Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vegas Baby!

We spent last week in Las Vegas (hence my radio silence) so my wife could research her next tattoo shop mystery (her latest book, Pretty in Ink, is out early next month).

I have mixed feelings about Las Vegas. Having worked 26 years ago as a blackjack dealer in Reno, I know very well that casinos can be both a lot of fun and a sucker's trap. Unfortunately, the sucker's trap has become ever more prevalent.

Blackjack is an example. Multi-deck shoes and even more horrifying, machines that constantly constantly re-shuffle cards, have all but destroyed the fun and excitement of the game, as well as stacked the odds overwhelmingly in favor of the house. You can still find a single or double deck game (there was only single deck when I dealt in the early 1980s), but you have to look and you usually have to get off The Strip.

This change is especially true of food. I worked in a casino at the tail end of entrepreneur--gangster era when good, cheap food was key to luring in customers. Every casino had a buffet, a coffee shop, one or two higher end restaurants and snack bars. The prices at all were comparable to or lower than what you paid outside the casinos and the quality excellent.

No more. When corporations took over, they came to view food as a profit center. They also realized that they had a captive audience. Most people will pay double even triple to avoid going off site. So now instead of cheap, food is outrageously expensive and its quality uneven. Steaks costing $50 or more are common. Of menus I checked, Craftsteak at the MGM held the record: $240 for 8 ounces of Kobe beef. That's $30 an ounce. For a steak.

I think casinos get away with this in part because gambling is no longer taboo in America. "Gaming" is mainstream and corporate, just another form of entertainment supported by both political parties and rarely if ever criticized on moral or religious grounds. As a result, casinos no longer need cheap food and rooms to help people overcome their inhibitions.

So now that I've rambled, what did we eat in Las Vegas? We learned lessons from our last trip about 18 months ago. We found some bargains, tried to go for value and quality and got off the strip occasionally. Breakfast was in the room: coffee and bagels bought at a stand in the casino (New York, New York). We avoided the buffets (overpriced) and food courts (just as pricey as sit down meals).

Our big splurge was dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon. It was truly out of this world and not nearly as expensive as many places on the Strip. As high end as the place is, they do not look down their nose at you. We walked into an upscale place at Mandalay Bay only to have the waitress claim that the place was booked even though virtually table was empty.

By contrast, we wandered into Bouchon on your last trip 18 months ago sans reservation and not especially well dressed and were seated in about 20 minutes.

Back to the meal: My wife and I had roast chicken. I know this breaks Tony Bourdain's rule that anyone who orders chicken in a restaurant doesn't know what they want, but Keller's chicken is legendary. It did not disappoint. Among the best chickens I ever ate. It was served on a superb slaw of savoy cabbage.

My daughter started with these olives, which were amazing.

Then, carnivore that she is, she moved on to beef bourguignon. It's a cliche, but yes it really did melt in your mouth (my daughter gave me a taste).

It was my daughter's birthday, and the restaurant comped her desert (another very nice touch). Check it out. Brownie with coffee and mint chocolate chip ice cream and cherry sorbet. To die for.

It was a contrast with the poor meal we had at Il Fornaio in New York, New York our last night. The service was poor, my daughter's $10-plus Caesar salad came without proper Caesar dressing and consisted mostly of hard, thick lower romaine ribs and my wife's salad with tomatoes had two cherry tomatoes and an overly vinegary, amateurish dressing. The waitress pushed a $9 glass of wine and when I ordered something different, I am virtually sure I got the special she was pushing.

The main of pasta was better, but there is no way the meal was worth anywhere near the approximately $100 we paid.

A final observation: the sheer monotony of the more conventional food offerings was numbing. Burgers, tacos, enchiladas, rubber chicken sandwiches, fries, onion rings, no matter where you went. That's all well and good, but the lack of innovation and diversity was striking.

So in conclusion, if you go to Vegas, be prepared to spend a fortune on food. Expect sticker shock. Those $4.99 buffets your dad talks about from his trip to Vegas with the boys in 1978 are long gone. My advice is, be as discerning as possible; look for bargains and when you spend some coin (you will have no choice), try to make it worthwhile.

Hey, it's Vegas baby!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the advice, Chris. I will definitely keep all of this in mind if we head out to Vegas. That was nice of the Bouchon to do that for Julia.
    Lou Lange