Saturday, September 26, 2009

Craftsteak (2,) Las Vegas NV

My blog in September of 2008 ended something like this. “All told, the food was excellent, though not any better than steakhouses like Nero's and Mastro's where I can get what I ask for. From a chef that demands perfection, I felt Craftsteak was anything but perfect and in a city with hundreds of hundred-plus-dollar meal options it would be very difficult for me to justify a return visit. While I certainly didn't expect the exquisite service of Le Cirque or Alex, I do expect my server to treat me with respect and do his/her best to make my experience memorable.”

As previously stated, after complaining to the GM (at that time a Mr. Jason Bartucci) with hopes that future visitors would not deal with such service we were provided a profound apology and an offer to refund the cost or to come back for a compensatory meal on the house – at the time I declined these options but on further review, a year after many fine dining experiences, I reconsidered. In a city with so many great options I would not generally be the sort to ‘forgive and forget,’ but returning with my two friends – both who love steak – and remembering how good the food was I made contact with the restaurant through the MGM website. While Mr. Bartucci (and our server) had apparently since been dismissed from the restaurant, my e-mail was answered by the new General Manager, Sebastien Vallet, who invited the three of us back for the chef’s tasting with wine pairings on the house.

Arriving just before 9pm, once again clad in hockey jerseys and jeans following a fantastic Frozen Fury XII at the MGM Arena, we made our way through the waiting crowd (a 2 hour wait for persons without reservations) to the podium where the hostess confirmed our reservations and personally escorted us to a booth in the back, chatting casually about the Kings and Avs eating at Craftsteak the night before as we walked. Again the restaurant lighting remained super low – something I consider unfortunate given the attractive appearance of the dishes, but the seats were again incredibly comfortable. Taking our seats we were almost instantly met by Mr. Vallet, a gregarious and friendly man in a great looking grey suit (vastly differing from the black/white clad servers,) who promised us a fantastic meal and confirmed that I did not eat beef while my friends most certainly did.

Within moments our waters were filled – bottled water without even requesting, and our server and his assistant came to our table to once again confirm likes, dislikes, and anything we may need. In order to not belabor service issues too much I will note a couple of issues here that, despite their obviously being overly attentive to our table, were less than impressive. First, while Sebastien stopped by multiple times, our server spent vastly more time at a table of well clad businessmen while the assistant served as our primary server throughout. While not “unfriendly” our assistant’s grasp of the English language was poor at best, wines were not described as presented, and this was officially the only restaurant on my trip to Vegas where I had to fill my own water. Another service issue presented itself later, but otherwise I have to say the team clearly “went out of their way” to please us – yet despite that fact, the service at Mastro’s, CUT, Carnevino, and myriad other fine dining establishments vastly outpaced Craftsteak – their “average” being better than Craftsteak’s “best.”

Similar to our previous visit the menu format consisted of a course of appetizers, a course of mains and sides, and a course of desserts. With the only questions prior to the meal being my distaste for steak and whether “scallops were acceptable” we started off rather quickly with a aromatic 1997 Californian Chardonnay (I had to ask to see the bottle as it was poured in silence.) Not a drinker I have to admit I liked the flavor of this wine and my companions agreed. Arriving shortly after the wine was a pan of their salt-topped butter rolls with additional butter. As good as before these are serviceable rolls for a steakhouse but I’d certainly not write home about them compared to Mastro’s, Cut, or Nero’s myriad options.

Arriving as we chatted and drank our wine the first course of this visit to Craftsteak was two salads and a roasted option - Caesar Salad with Fresh Anchovies, Heirloom Tomatoes with oil and Vinegar, and Roasted Vermont Quail with Vincotto. Beginning with the salad – as my friends don’t enjoy Anchovies I was fortunate to be able to indulge on all three fishes myself – tossed with the creamy Caesar dressing and crisp lettuces this was a good Caesar and the house made croutons were excellent. Following the salad, the tomatoes were as good as the dish last year (the exact same dish, actually) with a mild olive oil and balsamic marinade bringing out the acidic and sweet flavor of each of the 6 varieties. The final appetizer, the quail, was perfectly roasted with crispy skin giving away to supple and savory flesh. Offset with Vincotto and Rosemary plus Thyme the simplicity of this dish allowed the flavor of the meat to shine for itself and showed what excellent ingredient sourcing can do for even the most “simple” presentations.

