Las Vegas, for all is kitsch, glamour, and overpriced drinks, became one of my favorite cities last week. Why? It houses hundreds of restaurants, of all kinds, in close proximity. Want sushi hand rolls, egg breakfast sandwiches, then dim sum all in one morning? You can, and I did.
About a month ago, after a couple glasses of wine, my partner and I pounced on an Expedia deal for a round-trip flight and two night stay in the SLS Las Vegas. The first and last time we'd taken a foray into Sin City was three years ago during Spring Break, which included a case of the flu, a full day hangover, and feet full of blisters from attempting to walk from the New York, New York to Treasure Island (no extra charge).
This time we went in with a plan: eat more than we drink and wear comfy shoes.
In the weeks leading up to our trip we'd been binge watching Hell's Kitchen, so imagine our excitement when we discovered Gordon Ramsay had opened up a restaurant this spring of the same name at Caesar's Palace. Due to its obvious popularity we couldn't get a reservation our first night in town until 9:45.
We arrived early and were treated to some stunning cocktails and lively conversation at the bar while we waited for our table. We were also surprised by a visit from Season 17 winner, Michelle Tribble, who looked a touch overwhelmed but kindly took a photo with us.
Once seated we promptly ordered red wine and appetizers: pan-seared scallops with sweet corn puree and pickled shallots, and the infamous truffle risotto with butter poached lobster and crispy onions. Our table was near a window facing the strip, with a stunning view of a Donny and Marie concert billboard.
While we intended to try as many things as we could in Vegas, ideally that didn't mean breaking the bank; so we stuck primarily with appetizers in most restaurants.
The scallops were the clear winner in my book. Aside from being halved to cut cost and cooking time, they were beautifully seared. The puree was velvety and I appreciated the texture play with inclusion of full kernels on the side. This stunningly plated dish was gone far too quickly.
The rice in the risotto was plump with an al dente center, as it should be. The truffle flavor was prominent but not overwhelming. Where the dish failed us was the lobster. With a $25 price tag I expected poached perfection, but we were received an over-cooked, chewy tail piece.
My lobster roll the week prior at Freshies in Salt Lake was four dollars cheaper, had an ounce more meat, and was truly succulent. I felt a moment of hometown pride.
Either way, my culinary fan-girling was satisfied that evening and I greatly enjoyed my meal at the devil's dinner table. Vegas is a mecca for celebrity chef restaurants, and Gordon Ramsay is a definite standout.
Room service next morning at the SLS Las Vegas brought with it lazy champagne drinking in bed and a surprisingly tasty cream cheese and lox breakfast that I thought deserved a quick mention.
Later that day, after some spending in the Forum Shoppes back at Caesar's Palace (when not in Rome...get drunk so you can pretend you are) we made our way to the Cosmopolitan Hotel for a truly unique dining experience at Beauty and Essex.
Housed speakeasy style behind a functioning pawn shop, this brain child of New York based chef Chris Santos offers new-American sharing plates, spirits, and fine wine in two dining rooms designed to look like the inside of a jewelry box.
The pleasant and prompt staff lead us to our table upon arrival, which was butted right up against a servers station. While this was initially an annoyance and negated privacy, it gave us a more thorough look at the workings of the restaurant and provided the ability to turn immediately to our right and ask for anything we might need.
The best little gem of the evening arrived in the form of orange-kissed salmon ceviche with jalapeno, mango, and crispy corn tortilla cups. I will fully confess that my partner and I are ceviche snobs, having traveled to Peru during our first months of dating and consuming all the citrus-cured fish we could in the dish's homeland. A few years after this my partner ended up working in a Peruvian style brewery that highlighted multiple kinds of ceviche on its menu.
Needless to say we were thoroughly impressed with Beauty and Essex's offering. The salmon was juicy and tender, with a pleasant bite from the jalapeno, washed down by an orangey tang. The tortilla cups made for easy, mess free eating in one or two bites, and provided a much needed contrasting textural element. Our only note was the sauce on the plate; there was a lot of it and it was incredibly spicy. If you got too much in a bite, the balance was thrown off. It could have benefited from a less generous hand.
