Amazing Peace

This poem by Maya Angelou was one of the readings at our Candlelight Service last night.  With it, I wish the world Peace for Christmas.

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

By Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.

It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.

Peace.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
implore you to stay awhile with us
so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace.
We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace.
We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul

One Old, One New

Yesterday involved two different holiday meals, one at the long established Johnny’s Bar on Fulton, the other at the newly opened Market in Rocky River.  Both of them shared some positive qualities:  attractive settings, attentive service and good company.  Yet somehow they were very different experiences.

Johnny’s, the original location of a trio of restaurants, is in the slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Clark Metro.  You would drive past this place a hundred times without noticing it.  It is a hidden gem and this becomes obvious as soon as you step inside.  A welcoming bar dominates the lower room, along with a couple of white tableclothed four-tops along the side.  A few steps up place you in the main dining room.  Indirect cove lighting in the ceiling, grooved rosewood paneling and an Italianate mural set a sophisticated tone.  The inclusion of leopard print carpeting strikes a snazzy note at your feet.

The lunch menu is a brief affair, a short excursion through some Italian classics.  A couple of salads, a few simple apps and soups give way to a short list of entrees.  We have always focussed on the house specialities here, which we have gauged from watching what the locals around us are ordering.  For a starter, the choice is the Stuffed Banana Peppers.  Hot peppers, char-grilled and stuffed with ground veal, are then baked in marinara.  Deftly served by the waitstaff, using a pair of spoons, these gems hit all the right notes of heat, spice and savory richness.  With plenty of Italian bread to sop up the sauce, this makes a fitting start to any meal here.  A salad follows, just leaves of lettuce with vinaigrette, no other vegetables to distract you.  The Italian dressing is light as air, with just a whisper of garlic; the blue cheese is creamy and rich with clearly evident chunks of cheese.

For our entrees, there were thin scallopini of tender veal, finished with lemon and white wine and capers, a perfect rendition of Piccata.  A pounded chicken breast came cloaked with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and an intensely flavored demi-glace.  The sides included perfectly seasoned scalloped potatoes and perfectly cooked haricots verts, given a final turn in the pan with a swirl of butter.  There was nothing racy or avant garde about any of these plates, but they all came out of the kitchen beautifully arranged and deftly seasoned.  Clearly, this has been the case here for decades and there is no reason to mess with success.

We finished with an enormous slice of Triple Chocolate Torte; tender cake, tall layers of mousse and a thick drift of ganache on top.  It would easily satisfy four diners, although the three of us managed to kill it off handily.  Freshly brewed coffee, dark and strong, is poured from silver pots into a proper cup and saucer arrangement…no casual mugs here.  The well-used china, with its slightly worn gilding, is a graceful complement to the hefty silver service in your hand.

As we watched the snow fall through the enormous plate glass window at the front, we contemplated the last of our martinis and sank back into a sense of satisfaction.  “This is a grown-up restaurant,” we all agreed.  A restaurant for grown-ups, yes, but also a scene that has matured across the years.  A well rehearsed staff; a solid menu of outstanding dishes; a setting that is at once elegant and comfortable.

Market, on Linda Street in Rocky River, has been open only a few weeks at this point.  The structure was built specifically for this restaurant.  With a stone and timber lodge feel, the main room is all high ceilings and huge windows.  A massive horseshoe bar dominates the back of the space, with rows of flat screen TVs above.  An enormous television in the dining room played cable news all during our dinner, although there was no sound, nor was there closed captioning.  Basically, we had a mural of talking heads with a ticker of news headlines across the bottom.  (Can anyone explain to me why we always need to be watching television while we eat out?  I do watch at home during dinner, but when I am in a restaurant, paying for my meal, attended by a waiter, can I please have it without the distraction of a flickering screen overhead?)

