California/Las Vegas

Dry Creek Kitchen

By our last night in the California wine country, my liver was crying for help and the waistbands of my pants were screaming in agony. We still wanted to eat well and were craving the beautiful, fresh foods so prevalent in Napa and Sonoma, so we decided to enjoy a meal at Dry Creek Kitchen, Charlie Palmer’s Healdsburg restaurant with a single-minded focus on utilizing the bountiful local ingredients of Sonoma County. And, boy, am I glad we did.   

Located in the beautiful Hotel Healdsburg, Dry Creek Kitchen is a serene, sun-dappled space that conveys a sense of polished casualness. Perfect for when we needed a low-key, but terrific meal.  We kicked the night off properly with, what else? A charcuterie plate featuring stellar house-cured meats, warm ciabatta bread, pickled vegetables, and an assortment of mustards to complement the rich, unctuous meats. 

We decided on an assortment of starters including a signature Salad of Sonoma Greens with housemade ricotta salata, and beautiful local radishes. The boquerones draped lazily across the salad added a nice garlicky-vinegary touch to the sweet, mild greens and peppery radishes, while the walnuts provided a lovely crunch. The Goat Cheese Tortellini was an exercise in late-Spring freshness, featuring tangy, soft goat cheese stuffed in rings of toothsome pasta plated with a verdant green English pea puree, sweet, tender peas and a salty-sweet slice of Prosciutto. Our third starter was the mind-blowingly good Scallops en Croute. Plump, sweet scallops were perfectly cooked with cream, leeks, and Pernod, then topped and baked with buttery puff pastry. Upon delivery, a hole was poked in the golden-brown pastry releasing an aromatic steam redolent of the ocean and anise. All in all, three wonderful starters that left me hungry for more.

For my entrée I chose the Duroc Pork “Porchetta” and Shoulder, a sophisticated take on Carolina-style barbecue. Charlie Palmer is a man who knows his way around a pig, and evidently the team at Dry Creek Kitchen does, too. Three beautiful medallions of moist tenderloin wrapped in cured belly and rested atop tender-crumbed cornbread form the foundation of the dish and were sauced with a slightly-sweet, slightly-bitter coffee barbecue beurre blanc. Tender shreds of slow cooked pork shoulder were plated between the towering tenderloins with a bright, crisp slaw to cut the fattiness of the pork.

My wife selected the King Salmon, two coral-pink portions of rich, juicy flesh with a pilaf of nutty red and white quinoa and morel mushrooms. The plate was a contrast in colors and flavors and fulfilled the promise of fresh, delicious, but not overly rich food. Our friend enjoyed the Duo of Beef, which simple as it sounds, was an absolute knockout. Featuring a rich, meltingly tender short rib braised for 60 hours and a perfectly medium-rare strip steak, this dish was rich and luxurious, especially for the shavings of summer truffle on top.

Although we were attempting to detox from a week of rich food (despite that last dish) and decadent, luxurious wines, we still had room for dessert. We chose the Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar, or as I now refer to it, “maybe the best dessert ever.” Holy crap, this thing was amazing.

Bellies full, but not overstuffed, we made the drive back to our hotel through the beautiful backroads of Sonoma, blissful from a beautiful meal that was true to everything California wine country is all about—fresh, local ingredients prepared to let their true nature shine in a casual, relaxing atmosphere.

The Bottom Line: For exquisitely prepared foods using the best of what’s around, head for Dry Creek Kitchen. Grab a table on the sidewalk and watch the world go by as you linger over stunning food and great wines. One great thing to note is that corkage fees are waved for Sonoma County wines. While Dry Creek Kitchen is certainly not inexpensive, it is worth every penny. A must hit next time we are back in town.


At this point what accolades have not been bestowed upon Jitlada, L.A.’s much-lauded Thai restaurant? Jonathan Gold has deemed it one of L.A.’s 99 essential restaurants, the L.A. Times has awarded it two stars, and food lovers the world over have visited in search of authentic, spicy Thai flavors. 

Located in a time-worn strip mall off Sunset Boulevard, Jitlada first opened in the late 1970s, but it was with a change of ownership in 2006 that Jitlada was reinvigorated and added a submenu that introduced the intense, complex, spicy flavors of Southern Thailand to L.A. The food is indeed spicy, even fiery, but never just for the sake of being spicy; rather, it is part of the complexity of the cuisine. It is a heat that causes your nose to drip, your eyes to water, and your tongue to feel aflame. But don’t let that stop you, even if you aren’t a heat lover. For this is some of the tastiest, most satisfying, and exciting food you will find anywhere.  

