Tahlequah Daily Press

Columns

February 15, 2012

Vegas: Both elegant and edgy

TAHLEQUAH — The era when Las Vegas was a dusty frontier stopover for soldiers on their way to the West Coast is long past. And its days as a town solely for those who enjoy rolling dice and flipping cards are gone, too.

Vegas is still the preferred destination for those who enjoy playing the tables or machines. But it’s also home to a number of world-class restaurants, top-tier Broadway-style shows, and a number of other activities that can keep you busy for four or five days. Most airlines offer direct flights to Vegas, so you can find a good deal many times of the year. But as with every other vacation destination, the early bird gets the worm – especially when it comes to scoring the best show tickets and booking the best rooms.

Between Christmas and New Year’s 2011, my family spent a few days in Vegas – our 23-year-old son’s first “official” time there since becoming “legal.” For this jaunt we used Southwest Vacations. We rarely use any other airline other than Southwest or American – because they’re the cheapest, and at least until Southwest changed its points system, the most convenient for collecting free flights. After I’d already booked the package, I found a bit of a better deal, and this has typically been the case. So before locking yourself into a package deal, compare the cost of booking airfare, hotel and other accouterments separately.

I recommend either the Luxor or the Venetian for accommodations. For the price, it’s hard to beat the rooms, and both are conveniently situated on the Strip. In the past decade or so, the Strip has burgeoned in the center, so the Venetian is more centrally located if you’re planning to visit other casinos. The Venetian is a bigger property, so the shopping venues and restaurant offerings are far more extensive, and the world-renowned Canyon Ridge Spa is there. But I love the Egyptian motif at the Luxor, and my husband likes the “inclinators” (elevators that move sideways up the corners of the pyramid); also, we know our way around.

For past trips to Vegas, we’ve had a rental car or taken taxis around the city. But from now on, we’re going with the city bus (http://www.rtcsnv.com). The Deuce covers the Strip thoroughly, stopping at every major casino and coming along every 15 to 20 minutes or so. A three-day pass is $20, and you can link with the Downtown Express. The buses are comfortable and clean, with two decks, and most frequent Vegas visitors use it regularly.

Foodies (like us) can choose from a fabulous array of restaurants that have sprung up in the desert. Most of the well-known chefs have properties there. Vegas has long been known for its inexpensive buffets, but these days, they’re not that inexpensive, nor are they that good. We’d heard rave reviews on the buffet at the Bellagio and we tried to eat there, but we decided no buffet was worth the 2-1/2-hour line that loomed. For cheap eats, you’ll find better options in the casinos, as well as some unique spots. One is Pink’s, the legendary Hollywood hot dog stand that caters to the stars. Although my in-laws don’t live far from Hollywood, I’d never eaten there until a Pink’s popped up at Cedar Point amusement park. Now there’s one in Vegas – in front of the Planet Hollywood Hotel – and it’s worth checking out (www.pinkshollywood.com). They even have hot dogs with pastrami, and since my husband loves pastrami, that’s what he ordered. Another famous restaurant that’s turned up in Vegas (at the Mirage) by way of New York is the Carnegie Deli, where you can get more pastrami, tongue, kosher pickles and everything you’d expect. I recommend lunch, and get there at 11 a.m. before the noon rush. The portions are huge, so pay for a plate-share unless you’re famished.

Most folks can’t afford a fine dining establishment every night, but for every vacation, you should make reservations for at least one special evening, even if it means you must save your money. And if you’re in Vegas and can only choose one fine restaurant, it should be the at Eiffel Tower  (www.eiffeltowerrestaurant. com). My husband and I have eaten in a number of great restaurants in our 50-odd years (with French food, specifically Alsatian, being our favorite), but we both agree this is one of the top two (the other being Victoria and Albert at Walt Disney World). This is an elegant establishment, so casual attire is discouraged.

I knew the food at Eiffel Tower would be exceptional, because I was familiar with the culinary wizardry of Chef Joho. One of our long-time favorites in Chicago was his Brasserie JO, which has been transformed into Paris Club (see my Chicago review from 2011, still online at our website). I hope one day to visit Everest, his upscale Chicago restaurant, although – as I told the captain at Eiffel Tower, Michael Howland – I can’t see how it can top the Vegas place. Eiffel is not about food; it’s about an entire sensory experience that assails not just the tastebuds, but the eyes, nose, hands and everything else you bring to the table. It’s in the Paris resort and casino, and from most tables, you can watch the enchanting intermittent fountain displays at the Bellagio just across Las Vegas Boulevard.