The list of beers and wines is extensive and should satisfy just about everyone.  The menu is, clearly, market driven and seasonal.  There are the usual choices, such as a burger, a wedge salad, a strip steak and grilled salmon.  There are some less usual items like a bison burger, sesame crusted tuna and truffled mac and cheese.  Then there are some very ambitious dishes like Chicken Roulade, stuffed with chorizo and smoked gouda, served with pine nut risotto, or Blackened Grouper served over Crawfish Jambalaya.  The roulade was delicious, although the accompanying four spears of asparagus were tough and without any seasoning.  We also tried a Reuben sandwich, made with house smoked brisket.  The sweet potato fries alongside were crispy, hot and served in a generous portion.  A Black Pearl Porkchop arrived atop a pile of sweet potato mash.  Cooked exactly as requested, the chop was grilled on the bone and was juicy and flavorful.

For dessert, we tasted a slab of house made carrot cake that was a clear winner.  Less enticing were my Deep-fried Uncrustables.  This little junk food indulgence involved taking the frozen kids snack (a white bread pocket of peanut butter and jelly) and frying it to a golden turn.  Sadly, the flavor of the fish fried in the oil previously was the dominant flavor of the crust.  This was disconcerting at best and downright unappetizing by the third bite.  If you are going to prepare desserts like this, a separate fryer is a must.

There are some issues at Market that have to do with the place being so new.  The room’s enormous size and generous ceiling height made us feel like we were in a warehouse.  The space lacks any real character of its own; one can hope that will come with time.  Perhaps, once it’s more established this sense of newness will fade.  The reach of the menu is a concern, as well as the pricing.  The inclusion of Lobster Linguine and Veal Chops, along with some of the more unusual sides (Sweet Corn Red Pepper Beurre Blanc? Bamboo Rice?), seem out of place in this setting.  With some entrees pushing the $24 mark, and even the sandwiches all riding at $11 to $14, the pricing is high.  Our entrees, priced in the upper teens, came with neither bread nor salad.  At this price point, I was surprised to see everything a la carte.

Aside from the few mis-steps mentioned, the food was generally good and the portions reasonably sized.  Hopefully, once Market has been through its paces a few times and grown more comfortable with itself, a return trip will feel more successful.

Eleven Madison Park

The final piece of my birthday celebration took place this past week.  A brief trip to New York City to visit a very dear friend included a few casual and delicious meals, as well as one superb dinner experience at Eleven Madison Park.  Having had one of the best meals of my life there last August, it seemed the natural choice for the “New York Birthday Dinner.”  I called exactly twenty-eight days ahead, just as the reservation line opened.  I secured a prime 8.30 pm table and requested the same young man who had been our captain last summer.  The restaurant is now more than a year into its title as one of just seven dining rooms to have earned four stars from the New York Times.  EMP (as it is known colloquially) underwent  a transformation last month, subtracting tables and seats, reconfiguring the bar area and radically altering the format of the menu.  This last change seemed the most threatening to me, causing some hesitation and much consternation as I planned for this meal.

The room is the vaulted lobby of the Metropolitan Life North Building, begun in 1928.  It has been restored to its original glory, details of polished nickel and burnished wood gleaming in the dim light of evening.  A well in the center is surrounded by a low balcony on three sides and an overhanging private dining room above.  Tables are very generously sized and lavishly well-spaced, especially by New York standards.  A subdued bar lines one wall and serves mostly as a way-station for diners waiting for their seats.  There is the muted hint of Miles Davis in the air and several spare flower arrangements on the sideboards.  The staff moves through space in a silent, smiling ballet;  I encountered no one who failed to make me feel welcome.

We spent a short while with the cocktail list and chose a brace of martinis:  Drew’s with Plymouth gin, mine with organic vodka.  The presentation of these classic drinks involves the appearance of a rolling cart tableside.  Chilled martini glasses are placed above your plate and a sterling silver oil can (a la The Wizard of Oz’s Tinman) is proffered, dispensing just the proper number of drops of vermouth into the vessel.  The frozen bottle of the appropriate spirit is then generously poured, right up to the rim.  The garnish of a twist is sliced with a silver peeler from a fresh lemon and dropped into the glass.  Lastly, a tiny dish of toasted and salted Marcona almonds lands next to your hand for easy snacking.

