Last night, the Harrah's Las Vegas Taste Tour kicked off at VooDoo Steak and Lounge, a sleek and sexy restaurant and night club in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. 51 stories high, the Voodoo Lounge is a two-floor hot spot with one of the very best views of Vegas.
The interior is dimmed and brooding, with heavy, dark and somewhat foreboding decor. It's what you'd imagine a witch doctor's lair to be. The curving bar area, flanked with lots of black and bronze wrought-iron, has opaque light boxes running across its top, and they constantly change in color, from teal to turquoise to purple to red.
Sitting on this counter, brimming rocks and martini glasses tint with cocktails the same color as the lights. They become potions, and once garnished with leaves, plants, and even dry ice, they're all effectively witchy.
The small group of bloggers and I were greeted by Eddie Perales, the master mixologist for Caesar's Palace. Eddie is the creator of all the fun, unique cocktails served at the resort. He is absolutely oozing with charm, enthusiasm, and confidence. He's got one of those infectious personalities, a smile that says “Hey! I know you!” I'd thumb through Merriam-Webster for the definition of charisma, but that would involve owning a dictionary.
Eddie's got a world-class reputation to boot. Several times over, he's been one of the three chosen mixologists to represent the USA in the Cocktail World Cup. I'd really like to get my hands on one of those entry forms. Or judging panel forms, rather. Eddie has also been entered into the Guinness Book along with that same USA team for most cocktails made in one hour (a number near 250 if my vodka, I mean memory, serves me correctly). Eddie was flipping, spinning, juggling, and shaking up four different drinks for us. A range of tastes from fruity, to herbal, to savory, and then, my favorite, his 'cooked cocktails.' Drawing from what he knows of molecular mixology, Eddie created a cocktail for us that blended caramelized apples, cloves, and other warmly spiced flavors, all of which he lit on fire in a pan. And once the cocktail was poured, he used a tiny blow torch to melt clove-infused sugar crystals onto a fresh basil leaf for garnish and aroma. That was such a fun experience to see and taste, partly because I love the rich flavors that reign in cold weather, and partly because I have a thing for blow torches. I loved that emphasis was placed on not only flavor, but look, and smell too, because really, what could be better than total sensory stimulation? After Eddie had sufficiently wowed us with his crazy cocktail skills, we were encouraged to create our own unique drinks, and each of our concoctions would then be entered into a little contest judged by the VooDoo Lounge staff. I thought long and hard about what to make and felt slightly intimidated as I roamed the bar area. But this little 'competition' was a blast. Getting to experiment with different ingredients, infusions, and fun mix-ins was a treat. I was also able to ask the 'tenders all about how they go about creating cocktails. I had to inform them that I'm accustomed to much more simplistic creations- essentially just shakers of a spirit with juice. Or shots. But I wanted to keep my dignity in tact for a bit longer. So, after a few too many “taste tests” with vodka-infused whipped cream, and only one incident involving my shirt, Belvedere, and muddled blueberries, I'll proudly tell you that my cocktail, which I titled the "Blue Basil," tied for first place! I started with a base of blueberries, which I muddled in a small rocks glass. To the blueberry paste, I added some black cherry simple syrup, followed by a fresh basil leaf (also muddled a bit to release the flavor), a splash of cranberry juice, an ounce of Belvedere vodka, and then a garnish of fresh blueberries and a dollop of vanilla-infused whipped cream. The whipped cream was actually added after the competition, just a way for me to get my daily dose of sweet cream. The few hours I spent at VooDoo Lounge were a blast. Cocktail hour, or three, served as the perfect aperitif for the second stop on my Vegas Taste Tour, a seven course dinner at Martorano's, if anything can prime you for that kind of thing. Martorano's is a self-proclaimed 'old-school' Italian eatery in The Rio. Chef and owner Steve Martorano is the mastermind behind the swanky supper spot, a throwback to his roots in South Philly. The interior is chic, clean, and modern. Classy and cool, just what you'd hope for in a place that celebrates classic gangster films. Dimly lit with cold-hued shadows, the walls are a clean, crisp white and each boasts silver-framed black and white