L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas

A picture post is what’s needed here. I’ve written at some length about the London Atelier, and one of the lovely things about Robuchon’s globe-circling string of restaurants is that service, the food itself, the décor and the ambience are absolutely consistent across the lot of them; a long post about the restaurant here would just be repetitious. We visited the Vegas Atelier at MGM Grand, helmed by chef Steve Benjamin, for our wedding anniversary. We pushed the boat out with two different tasting menus: the nine-course Menu Decouverte de Saison ($155) and the five-course Menu Club ($95), both of which we shared. It’s a good way to try a handsome cross-section of the restaurant’s menu, only semi-bankrupting yourself in the process. Wine pairings with Menu Decouverte are $105; the Club pairing is a relatively bargainsome $65. In the end, we went for a couple of Kir Royales to start things off with, and a bottle of J Vineyards‘ superb vintage brut to jolly the food along – a much less expensive option than champagne, and a meticulously made, gorgeously complex, appley, toasty mouthful. As far as I can make out, the J Vineyard (which is in California’s Russian River Valley) doesn’t yet have a UK presence. Somebody should get in there and start representing them over here quickly – this stuff’s joyous.

Here are some highlights from the two tasting menus.

Le Crabe Royale
Le Crabe Royale - king crab on a mooli slice with aigre-doux. The mooli and radish strips make for a wonderful textural contrast with the crab, which is heavily scented with fresh chervil.
La Saint-Jacques - scallop cooked in the shell with chive oil and a little cracked pepper. In contrast to some of the more complicated dishes, this showcased two lucid flavours: sweet, barely-cooked scallop and grassy chives.
La Langoustine - crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto. Not so much pesto as a very intense raw basil purée. The textures, exceptionally fresh shellfish (how do they do this in the desert?) and herbs and colours added up to something magical.
La Cebette
La Cebette - white onion tart with smoked bacon and asparagus. My favourite dish of the evening (unfortunately, you can see I lost control and took a huge mouthful before remembering to photograph it). The platonic tarte flamiche, all soft caramelised sweetness, crisp feuille de brick, butter, smoke and cream. I think they serve these in heaven.
L'Oeuf - egg cocotte topped with a mushroom cream. The mushroom cream was described as "light" - it was anything but. A glossy, buttery, rich, dense soup over an airy egg base.
La Sole
La Sole - Dover sole fillet, baby leeks with ginger. Dover sole is one of those ingredients which is at its best treated very simply, as here, where it was sautéed gently in butter. In any other restaurant this would have been a stand-out - here it was one of the less exciting courses we had, which speaks volumes for the exceptional stuff which comes out of the kitchen.
La Volaille
La Volaille - roast chicken Thai style with spicy green curry and coconut. Moist flesh, crisp skin, some sweet roasted veggies and a smooth, dense green curry sauce whose creaminess owed more to France than to Thailand, which I could have bathed in.
La Caille
La Caille - foie gras stuffed free-range quail with truffled mashed potatoes. The mash, as you probably know, is legendary - we ordered a supplementary bowl of it (un-truffled). That quail is bathed in a Japanese-inspired soy/mirin/honey glaze I ended up scraping off the plate with my fingers. With the foie, it's a breathtaking mouthful of sweet, barely (but essentially) gamey, light, rich, tender alchemy.
La Peche
La Peche - peaches on basil sable, coconut milk emulsion. Who would have thought popcorn, caramel, basil, peaches and coconut were such a good flavour match?
La Fraise
La Fraise - white chocolate ice cream on an almond panna cotta, fresh strawberries and mint. I wish they'd stepped back on the plating a bit here - the bit of net fabric and red almonds (not to be eaten) did nothing for the dish. All the same - a lovely finish to the meal, creamy and light all at once.

The Vegas Atelier, unlike other outposts of the restaurant, doesn’t serve lunch. “Vegas isn’t really a lunch city,” said our server, commiserating, “Most people visiting here are breakfasting at 4pm.” The restaurant is small, and it’s always packed – make a reservation if you decide to visit. In a nod to the recession, there is now a $49 three-course menu available early in the evening, so a visit needn’t break the bank: you can visit the baccarat tables to do that later on.

More Vegas coming up later this week.

Sen of Japan, Las Vegas

So you’re in Las Vegas, and you’re craving really, really good sushi and sashimi. You’re almost certainly based somewhere on the Strip, and as a result you’re faced with an embarrassment of choice. All of it really, really, really expensive.

There is a vast amount of Japanese food on the Strip, which there simply isn’t space to cover here. Shibuya at MGM Grand and Okada at the Wynn are excellent, and come near the top of my personal list. Apparently Brandon Flowers from the Killers has been seen stuffing his face at Sushi Roku at the Forum Shops; and, of course, there’s an outpost of Nobu at the Hard Rock – these restaurants are probably among the most fashionable of the sushi joints you’ll find in town. Thing is, if you are set on eating the best the restaurant has to offer, this means ordering the omakase menu (the chef’s choice of what is freshest and best on the day). And this usually means taking out a new mortgage. Shibuya’s omakase menu is $115 per person, Okada’s omakase isn’t advertised – but the Wynn press office would like you to know that there’s a very special omakase they’ll do you for $1500 if you win big. Sushi Roku’s omakase is a rather more reasonable $90, but it’s a very Americanised, chain sushi experience, full of mayonnaise, fried bits and avocado – go to spot rock stars, not for the food. And Nobu has degenerated from its 1990s position as a real temple to food to being a place to see and be seen with some incidental raw fish. An omakase menu there will set you back “$100, $150 and up”.

As we’ve noticed before, as soon as you get away from the neon and the crowds on the Strip, restaurant prices tumble. After all, the locals need somewhere to eat, and some of them are pretty exacting. So if you can gather yourself together for long enough to drive the six whole miles out to Sen of Japan, you’ll find an omakase menu that will make your soul sing, for a $55 which seems absurd when held against some of the menus at the big casinos, where you’ll get less for…more. There are no semi-naked, gyrating ladies, like you’ll find at Tao at the Venetian or Social House at TI. There are no floating tables suspended beneath fabulous images projected onto waterfalls, like there are at Okada. I like it all the more for that.

