I am on a bar and lounge and fine dining adventure, but I am early for my dinner reservation at FIX Restaurant and Bar at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, so I saunter across the casino floor to the Caramel Nightclub that I have been hearing raves about — and not from rave partiers.  The sweet young hostess greets me and whisks me past the velvet rope as if I am a VIP — not many people in the lounge so early on a midweek, but I feel like a celeb anyway with all the personal attention.

The Caramel Bar and Lounge is a cave of quiet in the usually noisy casino hotel atmosphere, and I find out that Caramel is actually owned by the Light Group, the same company that owns the FIX Restaurant and Bar (opened in June 2004) where I will be dining later.

The Caramel saloon — that’s what we call bars and lounges out West — is a calm and relaxing place with young execs and business types dressed to the Ts; the lounge is also known for its late night high energy and celeb appearing profile.  Caramel doesn’t seem to be too big, which is the way a lounge is supposed to be to make it cozier, and it makes a great crossing and meeting point for a night out on the town in Vegas.

Signature cocktails
at Caramel Bar & Lounge.

Caramel is the hue of caramel candy kisses, so that is the appellation given to it, and caramel extends to the plush and comfy leather lounge seat and couch decor. The cocktail tables are opaque marble, but I prefer to sit at the fairly lengthy bar in order to order a Black Dahlia, which is kind of a caramel/chocolately martini. The lovely young bar maiden doesn’t know the drink so I describe the mixology, a ploy to get her into a talkative mood.

Caramel is attracting celebrity attention from Hollywood’s cocktail intelligentsia — Paris and Nicky Hilton, Ashton Kutcher & new wife Demi Moore, David Arquette, Nicollette Sheridan, and Jamie Lynn Sigler. I hope to meet up with one of these celebs over a cocktail under the hand blown glass sculptures; we can sit and gossip on the community ottomans while the paparazzi are held at bay — hah — even if no celebs show up before I finish the Black Dahlia, one thing is certain, this is the place to be seen in the Vegas cocktail scene.

Caramel has a one-of-a-kind Bachelorette Party package, which is actually the midpoint of a three-venue party tour for brides-to-be and their girlfriends, or for ladies in-town celebrating, with access to their own table and to a phlanx of specialty cocktails, such as the Oreo Shake (Van Gogh Vanilla, Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, and crushed Oreos), and the Sicilian Kiss Martini (Southern Comfort, Amaretto, cranberry, and a rock candy swizzle stick). For some reason the Joe Sample song, “Southern Comfort”, comes to mind; the famous jazz pianist would fit right into the groove here.

Caramel is open from Sunday through Monday, 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. For table reservations call 702/693-8300 or visit www.thelightgroup.com

Tastebud delights at Fix.

About The Light Group

The Light Group is making a fantastic fine dining impact for those visiting Vegas and for those who are non-vegans — meaning non-vegetarians, because FIX and STACK are all about great cuts of beef, lamb, pork, Kobe, and seafood selections. Light Group is not lite fare by any means as I soon find out at the spectacular FIX restaurant, the first restaurant founded by Andrew Sasson and his partners, Andy Masi and Sean Christie. Other Light Group venues include: Light nightclub, FIX and Caramel at Bellagio, JET nightclub and STACK restaurant at The Mirage, and Mist nightclub at Treasure Island.  I am determined to visit all the clubs and plush dining emporiums.

IX is a small restaurant by Vegas behemoth standards (about 150 seats), but it is truly an architectural jewel. The curving and twisting and bending and hand shaped dark Padouk wood comes from Costa Rica, and it had to be steamed to get it to comform to the present proportions.  It looks so natural, like water carved sandstone flumes found in the canyons of Zion National Park . I can’t image how it is all held in place, but the design group, Graft Labs, a world-renowned leader in urban modern design, figured it out.

FIX is so new (it opened in 2004) that I am amazed that it has reached the culinary AAA Five Diamond award winning status so quickly.

Savory main dishes.

The tall, lanky hostess, Brittany, seats me at a Padouk table — everything here is made out of Padouk; my waiter of the evening, Irvin, hands me the one page menu board and explains the gourmand options. The three column menu is broken down in an easy to read display.

Column one is Soups and Small Plates that include Lobster Bacon Chowder ($11); Mixed Greens ($12) with shaved apple, spiced pecans and cider vinaigrette; the Caesar Salad ($14) comes with Sourdough croutons and Point Reyes Blue Cheese; Shrimp ($14) with “Louis” and Cocktail Sauce; Lobster Tacos ($16) with grilled mango and cilantro; Crab Cake ($15), which was my starter choice. A great choice because the two jumbo lump Thermidor-style cakes are a double stack, served in a small cast iron pot with wonderful grainy mustard.  These are far and away the best crab cakes I have ever eaten anywhere.

Desserts de rigueur.