The service at the Paris is superb – again, ranking with V&A, and because of the spectacular view, the ambiance is even better. We enjoyed attention from three or four different staff members, including the captain, paced precisely so as to allow ample time between courses, but not so often as to interfere with conversations or the fountain shows. I started with cold foie gras torchon, duck proscuitto and fig compote, while my husband chose the red wine marinated quail, chorizo brioche pudding, swiss chard and petite frisee. My son orders escargot whenever he can, and this appetizer was fricassee featuring sweetbreads and farm-raised poached egg. It was his first time to eat sweetbreads, and he pronounced them sublime, as were the other dishes. For our three entrees, we had boneless organic rabbit with braised carrots confit and mustard jus; muscovy duck breast with camargue rice and sauce foie gras; and sauteed sea bass with organic pearl barley, root vegetables and veal bacon. We always share plates on such occasions, and all three dishes were exploding with complex flavors, melded to perfection. We were almost too full for dessert, but our server coaxed us into trying the pistachio souffle, and while I typically do not like pistachio-flavored concoctions, I’ll make an exception for this one; it was out of this world!

Another splendid dinner choice is Bouchon (www.bouchonbistro), in the Venetian. The fare is also French, but it’s a bit more casual and doesn’t boast the stunning panorama. There’s been a recent trend for restaurants to serve paté in charming little pots; I noticed it first at Bouchon a few years ago, and it’s really taken hold. The terrine de foie gras de canard is smooth and creamy, and melts on the tongue. My son had quiche lorraine for an appetizer, and said it was the best he’d ever eaten. I had an excellent plate of boudin blanc (white sausage) with potato puree and French prunes, while my husband heartily approved of his pan-seared trout.

No Vegas trip would be complete without a couple of shows, and there are always good ones on stage in Vegas. I will annoy some folks by saying I still don’t think Vegas is a place for kids, but if you bring them, take them to the Tournament of Kings jousting at the Excalibur (www.excalibur.com/entertainment/ tournament_of_kings.aspx). You’ll get a reasonably priced prix fixe meal featuring cornish game hens (you’ll eat with your fingers). The tournament is great fun, and you’ll cheer for your champion. For the adults, there are plenty of hottie knights and fair maidens to ogle. It’s strictly G-rated, though, so don’t worry.

Even those who haven’t seen the Blue Man Group (www. blueman.com) are familiar with the act, though they might not know it: the techno hit, “I Feel Love,” had its roots with BMG. The Vegas show is at the Venetian, and we took it in the last time we were there. It never gets old! As I’ve said before, think “percussion” for the basic concept of BMG, which uses an intricate array of PVC pipes to get the point – and the music – across. Paddles, brushes, mallets and other tubes used like trombone slides are employed for the effect, as are a riot of colorful liquids and lights. Despite the fact that their faces are swathed bright-blue coating, the expressions they convey are hilarious, even as the “men” themselves are voiceless. Members of the audience are drawn onto the stage to become part of skits, which culminate in colored tubes spinning far above, and cascades of toilet paper flooding over and through the audience. (For more on this tip-top entertainment, see my previous feature at http://tahlequahdailypress.com/fea tures/x1930915889/Vegas-Forget-the-slots-enjoy-the-show.)

We’d seen Penn & Teller (www.pennandteller.com) on TV, and were therefore familiar with their bewitching blend of illusion and comedy (and their brazen politics!), but had never caught them live. The venue’s at the Rio, which is a bit off the beaten path, so you’ll need to take a cab. Ticket prices range, but the auditorium is huge, so you’ll get decent seats if you work a bit ahead. Arrive early, because Penn Jillet (the tall one) plays the bass, and he and pianist Mike Jones have a great preshow act – during which Jones, in an icy-cool, soft voice, repeatedly and seductively invites audience members to venture onstage to “sign a book and view a box.” Both items later become part of the show, which will include sleights of hand, smoke and mirrors, and elaborate visual subterfuge that you won’t find with other magicians, regardless of fame and claims. One particular segment featuring Teller alone brought “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd with a stunning climax – which I won’t divulge, but let’s just say in his hands, apparently inanimate objects can become living, breathing creatures in a grand way. Teller is silent onstage (though he talks, of course, and does so with guests after the show).

Every portion of their edgy act is designed to amaze and astound, and sometimes horrify through a brief instant of apparent gore. Penn goes to lengths to explain certain elements; they have little tolerance for “posers” in their field, and will boldly call them out, exposing fraud of those who make their living in the spotlight. They’ll let you know, too, that they are committed libertarians, with an extracurricular mission to champion the Bill of Rights. We bought two of their credit-card-sized copies of that documet, designed to set off metal detectors at airports (though being cowards, we put them in our checked luggage for the trip home). Both men greet guests outside the auditorium after the show, so my son was delighted to get their autographs and have his photo taken with them. P&T Rio is a well-balanced, exceptionally entertaining and completely mesmerizing show, probably best-suited for teenagers and older. There are several ticket price levels designed for any budget, and dinner packages are available.

Vegas may be in the desert, but even if you’re not a gambler, you can sate even the most sophisticated artistic and entertainment tastes here, and usually do it less expensive than elsewhere.  

That is, as long as you maintain your discpline, and know your limitations, on the gaming floor!

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