viva las vegas

Also titled: What I learned About Myself in Vegas. And What I learned About Vegas in Vegas.

Subtitled: Don’t Eat at Sketchy Buffets

>>First: I am a diva.

While I grew up with a family that tent camped and pop-up camped our way around the country, I found that my heart is really in the penthouse, luxury suites or other similarly outfitted high-end hotel rooms.

I had an inkling about my diva ways on a few previous trips with Frank.

***Trip One: The Econo-Lodge somewhere between Chicago and Atlanta.

Scene: Hotel room had been freshened up with a coat of paint. This same coat of paint was applied without consideration to everything in the room: door frames, moldings, walls, vanities and ceiling, making the experience of being in the room akin to being a stick figure drawn on a piece of paper.  The bedspread was from circa 1974 and, likely, that was also the last time it was washed.  I pointed to something on the floor that looked like a blood stain and decided that I didn’t want to ask “Is that a blood stain?” out loud.  Sometimes, you just don’t want to know the answer.

Experience: Horrific.  Even though Frank had stayed at some pretty nast-tay hotel rooms in his time with a regional airline, this one was pretty epic.  He dreamt the entire night of bugs coming out of his eyes, ears and mouth.  Yes, this one got to him.  Needless to say, we did not inquire about a continental breakfast as we ran out of the hotel bright and early in the morning.

Famous Last Words: “Babe, can you believe I got this room for only $35 a night?”  Yes, sweetheart, I can.

 

***Trip Two: A Hotel with a Guitar Shaped Pool in Nashville.

Scene: Similar to the Econo-Lodge, the mosaic of stains on the carpet and the very dated bedspread were not the welcome you would hope for anywhere. Especially disconcerting were the eight missing ceiling tiles over the shower, revealing the hotel’s plumbing and the sound of our neighbor brushing his teeth.  It’s like having someone else in your room… without having someone else in your room.

Experience: Thank goodness we only stayed there for one night.  I was barely able to zip my suitcase as I ran for the door in the morning.

Famous Last Words: “But babe, it has a guitar-shaped pool!”

It’s important to have those two hotel experiences as a backdrop for this trip.  My sweet, thrifty Bohemian husband loves himself a good deal.  So when he said he was booking a hotel for the trip to Las Vegas, I carefully asked, “So, uh, you didn’t get any… deals for the room, did you?”

Knowing the hotel experiences he’s put me through in the past, Frank enthusiastically said, “NO! No deals.”  I knew then that this would be a good trip.

When we walked into the hotel room at Vdara in City Center, I was not disappointed. A suite, this room had a full kitchen, a family room, a bedroom and a very large bathroom.  Frank, the connoisseur of mid-range hotel rooms was dually impressed and quite pleased with himself.

AH, Vdara!

AH, Vdara!

This refrigerator is bigger than our refrigerator at home!!

This refrigerator is bigger than our refrigerator at home!!

The view of the Bellagio Fountains at night from our room.

The view of the Bellagio Fountains at night from our room.

Daytime view of the fountains and the strip.

Daytime view of the fountains and the strip.

In addition to a gorgeous room, we had a gorgeous view of the Bellagio fountains, the new Ferris Wheel and the strip.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better!

>>Second: When Vegas is Good, it is SO GOOD.

Upon arriving at the hotel, marveling at its splendor and checking out the free cable, Frank announced that we had reservations at swanky Sage in the Aria Hotel.  I had read a few reviews of the restaurant online before we traveled and heard good things.  I was excited!

The ambiance of the restaurant is lovely. Intimate and private, we were seated at a table tucked in the corner of the restaurant.  And the lighting was great: my skin looked awesome. Boom.

The waiter took our drink order – a mocktail for me and the real deal for Frank – and hurried off to leave us with our menus. After much discussion and deliberation, we decided on creamy chestnut soup for starters.  Frank had the Braised Veal Cheeks and I ordered the Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin.  Because you know – bacon makes everything better. (full fall menu for Sage)

After we ordered, the most magical thing happened: a wonderful young man arrived at our table with a tray of bread.

“Tonight I have for you a bacon roll and a French baguette,” he said, showing us the still-warm bread in his tray. “May I suggest that you take one of each?” Yes, yes you can suggest that. And yes, I will take both pleaseandthankyou.

The warm rolls were served with whipped butter and sea salt. The bacon roll was the perfect ratio of buttery, fluffy bread and savory, salty bacon.  I should’ve asked for two of each.  I am pregnant, you know.

