Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Canter's Deli, Treasure Island, Las Vegas review

I love a good salt beef or pastrami sandwich. I’ve had a couple of good ones in the UK at the Brick Lane Beigel Bake and The Brass Rail in Selfridges but they ultimately fall down with the thickness of their cuts; big hulking chunks of meat which I find cloy after a while. In contrast the Americans know how to slice their meat properly. Their wafer thin slices lend themselves much better to the eye-poppingly large portions these sandwiches are famed for.

Now I’ve never been sure exactly what the difference between salt beef (corned beef if you’re American) and pastrami is so I did a bit of research. Both involve firstly curing a piece of brisket; salt beef is always cured in spiced brine whilst pastrami can be cured in spiced brine or a dry rub. Then to make salt beef the cured brisket is boiled whilst to make pastrami the brisket is smoked (either hot smoked all the way through or smoked and then steamed). This gives pastrami a spicier and smokier taste in comparison to the milder flavoured salt beef. Here’s an awesome blog post if you want a step by step guide to making your own; I’m already planning my own beef bonanza.

It doesn’t feel right eating a salt beef sandwich unless it’s from a traditional American Jewish deli. I’ve eaten at the infamous Kat’s deli in New York and thought it was great. Its dilapidated grandeur gives it a real sense of history. Canter’s deli in Los Angeles has a similar legacy. This 3rd generation family owned deli has been a feature of the Miracle Mile district since 1931.

As we know, one of the things Las Vegas does best is import culture from other places. It’s for this reason Treasure Island is home to its very own branch of Canter’s. And I can seriously recommend it. I opted for the simple pastrami on rye sandwich ($15.50 with fries and a soda) whilst Mrs G opted for the Viva Las Vegas consisting of pastrami, corned beef, swiss cheese & coleslaw on rye ($16 for the sandwich with coleslaw or potato salad). I don’t think there’s much to say which the pictures don’t tell you. Both sandwiches contained oodles of perfectly cooked meat whilst my accompanying french fries were the best I ate all week; perfectly crisp, delicately thin & entirely grease free.

Pastrami Sandwich
Viva Las Vegas
After our epic mealtime we headed outside to watch the shockingly bad Siren’s of Treasure Island. I can’t recommend the show but I’d say a trip to Canter’s deli is a must.

The Details:
Canter's Deli, Treasure Island, 3300 S. Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89109 

An alternative destination for traditional Jewish deli would be Carnegie’s in the Mirage hotel. Menu -

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Cafe Vettro, Aria, Las Vegas review

Some of the architecture in the Aria is just stunning. Cafe Vettro is one such space. Grand columns and massive windows all add to the sense of space. We had a couple of meals in this 24 hour casual eatery located next to the casino floor.  

For breakfast I had some excellent buttermilk pancakes ($14) with strawberries and maple syrup whilst Mrs G had some fine eggs Benedict with hash browns ($16).

For an early evening meal before we went to see Cirque du Soleil I had a pretty tasty reuben sandwich($15) crammed with the flavour-packed combination of salt beef, sauerkraut and swiss cheese. Chips were good but the sandwich was let down slightly by a few greasy patches in the toasted dark rye bread. Meanwhile Mrs G had a decent Turkey club sandwich with honey-mustard mayonnaise, swiss cheese, cranberry sauce and applewood smoked bacon.

If you’re looking for a light bite and you’re in proximity to The Aria then you could do far worse than checking out Cafe Vettro. They also do a few more substantial American dishes such as meatloaf and fried chicken.

The details: 
Cafe Vettro, ARIA Resort and Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89158

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Bouchon, Las Vegas review

The menu - no longer wrapped around the napkin
We only had two ‘posh’ meals out during our week in Vegas. The first was Delmonico and the second was Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. Thomas Keller is a bit of a big deal. He’s the only chef in America to have 2 restaurants with 3 Michelin stars. Also he was the consultant chef on Disney’s Ratatouille. I’ll let you decide which of these 2 facts is cooler. As it’s unlikely I’m going to be passing through the Napa Valley or New York anytime soon, Bouchon cemented its place on my Las Vegas List.

