Originally published in Travel + Leisure, February 2011
YOU ARRIVE AFTER LUNCHTIME, having eaten only half a bag of pretzel nuggets on the plane ride in. You are famished. Jack is surveying his notes. He has a list of 47 restaurants and less than 79 hours to attempt to try them all.
This absurd stunt was his idea. Jack is a foodie’s foodie, possessed of boundless appetites and an ironclad liver. He has 2,987 Chowhound posts. He reads Menupages in bed. But this is too big a task for one, so he’s coaxed you along as his wingman. Together you will devour the daylights out of the culinary candyland that is Las Vegas, Nevada.
There is ground to cover. Vegas is no longer defined by splashy casino-side restaurants, though there are still plenty of those. For food lovers the parameters have expanded tenfold: to off-Strip ramen joints, far-flung suburban pizzerias, chef’s haunts in Chinatown mini-malls.
You have packed Excedrin, Maalox, Lipitor. By Thursday you will have consumed 19 pounds of shellfish, 22 liters of booze, five lobes of foie gras, 15 sticks of butter, and three micrograms of edible gold leaf. The only thing that really worries you is the foie. There is nothing more depraved than a man in the depths of a foie gras binge.
Jack slides behind the wheel of the rental car. You take a deep breath and open the passenger door.
3:09 p.m.: Archi Thai Kitchen
You are in a stucco hut across from a pet-grooming service. You would not have glanced twice at this place had a chef friend of Jack’s not steered you here. You surely wouldn’t have guessed that Archi’s would serve the best chicken satay of your life, a life now steeped in regret over not having found it sooner: tender thigh meat marinated overnight in curry powder, sugar, and garlic, deep-fried and then grilled to an ideal balance of juiciness and char. Most satay sauces are peanut-buttery sweet, but this is spicy, dusky, demanding another dip.
While Jack talks Thai to the waitstaff, you scan the listings in Las Vegas Weekly: Manilow, Rod Stewart, Donny & Marie. You have found a secret portal to 1976!
4:44 p.m.: Bachi Burger
You are heading south. Rumor has it there’s a new spot out beyond the airport specializing in pork buns and Asian-inflected burgers.
Bachi’s menu reads as if Harold and Kumar are in the kitchen doing bong hits. Of the six whacked-out burgers on offer, the highlight is an homage to the Vietnamese banh mi, blending beef, pork, shrimp, and pork pâté with pickled carrots and daikon. Fresh lemongrass, mint, and basil add brightness, while fish sauce supplies depth. It is intensely satisfying. Jack orders a third.
5:36 p.m.: CityCenter
You have booked rooms at the Mandarin Oriental, because you’re not the type of people who open drapes by hand. Here, a single control panel will ring your alarm and automatically raise the curtains, jack up the A/C, and switch on the Today show. Downside: it takes 17 minutes to figure out the shower.
The Mandarin is one of three hotels in the new CityCenter complex, whose gimmick is having no gimmick. It is no pyramid or castle or volcano, but a simulacrum of a sleek Modernist metropolis, designed by name architects (Libeskind, Pelli), complete with art installations (Rauschenberg, Stella) and real-live pedestrians. “Modernistan” would’ve been a better name.
6:41 p.m.: Julian Serrano
You’re at the Aria Resort & Casino, where most of Modernistan’s restaurants are located. Dinner (round one) is at Julian Serrano’s tapas restaurant. Serrano is the chef behind Picasso at the Bellagio. You have high hopes.
Just as a bistro can be judged by its poulet rôti, a tapas bar is only as good as its pan con tomate. “And its sangria,” Jack adds. Both arrive swiftly. The pan con tomate, rafts of toasted bread rubbed with tomato, garlic, and grassy olive oil, is terrific; the sangria overly sweet but functional. Jack summons a platter of blistered shishito peppers sprinkled with sea salt. With his eyes glued on the Anne Hathaway ringer at the hostess stand, he whistles along as the stereo blasts “Centerfold.”
7:54 p.m.: Todd English P.U.B.
After a pitcher of saccharine sangria, you’re craving a hoppy IPA, so you stroll over to P.U.B., CityCenter’s requisite Todd English venture. In case anyone’s confused, P.U.B. stands for “Public Urban Bar.” In case Todd English is confused, pub already sort of stood for that.
