Ultimo 2016 — dining doesn’t get much finer than this

Restaurants are the new casinos in Las Vegas, and smart celebrity chefs have capitalized on the paradigm shift that’s taken place in recent years. To wit, the international roll call of high-end eateries that now exists here has given Sin City a reputation for fine dining that’s easily on par with — if not outranking — its appeal as a gaming/entertainment destination.

Las Vegas Strip view from hot air balloon, credit Amy Lynch.jpgOh sure, you can still find an old-school $5.99 steak dinner if you look hard enough, but why would you? The new breed of Vegas foodies is savvy with discriminating tastes, seeking out upscale meals in trendy venues.

Ultimo may just be the superlative Las Vegas dining experience of the year. And in this town’s current culinary climate, that’s saying something.

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I had the great fortune to attend “Le Grand Voyage” festivities Dec. 9 to 11 at The Venetian and The Palazzo, the fourth incarnation of the annual event (during which I believe I drank my weight in champagne).

Belvedere cocktails, credit Amy Lynch.jpgPick-up from McCarran International Airport in a Rolls-Royce Ghost kicked off a weekend of sheer indulgence, followed by a Friday night reception fueled by caviar and Belvedere cocktails. Later that evening, a dessert buffet awash in Dom Perignon Vintage 2006 capably kept the glow going.

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Ultimo dining table – Anthony Mair

The 2016 party culminated in a black-tie dinner of epic proportions hosted by Robin Leach with dishes prepared by a star-studded roster of chefs that included Thomas Keller, Curtis Stone, Jerome Bocuse and Ming Tsai. A dining table dressed for the occasion spanned the length of the Venetian’s showy frescoed Colonnade, where candlelight, artful video projections and Lalique vases filled with calla lilies and orchids set the stage for a dramatic meal before the first plate ever arrived.

Chef Pierre Thiam - Red Snapper Caldou with Sorrel Relish over Fonio with Fermented-dawadawa Powder - credit Anthony Mair.jpg

Chef Pierre Thiam Red Snapper Caldou with Sorrel Relish over Folio with fermented dawadawa Power – Anthony Mair

Ranking the six impeccable courses is like choosing a favorite child, but a few of the plates I’m still dreaming about a week later — Chef Paul Bartolotta’s decadent white truffle-laced broth with tortellini, a kicky red snapper caldou with sorrel relish from Chef Pierre Thiam, and Chef Vikram Vij’s luscious lamb over fenugreek cream curry.

Chef Vikram Vij - Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry -credit Anthony Mair.jpg

Chef Vikram Vij Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry – Anthony Mair

Wine pairings from Dom Perignon, Metaphora, Marques de Murrieta, Pio Cesare and Memento Mori took the feast over the top.

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In keeping with the Grand Voyage theme, this year’s Ultimo itinerary went well beyond the table to include a Rolls-Royce driving experience that let attendees chauffeur themselves up and down the Strip, a hot-air balloon adventure provided by Las Vegas Balloon Rides, a Dom Perignon picnic in Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, a Louis Vuitton fashion show and a Patron-sponsored farewell brunch on Sunday morning.

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Sebastien Silvestri, vice president of food & beverage for The Venetian and the Palazzo, organizes the annual event, traveling the globe to assemble the spectacular roster of chefs, winemakers and sponsors.

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A portion of Ultimo proceeds goes to benefit Ment’or BKB Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to educate, inspire and support a new generation of American culinary professionals.

For more information, visit venetian.com/entertainment/ultimo.html.

A second helping of Paducah? Yes, please!

As good luck and fate would have it, I had an opportunity to return to Paducah last week for a few more days of fun and feasting!

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1857 Hotel made me feel like a rock star, greeting me warmly and welcoming me back with open arms. I’d barely gotten checked in when Jo, my new favorite bartender, invited me to come downstairs and try some Bird Dog Ruby Red Grapefruit Whiskey she’d just gotten in. The “Kentucky Mule” she mixed up for me was DELISH. (And, she even poured me a bonus taste of cocoa cayenne liquor I wanted to lick right out of the glass.) If I lived here, this bar would definitely be my “local.”

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For dinner my first night in town, I visited Max’s Brick Oven Café, a charming little spot with a courtyard patio that looks like something straight outta N’Awlins. My wood-fired salmon with mustard cream sauce over spinach with roasted potatoes paired perfectly with a chilly Chardonnay.

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Breakfast at G&O Pharmacy and Grill was a fun little find. Imagine a full-service pharmacy with a short-order grill and lunch counter in the corner. There ya go. The breakfast menu’s about as basic as it gets — coffee, bacon, sausage, eggs, toast and hash browns. But really, what more do you need in the morning? And tons of local color. Gotta love a place where you can sit on a stool with a counter full of regulars sharing their newspapers and discussing whether or not Earl should put new blades on his lawnmower.

