By Bill Walsh
My wife and I inadvertently went to Las Vegas for Super Bowl weekend.
The Las Vegas part was on purpose. We like Las Vegas. But the idea of mingling with the Super Bowl hordes wasn't what we had in mind, and we even specifically tried to avoid it. In yet another demonstration that girls and football don't mix, however, Jacqueline misread the calendar at NFL.com and registered the idea that the Super Bowl was Feb. 2 this year. So when a decent-enough airfare finally popped up for a Jan. 25-29 trip, we grabbed it.
It was only when we tried to book a hotel room that we realized our mistake. (The dreaded Saturday arrival didn't help, either.) All of the above helps to explain why we -- downtown types, but on the Golden Nugget/Main Street station side of things -- started our vacation not at the Nugget or the Station or the Las Vegas Club or Fitzgerald's (all of which we've found satisfactory to excellent) or the California or the Fremont (which look inviting enough) or even the Horseshoe, the Four Queens or the Plaza (which seem, um, acceptable), but at the Lady Luck. Take that, El Cortez and Gold Spike and Western! Our other three days would be at the Nugget, the Usual, so the idea of experiencing a new place for one night didn't seem all that bad.
And it wasn't. The room was hardly plush, but it was surprisingly big. And there was a refrigerator -- something you don't see in many Las Vegas hotel rooms at any price. We had no use for a fridge, and it was as big as the tiny TV with which it shared the armoire, but it's nice to know it's there. The long, dark hairs on the bathroom floor belonged to neither of us, but otherwise the room seemed clean. In fact, the limousine driver who ferried us from the airport (in one of our few pretensions, we started hiring the flat-rate $35 stretch cars at the airport, and we'll never go back) spoke highly of the Lady Luck, or at least one of its restaurants, as we made our way downtown by way of the Strip (Jacqueline's idea, and a brilliant one -- we were in no big hurry, and who wants to see the freeway?). "If you want a first-class meal without taking out a second mortgage," he said, "try the Burgundy Room." So I had heard.
As guests of the Lady Luck we didn't spend much time in the Lady Luck, but a couple of things bought my eye, as the Monty Python guys would say. One was the hotel's new "Classic Las Vegas" theme, represented on various sportswear articles with a Jessica Rabbit-esque female face you may recognize from the Classy Lady Escort Service ads in your local Yellow Pages. The Lady Luck wasn't exactly around for the Rat Pack days, but nice try. If you have a shabby, aging property, might as well play the antique card. (The nearby El Cortez, which legitimately could label itself "classic," would never do such a thing. That's what makes it classic.)
The other fascinating thing for me at the Lady Luck was the promotional and menu copy for the aforementioned Burgundy Room. The phrase "Chateaubriand and delectable flambé" stands out. Hey, now maybe this is classic Las Vegas! The "gourmet room" where it's still 1970 and a French word, any French word, sets the mouth a-waterin'! I couldn't help thinking of a skit on the Python-esque "Mr. Show" about a French restaurant that serves its customers' every need, right down to potty seats that eliminate the need for trips to the restroom ("Rudy will await your foundation"). The "Mr. Show" restaurant was called the Burgundy Loaf.
Chateaubriand sounds all fancy and stuff, but you know what it means? Meat. It's a generous slab of beef, served for two, and you get bearnaise sauce with it, but steak is all it is. You can go ahead and order your separate rib-eyes, but, as we learned in "Lady and the Tramp," nothing says romance quite like gnawing on the same hunk of flesh. For one thing, it means you can agree on a degree of doneness, if nothing else.
While I've got the dictionary out, I have to ask: Can you eat "flambé"? I thought that was a cooking technique. Let's see . . . Well, I'll be darned. It's a cooking technique, but it's also "n. a dessert or other dish so served." You know, like "havin' some deep fry" or "sittin' down to a little boil."
And, come on, "delectable"?
The menu contains the usual flowery descriptions, but the entry under "Cajun Fried Lobster" departs from the usual descriptive style and becomes a full essay. "Our Chef will be honored to prepare for you . . .," it begins. Maybe his daughter will play for us ze recorder.
Anyway, it was with mirth in mind first and gourmet dining second that I made a reservation at the Burgundy Room. I remade that reservation for an hour later from a pay phone at the Plaza, after our token trip to the Strip, and Bellagio, and the Bellagio buffet, left us a little logy with 8:30 approaching. We're downtown people, but we like Bellagio a lot. We were married there. It's one of our few pretensions.
The guy at the Burgundy Room didn't seem very concerned about the change in plans.
At 9:30, we walked to the Lady Luck and passed from the bright casino into the dim restaurant. First impressions: What are Friday and Gannon doing here?
First the detectives, then us, then another couple of potential diners waited patiently with the wine bottles in the small reception area. After about five minutes we were greeted. It was immediately apparent that we wouldn't be needing that high school French. Our host wasn't so much an elderly French gentleman as a high school football coach.
He led us to a booth ("You don't smoke, right? Sit here."). The place was practically empty, which I guess shouldn't be too surprising, considering it was late on a slow night in a slow month, and yet he seated us right near the door and right across from another couple. ("An affair?" Jacqueline wondered. "No," I said. "They haven't said a word to each other. They're married.")
As Coach walked away, I thought, "At least he's not our waiter." As he returned to take our drink orders, I thought, "Damn. He's our waiter."