Ordering was our next task. (Somewhere in here, a square dish of the most ethereal gougeres ever appeared and we made quick work of those!) Rather than a traditional menu with categories (such as appetizers and entrees) and descriptions of individual dishes, the new format here involves a grid with sixteen squares.  Each row lists just four words, encouraging one to have a conversation with the server about likes, preferences and general expectations.  We chose to minimize this discussion, leaving as much surprise in the equation as possible.  Every single noun listed sounded enticing, so we set about eliminating  what appealed the least.  When we were done, we had settled on a course of action that would take us from land to sea to sky and back again.

Our odyssey began with a progression of hors d’oeuvres presented by the kitchen staff that had prepared them.  We asked each of them multiple questions and found that really responded to the attention of being in the dining room, with the guests.  First up was a diminutive teacup, plumbed with a tiny bouquet garni of sage and rosemary tied with raffia, into which was poured a pale brown “tea.”  The aroma that rose was russet potato, roasted to a rich, dark hue.  “Baked potato tea” was a new experience for both of us.  The counterpoint to this arrived on a block of black resin, cut with grooves.  Curling up out of these, a potato crisp dabbed with creme fraiche and dotted with chives.

Next up, after a short interval, a soup spoon with a truncated handle, into the bowl of which was lain a mouthful of smoked Balik salmon.  The garnish of dill was totally superfluous.  The fish simply melted on the tongue, leaving only a rich, buttery afterglow tinged with the lightest bit of smoke.  The resin block appeared again, this time laden with a rice crisp topped with Hamachi tartare, enhanced with shiso leaf and lime.

Our final treat was a duo of smoked sturgeon bites.  The cold began with a sliver of house smoked sturgeon, nestled into a tiny leaf of Baby Gem lettuce, finished with a shaving of French Breakfast radish.  The warm portion of this course was presented in a sheared off eggshell, set in a porcelain egg cup.  A delicate froth was all we saw at first, a savory sabayon of smoked sturgeon.  Hidden further down were nuggets of the fish, the bottom of the shell bright green with chive oil.  This was one of my favorites of the night.

Now the the starters were out of the way, we could move on to the portions of the menu we had actually ordered.  Bread service arrived:  an individual baguette, an olive and rosemary roll, cultured cow butter, goat butter and a dish of flaked fleur de sel.  Our first glasses of wine were presented as well.  We chose a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer, both from Alsace, for these initial courses.  The balance of sweetness and acid was the perfect foil for the rich food it would accompany.

Foie gras is one of my favorite indulgences and this iteration did not disappoint.  A perfect ring of liver encased a rillettes of wild boar, lightened with the dollop of brussels sprout puree on top.  A diagonally bisected, thickly cut slice of toasted juniper brioche landed alongside, on its own plate.  This dish was sheer bliss!  The matching course was a preparation involving a giant, meltingly tender sea scallop, sweet shrimp and a subtle orange-hued sea urchin foam.  Although delicious, the foie gras was the clear winner here.

A second pair of appetizers followed.  The first was prawns.  My  thoughts are unclear on this plate…it seems all my memory cells for this course were focused on the tortelloni served simultaneously.  These tender pillows of hand rolled egg pasta were filled with an unctuous, toothsome blend of chestnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano.  They reclined in a puddle of fresh cream, were topped with chestnut foam and then showered, tableside, with a deluge of white truffle shavings.  I am usually not a big fan of truffles, but the combination of the fungus, the chestnuts and the cream was ethereal.

Our first entrees were next.  A venison loin, presented as two tall cylinders, was perfectly browned on the outside and rosy pink inside.  The plate included an ovoid slice of poached pear, its core removed and replaced with a circle of bacon panna cotta. It was a savory, silky and utterly decadent accompaniment.  A juicy and vaguely pink pork loin chop was served simultaneously, garnished with fresh juniper berries and the tiniest brussels sprouts you can imagine.  At this point we had switched to red wine, a Syrah from the Rhone Valley.