Finishing our appetizers along with the first wine we again sat for a bit awaiting our second dishes. Browsing around the restaurant I was amazed at how many hockey jerseys were present – clearly not the “business casual” Craftsteak desires. Arriving from our assistant server without any description (approximately 1 minute later our main server showed up to tell us what the dishes were) our mains and sides were served with a red wine of which I’m unfamiliar and neither myself nor JT enjoyed – Brad thought it was decent. Featuring mains of a 16oz Ribeye, a 12oz Skirt, and Divers Scallops with Fennel and sides of Yukon Gold Potatoes, Sweet Corn, and Wood Roasted Asparagus this is where the other service issue came up. As previously noted, I don’t eat steak – that doesn’t mean my buddies do not eat scallops. Featuring only five scallops (we received three of the exact same dish as an appetizer last visit) and my friends each deserving to try at least one I explained to our server that this wasn’t acceptable and, surprisingly, met some resistance – apparently my thin frame made him think I can’t eat. Asking if any other fishes were available I was told only tuna – again the same prep I’d had last year (there was lobster, I saw it on another table, but clearly they weren’t giving this away) and inquiring about birds or pork I was told only chicken (I know they had duck and pork loin, I saw the nightly menu) so I requested the chicken. Consenting, begrudgingly, the server asked if we wanted anything else and I emphatically stated some mushrooms would be nice. While it took about 15 minutes to prepare, the dishes were indeed brought by yet another server – someone who actually smiled (aside from Sebastien.)

Getting into the dishes – well, there were a lot of repeats. The scallops were excellent, buttery, and well prepared once again with the fennel only enhancing the dish, not overwhelming it. A mix of woodsy mushrooms were again simply presented and delectable in taste – oil, garlic, rosemary, and with a particularly excellent lobster mushroom and meaty hen of the woods as highlights. The corn and potatoes were equally simple yet wonderful with the corn almost 'sugar-sweet' and the potatoes velvety, buttery, and wonderful.

Talking about the novel dishes for this visit – well, per usual I set aside my overall distaste for beef when someone tells me a particular cut is amazing. With both my pals bragging the Ribeye I tried a 1/2 piece and a similar cut of the skirt…they tasted pretty much the same, like beef – I still don’t get it – c’est la vie – my friends loved it and that is what matters. For myself, the highlight of the mains was definitively the Crispy Rosemary Chicken – clearly brined and likely rotisseried with subsequent braising in the pan in which it was served the dish was accompanied by a couple sprigs of rosemary and accents of ginger. While not quite as good as the prep at Bouchon earlier in the morning an excellent chicken dish. Pairing the chicken with the garlicky asparagus – perfectly tender yet snappy, was a nice compliment.

Collecting our plates – nothing but bones and a few scoops of potatoes our server commented “wow, you fellas can eat – lets see how you tackle dessert.” With JT already rubbing his belly I figured we’d be leaving some sweets on the table – and I was right. First receiving our final wine pairing, a heavy and sweet dessert wine that I cannot recall (but tasted much like a sauterne) and myself opting for coffee – a decadent and heavily fruit nuanced blend from Kenya that is grown specifically for CraftNYC we sat and waiting for only about 20 minutes before desserts – desserts aplenty – arrived.

Starting first with fruits and sorbets – two plates, one with sorbets of Chocolate, Mango, Orange Basil, and Strawberry and another with fresh fruits - Dates, Asian Pear, Melon, Peaches. Not a fan of the melon or the mango I quite liked everything else – particularly the non-creamy yet decidedly chocolate sorbet and the perfect dates.

