01 March 2008

Vegas, Day 4 (or how Mario Batali let me down, but Serrano saved me)


Oh Vegas. You and your Michelin stars. You and your celebrity chef restaurants.

And YOU all you American food bloggers and American magazines with your love of Batali. While I could blame you, I truly only blame myself.

I have been a huge fan of UK food magazines for the past few years. But I have only recently started reading the US magazines, and I was interested by how famous Mario Batali had become. I became more and more interested in visiting one of his restaurants. And Vegas has a few. So off we went to Enoteca on Day 4.

Enoteca is in the Venetian. And there are no links to the restaurant because I don't recommend you go there. I was really really irritated by the entire experience.

Let me actually back up a bit.

I have been reading Ruth Reichl's 'Garlic and Sapphires'. I love it. But it has really made me think about eating at nice restaurants and how you are seated and treated...

And it all came to the fore when the bimbotic hostess at Enoteca led us to our table in the far corner of the mostly empty "patio". Like the sight of us would repel the average Vegas tourist from the restaurant.

Honestly, we could have been in the bathroom. But, head high, I nodded hello to the two middle aged women in velour tracksuits next to us, and started in on the menu.

The specials sounded great. I can't remember now what they are because we weren't allowed to order them. "They aren't available. There was some problem in the kitchen." For TWO specials? No worries. Bring us some prosecco, some water, and some bread.

The bread was cute. But some swanky people who didn't take their sunglasses off the brightly lit INSIDE patio were given some assortment of jams or something we didn't get. Whatever. We ordered starters. Lentils with salami, olives, roasted beets with horseradish, and bresaola (sorry about the spelling, if only I had a dictionary handy... ha ha). Really lovely.

Nicely plated. Delicious tasting. I stand by the proposition that it was only good because it was the only thing that no one had to do much to.

So, despite the seating, despite the no specials, despite it all, the starters were amazing. And I was happy.

For my main, I had ordered "Bucatini all'Amatriciana" which was described as "tomato, cured pork, onion". What it should have been described as? "Salt, raw pasta, and grease."

G ordered lamb pasta. Blech. When she mentioned to the waitress that our food was very very salty (eye-wateringly so), the waitress said, "Oh yes, we aggressively season our food." This was said to us in a tone meant to imply that our palettes were so inept as to appreciate the delicate seasoning. My tongue was merely bleeding from the acrid salt, but who am I to complain?

When the waitress came back, she astutely noticed that we weren't really eating the food. I was a bit embarrassed about saying something about the not cooked pasta for fear that she would say, "We serve our pasta al dente, which might be foreign to some palettes", but really, it was raw. The pasta that was cooked, and there was some, was lovely and salty, but the undercooked bits ruined the texture. The waitress asked us if we wanted it sent back, laughingly saying, "A lot of people complain about the salt. I just don't notice it anymore." Well, deadened taste buds are not a good sign.

Anyway, as I moved the pasta around looking for the soft bits, the amount of grease from the pork was disgusting. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.

People eat out for all sorts of reasons, and I love the feeling of trying something different, and I will admit that I like the idea of eating in tv chef's restaurants, because it's like going to a friends house for dinner. But I don't like feeling like a total sucker and being spoken down to like I didn't deserve to be sitting in the craptastic faux patio in faux Venice. Give me a break.

Our plans for dinner that night were a whopper. We had made reservations to eat at Picasso, a Michelin 2 starred restaurant located in the Bellagio. I was feeling a little low after the Enoteca disaster and suggested we cancel. G told me to buck up little camper and get ready for dinner.

I am so glad we did.

First, we stopped in the conservatory of the Bellagio to see the flower arrangements. Wow. They had an entire display for Chinese New Year, and as this is my year (the year of the Rat), I made G take a picture...

It was so amazing. (Though I thought he kind of looked like a squirrel.)

We made our way down to the restaurant. We picked Picasso over some of the others because we had read that it is one of the few Vegas restaurants where the "celebrity" chef actually cooks there. And I was really excited to be trying Julian Serrano's food! Heels clicking and me rocking my new little clutch that I bought at Coach, we headed down the stairs focused on having a good night and great food. When we walked into the restaurant, the very friendly staff immediately took our coats, and seated us in the lounge to wait for our table. There are many of Picasso's paintings on the wall, and it was amazing to just see them all in this beautiful restaurant setting.

Let me stop right here and let you know that I didn't take any photos. I was feeling really self-conscious after the whole Enoteca disaster, but I honestly shouldn't have. The staff at Picasso were absolutely brilliant. As we were being led to our seats, we realized that the only empty table in the restaurant was one that faced out two beautiful doors onto the Bellagio fountain. We were both trying to appear nonchalant as we did cartwheels inside about the splendid table.

Then the waiter came over with the wine book and talked us through the selections. G wanted to order a whiskey sour (made with JD and fresh sour) and I just asked for water, knowing that I was going to do the wine selections that came with the set dinner.

We made our orders. I didn't write them down, so bear with me. The amuse bouche was delightful. Foie gras on toast with a leek and potato soup with toasted almonds. The soup came in a dainty teacup and went down a treat. Really really elegant, and the foie gras was rich with the slight metallic taste at the end.