Our final savory course was not on the regular menu.  It was my understanding that this dish was only available by pre-ordering it when the reservation was made.  I had passed on doing this, wanting to leave as much as possible to serendipity and surprise.  When it was offered to us during the ordering process, though, my ears perked up and I nodded vigorously.   Now it was time for the payoff.  I watched Drew’s eyes light up as the cart rolled up behind me.  The duck had arrived!  An entire Muscovy duck, roasted to a glistening, crackling finish with honey and lavender.  Our waiter carved it deftly and swiftly, crowning it with fresh huckleberries and huckleberry puree.  We were so stuffed at this point that we left half of it to take home.  It was certainly a delicious addition to our meal, as well as a beautiful one.

As we sat back in our chairs, contemplating the desserts to come, the table was cleared of the previous courses’ accouterment. Bread and butter service were removed, crumbs cleared, wine glasses whisked away.  A pre-dessert was brought…a malted milk shake.  It came in the form of malted ice cream sandwiched with the thinnest sheets of meringue imaginable.  The inclusion of an olive oil emulsion, sea salt and cracked black pepper provided another twist on a classic flavor profile.

Our chosen desserts were next to the table.  A course of three types of chevre, presented in a basket with straw, returned plated with thin crisps of fruit and nut bread.  The apple dessert included a slice of moist apple cake, a quenelle of apple ice cream, a perfect sphere of apple flesh coated in salted caramel and an intriguing little globe of walnut crumble. A bottle of Poire William, replete with a whole pear suspended in glass, landed on the table with this course.  It was ours to drink, as much as we pleased, for the duration of the meal.  Flavor overload had started to set in by this point.

We ordered coffee service as well.  Eleven Madison Park has recently upped their game in this area, offering not only traditional coffee and espresso drinks, but also tableside theater with Chemex or Siphon preparations.  We chose the latter and were treated to a recreation of a science experiment/dinner party experience from the nineteenth century, updated for the 21st century.  (You can watch a video of this process at Intelligentsia Coffee here.)  Another rolling cart arrived, laden with glassware, cups and a Bunsen burner.  Fueled to a white-hot glow with butane, it was placed underneath a globe of glass filled with spring water.  A second globe rested on top, connected by a slender neck of glass threaded with a thin chain and a filter.  The water boiled and rose into the upper chamber.  Once a digital thermometer guaranteed the correct temperature (precisely 199 degrees!), freshly ground beans were spooned into the water, gently stirred, and a stopwatch was activated (precisely 45 seconds!)   During this interval, the lower globe was gently fanned by our waiter, lowering the ambient temperature to encourage the finished brew to return to its original home as perfect coffee.  We were poured only half a cup each with the proviso that the brew would probably be too hot to drink for some minutes.  Neither cream nor sugar was offered: none was needed.  It was indeed a very fine cup of coffee, hoopla notwithstanding.

The final bites of the evening were brought by a member of the pastry department.  Three little mouthfuls, each more amazing than the last.  To begin, a perfect sphere of warm, cinnamon sugar dusted doughnut, filled with still-cold ice cream.  Then, a piece of translucent brittle, fortified with butternut squash puree and studded with salted pepitas.  Lastly, a chocolate truffle.  This was roughly shaped and pitch-black on the outside, the perfect visual take on the fungus of the same name.  The surprise came when it hit my tongue:  the sweetness of fine chocolate tinged with a hit of real, savory truffle.

We were exhausted by this point.  We had been at the table for more than four hours.  We had seen some twenty plates put before us.  The room was nearly empty as the clock passed midnight.  As we wearily rose, the bill having been settled, we were presented with our coats and a jar of housemade granola with the Eleven Madison Park label affixed to the lid.  A little snack for breakfast, should we happen to wake up hungry!

Birthday in Las Vegas

Las Vegas. A name that instantly evokes so many images for all of us. I hesitate to write this, wondering if it would be possible to add any new thoughts to the history of writing about this storied destination. It’s not as if we had any experiences different from the legions of visitors before (and after) us. In the end, I just wanted to make a record of a wonderful vacation together. The trip was Tony’s fiftieth birthday present to me. It was to have been a surprise, but my nosiness and impatience forced his hand, revealing the details many months ahead of time. He has the patience of a saint and I continue to hope that some of that will rub off on me.

