Friday, March 17, 2006

Las Vegas II

LAS VEGAS- My friend Bud Holmes used to own a casino in this town. He told me that in the 1970s he and his partners came up with a novel idea: A 99-cent breakfast buffet.

Some might wonder how any establishment could survive, much less thrive, serving a 99-cent breakfast. According to my friend, people would line up waiting to be seated in the dining room, meanwhile every available square inch in the waiting area was lined with slot machines. It didn't take long to turn a meal served for less than one dollar into a profitable offering. It revolutionized how foodservice was done in Las Vegas.

Before long ultra cheap prime rib specials and inexpensive steak promotions popped up everywhere. Food was an afterthought, something to fill the bellies of the masses so they could keep gambling.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the town was focused on one thing and one thing only: Money. Nothing has changed. Everything in today's Vegas centers around money, but they have found even more clever ways to disguise the mission. First they tried to promote Las Vegas as a family destination. I don't care how many roller coasters are erected, this town is as far away from a healthy family destination as any place can get. Next they brought in Broadway shows to add to the Wayne Newton-type offerings. Finally, celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, opened a restaurant here.

On my last visit to this town, 1993, I ate at the Las Vegas version of Puck's legendary Los Angeles eatery Spago. I remember telling my wife that my pesto was the best I had ever eaten. To this day I haven't eaten a pesto better than that one. Spago was a huge success, and success never goes unnoticed in Las Vegas.

Over the next 10 years the hotel properties got bigger, the décor grew more elaborate and the carrot was dangled in front of some of the nation's top chefs. Many high profile chefs have built satellite restaurants in the hotels here. Puck opened the floodgates for chefs such as Emeril Lagassee who has three properties in town. New York's brilliant sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa is in the Hard Rock Hotel, Todd English opened an Olives in the Mirage, Bobby Flay, Stephan Pyles, Julian Serrano, and a long laundry list of others have joined the fray.

Common wisdom would leave one to believe that there is no way that the satellite restaurant in Vegas is anywhere as good as the mothership in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. The counter argument would be that those restaurants operate on such a high level in the first place, a slight drop in food quality or service still puts the property miles ahead of most restaurants.

The truth is the celebrity chef is as good as his staff, and his staff needs to move up the restaurant ladder or they will jump ship. Having satellite restaurants gives the high profile restaurateurs a growth vehicle for their staff. Odds are, in the original restaurant, the celebrity chef is developing the food and the legions of sous chefs and line cooks are doing the production. In Vegas nothing changes in that paradigm. The chef moves his top talent to Las Vegas giving them an opportunity to run their own property, while others move up into the vacated positions back home. Everyone is happy, especially the Vegas dining public.

Michael Jordan worked for years as a sous chef in Lagassee's New Orleans restaurants Emeril's and NOLA. When Emeril moved west to Vegas, Jordan was the perfect choice to make the trek. Today, the top rated Zagat restaurant in Las Vegas is Rosemary's which is owned by the former NOLA sous chef, Jordan, and his wife. Thomas Keller owner of the French Laundry in Napa Valley is the nation's premiere chef. I dined at his restaurant Bouchon at the Venetian Hotel. It was an excellent dining experience. Was Keller in the kitchen? No, but his touch was everywhere.

My most memorable dining experience was at Aureole in the Mandalay Bay hotel. Aureole is my favorite restaurant in New York and Charlie Palmer is one of my favorite chefs. This would be the true test of whether the satellite can hold a candle to the home base.

Everything I had heard of Aureole Las Vegas had to do with the three-story wine tower that was the focal centerpiece of the dining room. In classic Vegas style, a girl supported by wires is raised and lowered along the wine tower pulling wines that have been ordered, a Glitter Gulch wine cellar, if you will. I can safely say that the meal I ate at Aureole Las Vegas was as good as any I have eaten in the New York property, and, in person, the wine tower didn't seem Vegasy at all.

In conclusion, if you are a non-gambler, non-drinker, family man who loves fine dining, Las Vegas might just be the place for you.
Wise Men Say.

LAS VEGAS- Greetings from the Glitter Gulch. I'm here on a business trip, my first visit here since 1993. Since then, celebrity chefs from all around the globe have opened branches of their famous eateries.

I arrived at 1:30 a.m. last night ready to eat in as many of those restaurants as I can over the next few days. Details to come.

Much has changed in Las Vegas since 1993. One thing that hasn't changed is The Graceland Wedding Chapel. In 1988, when I met my future wife, I told her that if I ever got married the service would have to be performed by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. I was adamant about it.

Four years later we were engaged and I compromised. We were married by my uncle in our church in Hattiesburg and then flew to Las Vegas the next day to get remarried by an Elvis impersonator.

In two days we went from getting married by Hugh the Episcopal rector from Virginia to reciting vows to Norm the Elvis impersonator on the Sunset Strip.

The Graceland Wedding Chapel is exactly what one would think the Graceland Wedding Chapel would be: Just as tacky as the real Graceland. I opted for the deluxe ceremony, which came with flowers for the bride (a tacky bouquet of hard plastic red roses similar to the type used outdoors in cemeteries), a red garter for my wife, a complimentary "I Got Married at the Graceland Wedding Chapel" t-shirt, and three songs sung by the king.

