Las Vegas: A Neophyte’s First Day

Without even unpacking, we grabbed a cab and headed out of town, an odd thing to do when every super-chef on the planet is in town, but you’ve got to leave the Strip to get what I was after:  Thai food at Lotus of Siam.

Unless you know about this place – and lots of people do – you certainly wouldn’t be drawn to it by its dingy storefront or its prime location in a strip mall with more acupuncturists and martial arts studios than food joints.  And the worn tables and chairs, 1950s-neighborhood-Chinese-restaurant look and steam tables with the all-you-can-eat-8-buck buffet don’t look promising either.  But press on, it’s worth it.

I’m not an expert on Thai food and the menu is extensive, so we were glad to have a waiter who, despite the bustling lunch-hour crowd demanding attention, was happy to spend time with us and help us decide on lunch.  He also helped us figure out the level of spiciness we wanted – we went for 4, with 1 being the mildest and 10 the hottest (cowards, I know), and it was just right for us.  Who knows how many Singha beers would have drunk had we notched it up?

Among the dishes we had, which included a warm shrimp salad with ample lemongrass, great fish cakes with a dipping sauce I would have been happy to buy by the caseload, and a bamboo-shoot curry, my two favorites were this dish of crispy rice with bits of spicy sausage, which doesn’t look like much, but grabbed me enough that I wanted to have it for breakfast the next morning


and this masterful dish of striped bass, which had been cut, batter-dipped and perfectly fried, then laid over a bed of soft, wide noodles and topped with plenty of fried mint. 


The fish was so expertly cooked that any Michelin-three-star chef would have been proud to claim it as his own. And speaking of Michelin-three-starrers, there was a picture of Joel Robuchon on the restaurant’s extensive wall of fame.  He looked so happy that I was sure he, too, had had the sea bass.

I’m going to skip over Thursday night’s dinner at Michael Mina’s StripSteak at the Mandalay Bay, not because it wasn’t memorable – you’ve got to love a place that’s re-thought steak and decided that certain cuts, like the porterhouse and standing rib, should be poached in butter in a kind of sous-vide process before they’re grilled over mesquite – but because this post would be endless and I have to tell you about Friday morning.

So now it’s Friday (or it was when I wrote this) – not that you can tell one day from another here – and I spent the morning at the Bellagio with Jean-Phillippe Maury, the hotel’s executive pastry chef, whom I introduced and played sidekick to for 80 Bon Appetit readers who were clever enough to sign up early for our chocolate seminar.

A tad of background:  Jean-Phillippe, who grew up in the south of France, passed the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best worker in France) competition when he was 28, had his own pastry shop, worked with Francois Payard in New York for a year, and came to Las Vegas to open the Bellagio.  A year and a half ago, he opened Jean-Phillippe Patisserie in the hotel and put this town on the sweet map.  He and his 70 – count them! – pastry cooks and bakers turn out 15,000 things a day and, impossible as it is to believe, what they turn out is as good as what you get in a tiny patisserie of the highest order in France.  I don’t know how, but he’s managed to artisanalize what is essentially mass production.  And, did I mention that, in addition to being hyper-talented, he’s adorable? 

If the Bellagio didn’t hire him because he’s so photogenic, maybe they should have – everyone who was at the event wanted to get a picture with him, including me.


The three desserts Jean-Phillipe demoed, were:

  • Chocolate Tiramisu: J-P made a tempered marbled chocolate cup (he dipped balloons into the chocolate, let the chocolate set, then popped the balloons) and filled it with a chocolate-mascarpone-rum cream and tiny rounds of coffee-soaked ladyfinger cake
  • Caramelized Bananas and Chocolate Mousse: layered in a shot class (another instance of dessert in a verrine)
  • Milk Chocolate Napoleon: on a hazelnut dacquoise (a meringue sponge cake), J-P layered a mix of milk chocolate, praline and crushed crepe-cookies, discs of tempered dark chocolate and swirls of milk-chocolate mousse (it reminded me of Pierre Herme‘s Plaisir Sucre, which is also based on milk chocolate, a not-very-French choice)

When tastes were handed out, there was a surprise: Jean-Phillippe had created an all-chocolate “plate” to hold the three treats.


The presentation was so over-the-top wonderful that no one wanted to eat it, so the “seminarians” left with their desserts in a bag.  They also left with some chocolate bonbons from Jean-Phillippe Maury and big smiles.

This was the kind of event after which you say, “A good time was had by all.”

Certainly I had a great time.  I love to watch talented people work and Jean-Phillippe is a patissier with talent to burn.  I also got to tour the kitchens with the chef and, standing in the middle of the huge space and breathing in the fragrances of melting butter, rising yeast dough and oranges candying in sugar syrup, I remembered again what makes me happiest: kitchens, the people in them and the stuff the people make!

Like everyone else, I left with a smile.  But I also left with some chocolates: