Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Vegans in Vegas

When my husband and I went to Las Vegas in March 2010 for his 39th birthday, I was vegan and he was not.   It was torture.  We struggled to find me basic food that was animal-free.  From egg whites in veggie burgers to fish paste in asian food, it was a vegan's nightmare.  Then, just a few weeks after returning home, Steve Wynn announced that he went vegan and that all of his properties were going to have extensive vegan menus.  I thought, "Really??  Now that I'm back home??"  Ugh!  My next thought was, "I need to get back there, ASAP!"   Well, it took nearly 2 years, but we went back this December and I have to say, what a difference a few years make!  Vegas is more than vegan-friendly; It can be a paradise vacation for the vegan traveller.

We stayed at the Encore this time, the sister property to the Wynn.  I really liked the property, the room was comfy and spacious.  The room service menu has been updated since the current version of what is on their website.  I mean, vegan pizza delivered to your room with fries at 1 AM?  Yes, please!  There's so much on the vegan menus at The Wynn and The Encore, it nearly makes you feel like you're part of the mainstream, again.  Frankly, it was a bit disorienting.  So, in no particular order, this was our experience at the various food venues at the Wynn and The Encore:

Country Club

We had our first night dinner at Country Club and it was worth every dime.  The service was impeccable.  The vegan menu was extensive and we really, really enjoyed everything.  our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and we couldn't finish everything, but it was all divine.

I ordered ordered the mock crab cake and it was tremendous: 

My husband started with the filed greens salad with garlic-herb tomatoes and a sherry vinaigrette  which was wonderful.  I ordered a side of the yucca fries with chipotle aioli and garlic sauce-- they were tasty but, for me, the garlic was overpowering and the fries were overly fried:

For my main, I went with the Steak Salad.  I used to love sliced steak over salad back when I was an unconscious eater, and I've missed that flavoring.  The Country Club kitchen gets this right using well seasoned Gardein steak strips over a fresh mixed veggie salad.  Their "blue cheese" was great and the friend onion rings on top were divine:

Like many of the restaurants in The Wynn and The Encore, this was not a cheap meal, but it was well worth it.  By far, Country Club was my favorite of all of the establishments at The Encore.


Why would a vegan go to a steakhouse?  Well, because it's in The Encore and they have a fully vegan menu, that's why!  We saved Sinatra for our last night and, truth be told, we should have gone back to Country Club.  Despite multiple positive recommendations about Sinatra, I hated it.  I disliked just about everything in the entire experience of eating there.  From the surly waiter to the uncomfortable chairs, this restaurant humors vegans to believe they actually have a seat at the table.

I started with the beet salad which was baby beets with citrus segments in a blood-orange vinaigrette.  I was astonished when a small rectangular plate with exactly 7 thumb-sized, baby beets and a few slices of citrus came out.  I mean, I know this is "high end" cuisine, but a salad should be a salad.  This was a deconstructed mess.  The beets were lovely, but I wish there were more of them.  At $17 for a starter, I started off feeling ripped off.

My husband started with the Cesar salad; Heavy on the garlic, low on the Cesar taste.  He was quite disappointed and, having tasted it, I would agree he had reason to be.

For our mains, we ordered the Gardein Chicken Entrees; I went with the Chicken Parm and my husband ordered the Chicken Marsala.  One of the things that I like about Gardein chicken is that it's a thin, scallopini slice/cutlet.  One of my pet peeves (even from back in my omnivore days) is restaurants that use thick cuts of chicken breast as a "cutlet".  Ordering a Gardein cutlet, I didn't expect a thick (really, greater than 1 " thick) cut of chick'n.  The sauce was salty and the mock cheese was revolting.  It tasted gritty which makes me wonder what 10-year old soy-based cheese-alternative they're still using?  My husband's Marsala was utterly inedible.  There was so much salt in it (and that's a lot coming from me, given how much I love salted food) it caused him to cough when eating it. Neither of us got even a quarter of the way through our main courses and we weren't ready to test them out for dessert.  In truth, we should have complained about the awful food, sent it back and tried the Couscous or the pasta instead, but we were disgusted, lost our appetites and really just wanted to get out of the restaurant.  So we did, went up to our room and were both sick for 3 hours.  Avoid Sinatra's at all costs.