Just to confirm that things were more Franco-American than French, I asked for the Frenchiest beverage of all (and one of my few pretensions), Pernod. Pernod is greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky.
Just as I thought. OK, then, sparkling water? Even a pseudo-French "gourmet room" circa 1970 would proudly carry Perrier, wouldn't it?
He wasn't sure. I ended up with club soda and lime, just like those rare moments of sobriety at the blackjack table.
Watching the detectives, I saw that both continued to wait patiently while Coach seated the waiting parties. Finally the short interview began, and while it didn't sound too urgent, I heard something about answering some questions at a later date.
The Burgundy Room is one burgundy-ish room all right. The banquettes are top-quality tufted vinyl and burgundy in color. The menus are upholstered, too. One wall sports a plaque, almost as old as I am, as evidence of an accolade from the Soupcon des Chausseurs, or something like that. I spied a flambé cart in the corner. Cherries jubilee or bananas Foster, the menu says. I thought, this must be what prom night would have been like. I was given no wine list (again, I suppose that's how prom night would have been).
Usually I'm not a coupon kind of guy, but here I proudly produced my Lady Luck fun book, which entitles us to five bucks off each entree. Not bad, considering that the entrees are $20 to $25. I read the fine print and was careful to present the coupon before ordering. "Sure, no problem," said the football coach and potential witness.
We skipped the appetizers, even the oysters Rockefeller (essential ingredient: Pernod). We opted for salads rather than cream-of-mushroom soup (the first item on the menu of international cuisine). I had my eye on the beef Wellington ever since I first made fun of the Room's menu, and that's what I wanted. I'd had it only once before, but I liked it a lot. Chateaubriand may be just steak, but beef Wellington is steak stopped with foie gras, all wrapped in puff pastry. It's one of my few pretensions.
"That's baked, so it comes out medium. Did you want it some other way?" asked Coach.
"Well, I'd prefer rare to medium rare."
"It comes out medium." (Then why did you ask?)
"And what is your medium like?"
"You'd be hard pressed to find any pink in there."
"That's OK." How often do I get to order beef Wellington?
"You wouldn't rather have a steak?"
Coach sighed. Obviously the Wellington involves some extra work. Defrosting in the microwave is part of it, I speculated.
Jacqueline was more cooperative and asked for a filet, medium rare.
Before long, the salads came. What's this stringy white stuff? It's crab! And look -- shrimp! The seafood was a nice surprise, but is it really a good idea to surprise people with something that will make a significant number of them break out in hives?
The Wellington was as gray as advertised. It's beef in puff pastry, and it's edible, but there's no evidence of foie gras or pâté or even liverwurst. My "medium" was "well done," but they made up for that by rendering Jacqueline's "medium rare" as "bloody as hell." Her steak was done exactly as I like it! She didn't dare send it back, and I got a nice chunk of beefy red consolation prize.
The flambé was tempting, but we didn't want to be witness to a self-immolation as the dragnet closed around our server, and besides, "deep fried strawberries" sounded even better. They were pretty good, and not as bizarre as they sound. Basically, it was cinnamony doughnut dough around suspiciously frozen-on-the-inside berries.
Around dessert time, another couple was seated next to us. They fired up cigarettes right away (guess it's just our booth that's the non-smoking section), and they were much more chatty than the couple who were across from us earlier. They're from Dallas, and the male half of the duo painstakingly chose the Burgundy Room as the place he wanted to eat in Vegas. It was entertaining but rather sad as they scrutinized every menu item. They were also very careful with the wine list, and they chose a Beringer bottle. "Merlot?" Coach asked. "Cabernet," they corrected him. "Beringer doesn't have a merlot."
The female half was particularly keen on the "fresh" fish, which was probably a good bet this far inland on a slow night in a slow month at a deserted and aging palais du boeuf. The man was talking duck à l'orange, which I suppose is no more nutty than beef Wellington, but he reserved the right to change his mind if his partner took the wrong card at third base.
"I've never had sole before. How's the sole?" she asked Coach cheerfully.
"But it's good, right?"
Today's truth-in-advertising laws are more impressive than I thought! Or maybe not -- he then pushed the Chilean sea bass, which careful readers of the culinary press now know is neither Chilean nor bass. (I believe it is "sea," though.) It's also a bit of an anachronism in this shrine to 1970.
Her playing partner apparently agreed that it was the wrong answer, and he switched to the filet.
Our check arrived, spoiling all the eavesdropping fun. It was about $75 -- not bad for a "gourmet" meal, but also not reflective of a certain fun-book discount. I mentioned this to Coach, who replied, "Did you give me the coupon?"
Well, no, but we showed it to you, and you said OK before we could give it to you . . .
He quickly surmised that Jacqueline would not be as lenient as the detectives were, and he brought a corrected tab. And a rose for the lady.
I tipped generously on the pre-coupon amount, to make a point, and it was on to the blackjack tables. The old "Roses play!" trick, alas, didn't work.
Other Trips, Other Reports
You'll find more Bill-and-Jacqueline trip reports on my main Las Vegas page.
Masters of the Genre
If you liked this little dispatch, you'll love the seminal work
of the Matt Weatherford/Mark "Stinky" Sinclair team and
Abby Schiff, available at the Big Empire site.
My Real Web Site
You've probably already figured this out if you know the first thing about directory structure, but you'll find my main Web site at www.theslot.com. Read all about my views on English usage and the editing process, then wonder "So why were there so many typos in his Vegas piece?"