Michael Mina at the Bellagio

We like a good surprise and Michael Mina gave us just that. Of all our food adventures in Las Vegas, Michael Mina came out on top for our biggest gastronomic surprise. It was one of those moments where prior to dining at Michael Mina we have heard good things about Chef Mina while embarrassingly not knowing enough about his impressive credentials. And, we expected a good meal but instead were blown away by the seafood we had. Michael Mina himself has a restaurant empire including this namesake restaurant and while he is unable to be physically present at each restaurant every night, he clearly got it right with his executive chef at the Michael Mina restaurant at the Bellagio.


Seafood lovers who find themselves at Michael Mina are at the right place.

The shellfish platter, ordered and priced per person, includes maine lobster, raw oysters, crab, prawns, and scallop ceviche. The shellfish are individually plated with each type of shellfish prepared its own way and are seated on a thick layer of crushed ice placed in a deep bowl. The prawns came with orange and mint aioli; the lobster was served with citrus vinaigrette and mint leaves. The creativity of the shellfish platter shone through the scallop ceviche. Served on its own with a portion enough to be an appetizer on its own, the scallop ceviche comes with slivers of Thai birds eye chilli, mandarin orange segment, and mint leaves and covered coconut-flavored foam. Taking a step into the unconventional flair and creative way of eating the ceviche were the sides of tortilla chips and fresh popcorn. The ceviche was meant to be scooped onto a tortilla chip and then topped with a tiny bit of popcorn before popping the entire thing into the mouth.

The signature tuna tartare, is brought to the table and the server explains each ingredient in the carefully plated tuna tartare before mixing up all those ingredients together until well combined. Tossed with sesame oil, ancho chile, pine nuts, mint leaves, garlic, and Asian pear, the tuna was refreshing, almost a perfect-like dish for summer. The tartare has a pleasant presence of sesame oil that stands out and if anyone is not a huge fan of sesame oil, the accompanying sliced toasts balances the taste of the tartare perfectly. Otherwise, the tuna is perfect eaten on its own, just like the way I like it.

The star of the meal was the Three Seas that came with three types of Japanese fish. The dish was inspired by the Japanese way of preparing food as can be seen in the way this dish is served, but the highlight is how this dish is transformed into the Michael Mina way without compromising the source of the Japanese inspiration. The texture and form of the miso-glazed chilean sea bass totally blew us away and I don't think we can ever forget the moment we had with the sea bass. Each bite was incredibly delicate and moist and it almost created the illusion that we were eating fish fat except that it was not fish fat. It was actual fish we were eating. The ginger seared tuna was rare inside and the seared scallop was also very well prepared. Staying true its Japanese inspiration, the fish sat on a thin bed of flavored bamboo rice mixed with ikura (salmon roe) and shredded pickled daikon. Instead of the traditional Japanese oshinko made of pickled daikon, Michael Mina introduces its own twist using pickled cucumber. Accompanying the dish with more Japanese-inspired sides are the tempura maitake mushroom, spinach-wrapped shitake mushroom, and poached daikon. The execution of this dish was impressive with the doubly impressive sea bass.

The foie gras risotto with chicken jus was a good option as a side dish to our seafood-heavy meal. The texture of the risotto was perfectly al dente when it was still warm but as the dish gradually cooled to room temperature it became a little hard. But all in all, this was still a very solidly prepared dish.

The complimentary house made apple cider was just what we needed for our food-filled stomachs. 

One unforgettable part of our experience at Michael Mina was our server who was nothing short of professional, helpful, and friendly. In fact, I think he should moonlight as a part time photographer when he is not working at Michael Mina. At the end of the meal, we asked our server if he could help take a photograph of us. T and I did not know what we were in for when we asked our server for the quick favor. After we handed him our camera, he went into photographer mode and proceeded to rearrange the items on our table so that they would look nicer in the photograph, including temporarily removing some "ugly" items on the table (our table's check), etc. After the first shot, he walked over to the other side of the table and suggested us to hold hands over the table (which emitted some laughter from the table next to us although I think they laughing at our server and not my husband and I) for the second shot. And then finally he wanted to take a third shot of us and suggested my husband to stand by my chair. Gotta love our server.

