It is not always that I brew under the grim gaze of a dreaded gangster. In a boater hat and a neatly knotted tie, Al Capone, the mob boss who made money from moonshine, was staring from the wall as I stepped into The Underground, a distillery in Las Vegas’ Mob Museum. To be a moonshiner, mix corn with the subtle spicy-sweetness of Ceylon cinnamon and the bolder heat of Saigon cinnamon, crank it to a potent 50 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume). At The Underground, it was back to the Prohibition era (1920-33), when gangsters produced alcohol illegally in hidden stills; rum runners wore cow-hoof shoes to hoodwink cops; and women ferried alcohol bottles in their knicker-bloomers for the speakeasies.
Al Capone was still staring and the teetotaller in me was getting tiddly with the whiff of alcohol. If 50 per cent ABV ever went down my gullet, I wouldn’t need the Museum’s electric chair to die. I would die in a jiffy. But in Las Vegas, I could not die. Not before feeding on celebrity chef Michael Mina’s basil pavlova, butternut squash agnolotti and matsutake mushroom custard. In the tony restaurant that sits inside the tonier Bellagio Hotel and bears the chef’s name, the menu speaks seafood, the servers smile and athletic wear is prohibited. It is the ritzy Bellagio, so too many pearls glimmer around necks and no one guffaws or chomps.
Food in Las Vegas is scrumptious and varied on the price line. The desert city, which was once buffet-table heavy, is now a culinary magnet, drawing celebrity chefs, Michelin-starred French masters and the country’s best master sommeliers. There’s chef José Andrés’ É which can only seat eight, Gordon Ramsay serves steak with a London twist, Le Cirque has 900 selections of wine, Guy Savoy has a “separate” Caviar Room, and most breakfast buffets are so big that a morning spread could sustain an underfed neighbourhood for a month.
There are many food options. A few weird ones, too. The Heart Attack Grill serves a burger with eight patties, eight slices of cheese, and 40 pieces of bacon (I added calories just at that thought!). Blondies Sports Bar & Grill has servers dressed as cheerleaders. In Dick’s Last Resort, diners are forced to wear adult bibs and giant paper hats. At The Omelet House, the omelette is the size of one’s face.
In the Sin City, I yearned to smack my lips. The best bet was Donald Contursi’s three-hour four-restaurant walking Lip Smacking Foodie Tour. The guide, Whitney-without-a-surname, stuck a white oblong label on my dress. It had my name scribbled in green — the green for being a vegetarian. The evening was balmy and the first stop was Aria Resort’s Javier restaurant where the world’s largest piece of chainsaw art catches the eye much before the small plates arrive with ceviche, enchiladas and tostadas. I was so full at Javier that I could have easily skipped the other three on the tour list. But Whitney was dropping temptations on the Vegas sidewalk. “You must see the fragrant tomato décor at Estiatorio Milos and the tower of vegetable wafers is intriguingly good. And I could die for the cannoli in Gordon Ramsay’s Cucina….” The tall Whitney was making tall claims. So I ate all that was laid on the table. At the end of three hours, I felt far too fattened to stand on the weighing scale.
Another morning, another Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Moe moment. Do I hop into a Papillon chopper, buckle up, fly over the Grand Canyon, jump out and have breakfast amid carved stones? Or, will it be Tiffany-Blue walls and salmon-pink linen, a loaded cake tray at Sadelle’s?
When afternoon came, my tastebuds turned Italian in Eataly (at Park MGM). I spun my heel thrice anti-clockwise on the mosaiced bull in Eataly. The bull kicks in luck, or, so they say.
In Las Vegas, I needed a ladleful of luck. Not to play poker or sit at the slot in a casino but to survive the two hours in Blackout, where one dines in pitch darkness. My food-ache was the sharp knife. And piping hot soup.