Saturday, October 27, 2012

David Burke Prime Steakhouse (Mashantucket, CT/Foxwoods Resort Casino) Trip 2

One side of Prime Steakhouse's bar
I apparently lack originality, since I'll be talking about the same restaurant twice in as many posts, but I went back to David Burke Prime Steakhouse on Thursday, again as part of a trip to play poker at Foxwoods.  I again sat at the bar, and had the same bartender, who was as superlative as last time, and the food held up nicely again.

Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA
I went with the prix fixe again, but chose entirely different options for everything except my drink option, going with Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA.  This was less of a perfect choice this time, as I went with the Lobster Bisque for the appetizer and the "Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp for the entree, and it sort of overwhelmed the filet.

Popover with butter
I forgot to mention last time that the meal comes with a large popover, with a healthy dose of pepper in the batter, which is apparent both visually and flavor-wise, and really separates the popover from most others I've had.  They're all good, but Burke's are pretty damn great.  Served with butter, it is a great start to the meal, a light, crispy, savory pastry that also worked well with the bisque.

Lobster Bisque with "crisp lobster stick"
The Lobster Bisque was pretty damn good, with all the richness and creaminess you would expect from a good bisque, and little chunks of lobster floating in it.  There are few things I enjoy more than a good bisque, and Burke does a really nice job with it.  It's a lovely, deep, rich flavor, and you can clearly taste the lobster in every spoonful, something that is just not true in a lower quality product.  The lobster tasted really fresh, which is exactly what I'd expect from a place that prides itself on high quality products.  The menu states that the soup has a "green apple essence" in it, which you can't really taste, though there is a tartness to it that could be from that.  It also comes with what they call a "crisp lobster stick," which is really a stick of lobster in a tempura batter.  It's a little doughy, but that's actually not a bad thing in this case, as the doughiness allows it soak up the bisque if you dip it, which of course I did.  It was actually a really pleasant surprise, seeing as I hadn't actually read the menu this time and didn't know it was going to be there.  Dipping the popover in the soup was pretty great as well.  Overall, a really nice, albeit heavy, appetizer, which went exceptionally well with the bitterness of the beer.

"Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp, with garlic spinach
The "Angry" Filet and Jumbo Shrimp included a perfect 6oz filet mignon crusted with what can only be described as a mild blackening rub, two legitimately jumbo shrimp, and a little pile of garlic spinach.  The filet was cooked rare, and was exceptionally tender, with a nice beefy flavor accented perfectly by the spice rub, which had a little bit of spice, though a little more would have been welcome.  The shrimp were also mildly spicy, with a glaze that had an east Asian flair to it that the menu labels as "chipotle bbq," but they were just slightly overcooked, becoming a tiny bit tougher than I prefer my shrimp to be.  That said, it was very tasty, again lacking the overall spice that I look for in something like this, but certainly tasty.  The spinach, however, was the highlight, with a light garlic-y flavor, perfectly wilted leaves, and a healthy dose of fat clearly having been used in the cooking; it was delicious, exactly what I look for when I eat a green of any variety.  The flavor of the spinach was still there, something that isn't guaranteed when you cook it to the point that it's extremely soft and almost melts in your mouth, and it balanced nicely with the meatiness of the beef and shrimp.  I do wish I had gone with wine instead of beer, however, as the flavors were a bit milder in this entree than in the prime rib, and the heaviness and strength of the Pitch Black IPA was a bit overpowering.

Crème brûlée
For dessert I went with the crème brûlée, and this was quite well done.  Soft, creamy, a perfect custard underneath a crisp sugar crust, it was light enough at the end of a good meal to not make me feel sick, but with a strong enough flavor to not be lost in the mix.  I love simple classics, and vanilla crème brûlée certainly qualifies.  When prepared properly, it's a wonderful thing, and this was the perfect end to a good meal.

David Burke Prime Steakhouse's bar, from outside


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Friday, October 19, 2012

David Burke Prime Steakhouse (Mashantucket, CT/Foxwoods Resort Casino) and Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA

David Burke Prime Steakhouse is exactly what its name implies; a top of the line steakhouse utilizing the recipes of America's king of steak.  Along with Tom Colicchio of Top Chef and Craft Restaurants fame, David Burke is at the top of the steak-centric restaurant world, and I have been dying to try Burke Prime for a couple years, ever since I started playing poker at Foxwoods Resort Casino, but hadn't had a chance.  Burke Prime is pretty damn expensive typically, but with Foxwoods rewards points I was able to cut the bill in half before tip.