Getting onto the four (yes, four) primary desserts – first off, Tom’s signature Cinnamon Monkey Bread with Pecan was as good as ever. Secondly, a unique item I’d not experienced in the past – a chocolate Flan served with fresh whipped cream and a chocolate cookie. Not unlike a chocolate gelatin in texture, yet creamy like an untorched crème brulee both Brad and I liked this a lot while JT thought the texture was “odd.” Next, Vanilla Bean Cheesecake with Blueberries and crème fraiche ice cream was deemed the favorite by both my companions – rich and heavy, not unlike Junior’s in New York, and topped with a sour ice cream that blended perfectly with the sweet berries and mellow cake – it was indeed quite good and a buttery cookie at top and bottom added texture. Finally, my favorite of the dessert - Fig compote with Polenta Shortcake and crème anglaise. Featuring a sweet polenta cake baked crisp atop and soft beneath sitting in a crème anglaise and topped with a port-poached fig compote this dish reminded me of the best fig newton you can imagine – adding a bit of the cinnamon whipped cream from the flan only served to make things better.

When it was all said and done only some melting ice cream and the melon rested on the table – and JT’s mind was blown by the fact that someone taller and skinner than him could eat nearly twice as much as him. Not a “fine diner” JT conceded that Craftsteak was possibly the best meal he’d ever had and despite being very full he was happy. Brad, the same person who dined with me last time at Craftsteak, was also pleased though he noted that the steak he received last time was somewhat better. Myself – I was pleased with the food again, but still less than sold on the service given the fact that they were clearly “doing their best” and still seemed a little less than in-step with other restaurants of their caliber. When it was all said and done Mr. Vallet stopped by to see how everything had been and I told him it was good – because it was. It simply wasn’t “great.” Leaving a nice tip for our service team (perhaps had they known we’d be leaving a good tip the primary server would’ve been more available) we made our way out of Craftsteak for the last time. Impressed enough that I plan to check out Craft the next time I’m in Los Angeles or NYC, Vegas has plenty of other options in the meats market and if I were attending repeats I’d head to CUT or Carnevino first.

The Country Club at Wynn, Las Vegas NV

During my most recent trip to Las Vegas, having already had an early breakfast at Bouchon and planning for a late dinner after the hockey game at Craftsteak, I was called by a good friend who suggested we "do brunch" around 1-2pm. My buddy wanting "either a steak or a burger" and his wife wanting a "good fillet" we decided on Steve Wynn's interpretation of the country club at the Wynn. Really, I imagine that if anyone would know what a Country Club should look like it is probably Steve Wynn....either him or Jack Nicklaus. Calling ahead for reservations for three we were told they were mostly booked but had a four-top available at 1:30.

Arriving before my friends I took a seat at the bar with a couple of well-heeled Texans who were cheering animatedly for the Longhorns displayed on the plasma screen over the bar. Opting for a water and chatting with another patron from Indiana (unfortunately a Purdue fan who humorously offered to buy me a boilermaker to help me "see the light" - an offer I declined) about the Big10 I browsed around the heavy feeling room and watched as the kitchen served a the couple next to me a (oddly) very excellent looking hotdog and enormous plate of fries. Standing up and walking to the windows I looked out over the amazing 18 holes of greenery that Mr. Wynn had built in the middle of the desert - quite possibly the most impressive "architecture" in the Wynn empire.

With my pals arriving only 2 minutes after our reservation we made our way to our table and were met by our witty and surprisingly down-to-earth and casual server. Explaining some of the daily specials while handing us our menus the waiter quipped about his favorite dishes, the design of the restaurant, Chef Guia's culinary pedigree, and the multiple celebrities who'd sat in our very seats - Bill Murray and Michael Jordan to name a few. While clearly intending to impress I actually found our waiter to be a pretty genuine individual throughout our meal - something a bit different for "Wynn service" which is normally a bit starchy and unapproachable.

Dining with friends who love to eat (and aren't afraid to order "too much") we placed our orders - an order our server suggested might be too much when he said "be careful, you have to save room for dessert!" Sitting and chatting for a little while we were soon brought refills of our waters and diet cokes and a large basket of bread - fresh from the oven. Served with a soft and fragrant butter the bread itself was almost a cross between a brioche in density and a soda bread in texture. With a lovely crunchy crust giving way to a soft and buttery center we devoured the first basket before our appetizers even arrived and ended up finishing a second basket before the mains were completed. While I fully admit that I think a multitude of bread choices is best, one great choice also works.

