“Forget the gambling,” say guest posters John and Sandra Nowlan.
“Las Vegas is a culinary hot spot!”
The dim sum and Peking duck were as good as the best we’ve enjoyed in Hong Kong.
But instead of Asia we were on the fringes of the Mojave Desert, in one of the world’s newest culinary hot spots. Las Vegas boasts more than a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants with celebrity chefs clamoring to open new establishments along the famous Strip of massive hotels, garish casinos and endless entertainment. Gambling is still huge, of course, but non-gaming revenue now exceeds the haul from casinos.
Everything is outsized in Las Vegas, especially its hotels (eight of the world’s 10 largest are in the Nevada city). Instead of staying in a mega-hotel with thousands of rooms, we chose an excellent boutique hotel centrally located at the busy corner of Las Vegas Blvd and Flamingo Drive. The Cromwell has just 188 rooms tastefully decorated in shades of maroon and brown, Parisian-style. Built in 1979 as the Barbary Coast, it became Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon in 2007 before a total renovation and name change in 2013.
A big draw at The Cromwell is Food Network star Giada DeLaurentiis’ first restaurant called, appropriately, Giada. Her cuisine combines California innovation with her Italian heritage and includes her best selling signature dish, Lemon Spaghetti with Shrimp. We also enjoyed wonderful Chicken Marsala Meatballs, Lobster Ravioli and Veal Chop Saltimbocca.
Another celebrity chef oversees the menu at the giant, 43-story Mandalay Bay Resort at the south end of the Strip (more than 3,000 rooms). Shawn McClain is a James Beard award winner and chef at Libertine Social, a bustling gastropub that takes American bar food to a new lofty level. His Caviar Fried Egg (Kaluga caviar, corn pudding and brioche in an eggshell) and black truffle pizza were among the most innovative and tasty dishes we’ve ever experienced.
The next day we enjoyed breakfast at Chef Thomas Keller’s French Bistro called Bouchon in the elegant Venetian Hotel. His Eggs Benedict features smoked pork loin while his sticky buns and sourdough waffles are outstanding. For lunch we ate at The Beerhaus, a lively pub on the Strip close to the new Vegas NHL home, the T-Mobile Arena. The pub features great bar food (including a tasty vegan sausage roll) and table games along with a beer menu that showcases the many craft breweries that are becoming so common in North America.
In the evening we retuned to the Venetian and its sister hotel, the Palazzo, to dine at one of the many outstanding steak houses in Las Vegas (every hotel seems to have one). The Carnevino has all the attributes of a fine dining room – luxury atmosphere, wonderful, refined service with a broad menu and extensive wine list supervised by a knowledgeable sommelier. Our New York strip loin was unfortunately not as good as the excellent appetizers – tender grilled octopus (the best we’ve ever had) and steak tartar made from Angus beef tenderloin – and a Bombolino, the Italian donut dessert with raspberry and rhubarb sauce.
Vegas used to be known for its cheap and plentiful buffets. To the regret of many, those are now a distant memory, replaced by lavish (and often pricy) spreads at almost all the top resorts along the Strip and Downtown. Setting the standard is the opulent Bacchanal Buffet in Caesars Palace Hotel just across the road from The Cromwell.
Boasting more than 500 dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner ($40 for Monday-Friday Brunch, $50 on Saturday and Sunday) the food islands and chefs are spread around the attractive dining room. It’s very international with dishes from Mexico, Italy and Asia and well as seafood and popular American standards.
On our last day in Las Vegas we joined an afternoon food tour that turned out to be one of the best experiences of our visit. Lip Smacking Foodie Tours had a wonderful leader who talked about the fascinating history of the Strip and took us to four top restaurants with generous samples. We enjoyed Mexican food at Javier’s in the Aria Resort (although the spice was toned down for American tastes), excellent fresh Greek cuisine at Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan and Chef David Chang’s wonderful Asian restaurant, Momofuku, also at the Cosmopolitan. We ended the tour with several decadent desserts at Wolfgang Puck’s Cucina in the upscale mall, The Shops at Crystals.
That night we went to an amazing performance at one of Cirque du Soleil’s several long-running Canadian-produced shows in Las Vegas. Ka! uses a 2000 seat auditorium at the MGM Grand Resort and features 5,000 loudspeakers (including a pair in every seat) and a complex stage that rotates and tilts to a full vertical position while acrobats spin, gyrate and produce impossible stunts for 90 minutes. Remarkable.
Ka! started at 7 pm so we had a late dinner at Zuma, an exciting new and innovative Japanese restaurant at The Cosmopolitan. We were skeptical at first because the music was loud and thumping (after 10 pm a twenty-something crowd congregates here) but the first bites of our shared tasting menu changed our mind (earplugs helped). We enjoyed fried softshell crab with wasabi mayonnaise, crispy fried squid with green chili and lime, thinly sliced seabass with yuzu, truffle & salmon roe, salmon and tuna tartare and a very tender spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, red chili and sweet soy. We also enjoyed an impressive Suntory whisky cocktail called Burning History. It’s poured into a glass that had just been filled with smoke from putting a blowtorch flame to an aged whisky barrel stave.
The Japanese food and whisky cocktail were a perfect ending to our culinary adventure in the new, improved Las Vegas. The perfect dim sum (along with tastes from across China) at the beginning of our visit was at the new Pearl Ocean Restaurant in the Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino, the first hotel built specifically for Chinese guests. No wonder it was authentic.
In Las Vegas it’s now easy to forget about gambling. Come for the entertainment and cuisine. It’s a better bet.
Disclosure: The Nowlans visit was sponsored by Las Vegas Tourism. Any opinions expressed in this post are their own.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All photo credits: John and Sandra Nowlan.