Hiro Nakano, the chef/owner at Sen of Japan (8480 W Desert Inn Road #F1, Las Vegas 89117, tel. (702) 871-7781) used to be head chef at Nobu (pre-downward-slippage, judging by what we were served here). He prepares the hot food, while a chef from the sadly defunct Shintaro at Bellagio is poised behind the sushi bar for the cold bits. Service was terrific, chatty and friendly; our server, John, seemed genuinely amazed that two Brits on holiday would travel that six whole miles for good food. And the food…hoo boy.

Sen’s omakase changes daily (as all omakase menus should, and few seem to), so what we had will be representative but not necessarily what you’ll find when you visit.

We opened with yellowtail sashimi (above), laid on a roll of shaved daikon, garnished with slivers of jalapeño, crisp garlic shavings, coriander and soy. Clean, beautifully balanced, and as fresh as you like. Next out was a generous bowl of sashimi and mizuna salad, flavoured, alongside the expected soy, with garlic olive oil and some very surprising capers. This is (as you’ll also have gathered from the coriander and jalapeños with the yellowtail) not Japanese food in its purest form, but I am not an authentiseeker in these matters; if you’re going to insist on limiting your set of ingredients to those found in Japan, you’ll be missing out on some really interesting and apposite flavour combinations – and Chef Nakano is extraordinarily good at putting these together.

On to the hot courses. First out, an oddly familiar black cod (actually a kind of bass) in miso, served with a pickled ginger shoot on a plate swirled with wasabi-tinted Japanese mayonnaise and crushed pink peppercorns. This is, of course, the same black cod that was made famous by Nobu, Nakano’s last head-chefly posting, presented rather differently. Wherever I’ve eaten a similar dish (and this does crop up at an awful lot of Japanese restaurants) I’ve loved it – there’s a recipe on Gastronomy Domine for a similar, grilled arrangement you can make with some salmon, black cod being hard to find in most fishmongers. Mine’s nothing like as pretty as this (it’s a recipe I was given by a Japanese friend about a decade ago, and is more along the lines of something you’d find in a Japanese home), but it tastes great. For prettiness, though, the Sen of Japan version takes the biscuit – and we cleaned those long plates.

Filet mignon with asparagus and a soy-mustard sauce. Probably my least favourite dish of the evening; tasty, juicy, nicely hung, perfectly medium-rare – but it just wasn’t as interesting as everything else we were served. Still; this is a very steak-oriented part of the world, and everywhere else we’ve had menus of this sort in Vegas, a steak has popped up somewhere. I’m told that if you pay for the more expensive omakase menu at Sen, you’ll find this steak transmogrified into a piece of Kobe beef, bits of foie gras decorating other courses, and things like lobster and caviar popping up here and there. We elected to avoid the pricier ingredients so we could concentrate on the fish, but you might decide it’s worth pushing the foie boat out.

Next up: five pieces of nigiri, with two maki rolls. You’re looking (bottom to top) at tuna (maguro), fluke (a generic name for flatf
ish – hirame), salmon (sake), black snapper (kuro dai) and a cooked prawn (shrimp if you’re American, ebi if you’re Japanese). The rolls, part-visible at the top, were more maguro. All good, all fresh, all nicely seasoned, but not, again, terribly unusual; I suspect that if we’d managed to score seats at the sushi bar and had been able to talk to the sushi chef, things might have turned out a little more exciting. What was spectacular was the accompanying miso soup, which arrived with juicy, fresh littleneck clams straight from California, still in their shells (and, judging by the flavour, alive until moments ago), bobbing around in the hot broth, which took on a breath of flavour from the juices of the shellfish. Beautiful.

The meal was finished off with a hot chocolate souffle with a ball of green tea ice cream. Everywhere does a hot chocolate souffle; this was a good one. The ice cream is terrific – I’m not normally a dessert person, but this was very jolly.

There’s absolutely no reason to stick to the Strip for your Vegas dining. You can even go celebrity-spotting at Sen; apparently Andre Agassi is a regular, as is the city’s ex-mob-lawyer mayor, Oscar Goodman. Admittedly, this is not the handsomest dining room in town, but then again, it’s not meant to be; this is just an excellent neighbourhood sushi-ya which happens to serve up food that will compete with anything you can find on the strip at much, much more sensible prices. Head out there next time you’re in town, and tell them I sent you.

Raku, Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas

I spend more time in Las Vegas than is strictly healthy, especially for someone who doesn’t find gambling particularly diverting. (I don’t think I’ve ever spent more on gambling there than $10 in a week; I am a disaster for casino marketing.) So what’s up with the yearly visit, which this year seems to have turned into two yearly visits? Easy – the restaurants. (And the tigers, the neon and the shows, but mostly it’s the restaurants.)

Something curious happened to the city in the early 90s, when big-name, starry chefs from all over the world started to move into the larger hotels. The Strip casinos now house restaurants headed up by people like Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy – heaven for people who vacation for food. If you’re like me, though, you’ll find yourself wondering where the chefs themselves eat.

It turns out that most of them seem to head for Raku.

Raku (see the website for directions, a menu and booking) is a tiny aburiya – a sort of Japanese bar serving food designed to encourage you to get you drinking. It’s open until 3am, so restaurant workers can pile in after service, and it dishes up extraordinarily good food, mostly as small plates. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of American eating, it’s not to judge a restaurant by its location. You’ll find Raku in an unprepossessing strip mall well away from the tourist focus of the city, so it’s currently not somewhere you’ll read about in guidebooks – I was told about it by a chef who used to work in the city. You’ll still need to book, especially as the evening wears on; locals pack the place out, and it’s very small, with about 30 covers. And there’s a very good chance that if you arrive good and late, you’ll spot some of the big-name chefs who have filled a cabinet near the bathroom with signed cookbooks and adulatory little notes.

This is one of those very enjoyable menus that doesn’t have any consideration for Western notions of squeamishness. You’ll find items like grilled beef intestine; raw bonito guts; uncooked tongue, prepared sashimi-style; beef tendon; grilled pig’s ear – if, however, you’re dining with a friend who has not yet discovered the wonderfulness of offal, there are plenty of less intimidating options too, especially in the beef and chicken direction. Dishes start at $1.50 for some of the robata (charcoal-grilled) items, and there’s no set structure to the meal, plates arriving as they come ready. We went for a couple of appetiser-sized dishes, some robata bits and pieces and some of the daily specials. It’s hard to impose structure on this sort of meal, so I’ll discuss each dish in the order they arrived in.

