L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon – Laid Back Michelin Star Dining

Eating at Joel Robuchon at The Mansion is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I doubt that I will soon, if ever, experience that kind of luxury, attention to detail, or service, again.

But I had the famous chef’s food just last weekend, in a far more casual setting at far more reasonable prices.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is Robuchon’s workshop. It is where his executive chef and the team is allowed to play with flavors, textures, and ideas, offering them to the public at prices that might make the wallet whine but not scream. Here is where you see more avant garde food, fewer suit jackets, and many more dining options. It’s not just one set menu – you can order a la carte or from several set menus, none topping $160 (which includes 15 courses, by the way).

The feel of the restaurant is hip and sleek, with its pops of red against shiny black. The place to sit is at the counter, where you can see the chefs preparing your food, but if you want a table, just say so at the time of making your reservation. We chose this option, and it worked out well so we could all talk. We also made our own tasting menu instead of going with one of the prix fixes…because we wanted all the foie.

Bread

The bread, though it doesn’t arrive on a bejeweled cart in 14 different varieties, is as faultless as that found in the parent restaurant. The baguette, in particular, is crusty without and slightly sour within. It’s crumb is fine and it is served warm, ideal with the rich, unsalted butter.

Amuse Buche – Foie gras and Parmesan parait

Um, yeah. Foie and Parm. Umami to the max. This tiny shooter is liquid foie and airy Parmesan foam, served warm so that the foie melts into an unctuous with a savory Parmesan cap.  Salty, a little sweet, and creamy, this is one of the hits of the night.

Iberican ham with pan con tomate

Not much to say about this except damn…the ham is (as always) soft, pleasantly fatty, and deeply p0rky, but the bread is really the star of the show. Lightly toasted bread is covered with such small, even dices of tomato that it seems like tiny elves must be working in the kitchen. The bread is rubbed with a garlic cove so it is perfumed with garlic instead of overpowered by it. The tomatoes are, even at the tail end of winter, are  juicy and sweet against the melting fat of the ham.

Carpaccio – Seabass with citrus and chiles

The best crudo I have had in awhile. The seabass is sliced so thinly that it is like a sheet of velum, milky pink against the white plate. It is dressed, but not saturated, in olive oil and the smoky, late-blooming heat of espelette pepper, bright lemon, and basil. The fish comes through fatty and moist and it is so good that you might not want to share.

I certainly didn’t.

Le Teriyaki – Kobe beef over sushi rice and spicy avocado

This is where Robuchon’s playful side shines. He takes the sweet-salty Asian flavor of teriyaki and sushi rice, then fuses it with French technique. The beef is seared to a perfect rare, with the inside warm and dry but still beautifully red and tender, the avocado is sliced so that it melts into the sushi rice, and the whole plate is perfectly balanced. It isn’t totally French, but nothing here is. It’s all about French technique and global ingredients.

Les Ravioles – Foie gras ravioli in chicken broth

These ravioli are ethereal and buttery rich at the same time. Imagine this: you are eating your Bubbe’s chicken soup. It is comforting and warm, your favorite chicken broth. Then imagine that she used fresh herbs (other than dill, fresh herbs are NOT the Jewish grandma’s MO). Licorice-y tarragon, fresh mint, and fragrant basil bringing Southeast Asian and French flavors to the soup, like a Vietnamese mash up. Now imagine that you put one of her famousfkreplach into your mouth. Except, this kreplach isn’t filled with beef. It is filled with a small nugget of foie gras. Not pate, mind you – pure foie gras. Molten, liquefied foie that thrills you to the tips of your carnivorous toes. It is a shock of richness against the wholesome broth, and the dumpling skins are so light that they are almost nonessential. This is a sleeper hit on a menu filled with exotic sounding dishes.

La  Langoustine – crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto

One of my tablemates said that this might be the best bite that he had ever put into his mouth.

That’s what she said.

Langousitnes have the texture of shrimp with the buttery taste of lobster. This langoustine is expertly cleaned and prepared and is SO rich and meaty that you might think there is more foie gras in there! Wrapped in a single sheet of crunchy, greaseless phyllo dough, it is served with both an herbal pesto and entire leaf of basil, lightening up an extremely dense, rich dish. This is butter overload, so don’t order it if you don’t like butter.

In fact, don’t read this blog if you don’t like butter.

La Caille – free range quail stuffed with foie gras, served with pommes souffles

First, the quail: Decadent. An exquisitely deboned quail, served medium so it is earthy and slightly funky, like wild boar. Stuffed with a cylinder of warm foie gras, melting into the quail, picking up it’s salty, crispy skin and tender meat. This is seasoned only with the quail and foie fats, salt, and pepper. It’s ideal.

And the pommes souffles…they are Robuchon’s calling card. He invented them by using half as much butter as potatoes  That’s enough butter to get a gal into trouble. Add some fragrant troubles, and she is a goner.

I am so, so weak against butter(with a few potatoes mixed in there).

Le Burger et Frites – beef and foie burgers with caramelized bell peppers and spicy bell peppers coulis

Not your average slider. The patty is thick and very mild, probably from a cut like filet mignon or a style like Wagyu that is very fatty and moist. The slider is – here’s that word again – rich, punctuated by the sweet and spicy bell pepper jus. I still prefer the one at DB Bistro, but this slider is a decadent and delicious way to end a meal.

Oh yeah, and the fries may be the most perfect specimens I have had in America.

The word rich came up many times in this review. However, you don’t have to be rich to eat here. You have to save up for a while, but you don’t have to lust after it without any payoff. It is pricey but attainable fare in a relaxed, cool setting with excellent service. It’s all the foie you can handle. And it’s from the chef of the century.

Chef Robuchon, you have done it again.

Lotus of Siam, Take 2

I have been to Lotus of Siam before.

I have waxed poetic about the juicy stuffed chicken wings and sweet, sticky mee krob. I have talked about the large dining room that is so comfy that you might think you are in your grandma’s homestyle restaurant. I have talked about its many accolades and its legions of fans (This visit, Jim Belushi dined there the night that we did, this time).

