Monday, January 13, 2014

An Appetizing Walk on the Mild Side of Las Vegas -- Travel Recap

Over the past weekend, I spent about 50 hours in Las Vegas, not counting time in the airport or transit.

Only a sum total of about 2.5 hours were spent gambling. (I wound up about $30 down, combining blackjack and football bets, but not the $5 I put on the Cubs to win the World Series nor the $200 I expect to collect in November.)

I didn't not hire any hookers, see any strippers, hang out with any hotties, rave out at any nightclubs, lay out by any swimming pools, get any massages or do any shopping.

I did not drink, except for a single glass of Riesling with one dinner, and I did not get less than 8 hours of sleep each of the two nights I was there.

I did not attend the Consumer Electronics Show or any other convention.

And unlike on past trips to Las Vegas, I did not drive out of the city to see the Hoover Dam, or Bryce and Zion Canyons in southwest Utah.

So I wouldn't blame you for wondering, as my friend Jordan asked when I told him I was there: 

"What the hell are you doing in Las Vegas?"

(To be clear, I am no longer in Vegas as I write this.)

Or even, "Did you have any fun?"

Well, to answer the last question, "Yes."

I enjoy Las Vegas, and have been there at least 5 previous times, but not since 2005. I don't like Vegas nearly as much as New York City or European destinations--and thus have not visited as often in recent years--but it felt like an opportune time for a return visit.

And though I've gone there, and practically everywhere else by myself, I was glad when my friend Dave said he would go with me.

But what did we do?

1. Ate Well - On Friday night, Dave and I had the best steaks either of us recall tasting, at CUT, a steakhouse by Wolfgang Puck located at Palazzo (connected to the Venetian).

These were ribeye steaks made of American wagyu beef, which comes--if I got this right--from steer sired by mating Idaho-bred cows with Japanese counterparts.

Although I had also read great things on Yelp about an appetizer called Bone Marrow Flan, we found this to be nothing special, nor the potato puree we got as a side dish.

But the steak was outstanding, and slices of various types of bread were terrific.

And, at least for me, this wasn't the culinary highlight.

Ever since I first visited the Bellagio, around this time in 1999, I've been intrigued by Picasso, an upscale restaurant featuring numerous paintings and other artworks by Pablo Picasso upon its walls.

It has been awarded 5 Diamonds by AAA every year in its existence and is considered one of the best restaurants in Vegas.

I don't consider myself a gourmand, but I appreciate the creativity--and taste--of cooking at the highest levels. And I am intrigued by Vegas being a place where you can eat concoctions by myriad top tier and/or well-known chefs. Joel Robuchon, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Jean Georges Vongrighen, Puck and many others all have outposts in LV.

Admittedly, I only know the name Julian Serrano due to his connection with Picasso, but unlike the other superstar chefs he is on-site in the kitchen every night (despite also having a namesake restaurant at the new Aria resort).

I have eaten at a handful or two of "world-class" restaurants (including Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in Chicago), yet won't deny that if ever faced with having to choose a "last meal," I would choose a great slab of baby back ribs, Chicago-style pizza or even a char cheddar Polish from Poochie's over anything I ate at Picasso or a comparable restaurant.

But including the sensational food, setting, scenery and service, it may well be the most exquisite meal I've ever eaten (or ever will). Picasso's pricey prix fixe--i.e. set price--menu options didn't appeal enough to Dave to be worth the splurge, but he joined me at the beginning and end of the meal and appreciated the sumptuous setting (before heading to a Bellagio snack bar for chicken wings he said were quite good).

Not only were there Picassos on the wall within a beautifully-appointed restaurant, but staring across the Bellagio pond at the Paris's faux Eiffel Tower, we had a bird's eye view of the Bellagio's trademark fountain show (from behind).

And everything I ate from the 5-course degustation menu--lobster salad, a scallop, seared foie gras, lamb and a chocolate fondant cake, plus tons of sensational break--was "OMG!" good.

I could try to describe each course, but would waste many more paragraphs simply saying that everything was absolutely delicious.

Many experiences one looks forward to this much can only disappoint, but abetted by outstanding, friendly service at every turn, this one didn't.

If this post was merely a review of the meal, my headline would be:

'Picasso' Paints a Culinary Masterpiece 

(I should give a shout out to my waiter, who was terrific, but I don't recall his name.)