We both really wanted to enjoy lunch at Wazuzu.  Fun decor, modern pan-asian food and an impressive-looking vegan menu.  We started with Dim Sum:

It was a little bit lacking in depth of flavor-- a bit bland-- but it was nicely presented and very light.

My husband had the crispy tofu with green beans in mushrooms.  It was good, but a bit too oily.  Also, there was a lack of flavor; It was as though they were deliberately not using much soy sauce or seasonings.  Bland, is one thing asian food should never be.

I ordered the Drunken Noodles which tofu and Thai basil, based on the server's recommendation that it was "the best item on the menu". 

 I, too, was a bit disappointed.  It was too oily and devoid of any flavor to be "drunken".  The only think those noodles were drinking was canola oil... very sad. 

We asked the woman next to us, who was vegetarian, how she liked her Pad Thai noodles and she had the same response; Oily and flavorless.

Too bad...

Society Cafe

This is the place to have your vegan breakfast in Vegas! Wow!  You will love this place...

Their tofu scramble, served on flat bread with a cashew cream and topped with spinach and tempeh bacon is one of the best breakfast items I've ever had.

My husband ordered the frosted flake crusted French Toast with bananas in an Almond milk batter:

This was so utterly delicious and heavenly, I insisted we go back on our last day just so I could order this for myself!  Breakfast at the Encore or the Wynn in sinfully delicious!

We dropped by Zoozacrackers Deli for the one vegan menu item;  The Vegan Cheese Burger with fries and a chocolate milkshake.  Why this took them 40 minutes to get to us, I'll never know.  Apparently, neither did the wait staff.  They were really confused when we went up to them 30 minutes into our wait, but I digress.

This was just sad and disappointing.  It was a simply Gardein meatless burger patty with some condiments on it and an unmelted (gritty) slice of soy-cheese.  (What's up with the soy cheese at The Wynn/Encore??  Haven't they heard of Daiya?!??)  The fries were good.  I don't know what vegan burgers seem to intimidate omnivores... they're not hard to spruce up and, really, we vegans like all of the sauteed onions, guac, fake-bacon, etc... condiments you can pile on.  This was sad.  It needs work.


Let's say something nice about Tableau.... the location is pretty.  That's about it.  The waiter, after we ordered off the vegan menu, put down non-vegan bread items and BUTTER.  There is a reason I mention this my fellow vegan travellers; Just because the restaurant had a vegan menu, doesn't mean that the wait staff or servers have ANY CLUE what that means.  You have to stay vigilant.  Some of the break items are NOT vegan.  You should be asking for the vegan butter at every restaurant or, at least, confirming that what you've been served is vegan.  Again, I digress.

I was disappointed with the beet salad at Sinatra's the night before so I decided that their lunch-entree beet salad would make up for it.  Wow!  Was I wrong... same deal, different restaurant.  And when I mean small... take a look; 

Four cubes of tofu (1/16th of a block).  8 half-pieces of baby beets.  I was starving.  I ordered a basket of fries because we were about to pack up, check out and travel for 8 hours home!  This was not a place to eat a filling meal.

In all, it was a treat to be able to stay at a place with options that were available to us.  We did have a good time.  But, honestly, for the prices they charge, The Wynn and The Encore really need to step up their culinary game.  Coming from big metropolitan cities like New York and LA, we expect vegan cuisine to be more like the meals at Country Club and Society Cafe, not the oily Wazuzu, salty Sinatra or teensy-tiny sized Tableau. 
We also ventured out of the Wynn/Encore to Slice of Vegas in the Shops at The Mandalay Bay.  Their Vegan Menu is tremendous and it's hard to choose!  My husband liked the meatless boneless chicken wings, to start.  What's not to like with : chicken? He ordered the savory BBQ Chicken Pizza to start and it was amaaaaaazing.  My friend Akiko ordered the faux pie, which is basically a vegan cheese pie with veggies.  I went with the meatless meatball pizza and it was tremendous.  Of course, I had to try the dessert; The Vegan Chocolate Cake; a chocolate cake with a creamy vegan peanut butter frosting.  

