Monday, April 20, 2009

Las Vegas 2009

Imperial Palace
We stayed at the Imperial Palace, mainly because it was wicked inexpensive and right in the middle of the strip. After I made the reservation, though, I went on and nearly all of the reviews were negative, saying what a scary dump it was, etc. So I was pretty nervous/skeptical about what we were going to find. But you know what? It wasn’t anything bad at all. Certainly it wasn’t one of the big or fancy places, but I didn’t think it was scary at all.

We had two different rooms: The first night we got there and our room had two double beds instead of a king. I called and they couldn’t change us until the next day, so we decided to make do. There were some stains on the carpet and the décor was hideous and looked about 20 years old, but it seemed clean and who spends any time in their hotel room when they are in Vegas anyway? The next day we got moved to a room with a king-sized bed and it was much bigger, much nicer and much more modern. With the new room I couldn’t complain at all.

One drawback – of every casino – is that smoking is allowed, so even though our room was non-smoking, it was still in my hair/clothes every time we walked through the casino (or any casino). You forget other places are like that with the no smoking laws in Minnesota. (Thank you, Minnesota legislature!)

The casino area had Dealertainers, which are people dressed as celebrity impersonators who deal (blackjack, I think), but also get up and perform. It was fun to see them and they had a huge variety: Bette Midler, two different Michael Jacksons, Rick James, Billy Idol, Garth Brooks, Rihanna, Jake and Elwood Blue, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett and many others.

Along with our hotel room we got half-price tickets to a number of shows. We went to the Legends show at Harrahs, which is a celebrity impersonator-type concert. We were situated in the mid-back of the theater, but minutes before the show the usher came up and asked us if we wanted better seats and sat us in the third row. Nice!

The show was a great time and I’m glad we went. I might not have been as excited to pay $60/ticket, but at $30/person it was well worth it. The show was emceed by “Jay Leno.” The guy didn’t look much like Jay but really had his mannerisms down. The first act was Tom Jones and it was hilarious. The guy really had the cheesy aspect, which is really what you want in a Tom Jones. It was an absolute hoot!

Next up was “Whitney Houston” and, man, was the girl good! Looked a lot like her, too. Very impressive. Probably my favorite was The Temptations. Everyone knows the “Golden Oldie” tunes so it was a lot of fun. Last was Elvis. More of an older Elvis, not the hot young Elvis, and he didn’t look a ton like him but did have some of the moves. The best part was this girl in the audience who acted like he was the real Elvis, swooning and smooching on him and everything else. Maybe she was a plant, but it was pretty funny.

The show went quickly and I wish it would have lasted longer, even though every artist sang about 5 songs. I was hoping for Prince or someone else a little more modern. There were also back-up dancers for all of the acts, who were all very good (and good looking!). Sure can’t imagine going to dance classes as a kid only to end up on a Las Vegas stage.

Alex, at the Wynn, is a two star Michelin restaurant, very formal with flawless service. Not only did they have a little chair to put my purse and wrap on that sat at our table, but I hardly had a sip of water before someone was refilling it again. Our waiter’s name was David, but I liked to call him Brian ‘cuz he had a ‘50s-style haircut like Brian Setzer. Besides him, we had a sommelier and a busser and probably three other people that cruised by on occasion to make sure everything was right in our world.

To start the night we each had a cocktail. I had an elderflower fizz, which was quite delicious, and Josh had a pear martini. Never mind there wasn’t a drink under $20 in the place.

The night started out with a plate of 5 amuse bouche “compliments of Chef Alex”: tuna tartare, prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe, duck on a crisp round cracker, mushroom soup, and a cheese-stuffed oyster-style cracker. I didn’t think the tuna tartare had much taste to it, the prosciutto/melon combo was a good blend of salty and sweet, the duck was fine, the mushroom soup was really good, smooth and creamy and not at all like the lumpy stuff you throw in a hotdish. My favorite was definitely the mushroom soup.

They served a variety of breads, including one with black olives that I enjoyed.

You can order off of two menus at Alex – the tasting menu, which has seven courses and which Josh had, or the price fixe menu, from which you could order one item each off a selection of appetizers, entrees and desserts, which is what I had. It made the pacing of the meal a little bit awkward with different numbers of dishes coming out for each of us, but the kitchen tried to rectify that by serving me an additional complimentary amuse bouche when Josh’s first course arrived. Unfortunately, I can’t remember for the life of me what it was!
For an appetizer I ordered the roasted sea scallops with white and green asparagus, organic polenta and sweet sausage. This will come as a surprise to many as I am generally very anti-seafood. However, I had recently tried some really delicious scallops and I was game to give it another whirl. These tasted slightly citrus-y and were very good.