On Sunday, we had a terrific brunch at the Aria Buffet, where I consumed eggs, waffles, bacon, French toast, prime rib, maki (sushi), crab legs, salmon, cupcake, apricot rugelah, various other sweets and Bananas Foster.

And even a more mundane breakfast on Saturday at a cafe called Tropical Breeze within our hotel, the Flamingo, turned out to be terrific with my order of Banana Caramel French Toast.

Other food highlights include a Kouign Amann from the Vegas outpost of Bouchon Bakery--long an NYC favorite of mine and affiliated with the Vegas location of Bouchon, from another famed chef, Thomas Keller--a Pain au Raisin at Paris, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and a hot dog made from Kobe beef at the Haute Doggery.

Dave and I have frequented gourmet hot dog stands in Chicago--Hot Doug's, the Chicago Dog House--and in wanting a quick lunch upon arrival on Friday, it was fortuitious to stumble upon the Haute Doggery right outside the Flamingo.

2. Saw Shows - Along with eating at Picasso, my primary desire for this trip to Las Vegas was to see The Beatles LOVE, a Cirque du Soleil show featuring recorded Beatles classics.

It had opened at the Mirage in 2006, so I'd never seen it, and though Dave had seen it twice, he was happy to do so once again.

I wouldn't say I quite LOVEd it, but did like the show and am glad I saw it.

Any show featuring Beatles songs played at high volume can't be bad, and I always appreciate the impressive aerial acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil. But I think I might just as much have enjoyed a completely different set of Beatles classics woven together with entirely different acrobatics.

While I know that CdS doesn't feature linear storytelling, the show teased enough with Beatles biography and a quasi-cogent theme of seeking LOVE to make me wish both strains were a bit more acute.

Any Beatlemaniac is likely to enjoy LOVE, but I'd rank it below seeing Paul McCartney live, taking in a top-notch Beatles tribute band (my favorite is American English) or watching A Hard Day's Night or even just classic Beatles clips.

We saw LOVE on Saturday night at 9:30, after my Picasso dinner. There was no pre-planned Friday show, especially as we wanted the steak dinner at CUT more than catching a 7:00 show, which was surprisingly the curtain time for more than a few.

So that ruled out Mike Hammer, a magician at the downtown 4Queens and a childhood friend of a co-worker of mine. And though I'd read good things about Absinthe, a Cirque-type show at Caesar's Palace, when we checked at Tix4Tonight (a ticket discounter with several Vegas locations), no tix were available.

We decided that $23 for a 9:30pm LA Comedy Club show at Bally's offered an appealing combination of price, time and location (Bally's is across from the Flamingo).

This is basically a comedy club with revolving comedians, and our headliner was a guy named Ben Morrison, a Jewish--he told us--comedian from LA whose credits include Last Comic Standing and Punkd.

He was enjoyable if not brilliant, which can also be said for three opening stand-ups, including Jack Jr. But as hoped, it proved to be a comfortable, low key venue in which to take in a performance on our first night in town.

3. Walked Around - As mentioned, we stayed at the Flamingo, which I feel is perfectly located in the middle of the strip.

This allowed us to easily wander to other casinos, whether for shows, dinner or just to check them out. On the Strip we got to The Quad (formerly Imperial Palace), Harrah's, Venetian/Palazzo, Wynn, Bally's, Planet Hollywood Hotel, Paris, Bellagio, Mirage, Aria and Cosmopolitan, some multiple times.

We took a cab to the Hard Rock Hotel, had a nice walk back to the Strip and took a bus to & from downtown Las Vegas, where we walked down Fremont Street and gambled within the Fremont Hotel and Golden Gate.

Many of the big hotels have shopping centers as part of their complex, and the ones at Venetian and Aria are architecturally impressive, though we didn't do any actual shopping. I particularly enjoyed the old school charm of downtown Vegas.

4. Gambled - I only play Blackjack and Dave's game is Craps. At each, we prefer tables with $5 minimums, which are nearly extinct in modern Vegas.

Most tables on the strip seem to start at $15, with a few $10, though the Margaritaville casino within Flamingo did have one $5 table that I eventually played.

On Friday afternoon, we did play for awhile at $15 minimum tables at the Venetian—after finding even higher options at Wynn and the Palazzo—and certainly there was nothing wrong with the plush environment. And don't get me wrong, I enjoy the opulent décor of the modern resorts, particularly the ones that mimic Venice or Paris, etc., and this kitschy and/or hip design often carries through to the casino floors (those in Aria and Planet Hollywood seemed particularly modernistic).

