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Take the gamble out of
dining in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — The Globe and Mail
July 2012

Dozens of the world's top chefs have restaurants in Sin City. We ask 10 to dish on their favourite bites.

The Toque: Gordon Ramsay

The Restaurant: Newly launched Gordon Ramsay Steak, in the Paris Las Vegas.

Best Dish: "We're bringing Beef Wellington to the Strip!" His 20-day dry-cured beef tenderloin is brushed with dijon, topped with a rich mushroom duxelle, and wrapped in an herbed crepe before being encased in buttery puff pastry and baked golden. The pastry shatters under your fork while the beef remains as soft and rosy as a cherub's cheeks.

Bonus Round: Mr. Ramsay says he enjoys the precise tasting menus at his mentor's restaurant, Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace.

The Toque: Susan Feniger

The restaurant: Border Grill at Mandalay Bay

Best Dish: Peruvian Ceviche with Ajui Amarilo Chile. "We make it with sustainable fish according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium [Seafood Watch program]," she explains. "It's a little bit spicy, but not too spicy, with ginger and lime and cilantro and extra virgin olive oil. Fabulous!" It was prepared with Hawaiian Ono the evening I had it, and the fresh fish with its nice pepper sting, the smooth avocado and the crunch of plantain chips was as successful a Vegas act as I've seen.

Bonus Round: Burgers at Hubert Keller's Burger Bar. Ms. Feniger says: "I love them all!"

The Toque: José Andrés

The restaurant: China Poblano in the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

Best Dish: Salt Air Margarita. "It's the most-sold margarita in the history of mankind," the chef deadpans, though at his Washington restaurant the lineup for this drink is out the door. And rightly so: The icy fresh lime and tequila mix topped with a salt-air foam tastes like drinking a perfectly balanced margarita while splashing around in the Caribbean.

Bonus Round: He likes the "astonishing" fresh fish at Canadian success story, Estiatorio Milos, another restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

The Toque: Nobu Matsuhisa

The restaurant: Nobu at Caesars Palace

Best Dish:Sea Bass with Miso Sauce. "I am very proud of this dish," says the chef. "It's about the pureness of flavour." It's already available at his restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel Vegas, and will be featured in his soon-to-open Nobu Caesars. The miso-sauced fish with its peppery char and silky mushrooms tastes like the future of food.

Bonus Round:When not visiting his 29 other global restaurants, Mr. Matsuhisa enjoys the Spanish tapas at Julian Serrano's at the Aria. (And Mr. Matsuhisa makes this promise about Nobu, his first-ever boutique hotel opening in Vegas in the fall: "The beds will be so comfortable you'll be able to sleep 10 hours.")

The Toque: Michel Richard

The restaurant: Central in Caesars Palace

Best Dish:Fried Chicken with Mashed Potato. "It's the best chicken you will ever eat," proclaims Mr. Richard, as he kisses my hand. It's fried chicken as imagined by a French chef. The chicken is coated in forcemeat (seasoned fatty ground chicken) before being cooked sous-vide, then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried in clarified butter for a mahogany-hued finish. Meanwhile, the mashed potatoes, a 40/60 blend of butter and Yukon Golds, are life affirming.

Bonus Round: Chef Richard likes the chocolate soufflé at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio. "I should like it," he winks, "I gave him the recipe!"The Toque: Scott Conant

The restaurant: Scarpetta at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

Best Dish: Polenta with Fricassee of Truffled Mushrooms. "There's a lot going on in that dish, and it keeps drawing you in for another spoonful," Mr. Conant says. It's warm and lusty and the deep mushroom flavour is a killer in a combo with the super-creamy polenta. Tip: You can eat this same delectable dish at Scarpetta in Toronto.

Bonus Round: He loves the Australian Wagyu Sirloin at Old Homestead Steakhouse in Caesars Palace: "Best steak I've had in the U.S."

The Toque: Guy Savoy

The restaurant: Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace

Best Dish: Artichoke Soup with Black Truffle. The Michelin-starred chef didn't miss a beat before giving this soup top billing. Along with the accompanying toasted mushroom brioche with truffle butter, the ultra smooth soup boasts a true truffle punch that lingers on the tongue – and in the memory. Should you choose to spend $68 on a bowl of soup in Vegas, make it this one.