We started with the Crispy Morning Glory Salad, a salad of battered, fried Chinese watercress, red cabbage, red onion, tomatoes, shrimp, and cilantro. It was a mass of colors and textures, from the crispness of the fried watercress, to the cooling crunch of the red cabbage. The cilantro and red onion added notes of freshness, while the shrimp were sweet and perfectly cooked. The dressing, though, is what made this salad so amazing. A slightly spicy, slightly sweet dressing composed of fish sauce and lime juice is drizzled all over, bringing the whole dish together for a fresh, spicy-sweet start. 

Next up was the Crying Tiger Pork, a dish for which Jitlada is justifiably famous. Pieces of pork are grilled to perfection and served with a spicy lime sauce, and accompanied by brilliant shreds of carrot and red cabbage, needed to cool things down a bit. Upon destruction of the Crying Tiger Pork, we were brought a funky Southern Thai-style curry with dried mudfish and water spinach. The mudfish, a lowly fish with an aggressive flavor and an interesting texture (neither of those is a bad thing!), was surrounded by mild, sweet water spinach and served in a sweet-hot Southern Thai-style curry. 

Up next was the Green Mussel Curry, a bowl of enormous, green New Zealand mussels in a gorgeous broth of lemongrass, garlic, Thai basil, mint, and dried red chilies. The mussels themselves were meaty with a pleasant chew, with a briny ocean taste, but it was the broth that was the star of the show. The broth was so good I found myself using empty mussel shells to scoop more liquid goodness into my mouth. Of course, a spoon might have been classier, but at least I didn’t just pick up the whole bowl and drink it down. 

Mussels now cleared, we then tucked into a plate of Pork with Sator Beans. Known as stink beans for their, shall we say, pungent aroma (one blogger has noted that they smell like a “bad day at the morgue”), the beans were young and tender with a crunchy texture. I didn’t find them particularly odoriferous, but then I have a high tolerance level (ask my wife). The almost fava-like beans were stir fried with strips of red pepper and tender, unctuous pork belly. 

After all of these dishes, there was still room for more, so we decided to try one of the evening’s specials—the Crispy Honey Duck. And, boy, I am glad we did. The rich, juicy duck featured impossibly crisp skin lacquered to a beautiful mahogany color with the sweet flavor of honey and was served with a thick, black hoisin-like sauce and some leaves of cilantro scattered atop for freshness. We then moved on to the Fish Balls swimming in a delicious green curry. The mild, slightly chewy fish balls were stuffed with salted egg-yolks and served with zucchini and thinly sliced bamboo shoots, making for an altogether rich, but heavenly dish. 

Bringing it all home was a dish of fried rice with mussels, lobster, and shrimp—a decadent finish to a beautiful meal. Southern Thailand is known for its abundance of seafood and, while these ingredients may be an upgrade to the typical, everyday fare, it featured flavors every bit as intense and authentic as any dish we ate. 

By the time we ended the meal, our mouths were on fire, our foreheads were covered in sweat, and our sinuses were cleared. But I had never felt so good after a meal. The less-recognized cuisine of Southern Thailand is revelatory, not only for its intensity of flavor, but also for the complexity of its composition. An emphasis on heat, fresh flavors, herbs, and vegetables combine to form a cuisine rich in flavor and soul.  

The Bottom Line: Jitlada is no stranger to recognition and deservedly so. The food served at this Thai gastro-temple is sophisticated, flavorful, and some of the most interesting I have ever eaten. The service is warm and friendly and the prices are reasonable. Just be sure to arrive early; those accolades continue to draw throngs of people from mile around, all seeking the fiery, intense experience of Jitlada.

Etoile at Domaine Chandon

A week in the Napa Valley will do amazing things for one’s soul (not to mention one’s checkbook and liver). Perhaps I was getting a little too accustomed to the breathtaking views, the amazing wines, and the spectacular food, but I was having serious thoughts of becoming a “man of leisure” in California wine country. Fortunately, my lovely wife reminded me of our children and our jobs, forever banishing those thoughts.

