Lip Smacking Foodie Tours
January – February 2017
A VIP SAMPLING OF THE BEST DISHES LAS VEGAS HAS TO OFFER.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Adventures of every flavor exist in Las Vegas, but when flavor is the adventure, you’ve got a tasty new ball game. Luckily, Las Vegas has someone who not only knows the game, he’s mastered the rules, knows all the players, and with his Lip Smacking Foodie Tours (LSFT), hits a culinary extravaganza out of the park. Donald Contursi started the company a year and a half ago, after spending 12 years as a server in some of Las Vegas’ most famous eateries. He has created an experience that allows the average diner to enjoy some of The Strip’s most elegant and sought-after restaurants without any of the pressure or hassle that can accompany navigating the world of seriously fine dining.
“I wanted to put together the best possible meal in Las Vegas by highlighting the best signature dishes at the highest-rated restaurants,” Donald says. “There is an overwhelming number of restaurants in Las Vegas and when somebody visits, they are limited to the number of restaurants they can visit. With a Lip-Smacking Foodie Tour, they can experience five of the best restaurants in Las Vegas in three hours and experience Vegas as a VIP.”
To a culinary neophyte like me, trying to get a reservation or ordering from a fancy menu is often a nerve-wracking experience. I know almost nothing of beautiful plating, exotic ingredients, perfect pairings, or daring recipes. I do, however, trust people like Donald and his guides, and I do know when I taste food so delicious it renders me speechless.
Let the tour begin.
EASY ON THE BREAD
Meeting outside the Aria Resort & Casino for the Savors of The Strip tour—just one of LSFT’s choices—Associate Editor Eric Cachinero and I join Donald and one other guest on a Monday evening. Early-week tours are less busy, but Donald notes the week before he escorted 55 people on a private tour. As we get acquainted, Donald tells us about the “Focus” wall we’re standing in front of; it’s a huge—270 feet long by 24 feet high—expansive, curved water wall. Just one of the many fun details we are given during the evening.
Our first stop is Chef Michael Mina’s new Bardot Brasserie at the Aria. Our tour companion, Guillaume Coppin, is from Paris and this is his first trip to Las Vegas. While we sample escargot Bardot, duck wings a’ l’orange, and a roasted chicken French dip sandwich, he tells us he takes a foodie tour in every city he visits as a way to sample the area’s dining scene. He’s taken more than 100 tours, he estimates, which may explain how he was able to keep chatting while Eric and I fall silent at the first taste of the wild burgundy snails with toasted hazelnuts in a chartreuse garlic butter, wrapped in a puff pastry shell. The explosion of flavors is unexpected and sublime. Neither a snail nor hazelnut fan, I’m overwhelmed at the richness of the delicate puff. If this start is any indication of our evening’s gastronomic future, it’s going to be bright.
“Don’t fill up on bread,” Donald politely suggests as I reach for a beautiful French roll.
He says nothing else, but I take a small bite and heed his gentle warning. I will be glad later.
A WISE CHOICE
The tours have an optional beverage package which Eric and I sadly decline. Thankfully, Guillaume partakes and at our next stop we’re thrilled he does. At Sage—also at the Aria—he receives a Bohemian absinthe cocktail, complete with flaming presentation and a required inhalation of the verdant fumes before sipping. It’s quite a show, and from his smile, I think Guillaume enjoyed his dance with the green fairy. Eric continues to eat the bread.
Our tasting menu from James Beard award-winning chef Shawn McClain includes a roasted heirloom carrot salad with feta and date puree; a foie gras brulee that blends strawberry compote and cocoa nib, served with a brioche that I might actually sell my mother for; and roasted veal sweetbreads with glazed bacon, trumpet mushroom, and a creamy polenta.
I feel it’s worth noting that I would likely not order anything I have tasted thus far. I am not adventurous when it comes to food, or at least I wasn’t. The foie gras was a sweet and savory dance, and the sweetbreads were delicately flavored and perfectly cooked. The beauty of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours is evident to me, as I’m enticed to broaden my palate with each bite, and deliciously rewarded for doing so.
“My favorite part of giving the tours is introducing people to restaurants and dishes they maybe wouldn’t have discovered or order on their own,” Donald says.
MORE THAN JUST A DISH
Recently named Best Tour of Las Vegas 2016 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s annual poll, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours is an artful blend of sights, tastes, and sounds. Donald’s veritable encyclopedic knowledge of food, the restaurants, and their chefs is sprinkled across the evening like only a seasoned purveyor could provide.