Continuing down the first column there’s the "Finger Licking FIX" — Buffalo-style “Wings” ($15), and then there is a menu section for the 'Raw FIX' — Yellowtail Sashimi ($16) with Jalapeño and Ponzu (a citrus based dipping sauce); Bill’s Roll ($14) is Salmon and Yellowtail with spicy cucumber and soy ginger; Tuna “Poke” ($15) is a mango-wasabi Mojo with shrimp chips; and last on the list are the Market Oysters ($3 per piece) that come from either Wellfleet, Rhode Island, Malpeque, Prince Edward Island, Canada, or from Kumamoto, Washington.  I surmise that the oysters are flown in from these locales depending on availability, or maybe the price of jet fuel.

Irvin informs me that the restaurant has its own wood burning grill and many of the selections in column two of the menu support this fact with the fine selection of aged meats, such as the 20 ounce Ribeye ($43), the 14 ounce “NYC” Sirloin ($52), the 10 ounce Filet Mignon ($42), and the 14 ounce Kurabota Pork Chop ($26). Irvin gives me a tasting sample of the Chef’s Kobe Selection that is a marvel of meat that goes for $65 for the full plate, served with Red Wine Shallot and Peppercorn sauces.

Also in the menu’s middle column is a section called “Shared For The Table” that includes Forks ($19), which is Smoked Salmon and Osetra Caviar Peppers (I don’t know how they got the Caspian Sea caviar, maybe before the Russian ban.) and Scallion Binis; then there are the three Crispy items: Rock Shrimp and Chili ($14), Ipswich Clams and Pickles (14); and Calamari with Lime ($12), or get all three for $29.

Bobby Baldwin Burgers.

Also on the Shared Table menu are the Kobe Chili Cheese Fries ($14), Ultimate Shell FIX, which is Maine Lobster, Tiger Prawns, Seasonal Crab, Market Oysters and Clams (Small — $40, Large — $80, and XL — $120). You can also get a Bobby Baldwin Burger for $21, which is actually a Kobe slider threesome with aged cheddar, grilled onions, and spiced fries.

The last column on the menu of course is reserved for the Surf & Turf crowd, but there is also one outstanding pasta dish — Ravioli with Spiced Pumpkin, Goat’s Milk Ricotta, and Sage ($21).

Entrées are all stunning gustatory salutes to the palate. The Scallops ($29) are Benedict-style with Apple Wood Bacon and Crab Hollandaise, that I am sure is hand made at FIX; The Lobster ($39) is probably seasonal and is “Drunken” with Prosciutto Gnocchi (knowing the class of FIX the gnocchi dumplings are probably made with Semolina, rather than flour), and with Truffle Cream; the Chicken is Roasted Crisp Skin served as a Smoked Mesh ($26).

Fresh seafood from around the world.

I placed my money on the Chilean Seabass that is actually legal seafood again after the once depleted stocks have now made a comeback, and it was an awesome presentation, with Riscutto, Baby Shrimp served in a Lobster Broth. It makes the eyes roll. And as I failed to mentioned, there is indeed a Surf & Turf FIX ($32) that includes Miso Glazed Short Ribs and Lobster Croquettes.

The vegetable side dishes at FIX were perfect — the Sautéed Spinach was so lively, crisp, and steamed properly; don’t you cringe with overcooked vegetables that lose not only their flavor but the vitamins, too? Next time I come back to FIX I am going for the Wood Grilled Forest Mushrooms ($8) or the Cauliflower and Parmesan Gratin ($8).

One item that was served to me as an appetizer was the fried Macaroni and Cheese — it came egg roll style — four to a plate, and I must tell you, this is truly heaven for such a lowly and looked down upon dish as mac con queso.

FIX has a great selection of wines and cocktails that can be served tableside or at the bar.  I noticed couples at the bar chatting away as if it it was no bother waiting for a table, so I assumed you can come in just for the drinks, but watching Executive Chef Brian Massie’s (formerly of the N9NE Restaurant Group and the Aureole Restaurant Group) trained chefs in action is certain to click on the Pavlovian response. Can I order a dessert like the Bubble Gum Vanilla Float at the bar, or will the stiff drink crowd think me too pedestrian?

FIX is open Sunday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. A private enclosed dining room also is available. For reservations call 702/693-8400 or visit www.fixlasvegas.com

The Vegas famous Stack
is sure to be world famous.

Two nights later my Light Group dining journey takes me to STACK at the Mirage Hotel, and once again the tall and shapely hostess, Brittany, greets me and I ask her if she is a twin, but she assures me she moves between the two restaurants. STACK is the second hip ambient restaurant in the Light Group’s portfolio, and once again Graft Labs was called upon to create the Escalante-style interior, but this time with Brazilian Mahogany, with the planking so wide it had to come from mature trees that were hopefully ecologically harvested.

STACK has only been open since December, 2005, but it is apparent that it will be an award winner, or should I say, it will “Stack” up the awards in the years to come.  STACK is more open and airy with higher ceilings than FIX, kind of like an open beamed barn with excellent, stylish couches so you can get a great view of the entire enterprise.  One aspect I noticed in both restaurants was the superb sound systems, at the right tonal level, playing contemporary tunes interspersed with classic rock. A small bar is right behind where my dining partner, Chris, and I are seated in a corner couch. I guess the best way to describe STACK is scene and cuisine!

