Thursday, 19 February 2009

excess; the sea

This week my mother's business (fashion, etc) has brought me to a gluttonous, gaudy pit of a city: Las Vegas. Maybe that's a little harsh, even unfair? I don't know. The whole place seems to be standing on rhinestone dotted stilts, teetering in an endless dance of entertainment. You can't not be entertained here. Everything, everyone, is so over the top, so ready to let loose, to be exposed for its raw, uncouth, yet somehow mesmerising true self. This city thrives on the lurid, and there is no shame in that. So maybe this is a good thing - a place that recognizes human needs, and caters to them outright, without the guise and the pretension that you might find in, oh, Los Angeles. But man, I don't know how long it will take to get the jingles from those endless slot machines to stop ringing in my head and to wring all this second hand cigarette smoke out of my clothes.

It was an intense three days and nights, spent writing orders and flipping through racks and racks of clothing, wandering the huge convention centers of all the different hotels, navigating taxi lines and registration lines and badge lines and coffee lines and buffet lines - the only quiet, people-free place being our cozy hotel room. The highlight of the trip, in my book, was a party thrown by a large vendor my mom has been buying from for the past fifteen odd years. They've made quite a name for themselves, this brand, and to thank all the little guys (like my family), for plugging along with them, they threw one fabulous party Tuesday night.

And if Las Vegas is all about excess and over the top, this was exactly that. Palm trees stabbed with spirals of skewered strawberries and pineapple flanked the entrance to the bar and restaurant. Cocktail waitresses bustled around with trays full of pink rum cocktails. Tables of gorgeous food lined the whole room, and people jostled each other with rum soaked smiles as they reached for tuna poké salad or seared scallop burgers. And in the center of the room was a mountain of seafood. A huge piling of ice, overflowing with pink shrimp, tiny oysters, long King crab legs, and opened clam shells. Mom stared at the oysters, Chrissi (our traveling companion) stared at the crab, and I clutched my sugar-encrusted martini glass, taking a swill of strength before piling my plate high with a little bit of everything.

The three of us crowded into a corner and silently mauled our plates. After a few minutes, Mom looked up at me and, her eyes glistening, said with an awed tone: "I just ate twelve oysters. I couldn't eat another if I wanted to."

The rest of the meal went by in a blur of pulled pork tacos with avocado and pico de gallo, followed by a beef tenderloin slider coated in thick garlic aoili. I was full, man were we all full. But dessert remained.

Plates of chocolate covered strawberries flanked key lime tartlettes. Small bites of flourless Jamaican chocolate cake perched alongside cream and blueberry tarts. But my favorite were the mango crême brulées, each with a plump raspberry nestled in the center.

This feast made me remember the last time I had eaten fresh seafood (in Edinburgh it was mostly the deep-fried version that we all indulged in). Over the summer, Ian and I had spent a week in the south of Spain with our friend Eli. Eli was from Torremolinos, a resort town just down the coast from Malaga. Crowded with sunburnt British and German tourists, the beaches and towns weren't as idyllic as we had hoped, but Eli, to my eternal relief, was there to save us from mediocre imitations of British pub food.

We ate at several secluded beaches, each with a little restaurant catering mostly to the locals. One restaurant was only paella. People ordered three to four hours ahead, then wandered away to lay in the sun and swim in the extremely salty ocean, heading back whenever they were ready. They were then served a huge pan of saffron flavored rice, studded with calamari, pork, tomatoes, and whatever else they had on hand in the restaurant.

My favorite place, however, involved a bit more instant satisfaction. Big grills lined the walls, where fish of all sizes, pierced through with wooden skewers, were lined up over the flames. Shells of all colors and shapes lay spread on platters, offering the meaty gems inside. Shrimp, ranging from the size of a fingernail to the length of my hand were fired whole and served with the tentacles poking off the plate. Waiters walked around with platters, yelling the selection (much like the way Dim Sum restaurants function).

We grabbed whatever looked good, and were later charged just by the number of empty plates on our table. We ate charred fresh sardines, tiny boquerones, a platter of clams that were as tiny as my pinky fingernail, and endless, endless shrimp. Washed down with tinto de verano, a Spanish red wine mixed with a sparkling, barely sweetened lemonade and plenty of ice, we were satiated. We ate and then lay on the sand like beached whales, unable to move except when the sun forced us with douse our skin with some water.

When we were finished eating as the party in Las Vegas, the feeling was much the same. We groaned and moaned the whole car ride home, and then lay on the hotel beds clutching our tummies and cursing ourselves for eating so much. But we were all smiling, knowing that this was why we were here. Las Vegas is the place to do this kind of thing: you can go overboard without a second thought, and go back for more the next day.

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