On a long-weekend trip that saw my wife and me ditch a Mandalay Bay room we paid for in favor of a comped room downtown at the Four Queens (where the odds are better and the crowds and table limits more manageable), New Vegas did win out in one category: dining.
First, the new: Commander's Palace. We've never been to the original, but I had heard great things about the Las Vegas version, and a peek at the Web site convinced me the menu was safe for Jacqueline, who is not an adventurous eater, so I made a reservation for the Sunday night of our Sunday-Tuesday trip.
The restaurant is not in the Aladdin proper, but rather in the Desert Passage mall. Just as well, probably, as I don't want our next visit to technically fall under the category of "eating at Planet Hollywood." The space is beautiful in an Understated French sort of way -- not quite Bouchon, but along the same lines. We had moved up our 8:30 reservation to 6:30, and so we weren't in a hurry when we arrived shortly after 6, and so we decided to have drinks at the (zinc!) bar.
Jacqueline and I are a tad on the neurotic side in our dealings with service personnel, especially bartenders, so keep that in mind as I tell you that neither of us actually ordered what we really wanted. Jacqueline was in the mood for a frou-frou drink, and as she hemmed and hawed I (slightly, just slightly, less neurotic) asked if there was a frou-frou-drink menu. There was not, and the hurricane is not in her repertoire, so Jacqueline defaulted to the old standby, the vodka tonic. She means a shot of vodka in a glass of tonic water when she says this -- and usually she speaks up and adds "tall glass" to make this clear -- but, especially after the long grilling about vodka brands, we had expended enough emotional energy at this point (I know, I know), and so she was presented with the drink that bartenders present when they think they're doing you a favor: a shot of tonic water in a glass of vodka. Meanwhile, I had expected Pernod to be among the options in a New Orleans-style establishment, but I didn't see the green bottle and so I asked the bartender whether he could make a sidecar. "Of course" was the answer, and the follow-up question ("Up?) left me somewhat reassured that i wouldn't be presented with a syrupy concoction of sour mix and Christian Brothers brandy on the rocks in a hurricane glass with an umbrella.
The drink was indeed reassuring, and wonderful. Jacqueline had a taste and concurred. She had spit out "Grey Goose" to stop the recitation of brands, and so her VODKAtonic wasn't as heinous as it might have been, but she was emboldened by my sidecar success and she asked whether the next drink could be a lemon drop. The lemon drop is often what she wants to order, but neither of us has had much of a sense of whether places that don't list them prominently on a frou-frou-drink menu can actually make them, or have even heard of them. The bartender snickered at the question and told us he makes many, many lemon drops in a typical night, as opposed to maybe a sidecar every two or three months. (Prediction: The sidecar is about to take off. You heard it here first, no matter what Faith Popcorn will claim later.)
The lemon drop was good. Really it's pretty much a sidecar with vodka instead of brandy, the bartender said. Hmm ... hadn't thought of that. I knew I'd be having more than one glass of wine with dinner, and so I had a glass of San Pellegrino on the second round. Actually, I had the start of a full-size bottle of S. Pellegrino -- that was OK, though I would have preferred if the barkeep had asked the "Is that OK?" question before opening the bottle.
The restaurant was not exactly crowded, and so we were able to move to the dining room when we were good and ready. The servers quickly revealed themselves to be quick, eager and willing, but they were on the young side and they never seemed anything close to authoritative. The only initial question we had was whether the tasting menu could be had for just one member of the party, and the answer was no. The French-bread-in-a-bag was disappointing: nice crust, but too airy and insubstantial inside.
Ordering was a challenge. I had heard about the turtle soup and the three-soup sampler, and the specials also included the foie gras gumbo that made Esquire's list of the best dishes in America. I was also tempted by something else on the specials menu, I think. But I went for this:
Sonoma Valley Grade "A" Foie Gras
Cayenne rubbed and caramelized foie gras served over
savory brioche pain perdu with sweet and sour
praline sauce, spiced pecan tuile
and pomegranate molasses
Jacqueline went for the very appetizer that had convinced me she wouldn't feel out of place:
Crisp greens, shaved Gruyère cheese, brioche croutons,
apple smoked bacon and chopped egg ~ tossed in
Commander's signature dressing
Jacqueline kept the lemon drops coming, and I almost went for a sauternes that was listed as a by-the-glass recommendation with one of the specials but I took the waiter's advice and had a glass of riesling.
The foie gras was amazing. I think I came up with a good description, but all I can remember now is my wife's even-better one: "foie gras sticky buns." She was happy enough with her salad, though she found the finely chopped egg a little too dominant.
Among the main courses, I was tempted by a mixed-grill special, but when Jacqueline ordered this ...
Creole Seasoned Filet Mignon
Grilled and served over a warm Creole smashed
new potato and andouille salad ~ with tobacco
onions and housemade Worcestershire sauce
I saw my opening and got the entree I had predicted she'd go for:
Kurobuta Pork Chop and Belly
Prosciutto wrapped Bershire "black pig" chop and
housemade applewood smoked belly ~ served with
potato galette, young vegetables and local apple
cider reduction sauce
Wow. Now here's a dish that should have made Esquire's list. This was the best entree I've ever had. A large, beautifully seared piece of meat. I asked for medium rare on the pork chop, and the pink color combined with a slight smokiness to suggest ham elevated to a new plane. The cider reduction was perfect. maybe it was just the sauce, but I swear the "potato galette" was not just potato but rather alternating slices of potato and apple. Pommes de terre et pas de terre, or something like that. I'll have to say, though, that I still don't "get" pork belly. I've tried it three times now, I think, and each time my reaction is "Hmph. Just plain fat." I have nothing against fat, but I like my fat with a little character -- foie gras, for instance. Still, the wonderfulness of the pork chop renders this a slim complaint.