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Culinary students capably staff Kitchen’s Café on the groovy little Paducah School of Art and Design campus. And imagine my surprise when I walk in and see a huge old iron engine furnace cover made in Indianapolis, IN — a fun little taste of home! The fresh hummus pita wrap I ate was darn tasty, too – nice and garlicky with snappy slices of cucumber, greens, fresh herbs and a sprinkle of feta served with a cup of fresh diced pineapple.

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Happy hour took place at Dry Ground Brewing in the currently shape-shifting retro Coca-Cola plant on Broadway, an amazing renovation work in progress. This place is sleek and contemporary, populated with a great staff and a menu of buzzy microbrews that touts offerings like Under Tow Imperial IPA, 37 Flood American IPA and Rapture Imperial Stout. The Preacher Pils I sipped was smooooooth, and I also liked the seasonal sample I tasted. Can’t remember the name, but it was made with chamomile tea?!? Ed, Andy — Help me out here, guys??

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I’d been daydreaming about revisiting the Freight House from the second I found out I’d be returning to Paducah, and chef Sara and her team did not disappoint. I sat at the bar where I was downright pampered with a Pistol Ave cocktail made with cinnamon whiskey, Fernet Branca and tamarind soda.

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My amazing tomato/plum salad with cornbread croutons and “fire and ice” tzatziki tasted like summer on a plate.

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And then there was my butcher steak entrée served with peach/potato/peanut salad and charred creamed corn. Just when I thought my dinner couldn’t get any better, the lovely couple sitting next to me paid for my meal. I. Love. This. Town. (Thanks again, David and Linda!)

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Returned to the Coke plant for breakfast at Piper’s Tea and Coffee, where I took advantage of a sweet $5 coffee and Kirchhoff’s scone deal.

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Laura, my lovely Paducah guru, met me for lunch at Starnes Bar-B-Que, a local institution that’s been around for decades. The tiny menu boasts not much more than a couple grilled white bread sandwiches filled with low-and-slow cooked meats, but there were swarms of people eating in and carrying out. To accompany, you can choose from cole slaw, potato salad and bagged chips. And no Coke vs. Pepsi debate here — Starnes is all about the iced tea and the RC Cola, baby! The sauce is a spicy, vinegary recipe not quite like any other barbecue I’ve ever had. I ordered my pulled pork with cole slaw on the sandwich itself (‘cause that’s how I roll) and gave it good dousing. Mm good.

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Other notable moments — sitting by the river watching the water and clouds drift by…

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Coloring and crafting to my heart’s content with Kristin at Ephemera in the Lower Town Arts District…

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And glimpsing two mama deer and two fawns crossing the road while cruising through the idyllic Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

See you next time, Paducah — thanks for the memories and the Southern hospitality!

Mad for Madison

Another week, another trip… and more good eats!

Spent a few days this week in Madison, hugging the banks of the Ohio River in southeast Indiana. As far as small towns go, this is about as pretty as they come. Madison takes great community pride in maintaining blocks-long stretches of gorgeously maintained historic homes, a main street of antique shops and eateries, and a ridiculously scenic riverfront.

18 Madison fountain.jpgThis is small-town Indiana, so the food scene’s heavy on familiar comfort-foodie fare, with a few surprises tucked in here and there.

Here’s what was on the menu:

Crystal & Jules is THE place to go for a romantic dinner or special occasion in Madison. The menu isn’t huge, but everything on it makes sense with a respectable selection of surf and turf choices. The housemade pastas immediately got my attention, although I hear the Costa Rican New York Strip also receives plenty of raves. In the end, I couldn’t be swayed, and was glad I went with my first instincts.

16 CJ salad.jpgMy dinner started with a simple yet delicious house salad composed of ingredients grown in the garden just out the back door — spicy lettuces, tiny jewel-like tomatoes and diced cucumber with a super tasty champagne vinaigrette.

16 CJ pasta.jpgAs for my pasta – a lemon/lime marinated chicken breast atop a luscious tangle of tender fettuccine covered in creamy tomato sauce kicked up with a whisper of poblano. So, so good.

16 CJ Creme brulee.jpgFor dessert, a textbook-perfect vanilla crème brulee adorably presented in a white coffee mug.

17 Horst donut and coffee.jpgBreakfast at Horst’s Little Bakery Haus – bringing a little taste of Bavaria to Madison with Old World décor that highlights cuckoo clocks, a collection of tiny porcelain Christmas village houses that spans an entire wall, and other kitschy German mementos. The food’s your basic breakfast grub – omelets, corned beef hash, B&G… but the baked goods seem to be the honey that lures in most of the customers. Especially the light-as-air traditional glazed donuts. A sweet way to start the day.

