A Restaurant Review: AquaKnox at the Venetian in Las Vegas

Aquaknox Tower Dining Room

Aquaknox Dining Room

What would a Vegas casino be without an opportunity to win a small fortune and immediately spend it on a single meal?

While the Venetian Resort Casino on Las Vegas’ fabled Strip has a number of marquee names in its stable of restaurants (Batali, Bastianich, Lagasse), you would be hard pressed to beat the cuisine at AquaKnox, just a few steps from the casino floor along the Venetian’s Restaurant Row. The chef, Steve Aguglia, is not a star, at least not yet, but he is turning out some astonishingly good meals.

AquaKnox, as the name suggests, is known for its seafood. Starting a meal off with the AquaKnox Plateau

Aquaknox Sauteed John Dory

AquaKnox Sauteed John Dory

($79 for two) is an excellent introduction to their quality standards. It’s hard to believe that in the middle of the searing Nevada desert you could find fresh oysters, mussels, shrimp ceviche, lobster, and king crab like this. A highlight of this indulgence are the Ponzu oyster shooters, sheer heaven.

Aquaknox scallops

AquaKnox scallops

Other seafood we sampled included New Bedford Scallops ($42) on a bed of creamed corn and polenta garnished with crispy chicharron and Wild Alaskan Halibut, ethereally light over a shrimp, corn, and edamame succotash.

Seafood graces the appetizer selection as well with the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($18), flecked with Asian pear and spiced with Korean hot bean paste, a standout. But don’t overlook the Desert Bloom Squash Blossoms ($18), sourced from a local organic farm that apparently creates miracles in the desert sands.

Don’t care for seafood? Fear not. AquaKnox has some of the best beef I have ever tasted. I sampled them all — New York Strip ($49), Ribeye ($59), and the superb, buttery Filet Mignon ($54). Other non-fish dishes, which alas we didn’t have the opportunity to sample, include Tandoori Spiced Free Range Chicken ($30) and a vegetable Ratatouille with a black rice risotto ($26)

You will be pleased to know that portions are not overwhelming, which leaves you no excuse to skip dessert

Aquaknox dessert!

AquaKnox dessert!

($12 to $13). There’s a very nice take on Banana Cream Pie but the star of the show, for my money, is the Butterscotch Bread Pudding, a seemingly humble dessert raised here to sublime heights.

If you really want to pull out all the stops, call ahead to arrange a “Tour of the Menu,” a four- or five-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings. The staff will discuss your dietary dos and don’ts and will put on a smashing show. Expect to pay up to $200 per person with pairings for this very special experience.

Aquaknox Wine Tower

AquaKnox Wine Tower

Wines by the glass range from $10 to $23, and the selection is excellent. Their Tavistock Pinot Noir, available nowhere else, is a personal favorite and pairs beautifully with the steaks. Choose a bottle and the prices quickly become stratospheric.

The wide-open entrance and the hip bar at the front only hint at the quiet elegance to be found in the restaurant’s interior. The seating is plush, the tables widely spaced, and the noise level blissfully muted. For extra calm request one of their discreet semi-circular booths.

The servers are extremely knowledgeable about the menu and you can trust their suggestions for wine pairings with your entrée. The service is friendly and familiar without being overbearing or intrusive.

AquaKnox will be a special occasion sort of place for most of us, but if you are a high roller you could do a lot worse than make it your dining headquarters during your Vegas stay.

AquaKnox, Global Water Cuisine
At the Venetian Resort Casino
(702) 414-3772

http://www.aquaknox.net

Photos courtesy of Tavistock Group.

A Review: Psst! Feelthy Acrobats — Absinthe in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV – Everyone loves acrobats but not everyone will have a tolerance for the non-stop, filthy, vile, obscene, and often very funny patter that accompanies them in this sui generis offering on the Vegas Strip.

Absinthe is housed in what looks like a temporary storage shed in a courtyard at Caesar’s Palace. The interior looks every bit as ephemeral, with simple folding chairs packed around a stage (and I use the term loosely) that looks to be about the size of the average kitchen table.

In this postage stamp space, Absinthe showcases acrobatic acts from around the world and some of them are doozies. Acts change from time to time, but among recent acts four Russian guys, a speed skating duo from Germany, and two Amazonian aerialists from the Netherlands were especially gasp-worthy.

