August 05, 2008

Nob Hill, the NRA and the whole shmear: A guest post by DH

Some foods are designed to be relished slowly in an elegant setting; others gulped thoughtlessly in passing. Though not card-carrying members of the slow food movement, Kim and I appreciate the allure of a meal that is sensuous rather than just plentiful, luxurious rather than convenient. It’s rare that we dine without the boys, but there were two recent occasions on which we did.

One was during an adults-only Vegas trip last spring. The other was on a school day the following month when we dashed and gulped our way through McCormick Place for the last day of the NRA’s Restaurant Show (no, the other NRA; restaurants, not rifles) and the first day of the All Candy Expo (which wasn’t all candy at all. There were plenty of chips, nuts and cookies to boot).

In March, we spent nearly three hours at Nob Hill at the MGM Grand, savoring the privacy of a walled-in booth and the ministrations of an attentive, knowledgeable waiter who humored us with his unpatronizing patience as we commented and inquired about the menus, the food preparation, the serving style and even the cutlery and plates. Top it off with Kim shooting unending photographs of the exquisitely prepared dishes, thinking that without pictures, the kids would never believe how nice it was. (They did believe it. They just didn’t care.)
Nob Hill seemed the sort of place where you wouldn’t take kids. There’s nothing salacious going on; what happened in Vegas can certainly be told elsewhere. Just small portions of expensive food that would have shocked—shocked, I say—our children. Especially Smartypants, who sometimes can’t believe how much grown-ups spend on things.

To be fair, he often orders from the adult menu, daring to venture slightly out of his comfort zone with exotic foods like, well, er, salmon. Pikachu remains comfortably in the kids’ menu realm with grilled cheese being his top choice. For both boys, the critical elements of any meal are, bring it fast, give me plenty and finish with dessert. Oh, and the price be damned! (Except when Smartypants checks out the seafood prices.)

Much to our surprise, the table next to us brought their toddler and his older brother, who seemed to spoil the meal for their parents (and nanny), but provided us a conversation point during our stay (Three hours at a restaurant seems more like a stay than a meal) and nicely contrasted the civility and grown-uppedness of our own cloistered table.

As surprised as we were to see kids at Nob Hill, we were even more shocked (shocked, I say) to find so many children—infants through teenagers—strolling around Las Vegas at all. What with the seedy hawkers trying to stuff our hands with brochures offering escorts to your hotel room (if you’re just staying in your room, where do you need to be escorted?) and the bawdy T-shirts and, well, the whole Vegasness of it all. I guess some folks aren’t as lucky to have grandparents to watch their kids for a week.

The Restaurant Show and the Candy Expo are the sorts of places where children ought to be (and are) excluded. It’s tough enough for adults to exert self-control and politely decline the hundreds of samples being purveyed by a few thousand exhibitors. No doubt, our children would take the opportunity to horde the goods. Oh wait, click here for Kim’s confession from last year’s Candy Expo.

Anyway, in the non-junk-food side of the convention center, we found countless variations on barista drinks and fried whatnots (meat, potatoes, breads, snack foods. Anything can be fried nowadays, and there’s a specialty machine for everything). This year offered few truly innovative foods, but a couple of sophisticated gizmos and doodads caught our eyes. One fave was the anti-stove. Instead of heating a griddle to cook foods, this air-conditioned unit chilled the griddle cold enough so liquid chocolate squirted onto sticks quickly solidified into fresh lollipops.
What struck me about both shows was both the abundance of corn-syrup-derived or breaded and fried grub, as well as the ease of obtaining and swallowing it. It’s a classic convention hall move to walk about looking interested in the product, reach out a hand, grab a goodie and BOOM, you’ve got food. Sometimes the vendors want to chat. Usually they let you eat and run. A person lacking self-restraint could easily eat a week’s worth of calories in the space of a few blocks.

Nob Hill, by contrast, is a joint where our waiter, Jaime, wiped the excess sauce from the rim of the plates before carefully setting them in front of us, rotating them just so, to orient them in the most optimal feng shui manner. Each course sat on a different colored or shaped plate and Jaime replaced our silverware between courses—emphasizing the luxury and the uniqueness of each dish. None of the courses, alas, were served on fire, as is my preferred serving style, but the lobster pot pie was cooked en croute steaming itself in its pastry shell before waiter Jaime carved it out of the casserole bowl as if shucking an oyster and gently placing it down on the dish. Hands down, this was the most memorable course in terms of just enjoying the show that is Nob Hill.

By contrast, my favorite corn-based item at the Candy show was caramel corn molded into the shape of an ear of corn, served in a plastic wrapper. For caramel corn fanciers on the go (and what caramel corn fancier would pour the snack onto a ceramic plate and spend three hours consuming it), it’s easy to hold it by the wrapper, give the bottom a smack and send the pointed top bursting through the seam of the package. That way the hands remain unsticky while the carm-corn fan nibbles on the sweet snack and ambles about looking, perhaps, for a plate of hot wings or ribs.

After finding the wings, how does one avoid getting one’s still-clean fingers all messy with sauce? Well, with a trong or two (they’re like chopsticks on steroids) one puts ones pointer and middle fingers into flexible plastic grippers with which greasy, saucy morsels can be lifted without fear of soiling said digits.

“Honestly,” I confronted the vendor, “What man with any sense of manly pride would eat food this way in front of his manly friends?” But he insisted that many passers-by showed interest in the product and that the product is economical enough (and can be customized with the restaurant name) to do well in the marketplace.

What happens, though, if despite the plastic caramel corn wrapper and the wing tongs, one still gets sticky fingers? Imagine a device where both hands (to the wrists) are inserted into holes a box and get the equivalent of a touch-free car wash! Yes, without having to touch a bacteria-laden soap dispenser or a grimy faucet, this device sprays antibacterial soap and water all around both hands as the user holds them in place and enjoys a brief bath. Meritech’s automated hand washing stations take about 30 seconds for a complete cleansing, after which—if you’re lucky—you can move over to one of those high-speed touchless hand driers for a completely hygienic after-meal cleanup.

On that note, if Nob Hill’s service lacked one amenity, perhaps it would be that I had to wash my hands all by myself.

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