Even if just for the incredible sea bass, we hope to return to Michael Mina.

Michael Mina at the Bellagio
600 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2009 1-Michelin Star
2008 1-Michelin Star
2005 Bon Appetit Chef of the Year
2002 James Beard Award Best Chef
1997 Rising Star Chef


Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

Our plane prepares for descent and we see the beautiful canyons from mid-air. The area is vast and very impressive. Even as the plane is taxiing on the runway, the canyons do not disappear. They become the backdrop of the long stretch of casinos that are visible even from the airport.

That had been as much natural scenery of Nevada we took in during our previous trips to Las Vegas. Every time we are in Las Vegas we get lost in the glitz and glamor of The Strip and forget how beautiful the state of Nevada is beyond all the man-made mesmerizing neon lights on The Strip. But on this 8th trip to Sin City (our 8th trip's the charm!), we left The Strip and experienced beautiful and natural red rock formations.

The state of Nevada is primarily desert and with a list of state parks to choose from, there are several good options to help decide based on individual requirements. We were looking for a quick getaway from The Strip for half a day and based on the distance and time to travel, Red Rock Canyon was the perfect choice. The Grand Canyon is about 4 1/2 to 5 hours drive from Las Vegas and the Valley of Fire is about 5 hours away. Granted, we have heard amazing and beautiful things about Valley of Fire and the Grand Canyon so here is hoping that during our next trip out to Las Vegas, we will make it to either one. Fingers crossed.

For those looking for a temporary break from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, the Red Rock Canyon is situated 20-miles west of The Strip. The easy 30-minute drive is extremely manageable to one's schedule and itinerary. The Red Rock Canyon region is part of the larger Mojave Desert which encompasses parts of Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah. Red Rock Canyon provided us a convenient opportunity to experience the essence of Nevada i.e. desert, sandstone cliffs, etc.

There are 16 hiking trails to choose from ranging from a distance of 1.5 miles to 6 miles with different difficulty levels from easy to strenuous. Some of the shorter trails connect with the others.

Another option is the 13-mile scenic drive that brings vehicles and bikes through the mountainous region of Red Rock Canyon. The panoramic view route is on well paved roads and was by no means off road driving so any type of vehicle is allowed. Bikers are also welcomed on the scenic drive. The scenic drive goes in one direction so vehicles do not have to worry about whether they are going in the right (or wrong) direction. The highlight of the scenic drive for us were the first two stops where we saw different parts of Calico Hills. The deep red rocks were amazing in their own right. As part of its natural formation process, some of the rocks were a mixture of red and brown and this contrast in color drew to attention the beauty of the formation.

Making a photography trip out of the visit to Red Rock Canyon was also a good decision we made. Whether it be capturing the vast land area, sandstone cliffs, limestone ridges, or peaks, there are various geological formations that make good photography spots for the keen eye. If photography is your main priority, visiting early morning or late afternoon would be best in order to avoid the harsh sunlight in the photos. We arrived at about 9:30am and with the generous amount of natural light, we lowered our ISO setting on our camera to 100 and it worked out really nicely. If you are there on an overcast day, you might need to crank up your ISO. The wonderful thing about Nevada is that we were there right in the middle of summer in July and despite the 100 deg F heat, we did not sweat a drop because of the dry heat.

Red Rock Canyon feels like it is a world away from The Strip because of it's stark contrast in view but all it takes is about a convenient 30-minute drive. After we returned to our hotel we lazed by the pool before continuing with the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas. Being able to go from peace and tranquility in the midst of nature and back to the dramatic entertainment capital of the world on the same day, we would not have done it another way.


