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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Once you get past the shining neon lights of Las Vegas, its true character begins to emerge. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The newly renovated rooms of the MGM are good value and excellent location. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Ri Ra in Mandalay Bay feels so authentic ... (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

... and it's a great place to grab a pint. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Speaking of beer, go way off-strip to Aces and Ales, and you'll find a bunch on tap. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Tryst at The Wynn is a sight to behold. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The new RPM at Tropicana has a more mellow but still upbeat vibe. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

China Poblano is a Chinese-Mexican fusion. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Whichever cuisine you choose, it's gonna be a winner ... (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

We opted for Mexican brunch. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Milwaukee porn star Victoria Rae Black at the AVN Expo. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Signing autographs was a big part of her job on Saturday. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Rice & Company served up solid Chinese food at the Luxor. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

But the Peruvian-Japanese fusion of SUSHISAMBA was out of this world. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

This is the sashimi you'll be dreaming of after you leave Las Vegas. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Speaking of Asian themes, Las Vegas goes all out for the Chinese New Year. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

And craft cocktails at Japonais set a nice base ... (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

... for the club scene at the new 1 OAK at The Mirage. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

Boozy shakes and big burgers at Holstein's at Cosmopolitan. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

And delicious Italian food at wine at D.O.C.G. (PHOTO: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography )

Las Vegas fusion


LAS VEGAS – "Where is your nipple?"

Paul stared blankly at the woman across the table, clad in skin-tight vinyl. It took a moment for him to connect the question to the electrically charged wand in her hand. But when he did make the connection, so had she.

"Ouch!" he cried. Then he paused a moment, and smirked. "That wasn't entirely unpleasant. Can you do that again?"

We honestly, seriously, really, didn't know when we planned our annual junket (that's also a ton of fun) to Sin City that it would coincide with the Adult Video News Expo at the Hard Rock Casino's meeting hall.

After all, this annual trip is more about providing OnMilwaukee.com readers everything they need to know about planning a winter getaway than anything else. But when we found ourselves credentialed to the porn and adult novelty show, we knew it would play a prominent role in bringing our readers along for the ride. So to speak.

And so, we took one for the team -- and Paul did so quite literally -- so you don't have to. What we saw that day was a fascinating study in a subculture we've only seen through the seedy side of the Web and the occasional bachelor party. At times it left us feeling more than a little icky, but more often than not we were wide-eyed with curiosity. And we even got a rare chance to connect with a real porn star with Milwaukee roots, who was even more pretty and more down-to-earth than we ever would have thought.

Food Fusion. Fun Fusion.

Las Vegas means so many different things to so many different people. But it means different things to the same people, too.

So, while we strolled the halls of an adult toy trade show by day, we also ate some of the finest sushi I've ever experienced at a world class restaurant on The Strip. We mixed a spa experience with the culture of a somber museum, and muddled the glitz of craft cocktails with off-strip libations at a winter beer festival.

In every way, Las Vegas today is all about the fusion. It's the American melting pot in miniature, and if you can't find it here, you can't find it anywhere.

As usual, several public relations teams in Las Vegas pitch us for inclusion in this annual travel article. But they know, going in, that free stuff doesn't equate to positive publicity. As always, our readers will get an honest review of what we saw, and what we did. This year is no exception.

Hit Me!

For the first time in my 10 trips to Las Vegas, our group of three stayed at the MGM Grand. Eron and I stayed in the newly renovated rooms, which were quite nice, even if the bathroom showed signs of the old design. In fact, the level of luxury came only behind Vdara and last year's suite at Tropicana. You could do much worse, and the price point is as reasonable as anything on The Strip. The unrenovated room was a bit worn around the edges, with rips and stains in the sofa and a slightly dated decor. Still, MGM is an iconic Vegas hotel with a great south Strip location. It's called the City of Entertainment for good reason; anything you could want from Vegas is all under one roof. And if it's not there, it's a leisurely stroll across one of the pedestrian bridges to New York New York, the Trop, or Excalibur with its tram down to Luxor and Mandalay Bay.

Our trip actually began across the street, with our old friends at Tropicana. We had lunch at Cafe Nikki, which had only been open for a week when we visited last year. Cool and modern, it remains a solid, quiet and affordable choice in the newly renovated casino.

