So, in an attempt to actually talk about it...
Christmas in Austin: our family reunited
Christmas in Austin was more than good. I'd actually saved enough money to go Christmas shopping with Neil & Mom & Dar without guilt, and buy them presents almost to my heart's content. My favorite kind of shopping is the kind I do for other people - even if we did have to yank gifts out of my mom's hands so we could buy them for her instead of letting her buy them for herself. Going shopping with all of the people you're shopping for makes it a little difficult to actually buy them things they'll be surprised at receiving, but then again at least we all got presents we wanted. And I think we all managed to sneak in a little time in order to purchase surprises ... so those pretty boxes under the tree were filled with giggles and joy. So we spent three days shopping (not all the time, of course, but at least a little each day) - finding bookstores and clothing stores and funny little toy stores to meet our needs. Oh, and BBQ stores, because Neil's going to be the best equipped grillmaster we can make him!
Beyond that we did a bunch of reading and smoking and goofing around - cookie making (of which I shared a few pics), cookie decorating, lighting fires and watching silly TV. We talked about chef shows and boyfriends and cooking and life, petted the cat and did laundry.
This year, because we were all taking off on the 26th, we did Christmas Eve dinner. It was scrumptious and made better because we all cooked our little parts. Mom & Dar & I do this amazing puff pastry mushroom/wild rice/cheese/leek caserole thing every year and we decided that this year's was the best yet. Neil made insanely good steak for the meat eaters, we had the super buttery stuffing and mashed potatoes and fresh home made cranberries, and this asparagus that Dar and I cooked up between the two of us with almonds and parmesan cheese.
No desserts this year - but we had plenty of cookies and even the cat helped herself to a few of them (bad!kitty). We spent Christmas Day opening presents and drinking coffee and playing with the bubbles we found in our stockings (Santa likes bubbles almost as much as we do!). We kept a fire going and played with our Christmas presents. We made a totally silly (and greasy) but delicious breakfast with leftover mashed potato pancakes and these fried ricotta cheese thingies from Gourmet that were super yummy even if they did tend to crumble and fall apart. We giggled and teased Neil and the kitty and managed to get ourselves packed for our plane rides the next day.
And then we were all off... just like that... some of the warmest memories of Christmas, with no stress or hassle - just love and joy and hugs.
Christmas in Vegas: it's all about the food
Vegas. Some how that city just encourages excess, you know? In the past it's been excessive in other ways (some legal, some not), but this time it was all about the food. And no, I'm not talking about the all you can eat buffet. I'm not talking about some random hotel snack bar or those generic cafe's that serve the same food, no matter which casino you're in.
No, instead I'm talking about four restaurants, each unique and somehow marvelous in it's own way. All over the top, all just a little bit insane, but so fantastically good even the memory of the meals will stay with me.
Night one was Alain Ducasse's Mix (French and American) where we extravagantly ordered two of the seared foie gras because we all love the rich texture and taste, and where I feel for the veal and sweetbread with fig and hearts of palm. We shared their famous mac & cheese (of course made with gruyere, black truffles and ham). Neil had the pepper crusted buffalo. I could've died happy from the rich blend of flavors and the giddy joy that comes from the combination of rich sultry meat and even darker fruits like figs. For dessert I tried the 'mix candy bars' (two candy bar creations directly inspired by Mr. Ducasse) one milk and one dark chocolate and more like little perfect dark mouses than some kind of store bought confection. Instead of treasuring them, though, I adored the lime sorbet they served with it - it was so refreshing and tangy without stinging my pallet that it ended an unabashedly rich meal on the perfect grace note.
Night two was Bartolotta at the Wynn (Italian/seafood) where they fly their fresh catch in from the Mediterranean every day, and where you order by the fish size and not off of a preprinted menu for your main course. For starters I had a kind of deconstructed cheeseless seafood lasagna (called a lasagnette) and we shared an entire rhomba (or turbo?) that they deboned at tableside with delicate and swift movements of true professionals. I have to say that I'm not the hugest fan of seafood most of the time - I'm a salmon girl all the way, but a white fish generally gives me the willies. Our dinner, however, was as buttery and light and perfectly prepared as you'd expect. We managed to save enough room for dessert, where I got something appropriately chocolatey (hey, the watchword was excess, remember!) that was yummy if not totally memorable. However, just like night one, by the time we were done I was so filled with rich and wonderful goodness that I wanted to sleep the sleep of the sated and overfed.
