« Las Vegas - Day III | Main | Las Vegas - Day V »

May 26, 2011

Las Vegas - Day IV

The Strip Dominic Armato

Here's where fatigue starts to set in a bit.

Not typical Vegas fatigue. We were in a hotel without a casino, so it was pretty mellow. I'm not a big drinker, a couple of short stints at the craps table fulfill my gambling desires for a Vegas trip, and we slept in as late as our bodies demanded. What I refer to is appetite fatigue. After three days of dining like this, salads start to look mighty fine. But it was a rare escape and a short trip, so I truly wanted to make the most of it while I could. With 24 hours remaining, it was time to power through.

We'd kick off day four with brunch at Bouchon which, though lacking for lunch options on the weekdays, offers a pretty decent menu on either side of noon on the weekends. Bouchon is, of course, Thomas Keller's lone addition to the Vegas pantheon of celebrity chef restaurants. I've hit the original in Yountville a couple of times, and was rather delighted on both occasions. It's pretty much straight-up bistro fare, treated with Keller's signature finesse, clinical bordering on pathological. I felt a little guilty using a meal on an outpost of a place I've visited twice rather than exploring some of the off-strip joints I'd noted, but what can I say? My ladylove and I dig good bistro.

I swooned when I saw an extensive selection of raw seafood items at the top of the menu, an opportunity to right the crushing disappointment of day two before me. Sadly, this elation would last for but a moment, when I noted that the seafood wasn't offered until 11:00, and it was only barely past ten. I briefly considered stalling, but concluded that even the densest and/or most understanding server on the planet wouldn't buy (or appreciate) the suggestion that I required 55 minutes to peruse the menu and decide.

Rillettes aux Deux SaumonsDominic Armato

This led me to the rillettes aux deux saumons, which wasn't chilled lobster and crab, raw oysters and clams, but it was cold seafood, and mighty fine cold seafood at that. Arriving in a crock with toasted bread, this is elegant flavor in a rustic package. Keller combines steamed salmon and diced cold-smoked salmon with a lot of butter and a few other seasonings, topping the resulting pate-like mixture with a layer of clarified butter that must be removed so that you can get to the fish. Our server performed the butter removal with unnecessary (but appreciated) surgical precision, but I asked him to save the butter for me because... you know... not enough butter in the crock already, right? At any rate, it was simple and delightful, the pure, creamy essence of salmon with just a touch of shallot and pernod, on simple toast. Great dish, and a simple recipe that says dinner party to me.

Croque MadameDominic Armato

I then righted a wrong from years before by ordering the croque madame. The first time we hit Bouchon, for dinner, I gently chided my ladylove for choosing a croque madame over the myriad options available to her. Then I tasted hers and was jealous. Well, on this day, the croque madame would be mine (and hers), and while I can't say it was quite as sharp as the one we sampled in Yountville, it more than satisfied. Simple ham and cheese in the middle, bread toasted to a beautiful, light crisp, topped with a fried egg with runny yolk and smothered in a creamy, rich mornay sauce, it's really a great example of how you don't have to get cute to knock one out of the park. I inhaled it. On day one, I would have inhaled the frites as well, but this being day four, I got about halfway through them before tapping out. In my defense, there might've been three large potatoes' worth on the plate.

After brunch, some Grade A hemming and hawing ensued. I'd originally planned for dinner at RM Seafood, but it was the only one of the four dinners that I wasn't full-bore excited about. I'd heard mixed things, and with so many other options, I had a hard time standing pat. I thought about Pierre Gagnaire's Twist, but I wasn't sure if we were prepared for another epic French feast, and I fretted over the fact that I hadn't brought a jacket. (What does "jacket requested" mean? Should I wear one or not?) I craved the kind of real Thai I knew I could get at Lotus of Siam, but my ladylove is chile-impaired, and I couldn't bring myself to do that to her. I still hadn't managed to kick the seafood cravings and briefly considered Bartolotta, but that was mostly hot rather than cold and would've made for Italian two nights in a row. Thankfully, our dining companions at brunch (some old friends who happened to be in town the same weekend), planted a seed that bore fruit. They'd had a great meal at Sage, and suggested we do the same. Glad they did.