Those salted, raw bonito guts, which I’d seen on the online menu before visiting and had been making thrilled noises about at the long-suffering Dr W for two weeks before our reservation, worked as a kind of solid seasoning sauce for this sashimi salad (the menu calls this “Seafood with bonito guts pickled in salt”, and it comes in at a ludicrously low $6), the first dish to arrive. Glorious stuff; the bonito guts taste somewhat like a very salty, extraordinarily umami duck liver might – no fishiness, just an intense, meaty savouriness. The flavour insinuated its way through the whole dish, lifting the very fresh salmon, tuna and mackerel pieces out of mere sashimi territory into something quite special. This dish is, according to our waitress, also prepared with tongues of uni (sea urchin) in season – I’d love to try the bonito guts against the sea-sweetness of uni, and found myself planning our next visit once I was about two bites in.

Dr W will do almost anything for a good Caesar salad. Fortunately for him, there’s a fusion-y version on Raku’s menu – a dried tatami sardine salad ($6.50), whose dressing is like a de-anchovied Caesar dressing with slivers of crisp, savoury mats of what look like straw-coloured noodles – actually dried, shredded sardines studded with cracked black pepper. And, oddity of oddities in a Japanese restaurant, a hearty sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

All this remarkable stuff – the bonito guts, the sardine crisps, and the dashi and tofu we’re about to discuss – is made from scratch in the little kitchen. Especially when you’re dealing with a product like tofu, there’s a chasm of difference between what you might have come across in shops and restaurants that bulk-buy, rather than preparing these things themselves, and somewhere like Raku (the only other tofu I’ve had that’s this good outside the Far East has been at Tanuki, another aburiya in Portland OR that prepares its own).

We ordered the house special, which is at the top of the specials board every night. Agedashi tofu – tofu covered in a little light batter, served in a bowl of dashi (a kind of bouillon or stock made from dried bonito and kelp) is served in most Japanese restaurants, but I swear it’s never tasted this good before. The disc of tofu was almost floral in its freshness, and the dashi (considered a true assessment of any Japanese chef’s skill) was outstanding – a totally different creature from many I’ve tried. Alongside the traditional accompaniment of spring onions, the tofu was decorated with a few pearls of salmon roe, shredded nori, some tiny mushrooms and a dab of chilli sauce, all of which acted as seasoning rather than garnish – salt, iodine-richness, earthiness and heat.

I’ve no idea what that tofu cost – we asked the prices of what was on the specials board and didn’t get any answers. (Only dodgy bit of service of the evening, and something that doesn’t seem to be isolated; we got talking to a customer in another Japanese restaurant later in the week who felt he’d spent far more at Raku than he meant to, simply because of that number-free specials board and some flirtation with o-toro and foie gras.) Another special at a mystery price – six tiny crabs, each about the size of a ping-pong ball. They arrived having emerged moments ago a wok of oil so hot that there was no greasiness to them at all, to be popped into the mouth whole, and crunched. I was expecting puncture wounds to the inside of my cheeks, but they g
ave to the teeth like crisp wafers, with a burst of fresh crab creaminess in the centre. I could have eaten twenty.

The robata-grilled dishes arrived in a flurry. American Wagyu skirt steak, marinaded in a sticky soy mixture and served with garlic chips ($6.00). Fat Kurobuta pork cheeks (a ridiculous $2.50, pictured below), threaded on a skewer, caramelised and smoky from their marinade and the charcoal grill. Shishito peppers ($2), delicate, sweet and mildly spiced. And a remarkable thing the menu calls “potato with corn” ($3). Discs of sweetcorn, the hard hull in the centre somehow magically removed and replaced with a smooth mashed potato, the whole then brushed with a little soy-based magic and grilled until they became tender and smoky.

This is a long post for food that’s not terribly complicated: the restaurant deserves it. When something as seemingly simple as the operation of a charcoal grill is done with such aplomb that the results surprise you as much as they did here, you know you’re onto something pretty special. It pays to explore any city’s less central dining; we found two off-strip gems in Vegas on this trip (more about the other later on) to go with Lotus of Siam, another Vegas Asian restaurant in a strip mall. I’ve not even talked about the superbly welcoming atmosphere at Raku, the handsome room or the generally excellent service – the food’s good enough to eclipse all that. If you’re in the city, drive out there or take a cab, and explore the more curious-sounding corners of the menu. You’ll find yourself rewarded a million times over for the effort.

Michael Mina, Bellagio, Las Vegas

BellagioI am a sap. An uncultivated one, at that. Our last day in Las Vegas saw me standing outside Bellagio and bawling my eyes out when the fountains danced in the sun to the Star Spangled Banner, making rainbows appear in the spray.

God Save the Queen has never had this effect on me.

Bellagio is one of my very favourite casinos in Las Vegas. Dr W finds it a bit too busy, especially at night, so we stay at the quieter Mandalay Bay, but we do a lot of our eating at Bellagio. A foodie could easily stay at Bellagio for a week and not feel any need to step outside the building. Both Le Cirque and Picasso have four AAA diamonds; Jasmine is one of Vegas’s top Chinese restaurants (charmingly, all the dishes at Jasmine are priced at some dollars and 88 cents, 88 being an extremely auspicious number which represents long life and prosperity). Prime is an exceptional steakhouse; Jean Phillipe kicked off the new Vegas vogue for fabulous French pastries and houses the world’s largest chocolate fountain. There are another five or so classy restaurants I’ve not tried; all this on top of one of the city’s very best buffets; Petrossian, which offers caviar and high tea; and a few more casual cafés.

Michael Mina, Bellagio, Las VegasMichael Mina is Chef Mina’s flagship restaurant in a city where he runs four of the things. I have no idea how he manages to assure quality across all of his restaurants, but he works it all with some style – no trip to Vegas is complete for me without at least one visit to his Stripsteak (Mandalay Bay); and his two MGM Grand outposts (Seablue and Nob Hill) attract stellar reviews.