What I might not have mentioned is that the menu has seemingly thousands of options. It’s a little intimidating and requires some research and multiple visits to try all the dishes for which the eatery is famous.

So consider this review number two in a series of posts that are sure to come about this truly astonishing restaurant.

Nam Kao Todd –  Crispy rice mixed with sour minced pork sausages, green onions, fresh chilis, ginger, peanuts and lime juice

Thank you, Serious Eats, for pointing me in this direction. The rice is fried until it puffs and pops like salty Rice Krispies cereal beneath your teeth. The sausage is in tiny, ham-like dices; bright and acidic. Tiny peanuts echo the slightly fatty taste of the sausage and the whole thing is liberally sprinkled with dried and fresh chiles. The dried chiles are smoky with a back-of-the-throat burn and the fresh chiles have a high, almost electric lip-singeing quality. They each play their part, and that’s the takeaway from this dish. Every ingredient plays its part to create one cohesive, multi-layered taste. This dish’s report card would read: “plays well with others”

Nam Prik Ong – Red chili dip

Described like a spaghetti meat sauce on the menu, this was a fan favorite. The dip isn’t spicy at all, just zesty and aromatic with ginger, onions, and garlic. It is thick enough to scoop up with the raw veggies of a handful of delightfully glutinous sticky rice and the sweet tomatoes contrast nicely with the grassy coriander and ground pork. Speaking of pork, these pork cracklings are the first ones I have ever had that I actually like. They are not overtly “barnyard-y” or brittle, they are just insanely light and crispy – almost like a Pop chip, but with no salty, chemical-y aftertaste.

Thum Ka Noon – Shredded and pounded young jackfruit

This was the one dish that divided our table. Half of them hated it – called it mushy and tasteless, with the texture of cat food and an insipid flavor. The rest of us (myself included) LOVED this dish – it was my second favorite dish of the night. It is soft and homogeneous  but I didn’t find it mushy or cottony. It reminds me of pulled chicken or pork tempered with fresh cilantro, tomatoes, and the hit of diced chiles. The jackfruit was, for me, totally textural with no real taste of its own – it was ideal to pump up the volume of the dish without distracting form the pork’s flavor. I loved this with crunchy cabbage and sticky rice, and I hope that you do, too!

Penang Curry with chicken

`I love massaman curry as much as the next gal, but every now and then you have to branch out, right? This is massaman gone Wall Street (the original movie) – fast paced, high end, and a little dangerous. It is creamy from coconut milk and has a burnished color from the dried and fresh chiles, bu that is where the similarities between the two curries end. Whereas massaman is zesty and comforting, like a ginger tinged creamy chicken soup, the penang is lively and downright aggressive with its spices. If you like spicy food this won’t set you on fire, but if you aren’t used to it, this will probably build up a sweat on your brow. The fresh slices of jalapeno have a vaguely grassy, lemony taste that they pick up from the creamy and smoky chile gravy. The chicken itself is juicy and tender, filled with aromatics and sweet, spicy flavors that I can’t even begin to dissect. This had even the most spice-phobic people at that table clamoring for more, pouring the sauce over sticky and jasmine rices, swiping the bowl with fingers. If you like massaman then you may LOVE this – just be prepared for a bit more heat.

This ain’t the last Lotus of Siam review. I am going to go there every time that I visit Vegas until I get through the entire menu. Or at least until I faint from too much sticky rice. Hey, it’s the best Thai restaurant in America (some say int he world), it’s reasonably priced, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the fabulous menu options.

Don’t worry, next time I go, I promise to say hi to Jim* for you.

*Jim Belushi, remember?!

 

Three “Don’t Miss” Vegas Dishes

I’m back from the motherland.

No, not Israel.

Not even Paris.

I went on vacation to Las Vegas.

Where else can one sleep in world-class hotel suites for the price of a hostel in most major cities? Where else can one see a $90-a-ticket Cirque de Soleil show and then walk through a shopping mall with a yard long drink that involves frozen soda and cheap rum? And where else can one lose more money in an hour than she makes in a week?

Clearly, this city speaks to me.

Though I ate mostly at old favorite restaurants, there are a few new dishes (and restaurants) that I tried that really deserve mention!

Sliders at She

If you find yourself a little peckish and in the mood for an upscale midnight snack,  head straight to She at Crystals shopping center. This sezy steakhouse by Mortons has all of the serious beef offerings of its parent restaurant but adds a young, hip vibe with a catwalk straight down the center of the restaurant. Enjoy burlesque performances and sideshow acts like belly dancers, sword swallowers, and extremely flexible, scantily clad jugglers.

If you like the ladies, this restaurant is for you.

And even if your taste runs to John Hamm instead of Christina Hendricks, this restaurant is worth a stop for the comfortable outdoor seating and the awesome sliders.  Juicy and coked to a rosy pink with a soft texture, they are served with sharp cheddar cheese, creamy Russian dressing, and some tangy pickled onions. The brioche buns are soft and eggy but still stand up to the patties’ ample juices. This restaurant isn’t cheap but during happy hour, these sliders are offered at a significant discount, as are crisply fried tempura shrimp and a bevvy of cocktails. She is a welcome addition to the Strip as a place to sit and relax outside while enjoying some really quality bites.

Huevo frito con caviar at Jaleo

Yes, Jaleo again. It was just as  vibrant, as exciting, as mouth watering, delicious as it was the last time I visited. This time, my sister was wise enough to order the egg-on-egg combo that brought our table to its knees. The egg arrives gently fried so that the white is firm bu the yolk is thick and gooey. The caviar is in an ebony pile on top promising salt and brine.

When the server cuts up the mixture and instructs you to spread it on the pillowy toasted bread, follow her instructions. The bite will be rich, buttery, salty, and very savory. It isn’t fishy or bitter at all – just like the world’s best poached eggs on toast. The little pops of caviar under your teeth are a wonderful counterpart to the silky fried egg and you may find yourself begging for extra bread to swipe the bottom of the bowl for any remnants of this deeply satisfying dish. 