Absinthe Dominic Armato

Though I took a look when making reservations for the trip, I kind of glossed over Sage as a known commodity. Shawn McClain is a Chicago chef, and while I haven't visited his newer ventures, Green Zebra and Custom House, I'd been to Spring a few times in the pre-blogging days and rather enjoyed it. McClain's thing is definitely American, despite some obviously French and Italian influences, and among other things he's known for some rather muscular takes on seafood (this was something of a hallmark at Spring). Sage is... not Spring. Not in terms of appearances, anyway. It's kind of the new Vegas goth, the haunted mansion meets the speakeasy, dark and purple and velvety with gold accents, highly ostentatious by any standards other than Vegas'... does anybody open a restaurant in Vegas with anything less than 25 foot ceilings anymore? I poke fun, but it's really not too bad by Vegas standards. Such is the state of Sin City, I suppose, and it isn't the least bit offensive, even if it is kind of funny. The tasting menu beckoned, but we'd punished ourselves enough for one trip and decided to order a la carte. Turned out it wasn't such a bad call.

Oysters with Tequila MignonetteDominic Armato

My seafood craving would not be denied, damnit! No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from the oysters, and boy, am I glad I didn't. Were they blue point oysters? I don't recall, but they were wonderful, plump and firm and sweet, fully-flavored with a pronounced but crisp salinity. More impressive, they stood up to some downright belligerent toppings. Dressed with a pungent aged tequila mignonette and a dollop of seriously spicy piquillo pepper and tabasco sorbet, these were bivalves with major punch. I'd read the menu. I was skeptical that the oysters wouldn't get totally lost. But man, I wanted that raw seafood and I'm glad my instincts were wrong. I loved these guys.

Lobster CasoncelliDominic Armato

Did I mention I have a weakness for pasta with lobster? Two nights in a row, I know. I got another winner, though. Sort of. Casoncelli (one of Italy's innumerable subtle regional variations on stuffed pasta) didn't really work as pasta. Between the lobster, mascarpone, glazed spring onions, spinach puree and, I suspect, a goodly amount of butter, it was way too busy for such a thin and delicate pasta, which was almost totally lost. The Pasta Prime Directive is that pasta is, first and foremost, about the pasta, not what's in it or on it or under it. But ignore the pasta framing and approach this dish as a non-denominational dumpling? Completely delicious. Make something this tasty, and you can break all the rules you want. I'll frame it however I have to. I don't know that I'm prepared to call it Italian, but it was really, really good.

Braised Veal Cheeks with PolentaDominic Armato

What is it that possesses me to choose something this rich on day four of a five day eating odyssey? I mean, again, I'm glad I did, but there's a certain level of culinary masochism going on here that, believe it or not, would only get worse before the night was out. These were tender, succulent, beautifully fatty braised veal cheeks, glistening with a thick glaze of dark veal stock. They sat with braised spring onions and mushrooms, a polenta so loose it might as well have been soup, and a crouton that had undergone some process that infused it with the flavor of bone marrow while leaving it lightly crisped. The black garlic was a smart choice too, adding that distinctive flavor, but in deep, caramel-flavored fashion. This is the kind of dish that's easy to make enjoyable with a moremoremore approach, and the veal cheeks were, indeed, truly decadent, but they were smart, too. It wasn't a wildly creative dish, but it was more subtly layered than it needed to be, and I really appreciated that. The only thing I didn't appreciate was that the bowl was metal, hotter than a branding iron, almost as deep as it was wide and I had no spoon. Getting at my dinner was like a game of Operation with second degree burns. And, damn you Shawn McClain, I'll gladly sear myself again if I have to.

48 Hour Beef BellyDominic Armato

Then, just when I thought dinner couldn't get any richer, my ladylove handed me her plate, half-finished. Good gravy, was this a killer dish, and I'm still not sure whether I'm more thankful that she left half of it for me, or was good enough to leave only half for me. The 48 hour beef belly wasn't even technically available a la carte, listed only as part of the signature menu, but at my ladylove's request the kitchen determined they had enough for the evening to plate a full serving for her. I don't believe I've ever had beef belly before, and I don't expect I'll have it any better than this. If you're looking for a mental analogue, think short rib meets pork belly, with the flavor of the former and the fat of the latter. The meat undergoes a two-step process, first smoked for 24 hours and then braised for another 24. The result is one of the most meltingly succulent pieces of beef I've ever tasted, playing a little like BBQ because of the smoke, but only a touch, glazed like a short rib and served with some bright accompaniments -- pickled spring onions and bell peppers -- to keep it from getting too sticky. Oh, and morels? Bonus. Talk about a dish you can get lost in. This one's going to stick with me for a while. (I think it's still stuck TO me.)

