Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stoner Cooking Profile: The Wicked Spoon

Great American Bites: Las Vegas buffet reinvented at Wicked Spoon Larry Olmsted, special for USA TODAY

The scene: Nothing says Las Vegas like a buffet, where all-you-can-eat is as iconic as neon. There is not a major casino hotel without one, with more than 40 high-profile options in the city. In the past decade, as more luxury hotels have opened, buffets have also gone upscale, and these typically feature individual counters by type of ethnic cuisine, better ingredients, more food cooked to order and generally a luxury spin on gluttony. The best examples are Wynn, Bellagio, Mirage, M Resort, Planet Hollywood, Paris and TI.

But there's a new kid on the block taking a more radical approach to the buffet scene, Wicked Spoon in the recently opened Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. The entire vibe is decidedly un-buffet: From many of the seats you can't even see the food, and it has a fawning wait staff replacing the cloth napkins and nice silverware every time you get up. But the real departure is its artistic rethinking of the buffet presentation. Gone are the make-it-yourself stations like the salad bar, and instead you get a range of single serving options. Many items are individually "packaged" in tiny pots, pans, and other unique serving vessels. Fried chicken comes in miniature fry baskets, freshly prepared pad thai is dispensed in classic white Chinese food take out boxes, and dessert options include a full-blown staffed gelato bar with nearly 20 flavors.

The effect is slick and professional, and while you can still eat as much as you want, more rationally-sized individual servings make most patrons try smaller portions of more different things, sort of a forced culinary adventure.

Reason to visit: Kalbi, bahn mi, fried chicken, tacos al pastor, gelato

The food: The selection is vast, including Asian, Latin and Italian stations, plus a huge section of salads, appetizers and hand-carved meats. But the focus is on individual dishes rather than serving bowls, which has proven to be a turnoff to some Vegas buffet fans used to the norm. The manager told me that while food savvy locals and hotel guests — The Cosmopolitan gets a hip urban crowd — love it, diners staying elsewhere are often disappointed with its focus on quality over quantity. The tacos are a perfect example: Almost every buffet in the city has a taco bar with heaping bowls of cheese, lettuce, salsa, onions and meats to make your own. Here the only choice is tacos al pastor (marinated pork with onions and cilantro), individually made and plated constantly by the chefs, and while they are excellent and more authentic, someone who craves fistfuls of processed cheese will be disappointed. In this same vein there is no "salad bar," but rather individually plated small salads in a variety of unique options, such as a tempting fresh burrata and watercress salad. Likewise, the shrimp cocktail are pre-plated in little cups rather than spooned from a massive bowl, and while you can still eat all you want, this daintiness doesn't sit well with some buffet fans.

But it sat very well with me. In Las Vegas, the buffet model has always been essentially the same, the difference being pricier ingredients as you go upscale. Here you actually get different foods. There are so many things you don't expect at a buffet, from hand-carved, house-smoked slab bacon to lemongrass-marinated steamed cod to tasty kalbi (Korean short ribs) to good house-made pork rillettes, a rustic French version of pate. The small plated portions are turned over very quickly so they are fresh, and the fried chicken, which was very good, had just been pulled from the oil. There's an impressive selection of artisanal salamis, cured meats and cheeses. The nouveau riff on Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches, served on steamed dough, were delicious, the sushi was good, and even the thin crust pizza, cooked in visible, high-temperature pizza ovens, was well above average. Instead of breakfast and lunch they do a combined brunch service every day ($22 plus tax, $29 on weekends) where you can do either or both, followed by dinner ($35).

The very best feature is the amazing dessert selection. While some buffets have self-service soft ice-cream dispensers, Wicked Spoon has the gelato bar. Benchmark flavors like pistachio were excellent, better than at any of the standalone gelato parlors I've tried in Vegas, plus they have truly creative variations like balsamic strawberry and pomegranate. A variety of chocolate-dipped strawberries include versions rolled in crushed heath bar and crushed oreos, a bakery-style case of fancy pastries, and even individual molten chocolate lava cakes in tiny pots.

What regulars say: "Other high-end buffets here try to outdo each other with ingredients, but they are essentially all the same. This one is different," said Vegas mother and food lover Stephanie Davis.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but a great choice for groups who want variety or can't agree on single cuisine.

Details: Original, 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas; cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/taste/restaurant-collection/wicked-spoon.aspx

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