How to Spend Chinese New Year in Las VegasBy Kiat-Sing Teo
Besides Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, who else would know better how to live the high (in many senses of the word) life, in Sin City, especially during the festive Chinese New Year period? Asian Fusion accepted a generous invitation to spend Chinese New Year (CNY) in the Entertainment Capital of the World, and this was how we celebrated:
Day 1 – 18 Feb, Wednesday – Chinese New Year’s Eve
A presidential limo picked us the minute we touched down – since this is, perhaps, the fastest and most convenient way to get around Las Vegas. We drove through Paradise, and arrived at our host hotel in a matter of minutes. The many Vegas resorts and hotels rival each other in hotel stars and diamonds, but this time, the winner was none other than the Aria Resort & Casino. Luxuriously furnished, smart rooms with draperies that draw at a push of a button, the Aria boasts a whooping 4,004 guest rooms, and has no less than 16 restaurants and 10 bars on its property.
We went to Blossom, in the Aria, for the traditional CNY Eve dinner, where general manager Tony Lee greeted our party. He promised to treat us ‘like kings and queens’, then demonstrated how to eat Peking Duck ‘like a taco’, and paired goose liver pate with a German Riesling. It takes an expert to choose the right wine to bring out the full flavor and hidden messages of luck and prosperity behind well-thought out Chinese foods, and Lee does exactly that. Blossom earns full marks in this category.
After dinner at this Epicurean Award winner for Best Chinese Restaurant in Las Vegas, we were satisfied and felt thoroughly spoiled, but the night was still young, and the lights of Vegas don’t dim easily. We headed to the Bellagio to take a stroll through the Conservatory and Botanical Garden – 13,500 sq feet of magnificent enclosed gardens, to admire their Chinese New Yew display: a stunning spectacle of at least 1.500 fresh cut flowers, featuring a Japanese pavilion and several floral sculptures of children dressed in festive garb – these sculptures have their buds replaced every few days. Five different presentations are planned every year and some 22,000 flowers would have been used for the entire duration of each exhibition. By the end of the exhibition, the memories of the scents of thousands of flowers in full bloom would endure and lure us back each following year, when an even more exciting exhibit, no doubt, awaits.
To wind down the exhilaration of the Conservatory, we then settled at the Petrossian Bar at the Bellagio for a nightcap, where Master Sommelier Ricardo teased us about the ‘secret ingredients’ on the cocktail menu, then passionately explained the masterpieces that danced down our throats to the groove of music from the jazz piano. Tip: check out the list of hand-selected and aged barrels that are exclusive to only Bellagio.
Day 2 – 19 Feb, Thursday – Happy CNY!
It’s CNY! The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, where impressive statues of Roman gods overlook more than 160 specialties and brand name shops built to honor a Roman marketplace, celebrated with a 22-ft long, steel-framed dragon aglow with flickering LED lights. Students from Meadow School also put on a Chinese cultural show, but what caught our attention was the massive dome of a celling painted like the sky and affixed with technology that enables artificial light to dim and brighten, like day and night.
In line with the CNY theme, it was noodles – a symbol for longevity in Chinese culture, for lunch. Beijing Noodle No. 9 at Caesars Palace is where the eyes feast in tandem with the appetite. Here, the chefs demonstrated hand-pulling noodle techniques with the dexterity of hand-acrobats. Then, an entire suckling pig – a sigh of prestige, was wheeled out on an island to be admired before the party partakes.
After lunch, it was time to get high, literally. At the High Roller, in the Linq. The tallest observation wheel in the world, the High Roller towers at 550 ft, with each of the 28 passenger cabins accommodating up to 40 people. A single ride is 30 minutes, and we even spotted a cabin that had arranged for a bartender so the view of Las Vegas and the Strip can be enjoyed with a cocktail in hand!