Understand that the first day in Vegas is always a bit jarring. Time changes and an early Milwaukee departure tend to leave me a bit bleary, so I was happy to take in the day spa at ARIA. A day pass includes use of the indoor and outdoor whirlpools, sauna and steam rooms, as well as two themed meditation rooms. You'll need to dial down your excitement of being in Sin City during this respite, but if you take a deep breath, the rejuvenating powers of this spa will serve you well. Even a walk into the spa lobby, with its relaxing fountains humidifying the air, is a tranquil break from the hubbub of the casino just one floor below you.

For dinner, our group of three drove to Mandalay Bay's surprisingly authentic Irish pub, Ri Ra. It's easy to forget that this is nestled inside a luxury casino, because it feels as much a neighborhood Irish pub as anywhere. Solid food, live music and servers actually from Ireland are a nice touch. Just hearing that Irish brogue from our waitress Bernice while munching on fresh salmon, and you could close your eyes and imagine that just outside the doors you would find yourself on the wild coast of Connemara and not a sprawling casino and resort.

Bellies full, it was time to get way off Strip, to Aces and Ales for the winter beer festival. We really liked this place, which, without any tourists, reminded us of the kind of bar we'd visit in Milwaukee. The 20 rotating winter beers didn't hurt to take the edge off, either, and we probably stayed a bit longer than planned. But it's hard to slide off that bar stool when the taps include hard-to-find gems like Unibroue Maudite or Lagunitas Fusion. And the knowledgeable bartender, a real Shakespeare of Beer, will steer you toward the best selections based on your tastes.

By now, our energy was starting to fade a bit, but we returned to The Strip to visit Tryst nightclub at The Wynn. Easily the most beautiful club I've ever seen in person, it was just starting to get going at midnight, as the DJ was spinning in front of an open-air waterfall. Our group was a little old to truly enjoy the scene, but we could certainly appreciate it. We wrapped up our evening across from our hotel at the new RPM club at Tropicana. Smaller than Tryst and with an older crowd, I found the sound system even better and I enjoyed the more low-key vibe.

Doubling Down

In my experiences, Vegas isn't a place for sleeping, so even with a 5 a.m. bedtime, we had to hustle to make a noon lunch reservation at China Poblano at the Cosmopolitan. Having spent time at just about every property on the strip, the relatively new Cosmopolitan has become my favorite, and restaurants like China Poblano, a Chinese-Mexican fusion by superstar, James Beard award-winning chef José Andrés, reinforce this. In fact, Cosmo is probably the one place in the world that has more James Beard award-winning chefs under its roof than the actual James Beard award ceremony. Given our rabid hunger at this point, we opted for the Mexican brunch side of the menu, and it was delicious. Service was a bit slow, and dishes came out irregularly, but the food was top-notch, and fueled us for our next, otherworldly activity.

Around 1 p.m., we checked in at the Adult Video News Expo. Ron Jeremy stood next to us, looking exactly how we imagined, and said to his entourage, "Let's make some money," as he headed in to sign autographs. Between Jeremy and the guy dressed like the sea captain, we opted to follow the Hedgehog into the trade show.

There was no in-person nudity on the expo floor, but porn filled every screen behind every booth. Starlets signed autographs for excitable fans, who shoved their cell phone cameras in their faces and, well, some other places too. Some booths offered incredibly high-tech adult toys or 3-D porn; much to our dismay, there were no swag bags.

And as for Paul's nipple-zap? Turns out it was a local photography studio, specializing in erotic photos mostly for couples visiting Las Vegas. Like we said, Vegas means different things to different folks, and any fantasy allowed by law can probably come true here.

In a quiet corner, we caught up with Milwaukee porn star Victoria Rae Black, who we featured on OnMilwaukee.com last year.

"This is my second AVN," said Black, in full makeup, standing in front of 8x10 glossy nude photos suitable for signing. "I went last year, but it was when I was brand new. I just came to meet people. This year I have fans. My duties here are to look hot, to be the porn star that I am, to sign autographs."

Is it all overwhelming for the girl from Milwaukee? "This is very familiar to me, this is my life," said Black, who said she expects to be out of the industry by the end of the year unless she signs a contract with a larger porn company. "When I'm in Milwaukee, I feel less familiar there than I do here."