I arrived fairly early in the evening, around 5:30pm, having busted out of a poker tournament.  Needing something to perk me up, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner, and I'm quite glad I did, as this was some of the best food I've ever had.  As I didn't feel like spending $150, I went with the three course prix fixe menu, which for $50, allows you to choose from six appetizers (French Onion Soup, Lobster Bisque, Double-cut Maple Pepper Bacon Strips, Clams Casino, Surf and Turf Dumplings, and the Mixed Green Salad), four entrees (Slow Roasted Prime Rib, "Angry" Filet Mignon and Jumbo Shrimp, Braised Short Rib "Stroganoff Steak," and Grilled Salmon), and the various desserts on the menu (I suspect the "Can 'O' Cake," the restaurant's signature dessert, is not available).  I would like to have had the chance to try the Himalayan Salt Dry Aged Steaks, aged using a proprietary process that he has even managed to patent, but I wasn't in the mood to spend $65 for a steak; following a tournament win, I'm sure that will change.

The beer list was at once disappointing (the draughts) and promising (the bottles), and the beer I initially was going to go with, an IPA on draught I had never heard of before, had actually just run out, but I was changing my mind even as the bartender informed me of that.  I instead went with the Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA, a 6.5% "black IPA" or "black ale" offered in 12oz and 22oz bottles (I went with the latter, of course, which my waiter/bartender, Timmy, applauded, making a crack at McDonalds and "super-sizing" in the meantime).  I wanted something that I knew would go well with steak, and IPAs, especially these new black IPAs, offer a great compliment, having enough flavor to stand up to even a very heavy, beefy steak.  I absolutely loved this beer, my first foray into Widmer's lineup, as it approaches even the best of this genre that I have had (the Stone Sublimely Self Righteous Ale I had at the ACBF).  Poured into a 12oz flute glass, the color matches the name, as it is a pure, deep black color, reminding me of liquid onyx, and it has a truly beautiful look with the lacy, cappuccino colored foam forming on top.  The taste is heavily of hops, with a great bitterness as it hits your tongue, which subsides quickly, leaving a subtle, but pleasant, aftertaste.  The mouth feel is smooth, almost porter-ish, and I would say overall this beer seems to me to be almost the result of a marriage of a porter and an IPA.  I will be searching for this at my local beer stores.

When it came to the food, I needed a little help, so I relied on Timmy's knowledge of the menu.  I was struggling to decide between the Clams Casino (clams on the half-shell cooked with butter, bacon and breadcrumbs) and Lobster Bisque for the appetizer, and the Slow Roasted Prime Rib versus the "Angry" Filet Mignon and Jumbo Shrimp, all of which sounded fantastic.  Timmy suggested pairing the Clams Casino with the Prime Rib or the Lobster Bisque with the Filet, matching light with heavy in the first case and heavy with light in the second; at his recommendation I went with the former, because, as he put it, "I like fat in my steak," and the Filet lacks that.

The Clams Casino were well cooked, with the breading crisp but not to the point of shattering when you touched it.  The clams themselves were juicy, though a couple had a little grit to them.  With a little Tabasco sauce and lemon juice, they were perfectly tangy.  The clam shells were nestled into small piles of whipped potatoes, which were really good, but could have used more butter (but then, what couldn't use more butter?).  Overall a really good, but small, appetizer, that went nicely with the beer.  (I thought I had a picture of this, but apparently my phone crapped out on that one.)

