I’m a post-modern aesthete.
The Strange Tango sensibility is global and poetic—with a dash of über cool.
I look for value added propositions, so when I decided to attend the NewU Startup Loft at the UNITY Journalists convention in Las Vegas, I recognized a parallel opportunity to produce a feature on Las Vegas as a mecca for foodies. The concept dovetailed with my mission for Strange Tango: Life as Art as a destination and resource for culture, literature, and creativity.
A leading travel site names Las Vegas among the handful of best foodie destinations in the country. The density of Michelin-starred chefs, James Beard Award winners, and Top Chef competitors located on an accessible, four-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard is perhaps greater than anywhere else in the country, including Manhattan. To make reservations at Las Vegas’ top tables based on reputation and press alone, I felt, would be to leave out a sense of discovery.
Therefore, I researched reviews by food critics as well as sifted through the most credible foodie blogs and crowdsourced recommendations. Just prior to my departure, I made my final selections for dinner, lunch, breakfast, buffet, happy hour, appetizers, and quick bites to explore in the city.
Strange Tango’s ethos is centered on amplitude: an important criteria in my quest was that the food and overall setting be transportive.
Food is but one component of the Strange Tango experience. As a lover of beauty, I would have four days and three nights to seek memorable, sensory experiences alongside my business itinerary. I made sure to carry my Canon EOS camera with me at all times.
My friend and longtime travel agent, Joseph Tse, Owner/President of OT&T Travel in Greater Boston, booked me at competitive rates at two of his favorite hotels: the Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Hotel on the north end of the Las Vegas strip and the Bellagio, conveniently located at the hub of activity. OT&T Travel is the preferred travel agency for the Boston Celtics, among other prominent clients. Joseph also designated me as a VIP for preferential treatment with upper floors and spectacular rooms with a view.
Las Vegas would be my first overnight vacation in two years, so these welcoming touches were greatly appreciated.
Wednesday, August 1
Proust meets Zagat during a journalists convention.
For convenience, I had limited my luggage to a large, black Prada bag and a wheeled carry-on that fit in the airplane’s overhead bin. Just outside the baggage claim area of Terminal 1 at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, I found the ticket window for the airport shuttle service. $7 for a seat on the shuttle was a comfortable and economical way to reach the Mandalay Bay Hotel where the convention was being held
The vans idling at the bus stops each covered a zone of about 6 hotels. Public transportation offers an opportunity to learn from local experts, in this case, a school bus driver who shared a secret hangout of shuttle and taxi drivers. M Resort has the best buffet in town, he told me, and it does not widely advertise. M is also the only establishment that serves alcohol with its buffets. The resort was located 10 miles beyond Mandalay Bay. I thanked him and made a mental note to revisit his suggestion.
I went from the airport to UNITY registration, then to a session headed by Mark Luckie, Manager of Journalism & News at Twitter. The Business of Me was a savvy look at the business and strategies of media entrepreneurship that ran for 3 hours.
Lotus of Siam
Afterwards, I met up with Mai Hoang at the hotel lobby. Mai is a business reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic and a Facebook friend. This was the first face-to-face meeting between us. We had made prior arrangements over Facebook for lunch at Lotus of Siam, touted by Gourmet magazine as the best Thai restaurant in the country. The cab fare was $20, but the meal we enjoyed was well worth the price of the ride.
The restaurant’s location in a nondescript shopping mall and its exterior appearance as a hole-in-the wall somehow fuels its cachet as a hidden treasure. Inside, the clean, streamlined restaurant is decorated in warm woods with copious framed photographs of famous chefs and celebrities on the walls.
Owner/chef Saipin Chutima was named the 2011 Best Chef in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Some of the exotic herbs used in the dishes are grown by Chef Chutima in her garden. The classic Thai and signature dishes are flavorful and complex, with a heat index that gradually deepens.
We started with ice cold glasses of authentic Thai coffee, a refreshing way to cut the fiery sensation from the chili peppers.
Back home, I had curated a list of dishes from the extensive, 8-page menu that would give us a well-rounded introduction to northern Thai and Bangkok style cuisines.