The first course for me was a butternut squash soup with marshmallows. The 'mallows were glorious. The presentation was spectacular. I was given a bowl of soup with the two marshmallows in the bowl and a center of mushrooms. One of the waiters brought over a terrine of soup and ladled it gently into my bowl. The waiter brought me the wine and gave me a description of the region where the wine was made, and information on why it was chosen. I couldn't believe it.

The soup was a triumph! It was crazy sweet and totally opposite to the type of soup that G makes. It was absolutely delicious. G's first course was a quail dish with salad and pine nuts, and she said that it was outstanding.

Our next course was inventive. I was given a roasted vegetable in broth with fried foie gras pieces. G had a boudin of seafood with tomato coulis. My second course was amazing, and strange all at the same time. The vegetables were outstanding. Just cooked and floating in this lovely rich fragrant broth. The foie gras was fried beautifully, and I ate the outsides of each piece. The pieces were slightly too thick for me, and the sheer amount of foie was striking.

I then had to take a quick trip to the bathroom. Embarrassingly, I went into the men's room, which was a room with a sink and a door to the actual facility. I tried it, it was locked, so I just looked in the mirror and fixed my hair and talked to myself while I waited. Then the door opened and this very nice man stepped out and, after his initial surprise, informed me that I was in the men's room. I very quickly hightailed it to the ladies room and vowed to NEVER AGAIN attempt a trip to the bathroom in a dark restaurant without my glasses. Bad move.

As I walked out of the bathroom, I kept my head high and hoped that the bathroom guy was near the bathroom and I would avoid any sort of humiliating eye contact. I didn't see him (though without my glasses, he could have been right beside me) and I headed back to the table. As I told G what happened, she started laughing and said, "It was the guy next to us! He just came back from the bathroom!" So smooth.

But our main had arrived and all was forgotten. Milk-fed veal chop with the most glorious roasted potato ever and delicious sauce and beets and out of the park good mushrooms. Wow. The chop was amazing. So tender, so flavourful, and the accompanying sides just elevated the dish. I was given a very oak-y red wine that was too strong for me to drink (light-weight!) but the taste of it was very lovely with the meat. I loved it. Really amazing.

There was of course a delicious dessert course. Chocolate fondant. Now, let me say that the chocolate fondant has a particular love for us right now, as we have been engrossed in watching Master Chef, where the road is paved with bad chocolate fondants. So to have this complicated dessert that we had seen made in so many bad ways on MasterChef was really quite amusing. (Speaking of which, does anyone else watch MasterChef? It rules the absolute world.)

The waiter brought us two coffees, and after a few minutes, he brought us an amazing little tiered plate of goodies. Really a nice touch, and honestly, I was moved to tears.

(G is sitting next to me wondering why I wept so profusely in Vegas, but that's for me to know and her to find out.)

We heard these swishy elderly women next to us ask the waiter if they could have our table on their next visit. We felt very far removed from the velour tracksuit folk of meals past.

As we finished our meal, we headed towards the door only to be greeted by the extremely nice front desk staff. We were handed a little box, given our coats, and thanked for our visit. The little box? Full of cookies!!!!!!

Wow. Wow. I mean, the dinner blew the budget, it was frighteningly expensive, but the experience was so wonderful. When I was younger, I used to think that people ate at fancy restaurants for no reason other than a desire to want to feel fancier than everyone else and eat food that no one really liked (and I suppose I still hold this opinion about the mass hysteria that has accompanied the sushi craze). But what I have realized as I have eaten at some nicer places is that you go there because it's food you really can't make, it's a level of service that means that you don't have to be concerned with anything other than the taste of the food on your plate, and it's a sense of caring about food that you don't get everywhere. Two stars indeed. I was really thrilled and would go there again in a second.

Then more Bellagio fountains. Wow. The fountains. Just wow. What a great day!


Anonymous said...

maybe mario batali wants to come over and sit in my faux fur chairs eating off my faux leather table and I'll serve him some nasty faux "aggresively seasoned" food. Honestly, grimness from beginning to end!

Anonymous said...

We ate at Picasso a couple weeks after you. We almost at one of Batali's places too... close call.

Yes we don't usually splurge like this and we are far from rich or snobby. But it was worth every one of the 50,000 pennies we spent. Also we booked really last minute, but ended up being seated on the picasso terrace. Best dinner ever.

dynagrrl said...

I totally agree. The dinner was really worth it. The terrace was closed when we were there due to rain and cold. That must have been amazing!

Ellie said...

I recenty went to Batali's Lupa here in NYC. I have very similar reactions to his pasta. Trying-to-hard al dente, pork was not melty but rather rubbery. I was very unimpressed. However, this is not my first trip to one of his restaurants, nor will it be my last, because it confirmed for me one thing: Batali may not be a master of pasta, but he IS a master of offal. The sweetbreads at Lupa were some of the best I have ever eaten. And his vegetables were also delicate and yet busting with honest flava!

try again but as i said, the way to order at one of his restaurants is to look for the brains, the tripe, the sweetbreads, all the eccentric ingredients. He'll do them justice.


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