For our first course - remember, I said my friends can eat - the choices were certainly unique. For my friend's wife who wanted a steak she decided to go with "something light" as an appetizer - opting for the sweet corn chowder with aromatic vegetables. Poured tableside from a copper kettle into a bowl filled with late-summer herbs the dish was attractive and smelled great - both my friend and his wife said the soup was great, like buttery creamed corn. Served with the chowder, a large plate of fries ordered as a sidedish to her main course (but requested to come with her soup.) Served with a generous helping of housemade ketchup the fries were seasoned with Old Bay plus a touch of vinegar and tasted fantastic. While I admit we all ordered a lot of food, I'll note that the portion size on the fries was huge - despite the work of all three of us through two courses about half the basket remained at meal's end.

For Matt and myself – I absolutely cracked up when he thought of this possibility because I’d been thinking the exact same myself – why not get a sweet for one course and a savory for the other? Agreeing that this would be the best plan of action we also managed to end up ordering the same “appetizer,” the French Toast Bread Pudding with Vermont Maple Syrup, Berries, Candied Pecans, Glazed Bacon. With Melissa looking on in amusement we were each brought a “round” of the pudding – essentially two large English-muffin sized pieces of custard laden and smooth maple bread pudding stacked and surrounded with fresh berries and candied pecans – then topped with a slice of thick and perfect maple glazed bacon. Honestly – no offense to Thomas Keller’s similar option at Bouchon – but this was better. A mélange of vanilla and maple, cinnamon and butter, and crispy exterior yielding a custard-like interior – it could’ve been breakfast, it could’ve been dessert – and it was one heck of an appetizer.

After a wait, more talk, more fries, and more coffee our mains arrived. For Matt the choice was a large medium-rare burger with cheese and – yes, more fries. For Melissa, a medium 8oz Filet – just what she’d come for and centered with a playful tater tot/potato puree similar to the version served with the pork belly at L2O. Finally, for myself, Two large organic poached eggs with BBQ Smoked Pork, Bacon Cheese Muffins, and Charred Green Chile Hollandaise. Somewhat “Tex Mex” but also at the same time as refined as a traditional Benedict it is hard to say what aspect of this dish was most appealing – the maple-heavy pulled pork, the creamy poached eggs, the spicy hollandaise with only mild hints of sour, or those indelible English muffins. Rupturing the eggs and allowed the dish to flood with a combination of creamy and spicy, sweet and savory I have to say the result wasn’t as pretty as the presentation, but the flavor was fantastic.

With each of us feeling pretty full our server next offered us a dessert menu – deferring to my friends as to whether we should get dessert Matt’s eyes lit up with an emphatic “Yes” when he eyed the house made Cookies and Glenlivet 12-year spiked Milkshake option. With Melissa choosing an ice cream and sorbet platter with chocolate, caramel, and cinnamon I deferred to my server – which was better, the Blueberry Cobbler or the Chocolate Bombolone. Without hesitation her recommended the Bombolone and stated it was one of his five favorite dishes in Vegas. Taking him on his word I agreed and approximately 15 minutes later the dishes arrived. While I’d like to say that watching Matt moan over his “amazing – best shake ever” selection, I instead must state that although my choice may not have been on my “Vegas top 5,” it was really really good. Entitled Chocolate Bombolone with Brioche Donuts, Berries, Creme Anglaise, and Chocolate Sauce the dish was simple – five 72% dark chocolate truffles dipped in brioche batter and deep fried only long enough to brown the outside and liquefy the center paired with a smooth vanilla anglaise, fresh berries, and a hefty dark chocolate sauce. What the dish lacked in complexity, however, it more than made up for in flavor. Instructed to place the whole bite into my mouth before chewing (to save my shirt and pants, per the server who had multiple stories of patrons clothing being rushed to the cleaners when such a warning wasn’t provided) each bite simply burst forth with chocolate on masticating. Small in portion the richness of the chocolate was a perfect way to end a great meal and any more would have likely been too decadent to finish.

Sitting and chatting for another half hour before our departure our drinks were continually refilled and our server occasionally stopped by to be sure all was well. Never rushed as it was the end of the brunch service I was impressed at how laid back such a refined restaurant felt – it really did feel like a “member’s only” club where people were welcome to socialize as long as they like. Settling the bill – Matt and Melissa volunteering to pick up the tab – we made our way to the doors and were bid farewell by our server who jokingly asked if we’d like an order of fries to go. Very happy with the meal and the uncharacteristically casual feel of a Wynn-core enterprise I have to say that aside from Bouchon, the Country Club may be my favorite mid-day meal in Las Vegas. A great view, great service, great company, and most importantly – great food – definitely a meal worth a day away from Bouchon’s breakfast/brunch.

