Face it: we all eat too much meat. No one loves a great rib eye or cheeseburger more than yours truly, but consuming them isn’t good for our arteries, the planet or the cows. That’s where seafood comes in. People usually don’t associate great seafood with Las Vegas, and if you asked your average tourist, they’d claim buffets and steak houses as Sin City’s most iconic eats. But thanks to the wonders of modern transportation, and exotic, flown-in fare from around the world, seafood-centric chefs are plating a number of dishes that compete with anything you can find on the coasts. Las Vegas may be 286 miles from the closest ocean, but each of these taste like it just jumped from the water and onto your plate.
EMERIL’S CRAB CAKE
Resembling more of a tower than a patty, Emeril Lagasse’s jumbo lump beauty is an architectural marvel – big, buttery chunks of Maryland Blue suspended by the merest wisp of filler, capped with crunchy bread crumbs, and served with either a classic, coat-your-arteries remoulade, or a lighter, piquant relish in the warmer months. The fun comes in toppling that structure to reveal an almost disconcerting amount of plump crustacean within.
MILOS CARABINEROS ROSE SHRIMP
How red can seafood get? How delicious can shrimp be? These are but two of the questions that will be answered by your first bite of these Portuguese beauties. The third will be: How do I properly suck the head of a decapod? Why, with a dollop of sherry poured into the decapitated space, of course! The staff will happily guide you, and the impromptu shot of bisque you create will be a revelation in shrimp intensity
MR. CHOW DOVER SOLE
Urbane, theatrical, and expensive, Mr. Chow may be the perfect embodiment of the Strip’s culinary resurgence since the great recession. Its rice wine-steamed Dover sole might be Chinese fish at its most understated and elegant. The English and French may do wonderful things with this dense, cold water swimmer, but steaming it brings out a delicate, velvety smoothness that the Chinese prize above all else. All it takes is a little soy sauce and some bits of green garnish to complete a fish dish fit for the gods.
Genichi Mizoguchi, or Gen-san to his regulars, has singlehandedly turned Spring Mountain Road into a mecca for serious sushi hounds. First at Kabuto and now at Yui – his own restaurant – he features only the best fish from Japan or the west coast, each variety sliced and formed into the most ethereal combination of fish on rice that was ever popped into one’s mouth. This is minimalist, purist sushi, but whatever he’s slicing (and every night there are over a dozen featured species) it will be the best you can get this far east of the Far East. P.S. Yui Edomae Sushi celebrates its one year anniversary this week.
ANDIRON LOBSTER ROLL
Oh, Andiron lobster roll, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: Is it your soft, squishy, split-buttered bun? The rosy red-white chunks of shellfish? Barely held together by mayo? The crunch of celery? The wisp of dill? Truth be told, it is all of these things and more. The lobster roll at Andiron is the perfect evocation of sitting on a picnic table by the Connecticut (or Rhode Island or Massachusetts) shore, with the brisk salinity of an Atlantic breeze in your hair, eating the most iconic and American of foodstuffs. There should be nothing skimpy about the meat, and nothing too overpowering about the seasonings or binder. It should be all about the lobster, tucked and overflowing out of that beautiful bun. And here it is.
Once in a while, I’m able to eat out anonymously and see how the other 99.99% live. It doesn’t happen often – I get spotted everywhere these days, even sometimes in Chinatown – but when I can sneak in and experience restaurant service the way most people do, I am, to put it mildly, appalled.
Exhibit A: A brand new Indian restaurant in downtown Las Vegas. Two visits; two head-scratching experiences. Visit number one found me as the only diner in the place. I ordered two beers off the list; they were out of both of them.
I ordered a gin and tonic. “We have that!” and everyone sighed in relief.
I placed my order…and it took for…ev…er for the food to appear.
In an Indian restaurant.
Where I was the only person in the joint.