You loved English’s cooking at Olives in Boston, but he’s since spread his tapenade a little thick and his discretion a little thin. The P.U.B. menu is a cheesebomb of drunkfood for guys who tuck in their polos and dudes who don’t tuck in their dress shirts: BLT sliders; swordfish enchiladas. Oh, well. At least the TV’s are immense.
8:18 p.m.: Sage
Refuge is found down the hall. Chef Shawn McClain made his name at Spring and Green Zebra, in Chicago. Sage hews to the same farm-to-table approach—or, in Vegas’s case, FedEx-to-table.
You assume two leather-clad stools at the bar. Jack’s food-critic pal has recommended the foie gras crème brûlée. It sounds ridiculous. Laced with cocoa nibs and bing cherries, spiked with brandy and Grand Marnier, it is, in fact, ridiculously good. Your bartender, who’s pairing beers with each dish, sets down two glasses of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch—more mead than ale, redolent of saffron and muscat grapes. A yellowtail crudo, incongruously plated with black truffles and trumpet mushrooms, turns out to be a brilliant mix of ethereal and earthy, ocean and forest floor. You stumble outside and hail a cab to the Wynn.
10:05 p.m.: Bartolotta
Most people would be done for the night. Most would not be at Paul Bartolotta’s coastal-Italian restaurant for Dinner No. 3. Most people aren’t you and Jack.
You would’ve preferred to sit in a cabana by the faux lagoon outside. Instead, you’re relegated to a two-top by the bar, where you’re assaulted by schmaltzy ballads.
Bartolotta is known for impeccably fresh and shockingly expensive fish, most of it line-caught (very eco-friendly) and flown in every other day from Italy (very not). Your waiter rolls up a cart full of evidence: silver-flecked sea bream; spiny scorpion fish; glistening snapper that two nights ago was swimming off the Ligurian coast. You can choose any fish to be grilled or roasted. For an extra $85, the waiter says, the kitchen will shave white truffles on anything. (“Feh,” Jack says. “I know a girl who’ll do that for $25.”) You settle on the snapper.
A flurry of starters materializes: marinated anchovies; baby clams sautéed with white wine, tomato, and garlic; Sicilian saber fish that’s charcoal-grilled and rightfully left alone. The Ligurian octopus is so tender you slice it with a butter knife. The waiter explains that it was massaged “exactly 500 times,” which inspires some speculation about whose job that is and how one might describe it on a résumé. At last comes the snapper, which requires nothing more than a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a few quick minutes on the grill.
When the bill arrives it’s past midnight and you’re well past coherent, reeling from omega-3’s, wine, and bad Italian disco. Jack is raring for a nightcap and soup dumplings. “It’s 1 a.m.!” he brays. “Do you know where your inner children are?!?”
You passed out in your trousers. Soup dumplings were a terrible idea. When Al Roker appears and the curtains slide open to an angry sun, you’re cotton-mouthed and unsure of your whereabouts. You squint out the window for clues: Egypt? Monte Carlo? The head spins. A $14 bowl of oatmeal hardly helps. Over breakfast at the Mandarin, Jack plots out the day’s meals.
12:20 p.m.: Settebello Pizzeria
First up: a Neapolitan pizza parlor in suburban Green Valley. Settebello is equipped with a 950-degree wood-fired oven for blistering the crust just so.
Your brain feels like a 950-degree oven. Your companion is mysteriously unaffected. While you wait for your pies, bright-eyed Jack chats up the pizzaiolo. Like any respectable Italian, he uses Molina Caputo flour for a chewy, slightly sour crust. Atop the margherita he adds San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Wisconsin mozzarella, and basil. The result is damn impressive. After two slices you have regained your peripheral vision.
4:03 p.m.: Origin India
Somewhere between stops at Hot N Juicy Crawfish and a north-side molcajetes stand, your hangover subsided. Now you’re at Origin India, double-fisting ice water and a 20-ounce Taj Mahal. With its Moghul archways and amiable staff, Origin is a cut above the typical South Asian restaurant. You could make a fine meal from the street-snacks menu alone: the bhel puri (puffed rice, potatoes, and onions in tamarind sauce) is as tasty as any you’ve had in Mumbai. You tear into plush naan with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, savory biryani, and a phenomenal rogan josh made with New Zealand lamb shank. Fully restored, you cross the street to the Hard Rock for a round of blackjack. Your dealer is an amiable Filipino named Wilson, like the volleyball. With two large riding on the bet, he cajoles you into splitting a pair of eights. You bust. Wilson!!!