Bouchon Bistro (3), Las Vegas NV

Pretty much anyone who knows me realizes how I feel about Thomas Keller's approach to the culinary arts. Truely a "chef's chef" I've always respected his desire to remain authentic, to not let his empire spread too far or too wide, and his strong dedication to the progression of America's culinary scene - donations to the Culinary Institute, working with the US Culinary Olympic team, etc. Without overstating, though I still rank Alinea as my favorite meal of all time, I consider Keller my favorite chef. Having been to each of Keller's restaurants except for Per Se in 2009 it was only logical that I make my way back to Bouchon for Saturday brunch on my most recent trip to Las Vegas - especially since it was only 2 floors away from my hotel room.

Having received six free continental breakfasts when we checked in and hearing from my buddies that the breakfast had "a bunch of pastries baked by that bouchon bakery you like so much" I once again woke up early and made my way to the strip for a long run. Feeling great I came back and grabbed one of the free vouchers after my shower and made my way to the Venezia lounge where I found a beautiful grand room with lush furniture and a few plasma screens - plus 2 types of coffee, multiple fresh juices, 10+ types of tea, a large fruit basket, and a tower of mini-pastries (approximately 1/3 the size of those at the downstairs bakery) from Bouchon. Making my selections and grabbing mug number one of about five cups of coffee I grabbed a copy of the Times and took a seat to watch some ESPN Gameday (the best part about Pacific Time - College Gameday at 6:30am!) Beginning with a buttery smooth and still warm pain au chocolat I was reminded of just how excellent such a simple pastry could be as the chocolate ribboned the fluffy pastry as opposed to sitting in a glob like MAG. Second, a small apple tarte with maple glaze tasted like a buttery and soft fritter crossed with a traditional apple pie. Third, a raspberry brioche muffin with hints of lemon in the batter – perfectly fresh berries, buttery and sugary brioche – melt in the mouth. Finally – and best of all – a remarkable cinnamon roll with raisins and drizzled cream cheese frosting. A veritable tasting of Bouchon pastries for free – had I not had breakfast plans I’d have stayed for a second round.

Finishing up my pastries I made my way back to the room where my buddies were still asleep - asking them if they were interested in getting breakfast I was met with a mumbled "no," so I made my way to the Elevators for some more Keller action. Arriving at the doors of Bouchon around 7:50 there was already a line of 8 people waiting and by the time the doors opened at 8:00 there were nearly 20. Browsing the sign of specials I thought the crabcakes benedict sounded good, but not nearly as good as what I'd come for originally. Making my way into the restaurant and meeting with the hostess I asked for a table for one outdoors if possible and was swiftly taken to the precise table I enjoyed the previous year. Handed a menu to browse my coffee was filled (so much better than the coffee at the continental breakfast) and I was brought a water after declining a cocktail.

Returning after a short time my server explained the specials and asked if I had any questions - stating no I placed my orders and requested some of the infamous epi-baguette to go with the house made butter and fresh preserves (strawberry this time) that were already on the table. Receiving a “branch” of two pieces – and later two more – these wonderful pieces of carbohydrate reminded me again of just how good a simple baguette can be when using quality ingredients. Creamy and grassy the butter went largely underutilized instead opting for the jam which displayed the very essence of strawberries and a small cup of nutella (an unexpected $2.50 surcharge.)

Beginning the meal along with my second cup of coffee was a slice of Almond Brioche. Served piping hot from the griddle the bread was buttery and sweet with perfectly toasted almonds contrasting well with the soft bread. Similar to the brioche served with the foie gras terrine at The French Laundry (plus almonds) this was toast at its very best.