The Slow Roasted Prime Rib was truly incredible, the best I have ever had, beating out even Lawry's The Prime Rib (I went to the Beverly Hills location) and Kimo's in Lahaina, HI.  They won't serve it less than medium rare, because the method they use to cook it, a very long, slow roast, actually makes it extremely difficult to get a true rare, but this was closer to rare than medium rare anyways (Timmy put in the ticket a request for "As rare as possible"), and it came floating in a lake of au jus so strong it tasted like beef stock.  So tender that it essentially melted in my mouth, the prime rib tasted of just three things:  beef; salt; and pepper.  This is exactly as it should be.  Nothing else is necessary to make a quality hunk of beef perfect, and Burke Prime embraces that.  Along with the prime rib itself came a large baked potato crusted with kosher salt, served with butter and what I believe was homemade sour cream.  The sour cream was the best part of that, as the potato just tasted like...well...a potato.  Nothing special there.  I didn't finish it, but that was less because of how it tasted than the fact that the portion was huge, and I was attempting to save a little room for dessert.
I don't particularly love super sweet dessert, and I was already so full that I didn't want someone too rich, so Timmy suggested that I go with the Carrot Cake, which I agreed to.  Carrot cake as a general rule isn't my favorite, but it sounded perfect in this case, since it's typically very light and airy, and since this doesn't come with a super heavy cream cheese frosting, sweetness wasn't as big an issue.  This was probably the best carrot cake I've ever had, but it was a little sweeter than I was hoping for.  It was served with shredded carrot on top, which was the saving grace in this case, as it cut the sweetness to a manageable level.  That little smear in the bottom left corner of the plate was pineapple sauce (there were also little chunks of it in the cake itself) that was absolutely freaking divine.  Seriously, if they could bottle that I'd pay exorbitant amounts of money for it.  I was so full by the end I couldn't even finish the cake.

The service here bears some additional mention.  Timmy was probably the best waiter/bartender I have ever had.  His knowledge of the menu, beer list, scotch and wine was impressive, he was entertainingly funny (I was eating alone, so it was nice to have him occasionally stop by to chat), and he was happy to discuss all of the above.  He easily earned his tip (about 30%, and honestly, he should have gotten more) and I made a point of finding one of the managers on the way out to ensure that he received some recognition.

Overall this was one of the finest meals I've ever had, at an exceedingly reasonable price (except the beer; the beer was expensive) considering what I got.  I'll definitely be going back, and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves at Foxwoods and hungry for some meat.


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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Las Vegas, NV

Homelessness is a clear issue in LV, but some homeless are more
creative with their fundraising efforts than others
I'll admit, I'm not a huge fan of Las Vegas.  That said, I enjoy many of the things that come with the city, including gambling, good nightlife including great bars and occasionally clubs, and incredible food.  I've already detailed my trips to Julian Serrano at Aria and Burger Bar in Mandalay Bay, but my trip included several other good experiences, both for food and entertainment.

My trip was with my best friend from college, Joe, and one of his classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School, Renee.  On Friday Oct. 5th, my first night, upon arriving at the Palazzo Joe, Renee and I went to grab some food at I Burgers, which is conveniently located on the second floor of the hotel, tucked in among The Shoppes at the Palazzo.  Like Burger Bar, I Burgers offers both the option of building your own burger or selecting one off the menu.  I chose the "Inferno" burger, made with ground Angus beef, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, roasted jalapeños, and habanero-jalapeño mayo.  The waitress recommended having the mayo on the side, and she was 100% right; that was hot.  Unlike the chipotle aioli at Burger Bar, which was not spicy enough and got lost in the rest of the flavors, this mayo was exceptionally hot, and risked overwhelming the burger, though I didn't use much after tasting it before putting it on the bun.  The burger itself was great, made perfectly rare (slightly less so than at Burger Bar, but still within that perfect range), on a nice brioche bun that complimented it very nicely.  Joe had a "Plymouth's Pride" turkey burger (I know, I's not really a burger) because he was running a Tough Mudder in a couple days, and figured it would be a good idea to eat light.  He seemed to enjoy it.  Renee had already eaten dinner, so she stuck with a shake, which Joe shared, and both liked, though I don't know what kind it was.  We also got some onion rings, which were exceptional; hot, crispy, with the batter clinging perfectly to the onion so that when you took a bite it doesn't fall apart.  It was served with a dipping sauce that was pretty good, though I can't for the life of me remember what it was.  For a drink I went with a Kona Brewing Company Big Wave Golden Ale draught.  Very smooth, very tasty, and a nice, subtle compliment to the burger.