L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand

Joel Robuchon is no stranger to the French culinary world. The man himself has garnered a total of 24 Michelin stars combined across his restaurants worldwide. Though awarded the title Chef of the Century back in 1989 and also the title France's Best Craftsman in 1979, he still commands a very respectable culinary empire in the present. Our fantastic experience at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London almost dictated us for a return, only to a different location none other than Las Vegas. If the French word l'atelier (English: workshop) is any indication, this places offers the opportunity for diners to get a glimpse of the kitchen magic while allowing a more interactive dining experience. This is Joel Robuchon's way of combining both quality foods with a casual trendy environment.

Consistent with the theme of L'Atelier in other locations, this place features counter top seating where diners face the kitchen throughout the entire meal. Seating here is primarily at the counter top although do they have about four regular tables. Why would you want to sit at the regular table? You would be missing out. Be sure to sit at the counter top. It is part of the essential L'Atelier experience.

With Joel Robuchon's restaurant empire all over the world and the impossibility of him being physically present at the restaurant every night, he does an excellent job in making sure there is consistency in the food quality across his restaurants. Who says you can't have gourmet French cuisine in a relaxed (and yet trendy) setting? At L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, they make it happen.

The amuse bouche for that night was avocado chunks, avocado cream, and grapefruit segments sitting on grapefruit gel. This creative combination resulted in a light flavor that was nowhere intense but subtle enough to not overshadow what was to come.

The seared duck foie gras with almond-stuffed cherries was one of my clear favorites of the night. Slicing through the piece of foie gras with my knife was an indication to how soft and moist the foie gras would be when I ate it.

The well-constructed salad with king crab, asparagus, and avocado was delicate and light enough in order to leave space for courses that were heavier and more intensely flavored.

The steak tartare was good although it was not my favorite of the night. The meat was probably chopped the finest I have had in a steak tartare and I would have liked it to be just a little bit less finely chopped and also to go easy on the mustard. I really liked the old fashioned crinkled cut french fries that came on the side and the classic twist it gave to the dish.

The chilled and thinly sliced veal was impressively delicate and probably the most tender piece of veal we have had. The thin layer of tuna sauce over the veal was carefully prepared that it did not take away from the pure flavor of the veal.

Our experience with eating suckling pig primarily from Greek restaurants in Chicago usually come with too strong of a porky taste. The suckling pig course at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, however, puts to rest that this meat can be deliciously prepared without leaving a heavy trace of porkyness to it. The suckling pig was very well flavored and the meat was tender that we would have been fine even without a knife.

The house signature Joel Robuchon potato puree was easily one of the silkiest and smoothest we have had.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is one of the finer restaurants in Las Vegas and with its casual trendy and comfortable setting, it is not difficult to see why it ranks among the favorite of many people. Watching your dinner prepared in front of you in the workshop created from the mind of the Chef of the Century is really quite unique and worth experiencing.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2010 AAA Four Diamond Award
2009 1-Michelin Star
2009 AAA Four Diamond Award
2008 1-Michelin Star
2008 AAA Four Diamond Award
2007 AAA Four Diamond Award
Chef of the Century by Gault Millau


Sage at the Aria

Chicago's soon-to-be loss will be Las Vegas' gain. Chicago's homegrown Chef Shawn McClain is gradually closing up his string of restaurants here to focus full time in his restaurant venture in Las Vegas. With a myriad of Michelin star restaurants and TV celebrity chef restaurants in Las Vegas, Shawn McClain is a breath of fresh air. Not without an impressive credential, Shawn McClain offers a contemporary and approachable flair to American cuisine.

A spacious lounge leads into a dimly lit dining room with just enough amount of lighting to create an atmosphere that could come of as either sexy or casual trendy at the same time. Everything about Sage was professional and well executed without pretensions. Our server gave us a reasonable amount of time to ourselves in between getting seated to ordering drinks, and then our food, as well as checking in on us periodically without overdoing it. The food at Sage is creative and yet very approachable to diners. We have no qualms in saying that Sage has no difficulty in joining the ranks of being one of the top restaurants in Las Vegas.

To kick off the night we were served the amuse bouche which was the pork rillette that came with a small amount of cherry sauce sitting on a teaspoon.

