Well, helllllo LAS VEGAS! It’s been a long time since I have played in your sandbox. Thanks to two friends who wanted to take me to see Don Rickles for a 48-hour whirlwind trip/birthday present (I know, I have such great friends), I got to catch up on some Vegas action.
We flew in on a Sunday, and it never felt too busy—which sucks for Vegas, but as a tourist, I dug it. I liked being there in the fall—while it was a shame to miss out on some poolside action, then again, did I want to get my now-pale bod into a swimsuit in November? Eh, not really.
We checked in at the WYNN LAS VEGAS, and wow, what a property. The room was pure class, well appointed and sleek—and not too masculine or feminine, just nice. Really nice. The hospitality started with the valet who helped with our bags, noting our shopping bag with bottles of Champagne, and offered to get flutes for our room. Really? That is some extra-mile shit. Tip: ask for a room with a country club view—it’s breathtaking. And be prepared to fall in love with your plush bathrobe—my friend and I each bought one on our departure since we couldn’t bear to part with it.
Our first dinner was at BARTOLOTTA, located in the Wynn, which my posse decided was one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time, and definitely our best Vegas meal to date. Chef Paul Bartolotta sources absolutely pristine Mediterranean seafood, and is so protective of some of his crustacean connections that the staff can’t reveal very much about where they’re from (“We’d love to tell you where we got the spiny lobster, but we’d have to kill you.”).
The room is sweeping and dramatic, with rich, vibrant colors, stunning light fixtures, comfortable seats (with arms!), round tables (I’m a fan), and very flattering lighting. The style balanced rusticity and luxury very well. It immediately puts you at ease, and makes you feel relaxed and in a good mood.
I enjoy family-style dining, so you may want to consider doing one of the family-style tasting menus (the Grand Seafood Feast clocks in at $155 per person). An ice case will wheel up to the table with a display of the fresh fish of the day, a bit steakhouse style. No joke, the langoustines in there were still twitching their antennae. And then the fish symphony began: we feasted on five kinds of the most lightly and impeccably fried fish (I haven’t had triglie like this since living in Italy!), a trio of beautifully grilled fish (the imperial red shrimp from Morocco were spectacular, and full of umami—we ate them heads and all), stunning soft-shell crabs (in November!) from the Veneto, and quite possibly the best octopus salad I’ve ever had. So tender. It was unreal.
Since it was truffle season, we also had a totally porno course of sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with pecorino cheese and a Marsala wine glaze, paved with a flurry of shaved truffle on top. Total luxury, all the way. An inky black risotto was abundant with seafood (scallop, clam, shrimp, and more), and the sauce and plump shrimp in the spaghetti dish were excellent, although the pasta was a touch too al dente. The finale was a whole occhiona (red sea bream, $15/100 g), expertly prepared and filleted tableside (our guy was such a stud—what a pro). The bright green Castelvetrano olives and capers were a bit assertive for the delicate and creamy white fish, but the flavors were so harmonious—and very Sicilian. That was some crazy-fresh fish.
We noted some winners on the wine list (we especially enjoyed the Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis 2009 I picked out), but I expected to see a bit more breadth and depth with the Italian selections (example: the only Italian half bottle in the whites was a Soave). Then again, I am a spoiled San Franciscan. We had to scoot early for our show, but came back afterward for dessert at the bar, which was a blast with the feisty Rich behind the stick. We found the entire staff to be fantastic, so warm and personable and charming, without putting on a big show—a great team.
Dessert ($12 each) included a vanilla bean semifreddo with dried figs that really stood out, or you can perk up with the coppa of mascarpone and espresso granita. The gelati were notable (don’t miss the pistachio, ricotta di pecora, and espresso), and the grapefruit granita was the best thing after a hearty fish fest.
I’m thrilled to have a Vegas restaurant I can strongly recommend like this one. It’s unique, special, elegant, and everything is top of the line. If you love seafood, this is your mothership. Paul Bartolotta knows what’s up.
Lunch the next day was at the much-adored LOTUS OF SIAM. So glad to finally cross this one off my list—I’ve been wanting to try it for a looooong-ass time. This Thai rock star of a restaurant is tucked away in a desolate mini mall (our cab driver told us it was the first mini mall in Vegas), which LA has taught me is often a good sign for stellar food finds. Chef Saipin Chutima has been cranking out flavor-packed northern Thai-style dishes here since 2000, accompanied by an award-winning and much-lauded wine list that has enough rieslings to thrill you for days.
After a night of drinking and partying, you need some lunch. Spicy, fatty lunch. Late lunch was a good call—we were able to waltz right in, which is not the case for dinner (please note there is no lunch served on the weekend).
We started with nam kao tod ($7.95), a plate of crispy rice with little ham-like pieces of sour sausage, mint, chile (be sure to cut them into little pieces—they’re spicy buggers!), ginger, peanuts, and lime juice. Uh huh. Great texture and flavor. We all freaked out over the crispy duck ($20.95), which we ordered with the chu-chee red curry. The fatty-crisp pieces of juicy duck are exactly what will get you on the road to recovery, fast. Ditto on the peppery whole garlic prawns ($21.95), extracted from their shells but still attached, and then fried. You will eat the entire damned thing. Crunch.