Club Sandwich at Cafe Vettro

This is the place you visit when you just came off of 2 four hour flights that started at 3 am 3,000 miles away. The 24 hour restaurant in the Aria is more than the old fashioned Vegas coffee shops that are known for piles of mushy home fries and questionable clam chowder. Cafe Vettro is light, modern, and the food is downright craveable. The club sandwich is among the best of an excellent and huge menu. The house roasted turkey is juicy, the veggies are crisp, and the mayo is plentifully applied. The fries are salty and hot, and the whole plate can easily feed 2 people. This is a fantastic lunch option, and the staff is commendably efficient, helpful, and friendly.

Wanna know where else I worshipped during my visit to the motherland? Head back tomorrow for my re-review of what is heralded as the best Thai restaurant in America, Lotus of Siam.

Secret Pizza in Las Vegas

Remember that time that I ate that incredible meal at e? Remember how it was so many courses, so many flavors, an experience like none other?

Well, there is a dirty little secret about that…I left a little peckish.

I couldn’t help it…I really needed a little something else to finish off a meal that consisted of about 1800 tiny bites.

Luckily, in the Cosmopolitan, there is a secret pizza joint. An unmarked  place down the hall from the Marquee nightclub, where, if you go down the narrow passageway, you are transported to a 1980s pizza joint, complete with an arcade game and a whole row of freshly made pies.

Order a slice from the ready-made pies or have one made specially for you (you might have to wait for a few minutes for one of those).

The pizza here is really tasty! Not as good as a New York slice, but VASTLY superior to most slices on the west coast. A thin, tender crust with an oregano heavy sauce and enough cheese to provide a creamy, stretchy quality without making the crust overly floppy. It is just greasy enough, just salty enough, and just filling enough to make the perfect midnight snack.

Upskirt shot, showing nice char.

This place is a quick service restaurant, so be prepared to eat it standing at the counter or take it back to your room in the standard paper box.

The pizza is cheap, it’s fast (don’t worry if there is a line, it really moves), and it’s just what you want after a tasting menu.

I ate a snack after a 3 hour tasting menu. I officially have no shame.

Joel Robuchon at The Mansion – A 16 Course Dream Come True

Foodies like all types of dining experiences. Eating potato chips on a road trip. Enjoying burgers at a drive in. Cooking at home for loved ones. And, once in a while, every foodie relishes a truly fine dining experience. This was such an experience.

Joel Robuchon, named “Chef of the Century,” did not want to open Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas. He had to be wooed and coaxed out of retirement. To hear the whole story, I direct you to the very funny and delicious book The Man Who Ate the World, by Jay Rayner. When he did open it, he pulled out all the stops. Since it has opened, it has been considered one of most over the top, the one of the most elegant, and certainly one of the most expensive restaurants in America. Though other restaurants, like Per Se, have the same 3 Michelin stars and difficult reservation policies, there are very few restaurants that compete on the old-school elegance and technique of this restaurant.

It is part of the famous Mansion hotel-within-a-hotel in the MGM Grand. You have to be invited to stay there, and rooms start at $5,000 a night. It is only for whales, foreign princes, and people to whom $5,000 a nigh tis chump change. You aren’t even allowed to visit the hotel – it is within a secret courtyard hidden in the MGM Grand.

But, if you book a table at Joel Robuchon, you get a gold limo that chauffers you to The Mansion, where you can relax in the glass atrium before dinner. Tropical plants thrive in the always 75F temperature, and gently classical music is piped through. You may find yourself, as I did, shocked into the realization that this will be a dining experience like none other you have ever had before.

Don’t worry, I took a coaster from a coffee table to remind myself later that this wasn’t a dream.

Soon, a concierge will arrive to take you through The Mansion to dinner.

To say that the room is elegant would be doing it a disservice. It is absolutely, straight up, old school fancy. Done in tones of eggplant and gold, there are plush banquettes, a sparkling chandelier, and even a faux garden outdoors, so people can eat outside without ever having to battle bugs. Many of the seats are couches, putting forth the idea that this is not a meal to nourish, but one to relax, to enjoy, and to indulge.

Bread Cart

This is where the magic starts. A cart filled with at least 17 types of bread is rolled to you, and your server describes each one, like some glorious, hunger-inducing monologue. Baguette, country bread, milk bread. Basil brioche, bacon bread, Gruyère bread. Hard bread, soft bread, miniature bread, gargantuan bread. Each different, each baked in house daily. You are encouraged to sample many breads throughout the course of the meal, though only your first selection will be warmed.

Bread Selection

Mustard Bacon Baguette – an exemplary baguette, with a stiff crust and an airy interior. Flecked with sizable chunks of fatty bacon and pungent grainy mustard.

Gruyère Bread – light and fluffy, with a generous portion of nutty Gruyère cheese capping the roll.

Comte Bread – delicate and buttery, like a croissant. Filled with smoky, salty comte cheese that oozed in the middle.

Saffron Brioche – fragrant and heady with saffron, reminiscent of paella. Very light and moist.

The butter, from Brittany, is hand shaved, and the olive oil is Spanish.

Butter

It deserves special mention. This Brittany butter is incredibly dense and feels like it weighs twice what American butter does. It tastes sweet and very clean, not greasy at all. Sprinkled with fleur de sel, it is delicious enough to be eaten on its own.

Don’t worry, I didn’t. I am a classy broad, ya know.

Cherry gazpacho with sheep’s ricotta and pistachios

The first taste of this is not cherries, it is sherry vinegar. Deep, nutty, complex. Then, sweet tomatoes and fresh cucumber come through. Finally, at the end, a sweet note of cherries finishes off the mouthful. The sheep’s  ricotta is milky and the salty pistachios are a wise textural contrast. It is an ideal starter.

Salad of tomato with basil infused olive oil and basil gelee topped with mozzarella

Wonderful things about this dish include:

-the incredibly potent tomato. It tastes bright but also earthy, and very sweet.

-the mozzarella. Tiny, exact pearls of mozzarella, so creamy they practically melt if you look at them too hard.

-the basil gelee. Incredibly fragrant and herbal, it is spicy next to the sugary tomato.

