Here we are in Las Vegas. Except for an overnight stay in a cheap room at the Luxor and dinner at Bouchon a few years ago, this is the first time we’ve spent time here in over 30 years.
My how things have changed.
As a working musician in the 1970s, I’d frequently visit Las Vegas, not to gamble, but to see the last of the great entertainers: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Robert Goulet, Liberace, Steve and Edie, Buddy Hackett, Redd Foxx, Wayne Newton and Elvis. I even worked here in 1976 at the old MGM Grand before the fire, when MGM classic movies like Gone With the Wind were being screened at the movie theater in the basement and you could push a button for a waitress to bring you another Black Label. That was before VCRs and Turner Classic Movies, when watching classic films in pristine condition was a rare event.
On one end of the Strip was the sprawling Hacienda Hotel and its ranch-house architecture. On the other end was the high rise hotel, the Sahara. In between were echoes of the Bugsy Siegel and the Rat Pack era—the Dunes, Tropicana, Flamingo, Sands, Stardust, Thunderbird and Frontier. Then there was Circus Circus, built to lure families with their wholesome entertainment and Caesar’s Palace, where an older Sinatra brought in the high rollers and you could shake hands with a very bored and tired Joe Louis who was employed as a greeter.
The mid-70s were a time of transition, though. The MGM Grand was built by a corporation, as was the old International, later bought by Hilton—where Elvis appeared. Wall Street was in—the gangsters were out. And with them, so were the lounge acts where you could see Louis Prima and Keely Smith for a two drink minimum. By the time I worked there, lounge acts were three-piece bands and a singer working on the casino floor and told by the pit bosses to keep the volume down. You could still go out at midnight to the Frontier where the clarinet player in such a lounge spoke Italian to some ex-singer from the old neighborhood and invited him to sit in for the rest of the set. But everyone knew the old Vegas and its freebies and its flair were at an end.
Since then, Las Vegas has been transformed into a serious of theme parks—the Venetian with its gondola rides, the Stratosphere with the world’s highest roller coaster, Hooter’s Hotel with whatever it is that lures people in, New York, New York, the Paris Las Vegas and the manufactured luxury of the Bellagio, the Mandalay Bay and the Wynn. Riding a cab from our digs at the Monte Carlo to dinner at Bartolotta restaurant at the Wynn, I had no sense of geography—the buildings all seemed to spill into one another. The cab driver told us Vegas had opened a new hotel every month since 1989.
Dale and I were planning a road trip this year, to visit friends and relatives in Colorado, then swing down to Santa Fe, and back home to Long Beach via the Grand Canyon. I persuaded her to stop a couple nights in Las Vegas—we could see a show or two and eat at some of the great restaurants that popped up during the go-go era of the early 2000s. It seemed as if every famous chef in the world was opening a restaurant there and I felt really out of the loop, restaurant-wise.
Of course I had been warned by friends and colleagues that the restaurants in Las Vegas didn’t match up to their “mother-ships”, though the prices certainly did.
Dale and I had researched Las Vegas restaurants online: Bortolotta’s name came up over and over as one of the city’s finest, and certainly THE finest for seafood. They flew in fish fresh from the Mediterranean, cooked in several authentically regional Italian styles, the reviewers mentioned. Wow, I thought. That’s for us. We had vivid memories of an incredible seafood lunch at Ristorante Martinautica near the Tuscan/Ligurian coastal border. If it was anything like that, we would be thrilled.
Entering the Wynn last night was amazing—the exterior approach had plush-looking trees planted in terraces to resemble a forest, and inside, more trees in the atrium lit up with miniature Tivoli lights as far as we could see. Wide-eyed, we made our way past an otherworldly outdoor waterfall that looked through the plate glass window as if it were a projection on a blank wall. When we reached the entrance to the restaurant we were pleasantly greeted by name as if they had known us, then led us down a spiral staircase, past a large dining room and into a private alcove where we were seated facing another couple across the aisle and an outdoor garden beyond.
That’s when the fun beganOur waiter, a short, swarthy fellow with an agreeable demeanor and a continental accent which could have been Italian—or not—conscientiously asked us if we were going to see a show later. When we said no, he replied, “Good. That’s the best way to dine at this restaurant—relaxed!”
The waiter, who told us he was from Rome, but acted more like he came from a rug bazaar in Tehran, announced that red wine was more suitable with the fish from this restaurant, and how much did we figure on paying for wine? When I mentioned “$200 or so,” I thought it would be for all wines—not just one bottle.
