Friday, July 15, 2011

Las Vegas Trip #2 - Day 1

For the third consecutive year, unlike wise folks who visit hot climes when it's cold back home, I found myself traveling to the high desert of Las Vegas in the middle of summer. For the third consecutive year, it was wedding-related festivities drawing me there, this time lucky day nuptials (7-11, that is) for Mrs. Hackknife's beer aficionado cousin Rob and his lovely bride Mary. The wedding was a delightfully quirky affair, held on a Monday evening at a reception hall next to the airport, with a full selection of brews unavailable in the Chicago market (Alaskan Amber, anyone?), a Cinnabon tower in place of a traditional cake, and planes near-constantly landing on Runway 25L in the background during the ceremony. Of course, I never fail to utilize a trip to Vegas as an excuse for dining in as many of its fine restaurants as one can humanly hope to do in a short time, and this visit was no exception.

Upon our Saturday morning arrival, Mrs. Hackknife, her mother, and I began our foodie adventures in earnest with a lunchtime visit to Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay casino. I had planned on eating here on my last trip, but was thwarted by flight delays, so now I found myself very excited to be sampling the upscale Mexican fare of Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, both of whom we'd watched recently on Top Chef Masters. We were famished (airline food doesn't cut it, you know) and immediately dug into the house tortilla chips (awesomely good) and salsas, the green version of which I wanted to jar and take home. This was followed by about the best queso fundido (melted cheeses, onion, chorizo, and roasted peppers) I've ever had, washed down with a nice Blanco Margarita (tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar). As usually happens with Mexican food, the belly is groaning before the entrees arrive, but I somehow managed to (happily) force down a wonderful plate of Yucatan pork tacos (slow roasted pork, guacamole, and spicy pickled onions, served with rice and black beans - see Photo #1 above), plus a potent mojito, while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her ceviche duo (Hawaiian fish and shrimp/halibut).

Busting at the seams and feeling a little woozy from the alcohol (here we go again, it's last year all over), I wandered off on walkabout while the ladies stayed behind to play slot machines. My ultimate destination was my favorite gelateria, Jean-Phillipe in the Bellagio, a very long walk/tram ride through multiple casinos to help shield me from the searing 100-degree heat. The jaunt helped improve my condition (as did a brief chance encounter with Pete Rose, Charlie Hustle himself, looking lonely at an autograph signing table in the Mandalay Bay mall) and it turned out that it was a good decision to travel mostly indoors, but not for the reason you might think (a rare cloudburst dumped about half an inch of rain on the Strip while I snacked on sublime coconut sorbet, watching the sunbathers scatter from my dry perch). The frozen treat helped me clear out just enough headspace to have a sensible dinner with my travel companions at Verandah, the Italian restaurant inside the Four Seasons, a calm, welcoming oasis far away from the chaos and bustle of the gaming floors. The ladies and I split a plate of beefsteak tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and pesto sauce before moving on to the main dishes. I greatly enjoyed my branzino (striped sea bass) with a citrus crust and fennel sauce, served with a side plate of very tender asparagus (wish we could do that at the Commissary) and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mrs. Hackknife's entree came in a sealed Mason jar, homemade pasta with various pieces of seafood mixed in.

One item to note here - our sensible dinner was necessitated not only because we were full from earlier, but I had already warned Mrs. Hackknife that we had a surprise coming up later that would require something of an empty stomach. Around 11:30pm, just about the time that our bodies were telling us that it was sleepytime (jet lag), I got us in a cab and we traveled about 10 minutes away to a strip mall in the Las Vegas Chinatown (at least what passes for Chinatown here) for a very unique dining experience. Abriya Raku Grill (means "charcoal grill house enjoyment" in Japanese) is about as authentic of a Japanese restaurant as exists in this country, the virtues of which were recently extolled in a tweet by Mario Batali, who branded it as the best food in all of Vegas (I went back later to find this tweet as it was the clue that initially led me to this discovery - strangely enough, it was gone. Could I have imagined the whole thing?). The place is small (about 10 tables), is filled with chefs from other restaurants whose shifts have ended for the evening (traditionally, a sign of good eats), and has simply wonderful Japanese cuisine, unmatched in Chicago or even New York. Our server brought out menus and the specials board, from which we ordered a barrage of tasty items as mostly recommended by other foodies on Yelp. This consisted of a large square of homemade cold tofu served with bonito flakes and green onions, amazing bluefin tuna sushi (see Photo #2 above), and bites cooked on a traditional robata (charcoal) grill using wood imported from Japan: pork belly, pork cheeks, salmon belly, and a foie gras lobe, all crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Mrs. Hackknife declared that she hadn't had Japanese food this good outside of Japan before and I was very pleased that she felt our late-night detour was worth the trouble of some lost sleep and extra calories....

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