Right about this point, we busted our pathetic phone memory with too many snapshots of Las Vegas’s vibrancy. Luckily, the Polaroid Fotobar is nearby. There are stations available to upload pictures from devices or social media accounts, and it only takes 15 minutes to print them in a variety of sizes, with optional frames. The developed photos are dramatically sent down a see-through chute from the second level, where a mini museum that tracks the history of the Polaroid camera kept us entertained while we waited for our uploads to print.
It’s been a long day, and we want some comforts that remind us of home. So fortunately it’s Hakkasan for dinner – Hakkasan New York is an Asian Fusion favorite! True to its name, Hakkasan is Hakkasan, Las Vegas or New York. We love the familiar latticed windows that separate each booth, adding a subtle touch of mystery and romance. And, we love that Hakkasan set up their own version of the Lam Tsuen Wishing tree, so that patrons get to write their wishes on slips of red paper to be hung on the branches of the wishing tree. The special CNY menu also featured a Kumquat wishing tree dessert that came with chocolate, caramelized macadamia and cocoa rocks that tempted us from a three-dimensional miniature ‘tree’.
Day 3 – 20 Feb, Friday – The Weekend Begins!
To prepare for possibly the most exciting weekend of our lives, we went for a deep relaxation massage and spa at the Sahra Spa & Hammam, in the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, which prides itself as an oasis in the Nevada desert. Our masseuse is aptly named Angel, and she helped us make peace with the shoulder knots that entangles every New Yorker. Smelling of the sweetest aromatherapy oils, we steamed in the steam room, passed up the cold room, and then soaked in the nice-sized hot pool where a waterfall gently sent ripples of calm waves through the waters.
Later, we lunched at China Poblano, where Chef José Andrés serves Chinese and Mexican cuisines – not fusion, but Chinese and Mexican, in a restaurant chock-a-block with cheerful colors and delicate featured details. The CNY menu featured Beef Xiaolong Bao garnished with edible gold flakes, served in bamboo steamers, Crispy Radish Cakes topped with XO sauce, and Wok-Roasted Clams on a bed of oat noodles, among a long list of house specials. We toasted CNY with a round of festive Lu Yang cocktails – bourbon/orange liqueur concoction spiced with ginger star anise syrup and a layer of matcha green tea foam. Both bold and innovative.
Then, it was time to try our luck at the Lucky Cat sculpture. The Lucky Cat, or Maneki-neko, makes frequent appearances in various Asian cultures, including Chinese and Japanese, and is believed to be a symbol beckoning to luck. This 9 ft tall and interactive Lucky Cat at the Cosmopolitan spews random fortunes and sometimes, real gifts to a lucky few. Asian Fusion’s cryptic forecast for the coming year, ‘Rabbit’s foot is good luck. Monkey’s paw is bad luck. What happens when they high five?’
But, we were too savvy to give in to chances, so the next stop was Gordon Ramsay BurGR, PH (formerly known as Planet Hollywood). With 15 Michelin stars to Ramsay’s name, nothing can go wrong. And sure enough, the burgers were more than right. The succulent beef patties are crowd-pleasers, but the less popular chicken choices are also must-tries. We even finished the Sticky Toffee Pudding push up pops ice cream desserts. Clearly, we ate too much, but the burgers were just so good. Besides, we reasoned that we could dance everything off at the concert !
Britney: Piece of Me in Vegas is Spears’ first residency show, and scheduled into the third quarter of this year. Spears reprised familiar hits that the audiences – whose ages span at least two or three generations, sung along to with infectious enthusiasm. Spears put up a commendable show, and her dancers deserved just as much credit.
Day 4 – 21 Feb, Saturday – The Weekend Flies By…
Las Vegas is famous for its man-made wonders in skyscrapers and structures imitating other wonders, but it has its own quietly inimitable side. This morning, Sundance Helicopters flew us over the Grand Canyon, imbued with a stately majesty of two billion years of geological history. Inside the Canyon on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, it was only an hour after the day broke that we were having a champagne breakfast, served by a dish of a pilot with a refreshing sense of humor (his name is Erlend), it was almost life changing to feel so close to nature, the vastness and space.
