Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vegas 5: Friday and Saturday



We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.
  Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act.


More light!
   Last words of Goethe



Friday and Saturday. Feb. 6 and 7

  For my 5th trip to Vegas, there were enough things I wanted to do in Downtown Las Vegas to warrant a stay at a downtown hotel. I made a reservation at the Downtown Grand. Nothing wrong with the hotel per se, it’s just that downtown hotels (drinks, food, whatever) tend be considerably cheaper than their Strip counterparts. The DG charged me $118 for a night. Excalibur, my Strip hotel of choice, is $25 a night. Outside the DG, it’s fun time for homeless people and hipsters. Perhaps homeless hipsters. Arlo Guthrie on the Group W Bench, with mother rapers, father stabbers, father rapers sitting right next to me…. Outside Excalibur, the exuberant beauty of the Strip. So what am I doing here? Well, I’m reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and sadly noting its relevance here. I’m also having some food at Carson Kitchen (raved and raved about by critics and Yelpers, and apparently Kerry Simon does cauliflower well!), a couple of (two for one cocktails at Happy Hour? I am obviously hallucinating) well crafted cocktails at the Downtown Cocktail Room, art at First Friday and breakfast at chef Natalie’s place Eat (unidentified on Tony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode set in Vegas with Tony breakfasting at Anonymous eatery). Is all that worth $118 for a bed amidst all this prettified desolation? We’ll see.
  I have to ask at several establishments before I finally find Carson Kitchen. Small and friendly. Ah, they have pear cidre. Things are looking up. I’ve been up since 5:30 to catch my plane here and haven’t eaten more than a Baby Bell all day. I’m hungry (although this term probably means something different to my stomach than yours.) Kerry Simon is called the Rock Star of chefs. OK, let’s see him Midnight Ramble over my palate.
 The Bacon Jam has been praised to the skies. I order it. Careful, it’s hot, says the helpful bartender. “Ouch” say my fingers as I try and scoop some jam onto the little crackers that come with it. Yes, quite tasty. Then a bowl Full of spiced cauliflower. Enough food to feed an army of orcs. It isn’t identified as “spiced” cauliflower, which is misleading. We are talking of a nuclear armed vegetable here. I tentatively attempt a bit. “Mix it in the bacon jam,” the helpful bartender advises. Like Gollum helping Frodo to Mt. Doom. With the mixture, one inedible dish becomes two. “Ouch, Ouch,” scream my taste buds, under assault from the ring-melting foodity. I solace them the best I can with cold pear cidre, then it’s off to the Downtown Cocktail Room. Serious bartenders I met on my previous Vegas trip insisted I visit this place for this town’s most serious mixology. I’m stoked. Also, REALLY thirsty. Great drinks, not so great food would become a theme this trip
Well, being really hungry didn’t help me at Carson. 
  I enter a dim space with some difficulty. Door does not have handle. Do I have to cast a spell? Chairs seem to have gone out of style. We’re back with Plato and Nero lounging on couches. I order an arrack-based Pirate drink while traveling into pretend time though the local entertainment rag Day 7 about counter-factual Vegas. Howard Hughes walks by and offers me a nuclear cocktail. Harold Hedd follows him with less liquid delights. The intricacy of the drink continues to prod my brain into newer and more interesting realms.
 