The appetizer was an unusual dish made with crispy rice and minced sour sausage, a mixture of pork and garlic. Green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, and lime juice are added. The crunchy texture of the rice was unexpected, and the dish was an interesting composition of sour and salty, slightly nutty, and with a good balance of heat and spice.
Stuffed Chicken Wings was a classic appetizer not often seen on generic Thai menus. The wing segment is stuffed with a ground pork mixture and served with a homemade sweet and sour sauce. When well executed, the deep fried wings are crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside.
Tom Kah Kai is one of my favorite soups in any culinary tradition. This Bangkok version was a full-bodied soup with sliced chicken breast, coconut milk, straw mushroom, cilantro, and chili oil. The flavor was enhanced by fragrant lemongrass, galangal, and a squirt of lime juice.
Northern Larb is ground pork made with northern Thai spices and herbs, omitting the lime juice. This dish had a complex flavor profile. The heat from the chilies slowly suffuses the palate. I discerned lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, coriander, and a lemony herbal bouquet. The dish also included pak paew, a Thai herb.
Crispy Duck with Panang Sauce was redolent of lemongrass incorporated into a rich, creamy, and velvety smooth red curry cream sauce flavored with cognac. The duck itself had a crispy skin and succulent meat.
Kang-ka-Noon, or Spicy Young Jackfruit Curry, featured green jackfruit as a vegetable that had the taste and texture of artichoke. Out of curiosity, I had wanted to try the northern style curry, a native food with a soupy consistency that is traditionally eaten by peasants. The sliced pork and jackfruit looked appetizing in the crock but, quite naturally, the dish lacked the finesse of the other courses.
On a future trip to Las Vegas, I look forward to sampling the Crispy Duck on Drunken Noodle, Charbroiled Prawns, Seafood Chili and Mint Leaves, and assorted vegetarian dishes.
I had brought my luggage along with me owing to time constraints, and I had not slept the night before in an effort to complete chores before I left home. By early afternoon, I was tired and sleepy.
As soon I walked through the entrance to the Wynn lobby, I was greeted by a refreshing sight: a festive and elegant atrium space filled with lighted trees, live plants, and artful, fresh flower arrangements. Colorful mosaics in gigantic floral motifs cover much of the marble floors.The ambiance was of sumptuous luxury with a soupçon of understatement, the staff impeccably professional and courteous. The Wynn is a new breed of casino hotel in Vegas, with an ambiance that is more like a resort, a destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment.
Wynn pool, Encore spa, floor mosaic detail, Encore pool, atrium floral detail (clockwise)
Check-in took only a few minutes. My spacious, airy room, #3522, had floor to ceiling windows with a view that encompassed a mountain range, the golf course, a lake with a waterfall, and the pool next door at Encore, the Wynn’s sister property.
My room with a view.
I basked in the sunlight and happily took in the natural beauty from 35 floors above ground level. I thought to take a nap for an hour or two before my dinner reservation at the hotel. The blackout curtains closed with the touch of a switch enveloping me in a sensory deprivation cocoon of darkness. I felt there was no reason to ever leave the Wynn.
Eating Las Vegas is the essential dining guide with reviews from the city’s best known food critics. I consulted the resource in my early planning stage as a way to whittle down more than 2,000 local eateries. A highlight of the Strange Tango Foodie Tour of Las Vegas would be the experience of a degustation menu, which can take more than two hours to complete at a sitting. As a form of high culinary art, a representative sampling of signature dishes is the unique way to explore a chef’s skills, craft, and passion.
As I pored over online menus, Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare quickly caught my attention.
Twice honored by the James Beard Foundation, Chef Paul Bartolotta meticulously sources some of the rarest species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans from the Mediterranean. The eclectic range of seafood are all wild caught in Mediterranean waters and prepared within 33 hours. I recalled a memorable time I spent some decades ago wandering through more than a dozen regions of Italy. This restaurant celebrates the authenticity of traditional and regional Italian cuisine and creates specialties using indigenous species, including live langoustine, from the coastal waters of the Ligure, Ionio, Tirreno and Adriatico.
The restaurant was breathtaking and dramatic. Diners have a choice in indoor or outdoor multi-level seating. Weeks in advance, I had reserved a private cabana beside the lagoon. The rains came earlier that day and, as a result, outdoor dining was placed on hold.