8:16 p.m.: Joël Robuchon
At last, here you are: the grandest restaurant in Vegas, from the man some call the world’s greatest chef. Joël Robuchon is located at the MGM Grand, though it does its best not to appear so: guests are picked up by limousine, delivered to a private entrance of the MGM’s exclusive Mansion annex, and escorted through rear corridors, Goodfellas-style, to the sumptuous, 50-seat dining room. Swathed in regal purples and golds, the interior is like a set from Die Zauberflöte. Surprisingly, it is the furthest thing from stiff. Laughter mingles with the bright tinkle of jazz piano. Your table is covered in what appear to be Mardi Gras beads.
A bread cart emerges, and you begin to giggle. It is the Maybach of bread carts, laden with saffron focaccia, Gruyère brioche, olive flutes—plus a nearly five-pound slab of butter, flown in from Brittany, that reminds you what real butter tastes like.
Robuchon’s 16-course tasting menu costs $385 a person. (You are down that much at blackjack. Jack is treating.) As at so many Michelin three-stars, the opening courses are the standouts, their daintiness and concision whispering a whole evening’s worth of promise: a tin of osetra caviar hiding a layer of crabmeat and fennel cream; airy egg-yolk ravioli with chanterelles and spinach foam. Pairings are equally assured. A minerally white burgundy from Méo-Camuzet drinks beautifully with roasted lobster and sea-urchin flan.
At some point you are no longer consuming food; food is consuming you. Time has stopped. Before you know it a mignardises cart appears, glittering like a jewel box. Is it really 12:15? The four-hour bacchanal has left you strangely energized, the way great Japanese food does. Your feet feel lighter as you stride to the casino for some postprandial Texas Hold’em.
You win a few hands. You could play more. But the night is young, Jack insists, and—speaking of Japanese—Raku is just getting started.
2:07 a.m.: Aburiya Raku
You are not the kind of person who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. Then again, nobody goes to Raku before midnight. Certainly not the chefs who make up much of the restaurant’s clientele. (Hey, isn’t that Paul Bartolotta?)
Tucked in a strip mall on Spring Mountain Road, the heart of Vegas’s Chinatown, Raku shot to cult status soon after opening in 2008. The focus is on robata—charcoal-grilled meats and vegetables—but the real treats are on the daily-changing chalkboard menu: pristine fried prawns; quivering cubes of house-made tofu; a velvety poached egg with Santa Barbara sea urchin; silky custard with silkier foie gras. This is hearty Japanese soul food, ideally paired with sake or beer. (The faux-hawked barman suggests Ginga Kogen, an unfiltered hefeweizen from Nishiwaga.) You wind up closing the place down, staggering out as the staff are stacking the chairs.
When you awake, the Today show is long over. Housekeeping has given up and left a note. You’re bloodshot, bleary-eyed, and ravenous. You could murder some French toast. Your cohort knows just the place.
12:41 p.m.: Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge
Uh-oh. You’ve heard about the Peppermill. About its monstrous breakfasts and giant Scorpion Bowls (both served 24/7); the fake trees foresting the dining room; the goofy fire pits dating to the Carter administration.
For once, notoriety is inadequate. Your waitress wears a dress so low-cut the neckline catches on her belly ring. She brings you Bloody Marys the size of Big Gulps. The French Toast Collage includes not only a seven-inch stack of battered challah but three fried eggs, bacon, sausage, and several golf balls of whipped butter. You are impervious to pain, cholesterol, remorse.
2:53 p.m.: Monta
“Irasshaimase!” shout the cooks as you enter. They’re wearing do-rags and white rubber boots. You take the only two empty seats. The other 24 are occupied entirely by Japanese: hipsters, businessmen, hipster-businessmen, and an octogenarian in a trilby. Opened last May on Spring Mountain Road (just two doors down from Raku), Monta specializes in tonkatsu ramen, a nutty pork broth of unfathomable depth, laden with wood-ear mushrooms, scallions, and a boiled egg. To this bowl of id you have added strips of roast pork belly that dissolve on the tongue. Your blood runs several degrees warmer as you slurp the last spoonful.
