Now, more than ever, you have got to be careful where you eat in Vegas. Fifteen years ago, Sin City was still a town where you expected to pay a lot for a top-quality non-buffet meal and get robbed. This was Vegas, and you weren't there for a few days of, say, unparalleled quality. Even though the city's boundaries were stretching wider at an exponential pace in the 90's, it was still, largely, a spot known for deals, and then for upscale treats, which didn't really have to follow through on substance so long as you were served a ribeye medium rare with pan-roasted potatoes (i.e. something I can make at home). Now, however, the celebrity chefs have moved in. You can move from the spring break madness of the Hard Rock Hotel pool into Nobu's Vegas sushi bar in under 50 yards, provided you throw on some shoes and a pair of jeans and ask the UNLV freshman you just picked up to cover up that tiny camouflage bikini top with, say, a pink T-shirt that says "Punk Whore." Similarly, Emeril's in town, Todd English holds court in a Bellagio-mallified version of Olives (the food's good but very systematic), and Bobby Flay's newish Mesa Grill rests comfortably on the ground floor of Ceasar's Palace, with a great through-the-tinted-glass view of the casino's horse-racing monitors. Regardless, that's where Lina and I decided to eat the other night after getting ripped off the first evening at the Hard Rock's routine and obscenely expensive AJ's Steakhouse, which cannot, even on its best days, compete with your local Outback. Fans of NY's Bolo, we thought we'd get a quality meal at Flay's, and given that his prices didn't differ too much from AJ's-type spots without personalities, what did we have to lose? Not much, apparently, but I have noticed something about Bobby Flay's Vegas menu (and, perhaps all his non-Bolo fare) that makes his food even more appropriate for Las Vegas Boulevard than New York's Union Square. It's all about high quality ingredients (which anyone can purchase) topped, glazed, or rubbed with spice and sauce mixtures (which anyone can dream up with a list of the world's tastiest chilis and fruit in front of them). That is, there are very few interesting menu items that are intrinsically original. My tuna tartare with "blistered serrano sauce and avocado relish" was simply raw tuna spiced up so heavily with yet another of Mr. Flay's favorite chilis such that you couldn't taste the fish. Lina's fried squash blossom stuffed with ricotta, corn, and basil was reportedly more intriguing, but it was a tease: she only received one of them, and it wasn't that different than something Mario Batali might try, sans the flavor. For dinner, I had a lamb T-bone with red-chile fig marmalade, but couldn't partake in the included roasted garlic tamale, because it might have contained wheat (I'm allergic). The reason I chose the lamb, though, was because the waiter candidly told me every other entree would be "boring" without its accompanying sauce: mango glazes, warm salsa crudas, bourban ancho-chile reductions, orange cilantro sauces. Flay can be organically inventive: his side dishes, like cocunt cashew rice, green-pea risotto, and sweet potato tamales, make you almost choose a meal for its accompaniment. But is that what you want from a fine dining establishment? I wanted to sidle up to Ham on the Street, who was, strangely, eating next to us, and ask him how hard you might have to hit someone with a pork chop in the face in order to attain bruising. But he was having a good time, it seemed. It looked like he was hopped up on the coffee-rubbed tenderloin.
Another bit about contemporary restaurant going that spans Vegas hots pots with large turnovers and pops up right in your local Long Island diner: How come bus-people are now instructed to clear your plate right after the last bite of food has hit the surface of your tongue--regardless of whether or not your partner has finished eating? I'm a dress-down casual guy, but isn't it rude to leave someone eating alone at a group table? Why not let you sit with your empty plate for a while and contemplate what you just spent $43 on. And no, I might say to every waiter I have ever met: I am not "still working." I don't "work" on my food. I (try to) enjoy it, eat it, and sometimes, if its good enough, swallow and digest it, which actually might lend me to put my fork down for a minute. God, and I'm not even a restaurant critic. Imagine what Jeffrey Steingarten might have to say on the matter.