Apple of My Eye: Apple Jack, Holiday Spice, Maple, A.C.V.
Dearest Tipple: Your loving caress of apple and holiday spice thaw my frozen heart; your sweet caramel lingers on my lips, long after your kiss. I am yours forever. Apple Jack.”
Uh, no.
  Much as I love apples, this cocktail didn’t work. Was it the sticky glass it was served in? It’s not that the room was busy. There were perhaps 4 other people there. But the act of drinking was such an unpleasant experience, I had to go to the men’s room to wash my hands and bring back a wet paper towel to clean the glass before I could even consider the flavours being offered. There was subtlety involved. In a place like this, that is expected. There was however, more sweetness than necessary. Considering the orchards of apple cidre I’ve consumer over the years, The Apple of my Glaucoma offered no revelations. In the course of my week in Vegas, I began consuming Angry Orchards apple cidre from the cheap liquor stores on the strip, upon discovering my favourite apple tipple Mike’s Smashed Apple Cidre, my drink of choice from last visit, had ceased to exist. Angry Orchards is now available in my North Vancouver liquor stores. It’s not bad. Same can’t be said of this cocktail. I escape its tentacles and wander into the night.
  First Friday is my main reason for being downtown in the first place. Local artists show their latest. As someone vaguely artistic who is very inspired by the beauty of Vegas (the lights! The lights!), I’m anxious to see what artists who live here are being inspired to create. I’d come to Vegas on a Friday in December, 2013 hoping to visit this event but it was too cold. Colder than Vancouver. Today was pleasantly warm. Now, where was First Friday? I ask at the hotel desk. I ask people I meet on the street. I find a pleasant container park, but that isn’t it. Go here! Go there? You can’t get there from here! Apparently, not walking distance. After the fiery food, only one out of two good drinks and all this walking, I’m way tired. I buy a massive slice of vegie pizza from a pizza place across the street from my hotel. It’s oily and pungent- no thermonuclear cauliflower in attendance. I’m supposed to meet people somewhere, but instead I return to my hotel and go to sleep.
  Up 7ish on Saturday, it’s a long walk over to Eat. Chef Natalie used to cook at Eiffel Tower, whose vegie crepes are one my favourite dishes in Vegas. She must really know how to cook. I order the truffled eggs. They come with enough potatoes to bury Prince Edward Island. I’d ordered a side of fresh fruit and it is the first really wonderful thing I’ve had on this trip. Maybe truffles aren’t really what my stomach wants to eat at 8 AM. I make a small indentation into the breakfast such as a mouse would make on a cheese wheel. Chef Natalie is holding court in the middle of the restaurant. Do I go up to her and thank her for her exquisite fruit? Nah. I go back to the Downtown Not So Grand, collect my luggage, pay about 4 times what the room is actually worth (see above) and waddle over to the Deuce, the slow bus to the Strip. As Downtown recedes in the bus’s rear window, my spirit soars.
  The last time I stayed at Excalibur, they noted that it was my 3rd time there and offered me free upgrades and general good will. Today they demand $20 to check in early. Still cheap though. I shed the dust of Downtown and set off for Payard. Still enough time left on my $6.00 2-hour bus ticket. My last Vegas adventure began with a parmesan soufflé at Payard, buried in the bowels of Caesar’s Palace. One of the world’s best pastry chefs will restore my belief in Vegas possibilities.
  And the Frenchman comes through. Exquisite pastry in the tartine de tomate is expected, so the novelty is in the way the tomato interacts with those well conceived pastry molecules. A forest of spinach and three vast prawns loom over the more delicate yet lustier marriage of tomato and tart like visiting aliens from some large, uninteresting planet.
  After this awesome lunch, I walk back to the Mandalay Bay to visit Hubert Keller’s restaurant Fleur. When I walked into Fleur, Rebecca the bartender/Facebook friend noticed me and told me that Marisol was working here that afternoon. I looked around without seeing her. Finally she ran over to me and I discovered she now had blond hair. That wasn’t the only change: she was now a grandma, and lovingly showed me a picture of her new grandson. The chairs thankfully, hadn’t changed, and were still the most comfortable restaurant chairs in the city (to the best of my knowledge). I felt, in the words of the Steely Dan song, Home at Last. At least for the afternoon.
  I had a reservation at Raku in Chinatown for 6:00. I’d heard there had been an explosion of great Japanese food in Vegas since my last visit. It is the type of cuisine I know best, so I have very high standards here. Could Raku live up to the hype?
