Tasting Las Vegas

CityCenter is neither, but at least it tastes good

January 30, 2010 · Leave a Comment

I know that Mike and I started this blog to discuss the food scene in Las Vegas, but we also want to look at the dining scene in the larger context of Las Vegas as a whole.  Given how much has been gambled on the success of CityCenter, and how much it has been touted as a new paradigm, I can’t resist the urge to put in my two cents.

Since I am now a Las Vegas resident–I’d say Las Vegan but I’m allergic to the word ‘vegan’–I feel it is my civic duty to start with something positive regarding this newest addition to the strip.  CityCenter is large and impressive.  There is at least one great restaurant I’ve tried so far, Sage, which I raved about in an earlier post.  I look forward to sampling Julian Serrano, Silk Road and Twist, among the many dining options CityCenter offers.   CityCenter also offers a helpful solution to the problem, “where can I find a $7,000 men’s bathrobe?”   That solution is the  Crystals Luxury Cathedral (mall seems to pedestrian a word for it).  So people of the world with money: please come to Las Vegas, visit CityCenter, and spend copious amounts of your money.

Now that that’s out of the way, I have some Ginsus to sharpen re: CityCenter.  I don’t know why I thought it would be otherwise, but the truth is CityCenter is neither.  Not a City.  Not a Center.  It’s a hotel, casino, and condo complex with a resident Cirque show.  It blends high-end shopping with fine dining, a casino, a swank nightclub, and luxury living.  Did I mention that there is also a Cirque show?  You can understand what all the buzz is about–combining these elements has never been done before in Las Vegas.  Well…Unless you count Treasure Island, The Bellagio, The Mirage, Wynn, Caesars, the Venetian/Palazzo, the MGM Grand…wait–the Venetian and Caesars don’t have Cirque shows (though one might argue that Cher’s wardrobe qualifies as a Cirque production…)

The point is, there’s very, very little innovation or new thinking in CityCenter to my mind–other than its architectural daring and its carelessly curated, haphazardly arrayed art, CityCenter is essentially the Bellagio on steroids.  This in itself isn’t a crime; what irritates me about CityCenter is its name-implied pretension to urbanity, to community, and to seriousness.  CityCenter is a monumentally self-serious space that is devoted to completely non-serious activities.

In a recent interview in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Bette Midler lamented the fact that the movers and shakers of Las Vegas will invest no end of money in real estate, and almost none in people or talent.  There’s a lot of truth there; Las Vegas, which seeks to compete with major cities like New York and London when it comes to food, lacks the cultural vibrancy of, say, Reno.  It’s embarrassing but true–Reno has both a professional chamber and symphony orchestra, in addition to resident opera and ballet companies.  I would imagine that one could fund the operations of all four of those institutions for at least ten years, and still not spend the $40 million CityCenter spent on its much-discussed public art.  True, a gaming property has no responsibility to nurture culture, but given our current economic times CityCenter’s excess seems flagrant and misplaced; its lack of interest in civic impact feels miserly.  I doubt much if any of the $40 million art budget went to local artists.  Speaking of the public art, I especially wonder whose inside joke it was to acquire Claes Oldenburg’s giant typewriter eraser, which suggests at once negation, obsolescence, and absurd scale.

And absurd is the only way to describe the scale of CityCenter; you could easily re-tile a space shuttle in the spectacularly vast dead space of the Daniel Liebeskind-designed Crystals; maybe there are plans to fill it somehow (a black-box theatre, dance studio, recital hall, any performance space would get my vote), but for now the cold, oppressively cavernous Crystals swallows everything, dwarfing rather than framing the water-themed kinetic art works on display (one involving whirlpools, the other ice).  Liebeskind’s aggressive angularity screams Fisher-Price Frank Gehry to me, but with none of the ingenuity or grace.  What makes Gehry’s spaces work is his breaking up of interior space–the now-iconic Disney Hall in LA is a prime example: inside, it is a thoughtful layering of intimate spaces, culminating in a concert hall that manages to feel like a living room that just happens to seat 1500 or so.

