Saturday, September 18, 2010

1MB Travels: Las Vegas: Todd English's Olives at the Bellagio Las Vegas

My first encounter with Todd English was at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Fest a few years back, where his team served up pork belly in citrus marinade on the most amazing flatbread.  It made such an impression that when he opened up Beso with Eva Longoria in Hollywood, we had to go and try it too, despite lukewarm reviews and widespread skepticism about the quality of yet another celebrity food venture.   Beso's flatbread definitely gave the one from Pebble Beach a run for its money.  And I loved the decor, with its rich dark woods, amber scheme and giant chandeliers looming overhead all coming together to provide a very lush, romantic setting.

So, while in Vegas this summer, one of the first stops to land on my itinerary was Todd English's Olives at the Bellagio, famous for its celebrity chef and modern Mediterranean fare, as well as its spectacular views of Lake Bellagio, and the hotel's famous water show.  Three of us made the pilgrimmage on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and were seated right by the floor to ceiling windows - the view is indeed great, with water jets spouting 3-4 stories high seemingly right next to us, sporadically throughout our meal.  I also loved the restaurant's interior design, which, like Beso, used a lot of dark woods, and a warm, inviting color scheme - but its chandeliers are more modern and sleek looking, with amber fabric covers.

Our meal was prefaced by a trio of olives and olive tapenades that came with a basket of bread. In my experience, one of the most reliable early signs of how good the food will be at a restaurant, is the quality of their bread - if they take the care to ensure it is fresh, and served at the right temperature, it says 'anticipate great things ahead'. Olives served up a basket of cold bread that tasted like they were baked at least a day ahead of time. The tapenades were far too briny, and had a bitter aftertaste, which is unfortunate as you would reasonably expect any dish that served as / came of the restaurant's namesake would be served at a much higher standard than the rest of its menu.  Thankfully, this hors d'oeuvre was free.

Portobello Flatbread ($17)
For a starter, our eyes immediately flew to the Portobello Flatbread ($17), made in a traditional wood-oven with wild mushroom purée, herb roasted portobello, red onions, fontina cheese, and white truffle oil.  The truffle oil on the flatbread transformed us instantly into truffle hogs -  we INHALED this one.  The puree was creamy, while the juicy portobello pieces provided something substance - the different textures and flavors enhanced the mushroom theme and brought out the truffle oil, while the steaming fresh flatbread served as the perfect canvas for the mix.  This flatbread easily takes the 'best in show' prize for our meal.

Boston Bibb Salad ($13)
To balance out the heavier meat entrees to come, 'Birthday Girl' ordered the Boston Bibb Salad ($13) which came as a big wedge of lettuce with a smattering of shaved white onions, toasted walnut dressing, and a "shower" of maytag blue cheese.

Carpetbagger Oysters ($25)
The third in our party, "Foodie Mentor's Sister", and I practically got whiplash from flitting between the pages of the menu, excited by the creative sounding descriptions.  We decided to share two starters so we can sample more dishes.  The first was Carpetbagger Oysters ($25), which scored major points for presentation - they looked like elaborate oyster creations that happened to wash up on a sandbar, in a perfect line.  To breakdown the elements of the dish - truffle mash is stuffed in oyster shells, then sitting over the stuffed shells are crispy fried kusshi oysters wrapped in beef carpaccio, topped by a dollop of spicy aioli, all sitting on a bed of salt.  Unfortunately, the taste did not live up to the expectations built up by the visuals.  The truffle mash tasted bland, and...waxy!  Scooping the mash out with a spoon was like picking wax out of...ok, I won't finish this sentence, as this is afterall a foodie blog and that's not very appetizing!  The oysters and beef were equally flavorless - we understood the aioli's function was to give a kick of flavor, so we popped the whole contraption in whole - as an amuse bouche - to see if that would make a difference.  The aioli registered as spicy, but the oysters and carpaccio, which formed the bulk of that mouthful were not enhanced by the drop of aioli - in terms of taste, they remained disparate parts - you taste the aioli, and then the bland nothingness of the oyster wrapped in beef.  I also tried adding a pinch of the 'sand' (coarse grain salt), but that was also fairly mild and didn't do much for the dish.  It's too bad, as I really wanted to be madly in love with this dish - the level of disappointment is similar to meeting a guy that looks amazing and interesting from across the room, and you start fantasizing how perfect it would be to date him - only to find out he has absolutely zero personality when you get up close! 

Carpetbagger Oysters ($25)

Pan Roasted Foie Gras Steak ($26)
 Moving on...our second starter was the Pan Roasted Foie Gras Steak ($26) with caramelized fuji apple silk, armagnac butter crêpes, pomegranate syrup, and mâche salad.  Though the crepe was a little too dense and soaked in butter to provide a nice counterbalance for the richness of the foie, the taste and texture of the perfectly seared steak, with its smooth, delicate center, more than made up for the minor glitch.  The sweet/tart combination of fuji apple slivers and pomegranate syrup nicely complemented the richness of the foie/crepe, and the mache salad added just the right touch of contrasting texture and lightness.   This dish gets second 'best in show' for the meal, after the flatbread.

Kobe Beef Tartare ($19)
Being on a budget has made me a more spontaneous and unconventional diner - I don't always have the luxury of following conventional decorums of wine, starter, entree, dessert.  I pretty much order whatever sounds exciting on the menu, that I would want to try if this were the last time I get to eat at the place. 

With that said, I ordered a third starter as my entree - unable to resist the lure of Kobe Beef Tartare ($19) with quail egg, waffle fries, evoo mashed potato, black truffle vinaigrette, and parsley.  The flavors were amazing and infused evenly throughout the beef.  The meat pieces could have been a bit more distinct (Petrossian's hand-cut steak tartare has ruined me for this dish anywhere else, in terms of texture), but it was an otherwise well executed dish, and the waffle fries provided a nice decorative touch.

Kurobuta Pork Medallions ($34)
The last dish I will review here is 'Birthday Girl's entree - Kurobuta Pork medalions ($34) with whipped apple mousseline, confit fennel, roasted spaghetti squash, cider reduction, and watercress salad.  Pork is always a challenge to get just right - it has to be thoroughly cooked for health reasons, but if you cook it even for just a little too long, it will become dry and tough.  Olives did a great job with getting it just right with this dish.  The apple/cider flavors are good complements, while the roasted spaghetti squash is an interesting side texture and flavor-wise (it was actually the first time I had spaghetti squash)!  However, while a solid hitter, this one did not knock us out of the park - and certainly was not in our minds a $34 value!

All in all, for this meal the quality was inconsistent - some of the dishes were great, some were solid, and some fell flat.  We concluded Olives is a great place to have a drink and a starter (Portobello Flatbread and Pan Roasted Foie Gras highly recommended!), and to catch the water show from a relaxed environment out of the scorching desert heat.  For the price of a full meal, the discriminating foodie on a budget would be much better served spending their money at Craftsteak - where the dishes are consistently amazing.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars

Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 80%

Bellagio Hotel - 3600 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Ph: 702.693.8181

Olives (Bellagio) on Urbanspoon

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