Bonus Round: Mr. Savoy likes the burgers at Hubert Keller's Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay.

The Toque: Bradley Ogden

The restaurant: Bradley Ogden Caesars Palace

Best Dish: Twice-baked Maytag Cheese Soufflé. "We haven't been able to take it off the menu in 10 years," says the chef, though he does change up the accompanying seasonal garnish. I tried it with a sweet and sour strawberry compote; a beautiful match with the pungent cheese.

Bonus Round: He enjoys Francois Payard's "perfect desserts" at Payard Patisserie & Bistro in Caesars Palace.

The Toque: Todd English

The restaurant: Olives at the Bellagio

Best Dish: Beef Carpaccio. "It's a meal, it's something to share, it's just great," he says, his already huge smile becoming downright massive. A hot, crispy brick of fried gorgonzola polenta is hidden beneath a mound of arugula encased by whisper-thin slices of raw beef, dotted with roasted cippolini onions, shavings of Parmesan, and lashings of three different sauces, including a balsamic reduction, scallion cream and garlic aioli. It's hot and cold, sweet and sour, and crunchy too: a show-off of a salad.

Bonus Round: Michael Mina's Lobster Pot Pie. "I think he does a great job with lobster, and that's saying something because I'm from New England."

The Toque: Hubert Keller

The restaurant: Fleur, and chef-favourite Burger Bar, both in Mandalay Bay.

Best Dish: Kushi Oysters with Margarita Sorbet and Orange Caviar. "It's a pretty amazing appetizer," Mr. Keller says. The plump oysters are served atop a mini aquarium filled with colourful glass stones, LED lights and fog-producing dry ice. While encapsulating the essence of Vegas, it also happens to be completely tasty with the briny oysters, cool sorbet and molecular fresh orange "caviar" shining through the smoke and mirrors.

Bonus Round: Not wanting to showcase one chef over another, Mr. Keller agonized over the options before declining to answer.

Amy Rosen visited as a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority.

Special to The Globe and Mail


10 good $15 bottles of wine
that are easy to find

It’s the most common wine question: What’s a crowd-pleasing, affordable, standby bottle? Here are 10 answers for summer

Beppi Crosariol - Toronto Globe & Mail

Hundreds of thousands of wines get released each year around the world. Some are fresh vintages of existing brands, some entirely new. They’re based on one or more of an estimated 5,000 grape varieties, each with its distinctive flavour. Yet for many people, the wine hunt comes down to this: What’s a good, moderately priced bottle I can find at the local liquor store day in and day out?

I get the question from friends and family almost weekly. Who needs to bother reading a twice-weekly column when you can prevail upon a critic to cut to the chase?

It’s the bane of a wine critic’s existence, because the landscape changes all the time and most great wines are produced in frightfully limited quantities. I’m talking a few thousand or even few hundred cases each harvest. You’ve got to drive around town, in some cases all the way to the winery, to snap them up.

It’s that continually changing selection and, I dare say, scarcity that breathes oxygen into wine columns. If the mission of this space were to write only about good, perennially and widely available $15 brands, the job would be over in the time it takes you to twist the screw cap off a bottle of Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cab. There just aren’t that many.

Yet the question persists. So, here’s a fresh list I came up with off the top of my head recently for some friends who have been cornering me for a few reliable and relatively easy-to-find recommendations on the shelves now. It’s not definitive but it’s a list of good buys that were good enough to be memorable. Consider it a friends-and-family short list.

Given that we’ve entered the post-Victoria Day summer stretch, I’ve tailored the list for sun-soaked sipping: 10 crowd pleasers – five bold barbecue-worthy reds, four crisp whites and a dry rosé – that taste good in the great Canadian outdoors. Note that I’ve mentioned a few before in other contexts, typically in my recommendation-heavy Saturday column. But some are relatively new releases. Prices, unless otherwise indicated, refer to Ontario retail.

I’ve kept things diverse, stylistically speaking, because summer is about more than just big, chunky malbecs. Isn’t it?

Lurton Les Hauts de Janeil Syrah & Grenache 2008, France ($12.95). Bordeaux-based “flying winemaker” François Lurton, who crafts wines in several countries, has hit it out of the ballpark here with a great-value red. It hails from southern France’s Languedoc region, where vines such syrah and grenache thrive to yield deliciously herbal, gutsy reds. This is medium-bodied, with a core of ripe fruit enhanced by notes of licorice and spice. Great for grilled chicken or lamb.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Australia ($16.95). The Penfolds brand, best known for the $300 Grange red, is a benchmark for consistency and quality at this more modest price. Textbook cabernet flavours abound here, with notes of cassis, chocolate, cherry and vanilla, knitted together in a full-bodied, velvety smooth blanket. The finish is crisp and firm. Just as good, from the same value-priced line, is Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2008 ($16.95). Serve either with rare or medium-rare beef.

Two Hands The Lucky Country Shiraz 2008, Australia ($15.30). A mouthful of deep red flavour awaits you in this big-bodied effort blended from ripe Barossa Valley and crisper McLaren Vale fruit. It’s lusty and silky, with generous black-fruit essence, licorice, spice, cigar box and a nostalgic (at least for me) note of black wine gum. Great for grilled meats brushed with sweet barbecue sauce.

Alamos Malbec 2008, Argentina ($13.95; $14.99 in B.C.). From the distinguished producer Catena, this entry-level red is remarkably smooth, with notes of blackberry and black currant balanced by black pepper. A smidgeon of rich cabernet sauvignon and crisp bonarda were added to this blend for texture and balance. It’s ideal for burgers and medium-to-well-done beef.

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2009, South Africa ($14.95). A perennial darling of wine critics, this robust, full-bodied red comes from one of South Africa’s best and most unpronounceable producers, Boekenhoutskloof (booken-HOOTS-kloof). Luscious and creamy, it shows concentrated dark-fruit flavour underpinned by espresso coffee, grilled meat and that classic Cape smokiness, lifted by firm acidity. Serve it with grilled beef, lamb or game, such as venison.

Argento Malbec Rosé 2009, Argentina ($9.95). Too many rosés today are flaccid with sugar. This one’s crisp and lively while delivering a solid, concentrated cherry-apple fruit. Perfect for solo sipping or with appetizers, such as prosciutto-draped bruschetta, the Italian toasted-bread slices brushed with olive oil and raw garlic.

Grand Gaillard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, France ($12.95). If you like crisp sauvignon blanc, keep in mind that most white Bordeaux is made partly or entirely from the grape. But there are also tremendous values today in white Bordeaux, and this is one. Round and silky yet light and crisp, it offers notes of lemon and herbs – perfect for asparagus and goat-cheese-adorned salads and for solo sipping.

Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2008, Austria ($12.95). If you can get past the kitschy name, presumably designed to assist non-Germans with the pronunciation of the gruner veltliner grape, you may be impressed with the balance of this versatile white from Weingut Meinhard Forstreiter. Light, with a tart-juicy essence, it boasts a silky core and notes of lemon, herbs and slate. A fine choice for salads, even where piquant Dijon mustard figures into the dressing.

Bodega J&F Lurton Pinot Gris 2008, Argentina ($10.95; $13.99 in B.C.). While the rest of the world guzzles big-brand, often anemic pinot grigios from Italy, you can be savouring this relatively flavour-packed South American beauty, based on the same grape. Light medium-bodied and clean, it’s a good match for grilled fish or chicken.

René Barbier Classic White, Spain ($9.95). Light and lively, this white shows remarkable nuance for the money, with notes of crisp apple, banana and citrus. Perfect for grilled shellfish or for sipping by itself on a warm day or evening.


Fine dining alive and
well in Toronto

By Corey Mintz Toronto Star Columnist
April 5, 2010

Yes, the current global recession has swept through Toronto’s restaurant scene like a brushfire. Food empires have crashed. Chef’s fortunes have crumbled. Some culinary temples of grandeur, such as Splendido, have downsized, scaling back the glitz. Others, like Truffles, have been laid to rest. Even Susur Lee, poster boy for kitchen pageantry, has started serving lunch at his restaurant Lee. He’s even put a hamburger on the menu, the culinary white flag.

But for those with anniversaries to celebrate or CEO titles to validate, there is still luxury to be had in some corners of Toronto’s dining scene.

There has always been somewhere in this town to drop a c-note on a piece of beef. The steakhouse style of dining that once dominated Toronto is still alive in rooms such as Harbour Sixty Steakhouse, Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse and the 51-years-young Barberian’s. At Jacobs, you could spend $190 on a six-ounce portion of wagyu beef from Australia.

