It's 4:30pm and I'm flying. Not in an absolutely literal sense, but as I shoot from one end of the busy Linq Promenade on the Vegas Strip to the other at breakneck speed, the Nevada sun blazing down and a dry desert wind whipping my face – trying not to think too hard about the waiver I just signed that absolves the relevant authorities of responsibility in the event of a "serious accident" – it certainly feels like it.
Legs scrabbling for solid ground, I arrive at the end of the 350m-long Fly Linq zipline with a jolt, and an abrupt slowing of pace that makes my stomach lurch towards my throat. I smile half in exhilaration, half in relief. It's been around two hours since I touched down at McCarran International Airport, and Las Vegas is already a feast for the senses.
Contrary to my initial experience, I'm not actually in Las Vegas to thrillseek. I'm due here for five days to check out the Vegas Uncork'd festival, a week of pop-ups, parties, special menus and one-off events curated by the US food magazine Bon Appétit across the Las Vegas Strip and downtown.
It was an invitation I couldn't turn down. After all, I thought, if I'm realistically only going to do Vegas once, a restaurant festival is probably the best opportunity. Because aside from the money pouring in and dribbling out of its casinos, its lavish fountains and neon lights, there's not a lot else to this city, is there?
Vegas is a place of contradictions, and quite possibly a victim of its own infamy
Well, as it turns out, Vegas is a place of contradictions, and it's also quite possibly a victim of its own infamy. Founded as a city in 1909 on a patch of the sun-baked Mojave Desert – which stretches across California, Utah and Arizona as well as Nevada – it grew massively in the decades that followed, with a unique gambling culture and a focus on the entertainment industry as its backbone. Today it's the 28th largest city in America, but arguably its entertainment capital.
This is a city that inspires a frenzy of excitement in the millions from the US and beyond looking to book holidays, stag and hen parties and milestone birthdays, and revulsion in the cynics who brand it cultureless and superficial. But it's possibly unique in that it draws these opinions, as often as not, from people who've never visited. There's scarcely a city in the world with a bigger pop culture footprint relative to its size. You can probably draw to mind the fascias of the casinos along the Strip as easily as you can the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids of Giza (both of which are recreated as monoliths outside resorts here). Put simply: you've probably got an opinion on Las Vegas already, whether you've been there or not.
A city of stars
My first experience of having a huge section of the city transmitted into my brain via my retinas while zooming down a zipline is in keeping with this common vision of Las Vegas – as, in all fairness, is the iconic scene of the fountains outside Caesars Palace, my hotel.
We're on the way to dinner at the neighbouring Hell's Kitchen, one of Gordon Ramsay's Vegas outposts. There's evidently a special place in Ramsay's heart for Vegas – and probably his accountant's, too – judging by the number of restaurants he operates here. And there's a special place in Vegas's heart for him: however famous you think our own sweary TV chef is in the UK, in the US (and specifically in Las Vegas) he's a god. I genuinely don't know what to expect at Hell's Kitchen, a restaurant that aims to bring to life the reality TV show of the same name, where each season's winners are pictures on the wall and many still duke it out during service in its open kitchen. It's big, loud and brash, yet slick. The food is excellent: there's a tower of fresh West Coast seafood; an excellent, butter-soft and flavoursome beef wellington (the signature dish) with mac and cheese; there's a superb and reasonably priced wine list, featuring old-school Napa chardonnay from Far Niente and superb pinot noir from Flowers in Sonoma Coast.
And after that, the experience is mirrored with drinks at Vanderpump. Lisa Vanderpump is another naturalised British reality TV persona (best known for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) with a raft of venues under her belt. The look and feel are probably what you're imagining; but the drinks are good. Very good, in fact. A sidecar comes out balanced, structured; the tequila and mezcal list features, well, really good tequila and mezcal.
Because, as I discover, the people who operate Vegas's resorts are not stupid, and neither are their audience. Walking around the strip, food names are everywhere. Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, José Andrés, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Even Thomas Keller, he of the famed Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in Napa Valley, has a restaurant here. Their faces are emblazoned on giant billboards above hotel pools, tussling with the sensory overload.
With so much on offer across the Strip's many resorts and hotels, a good way to take it in is with a food tour, and the brilliantly named Lip Smacking Foodie Tours (yes, really) offers a few itineraries aimed to whisk intrigued diners around a few of the Strip's must-visit spots in a few hours, with a course at each venue. The first stop is Javier's in the ARIA Casino, the Vegas outpost of the small, high-end Mexican restaurant group that first opened in Laguna Beach in 1995. It's an odd juxtaposition – a hand-carved Día de los Muertos alder wood carving by an Oregon artist and mother-of-pearl-clad private dining room bathed in the neon glow of the unending rows of slot machines – but the room is sumptuous and the food excellent: a half-and-half enchilada with fat tufts of pulled chicken with guajillo sauce, and softly scented prawn and Dungeness crab with tomatillo.