For my entrée I ordered the Moroccan spiced lamb pastilla with pea mint puree, toasted almonds and morel mushrooms. The meat was a little dry, I think, but that was entirely my own fault as I ordered it medium well. I don’t like my meat too raw, but not too done, either. It’s hard to communicate sometimes. This came with lamb (veal?) sweetbreads and, even though I am generally against all sweetbreads, I was game to give it a go. My mistake – absolutely disgusting! I very much wanted to spit it out, but somehow managed to control myself.

For an intermezze course – again complimentary to match me up with Josh’s dishes — I was served Coconut Tapioca pudding with Passion Fruit Glaze and Tropical Fruit in a shot glass. Good, not awesome.

For dessert I had the roasted pineapple with banana basque cake and coconut sorbet.
Overall, it was a very nice experience. I never thought the food was out of this world, nor did I think it was worth the cost. I did, however, discover a wonderful new wine that the sommelier picked out for me. It was a Suhr Luchtel and I believe it was a pinot noir, even though I hinted at a cabernet. His taste was spot-on, though – it was delicious.

Josh will have to tell you more about his experience, but I can tell you what he had in his seven courses with matching wine pairings:

Atlantic Fluke carpacchio with puffed rice, seaweed and pickled Japanese plum. Wine was a French Mailly, Brut Rose, Grand Cru Champagne. A little dry for my taste.
Warm salad of giant clam, fresh abalone and cuttlefish, chickpea and toasted almond puree. Wine was an Italian Shiopetto, Blanc des Roisis, Venezia Giulia, 2006. I think I liked this one.

Hot and cold foie gras with Spanish ham, pineapple, brussel sprouts and spiced duck sauce. This may be the first time I’ve had foie gras. I much preferred the chilled version with the fresh pineapple. The warm version tasted almost too rich, too fatty, too gravy-like (Yes, I’m sure I have a very uncouth palate). There was also freeze dried pineapple bits, which were unusual in texture. The wine was a 2005 French Domaine Bott-Geyl, Sonnenglanz Grand Cru from Alsace. I don’t think I tried this one.

Japanese sea bass with sweet and sour orange, red pepper confit and lobster-red wine sauce. The wine was a 2000 German Franz Keller Pinot Noir, Selection S from Baden.

American Wagyu short rib with potato gnocchi, roasted asparagus, parmigiano and red wine. I don’t know if I have ever had Wagyu beef before but to me it was like soggy bread – far too “wet” for me. I know it is supposed to be fatty, but I just didn’t care for the texture. Wine was a 2005 Napa Valley Caduceus, Nagual del Sensei, Pope Valley.

Intermezze was a mascarpone panna cotta with pear and sauternes gelee.

Dessert was a vanilla citrus parfait with toasted marshmallow cream and campari sorbet. The BEST part, though, was “The Gift,” Littorai, Botrytised Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast 2006 dessert wine. When Josh commented how much he liked it, the sommelier brought another glass. It tasted as good as it smelled, and I am hoping it is made into a perfume soon. Probably the highlight of the whole night!
Everything was beautifully plated and elegant, as expected. All of the staff – all men – were dressed in beautiful suits. I was plenty full when we left but I don’t think Josh was – it really is a small “tasting” of everything. When we left, I was handed a box of cookies and we were thanked for coming. All in all, it was a lovely evening.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
L’Atelier is at the MGM and has a much more relaxed, laid back vibe than Alex. It seems to be younger and hipper, with lots of red and black, and almost all of the seating is around the bar so you can watch the preparations. I may have been more absorbed with the lack of skirt the girl sitting next to Josh was wearing to adequately pay attention to the kitchen: had she not had a napkin on her lap, her modesty would have been zip. But, I digress.

Our server’s name was Joe. Joe was very knowledgeable and an all-around good guy. Also very accessible and friendly. We each ordered a cocktail – Josh had the dolce cocktail (lots of mango, peach and basil) and I had the francais martini, which was pretty bland (especially since we had arrived early for our reservation and stopped off at Tom Coliccio’s Craftsteak for an absolutely delicious raspberry martini before dinner).

We both ordered the “discovery” tasting menu and the wine flight that went with it. The first course was a foie gras parfait with port wine and parmesan foam served in a shot glass. I thought it was quite good and decided I might like this foie gras stuff!

Next up was smoked salmon in an herb gelee with a light wasabi cream in a shot glass. This was revolting. Mostly a texture thing, I think – basically it was like raw salmon in jello. Gross. I ate two bites and called it quits.

I was pretty terrified to try this next dish: poached baby Kusshi oysters with French Echire butter. Three little oysters came on a bed of what looked like crushed ice, but must have been rock salt with pink peppercorns. Maybe it was the butter – which they also served with their bread and was AWESOME – but they were really delicious and, I think, my favorite thing I ate that night.

Next was Maine lobster in a tomato sauce with green asparagus. It tasted fine, I think – I’ve never really gotten the whole lobster fascination.

Foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs. The ravioli were about the size of nickels and there were maybe 5 in this dish. Even so, I think having multiple foie gras dishes on a tasting menu is going a bit overboard (especially since there was yet another foie gras item on the menu). I was over it already.

Next was Dover sole with a warm leek salad and crispy potato (and by crispy potato, they mean potato chip). I wasn’t too psyched about the Dover sole, either, but it was also tasty. Who knew? Maybe I will turn into a seafood fan yet.

The next thing was the only place in the menu where Josh and I differed. We could order the foie gras stuffed free-range quail with truffle mashed potatoes or the lamb shoulder confit with fava bean stew. I had the quail and Josh had the lamb. His lamb was very tender and tasty, much better than mine from the previous night.

Next was a traditional savarin with Tahitian vanilla cream and aged dark rum (which I have zero recollection of). Last was strawberry meringue around a fennel parfait and crème fraiche ice cream. The strawberry meringue was very strawberry.

The wines, I am sad to say, I don’t have written down. The first was a Gosset brut champagne and the second two were Chassagne Montrachet burgundies, the first a 100 percent Chardonnay and the second a pinot noir. I am generally a hater of chards but this one was quite good. Not that oaky, butter-bomb quality of American chards. I was a fan! The pinot noir was very typical of a pinot.

We also ordered an apple cider dessert wine from Ontario that was very good… something cidre, can’t remember… and were going to order a chocolate port(?) but Tracy had had enough to drink at that point!

The service here was not so practiced and elegant, but I enjoyed myself much more. It didn’t seem so stiff and Josh and I were able to chat much more easily as we were sitting more closely together. Again the presentation was beautiful. I would definitely come here again before going back to Alex.

The car
For Christmas I had rented Josh a car from “Dream Car Rentals.” I’m sure having to wait until April to use his Christmas present was kind of a bummer, but I think he enjoyed it in the end! I was a little bummed because I had originally reserved a replica 1965 Shelby Cobra – a totally sweet car. They claimed it was “in the shop” and we ended up getting a Lotus Elise instead – a totally hot red sports car that I think Josh was more than happy with. Still, I told Josh it was interesting that, of all the pictures of people in various cars they had up on their walls, not one of them was a Shelby Cobra!

The Lotus is a small, small car. The engine is in the rear, which leaves about a 2x2-foot trunk space. There is no room for anything in the car other than you and a passenger. Josh wondered what was under the hood, but other than a battery and our feet, that’s about all that fits!

Getting in and out of the car was SO awkward! It’s really low to the ground and you have to kind of slide in. Getting out is even worse, because you have to sort of hoist yourself up and out. I’m sure it would have make great youtube footage to watch us try to maneuver in and out all day!

The car didn’t have much for shocks, I don’t think, and you are so low to the ground you feel every bump in the road. I thought it would feel a lot more luxurious than it did, but the seats weren’t particularly well padded or anything. HOWEVER – everything was totally paid back in the comments we got when driving it! (I should say, when Josh drove, ’cuz it’s a stick and I don’t know how to drive one.)

Right away, on our way to show the car off to my brother, a lady on the road next to us caught my eye and just stuck out her thumb with a huge grin – she approved! We got comments and looks and stares all day long about what a great car. It was fun!! We drove it all over the place, too, from Red Rock Canyon to Valley of Fire State Park, from Lake Mead Recreation Area to the Strip. Good times!

My Cousin Tom got married Saturday night at one of the chapels at TI (formerly Treasure Island). Megan looked beautiful in her dress and Tom looked very solemn. I thought the chapel room was a bit small, but I liked their officiant a lot. They said very traditional vows ("in sickness and in health..."). Dinner was at the Kahunaville restaurant and the food was very good. For table favors they did gold coins with their last initial on them, which I thought was cute for it being at Treasure Island.

Red Rock Canyon is just outside of the city and is a 13-mile scenic loop. There are plenty of turnouts where you can stop to enjoy the view and/or hike. Really pretty stuff. Saw lots of people jogging and biking out there as well.

Valley of Fire is just BEAUTIFUL! If you are ever in the neighborhood, I highly recommend checking it out. It was well worth the drive in every way.

Had breakfast the first day at Le Creperie at Paris. Josh had a delicious one with prosciutto and basil in a bechamel sauce. Yum!

We went to a watch store at the Forum Shops called Tourneau. Josh said it is the largest watch store in the world. I don’t know how many brands they carry, but the store has several floors. All men in the store – such a man thing! Josh ended up buying a beautiful Hamilton watch with a black face and a brown band.

As you know, I am too cheap to be much of a gambler, but I placed my first sports bet ever. Fuzzy explained how it works to me, and I bet on three UFC fights – two for Saturday night’s fight and one for a fight taking place next month. So far I won my money back plus $18.55! I was pretty excited about that – not the money so
much but that I know enough about the UFC to make intelligent bets. I only bet $10/fight so it’s not like it was a big deal either way, but still! I’ll take $18.55 any day.

