The past couple of weeks have taken me far east to the South Jersey/Philadelphia area and not-so-far south to Las Vegas—from killer hoagies and Philly cheesesteaks to celebrity chef eateries and budget-busting dinners in Sin City. Here are some culinary snapshots.
Dirty socks and a slice: In Cherry Hill, N.J., I came across a brilliant dining concept: At Montecino’s, you can take care of your dirty laundry while enjoying a pizza and a pitcher of brew. Montecino’s is a combination pizzeria and laundromat, so if you slosh pizza grease onto your brand new Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt there’s no worry. Just toss it into one of the big front loaders and kick back for a spin cycle or two with a deluxe combo pizza and a pitcher of Yingling lager.
Do as I say, not as I do: Speaking of Yingling, here’s something I strongly recommend not doing. Although you’ve arrived at Philadelphia International Airport the recommended two hours before your flight in preparation to be anal-cavity searched, resist the temptation to down three Yingling lagers at Jack Duggan’s Pub in the airport terminal prior to the four-plus-hour flight back home. That Yingling makes its way through the system pretty rapidly, and it can be excruciating waiting for the pilot to turn of the “fasten seat belt” sign during a lengthy climb to 37,000 feet in bad weather in order to make your way to the plane’s commode. Do as the pilots do, and just say “no” to pre-flight lagers.
Seeing red at Rouge: Oddly, at the hip and trendy restaurant Rouge 98 on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, the only thing rouge about Neil Stein’s (owner of Philly’s celebrated Striped Bass) restaurant is the red you’ll be seeing when you eyeball the ridiculous prices for very so-so food. The restaurant itself is mostly tan colored.
Kids seeing green: What is it about green stuff that so predictably turns kids off? My 4-year-old son justifiably loves the wood-fired Margherita pizza at Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizzeria in Marlton, N.J. After, that is, we pick off all the fragrant fresh basil, which he calls “salad.” Here’s a cool idea from Bertucci’s: Give kids a ball of pizza dough and a handful of crayons to play with at the table, and they’ll keep themselves busy for hours.
Wine wonders: Las Vegas dining is nothing if not over the top. So why should Sin City’s wine cellars be any exception? At Alize in the Palm Hotel, the restaurant’s glass-enclosed wine cellar prominently sits smack dab in the middle of the dining room, while Aureole’s four-story wine tower at Mandalay Bay (see this week’s Grapevine column) requires a flying wine “fairy” to retrieve bottles while dangling in the air from a harness attached to a rope and pulley system. Not to be outdone, Aqua Knox restaurant at The Venetian features a waterfall-encased wine wall. But maybe the coolest new Vegas hangout for wine lovers is a retail store and wine bar at Mandalay Place called 55 Degrees. It features a terrific Champagne selection, and you can sample many of its wines by the glass before you purchase a bottle, which is packed on the spot in an inflatable plastic carrying “case” to prevent breakage.
Leave my wine alone! Look, I appreciate attentive restaurant servers. But I really wish you’d all stopping messing with my wine! At both Alize and Nobu in Las Vegas, I nearly had to break the wrists of my servers to keep them from filling up my wine glass. I’d take a sip, and they’d replenish the glass. My companion doesn’t sip quite as fast, but the servers kept filling her glass up anyway. Look, sloshing wine into my glass every two-and-a-half minutes makes me feel like I’m getting the bum’s rush. And besides, I want to be able to swirl and smell my wine so stop filling my glass to the brim!
Three-Star food and no-star service: At Alize restaurant in Las Vegas, the food is as remarkable as in any 3-Star Michelin restaurant I’ve visited in Europe. Ditto for the exquisite views of the Las Vegas night at this restaurant perched atop the Palms Hotel. Unfortunately, chef AndrÃ© Rochat’s 3-Star cuisine is accompanied by no-star service. Dressing waiters in black ties doesn’t necessarily mean the service will be any better than at Applebee’s. For example, after head sommelier Claudio stopped by our table to introduce himself, he never returned. He spent most of the evening at a table adjacent to ours, tending to the needs of a table full of giggly bachelorette party gals. With food and ambiance as sublime as Alize’s—and high prices to match—such inferior service shouldn’t be tolerated. Are you listening, AndrÃ©?
Exceptional grill and girl: On the other hand, I enjoyed a wonderfully simple grilled skirt steak marinated in cumin, lime, and cilantro at Las Vegas’ Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, with friendly, helpful service to match the excellent meal. (It’s also a bargain steak at $18 vs. the $175 Kobe beef dish at the gorgeous but pricey new Bradley Ogden restaurant at Caesar’s.) The server’s name was Claudia by the way. Over at Todd English’s Olives restaurant in The Bellagio, the service is always impeccable, as is the straightforward and sublime food. A plate of bucatini pasta with baby spinach, Little Neck clams and grape tomatoes was exquisite, as was a hefty portion beef carpaccio appetizer with Roquefort cheese polenta.
Next week: It’s back to dining in Zion with Crescent City Beignets. Is their New Orleans-influenced menu worthy of the Crescent City moniker? Stay tuned.