The staff compensated by kindly accommodating my request for natural lighting to photograph my meal. They placed me at a large table in the middle of the restaurant, adjacent to the water. Three servers waited on one diner. They would attentively pace each course so that the food would not grow cold.
The original Bellini
None of the degustation menus were advertised. Robert, the server, offered three menus from which to choose. I selected the most expensive lineup: 11 courses, including an amuse-bouche and a symphony of three desserts that included nine flavors of frozen treats.
The menu was the same one Chef Bartolotta served to Bravo’s Top Chef contestants when he was a guest judge during the season filmed in Las Vegas. The degustation showcased the rarest and most expensive species served at the restaurant and, at $175 plus extra for the langoustine, Bartollotta was a good value in comparison to other hotels on the strip that charged more than twice as much.
The evening’s sensory experience commenced with my favorite cocktail: an authentic Bellini using the original recipe from Venice with Caposaldo Prosecco and white peach purée.
Then, a seafood case holding treasures from the sea was wheeled before me. The freshest fish, shellfish, and crustaceans would be prepared with finesse and passion over the course of the next several hours.
I love the miniaturized creativity of amuse-bouche. The restaurant’s version was straightforward. Gamberetti Rosa was tiny pink shrimp lightly dredged in seasoned flour and flash fried so that the coating was crispy while the shrimp remained moist.
Insalata di Piovra Ligure had a bright, spritely flavor. The octopus salad from Liguria was simply bathed with a fruity olive oil, lemon, and parsley, the octopus gently rolled until it was tender.
Insalata di Piovra Ligure
Sauté di Vongole was a generous bowl of lightly sautéed clams, nestled in a tomato-based sauce flavored with white wine and herbs. The sauce was on the thin side, yet had a fullness of flavor that enhanced the briny essence of the fresh clams.
Sauté di Vongole
Cappesante Dorate con Porcini was a luxuriously presented dish showcasing caramelized sea scallop on a bed of mache. Velvety porcini was laced with a balsamic sauce and a thin shaving of parmigiano-reggiano graced the top.
Cappesante Dorate con Porcini
Next, a large plate filled with grilled crustaceans was set at the table. Grigliata Mista di Gamberi Bianchi, Gamberi Rossi, Aragosta, Langoustine consisted of white shrimp, imperial red shrimp, spiny lobster, and langoustine. Departures, a premier magazine for luxury travel, wrote extensively on the years of effort required for Chef Bartolotta to successfully import live langoustine from a mysterious island in the Mediterranean. Simply grilled with the addition of lemon and parsley, the large langoustine and plateful of crustaceans were succulent and delicious. The imperial red shrimp had a head almost ten times the size of its body. This species is sourced nowhere on the planet except in one location: a 150 square kilometer area off the coast of Morocco. The flavorful liquor collected around the head is spooned up to be eaten.
Grigliata Mista di Gamberi Bianchi, Gamberi Rossi, Aragosta, Langoustine
Robert brought me the Wynn’s signature cocktail, The Dream. The cocktail was a ruby red concoction of Perrier-Jouёt Brut Champagne, St. Germaine Elderflower liqueur and a preserved hibiscus flower which settled at the base of the glass, lending a mystical appearance to the drink. The taste was fresh and bubbly.
After the proteins, the menu turned to pasta dishes. Strozzapreti con Rombo was hand rolled pasta with meaty turbot fillets in a light butter sauce. The dish had a hint of sage. Maurizio, a server who had taken a great interest in my Strange Tango website, had substituted strozzapreti for rigatoni because it was a more unusual pasta that went well with the prized fish. This preparation was his personal favorite. A paired course, Ravioli di Ricotta con Caciotta Toscana, was velvety pecorino cheese melted over house made Sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli. A drizzle of Marsala wine glaze added extra depth as layered textures melted in the mouth. The ravioli was the favorite dish of Adrian, another of my servers for the evening.