21 Hinkle burger fries.jpgSpeaking of loyal customers, fans have been frequenting Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop since 1933. Nothing fancy, just a tiny local burger joint that’s made a name for itself by serving up slightly-bigger-than-a-slider “Hinkleburgers” dressed with onions and pickles, along with fries and several dozen flavor options for extra-thick milkshakes. Grab a seat at the counter (if you can, there are only a handful and they fill up fast) and load up on the greasy-spoon goodness.

22 Ice cream cannoli.jpgThree words: ice cream cannoli. The Ice Cream Dessert Factory makes them, and you  know you want one. Large and small pie-crusty cylinders piped full of vanilla, strawberry or mint ice cream. If you really want to splurge, get yours dipped in chocolate. Go ahead. I won’t tell anyone.

2 me boat.jpgI’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed the Rockin Thunder Jet Boat adventure trip I did, an idyllic day-long journey from Madison up the Kentucky River all the way to Frankfort.

9 Blue Wing.jpgPit stops included a box lunch at the bucolic Blue Wing Landing Inn in Owenton, KY and a quick tasting at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

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ALWAYS happy to revisit the handsome campus here, and bourbon tasting — well, if you’ve been paying attention, you already know how I feel about that…

 

Southern living it up

Can I just say how much I love, love, fricking LOVE Kentucky? The food, the hospitality, the scenery, the bourbon… I just got back from two days in the Bluegrass State for work and pleasure, but mostly pleasure. So close to my Indiana home, but worlds away food-wise, I can totally get down with menus that boast newfangled twists on country ham, pimento cheese, hot browns and grits. Bring. On. The. Grits.

First stop, an exploratory jaunt to Paducah, new territory for me. With a sweet walkable downtown, an interesting history and a booming arts scene, this charming river city makes a lovely first impression. I had so much fun exploring the cultural attractions here (p.s. the quilt museum is seriously cool! YES – QUILTS, people!), and I loved my stay at the uber-urban 1857 Hotel.

So…. Drinks. This is Bourbon Country, after all. I think my blood alcohol content automatically rises as soon as I cross the state line. Omigosh, do these people know their way around an Old Fashioned. Now, I’ve had some good bourbon knowledge dropped on me in the past five years or so, but I always look forward to learning about and tasting something new on my trips to Kentucky.

Manhattan.jpgJo at the 1857 hotel bar in Paducah mixes up a kick-ass Manhattan that’ll knock you for a loop. At least it did me. A little Angel’s Envy was the just the thing to bring me back to life after six hours in the car. (And, as an added bonus, I also got to sample Cooper’s Craft.)

Dinner was at the Freight House in Paducah, a modern American eatery that’s just a few months old. The menu here touts farm-to-table fare with an emphasis on Kentucky farms. That means pork rinds, vinegar-pickled cucumbers and onions (which my mom made every summer, and I’m sure yours probably did, too), frog legs. Note to self: Kentucky blue snapper is something I definitely need to know more about.

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So here’s what I ate. Shrimp and — say it with me — PIMENTO CHEESE GRITS.

carrots.jpgAdorable little pan-seared carrots topped with candied pecans, blackberries and a schmear of spicy dilled ranch sauce.

appies.jpgA mustard-y deviled egg. Tomatoes from an employee’s own backyard.

 hot brown.jpgA bite of my dining companion’s non-traditional Hot Brown — an intimidating, but delicious, towering stack of thick bread, sweet tea-brined (!) chicken, creamy sauce, a vibrant red tomato slice and a piece of pork belly on top. Holy Moly. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t save room for dessert, but I was happily stuffed by this point.

Breakfast the next morning at Kirchhoff’s… currently a local institution bakery/coffeeshop/deli/dress shop that’s been in operation here since the 1800s. So many pastries, bagels, tarts, pies, cookies, brownies… so little time. I was leaning toward a Chess Bar, that is, until I spotted the “Elvis” scones atop the counter.

scone.jpgBanana, peanut butter, maple and bacon all in one treat, and somehow it works. Washed down with a large café au lait, and a snickerdoodle. Because… why not. We’re talking breakfast of champions, right here.

turkey sandwich.jpgEveryone I met talked this place up so much for lunch, I went back again at 1 p.m. and enjoyed half of a turkey sandwich on cranberry walnut bread and a bag of cheddar horseradish potato chips.