Warm Carrot CakeDominic Armato

If ever there was a night to skip dessert, this was it, but I love carrot cake too much to pass on it, especially when it had just received a ringing endorsement from a friend that morning. It was a warm, spiced version, sitting in a sweet but very light coconut sauce and filled with a lightly tart cream. Carrot cake isn't carrot cake without cream cheese frosting, and this didn't disappoint. Of course, I'm not sure how cream cheese frosting would work on a warm cake, so instead it was off to the side, a scoop of cream cheese ice cream atop toasted coconut and candied ginger, a textural and temperature contrast to the cake. There wasn't anything revolutionary here in terms of flavor. This was little more than a repackaging of a classic, but it was done in such a smart way that it felt like a new take while maintaining that old familiarity.

Absinthe PreparationDominic Armato

I was positively delighted to find that the dessert card also listed several selections of absinthe, which seems to be something of a signature offering of the house. I'd never had it served in classic fashion, but had always wanted to. I love anise-flavored liqueurs, and I'm a sucker for a little bit of ritual. Seemed a natural. I'd read about T.A. Breaux and was anxious to sample one of his creations, but alas, I was told they'd recently exhausted their stock. I selected Grande Absente, and once the ritual was done -- poured over a sugar cube, the sugar ignited, extinguished by a trickle of ice water that turned the clear green color to a pale milky sheen -- I was left with a light and pleasant enough drink that struck me as surprisingly one-dimensional. After poking around online for a bit, it appears I may have made a poor choice. Ah, well. Nothing was going to put a damper on a great meal, and now I'm just going to have to hunt down some of the better absinthes out there. Suggestions solicited!

Sage snuck up on me. I had this pegged going in as a meal that would be enjoyable, but I really didn't expect it to be at the level of the other three. Surprise! We went 4-for-4. These were big flavors, some traditional, some creative, all smartly conceived and deftly prepared. I'd go back in a second. And I really need to give Custom House a pass next time I'm in Chicago. (Apparently McClain hasn't been associated with Custom House for a while... thanks, Ed!)

Here's where I really should have thrown in the towel, but nooooooooo... one of my Baltimore friends and favorite enablers, 1000yregg of This Is Gonna Be Good, told me I really needed to stop by a newish late-night Korean joint called Soyo. Off-strip, open late... no website? Yeah, I'd better check that out.

"The Wheel of Soyo" Dominic Armato

After a break to digest and take one last crack at the craps table (a good run!), I hopped in the car and headed off to the awkwardly named Soyo Korean Barstaurant. Saturday night, 1:00 AM and the place was a zoo, every table filled inside, no fewer than a dozen people hanging around outside, neon buzzing, K-pop blaring... clearly, this is a happening spot. All the more impressive is that they've built this buzz exclusively via word-of-mouth. No ads, no website... I don't think they even run their Facebook page (I offer [poor] photos of the menu as a public service - 1, 2, 3, 4). But the Yelp reviews are approaching triple digits, and the secret is clearly out. Soyo is a scene, loud and busy and mostly populated by a young Korean crowd. The soju flows in multiple flavors, the sidewalk out front is crowded with smokers, and if you spend $75 on certain nights, you get a spin on the "Wheel of Soyo," which can win you rewards such as... well... I'm not sure. It's all in Korean. But free booze, food and discounts seems like a reasonable assumption. The good news is that coming alone means you can park at one of three bar seats, avoiding a wait. The bad news is that most of the food, "Korean Tapas" moniker notwithstanding, is more suited to sharing than nibbling. After consulting with the exceptionally friendly staff, I picked a few dishes that I thought were on the smaller side. I don't know a whole lot about Korean -- I'm desperate to learn more -- but what little I tasted was pretty darn good.

Fried Dumplings (Mandu)Dominic Armato

I hesitated to order the mandu. It's such a menu standard and it's usually so forgettable. But the fact that it's standard means it's one of the few benchmarks I could use, and I'd heard Soyo's were unusually good. To somebody who's probably never had first-class Korean, they were, indeed, unusually good. Nine out of ten times, I'm sure they're pulled out of a freezer bag. These were larger than those to which I'm accustomed, circular and three inches in diameter. The filling was unusually delicate, a mix of ground meat, cellophane noodles and scallions. They were pan-fried, lightly crisped in places while still chewy in others, sprinkled with a fairly hot dried chile powder, and served with a mellow vinegary dipping sauce. I dug 'em. They weren't paradigm-shifting, but they were certainly an improvement over any I'd tasted before.