My main course, arriving with another refill of my coffee (yes, I have a caffeine problem) was the dish I knew I’d order the moment I decided to return to Bouchon – Keller’s Chicken and Waffles. Unobtainable at any other Thomas Keller restaurant (much like the French Toast Bread Pudding) the mere thought of this dish had me excited and it certainly didn’t disappoint – better than Roscoe’s, Crops, or Seldom Blues…by far. The chicken, instead of being traditionally Southern fried was instead marinated in thyme and rosemary, then slow roasted for 13 hours and pan-flashed to crisp the skin. Perfectly smooth, incredibly juicy, the chicken alone would have justified the trip. Further enhancing the impressive plate were the waffles – four quartered pieces accented with buttermilk, bacon, chives, and (per the server) a bit of chicken stock. Served alongside the main components of the dish was a delectable Tahitian vanilla bean butter, pure Vermont maple syrup, and sauce chasseur – essentially a gravy of chicken stock, bacon lardons, mushrooms, and onion. A flawless array of crispy and soft, savory and sweet, nuanced and “in your face” – an absolutely lovely dish worth every penny of the $25 pricetag.

Sitting and sipping my coffee in the sun rising over the Venezia pools I couldn’t help but think about other meals at Thomas Keller restaurants – honestly, aside from a stale cinnamon brioche (admittedly a flaw,) a piece of cheese (simply not my style,) and some spicy walnuts ( good, but not at that time in the meal) I’ve not yet had an item that was less than impressive – and many items were not just impressive, but formed the prototype for what I think that item is in its near-perfect form. While service can sometimes be a tad “cool,” or “stiff” it is always professional and the settings, ingredients, and experience uncompromisingly refined. While I still have to try Verandah and Hash House a Go-Go to complete my “to do list” for breakfasts in Vegas, unless they truly wow I do believe I’ll simply be frequenting Bouchon from now on when visiting the strip.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Abriya Raku and Payard Patisserie, Las Vegas NV

In my (maybe not so) humble opinion, the best thing about Las Vegas is the vast number of great restaurants on a single street – really, outside of Washington Street in Yountville where can you find so many Michelin Stars in such a small area? Noting the above, when I started planning my most recent trip to Las Vegas I knew where three of my four dinners would be – the last was a decision that underwent serious debate. Trotter? Puck? Serrano? Mina? I considered them all. Reading reviews and talking to fellow foodies, however, one name kept coming up – Mitsua Endo, the Chef at Abriya Raku – and his name wasn’t just coming up from fellow foodies, it also came up from Paul Bartolota, Wolfgang Puck, and the young Japanese hostess at Robuchon.

For a restaurant nearly 2.5 miles off the heavily populated Strip to get so much attention from so many individuals I opted to make the trek and after reading a few great reviews by respected fellow bloggers (ulterior epicure and food, she thought) I had some idea of what to expect. Calling ahead and making 6:30 reservations for one I was told (in almost unintelligible English) that the table would be held for 15 minutes. Looking into the road maps and bus schedule I first thought I’d just catch the bus down Spring Mountain Road and arrive in plenty of time – little did I know how confounded the schedule is – instead I just caught a cab at the Fashion Show Mall and made it to Raku in 6 minutes for $11.

Making my way into the small restaurant (I counted a total of 32 seats counting the bar) I was greeted by one of the 5 servers working the room – a very impressive server to diner ratio that would play into my continuously filled water, frequent visits to see how everything was going, and…honestly, just really friendly, grateful, devoted, and unpretentious service. First pulling out a chalkboard of approximately 15 daily specials (uniformly more pricey than the menu items – but all sounding impressive) and explaining each dish at length I was next given the “regular” menu which contained – well, a number of dishes that seemed anything but regular. Appetizers, Oden, Robata Grill, Noodle/Rice Dishes, and Desserts – I knew I’d have to temper myself in order to try as many things as possible without getting stuffed too quick – thankfully dishes were allowed to be ordered one or two at a time and were brought slowly which allowed plenty of time for digestion.

Beginning first with some appetizers my first choice was Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe. Arriving after a short wait and in an ample portion the dish consisted of a cool broth with a warm poached egg paired with a creamy Uni tongue and given a myriad of flavors and textures from a “soup” of snappy mountain yams, earthy hon-shimeji mushrooms, salty salmon roe, and pungent green onions. Breaking the egg and stirring the broth it thickened quickly giving the whole dish a mellow and creamy texture that paired beautifully with the fresh uni and other ingredients – at $7 this may have been the most affordable uni I’d ever experienced with such great taste and honestly I would go back to Raku just to experience this dish again.