Strozzapreti con Rombo and Ravioli di Ricotta con Caciotta Toscana (l-r)
Risotto al Nero di Seppia ai Frutti di Mare was a rice dish made with cuttlefish ink, the base for a bounty of seafood: clams, scallops, shrimp, lobster, cuttlefish, and octopus. The risotto was creamy, the grains soft yet separate. Quality olive oil contributed an overall nutty flavor. Penne con Ragu di Crostacei was penne pasta in a light tomato sauce flavored with white wine. Shrimp comprised half the dish, which also included wisps of crab and lobster meat.
Risotto al Nero di Seppia ai Frutti di Mare and Penne con Ragu di Crostacei (l-r)
Maurizio gave me an entire sea bream for the spectacular Pesce al Sale Profomato, a whole fish encased in an aromatic salt crust mixed with fennel pollen, star anise, lemon and orange zest, and egg white. The dish is served tableside by the assistant manager, cracked open to reveal the piscene flesh. Moist, flavorful fillets are draped on a mound of baby zucchini over which is gently poured a lemon and olive oil sauce.
Pesce al Sale Profomato
Aromatic salt crust
Dessert is one of my passions, but four hours later I could scarcely finish the delectable Sinfonia di Dolci. I looked on with amazement as three trays from the restaurant’s gelateria were laid in front me. Made fresh each day, these were three permutations of frozen confection in three different flavors: gelati (chocolate, nocciola, zabaglione), sorbetti (apricot, mango, raspberry), and granite (pineapple, strawberry, moscato).
Zabaglione Ghiacciato al Torrone al Cioccolato Amaro e Arancia was placed alongside the frozen desserts. The semi-frozen zabaglione was a beautifully complex dessert made from torrone sabayon, bitter chocolate, and sugared orange zest. A traditional Ligurian lemon cake followed, garnished with rosemary gelato and a sweet balsamic syrup.
Sinfonia di Dolci
I wanted to bring all the sweets with me upstairs, but they were perishable. Happily, though, the restaurant gave me a parting gift. The takeaway container held a bite-sized piece of dark chocolate and of milk chocolate, a tuile, and a mini shortbread cookie. I would savor the desserts for breakfast the next morning and, like Proust, my senses would transport me to the magical event of the night before.
Gift from Bartolotta
Given the sheer beauty of the restaurant setting, the highly intuitive service of the staff, and the pure and essential nature of the excellent cuisine, Bartolotta impressed me as a quintessentially sensory Strange Tango experience: Proust meets Zagat in a foodie’s paradise.
The preparations may appear deceptively simple with relatively few ingredients; however, Bartolotta’s signature style is best characterized as the elevation of refined, unadorned seafood. Bartolotta has mastered elegant simplicity—not easily achieved and requiring great skill and experience to accomplish.
My first day in Las Vegas was a notable success. I had taken in and savored the best of what this fantasyland presented to its international visitors. Gone were the kitschy conceptions of Vegas as exclusively a gambler’s domain. The new Vegas was a vision of world-class, sensory immersion: where everything from food to architecture was designed to satisfy the senses, to prompt a long-forgotten memory. In my room, I opened the curtain to view the heavens through the panoramic window and sleep beneath the stars. Snuggled in my comfortable bed, I slumbered deeply until dawn.
The view from my pillow at dawn.
Thursday, August 2
Room #25023 and view from my window at the Bellagio.
My trusted travel agent told me the Bellagio was his favorite hotel in Las Vegas. For this reason, I transferred from the Wynn to spend two nights at the Bellagio. At check-in, I was specially greeted by a front desk manager and given complimentary turndown service. My newly refurbished room in the main tower overlooked the pool and private villas.
When the hotel opened in 1998, the property was considered the most luxurious in the city. The elegant lakeside setting was inspired by the town of Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy. If you saw the Star Wars trilogy, Princess Amidala’s home planet of Naboo was also modeled after Bellagio.
The Fountains of Bellagio is a choreographed water dance in the middle of the grand lake that is a spectacle of sight, sound, and at night, color. Artist Dale Chihuly’s hand-blown glass flowers on the lobby ceiling are another signature attraction.
I actually spent little time at the hotel. For the next three days, my home away from home was the UNITY NewU Startup Loft, an innovative program that helps journalists of color become media owners.