Aria is equally problematic; it proves why the term ‘tasteful casino’ remains an oxymoron (though the recently opened M, with its smaller scale and more sedate locale, almost pulls it off).  The gargantuan self-seriousness of City Center’s design concept, and odd design choices, are especially glaring and out of place in a casino.  Some examples:  I had heard that there was a Maya Lin sculpture somewhere; it turns out it is the squiggle of silver hung behind the check-in desk.   Worse, it is hung in front of a giant window, where it is lost in the visual noise.  If you look up while standing in the lobby, the combination of glass and girders unpleasantly recalls the Port Authority bus terminal in New York.  The seating areas of Jean Phillippe Patisserie suggest a carnival ride that has recently encountered an IED.  The brutal, imposing gated entrance to Bar Masa looks as if it is awaiting barbed wire, and the iron letters “Arbeit Macht Frei” above it (minimalism is not exactly what casinos do best).

For me CityCenter fails totally as an urban space, not achieving even the plastic, Disney-like urban functionality of Town Square or The District (where at least you can buy groceries, or a newspaper, or god forbid see an artist or musician at work).  But CityCenter is too big to fail, as our politicians are fond of saying, and probably only locals (clearly not the target market) will even notice or care about its flaws.  Time will tell if it succeeds in its current form, or if it will have to reinvent and adapt down the road (not necessarily a bad thing).  If I lived at Vdara, for instance, I think I’d curse the lack of a Whole Foods, or any convenient food shopping, but then maybe Vdara isn’t really designed for living but for visiting–a tourist, after all, tends to eat out for every meal.  But that begs my initial question–why pretend, then, that there is anything new or different about CityCenter?

No, I’m afraid CityCenter in its current form cares only about sucking money from those who have too much to spare, and in that it certainly has a lot of company in this town.  So lament the fact that all of CityCenter’s resources will contribute nothing of substance culturally to the city, and then do what I do–get over it, and go back for the food.

–Michael Manley

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Sage Saves City Center–Michael Manley’s first taste

January 22, 2010 · 2 Comments

The bad news: City Center is neither.  More on that soon–I want to talk about Sage right now and will save my (voluminous, frustrated, ranting) comments on ‘City Center’ proper for another day.

The good news: Chef Shawn McClain’s Sage at Aria is everything I hoped it would be–serious, imaginative and impeccably prepared food, well priced, in an atmosphere which manages to be at once elegant, welcoming, and friendly.  A special shout-out to bartender Aaron, who makes the best Manhattan I’ve ever had:

Notice that a lemon twist substitutes for the customary Marischino cherry.  This, along with thoughtful choices of boutique bitters, vermouth and bourbon, results in a much drier, more complex Manhattan.  I’ve already been back for seconds.

I ventured to City Center for the first time on New Year’s Eve–a masochistic exercise akin to a New Yorker saying “wouldn’t it be nice to take a stroll down 42nd Street?” around 8pm on December 31st.  But this was a special night–I was meeting my close high school friend John Hancock (his real name), who was staying at Aria and whom  I had not seen in 20-plus years.  John and I found each other on Facebook, naturally, and I was glad to find out he was a fellow foodie.  Unable to score a reservation at Sage,  I booked us into Julian Serrano.  But we had time to kill, and the warmly lit, old-school bar of Sage was next door, and proved irresistible for a pre-dinner cocktail.  Our skilled barkeep Aaron made the helpful suggestion that we could have dinner at the bar, since we couldn’t score a table.  John and I were game; the vibe was great at the bar, and a multi-course gourmet experience was what we were in the mood for (I do loo forward to sampling Julian Serrano soon).

