Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Las Vegas Hotel Strategy for CES - The Stratosphere Hotel!

The Tower

Recently I had a case which required the full use all of my deft craftwork in the art of disguise and subterfuge to infiltrate an illicit electronics syndicate working thru channels throughout the world. My attendance was thus required at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NV, a gaudy paean to all that glitters being gold, neon, or simply scintillating......yes, quite scintillating..... I looked forward to the adventure with great relish!

Now, over the past many years such visits to the Entertainment Capitol of the World have almost become de rigeur in my line of work for all that is untoward and nefarious in this corner of the globe at some point passes thru Las Vegas. Thus on this particular occasion I was required to maintain a very low profile and travel as inconspicuously as possible, avoiding all the usual high profile venues (with their high profile room rates much less) so as not to tip my hand by announcing my singular presence among the some 150,000 conventioneers from Azerbaijain to Zimbabwe.
The Samsung 'Mother Ship'

This city is all about SEEING and BEING SEEN, especially during this high profile week what with Hotel Casino's like MGM Grand, The Wynn, Mandalay Bay, and even The Cosmopolitan, all sporting solid bookings throughout the week. And with these bookings come the thin air rack rates that supply and demand dictates. Additionally, the advent of transportation (or gridlock more likely) in this city led me to The Stratosphere Tower and Casino as my choice of residence for a number of reasons.
The Samsung Wrap Around

First, The Stratosphere is not a hotel and casino with the cache that many of the first rate hotels might command. Therefore, if one is looking to simply blend in and avoid the hoi polloi surrounding the mania that is CES, then the Stratosphere meets this need. If, however, your business dealings absolutely require you to be amongst the throngs and masses, amidst the electronics giants in the industry (Samsung, Toshiba, and Bose, OH MY!), if you absolutely must 'See and Be seen', then the Stratosphere is not for you. No, for a stint at the Stratosphere one must put oneself into a more calm and resolute Zen mindset.

Second, the location of the Stratosphere, particularly for the madness of CES traffic, is almost ideal......for the cost! Found at the NORTH end of the Las Vegas Strip, the Strat sits at the polar opposite end of where the thickest of traffic and congestion occurs during this week of bedlam. And this traffic I speak of is not the normal, everyday Las Vegas traffic. No, this is 'CES Traffic'......found only when 'Lost Wages' is set upon by such a horde of visitors that a simple taxi ride......when you can secure one, can take 40 minutes for just a few miles on the Strip.

This my good fellows is the beauty of the Stratosphere! The hotel is just two blocks north of the last, northernmost stop on the Las Vegas Monorail allows one to take a 5 minute rail ride to the Convention Center but more importantly, it allows one to avoid the thousands upon thousands of other conventioneers who have the same idea of arriving at the CES Convention.....and most assuredly at the exact same times!

By being NORTH of the throng whilst most others are south, thus traveling 'against the grain' of traffic, one can avoid all manner of hassle and give oneself the luxury of a stress free travel experience to and from the halls themselves.

Yes, yes my dear boy, I am well aware that the Las Vegas Monorail with it's wonderful serpentine spine travels behind many of the Las Vegas Casino's in a very accommodating and cost effective manner. And yes, on any OTHER travel week, this would be accorded the respect and esteem it richly deserves for it's simplicity.
The HUGE 3D Experience......
However, previous analysis of the migration patterns of these electronics mavens, particularly during the peak times of the convention....the beginning and the end, show the beauty of setting up domicile at the Strat north of the LVCC. 

Staying at the MGM Grand in prior years, which is the first (or last) stop on the LV Monorail, have I witnessed 30-45 minute waits at the transit station to get UP TO THE monorail platform and wait for the arriving railcar.....let alone the 15 minute ride to the LVCC. (This scene reminded me of many a crowd at train stations in Beijing tho with more smartly dressed travelers!)