After eating the bacon roll, I was concerned that I couldn’t love the baguette nearly as much. But much like you always love your second child as much as your first, I couldn’t imagine my life without the baguette. The French would’ve been proud.

Then there was the spoon.

Our waiter brought out two soup bowls and nestled inside was a spoon containing the perfect bite of … something. I will never know fully what it was that I ate at that moment – except that the flavor explosions went on forever. Fresh, vibrant, colorful – it was as though I had never truly eaten before. There was also a unicorn in the restaurant and it was also magnificent.

After the spoon came the bowl of creamy chestnut soup. Featuring some sort of pork happiness, currants and mushrooms and topped with the most lusciously creamy soup, every bite was an adventure in and of itself.

I think Frank was also at this same dinner with me.  I can’t be too sure at this point.

Our main course came out with not as much fanfare as it deserved. Beautifully presented, the portions were very un-American. But the flavor? The flavor and texture was big and bold and very, very American. That bacon wrapped pork loin was likely the most delicious piece of meat I have ever eaten. Ever. Amen.

Frank claims that his veal cheeks were the most delicious and tender pieces of meat he’s ever enjoyed, but at this point in the dinner I’m still not sure he was there. I only had eyes for the pork.

When the waiter came back and inquired about whether we wanted dessert, we sheepishly said no. There was simply no way we possibly left room for dessert and we felt we would do the dessert a grave injustice if we attempted to eat more.

While we were waiting for the check, the waiter brought out two warm shot glasses with a hot white chocolate and peppermint drink. If you could drink happiness, that’s what it tasted like.

We left the restaurant content and sad. Content because of a fantastic meal. Sad because we knew that we were unlikely to find another meal in Vegas that would match Sage’s greatness that night. We just didn’t know how right we were.

>>Third: Not all Buffets are Created Equal

When Frank and I were first dating, we took in our fair share of buffets.  We enjoyed the Stadium Club buffet at the United Center, the Easter buffet at the McDonald’s Lodge, a birthday buffet for Frank’s mom at the Drake in Oak Brook.  These are all pretty classy buffets.

I sensed that my dear husband was not acquainted with anything other than the occasional Chinese Buffet and the lovely, fancy buffets that he enjoyed growing up.

Several times while we were dating, Frank mentioned wanting to go to Old Country Buffet (OCB).  I couldn’t understand – I had been to several similar buffets growing up and never really enjoyed them for anything more than their soft serve ice cream with sprinkles.  I’m a simple girl, really.

After hearing him talk about the magic that must be the OCB several times, I gave in and we went to an OCB.  Frank’s excitement was palpable as we walked up to the door – and I watched that excitement drain from his being as we checked into the restaurant and surveyed its offerings.

Fruit flies, overcooked chicken, fake mashed potatoes, limp looking vegetables… the scene was food devastation. Frank filled up a plate, refusing to acknowledge the food horrors in front of him.

He sat at the table and tenuously began eating the food on his plate.  He ate the nearly entire plate of lukewarm, tragic food – a noble skill that probably later saved him from giving me honest feedback on quite a few dishes I served to him during our courtship and early marriage (not to worry, I pretty much stopped cooking…). Then, he gave the buffet a sidelong glance, shook his head in the general direction of the food massacre, and said, “You know, this really isn’t as good as I hoped it would be.”

That sad disappointment still lingers on Frank’s face when we pass an OCB to this day. You can practically hear the strains of “What Might Have Been” faintly playing in the background as we cruise by.  “We can’t go back again… there’s no use giving in… and there’s no way to know, what might have been.” Godspeed, OCB. Godspeed.

I wasn’t thinking about OCB when we booked tickets to see Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s Casino.  Vegas buffets are legendary – I didn’t think you could go wrong.

Oh… But you can go wrong. So wrong.

Harrah’s Casino in Las Vegas more closely resembles several football fields of bad man cave poker tables gone wrong than a Las Vegas Casino.  The casino feels like swimming through stale beer and a haze of old cigar smoke.  It feels like time marched on and trampled the casino underfoot.

As we approached the buffet entrance, I was haunted by this nagging voice in my head that said, “EMILY! It’s the OCB! Don’t do it!”

I ignored that voice. The buffet was free. It was included with our show tickets.

“Free is good!” I reasoned with the voice. “FREE IS GOOD!”