I am not a big a fan of Elvis, I just liked the campiness of getting married by someone who is so dedicated to one human being's life and career that he still wears dyed-black lamb chop sideburns 30 years after they were en vogue, if they ever were.

A limousine picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the older part of the Strip where the Graceland Wedding Chapel was located. We were greeted by Norm and a fellow named Stewie who was there to witness the event and to play the Casio keyboard. Norm asked us which three songs we would like. I chose "Kentucky Rain" and "In the Ghetto" which weren't exactly wedding songs but they were my two favorite Elvis songs, and it didn't really matter because we had been officially, legally, and spiritually married the day before.

Stewie escorted my wife down the aisle as Norm the Elvis impersonator broke into "In the Ghetto." I leaned over and whispered to my wife, "At least it wasn't "Hound Dog.'"

During the ceremony, my wife and I got tickled and were stifling laughs so as not to offend the Graceland wedding Chapel crew. It was the type laughing that one tries to stifle while sitting in the choir loft during church in junior high school. The harder one tries not to laugh, the more one wants to laugh.

I learned on that fateful day, February 7th, 1993 that a stifled laugh, when observed by a third party doesn't look like a stifled laugh at all. A stifled laugh obviously looks like something akin to sheer joy.Norm the Elvis impersonator mistook the stifled laughs as a sign that we were overjoyed and emotionally moved by our visit to the Graceland Wedding Chapel. Before long, three songs turned into four, four turned into six, and six turned into eighteen.

Almost an hour later, we learned from Stewie that we had just witnessed what he described as, "A real treat." Norm, seeing the "joy" on our faces, had performed his entire nightclub routine for us. "No one has ever looked as happy as you two and he gave you the full treatment."

By the eighth song, "All Shook Up," our stifled-laugh grins had morphed into a panicked looking expression of sheer desperation. That didn't stop Norm.

At the time, Vickie Lawrence, of "The Night that the Lights Went Out In Georgia" fame had a daytime talk show. Norm asked us to stay over two days to get married again during his upcoming visit to the Vickie Lawrence Show. Alas, the slopes of Aspen were calling, three wedding ceremonies in four days was too much to ask of anyone, and my wife had barely agreed to get remarried by an Elvis impersonator in the first place.

Now I am back in Vegas. My wife is home with the kids. I don't drink. I don't gamble. I don't like Celine Dion, Wayne Newton, or Tom Jones. Maybe I'll drop by the Graceland Wedding Chapel and say hello to Norm and Stewie. Maybe I'll sit in on a couple of nuptials just for old times sake.
Besh at Bat

My friend and chef, John Besh, from Restaurant August in New Orleans, was a recent guest on the Food Network’s cooking competition Iron Chef America.

The following is an account of that competition with reverence to Ernest Lawrence Thayer.

Besh at Bat

The outlook wasn’t great, for young Chef Besh on that fateful day
For he had drawn the toughest ticket, Chef Mario was ready to play

The judges were all in place; Alton Brown was behind the mic
But the humble chef from Slidell town was crouched and ready to strike

The secret ingredient was unveiled, and when the hoopla had all died down
Who would have ever known that they used andouille in that Big Apple town?

Chef Besh had a gleam in his eye, for he had drawn the perfect match
Who, me? Cook with Cajun sausage? Don’t throw me in the briar patch!

The sous chefs were hustling and knives were tapping that oh so familiar sound
Besh was cool, calm, and relaxed as he plated his first round

Mario had every stovetop eye filled, and sweat ran from his brow
As John shaved fragrant truffles on all the dish would tastefully allow

Now when it comes to pasta, the orange-clogged Batali is considered king
But they hadn’t tasted Besh’s agnolotti and the gastronomic joy it brings

Besh even made an aspic of crawfish, corn, and the secret forcemeat
“A savory gelatin?” asked one of the judges, “Will it actually taste sweet?”

Mario was frying artichokes and stuffing porcini caps
And sautéing rock shrimp and onions while keeping his menu under wraps

Besh boiled lobster and sweetbreads; he pulled out all of the stops
He fried up Meyer lemons as he used all of his props

Batali cooked polenta, yellow-grained corn meal lest we forget
Besh said, “Way down in the Chocolate City, we just call them grits”

Now beignets are usually served at Du Monde, it’s here I should insert
But, Besh on a limb, shocked them all, by frying sausage for dessert

As time wound down, the scurry ensued, and sous chef’s hands were shaking
The home audience sat on sofa’s edge, was a legend in the making?

The judges showered praise on the Iron Chef, “Mario we think your great.”
With no idea that soon they’d be cleaning the challenger’s plates

Lester Holt seemed not to get it, a Mario homer I grew aware
And his fear of the aforementioned beignets gave Besh quite a scare

The judge in the middle loved Chef John, female fans he has many
And the judge on the end was mainly notable for helping keep Oprah skinny

In the end, the plates were taken away, and all the scores were tallied
Then they went to a commercial set, and we had no idea who had rallied

But when the chairman announced the winner, a roar rose through the crowd
It was the former Marine from New Orleans that made his city proud

And somewhere out in TV land the sun is shining bright
The Doc Gibbes Band is playing on Emeril’s show, and Rachel Ray’s heart is light
And, in the Crescent City men are laughing, and little children shout

But there is no joy in New York—
mighty Mario has struck out