After dinner, we dressed up and hit TAO, a nightclub at the Venetian, which is the sister/adjoining hotel to Palazzo.  Because we were staying at the Palazzo, we were able to get right into the club, which saved us a lot of time waiting in a line and also meant we didn't pay a cover.  When we got in, it was just Renee and I at first, as Joe went to get drinks before we figured out we could be in a much, much shorter line, and it took him a while to find us once we got in.  At first it was a lot of fun, as there weren't too too many people there, and we had a little space to move and breathe, but it quickly got extremely crowded.  One couple next to us were literally humping each other, and the guy ended up knocking my beer out of my hand without even so much as an apology; this is a significant part of why I don't frequent clubs, along with the fact that I'm hilariously bad at dancing.  After a while, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and a couple other members of the LA Clippers showed up, and at that point, it went from being fun to being a little over the top.  We had accidentally ended up in a spot only about 10 feet from where the "celebrities" were hanging out, so we ended up getting crushed by the crowd.  We spent about another hour there before we got sick of getting squeezed by people and made our way out with some difficulty. 

Saturday we grabbed breakfast at Wolfgang Puck's Solaro Poolside, which had a limited menu, and quite honestly awful service.  The food received mixed reviews, as Joe did not even remotely enjoy his buttermilk pancakes (made with fresh blueberries and blueberry compote), but Renee and I, who wanted both the breakfast burrito (with scrambled eggs, mozzarella cheese, chorizo, potatoes, and two salsas, one a fresh salsa and the other a spicy tomatillo, which I preferred) and the granola parfait (house made granola, vanilla yogurt and fresh berries) just ended up each getting one and splitting them and loving them.  The parfait was really good, not too sweet, and the granola was really nice, but it did not come close to the breakfast burrito, which was exceptional, and I sort of regretted agreeing to share it, as I wanted the second half after finishing my part.  Everything in it was perfectly cooked, and the chorizo and tomatillo salsa added a really great kick that assisted with getting rid of the little hangover I had from the previous night.  The coffee was merely acceptable, though Joe liked it, and he's a coffee addict.  As I previously said, the service was terrible, as we waited at least 10 minutes from when we sat down before the waitress came over to take our order, and when she did she neither said hello nor offered any sort of pleasantries, simply stating "Go ahead."  The service did not particularly improve over the course of the meal, either, and was not worthy either of the hotel or a chef like Wolfgang Puck.

After breakfast we lounged by the pool for a couple hours, reading, chatting and attempting to get some sun, which I badly needed.  It was quite pleasant until the sun came down in full force, at which point it got extremely hot, jumping in temperature a solid 15 degrees the second the sun hit us.  I ordered a piña colada, which was great, but cost me a whopping (and surprising) $17 dollars, which the waitress (or Joe, who had previously gotten one) didn't feel the need to tell me ahead of time.  We then went inside and got to gambling, which was entertaining but doesn't make for much of a story.

Later on we grabbed some food at Ra Sushi, which serves non-traditional sushi and Japanese influenced dishes.  We were there right at 3:00pm, when happy hour starts, so certain drinks and food were significantly marked down.  A bowl of edamame, some shrimp tempura, a spicy shrimp roll, spicy yellowtail roll, and two straight fish preparations later, we were pretty happy, and got out of there for a very reasonable amount of money.  The sushi was, as I said, non-traditional, so if you only like pure, unadulterated sushi this is not the place for you, but the fish was very fresh and flavorful, and presented in a pleasant way that made it well worth it to go, at least during the happy hour period from 3pm-7pm Monday to Saturday.  The Seared Tuna (perfectly done) and Garlic Citrus Yellowtail were ridiculously good, especially the yellowtail, which is my favorite fish.  Sadly it's also supremely overfished, so hopefully farming gets better (aka, more ecologically friendly), ensuring a continuing supply of this delightful fish.  There are, of course, many better options for real sushi, but this was a fun, nice little place to go have a snack.

On Sunday I went to lunch with my brother while Joe and Renee were at the Tough Mudder, and we went to a Greek restaurant that I do not recall the name of, though I will try to remember to ask him since it was really fantastic.  I had stuffed peppers, which were great, with lamb and olives being the dominant flavors, served with a huge amount of rice and a salad.  We also got hummus to share, served with pita bread; now, hummus being both delicious and quite ordinary most of the time, I wasn't expecting anything different from what I've had elsewhere, but this was really great.  I have no idea what the difference was between what I'm used to and what they do, but it was really great.