I’m relying on my memory to recount the highlights, as I was unable to find an online menu for Sage on the City Center/Aria website (nor are online menus available for any of the other Aria restaurants).  Memo to Sage: if your contract with Aria  allows, please build your own dedicated website soon–City Center’s is not doing you any favors at all.

I’ll stick with the meal highlights:

–an impeccable foie gras creme brulee, which struck the right sweet/savory chord that was echoed in other dishes in the meal (such as a suprising and clever amuse which featured artichoke bathed in, of all things, grape foam).

–a hearty Wagyu beef tartare, that was enlivened with a crisp bitter chocolate tuile that brought a hint of mole to the otherwise standard tartare flavor profile (anchored by mustard, capers, and egg yolk).

–luxurious and fluffy tortellini, the rare vegetarian dish that steals the show, completely blew me away.   My memory is recalling chestnut, vanilla, orange zest, and date–not sure if those are literal ingredients or what the dish evoked for me, but I’ll be back soon to find out.

–an ethereal slow-poached egg that was a study in earthy restraint.  At first I wondered if the egg, potato and truffle trio would be too limiting (where are the herbs/green notes, I thought), but I soon realized that this dish was, conceptually, about maximizing the minimal–like late Mark Rothko, or Philip Glass.  Except for your mouth.

–salt.  That would be the salt served with our bread.  I asked our bartender Aaron about it, and was amazed that he gave a Nat-Geo worthy discourse on its origins (an Australian river,  I think) and flavor profile (mineral-y and, well that’s all I can recall).  It was tasty to boot.  When the bartender of a restaurant can give you a dissertation on the salt, you know you’ve found the real deal.

Desserts were a bit of a let down; they weren’t bad just a kind of routine given the level of the rest of the meal.  I attributed that to the fact that we were dining on a holiday (not the fairest time to judge a kitchen), and therefore being limited to the prix fixe menu’s limited and rather safe dessert selections. I didn’t taste John’s milk chocolate dome so I can’t comment there, he found it good if a bit one-note.  My beignet style doughnuts, with an apple compote, were decent, and came with a sweet-and-sour apple cider tea on the side, a nice touch.  I thought the batter lacked salt, leaving nothing to balance out the sweetness.  Again I forgave this since it was a holiday menu, but I’d advise the pastry chef to stay away from doughnuts anyway–they are way, way overexposed here in Vegas, and at Sage they don’t strike the same level of maturity and sophistication as the rest of the menu.  But my quibbles are just those, and overall I was thrilled with my first dining experience at Sage.

I really, really really want Sage to do well here–this town needs risk takers who won’t slap their name on a steakhouse and phone it in (fyi, chef Shawn McClain is in residence at Sage for a few months at least).  But I think Sage will need some loyal locals to support it, in order to avoid having to dumb-down their menu to placate the mercilessly conservative palate of a tourist-only demographic.  This won’t be easy; City Center seems to have been planned to actively piss off locals (note there is no entrance to parking from Frank Sinatra–a huge middle finger to Las Vegas natives).  But trust me, the welcoming bar and friendly, attitude-free staff are worth the trip.  So get over to Sage, Las Vegans–those Manhattans aren’t going to drink themselves.

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Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

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Ping Pang Pong redux (Mike D beat me to it but here’s my take…)

January 16, 2010 · 1 Comment

Ping Pang Pong sounds like the name of a Japanese cartoon that may induce seizures in toddlers, but is actually one of the most revered Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas.  I’d never been, so after taking in Avatar in Imax 3-D at the nearby Palms (which will induce seizures in toddlers…) we decided to check out Ping Pang Pong.  We being myself, Mike Dobranski (Mike’s Review of Ping Pang Pong is found here), his lovely wife Kerry, and Dave Philippus, a fellow member of The Lion King brass section.

PPP is located in The Gold Coast, one of those old-school casinos that has managed to not yet be torn down to make way for the next Wynn or MGM property.  The menu is stocked with Chinese-American standards (walnut shrimp, fried rice), as well as more authentic dishes (preserved duck egg congee, pork belly stew).  No fusion, or ‘new’ Chinese here; everything feels refreshingly frozen in time circa 1965.