We stayed as long as our consciences would allow, but after about two hours it was time to leave. On the way home, we stopped at one of the two Las Vegas outlet malls, which are very little like outlet stores in Wisconsin. Just like Vegas has the highest-end shopping, even their outlet stores are exclusive, but with better prices. Worth a trip if you need a little diversion.

If anything, I just needed to rally and get a little fresh air, since I already knew Saturday would be night of two dinners (hey, we skipped breakfast). The first dinner was at Rice & Company at Luxor, and consisted of solidly executed Chinese favorites; I ordered a succulent Mongolian beef, and we enjoyed a delicious salt-and-pepper calimari. A little surreal to absorb this in the middle of a gigantic pyramid topped with a high-powered light that's visible from space, but isn't that what Vegas is all about?

The second dinner, however, was one I may never forget. On the recommendation of a friend, we hit SUSHISAMBA at the Venetian Palazzo and put ourselves in the server's capable hands. You might not expect a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine with a pinch of Brazilian atmosphere to be a great combination, but the sushi and sashimi we sampled were a close second only to Bellagio's Yellowtail, and because of its unique flavors, it might've been even better.

Amazingly fresh sushi paired with spicy and sweet Peruvian sauces made for a memorable and tasty treat. I'm still tasting the sashimi tiradito plate, consisting of Yellowtail jalapeño and lemongrass; Kanpachi yuzu, sea salt and black truffle oil; tuna with granny smith apple, serrano and lime; and salmon with orange and mustard miso. The vibe is upbeat and fun, with samba music in the background making it a great dinner to start getting wound up for a fun night out. With a location in Chicago, I already can't wait to return.

Our bellies fuller than a slot machine full of quarters, we walked to Mirage, where we grabbed a craft cocktail at Japonais, which is adjacent to STACK, a hip steakhouse that is another of my absolute favorite Vegas restaurants. If you like innovative but potent libations, you'll like Japonais. Be sure to order one of the cocktails garnished with an edible flower, if only for the sake of being able to scarf down an orchid. For us, it provided just enough energy to step inside 1 OAK, one of Vegas' newest and hottest clubs.

Again, the clubbing experience now just makes me feel old, but I made a mental note to return when someone invents a time machine. The place was pumping, and people were having a very, very good time. Even Jessica Alba, who we later heard was in the house ... though all we got a glimpse of was a rush of security moving through the room like the president was in the middle of their huddle.

Next, we cabbed it back to New York, New York, where we met up with Milwaukee friends and grabbed a Guinness at Nine Fine Irishman. After losing a little money on blackjack, we made our first strategic error and ended the night at the super-dead Studio 54 at MGM (we didn't realize before we paid our cover that the club is closing next month). Oh well, you can't win every hand.

Letting It Ride

Three full days in Las Vegas is really enough, even though the trip has a weird feeling of moving both incredibly quickly and at a snail's pace at the same time. We started Sunday with a trip to the downtown outlet mall, then drove back to Cosmopolitan for lunch at Holstein's.

As we were waiting to be seated at the hip burger joint, amazingly, Victoria Rae Black and her boyfriend, Shawn, walked up. They joined us for lunch and we had the most candid, off-the-record conversation about the porn business as we dined on giant burgers and boozy shakes like the Drunken Monkey. Lunch with a porn star? Check that off the ol' Bucket List!

Then, we soaked in a little culture, first at the Titanic museum at Luxor, and finally at the shark reef aquarium at Mandalay Bay.

The story of the Titanic has always interested me, and this exhibit handled it quietly and respectfully. Obviously, the hundreds of preserved artifacts brought the story to life, but so did the recreations of part of the ship. And the "Big Piece," the largest salvaged portion of the Titanic on display anywhere, reinforced the tragedy that unfolded 100 years ago. On entry, you're handed the boarding pass of a passenger.

I had the Bryhls, a young couple from Sweden and their family, who were making their way to live with relatives in Illinois. As you move through the exhibit, you step onto a replica of the promenade deck, darkened but with LED lights representing a starry sky. Next is a huge block of ice you're encourage to touch, to feel how cold it would have been in the water that night. It's an experience that tries to transport you to the ship that night, and it works so well that I found myself rooting for the Bryhl family to have made it out of the disaster alive.