Japanese Spicy Crab.

The staff at both Light Group restaurants are commendably energetic, and Michael, our STACK waiter, recommends a Hot Rock starter that is truly unique; Michael disappears and quickly returns with a large rock in a pot that is actually a real river rock that is heated to almost lava liquidity. We fork on the thin strips of raw sirloin and are wowed by the quickly sizzled meat as it hits the palate. What a great presentation!  Between the Hot Rock delicacies we sojourn a while on the Japanese Spicy Crab served on a foot long, incense burner sized plate, and they are so cool to the tongue, tempering the hot sirloin. The crab is squeezed on to a dollop of crispy rice and Sirache, kind of coconutty in taste and kind of sweet.

Michael hands us the menu boards and I figured that the menu was a replica of the FIX restaurant because the Executive Chef is the same for both properties. Michael reassures me that there are many differences, one of which is that STACK has no wood fired grill; indeed the three column menu offers many special discoveries, with only a few duplicated menu items shared with FIX, such as the Seabass, and a different twist on the Surf & Turf STACK ($46) that sees the STACK’s Grilled Petite Filet served with Half Butter Poached Lobster.

Chris and I decide to try a small shared serving of the Penne ($19 for the full size), served to us more like an appetizer than as an entrée and we are glad we only ordered the sampler because it was huge, with the Penne swimming in the most wonderful Prosciutto Truffles and Parmesan.

Fantastic finger foods.

Save room for that 24 ounce Cowboy Steak ($46) served with the bone in because STACK does have a great grill and the steaks are served with the house signature sauces.  Feeling mighty hungry after a night partying at the Light Group’s Jet nightclub, also at the Mirage? Well, then Hoss, belly up to the 44 ounce Magnum Porterhouse Steak ($79 for two), served with Potato Gratin and Sauce Bordelaise. I haven’t seen steak cuts this big since my heifer branding days in Wyoming.  Want something a slight lighter? I was amazed that the Ultimate Kobe Stacked Burger was only $19 for 10 ounces of the specialty, and usually expensive meat, served with Vermont Cheddar. Also hot off the grill are 14 ounce Brooklyn fillets ($48 — the Executive Chef is from NYC), or the 12 ounce Kurabota Pork Chop ($26), or the bone out 12 ounce NYC Sirloin ($36), or the bone-out 9 ounce Petite Filet ($36), which I ordered, and which I am happy to report was more than filling after the pasta respite. The Petite Filet was glazed and crumbled tenderly when sliced thinly.

Chris went for the $26 Lamb Shank served with lentils and watercress; it could be cut with a fork right down to the bone.  It was such a magnificent cut of lamb, that if I recommend a chop house for the woolies, STACK gets my vote.  Chris ate too much pasta, too, so the glazed delight had to be boxed up for another night of fine dining at home.

House specialties are hand crafted.

I won’t reveal too many other great delights on the STACK menu, but there were a few other outstanding specialties, such as the Pigs In A Blanket ($11) — yes, the chefs tuck them in; and for a shared plate try the Miso Black Cod ($15) in lettuce cups, or the Mini Kobe Chili Cheese Dogs ($15), a threesome served with crispy onions and spiced fries. I know I have to come back to STACK just for the Scott’s Screamer ($15), chilled, sliced, and diced tuna with Sesame Ponzu and Daikon (a type of Japanese radish).

Last Call.

STACK has an even more extensive wine list than FIX, serving both Old World and New World vintages by the glass or bottle, plus one of the most complete French Bubbly lists that includes a $625 bottle of Louis Roderer Cristal Reims.  STACK also has beers, sweet wines, Brandies, Vodkas (Grey Goose is a top choice, according to Chris), Cognacs, Armagnacs, Grappas, Calvados, and Single Malt Scotches.

I noticed, over cappuccino, the large curtain at one end of the restaurant, and I am told by Diana, our booze stewart that there is a 24 seat private dining area behind the curtain that can be either closed off, or used as a raised stage, with the curtain open for special events. The restaurant is equipped to seat 48 diners in the lounge, 18 at the slate-topped bar, and 175 in the main dining room.

Oh, hey, I gotta mention the S’more STACK Martini made from Stolichnaya Vanil, Chocolate Godiva, and Starbucks Coffee Liqueur, that I think can be slurped like a dessert! Chris and I settled for two helpings of the Apple Pot Pie a la mode with Maple Pecan Brittle Ice Cream, and it was the correct recommendation from Michael.

Las Vegas Blog
When I grew up we used to always ask my farm girl mother, “Whatcha FIXin’," and she always STACKed up a heaping helping portion of freshness, and now I can get the same in Vegas at FIX and STACK, and so can you.

STACK is open from Sunday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, and Friday and Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. For reservations call 702/792-7800, or visit www.stacklasvegas.com or www.lightgroup.com

— By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.

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