Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 8: Ellis Island Casino and Brewery

Craft brews have become another major trend for the young, hip and with it, and I'm going to use that fact as yet another litmus test to figure out how Las Vegas is developing into a truly hipster friendly city (you are doubtlessly noticing a trend in these blog posts at this point).

Vegas is a city that is fueled by alcohol. When beer and liquor are flowing, the philosophy goes, people are loosened up and keep gambling. While Sin City has not quite caught up with every hipster trend (I haven't seen many artisanal, organic, fair trade cheese stores in Vegas... yet), the increasing popularity of good and interesting beers is right in the Vegas wheelhouse. Craft breweries that offer adventurous pours are out there, if you know where to look.

While cocktail waitresses slinging comped drinks on casino floors are unlikely to pour you anything more exciting than a Fat Tire (no knock on Fat Tire, they're still one of my favorite nationally distributed beers), there are definitely a few places where you can find tasty brews made and distributed in the city. Sin City Brewing Company makes beers with "cleverly themed" (read "appropriately douchey") names like "Weisse is Nice," "Never Pass Up a Blonde," "Say Hello to Amber," and "The Dark Side of Sin," with locations in The Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian and a location at The Flamingo with a large outdoor patio for sipping on your suds. In  Downtown Vegas, check out The Chicago Brewing Company in The Four Queens for a good selection of craft brews along with brewery favorite foods like pizza and burgers, or The Triple 7 Restaurant and Microbrewery at Main Street Station, which has become such a draw that the resort now markets itself as a "Casino, Brewery, and Hotel."

But if you really want an authentic Vegas experience to go with your microbrews, Ellis Island Casino and Brewery is a favorite of local beer enthusiasts, with a great selection of microbrews, sold at a shockingly reasonable price of less than $2 a glass. While gambling at the smokey and old-school off-Strip casino, cocktail waitresses will comp you with free beers if you ask nicely. Their restaurant is extremely cheap (like $5 for Steak and Eggs in the morning cheap), and the food is surprisingly better than merely edible.

The Casino and Brewery is located slightly off the beaten path, about a block east of The Strip. It's not nearly as slick as a place like Aria or The Cosmopolitan, but that's probably why locals dig it so much. It's unpretentious, the betting minimums at the gaming tables are low, and it has a scuzzy sleaziness that feels authentic and lived in, an increasingly rare atmosphere in Las Vegas these days.

Ellis Island's beers include a nice Amber, a summery Hefeweissen, a pleasingly hefty Dark Lager, and a Light lager (which I didn't even bother with; if you're drinking beer, just admit that it's not gonna be good for you no matter what and skip the light crap). They also brew a delicious Root Beer, which took me back to childhood memories of sharing a root-beer float my first girlfriend in the local Soda Shop (memories that might be from an old movie, and not my own childhood, now that I think of it).

To be clear, Ellis Island's Beers didn't approach the mind-blowing flavor of a cold Pliny the Elder from The Cap 'N' Cork in Los Feliz, but they got the job done... and get it done for absurdly cheap. Ellis Island is certainly worth a detour from The Strip for cheap eats and even cheaper craft brews.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The State of Comedy in Las Vegas

On a recent episode of Louie (which is probably the best show on television right now) the slightly fictionalized version of Louis CK (who is basically just Louis a few year back in his career) accepts a job performing stand-up in a very sad lounge in an Atlantic City casino owned by Donald Trump. His first show is a disaster, with a crowd that evolves from indifferent to hostile. Louie ends up arguing with the audience, and he decides to quit the soul-crushing casino gig. The episode ends with an amazing scene where he visits Joan Rivers (who is headlining at the casino's large theater) in her hotel room, where she gives him some old-school, pragmatic showbiz advice about never quitting and being thankful that he gets to tell jokes for a living, calling comedy their "calling"  and convincing Louie to apologize and ask the casino manager for his job back.