Getting the check was as challenging as getting the food, with my waitron apparently preoccupied with all of those other people who weren’t eating there. Visit number two was even worse. The food came faster, but the waitron disappeared multiple times, again taking care of who-knows-who. (The two other people seated were as lonely as I was.) When it came time to pay, I got her attention (if memory serves) by waving my underwear and singing the Star Spangled Banner.
When I finally get the bill, it has an item on it that was ordered and never delivered. To make matters worse, after I got home I found that they double-charged my account (for the price of the entire meal – $104) after someone disappeared for another 20 minutes to supposedly “fix things.”
Exhibit B: A brand new pub-restaurant on east Charleston serving English meat pies. Two different waitresses ask me three times if I want water. Water never shows. Ten minutes go by. Finally it does and I order. The soup comes reasonably fast, but a single meat pie takes for….ev…er. (Did I mention there were only six other people in the restaurant? And three of them were already eating?)
Three different sauces were offered with my meat pie, but I got the mustard cream whether I wanted it or not.
My dirty soup plate sat in front of me throughout the meal. Only when I was ready to pay did someone ask if I’d like a water re-fill. And for all I know, those dirty dishes are still sitting there.
A menu, some water, a little attention, the check — IT’S NOT THAT HARD, PEOPLE! If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone who does. Or don’t open your doors until you do.
You remember Mandalay Bay, don’t you? It was once a mega-hotel on par with the Wynn, Bellagio, and Caesars Palace when it came to top-shelf, drop dead delicious food. When it opened in 1999, it boasted a murders row of chefs and restaurants that went toe to toe with the likes of Le Cirque, Picasso, Michael Mina and anything Wolfgang Puck, Emeril, or Bobby Flay could throw at you. Piero Selvaggio had a pasta shop in the mall that was second to none, Hubert Keller killed it nightly in a gorgeous room, and Rick Moonen could sling the freshest of fish with the best of them. When Alain Ducasse crowned the top of THE Hotel with his miX Restaurant and Bar in 2004, it capped one of the most impressive lineups of chefs (absentee or otherwise) of any hotel in the country.
Then, something happened. Call it complacency, call it competition, but when Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire planted their flags here between 2005-2009, you could almost feel the wind go out of the MB sails. And when the recession of 2008 hit, something really happened. The high end customer base shrank considerably (there’s only so many aspirational gourmets out there ready to pay big bucks for fancy food), and pretty soon the entire hotel seemed to go into a downsizing funk. Charlie Palmer’s Four Season steakhouse was eclipsed by a dozen others, miX and Moonen’s high-end seafood lost their audience, and Aureole got stale. Before you could say “credit default swaps,” Fleur de Lys threw tacky “art” on the walls and started serving tacos, and the entire hotel looked like it was headed to the middle-brow mediocrity of Luxor-land.
Well, praise the lord and pass the mashed potatoes, because things have changed. Moonen re-booted himself with his rX Boiler Room (and by bringing in the talented Sean Collins to run both it and his seafood cafe), Charlie Palmer STEAK has gotten a facelift and a menu lift (from chef Tom Griese), and the new Libertine Social blends the dynamic cooking duo of Shawn McClain and Richard Camarota with über-mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim into a zeitgeist cocktail of haute casual eating and drinking. Add to this the continuing excellence of joints that have never wavered — Border Grill and Strip Steak — and you have a hotel that has recaptured its mojo. Even that old warhorse Aureole is getting into the act, re-doing the decor and bringing in local legend Johnny Church to rejuvenate the kitchen.
I still haven’t forgiven the F&B bigwigs for what they forced Fleur de Lys to do (go from fabulous French to so-so small plates), and what Ducasse did with miX is inexcusable (it’s now an overpriced Italian restaurant that looks like a coffee shop, albeit one with the greatest view in town), but with the veteran Emmanuel Cornet now in charge of food and beverage, I’m starting to think Mandalay Bay might once again become my go-to food and booze hangout, just like it was a decade ago.