My night in Louisville pretty much revolved around my stay at the Seelbach Hilton, whose bespoke setting inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to honor the historic beauty in “The Great Gatsby.” If you’re overnighting here, or just passing through, I highly recommend sneaking a peek at the amazing lobby and the Rookwood-tiled Rathskeller in the basement.

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While you’re there, might as well grab a seat in the Old Seelbach Bar and order up a classic Seelbach Cocktail – bourbon (duh) with a splash of champagne.

In the morning, I had the supreme pleasure of breakfasting with two of my favorite travel colleagues. Stacey gets credit for introducing me to my very first bourbon cocktail when I was in Louisville for a work trip over St. Patrick’s Day six or seven years ago, and Susan has been a fantastic resource for all the fun Kentucky assignments I get to write. They took me to Gralehaus… one part B&B, one part brewpub, one part breakfast/lunch café. All good.

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I dug my pretzel croissant breakfast sammie, laden with country ham, melty cheese and a sunny-side egg.

Long live the Commonwealth, y’all.

 

 

TCB at PCB

Summer weather’s making me yearn for the beach… particularly, my visit to Panama City Beach, Fla. last October. I mean, hello… look at this view… I’m surprised we ever came home.

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The kiddo and I drove down during his fall break for the annual Pirates of the High Seas Festival, and had a blast. Gorgeous accommodations, perfect weather and, of course, tons of tasty fresh Gulf Coast seafood.

Here’s a sampling of what we ate:

Finn fish taco

First stop after rolling into town was Finns Island Style Grub, former food truck-turned-stationary stop on Thomas Drive next to a surf shop (there’s a second location in town as well according to the web site). This was the perfect intro to PCB cuisine — fresh, casual, tasty… the kind of food you can enjoy with your kids at a picnic table on your way to or from the beach. We enjoy red snapper fish tacos on special that day, and my little guy pronounced them yummy. Kid-tested and soundly approved.

With a gorgeous backdrop of white sand, jade green water and spectacular sunsets, beachfront dinners are all but required here, and there are plenty of eateries ready and willing to accommodate. Menus focus on local seafood, of course, as well as standard beach fare like burgers, fries, pizza, basic salads and the like.

Barefoot rum runner

I figured Barefoot Hideaway Grill would be a good spot to order up my favorite Florida cocktail — a rum runner, and I was right. Think fruity, boozy Hawaiian Punch,strictly for grownups. A great accompaniment to the blackened Mahi Mahi I had for dinner. And bring your camera; the giant ceramic feet at the entrance and the oversized Adironack chair on the beach present some fun photo ops.

Andy's french toast

For breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the signature French toast at Andy’s Flour Power Café and Bakery. I also loved the pistachio muffin, (which kids will probably think is cool simply because it’s green).

Schooners crab cake

And speaking of kids, the nightly sunset cannon blast at Schooners Last Local Beach Club is a must-do. Kicking myself for not getting a photo, but my son sucked down the garlic butter-drenched crab claws as quickly as he could get them into his mouth. (A major foodie mom win!) In an ironic twist, he then refused to even taste my crabcakes with tropical fruit salsa, even after I presented them as “crabby patties.” (What can I say, we’re Spongebob fans in my house…)

I was also sadly remiss in not getting a pic of Fatty’s Sandwich Shop, a divey rock-and-roll themed strip mall stop that serves up menus printed on old vinyl albums (sweet!) and a damn good muffuletta. P.S. they deliver. Good news if you’re staying at a hotel or condo in the immediate vicinity.

pirate pretzel

On our last night in town, we were walking toward Hook’d Pier Bar from the Pirate Festival activities at Pier Park for a final seafood supper when my kiddo spied the giant soft pretzels at the Hofbrau Beer Garden. There’s no passing that up. After all, man cannot live by fish alone. Between sharing one and a schnitzel bigger than my head (washed down with a nice big wheat beer for mom), we were happy stuffed. Arrrrrgh, matey.

Can’t wait to get back again.

 

 

 

 

Amy’s Food Flights is now Breakfast, Lynch & Dinner!

I’m back, with a new name!!! Let’s get this party re-started….

Made my weekly pilgrimage to the Broad Ripple Farmers Market yesterday, and here’s what we ate… a soft pretzel with cheese for dipping washed down with a lemon shake-up has become the kiddo’s standard summer Saturday morning breakfast.

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Yesterday, we had a buddy along for the ride. After their breakfast of champions, I was able to shop long enough to purchase a few gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and a slab of Tulip Tree Creamery fresh mozzarella to fix myself a Caprese salad at home. Just look at these beauties… IMG_2194.jpgCan’t say enough good things about the Broad Ripple Farmers Market. Always friendly vendors, great products, tons of cute dogs, and we usually run into people we know. See you there next week!!!