I'm supposed to be anonymous in this job, and while I don't always perform with perfect super-spy cool and élan in the dining rooms and back alleys of this city (my own private Berlin, the secret agent's Valhalla), I do recognize a few hard and fast rules.
First, never do anything to draw attention to yourself. Never make reservations in your own name. Always use the names of dead character actors, characters from The Simpsons or local chefs. You can get away with almost any kind of bad behavior if the floor staff think you're, say, one of Sean Yontz's sous chefs on the tail end of a three-day tequila bender — because the waiters and waitresses and hosts will have dealt with their own kitchen overlords and will know what to expect.
And never, ever take notes. Do that, and you may as well wear a T-shirt that says ANONYMOUS RESTAURANT CRITIC in big white letters. You may as well whip out a stack of business cards and start demanding free drinks and back rubs from the owner. Taking notes (or worse, cell-phone pictures of the food) is a surefire giveaway.
Still, there are exceptions to every rule. And there are some restaurants that are exceptions to all rules. Grand Lux Cafe, for example. Waiting for my second massive flight of food to arrive on a recent Saturday evening, I felt I had to set down my initial impressions of the place before I lost them — before they were blown clean out of my head with shotgun severity by the next outrage. So there I was, hunched up against the wall, frantically scribbling on the back of an old check:
This is not a restaurant, I wrote. This is a time-warp trip back to the Rome of the Caesars...a gilt-edged and bejeweled palace filled with polished marble, fire, lacquer, iron and gold with glowing lamps and statuary and fiery angel choirs singing from atop massive pillars...
Laura had ducked out for a minute, gone clopping across the marble floor in her spike heels to check out the bakery in the lobby, the towering bar. I'd sat, walled in by the wreckage of our first course — by half-eaten double-stuffed potato spring rolls, the gnawed ends of flautas as thick around as small burritos, and mini hot dogs made (allegedly) of Kobe beef, buried in chili and cheese and mounted, like the offering in some freaky church of meat processors, atop the altars of their outsized, precariously tall buns — before I'd escaped to a corner to scribble.
Here, all the world's cuisines have collided, the place itself standing like a massive edifice against all that is good and decent in the world, a giant, marbled and sculpted Fuck You to generations of cooks and chefs and every small advance we've made.
After we sat down, our waitress had rushed her way through a rehearsed spiel with all the passion of a museum docent fifteen minutes before quitting time: "As you can see, the menu is very large..." The floor was busy and she'd already had her eyes on her next table, just being sat, as she robotically warned us that portions were big. But we didn't pay much attention, and wound up ordering enough fried starch and weirdness to amply feed a party of ten.
If there is a hell for line cooks — a place where they must go after sloughing off this mortal coil to work off their sins of the grill — then I am sure now that this is it. This is where food comes to die.
The way the story goes, Grand Lux Cafe began with a request from the owners of the Venetian Resort, Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to David Overton, founder of the Cheesecake Factory empire, to build them a new restaurant. The Venetian brain trust had decided that penny slots, a complete re-creation of a Venetian piazza (including painted-on sky and working canal system) and nineteen (count 'em) other restaurants offering everything from the transplanted genius of Thomas Keller (Bouchon) and Mario Batali (B&B Ristorante) to cheap and sleazy Mexican weren't enough to get the rubes into their joint, and what they really needed was a restaurant that, while appearing to be an ultra-luxe, super-high-end dining establishment, actually offered the kind of crap that the T-shirt-and-flip-flops crowd adores. Agreeing to this devil's bargain, Overton then hopped on a plane and headed for Europe, where he studied opulent Italian trattorias, French bistros and the pastry shops of Vienna before, apparently, being knocked on the head somewhere between the Lainzer Tiergarten and Avenue Emile Zola, forgetting everything he'd seen and, while sitting in the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle, just throwing together an over-the-top concept on a bar napkin, complete with a menu rife with transgressions against nearly every major culinary canon. The first Grand Lux Cafe opened in Vegas to wild success — no surprise. Operating 24/7 and seating 550, the place looks like a set from an abandoned production of Caligula (I've seen pictures) and serves, among other things, chilaquiles, duck pot stickers, Maryland crabcakes, Neapolitan pizzas, Carolina barbecue sandwiches, steak frites, sesame tofu, weinerschnitzel and Kentucky hot brown. The operation was so successful that Grand Lux Cafe LLC went on to open locations in nine more states, twelve restaurants altogether, including our very own version at Park Meadows.