We stick mostly to standards–hot and sour soup, potstickers, aVietnamese-like rice paper-rolled soft-shell crab, Singapore noodles, tofu with enoki and pickled greens.  The standouts were definitely the walnut shrimp and the potstickers.  Not normally a huge fan of walnut shrimp, which can be too-sweet in their off-putting mayonaise-y sauce goo.  But the Pong (may I refer to you as the Pong?) does an excellent version–the batter is light and maintains some crunch under the customary white goo-sauce.   The potstickers were fried to a nice firm crunch on one side, and came with what we agreed was the Best Potsticker Sauce Ever.   We weren’t able to sample the Dim Sum which is only served between 10 and 3pm.  I sense, though, that Dim Sum is where the Pong earns and keeps its reputation as one of our premier Chinese establishments, and I definitely want to come back for it.

The service was inattentive to a breathtaking degree–two menus were brought for a table of 4, 3 waters, and 3 tea cups–but you don’t necessary go to the Pong for Michelin 3 star service.  I’d recommend Ping Pang Pong to anyone looking for solid Chinese at very good prices, especially tourists who may not have the wheels or patience to locate our wonderful LV Chinatown.   Keep partying like its 1965 Ping Pang Pong, and don’t change a thing.

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Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

Categories: Chinese Restaurants · Las Vegas Locals Restaurants · Las Vegas Restaurant Reviews · Las Vegas Restaurants · Michael Manley

Vegas Food, or Where the F*&k Are the Sweetbreads?

January 8, 2010 · Leave a Comment

Greetings fellow foodies, visitors, and Las Vegas locals.  Thanks to the great work of my partner in culinary crime Mike Dobranski, we now have this awesome vehicle for our shared passion—exploring and celebrating the Las Vegas food scene.

I’m working on a piece about City Center, and my last meal of 2009 (at Sage) which I’ll be posting soon.  But as my first post, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what is unique to the Las Vegas dining scene.  In four words: What is Vegas Food?

Some background:  I’ve been coming to Las Vegas on and off for about 9 years, and relocated here (from New York City) in April of 2009.  In that time, Las Vegas’ aspirations to be a serious food city on the order of a London or New York have begun to be realized.

Early efforts toward culinary seriousness were Las Vegas outposts of the Famous New York/San Francisco/Your City Here restaurant (paging Bobby Flay…) Examples such as Mesa Grill, Spago and Fiamma serve decent, reliable signature dishes, usually at 150% or more of what you’d pay at the flagship restaurant.  Perhaps driven by a savvy customer base that could see the particle board behind the mahogany veneer of this particular business model, smart resort owners began rounding up the Michael Mina’s, Guy Savoy’s and (perhaps most significantly) Joel Robuchon’s of culinary Valhalla and got them to actually move here to cook full time.  The franchises, then, became flagships. Well, Luxury liners, really.  So take that New York and London: you may have the Metropolitan Museum, Big Ben, Lincoln Center, The Tate Modern and…well history,  but we have fucking Joel Robuchon.

Perfection ensued, all was right in the foodie universe, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except: Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Michael Mina and their peers here are not the first reason why Las Vegas is an important food city.  They are not even the second.  It’s great that they’re here, and you can have an amazing experience at any of the high-end restaurants in town.  But let’s be honest—if you’ve had Michael Mina’s signature “Lobster Pot Pie” once (I recall when it was a mere $59, way back in 02 I think…), are you really going to spend half a car payment to eat it again?  And if, like me, you had a perfectly fine prix fix at Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys in the summer, would you go back again for it in the winter, seeing that the menu has not changed one bit? (I know the only seasonal produce we have is cactus, but still…)  And what, really, is Alain Ducasse’s MIX doing here, since the (original) New York MIX was universally reviled by critics, and famously flamed out after barely a year? (I ate at the original MIX, and the reviews were not wrong–I mean my God, he serves elbow macaroni.  That it’s dressed up by french butter and truffle doesn’t quite hide the wheels on that trailer, if you know what I’m saying).