I was looking for somewhere really special where we could eat our Christmas meal – although Vegas largely ignores the holiday, some restaurants (Picasso among them) close their doors for Christmas day, so booking can be a little complicated. Happily, Michael Mina was taking reservations. I’ll admit to a little trepidation – would service and cooking be as good as usual on Christmas Day, when people would rather be with their families? As it turned out, the answer was a very delicious yes. We both selected the Cookbook Tasting Menu, made up of recipes from Michael Mina: The Cookbook(full of things you’re unlikely to cook at home because black cod, small and succulent lobsters, fresh truffles, raw quail eggs, fresh foie gras and Kobe beef are probably not available at your local corner shop). An additional $35 will also secure you a signed copy of the book. I turned the offer down; near my baggage limit already, I couldn’t afford the extra weight (and I’m cheap). Although Mina’s particular speciality is fish, there is plenty of meat available on the tasting menus (three tasting menus were on offer on the day we visited, one vegetarian) and on the a la carte menu.

The day’s amuse bouche was a carrot and curry soup – simple but very delicious. Michael Mina’s breads are always a work of art, and the Agen prune and black pepper buns were yeasty little joys.

The menu proper opens with one of Mina’s signature dishes, tuna tartar, which is mixed at the table, requiring two servers. Tiny dice of garlic, jalapeño and apple were mixed into the exceptionally fresh tuna, with the yolk of a quail egg, apple, mint chiffonade and pine nuts.

As usual, I had to ask for a non-lobster alternative for the lobster course. (Anaphylaxis is always embarrassing in public.) Our server, who was so helpful throughout the meal that I wanted to take him home with me and give him the vacuum cleaner, suggested swapping it out for any course from the other tasting menu. This is always an excellent sign in a restaurant (some places will just give you a grudging bowl of the soup of the day, which is utterly depressing when your dining partner is chomping through a perfect hunk of truffled claw-meat). The lobster pot pie is one of Mina’s signature dishes, and Dr W holds that it’s the best lobster dish he’s ever tried. The pastry lid is scored and lifted off for you at the table, and I can tell you it smells about as good as Dr W says it tastes. My substitute course was a crisp-skinned black sea bass with scallop tempura in a red wine jus with cauliflower purée and wild mushrooms. The myriad different but complementary things going on in this dish were pure Mina – and the scallop, barely cooked but crisply enrobed in tempura, was uniquely sweet and delicate.

My favourite course was the black cod in miso (sadly a million times more delicate than my own pretty darn good miso-glazed salmon, which is why Michael Mina is a millionaire chef who owns 11 restaurants and I am only a moderately successful food blogger). This is another Mina million-things-at-once dish; it came with enoki, shitake and something my notebook claims as ‘mystery mushroom’, a soft ravioli (raviolus?) filled with a Chinese shrimp and scallop mixture, all sat in a dark and savoury mushroom consommé on a bed of pak choi.

Rib-eye Rossini was up next. Rib eye is, apparently, Mina’s favourite cut of steak. It’s tender but comes from an area close to the bone; a good piece is gorgeously marbled and has all the flavour that comes from the proximity of that bone. The foie gras on top was seared to perfection. (Fans of this preparation will either be amused or horrified to learn that elsewhere in the city, at Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar and Fleur de Lys, you can order a Kobe Rossini burger, prepared with truffles, dark red wine and shallot jus, and foie gras, approximately like a steak Rossini, for $60. I have never sampled it – Kobe’s too soft to make a decent burger from and anyway, the whole thing sounds like a postmodern Las Vegas step too far for me.)

A trio of Mina’s signature desserts featured the menu’s only nod to that Las Vegas postmoderism – a root beer float. Dr W doesn’t like root beer, but he slurped this down like a baby craving mother’s milk. Fizzy, icy mother’s milk. Three of the best chocolate and pecan cookies to pass your lips also nestle on the plate, next to a chocolate fondant so good that the sale of someone’s soul must have been involved somewhere.

An interesting conversation went on at the table next to us. The lady there told her waiter she’d not found a good cof
fee yet in Las Vegas (I would have pointed her at Bouchon or Jean Philippe). Her waiter said that this has much to do with the city’s awful tap water – tap water that is so chlorinated and oddly sweet that I find it hard to drink. He talked about the new espresso machine in the restaurant, the filtered water and the special blend and roast, and told her that if she didn’t like her coffee it would be on the house.

When she had finished her first espresso, she ordered another double.

So we, of course, ordered coffees, and they were excellent. The petits fours were a real treat – I much prefer an old-fashioned sampling of petits fours to the boring plate of posh chocolates that so many restaurants seem to be offering these days.

So then. How do I top this next Christmas?

Bouchon, Las Vegas

BouchonI have a sense that Thomas Keller, one of America’s best chefs and a man with impeccable style and taste, doesn’t really do the Vegas thing. Bouchon, his Las Vegas outpost, feels positively out of time and place in this very modern, very garish city. By hiding it in a little-travelled corner of the sprawling Venetian Casino Resort, he’s successfully made it feel private, out-of-the-way and oddly genuine in a city full of fibreglass souks serving sushi. (It really is out-of-the-way, in a corner of the Venezia tower; from the car park you will need to take two separate elevators, and if you’re approaching from the casino you will have to swallow your pride and ask for directions, because it’s near-impossible to locate otherwise.)

Bouchon is a glorious Palladian room housing a Lyonnaise bistro (or ‘bouchon’), all marble-topped tables, encaustic tiles, sweeping arched windows, a pewter bar and pristine white-aproned serving staff. The restaurant has won a number of awards, many for its breakfast, and made Anthony Bourdain spit with rage over the French fries (of all things), which he admitted were better than the ones he serves at Les Halles. It serves what is, for my money, absolutely the best breakfast you will find in the city – we made a point of walking the two and a half miles from Mandalay Bay each time we went in order to burn as many morning calories as possible before arriving.

