TO LIVE & DIE IN LA: A WYNN/LOSE SITUATION IN LAS VEGAS
It wasn’t even a particularly great box of chocolates, but I forced my lips to form a thin smile as my intended beamed at me. Who was I to complain? My own Christmas gifts to Sybil were very much of the “never mind, honey, it’s the thought that counts” variety. Added to which I am forever doomed to live under the shadow of shame created by the gifts offered for her last birthday which consisted entirely of two gourmet salamis (for the record, the word “gourmet” did not help any and said presents have now gone down amongst her friends as the worst in recorded history)
Still, Hershey’s or no, I was sure the chocolates would soon be eaten and nodded in appreciation. Then I noticed something pasted on to the top of the box. Being slow of body and mind, the blurred picture of Steve Wynn’s eponymous hotel on The Strip did not compute at first and it took a few moments to sink in that Sybil’s donation to my Christmas happiness came in the form of a trip to Vegas. Suddenly the key ring complete with images of me gurning romantically began to look even more useless.
Vegas, you either love it or hate it. I know Syb falls very much into the latter group so the fact that she had overcome her dislike for the fastest growing city in the US made her gift even more generous. I, on the other hand adore Vegas. I always have since my first visit a decade ago and although I can only take the craziness of the city in irregular small doses and always leave saying “well that’s done Vegas for me” I soon find myself looking forward to a return.
Neither Sybil nor I have any interest in gambling (unless you count eating at new restaurants in LA as a wager), which left only one other option to fill our time during our two-day stay. Eating, of course. Why, what else could you possibly imagine I meant, you filthy lot?
Despite our different opinions of Las Vegas, One thing we both agreed on was that our experiences of dining in the hotels of The Strip had been underwhelming. So, instead of booking tables at restaurants bearing the names of famous chefs who probably visit once a year if you are lucky, we decided to ask ourselves “What would Sammy do?” and looked to two local favourites for our planned meals.
The Lotus of Siam, situated, just east of The Strip in a dreary strip mall, is one of the most famous Thai restaurants in the US, with many including Jonathan Gold, hailing it as the best in North America. Its reputation is right up there with Jitlada in LA, Sriprapphai in New York and Arun in Chicago. Quite frankly, after a five-hour drive through the Mojave Desert, it’s reputation mattered a lot less than the fact that it was open and had a spare table.
We turned down the opportunity to sample their budget lunchtime buffet and instead began leafing through a novel length menu, which listed nearly a hundred dishes including daily chef’s specials and Isarn dishes from Northern Thailand.
My knowledge of Thai food is limited to that of the enthusiastic amateur, but when it comes to Mee Krob, no man tests this blogger. The example produced by Lotus of Siam is one of the best I have tried anywhere, the perfect combination of crisp deep fried rice noodles with a sweet/sour sauce made sharp with som saa. The sort of dish that is so distinct and, well just plain tasty, you are still thinking about it days later.
Less impressive was another of Lotus’s famous dishes Nam Kao Tod, another deep fried carb, this time in the form of rice mixed with minced Thai sausage, chilli, ginger and lime juice. It was more to my taste than Sybil’s who declared it “greasy” a word she was to use more than once during the meal and perhaps a different starter may have been advisable.
Main courses all disappointed in various ways. Kang Care, a Northern Thai red Curry had layer upon layer of flavour in the broth but little evidence of the pork we had requested. If you have been reading the blog for the last couple of years, you will know that absence of pork does not promote good humour in my betrothed.
A special of “soft shell crab with drunken noodles” was perhaps one deep fried dish too far and elicited that word “greasy” again from Sybil this time for the noodles, which she pushed over to me in an all too rare act of food generosity. Squid in a sauce of garlic and coriander leaf could have been a winner if eating the main ingredient had not felt like chewing on a pair of carpet slippers and most of the dish remained on the plate by the time they came to clear the table.
An hour later and $75 the poorer, we left the acclaimed Lotus of Siam feeling “full, but not in a good way” as Syb put it so well. So much so that the food still sat heavily on our stomachs that evening and made any thoughts of supper improbable. Controversial it may be, but when it comes to Thai food, give me Jitlada any day.
The next morning, after an uncomfortable night’s sleep aided by the gurgling of oily Thai food in our bellies, we woke up as the sun began to rise over the desert and light up the hotels of The Strip. The rooms at the Wynn really are very lovely indeed and I could have drank in the view from the twenty sixth floor all day. However, having gone twenty hours and a bit without food, Sybil was unlikely to let that happen and we were soon showered and out on a route march from one end of Las Vegas Boulevard to the other.
