Fried Green Tomato Sandwich — S 6th St, Las Vegas

carsonkitchenFinding a good sandwich in Las Vegas hasn’t been easy, in my experience, and a close proximity to tourist-heavy areas like Fremont Street doesn’t help. Imagine my delight upon finding Carson Kitchen, a new-American and craft cocktail enterprise the likes of which are increasingly common. Previous fried green tomato sandwiches have left me disappointed,  but the menu here was encouraging: fried green tomatoes, lump crab ravigote and baby greens. That reads to me like a well-considered effort, so I ordered the sandwich. There was no disappointment here. Ravigote is a sauce with a slight tang to it, and the addition of crab built up a rich layer that was a nice contrast. The tomatoes were well seasoned and well fried, and the greens were a delightfully bitter contrast. A good sandwich need not have a long list of ingredients, it just needs the ingredients that are present to work well together and not overpower each other. That was clearly the case here, with a bright, juicy sandwich the result.

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This is Not a Bánh Mì

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This is not my first “This is not a sandwich” post. Hope though I might, it is not likely to be my last. But, I can say with some certainty, I will never write one so heartbreaking. I found the above item on the buffet line at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Las Vegas strip, a swanky joint pitching itself as the fashionable alternative to garish tourist traps. It was a fine buffet up until I reached the above, which I found sitting behind a sign that read, simply, “bánh mì.”

I’ve eaten a lot of bánh mì. Given that it’s roughly Vietnamese for “sandwich,” it’s only natural that there’s a good deal of variation between establishments, between sandwiches. It’s a big world. There is little room in it, however, for the nonsense featured above.

Look at it. Spongy bread more at home in a steamed bun, a bit of meat, a bit of carrot and daikon. And they have the nerve to call this a bánh mì. Where’s the baguette, the sandwich’s nod to its colonial roots? Where’s the cilantro? Where’s the sandwich, for crying out loud? What I see is little more than an ill-formed fusion taco, a poorly thought out gimmick, a monstrosity barely fit for a cooking channel reality show, a…I haven’t the words.

I want to stress something important: This is not pedantry. This is not the exclusive concern of the blogging sort of enthusiast. This matters. The bánh mì is in its infancy as a trend, but word is spreading. More and more people are hearing the good word and their finding their curiosity peaked. And what if some of those people should happen to find themselves on vacation, at a hip casino, enjoying the wares of a buffet featuring some quite good food? Well, they would try the bánh mì. And, finding the above, I can only guarantee their disappointment. Part of that is my fault; I’ve long praised the bánh mì with language both flowery and strident, and I accept my fault in this. But the above sandwich is not my doing. Someone’s going to hear about the bánh mì, they’re going to eat the above, and they’re going to say “That’s it?” It’ll be over for them, and that’s why this matters.

The bánh mì has brought me no small amount of joy, and it breaks my heart that some charlatan behind the line in Las Vegas might be taking that joy from person after person, day in and day out. It’s just…gone. Not lost, though. Stolen.

The Rossini – Burger Bar, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

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I have spoken of the Rossini before. Not just spoken; I have praised, and done so at length. In my previous review I talked about Rossini himself, about why one might name a $60 hamburger after him, about what that says about him or about us. Having now had the hamburger a second time, all of that still stands. Perhaps even more emphatically. But this time I just want to talk about the burger.

Heading to Las Vegas recently, I knew I would return to the Burger Bar and eat the Rossini. That was never in question, but I did have my doubts if it was going to be as good as I hoped. I remembered it being very, very good, and given that memories often shine solely through the polish of nostalgia, I wondered if I might end up disappointed.

As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. Sweet mercy, is this ever a good hamburger. I took my time eating it, trying to stay mindful of every second, to engage it in communion. I spent time just smelling it, as I find that people do not smell their food as often as they could. It looks odd, but a meal only has so many bites, it has a nearly infinite number of molecules. Next time you’re really enjoying something, stop and smell it. I did, and it made no small difference. And oh, what scent there was to savor! The burger remains as simple as ever: wagyu beef, seared foie gras, and black truffles, served with a brown sauce. Each of those things are delicious in their own right, and what struck me most about the burger was how well they all come together. There are countless flavor profiles that work well together, but very few actually meld, presenting one unified flavor of an almost indescribable depth. There is not a tremendous range to it, there are few sweet notes and nothing really of spice, it is just richness. It is savory, incredible richness, and it is astoundingly good.

