“What time is our reservation?” It was the persistent verse echoing the walls of our swank and spacious hotel room at TheHotel at Mandalay.
My first visit to Vegas was solely for gambling with college buddies. Our finest meal was at P.F. Chang’s. Make your own lettuce cups!
I’ve been for a few software conferences. Buffets of cold cuts abound during the day, but I occasionally struck a free meal at Joe’s Stone Crabs or Il Mulino. Mind you, there are amazing chilled crab claws with tangy mustard sauce at Joe’s, and Il Mulino offers wonderful langoustines and an impossibly crisp veal Milanesa, but I was only scratching the cutting board when it came to this town.
Though it’s nearly impossible to find a restaurant which doesn’t reek of schtick, that doesn’t plaster the celebrity chef name all over the decor, once you shrug off the cloak of shill, you realize some of the top cuisine in the country brews in Vegas.
Think about it. Las Vegas has everything the culinary biosphere needs to survive, which in turn attracts some of the chefs from around the country who desire to learn in kitchens practically devoid of a budget. Vegas has plenty of space, desirable locale, famous people, investors, and most importantly – people willing to part with the green on a scale which is scary and foreign.
For example, a generous (to understate it) friend ordered a $900 bottle of Champagne off the list at Michael Mina’s Stripsteak on our second evening. The sommelier cooly looked off across the restaurant, ”I just sold one to a table over there; that’s the last bottle of that.” There are few places in the world where this is ‘normal’.
The trip was fantastic, though it’s almost embarrassing how well we ate. Almost. So now I share my photos with the internet. May they influence and guide you on your next trip to the greasy LV. (Or incite you will jealousy and rage. Whatever.) Click the name of each restaurant below for the full Flickr set.
Our first meal was at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (website), the French “Chef of the Century’s” workshop style (open kitchen, bar seating) restaurant of which there are a few outposts worldwide. We opted to select three menu items each and share, rather than tackle the full tasting menu. While I wouldn’t put it in my top meals of all time or any outrageous claim like that (and it is priced as if it should be), it was fantastic. Some real home runs (like the wondrous scallop with uni below), stunning wines, and a cool ambience/view of the kitchen. Though my ass and back hurt the entire time in their simple bar seats.
Desserts were of note. The white chocolate, a perfect sphere which melts open as hot raspberry liquid is poured over, was a crowd pleaser. We of course tried Robuchon’s famous mashed potatoes (more butter than potato, too much for me really), and the guilt-laden and well-sized foie gras and Kobe sliders were so damn satisfying; just the right size too. I highly recommend L’Atelier. It’s just a fun spot, some great food, and with impeccable service.
Still full after a few hours of restless sleep (a theme which developed), our lunch the next day was at Lotus of Siam (website), which I’ll dub the “Thai, Riesling-Heavy Bern’s“. Meaning, the wine list is great, relatively cheap, and the place is a lot of fun.
I told one of the blackjack dealers about Lotus, and explained the riesling list. She wrinkled her nose and expressed her displeasure for the varietal. More for me. I guess she probably won’t try these crispy shrimp, with fried shrimp shell “chips” either.
Oh, dinner again so soon? Let’s hit up Stripsteak (website), Michael Mina’s take on the “classic” steak house featuring slow butter poached steaks and riffs on favorites like red onion rings with tomato powder. But what better way to start than Iranian caviar and all the fixin’s? Look how marvelous and perfectly delineated each of those little Osetra eggs are!
My steak was an 8oz, $67 cut off the Wagyu ribeye – a cross section slice of the primal so the steak is comprised of only the tender, fatty cap. Sinfully rich, this buttery beauty was the best steak I never want to have again. It was so rich, one person in our party could only finish half of hers. Four ounces.
Day 3. “Oh my god we have to eat dumplings now”, I think to myself as I wipe the meat sweats from my brow while walking into the impressive Cosmopolitan to dine at China Poblano (website), the subversive amalgamation of Chinese and Mexican from famed chef Jose Andres. Walk in and notice the ladies on your left making the dim sum. But glance to the right and see the short Hispanic women cooking thin corn tortillas on a flat top. It’s so, um, authentic?
While we had a couple of very, very poor dumpling dishes, and I found the Mexican dishes to be stronger overall, I could eat the Sichuan lamb dumplings all day.
And the twenty vegetable fried rice was a show stopper for both vegetarian and flesh-sinners alike.
Even for me, the squishy beef tendon with kumamoto oyster taco was too much, but it’s a flavor I won’t soon forget.
Phew, one more dinner. Oh we’re early? Let’s have a snack and some killer Spanish white wine next door at Julian Serrano (website). I loved the fava beans, but they weren’t nearly as picturesque as the black rice with squid below. All four of the dishes were quite well done, great for sharing, classic Spanish flavors, too bad we moved on to…
Sage (website). Expectations were high. Numerous awards were on display, and people had really talked up this place in the super cool Aria hotel. I was into day four of perma-full so I just ordered a few appetizers. This big eye tuna below had a lot going on. Anchovies, orbs and powders of “stuff”, and olives and baby artichokes and probably a bunch of other things that didn’t work together. It was just too much. I couldn’t taste the fish. I found the flavors and textures to be weird and distracting. I’m all for experimentation but this was a miss. By the end of the dish I was wondering if Bar Masa (next door) would bring me a few pieces of nigiri to right my raw fish ship.
Next up was venison carpaccio (not photographed). Again, they dumped all sorts of shit all over it, including large lumps of pureed pears which may as well have been apple sauce. Pass.
Last up, a farm egg with a smoked potato puree and truffles. The flavors were good but I didn’t like the texture of the grainy potato, and the truffles were weak. They loved the truffles at Sage, I saw it on a number of dishes. But they weren’t super fragrant or flavorful; all hat and no cattle. Once you have sampled awesome white alba truffles it’s tough to go back. Oh, excuse me, didn’t mean to hit your face with my snob.
*photos from Sage and Julian Serrano by @atl_legend
And finally (are you still reading? really?) we had brunch at Mesa Grill (website) before departing back to Atlanta. It was brunch, so no need to be hyper critical, but it hit the spot. Sauces, eggs, tortillas, and cheese abound. What’s not to like? The Mesa Grill burger was actually damn good. Though that didn’t stop us from getting some In-And-Out burgers for the ride to the airport.
I went to the doctor after I got home for a shoulder injury, where they weigh me at the start of each visit. Yep, gained six pounds.