Appearance and food. The two never seem to correlate.
Think about it. It is impossible to look refined while craning your neck sideways as you tilt the oily contents of beef taco and its crumbling tortilla shell into your open mouth.
For me, the worst is when one of my supervisors unexpectedly pops his or her head into my office when I am hunched over my desk scarfing down my lunch. To make matters worse, the only time that he or she happens to "drop by," my desk is littered with soiled and crumpled paper napkins, greasy wax paper, and I have a dribble of curry running down my chin. Or black rice in my teeth.
I have found this "appearance versus food" dichotomy especially prevalent in Las Vegas. In Vegas, it is hard not to care about your appearance when you are flanked with wafer-thin, super-svelte cocktail waitresses. But how can a passionate eater resist the temptation of Vegas?
Last month, when I made my annual trek to Las Vegas, I was ready to indulge in the temptation.
My first Las Vegas temptation? The Dishes Buffet at the Treasure Island, where I dined on a buffet of shimmering buttered clams, refreshing mango salsa, and orzo with feta marinated in a fruity extra-virgin olive oil.
My favorite Las Vegas temptation? Jasmine at the Bellagio, an upscale Chinese restaurant with a view of the gushing, geyser-like fountain show in front of the Bellagio.
At Jasmine, we started with four classic Chinese appetizers. The first was a chilled jellyfish starter made with toothsome jellyfish that had the combined texture of gelatinous aspic, softened cartilage, and tenderized gristle.
The second was braised slices of Australian abalone served in an oyster sauce reduction. Abalone slices are almost like high-quality chicken breast cold cuts straight from the delicatessen, but have more of a sinewy snap and seafood essence.
Third, we dined on whole curls of spotted prawns that had been chilled and served with a delicate soy dipping sauce that was lightly flavored with stringy sprigs of cilantro. Once the crackly shell was peeled away, a fountain of pristine seafood broth spewed forth and I eagerly slurped it up and nibbled on the crunchy and tender prawn meat inside.
Fourth, we sampled the Imperial Peking duckling with the crispy, seasoned, and bronzed skin glistening from the juices and melting white fat. The duck had been roasted on an open flame and basted in its own juices. Each of us at the table were provided with carved slices of steaming hot duck wrapped in a paper-thin envelope of delicate mu shu pancakes. The warmness of the duck and the pancakes contrasted perfectly with the cooling matchstick juliennes of scallions and cucumber inside the mu shu wrap.
The main dishes included giant Alaskan clams that were seasoned in a rice wine broth and garnished with a nest of fresh cilantro,
Australian crystal crab that was coated with a cornstarch batter and fried with sun-dried chili flakes, chopped shallots, crushed garlic, and sliced ringlets of green chili peppers that somehow penetrated their fiery essence through the thick calcium shell of the crab and permeated the meat inside;
Long beans that were served in a fermented black bean sauce; and
A plump Maine lobster that had been poached in a light seafood sauce and garnished with fresh leaves of zesty cilantro. The lobster had been cracked and chopped into large hunks that were splayed across the serving dish.
At the end of the night, we were satiated to the extreme, but we still had room for dessert.
The first dessert of the evening was sparrow's nest, which is the tender nest of a swallow bird (or a swiftlet). Swallows actually do not use dried grass or twigs to make their nests, but rather regurgitate or spit out strands of saliva which congeal and solidify into strands for their nests. The nest was served in a hollowed papaya shell, and tasted like stringy, slippery mung bean noodles in a warm rock sugar syrup. With each bite of the dessert, I scraped my spoon against the fruit shell so that I could taste and contrast the mildness of the softened papaya with the refined flavor of the bird's nest tendrils.
We followed up our classic Chinese dessert with an Americanized dessert sampler which included: 1) a decedent chocolate volcano cake served with a rotund mound of soft white chocolate gelato, 2) a quadruple serving of super-creamy crème bruleé, with flavors including blueberry, passionfruit, citrus, and vanilla--each crème bruleé had its own hardened, glass-like, burnt caramel crust, and 3) a sampling of Pacific island passion chiboust cream, caramelized Tahitian bananas, a fluffy spoonful of tropical cake topped with a pineapple chutney, and a crisp butter cookie that was artistically arched over the atmosphere of the plate.
As my family and I ended our meal, we returned to the classic dichotomy of "appearance and food." As I waddled with my over-full belly and my skin-tight (but a few hours ago, baggy) clothes that were literally burst at the seams, I realized that I wasn't on the "appearance" side.