Thursday, April 24, 2014

1MB Travels: Las Vegas: The Oyster Bar and Pavlovian Response

In that infamous experiment, physiologist Ivan Pavlov found that dogs, naturally salivating in anticipation of food, can be conditioned to react the same way to the sound of a bell, if trained to associate the ringing noise with food.

Recently, I discovered Vegas is my bell, and the seafood/Combo Pan Roast at Oyster Bar my unconditioned stimulus.  The mere mention of the city triggers thoughts of that almost-traffic-cone-colored-bowl-of-pure-delicious, and sets off unseemly drooling.

Even though everything about that place is all wrong.

With the exception of its incredible food/cocktail offerings, I hate everything that Vegas is.  The arid desert weather, the perpetual blanket of smoke that sits over every public indoor space, the constant barrage of light and sound, signifying nothing (but the most futile of dreams) trapped in claustrophobic bullet time. Especially seedy old school Vegas, with its worn carpets, dense with decades of cigarette and alcohol fueled footfall; its wrinkled old souls, feeding their lifeblood into the slot machine, who look like they will need to be surgically removed from it when they reach the end of their days.

And Palace Station, home to Oyster Bar, is off-off-strip, and probably one of the most OG casinos left standing. When foodie blogger friends first recommended this place, I honestly thought they were out of their minds.  Though off-strip, cozy authentic eateries are often the ones that offer the most amazing food...this was the kind of place where you would expect the $2.99 casino buffet - a fueling pit that is all utilitarian quantity, not quality.

And then they mentioned the place was basically a counter, 18 seats, no reservations - and the wait could be between one to three hours.  If we're lucky, and go during off-peak time.

Sound great so far?

Well, don't judge an oyster bar by its location - because this turned out to be one of my favorite places to eat in Vegas (see Pavlovian response).

There is indeed without fail, a long line snaking from this place at all hours - for good reason.  Their pan roasts, made fresh to order by snarky-funnyman chef Bob, are pretty damn amazing.

What is pan roast? It's your choice of seafood, roasted fresh in a cauldron/pan with a slot-machine-like-handle, with brandy, cream and tomato.

You also get to choose the level of spiciness: from 1 to 10, with 10 so extreme that even the chef discourages most people from ordering it.

They do take 'made to order' very seriously, and it takes a while to get it to just the right (roiling) temperature and consistency.
So, usually, you're starving by the time a seat opens up and you've been tortured tantalized by the untouchable scent of that magical pan roast for the last few hours... 

Many customers order a platter from the raw bar to relieve hunger pains until your pan roast is deemed ready by the chef. 

I went 1/2 for my half dozen ($12.99), since not many places serve clams raw and I really wanted to try it.  Neither the clams nor the oysters had the spring of the freshest catch, nor that neat, perfectly chilled brine that conjures deep ocean - but Water Grill this never tried to be, and when you've been waiting in line for hours, you start to appreciate any bite of food you can shovel in to stop your stomach from consuming itself while you await the main course.

And then came my Combo Pan Roast ($21.99).  Packed with lobster, crab and shrimp.  Immersed in rich brandy tomato cream sauce that has that irresistible tug on my tastebuds, that happens it seems whenever alcohol is used in cooking, leaving me lapping for more.

Into this very generously sized bowl, the chef turns over a cup of white rice, the better to both offset the heat in the sauce while highlighting its flavors. (I was only able to handle level 5 heat comfortably)

While the pan roast initially may seem pricey for this essentially 'seafood shack' style Cajun joint, the pieces of seafood are a healthy size, snappy-fresh, and there's lots of it in each gigantic lake of a bowl.  Most people (i.e. averaged sized Asians, in our group) would either be able to share a bowl between two people, or have enough leftovers for your next meal.
Since that first time, every time I go back to Vegas I must now stop at Oyster Bar.  (Beyond the food, there is a lovely  instant camaraderie between those 'in the know' and lots of bonding / commisserating while in line and at the counter that provides nice human moments while in sin city.)  While there are other tasty sounding Cajun dishes on the menu from gumbo to jambalaya: I can't imagine not getting the pan roast.  Because I know that the minute I've settled the bill, no matter how stuffed I am or if my arms are already filled with to go containers, I already wish I had ordered more.  And next time someone says 'Vegas', I will be right back at Oyster Bar, without question. 

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  2 stars
Service - 5.5 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

The Oyster Bar at Palace Station Casino
Las Vegas
2411 West Sahara Avenue Las Vegas, NV 89102
Ph: 702.367.2408

Open 24 hours!


Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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