Among the things I really do enjoy about Las Vegas is simply walking up and down the Strip, seeing the sights, and it's best at night, where amidst the dozens of Central American immigrants attempting to hand you fliers for "escorts," you can see some pretty cool stuff, such as the Bellagio's Fountain Show, or cool street performers.  So, while there are plenty of places I'd rather go, when I do end up in Las Vegas there are also many, many things I can find to do (or eat) that lead to a fun trip.  Coming up in about a month, I'll be headed back so the family can all celebate my mom's 60th birthday together, and I'll be reviewing Bouchon Bistro, a Thomas Keller restaurant.


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Friday, October 12, 2012

Burgar Bar (Las Vegas, NV)

Burger Bar is the creation of the master French chef Hubert Keller, whose Fleur de Lys is considered by many to be among the finest restaurants in the United States.  Burger Bar is the more laid back of Keller's concepts, focusing on the classic American dish with a strong nod towards fresh ingredients.

A small selection of "Chef's Burgers," recipes of Keller's own making, which include an "American Classic," "Vegas Vegan," and "Spicy Lamb Burger," make up the backbone of the menu.  The crown jewel of these offerings is the "Rossini," a "Kobe Style Wagyu Beef" burger, with sauteed foie gras, and shaved truffles on an onion bun.  Getting past my objections to the whole the "Kobe" and "Wagyu" naming issue, this does sound like one hell of a burger, though at $60 a pop, it's tough to justify it if you haven't had a great weekend at the tables.

Along with the "Chef's Burgers," the customer can choose to build their own burger, using one of five base burgers:  Black angus beef ($9.75); Naturesource ($10.50); Lamb "Merguez Style" ($15.00); Buffalo ($17.75); Kobe Style Wagyu beef ($17.25).  You can also pick from "non beef" options, including the vegetarian burger, chicken breast, salmon steak, and turkey burger.  Upon choosing your burger, you then choose among a few bun options, including a classic plain bun, onion, or ciabatta.  There are 46 topping options, split into categories:  The Garden, including such things as baby spinach, avocado, and chopped jalapeño; The Dairy, with a number of cheese offerings; The Grill, with peppers, zucchini, and carmelized onions; The Farm, with various bacons, egg, and foie gras; The Ocean, which has lobster and shrimp; The Pantry, with such offerings as guacamole, homemade beetroot pickle, and truffle mayo; The Earth, containing the $30 black truffle shavings, and other less expensive mushrooms; and lastly sauces from Keller's Fleur de Lys, including an au poivre cream sauce.  Your last choice is accompaniment, including "skinny" and "fat" fries, referring to their cut, not their caloric or fat content, sweet potato or zucchini fries, onion rings, and croquettes.  Each item adds a certain amount to the cost.

I went fairly simple, sticking to things I knew I would like.  For the burger I selected the Naturesource beef, which is USDA prime beef raised without antibiotics or hormones, cooked rare, to which the bartender/waitress said "you know, that's really rare..."  I wanted to settle in and live there from that moment.  I selected a ciabatta roll for a bun, with bleu cheese, bacon, grilled onions, and a chipotle aioli, with tomato, lettuce, sliced onions (which I didn't use) and a dill pickle coming standard on the side.  As an accompaniment I ordered the skinny fries, which quite honestly were disappointing.  The burger was fantastic; perfectly rare, almost cool inside, with a soft, melting texture to the meat; my only complaint was the lack of a good crust on the burger, though that is a risk with a rare burger.  The toppings were great, the bleu cheese nicely melted into the grilled, slightly caramelized onions, while the bacon added a nice, slightly crisp, meaty, piggy taste.  The onions provided a little sweetness that cut the intense meatiness of the beef and bacon, and the roll was a great vehicle for the burger.  The aioli was disappointing, as it was completely lost in the midst of everything else, and lacked the spice that I was expecting from something made with chipotles.  It did serve well as something in which to dunk the fries, which while perfectly cooked lacked flavor of their own and needed something to make them a little more impressive.

Along with the extensive list of available burger options, the drink list is incredibly impressive.  Between the milkshakes, which can be ordered off the menu or customized, both virgin and alcoholic, the beer floats, and the beer list itself (which is pretty impressive) you have a ton to choose from.  I ordered the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, which ended up being the perfect beer to go along with the burger, as it was strong enough not to be overpowered, but also not to overpower the food.

