Saturday, April 08, 2006

Best Meal in Vegas

A few weeks ago, I was at a trade show in Las Vegas and I promised I'd post reviews of the restaurants where I had dinner. However, I need to have a disclaimer to these reviews as you, my reader, are entitled to know I have a bias. I don't like Las Vegas. I don't gamble and not because of some religious hang-up. I would just rather spend my money on books, cooking gadgets and toys for MBH. I don't like loud and flashy shows despite designing sound systems for quite a few of the shows in Vegas. I hate being pushed and pulled by crowds and, when in Vegas, always find myself in the middle of some bus tour from Topeka that has just disgorged its contents right where I need to cross the road. Combine all of those reasons with the really long hours I work during trade shows standing on the most uncomfortable convention center floor ever poured, dressed in a business suit (complete with heels and panty-hose), answering the same questions over and over about my company's products with only the stale half a bagel from the morning breakfast session as sustenance and well, you get the picture.

According to a recent poll, Las Vegas is listed as one of the top foodie cities in the world. I'm not so sure about that but ok, maybe only if you count that you can find just about any type of food twenty-four hours a day. On this last visit, I had dinner at two highly rated restaurants: Rumjungle in the Mandalay Bay Casino, and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in Ceasar's Palace. I also attended a pre-show catered event at Ivan Kane's Forty Deuce where the food was provided by various restaurants at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (including Nobu). I would love to report that considering the glowing reviews I have heard about all these places (burlesque club excluded) that I had a fabulous meal. Unfortunately, in almost every case, the food was mediocre at best and awful at worst.

The catered affair from Hard Rock included sashimi and sushi from Nobu, steak tips and stuffed mushrooms from AJ's Steakhouse, mini tacos and "home made" salsa with multi color home made tortilla chips from Pink Taco, shellfish platters from Simons, and the usual finger food at these types of affairs. It was actually the best food I had while in Vegas and I will probably make a trip to the Hard Rock to sample a real meal from their restaurants the next time I find myself at a tradeshow. I also admit I would have rather had the sushi at Nobu directly but the selections chosen held up rather well (California rolls, tuna rolls, etc.). I've had sushi at Nobu in New York City before and while this wasn't near the "mother ship's" quality it was more than passable sushi. The steak tips were actually very good and prepared medium rare in a nice maderia sauce. I am not that big on tacos unless they are from a roadside stand between Mexico City and Baja but the two that I did have were not atrocious as most finger tacos seem to be. The only food I wasn't impressed with was the shellfish but then I live in Boston. So, the idea of "fresh" lobster claws and littleneck clams in the middle of the desert is just frankly too weird for me.

The next night, I was part of a client dinner at the Las Vegas outpost of Bobby Flay's Mesa Grille. Time for another disclaimer here: Bobby Flay is the most obnoxious and annoying celeb chef I have ever watched. However, my personal feelings aside, I have heard nothing but good things about his Mesa Grille. So, I was actually looking forward to eating at one of the spin-offs of this well-known New York City establishment. I can only hope that the New York branch is much, much better. Besides being one of the most overpriced restaurants I've eaten at in Vegas it also was one of the worst. My mediocre wine (rated one of their best) was $14.00 a glass for heaven's sake! My roasted duck in blue corn tortilla appetizer was $14.00 and the plate was four times the size of the appetizer; which, in all fairness, actually was pretty tasty despite being only large enough for two and a half bites. As it was almost 10:30pm by the time we got seated despite having a 9:00pm reservation, I wasn't in the mood for a really heavy piece of grilled meat. After wading through a pretty heafty menu, I decided on the lightest option available, the Ancho Chile-Honey Glazed Salmon. Mistake. The salmon was so over cooked it was chewy and the combo of hot and sweet wasn't pleasant and a bad combination with the black bean sauce. Good thing I ordered the California spinach to go with the salmon because I had about two bites and between the two and half bites of appetizer would have gone to bed hungry.

The next night was dinner at the Rumjungle restaurant/club at Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort. This is the hottest ticket in Vegas right now for people watching and for dining. They have over 200 different rums on their menu not to mention the obligatory martinis and classic cocktails. I decided to put the bartender to the test and ordered my favourite classic cocktail, a Sidecar. Blank stare from twenty-something buffed pool boy behind the bar. "Um, what's in that?" After yelling over the thumping techno soundtrack to his briefly clad female counterpart, he actually mixed a pretty good one and even was nice enough to bring me two cherries vs. the single cherry that normally adorns this drink. For dinner we had the "from the pit" menu that basically consists various grilled meats brought to your table ala South America style restaurants. I was severely disapointed with the quality of the meat. In every case from the pork loin to the venison to the beef everything was over done, dry, and I think I saw whip marks from the jockey on one piece. But, unlike the night before at Mesa Grille where I had a side of spinach, I had a side of starchy, pasty, over-seasoned mashed potatoes. I ordered another Sidecar and waited for the evening to come to an end so I could go back to my room to eat my emergency road ration of instant oatmeal that I keep in my bag in case I check into a hotel after room service has closed for the night.

Thankfully, the next morning found me on my flight home where I not only got a much needed upgraded to first class (thank God for elite status) but also had the best meal I had in Vegas, a chicken breast marinated in Italian dressing on a bed of romaine lettuce courtesy of Northwest Airlines.