I've been back to Las Vegas more than 20 times over the past 40 years and, needless to say, a lot has changed. Many of the hotels I saw on that first trip are gone, replaced with shiny new ones like the Wynn, the Cosmopolitan and the Palazzo. Over the years, Vegas has reinvented itself several times, including a failed attempt to portray itself as "family friendly." Now Vegas is back to its roots with the "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" campaign. But what has changed more than anything, at least in my opinion, is that Las Vegas is now an extraordinary food city.
Something happened in 1992 that changed the food culture in Las Vegas forever. That year, Wolfgang Puck opened a branch of his very successful Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, in the Forum Shops of Ceasar's Palace. Most people thought that the Vegas crowd, who had been trained to eat anything as long as it was cheap, would ignore the upscale and pricey interloper from California with the funny name. Wrong. It seemed that people on vacation and in town on business with expense accounts were more than ready to embrace a higher level of dining. Since then, every celebrity chef you've ever heard of and some that you haven't has opened one or more restaurants in town. Las Vegas is now THE destination for foodies that want to be able to eat the culinary stylings of everyone from Robuchon to Lagasse, from Flay to Keller and from Batali to Ramsey, all without leaving the Strip.
I recently spent 7 days in Las Vegas. Before you get all jealous -- it was (almost) all work. I did, however, get to three restaurants worth writing about, including one on Monday night, which presented a small challenge with stick to my Meatless Monday commitment.
The first of the three was Carnevino, (there must be some sort of cosmic irony that had me eating at a restaurant called Meat and Wine on Meatless Monday) one of the several restaurants that are partnerships of Mario Batali of Iron Chef fame and Joe Bastianich who has created quite the wine empire for himself. (I could be unkind here and say of his Mother Lidia's fame, but I won't). I've been to several other Batali restaurants and have always come away happy, so I was looking forward to something good. Since this was a group dinner, we weren't ordering off of the regular menu.
The appetizer was set for everyone as a classic Caprese salad. I'm not a big fan of either fresh mozzarella or tomatoes but I will admit I ate most of it and really enjoyed it. The three main choices were a beef, a chicken and a fish -- all off the table for me since it was Monday. I spoke to the wait staff when we first arrived and asked if hey could accommodate a vegetarian meal. Without any hesitation they offered me several choices, all sounding great. I settled on a garganelli pasta with a ragout of mushrooms cooked in a brown butter sauce. When they served my dish, it was the sauce as advertised but on tagliatelle. I didn't particularly care and dove right in. About 3 minutes later, the waiter showed up with another full serving of the dish, this time on the garganelli. He apologized profusely and said he just wanted to make it right. Nice -- each of my five other table mates got a decent sized serving of the pasta from the extra dish. At least two of them told me they wished they had asked for a vegetarian meal! The wines were, as you would expect, spectacular, the pasta was made fresh and the mushroom sauce was perfect.
The second of the three was the Palm Steak House in Caesar's Palace. The Palm is a national chain, founded in NYC in 1926 and is widely recognized for excellent steaks and seafood. Again this was a group dinner, although small enough this time to be able to order from the regular menu. I don't eat a lot of red meat these days, but when I do, I typically order a NY Strip steak. When we eat it at home, our usual portion size is 4-6 ounces, so when I saw that most of the steaks at the Palm were 16 oz and bigger, I defaulted to the only one that wasn't, the 9 oz fillet, not my favorite cut, but usually reliable. When I ordered it cooked medium, I told the waiter that it would be fine if it was a little on the medium rare side, knowing most fine steak houses will miss in that direction rather than the other. After having one of the finest wedge salads I've ever had (super crisp lettuce, tangy blue cheese crumbles and crispy fried onion straws), my steak arrived looked nicely charred on the outside. But when I cut into it, there was no pink warm center, it was medium well to say the least, and that may be being kind. Since I was sitting right next to my dinner host, I decided not to make a a big deal of it by sending it back, I didn't want to cause any sort of scene, so I just picked at it, eventually eating about a third of the steak. I know that every kitchen makes errors, but come on, this wasn't even close. Honestly, it was a waste of of good piece of meat. Although the classic side dishes were good, lyonnaise potatoes and creamed spinach, there is no making up for a badly cooked steak at a restaurant of this reputation. Dessert was served family style -- huge pieces of chocolate cake and carrots cake that were big enough to serve a family of 6 each. I sampled each, they were good, but I was pretty disinterested at that point. I really have no more to say about the Palm. On to a much better experience....