Check out this video clip:

The spectacle is intensified by your proximity to the action and the fact that these artistes work without nets or safety wires. If they fall, they fall on you.

Adding a bit of spice is a strip teasing chantoozie, the delightfully de-lovely Melody Sweets. But what has made Absinthe a Vegas sensation, I think, is its arch framing device.

The show is ostensibly being produced and emceed by ”The Gazillionaire,” a snaggle-toothed, brilliantined sleazeball played with great relish by Voki Kalfayan, a former Cirque du Soleil clown. His opening line is “If you are offended by words like f**k and s**t, you’re at the wrong f**king show.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

What follows is a constant stream of vulgarity and sexual innuendo as The Gazillionaire seems to bend over backwards to offend everyone in the audience. And it works. The night I caught the show an older couple (she never cracked a smile) were driven out, an event that The Gazillionaire took as a personal triumph.

Assisting the emcee is one Penny Pibbets (Anais Thomassian) who vies with the host in the vulgarity sweepstakes. At one point, she performs a crazed sock puppet routine that is breathtaking in its obscenity.

The saving grace in all this is that the repartee is often hilarious and most folks in the audience get with the program and thoroughly enjoy themselves. As did I.

By the way, the title is apparently derived from the absinthe-drinking acrobat whose chair balancing act opens the show.

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace
Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas
(800) 745-3000
Tickets run from $99 to $134 plus tax and are available here.

 

A Review: ‘Love,’ Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Show at the Mirage, Las Vegas

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from The Beatles LOVE, Cirque du Soleil

LAS VEGAS, NV – I entered with high expectations but, alas, I found myself merely in like with Love.

Cirque du Soleil’s high-powered homage to the Fab Four is chock full of Cirque’s trademark glitz and over-the-top surreal creativity but oddly lacking in the circus style acts that make most Cirque shows such crowd pleasers. It’s a lot of Soleil with little Cirque.

What we get instead can best be labeled interpretive dance. Unfortunately, while it is performed with Cirque’s customary excellence, the choreography has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into the overwrought and pretentious.

Here’s a Youtube preview:

The creators have peopled the ingenious and hyperactive set at the Mirage Resort and Casino with the usual array of post-modern oddities, many of whom seem to bear little relation to the Beatles canon. Yes, there is a briefly glimpsed Father McKenzie, but what’s with the little fat guy, or the tall bald guy in the white frock coat, or the muscular dude in the Michelin-Man rubber pants?

Like the intense intellectual artistes one imagines the Cirque creative team to be, they have placed heavy emphasis on the darker and more “poetic” pieces in the Beatles’ songbook. I, for one, would have liked to have seen and heard more of their earlier, bouncier, subtextless songs. The later, more surreal songs gain little from having their bizarre imagery translated into concrete form.

On the other hand, this approach gave the costume designers an opportunity to showcase their considerable skills. I thought at more than one point that they had more fun creating the show than I was having watching it.

The result is a musical mish-mosh that jumps backwards and forwards in time accompanied by a swirling blur of seemingly unrelated characters and imagery. More than once I was reminded of Shakespeare’s line about sound and fury signifying nothing – although to give the artists their due, I am sure a great deal of effort went into imagining every little thing that goes on during the show.

Still, the show has its moments. There is a bewitching dance featuring a lone male dancer and four white-clad women swirling about him on wires. The best numbers were the most circus-like, including an act featuring four furry-booted roller skaters and two half pipes, and a trampoline free for all reminiscent of a similar bit in La Nouba in Orlando.

Fortunately, the show closes on a high note with energetic renditions of Hey, Jude and All You Need Is Love. Which reminds me, did I mention the music? There’s lots of it, projected on a sound system to die for, and it was all written by perhaps the most talented pop group of the twentieth century. If the production fails to captivate you, you can always just close your eyes and let that magnificent music wash over you.

Tip: Those who didn’t damage their hearing during the Beatles’ heyday will be well advised to bring earplugs.

Cirque du Soleil – The Beatles LOVE
The Mirage Hotel & Casino
3400 Las Vegas Boulevard S
Las Vegas
(866) 963-9634
Tickets for the show range from $86.90 to $198. Click here for details.

Craving For Travel Off Broadway: A Review

CravingTravel1

Michele Ragusa plays Joanne, a travel agent among other characters, in “Craving For Travel.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There are plenty of laughs for everyone in Craving For Travel, the delightful comedy at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on New York’s Theater Row, but travel agents will take special delight in the savvy inside jokes that lay bare the hidden aspects of the profession.