Additionally, and perhaps MOST importantly, the lines to get to the monorail whence LEAVING the convention hall can border on will the wait for all manner of taxi, livery, bus, coach, horse drawn carriage or rickshaw!
The View North from the Monorail Platform
The 'Old Style' McDonald's one block from The Strat

I have witnessed with my own eyes taxi and coach lines at the LVCC at the end of the day that were more than an hour long, without a coach in sight! Similarly, lines up to the monorail platform (Le Mode de Simplex!) had been halted at the ground level as there was simply no further space ON the Monorail platform to stand had you even the good fortune of ascending to said platform. If you cannot even get to the NORTHBOUND platform due to the swarms themselves, in this pinch one can actually walk to the Strat in 10-15 minutes!

The third reason for visiting with the Start is cost! The highest rate for a room at this hotel that I have ever paid during CES is $129.00.....and THAT reservation was placed one week prior and came with cancellation priviledges. (I've actually paid LESS than that by reserving on the very day of arrival, a risky venture unto itself at CES with this show growing by 20K visitors in just the past year alone.) Normal rates run approximately $79-$89 during CES which, for travelers on a budget or those small business minded folks such as myself (Holmes Private Investigators, Plc) looking to scrimp a quid at every turn, well there is no better mix of cost with location and convenience in my book. (My next venture to Las Vegas the last week of January has an almost ridiculous $31.00/room rate for comparison sake.)
The North Hall 

Surely, one might offer that the Las Vegas Hilton (LVH) is also north of the convention center, and is even within a tighter walking distance from the North Hall if you can manage to circumvent the halls with a map from a Baker St. Irregular! But the pricing of the accommodations can top $239 on an OFF night, exceeding $300 per evening very easily!

All that said, I must stress again that the Stratosphere is NOT a 5 Star property, not even a 4 Star but is a firm 3 Star property. What it certainly is NOT is a tired old lady like some of the lesser marquee names have become.......or were, like the erased Sahara for example.

Yes, the Stratosphere has everything a clandestine conventioneer like myself might want.....quick and easy travel to and fro, economics of attendance that will leave you feeling quite accomplished, clean rooms with wi-fi, board and iron, cable TV, along with a number of respectable (tho not overly stellar) restaurants and food establishments to choose from.

And with another caper upcoming back in the Marriage Capitol of the World, I will further test my theory by NOT staying at the Stratosphere but at a more 'choice' property located directly within the Strip confines.

Once that visit has transpired I will circle back and report on other aspects of the Vegas experience in comparison. 

Now, off to meet Inspector LaStrade!

The View from the Suite

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pane Rustica - Add to the Best Of Tampa List!

Pane Rustica Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

When the occasion arises where 'Royalty' comes to visit with us in the Tampa Bay area, and said occasion allows Watson and I to entertain in splendid fashion, most undoubtedly the two restaurant names that come to mind immediately include Bern's Steakhouse on S. Howard Ave. and The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City for only locations such as these  offer one an iconic, uniquely Tampa, perhaps even a 'historic-in-their-own-way' opportunity to please both the seriously reverent visitors as well as the party-goer's from near and far; tourists, visiting family, dignitaries, and many more of that very impressionable set - at least upon their primary visit to the area will these two suffice.

But for those incumbents already living here in the splendid western Gulf Coast, and having partaken in each of the two (Bern's and The Columbia) more times than we can remember, it becomes a bit more of an effort to hit the right high notes required to host such exalted visitors and NOT feel like you're being subjected to the gastronomic equivalent of 'another Disney-Visit' after your own children have long since flown the coop. 

Armani's, atop the Hyatt at Rocky Point, is one such location albeit a tad on the 'special occasion' side; Mise En Place is another, with a bend more towards the finer dining and quiet ambiance aura but always delivering the goods in fine fashion time and time again.

These are unique 'Tampa based' offerings that are not part of a 'chain' of restaurants and that by being so 'say' something about this area specifically that cannot ALSO be said elsewhere. Such definition thereby also eliminates such upstanding (and sometimes overly pretentious) edifices such as Roy's, The Capital Grille, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Flemings, and countless others up and down the gastronomic scale (despite both Roy's and Fleming's being part of the Outback family...ironically a Bloomin Brands Tampa-based enterprise unto itself!)