-the black plate that makes the gelee look black, instead of clear.

-this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXQTdPCWG7M&feature=youtu.be

Red turnip and radish with yellowtail carpaccio, chilled cauliflower veloute, and maki of thin couscous, all topped with caviar

Yellowtail carpaccio – as mild as toro, with a less fatty taste and slightly firmer texture. It has a brightness that works well with the peppery radish and crunchy, earthy turnip. The caviar adds a pleasant salty taste that ties in the land and water theme.

Cauliflower veloute – my favorite part of the course. Thin but very rich and smooth, this is the essence of cauliflower. It is salty enough to bring out the naturally sweet and creamy flavor of cauliflower, and the caviar adds both depth and texture. It is so very savory that I would swear there was pork somewhere in the base of the soup.

Couscous Maki – The least memorable part of the dish, but the one where the caviar stands out the most. Thinly shaved cucumber holds pearls of couscous, topped with a generous portion of caviar. the caviar’s deep taste reverberates through the mouth with salt, bitterness, and a final note of iron, like liver.

Roasted foie gras with cherries and kumquat compote

My baby. My favorite food. My sweet little liver. This is as ideal a foie gras as one could hope to have. A thick, crisp crust conceals a warm, pale pink interior that is so umami it defines the word. Savory and meaty, with a dense, creamy texture. It pais well with the cherries, which taste of wine, and with the bright kumquat puree, which temper the dish’s richness. When foie is this perfect, all description fails it.

Seared scallop with young leek in green curry

Following the foie with the scallop is a calculated and very smart move. To follow it with more meat would result in palate fatigue. To follow it with a light fish or vegetable would mean that the delicate taste would be lost. Following it with buttery shellfish served in a spicy, herbal broth both gives the palate a rest and awakens it for the courses to come. Every move at this restaurant is thought out and planned. The scallop has a crunchy crust and a soft interior. It works well with the green curry, which is  it is so bright with ginger, cilantro, and lemongrass that it seems almost alive. It breathes life into the meal and re-awakens the appetite. One of my favorite dishes of the night.

Truffled langoustine ravioli, grilled spiny lobster medallion in herb sabayon, sea urchin on potato puree with Blue Mountain Coffee

Ravioli – delicate sheets of pasta wrap around a chopped langoustine filling. Plump and bursting with buttery flavor, it is infused with the powerful scent and flavor of truffles. The earthy shrooms make the dish as meaty as it is oceanic. My seafood-wary sister claimed this as one of her favorite dishes of the night – it is quite rich and very tasty, but also very mild on the seafood taste.

Lobster – a bit tougher than I like, with too many herbs taking away from the butters inherent delicate flavor. It was still quite tasty, but not up to par with the other aspects of the plate.

Urchin – unbelievable. Pillows of soft, creamy, intensely briny sea urchin atop Robuchon’s famous pommes puree. These potatoes, made with as much butter as potato, are so rich and dense that they make the uni seem even lighter and more refreshing by comparison. The Blue Mountain Coffee adds a smoky, pleasantly bitter quality. For once, coffee actually tastes as delicious as it smells!

Delicate green pea cream on foie gras royale with argan oil

The only misstep of the night for me, due more to personal taste than any cooking discrepancies. The peas taste too grassy, almost like wet soil. The foie gras royale is airy and gets lost in the thick potage, and the argan oil has no discernable flavor. Let it be known that I am not a huge pea fan, and that other members in my party lapped this up.

Slightly cooked slamon with grain mustard seeds and mango tagliatelle

The best salmon I can remember eating, including at top-notch sushi restaurants. It is so mild, so soft but not mushy, with a thin, caramalized crust. It must be cooked incredibly gently, because it has a moist but still cooked interior, where the fat has melted away and self basted the fish. The mango tagliatelle is just as outstanding – thin ribbons of fruit that resemble al dente pasta in texture, but with a bright, tart flavor.

Sauteed veal chop with porcini mushrooms

Veal never tasted this good. This veal has the intensity of beef with the delicate texture of veal. I was able  cut it with a fork, it has a woodsy, hearty taste that one normally only associates with beef. It stands up to the porcini mushrooms, not as heady as truffles but much meatier. The demiglace served alongside is thick and reminiscent of wine, slowly cooked onions, and spicy black pepper.

Risotto of soybean sprouts, lime zest, and chives

Sprouts cooked very gently in the style of risotto, until they form a thick, rich stew. If it weren’t for the slight crunch, I would think it WAS risotto! Bright with lime zest, there is the nutty taste of Parmesan cheese and a lingering taste of garlic that makes this dish taste traditional. Well, as traditional as spout risotto can be. Once again, a wise choice in terms of timing. This gently bridges the gap between salty main course and sweet dessert.

Honey gelee and a light lemon cream finished with a spiced red fruit coulis

Very sweet, more like caramel than honey. The lemon goes a long way to cutting through the sugar, and keeps it from being overpowering. An interesting dessert, but not a sensational one.

Caramel panna cotta topped with fresh strawberries in a balsamic reduction

Now THIS is a dessert. A showstopper. Panna cotta that is smooth,  milky, and incredibly clean, with just a bit of  bittersweet caramel. Fresh strawberries, juicy and tangy, cloaked in their rich balsamic dressing. Bits of crunchy brioche croutons soak up the juices, and vanilla scented foam perfumes the whole dish.

A perfect end to the meal.

Or is it?…

Mignardises

Um, no. This is the end to the meal. An entire cart full of mignardises (small sweets served at the end of a meal) comes to you, and you choose s many as you would like. Caramels, chocolates, petit fours, cakes that burst in your mouth with raspberry jam, macaroons, lollipops, bonbons…it’s as if Willy Wonka himself is in front of you.

Needless to say, they are all delicious, but do not miss the cannele. It is custardy, caramalized, and a gustatory transport straight to Paris.