Cold Buckwheat Noodle in Spicy SauceDominic Armato

Spicy cold noodles are tricky for me to get away from, and these were no exception. They're buckwheat noodles, so sticky you first need to go at them with kitchen shears to prevent the whole bowl from coming up together. They were tossed with slivered cucumbers and carrots, topped with thin slices of daikon radish and a soft-cooked egg, and completely drowned in a sauce that was the antithesis of subtle. It was fiery hot and extremely sweet, with a fermented bean flavor not entirely unlike that of, say, hoisin sauce. Those more educated in Korean food could, I'm sure, name the precise chile-bean sauce in an instant, but I'll simply call it really, really intense. A little too much for my tastes, though I still found the dish quite good. Half the portion would have been right for me even on a normal day, and that's as much as I ate.

Fried Chicken WingsDominic Armato

Another great shame is that I'd never had Korean fried chicken. Somehow, as we've crisscrossed the country over the past few years, we've always managed to move out a matter of weeks before a Korean chicken joint moved in. I feel like I'm leaving them in my wake. And since I feared the size of a regular order, I thought the wings might provide a decent approximation. They offer two flavors, spicy and garlic, and when I was asked which I'd prefer, I managed to cajole the staff into splitting them down the middle for me. I wouldn't do it again. I started to get the impression that it was a bigger imposition than they let on (did I mention they were super friendly?). But I'm glad I got to try both. The wings were quite crisp, with a thin breading that stayed crisp even when completely doused in sauce. The spicy wings followed a similar trajectory to the noodles -- rather hot, extremely sweet. I felt, once again, that it was just a little too much. A sauce this potent, applied this thickly felt like overkill. Half the amount and I think they would have been awesome. But I still enjoyed them. Better, I think, were the garlic wings, which had a lighter character, no matter what the two cloves of nearly raw garlic on top might have suggested. They were also quite sweet, and the garlic flavor, though strong, had a mellow rather than sharp character. I could have eaten a lot of these. On another night, I mean.

My stool was six feet from the kitchen door, and midway through I had to stifle a smile when a middle-aged Korean woman staggered out of the kitchen, pounded a Red Bull that she pulled from a cooler behind the bar in ten seconds flat, and made her way back to work. No matter how hip the house may be, one definitely gets the sense that the kitchen is guided by an experienced hand. There's so much on this menu I'd like to try, and I barely scratched the surface. I get the impression it's a good place to educate yourself, and it's a fun one to boot. Soyo's being touted as the new Raku, a late-night joint for food nerds serving authentic Asian cuisine with style. I'm not quite sure I'm willing to go that far. Raku is truly, truly exceptional. What little I tried at Soyo was good. But clearly there's something going on here, and I wish I'd been able to sample more of it. I'm very curious to hear what those who really know their Korean think of the place.

As I drove back to the hotel, I vowed never to eat again. I knew I didn't mean it, but it felt good to say it. This pseudo-vow lasted for all of eight hours. Typical.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

3355 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Fri7:00 AM - 10:30 AM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sat - Sun8:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

Soyo Korean Barstaurant
7775 S. Rainbow Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89139
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 3:00 AM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 4:00 AM
Sun12:00 PM - 2:00 AM


Thanks for the props Dom. You had an impressive amount of food this day.

just an fyi, shawn mcclain hasn't been associated with custom house for some time, and spring has closed. so I think he's down to just green zebra and sage.

Ah... I knew about Spring, but not Custom House. Thanks for the heads up, Ed!

I was in Vegas this week for a conference, and my dinner plans last night had fallen though, and we were all sick of eating on the strip, so yesterday afternoon (Thursday) I figured I'd call, solely based on your review, Soyo and see if they'd take a 7 person party at 7 PM same day - I was happily surprised that they did, and we had a fabulous meal.

I thought their small plates / tapas / appetizers were much more interesting than their main courses, so most of our group stuck in that direction. We spent a total of $30 per person, including tip and tax, didn't come close to finishing all of the food, and had a few bottles of their homemade soju. I was happy with just about every dish, and the price was great.

If you're back there, I recommend the kimchee pancake and beef short ribs especially.

Thanks for the great tip!

D'oh! I *almost* got the kimchee pancake :-)

Glad you enjoyed it. I'll definitely get back there next time I'm in town.

you should be a bigger drinker, it'd make the trip even better :P Especially those pancakes!

The comments to this entry are closed.