Oh. My. Goodness!!! Delicious. This place was an amazing find and I was extra grateful that it was on the opposite end of the strip from where we were staying.  Otherwise, I could have been there for lunch and dinner every day and would have gained another 10 lbs!

Pura Vida Bakery and Bystro

I've debated for three weeks about posting this review.  In the end, I can't pull these punches.  We ultimately don't help the cause of promoting delicious vegan food by not calling out unprofessional and below par food establishments simply because they're vegan. That said....

We decided that, for a change, we were going to venture off The Strip and head out to a local spot for Sunday breakfast. Pura Vida Bystro and Bakery was the closest of the local options and seemed like a great idea for breakfast.

Round trip taxi fare from the hotel at the Northern Strip ran us $32 with a tip.  I guess that's valid to include in consideration of the fact that the vegan breakfast food options at The Encore – which are spectacular and delicious – are still pretty pricey. 

When we arrived at Pura Vida, the restaurant was half-full.  The waitresses are lovely. Everyone was very friendly and solicitous. Our server was taking us through the menu item by item pointing out what seasonal fruits and vegetables were not in stock and what replacements were available. She casually mentioned in the middle of her presentation that, since everything is made to order, it'd be approximately 45 minutes until our order would be delivered to the table.  We were taken aback. It was 10:00 AM on a Sunday- how could a restaurant that was only half full seriously take so long to make brunch? Admittedly, we were hungry, so this was a bit disappointing.  Our waitress suggested that we order one of the appetizers on the menu if we were hungry and that way we could have something to snack on while we were waiting for our main meal.  I have to say, I was quite taken aback by this. I came to the restaurant to eat because I was hungry. I am now told that I need to order more food to eat because the food that I want to order to eat will not be ready for close to an hour? Really?? It always strikes me as particularly odd and, frankly, completely unacceptable that a restaurant cannot perform its main function: To serve food in a reasonable period of time when at full capacity. Anything less than the ability to serve your customers in a reasonable time when at full capacity means that your operations are not streamlined.  

That said, we ordered appetizers. I decided to go with the chocolate hazelnut Bundt cake with chocolate sauce to accompany my coffee.  

It was a very rich chocolate cake though I didn't really taste the hazelnut at all. It was very moist and I was told that this is because Chef Myra steams all of her pastry cakes.  That makes sense to me, as it would probably be very dry otherwise.

My husband ordered the chips and salsa.  

Being from the East Coast, we expect "salsa" to mean a red tomato sauce or perhaps a pico de gallo.  Instead, it was a very hearty bean salsa. It was pretty tasty, and more like what we would call chili back home. The corn chips that were served with that were quite tasty.

My coffee was interesting. There was no soy milk or almond milk available. They use a coconut milk-based creamer.  I prefer a milk as it doesn't have all of the preservatives that are in the "creamers" but I needed a couple of coffee so badly I didn't care.  Here's the really strange part: The creamer was served in a tiny little paper cup: the type that you would find in a hospital when the nurse hands you your pills. Maybe a tablespoon, at most.  I find it strange that creamer wouldn't be served in a small creamer pitcher for the table allowing the customers to decide how much they'd like to have in their coffee.  I found the rationing inhospitable.

About 40 minutes into our dining experience, Chef Myra came out to the table.  She is a lovely, high-energy and passionate person.  It's very clear that she is incredibly dedicated to the idea of exposing everyone to plant-based vegan cuisine.  She had seemed frazzled the entire morning. (Why?  Well, I don't know but there was a lot of shrieking coming from the kitchen. Chef Myra was shouting at the servers and with the staff in the kitchen and they were shouting at her.  At one point, we heard her telling one of the servers that the griddle had become too hot to make pancakes and that they would need to wait until it cooled down.  The high-volume frenetic interaction between the kitchen staff and the waitstaff really added a sense of panic and confusion to the entire experience of dining in.)
Anyway, back to our interaction with Chef Myra. She said that she wanted to know which of our two entrees we would like to have served first, as there isn't enough room on her griddle to make both at the same time. "They will be about 5 to 7 minutes apart", she said.  She then went on to blame her wait-staff for this confusion saying, "I didn't know if you wanted to order an intermezzo. I hate when they don't write these things down."  An "intermezzo"? ?!? We were flabbergasted. Really?? We already ordered appetizers that we didn't want because you couldn't get the main stuff that we did want out in under 45 minutes. Now you want to know if we wanted intermezzo? SERIOUSLY?! WTF?!