  Although the restaurant was supposed to open at 6:00, it was ten after that the door opened and the milling throngs were allowed in. I get a seat at the counter. Thankfully the counter is lit from below, allowing me to easily read the Jane Jacobs book I’ve brought for my 6 days in Vegas; that’s 600 pages for 6 days. Sounds about right. I’m deeply enjoying the book as my sake appears. Cold (as it always is these days, the hot sake I drank exclusively in Japan has gone out of fashion) and in a regular mug instead of the preferred square cup made out of sugi, the Japanese cedar relative that dominates bars in that country and pours pleasure on your olfactory.
  I began with one tiny skewer of tomatoes which had a delightful yet subtle taste of charcoal. The asparagus, having a stronger taste, was less influenced by the charcoal. The eringi mushrooms (my waitress called them meaty when I asked about them) are identified as king oyster mushrooms when served. I’ve cooked them before at home. These are a bit too chewy for my tastes and could also have benefited with more intense charring. Raku’s signature dish, the agedashi tofu, swimming in a broth full of nameko mushrooms (my favourite ingredient of miso shiru) is every bit as good as it has been reviewed as being. Best of all is a singular buttered scallop. The best scallop I’ve ever eaten, and I love scallops. The whole “meal” reminded me of all the bars I spent time in during my long years in Japan. I really came to love charcoal grilled food in Japan in those bars, while sushi never appealed to me. It’s great to see my kinda Japanese food has made it to Vegas. Next on my itinerary, food with Japan’s most famous chef and Robert de Niro pal, Nobu, at Caesar’s Palace. I can see towering hotels on the strip from outside Raku. I asked the one server who spoke real English if Spring Mountain Road ran into Las Vegas Blvd. Yes it did. Do they intersect, I asked again. Yes they do. But he assumed I asked that as someone with a car. Fumiyo is about to embark on an 800 km. hike across Spain in a couple of months. I can surely walk a few miles, right? I had to strengthen my leg muscles for all the walking I’d be doing on the strip for the next 4 days. I had to walk off my small meal to make room for Nobu’s creations. I began to walk.
  Time passed. I encounter very few people on the sidewalk. It is night in an inappropriate area in Vegas for foot traffic. I walked a lot of dark streets in Japanese nights in just such a quest for charcoaled goodies and sake, lit by red lanterns of reliable warmth. Foolishly, I had left my hat back at the hotel when I began to feel rain drops on my bald head. I had been told to take a cab- now I was beginning to regret the spontaneous trek. And then the sidewalk stopped altogether, just as the road went under the freeway in a tunnel. No, I’m not going to enter a tunnel without a sidewalk. I walk back up to Polaris, which seems like a serious street, and keep following it until it gets to the Rio. I’d never been to this hotel before, which seems to exist only to promote Penn and Teller. Now at this point, a more intelligent person would have grabbed a cab at that substantial hotel. But I could see Caesar’s Palace tantalizingly close, if I can indeed get there. I head for the strip but my street does not. I find myself winding my way through the bushes on a narrow sidewalk surrounding the acres and acres of CP parking garages. Finally I see some men near a doorway. I ask them how to get to CP and they say enter the nearby door to the Forum Shops. I thought the Shops were quite far from the hotel, but no, as I ascend the escalator, I’m suddenly at the door of the CP casino. I find my way over to Nobu.
  “How are you,” asks my server.
  “Exhausted,” I informed her.
   “Tiring day at work?” she asked.
   “No, I just walked here from Raku.” She’d never heard of it. “On Spring Mountain Road,” I inform her. She seems dubious as to its location. But at least I’m quickly offered a seat, and shortly thereafter, a delicious cocktail. Well, I’ve certainly worked up an appetite now. My feet were sore, but I could definitely eat something. Unfortunately, not the tempura crab I ordered.
  Peruvian cuisine is hot these days. I’ve had it at least twice, once with friends on Lake Geneva in 2002, and with other friends in Montreal in 2010. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown paints a culinary picture of the country as the new frontier of food, as Spain was in the previous decade. Nobu became Japan’s most famous chef after he went to Peru and soaked up its culinary influences for his Japanese cuisine. The tempura is served in a sauce distilled from his Peruvian experience. It should be good, right? Well, yes, it Should. But as the dish cools, what had been only vaguely pleasant becomes downright inedible. Only the cocktail works. Cracked basil, Nobu’s Soju, Grand Marnier, Thai basil, fresh strawberries, yuzu juice, egg white, fresh cracked pink pepper. $16 and worth every penny. 4 small morsels of tempura crab for $40. Portion size: way too much bad food. $40? Nobu should pay you to eat it.
   With the excellent cocktail, taxes and tip, it came to $70, the worst food quality to price ratio of the trip so far. When I walked back to my hotel from Nobu, I felt the same way I did after leaving Per Se in 2010: the whole concept of food had become utterly alien to me. Seeing food ads on TV almost made me puke.




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