I just returned from a trade show and three days of detached reality in Las Vegas . For those who don’t know, Las Vegas is one of the busiest convention cities in the USA, hosting conferences for groups as diverse as plastic surgeons, hair-style artists, tech geeks, and tea enthusiasts. Yes, tea enthusiasts, myself included, attending World Tea Expo.
I stayed at the Wynn Hotel which was nice but very staid and high-end in tone, and for all of its hype, a bit dull in comparision to the vibe of hotel casinos with a livelier pulse. For example, the shops in the Wynn shopping arcade include Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Manolo Blahnik and Judith Lieber. Not your casual shopping experiences, and certainly not for the shopping faint of heart.
I did have a Carrie Bradshaw moment when I entered the Manolo Blahnik shop. The slim and handsome young male salesclerk seemed bored to tears despite his beaming smile, and very happy to have someone to talk to. He pretended to be thrilled that I ventured in to admire the shoes, even though I am sure he could tell that I was not going to be a contender for a sale. He gladly let me snap a few photos, and this is one of the shoes that I particularly admired. He was proud to tell me how lightweight the shoe was, but to me, shoes with a $1,650 price tag should include sides, a back and a good sole.
Like all hotels in Las Vegas the Wynn hotel touts its many celebrity-chef spawned restaurants. I decided on an early dinner at Red 8, the less expensive of two Chinese restaurants on premises. I ordered a pretty simple dish – Ma po dofu – a Sichuan-inspired dish of spicy hot, country-style tofu. As soon as the dish arrived I was disappointed – it looked nothing like the tantalizing versions of this humble dish that we have enjoyed in China. In fact, it looked very similar to the third-rate dishes my local ‘no-can-care’ Chinese restaurant cranks out every day.
Sadly, the sauce was thick and gloopy from too much cornstarch and not heating the sauce enough. It clung to the spoon like a hard-luck gambler refusing to give up his place at the gaming table. I complained to the restaurant that the dish was disgusting and insulting, and they apologetically re-made it for me. The sauce was thinned and the dish was hot, but neither improved the flavor of this dish. I will always wonder if they just heated up the same dish to thin the sauce. I ordered something else, which was heavy and greasy, and they did not charge me for the dofu. Nevertheless, the moral of this story is – if you are staying at the Wynn, try your luck elsewhere.
Ironically, on this trip I was reading Nicole Mones engaging novel, The Last Chinese Chef. In these pages, through conversation between the two main characters, she presents the reader with a wealth of background information regarding the ideals of precise flavor and texture that constitute the basis of Chinese cuisine. Coupling that with discussions of the sophisticated and exacting cutting and cooking techniques employed by Chinese chefs, one is left wondering after finishing this book why this highly sophisticated and intuitive cuisine has been rendered so badly here in the USA.
Is it that we diners want nothing more from this cuisine than to choose from a handful of familiar, therefore ‘safe’ or non-palate-challenging dishes that feature the same oil-slickened presentation of bland, cornstarch thickened sauces ? Do we truly want every Chinese restaurant menu across the country to offer the same dishes ? Sadly, I fear so. Much Chinese food in America is seriously disappointing when compared to the experience of eating in mainland China. Yes, our many travels throughout China have shown us that the cuisine is quite different region to region within China, and that the idea of a national Chinese cuisine does not exist.
Some regions make tastier food that others, that is true, but all regions support local ingredients and regional taste preferences. Dishes simply do not come to the table with the ‘one-tasteless-sauce-for-all’ treatment that much Chinese food receives here. So here is the puzzle. Is it simply that in a new place in a new land Chinese restauranteurs have dumbed-down their food to a convenient level for them and one that seems to make us happy ? Has our level of acceptance of their cuisine sent them the message that they should give up on trying to challenge our eating habits even if they might secretly wish to do so ?
So much is wrapped up in this question, all of which has to do with expectation and fullfillment of desire. Was I wrong to have expected more from a highly-touted Las Vegas Chinese restaurant or should I have known better than to hope for better food ? Even the Pu-erh tea I ordered was poorly made – too-big a teapot, too much water, not enough tea, and not good quality tea at that.
Clearly, some cuisines have been better interpreted in the USA than others. For example, on the plus side of Las Vegas dining experiences, I joined some colleagues at the Mixx restaurant on the 61st floor of THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay. This is French chef Alain Ducasses’s Las Vegas ‘ joint’ on the strip ( as Sinatra would have said ) which, despite the bizarre and singularly unattractive decor (and the poorly-trained waiter who got into a tug-of-war with one of our party when he tried to pre-maturely remove her bread plate) served superbly prepared food.
I chose the bison tenderloin with a chunky black peppercorn sauce for my entree, and if I close my eyes I can still taste the rich, deep flavors of the tender, silky meat. The sauce added just the right piquant counterpoint to the velvety texture of the meat, and was the perfect sopping sauce for the delicious house-baked bread. One of my companions ordered a preparation of foie gras three ways, and those sitting near him had the benefit of the wonderful aromas wafting from his plate. For dessert, I had a chocolate souffle with pistachio ice cream, the stuff of dreams.
Food aside, and when I was not attending to tea business, I just wandered the strip and had a good time enjoying what Las Vegas does best….. entertaining. I can’t say that I like Las Vegas, but it does provide a healthy dose of perspective on the diversity of American tastes in the pursuit of relaxation and pleasure. It provides a great opportunity for colorful photographs – please enjoy my photos !