Arriving shortly after my first plate was finished – and with an explanation of all the little jars and bottles in front of me (a matcha sea salt, a house made soy, a japanese pepper + rice vinegar, and a chili infused oil) - Seafood with Bonito Guts Pickled in Salt looked and smelled much better than the name would arouse in one’s imagination. As others have mentioned, I really do not understand how this dish was a mere $6. A heaping bowl filled with a mix of sashimi yellowfin, jackfish, salmon, mackerel, and sprouts each fish was extremely fresh and the sprouts lent some texture to the fleshy-melt-in-your-mouth fishes. Topping the dish, according to my young server, was a combination of the house soy and the vinegar. Adding a bit more soy to the already salty mix made the flavor perfect, in my opinion, though I do believe the dish could have benefited from some daikon or perhaps a crisp starch to add a bit more texture.

The next dish – well, let’s just say it was so good that I ordered a second portion as my main course. Entitled simply Steamed Egg Custard with Foie Gras the dish looked simple enough – a miso broth with scallions and a piece of Robata duck floating in the broth. What laid beneath the broth, however, was the true treasure of the dish – a rich and hearty chawanmushi (egg custard) laden with ample accents of foie gras. When stirred up with the wooden spoon the foie tones rose amply to the palate with the whole dish tasting like the combination of a sweet egg custard and an unctuous foie gras terrine. While the grilled duck added a fine degree of texture to the dish, I personally thought the duck was a slight bit gamey – not bad, just not perfect.

Seeing this dish also offered in the noodle section as an Udon accompaniment I inquired from my server as to whether I could get that dish as a main course, but instead substitute the robata foie gras for the duck. Not quite understanding my question my server went and got another server who understood perfectly, asked the chef, and assured me this would be no problem. Receiving this dish after my robata choices and just before dessert I would strongly suggest anyone who attends Raku try this substitution for two reasons – number one, the manner in which the robata grill’s high temperatures crisps the foie gras exterior while leaving the center fatty and smooth is unlike anything I’ve previously experienced – the charring actually mellows the foie all on its own and the texture is more “firm,” not unlike the roasted version I had at Blackbird in Chicago, actually. Number two – those udon noodles served thin and cold to be dunked into a broth of foie gras, egg custard, and more foie gras…think “chicken soup” in its perfect form. (as a humorous aside – I also asked to add the bite sized chicken and egg bowl as a main and the server told me “no no, that will be too much, you are too skinny and foie gras sits in the belly and makes you too full!” – while I didn’t order it, she was wrong – I’d have eaten it and still had room for a couple desserts.)

Between my two foie dishes I decided to indulge in a couple of Raku’s robata skewers – three to be precise. Served individually with “dressing suggestions” regarding the soy, salts, and vinegar for each the first dish to arrive was Chicken Breast with Skin. Fresh organic chicken wrapped in its own skin and cooked to crispy this dish presented some of the most juicy chicken I’ve had in some time while the addition of the skin added a crisp “crackle” without any breading – better than the Colonel without all the carbs and oil. Adding first the soy and then the salt I have to say I was quite impressed by the manner in which the matcha’s bitter texture worked with the savorieness of the chicken and salt.

Robata course two was Kurobuta pork cheek and it, like the chicken, was excellent. Typically quite fatty the high heat of the grill managed to melt the collagen perfectly while burning off some of the fat and only mildly crisping the skin. The ‘rarest’ pork I’ve had since the chop at Babbo I found this to be my favorite, tastewise, of the robtata items and would compare it favorably to some of the better pork belly dishes I’ve had in terms of taste, texture, and fat to meat ratio.

The third robata course was something I’ve never eaten – Pigs Ears. Sure I’ve had trotters, tail, tete, belly, cheek, and all the standard cuts – but not ear. As others have stated – wow. Crispy and salty on the outside, fatty next, and a thin chewy layer of cartilage in the middle – almost a 5-layer sandwich with each layer giving a different taste and texture experience. Pairing these with the different condiments, particularly the chili oil, was a lot of fun with each tasting, oddly, like a different variety of buffalo wings – hot, sweet and sour, and soy. At $2.50, try it – even if you don’t like it, it is worth saying you tried and like myself you might love it.