He booked a three night air and hotel package that included non-stop flights (yay!), a luxury room at Paris (double yay!) and a 24 hour buffet pass (triple yay!). My annual fee for my airline credit card has as one of its benefits a pair of passes to its corporate/first class lounge. We snacked on bagels and coffee, took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and relaxed in leather armchairs before boarding our plane. After a painless flight, we landed on that Tuesday morning with only a couple of small carry-on bags and headed for the taxi line. Our first stroke of luck came when we were directed to the cab stand slot numbered ONE. This must portend something good, I thought. We were met at the hotel with only a short line at the front desk and given immediate access to our rooms, despite being there 4 hours ahead of the regular check-in time. We dropped our bags and headed out into the heat of the morning.

Our first stop was the Buffet at Bellagio. We arrived to find a line that was moving at a positively glacial pace. We figured out later that it was the transition time from breakfast to lunch, with thrifty guests taking advantage of the opportunity to pay for the earlier, cheaper meal and still eat a full savory menu. The array of choices was quite astonishing. There were several different green salads; a variety of cold vegetable and pasta salads; sliced prosciutto, salame, ham and cheeses; platters of fresh fruit; hand rolled sushi and sashimi; smoked salmon and whitefish; steamed, peeled shrimp; roast turkey, chicken, lamb and pork, along with two kinds of steak; a multitude of grilled and sauteed vegetables; a build your own pasta bar, alongside four kinds of stuffed pastas in sauce; a stirfry station, alongside a selection of prepared Asian dishes; and finally, a large display of breads. Then there were the desserts! There were at least a dozen different plated options, as well as an assortment of cookies, sorbets and ice creams and a chocolate fountain.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food here. Everything we ate was fresh and beautiful. The only issue we had was the service. It took far too long to get our server to take our drink orders, in my opinion. By the time I came back with my desserts, there were four plates waiting to be removed from our table. In fact, some tables near us were never cleared of dirty dishes and glassware for the entire hour that we sat there. The staff seemed unhappy and spent long stretches talking with one another, rather than doing their jobs. As someone who has worked in restaurants and is acutely aware of the staff around me, this made the whole experience less than ideal.

The balance of the afternoon was spent walking the south end of the Strip. Our first stop, the Bellagio, was still a premier property even after all these years. The generous use of marble, the colorful awnings on the casino floor, the Chihuly installation in the lobby and the 27 foot high chocolate waterfall at Jean-Philippe Patisserie make for a magical setting.

Moving south, we next stopped at Monte Carlo. The theme here is the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast, the main theme of said principality being its casinos. One door south is New York, New York. This interior was one our least favorites, mostly because of its New Yorkiness. Dark, crowded, dirty, noisy and expensive, it was all the things we hate about the city. The exterior architecture is quite a sight, but it’s marred by a rollercoaster running through it. I suppose for some this must be fun, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Beyond that sat Excalibur, a sort of pathetic visit to Merry Olde England. Next up was Luxor, it’s main property shaped as a giant pyramid with a gazillion-watt beam of light shooting straight into space from its apex. The interior attempts at Phoenician decor were somewhat less than successful. The final property at the south end of the Strip is the luxurious Mandalay Bay, which we did not visit.

Our entertainment for the evening was the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. This is the third official Cirque production I have seen. We have also seen four or five “pretend” Cirque shows on our cruises, featuring many of the same styles of acts. We decided that we have seen enough of these! Once you put together a string of performers from jugglers to trapezists to gymnasts to someone spinning from their neck, the only thing you can do to make it seem new is put them in different costumes and give them a different theme. We have seen them dressed up as Peter Pan, a Chinese Opera, a Bollywood movie and, in Vegas, as a sex show. The feats are truly impressive, don’t get me wrong. I think I have just become jaded.

The next morning we boarded a bus for Hoover Dam. Our driver gave us lots of info on Las Vegas on our ride out and added a stop at the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign for a photo opportunity. Once we arrived at the dam site, we took an escorted tour that included the Turbine Room. The sheer size of this entire operation was amazing. Lots of superlatives can be used to describe it, but you really need to see it to understand the scope of it. It brought to mind our feelings about the Panama Canal. It is just incredible to think that mankind had the hubris to even attempt such massive projects. If you are in Las Vegas for more than a day, I would definitely recommend a tour out that way.