Our days went a little something like this: Wine, wine, wine, wine, food, wine, wine, wine, wine, food, food, wine, wine, wine, cheese, wine, wine, wine, wine, food. Times seven. Not a bad life. But it was on day five that we experienced what would be the defining meal of our visit. First, let’s rewind two years to our trip to Napa in Spring 2011. In town for a long weekend (or a short week), we first ate at Etoile at Domaine Chandon for dinner. The tasting menu was absolutely extraordinary. Inventive, tasty food beautifully plated, our meal captured the essence of the wine country (well, the meal and the six glasses of sparkling wine). One of the dishes we enjoyed was a Stinging Nettle Risotto that was, as our best friend deemed it, “thebesthingIhaveevereaten.” Bold statement… 

So it was a foregone conclusion that we would revisit Etoile on our most recent trip. We decided that lunch was in order, on the patio looking out at the beautiful grounds on a perfect sunny 80-degree day. I submitted myself to the chef’s whims, choosing the tasting menu, while my wife and our best friend made a smaller commitment (apparently throwing down at lunch isn’t their thing). And so it began… 

First up was the Maine Lobster Salad. Such a simple description, but such a wondrously complex and beautiful plate. Chunks of sweet Maine lobster were surrounded by droplets of bright yellow passion fruit puree, while green peas added a touch of sweetness and yogurt spheres brought the whole thing together with a creamy tanginess. There could not have been a more beautiful or delicious way to start the meal.

For my wife’s starter she selected the Smoked King Salmon, a gorgeous portion of pristine orange-pink flesh, delicately smoked to maintain the beautiful richness of the fish. The salmon was surrounded by shades of green everywhere—from the curlicued grass-green fiddlehead ferns to the pale leeks and the green garlic puree, which was bursting with flavor, but not overpoweringly so. Our friend selected the Charcuterie Plate to start, the stars of which, in my mind, were the slightly-gamy rabbit roulade and the explosively flavorful beef tartare. Rounded out with an assortment of pickled vegetables, foie gras mousse, and toasted bread, this was the cured meat plate of my dreams. Literally. I have actually dreamt about it since we ate it.

I next enjoyed the Halibut, nicely seared, tender and meaty sitting atop a bright lemon foam with tender asparagus tips, melted leeks, and tarragon. The fish was mild and sweet and gave easily to the slightest pressure of the fork. The dish can only be described as light and refreshing; perfect for an alfresco lunch in Napa. Halibut demolished, the Roast Lamb Loin was delivered. The sweetness of the oh-so tender, roasted-to-perfection lamb loin was a perfect foil for the aggressive flavors of the turnips, and green olives rounding out the dish.

My wife and our friend both ordered the Fettuccine with Meyer lemon beurre monte. A gorgeous tangle of eggy, yellow pasta lightly tossed with bright lemon butter sauce, the dish was rounded out with the delicate anise-like flavor of tarragon, earthy green asparagus, and shavings of black truffle. No bad dish ever includes the words “black truffle.” Needless to say, the fettuccine was eye-rollingly spectacular.

For my final savory course, I enjoyed the Niman Ranch Pork, served with brook cherries, spiced bread, and hearts of palm. Beautiful medallions of tender, rosy pork loin along with seared pork belly were paired with crisp croutons of delicately spiced bread and sweet, meaty cherries. This dish was also paired with one of my favorite wines of the trip, the Domaine Chandon Carneros Pinot Meunier, which echoed the cherry flavors in the dish and lent a subtle oakiness to the palate.

At this point, we were now running significantly late for our next appointment, but couldn’t leave before enjoying a dessert or three. The signature Caramelized Pear Mille-Feuille was spot on, the Strawberry Vacherin so lively and bright with a subtle sweetness from the meringue, and the Chocolate Marquise gave me that much needed chocolate hit to end the meal. Truly spectacular desserts to end a truly spectacular meal.

The kitchen team at Etoile are artists in every sense of the word (well, except maybe the overused sense of the word, as in, “sandwich artist”). They deliver visually stunning dishes that are so beautiful you almost don’t want to eat them. Almost. When you take your first bite, you realize that you are in the company of culinary geniuses. And you are grateful for that moment when, fork in one hand and glass of wine in the other hand, you begin daydreaming again of that life of leisure.