Spring Mountain Road resembles any suburban miracle mile, except every storefront has a pagoda roof. You stroll east in the fading afternoon light, Jack darting in and out of pho shops, boba tea shops, Hawaiian poke joints, Macanese bakeries, Taiwanese noodle houses, and Mongolian BBQ’s, snacking as you go.
7:02 p.m.: Twist
A nap restores your appetite. Jack has spent the interim waist-deep in a martini glass at the Golden Steer. He knocks on your door clad in Armani and apparently no worse for wear. You ascend to the Mandarin’s 23rd floor and slide into a banquette at Twist, the first stateside restaurant from chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Where Robuchon went plush, Twist goes spare, bordering on ascetic. Tiny globe pendants, flickering like distant planets, hang from a double-height ceiling. The room’s pale, chilly lighting is more suited to a museum—or a spaceship. This is not a place to propose.
Gagnaire’s cooking is quirky and cerebral, which doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. The amuse-bouche: shards of cumin flatbread to dip into tuna-infused Chantilly, then into a ramekin of dehydrated shrimp that crackle like Rice Krispies upon contact with the cream. “How cool is that?” Jack chortles, repeating the trick over and over until the waiter removes the bowl. More martinis are procured. Each course includes three separate dishes on three separate plates, which may be two too many for a man in Jack’s condition. He’s unsure which to tackle first: the foie gras–and-fig terrine, studded with Sauternes-soaked apricots and cosseted in speck? The rhubarb-and-eggplant mousse? Or the bracing salad of pickled chanterelles, pickled onions, and mâche, drizzled in beet syrup?
Once again, the meal peaks early. Hamachi ceviche is served on a chicory-and-grapefruit salad so brassy and bitter it overwhelms the fish; poached cod is buried in a cloying reduction. By the fourth course you’ve lost interest. “Maybe they’ll bring us more Rice Krispie shrimp,” Jack wonders aloud.
12:45 a.m.: Society Café
You shouldn’t. You needn’t. But: another round. A taxi whisks you to the Encore resort, where Society Café dishes out late-night comfort food. After that heady dinner, you’re craving the unfussy nourishment that can only be delivered by a bowl of soup—in this case, roasted tomato bisque, with a salad of Rosso Bruno tomatoes and creamy, tangy burrata. From your perch at the bar, you play Spot-the-Call-Girl, Guess-the-John. Jack orders another Sazerac; you wander off to find the gents’. In the next stall a guy is chatting on the phone and, judging from the sound of plastic on porcelain, chopping rails of coke.
When did the night become a Jay McInerney novel?
The scale in your hotel bathroom says you’ve gained six pounds since Monday.
11:29 a.m.: Lotus of Siam
Another day, another parking lot. This one is particularly derelict—probably hosts pit-bull fights after dark. Right now its only occupants are a dozen souls queued outside a still-locked door, waiting for lunch to begin.
You’ve read the decade-old Gourmet article proclaiming Lotus of Siam “the best Thai restaurant in North America.” You’ve heard about its new branch in Manhattan, a rare case of reverse Vegas-NYC migration. You’ve heard the hype, and, frankly, you’re determined not to buy it.
And then you finally lift fork to mouth and taste Lotus’s Issan-style deep-fried beef jerky—beef jerky, for the love of Mike!—and your eyes actually well up, not so much from the heat, though it packs plenty, as from the sheer abundant goodness of the thing. Beneath a crackly exterior, dark as night and dusted with lemongrass, the beef is resoundingly juicy, each bite releasing waves of earthy flavor. You and Jack stare at your plates, dumbstruck. “Whoa,” he murmurs. “Whoa,” you reply.
4:20 p.m.: Luv-It Frozen Custard
While Jack goes off in search of ribs and empanadas, you manage to shed another $170 at the Aria’s casino. This prompts a solo visit to Luv-It Frozen Custard, which has lifted the spirits of People-Who-Lose-at-Blackjack since Robert Goulet was headlining the Sands. You devour your sundae on the blazing-hot hood of your car. It does the trick.
With its homey façade and primitive sign, Luv-It reminds you of a bygone Las Vegas, before Wolfgang Puck arrived to make the city safe for celebrity chefs and serious dining. Since then, goes the logic, Vegas has become a bona fide food town.