Thus, venturing out on a limb to try a relatively 'NEW' restaurant (new perhaps to the patrons - US, tho not necessarily 'new' to the neighborhood) is sometimes fraught with peril. Yet using our time honored and honed investigative skills, deductive reasoning, and astute powers of observation (ahem - and the voiced approvals of over 700 other previously satisfied patrons from we elected to put our collective hopes on 'Pane Rustica' in the Palma Ceia area of Tampa to host our esteemed guests, Lady Marlene and Contessa Koutsis, well-traveled dignitaries who were in town on official tho clandestine business. 

Remarkably hidden in plain sight in the most basic of strip shopping centers on S. Macdill Ave., one might form an opinion about how such a world class restaurant could possibly be found between a haberdashery and a beauty supply purveyor.....and such an opinion began to form on our collective lips almost immediately......yet with brave face we ventured forth!
Seated very efficiently  on a Thursday evening, our alcohol choices arrived quickly (and thankfully often!) as Watson, our two guests, and I  were soon joined by one Lord Schindelholz of Charlotte, an associate from the northern regions, and our own Lady Kimberly, a wonderfully delicate creature from Scotland Yard with the instincts of a feline and the good graces of someone at the highest social circles of our society to know when to claw and when to purr.......

Despite the darkness of the environs, a characteristic that wreaked havoc on my surreptitious picture taking abilities, the atmosphere inside was quite lively and exciting with the hustle and bustle of this emporium seeping thru our consciousness as the night continued.

Now, whether it was due to the company we were keeping or the sudden onset of famishment I am unsure but with receipt of the menu I detected the definite start of a mouth water from us all for once we began reading the choice selections we knew, just KNEW, that this was going to be unlike any other experience we had had to date. 
Chicken Scallopini Pumpkin Pappardelle
Pane Rustica, with the written instincts that only a few establishments seem to grasp, tacitly understands that the simple anticipation of a special selection, pleasant to both the ear with it's aural description and mouthwatering to the palate BY such a description, is half the battle in wooing a diner's olfactory senses. And here they began immediately with a soft and delectable tap-tap-tap dancing in our minds with entree descriptions such as ........ "Tangerine Chili-Glazed Native Cobia with Shitake Tempura, Cashews, and Wasabi Lump Crab Mashed Potato's".......or...."Chicken Scallopini Pumpkin Pappardelle with Slivered Figs, Wilted Arugula, and Almond Slivers"........or even the more blunt sounding "Braised Hog Snapper on Broccoli Rabe with Wild Rice Quinoa".

Braised Hog Snapper with Wild Rice Quinoa
From small plate listings such as the Pan Roasted Backfin Crab Cakes with avocado, tomato, mango, and cilantro lime butter to the  Savory Braised Kurobuta Pork Cheeks with roasted butternut puree and cranberry sage au jus to Flatbreads of Wild Game Sausage with roasted acorn squash, arugula, candied nuts, fontina, ricotta salata and a white balsamic cranberry gastrique. ALL were simply tantalizing!

In all seriousness, these selections had us panting in anticipation from the onset and they certainly did not disappoint. The volume of dialogue amongst us had dropped so precipitously after we were served that our lovely hostess, who did a wonderful job of keeping our vocal chords well lubricated, had come to see if we were all still alive and satisfactory for she could hear no sound emanating from our table! A cause for certain alarm in her estimation!

With deserts and after dinner apertif's including Flourless Chocolate Decadence with chocolate ganache and berries (simply criminal in it's deliciousness), Strawberry Gelato with Chocolate Chip (I actually saw Lady Marlene swoon at the mere mention), and a Fall Flavored Gelato Java with Salted Caramel (Contessa Koutsis had to be revived 2x right at the table), along with a healthy dose of Irish Coffee topped with Jameson Whiskey and a wonderful Port is now in our collective estimation that 'Pane Rustica' has easily earned it's own well deserved place in the pantheon of wonderful, eclectic, and thoroughly Tampa-based and unique gifts for the Palate Intense! And one that we will be visiting again soon and OFTEN!
Flourless Chocolate Decadence....

Pane Rustica on Foodio54