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Downtown Vegas hits its stride

07/09/2014 9:11 AM

07/09/2014 9:11 AM

As my assignment in Las Vegas wraps up, I'm moving off the strip and heading downtown. I hadn't been to downtown Las Vegas in a very long time, perhaps a decade. It wasn't really great back then; not a lot happening. and what was there really wasn't my cup of tea. But I'd heard and read a lot of great things about the recent happenings there, so I was honestly excited to check it out. I gotta say, I'm really glad I did.

My first stop was the Downtown Grand Hotel, the first new hotel built in downtown Vegas in decades. It's not big, opulent and over the top as the properties on The Strip tend to be. Instead, the Downtown Grand Las Vegas is chic, hip and elegant. They call the interior "industrial chic." That works for me, and so do the rooms, which are spacious and comfortable.

There are plenty of dining options at the Downtown Grand, which features eight restaurants. I had brunch at Stewart & Ogden, the property's signature restaurant, and it was quite good. I also had a pleasant visit with Assistant Executive Chef Todd Harrington. Harrington made the move from the fine dining restaurant, Michel Richard, to The Downtown Grand about three months ago. Harrington admits it was a big change.

"It's hard because we have to match the prices along Freemont Street, yet deliver much higher quality," Harrington said. "We're trying to scale up both the quality of the food and the diner's expectations."

So far, everything's pointing up. Harrington says he's seeing a noticeable difference in the clientele, and all the reviews, four at the time of my writing, have been positive. I'd say Harrington and The Downtown Grand are on the right track.

Before I continue my downtown dining exploration, let me put in a plug for another experience, The Downtown Container Park. The park is comprised entirely of re-purposed shipping containers, about two dozen, and 41 modular metal cubes. Guess what? It's really cool. The Downtown Container Park has nearly 40 clients, a collection of boutiques, gallerias, bars and eateries.

There's a giant treehouse playground right in the middle for kids. It features a three story slide, also made of shipping containers. In the back of the park, there's a stage for live music and festivals,and in the front, by the entrance, the park's iconic, fire-breathing praying mantis. About a ten minute walk from the Grand, the Downtown Container Park is definitely worth a visit.

Okay, enough sight-seeing, time to get back on the food trail.

Dinner was set for La Comida, operated by Michael Morton, the man behind La Cave at Wynn's, CRUSH at the MGM Grand, and many other Vegas eateries and hot spots. The room was loud with exposed brick walls and a series of booths and communal tables. The crowd was much different than on The Strip — 99 percent local according to General Manager Raphael Ramirez. I knew right off we were in for a fun time, and boy, was I right.

The cuisine of Vera Cruz, Mexico native Paloma Cuellar was stellar even if my appetite allowed for only a few menu items. We started with the guacamole, made table side and to your level of spice preference, and the traditional Mexican corn, thankfully taken off the cob, seasoned with with chili powder and lots of butter. All I can say is YUMMM-MEEE!

A tuna tostada followed. Served with red onions, microgreens, and aji amarillo, the tostada was fantastic. I was already full, but I just had to try the tacos: Carne Asada, Carnitas, and Pollo al Guajillo-steak, pork, and chicken. They were delicious, and if the weekend of eating hadn't caught up with me, I would have ordered three more. As it stood, though, I was done. I just couldn't bring myself to order any of the Especialidades, though several looked more than inviting. I guess that gives me a reason to come back, though I really don't need one. La Comida was one of my favorite dining experiences during my all-too-short stay in Las Vegas.

Feasting finished, I still had one last Vegas stop left, a little after-dinner cocktail action at the uber-hip Commonwealth. Commonwealth, which doesn't open till 8:00, and was packed with another local crowd during my visit, features three bars, including a Prohibition-era speakeasy-type private room called The Laundry Room.

The Laundry Room is accessible only to guests with a reservation, which I had thanks to my excellent public relations contact. I'm not much of a cocktail guy, but I loved the vibe of The Laundry Room. Here's a bit of background detailed at the front of the drinks menu: "This room has a history that includes Frank getting lipstick removed from his collar, and Bugsy having that questionable smudge removed from his trouser leg before meeting with lawyers (again)." Yeah, I like this place.

What's more, my Rye Bourbon, a double if memory serves, hit the spot at the end of the night and the end of my trip.

And, thus ends my series of reports from Las Vegas. Until next time, which I hope comes sooner rather than later.

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