Jacqueline was quite happy with her filet, and especially the "smashed new potatoe and andouille salad," which translated to something more like andouille mashed potatoes.
A minor timing complaint: I was never really given a chance to order my main-course wine, and my hurried choice of the by-the-glass pinot noir turned out to be fine, but just fine. I should have gone for the zin.
We had satisfied the order-early clause of the souffle contract, and so we were presented with this to share:
Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé
The richness of bread pudding whipped into a
light fluffy soufflé ~ served with velvety
bourbon whiskey sauce
It was very good. Would have been even better with a bucket of cold whipped cream or sabayon or something. I had to try the chicory coffee, and, boy, that was the best coffee I've ever had. I lingered for refills until I sensed that Security was about to be called.
You're hearing a lot of "best evers" from me here, and while that betrays some degree of don't-get-around-much on my part, it really isn't quite that bad. I've eaten at my share of good restaurants, and this meal was right up there with a night at CityZen in Washington, D.C., among my top two. A more discerning critic might point to an overreliance on syrupy sweetness, especially in the dishes I ordered, but for me it worked perfectly.
* * *
The next night, the last night of our trip, I suggested only half jokingly that we go back to Commander's Palace. But we were downtown and a little tired, and Jacqueline made the perfect suggestion: Let's finally go to Hugo's Cellar. This was the last of the downtown "gourmet rooms" we hadn't yet tried, in many, many trips downtown, so it was an important milestone. And we were staying in the Four Queens anyway, and she was doing enough gambling (I try to keep up, but not even close) that we had an outside shot of getting it comped.
On a Monday night in June, we figured, reservations would not be an issue. It's not as though, in all our gambling at the blackjack tables and double-bonus poker machines outside that entrance, we had often seen people going into or coming out of the Cellar.
When we peeked in, on our return from a downtown walk-around, at 7 or so, however, the place was filling up. An employee who turned out to be the sommelier told us we could probably be seated immediately but otherwise it would be 45 minutes or so. Looking down at my Gold Spike T-shirt and khaki shorts, I said, "I'm not going in there dressed like this." The sommelier said, "You can if you like." Well, of course, I could -- this is not only Las Vegas, it's downtown Las Vegas -- but I wouldn't. The hostess finally arrived and said something about 10 minutes, and I shot back up to the room to change into my oh-so-formal black tee and khaki jeans.
When I returned, Jacqueline as at the bar. Her lemon drop (!) was in an atypically sane-sized martini glass, but right next to it was the cutest little miniature glass ice bucket holding a carafe with the rest of the typically insane-sized drink. After five to 10 minutes, we were called to our table. The lady, of course, was presented with her single red rose -- a Hugo's signature.
Hugo's is not a quiet place, and it was full. The atmosphere is as time-warpy as you'd expect, with red brick and dark wood everywhere. The menu took some studying, even after all the looking we'd done at the one posted in the casino. They brought Jacqueline's drink from the bar, and I took this opportunity to order a Pernod with a splash of soda. My drink was perfect, but I was surprised to have to ask for the wine list.
We figured we had to get the "salad prepared tableside," which was listed on the menu at 14 bucks or something, and it was a confusing answer but a pleasant surprise when we were told that the $14 salad came free with all entrees. (People show up to order the salad alone?)
I was vacillating about whether to join Jacqueline in the no-appetizer camp, despite this oddly intriguing possibility:
Hugo's Hot Rock Specialty
You're the chef! With a sizzling slab of granite, we provide
tenderloin medallions, marinated swordfish, breast of chicken
and jumbo shrimp. All accompanied with a selection of herbs,
seasonings and special sauces. You do the cooking - right at
I also considered escargots (how retro!), but finally I decided to try the duck confit. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've had a confit, and it was an amazing dish. Atypically, I presume, it was served in a sauce in puff pastry. Again, Jacqueline had the perfect description: an upscale chicken pot pie. Mmm, that was good.
Jacqueline ordered the smaller of the two "Kansas City" steaks. I have a hard time resisting beef Wellington, and so I didn't.
The steak was a perfect medium-rare, but the outside was ugly and dessicated. The only other time I had seen a steak so unappetizing was at another gourmet room, the Plaza's Center Stage. Ever resourceful, Jacqueline spread some butter on the steak's crust and pronounced the experiment a success. My Wellington, which I had ordered "on the rare side of medium-rare," was closer to the medium-well side, but it was fine. Not great, but fine. With a decent-enough piece of meat it's hard to go too far wrong with beef Wellington.
Pretty well stuffed, we accepted the chocolate-dipped strawberries, apricots and figs but didn't pile on with dessert. I had to try the "Cona" coffee service (I guess it's a trademark for the brewing apparatus, though I think they also use Kona coffee), and while the chemistry-lab nature of the brewing process was amusing, the coffee was weak. And when I saw there was no artificial sweetener on the table we had to flag down three different waiters, all of whom seemed flummoxed by the request, before the packets appeared.
All in all, Hugo's Cellar was disappointing. (And, by the way, it was not comped.)
If you're looking for a downtown gourmet room, try the Great Moments Room at the Las Vegas Club, which combines great retro atmosphere with pretty good food, or the equally time-warpy Binion's Ranch Steakhouse at the former Horseshoe (though we can't vouch for the latter after the recent turmoil). The Second Street Grill at the Fremont, the Redwood Grille at the California and the Pullman Grille at Main Street Station have good food and nice, though not classic, atmosphere. Roberta's at the El Cortez is retro and pretty good -- worth trying once. The Center Stage at the Plaza is fine, but notable mainly for the view.