“Ah, then you would want an Amarone,” he advised.
“For seafood?” we responded incredulously. For those of you who have never tasted the high-alcohol Amarone, imagine a waiter recommending late harvest Zinfandel for your Dover Sole.
“Well, how about a Barolo?” he offered. “Or a Brunello?” The sommelier approached the table and our Roman waiter explained that we wanted to spend $200 on a wine.
“How about you leave the wine list and we’ll discover something on it we’ll love,” I said. We never saw the sommelier again.
Next the waiter wheeled over a glass display of some pretty amazing looking fish on ice—Branzino, red mullet, huge langoustines which the restaurant touted as the world’s finest, Sicilian lobster, octopus and more. Then he went into his schtick, which I heard repeated at least four more times as others were led into our alcove. He began to explain about the three tasting menus, but he heavily recommended the most expensive of the trio—one that had fed the winners of some TV chef competition held earlier in Las Vegas—the chef hadn’t really been a competitor on the show, he was one of the judges. Oh, and for $10 more, we could add those langoustines, which regularly sold for $35 on the regular menu.
He had me. Surprisingly, he had Dale, too, who I thought was simply going to order a little antipasti and a whole fish. But she went for the Top Chef menu, too, with the bonus langoustine.
As for the wines, we decided to order wines by the glass—white to start, a Friulano and a Falanghina, which looked alarmingly dark when it was poured from a mini-carafe at the table. I ordered a token red wine, Vietti’s Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne, but when it came to the table it smelled and tasted suspiciously like a Dolcetto, which coincidentally was also offered by the glass, and was too bitter and tannic to accompany anything on the table. We weren’t eating red meat that night. A glass of Chianti Classico helped with some of the items in red sauce, but not much.
We actually began our meal with cocktails—a Hendrick’s martini for Dale and a Negroni for me. But the first three courses were delivered before we finished them. So much for a relaxed dinner. Another waiter brought the three little carafes of wine and dutifully explained what each was. He split each carafe with both of us, which was just the right thing to do.
Dale, noticing the second waiter’s accent, asked where he was from.
“Mexico,” he whispered.
We had some “silver fish,” tiny, deep-fried whole fish that looked like guppy-sized anchovies, followed by a bowl of steamed clams in a red broth (ah, I can try the red wine with this, I thought) and perhaps the best thing on the menu, tender morsels of octopus. A dark green-ish risotto was on the table with little bits of sweet shellfish which tasted very good (when does risotto taste bad?) and a strange dish that had giant lima beans, chopped green onions and something that looked like little slivers of pancetta that the waiter explained was a pressed egg, aged for months. Then the langoustine came out, impressively splayed, tender and creamy. How a Vouvray would have tasted at that moment, I asked myself wistfully. The Friulano would have to do.
When the pasta courses came out, Dale’s mood begin to darken. “I’m paying all this money and they’re serving me pasta with tomatoes and capers I can make at home?” she whispered. “I don’t want something I can make at home in a 3-star restaurant.” Her demeanor remained cloudy when the main course was brought out, a whole fish with a red sauce on top. “It’s fishy, and gummy,” Dale complained.
I admit, it wasn’t the greatest, nor the firmest fish I’d eaten, but I wasn’t as critical as Dale was at that moment. I’ve observed over the past twenty years that once you are on Dale’s bad list, you never get off. When it comes to remembering slights, Dale is a savant.
I was uncomfortably full when the waiter asked us if we wanted espresso or cappuccino or latte, before the desserts were presented. “We’ll see,” I said.
The desserts were overwhelming. A trio of shaved ices, a trio of sorbets and a trio of gelati were presented along with a flourless chocolate cake and a lemon cake with a top of hardened sugar and some very aromatic rosemary ice cream on top.
“I can smell the rosemary from here,” was Dale’s response, and it wasn’t a compliment. “I can’t wait to get out of here.” That may have been more fatigue than frustration, but you never know for sure with Dale.
Afterwards, feeling tipsy from the wine and the gin, we took another crazy taxi drive, this time back down Las Vegas Boulevard ‘til we found ourselves back at the Monte Carlo. Dale seated herself at what looked like a slot machine, but was more like a video game-version of a slot machine. No levers to pull, no coins rattling in the tray, just a button you push over and over until five minutes have been eaten up along with your $20 bill.
Well, $700 on the American Express card and what have we learned about big eating in Vegas?
I don’t know, except we have reservations at Mario Batali’s restaurant B & B tonight at the Venetian.