Monday, April 06, 2009

City Pages Wine Tasting

Before I get into the tasting, can I just tell you that I was given the third degree by the reservationist at Alex, a high calibre French restaurant in Las Vegas? As you know, Josh and I are traveling to Las Vegas next week for my Cousin Tom's wedding, to see my brother Fuzzy, to hang out in the sun and check out a couple of oh-so-fabulous restaurants - one of which is Alex at the Wynn. So I call tonight to make the reservation and I was on the phone for a good 20 minutes. Had no trouble at all getting in or at the time we wanted, more that the reservationist was exceptionally careful to explain all of the awards the restaurant has won, how it is top rated with a famous chef, that jackets are not required but "strongly suggested," that the dress is "elegant" and certainly no shorts, jeans, etc., should be worn. She was also very specific in letting me know it's a price fixe menu, that they have a 3-course and a 7-course tasting menu, etc. And, you have to give a credit card in advance to hold the reservation - not a big deal as I have encountered this before, but if you end up canceling or are a no-show, your card gets charged $50/person anyway. Well, I suppose they have to do it so not just any country bumpkin walks in thinking it's McDonald's or something, but sheesh. I felt like I was going to have to fill out an application just to get in the place.

Wine Tasting
Anyway - on to the City Pages Wine Tasting. Surprisingly, I've never been to this before, and it's quite inexpensive - $25/person. There were 50 vendors at International Market Square (including two beer vendors). There were 250 wines there and, as I counted later, I actually tried 41 of them! (Hello, my name is Lush.) With the exception of maybe two pourers, they really are tastes - just a splash in your glass. A couple I did not care for at all and so dumped before I finished it, and a couple more of the 41 were just a sip out of what Josh was trying.

The nice thing is barely any of the wines were over $12/bottle. Just goes to show there are plenty of wines out there at a reasonable price point. They had a good mix of wines, though I largely stuck to my classic faves - moscatos, malbecs, old vine zin, rieslings, prosecco, a cab and a gewurtztraminer here and there. I was familiar with many of the vendors - such as Chateau St. Michelle (always a fave) and had never heard of many others. We skipped an occasional booth due to overcrowding, but weren't too worried about it - some wineries, like the local Cannon River, we plan to visit this summer anyway.

The place got crowded pretty quickly and the food was almost nonexistent. However, I did have a funny experience. Josh and I were standing, trying to figure out the next booth we were going to hit up, and all of a sudden this really good looking guy comes up on my left and grabs/hugs me. And I'm like - a) Wow - nice looking guy, and b) who the heck is it?! Turns out it is my cousin Mike; he was there with his girlfriend Sarah. We talked for a bit but then took off on our own wine agendas.

Most of the pourers were volunteers, like when we did the Food & Wine Experience. I think this event was a little crazier than that one (probably due in part to the cost accessibility). It would probably still be fun to work, though. We saw a Trinchero booth with the wines we had poured at the other show and immediately felt a small sense of pride - silly, isn't it? I think there were a few actual wine reps, but no one really had time for lengthy chats. (Not when you have 41 wines to sample, anyway :)

My favorite wine was probably the Gancia Moscato d'Asti, $14.67/bottle on sale at MGM. Or maybe the Mondoro Asti, at $13.77/bottle? Sheesh, I can't remember! I do remember the Calina Carmenere smelled exactly like pepperjack cheese, but it was pretty good. Did not care for the Wolf's Blass Riesling or the Castle Rock Reserve Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

Next on the agenda was hitting up Bradstreet Crafthouse, formerly Infinity nightclub in Block E, Graves Hotel. The interior is mostly the same with the exception of now you have to hike up to the fourth floor to go to the bathroom - always slightly irritating. Otherwise, we had a very nice, relaxed time. Bradstreet is known for its complex drinks (all $10) and their small plates (all $10 or under). The place wasn't crowded and we got a table right away.

First thing they did was serve us a liquid amuse bouche (we do love our amuse bouches) - a drink they are thinking about putting on their summer menu. A little lemony sweet for me but we drank it anyway, and it was served in the cutest little cordial glasses. For drinks I had a Cooper's Union, which I highly recommend. To quote: "a refreshing blend of Prairie Organic vodka, elderflower liqueur, citrus juices, and orange flower water." It tasted like moscato with orange flavor, very refreshing and tasty. Josh had the Moscow Mule and it had a really wonderful ginger taste to it.

For food I ordered mini sliders and chicken satays, and Josh ordered duck wings and crab cakes. Overall, not a place I'd hit up every weekend - way too mellow of a vibe in there, especially for a Friday night - but I would certainly go back for a beverage or two to set the night off right!