The Bottom Line: A true must-visit when dining in the Napa Valley. Don’t bother trying to cull the menu down; go for the tasting menu. It literally doesn’t matter what’s on it. Just do it. (UPDATE: Etoile has, sadly, closed since this post was written. I'm leaving it up to commemorate their work.)  

Aburiya Raku

I am a big believer that many of the best restaurants are not the grand palaces of cuisine beloved by the dining establishment and Michelin reviewers alike. Rather, some of the best places I have eaten are unassuming and decidedly not grand. Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas is one of those places. What it lacks in size or location, it more than makes up for in substance. Located about 15 minutes off the strip at the end of a Chinatown strip mall, Raku is a tiny gem of a restaurant that specializes inrobata-yaki (charcoal grilled dishes).  Make no mistake; this is no sushi joint. This is a place that is unequivocally committed to quality food and quality service (in fact, Aburiya Raku means "charcoal grill house enjoyment"). And it shows.

What sets Raku apart from many robata-style restaurants is their use of imported Japanese oak binchotan (charcoal), which cooks ingredients without charring them and helps to bring out the natural flavor of the food. They also import many of their ingredients from Japan, such as their chili paste, aged mirin, and Konbu seaweed, and their meats include Wagyu beef from Oregon, free-range chicken from California, beautiful Kurobuta pork from Iowa, and fish shipped in from the famous Tsukiji Market in Japan. In other words, this place takes its food seriously.

After carefully studying the menu, as well as the daily specials on a small blackboard, I chose nine dishes (did I mention this was actually my second dinner of the evening?). First up was the most beautiful dish of the evening--a starter of cold broccoli withshimeji mushrooms, red pepper, and dried bonito flakes. The broccoli was cooked crisp-tender, chilled, and was complemented by the firm, nutty mushrooms. A generous shaving of dried bonito (dried smoked fish) over the top brought it all together lending a nice smokiness and umami savoriness to the dish.

Next was one of my favorite courses, which was shimaaji, a sweet delicate fish that is considered a luxury fish in Japan, but is rarely found in the United States. The fish was served two ways: thin slices of white flesh with glistening silvery skin and finely chopped with miso. All this was served atop slippery translucent seaweed noodles, thinly sliced radish, and microgreens. All in all, a clean, fresh, yet luxurious dish.

Next in the procession of dishes was one of the simplest of the evening, but perhaps one of the most complex--grilled matsutakemushrooms.  That's it. Literally. The meaty, highly-prized matsutake was lightly grilled over the oak binchotan which gave the already fragrant, complex mushrooms an additional layer of subtle smoky flavor. Dipped in a salty, tart ponzu sauce with just a squeeze of juice from a tiny lime, this was a dish that perfectly encapsulated Raku's devotion to pristine ingredients prepared simply.

I next enjoyed the Amberjack Collar, which is exactly what it sounds like--a cut from the fish clavicle that isn't packaged as pretty as we usually like our fish. It looks precisely as you would imagine, with skin, bones, and fin attached. But once you get past the looks, you are in the land of rich fish deliciousness. This under-appreciated cut was grilled and served with a small snowball of daikon radish and lime. The meat was succulent and tender; I dug in and pulled much of it out with my fingers to help navigate the bones. While it may not be the sexiest-looking dish in the world, it is definitely one of the tastiest. Rounding out the fish courses was grilled yellowtail tuna, which was cooked through but still moist and slicked with a sweet soy glaze.

My next dish was the Chicken Thigh Steak, a meaty boneless cut with deep chicken flavor and crispy caramelized skin. I rarely order chicken at restaurants (unless, of course, it's fried) but this was worth it, particularly when dipped in the housemade teriyaki sauce.

I followed the chicken with one of the more interesting dishes of the evening--Agedashi Tofu. In traditional Japanese cooking, the silken tofu is cut into cubes, coated, and fried. At Raku, they make their own tofu and fry the whole sphere, creating a crisp skin with a soft, custardy interior. If you have never had fresh, and I mean truly fresh, tofu, it can be a revelation. And in a slightly sweet, smoky hot broth topped with finely chopped scallions, salmon eggs, and dried bonito, this tofu was as good as it gets.

After eating the agedashi tofu I wasn't sure that Raku could possibly keep the momentum of great dishes coming, but they continued to deliver. A skewer of Iberico pork, threaded with small cubes of unctuous, silky meat, left me wondering why I have never had pork so, well, porky. It was rich and well-marbled from its life spent foraging for acorns, which helped to lend the meat a distinctly nutty flavor, and the light grilling it received gave it an extra layer of smoky flavor.