Joel Robuchon is, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only because it is prohibitively expensive, but because how many times can Cinderella go to the ball? From the moment I stepped in the gold limo to the second that I was surprised with a birthday cake, to the very last bite of my very last petit four, this was a fairy tale. There were some dishes that were not to my taste, but that mattered less than the experience of the meal. It was a 4 hour dining journey.  Servers came by to chat when we had questions, to advise on the wine list, and to show us a special feature of the dish. They also left us alone to laugh, to talk, to revel in the meal and each others’ company. Our needs were anticipated – we never had to ask for more bread or an extra napkin. The surroundings are beautiful, the service is excellent, and the food was really beyond my expectations. It combines classic techniques with unexpected ingredients. That scallop with the curry sauce is not the most technically complex dish on the menu, but it is representative of Robuchon’s attention to detail and exquisite palate. From beginning to end, this meal is worth every penny to someone who values a unique and over the top dining experience.

The next day, I went back to eating sandwiches, but for just that night, I was Cinderella at the foodie ball.

Joël Robuchon on Urbanspoon

CPK – Breakfast in McCarran Airport

Leaving Las Vegas isn’t just another movie showcasing Nicolas Cage’s one expression. It’s also an incredibly depressing way to spend the morning. No more free drinks, no more lavish tasting menus, and no more electrifying thrills when you win $25.  Just the TSA patting you down, people lugging suitcases, and the thrill of a 6 hour flight ahead of you.

The least that you can do is treat yourself to a nice breakfast.

California Pizza Kitchen may not be a four star locavore dining experience, but it is a reliable chain restaurant with a pleasing menu and reasonable (for an airport) prices.

Even in the airport, it manages to be a classy, yet casual establishment with polite and efficient service.

Breakfast Pizza with spicy tomato sauce, sausage, and eggs (hold the cheese)

This is a pizza in name only, but it’s still quite satisfying. The crust is a little thick, without much char, but it at least holds up to the toppings. The sausage is moist and pleasantly soft. The scrambled eggs are rather stiff – some cheese would add a necessary creamy, fatty component to the pizza. The real winner here is the sauce. Thick and redolent of oregano, the sauce is also surprisingly spicy – there is a real kick of red pepper flakes. It elevates the eggs and makes the pizza worthwhile.

Cheese Omelette with fried potatoes

These eggs are vastly superior to those on the pizza. Cooked gently so that the omelette is fluffy, not bouncy, it is topped with melting jack and sharp cheddar cheeses. A dash of Cholula hot sauce is all it needs. The potatoes are even better – thick cut and freshly sautéed so they are supremely crunchy outside, fluffy inside, and well salted.

Though this meal wasn’t world class, it does the trick. Sure it is overpriced and rather ordinary, but the food is hot, tasty, and served quickly.

It wasn’t winning a jackpot at a machine, but I’ll take what I can get on the day that I leave Vegas.

Grand Lux Cafe, Las Vegas

In between the decadent buffets and the pasta filled with pork and foie gras of Las Vegas, my body sent out an SOS. It needed vegetables and it needed them fast. I didn’t want to waste a fantastic restaurant meal on just a salad, but I wanted to make sure that the food was at least tasty. I also needed it to be nearby The Venetian’s casino where I was playing, and preferably somewhere that wouldn’t make my credit card scream in angst.

Grand Lux Cafe fit the bill.

This somewhat upscale cousin to The Cheesecake Factory is enormous, open 24 hours a day, and has many offerings. It features lots of the same entrees as The Cheesecake Factory in its bible-legnth menu, as well as a plethora of other items. Whether you feel like Asian tuna, hot wings, a burger, or pasta in Sunday gravy, The Grand Lux offers it, at a reasonable price point. It is ideal for large group of people because literally everyone can get something (s)he feels like. You can go in an evening gown at 10 AM or jeans at 8 pm and feel equally at home.

Though you could easily order a 3 course meal here, this wasn’t the point of my visit. This was my detox meal.

Chopped Salad  with Grilled Chicken, Bacon, Tomato, Maytag Blue Cheese, Avocado, Egg and Greens Tossed in Our Vinaigrette

Yes, my detox meal included blue cheese and avocado. But I left off the bacon…you know, to be healthy.

This is just a damned good salad. Crisp lettuce, creamy avocado, and sweet tomatoes. The chicken is juicy and still warm from the grill and the vinaigrette is tart and light. The final touch is the blue cheese, pungent and rich. It is basically a chopped Cobb Salad, and incredibly satisfying. Of course, if you don’t feel like that you could always order the:

BBQ Chicken Pizza and Salad Lunch Special

Or the:

Salmon Three Ways - Fresh Salmon Prepared in Three Styles; Soy Glazed with Shiitake Mushrooms, Horseradish Crusted with Asparagus and Almond Ginger with Green Beans and Beurre Blanc

Whatever you order here, the food will come quickly and in huge portions. An entrée can easily be split between two people, and if you have room for it, a slice of cheesecake is a delicious dessert.

Or, of course, it’s a great place for a detox meal featuring avocado and full fat cheese. 

Grand Lux Cafe (Venetian) on Urbanspoon

Jaleo, Las Vegas

Last year, eating at e was a highlight of my trip to Las Vegas, if not my year. As I waited to get seated, I noticed the restaurant around me - Jaleo was loud, thumping, and filled with energy and delicious smells. I saw plates of delicious looking food all over the place and swore that I would come back to eat at this tapas restaurant.

It took me a year, but finally I got there.

Jaleo was just as I remembered it; pulsating with energy and filled with the scents of garlic, roasting meat,

and huge pans of paella.

The atmosphere is hip but not snobby, filled with touches of whimsy. It would be a perfect place for a quick snack or a loud, long dinner with a group of partying friends. There is even a private room that looks perfect for a special night.

Tomatina Negroni with Campari, gin, sweet vermouth, tomato water

Anyone who likes negronis will love this. The tomato water sweetens the gin and rounds out the harsh edges of campari. The grapefruit comes through as tart rather than bitter, and the drink is refreshing and extremely food friendly. It doesn’t taste of tomato, just of sweet and fresh citrus. Highly recommended.