The last of my "big three" was another Batalli and Bastianich restaurant, aptly called B&B and located in the Venetian, my favorite hotel in Vegas. This time I was fortunate to have dinner with a friend who appreciates fine food and wine. We had great service, a great wine recommendation from the sommelier and pretty amazing food. Since this was a less business oriented dinner, I was able to spend a lot more time choosing and enjoying my meal. An added bonus was that my dinner companion felt, like I did, that sharing was a good thing.
There were so many good things on the menu that it was difficult deciding. After discussing it for a while we both decided to pass on the antipasti course and move right to the primi list of pastas. That is, until a guy walking by our table on his way out, told us to have the octopus appetizer. That's right, an unsolicited recommendation with the following words, "the best appetizer I've ever had, bar none, and I eat at a lot of restaurants." This was said as he pointed to his, shall we say ample stomach. So, how could we resist, we ordered the grilled octopus to share. The menu describes it as being served with borlatti marinati and a spicy limoncello vinaigrette. OK, I don't know who the guy was, but I wish I knew where to find and thank him. The octopus was perfectly grilled, succulent without a trace of rubbery texture and the borlatti beans were flavorful and al dente, the way beans should be served. The vinaigrette was a perfect foil for both.
Back to the original plan....we each ordered a pasta dish from the primi selections. I picked the bucatini all'amatriciana with guanciale and hot pepper and pecorino cheese. My friend picked one of the house specialties, Jose's Pyramids. The waiter explained these were named after the guy in the kitchen whose only job was to make these every day. Apparently the entire preparation takes six hours! Basically they was a hand made pasta, hand formed into a pyramid shape and filled with the creamiest, most savory short rib mixture ever. By this time, the waiter had figured out we were in it for the long haul and made the recommendation that he split each pasta dish into two, allowing each of us to have half of each. He further suggested that we do the pyramids first since the subtlety would be less appreciated if we were to eat the more aggressively flavored bucatini first. We liked this guy and took all of his suggestions.
Just about this time, the sommelier showed up asking if he could be of any help in choosing a wine. If you are a regular reader, you know I like red wine but don't really know it in depth. No fear - my friend did and he launched into a long and involved discussion about the merits af several reds from the amazing wine list. When he asked about a particular bottle of Barolo, the sommelier pointed out that, in his opinion that particular vintage would be better off with 10 and maybe 20 more years of aging. Yikes! Having a better idea of what we were looking for, he recommended a different Barolo saying that the 1996 was perfectly ready to be enjoyed. Um, he was right. To my uneducated tastes, this was a fantastic bottle of wine and paired perfectly with the pasta and main courses we told him we were considering.
At this point we were both pretty damn happy and were developing some high expectations for the main courses. Good news -- our expectations were met!
I had the grilled veal chop served with rhubarb mostarda and collard greens. I've eaten many a veal chop over the years and I'd have to say this one was the best. Cooked perfectly, this exceptional piece of meat was also presented beautifully with the greens placed just so on the chop. The slight bitterness of the greens and the little bit of sweetness of the rhubarb worked together to both complement and offset the richness of the veal.
My friend had the rabbit porchetta with "vignole" and rabbit confit. The meat from the rabbit leg had been de-boned and made into a roulade. He was kind enough to share a bite with me (as I did with the veal for him) and it was pretty amazing. The meat was almost tender enough to cut with a fork! The surprising element of the dish was the sweet red pepper sauce that elevated the rabbit to a whole new place.
Finally, with our main courses, we shared a side of De Cecco broccoli served with peperoncino and garlic.
The waiter offered us the dessert menus, but I'm sure he wasn't at all surprised when we took a pass. I'm sure it would have been excellent, but we decided enough was enough. All in all a great meal. Good food, good service and good company makes a great combination. If you're in Las Vegas and have only one "special" dinner on your schedule, you won't go wrong by having it at B&B.
(I'm hoping my friend Brock will chime in in the comments section with his impressions, particularly of the rabbit)
P.S. I know this post is long -- I hope you made it all the way through to the end. If you did, thanks.