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Eat Your Heart Out, In Vegas
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what if you are neither gambling your fortune or your soul away in the original sin city? What do you do in Vegas if neither the slot machines nor Hangover-style weekends are quite your style?
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What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what if you are neither gambling your fortune or your soul away in the original sin city? What do you do in Vegas if neither the slot machines nor Hangover-style weekends are quite your style? That’s the question that bothered me the most as I packed for my two-day getaway to the Strip, one of the glitziest, certainly the most lit-up places by night on the planet. I could take in some shows, some magic sans realism aka David Copperfield, I could walk down the throbbing streets with their crazy energy; the faux Eifel looming up in the distance. And I could smirk at the over-the-topness of it all. But was there more substance to this city of style?
As it turns out, I should not have worried. The Vegas of old with its all-you-can-eat mega buffets has slowly reinvented itself as an exciting gourmet destination. America’s top chefs have been steadily opening up outposts of their restaurants on the Strip and so if you want a quick but comprehensive recce of the bustling American dining scene—from New York and DC to San Frisco and LA, Vegas is actually a good place to fly down to. That 6.5 km stretch doesn’t just have some of the craziest nightlife and resorts in the world, it also lets you experience some of the world’s most interesting dining trends.
The most dominant global food trend is of course casual dining. And even here in Vegas, the land of OTT-ness, where you may want to show and be shown off, it is not just the Mandarin Oriental that beckons. Instead, some of the trendiest restaurants are easy, casual places, opened by top chefs, moving away from formal fine dines to brasseries and bistros. Even these places, incredibly busy every evening, require reservations, sometimes days in advance. If you are genetically programmed, like me, to be incapable of making up your mind on anything a week or more in advance, a good idea is to begin with a food tour.
Food tours leave me cold, usually. After all, so many of them tend to lead you, the parachuting outsider looking for a exclusive, “insider” fix, to overrated, touristy places. Besides, isn’t the joy always in the discovery — in stumbling upon unexpected places, not artfully selected ones? In Vegas, however, I change my mind.
One of the smartest decisions I make in sin city is to join something called Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. It’s a start-up, one of the only two food tours in Vegas, where this is a surprisingly new concept, and it is a pretty good game. Donald, the owner, appears to me a bit like Clark Kent, quiet and understated, and he is personally around to curate most of the tours of his, literally, kitchen enterprise. For $200, and 3 hours of your time, you get whisked into four “upscale casual” (that’s how we would categorise them) cafes and restaurants and get to sample three courses each there with a signature drink. If Vegas is about deals, this one is quite a neat one.
The restaurants are quite well curated. Bardot, a romantic French brasserie, is where we head as our first stop. This one is a relatively new endeavour by Michael Mina, an Egyptian-born chef best known for his association with tennis player Andre Aggasi to set up restaurants in Vegas and LA. Mina won (and lost) a star or two for his other high-profile restaurants, which made quite a splash, but Bardot is his attempt at something casual, French but not stuffy. (The restaurant was on the James Beard list of nominees, though it didn’t win an award this year.)
We have house specials such as duck wings a l’orange and escargots (which are batter-fried, and therefore lose my respect immediately) but it is the chartreuse collection at the bar that you need to look out for. The French liqueur is globally in the midst of a chic revival. This is the snob digestive to swirl — made from brandy and ostensibly as many as 130 herbs, according to a secret 18th century recipe by monks in France. The botanicals may vary today, but the complexity is prized. And to see an entire collection of the liqueur, made from different recipes, is quite a treat. That there are tiny touches on our plates around this —the butter with the escargots is chartreuse butter—adds to the experience.
At Sage, which is a trending bar, and our next stop, my dish of the evening is foie gras with huckleberry compote —both unavailable in India. But it is really the absinthe collection that is the show-stopper. The highly alcoholic spirit with botanicals like wormwood and anise was banned for a number of years (deemed an addictive psychoactive drug and hallucinogen) before making a comeback. Sage serves a number of cocktails with the troubled green fairy, including something called “Fire and Ice”, where we sipped on absinthe fumes.
Estiatorio Milos in the Cosmopolitan hotel, a relative new opening on the Strip, is supposed to be the finest Greek restaurant in Vegas. It is supposed to have the best tomatoes in America — and we do have a spectacular salad based on the sweetness of the produce alone that would be unthinkable in India. And the fish here is Mediterranean-caught, flown-in daily. Bearing testimony to that is the chargrilled octopus on our table, my best bite the entire evening.
Across from Milos is Jaleo, celebrity chef Jose Andres’s restaurant. Andres introduced tapas to America and some Ferran Adria-esque gastronomy (he trained at El Bulli). But it is not just the small plates or the incredible liquid olive that you can still bite into here, long after El Bulli has shut. Jaleo is the place for paella, its paella chef has been trained by Rafael Nadal, the Valencian chef, often called paella-royalty, for not just running his enormously successful Levante but also feeding the king of Spain this rice dish.
Paella is a touchy topic with the Spanish these days, including in this side of America, so close to the border. As one of the most touristy dishes from Valencia, the paella is being bastardised. British chef Jamie Oliver, in fact, earned the ire of many irate Spanish-origin peeps around the world for putting chorizo in his version of the dish. At Jaleo, you are assured that this has been cooked on wood, at the right temperature, with the right rice—which is key to a good paella. That’s a meal, however, I leave for my next trip to the Strip. Though who knows what else will sprout up by then.
Hand made chocolates are hardly a novelty in Vegas. There are dime-a-dozen chocolatiers strewn around advertising the same. Hexx at the Paris is however, Nevada’s only bean to table operation—which means they source their own bean, conch their own chocolate and make their own desserts. There’s a flourless, chocolate brownie at the end of it all, designed for the gluten intolerant initially. But we all dip in our spoons and gorge. It’s the Vegas cornucopia.
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