In Vegas, your hotel is your universe-built like a behemoth adult theme park with all the gambling, food, booze and babes at your fingertips. Mine was no exception. Venice, Italy, may be small and sinking but Venice, Las Vegas, is as frighteningly monstrous and erect as a fake breast. Schools of slack-jawed fanny packers, running brides, and Asian tourists flock to sigh beneath its painted ceiling, or else just videotape it.
The world of the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino is a smugly posh one-too smug. In fact, for all its restaurants and lounges and bars ... there is not one buffet. Fine. My last Vegas buffet experience was enough to kill forever my desire to bury my head in a vat of shrimp whilst weakly extending my champagne glass to be refilled. But the Venetian boasts over eighteen dining experiences, and I found myself in the perfect place to brave another daunting culinary phenomenon: the Vegas à la carte menu. My optimism buoyed by cheap casino drinks, I teetered through the Venetian's funhouse of hallways and elevators smilingly, then morosely, then fearfully, in four-inch heels, looking for something good to eat. Little did I know I would have to leave my hotel-indeed, the strip itself-to find hard-won bliss.
VooDoo Cafe and Lounge
Las Vegas, Nevada
Cuisine: American Creole
Price: US$50-60 per person
(taxes and tip not included)
Drinks: wine, starting at US$6 a glass
and US$25 a bottle; cocktail prices vary
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Veronica's Verdict: For a witchy woman, I escaped the sinking city...
I was starving and dehydrated and lost, the lidless eyes on statues of wind-blown women mocking me in the cathedral silence of the domed corridors I roamed. Every day I surrendered my search, finally limping toward the one mecca I had managed to uncover in this damned hotel: the Grand Lux Café, a casual restaurant located in the jaws of the casino. A wanting atmosphere features a "terrace" that overlooks a sea of slot machines and zombie-eyed grannies. If that doesn't dissuade, they also have a complicated seating system involving four anorexic women caught, seemingly for eternity, in the headlight stare of a computer screen-one must simply wait and will them to notice all the empty tables in vain. However, as the café is owned by the Cheesecake Factory, the food was reasonable and good-tasting. The portions, though, were morbidly vast: I pushed north through forests of salad, occasionally dipping into my lake of piña colada for courage. The salads here are composed in the traditional American fashion-each its own cosmos, containing everything under the sun, and the sun itself, in bite-sized chunks. I loved them.
But a woman cannot live on lettuce alone-at least, not when she's drunk. I managed to find Bouchon, a light at the end of one of the Venetian's many never-ending hallways. The French bistro is owned by famous California chef Thomas Keller, the genius behind the San Francisco restaurant, French Laundry. Not that I've eaten at French Laundry, but I've read chef Anthony Bourdain's description of the food so many times that I feel I have, and that's what counts. I was quite excited.
I left Venice and went to Rio, a kitschy carnival-themed hotel, off the strip. Taking a glass elevator fifty floors up to its top, I found myself in another, better world; a world of jungle-print booths, tasselled curtains, and purple walls studded with fluorescent voodoo-esque drawings.
The bread was great; the wine, excellent (I've had better, cheaper chèvre chaud at Au Petit Extra in Montréal, but still). The atmosphere was a far cry from my fridge-cold casino haunt: white tablecloths, dim lights, windows and women elegant as orchids languidly chewing. Plus the wine put me in a cumbia, free-to-be-you-and-me kind of mood: I ate freely off the plates of my other companions. I can tell you that the salmon, the lamb, the steak and the croque madame are all excellent choices, but the truite aux amandes was my favourite. It arrived splayed, its head still on, opened up for you like a lover, only smothered in butter, almond slivers and green beans. The profiteroles were a little tough for my taste, but globby in chocolate sauce and fat with ice cream. I absolved them.
The next night, I heard the roar of my own breath echoing down the vast corridors of this hotel for the last time. I left Venice and went to Rio, a kitschy carnival-themed hotel, off the strip. Taking a glass elevator fifty floors up to its top, I found myself in another, better world; a world of jungle-print booths, tasselled curtains, and purple walls studded with fluorescent voodoo-esque drawings. The VooDoo Cafe and Lounge, an American Creole restaurant and bar, was a breath of fresh air from the austere Venetian. I could see not only the beginning and end of the restaurant itself but, with its 360-degree view of Vegas, I could see past the city, past the vile lights to the nothing of the desert.
Here, cocktails lent themselves to the ambiance. Aside from their apt names-Witchy Woman, Shrunken Head-and potion colours, they also had special effects. What The Witch Doctor Ordered actually arrived cauldron-like to our table, smoking with dry ice. The food was enjoyable. Try the Witch Doctor Sampler, a vast plate of fried food: Creole crab cakes, coconut battered shrimp, andouille beignets and voodoo-hot wings are precisely what a Witchy Woman wants for company. That, prefaced by the blue cheese and tomato salad, would be enough to satisfy most-but not me. I will happily report that the steak and seafood dishes were also quite good. A warning however: this restaurant is the bachelorette's harem. Armies of women with identical haircuts cackled into hissing vats of drink. I was fine with it. In fact, I didn't want to leave, nor did I have to. If you eat at the VooDoo Lounge, you are free to drink and dance yourself stupid afterwards on the two-storey outdoor nightclub that tops the hotel. So I did, the wind blowing violently in my hair, drowning out every sound but the music.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) has eaten, shamelessly or barely at all, in nearly every city in the world. She enjoys rain, hurling things against walls and walks on the beach. She lives beautifully in an undisclosed location at the edge of the known universe. There, she weeps her mascara tears, churns butter in the old style and listens to French accordion music.