You’ve probably guessed from the name that Bouchon is a French restaurant. In fact, and this was news to me, a Bouchon is a traditional type of restaurant found exclusively in Lyon.  According to my old friend Wikipedia, “the emphasis in a bouchon is not on haute cuisine but, rather, a convivial atmosphere and a personal relationship with the owner.” I’d say this little nugget sums up our experience at Bouchon perfectly.

Bouchon Cocktail
Whilst we perused the menu, rather niftily printed on brown paper and wrapped around the napkin, Mrs G and I took the opportunity to sample a couple of cocktails. I opted for the Bouchon cocktail, a peach flavoured vodka cocktail, on the presumption that it must be good because they put their name on it. Meanwhile Mrs G opted for the Tonic & Gin, a posh version of the aforementioned made using organic quinine powder instead of tonic water. The first thing that hit us about both the drinks was how strong they were. Don’t get me wrong, once we’d acclimatised to them they were very tasty, but I wouldn’t expect to encounter what I call the ‘student house party’ measure outside of its natural habitat.

So onto the food....

Pre-dinner nibbles were delicious warm, crisp pistachio nuts and proper crusty, chewy French bread.

Roast Chicken($29.75) – I often take this dish for granted as it doesn’t have the razzamatazz of a piece of duck or even lamb. However when cooked with masterful precision, like it was here, it’s really hard to beat.  The chicken was perfectly tender & full of flavour, the skin was delicate & crisp whilst the accompaniments of lardons, fingerling potatoes, sweetcorn, chicken jus and a herby sauce really set it off.

Pork Belly ($39) – Mrs G opted for the glazed pork belly with apricots. The tender pork worked well with the sharp sweetness of the apricots. It’s most certainly a nice change to apple sauce. All in all a very good dish but I always think it’s a shame not to include crackling with pork. I also had a bit of a gripe with the dishes’ hefty $39 price tag. It was the most expensive main dish on the menu. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing about the price of pork belly in the US?

Bouchons ($12) – After the excesses of the week so far, Mrs G wisely passed up on dessert. As someone less evolved, who hasn’t learnt to ignore the warning signified by the onset of stomach cramps, I snatched at the dessert menu. I opted for the special which consisted of mini chocolate brownies, pistachio ice-cream, cherry sauce, pistachio powder and fresh cherries. There was also a hint of almond liqueur lurking in the background somewhere. Bazinga. The brownies were perfectly crisp on the outside and flecked inside with melted chocolate chips. However, I think the sponge could have been a bit gooier.

We loved the hearty food being dished up at Bouchon. Alongside the friendly & knowledgeable waiting staff and the impressive dining room it really gave the experience a sense of authenticity. We managed to forget for a couple of hours that really we were in the middle of a Venetian themed hotel in the middle of the Nevada desert. 

Putting our feet up after dinner
The Details: Bouchon, The Venetian Hotel, 3355 South Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89109

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Cold Stone Creamery, Las Vegas review

I’ve got bugger all decent for dessert in the house and I’ve really got a hankering for a Cold Stone creamery. Cold Stone do fairly lush smooth ice-creams in the usual flavours you’d expect like chocolate, vanilla and also a few more unusual varieties like cheesecake and cinnamon. But if you just had a tub of ice-cream from Cold Stone you’d really be missing out on what they’re all about.

And what they’re all about is their Creations; a few different flavours of ice-cream mixed in with a selection of sauces and goodies. You can either choose your own combination or one of their recommended signature creations. But this isn’t where the fun ends....Once you’ve made your selection, the ingredients are mixed together on a frozen granite slab using a couple of spatulas. It looks sooo cool and certainly heightens the sense of excitement.