Overall, this was a great experience, and a great burger, easily the best I have ever had.  The ingredients were fresh and delicious, the service was friendly and welcoming, and the setting was nice, a real sports bar feel despite the upscale nature of the food, with televisions lined up behind the bar.  Price-wise, it's not cheap, clearly, and I got out with a $30 tab after leaving an extremely generous tip, but it was well worth it and I'll absolutely go back.


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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Julian Serrano (Las Vegas, NV)

Julian Serrano, the eponymous tapas restaurant residing in the Aria Resort & Casino, provided the best of the meals I had in my brief four day stint in Las Vegas, NV, arriving on Friday evening and leaving on Monday evening.  This was where my friend Joe, his classmate Renee, and I went on Sunday evening.  They had just run a Tough Mudder race that day, and were in the mood for a good meal to celebrate.  After a little discussion over where to go, Renee suggested this, and I am extremely thankful she did. 

Our waiter recommended that we get two or three tapas each, but since we decided we wanted paella, we ended up ordering three tapas and a dessert.  The first we received was the Black Pig Pintxo, a traditional Spanish bar snack, consisting of a slice of crispy baguette topped with caramelized onions and cured, seared Iberian pork shoulder.  They offer the pork cooked medium rare to well, and, of course, we ordered medium rare, which was perfect, tender, with a perfect Maillard reaction from the searing, and a huge pork and pepper flavor.  We all loved it, and since it only came with two pieces, we were all left wanting more.

Second to arrive was the cheese plate, consisting of four slices of toasted baguette, four cheeses, and a truly delectable fig spread.  The cheeses were: a caña de cabra, which is a very soft, easily spreadable goat's milk cheese; a year old sheep's milk Manchego; a cow's milk Cabrales bleu; and a soft sheep's milk La Serena.  All were fantastic, with Renee preferring the Manchego, Joe loving them all, and my favorites being the Manchego when combined with the fig spread, or the caña de cabra, which was a little too delicate to combine with the spread.  The bleu was remarkable, and La Serena was perfectly mild.

Third to come were the Tuna Cones, consisting of a crispy wonton wrapper cone, with avocado in the bottom, topped by cucumber, and ahi tuna tartare, lightly dressed with ponzu.  The tuna flavor was strong, extremely fresh and high quality fish, and the avocado, which was extremely soft and smooth, added a nice flavor and texture contrast.  The cones were presented in a nice, very likely custom, holder with three slots for the cones.  This was my favorite tapa of the night, for its simplicity and classic flavors, presented in a clever, new manner.

Following the tapas came the mixed paella, a signature dish of Julian Seranno's, consisting of half a lobster tail, mussels, chicken, Spanish style chorizo, vegetables and of course the classic saffron rice.  Served in a paellera, this was the highlight of the night for all of us, with perfectly cooked lobster, and mussels that were cooked well, but a little dry.  The chorizo was great, a classic flavor that anyone who has had chorizo before would recognize instantly, but with a bit more depth of flavor than normal.  The rice was incredible, so smooth and creamy, with crispy bits around the edges that are the trademark of a proper paella. 

Last to eat were churros, served with Mexican chocolate.  Thin, crisp, and just slightly sweet, while the chocolate was creamy and strong, though lacking the spice that I was expecting both from the description and from the chile de árbol that was in it.  The combination worked well, but I think it would have been better with that added hint of spice. 

Along with our meal we had a bottle of Martin Códax Albariňo Rias Baixas 2010, a crisp, dry white wine that went perfectly with the tuna, cheese and paella, though it was not the perfect combination with the pork.  The wine had some nice floral notes, and was among the best white wines I have ever had.  I will be looking at my local wine shop for this, I can assure you of that.                                                                                                                      
Overall, this was a fantastic experience.  The waiter was great, attentive, knowledgeable, and unlike many waiters at finer restaurants, did not appear to be displeased be be dealing with a group of younger people who would not be spending several hundred dollars.  Speaking of cost, with a 25% tip, the meal cost us just under $200, exceptionally reasonable when you consider that over $100 of that was from the wine and paella.  While I can't guarantee that I would return during any future trips to Las Vegas, that is simply because there are just so many places that I want to try in the city.