Co-writers Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg (Sandberg also directed) have no apparent background in the travel industry, but they’ve done their homework well. They present us with Joanne and Gary, two high-powered luxury travel agents, formerly married, who are engaged in a bitter struggle to be named Travel Agent of the Year. Both are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with rosters of vastly wealthy clients who are insanely demanding as only the one percent can be.

[Read more...]

Richard III and Twelfth Night on Broadway: A Review

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under "original practices."

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under “original practices.”

At the Belasco Theatre, New Yorkers are being treated to an all-too-rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s Richard III and Twelfth Night performed under the “original practices” rubric favored at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.

All costumes are authentically Elizabethan, meaning no zippers, no Velcro, no artificial anything. The sets are period as well; in this case mimicking a university dining hall where Shakespeare’s troupe sometimes performed with a minimum of props and scenery. Some seats are on stage recreating the intimacy of The Globe. And, of course, all the female roles are played by men.

If the historical recreation was all there was to these two productions it would probably be worth the price of admission. Fortunately there is much more on offer.

[Read more...]

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Alhambra Touring Tips

A panoramic view of Alhambra

Here’s another of a series of articles from Kelly Monaghan about his travels in Spain. 

If you’re going to Granada, you’re going to the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a monument to the glory that was Nasrid Spain before Christian forces wrested control of the Iberian peninsula back from the invading Moors. (It only took them about 700 years!)

If you’re going to Granada and you’re not going to the Alhambra, have your head examined.

Rather than attempt to reprise the guidebooks, I thought it might be more helpful to provide some tips that most guidebooks gloss over or leave out altogether. [Read more...]

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Restaurante Calle Real – Granada, Spain

This is the fifth in a series of articles by Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he travels through Spain after a transatlantic cruise aboard the Disney Magic.

Entrance to Calle Real.

The most convenient hotel to Granada’s Alhambra is the Parador de Granada. That’s because it’s actually in the Alhambra, housed in the restored 15th century Convent de San Francisco.

There’s a price to be paid for such convenience, of course. Room rates start at 336 euros for a standard room and rise to over 600 euros for a suite. But if you cannot afford to stay like the 1 percent, you may well be able to afford to eat with them.

The Calle Real restaurant in the Parador is open to the general public and serves delicious food at surprisingly affordable prices given the quality. We chose the 40 euro, five-course “tasting menu.” Considering that it’s possible to spend close to 40 euros on just a starter and an entrée here, that’s a real bargain. [Read more...]

Frederic Marès Museum, Barcelona

Here is the fourth in a series of articles by Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he travels through Spain.

Entrance to the Frederic Marès Museum. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

Frederic Marès (1893 – 1991) was a sculptor by profession and his commissions for religious and monumental statuary must have paid off handsomely to judge by the mind-boggling collection of high art and low-brow tchotchkes he amassed during his long life. Biographical information on this largely forgotten artist is hard to come by, but I suspect he came from money; either that, or great art and collectible ephemera used to go for a fraction of what it now commands. But let us not be crass. [Read more...]

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Palo Aboard the Disney Magic

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

No cruise aboard the Disney Magic would be complete without a visit to Palo, the specialty restaurant that wraps majestically around the ship’s stern on Deck Ten. Here is a chance to escape (if that is the right word) from the laughing children and the happy (if mute) costumed Disney characters — a chance to dress up and enjoy being a sophisticated adult.

Colorful masks are part of the decor at Palo. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

The word “palo” means “pole” Italian and the restaurant takes its culinary theme from Venice. The reception area is lined with the fanciful masks worn during the Carnivale de Venezia, although the Italian theme fades away once you are led to your seat by one of the wait staff, which hails from all corners of the globe, primarily Europe.

There is a $20 per person supplementary charge for dining at Palo, but the quality of the food, the view (for those with a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows) and the personalized service more than justify the expense. There is more good news on the expense front — the wine list and the prices are pretty much those you’ll find in the main dining rooms.

We found the food to be quite good. A tasty risotto, buttery osso buco, and perfectly done fish were fitting preludes to sinfully rich desserts.

Dining at Palo.

After dinner, we were glad we had thought to book a brunch at Palo later in the voyage. This is a brunch buffet to put all other shipboard buffets to shame. Yes, there are the usual calorie-laden pastries, but those who choose to eat more sensibly won’t be disappointed. I especially enjoyed the grilled and marinated vegetables of all descriptions.

