Monday, May 13, 2019

Where to Travel: Las Vegas

When I was in my early twenties, my college girls friends and I liiiivved for our rambunctious Vegas trips. We’d spend allllll day turnt up at day pool parties, stumble our way into nightclubs for more good times and then foggily try to recollect the events of the past 24 hours, all while munching on salt-covered carbs in the wee hours of the morning.

Well, now that I’m in my thirties, let’s just say that’s not my typical Vegas experience anymore.

These days, if I’m heading to Sin City, it’s for a pretty vanilla reason: attending a trade show for work. Any indulgent activities that I’d partake in typically include doing what I love to do most anywhere: enjoying a fantastic dinner and cocktail.

My last trip to Vegas earlier this Spring gave me the chance to try quite a few new dining (and cocktail) experiences, thus inspiring this latest post. From decadently over-the-top to nostalgic, breakfast to dinner, I covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and it was all worth it.

So whether you find yourself in Vegas for a wild ride on the town, a relaxing spa getaway, or something in between, guess what? We all gotta eat! With that in mind, here are four places to put on your radar whenever you’re looking for your next noteworthy meal.

This list is by no way exhaustive and please feel free to drop your favorite Vegas restaurants in the comments section below — we can never have too many good recommendations!!

Where to Eat that’s reminiscent of LA: Park MGM’s Best Friend

We all love Roy Choi for bringing us the modern day food truck through his Kogi Truck launch. And, we’re smitten with his LA restaurants, including A-Frame, Commissary and Sunny Spot. Now there’s even more to love, as he’s brought his funky fusion of Asian, Mexican and Cali fare to Vegas, all via Best Friend. Located in Park MGM, this action-packed bar/restaurant pays homage to Choi’s childhood growing up in L.A in the ‘90s, in both physical appearance and grub. Inside, the space is playfully colorful, with massive photos of L.A. staples — like palm trees and the DTLA skyline — all enveloped in an elegant, natural color palate. The hanging plants throughout remind me a lot of the vibes in Choi’s Commissary, located in Koreatown’s Line Hotel. Similar to so many of his other establishments, Best Friend artfully blends together multiple cuisines through options like the Asian-inspired Slippery Shrimp and the Mexican popular street snack Elote corn, pictured below. My final musing: the attention to detail is in everything, from the eccentric glassware to the menus and servers’ attire. Come here for an eclectic — and nostalgic — trip down memory lane.

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Even though there’s a Hakkasan in Los Angeles, fate had it that I finally set foot in the Vegas version of this fancy upscale establishment that has locations in eleven cities around the world. The first thing to catch my breath was the decor. It’s absolutely stunning! There are gorgeous ceiling-to-floor partitions with artistic designs outlined into marble. These partitions also create semi-secluded enclaves, providing a nice touch of privacy. Add dimmed lighting and ambient music and a space bathed in black, and you’ve got yourself a seductively swanky hideout! There are several ways to to sample the high end Cantonese cuisine: opt for one of the multiple dinner tasting menus or order items a la carte. I had the crispy duck rolls, pak choi (which is like bok choi and surprisingly delicious) and the Sanpei Chilean seabass, pictured above. Also, the cocktails were quite delicious and varied, like this Whiskey in the Tropics (pictured below) with banana (!) whiskey, guava, lime, mango jasmine syrup and other tropical ingredients. Also, if you spend more than $50 per person (which isn’t that hard to do if you go for one of the tasting menus or pretty much just order a drink, an app and an entrée), you’ll get FREE access to Hakkasan's bustling nightclub, right upstairs. It was a hassle-free experience to enter, as we simply showed our receipt to one of the bouncers who immediately whisked up to the front of the entrance. We were able to skip the very long lines and not worry about having to pay a cover. There are frequent celebrity guest hosts, and the night I went, Lil Jon got the crowd in a delightful frenzy with his DJ skills.