Patatas bravas with  spicy tomato sauce  and alioli

These aren’t the thick, traditional patatas bravas. These are thin potato chips, freshly fried and dusted with a generous helping of smoky paprika. The alioli is creamy and extremely garlicky  in a mouth-watering way. The tomato sauce provides a light, slightly spicy counterpart to the rich alioli. It tastes as if it has been infused with hot peppers, not in a fiery way but definitely in a spicy, zesty way. These are totally addictive and a must order.

Pan con tomate and Manchego

This simple dish is one of my favorites of the night. Jaleo hits the nail on the head with this totally authentic rendition of the iconic Spanish dish. Crusty bread rubbed with a clove of garlic and a cut tomato became moist but not soggy. It is soft enough to bite without shattering, but hearty enough to stand up to the tomato juice. Combined with the semi-hard cheese, it is nutty, salty, savory, and surprisingly refreshing.

Iberico Pork Burgers with piquillo peppers and alioli

That’s right. The same Iberico pork I worship in slices. Here, it is coarsely ground and loosely packed into a juicy burger. Served on a brioche bun with sweet peppers and more of that creamy alioli, it is a very meaty and almost woodsy slider.

“Bikini” Sandwiches with Ibérico ham, manchego cheese, and truffles

Heaven alone knows why this is called the bikini sandwich, because after just one of these, you can’t get into a mummu, let alone a bikini. Buttery toast cradles salty Iberico ham, gooey Manchego cheese, and aromatic truffle oil. This is one decadent grilled cheese sandwich – don’t miss it. And don’t plan to eat it all yourself – it is a bit salty and fatty, so share it to save room for more food.

Chicken Croquettes

Served in a sneaker. I have no idea why Andres does this, but I love it – it reinforces the fact that eating isn’t just refueling, it is a communal experience that should foster conversation and joy. And if these little nuggets of crispy, creamy, unmistakably chicken-y taste offer anything, it is indeed joy.

These croquettes are lighter and more complex than the garlicky, heavy ones at Porto’s. These are almost airy inside, creamy but not dense. There is the slightest hint of onion in there, perhaps some nutmeg, but most of all…its just tastes like really creamy chicken soup.

Golden fried quail eggs with ‘pisto manchego’ vegetable stew

One of our few vegetarian dishes of the night, this managed to stand out amongst all the indulgent meat and cheese courses. Perfectly brunoised vegetables like carrots, onions, and zucchini are cooked with rosemary and other aromatics until they form a tender but not mushy stew. The crowning touch is a sextet of gooey egg yolks and crispy whites

It was also served with a swipe of genuine gold dust, which no girl can ignore.

Vegetable Paella

This paella was the lone disappointment of the evening for me. A bit salty and mushy, it has none of the wonderful soccarat that I so crave. Though it is served with some more of that addictive alioli, I really can’t recommend this as a “must order” dish.

Pork and foie gras canelones with bechamel sauce

I don’t know how or why this was conceived, but I actually don’t care. This is an almost inconceivably delicious pasta dish. Thin sheets of canelloni are stuffed with sweet ground veal and earthy pate de foie gras before being blanketed in bechemel and broiled until crisp without and gooey within. It should be too rich. It should be too meaty.  It shouldn’t work…but it does. It is not too much this or too little that. It is an example of how Andres wants to do something – like, for example, deliver the world’s richest pasta dish without causing anything more than a very delayed coronary – and does it. He has an impeccable palate and has clearly trained his staff to know exactly how to execute his recipes.

His perfect, beyond compare, meaty and creamy recipes…

That’s what she said

Jaleo was delicious for all the senses. Delicious to see the pastry chefs working in the small open air dessert kitchen. Delicious to smell the dozens of small plates carried by servers that walked by our table. Delicious to feel welcomed by the enthusiastic and knowledgable staff. Delicious to hear chatter and laughter from everyone enjoying the night. And delicious to taste.

Jaleo was, in every way, worth the wait. I won’t be able to wait so long before I return.

Jaleo by José Andres (Cosmopolitan) on Urbanspoon

MoZen Brunch, Las Vegas

Buffets in Vegas tend to be quantity over quality. Mountains of overcooked prime rib, piles of cold shrimp, and miles of pre-made salads sitting under sneeze guards. Now, I’m not anti buffet – quite the opposite. There is a time and a place for buffets. You just don’t go there if you want a top-notch meal with attention to details and excellent service.

Unless, of course, you go to the brunch buffet at MoZen.

The Mandarin Oriental is, I believe, a harbinger of things to come in Las Vegas. It has no casino, has service that is comparable with the finest 5 star hotels in the country, and has a spa that is absolutely to die for. It also has MoZen, a modern American restaurant that draws inspiration from India, Singapore, Japan, and other Asian countries. It serves brunch on Sundays only, and includes a small luxury buffet, passed small dishes, and an entrée all for the price of $57.

The atmosphere is serene and sunny, almost as if you were at a Californian spa retreat rather than right in the heart of Sin City.

The buffet, set up along the side and back of the restaurant, includes breakfast pastries, fruit, yogurt, cheeses, meats,

freshly made sushi,

and a fantastic raw bar. The oysters are shucked right before your eyes, and the ones that I had were large, briny, and mildly salty. The crab legs were even better. Sweet and succulent, they were as delicious as crab that I have had on the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf. I enjoyed both with some tart cocktail sauce that wasn’t spicy enough, but at least wasn’t sickly sweet.

The spicy tuna sushi also deserves special mention. Sashimi and sushi can be made to order, and even when it isn’t it is made so frequently that it is very fresh. The rice is sticky but not mushy, the nori is crisp and nutty, and the spicy tuna is the perfect blend of hot Sriracha, creamy mayonnaise, and lush tuna.

Though the raw bar alone would have made this worthwhile, there is more.

Passed dishes included a peanutty Kung Pao chicken

and a greaseless calamari with spicy peppers.

THEN, you get to order an entrée.