In addition to the buffet offerings, Palo’s brunch offers a number of prepared-to-order hot dishes. You can choose a breakfast omelet or lean to the lunch side of the concept with a nicely rendered veal saltimbocca.

And of course, there are desserts, all in sensibly sized portions that encourage you to sample two. Or three. Or four.

Palo bookings should be made the instant you firm up your sailing. We had the luxury of a 15-night transatlantic crossing and, perhaps because of that, neither of our meals were sold out, so we got a window table both times. I was told that on other nights, the restaurant was quite full. Of course, on shorter three- and four-day sailings, space is probably at a premium. So it’s a good idea to choose an early seating. Dinner hours are from 6 to 9 p.m. Brunch (only on cruises of four nights or longer) is from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Palo is not without its minor problems. We found the service could be a bit smothering, but that may simply have been because when we dined the restaurant was far from full. Tablemates from our regular dining rotation reported being offended by guests arriving in shorts and flip-flops, while a woman at the next table carried on a loud, 10-minute cell phone conversation — on speakerphone, no less. Apparently, the staff is powerless to enforce the stated dress code or normal restaurant decorum.

Still, the odds against your encountering problems like this are slim and shouldn’t dissuade you from making your booking as early as possible. Palo will very likely be one of the non-child-related highlights of your Disney Magic voyage.

Disney Magic Sails To Dry Dock

Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

After 15 years at sea, millions of martinis and untold vats of vino and barrels of beer — not to mention the intense partying of a whole menagerie of costumed characters — the Disney Magic is going into rehab. Make that refurbishment.

The Magic has been prettied up before, the last time just five years ago during a two-week or so dusting and cleaning. But this time the overhaul will be much more extensive, lasting more than a month.

Word is the “new” Magic will be much different. The stylish and sedate décor that harkened back to an earlier era will give way to a more modern, colorful, contemporary look. Parrot Cay, which one cast member told me was rated the least favorite restaurant by passengers, will be replaced with a Brazilian-style churrascaria. Animators Palate will be redone to take advantage of the latest technology, so the transformation that has wowed so many passengers in the past should be even more amazing. And the Topsider casual dining venue will be completely overhauled and extended out over the stern of the ship.

I was fortunate enough to join the Magic for its last transatlantic crossing prior to entering dry dock in Cadiz, Spain. From June to September, the ship will ply the western Mediterranean out of Barcelona. So if you want to see the Magic as she used to be, this is your last chance.

Truth to tell, the Magic can use a little TLC, even short of a major revamping. Carpets have faded, paint has chipped, and rust pops up here and there. What hasn’t suffered the ravages of time is the incredible Disney service, which has made the line so successful in an era where gigantism and overkill seem to be the watchword for cruise ships.

A transatlantic sailing offers many contrasts to the shorter 3-, 4-, and 7-day itineraries most guests are used to. For a start, the large number of sea days (10 on our crossing from Galveston to Barcelona) offers a chance to get to know the ship intimately. It’s also possible to enjoy the luxury of dining at Palo two or more times!

Another noticeable difference was the relative absence of children. There were 400 on our voyage, as opposed to the 2,000 that throng the shorter Caribbean itineraries. Of course, the Disney characters were still kept busy, since it seemed every adult on board wanted their picture taken with the whole lot of them. I couldn’t help thinking that the profits from

Docking at Castaway Cay (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

photos alone make these sailings a sure-fire money mill.

As you might suspect, Disney doesn’t stint on the entertainment. Rather than recycling the same performers and shows, the Magic flew in a dazzling variety of specialty acts to keep things fresh during the long stretch from Castaway Cay to Madeira. All this in addition to the Broadway-style spectacles put on by the ship’s core company.

Speaking of Castaway Cay, during the stop there, the Dream dropped by to salute the Magic on its voyage to dry dock. It offered guests the rare chance to see two Disney ships at Castaway Cay at the same time.

Of course, a long open-ocean voyage can have its drawbacks. Rough seas have been a problem on some trips, but ours was smooth as glass. The only choppy patch, interestingly enough, was between Madeira and Gibraltar.

It was hard to leave the ship after 14 days, but we made new friends whom we will surely see again. Indeed, this is one of the nicest souvenirs any Disney cruise has to offer.