We polished off the koi soy ($13.95), an herbaceous Thai-style steak tartare that came chopped into little pieces, with dry chile rice powder, lime juice, and cabbage on the side. On the northern Thai part of the menu, we tried the nam-prik-ong (red chile dip, $9.95), a smooth combo of ground pork, tomato, and spices that came in a cheerful blue and white bowl—you scoop it out and spread it on crisp chicharrones, vegetables, and slices of cabbage (we asked them to make it spicy for us—it’s normally served mild). We rounded out the feast with deep fried sea bass on “drunken noodle” ($28.95) and crab fried rice ($12.95). Yeah, we waddled out of there. And I can’t wait to come back—the menu is huge and full of dishes that I need to get to know on a first name basis.
For dinner, we were invited to check out JALEO, the José Andrés restaurant in the brand-new Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas that opened early in 2011. The space is beautiful, with such punchy color, open sight lines so you can check everyone out, playful touches like a bull’s head on the wall in a lucha libre mask, comfortable and fun seating areas for groups, plus plenty of bar and counter seating.
Of course we had to try José’s gin and tonic, made with Hendrick’s gin, Fever-Tree tonic, a spherical ice ball, and juniper berries, kaffir lime leaves, and citrus, served in a wine glass. It clocks in at a hefty New York price of $17, but for g&t lovers, it would be a worthy spend. The food-friendly tomatina Negroni ($12) was refreshing and had a pleasing texture, made with Campari, gin, sweet vermouth, and tomato water—it would be the perfect “I am hungover and need to get back into the game” drink. Both worked well to spark the appetite.
You can start your meal with some molecular action, the aceitunas rellenas y aceitunas ‘Ferrán Adrià’ ($12), a plate of real olives stuffed with anchovy and piquillo alongside salty “liquid” olives that you pop into your mouth. You definitely want to order the pan con tomate ($6), toasted slices of rustic bread brushed with fresh tomato—but pony up for the version with Manchego on top ($9). There’s a reason you see the pan con tomate on almost every table—the kitchen has it down.
I was excited to see jamón ibérico de bellota Fermin ($15) on the menu, but the batch we were served tasted old, like it had been sliced two days before. Our server came back with a second round of just-sliced jamón, and then we were in the zone. My advice? Ask them to slice your meat to order, just as it should be.
The fried egg topped with caviar ($16) is mixed up tableside, and was delicious spread over toasted bread, but could have used less caramelized onion underneath and more caviar on top (isn’t that always the solution? Yup, more caviar.). The tender veal cheeks ($15) were cooked beautifully, and if you have zero fear about your cholesterol level, try the tender pork and foie gras canelones ($14) bathed in a rich béchamel sauce. To counterbalance the decadence, one of my favorites proved to be the espinacas a la catalana ($8), bright and barely cooked spinach with pine nuts, raisins, and apples. The kitchen sent out a few other dishes for us to try, like endive with goat cheese and orange ($8) that didn’t particularly wow us.
The showstopper of the kitchen is the paella station—there is a dedicated paella maker hard at work over a wood fire, with one of four paellas being made throughout the evening. We tried the paella Valenciana ‘Rafael Vidal’ ($20), made with chicken, rabbit, and green beans. We had a dramatic presentation of the pan tableside, but unfortunately the flavors and texture of the dish weren’t as dramatic. Maybe the seafood version is the way to go.
Dessert (all $9) is all about the flan (our server informed us it is made with grandma’s recipe) and served with a side dollop of crema Catalana spiked with Grand Marnier. (You’ll love it even more with a glass of the Los Bermejos Malvasía.) The chocolate hazelnut cake had a pretty presentation (it looked like a foie torchon), but was so rich that I’d recommend you share it with at least a few folks. A much lighter pick would be the olive oil ice cream with grapefruit supremes.
One thing that really stood out to me about Jaleo is the staff—each and every person looks you in the eye, says hello or good evening as you walk your way through the restaurant, and is very responsive—reminded me of what it’s like to walk through Boulevard here in SF. You’d never know the restaurant was barely a year old.
The staff was also knowledgeable about the wines, and made a spot-on (and off the menu) choice for us based on what we were looking for. I see an opportunity with the wine list, however, to make it read more consumer friendly with tasting cues since I can imagine many people making their way to the restaurant don’t know a lot about Spanish wines. While Jaleo didn’t prove to be a favorite this trip, I’d totally come back for classic tapas and drinks at the bar—would be a good spot for a bite before you head to a show, or after, and we liked the lively vibe.
Quick Vegas Tips
Before stopping at your hotel, you’ll want to pick up some booze, bubbles, and most importantly, some water for your room. Yeah, one of those big 2.5-gallon numbers. Do it.
Don’t forget your Visine. Not only is the desert super dry, you’ll be up late. Get the red out, babe.
Catch the Le Rêve show at the Wynn. You’ve never seen anything like it. And hello, so many gorgeous, hot bodies. Meow.
I was told the fried chicken at Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill is ridonkulous.
On my short list for next time:
Everyone is talking about this amazing seven-seat Japanese place in a mini mall (of course). And it’s open until 3am, sweet.
I’m a huge fan of Greek food, and am curious to try this addition in the Cosmopolitan.