As we presented our tickets to the cashier, I cheerfully inquired, “So what is your favorite thing at the buffet?” Her response, while also cheery, should’ve served as a warning, “Oh, I say just start with the dessert sweetie!”

I should’ve heeded her warning.

As we waited to be let into the buffet, the greeter handed Frank and I oversized utensils.  I realized they were going to take pictures of us with these utensils. It had the ominous feeling of a “before” photo in the making. I held the fork, he held the spoon.  For the first picture, we smiled.  For the second picture, the greeter encouraged us to pretend to hit each other with our utensils.

If that isn’t foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.

We walked the buffet, trying to figure out what looked delicious and determine our strategy for best navigating this buffet. I quickly found that nothing looked good.  After a few sad perusals, I was happy to see some Mexican food at one end, so I went over to sample that.  I figured, how can you mess up Mexican food?

You can.

After lifting the lids off of several pots, I decided to just have three corn tortillas, some cheese and a small smattering of a meat product.  I added mashed potatoes and some over-dried turkey to my plate and called that dinner.

As always, Frank returned from the buffet with a full plate. I nibbled the tortillas, dumping the questionable meat on the plate. I ate the mashed potatoes.  I couldn’t bring myself to approach the turkey.

I decided to take the cashier’s advice and hit up the dessert area, hoping for better results.  I had a small cupcake and cookie.

Meanwhile, Frank cleared most of his plate. “I mean, it’s not great,” he said, pushing his mostly empty plate away.

The punchline to this joke of a buffet?  Frank slept soundly while I sat on the floor of the bathroom in our hotel room puking. Frank 1. Emily -2.

>>Fourth: In Vegas Old is Old.

In sweet, quaint midwestern towns, old becomes quaint.  Grandmas in sweater sets and polyester pants are cute, even when they are stealing cookies at the buffet.  Grandpas wearing plaid pants and faded sport coats are sweet, even when they make strange remarks and wink at you.  I expected in Vegas that the older parts of the strip would be quaint in much the same way.  I hoped that it would feel like the ghosts of Sinatra or Bob Hope or other famous old dudes might still be hanging around, throwing dice at the Craps tables.  Alas, that was not the case.

In Vegas, Grandmas don cocktail dresses and Naturalizers and it’s not a good scene.

We went to the old school Tropicana Hotel to see the Laugh Factory. The first thing to know about casinos in Vegas is that they allow smoking.  The second thing to know is that the newer casinos have much more effective air filtration systems. The older hotels smell and feel like the inside of an old bowling shoe: smokey, musty with a faint hint of Lysol.

If the ghosts of Sinatra or Hope or anyone else were hanging around in old Vegas casinos, I was not about to find out. I am a diva, after all, and I preferred the shiny new Vdara/Aria/Mandarin to the old strip.

>>Fifth: Sometimes Smaller is Better

Before the debacle at Harrah’s, Frank and I went on a mission to find a place to have delicious cocktails and appetizers prior to dinner.  Frank was pretty insistent on getting over to the Mandarin Oriental.

And this is why:

The view of the strip from the Mandarin Oriental.

The view of the strip from the Mandarin Oriental.

We enjoyed this front-row view to the twinkly lights of Vegas from a plush couch while sipping our drinks (tea for me, a cocktail for Frank) and noshing on calamari.  It was truly a highlight for both of us.

***

I didn’t love Vegas before we left on our trip.  I’m not a Vegas girl.  When presented with an opportunity to go on a trip, I suggested Vegas because I knew they had wonderful restaurants, a few good shows and I was hopeful we would find a hotel with a decent bed. With twins and work and being pregnant, sleep is a precious commodity!

I still don’t love Vegas after our trip.  But I did love spending time with Frank, eating great food, seeing entertaining shows, and wandering through overpriced designer stores and marveling at $5,000 red high heeled shoes. At that price range, the stores are more like museums displaying fine art than actual retail establishments, as far as I am concerned.

I spoke to a few local Vegasians. I asked them what they liked about their town. Universally, they loved the food and entertainment. Our cab driver from Sweden raved about the seafood at the buffets. But they all cautioned about gambling in a way that suggested that they knew people personally who had fallen into the gambling black hole, never to return again.

When I asked if they had ever been to Chicago, most of them had not.  “It’s cold there.”

Oh, how you’re missing out.

“Las Vegas is the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs.”
– Tom Wolfe

It’s good to be home.

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