I wish we'd had a hundred more dollars and five more hours to work our way through this menu, though I'm glad we saved some room due to the little surprise place we happened upon next.
Emerging starry eyed from the glittering interior of Beauty and Essex, we wandered our way through the Cosmopolitan's halls looking for our second stop of the night - Rose. Rabbit. Lie. On the way, we found a place we loved so much we went back twice, Tekka Bar: Hand rolls and Sake.
Consisting of a single walk-up style counter, this place serves made-to-order hand rolls with clean flavors highlighting the freshest seafood. We started with the $20 foursome combo which included salmon, yellowtail, bay scallops, and their signature spicy tuna roll. My favorite hands down was the bay scallop, served with a touch of kewpie (Japanese mayo) and masago (fish eggs). Unable to resist trying two more, we ended with the lump blue crab and lobster, the latter of which was my favorite.
There is something about the simplicity of hand rolls when done well that just enchants me. It's my favorite little bite in the sushi world; I probably have at least one a shift back at my home restaurant.
I'm so happy Tekka Bar popped up for us because after indulging there we went over to Rose. Rabbit. Lie, only to find it closed on Tuesdays.
The following morning was our last, and we went all out. We headed back to the Cosmopolitan, which I found out later is unique to other Vegas hotels due to its focus on providing eclectic cuisine as opposed to large shopping malls or shows. I definitely want to stay there on our next visit.
My partner had been drooling over the egg-centric menu at EggSlut since its inception as a Kickstarter project in 2011. While there was no seafood involved, it was a tasty start. We split the Fairfax sandwich, complete with soft scrambled eggs, chives, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, and sriracha mayo. We also had the Slut, a coddled egg on top of house-made potato puree, cooked in a glass jar topped with gray sea salt and chives, served with a side of toasted baguette. The sandwich was the winner.
Following the traditional breakfast offering, we went back to Tekka Bar and ordered our favorites from the night before with two spiked green tea shots and an Ozeki junmai sake.
Surprisingly, our stomachs still had a little room to spare; and our noses lead us to China Poblano, a restaurant concept by chef Jose Andres that offers up the flavors of Mexico and China side-by-side. This place has everything from dim-sum and tacos to ceviches and noodles. We went with a selection of the glorious pillows of goodness that are dim-sum.
I find the mark of any good dim-sum establishment to be their Har Gow, a translucent cantonese shrimp dumpling. Many traditional fillings for these dumplings combine seafood and land proteins, primarily pork and beef. I admit I definitely skirted around my dietary rules just a bit to enjoy these.
Next up was a scallop, pork, heart of palm, and mushroom delight that won top marks with us. The filling had the perfect juicy snap when bitten and flooded the palate with a sweet, earthy flavor balance.
Our final steamer basket held the most unique dumpling of the three, a complete umami bomb. A shrimp, pork, and peanut filling was topped with a poached quail egg yolk. I'd never had anything like it, which is saying something after living in Vancouver surrounded by dim-sum shops. The was the perfect end to our Inland Pescatarian adventure, after which we took a cab to the airport and promptly fell into a food coma induced sleep waiting for our plane.
Las Vegas at it's heart has an immensity of culinary passion that often gets overlooked due to the glitz and glam. A city doesn't draw this kind of cuisine unless there's a truly exceptional base of talent and desire to continue innovating. Also talk about work ethic, many restaurants are open late into the night serving incredibly high volumes. I tip my hat to all the industry workers in that town.
I'm quite lucky Las Vegas is only a quick plane ride from Salt Lake City, and have no doubt it will become a yearly pilgrimage to broaden the palate. Never thought I would develop a soft spot for Sin City, but any place where cuisine is king and I can buy a bottle of champagne twenty-four hours a day, I will go.