photography and a dozen or so plasma screen televisions playing an endless loop of my favorite film, The Godfather II. The music, too, is old-school, and it falls in line nicely with the iconic nostalgia. Steve Martorano describes his kitchen style as “dinosaur cooking,” referring to the emphasis he places on tradition, quality, and the preservation of classic Italian cuisine. Each and every sauce that blankets the dishes is prepared individually, and to order. There is, in fact, a staff member in the kitchen whose responsibility is to cook pasta al dente. I have nothing but respect for such meticulous preparation. I can't help but celebrate chefs who value older world simplicity and quality. The menu, which I'm told was recently revamped, slightly bends the classics. Meatballs, pork gravy, and risotto are a few of the popular staples. But then there are more innovative ones, like fried calamari paired with sweet and spicy chili sauce. I was glad to see such a balance of traditional and modern tastes. Because as much as I love highly finessed and stylized, unique creations, I do love the comfort of a meatball or four. Portions are pumped up and definitively decadent, with each plate being enough to feed four. It reminds me of my mother, and my grandmother before her, hell-bent on stuffing me for ever-impending famine. Martorano's, like Mom, believes food is love. And isn't it? We were treated to a three course family-style meal, each course containing three or more separate and complete components. This allowed us to taste a bit of the best Martorano's has to offer. I don't know about you, but I just adore family-style meals. They create a sense of shared experience. They're the big Sunday dinner table, all comforting and warm. The meal began with this sweet, fruity martini, The Dean Martin.
The Best Meatball Choice veal, beef, and ground pork in signature Martorano's gravy. I'll be bold and say it was among the best meatballs I've had. Each bite of the enormous ball was deliciously moist, well-seasoned, and the savory flavors of each of the three meats used really came through. Alongside the meatballs was a mixed green salad with tomato, red onion, cucumber, imported red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and parmigiano reggiano cheese. I really enjoyed this salad. All ingredients tasted fresh, crisp, and lightly dressed. A properly balanced blend of acidic vinegar and fruity olive oil. The three white dollops in the picture above are the house-made ricotta, a creamy complement to the meat. Eggplant Short Stack This was composed of layers of homemade mozzarella, vine ripened tomatoes, organic arugula, and aged balsamic vinegar. The eggplant was crispy and just the right thickness, without being greasy or heavy. The mozzarella was the standout though- pure, rich, and creamy. South Philly Calamari Fried to a crisp, then smothered in San Marzano tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, and aged balsamic vinegar.
Chicken Downtown Chicken cutlet covered in ricotta cheese, spinach, mushrooms, vine ripened tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. Rigatoni with Sunday Pork Gravy Fresh pork, San Marzano tomatoes, ricotta cheese, and parmigiano reggiano cheese. Lobster Francaise Cold water lobster tail, white wine, lemon, butter, and jumbo lump crab meat.
Carnegie Deli Cheesecake and Homemade Ricotta Canolli This cheesecake was one of a kind, and quite possibly among the best I've tasted. It was thick and satiny, the kind of thing that melts in your mouth. Gently sweetened and intensely rich. Each portion of my dining experience was wildly flavorful. It was apparent from the very first course that the chefs were using pure, fresh ingredients, all of the finest quality. Mozzarella and ricotta are made in-house daily, and both were easily as creamy and memorable as the ones I'd eaten while living in Italy years ago. Other cheeses are imported, as are the tomatoes, the olive oil, and the vinegars. The food at Martorano's is truly special, with a fantastic balance of old world meets new. After having read about the restaurant's focus on using only the best quality ingredients, I had high expectations. But the dishes I tasted last night far exceeded them. I highly recommend dining at Martorano's if you're in Las Vegas and looking for authentic, fine quality Italian. The portions are generous, meaning you'll be able to feed a big, hungry family with just two or three menu items. But don't limit yourself- the tender, giant meatballs, the crispy eggplant stack, the sweet and spicy calamari, and that thick slab of cheesecake, are all on my list of things you must try. Your taste buds will thank you.