Doug Mitchell is the Co-Project Director for this ambitious project and a fellow Oklahoman. Keynote speakers were Ben Huh, the internet virologist who is the Founder/CEO of Cheezburger.com and Sumaya Kazi, an award-winning, young entrepreneur who is the Founder/CEO of Sumazi. Latoya Peterson of Racialicious spoke about blogging and bringing your blog to the next level by monetizing. The program also offered panels on angels, VCs and foundations, social entrepreneurship, demos, pitches, and business development as well as opportunities in mentoring and networking.
At NewU, I learned that 95% of startups are tech startups, with only 5% in the media space. I was a student in the first interactive multimedia course taught at the Boston University College of Communication in 1994. However, only in 2009 was the technology readily available to produce a website that could support my vision. As a multimedia pioneer, I decided to position Strange Tango: Life as Art in the cultural, literary, and creative space as a showcase for my inspirations, photography, and writings. The first literary conceptual art installation in cyberspace, Strange Tango continuously evolves to incorporate leading edge technologies.
My packed itinerary meant I had to skip breakfast and lunch. Fortunately, I had brought organic nutrition bars on the trip for such occasions. While leaving the convention center, I passed by Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood, also in Mandalay Bay. Chef Moonen was a contestant on Top Chef Masters and is an advocate for sustainable seafood. The restaurant was on my initial list of places to try, and the half-price Happy Hour menu served in the lounge was a perfect respite.
The counter where I sat was a cool, still space. The wine director had given the bartender the night off and was filling in for him. The art of crafting a cocktail makes use of a wide range of surprising ingredients to create amazing flavor profiles. When I dine, I sometimes match a cocktail to my food. I might also imbibe liquid in lieu of ordering dessert if the dessert menu is limited. The restaurant had adopted this same concept. RM Seafood takes its cocktails seriously. A future program will offer a cocktail pairing with appetizers, instead of the traditional wine pairing.
I ordered the Rhode Island Style Calamari with sweet and spicy cherry peppers and the Crab Cake Slider on a brioche bun with chipotle aioli and heirloom tomato. A summery choice of cocktail was the Straw Hut made with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, St. Germain liqueur with wild elderflower blossoms picked in the Alps, fresh pressed pineapple, Bittermans Tiki Bitters, lime, almond-flavored Orgeat syrup with a touch of orange water, and mint.
Rhode Island Style Calamari and Straw Hut cocktail
The calamari was Chef Moonen’s interpretation of the classic, spicy hot dish popularized in Rhode Island. The breading was light and crisp and the flavors more refined. The delectable crab cake had chunks of lump crab meat. Both appetizers paired beautifully with the cocktail’s clean, refreshing flavors.
Crab Cake Slider and Lehigh Cocktail
To finish off my meal, I was curious about the Lehigh cocktail. The list of ingredients was intriguing: Spicebox whiskey, hibiscus infused honey, fresh thyme, Angostura, and lavender spice bitters. I told the wine director he was brave to offer a concoction that included fresh thyme. The cocktail was quite heavy with herbal overtones and not at all laced with sweetness. I had the sense the drink was inspired by the taste of mead, a modern-day version of what was consumed in medieval times. Perhaps they were offering the Lehigh as a trial run: he mentioned that another of the restaurant’s programs would resuscitate old cocktail recipes.
RM Seafood was a serendipitous layover prior to a late dinner at Raku with Mai and Venice Buhain, a Local Editor at the Bellevue Patch in Washington state.
Chef Mitsuo Endo had been a semifinalist in the James Beard Award categories of Best Chef Southwest and Best New Restaurant. While sushi is a popular and ubiquitous Japanese creation Raku, which translates as “enjoyment” in Japanese, is a robata charcoal grill house that does not serve sushi or sashimi. I viewed a meal here as a rare chance to explore authentic Japanese tavern food created by a master chef.
Weeks before UNITY’s opening exercises, I had posted on the Facebook page of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) about the Strange Tango Foodie Tour. I invited any adventurous culinary souls to join me. Mai had stepped up, and she brought Venice along with her. As a result, the cost for beverages, eight courses, and the tip would come to approximately $40 per person for a transportive and sublime foodie experience.