Back on the floor, I put aside my scribbling and tried to focus on the food. The "Double Stuffed Potato Spring Rolls" had started with a good idea: They managed to hit that wide bull's-eye of crispy outside/soft inside comfort food, essentially mashed potatoes spiked with green onions wrapped inside a spring roll wrapper and then deep-fried like an Asian pierogi. But this guilty pleasure was then covered in melted cheddar cheese, topped with bacon bits, sprinkled with more green onion, sided by a giant blob of sour cream and served in a portion so large that Laura and I hardly made a dent before pushing back from the table, stuffed and ready for a nap.
The mini-kobe dogs were decent — if eleven dollars' worth of cocktail franks and toothless chili is your kind of thing. And it seemed to be exactly the thing for many diners, because as the plate was being marched toward us from the quote/unquote exhibition kitchen in the back (walled off from the main floor by a service trench and sealed behind panes of clear glass like the bulletproof stuff that convenience-store cashiers hide behind in dodgy neighborhoods), Laura saw at least three tables flagging down their own harried servers to ask what it was and if they could add one to their order. The flautas, though, were horrific — whole flour tortillas stuffed with (I think) leftover chicken salad, chopped poblano chiles and bitter cilantro and fried, with the resulting mess drizzled with sour cream and avocado sauce that tasted like green kindergarten paste and served over a bed of corn and black beans. There were at least a half-dozen flautas on the plate — and this was an appetizer. We were just getting started.
The menu at Grand Lux runs to over a hundred plates — an imposing, schizophrenic clusterfuck of bad ideas. I'd ordered the Indochine shrimp and chicken because it looked like the goofiest of all the international inclusions, "a fusion dish of Chinese and Indian flavors." And while the menu description had promised onions, sweet ginger, curry, plum wine, cream, dried cherries, apricots, shrimp, chicken and Asian spices, it didn't prepare me for the end product, which tasted like terrifyingly spongy chicken dipped in caramel. With cherries on top.
Laura had gone simpler, ordering lemon chicken piccata. But the kitchen crew forgot the lemon. They forgot the capers. And even if they hadn't forgotten to add the two flavors that more or less define a piccata, it still would've sucked. Sadly, there was enough of it on the plate to serve six, easy: six people who had no idea what an actual piccata was supposed to taste like, had never eaten anything resembling proper Italian food. On our way out of Park Meadows, Laura and I shoved our to-go boxes in the nearest garbage can.
Still, on that first visit, the floor — which has to hold 300 or more, not counting the bar or the patio — had been nearly full. With hope in my heart, I thought that might mean that somewhere on this board of terrible, borderless, Indo-Italo-Thai-German-French-and-American fusion, there was something good, something capable of drawing people back months after the restaurant had opened. So I returned on a Sunday afternoon, sat at the bar (a massive edifice in its own right, with bottles stacked to the vaulted ceiling and as much gold trim as a hundred West Coast rappers, melted down and used as paint), and ate decent duck pot stickers stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and ginger, then chased them with short ribs that were like bad pot roast in a "delicious red wine gravy" that tasted of the greasy scrim that floats on top of a clarifying beef stock.
Monday night, I was back again — this time for a barely passable margherita pizza and the worst shrimp scampi I've ever had. The shrimp — enormous, mealy, completely flavorless U-10 shrimp — had been battered and deep-fried, then served in a cream sauce that tasted like an Alfredo hit with a squirt of lemon Pledge.
And yet even after all these horrors, I did manage to find something admirable at Grand Lux: its bakery. On my way out the door after that final visit, I picked up a takeout order of rustic apple pie and a lemon meringue tart as tall as Don King's hair. It seems that Overton's time in Vienna was not a complete waste, because these desserts — in their adherence to classical recipes and simplicity in everything but presentation — were not only edible, but actually very good. Still, some apple pie and a pound of meringue isn't enough to make me ever go back to Grand Lux.
What happens in Vegas ought to fucking stay there.