It's a great episode featuring a true comedy icon (who has reemerged recently because of the terrific documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.) But the part that interested me and is relevant to this blog (other than the fact that it gives me the opportunity to make it clear that if you're not watching Louie, you're out of your mind) is the scene where our hero quits the casino gig. Standing in the back of a busy kitchen where workers are prepping giant platters of shrimp to be served at buffet frequented by the same type of dull-minded consumers that Louie offended and battled with at his sad performance, the comedian talks with the casino manager about the gig. The manager tries to get him to promise to not act hostile to the crowd or to criticize the casino, and asks him why he can't just keep his mouth shut. Louie shrugs, tells him "I don't know," but obviously feels like he can't back down, that he's standing for some principals he can't actually define. But the key part for me was when Louie asks the manager why he can't play in the big theater; he can draw thousands of fans to similar-sized theaters in cities like Boston or Chicago, so why not Atlantic City. The manager tells him it's because he's a "comic's comic type" and that type of comedian doesn't play with Atlantic City audiences; he was hired to give people something to do between stops at the gaming tables.

The manager was right, of course, and it reminded me of the comedy scene in Las Vegas. While Vegas is certainly not Atlantic City (from what I can gather, A.C. is a sad place frequented by desperate people gamble all their money away on the faint hopes of winning some of it back, while Vegas has the shiny themed buildings and nightclubs filled with young people and good restaurants that mask the fact that at its core its a sad place where desperate people gamble all their money away on the faint hopes of winning some of it back; so basically A.C. is a more honest version of Vegas in a lot of ways, but also a lot sadder on the surface and less fun in general), Sin City has similar issues with its comedy scene.

Las Vegas has growing food, music, and art scenes, but they've got a ways to go when it comes to comedy, especially in comparison to L.A., New York, Chicago, Austin, or basically any other urban sprawl in America. It's a town where old fashioned insult comedians like Bobby Slayton (the "Pit-Bull of comedy") or mom-approved favorites like Rita Rudner are signed for long-term residencies (no insult to either of these veterans who do what they do exceedingly well), and there is little to no room for edgy up-coming comedy.

Vegas is filled with tourists from all over the country looking for something to do for a couple hours while they take a break from gambling, and they want to spend their cash on something that's guaranteed to entertain them. This is not a town where people will spend money on something experimental or new, or one that could support the inventive comedy happening on the stages of the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theaters in LA and New York every night of the week (Second City had a show going in Vegas that closed down after only a couple years) Sure, Marc Maron (host of the truly great WTF Podcast) performed in Vegas recently, but it was at The Playboy Comedy Club in The Palms, not exactly the natural habitat of an alt-comedy pioneer like Maron. The Playboy Comedy Club is essentially everything you'd expect it to be, a place where a big part of the draw is that the current playmate of the month takes the stage between comics. We all know how funny Playboy models are and how much they belong in a comedian showcase, right? The Sin City Comedy Show in The V Theater at Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shops is similar, mixing stand-up comedy acts with sexy burlesque dancers. Most towns don't use sexy girls or other gimmicks to tempt people into seeing a comedy show, but that's the state of the scene in Vegas.

Vegas is a good town to see super-pro iconic veteran comedians perform. Because the resorts can afford to pay for A-List headliners, Jerry Seinfeld shows off his chops every few months, while Chris Rock and Eddie Izzard have killed at Caesars Palace in recent years. But if you want to see an emerging voice working out new and potentially controversial material, than Sin City is not the place to look. It's another example of how the danger and edge Vegas claims in their marketing is just that; market-tested and advertised, but not truly dangerous or edgy.

There's a reason that a cook is fussing with a giant plate of shrimp behind Louie while he talks about what kind of comedy he wants to do vs. what kind of comedy works in a casino-lounge setting; people come to Vegas and Atlantic City looking for mass-produced shrimp in their comedy, not an expertly crafted meal of guffaws. That's why only extremely popular, proven talents draw crowds while other comedy showcases rely on gimmicks like showgirls or burlesque dancers to get an audience who will probably not know the headliner even if they're fairly well known in the comedy community.