Following my main I was offered dessert – a limited menu for sure, but an interesting one. First served a potent black tea as a digestif my dessert choice, Brown Sugar Bubbly Pudding arrived shortly thereafter. Essentially a flan my server informed me that this dish was a tradition in Japan – made with what I believe she stated was cane sugar. Small and not super-sweet, the custard itself had a woody/maple tone to it and the “bubbles” were actually steamed milk – think cappuccino. Mixing the broth I rather liked the dish, though it certainly wasn’t an “American” dessert by any means.

When the meal was all said and done the bill arrived - $54…only a dollar more than I’d spent for lunch at Carnevino – and while Carnevino was good, the experience at Raku was just so much more unique, tasty, and satisfying. Dining with only two other native-English speakers in the middle of Las Vegas in a restaurant staffed by an entirely traditional Japanese staff is simply not something most people think of when they think of Las Vegas, but as the fact that diners walking in were told it would be a 2-3 hour wait for a table of two, maybe it will be soon. Settling the tab and leaving a generous tip I made my way to the door and was bid farewell by half the staff – two of the ladies even made their way outside to say goodbye – now that is service.

Opting to walk back from Raku mostly because I wanted to check out the area in the dimming light I made my way past Ronald’s Donuts which was closed and Hot n’ Juicy Crawfish – with a line of about 25 out the door – perhaps there is a new movement in the Vegas dining scene. Wandering past myriad oriental eateries – Japanese, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, and Korean I was surprised that as I got closer to the strip I saw less and less people – actually the area was downright dark and kind of scary. Making my way along and talking with my buddies they told me they were gambling over at Caesar’s so I diverted down a side road and continued along until I came to the valet of Caesars and made my way up to the gambling floor. (I’d not advise walking back from Raku after dark, by the way.)

Finding my friends around 9:00pm they were just on their way to get some dinner – a random Mexican place at TI, I guess. Calling another friend who was in town for the Olympia who was staying at Caesar’s I suggested we meet up for coffee – a suggestion he was definitely up for. Fortuitously as I was making my way toward to the entrance to meet my friend I happened past Payard and decided to stop in just to browse. Speaking with the friendly young lady behind the counter I was informed that since they were getting close to the end of the day anything left in the case was buy one get one. “Bogo on amazing french pastries?” I thought – I’d be a fool to pass that up. Selecting two they were packed into a pretty plastic container and I went to meet my friend. Offering my pal his selection he told me he had just finished dinner with his wife and was stuffed – but he did try a bite of each.

Starting first with the Tiramisu – not French, but a must almost anywhere I see it – the dish was served fancifully in a plexi-glass square. Layers of vanilla mascarpone, rum soaked lady fingers, cream, and dusted with cocoa and a bit of chocolate drizzle the dish actually hid a surprise – a core of Raspberry. While my sister would have been greatly upset by this unannounced guest I have to admit I liked the manner in which the fruity sweetness balanced the dark cocoa tones and heavy rum.

The second dish, one of Payard’s signatures, was vastly more impressive than the tiramisu – it was called Louvre. Featuring “Chocolate mousse and hazelnut mousse with a hazelnut dacquoise” and topped with a thick 72% dark chocolate shell I can only compare this dish to one thing (something that doesn’t do it a bit of justice,) a nutella version of a peanut butter cup. With the gelatinous shell giving way to a milk chocolate mousse, then hazelnut mousse, then a hazelnut cookie…a beautiful blending of textures, tastes, and not heavy at all.

All said, Raku with tax and tip, a cab ride, coffee, and two pastries from Payard cost me less than Colors of Caviar would cost a la carte at Guy Savoy – sure “Colors” has vastly more ingredient cost, but that just goes to show that for the discerning foodie you can indeed do some fine dining in Vegas without totally breaking the bank. While I’m certainly not going to say that a split meal at Raku and Payard is in any way comparable to dinner at Savoy or Robuchon, I do believe that during future culinary trips outside of Ohio I’m going to make sure at least one place is “off the beaten path” – and I’ll remember Raku for starting that trend.