**As a side note, the restaurant does appear to be very vegetarian friendly, if that's your thing 


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Monday, October 1, 2012

The Big E 2012 (West Springfield, MA)

The Big E, aka the Eastern States Exposition, is the "state fair" equivalent for the six New England states, as none of the six have their own.  Begun, according to the Fair's website, as an exhibition called the "National Dairy Show," it eventually morphed into what it has become, a massive fair visited this year by over 1.3 million people, a record.  It encompasses all the traditional aspects of a country fair, such as 4H and other livestock competitions, games, and, of course, food.  Especially food.

I had never been to The Big E until I was a sophomore in college, despite having grown up in Western Massachusetts, but I've always loved fairs, having frequented both the Franklin County Fair and Ashfield Fall Festival as a kid.  Back then I cared more about the games than the food (other than, of course, fried dough), but these days it's all about the food and the adorable furry animals. (See the adorable piglet and alpaca baby from 2011; I should have gotten a picture of the week old alpaca yesterday, but oh well)

In so many ways like other fairs, The Big E has one major unique feature, the Avenue of States, six scale replicas of the original statehouses of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine, each filled with a variety of tourism related booths, including merchants selling representative foods and objects from the state, such as lobster rolls and baked potatoes in the Maine Statehouse.  There are also State Troopers from each of the states, as the buildings are "sovereign territory" of each state, though obviously in practical terms this does not apply, but during the The Big E every year they sell lottery tickets from each at or outside their building.  The Vermont building includes Cabot cheeses, and they always bring a special Big E cheddar, which is aged longer than any of their other cheddars.

Like most fairs, there are also numerous small outdoor shops and food vendors.  These range from the typical corn dog and fresh squeezed lemonade to smoked turkey legs and fried vegetables (fried green tomatoes being my favorite, though I was far too full to end up getting them this time), but there are also a lot of specialty foods.  The Big E cream puffs are the most famous, though I'll admit to not being a huge cream puff fan, so I don't ever get these.  The Craz-E Burger, a cheeseburger with two glazed doughnuts standing in for the bun, has become popular over the last couple years, along with fried kool-aid and fried Oreo cookies.  Popular local burger joint White Hut has a spot, and this year offered a burger sandwiched between two waffles.  The star rookie this year, however, were EB's fried shepherd's pie balls, pictured above with a fantastic Spaten Oktoberfest draught beer (purchased from a real German, no less!), and they were exceptional.  I had them at the suggestion of a co-worker, and by god, he was right on.  The crisp, yet tender crust was perfect, the ground beef was succulent and juicy, and both the gravy that the ground beef was swimming in and that which was offered on the side (or poured over the top) were strong, but did not overwhelm any of the other flavors.  Lacking only the potato that traditionally comes as a part of shepherd's pie, the standard flavors were all there.

Of course I also had a corn dog, which was delicious if unremarkable.  They're my all time favorite, so despite the relative lack of ambition and creativity that goes along with them, they are an integral part of my fair experience, and I got one almost immediately upon arriving.  I also had chicharrones, which were great, though my buddy Jon, who is inexperienced in the eating of them, ended up with a piece of glass-like pork skin stuck in his gum for a couple hours, but otherwise enjoyed them.  A fresh squeezed lemonade was great, but a little overly sweet.

We wandered through the various buildings, including a farm building that had, among other things,a coop of chicks, and an incubator for eggs, from which supposedly over 2200 are hatched during the 17 days of the event.  This is also where the alpacas are, as well as llamas, typically some pigs (though I didn't see any this year), and some dogs.  There are a couple buildings with vendors selling everything from the kind of stuff you see on late night infomercials to beautiful hand-crafted Japanese silk embroidered pictures, and also a "Winter Wonderland" area presented by Kringle Candle, the newest creation of Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge.

All in all, The Big E is a great experience, a lot of fun, though it's rather more commercialized than the old time fairs in the area such as Ashfield's, or the Cummington Fair, but it's also better than the Franklin County Fair, which is really just a smaller version of The Big E at this point, though obviously a bit more locally focused.  I strongly recommend it to anyone in the area, or anyone who is interested in traveling to the area in mid to late September.


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