Bread and jamBreakfast diners are given complimentary butter, jam and an epi of freshly baked bread. Bouchon’s bakery has a giant reputation, and you’re well advised to sample the pastries on offer at the top of the menu alongside the excellent bread. Pains au chocolat are a beautiful example – hundreds of impossibly fine layers of flaky croissant dough, beautifully crisp outside and meltingly tender within, coiled around a stick of bitter chocolate – just begging to be dipped in your coffee. Even that coffee is something special; Chef Keller has selected the blend of four beans from all over the world, and it’s a beautiful, dark, chocolatey roast, fantastic with those pastries.

Cheese danishWe used to live in Paris before we got married, and I haunted patisseries like Angelina, Laduree and Hédiard. I am utterly alarmed to find better pastries than were available in any of the famous Paris names in a place like Las Vegas. My favourite pastry was probably this cheese Danish – a cloud of sweetened cream cheese on the lightest, flakiest, melting-est Danish base I’ve ever encountered.

Breakfast entrées include Dr W’s favourite, the Bouchon French Toast. This is prepared bread pudding style – a tower of hot, custardy brioche, studded with jewels of cooked apple, drizzled with maple syrup and garnished with thin, thin slices of raw apple. If held at gunpoint, I couldn’t choose between the amazingly light and flavourful boudin blanc with beurre noisette and scrambled egg (the only quibble I had over a few meals at Bouchon – these eggs weren’t among the best I’ve eaten, being rather dry and hard) and the croque madame, which oozes glorious bechamel and Gruyère. That croque madame comes with the pommes frites which made Tony Bourdain enter a deep depression, and they’re very good indeed. They’re dry, crisp, fluffy inside, and hard to stop eating. But for French fry perfection in Las Vegas I recommend that you visit Stripsteak, a Michael Mina restaurant at Mandalay Bay, where the trio of duck fat fries (always served as an amuse bouche, and also available as a side dish) – one pot with paprika dusting and a barbecue sauce, one with truffles and a truffle aïoli, and one with herbs and a home-made ketchup – are far and away the best I’ve ever eaten.

Bouchon always offers a few daily specials on the blackboard. Peekytoe crab hash with onion confit, a poached egg and hollandaise was, according to the lady at the next table, ‘Perfect. Gorgeous.’ Dr W’s tomato, bacon and spinach omelette with sharp cheddar was a simple preparation presented brilliantly. And Keller’s quiches are justifiably famous – tender, moist and delicious, with a brittle, short crust.

Service here was charming and unobtrusive. On each visit, our waiters were very happy to answer questions (even rather technical ones about the sourcing of ingredients), and refilled coffee and water unobtrusively.

As you’ve probably gathered by looking at the number of dishes mentioned above, we didn’t feel much like eating breakfast anywhere else once we’d eaten our first Bouchon meal. Somehow, we didn’t manage to make it to the restaurant for an evening meal – I’m leaving supper at Bouchon as a treat for our next visit to Vegas, which is probably my favourite city for eating in the world.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke…

Vegas Coke bottle
…because seriously, most of you are drinking total garbage. I spent half an hour today subjecting my digestive system to a foaming, fructose-laden onslaught of bubbles, colourants and aromatic aldehydes, all in the name of helping you, dear reader, avoid some of the worst the world has to offer in sodas and mixers. I am now nearing diabetic coma and peeing for all I am worth.

Those of you who have driven down the Las Vegas Strip before can’t have failed to notice the hundred-foot Coca Cola bottle nestling (for Vegas) unobtrusively next to the squatting green mega-casino that is MGM Grand. The giant bottle houses a discount show tickets booth and Everything Coca Cola. This is a place (optimistically referred to as a ‘museum’) mostly devoted to Coca Cola merchandise – if it is your dearest wish to be clothed from head to foot in Coke-branded nylon and festooned with Coke pins and magnets, Everything Coca Cola will be right up your alley. Up on the first floor, there’s a bar where you can order the obvious in something called a Collectible Heritage Bottle and sip it through a straw while watching Japanese tourists take photos of one another in the arms of a fibreglass polar bear. The bar also offers one of America’s strangest tasting menus – a selection of 16 ‘International Flavors’. These are drinks produced by the Coca Cola company and sold in places far away. The sort of places where you should be very, very careful when ordering something wet to go with your meal.

We started with Lilt, from the UK. I’m familiar with this stuff; my Grandma used to keep a fridge-full of it, and it’s sweet, but not bad – an orange-tinged soda which tastes approximately of grapefruit and pineapple. Kin Cider from Ireland was also inoffensive. It’s essentially what we Brits call lemonade; a clear, fizzy, lemon-flavoured drink; Kinley Lemon from Israel was another lemonade, this time slightly cloudy and sharpy citric. South African Stoney Ginger Beer was also cloudy, with a pleasantly gingery kick – very different from Krest Gingerale from Israel, which was a lavatorial colour, packed no heat and ached with blandness. Mezzo Mix is German, and appears to be a mildly spiced sort of cross between a cola and a lemonade. I’d actually consider buying this to cook a ham in; it was less sweet than Coke and had a really good balance of spices. And Fanta Blackcurrant from Hong Kong is really very good indeed; it’s flat, and not too sweet, like a very dilute glass of Ribena (a British blackcurrant cordial which most of us toted around in flasks at school).

Things started to go wrong with the eldritch green Fanta Melon, also from Israel. I don’t know what the Israelis are doing to their melons, but they should stop immediately. VegitaBeta from Japan was flat, orange, and tasted of ghastly mystery. China’s Smart Apple was a glass of apple-smelling nuclear waste; Smart Watermelon was bright orange and very similar to something I had washed my hands with at Circus Circus the day before while reminiscing about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Unprompted, I do not think I would have applied the word ‘smart’ to either drink, but clearly Coca Cola’s marketing people know better.

Passionfruit from Argentina was lurid but actually pretty tasty, and reflected its name (amazing, this, given how little some of the other drinks resembled their suggested ingredients). Mexico’s Lift Apple was the colour of nicely oxidised apple juice, and was delightfully unassuming when compared to the Smart Apple, which I can still taste somewhere deep in my digestive tract. Central America started to get seriously weird with Costa Rica’s Fanta Kolita. I was under the impression (thanks to a bleary night with Wikipedia trying to work out what on earth Hotel California is about) that a colita was the flowering head of a cannabis plant, but the orange stuff in the glass appeared to be much less exotic – a Latin version of Scotland’s truly awful Irn Bru, which is advertised in the UK, with good reason, as being made out of girders. Simba Guarana from Paraguay was also downright alarming: a heavy sarsparilla fizz the colour of weak tea.