However we take to flight and freedom, we remain prisoners to our appetite and good food. Which was the ironic reason we chose Yardbird, Southern Table and Bar, at the Venetian Las Vegas for lunch. Good old southern food, family style. In a private dining room decorated with black and white photographs of film stars and musicians, we dug into fried chicken, biscuits, shrimp and grits, and mac and cheese, washed down with sweet tea. There’s even frog’s legs on the menu, and an entire wall of bourbon.
Testament to the many faces of Vegas, next stop was the Grand Canal Shoppes, where a largely scaled-down canal runs through a make-believe Venetian mall-city. One can rest ones’ feet in a gondola ride through the canal while being serenaded in Italian arias by the gondoliers.
This season, the Grand Canal Shoppes is also where Peter Lik – who holds the world record for the most expensive photograph (6.5 million dollars) ever sold, shows off his latest collection. Mostly developed on Fujiflex silver-halide paper, we watch Lik’s landscape photographs come to life as the room darkens.
As we exited the Venetian, we spotted the long line outside Carlos Bake Shop, which is owned by Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss fame. Their tribute to CNY was a cupcake with whirls of red icing to resemble a sheep’s wool, and a darling fondant face peeking out. It is the year of the sheep, after all. Or goat. Or ram.
Nevertheless, it’s still CNY, and traditionally, the lions will dance for a full fortnight. This year, the Wynn celebrated with a full entourage – we counted at least seven dancing beasts and a very long dragon. The lively performance lifted our spirits enough for us to forget it’s our last evening in Vegas.
To make the night stretch, we went to Andrea’s, at Encore, because, like a lover who did not want to let go, we needed to drink. Under Andrea’s soulful eyes (the restaurant’s namesake and wife of Steve Wynn, who owns Encore) magnified to fill most of the wall behind the bar, we savored drink after drink, with thoughtful nibbles breaking the sips. Chef Joseph Elevado presented platter after platter of Shishito Peppers, (of which one out of ten will burn your tongue,) steamed edamane with truffle sea salt, and an attractive assortment of sushi. Andrea’s atmosphere is so intoxicating that its cocktails work like love potions fertilizing the hundreds of romances that must be happening in the present and countless others waiting to happen. If you are trying to impress someone significant, we definitely recommend you order the cocktail named The Dream – Wynn’s signature drink, concocted with Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, and take your date into one of the many private booths, with lights just low enough for a confession, a declaration, or even a proposal.
Still, the end to our Vegas trip was inevitable and farewell is a must. We retreated to La Cave, at the Wynn, where dinner was an intense affair. La Cave is pervaded with a raw note of chic and savage in equal parts. There were small plates for sharing – contemporary American cuisine with an international influence, designed by Chef Billy DeMarco. The savory garlic aioli flatbreads with chicken, Thai basil, sweet and sour chili caught our imaginations, and so did the Chef’s selection deserts of S’mores flatbread. La Cave carries an interesting list of beers on tap and bottled, as well as specialty cocktails such as the Basil Blueberrita and La Cave Mule.
Day 5 – 22 Feb, Sunday – Goodbye Vegas, Hello New York!
We said goodbye to the slot machines in transit at the McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas. Still curious about the city, we asked a trusted source, who quietly let on that underaged gamers are never allowed to cash in on their winnings.
Our verdict: Vegas certainly knows how to celebrate CNY, with sunshine, good food, shopping and entertainment thrown into the equation, too. Asian Fusion Magazine gives two thumbs-up, and a longing look that betrays shameless yearning for Las Vegas’ Chinese New Year 2016 …
Besides her job as editor at Asian Fusion Magazine, Kiat-Sing is also a New York-based, nominated actor. She blogs at www.kiatsing.com