But there's hope; Vegas was once known only for buffets and cheap steaks, yet it's evolved into a foodie haven with restaurants from some of the most famous chefs in the world. The same thing can happen to the comedy scene as the city continues to grow its identity from merely a cheesy tourist spot to a city with a thriving young arts community.

But in the meantime, Joan Rivers is pretty damned hilarious.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Food Trucks Invade the Strip

Food trucks selling cheap eats have posted up at construction sites and outside bars and concerts in cities since the beginning of time. But hip haute-cuisine sold off of trucks is a more recent phenomenon, made popular by the success of The Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck, which offered innovative fusion style food and was savvy about self-promotion on Twitter. Pretty quickly, there were food trucks all over Los Angeles offering an endless variety of international cuisines, from Indian to Peuvian to Argentian. Some trucks resorted to gimmicks, like hiring hot chicks to sell burgers or creating fancy versions of grilled cheese meant to appeal equally to our inner child and our inner hipster food snob. The trend got so popular so quickly, The Food Network launched a hit reality show/cooking competition all about food trucks.

If the presence of diverse food trucks is a test whether a city has a thriving hipster scene (a premise I'm positing with no real evidence to back it up), then Las Vegas gets a passing grade. Sin City has seen a full on food truck invasion, and on any given Friday night you can find all kinds of tasty treats sold off the back of trucks all over town. First Fridays provide a great opportunity to sample the city's offerings, as many of the best trucks gather in Downtown Vegas for the artsy monthly event.

Proof that Vegas isn't quite there in terms of hipster culture is the fact that most of the food trucks offer less than groundbreaking cuisines. There are a lot of burger trucks, many of them very good. SlidinThru Slidertruck, LBS Patty Wagon, TastyBunz, and the Green Chili-centric Sloppi Jos all offer tasty takes on the American classic, but the irreverently named Fukuburger is the best (and most popular). The truck was recently written up in a pretty good New York Times Travel article about Las Vegas, in which the writer described Fuku's Karai burger, adorned with cucumbers, avocado cream, spicy mayo and a habanero soy sauce "the best burger" he’d had in years, an assessment I basically agree with. Los Angeles is going through a true Burger renaissance, with selections like the unbeatable Office Burger at Father's Office and the MSG-infused delights of the quickly expanding Umami Burger chain, but Fuku's Karai Burger is truly something special.

Non-burger offerings include the  BBQ Boy truck, offering Filipino BBQ on a stick, Haulin' Balls (with a creative selection of meatball sandwiches that un-appetizingly call Ballwiches), and Snow Ono (selling authentic treats for people who know the difference between Hawaiin Shave Ice and the more common-on-the-mainland Snocones).

The selection of Vegas trucks continues to grow, but you can't find too much for those with a truly adventurous palette quite yet. No trucks in Sin City can compete with LA's diverse offerings, which include Nom Nom (which serves Banh Mi sandwiches and other Vietnamese foods),  Ludo Truck (offering gourmet fare from French Chef and "Top Chef Masters" breakout Ludovic Lefebvre), CoolHaus (a gourmet ice cream sandwich truck that features unique flavors served in edible wrapping paper), or Kogi (the grandaddy of them all, as it were). Vegas has become a foodie-tourist destination, but only for sit down gourmet restaurants. Until a chef is innovative (or crazy) enough to gamble on a unique international fusion cuisine served off a truck, LA will still have the edge in terms of mobile fine dining.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Foodie Diaries: Bouchon at The Venetian

It will surprise none of you, dear readers, to discover that I consider myself a bit of a foodie. Whenever I make one of my frequent pilgrimages to Las Vegas, I always make sure to have at least one meal at a spectacular restaurant from a world-class chef (while, at the same time, never neglecting to pay visits to junky buffets and fast-food joints like Smashburger).

So I've decided to start documenting my amazing trips to the culinary Valhalla of Sin City with this blog, and I'm opening my foodie diaries series with a doozy: a visit to Thomas Keller's Bouchon in The Venetian.

There is maybe no American chef more revered by foodies than Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry in the Napa Valley has been described by many as the greatest restaurant in the world and whose Per Se in New York has been described as even better than The French Laundry.

Like a good (and snobbish) fan of great food, I'm a little suspicious of the whole "celebrity chef" phenomenon, which has become an over-marketed and media hype driven phenomenon that's more about the cult of personality than good cooking. The mere fact that Guy Fieri is a household name is enough of a crime against humanity to convince a jury to give the trend a lethal injection, but then again, there are some chefs that deserve to the fame that comes with truly artful cooking... and Thomas Keller is one of those chefs.

Keller is famous for bringing an obsessive attention to detail to everything he cooks. While he's acknowledged that the idea of creating "perfect" food is truly an impossible goal, it's never deterred him from striving madly for pure perfection. He's like an elegant and witty mad scientist of deliciousness, and I can't overstate how much of a artist and rock-star the guy is in the food community. The guy even designed all the food and restaurants in Brad Bird's elegant Pixarserpiece Ratatouille, a fact that just adds an extra spice to Keller's epic menu of life awesomeness.

Las Vegas has become such a foodie town that even a serious artist like Keller has brought his brand to the glitzy glare of Sin City, where he opened his second branch of Bouchon Bistro. I've been obsessed with tasting Keller's cooking for years; though I've made stumbling and clumsy attempts at recreating some of his recipes from his best selling cookbooks, dining on food made by Keller and his trusted staff had become my culinary white whale for a few years, a dietary obsession I spent nights awake dreaming about; but The French Laundry is far (far, far, faaaaaar) out of my price range and I don't have the patience to suffer through the restaurant's legendarily long waiting list. But as a consolation prize to tide me over until I'm rich and important enough to eat at The French Laundry (translation: I'll probably never knock that one off my personal bucket list), I booked a table at The Venetian's version of Bouchon in preparation for my most recent trip to Vegas.

The other foodie who traveled with my group of friends to Sin City (or nerd to the rest of the group) and I sat down in the charmingly themed French bistro and started with a Pate appetizer. Pretentious, sure, but we were at a Thomas Keller restaurant, and we had to go big or go home. Keller is famous for his Steak Frites, and while "steak and fries" may seem a bit pedestrian for a gourmet restaurant with a menu curated by a celebrity chef, I can assure you there was nothing pedestrian about this mind-blowing dish. The pan-seared flat-iron Steak is served with caramelized shallots, but I think the real secret to the flavor explosion in the tender bites of prime meat is simple; an excessive use of deliciously sinful maître d'hôtel butter (make note that this is not a criticism by any means). The accompanying fries were another story entirely; with a taste akin to a gourmet take on McDonald's style fries (once again, this is anything but a criticism), I was shocked with each bite at how amazing they were; it's bold but I'm pretty comfortable declaring them the best fries I've ever eaten (and I really like french fries, you guys).

Obviously, you can't do a true foodie dinner without good wine, but ordering a good bottle can be hard to swing for an inconsistently employed freelancer like myself... so the fact that Bouchon offered great wines in carafes was a money saving miracle. We ordered an excellent Tempranillo that paired perfectly with the meat and fried potatoes to put us in a food coma.

But not enough of a food coma to discourage us from ordering dessert (because are you crazy? We may have been full but we fought through it, obviously. We were eating at a Thomas Keller restaurant, after all, so dessert was a forgone conclusion/ bad decision from the beginning). We enjoyed/ regretted the delectable cream puffs in equal measure, marveling at and feeling sick while contemplating the vanilla ice cream stuffed into them and warm chocolate sauce drizzled on top. Paired with an espresso, the dessert may have revealed the meaning of life to me; and the meaning of life is that we're all struggling day to day so we can earn the right to eat food cooked by Tom Keller.