Paneer Curry with Naan, Daal, and Rice

This was really unexpected. I was thinking I would get a very “obviously” Indian dish, with a garlic-and-red-pepper heavy sauce and a few blocks of dried out paneer. Instead, I got a small bowl filled with a tangy, pungent sauce filled with tomatoes, sautéed onions, and sweet peas. Though there was definitely some heat and garlic, the favors here focused on the tangy and sweet – a bit too sweet for my tastes, but at least it was not overtly heavy on the spice and cumin. It was multifaceted and filled with creamy and fresh paneer.

The rice was standard but the daal was excellent – very smoky and filled with lentils and kidney beans.

The naan was also top notch, slick with ghee and fragrant with garlic and cilantro. Pillowy and well charred, it was perfect to sop up the remnants of the pungent curry.

Hokkaido Scallops with Artichokes

Another winning entrée. The scallops almost tasted as if they were cooked sous vide, then just momentarily seared. They were almost exceedingly velvety and buttery, and the artichokes were succulent, earthy counterparts to them.

If you have room, you may wish to check out the desert buffet, wich is small but excellent.  Don’t look for synthetic soft serve ice cream or dried out cherry pie here. Instead…

choose from passionfruit panna cotta, strawberry cheesecake mousse, and vanilla madeleines.

The raspberry vanilla petit fours were the highpoint of dessert and one of the highpoint of the meal. Vanilla-scented white chocolate cracked to reveal moist poundcake and thin layers of tart raspberry jam. A really perfect bite of rich sweetness, just enough to cleanse the palate and end the meal.

MoZen really is the anti-buffet. It is small, with limited seating and buffet items made to order. There is very attentive waiter service and you are more likely to see a business lunch there than a hungover group of The Hangover fans.

The price is high, but if you eat enough oysters, you can rationalize it.

Hey, it’s Vegas…you can rationalize anything.