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Wynn’s Jardin boasts a light and airy ambiance, with the option to dine al fresco. Should you choose to be outdoors (which, I highly recommend), you’ll be on a gorgeous enclosed patio, surrounded by shrubbery and overlooking the pristine pool area. For breakfast, Jardin serves up classics — think omelets and Benedicts and pancakes — but they taste just so freakin’ good! My “Grilled Chicken Omelette,” pictured above, with thick chunks of grilled chicken, avocado and Anaheim peppers (sans the Monterrey Jack cheese, which is an option) was sooo tasty and filling. I also loved the sourdough toast, pictured below, and the vegan butter that you can ask for, as it truly tastes like its dairy counterpart! Also, do yourself a favor and order a side of the French fries; yes, they’re worth it. Thick, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. And while you’re at it, get a cocktail, too. The French Cucumber — with cucumber vodka and cucumber soda, green chartreuse, Chareau aloe Liqueur and lemon — was light and refreshing, the perfect way to sip into Spring. Jardin opens at 7 a.m. for any early risers.

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Where to Eat for a Decadent Dinner: SLS’ Cleo

Cleo, located in the soon-to-be-renamed SLS, serves up delightful Mediterranean cuisine and shows off its culinary prowess, from start to finish. Let’s begin with the appetizers. The Hummus with Tahini is some of the freshest, lightest hummus I’ve ever had, served with piping hot Laffa bread (a type of Middle Eastern flatbread) that comes in a warm brown paper bag. You can’t go wrong with sampling a few of the various meats either — from roasted lamb to chicken tagine, pork belly kababs and more. I’ve tried the Mergeuz sausage, pork belly and chicken kebab, all pictured below, and savored each and every bite. As for sides, the Brussels Sprouts with capers and almonds, tossed in a vinaigrette (pictured above), are rather tasty too. And don’t even think about walking away without dessert; the buttery, flaky Warm Cinnamon Apple Torte with vanilla gelato and a drizzle of apple-cider caramel is surely a decadent splurge (pictured below). This Mediterranean restaurant is definitely worth every penny and calorie, at each and every bite!

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Where to Eat: A Three-Course MICHELIN Easter Brunch @ La Toque Napa Valley (Review)

The Eats: High end French cuisine served in multiple courses, with wine pairings available, too

The Location: Napa

The Vibes: Warm, classy, elegantly understated

Good for: Alone, Dates, Small Groups

When-To-Go: Daily dinner seatings, between 5:30 - 9:30 p.m.

The $$ Factor: Dinner, $120+ 

People Behind the Scenes: Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank, Chef de Cuisine Scot Livingston, Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett and Sommelier Beki Miller

The 4-1-1: Once located in Los Angeles, La Toque has now been in Napa for over a decade and has received a MICHELIN rating each year for the past 12 consecutive years

Parking Situation: Complimentary valet parking 

I’ll Be Back…: For the mille feuille dessert!

My family and I are quite the brunchers. Whether it’s for a traditional holiday like Mother’s Day or simply another weekend, we’ll always find time for brunch.

So for this past Easter Sunday, I decided we must check out the special brunch at La Toque, a MICHELIN-rated French restaurant, in Napa Valley. I specifically chose this restaurant for two reasons: 1) it sounded absolutely wonderful to take a scenic drive into Napa and 2) it seemed like a steal to snag a three-course meal — for $48 — from a high end establishment where the multi-course dinners typically average $120 - $220. Bonus points as neither my mom or grandmother had ever visited Napa.

Located in The Westin, La Toque was nothing like I’d imagine a MICHELIN-rated restaurant. I was expecting a super stuffy, super extravagant ambiance, yet in reality, it's pretty modest. Yes, the one-room dining area is quite classy — with a beautiful oversized floral arrangement and softly bathed in muted browns, tans and whites — however, I’d say the decor overall is elegantly understated.