The 4-course Signature Tasting Menu offers a good variety of choices and I got to choose between several options for each course. The ala carte menu, which T went with, is also worth mentioning here as they do have excellent items on there as well.

For my first course of the tasting menu, I chose the Market Oysters which ended up being quite a surprise to me because of the generous number of five oysters on the plate. The raw oysters on the shell sat on a thick bed of sea salt. Complementing the oysters were a small dash of pepper and tabasco sorbet. I am generally a purist when it comes to eating raw oysters which means that I eat them as they are without any tabasco sauce nor with a squeeze of lemon primarily because I want to be able to taste the pureness and freshness of the raw oyster. I could never bring myself to dousing my raw oysters with sauce. At Sage, the tabasco sorbet that came with the raw oysters had the right amount of lightness that it did not take away from the pureness of flavor of the oysters.

For the second course I chose the Maine Dayboat Scallops which clearly did not disappoint. Perfectly seared on the outside, it was medium rare in the inside just like how scallops are supposed to be prepared. Hidden underneath the scallops were slivers of braised oxtail and wild mushrooms, accompanied with several stalks of broccolini. The savory caramel reduction sauce was just enough to add some moisture to the course.

The star of the tasting menu was clearly the 48-hour beef belly. Beef belly has been under appreciated with pork belly taken over the reigns recently that this dish opened up the idea to how much food potential there is in beef belly. The few slices of beef belly were very tender and soft with the melt-in-the-mouth texture. I was very impressed with each bite that I would be equally as happy even if the dish did not come with the slivers of rhubarb, morel mushrooms, and caramelized shallots.

To top off the meal were the Peach Praline Profiteroles served in a miniature steel dishware. They were light and airy and perfectly complemented with roasted peaches and praline sorbet sandwiched in between the profiteroles.

The ala carte that T had that are worth mentioning are the roasted sweetbreads served with glazed bacon bits, polenta, and mushrooms. The sweetbreads were tender and made perfect for a very flavorful appetizer. The hanger steak was juicy, moist, and tender and came with bean puree and duck fat potatoes.

Sage's execution of American cuisine is creative and is nowhere near dull. Coupled with the contemporary and approachable flair, we would not hesitate to say that it will remain for awhile in Las Vegas.

Sage at the Aria
3730 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89158

2011 AAA Four Diamond Award
2010 James Beard Nominee Best New Restaurant
2008 Star Chefs Rising Star Restaurateur
2006 James Beard Award Best Chef in the Midwest


Wing Lei at the Wynn, Las Vegas

Wing Lei's dining room is beautiful and ornate it's difficult not to fall in love with this place. One side of the room overlooks a well manicured garden with 100-year-old pomegranate trees complete with lights illuminating the garden in the evening. On the other side of the room is a ceiling-to-floor mirror panel that creates an illusion of the room size.

Currently the first and only Chinese restaurant in the United States to receive a Michelin Star, Wing Lei is headed by Executive Chef Ming Yu. Just recently, T and I were lamenting that Chinese cuisine has fallen more and more into the stereotype of being a greasy and cheap takeout type of food. Maybe it's the Chinese takeout food places that are popping up all over America that creates the impression that Chinese food is all about its low prices with portions large enough that leftovers can be a substantial meal in itself for next day's lunch, never mind so much about the quality. This is not the reality of Chinese food, or at least not the reality of Chinese food we grew up with in Asia. For every burger diner places, there is a high end steakhouse where people are willing to splurge. The reality is the same for Chinese cuisine; there are refined ways of preparing them. Chinese food does not only belong in a white takeout box. It also belongs in a high end restaurant.

Wing Lei is a high end Chinese restaurant that is very similar to  what you can find in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia from atmosphere to pricing. In fact, it is not uncommon to find Chinese restaurants like these in a slightly higher price range in Asia. Wing Lei reminded us a lot of the very good Chinese restaurants we've been to in several parts of Asia and we were impressed as to how close Wing Lei tries to execute this concept. The cuisine at Wing Lei is French-influenced Shanghai, with a mix of Cantonese and Szechwan.