Mozen Bistro (Mandarin Oriental) on Urbanspoon

E by Jose Andres, Las Vegas

I saved the best of Vegas for last. The best was the night that I ate at James Beard Foundation Award winning chef Jose Andres’ molecular gastronomy focused restaurant e
 Here’s the thing…e isn’t in plain sight. And there isn’t a phone number. You have to be really sure that you want to eat there, because you have to make a reservation by email a month in advance. And I mean a month in advance to the MINUTE – only 16 people a night can eat there, 8 at each seating. 
 And…oh yeah…the restaurant isn’t in plain sight. You walk through Andres’ casual Spanish restaurant Jaleo, go behind the bar through a secret door, and dine in total privacy from the diners outside.
Basically, you are James Bond, tapas-style.
The special treatment starts immediately – the moment I approached Jaleo, Anthony, an exuberant and affable man, greeted me and asked if I was Sarah. Don’t ask me how he knew, but he did. He led my party to the bar and insisted we order a cocktail before dinner, since we weren’t doing the wine pairing.
Well, okay…if you twist my arm.  
This was the Sangra y Fuego, made with Mezcal, house-made sangrita, cherry liqueur
and sweet vermouth. This sounds like it might be sweet, but it wasn’t really – just in the way that BBQ sauce might be sweet. It was mostly smoky and a little meaty from that rich Mezcal, with the cherry coming through right at the end. This was almost like a beefy Bloody Mary – it was really interesting and totally delicious for those of you who love, as I do, savory drinks. It was unexpected and like nothing else I had ever tasted – a harbinger of things to come that night. 
Picture via ThinkFoodGroup
After our (AWESOME!) tablemates arrived, we all shimmied behind the bar, and escaped from the raucous, casual atmosphere of Jaleo to the subdued, whimsical atmosphere of e. A tiny room with one curved bar set in the middle, we all sat down and met our chef, Edwin. Edwin, who was at once serious about his work and a total ham on the stage that was this restaurant, told us that the meal would be cooked directly in front of us and explained to us at each course. And with that…the odyssey began. 
 Gin and Tonic sorbet and foam. The top of the dish was a tonic foam and the bottom was a gin sorbet, frozen with liquid nitrogen. There was also some Meyer lemon puree at the bottom, adding some sweetness to the natural acidity and bitterness of the dish. It was, at first, just like a mild Slurpee, but as the sorbet melted in my mouth, I tasted the alcoholic kick of gin and the faint sharpness of the tonic water. It was foreign yet totally familiar.
 Spanish “Clavel.” This raspberry candy, crunchy and tasting both tart and sweet, just like the fresh raspberry, were served on a whimsical dish shaped like a hand. Shaped, specifically, like Jose Andres’ hand.
Seemed like a big hand. 
And you know what they say about big hands…
That’s what she said.
 Caramelized Pork Rinds. Crunchy, slightly sweet crackers with an insanely meaty taste. Like honey glazed ham in cracker form. 
 Beet Jewelry. 
 Sugary, earthy, slightly greasy in a pleasing way – like a potato chip. Dusted with gold. Somewhere between salty and sweet. 
 Apple “Brazo di Gitano.” Tart green apple meringue surrounded a light but surprisingly rich blue cheese espuma. The espuma was like a mousse, but more “melty” and even lighter. The cheese was pungent and contrasted so well with the crunchy mousse that almost disappeared in the mouth. The walnut paste on top added a fatty and meaty component that really completed the apple, cheese and nut “salad.” Once again…familiar but foreign. 
 Crispy Chicken Skin in Escabeche. The chicken oyster is the part of the thigh that is the most tender, the sweetest and the meatiest part of the chicken. If I ever make you chicken, chances are that I have already eaten the oyster. It is just the essence of chicken. This oyster was served caramelized on the outside but juicy within, served on a crispy crackling and topped with woodsy thyme foam. I could have easily eaten about 12 of these. 
 Jose Taco – Iberico Ham topped with Caviar, and Fried Artichoke topped with a raw quail egg and caviar. The “taco” was, no question, the BEST taco I have ever eaten. The smooth and delicate ham melted upon my tongue, leaving behind fat and salt that echoed the briny taste and tiny “pop” of the caviar. My tablemate Patty said that the artichoke was one of her favorite bites of the night: a single bite of earthy artichoke, unctuous quail egg and that slightly fishy and salty caviar. 
It hit all major food groups – fatty, salty, fried. What’s not to like?
 Bocata de Calamares- Brioche, scallions, aioli, cucumber and…
 UNI! That seafood of the Gods, custardy sweet, salty with brine and umami-rich as pate de foie gras. Combined with fresh cucumber, biting scallion and the rich aioli complimenting the uni’s creamy texture, the buttery brioche was sturdy enough to contain this completely but soft enough to eat almost without chewing. 
I could eat a foot-long one of these. 
 Sandria. Watermelon soaked in sangria. The watermelon’s light flavor made the sangria taste richer and more alcoholic – as if it was brandy based, or some rich and buttery liquor like that. This was certainly delicious, but not the most inventive dish of the night. 
 Ajo Blanco. Ajo Blanco is a traditional Spanish soup that is made with bread, almonds and garlic. Of course, Jose had to spark it up a little. This was a deconstructed version, with the mild soup surrounded by raw almonds, toasted marcona almonds, PX Jiminez Gelee, Green Grapes, Tomato and Manzanilla Sherry Ice and Mircorgreens. This was a revelation. To take the soup with each of the accompaniments was a new mouthful each time – sweet with the gelee, pungent with the ice, savory with the grapes, hearty with the microgreens.
 Maine Lobster with Citrus and Jasmine. The lobster was tender enough to cut with a fork, buttery and totally devoid of any sense of fishiness. The citrus cut through the richness, and the jasmine brought a floral, ethereal taste to such a rich dish. 
 Chickpea Stew with Iberico Ham and Parsley Oil. This blew my mind. IT was solely made of chickpeas and Iberico ham, and when I put one of the “chickpeas” in my mouth, it exploded and let loose an intensely chickpea-tasting liquid. These speherical chickpeas were another one of Andres’ playful takes on food that I thought I knew. He managed to show me that there are still flavors and textures I don’t know. The chickpea flavor was so rich and earthy that it made the ham seem light by comparison. Salty, hearty, with the herby kick of the parsley – this was my favorite dish of the night. 
 Catch of the Day – Turbot with Black Garlic. One of my dining companions, a fish hater, proclaimed this “the most steak like fish in the world,” and scarfed it down before I could snag a bite. The Turbot was thick, moist, and heartier than most fish, along with tangy black garlic that had no bite at all. It was all tang and sweetness, melding with the fish’s savory flavors. Tiny citrus pearls on top brightened the fish and added another dimension of flavor. I could not imagine a more satisfying fish dish. 
 Morels in cream. 
 with rosemary foam. Woodsy, deep, meaty, creamy, umami. There was nothing new or inventive about the dish, and that alone was a shock in this meal full of unexpected turns. 
 Secreto of Iberico Pork. This was served with porcini mushrooms, both raw and cooked. The pork comes from the shoulder blade of the Iberico Pig, and is cooked to medium wellness – still pink but not at all dripping juices or red. This is a perfect degree of doneness for this cut of meat – rare enough to stay tender and retain the taste of the pork, bu done enough to have some caramelizing on the outside of the beef. The mushrooms were hearty and toothsome, and the raw mushrooms were particularly fragrant – almost truffle – like in their aroma.
*Before I talk about dessert, I really must give kudos to the amazing staff of this tiny restaurant. From vivacious and trivia spouting Anthony to the charming and dedicated Edwin to everyone who filled my glass before I realized it had emptied, the entire staff exuded joy and passion. It was a well-choreographed dance, with nary a step out of place nor a spilled drink, nor a lag in the meal. It was well paced and expertly served, and more than that – everyone was happy to be there. They clearly love food and wine as much as their diners do, and that added so much to the night. Scratch that…it MADE the night. This is the best service I have ever had. In my life.*
 Scraping the cheese for our first dessert…
 Orange Pith Puree with La Serena Cheese and a crostini. 
 This had sheep’s milk cheese had the funkiness of goat’s cheese with the rich texture of brie with the salty, nutty tang of Gruyere. Mixed with the tart and slightly biter puree, it was an exemplary cheese course, served in a beautiful and unexpected way. 
 Our next course, set aflame!
 Apples and Red Wine “Fredy Giradet.” Ironically named after a famous Swiss Chef who dislikes Molecular Gastronomy, this featured glazed apples and red wine spheres that, like the chickpeas, looked like small red cherries and burst in the mouth with sweet and spicy red wine. The ice cream was sweet, fragrant with vanilla, and what can be said about stewed apples other than…they are as good now as they ever were.
Edwin teaching Patty how to make the red wine spheres!
 Frozen Apricot Coulant – this was what was being flambeed earlier. A crisp outside gave way to a liquidy interior, entirely apricot. This was far too sweet for me, and the only misstep of the night.
 Fizzy paper. Literally, just what it sounds like. Paper-like candy that fizzed and popped in your mouth like soda. Citrus flavored, it reminded me of a grown up seven up! So delish!
 25 Second Bizcocho. A cake made in the microwave…the MICROWAVE!!! It was fluffy and filled with vanilla yogurt and tasted like a less sweet version of a Twinkie. Don’t worry, it was still sweet…I just didn’t go into diabetic shock after I tried it!
 Aerated Dark Chocolate Air that was like spongy honeycomb in my mouth, and saffron scented chocolate that had an ethereal, exotic, savory taste with the creamy, sweet milk chocolate.
This was a truly incredible meal. Not that it was perfect, but that it was full of food I have never experienced before. Tastes, textures and combinations that I could never imagine. The whimsical plating and intimate setting lent a magical air to the night – that is the only word for it. Magical. Like Chef Edwin was the magician, the servers were all his assistants, and Anthony was the glamorous showgirl, ready to charm us all with smoke and mirrors. The thing is…underneath the smoke and mirrors, this food was really fantastic. Not just in the first rate ingredients, but in the innovative cooking techniques. Andres makes eating fun. He makes dining an adventure. This was the most expensive meal I had in Las Vegas, and it was also the best value. I would dine here again in a heartbeat, and suggest that anyone who wants to be challenged, entertained or amused do the same. 
Oh yeah…and you will be well fed, too.
e by Jose Andres on Urbanspoon