But for gambling more our speed, our Saturday afternoon trek to downtown Vegas was clearly the best bet.

Between the $5 blackjack minimum tables with ready seating, allowing my money to last longer—craps tables had a $3 minimum—and the tenor of the dealers and other gamblers, I really preferred the vibe downtown to that within the posher strip casinos.

We took the 301 bus from in front of Paris down to Fremont Street, which is covered for a 2-block stretch, but we were far too early for the Fremont Street Experience light show. We wandered into the Fremont Casino and had some lunch at Lanai Express, akin to a Panda Express. The disparity between my Saturday lunch and dinner wasn't lost on me.

I then played blackjack, at a table with 3 smokers, but somehow it seemed proper; there is no smoking in the Strip casinos. David settled in at a craps table and we stayed put for awhile, until I opted to venture down to the Golden Gate, supposedly the oldest casino in Las Vegas, dating back to 1906.

I played some more blackjack and especially enjoyed the old school feel, including displays of classic
slot machines and photos of the casino's history.

The bus ride back to the Flamingo was a bit of an experience, with a woman screaming and supposedly hitting the bus driver. We didn't see it since we were seated on the bus' top level.

In addition to the table games, we had fun placing bets in various Sports Books (mostly at the Flamingo). Beyond the $5 I put on the Cubs at 40-1, I also bet the Tampa Bay Rays to win the World Series at 20-1. Dave bet the Rockies at 60-1 and Royals at 40-1.

And with it being an NFL football weekend, we bet the two games on Saturday and early one on Sunday. I won 2-of-3, getting lucky that the Saints got a late touchdown to beat my 9-1/2 point spread. I also won on the 49ers, but lost on the Colts +7 vs. the Patriots.

It was also fun watching part of the games in the Sports Books or on screens within the casinos. So although we didn't do a ton of gambling, nor win or lose enough to make it notable, we did enough to add to the experience of being in Vegas.

5. Enjoyed Our Stay - I had booked the trip through Travelocity and got a pretty good deal that included round-trip airfare on Spirit Airlines out of O'Hare and two nights at the Flamingo for $535. So perhaps it was understandable but nonetheless annoying to keep getting hit up for additional charges. 

Spirit charges $45 per checked bag and $50 for each carry-on. Luckily, I avoided the latter by downsizing on the way to the airport to a bag my mom had that was small enough to count as a free personal item.

Spirit also charges for anything you might want to eat or drink—though not egregiously—and because we didn't pay $18 each to specify our seats, Dave and I did not sit together on the return flight.

Upon arriving at the Flamingo around Noon, we were informed that there was a $25 fee for early check-in—we opted to come back later—and couldn't avoid being assessed a $20 per person “Resort Fee” that I can't really explain.

The outbound Spirit flight had a squeaky wheel that produced a highly annoying loud grinding noise upon elevation and landing, and my sink at the Flamingo had an incredibly slow drain.

But other than these petty annoyances, everything about the air and hotel worked out really well.

The flights were on-time and smooth, rooms large, beds comfortable, etc.

And as I noted above, the Flamingo is ideally located, making it easy to walk to the Venetian, Bellagio, Bally's, Paris, Aria and more.

It certainly isn't the most lavish of Strip hotels, but the room I stayed in would easily cost $500 per night in New York or a European capital.

And with the low-minimum Margaritaville casino, natural habitat featuring flamingos, pelicans, parrots and a plaque commemorating Bugsy Siegel out back, fine breakfast cafe in the Tropical Breeze, and more, the Flamingo is a hotel that I would recommend, and happily stay at again. Not that I feel any need to get back to Las Vegas anytime soon.

Dave and I both enjoyed ourselves sufficiently, and I did a few things I've long wanted to, but 50 hours turned out to be plenty.

I even said to Dave on Sunday, “If we were staying tonight, what would we do?”

Other than a couple of other shows that caught our eye, he really had no idea and neither did I.

So I got my fill of Vegas without much damage, enjoyed LOVE and had a dining experience I'll never forget. Or actually, two. 

So even though not much happened in Vegas that had to stay there—or did it?—am I happy I went? 

You bet.

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