This neon-lit oasis in the Mojave Desert is known for a lot of things, not the least of which is being the site of the 43rd annual Safari Club International Convention, to be held on February 4 – 7, 2015 at The Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. But unless you’ve been hiding under a rock all year long waiting for that elusive Alpine ibex to wander by, you already knew that. However, what you may not have known is that Las Vegas is ground zero for some of the best eating and drinking Meccas in the country.
So after a day on the massive convention floor spent shouldering custom rifles, evaluating wildlife art and jewelry, and chatting up the next hunt with outfitters and guides–not to mention participating in the various auctions and après-hour SCI entertainment–here are some of what I consider to be the “Best of Las Vegas” in their respective categories, should you wish to venture afield. It’s enough to make you want to hit the convention early and stay late.
The Best Glass of Champagne
– FIZZ CHAMPAGNE LOUNGE – Caesars Palace
This elegantly dark and sophisticated enclave is a welcomed escape from the non-stop noise of the gaming areas. A joint collaboration between designer David Furnish and his partner, entertainer Sir Elton John, FIZZ boasts the largest selection of champagnes by the glass in Vegas. More than twenty different labels are individually poured, not to mention over thirty champagnes and sparkling wines by the bottle. Plus there is a selection of champagne cocktails, including an over-the-top FIZZ Deluxe, featuring egg whites, Monin Rosé syrup, Grand Marnier Quintessence liqueur, Richard Hennessy Cognac, and Dom Pérignon 2002 Rosé Champagne. For garnish, a rose petal is laid across the top of the flute and dusted with 24K gold flakes. The price for all this extravagance is $2,500.
Fortunately, most FIZZ champagne cocktails start at less than twenty dollars. Bottle service begins at $145, and a wide selection of champagne-friendly small plates are available, including Thai Lobster Summer Rolls, Ossetra caviar, and opulent desserts such as Dark Chocolate Mousse over a warm brownie dribbled with white chocolate and candied rose petals. There is also a private VIP area upstairs, where you might see Sir Elton gazing down at his somewhat erotic photo collection on the walls.
The Best Wine Friendly Restaurant
– CRUSH – MGM Grand
When Michael and Jenna Morton (of Arnie Morton’s Steakhouse fame) left their Chicago headquarters and settled in Las Vegas to raise their family, they also wanted to establish a series of semi-casual yet sophisticated restaurants that would add to the city’s culinary attractions. The dedicated couple’s Morton Group has achieved its goals with La Comida in downtown Las Vegas, La Cave at Wynn’s, and their newest–and closest to the convention–Crush, a wine-centric restaurant that offers an avant garde shared-plate dining experience for oenophiles.
Guests enter via The Atrium Room, under a softly glowing ceiling that emulates the changing light of the sun’s daily evolution. Two backlit etched metal doors with the Crush philosophy “Eat, Drink, Love” leads to the Bodega Room, with its white brick vaulted ceiling and open kitchen. There you will find Corporate Chef Billy DeMarco creating specialties such as Shrimp Risotto, and Octopus Ceviche with grapefruit and pickled jalapeños. The menu is complemented by an equally inventive wine list assembled by Head Sommelier Mark Hefter, whose skills I first encountered at the Montage, Beverly Hills, before he, like the Mortons, was lured to Vegas.
The Best Cocktails
– SAGE AT ARIA, CITY CENTER –
Sure, you can get cocktails anywhere in Las Vegas–some places will even bring you one in the restroom, if that’s your idea of a good time. But no one makes original, uniquely inventive cocktails like they do at Aria, specifically at celebrity Chef Shawn McClain’s Sage restaurant. Chef McClain’s “artisan American” cuisine is matched by a newly implemented cocktail program by Aria’s Property Mixologist, Craig Schoettler, who brings an extensive culinary background to his innovative drinks–things like Smoke Missing Mirror, a cognac cocktail served within a veil of smoke, or a tableside absinth presentation that is as fascinating to watch as it is to drink. Schoettler also has an ice fetish, and four different styles are available, each lending a different characteristic to his cocktails.
The Best Buffet
– THE BACCHANAL AT CAESARS PALACE –
Just down the Strip from the convention, you’ll find this lavish multi-room spread encompassing air, water and wood-fired themed cuisine. There are more than 500 items prepared by chefs as you watch. Prime rib, roasted South Carolina shrimp and grits, oak-grilled lamb chops, hand-made dim sum, baked-to-order soufflés…the list goes on, and you will too.
The Best Pizza
– FIVE50 AT ARIA, CITY CENTER –
The name comes from the proper temperature to bake a pizza. This is Chef Shawn McClain’s second restaurant at Aria and it is a casual place to unwind. There are eight signature pizzas to choose from, or you can build your own such as a half-and-half 16-incher, combining the Forager with white sauce, mushrooms, bacon, ricotta and spinach, with a Truffle Pizza, made with truffle salami, shaved truffles, béchamel sauce, Parmesan and fresh thyme.
The Best Spirits Flight
– CUT AT THE PALAZZO –
Can’t decide which rare single malt or bourbon to drink? Come to Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant and select (or have the mixologist select) three sample pours from a collection of more than 600 spirits, some of which you won’t find anywhere else.
The Best Steak For Two
After imbibing your whisky flight, it’s literally just a few steps to Cut restaurant, where you and your companion can enjoy a juicy prime Porterhouse steak for two, in this case, grilled to medium rare perfection (the meat is still cooking on the bone when the steak is served).
The Best Innovative New Menu
– SENSI AT BELLAGIO –
Executive Chef Royden Ellamar has outdone his previous accolades at the Four Seasons Restaurant Hualalai and at The Four Seasons Chicago by recently revamping his Las Vegas menu to include exclusive dishes like Ricotta Gnocchi, Tongue & Cheek (with roasted Wagyu tongue), and Cedar Roasted King Crab Leg.
The Best Meat Balls
– RAO’S, CAESARS PALACE –
This family-owned Italian restaurant is always packed–just like its New York counterpart. The Meat Balls, a specialty, are listed as an appetizer, but the serving is big enough for a meal. Think “bigger than a baseball.” Made with veal, beef, and pork and bathed in RAO’s thick meaty sauce, I order them every time, even though I tell my wife I’m not going to. But I can’t help myself.
The Best Teppanyaki Restaurant
– NOBU, CAESARS PALACE –
This is the largest Nobu restaurant in the world, the first to offer teppanyaki in the United States, and one of the few to feature it in Las Vegas. If you like showmanship that sizzles right in front of you, this is the spot to eat and be entertained.
The Best Teppan Restaurant
– TETSU, ARIA, CITY CENTER –
Michelin-starred Chef Masa Takayama has recently brought the first teppan grill concept to Las Vegas. An intimate and interactive dining experience, Tetsu showcases skilled Japanese grilling techniques, with four VIP and two larger teppan grill tables, with seating for 10 and five, respectively. A skilled personal chef oversees the evening’s culinary entertainment–prepping, cooking and plating orders according to each guest’s request. Only the finest and freshest meats, seafood and vegetables are used (with some items flown nonstop from Japan to Las Vegas daily).
The Best Hamburger –
– BurGR, PLANET HOLLYWOOD –
The GR stands for Gordon Ramsay and this is his version of the old malt shop personified in gluttony. The burgers–there are numerous versions–are cooked over an open wood fire and are huge and dripping with succulence. The fries come in various styles, and the desserts will make you wish you wore expander pants.
Bon appétit!–Richard Carleton Hacker