Or has it? For all the great meals you’ve had, ambitious cooking remains very much the exception here. This is still the land of soggy pancakes and leathery steaks, of flavorless crab legs and tasteless design. A place where restaurants offer to “add lobster to any dish—$26!” (Because who wouldn’t want lobster in their mac and cheese?) In every other aspect of Vegas life, kitsch and silliness are fundamental. But it’s hard to eat with your tongue in your cheek.
7:18 p.m.: Caesars Palace
The last meal is upon you. There’s an 11:30 red-eye to catch. You and Jack are at Caesars, wrestling with a dilemma. You have a table booked upstairs at Restaurant Guy Savoy—meaning you have the chance to eat three dinners, on three consecutive nights, by three of France’s greatest living chefs.
But to be honest, you are craving pasta something fierce. And just downstairs from Guy Savoy is…Rao’s. Rao’s! Whose 10 tables in Harlem are still the toughest booking in New York, 115 years on. And here it is in Caesars Palace, overflowing with marinara sauce and the whoops of wine-soaked celebrants. And there’s a booth available! You marvel at the absurdity of the choice: Guy Savoy...or Rao’s! Only in Vegas. So which will it be?
7:19 p.m.: Rao’s
The Vegas outpost is four times larger than Manhattan’s, but it’s divided into separate dining rooms, each scaled like the original. There’s a warmth here that’s hard to quarrel with: soft-glowing sconces, burnished plank floors, the obligatory head shot. Waitstaff are prone to laughter; even the busboys slap your back. Rao’s inspires confidence. This is a place where, when they offer grated Parmesan, you say, “Yes,” and when they offer another bottle, you say, “Hell, yes.”
You say “Hell, yes” to a lot at Rao’s. To a zesty insalata di mare—calamari, shrimp, PEI mussels, lobster, and sweet crabmeat. To penne alla vodka and toothsome fiocchetti, stuffed with ricotta and pear, in a sage-butter-cranberry sauce. “That’s my jam!” shouts Jack, knocking over his wine glass. You realize how much you’ve missed this kind of food. (Except the meatballs. Biting into Rao’s polpette is like gnawing on a Birkenstock.)
More wine is brought. You try to find the bathroom and wind up on the bocce court. When you return, the woman in the next booth is giving her consort a lap dance. Bombed on Barolo and cheesecake, you and Jack defer your departure. JetBlue can wait. Instead, you’re hatching plans for your own casino resort. Jack’s idea: Vegas, Vegas. Scale models of all the hotels on the Strip, each with just one room. “Very exclusive,” he reasons.
“What’ll the restaurants serve?” you ask.
"Small plates, of course." •
Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas CityCenter, 3752 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/881-9578; mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $225.
Aburiya Raku 5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd.; 702/367-3511; dinner for two $50.
Archi Thai Kitchen 6360 W. Flamingo Rd.; 702/880-5550; lunch for two $15.
Bachi Burger 470 E. Windmill Lane; 702/242-2244; lunch for two $30.
Bartolotta Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/770-9966; dinner for two $260.
Hot N Juicy Crawfish 4810 Spring Mountain Rd.; 702/891-8889; lunch for two $30.
Joël Robuchon MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/891-7925; 16-course tasting menu for two $770.
Julian Serrano Aria Resort & Casino; 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/230-2742; dinner for two $80.
Lotus of Siam 953 E. Sahara Ave.; 702/735-3033; dinner for two $60.
Luv-It Frozen Custard 505 E. Oakey Blvd.; 702/384-6452; custard for two $8.
Monta 5030 Spring Mountain Rd.; 702/367-4600; lunch for two $30.
Origin India 4480 Paradise Rd.; 702/734-6342; dinner for two $80.
Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge 2985 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/735-4177; breakfast for two $35.
Rao’s Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/346-4642; dinner for two $130.
Sage Aria Resort & Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/ 230-2742; dinner for two $125.
Settebello Pizzeria 140 Green Valley Pkwy.; Henderson; 702/222-3556; dinner for two $23.
Society Café Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/770-5300; dinner for two $82.
Todd English P.U.B. Aria Resort & Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/489-8080; dinner for two $75.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire Mandarin Oriental, 23rd floor, 3752 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/590-8888; dinner for two $300.