The cold stone in action
Mrs G opted for the very good Our Strawberry Blonde creation consisting of strawberry ice-cream, graham cracker pie crust, strawberries, caramel and whipped cream. However, it was nothing compared to my Peanut Butter Cups Perfection which jumbled together the dreamy combination of chocolate ice-cream, peanut butter, Reese’s peanut butter cups and fudge. I want one now!

Peanut Butter Cups Perfection
The details: Cold Stone Creamery, The Excalibur Hotel (It's the one that looks like a naff castle), 3850 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV, United States

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - In-n-Out Burger review

In-n-Out Burger is frigging ace. I wish we had somewhere like it in the UK. In fact another food blogger holds this viewpoint so strongly that he started a campaign to bring it over to Blighty. It's been unsuccessful as yet and in fact In-n-Out are so obsessive about the quality and freshness of their ingredients that until this year they hadn’t moved beyond their historic heartlands of the West of America (all branches were within a day’s drive of their Californian beef patty production facility; a second patty facility has recently opened in Texas).

In-n-Out doesn't just hold cult status with UK tourists with idealistic notions of the ultimate American burger. It’s insanely popular with the locals as well. Merely minutes after our lunch order was taken, a queue of around 40 people was snaking around the restaurant. It even got a little bit tense at one point with a couple of burly blokes next to us getting into a Mexican standoff about who had been waiting longer for a table. Fortunately rather than it ending in punches being thrown, thoughts and feelings were shared and reconciliation was reached. I can’t picture the same thing happening at McDonalds on St Mary’s street.

The secret to In-n-Out’s success is their focus on freshness and keeping things simple. Their burger menu consists of hamburger, cheeseburger and the legendary double-double (a double cheeseburger). It’s all really simple yet so delicious; fresh buns, fresh salad and 100% fresh beef patties. And what’s more, all their burgers are cooked fresh to order. In fact, In-n-Out burger laughs in the face of freezers and microwaves. It’s at this point I must admit that on this visit I was disappointed with the fries as they didn’t taste as fresh as I remember them; they were even on the road to sogginess by the time we took our seat to dine.

Animal fries foreground, Regular fries background
Even though the In-n-Out’s official menu is brief, their much fabled secret menu consists of over 25 items (it's not on display so just ask); the jewels in the crown of which are the Animal style Double-Double and Animal fries. An Animal style burger results in the beef patty being cooked on the griddle in mustard to give it an extra crust along with the inclusion of extra diced onions, spread (a thousand island style sauce), and pickles. Meanwhile the animal style fries come with lashings of melted cheese, griddled onions and spread on top. They’re the ultimate cheesy chips.

Double-Double left, Animal style Double Double right
After lunch we made a brief pit-stop at the In-n-Out merchandise store. In fact this was where I did the majority of my week’s shopping (who needs Ralph Lauren or Louis Vuitton?). On my shopping list were t-shirts for all and sundry, a baby grow for an expecting burger obsessive, a mug, a lanyard for Mrs G to wear in work and a couple of caps. Because we spent so much money we got a rather funky french fry Christmas tree ornament thrown in free.

I can't wait to put my Christmas tree up
-->In-n-Out Burger, 4888 Dean Martin Dr, Las Vegas, NV 89103, 1-800-786-1000
->It’s about a $7-10 taxi ride from the strip depending on where you’re staying. It’s worth every cent and I was mightily tempted to revisit later in the week.
->The Las Vegas In-n-Out merchandise store is one of only 2 that exist, the other is next to the first ever In-n-Out burger branch in Baldwin Park.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - The Secret Pizza Place, Cosmopolitan Review

Perhaps the finest pizza I have ever eaten. The hipster hotel, The Cosmopolitan is home to the unofficially titled “Secret Pizza Place”. This little takeaway, with just a bit of a cult following, is run by a couple of New Yorkers who serve up one of the most bargainous lunches you could hope to purchase on Las Vegas Boulevard. A sizeable piece of perfectly crisp yet chewy pizza will set you back between $3 for a slice of margherita and around $4.50 for something more elaborate. I opted for a slice of Italian sausage with chilli whilst Mrs G kept it basic with a slice of pepperoni. For such a simple plate of food (it’s served on paper plates and drinks come in plastic cups familiar from teen movie frat parties), this was one of the culinary highlights of my Las Vegas trip.

