vdara

vegas & culinary trips.

(ominous thunderclouds on the car ride to Nevada. cue Jaws music.) 

  This weekend my parents and I took a quick 24-hour trip to Vegas!  It’s the second time we’ve made this trip (the first was a year ago), and when you do anything twice, that makes it tradition, right?  This year, we really took our culinary experiences to the next level.  Some people come to Vegas to gamble, but we came to eat. :)

  Ironically, the first place we stopped at was eat.  This place is in Downtown Vegas, not too far from the Strip.  It’s homey and simple, but eclectic.  The decor reminded me of the finished products you’d find on Restaurant Impossible.  Below top right is their Shrimp and Grits and bottom right is the free-range chicken sandwich with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, greens, and pesto mayo on house-made rye bread.  This place was so tasty, we decided to go again on our way out of the city the following morning.

  Our next culinary adventure after checking in at the Vdara hotel was Estiatorio Milo’s for their Happy Hour.  Milo’s is on the Strip in the Cosmopolitan and is known for their extremely fresh fish paired with extremely high prices.  However, their Happy Hour is reasonable and the food is so delicious that it’s hard to resist.

  Above left is their “Pleasant Reminder” cocktail, which is mixed with elderflower water and grapefruit juice (secret menu item now! It wasn’t a year ago…).  They also brought out freshly grilled bread to dip in authentic Greek olive oil.  I probably could have survived the meal on their bread alone.  To the right is a deconstructed version of the Milo’s Special, which is a plate of delicately fried eggplant and zucchini stacked high around a column of tzatziki and kefalograviera cheese to make the tastiest towering appetizer.  The Happy Hour menu offers each thing individually, but we enjoyed that just as much because it came with extra dipping sauce and bite-sized portions of their melt-in-your-mouth kefalograviera cheese (say ‘kefalograviera’ 10 times fast).

   After indulging in tzatziki goodness, we were brought tender lamb skewers with a small side of the Milo’s Tomato Salad - a combination of English cucumber, red peppers, olive oil, and oregano, all topped with barrel aged feta cheese.  I’m pretty sure there was a good 2 minutes of silence at our table as we all just allowed the rich flavors of the lamb to mix with the tart flavors of the salad.  I felt like Remy from Ratatouille when he bites into a grape.  To finish it all off, we ordered the homemade Baklava ice cream and it was absolutely exceptional.  Imagine creamy vanilla ice cream with hints of cinnamon, swirled with crispy flakes of baklava over a thin spread of caramel sauce.  Paired with a decaf coffee and it was a delicate but delicious end to our tasty meal.

  My dad had to head to his convention for the rest of the evening (I mean, we were there for a business trip, so business must be done, I guess), so my mom and I walked along the Strip, saw “Jobs” at the theater near the MGM Grand, and wandered through the shops in the Crystals.  We all reconvened at the Vdara at 11:30 for an exciting night excursion to the revered Raku restaurant in Vegas’ Chinatown.

  It was during this restaurant experience that I fully realized the culinary adventure we had taken on.  My dad always raved about how you had to get reservations quite a bit in advanced to eat here, and how all of the chefs from other fine establishments would come to eat at Raku after their shifts were done, especially because it was open until 3am.  However, nothing could have prepared me for some of the craziest stuff I was about to eat.

  (Counter-clockwise from top left: Poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe; Cup of Foie Gras Chawanamushi and Kurobata Pork Cheek Skewers; Kobe Beef outside skirt steak with garlic chips; Picture of the bowls & spoons, menu, and chopsticks on charcoal display; top left dish, Raku’s fresh Tofu, and the bottom right dish, the Kobe Beef Liver sashimi topped with skinny slivers of garlic, green tea salt, and dipped in sesame oil; Salmon skewer with Ikura Oroshi)

  Like I said, insane culinary experience.  A culinary trip, if you will.  Raku isn’t just known for their charcoal grilled food, but they’re also known for their tofu, and the Raku tofu was some of the best tofu I’ve ever eaten.  It’s texture resembles more ricotta cheese than the watery, boxed stuff you often see in the store.  It’s creamy, light, and so flavorful, which is pretty impressive for tofu.  The poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe was probably the strangest thing I’ve eaten.  It’s a cold dish that you mix all together.  Every bite was kind of syrupy (from the yolk) mixed with surprising pops of salty crunch, similar to popping boba (from the salmon roe, which are salmon eggs).  The salmon skewer, though cooked perfectly, was underwhelming by itself, except for when it was paired with the ikura oroshi, which is a turnip/daikon root puree topped with more salmon roe.  The combination of all of the flavors together was perfect for cutting the bitter tanginess of the puree and harnessing the rich flavor of the salmon.  The kurobata pork cheek was probably one of my favorite dishes because it was blowing my mind that I was eating pork cheek (eating cold beef liver was pretty gnarly too).  It had a hint of teriyaki flavor mixed with a hint of the famous charcoal grill, but both flavors were incredibly subtle.  Finally, the foie gras chawanamushi was the last dish to come and the best dish to end the night with.  It’s a steamed foie gras egg custard, which was savory, creamy, and bursting with the comforting flavor that only warm egg custard can deliver.

  Raku definitely takes authentic Japanese food to the next level.  It’s so exotic and hip, I felt like I was experiencing a combination of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” and “The Layover.”  It was the culinary experience of a lifetime, making this trip to Vegas an extremely unique and special one. :)

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