‘Dining around’. It’s a bit like sleeping around really: not a a lot of honour in it, makes the participant feel somewhat guilty after the event, but is deliciously fun at the time. A different course at a different restaurant – I’d never ‘dined around’ before Las Vegas. But if there is one place on earth you’re likely to get gastronomically promiscuous, this is it. All those hotels – most within walking distance, each revealing a myriad of foodie haunts.
But our brief encounters all started (and ended) in the MGM Grand hotel. It’s home to a lot of restaurants – including Joel Robuchon’s three Michelin starred one, though we didn’t venture there (no doubt it already gets enough coverage, and there are other places in the Grand that deserve shouting about). We kicked off with palate-teasing morsels of sashimi at swish Japanese restaurant Shibuya.
In between mouthfulls of the yellowtail sashimi with wasabi greens, soft shell crab tempura and tuna sashimi with truffled soy and rocket, we were treated to a throrough education in, and tasting of sake by the restaurant’s sake sommelier. Shibuya has an extensive sake list of over 70 varieties, and the sommelier talked us through three of his favourites (Nanbu Bijin; Mizbasho and Wakatake) – insisting that the hot sake we’re accustomed to from local Japanese restaurants is a slur on the nuance and delicacy of the rice-derived alcohol. We were tasting ginjo sakes – the drink’s equivalent to AOC wines.
Never much of a sake drinker in the past, I was astounded by the complexities of the drink – the fact that, like wine, it is affected by terroir (the water quality of where the rice grows can affect the taste) and its mind-boggling production process. Here’s my bungled attempt at a summary of its creation: specially grown sake rice is milled down to different grades (or seimaibuai) to get to the starch in the middle, which is then converted into alcohol using an enzyme/funghi called koji. There is also yeast, sugar, and lots of water involved, and generally speaking, the more the rice is milled, or the higher the seimaibuai, the better, cleaner and more fragrant the sake.
Swilling the three different sakes around my mouth, I developed an appreciation I hadn’t previously thought possible for the drink – with some of them revealing themselves to hold notes of green grass, citrus and dryness, while others were fruitier and somehow almost remnant of very good sherry.
Our next stop was refined Mexican restaurant Diego, where tequila was to be our poison, accompanying some lip-smacking south American fare. Diego has one of the largest collections of tequila in north America, and we sampled three alongside some spicy potato soup with chilli. The first was a Casa Noble Crystal from a boutique producer, which had had little-to no barrel ageing and a double distillation – the clear drink was powerful and lit up on the palate with a serious kick. Next was Herradura Reposado, which is the oldest rested Reposado in existence, and has taken on some oakiness, spice and colour from the barrel. But my favourite was the distinctly caramel Gran Centenario Anejo, which had hints of vanilla and was an extremely warming tipple.
There’s nothing quite like that ‘tequila burn’ to perk you up, and our party was becoming increasingly more animated as we listened to MGM’s alcohol director tell us about the artistic production of the spirit and how is made with the agave plant – which is not, despite popular misconception, a cactus – using traditional methods.
And then, our bellies and cockles warmed by the enlivening offer at Diego, we waddled our way to CraftSteak – where oysters, kobe beef and a Scotch tasting lay in wait. Kicking off with oysters to start with, we were advised to pour our Higland Park 18 Year Scotch onto the oyster – the theory being that the alcohol, which is aged in open warehouses on the edge of the Scottish coast, and aerated by the sea breeze, would compliment it. Normally I’m a shallot vinegar or au naturale kind of girl, but I like to think I’ll try anything once, so I sloshed a bit of the Scotch onto my little mollusc and slurped it down. Kapow! What a hit of cool sea, salt, and warming Scotch all at once! It was very lovely indeed, the meaty, minerally oyster blending well with the subtle sweetness and warmth of the drink.
Now, I know that the above picture isn’t probably the most appetising piece of food photography you’ve ever seen – but please believe me when I say this kobe beef was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Marbled to perfection and melting in the mouth, it’s buttery texture was a sheer delight, and deliciously offset by the nutty, salty Brussel sprouts that came with it – braised lovingly in veal jus and served with bits of bacon. Cries of “I don’t usually like sprouts but these are amazing” circulated, as they always do when people try properly cooked sprouts. Our waiter also served up some golden potato puree that he described as “about 50% potato, 50% cream and butter”.
After also sampling a Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year Scotch, which was a smooth single malt – we moved on to our final Scotch, the Ardbeg Uigeadail, non-chill filtered. Ouch. This was the blue cheese of Scotch! A very pungent number that our guide remarked had “peart reek” – an aroma derived from the natural fuel peat that grows near the drink’s production.
After that final Scotch a few of us were a bit worse for wear. But we soldiered on – selflessly dragging our gouty carcusses to Fiamma trattoria and bar for dessert. Or make that five. Here, amid vanilla bean panacotta with figs, goat cheese and chocolate cake, little sweet doughballs and molten chocolate sauces, we sampled three Bourbons and a Bourbon cherry cocktail.
Among those that we sampled was the George T Stagg Uncut and Unfiltered Bourbon. This was not for the faint hearted – an incredibly high proof Bourbon, it was the strongest drink I think I’ve ever tasted – and actually prompted a squeal. “This will get the rust off your bumper” – our miraculously erudite guide succinctly put it.
We may have been the wrong side of sober by this point, but I feel that we learned a huge amount about the drink – which takes much of its colour and flavour from the newly-charred American white oak barrels it’s aged in, and by law can only have demineralised water added to it during its production. We also sampled some delicious food along the way, and got a feel for some vastly different cuisines all in the course of the same meal. I guess in some respects, it was sort of like a very posh, very sophisticated version of the heterogeneous buffets that Las Vegas was once famed for…