That afternoon, we returned to our hotel and activated our “Buffet of Buffets” wristband. This pass, included in our hotel package, offered twenty-four hours of continuous access to seven of the Strip’s buffets. By starting it in the middle of dinner service, we were able to squeeze four meals out of it (dinner, breakfast, lunch and another dinner). We started with dinner at the Flamingo, in the shadow of a twenty story high photo mural of Donny and Marie. The food was alright, but not the best we had. What was amazing was the view from our table. We overlooked the hotel’s Wildlife Habitat and had views of black swans, penguins and, of course, flamingos. It was quite a sight!

After another short night’s sleep, we headed for the breakfast buffet at Planet Hollywood. This was an amazing setup! They had just about anything you can imagine for the day’s first meal. The food was fresh, hot and well-seasoned. The service was really great, too. Actually, almost everyone we encountered in Las Vegas was just wonderful. Folks seemed truly happy to be helping you wherever we went. Bus drivers, cabbies, hotel desk clerk, cocktail waitresses, buffet servers, and even hotel maids were gracious and friendly. I talked to a couple of them about this fact and they responded, “We want you to come back!” Why can’t people everywhere reach this same conclusion?

We spent the rest of the morning visiting other properties. My personal favorite was Aria and the shopping center connected to it, Crystals. These properties are part of the brand new City Center, a cluster of hotels, casinos and shopping between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Aria’s casino floor was elegant and refined, a welcome change of pace from what we had been seeing. Crystals is a soaring, light-filled space, the center of which is dominated by a restaurant suspended in midair, encased in a wooden “tree.” We also stopped in at Caesar’s Palace, which is the polar opposite of all that restraint. The decor here was completely over the top. If you can imagine a gaudy Roman enclave, you can imagine Caesar’s. We paid our respects across the street at the Venetian, too. Here, the streets (and even a canal) of Venice are lovingly recreated, right up to endless frescoed ceiling reminiscent of Michelangelo. Never have so many angelic cherubs gazed down upon so much depraved excess.

There were brief interludes at the Wynn (gorgeous, still shiny-new), Treasure Island (campy, smelling faintly of coconut and jasmine?), the Mirage (slick, smooth beauty), the Flamingo (seriously old school, despite attempts at modernization), Harrah’s (the Carnival theme is worn thin), Bally’s (what theme?) and finally, back home to Paris. We loved this property, and not just for the half-size Eiffel Tower  and Arc de Triomphe out front. The casino floor is dressed like a Parisian street, with faux gaslights and a blue and white-clouded sky. Cobblestones underfoot and diminutive streetscapes complete the effect. Even the reception area gets into the act with its Versailles-esque pastiche of mirrors, chandeliers and gilt.

The last evening of our visit we took the bus up to Fremont Street to see what had become of the Las Vegas of the past. Millions of dollars have been poured into these early casinos, restoring them to their original glory. Classics such as the 4 Queens, Binion’s and the Golden Nugget continue to be crowded even today. The addition of the Fremont Street Experience is a big draw, too, offering a light show on an arched roof above the street. If you are going to Vegas, you should definitely check that out.

We ate some wonderful things during our stay. I enjoyed a different French pastry every day (in celebration of my birthday), including a pot of luxurious chocolate mousse; a delicate raspberry and almond tart; and finally a madeleine, a financier and a tiny chocolate cake. We ate a light supper one evening on the edge of the terrace at Paris, in the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. We started with a classic salad of frisee, lardons and a poached egg, followed by scallops baked under a blanket of bechamel and cheese. At other stops along the way there were crepes filled with Nutella; more shrimp and crab legs than I have had in ages; an excellent cheese danish; and lots and lots of coffee.