We took a cab from the hotel to a mini-mall in Chinatown. The restaurant was like a cool nightclub—a jewel box that might be found in the Ginza district of Tokyo. There was room for a scant seven tables and seats at the bar. We realized then how fortunate we were to have made reservations in advance for this popular boîte.
Based on our server’s recommendation, Mai selected the Junmai Suijin, a premium sake that tasted smooth and balanced. We also shared a bottle of premium natural spring water imported from Japan. In short order, flavorsome dishes were brought out of the kitchen, starting with robata skewers of Dakimi Chicken Breast Wrapped with Chicken Skin and Kobe Beef Fillet with Wasabi. The chicken skewers held moist and succulent chicken breast wrapped in crispy skin. The seasoning was simple, only salt, leaving an explosion of poultry essence in the mouth. The tender Wagyu beef was grilled until medium rare and juicy. Authentic wasabi was the only dressing needed.
Dakimi Chicken Breast wrapped with Chicken Skin
Kobe Beef Fillet with Wasabi
Next came an elegant presentation of Yellowtail Carpaccio with tiny dollops of hot pepper sauce and shiso sauce on the sliced fish, accompanied by a spoonful of homemade soy sauce. This was a delicious rendition of a hamachi sashimi.
An authentic bowl of miso soup was prepared with homemade dashi stock, tofu, enoki mushrooms, and thinly sliced scallions. The smooth, robust flavor of this traditional, homey Japanese stock cannot be replicated by taking short-cuts.
Yummy Miso Soup made with dashi.
Ikura Don is a salmon roe rice bowl. Plump salmon roe is artistically garnished with shiso leaf, shredded nori seaweed, and wasabi. The treatment is very simple and relies on the freshest ingredients.
With its celadon tint, green tea soba noodles are traditionally served on special occasions. The Cold Green Tea Soba with Poached Egg had the right amount of depth and chewiness, nestled in a light broth of dashi, soy, and mirin and topped with a free range egg, ribbons of shaved bonito, and shredded nori.
Cold Green Tea Soba with Poached Egg
An appetizer that is a traditional vinegar dish, Raku’s decorative version of sunomono included cucumber, spirals of spaghetti squash, konbu, and transparent noodle threads sprinkled with baby anchovies.
Cucumber and Seaweed Sunomono
We ended the meal with a beguiling platter of Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe. The instructions were to stir together the salmon roe, sea urchin, egg, enoki mushrooms, and sliced okra, but I preferred to first deconstruct and taste each component separately. The velvety sea urchin left a briny trace in the mouth, a sign of absolute freshness.
Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe
On my next visit, I must try Raku’s kaiseki, 15 courses for $150. Kaiseki, which I first experienced in Kyoto, is an exquisitely artistic tradition—a multi-course dinner that changes with the seasons.
It was past midnight as I arrived at the hotel. When I began planning the foodie excursion some weeks ago, Raku was one of the first restaurants added to my list. Raku’s reputation as a favorite hangout for local chefs to congregate and enjoy their food, the use of uncompromising, quality ingredients, and the reasonable cost for such an impressive array of food was to me a formula for success.
Venice and Mai (l-r)
Friday, August 3
Having settled in at the Bellagio, I awakened early and set out to have breakfast and to photograph my surroundings. I looked forward to the pastries at Jean Philippe Patisserie, a European-style pastry shop by Jean-Philippe Maury who is a master patisserie chef from France. The Aria Hotel has the best assortment of his beautifully crafted pastries and extravagant cakes, but the Bellagio outpost is notable for the world’s largest chocolate fountain, certified by Guinness World Records. The sculpture reaches from floor to ceiling and is fully encased in glass. Like Proust, I made a charming repast from the café au lait, sugar brioche, and cherry danish. In classic French style, the pastries were airy, flaky, and not cloyingly sweet.
Chocolate fountain and extravagant cake
I caught a ride from the Bellagio to the Mandalay Bay on the Deuce, a modern, double decker bus that makes frequent stops along the Las Vegas strip. $7 is the cost for a 24-Hour All Access Pass. The same pass could also be used on the Express, a sleek bus that makes far fewer stops on the same route.