My associates each sampled the burger, so that I might confirm that this is not just me. Several of them agreed with me on how delicious it was but speculated they would be unable to consume an entire burger. That’s almost surprising to me, because if you look at the photo you’ll note that there really isn’t much foie gras and there aren’t many bits of truffle. This makes the Rossini stand out among upscale hamburgers, especially those in Las Vegas. It’s not a towering achievement, but it isn’t a modest one either. It’s a confident one, a hamburger aware of how strong its strengths are, knowing that it need not pile up what it contributes. It is at once expansive but not unrestrained, and this is a difficult balance for any sandwich to achieve, let alone one playing with foie gras and truffles and brown sauce.

The pictures I have taken do not do it justice, both in this post and certainly in the previous one. That is a testament to both my meager skill and the perma-dusk that grips every casino, and I hope you will not let that dissuade you from trying the burger, should you ever have the chance. It is a wonderful, wonderful hamburger, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Canter’s Reuben & Eddie Cantor’s Delight – Canter’s Deli, S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV

Canter’s, a delicatessen based in Los Angeles and about which I have previously spoken, operates an outpost in Las Vegas’ Treasure Island Casino. While in town sometime back, I made it a point to stop by to see how the sandwiches on offer stacked up against the ones in Los Angeles. The Reuben, I am happy to report, remains a song of the heart, a pile of deliciously salty pastrami and moist sauerkraut. The sandwich itself is just as good, but, as you might expect, the atmosphere is a bit lacking. The Canter’s in Las Vegas is just stuck in a corner of the gaming floor, the floor’s jarring shift from hectic carpet to checked tile making it appear exactly what it is, a secondary appendage, an afterthought. It suffers from that permadusk that so pervades any and all casinos, you order from one window and grab your food from another, and there’s no one to top up your supply of pickles. In short, it lacks charm in just about every way something can lack charm. But it’s in an area that’s light on really high-quality sandwiches, so it’s still well worth your time.

The same cannot be said, sadly, of all of the sandwiches. The Eddie Cantor’s Delight, for example, is an ostentatious number that would be a towering failure if they even bothered to stand it up. Stages Deli, another venerable institution prone to missing the mark, at least made a display of their sandwich. Compounding the sin that is serving a sandwich with a fork, the Cantor’s Delight comes lying prone, having already surrendered to its faults. It’s not that you can’t pick it up, turn it right side up and go at it, it’s that they’re telling you you need to. The combination of pastrami, corned beef, turkey, ham and swiss cheese isn’t a terrible idea, and they’re even basically in proper proportion, but the sheer size of it renders the whole thing nearly useless. There’s no way to attack it that gets everything at once, and so you’re really left eating a couple of different sandwiches, a bite from one then a bite from the other. There’s a time and a place for that, but it isn’t when you’ve ordered a single sandwich. Eddie Cantor surely made quite a mark in the world of music, and it’s a good thing he did. His contributions to the world of sandwiches aren’t worth two dimes, be they marching or not.

Dessert Burger – Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas Blvd S, Las Vegas, NV

The sixty dollar Rossini at Burger Bar comes with a few perks, beyond the thrill of finding out whether it was worth your money and the story you get to tell. Specifically, it comes with your choice of a milkshake or something from the dessert portion of the menu. Though a number of the gourmet milkshakes looked delicious, one of the dessert offerings was the dessert burger and I couldn’t pass up another sandwich. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and when it arrived I was a bit tickled. A glazed donut is cut in two and a patty of chocolate fudge is added. There are a few slices of kiwi standing in for the lettuce, strawberry for the tomato, and a small square of gelatin does duty as the cheese. Raspberry coulis offers a ketchup garnish. I picked it up and dug in.

I wanted to like it. The idea is delightful, the presentation is cute. There’s nothing unreasonable in the ingredients, if presented in a list I’d tell you they would work quite well together. But in practice it just didn’t fly. The fudge was the catalyst for the failure, I think. It had a slightly grainy texture, but more importantly there was just too much of it. It was a thick, dense patty of chocolate and the whole thing turned into all fudge as the other ingredients disappeared early in each bite. It was lacking balance and as well all know, balance is crucial. A patty made of something lighter, cake dipped in chocolate perhaps, or just a different bit of donut, would have gone a long way. I’m glad I so enjoyed the Rossini at Burger Bar, because the dessert burger made for a disappointing cap to my meal. I’m all for incorporating sandwiches into as many parts of a meal as possible, but to do it poorly is to do a disservice to both dessert and to sandwiches. Some things, it seems, are better left unburgered.