Due to the lack of a menu, I luckily stumbled upon the cannolo dessert option as a regular customer in front of me had ordered one. It consisted of a perfectly crisp cookie filled with cream cheese, candied fruits, nuts and bits of chocolate. It was maximally moreish.

It takes a little bit of a job to find the “Secret Pizza Place”; it’s hidden away on the second floor of the casino down an anonymous looking corridor lined with vintage record sleeves. When you smell something tasty, keep on going and you’re nearly there. It doesn’t feel like anywhere you’d expect to find in a 5 star Las Vegas hotel. In fact it would look more at home tucked down a darkened alley somewhere in Manhattan. 

This place is definitely worth hunting down. See below for a visual guide to finding the "Secret Pizza Place"

1. It's the corridor behind the pool table on the 2nd floor
 2. It's got loads of vintage records lining it when you get a bit closer

The Details:
The Cosmopolitan Hotel, 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Delmonico Steakhouse, Venetian Hotel Review

Having eaten a light lunch of a 1lb hot dog at the poolside cafe in The Aria (I wish I had a photo of this as it really was an act of stupidity), Mrs G and I steeled ourselves for the meat fest which lay ahead of us. Last year's steak I ate at Smith & Wollensky’s was the highlight of my trip to Vegas and I'd planned on revisiting this time round. However the mere suggestion was laughed out of town when I put it to the good people over at Chowhound Las Vegas and  much debate followed. Apparently, there were tons of better establishments on The Strip which should be considered before S&W should be given any form of thought. Taking on board the experts’ opinions we settled on Delmonico steak house in The Venetian hotel (it's got canals just like in Venice), run by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse who is highly regarded for his modern interpretation of Creole style cuisine.

The local Chowhounders had advised me that the bone-in-ribeye was the only way to go on the menu and that the sides and other dishes on offer could be a bit of a let-down. As a result of this advice and on the basis of my previous run-ins with US steaks, we decided that it would be sensible to forgo appetisers and desserts and focus solely on the main course.

Amuse bouche –Samosa of beef. Very mediocre. Crisp yet greasy pastry filled with spiced minced beef. It’s sophisticated appearance belied a taste which would not have been unexpected in most high street curry houses. It was only the garnish of coriander that elevated it somewhat.

Main course – Mrs G and I both opted for the bone-in-ribeye steak ($52). This 24oz (that’s 1.5 pounds or 680 grams just to hammer it home) mammoth cut of meat was a truly wondrous thing. All the steaks at Delmonico’s are chargrilled USDA prime aged and are served in a creole seasoning with butter. The chef recommended the steak to be cooked medium rare and so this was how we ordered it. The quality of the meat and it's cooking was apparent from the first mouthful; perfectly meaty and with a delicious charred crust every piece melted in the mouth. Woweewowow.

I think it deserves a close-up
Sides – Creamed spinach ($9) was disappointingly bland whilst sauteed garlic wild mushrooms ($9 - enoki, shitake & oyster I think) provided an excellent hit of garlic.

Delmonico’s serves up a mighty fine steak. However, I must say it was only marginally better than Smith & Wollensky’s. Much to the incredulity of the table next to us I managed to defeat the steak and see off the whole thing. Unfortunately Mrs G only managed ½ of hers. I considered helping her out until I noticed that my shirt was visibly tighter than it was at the start of the meal and that I had begun to sweat just a little bit....