What’s not understated though, is the impeccable — and I do mean impeccable — service. You notice it right from the start, when offered piping hot towels to wipe your hands. You sense it in the delightful way menu options are explained, and you feel it throughout, like how your water glass never seems to get less than half full and how two servers silently make eye contact and nod before gracefully whisking away your plate. Executive Chef/Owner Ken Frank even stopped by to say hello, see how we were doing and patiently answer our thousands of questions we had. It's a rarity to see such attentiveness and effort in the little details in many other places, and La Toque remains memorable for that aspect, if nothing more.

But of course, there’s more! And that would be the food...

As shared, La Toque is MICHELIN-rated, which basically means that it’s received one of the most prestigious, globally renowned recognitions within the culinary world. There are three tiers — or stars — any given restaurant can receive. One star is like an entry level point and three is the most prestigious. Each year, a MICHELIN-rated restaurant may be judged unannounced by an incognito inspector, to determine if it will keep or lose its star, or even gain more. The criteria to receive a star comprises a variety of considerations, from quality to a chef's personality. You can read all about the MICHELIN assessment process here.

While La Toque typically offers multi-course meals, for two holidays in particular — Easter and Mother’s Day — it features what’s like an introduction into its course approach: a three-course meal with an optional wine pairing for an additional $24.

Here’s a peak of what was on the Easter menu.

To our pleasant surprise, we were treated to a traditional Easter dish: hot cross buns! Served warmed, this sweet bread is filled with raisins and currents. Our server shared that Pastry Chef Hayes Pickett had been perfecting the recipe for the past two years. I’d definitely say she got it right! 

First course
We had four appetizers to choose from: a Bibb lettuce salad, Dungeness Crab Cakes, Beet Cured Salmon and Asparagus. I appreciated our server for being honest that the Bibb salad was really an option for the less adventurous eaters, and the Beet Cured Salmon sounded like a fun trip on the wild side. I went for the Crab Cake, which was OK. I wish there had been more crab meat and less of the fried coating encasing it. Especially after having really tasty jumbo crab cakes the precious day, I was left wanting. An added nuance were pickled green strawberries and hints of dill.

Second Course
For the main course, there were five selections: Alaskan Halibut, a Grilled Hangar Steak, Tortellini filled with Spring Peas, a Lobster Omelet and Rancho Llano Seco Pork Cutlet Milanese. It was the pork's first time making an appearance on the menu and my choice. Pounded into a thin cut and then lightly fried, it came on a bed of Capperi di Pantelleria pasta that had been lightly tossed in brown butter. Lemon capers dressed in this same brown butter sauce was drizzled on top of everything. I enjoyed this tremendously, as it was bursting in flavors. I also sampled a bit of the omelet, pictured below, which is always featured on the Easter menu. It was indulgently rich, filled with hearty chunks of lobster, fontina cheese and soft breakfast potatoes. 

Third course
Last but certainly not least was dessert. We could pick between three: a blackberry ricotta crepe cake, a raspberry coconut mille feuille with toasted almond wafers and finally, a jar filled with layers of dark chocolate, milk chocolate for baking called CARAMÉLIA and blood orange, all topped with toasted almonds. I opted for the mille feuille, pictured below, which was sooo delicious. Dollops of coconut cream were wedged between slightly sweet crispy wafers, with ripe raspberries added on the top. 

All in all, La Toque provided a fabulous over-the-top dining experience, a big part due to its spectacular service that exceeds expectations and also of course, because of the nuanced approach to fine dining. If you’re ever interested in exploring a multi-course meal, I say check out this Napa gem.

See you there soon!

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Where to Drink: & New Spring Cocktails @ Alta Adams, Los Angeles (Part 2 of 2)

Last week, I wrote about the delicious avant-garde soul food at Alta Adams, and this week, I’m sharing a recent interview I had with the head bartender, AJ Goodrich, in honor of the brand new cocktail menu that the popular West Adams restaurant debuted, just in time for Spring.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m a huge fan of one drink in particular here: the Bikini Bottom, pictured below. It’s a vibrantly sweet-and-spicy blend of pineapple, agave, cilantro, fresno chile, and not only tequila, but mescal, too. I love it so much, I’ve hard a time wanting to try anything else. But, hearing Goodrich’s explanation of the new program is definitely tempting me to branch out and try something different, sooner rather than later. 