The rationing continued when my husband's waffle arrived, only 4 minutes ahead of my breakfast. "Tha Waffle" was a typical sized waffle with a hint of cinnamon in the batter served topped with sliced bananas and drenched in maple syrup. 

Again no maple syrup was brought to the table: The waffle was already pre-doused/ drowned in maple syrup.  You can tell that the batter had a lovely flavor and aroma. Unfortunately it was overpowered by the flavor of the excessive maple syrup, and the texture of the waffle was changed instantaneously to that of a soggy pancake because of the drowning.  This could've been easily avoided if they just brought a dry waffle to the table and allow the customer to put their own maple syrup on it.

A few minutes later my entree, "The Wow Platter" arrived.  The presentation was spectacular. A definite "Wow".  

Sadly, that was the only spectacular thing about it.  I could barely get through half of the platter, not really because there was so much food, but because it was vile. To be fair, it probably would have been a perfect size for a big hearty breakfast but for the fact that I had the chocolate cake to begin.  Still, this platter shockingly disappointing.  The tofu scramble was more a chunky type of blocks of tofu  rather than actually "scrambled". I know that lots of people like this way of making a tofu scramble but it's just not my style. It was covered in cumin and pepper with waaaaaaay too much Daiya.  The cheesy potatoes were also coated in the bean salsa that we had as an appetizer, also smothered with Daiya and cumin.  The empanadas were really just more of the same. They were potato and yam-filled with the same cumin/pepper/bean-like flavorings.  The cranberry chutney for the Empanada was actually quite a refreshing change from the homogeneous seasonings of the entire plate. I found myself gravitating towards the fresh raw cucumbers and sprouts on the platter as they offered a taste that was different (and far better) than anything else that I had had the entire time I was sitting at this table.  I could hardly get through even half of this platter before I felt supremely nauseated and like I was doing my body harm by continuing to eat this food.  

When I insisted to the waitress that I was done, she asked me if I wanted to pack up the food. In truth, I normally would and would save it for meal later. The problem is, the food was disgusting and I would never serve this to anyone-- even my dog (who is vegan) for fear they'd feel as sick as I did from eating it.   The waitress then challenged me multiple times as too different ways that I could bring this with me and take it home so as not to waste the food. I explained that we were staying at Hotel, that we didn't have a refrigerator with room to keep food in it, etc…. And, yet, she pushed on! She instructed me that I could keep this at room temperature safely for 24 hours, that I could have this later at lunch or even dinner tonight, and trying to find ways for me not to "waste the food".  I took the high road, again, saying that we had plans for lunch and dinner and that we were leaving town tomorrow so that this really was not practical.  What I wanted to say was, that food is best served to a trash can, leave me the F--- alone and get me my check so I can get out of this pit.

We sat at the table for 1 hour and 31 minutes from start to finish.  For a $65 (including tip) meal, would have saved the $95 and over half the time staying at The Encore and enjoying their tofu scramble, French toast and pancakes which are far superior to the Pura Vida experience. 

Please don't misunderstand me; I love small, local, independent vegan businesses. I bend over backwards to try and help support these kinds of businesses which I believe are on the front lines of vegan outreach and education: changing hearts and minds one meal at a time. That said, I would never recommend that anyone ever eat at Pura Vida when the delicious and, comparatively, less expensive options on The Strip exist at The Wynn and Encore.  If you find yourself in a situation where you have no alternative other than to be forced to eat from this place, here's my advice: Order ahead of time before going to pick it up and eating it as a take out.  

Better yet, skip the meal and go on a fast.