A large knife for a large steak
The details:
Delmonico Steakhouse, The Venetian Hotel, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - The Wicked Spoon buffet, Cosmopolitan Review

Our first night’s meal set the tone for the rest of the week; an all you can eat blowout at The Cosmopolitan buffet, Wicked Spoon. Having had an enjoyably hit and miss experience at The Bellagio buffet last year, I was interested to see how the offering at this incredibly chic hotel would compare (The Bellagio & Wynn buffets seem to be regarded as the best on The Strip). Setting us back $35 a head and with unlimited soft drinks included (root beer for me, cranberry juice for Mrs G), Wicked Spoon is slightly different to other buffets in that it serves its dishes in small plates rather than large platters. In theory this should mean the food is replenished more frequently, resulting in a fresher plate. In reality, and much like everywhere else, a number of the dishes tasted like they’d been sitting around for a good while.

Highlights of the meal included some excellent Korean style ribs, pieces of tender beef fillet & beef ribs from the carvery and an unctuous pan of truffled potatoes. However, the strongest part of the buffet was the dessert section. I chomped my way through a selection of mini desserts which included a pecan tart, a layered mango and chocolate mousse and a pot of peanut butter and jelly ice-cream. Aesthetically, most of the desserts wouldn’t have looked amiss in a fine dining establishment.

Beef galore and a pan of truffled potatoes
Awww, aren't the little desserts cute
Unfortunately the lows of the meal came as thick and fast as the highs. I ended up with a plate of absolute howlers which included a barely edible piece of haddock in crawfish hollandaise (the taste combination was too strong for my palette), a pretty vile pork tostada comprised of tough pork and a stale tasting tortilla and lastly some really mediocre king crab legs (surprisingly people were loading up with plates full of them).

A menagerie of mingingness - haddock in crawfish hollandaise, pork tostada and crabs legs
Our meal at Wicked spoon is fairly indicative of most buffet cuisine I’ve eaten in Vegas. Much like my meal at The Bellagio last year, there are some real gems which needed to be sifted out from amongst the dross. If you’re prepared to discard something unpleasant after a single mouthful (I find this a real challenge) then a Las Vegas buffet can be an excellent value meal option.
I wish had room to eat one of each
The Cosmopolitan is on the left in case you hadn't spotted it
Disappointed by my lack of endurance at this early stage of the week (I only managed 4 plates of food) we set off into the neon lit night to burn off a few calories with an evening stroll.

The details:
The Wicked Spoon, The Cosmopolitan Hotel, 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Another review: If you want to see a hilariously brilliant and detailed video review of The Wicked spoon then check out this bad boy -

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Aria, Las Vegas review

This year we decided to stay in one of the newest hotels in Vegas, The Aria. The Aria is part of the City Center, the most expensive privately funded development in US history weighing in at a cool $9.2 billion. The City Center consists of the 4,000 bedroom hotel The Aria, the boutique 400 bedroom Mandarin Oriental, The Vdara condo-hotel, Veer Towers residential apartments and the luxury Crystals shopping mall. Whereas most of the luxury hotels on the strip have a slightly old-school feel to their opulence (Bellagio, Wynn), The Aria along with the achingly cool Cosmopolitan next door have a straight up City-chic feel to them. Having worked with such architects as Norman Foster and Daniel Liebskind and having amassed one of the largest free public art collections in the US including works by Henry Moore and Nancy Rubins, City Center is blow your socks of trendy.

Last year when I visited Vegas, City Center still looked like a bit of a building site so I must admit I had my reservations when I made my booking this year. Fortunately my sense of trepidation was totally misguided. We had an awesome time staying at The Aria. Personally I felt our room was of a higher standard than The Bellagio where I stayed previously (each room has a nifty little touch screen by the bed which controls everything from the curtains to the TV), the pool deck has 3 massive pools where we always got a sun lounger easily, there are little architectural details dotted around the hotel which take your breath away, the hotel is handily situated on the centre of Las Vegas boulevard (I guess that’s why they called it City Center), the staff at The Aria were courteous and helpful at all times and finally because it’s relatively new it was significantly cheaper than some of the other 5 stars on the strip including Wynn, Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace.

C'est chic

The awesome pool deck - Thanks to MGM resorts international who emailed me the photo
The lobby
Far too much fun for the lazy person who wants to do everything from the comfort of their bed
Details: ARIA Resort and Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89158