All this pales into an insignificant froth when compared to the quinine-laced horror which, according to the Coca Cola-clad barstaff, Italians drink voluntarily. I would be unsurprised if they’re using this stuff in Guantanamo Bay to force confessions. Beverly looks totally innocuous. It’s clear and fizzy, like an alluring glass of Perrier water. It tastes of death. Sugary, but chemotherapy-bitter death, a bit like chewing on the icing-frosted pith of a pomelo from hell. I checked with the staff that our drink had not been swapped out for poison by a humourist in the kitchen. They shook their heads sagely and said that sophisticated Romans drink Beverly as a delicious aperitif, presumably to set themselves up for an evening’s pizza, romance and street-fighting.

Today I discovered that the world has still not learned to sing in perfect harmony. Some of us like our drinks overpoweringly sweet. Others like them flat. Others still like violent fizz and medicinal flavours. But the Italians – they’re dangerous. Stay away from them and their death-drinks, because if they’re habitually drinking something as revolting as Beverly they are either crazed or plotting something brilliant and totally, totally evil.

Lotus of Siam, Las Vegas

Catfish saladI’m back in Las Vegas, one of my favourite eating destinations, for the Christmas holidays. One of the restaurants I’d been very excited about visiting for the first time was Lotus of Siam, a tiny Thai place in a mall about a mile away from the north (grotty) end of the Strip.

Strip malls aren’t the kind of place I spend a lot of time in when I’m in Vegas. This particular mall sports Serge’s Wigs (a shop for showgirls looking to buy luxuriant hair), and a pole-dancing club. But Gourmet Magazine announced a few years ago that Lotus of Siam is the best Thai restaurant in North America, so there wasn’t any question about it – we were going. Saipin Chutima, the lady in charge of the kitchen here, learned to cook from her grandmother, and as a result you’ll find some fascinating family recipes from northern Thailand on the extensive menu.

Don’t visit Lotus of Siam at lunchtime, when the rather undistinguished Chinese buffet is on offer; instead, go in the evening and ask for some of the more unusual offerings on the menu, like the Issan dishes which come on a separate menu. We heard other tables being asked what sort of chilli spicing they preferred on a scale from one to ten, but unfortunately we weren’t offered the choice and ended up with some less tongue-numbing food than we’d have preferred. This isn’t the place to ask for a green curry, a Pad Thai or whatever else you usually order in your local Thai – these dishes will be excellent, but why would you order something you recognise when you can ask for something like the exceptional sour Issan sausage (a little like a Thai cross between mortadella and salami), a dish you won’t find anywhere else?

Lotus of SiamWe asked for Nam Kao Tod – that sausage in a crispy rice salad (see left) as one of our starters. There were tastes here I’ve never experienced before; darkly crisp, deep-fried rice grains marinaded before cooking in something deeply savoury, mixed with the slightly sour sausage cubes and aromatic herbs. Issan pork jerky was less thin, dry and chewy than I’d anticipated – it was juicy and caramelised, served with a little tamarind sauce to drizzle over. Dr W, gargling with porky joy, attempted to annex the whole dish for himself.

A crispy catfish salad (see the picture at the top of this post) was my favourite part of the whole meal. It’s seldom you find catfish that doesn’t taste slightly muddy, but this was fabulously fresh and delicate. The tiny pieces of catfish were fried to a crisp, and heaped on top of a sweet lime-drenched salad made from more handfuls of fresh herbs, roasted cashews, thin strips of carrot, apple, ginger, onion, cabbage and other vegetables. These lively and fresh-tasting salads provide a brilliant foil to some of the darker and more syrupy flavours in the main courses we selected: Kra Phao Moo Krob, a crispy preparation of belly pork with a deeply savoury sauce and lots of Thai holy basil; and Nua Sao Renu, strips of charcoal-grilled steak, still pink in the middle, anointed with another tamarind sauce. (This needed lots of rice to mop up the sauce, which was so packed with flavour my tastebuds could barely cope with it.)

We were too full to manage dessert – a shame, because the coconut rice in particular sounded glorious. Is Gourmet Magazine right in calling this the best Thai restaurant in North America? I’m not sure – these flavours are so different from the Thai meals I’ve had before I find it hard to contextualise, and I’ve been to very few American Thai restaurants. But I am certain of one thing – it was so good that we’ll be eating there at least once more before we go home after Christmas.

Michelin Guide Las Vegas

Vegas skylineI’m a little distracted today – I just found out this morning that my friend Oli received his long-awaited lung transplant in the night. I’m sure you’ll all join me in wishing him, his girlfriend and his family all the best. And please sign up to the donor register!

Michelin, the canonical French restaurant guide series, have just released their first Guide Rouge to Las Vegas.If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I spend rather more time in Vegas than is natural for someone living in Cambridgeshire. This is largely down to the city’s amazing proliferation of high-quality restaurants. The days of ubiquitous shrimp cocktails and foot-long hot dogs are long gone (although, of course, this is a consumer paradise, so if you want a foot-long-cocktail-dog, you are bound to be able to find it somewhere). These days, you’ll see real, serious cooking around almost every corner – here’s an Alain Ducasse restaurant, there a Michael Mina one; Thomas Keller of the French Laundry runs Bouchon, a bistro serving up, among other things, Vegas’s very best breakfast at the Venetian hotel; Joël Robuchon wants you to exchange all your poker winnings for a $1000 per head meal at The Mansion; home-grown chefs like André Rochat serve up exquisite French meals downtown . . . these days, Vegas is a serious, grown-up foodie destination.

