Eating our way through Vegas

Kenley surprised me on our anniversary in January with a trip to Vegas for the week of Valentine’s Day. Our wedding anniversary, Valentine’s and my birthday are less than one month apart, so the trip was intended to celebrate all three — as well as the end of football season, which is pretty busy at FOXSports.com.

It was the second time we’d been to Vegas. The first was last April for a friend’s wedding.  It was lots of fun, but quick. (You can read about that trip here.) I hadn’t expected to like Vegas, but I did, and we were excited to go back when we could spend more time there.

Kenley had found a great deal for a hotel at the lasvegas.com website. In fact, I believe a similar deal for $38 a night at the Luxor is still being offered. The Luxor is the hotel that looks like the great Egyptian pyramid. By the way, the Luxor Sky Beam has 42.3 billion candlepower and is the strongest beam of light in the world. It is visible from outer space.

Our room, which was in the pyramid, was a standard hotel room. There was no fancy spa tub, but it was a perfectly acceptable place to lay our heads at the end of a long day. (Fair warning that with taxes and fees, the room ended up costing closer to $80 a night, but we still paid more to board our cat and dog than we did for our own four-night lodging.)

The Luxor is known for its elevators, which are actually “inclinators.” You get a weird sensation as you travel up to your room or down to the lobby, and you realize you’re actually moving at an angle along the pyramid, and not straight up and down.

After we checked in Sunday night, we decided to explore the Luxor and the adjacent Mandalay Bay casino, which is a short walk through The Shoppes at Mandalay Place. We used our $35 food voucher at the More buffet in the Luxor. We didn’t have high expectations and the food wasn’t great, but hey, we can say we’ve eaten at a buffet in Vegas.

The neighboring Mandalay Bay is more modern and upscale, and there were a lot of 30-somethings hanging out in the casino and restaurants. I would definitely consider staying at Mandalay and eating at some of the restaurants there on a future trip.

In the Shoppes at Mandalay Place, a penguin tried to lure us into Minus5 Ice Bar, where you have to rent a parka or faux fur coat to enter the bar made of ice. The cost? $15 per person for entrance and for the parka (more for the faux fur coat), and another $15 per drink once inside. Um, I’ll stay warm, thanks, but the penguin let us take a photo with him anyway.

We ended up at the less expensive and more comfortable RiRa Irish pub, and then headed back to the Luxor, where we ventured inside the LAX and Cathouse clubs. We decided the Vegas club scene is not for us and called it a night. We had other plans.

I had planned our entire trip around food. Monday was “D.C. day” in Vegas. We had lunch reservations at Central in the lobby of Caesars Palace. The original Central, by celebrity chef Michel Richard, is in Washington, D.C., and it won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in 2008. I had wanted to try it when Kenley and I visited D.C. while he was working for SmartBrief (which also is headquartered in our nation’s capital).

Turns out Richard opened Central-Las Vegas last fall, so we got another chance. The restaurant is known for American favorites with a French twist. Kenley ordered a burger, of course, with garlic mayo, and I had the fried chicken with smashed potatoes.

The fried chicken was juicy and rich, almost too rich. I think I like my fried chicken Southern style — more savory and peppery than rich. Kenley said his burger was tasty and juicy, but that the garlic mayo was its main defining characteristic.

The restaurant is huge and seemed a bit impersonal on a not-very-busy Monday afternoon in February. If you go, request a table by the windows that look out onto the strip. Central also serves as Caesars’ lobby bar, and it’s open 24 hours a day.

Walking through the Caesars Palace casino, we saw a boxing ring set up and asked the security guys what was going on. They told us FOXSports.com just filmed a show there. We remembered our boss talking about scouting locations in Vegas for a video. We looked around and recognized one of our national columnists, Jason Whitlock, sitting near the set.

Whitlock serves as moderator for the show “Connected: The Greatest on the Greatest.” He discusses the legacy of Muhammad Ali with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown and baseball’s slugger Barry Bonds. You can watch it here.

After doing some window shopping in The Forum Shops at Caesars (my vote for the best shopping in Vegas), we visited The Mirage, where Kenley wanted to see Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. The dolphin habitat is like a zoo, so don’t expect tons of choreographed performances like you find at Sea World. But you can get fairly close to the lions and tigers, and they seem pretty active — as opposed to the ones we had seen at the San Diego Zoo earlier (those big cats seemed to spend more of their time napping). The dolphins do a few jumps, and they slide up on the shallow edges of the pool at feeding time. And the young ones liked to talk to you.

I couldn’t leave The Mirage without stepping into Karadashian Khaos, a store that features products endorsed by the celebrity family — truly allowing you to keep up with the Kardashians. I bought some sparkly nail polish called”Rainbow in the S-Kyle.” Kenley was disappointed they didn’t have a “Kim is my favorite” T-shirt in his size.

For dinner, we ate at Jaleo, a restaurant by our favorite chef, Jose Andres. We had eaten at Andres’ Oyamel a couple of times in D.C., but we’d never gotten to try the original Jaleo that’s based there. And we’ve eaten twice at his Bazaar, which is one of our favorite experiences in L.A. You can read about it here and here.

Jaleo, in The Cosmopolitan resort in Vegas, didn’t disappoint. The menu doesn’t offer quite as much molecular gastronomy as you’ll find at The Bazaar, but Andres’ Spanish tapas are still experimental, presented in interesting ways and, of course, taste delicious.

Jaleo’s extensive drink menu is delivered on an iPad! Kinda cool, but I did feel a bit rushed in making my selections since they didn’t seem to want to leave the iPad unattended at the table for too long.

We started our meal with chistorra envuelta en patata frita, which is spicy chorizo wrapped in crispy potatoes. They tasted like a gourmet version of pigs in the blanket.

We also had espárragos blancos con limón y tomillo, which is white asparagus with lemon, thyme and Idiazábal cheese. It was served pickled, in a can. The asparagus picked up a hint of that pickled flavor, and it paired well with the cheese.

We also ordered Gambas al ajillo, which is shrimp sautéed with garlic.

I noticed that Jaleo serves the same croquetas de pollo (traditional chicken fritters) in a tennis shoe that we’d ordered from The Bazaar when we first ate there.

As at all of Andres’ restaurants, the members of the wait staff were friendly and knowledgeable, and the manager came by our table a couple of times to see how we were doing.

The Cosmopolitan might have one of the best collections of restaurants in all of Vegas. I loved that Jaleo and Comme Ca (we ate at the one in L.A., which you can read about here) were on the third level by themselves, which created a kind of party atmosphere away from the casino floor.

I had to check out The Cosmopolitan’s pop-up Wedding Chapel, where “you don’t have to be afraid of commitment anymore.” You could get hitched here in a hurry for $80, which included two eraser rings. You had to pay another $150 for your marriage to be legally binding.

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day in Vegas, and what better way to spend it than in “Paris” and “Venice.” That blog post is coming soon.

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