Read on to hear more from Goodrich as he discusses the inspiration behind the new drinks, how he got into the bar business and his take on the L.A. cocktail scene in general!

Miss Wilson: What are the highlights of the new drink program?
Goodrich: The entire spring cocktail menu was inspired by the city of New Orleans — the drinks are all spins on classic Crescent City cocktails. This menu is our first huge overhaul of the cocktail program since Alta Adams opened last fall. We wanted the menu to be fun, a little flashy, herbaceous, spring-like, energetic and bold. I think what we came up with fits the bill!

We thought designing a drink menu around the Big Easy was a natural fit and perfect complement to our California-soul food. New Orleans’ culture and demographical blend are completely unique; there’s just nowhere like it anywhere else in the country. On a personal level, New Orleans also marks the halfway point of a cross-country trip I embarked on in 2011 while I was making a documentary about the way people talk about same-sex marriage and queer identity in America (this was before same-sex marriage was legalized). I’ve always been struck and am still drawn to the enormous cultural footprint of New Orleans: from music and jazz, to nightlife, festivals, parades and funerals, Louisiana voodoo and so on. New Orleans has a rich and influential history in the world of cocktails, from Peychaud Bitters to the Sazerac, the French 75 to a Vieux Carre and more.

Miss Wilson: What’s one cocktail everyone should try at least once and why?
Everyone should try the Black Magic Woman at least once (last photo at the bottom of this post). There aren’t too many bars where you can get a classic Absinthe drip as it’s traditionally done — and it’s a show-stopper. The cocktail is garnished with a dissolving sugar skull and burning sage. If you have any negative juju floating around, this will clear it out.

Otherwise, if you have a group of friends and are in the mood to get a little boozy, you should try our Gator Bowl punch (pictured below), which is meant to be shared. I like to think of it as stupidly delicious swamp juice.

Miss Wilson: What advice would you have for anyone interested in getting into the bar business?
Goodrich: Three years ago, I had zero experience in the bar business at all. I hadn’t worked in the service industry since I was a teenager; I had really only been working in film production since graduating from film school. It’s been a crazy few years since I’ve started (with zero experience) as a barback to now leading the bar program at Alta Adams as head bartender — and it has been a combination of luck, landing at the right place at the right time, having terrific mentors and working my ass off. I’ve also read everything I can (and still have a lot more reading to do), and have tried to dive deep into cocktail history and culture.

At the end of the day, foster good relationships: surround yourself with good people who have a heart, have your back, and take care of them in return. Soak up everything you can from everyone around you, learn everything you can on your own, and you’ll do fine!

Miss Wilson: What’s your take on the current local LA bar scene? How has it evolved in the past few years and where do you see it headed next?
Goodrich: Prior to a couple of years ago, I pretty much only set foot in gay bars — so much of my experience is based on the gay bars of East L.A., Silverlake and Downtown. If I’m going to go out somewhere beyond work (which I don’t do too often anymore!), that’s probably still where I’d be. However, since diving into the craft cocktail world, my view has expanded quite a bit, as has the craft cocktail world — it’s basically exploded over the last five years. While you used to only be able to get a decent drink at a handful of staple bars, now every restaurant and bar seems to be developing a craft bar program or has a resident mixologist (though I dislike that term — I’m just a bartender). It also shows no signs of stopping. 

This is both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s great that there’s more of a focus on cocktail culture, that people are interested and thinking about it more, and that more places offer great drinks, but I worry that sheer quantity may impact quality. Not everyone has the same level of training. In the end, like most things, I believe that what’s good will stay, and what’s not, won’t. My advice: stick to the good ones and the classics.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for readability. Second and fourth photo, courtesy of Becca PR; third photo from Instagram