Our next trip is scheduled for this Christmas, and I promise I’ll spend more time than I usually do documenting what I eat (I always find blogging a bit of a chore when I’m on holiday). If you’re not familiar with the Michelin guides, their scheme is to award one, two or three stars to the very best restaurants in each destination. The number of stars awarded is calculated with reference to the food (of course), the style and elegance of the dining room and the service. Here are the restaurants that Michelin gave stars to this year:

3 Stars
Joël Robuchon at the Mansion (MGM Grand)

2 Stars
Picasso (Bellagio)
Guy Savoy (Caesars)
Alex (Wynn)

1 Star
Wing Lei (Wynn)
Nobu (Hard Rock)
Mix (TheHotel at Mandalay Bay)
Michael Mina (Bellagio)
Mesa Grill (Caesars)
Le Cirque (Bellagio)
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (MGM Grand)
Daniel Boulud Brasserie (Wynn)
Bradley Ogden (Caesars)
Aureole (Mandalay Bay)
André‘s (downtown branch)
Alizé (Palms)

I know the city’s restaurants pretty well, and so I was surprised to read Michelin’s final ratings. They’ve done a pretty good job of drilling down 16 of the city’s best restaurants (although I’d quibble with some of the choices, especially at the bottom end) – but the number of restaurants awarded two and three stars is alarmingly small given the range and quality on offer in the city, particularly when you compare the food, location and service with restaurants in France, where the Guide Rouge is far more generous with the stars. Paris boasts 14 restaurants with three stars – even Strasbourg gets two.

I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, you’ll notice the preponderance of French restaurants in the above list – 12 of the 16 given stars cook in the French style. Michelin have historically valued French cooking over other cuisines (and in the past I feel they’ve made mistakes when trying to extend their cultural ambit, as with London’s downright horrible Tamarind, an Indian restaurant which largely seemed to get its star for reasons of political correctness). Still; Wing Lei in particular deserves more recognition than a single star and Nobu is a lazy choice; there are better Japanese restaurants in town like Shibuya at MGM Grand, Shintaro at Bellagio and Okada at the Wynn. It’s also surprising to see only one steakhouse on the list. Bradley Ogden is excellent, but one area where Las Vegas really excels is in presenting traditional American cuts of meat in thoughtful and, dare I say it, gastronomic ways. Michael Mina’s Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay, Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons or Delmonico at the Venetian should, by any metric that Bradley Ogden measures up to, be included here too.

Mix dining roomSecondly, Michelin seem to be making their old mistake of treating décor as an issue as important as the food. Mix at Mandalay Bay is an Alain Ducasse restaurant in name only – I would be surprised if he sets foot in there from one year to the next, and foodwise, it’s not at all comparable to his (wonderful) Paris ventures. It is, however, one of the most beautiful dining rooms you’ll find in the world, and I suspect that this is where it earns its star. Mix is a restaurant I actively avoid eating in, although the attached bar is great and worth a visit – you get all that wonderful interior design to look at, a great view all the way down the strip and an expensive Martini.

AureoleSimilarly, Aureole (also at Mandalay Bay) is another good-to-middling restaurant with a breathtaking dining room. Aureole boasts a 42-foot wine tower with ‘wine angels’; waiting staff who abseil up and down the thing to retrieve the bottle you’ve asked for. It’s not Charlie Palmer’s best restaurant in town – the steakhouse at the Four Seasons beats Aureole for food, and also for its wonderful view from the very top of the tower the Four Seasons inhabits.

Now, I may be attributing chauvinism where there is none to the Michelin staff, but I do
feel that there’s still a snobbish refusal to countenance that American food can possibly be as good as what you can find in France. Any of the two-star restaurants might, I suspect, have scored higher if they’d been located in a French city. And a few of those one-star restaurants also deserve bumping up a grade. So buy the guide if you like red, but don’t rely on it for an accurate picture of Las Vegas’s dining landscape.

If you like to travel with a restaurant guide, Zagatserves Las Vegas well, although it does sometimes get a little exuberant. I’ve always liked the series, which sends its own reviewers to restaurants but also builds its short reviews around the thousands of experiences that its readers send in – the Vegas guide also includes a nightlife section. (The Zagat guide to Paris is, for me, rather more reliable than the equivalent Guide Rouge.) The AAA guides are useful and reliable for eating in North America, and several Las Vegas restaurants make their 5-diamond category. Keep an eye on awards from the James Beard foundation as well – if they give a restaurant or a chef a nod, you should pay attention and eat there. You can also get a surprisingly good estimate of a restaurant’s quality by looking at its menu, and these are increasingly available online at the restaurants’ websites. Finally, there are some really excellent websites full of reviews by foodies who love Vegas. I particularly like Larry’s Las Vegas Restaurant Guide, which explores a really eclectic selection of restaurants.

Disco gin and tonic – yours to make at home with some electronic engineering

Regular readers will be aware of my tragic addiction to all things Las Vegas. It’s been nearly six months since our last visit, and I am pining for bright lights and cocktails. Few things make a drink nicer than some coloured lights in the vicinity.

Dr Weasel, ever alert to the causes of his wife’s grumpiness, decided to cheer me up by making me an animated, brightly lit drinks coaster.

Here it is under a gin and tonic:


And here it is, glass-free, displaying a spinning galactic ice-cube.


The coaster can be driven from any PC with a serial port and will display any 10×10-pixel video you wish. Over to Dr Weasel for his version of a recipe (100% less lead-free than the recipes you’ll usually find here).

You will need:

30 1K 0805 resistors (R1 – R30)
30 MBTA42 NPN transistors (Q1 – Q30)
10 100 Ohm 0805 resistors (R31 – R40)
10 FMMT717 PNP transistors (Q31 – Q40)
5 74HC594 SOIC shift registers (IC1 – IC5)
4 100nF 1206 capacitors (C1 – C4)

and finally:

100 TB5-V120-FLUX-RGB8000 RGB LEDs (LED00 – LED99)

The LEDs can be hard to get hold of at a decent price; eBay is once again the friend of the penurious electrical engineer.

Manufacture one or more PCBs using these Gerber and drill files. A double-sided PTH process is required, so it is probably best to use one of the various small-volume professional PCB manufacturers; I have found PCB Train in the UK to be fairly reliable. Assemble the board, taking great care when soldering the surface mount components. I found this one to be right at the limit of my dexterity.

Attach power and data cables to the connector in the bottom right of the board. Seen from above, we number the six pins:

1 2 3
4 5 6

The corresponding signals are:

  1. XVOLTS – drive voltage for LEDs. Connect to 4V current limited supply.
  2. SERIAL_CLOCK – shift data from SERIAL_DATA on positive-going edge.
  3. SERIAL_LATCH – latch 40 bits from shift register to LED control on positive-going edge.
  4. GROUND – common ground.
  5. 5VOLTS – supply voltage for control circuitry. Connect to 5V supply.
  6. SERIAL_DATA – input data for shift register.