I closed out the meal with the skewered Wagyu Beef with wasabi. Cooked rare, the meat was red and juicy with minimal seasoning, but salt and wasabi gave the tender, buttery meat a full boost of flavor. 

Sometimes the best surprises come in the least conspicuous packaging.  This is the case with Raku.  Tucked in the corner of a Las Vegas strip mall lies perhaps one of the best Japanese restaurants in the country.  It's a place where big-name Las Vegas chefs go to dine on their nights off or after a long shift in the kitchen.  It's a place where you, too, should go to dine.

The Bottom Line: For small Japanese plates with an uncompromising focus on high-quality ingredients with minimal fuss, go to Raku. It's tiny--the maximum occupancy is 49--so call ahead for a reservation or go late at night. For the best seat in the house sit at one of the five counter seats and watch the chef prepare the cold dishes in front of you; it's dining and theater all at once.

Joël Robuchon

There are many meals in this world that I have dreamed about experiencing. Among them, the wizardry of Ferran Adria at El Bullí in Spain, Rene Redzepi's mind-blowing menu at Noma in Denmark, the refined perfection at Thomas Keller's French Laundry (finally made that happen!), and the Sixteen Course Degustation at Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas. I was able to make at least one of them happen on a recent business trip to Las Vegas--Joël Robuchon, the crown jewel of the MGM Grand's excellent restaurant collection. Joël Robuchon is a restaurant that inspires one to use every superlative in the book--the best, the greatest, the most exquisite, the finest. In a city where facades are the reality, this is a restaurant that is the real deal. It is extravagant and refined, yet comfortable and intimate. From the minute you walk in the front vestibule, you enter a quiet rarefied world far away from the flashing lights and noise of the casinos.

Decorated in shades of purple and black with sprays of fresh flowers everywhere, the room is plush and elegant, not over-the-top gaudy as you might expect in Las Vegas. We were greeted by the warm, friendly hostess and seated immediately at one of the tables surrounding the soft purple banquette in the middle of the room. Surveying the room, we observed a diverse group of customers--an older gentleman with two beautiful young women, a man by himself who had lucked out at the casinos and wanted to treat himself to a great meal, and well-heeled couples, both younger and older, ready to experience fine dining as they hadn't quite before.

While we sipped our glasses of Bruno Paillard house champagne, a dry, full-bodied rose with hints of strawberry, we settled on our meals: the Sixteen Course Degustation for me and the Six Course Tasting for my dining companion (she wasn't nearly as hungry as I was). We settled in for the onslaught of dishes that would shortly be coming our way.

First things first, our server brought out the restaurant's famous bread cart, which is loaded with a seemingly endless array of breads, from which I chose eight to sample. Upon choosing, my selections were warmed for me and brought back to the table with creamy, salted butter which melted all over the bread. My favorites were the milk bread and the bacon bread.

I began with La Cerise--cherry gazpacho with sheep's milk ricotta and pistachios--which was bright and tart, complemented by the creamy, tangy ricotta and the intensely nutty taste of the pistachios; a great way to kick off the meal.

Up next was La Tomate--the "salad" course--which was a thick, ripe slice of red tomato with basil-infused olive oil and a tomato gelee topped with small spheres of mozzarella. The tomato was soft and bursting with flavor, while the gelee was the pure, distilled essence of tomato. The whimsical presentation made for a surprising take on the traditional caprese salad. 

I then moved on to one of my favorite courses of the evening--Le Caviar--which was also one of the most beautiful courses of the night. A night out at one of the world's best restaurants must include caviar and this trio of dishes did not disappoint. It began with a velvety chilled cauliflower veloute, which might make you rethink the humble brassica; it was stunning, both in flavor and presentation, and had a generous dollop of caviar planted in the middle.

Next was the red turnip and radish with yellowtail carpaccio and caviar, which was fresh, light and bursting with flavor. The maki of thin couscous with caviar atop was phenomenal with the slippery, salty eggs bursting in my mouth. Perhaps it would have been classier to eat each of them in more than one bite, but, well, that's not how I do things...