The most impressive thing about Las Vegas as far as I am concerned is its ability to continually reinvent itself. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the sight of the astonishing array of new casinos that have begun to appear on The Strip like a second set of teeth pushing out the old. The old themed casinos like Circus Circus, The Luxor and Excalibur are beginning to look their age and some have disappeared already to be replaced by resorts whose only theme seems to be a staggering level of opulence. The Wynn and its sibling, Encore are impressive, so too is Bellagio, where I once stayed with HP before a big boxing match. But, there is a new sheriff in town and its name is Aria, a truly stunning building, both inside and out and once which prompts the question “surely they can’t get anymore ritzy than this?” It is no doubt a question Las Vegas will answer soon as we saw plenty of building work to suggest that they have not finished just yet.
Sybil felt cheated out of a supper, so we fitted in two brief meals during our long walk. The first, a shared breakfast at Serendipity was noteworthy only for its charming service and for serving an omelette stuffed with chips, an idea of considerable genius. A later snack at BLT Burger in The Mirage may not have been the best I have eaten, but still convinced that America’s average burger is still well above the best the U.K has to offer. They kindly provided a postcard printed with a guide to the perfect burger in case anyone from Byron is reading the blog.
More walking and another nap later, we were ready for supper. One of the highlights on my previous visit to the city had been Rosemary’s Restaurant, a local favourite some seven or so miles West of The Strip. It had proved a pleasing alternative to meals at the resorts where the fact you were unlikely to return meant that both the food and service could be, and often was, below par.
I was keen to return and we made a reservation for 8.30pm. Unfortunately, making reservations does not seem to count for much when as restaurant is as popular as Rosemary’s and fifteen minutes after arriving, we were still sitting at the bar becoming more and more agitated. By the time we had finally been shown to our table it would be a lie to claim that a certain amount of sheen had not been rubbed off our evening. It was added too as we waited to order. Service was oddly formal and, even more oddly given that we had two servers, could have been measured with a calendar rather than a watch.
The food too did not seem quite how I remembered. Few things are, I guess. Bread, when we prompted them to bring it, and an amuse of goats cheese on a fried wan ton, did little to lift the spirits and it wasn’t until my starter arrived that I realised why I liked Rosemary’s so much on my last visit. “Hugo’s Texas BBQ Shrimp” was a real winner. Plump seafood in a tangy sauce sitting on top of delicious coleslaw where the crunch of the vegetables worked perfectly with a sharp Maytag blue cheese.
Sybil’s choice was, in her own words “not so good”. Crab boullettes came crusted in Panko and on a slick of Ravigote sauce, made slightly acidic with the addition of white wine vinegar. It was a competently executed dish, but hardly enough to convince Sybil that the drive had been worthwhile. Nor indeed was her added salad course which seemed entirely bereft of the advertised hazelnuts.
The main event in her main course, a “Grilled Pork Chop with Hoppin’ John & Creole Mustard Reduction Sauce” was an excellent piece of meat, although she winced at the amount of salt that had been added. The bed of “Hoppin’ John” that Southern combo of rice, green onions and black-eyed peas was every bit as good as I remembered and I stole more than my fair share from her plate.
The fact that my own main course, a “Creole Grilled Rib-Eye” had me leaving pieces of cold fat at the side of my plate was as much my fault as the restaurants. It came perfectly prepared, rare with a char, but rib-eye is a well marbled cut and should be cooked to medium rare to let the fat melt into the meat. Perhaps they should have suggested that, but just as much perhaps I should have known better particularly given how much beef I eat.
The steak came served on a mound of grits, which I shall add to a list including Allan Carr and Breville Sandwich toasters of things I just don’t get. My main complaint however was the enthusiastic addition of “Rosemary’s Own Steak Sauce” which over powered the meat, sloshing around the plate and threatening to take the crunch from some excellent shoestring onion rings.
Sybil’s addition of salad had taken her to the three-course prix fix limit, but she shared my dessert of a terrific little cheesecake with a little more passion than she had the rest of her meal and then began work on some petit fours which proved too much for me. With a glass of wine for her and a few soft drinks for me, the bill came to a whopping $155 including tip. Uninspiring mid-level dining is becoming an expensive business in the US it would appear.
The drive back to Los Angeles the next day was a tortuous one as we joined the hordes of motorists returning after the holidays. Sybil turned to me as we left the Las Vegas city limits and said “That’s me done with Las Vegas”. I turned to her as she concentrated on the road ahead and said “me too”. She smiled knowing that only one of us meant it.
She was absolutely right. I may be done with Vegas for now, but give it a couple of years and I shall be itching to get back. As ever, it wont be to gamble and, based on this visit, it probably wont be for the food, but I can’t wait to see what they make of the place in the next few years.
The perfect Christmas present, Sybil. If I may venture, it was even better than two gourmet salamis.