To scan the display, clock 10 4-bit numbers into the shift register. To clock in a bit:

  • bring SERIAL_CLOCK low
  • modify SERIAL_DATA
  • bring SERIAL_CLOCK high

Once 40 bits have been clocked in, the SERIAL_LATCH signal can be brought high to transfer them to the LED control circuitry. Each 4 bit number selectively enables the red, green and blue LEDs in one row, and selectively disables all LEDs in one column. So if we clock in a string:

0011 0100 0111 ...

This sets all the LEDs in row 0 to blue, all the LEDs in row 1 to green and all the LEDS in row 2 to cyan (green + red). It disables all the LEDs in columns 0 and 2. By rapidly clocking in various combinations of values (typically with only 1 of the 10 column-disable bits low), we can scan the array to build up an image, and use pulse-width modulation to give a range of apparent intensities.

This firmware can be used with an Atmel ATmega644 to generate the required signals in response to serial input from a PC or Mac.

A couple of words of warning. Modern LEDs can be very bright indeed. You could probably hurt yourself pretty badly by dialling them up to full intensity and ignoring your look-away reflex, so don’t. Also, when debugging your firmware it is easy to stall the scanning process and burn out the precious LEDs. Use a decent current-limited bench power supply, with the current dialled back to a few tens of milliamps to avoid this happening.

Picasso, Bellagio, Las Vegas

Update, October 2009: we went back to Picasso for a return match last month, about two and a half years after our first visit. A good meal, but nowhere near as great as it was back in 2007 – and somewhat alarmingly, the tasting menu hasn’t changed at all, which speaks to me of an over-laid-back kitchen. Service this time was pushier and more obtrusive, the wine pairings weren’t as good as I’d have hoped (a couple of the whites in particular were simply too young), and the prix fixe we settled on was surprisingly tame. The room itself is still fabulous, but I suspect we won’t visit again – a lousy shame, because in 2007, they were absolutely at the top of their game. For nostalgia’s sake, read on…

I’ve held off writing about Picasso for a few weeks because I feel moved to empty the bank account and run away to live at the Bellagio casino resort every time I sit down and think about the meal. It was near-perfect; it’s almost intimidating to write about the place, because I simply don’t have a bad word to say about the experience…and that makes me look like an unthinking, uncritical sort of eater. I’m not; really I’m not – this was just quite simply the very best meal I’ve eaten in my life.

Even if Picasso weren’t serving spectacularly good food, the room itself would be reason enough to visit. Right next to the Bellagio fountains (one of my favourite free Las Vegas attractions – they’re 60ft tall and they dance to a playlist of showtunes, classical music and opera), the restaurant is filled with original Picasso ceramics and paintings, and decked out with vase upon vase upon vase of fresh flowers. Between the fountains, the still-life on the wall opposite me and the enormous jugs of freesias and tulips, even the ravishingly handsome Dr Weasel was having trouble holding my attention. Despite all this grandeur, the room is designed to be very intimate, with little nooks and crannies of seating to make you feel you’re almost eating on your own.

Even if the room were not filled with art and flowers, and even if those fountains weren’t swaying outside the window, the service alone would be reason enough to visit. Perfectly unobtrusive, the waiters changed dirty napkins with such skill you didn’t notice them doing it, poured exactly the right amount of wine, kept the water glasses brimming – there’s a reason the Zagat guide gives this restaurant its top score for service. I am allergic to lobster (as far as I am concerned, one of the worst things that you could choose to be allergic to – I used to love the stuff), and mentioned to the waiter that I would prefer something different for the first course of our degustation menu. Other restaurants have left me without a course when this happens, or with a portion of whatever came to hand in the kitchen (nothing is so galling as sitting there with a small bowl of pumpkin soup while the rest of the table is ripping a couple of lobsters to shreds). Not Picasso. The waiter beamed, told me I could have anything I wanted from the menu…so I took him at his word and selected poached oysters in a delicate beurre blanc, each dressed with a teaspoon of wonderful, wonderful Oscietra caviar. Heaven.

If you visit Picasso, the tasting menu is fit for a king. Lobster terrine (‘totally yum’ according to Dr Weasel – bet you’re glad he doesn’t write this blog) and those aromatic, vermouth-spiked oysters came after an amuse bouche of soupe de poivrons with a truffled potato croquette to dip into the little soup pot. Scallops were sauced with a veal jus, gloriously savoury against their fresh sweetness. An escalope of seared foie gras was prepared perfectly; glass-crisp on the outside with a silky soft interior, with figs and sweet walnuts alongside. Halibut was moist and toothsome, and it seems almost churlish to call my lamb chop a lamb chop – it was one of the best pieces of meat that’s ever been past my teeth. Dessert was a lychee bavarois with one of the most ridiculous and delicious items I’ve seen on a dessert plate – a giant, chocolate-dipped fresh coconut popsicle. And the petits fours with my coffee were delicate and delightful. They even brought a set for Dr Weasel, who wasn’t drinking coffee.

The wine list is large and thoughtful. On another occasion I might choose to have the wine pairing with each course, but this time we chose a Russian River unoaked Chardonnay (a wine that’s extremely difficult to find in the UK, so we tend to order it whenever possible in America), which was absolutely delicious. I love it when the wine waiter ensures he’s not pouring so fast you’ll move through the bottle before you’re really ready; at Picasso our wine was poured carefully so it lasted us until we had finished our main course.

Picasso’s chef, Julian Serrano, has the James Beard award for Best South-Western Chef, five AAA diamonds, and a vast array of Zagat awards. Obviously, a meal of this quality comes at a price, and currently the degustation menu is $115. (This is a positive bargain for those of us used to European prices.) If you visit Picasso, you will need to book at least a month in advance, and make sure you dress well – there were people wearing less smart clothes in there and they looked immensely uncomfortable. I promise you that the meal you eat will be worth the dressing up, the advance booking and at least three times what you’re paying – this is something really special.