A Feast in the Hills above Las Vegas

by Mort Hochstein
November 29, 2007

1610 Lake Las Vegas Pkwy
Henderson, NV

I’ve always had an appreciation for Ritz-Carlton hotels as imposing and majestic, totally grande luxe, and my few stays in the hotels have served as confirmation of that preconception. But as I discovered when I left the gambling halls on the flatland below and climbed into the hills to Lake Las Vegas, there are some differences between the Ritz of my imagination and this one nestled along the shore of the lake.

At Lake Las Vegas, the Ritz-Carlton people have situated another of their sumptuous, rambling palaces with the traditional imposing lobby, elegant rooms and even more elegant suites. The hotel meanders around the United States’ largest, privately-owned, manmade lake, whose waters are alive with a navy of gondolas, vaporetti and colorful sailboats and motorboats. The flag of Italy — green, red and white — was flying everywhere at the time of my visit to this bustling replica of an Italian villagio. There were more tricolores here than you might find in Milan, and on a warm, summer night, it’s easy to imagine yourself in Lago di Como, Venice or lodging in a Tuscan hideaway.

Indoors, the hotel dining room takes its cue from the gambling city, seventeen miles away. As with most of the hotels there, inside the Ritz, you can walk for miles, maneuvering your way through carpeted, flower-festooned hallways and lounges fit for royalty, but when you enter the Medici room, the hotel’s primary dining area, things change. The Medici is a pleasant, formal dining room, but the dress code is surprisingly casual, more like downtown Las Vegas than a typical Ritz. Servers wear the same uniform throughout the day and night — black pants and long-sleeved, white, collared tieless shirts with colored horizontal stripes and Navajo-motifed aprons. The reason for the casual dress, an attendant explained, is that the hotel has only one main dining room, aside from an all-purpose lobby lounge.

“To accommodate all of our guests,” I was told, “we need to be versatile in service. In Vegas, a diner may arrive in shorts and a polo shirt, but may order the same bottle of Lafite Rothschild as the couple at the next table in black tie and gown. We want to provide a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambiance for everyone who dines with us.”

Casual uniforms aside, the service is up to Ritz-Carlton standards: knowledgeable, polite, and accommodating. We put ourselves in the hands of wine steward Erik Intermill, who is, for lack of a better term, somewhat of a wine prodigy.

At all of twenty-four, he puts into play skills of food-and-wine selection you might expect from an older, more seasoned server. Intermill, since being promoted to assistant food and beverage manager, is a graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts, with additional training in international restaurant and catering management at the University of South Australia. He is also ascending the ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Suffice it to say, his wine-pairing skills brought excitement to our party.

Before we’d had a chance to address the menu, Intermill started us off with a Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rosé. This was the prelude to an amuse-bouche of dazzlingly fresh, saline hamachi and Kumamoto Pacific oysters from waters off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia, accompanied by a rhubarb black pepper granite, certainly a dish to prime the salivary glands.

As a first course, Chef de Cuisine Truman Jones and Sous Chef Michael Klinger set out a sweet potato and ginger soup, a sweet yin wed to the yang of sharp fresh ginger and plated with a toasted rhubarb marshmallow. Certainly an unusual combination, but the hotel was featuring a farmer’s market menu celebrating rhubarb. Intermill elected a 2004 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Clos des Capucins from Domaine Weinbach, its grapes coming from one of Alsace’s most storied vineyards, the historic Schlossberg hill. Its green apple, mineral and citrus flavors played beautifully off the sweet potato soup.

Don’t tell the fois gras police, but that lush delicacy, our second course, joined with rhubarb-marinated strawberries, rhubarb sauce and rhubarb compote was ever so rich and decadent. It was perfectly complemented by a crisp 2005 Riesling Kabinett Cuvée Jean-Baptiste from the historic Gunderloch winery in the Rheinhessen. The food and wine went together like strawberries and cream, or perhaps I should say, like rhubarb and cream.

We were crying stop when the third course arrived: a wild halibut that tasted as if it had just been pulled out of cold Pacific waters, with forest-floor mushrooms, asparagus and bits of candied — that’s right! — rhubarb. We drank with it a real treasure from the hotel’s expansive wine cellar: a crisp, tangy Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet, the 1999 Clos de la Mouche from the distinguished Burgundy house of Jean Boillot & Fils. Sated as we may have been, that bottle went back empty.

At this point, quite satisfied and with our eyes already on the dessert table, we convinced Intermill that the grilled prime New York strip, set to be the sixth and final course of our meal and a favorite of the Vegas crowd, would, sadly, be lost on us, as we simply did not have room for another course. So we brought the feast to a close with, what else, a rhubarb-based dessert. Miraculously, our appetite returned for the warm almond fondant and strawberry-rhubarb compote dressed with a small dab of vanilla ice cream and floating in a rhubarb soup. With it came our first American wine: a 2004 Eldorado Noir Black Muscat from Ferrari-Carano. It was a revelation. It blossomed with scents of strawberry, blueberry and chocolate. On the palate, the dark purple elixir overflowed with blueberry, molasses and caramel flavors. Yet it was not sickeningly sweet and married beautifully with the compote.

Visitors to Las Vegas benefit from the intense restaurant competition in the American casino capital. We had just five parts of a six-course tasting menu with accompanying wines listed — by New York and other big city pricing standards — at a very reasonable $110. I don’t know what red wine Intermill had put aside for that steak course, but I hope to return to find out.

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