Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vegas Recap I

Sorry this has taken so long to put up.   I strained a muscle in my lower back a few days ago.  Since then I’ve been doing nothing but lying down and walking; for some reason sitting in chairs—especially my computer chair—hurts terribly.  It’s starting to heal, however, so I’m going to try and man up and get this out to my devoted worshippers.

It will be in two parts.  The first will be food; the second gambling.  Since the food was the main reason we went I guess I’ll start there.

 * * *

We had three dinners in Vegas; two, near-sublime and one so poor it must never be discussed or thought about again (summary: don’t ever ever go to Olive Restaurant by Todd English, in the Bellagio. Ever.)

The first night we ate at Sage, in the Aria.  It was phenomenal.   Four and a half of five stars.  Well, maybe five out of five.  Flawless.  The highlight was a savory dumpling filled with chicken confit and truffles.  As I told my wife: it was almost dirty.  Her take ("it’s the kind of dish you’d like to take a bath in") also rang true.  Also tried an intriguing new desert wine—a sparkling chilled Italian rose that’s a mix of Moscato and another grape I can’t remember.  Also exceptional.  The half bottle of White Burgundy we had with our first course was also memorable.  That’s my favorite wine right now; it’s acidic, it’s mineral-y, and it tastes of limestone.  Cold, liquid, euphoria-inducing limestone.  The best kind.

After dinner, I had many vodka tonics.  And we won money playing blackjack and the wife made friends with the dealers and I the pit boss.  And there was much rejoicing.  Except when the pit boss got in trouble and I had to testify in his defense with the floor manager.  But that’s a story for later.

The next night was the big blowout. E—the reason for the trip.

As I said in an earlier post, to begin the meal at E, you go to the desk of the restaurant enclosing E (Jaleo) and present the hostess with your golden ticket.  Actually you don’t have to flash the golden ticket; you can just give your name.  But what the hell is the fun of that?  Before we left—both for the restaurant and for the trip itself—my wife reminded me to bring the Golden Ticket.  (As if they wouldn’t have let us in without it.  But in a way, they shouldn’t have.)

A special E attendant emerged and seated us in a special area (we couldn't enter the dining room until we'd all assembled; all the people eating dinner must enter at the same time).   Another couple waiting for E was already there, and we sat and made foodie small talk.  They’d been pretty much everywhere (Del Posto, Per Se, Alinea, Next, etc) but their favorite, they said, remained the French Laundry.   Which we now going to, in May.  (Well, if we can get a table).

One of the waitresses from E came out while we waited to tell us about the drink options.  We both chose to do the alcoholic pairings (they also have a non-alcoholic pairings, which seemed to involve lots of complicated fruit blends).  Eventually the other two couples arrived (all couples the night we were there) and we eight were escorted inside.

The dining room was about the size of a bedroom.  In the middle was a raised, semi-circular counter/bar, with eight chairs around it.  You eat facing forward, in order to watch the chefs behind the counter prepare their various concoctions.  Actually, a lot of it is done in the kitchen, but the final plating stage of most dishes occurs while you watch.  This allows the head chef (or director, really) to tell you what’s going on and answer any questions.  The whole thing is designed to be interactive—they purposefully under-describe the dishes when they’re presented to encourage the guests to ask them questions.  And in fact, the dialogue back and forth with the head chef/food director and the sommelier/drink director was thoroughly enjoyable.  Both were earnest, laid-back guys in their early 30s; they took food seriously, but they also had a sense of fun about them.  It wasn’t like going to a temple.  It was like going to a theater.

In fact—and I think this is telling—at one point, we asked the chef/Emcee/director how many of these meals he had prepared.  In the process of figuring out the answer, he said something along the lines of ‘we (the restaurant) are dark three days a week….”  That said it all—that he was using the language of theatre to talk about working in a restaurant.  At the end, when the meal was done, the servers and chefs (about ten in total) all filed out of the kitchen and stood before us and bowed while we applauded (lightly).  It seemed appropriate.

But what about the meal?  It was pretty damn incredible.  As you’d expect with any meal that lasted two hours and featured fifteen courses, it was not uniformly perfect.  But, both my wife and myself had bites we’ll always remember.  (“Course”, by the way, is misleading—really they were more like ‘bites.’  No course took more than two bites to finish, and many of the courses were single bites.  So while you definitely left the restaurant feeling full, it wasn’t excessive.  Or at least, not excessively excessive).

Jose Andres’ style is similar, I’m told, to that of his mentor, Ferran Adria.  So, while the techniques are often bizarre, the food itself is inspired in large part by basic, everyday Spanish street food.  The mood, the attitude, is of whimsy and playfulness.

So, for example, the first drink of the evening was a gin and tonic—except that it was a gin and tonic sorbet.   To make it, the chefs used liquid nitrogen, filling the room with the same kind of smoke you might expect at the start of a Whitesnake concert.  It was one of the evening’s many deliberate theatrical touches .

Speaking of theatrical…. this is a picture of the evening’s first food course.  The hand, supposedly is a life-sized model of the hand of Jose Andres.  The ‘flower’ resting on top of it is actually a kind of raspberry paper-lace.  It was made with, and tasted like, raspberries, but it had the texture of…I don’t know.  A communion wafer?  Except one that was shaped into a flower.  Hard to really capture what it felt like to eat.  At the far left of the photo you can see the edge of a box.  Here’s the whole box:

The ‘earrings’ inside are not, as you would expect, made of human ears (wait, what?) but beet skins.  Crispy beet skins, obviously.  In the white bag between the hand and the earrings (sounds like a good first line of a murder mystery), are chicharrones—fried pig skins.   The paper bag is meant to evoke the idea of street food; because if you were on the streets of Madrid at three in the morning and decided to buy some fried pig skins drizzled in honey this is how it would be served.  At least, that’s what they told us.  (If you decided to buy crispy beetskins at Madrid at three in the morning, they would not, however, be shaped like earrings and served in a wooden box.  They’d be shaped like unicorns and served in a burlap sack.  Something to keep in mind).

Another way this whole thing was like going to a show: we were forbidden to use flash photography.  Even had the lighting been better, pictures don’t really do justice to the experience of eating turbot in bone marrow sauce, on a super crispy plank of turbot skin; or of trying to drink cava out of…well…this:

The liquid in the bottom is cava.  The vessel itself is, we were a told, a riff on a traditional Spanish drinking implement.  The goal is to make it easy to share alcohol among large numbers of people.  It’s kind of awesome that the need for everybody to get drunk off not only the same liquor but the same BOTTLE of liquor seemed, to someone, so pressing that they had to create a pitcher solely dedicated to that purpose.  This is why Spain would be both much more fun and much less productive a place for me to live.

The goal, as you might surmise by looking at it, it to literally pour the alcohol down your throat without ever touching the vessel to your mouth.  (For some reason this reminded of all the drinking done out of wineskins in The Sun Also Rises.  Also, probably, because Hemingway had so many scenes in his novels involving earrings made of beets.)

After the sommelier gave each couple one of these pitcher things, the chef gave us a demonstration of how to use it.  Then, they gave us all white napkins—in case we spilled on ourselves while drinking and needed to wipe up.  (Really).  There followed, then, a lacuna.  And we sat, all of us, eying the cava with fear.  Fear only?  No--for there was also longing, there, amidst the fear.  But mostly, there was fear.  And then one among us, the bravest of the lot, raised the flask and poured it mouthward.  And the ice was broken.  And all of us did drink.  And that brave soul—the first among us to face that daunting obstacle--that was my FRICKING WIFE. 

And I was sore in love.

This is a lobster dish, obviously.  But note the shape of the plate.  Ferran Adria had it specially designed.  The ridges and undulations are intended to make it easier to scoop sauce on your fork.  The white stuff in the corner, by the way, is a foam—lemon flavored, I want to say.  The meal involved a fair amount of foams.  The best one flavored with thyme and came with a chicken dish so unbelievably delicious that I would happily travel back to Vegas tomorrow for the chance to eat it again.

One nice feature of E that I forgot mention in earlier posts: they customize the menu to your needs.  So before we even arrived, the restaurant sent us a form asking us to list any foods we didn’t.  (In our case, this meant cheese).  Then, when they got to the two courses involving cheese, they altered for us.  That was kind of neat.  Especially because one of the cheese courses involved eating a sausage sized cylinder of what looked like and felt like Styrofoam.  Except it tasted good.  (Really).