After my Friday UNITY sessions, I met up with Athima Chansanchai, a writer at Microsoft in Redmond, WA and former editor/producer of Tech-Sci stories at MSNBC.com. Tima is another of my virtual Facebook friends who became a personal friend after I featured her on Strange Tango. Meeting over small plates would be our first face-to-face introduction.
miX Lounge had the advantage of being located at the site of the convention. The Mandalay Bay establishment is famed French chef Alain Ducasse’s presence on the Las Vegas gastronomy scene, and the restaurant and lounge generated serious buzz for its futuristic, architectural audacity. To reach the 64th floor space, guests enter exterior, glass elevators that shoot up along the side of the building, giving the sensation of speed and dislocation experienced at an amusement park ride. Spectacular views of the Las Vegas playground are spread before you.
We arrived early in the evening, before the nightly party started, and had a choice of seating at the restaurant, on the outdoor patio, or at a small table near the bar. Tima had a Violet cocktail made with Absolut Raspberry, Hpnotiq, raspberry brandy, and pineapple juice. My White Sand Sangria was a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Grand Marnier, mango/lychee, and orange juice. The cocktail had a crispness and acidity that was a good foil for the substantial small plates we consumed.
Tima especially liked the Sweet & Sour Duck Spring Rolls. The savory stuffing was generous and the wrapper was nicely browned. A delicious dipping sauce was a nice accompaniment. The Short Rib Sliders with fresh coleslaw was also tasty and filling, glazed over with the right amount of sauce. The Shrimp Cocktail with horseradish and spicy tomato syrup, though, was surprising. The dish deconstructed the expected taste and presentation of a shrimp cocktail. Spicy tomato syrup gave a lighter taste and flavor to the dish than the traditional preparation. The shrimp was cooked to perfection.
Sweet & Sour Duck Spring Rolls, Shrimp Cocktail, Short Rib Sliders (clockwise)
Friday night was my remaining opportunity for a significant dinner. I had hoped to partake of the degustation menu at the flagship restaurant of Joël Robuchon, who is generally ranked with Guy Savoy as the two best chefs in Las Vegas. The lavish restaurant is housed in a mansion at the MGM Grand, and each female guest is given a gift to take home. Surely, this had the makings of a remarkable sensory experience. Regrettably, the restaurant was closed until the end of August, so I tabled the plan until my next visit to Las Vegas.
Sushi and sashimi are two of my favorite meals, and living in the landlocked state of Oklahoma means that I must order sushi quality seafood directly from San Diego and make my own. Fortunately, at Masayoshi Takayama’s barMASA, I would have the opportunity to devour exquisite sushi presided over by a three-star Michelin chef.
A short tram ride connects the Bellagio to the Aria Resort and Casino. From there, barMASA is just off the lobby. The cavernous restaurant with a vaulted ceiling has been compared to an airplane hangar. I rightly saw the space as an example of post-modern Japanese architecture using natural materials of wood, stone, and concrete. Rather than sensing a cold and uninviting environment, I felt I was dining inside a contemporary museum.
The Early Evening menu features an 8-item bento box for $49 that is ideal for pre-theater dining. Since it was already later in the evening, I decided to select seafood species that are harder for me to source back home. I told the server I was photographing my meal for my website/blog, and the staff intuitively accommodated me by presenting the artfully prepared selections on beautiful serving pieces that were made in and imported from Japan.
Dinner began with the Shiso Kawaii, a Japanese version of a mojito. I have a refined palate, but the complex flavors were an indefinable symphony of shochu, fresh shiso leaf, yuzu sour, and topped with soda water.
The Kanpachi Sotomaki with jalapeño and fried potato julienne was a revelation. The seasoning permeated the julienned potatoes, which were a bright gold color and had the texture of krill or baby anchovies. Thinly sliced jalapenos provided just the right bite.
Perfectly fresh tai sea bream sashimi, aji horse mackerel sashimi, and tarabagani king crab sashimi were artfully arranged in a ponderous stone bowl. Tobiko flying fish roe sushi shone alone. Freshly grated, authentic wasabi was placed alongside the house-made gari, thinly sliced young ginger used to cleanse the palate.