True enough, not everyone has had the Mina “Lobster Pot Pie,” or had the chance to sample French cuisine at a bargain price, as offered by the prix fixe at Fleur de Lys.  And I’m glad both are available.  But it all becomes the edible equivalent of “Legends in Concert;” reliable greatest hits executed reliably well (hmm, I’m not sure that last part is true of “LIK” and I’m not paying one dime to find out).  And the menus, designed to appeal to the middle of the demographic bell curve, tend to be WAY conservative.  I mean for God’s sake people, where the fuck are the sweetbreads?

Let me explain that a bit.  We all have a niche interest; there are the steak nerds, the French fetishists, the wine snobs, the sushi nuts.  And then there’s the freak-show foodies, the fork-wielding Johnny Knoxville’s–epicurean Jackasses if you will—who want something exciting, strange, exotic, impossible to reproduce (if I can cook it myself, the chef hasn’t tried hard enough), possibly borderline disgusting, and conceptually mind blowing.  Me, I’m a foodie Jackass, and molecular gastronomy is my drug of choice. And for the moment the mainstream high-end dining scene in Las Vegas sucks for the foodie Jackass.

A sample of dishes/components I ate last year in NYC:  Duck tongues, saltine cracker ice cream, lamb testicles, kale chips, ham foam, coxcombs (yeah, that would be the red comb from the rooster…), crispy fried tiny sand eels (highly addictive, those briny little French fries of the sea), lardo (or, as I like to call it ‘pig butter’), scrapple (thank you chef Bill Telepan—a fellow scrapple nut), beet risotto, white-chocolate dipped pork rinds, and of course veal sweetbreads—the delectable gray matter of cute dead baby cows.

Maybe two of the meals at which I ate the above dishes cost more than $75 with wine and tip.  Try finding anything close to that on the strip.  It’s true that Mario Batali’s outposts offer the now-ubiquitous lardo, and you can find sweetbreads at a few spots, if you squint hard at the menu.  And I’m sure Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire (in his new digs at City Center) offer more adventurous fare on occasion (when I can spare the $400 it will take to find out I’ll let you know).  The point is that a truly great culinary culture can’t be built on institutional monoliths and star chefs alone; a spirit of risk and real diversity (in both food and price) are needed as well.

Where is the real Vegas Food?  It’s at Ichiza in Chinatown, or my favorite hole-in-the-wall Victor’s Taqueria (you know, next to Fun Hog Ranch…and if you don’t know about the Hog, well I ain’t sayin’ here).  It flows from the wealth of great and affordable ethnic food, which is the first true mark of a real city.  And Las Vegas has its home-grown gourmet spots too, though I mourn the loss of the wonderful Mayflower Cusinier, which was shuttered so the talented Woo family could open their namesake restaurant at the Palazzo (memo to Chef Woo: please bring back the Miso Butterfish entrée from Mayflower!).  But you probably won’t find many of these in the Zagat guide, which in its last issue devoted as many pages to shopping and nightclubs as it did food.

The real impact of the star chefs is likely not the food they are currently cooking, but in the younger chefs apprenticing under them.  The Ham Foam mentioned above?  That came from the perverse but brilliant David Chang, currently tossing all the received wisdom about dining out the window at his various Momofuku iterations in New York City.  Somewhere in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Hubert Keller are a few twenty-something chefs who have the talent and vision to be the next David Chang, Homaru Cantu, or Wylie Dufresne.  They’ll do something that will blow our collective mind and put Las Vegas on the map—this time as an exporter, rather than an importer, of culinary talent.  The question is, when these young stars are ready to roll the dice with their radical talent, will Las Vegas gamble on them?

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Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

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