We had a wonderful time, although we agreed on the third morning, as we packed for the trip home, that seventy-two hours was just enough time to spend there. We saw the sights. We ate the buffets. We paid the “Casino Tax” everywhere we went…meaning I gambled and lost in every hotel. We enjoyed the complimentary cocktails on the casino floor, even while playing penny slots. It was a relaxing time together, with not a care in the world.

A Message from Ellen

Please Please Please take a moment to watch this message from Ellen DeGeneres.

Will you then, PLEASE take a moment to think about what YOU can do to make a difference. Even the tiniest thing can have a big impact. Just bringing up this topic in conversation can get someone else to think about this crisis….someone who may not have heard about it, someone who can then go on to do their part.

I implore you to make this a living, breathing element of your consciousness. Whether through prayer or meditation or conversation or reposting this on your blog, please help to put a stop to these senseless, tragic deaths.

How do they know?

New banner ads, to which I am subjected in Hotmail, have now changed from a variety of cruise line come-ons to a promotion for an over-50, heterosexual dating website. Seriously? You can figure out from my online activity that I am past the half-century mark, but you haven’t gleaned that I am gay? The algorithms in those big server farms need some tweaking.

Dante’s Chef’s Table

I was honored with a surprise birthday gift last week from a dear friend: dinner at the chef’s table in the kitchen at Dante. It was just the two of us seated at a private booth in the midst of all the action and we had an amazing evening. We were escorted to the table and left with a wine list and a cocktail list, but no menus. Dante Boccuzzi himself stepped over to the table and introduced himself. His only questions regarded allergies (none) and the number of courses (seven). With that simple preamble, we were off!

First up was a deceptively simple plate of tuna sushi. Hawaiian big eye tuna, delicately rolled with rice, wasabi and nori, topped with a sliver of foie gras and briefly torched to melt the liver over the sushi. This garnish, along with a sprinkling of crisp rice, really took things to the next level. Next up was a tower that began with a thin round of hearts of palm, then a crunchy tempura of shiitake and finally a deliriously fatty slice of hamachi. A shot of yuzu foam covered the fish and helped to cut the intense richness of this plate. The chef’s training at Nobu in Milan was clearly at play here.

An enormous butter poached shrimp followed. Resting atop roasted fingerling potatoes, laying alongside was a swath of spicy sweet corn puree, some sauteed corn kernels and a few leaves of baby spinach. A crumble of toasted cornbread, scattered across the plate, gave a little nudge of crunch to the plate.

A crispy piece of roasted Pacific sea bass was next, served with tender braised radishes and meltingly soft polenta. A pair of luscious dayboat sea scallops came over next, quickly seared and plated with some gorgeous, meaty mushrooms and sauteed watercress, the whole thing sauced with decadent hollandaise. The final savory course was a few slices of rare rib-eye steak, nestled atop a bunch of flash-fried watercress. House pickled ramps provided a welcome, tangy relief to the parade of richness.

By now, more than two hours have passed, along with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine. We settle back in our seats and are presented with a miniature pre-dessert: poached local peaches, vanilla ice cream and a tiny spoonful of hot caramel to pour over the whole thing. It was luscious and we felt stuffed. The pastry chef, though, had different ideas. After a personal consultation at our table, she brought us two different plates. The first was a blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, cool and fragile, trembling like a lady’s decolletage. Topped with a white chocolate dipped shortbread, it was amped up with a scoop of intense raspberry sorbet. (All the flavors of sorbet and ice cream are made in house.) The other plate was centered around a twice baked brownie wrapped in crispy phyllo dough. This was accented with a seasonal stone fruit compote and a cubical “scoop” of pink peach sorbet.

At this point he kitchen had quieted down considerably and the chef came over to spend a few minutes with us. We talked about our personal favorite restaurants in New York, about his experience there, and about how much we had enjoyed our dinner. The final treat of the night, presented to all guests at Dante, is a rolling cart laden with candy. Everything from DumDum suckers and Tootsie Rolls to exotic imported hard candies, we were just too full and asked for a bag of goodies to take home with us.

All told, we had spent more than three hours at table and consumed way more calories than I care to think about. It was a magical evening, made all the more special by the company I was lucky enough to share it with. I’ll remember this one for a long time!

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