My one minor complaint about the meal was that it went a little heavy on the desserts.  Below you see one of our four (or five?) dessert bites.  It’s made with the consistency of paper; you pull it apart like it was cotton candy; the flavor, however, was chocolate (I think?):

Here’s another dessert.  They tended to serve a lot of things in little boxes, now that I look back on it.

At the end of the meal, they gave us all numbers which tell you where you lie in the history of the diners who’ve been before (I was diner 3060, for example).   We got to write our thoughts on the meal in a book, which we’re told Jose Andres would ultimately read.  Oh—and they typed out our check on a small hand-typewriter, right there in the room.  That was kind of neat.

So was it worth the money?  Given it was the most expensive meal the wife and I have ever had, you might think not.  And if the cost was judged solely on the basis of the food, I might say no.  (But then again, I might not.  The food was outstanding).  The thing with E, though, is that you’re not paying only for the food; you’re paying for the theater.  You’re paying for the boxes, and the plastic hand, and the funky plates, and the liquid nitrogen.  You’re paying to be able to ask the chef whatever you want, whenever you want, or BS with the sommerlier about the restaurants nearby.  And given all that, the price is more than fair. 

Not to say it’s a place you’d go to often.  The menu, it turns out, gets changed every three months; they rotate in five or six new dishes, so that by the end of a year it’s altogether different.  I asked how new dishes were dreamed up; anyone who works there can propose a new dish, but they have to be tested and tasted by Andres before they’re added to the menu.  


JMW said...

Wow. Worth the wait for that write-up. A lot of good lines in there, and a lot of insane images (mental and photographic). Though some of this sounds like something from a Christopher Guest movie about foodies, it also sounds like an awesome time. And something you'll obviously never forget. Can't wait for the gambling half of the story -- and of course, to be out there with you in just a few days!!

ANCIANT said...

A Guest-like movie about foodism is actually a brilliant idea. I wish I had someone to pitch it to right now. Well, and a troupe of actors that could pull it off. But it's a thing that should be done. And will, I bet.

I too look keenly forward to my return visit to Vegas. And the evil that awaits us there....

Dezmond said...

Excellent write-up, of course. A couple of thoughts.

First, if so much of the food was delicious, wasn't it frustrating that they were all a couple of bites worth of food? I mean, if I find some food that I love, I want a plate full to eat.

Secondly, I've never understood your aversion to cheese. Please explain.

Finally, too many desserts? Impossible. When we are in Vegas, we should go downtown to grab the famous fried twinkies and oreos. Mmm.

ANCIANT said...

In theory more of each bite would have been better, but in reality the appetite is finite. (Or at least, mine is). If the courses had each been the size of appetizers, we could never have had fifteen of them. So, you sacrifice portion size for variety. Which, in this case, was worth it.

I can't explain the cheese thing either. It's a taste I could acquire, of course, but I see no real reason to. Why learn to like something that's fattening and causes heart problems? What am I missing out on?

The desserts were excellent, but the savory courses, to me, were beyond excellent. So I would have preferred more of the latter. Although it's also true that I generally prefer savory to sweet anyway.

You would have liked Sage. The dessert we had there was mind-blowing. Hazelnut chocolate thing with a crisp cookie crust. It did me right.

Cartooniste said...

Okay. So maybe, once in a blue moon, I have a tiny iota of regret that vegetarians can't really participate in foodie culture to quite the same degree.

When in Spain for work two years ago my publisher made me a reservation at someplace in Barcelona that you've probably heard of, as it had one? Two? Michelin stars. I hadn't asked them to do this, and I was sent there by myself after a full day of talking to press in assorted hotel basements. I was jet lagged. I was exhausted. I was lonely. And there was not one. Single. Item. On the menu. That I could eat.

I tried to explain myself to the waiter, who assured me they could accommodate me. I was brought a plate that I can only describe as sausage-polenta ooze with beef slime sauce and a raw egg in the middle. I explained again and sent it back. It returned, sans sausage. I ate three bites of the polenta ooze, attempting to avoid the beef slime sauce, and put down my fork. I was brought the check, which I signed, and then I shuffled out into the street, my stomach growling, where I groped my way back to my hotel and made it up to the room just in time to start crying.