At Greek restaurant Estiatorio Milos in The Cosmopolitan Hotel, the smell of fresh fish and vine tomatoes lingers at the entrance. Operators here make a rebuttal to the perceived excess of Vegas with careful sourcing, and Milos is one of them: fish is sourced from individual fishermen in Greece, and olive oil is white-labelled from a single producer. There's vibrant Greek salad and fresh bread, and hunks of meaty grilled octopus atop Santorini PDO fava bean purée and crisp white onion. Then, a few doors down in the same hotel, there's Momofuku, David Chang's famous restaurant group, which serves up a chickpea ramen with massive umami punch and crisp, chewy noodles, and unctuous pork belly in a bao bun with the group's famous house-made Ssäm sauce.
The day after, we take a trip to Sadelle's. A recent import from Manhattan, this modern take on a classic Jewish brasserie at the corner of the iconic Bellagio conservatory – at this time bedecked in cherry blossom in an homage to spring in Japan – is similarly lushly decorated, and courses here follow suit: gleaming towers of lox salmon, whitefish, julienned tomato and cucumber with capers and dill are ready to pile on to bagels, while crisp potato latkes are topped with cured salmon and caviar. It's a feast for the the eyes and the stomach, and a must-visit Strip brunch spot.
And the cocktail revolution hasn't eluded Vegas's operators, either – not if Juniper, a bar at the Park MGM, is to be believed, anyway. Again, the one thing Vegas's hotels and resorts aren't lacking in is cash, so if they decide to up their cocktail game, they do it right. The lounge looks a little like the recently reopened Lyaness on the Southbank – that familiar Duomo-in-Florence mix of light salmon, light grey and dark green – while the team behind the bar have a wealth of experience in the drinks trade. The list isn't hugely conceptual (which is probably a good thing), but the drinks are excellent.
So, yes, eating and drinking in Las Vegas is probably unsurprising in its quality. But what we're here for is the festival, and I'm booked in for four or five flagship events. Vegas Uncork'd is a co-venture between the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the American food magazine Bon Appétit. The latter's involvement is crucial: while it's fair to assume good food exists in Las Vegas anyway, the Bon Appétit name is a ringing endorsement and a statement that suggests the city's food scene is as serious as it is blingy.
The first order of business is Behind the Scenes with the Master Chefs of France. A stark reminder of the city's pulling power, it sees 20 or more French-born chefs who have received the title Maîtres Cuisiniers de France (bestowed upon those who have been considered to have carried the culinary torch for the nation in France and beyond) cooking canapé-sized dishes in a sprawling industrial kitchen in a secret location underneath The Venetian Resort, alongside free-flowing Californian chardonnay and pinot noir.
The festival's epicentre, though, is The Grand Tasting. Essentially a massive party in the courtyard of Caesars Palace (the "Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis", to give it its full name), it's a production of enormous scale. Ramsay and other high-ranking chefs are introduced on a red carpet, and more than 50 of the town's top chefs have stations around the massive pool and a few breakaway areas to serve hero dishes to the evening's 2,500 guests. Drinks are, of course, free-flowing: a friend takes the opportunity to talk me through some of the many exceptional US wineries who are pouring, and he and I divide the night cleanly into two sections, pre- and post- a visit to the Casamigos Tequila stand.
If The Grand Tasting proves to be a big night (which, inevitably, it does) Picnic at the Park is the perfect hangover cure. Held in the bright sunshine outside the MGM Grand, it's a similar concept, albeit with a lazier pace (apart from the mix-your-own margarita station that's powered by exercise bike, and no I'm not joking). Chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Masaharu Morimoto and Roy Choi are given a rapturous introduction by Bon Appétit's editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport (many of the magazine's staffers are on hand across the events), before they go to their stations to cook individual dishes for the guests.
For more information about Las Vegas, go to visitlasvegas.com. To keep up to date with Vegas Uncork'd 2020, go to vegasuncorked.com. Rooms at Caesars Palace start from $110 per night, plus resort fees and taxes; caesars.com.
Travelbag offers three nights in Las Vegas, staying in the 4*+ Caesars Palace on a room-only board basis from £729pp, including return flights from London Heathrow with British Airways. Based on travel between 10 November 2019 and 30 January 2020. Book by 14th November 2019. Based on two adults sharing. Subject to availability. To book, call 0207 001 4112 or visit travelbag.co.uk
If all the above sounds like a lot to pack into five or six days, there's almost as much I've left out in and around the Strip and as part of the festival. There's excellent hand-pulled noodles and dumplings in La La Noodle; an great Italian brunch at Rao's; a champagne sabrage competition between some of Vegas's most prominent celebrity chefs on a rooftop at The Cosmopolitan; a wild night at Calvin Harris's residency at Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace; a foray into Old Vegas for a speakeasy-style pop-up at The Mob Museum; and the inimitable Absinthe, a ludicrous variety show that combines incredible gymnastics with filthy skits bookended by a massive outdoor party.
The festival is a genuine statement of intent, bedecking an already glittering oasis of potential good eating with an array of sometimes over-the-top but frequently brilliant events, along with a uniquely charged energy. I'd say that I don't know whether the city, with its electric energy, corpulent lucre, its utter mastery of entertaining and hospitality, its crazy variety shows and its genuinely fantastic restaurants, is closer to the sublime or the ridiculous. But why can't it be both?
I think back to my mission statement: 'my only trip to Las Vegas'; the naive words of someone who's seen and heard a city enough in films or stories to make a judgement call with no personal knowledge. But actually, I can't wait to go back. Viva Las Vegas indeed.