Tobiko, tai, aji, and tarabagani (clockwise)
Only one single, perfect piece of each fish was needed to transport me. The craft and care taken with every aspect of my dining experience simply, purely, filled the senses.
The server asked how I enjoyed my meal, and I expressed my admiration. Chef Masa was in the kitchen that night, and she would convey my feedback. From one artist and aesthete to another, he would appreciate how I noticed the details.
Saturday, August 4
The Wynn Buffet
Saturday morning found me at the Wynn again, attempting to retrieve my cell phone charger. I wanted to settle the debate over the best buffet in Las Vegas by checking out the Wynn Buffet. The weekend dinner buffet offers an expanded carving station and crab legs, and although I did not actually have time for Saturday brunch before heading to my final sessions at UNITY, management let me inside to photograph the appetizing displays. The aromas wafting from the 16 stations, the visual feast, the extravagant dining area, and the efficient movement in the lines were enough to convince me that the Wynn deserved the title.
16 food stations at the Wynn Buffet.
I also made a quick detour to the Bouchon Bakery, über chef Thomas Keller’s boulangerie at the nearby Venetian Hotel. Even if you cannot afford a meal at Per Se or The French Laundry, the same sense of perfection is brought to the baked goods. I picked out a boxed set of mini Parisian macarons in assorted flavors and epi bread to bring back as gifts. I also decided to brown bag my lunch with a selection of Red Velvet Cupcake, Fruit Tart, and San Pellegrino aranciata rossa blood orange and pompelmo grapefruit sparkling beverages.
The Bouchon Bakery is perfect for a quick bite.
The final hours in Vegas. Over four highly productive days at UNITY, I had no time to shop at a mall, visit a spa, or sit by a pool. Yet, I had managed to snatch memorable, evocative moments in the daily stream of hyperactivity. I had one last stop to make before I caught my flight home. An hour before my late check-out at the Bellagio and departure for the airport, I ascended the moving sidewalk next door to the Cosmopolitan and made a beeline for an eatery that high school friend Vicki Henderson Nixon had given a rave review.
The soul of China Poblano is a vibrant and colorfully lit urban landscape with pulsing music sung in Spanish. The entire space is an art installation commentary on art, politics, and society. Iconic images of artist Frida Kahlo and Chairman Mao are projected on framed screens. Red lanterns, figurines, and vintage bicycle wheels attached to the ceiling evoke a symbolic language.
Acclaimed Spanish chef José Andrés envisioned the China Poblano concept not as the fusion of two different cultures, but as dual compatible cuisines. The menu features familiar native dishes such as noodles and taco, plus a nod to poetically named creations with literary antecedents, Like Water for Chocolate—and historical references, Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors.
I savored the Barbacoa de Res Taco, the filling an Oaxacan-style barbequed beef with guajillo chile and pickled cactus paddle, and the Cochinita Taco, consisting of a Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork with marinated onions. A chilled glass of deliciously authentic horchata capped off a memorable meal.
China Poblano, aesthetically speaking, accomplished what UNITY does as well: that journalists of different cultures and traditions can come together in contrapunctal relationship and create an integrated whole. As such, it was truly fitting for China Poblano to be the last stop on the Strange Tango Foodie Tour.
The last stop on the Strange Tango Foodie Tour of Las Vegas.
Lotus of Siam (Downtown): 6 dishes and beverages for 2 - $76.96
Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare (Wynn): degustation menu range is $145 – $175, plus extras
RM Seafood (Mandalay Bay): 2 appetizers and 2 cocktails – $26.71
Raku (Chinatown): 8 dishes, a bottle of sake, and 2 bottles of water for 3 – $101.40
Jean Philippe Patisserie (Bellagio): café au lait and 2 pastries – $13.24
miX Lounge (Mandalay Bay): 3 small plates and cocktails for 2 – $60.27
barMASA (Aria): 5 types of sushi and sashimi and cocktail – $68.10
Wynn Buffet (Wynn): Friday and Saturday night buffet with crab legs – $39.95
Bouchon Bakery (Venetian): 2 tarts and a cupcake – $19.10
China Poblano (Cosmopolitan): 2 tacos and horchata – $16.97