At the exit, you can check the names on your boarding pass with lists of survivors and victims. My heart actually sank a bit when I saw they had perished -- an experience I won't soon forget.

When looking for something fun for the whole family during the day, the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay is a must see. Boasting more than 2,000 animals and 15 species of sharks, you can easily spend a couple hours exploring ocean creatures in the middle of the desert. Of particular interest is a 2,500-gallon saltwater exhibit that allows you to interact with horseshoe crabs and stingrays.

Time wasn't on our side as we began that awful reverse countdown: what time do we need to be asleep to make a 9:30 a.m. flight? Deciding that the "let's just stay up all night" option wasn't a wise one, we instead plopped ourselves down at the amazingly loungey Peppermill for a few potent potables to watch the end of the NFC championship.

The Pep is perhaps the most enduring symbol of old-school Vegas. It's everything a trip to Vegas should be, and a must on any itinerary no matter how many times you've been to Sin City. Sure, there are flat screen TVs now to watch the game, but the lighting is just as dim and the waitresses in their evening gowns are just as beautiful now as they would have been in the '70s. In a town full of gambling, the Pep is always a sure bet.

We made the trip back to Cosmopolitan one more time for dinner at D.O.C.G. For those, like us, who are not fluent in Italian, that stands for Denominazione di origine controllata (or "controlled designation of origin"), essentially the seal of quality approval for the best Italian wines, cheeses, etc. The restaurant name certainly is deserving of the food on the menu here.

Top -notch cheese plates, the finest Italian selections on a rather extensive wine list, and all around fresh, high-quality ingredients are sprinkled throughout the menu. All this in a space that feels both modern and rustic, like what you might imagine to be a neighborhood restaurant gem you stumble across on a trip to the Eternal City itself. As with our other Cosmo dining experiences, the service was a bit on the sluggish side. However, our very professional waiter helped the vegetarian in our group navigate the Italian terms on the menu and come up with a great meatless meal. Bravissimo, signore!

With precious hours left, we could almost see the giant clock from "24" counting down over our heads like Jack Bauer, but instead of terrorists, we were in search of more Vegas fun. We fled downtown and gambled a bit at the old casinos, where the limits are more reasonable and the dealers usually much more fun. We also visited a great bar called Insert Coins Video Game Arcade Bar, packed with retro arcade games and a edgy, indie vibe.

Sitting back with a cocktail and playing an old Pac Man or Joust machine is a great idea, or you can rent out "table service" like you can at the fancy casino clubs, but instead of a $500 bottle of booze you get a couple of XBox controllers and a $25 bar tab. Brilliant! We wrapped up across the street at the Griffin, a cozy dungeon of a bar, before packing it, only slightly lighter in the wallet than when I departed chilly Milwaukee.

Las Vegas is a funny place. It can be as high-brow or low-brow, spendy or thrifty, as you want. It can also be everything in between. For us, the trip is at its most fun when we play both high and low roller, then mix up a little culture with something that wouldn't know culture if it got smacked in the face with a leather whip -- and yes, we did witness just that at the AVN show.

And, it always takes a few months before I get the bug to come back. When you experience Sin City at its fullest, it also helps you realize that you can't go at this pace forever, nor would you want to. It's fun to play rock star, but only in small doses.

Even when you're no longer blown away by the neon lights, it's best to remember that a trip to Las Vegas is pure fantasy ... so stop questioning things and just go with it. Then, take a little time to regroup and start planning all over again. It's a different trip every time.

Talkbacks

El Vez | Feb. 3, 2012 at 10:30 p.m. (report)

You're kidding, right? This sounds like my dream vacation. Did someone say "jealous?"

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jakkalope | Feb. 2, 2012 at 12:06 a.m. (report)

the strip is a pile of trash outside of the casinos. Still fun for me though

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ButterBurger | Feb. 1, 2012 at 8:50 p.m. (report)

I wish I were there now. Won some money at Cosmo on my last trip. It's my favorite too!

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beefsupreme | Feb. 1, 2012 at 10:16 a.m. (report)

vegas looks like a pile of trash to me.

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