The Rossini – Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV

This is a sixty dollar hamburger. When I told people I had paid sixty dollars for a hamburger reactions varied. Some people gave me the business, the kind of good-natured ribbing any sandwich enthusiast gets from time to time. Others were simply shocked and called me a fool. Still a few people sort of shrugged and gave it a “well of course you did.” Their reasoning, it seemed, was that faced with such an item you would have to try it, for the novelty of being able to claim you did so and basically because it’s there. It’s a hamburger that costs sixty dollars; how could you not order it?

Before I headed to Las Vegas I solicited opinions as to where I might find a good sandwich. Associates had a few suggestions, but nearly all of them where hamburger joints, rather than sandwich shops. Las Vegas, it seems, is a burger kind of town. That was fine with me; having recently started featuring hamburgers in Slummin’ It I figured a classy burger would be a nice change of pace. When I got to Vegas one associate regaled me with a tale of a burger he had just eaten. “They put a short rib on top of it!” he crowed, and I looked at him quizzically. “Why not,” I asked, “just make a short rib sandwich?” There was a burger on the menu at the Burger Bar that raised the same question, a burger with half a lobster tail on top. It just seems so unnecessary, like a hamburger and a sandwich had stumbled together into a transmogrifier, emerging as an awful hybrid. That The Rossini didn’t commit this error is a big part of what I found appealing. Contrary to what associates suggested, I didn’t just order it because it was there. In truth, I was charmed. The Rossini is a wagyu beef patty topped with pan seared foie gras and black truffles, served with a brown sauce. It’s not a burger piled high with everything they can think of, it’s not trying to convince you of its value in sheer size. At a glance, there’s nothing ostentatious about it except the price. It looked to my eyes like a burger someone had crafted, legitimately sat and thought about for a long time. A burger someone had mapped and measured, a burger that had ingredients working together to produce the harmony I value so much in sandwiches. But sixty dollars is a lot of money to pay for a hamburger, and the ingredient list wasn’t enough to convince me to order it.

After all, foie gras and truffles is a bit on the nose, isn’t it? It’s almost hoity-toity. It’s a caricature of a fancy burger. Its design might be carefully considered, but I am not so naive as to think it couldn’t be simple gimmickry. Maybe someone simply thought of the fanciest thing they could put on a burger and waited for some rube to come in from out of town and fall for it. Was I willing to be that rube? What settled the issue for me, what finally got me to pay sixty hard earned dollars for a hamburger, was Rossini.

I mention Rossini somewhat frequently in my conversations with people, and it’s usually the same quick story. The opera composer used to tell people that he had only known two moments of true tragedy. The first, he said, was when his mother died. The second was when a truffle roasted chicken fell over the side of a boat, lost forever. I have one associate who scoffs at this story. He thinks it speaks ill of Rossini to compare those two events. I love the story. I think it speaks to how deeply we might hold our passions in life, and not only that but how much we might put into each and every instance of our passion. Do not just love food, the story tells me. Love each and every meal, look forward to each and every roasted chicken as if it held the key to your very existence. Savor every moment of pleasure, and mourn each as it departs.

Stepping back for a moment and trying to read that as I imagine someone else might, it seems a bit much. But that’s exactly the point! Let what you love consume you. Be fearless. Order the sixty dollar hamburger.

It was good. It was very, very good. It was probably the best hamburger I’ve ever had, but I don’t eat that many hamburgers so I don’t know exactly how much stock you should put into that. The beef was juicy and immensely flavorful, the foie gras rich and with a deep flavor that wasn’t afraid to play at the uglier edges of savory. The truffles were an earthy counterpart, cutting the richness of the beef and the foie gras in a way more subtle than other options, something spicy for example. The ingredients worked as I thought they might, a delicate harmony that was at its best at the very center of the burger, the meat the rarest, each bite containing the most foie gras and truffle. Whether or not it’s worth sixty dollars is something each of us would have to decide for ourselves. I’d order it again, full price, without hesitation. Whether or not it’s worthy of Rossini’s name…I might argue that nothing is, but that doesn’t mean that nothing should try. I can only say that it was a very, very good hamburger.