Night three took us to Brazil and Rum Jungle and our only "all you can eat" menu. It's the restaurant Neil and I (and various friends - you know who you are!) have been going to every time we head to vegas and decide our merrymaking needed to start out with a lining of rum drinks and as much meat as we could handle. Nothing like a man bring skewers of bacon wrapped chicken, or freshly grilled chorizo, or succulent pink fillet to your table to make you say "what the heck, just one more little piece." It used to be that Rum Jungle would also entertain with a fire-dancer show that knocked your socks off just as much as the food, but either they don't perform on weeknights or the restaurant isn't interested in the fire risk anymore - we had gyrating dancers, but no flames.
Night four beat the pants off of every other night. Night four was the kind of night that makes you giddy all over again. Night four was the best night of the trip - in more ways than one. Instead of losing money like water, after dinner Neil hit two jackpots and actually ended up ... well he didn't break even but he did manage to make most of his lost money back! But, of course, that wasn't where the true fun came in.
No, the true fun came from being seated in the Swan Room at Charlie Palmer's Aureole. Words pretty much fail me when I think back on dinner because my body is still in shock from the absolute goodness. So let's start with the environment - seated in the back room where the lights are lower and the ambiance softens from the stark modern of the wine tower, our table had at our disposal (through a pair of glass doors) a private balcony next to the small pond and waterfall where a half dozen white swans lived. Even though it was incredibly cold out, we took one break between the first and second course just to enjoy the swans and the night (and have a smoke, of course!). Let you think Aureole is just about birds and water though, they also are kind of hip to the technology, as their wine list is so extensive instead of bringing a printed book they bring a tablet PC to the table and teach you out to browse their virtual cellar. We selected our favorites, talked over our choices with our sommelier Arturo, and he sent the request along to the wine angels who presumably scaled their wine tower to bring the vintage back to our little table.
The best part, of course, was the food. And the way it was presented - first by the three waiters we had taking care of our table, but then the look on the plate - beautiful presentation and sumptuous flavors. Before we'd even truly decided on our first wine they'd made sure we were provided the house baked breads (one was a stunning foccacia that I couldn't get enough of) and then, after we had glasses in hand, a trio of amuse bouches that tempted the pallet (as any good amuse bouche will do!). The first was a mango and fillet minion roll, the second was a lovely lime cream in a pastry cup topped with lobster, and the third was a venison en croute with fresh cherry tomatoes.
For first course I had what they playfully call Charlie's Onion soup (a variation on French onion soup but with beef consomme with onions, foie gras, truffles, topped with Gruyere cheese puff pastry. That almost killed me. But I would've happily died.
Instead I got to have a main course. The roasted pork loin and crisp fresh bacon, with sweet corn gallette, green apple and celery root (sooooo amazing with the pork and bacon together - indescribably yummy to put the tastes side by side) in a Calvados infused natural sauce. Not having had Calvados before, I couldn't have told you if it truly made everything just a bit better, but I'm sure that it did, since the apple and celery root seemed sharper than they normally would have been, and the pork loin somehow richer. But it was so rich and the portions were so large for the type of food we were having I couldn't eat it all.
I did, after a break, delight in the pallet cleanser they brought - I have no idea what it was, except that it was creamier than a sorbet although just as light and delicious, and it was topped with a perfect raspberry, which prompted my dessert choice.
The dessert they offered ranged from the rich to the insane, but for me, I chose the fresh rasberries with espresso shortbread and a canelle of chantilly (which is a kind of cross between sweet cream and creme fraiche). And they brought me an entire bowl filled with the most delicious looking strawberries imaginable! And of course our Captain brought us a small tray of the house chocolates with our coffees.
No description does this meal justice. Afterwards we tried to pinpoint why everything was so good - and concluded that it was more than just scrumptious ingredients - it was the subtle pairings, the old fashioned tastes with a simple twist that made them fabulous - not too showy or flashy or revolutionary. Simply divine tastes with divine seasonings presented in a manner meant to delight and entice.
Yep, I was full.
As for New years
Then we sped our way home, ended up being delayed getting onto the plane, getting off in Dallas, getting onto the next plane, and stuck on the tarmac in Austin. All in all not the most fun travel day, but not the worst either, since when we had a city to be grateful that we were returning home to, a cat that missed us, a house full of some very fine christmas memories, and waist lines that were probably an inch further out.
We did new year's here with a couple of bottles of champagne and a raging fire - watched the neighbor's fireworks and stayed awake until 2 talking with Joel. It was a perfect way to come home.