I then transitioned into the proteins with La Grenouille--a crispy frog leg with a garlic and parsley coulis. Most respectable diners would probably eat this with a knife and fork; then again, I am not most diners. Looking like a lollipop, I picked up la grenouille by the bone, swirled it around in the herbaceous coulis and ate it. Crisp on the outside with moist, tender meat on the inside, it was a heck of  an upgrade to your average frog leg.

Taking us from the pond to the sea was La Saint-Jacques, a seared scallop with young leek in green curry. Bright and vivacious with a perfectly cooked scallop surrounded by the pale green curry, it was fragrant and bursting with flavor. 

Up next was hands down my favorite course of the evening--Les Crustaces. Another trio of dishes, this was luxury redefined. The best bite of the night was the truffled langoustine ravioli. Any words I use to describe this dish will not do it justice. To say that it was simply sublime would be an understatement. The soft, delicate ravioli gave way to the creamy filling composed of sweet langoustine and earthy truffle. The foie gras sauce accompanying was so good I did not want to leave even a drop on the plate (part of my "no sauce left behind" policy). I do not want to overstate the amazingness of this dish, nor do I want to understate it.  It was simply unbelievable. Also included in this trio was the grilled spiny lobster medallion in an herb sabayon and sea urchin on potato puree with Blue Mountain coffee.  Both of these dishes were also luxurious, rich, and outstanding. But that ravioli...I can't stop thinking about it.   

As a sort of palette cleanser on steroids, I next enjoyed Les Petit Pois, a delicate green pea cream on foie gras royale with argan oil. The sweet pea cream gave a light, refreshing counterpoint to the airy foie gras custard and the argan oil gave the dish a distinctive nutty finish.

Up next was Le Saumon--a wonderful dish of barely cooked salmon with grain mustard seeds and mango tagliatelle. The salmon was so delicate, so moist, it was almost as if it had walked by the stove and gotten just a faint whisper of heat. Extra credit for this beautiful dish is awarded for the light tangle of mango tagliatelle. 

I rounded out the meat courses with Le Boeuf--beef ribeye with marrow stuffed palm hearts. The beef was cooked to a gorgeous rosy pink and was rich, intense and, well, beefy. But my two favorite components of the dish were the marrow stuffed palm hearts, which were silky and rich, and the world-renowned potato puree. Joël Robuchon is understandably famous for his silky potatoes, which are decadent yet ethereal, and seem to be made of equal parts potato and butter. This is definitely not your average steak and potatoes. 

The last savory course of the evening was one of the most creative--Le Soja--a risotto of soybean sprouts with lime zest and chives. This is a stunning dish that, despite it's humble ingredients, is complex in both flavor and technique. The talented team of chefs is able to bring a real creaminess to the sprouts which gives the dish the same luxurious mouthfeel as an ordinary risotto, but with a slightly crunchy texture and a clean, green flavor. The lime zest allowed the dish to remain light and bright and was a great transition into the dessert courses.

As the evening began to wind down, I enjoyed a selection of beautiful cheeses from the restaurant's thoughtfully composed cheese cart, and two dessert courses. The first was La Fraise, which was green Chartreuse, eggnog, layered with strawberries and a fresh herb sorbet. This was light, refreshing, and tasty, but truth be told, I simply couldn't wait for the final course, called La Noisette. Featuring a coffee parfait wrapped in a caramel-cookie crunch with hazelnut foam and chocolate ice cream, this dish was rich, creamy, and luxurious--a fitting way to end an amazing meal.

As if that wasn't enough, our server rolled out an impressive cart of mignardises--small, bite-sized desserts--from which I chose ten. Excessive? Perhaps. Sweet perfection? Absolutely.

Success in the restaurant business is all in the details and Joël Robuchon gets them all right. From the impeccable service to the hushed (in a good way), comfortable dining room, and the playfully presented, immaculately prepared food, Joël Robuchon sets the standard for fine dining in Las Vegas, and possibly, the United States. It is rare when I can say I had not one bad dish or bite the entire evening, but that was the case here. The pace of the meal was leisurely, but not slow, and when I walked out, though I was full, I didn't feel heavy. While this isn't an experience that I, or most others, could afford to do often, it is a treat that anyone who is seriously interested in food should experience. The entire experience is a master class in hospitality and fine-dining; I cannot recommend it enough. While I will never experience El Bullí and may never get my reservation at Noma, I was at least able to cross one restaurant off my must-try list.  And it was worth every penny of it.