Wing Lei offers a 6-course Imperial Peking Duck Tasting Menu which was what we went with. They also have a good variety of ala carte items and a separate menu which they say has the more traditional Chinese dishes. We are great fans of Peking duck and could not have said no to the Imperial Peking Duck Tasting Menu. We had just flew in to Las Vegas that same night, checked in at the Encore where we stayed, and headed straight to Wing Lei at the Wynn for our 9:00pm dinner reservation. Never mind about the time zone change where it was 11:00pm central time back in Chicago, we would had have to stomach some Peking duck anyway at that time of night. We were in Las Vegas after all, where the time of night or day does not matter. Activities go on.

At the beginning of the first course, the duck is brought to the table on a cart. Done table side, the server then carves the skin along with some of the meat before placing each carved skin and meat on top of a flat steamed bun garnished with thin strips of scallions and cucumber, served with hoisin sauce. The steamed buns were incredibly soft and light to bite. Each of us got two sets of buns and although on an ordinary night we would have been able to devour more than that, the portion for the first course was just right seeing that we had more duck coming our way in the next few courses.

The second course was the Peking Duck Salad constructed and presented in a more contemporary way. Encased in a pastry ring were romaine lettuce, chopped duck meat, endive, slice of mandarin orange, and cherry tomato mixed citrus vinaigrette dressing. The generous amount of duck meat, sliced into bite sizes, were tender in texture.

The third course was a lighter dish that came in form of duck wonton in broth. The highlight of this dish was definitely the wonton wrapper used for the duck wonton. The wonton wrappers were very delicate, smooth, thin, and almost fragile. Generally, the quality of wonton wrappers is judged by its thinness and is deemed superior over the thicker unrefined ones.

The wok-fried duck meat and pan-seared yee mee noodles with duck meat were brought simultaneously to the table as the fourth and fifth courses. Served family style, both dishes were meant to be shared. The wok-fried duck meat was accompanied by shitake mushrooms, red peppers, and zucchini; the duck noodle dish had accompaniments as one would expect such as bean sprouts and scallions. Halfway through these courses our stomachs started to fill up and although we finished the plate of noodles, we were successful in only eating half the portion of the wok-fried duck meat. Had I not started to feel full, I am sure I would have enjoyed more the wok-fried duck meat.

We stayed true to our Southeast Asian roots by requesting from the server if they had any freshly sliced chilli peppers and to which he responded, I will get the kitchen to prepare some for you. He came back with a generous amount of sliced Thai birds eye chilli and reminded us several times that these were really spicy. Yes, we love our food spicy, we told him.

Dinner ended with the last and sixth course which was dessert that was by no means a traditional Chinese dessert but reflected Wing Lei's versatility of constructing a Western-style dessert. Mango sorbet and banana cream sat atop short bread. Complementing the dessert was the tangy salsa made up of kiwi fruit, strawberry, and mango.

Wing Lei achieves to cater to both discerning traditional Chinese taste buds as well as Western palates without the need to compromise the taste and quality of food either way its prepared. Its versatility to cater to either types of palate and the ability to execute it well is probably one of its great strengths as reflected in the range of diverse population of diners in the dining room. We saw a table of Mandarin-speaking Chinese who ordered the traditional delicacy of birds nest soup. The table next to us was an Italian couple who ordered the Peking duck tasting menu. Another table comprising of Middle Easterners ordered a variety of stir-fried dishes served family style. Wing Lei got its food execution right and it's not difficult to see it as a fine addition to the rest of the fine dining restaurants at the Wynn.

Wing Lei at the Wynn
3131 Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89109

2011 AAA Four Diamond Award of Excellence
2010 AAA Four Diamond Award of Excellence
2009 1-Michelin Star
2009 AAA Four Diamond Award of Excellence
2008 1-Michelin Star
2008 AAA Four Diamond Award of Excellence