The last time I was in Las Vegas, I camped with friends near Lake Mead and was lucky if I ate anything better than a grilled hot dog or some crab Rangoon from a casino buffet. (I was 20.) So I was thrilled to take part in a food-focused April press trip hosted by Caesars Entertainment, timed to coincide with the kickoff of Vegas Uncork’d.
Sponsored by Bon Appétit magazine, Vegas Uncork’d is a weekend-long culinary bacchanalia that takes place every spring and consists of Las Vegas’ best eateries showing off what they can do with food, knives, and flame. Many celebrity chefs fly in for tastings and demos at their branded restaurants, and the event peaks during a Grand Tasting at Caesars Palace’s Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis.
FIRST, WE EAT
Although the tasting was still a few days away, Caesars didn’t waste any time feeding fresh arrivals for the press trip. With nine properties in town, the company boasts substantial chef talent at spots such as Nobu and Mesa Grill. After checking in to the buzzing Caesars Palace, our group convened at the sleek MR CHOW, the property’s new upscale Chinese-food eatery, with a white-on-white dining room, circulating Champagne cart, and a 3,800-pound fiberglass ceiling sculpture that opens and closes once an hour. Although we didn’t see restaurateur Michael Chow in the flesh, we feasted on his kitchen’s creations — heaping family-style plates of pork dumplings, mock squab (i.e., chicken), and honey-glazed prawns with crunchy walnuts.
Within the hour, we did see a celebrity, albeit from a distance: Elton John was in residence for a run of performances at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. The flamboyant 69-year-old performer belted out his classics with power and polish on a stage that combined psychedelic light displays with Romanesque sculptures and video art.
If there was any chance that we had slept off those first few calories, Caesars made sure we put them right back on the next morning at Giada, the anchor restaurant in The Cromwell, a boutique property just across the strip. Although Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis wasn’t in the house, the comfy space reflected her warmth — and the gigantic plates of cured meats, strawberry-polenta waffles, and fluffy tomato-basil frittata mimicked what an Italian grandmother might have plied us with, complemented by a killer view of the heart of the Strip.
Also inside The Cromwell — and, as it was morning, uncharacteristically empty — was Drai’s Nightclub, whose interior of black-and-pink leather seats and lush booths give way to a see-and-be-seen pool area of curtained cabanas. The going rate for both stage-side booths and poolside cabanas can be steep — but we were assured that the club puts on unforgettable private parties.
Next door, The LINQ Hotel & Casino is an ultra-modern property aimed at a young, urban crowd, and its 21,000-square-foot, fifth-floor Vortex roof deck reflects that postmodern vibe. Vortex is anchored by a curvaceous, 7,000-square-foot sculpture whose purple light flows upward like a fountain, and offers a perfect selfie backdrop during the fashion shows and private events that go down there regularly.
By 1 p.m., it was time to eat — again. Even though we were probably still digesting breakfast, it was impossible not to indulge at Caesars’ Mesa Grill, chef Bobby Flay’s only restaurant in Las Vegas. The memories I had of a long-ago lunch at New York City’s (now closed) Mesa Grill were eclipsed by bites of blue-corn pancakes topped with barbecued duck, sinful queso fundido of goat cheese and rajas, and mushroom quesadillas stuffed with fontina and ricotta, then topped with fried eggs and green salsa. Every calorie was worth it.
After a food-coma break, our hosts led us back through The LINQ’s promenade for another star attraction at Caesars: the High Roller. From a distance, the 550-foot structure looks like a run-of-the-mill Ferris wheel. But the pods that appear tiny from far away actually can hold up to 40 people each, with enough room left over for a mobile bar that provides riders with a “Happy Half Hour” during their 30-minute ride. The rain that had fallen off and on all day cleared in time for our spin in the sky, and the views of distant mountain ranges made the Strip seem almost inconsequential.
There was no rest for weary bellies. After we disembarked, we filed down to Paris Las Vegas’ HEXX kitchen + bar, where sustainably sourced, single-origin cacao is sorted, churned, and molded into chocolate bars. Chocolate even makes it into the restaurant’s savory dishes, including the cocoa-flecked butter atop our grilled rib-eye steaks.
THEN, WE EAT MORE
After a night of solid sleep, it was back to the hard work of eating, and renowned pastry chef Francois Payard was ready to oblige. Or at least, his staff was. At Payard Pâtesserie & Bistro, also inside Caesars, I ate the most incredible quiche I’ve ever had. It was dense with ham and gooey Swiss cheese, and it may have taken a month off my life, but I had no regrets. Rather than walk breakfast off, we were given the chance to fly it off during a helicopter ride over Hoover Dam in one of Maverick Helicopters’ shiny whirlybirds. Maverick’s fleet is based at Henderson Executive Airport, just outside Vegas, but can range as far as the Grand Canyon.
After our flight, we visited Rio Secco Golf Course, which is about a 20-minute ride from the Strip, in Henderson. The course offers undulating greens as well as world-renowned golf instructor Butch Harmon, who has taught the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But Harmon may have faced a daunting challenge in working with our group’s amateur attempts at putting.
By Friday night, when the Grand Tasting was about to open its doors, we weren’t exactly hungry but were definitely eager to sample. Caesars staff plans all year for this event, which takes over the Garden of the Gods for a night of indulgence. The steady rain had them convinced they might have to move things inside — but miraculously, the rain stopped just before the event.
During the three-hour-long shindig, 50 restaurant teams, some led by celebrity chefs, rolled out their most sumptuous and imaginative dishes for the crowd and for each other. It was a blur. There was duck-confit ravioli and orange-lavender Moscow Mules. There were grilled lamb riblets, and silky tuna poke, and Napa Valley Cabernet. There was Giada De Laurentiis darting around with her boyfriend, and Gordon Ramsay taking fan photos. There were floodlights that roved over the faces of impassive Roman sculptures.
Was it those gods who had made the rain stop? Perhaps. By 6 a.m., when the booths were gone, it began falling again.