The Bottom Line: Treat yourself to one of the most decadent, exciting meals you will ever have; the creativity and beauty of the food are simply stunning. While the prices are not for the faint of heart, the food is inventive, whimsical, and luxurious, and considering all those things plus the amazing service, I will dare to call it a good value for the overall experience. You will not be disappointed.

Side Notes: The MGM Grand has assembled a wonderful collections of restaurants in Las Vegas, which has become a town known for its many great dining spots. In addition to Joël Robuchon, definitely check out Craftsteak, Nobhill Tavern, and Fiamma. From casual to fine dining, you can find virtually anything here to meet your needs.

Lotus of Siam

My travels this past week took me to Las Vegas, which allowed me to indulge in a number of great meals. From the Catfish Sloppy Joe at Mandalay Bay's RM Seafood to La Langoustine at the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon and the Grand Plateau at Comme Ça, I had some amazing dishes. But one of my favorite meals came at an off-the-strip Thai restaurant called Lotus of Siam. Ever since Gourmet magazine writer Jonathan Gold called Lotus of Siam "the single best Thai restaurant in North America" in an August 2000 article, heaps of praise have been bestowed upon this beloved Las Vegas institution. Located in a sparsely populated strip mall on Las Vegas's East Side (Zagat has called it "the ugliest strip mail in America"), Lotus of Siam has become a destination for locals and tourists alike, drawing diners from around the world for its hugely flavorful Northern Thai cooking. And so I decided to pay a visit. After perusing the expansive menu I settled on six dishes: Nam Kao Tod, Stuffed Chicken Wings, Sua Rong Hai, Issan Sausage, Seafood Chili and Mint Leaves, and Sticky Rice with Coconut Cream and Mango.

First up was the best dish of the meal--Nam Kao Tod--crispy rice with minced sour sausage, green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, mint, and lime juice. Not only would I call this the best dish of the meal, but it may be one of the best dishes I have ever eaten. This dish was explosively flavorful with mild heat. The highly-seasoned Issan sausage, a fermented sour sausage from the Northeastern region of Thailand, was minced to give every bite of the dish a hit of its beautiful porkiness. There was a fantastic interplay of textures with the crispy rice and the soft sausage while the lime brightened the dish and the mint gave it a fresh sweetness.

Next up were the Stuffed Chicken Wings. The thin, crisp panko crust shattered and gave way to tender, moist chicken stuffed with ground pork, carrots, glass noodles, and mushrooms. The sweet and sour dipping sauce added a bright sweetness to the savory meat-on-meat action.

After polishing off the chicken wings I was served Sua Rong Hai--thinly sliced beef marinated then grilled to a beautiful pink medium rare. Smoky with a nice char, the beef was succulent and tender. The accompanying dipping sauce was salty and sour with hints of chili, green onions, and rice powder.

The Issan Sausage arrived next, which was the same sausage used in the Nam Kao Tod. Made with ground pork, rice, garlic, cilantro, chiles, lemongrass, and spices, the sausage is then fermented by hanging at room temperature, which gives the sausage it's slightly sour, tangy flavor. It was tender and moist and served with fresh chili, ginger, and peanuts for a textural contrast.

Finally, I rounded out the savory dishes with the Seafood Chili and Mint Leaves.  The dish was made with a combination of seafood--shrimp, calamari, scallops, giant mussels, and salmon. The seafood was as tender and moist as can be. The homemade fresh chili paste gave the dish a mild heat and the mint and Thai basil gave it a sweet brightness that complemented the brininess of the seafood.

After the slow burn of the previous dish I was ready to cool off, which I did with the Sticky Rice with Coconut Cream and Mango. The mango gave off sweet floral notes of honeysuckle and the coconut cream  was smooth, intense, and tasted of the tropics. Warm and comforting, exotic yet familiar, this dish was the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Despite being a bit off the beaten path this gem of a restaurant is deserved of its legendary reputation. Not only is the food extremely flavorful, fresh, beautiful, but it is a great value; all of the above dishes cost me only about $70. Very few bets in Vegas actually pay off; this is one that will pay off with every visit.   

The Bottom Line: Go beyond the familiar Thai confines of pad Thai and mee krob by seeking out Lotus' Northern Thai specialties. While the restaurant does have a great buffet, it's the menu selections that are the most exciting. Lotus of Siam is, without a doubt, a great place for any gluttonous gourmet.