As we move to our third stop of the night—Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas—our short walk is welcomed, especially by Eric who has eaten most of the bread. We travel through the Shops at Crystal shopping center, where Donald discusses some of the high-end mall’s artwork. The respite is brief, but perfectly timed as we transition from absinthe and foie gras to Chef Costas Spiliadis’ legendary Mediterranean seafood.
More incredible bread is served, but only one of us indulges (Eric). In my sights I have the Milos Special—lightly fried zucchini, eggplant tzatziki, and kefalograviera cheese—and the crispy Greek chip-and-dip tower is making me salivate. A gorgeous Greek salad is delivered, and the tomatoes are so ripe and sweet the barrel-aged feta makes the perfect slightly salty counterpoint. But my favorite dish—shocking myself, even—is the grilled Mediterranean octopus. Succulent chunks of tender, delicious meat dissolve in my mouth, fresh and with minimal adornment. It’s simply wonderful.
Our penultimate stop is Jaleo, Chef Jose’ Andres homage to Spanish tapas and paellas. Jaleo delivers exotic tastes in an exciting, pulsating restaurant, the centerpiece of which is a phenomenal wood-fired paella grill. We sample ‘Ferann Adrià’ liquid olives, which burst the moment you put them on your tongue; endive with goat cheese, oranges, and almonds which has a lovely light, clean flavor; and croquetas de pollo—a chicken fritter, lightly fried to a golden crisp that houses a warm, creamy center.
Did I mention the fritters are served in a Camper shoe, the Converse of Spain? It’s Jose’s favorite shoe, and Donald tells us it’s the chef’s version of sole food. The man definitely has soul. Crazy serving vessels notwithstanding, the highlight of Jaleo is the paella. The beautifully prepared and presented classic dish is served with tender rabbit, chicken, and green beans with just the perfect array of spices. During our meal, Donald demonstrates the porrón, a traditional Spanish jug used to share refreshing house-made rosemary lemonade with anyone brave enough to try the from-afar pouring method.
At this point, I’m bordering on the ridiculously full and notice while we linger at Jaleo chatting with our new French friend that even Eric has slowed down on the bread. We have one stop left, however, so it’s no time for quitters. It’s time for dessert.
Our pace leaving Jaleo is decidedly slower, despite the tour already having lasted almost three hours. But Donald has a surprise for us; we take a quick stop to look around RetroSpecs, an antique eyewear specialty store, where we get to listen to a genial history lesson about some seriously famous eyewear. We all take turns trying on the styles and glasses made famous by such bastions of cool as Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, and my personal diva favorite, Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s an unexpected twist to the evening, but thoroughly enjoyable and a nice break from my gluttony.
Alas, we must get back to the deliciousness at hand, so we head to Hexx Kitchen & Bar at Paris Las Vegas for our final tastes of the night. As we near the resort, the famous replica of the Eiffel Tower looms above us, and I hear Eric jokingly ask Guillaume if it’s as big as the one in Paris. I hear Guillaume chuckle, and say “not quite.” All I can think is it must have been all the bread Eric had, so I say nothing.
Fortunately, the intoxicating smell of cacao beans as we step inside Hexx drives all such cultural faux pas from my head; I’m in chocolate heaven. Hexx is a 24-hour restaurant and bar, but we’re here for the sweets. Known for its bean-to-bar creations, Hexx’ chocolates are created from just two ingredients— cacao beans and organic palm sugar (except for the milk chocolate, which also includes cocoa butter powder). The myriad flavors attending their creations are a matter of simplicity and elegance, and after a quick tasting of a handful of different chocolates, we are presented with our evening’s glorious ending.
Dessert is Ecuadorian brownies made with Ecuadorian chocolate, served with coffee ice cream, hazelnut crumble, and caramel sauce; the Aztec chocolate cake is made with Venezuelan chocolate, a spiced ganache, cinnamon cream cheese icing, and toasted almonds; and the French silk pie has a Madagascar chocolate mousse with whiskey caramel sauce.
Each bite was a blend of sensations that while the ingredients may seem tooth-achingly sweet, were actually smooth and rich without being overpowering or cloying. This is adult dessert, the kind that makes you crave more while your tastebuds continue to be pummeled by the boldness of the many flavors.
Barely able to consume another bite, but defiant until the very last, Eric finishes his chocolate dishes with the look of a man knowingly—and happily—flirting with death. But if the last thing he ever did was attend the Lip Smacking Foodie Tour, it would certainly be a worthy final experience.
Note: No associate editors were harmed during this tour. Eric made a full recovery the next day, and is planning which Lip Smacking Foodie Tour he will take next.