For the kids at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum — those who would claim bragging rights to exclusivity over spending — there is the emergence of the underground supper club. Invitations to multi-course meals at Charlie’s Burgers are obtained through subjugation to, and approval from, the anonymous, eponymous host. Those bohemian dinners, held at secret locations, routinely run over $150.

When Bay-streeters who frequent Canoe’s bar need to celebrate a big commission, a $21 lobster sandwich may as well be a hot dog at the Rogers Centre.

Canoe offers a raw seafood platter for $72. The current plate contains such exotica as Queen Charlotte coho belly tartare, sablefish brandade, scallop boudin with fiddles, oysters (such as Beach Angels or Caraquet), B.C. albacore tuna, Qualicum beach scallops, and lobster Waldorf.

“The presentation,” says executive chef Anthony Walsh of the custom-made serving plate indented with the imprints of shellfish, “gives an air of uniqueness, fantasy, as well as the appropriate dose of the high-end, knock out offerings Mother Nature has to offer.”

At Scaramouche, chef/owner Keith Froggett says that clients will occasionally bring in their own fish for him to cook. Last summer, he got his hands on line-caught sturgeon from the St. John River in New Brunswick. The fish were being caught for their eggs. The 85-pound sturgeon was a byproduct. Froggett smoked and grilled the fillets, serving it with some of its own caviar.

Though he reminds that, “Last year probably wasn’t the best year to reference that kind of thing.”

He says that luxury is in the eye of the beholder, as does Yannick Bigourdan, who does not see his restaurant, Nota Bene, as luxurious. While mains at Nota Bene average about $25, that’s practically pub fare compared to when Bigourdan ran Splendido.

On the fifth floor of the ROM, C5 Restaurant Lounge juggles the interests of high-rollers with casual museum guests. There is a kids menu with fish & chips and mac & cheese. But there is also lobster carbonara with tobiko. Asked by the museum to create an egg dish to tie in with May’s dinosaur egg exhibit, chef de cuisine Luigi Encarnacion took the tradition of pasta with egg yolks and bacon to another level. To the house-made tagliatelle and boar bacon, he’s added lobster and tobiko (flying fish roe), finishing the plate with a garnish of egg yolk that’s been cured with black truffle.

The views from Canoe, Scaramouche and C5 are a primary part of the lavish dining experience.

Canoe looks down on the city from the 54th floor of the TD Centre on Wellington St. W. and diners can watch the little planes landing below at Billy Bishop Airport. From the fifth floor of the ROM, C5 looks out across the old brick, spires and well-kept fields of the University of Toronto campus.

The view from Scaramouche presents something more unique. It’s halfway up the steep hill on Avenue Rd., south of St. Clair Ave. W., which frustrates cyclists so much. But no one cycles to Scaramouche. From the perch on the hill, the dining room’s windows look out across the Toronto. A small barrier of trees acts as a buffer, as if Scaramouche were a castle and the trees a moat. In the quiet tinkle of the room, Toronto’s houses and offices seem like a sea of ships, slowly approaching the citadel, before melting away into the horizon with the setting sun.

There’s no view at Hashimoto. The dark green room with three tables, six seats and no windows, shares its entrance with a preschool. The sign at the front, distinguishing it from the adjacent Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, looks to be written on a piece of plywood, in the style usually reserved for the “turn here” signs that cottage owners use to direct you to hidden, nameless roads.

But at $300 for a nine-course meal, Hashimoto is the most expensive dinner in the city.

Kaiseki cuisine, as much as bunraku theatre, is an art form little practiced outside of Japan. It is about using the produce, fish and meat of the season, reshaping it to create something beautiful, intricate and fleeting. “My father shows his heart through the ingredients,” says assistant manager Kei Hashimoto of his chef father Masaki.

Masaki Hashimoto imports nearly everything from his home country. It’s not to flaunt affluence, but to present the spirit of Japan, in season. For him, there is an incomparable taste to wild porgie, caught during cherry blossom season, that won’t be found in the fish three months later.

The kaiseki experience may be pricy. But less so than a flight to Japan.

The perception of luxurious restaurants is often that they are playgrounds for the rich. That may be true. But they are also the employers of working class artists, passionate people for whom no expense, or amount of effort, is too much, to create something special for their guests.

And luxury itself is not just in the eye of the beholder, but a fluctuating commodity.



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