Gambling Gourmands, Part I

Fiore's

777 Harrah's Way, Valley Center

Fiore's

777 Harrah's Way, Valley Center




Eight restaurants under one roof! That's what Harrah's Rincon promises not only to gamblers, but to residents of the restaurant-starved area around Valley Center, five miles northeast of Escondido.

What drew me northward was the sweetener on the deal: In December, Harrah's opened a high-rise hotel (attached to their original low-rise), with introductory rates that provide luxury rooms at prices comparable to a roadside motel. These "hot deal" prices are rising monthly but are still deeply reduced and will run through the end of March. To reserve a low-rate room, hit the website's reservations area, scroll down, and look leftward to the small print. Click on "hot deals."

While Rincon is a "Vegas style" casino, its dining choices are no match for modern Vegas, where high-rolling casinos offer outposts of America's top restaurants. Instead, Rincon competes against other local Indian casinos to become an entertainment and dining destination in rural North County. The chefs aren't household names -- but my partner and I did enjoy our eat-a-thon around the casino. This week, I'll report on the top choice and its less formal adjunct. Next week: the rest of the restaurants.

Fiore's is Rincon's "fine dining" destination. I'd bet that winners celebrate their luck here, but we also spotted three local families with tots in tow, all seated at one long table, celebrating a daddy's birthday.

With a single exception, Rincon's restaurants are clustered at the edge of the cacophonous casino floor, with its raucous ambient music, electronic banshees, flashing lights, and the stuffy air of steerage class on a DC-10 -- when smoking was still permitted. Fiore's design sets it apart from the commotion, creating an island of near-serenity.

To the right is a curved bar, shiny black, with silent video poker machines embedded in the bartop. Opposite is a "conversation pit," furnished with black leather sofas and chairs. We were escorted to a table for two in the dining room, with banquette seating on one side, a single chair on the other. Some of the tables and niches bear signs reserving them for "Gold," "Platinum," or "Diamond" clients. A Total Rewards Card is yours for the asking, to tally up your gambling and meals at all Harrah's casinos (many gamblers wear them on lanyards around their necks and tether themselves to their favorite slot machines), and the more you spend, the more perks you get -- including a table plaque advertising your exalted status. At one meal, we sat near a Diamond customer, who dumped ketchup all over his Porterhouse steak, as if it were a cheap hamburger. So much for Diamonds.

The arched, soundproofed ceiling combines irregular planes and curvy corners (architecturally reminiscent of Eero Saarinen's famed TWA terminal at JFK Airport); it really puts a damper on the noise. The tables are closely spaced, but you can't hear your neighbors' conversations unless they're loud talkers. A little casino noise barely sneaks in. At the end of the room is the glassed-in kitchen, offering a silent show of chefs at work.

A tasty dish to start with is a "Salmon Tower," two conical constructions of smoked Scottish salmon leaves wrapped around a pouf of salmon salad, fluffed up with mayo and red-pepper bits. Another enjoyable appetizer is a "Margarita" shrimp cocktail, with five tequila-marinated grilled prawns draped over the edge of a martini glass. Flags of red, white, and blue fried tortilla strips rise from a mound of shredded iceberg lettuce topped with guacamole and a glaze of cocktail sauce. The playful arrangement -- and the harmony between these ingredients -- is delightful. Traditional crab cakes, half mayo-drenched crab and half breadcrumbs, were less than sparkling.

Caesar salad is purportedly "dressed tableside," but aisles are too narrow for this to be literally true. The salad is dressed behind your back; hence, we couldn't stop the waitress from tossing in more Parmesan than we wanted. Caesars haven't been the same since the discovery of salmonella in raw eggs, and with its defining ingredient banished, the salad has become whatever anybody wants to do with romaine, croutons, and cheese. I'm giving up on testing this dish at restaurants.

An entrée of slow-roasted duck is actually a confit of duck hindquarter. (The chef shuns using the French term lest the foreign word scare people off from ordering the dish.) An excellent confit it is, though, savory and tender. The bird sits atop delicious, lightly sautéed baby spinach, which seems to be the chef's specialty -- it garnishes several other dishes. A mound of petite French lentils and whole cloves of roasted garlic swim in a moat of duck demi-glace sauce. There's supposed to be a grilled pear, but we never found it. (Perhaps it dived to the bottom and drowned.)

More troubling was the lack of caviar in an entrée of monkfish fillets with "caviar and champagne sauce." Somebody in the kitchen evidently forgot to apply the roe. (It's American paddlefish caviar when it's at home, sparing the life of some endangered sturgeon.) The fish surprised us, too. "This is the wimpiest monkfish," my partner said. "The texture is right, but the flavor may as well be halibut." Served with a reputed combination of mashed potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes (a.k.a. "sunchokes"), neither of us picked up any sunchoke flavor, though the mash did taste rich. My partner reached for bread to soak up the last of the fish's champagne sauce. Bypassing the sourdough, he chose a slice of what looked like Bread & Cie's black-olive bread, took a bite, and made a face -- it was a house-baked white bread studded with jalapeño chunks. (Jalapeños in cornbread, si! -- but in white bread?)

The next evening we enjoyed a huge, splendid Certified Black Angus Porterhouse, which arrived rare as ordered. (Certified Black Angus is the equivalent of top of the USDA Choice grade.) With steaks, you get nothing beyond a choice of sauce and a topless head of roasted garlic to spread on your meat or bread. I chose Béarnaise sauce, a tarragon-spiked variation on Hollandaise. It proved to be a standard steakhouse version. Ordered from a list of side orders, lemon-pepper steak fries were baked too dry for pleasure.

The first night, head chef Chris O'Connell was a prominent figure in the kitchen, but I didn't spot him during our second meal. I assume that, with the cat away, it was a line chef who wrecked our pan-roasted free-range chicken breast. The "airline cut" (a half breast, plus the first joint of the wing) had clearly started life as a flavorful Shelton Farms bird -- a couple of bites from the underarm were tender -- but the rest was cooked to cardboard. Worse, the "whole-grain mustard sauce" (based on chicken-stock déglace) was reduced over too high a heat, not just caramelizing but cremating it. Gritty black specks floated in the brown colloid. If not for this hellacious sauce über alles, we'd have enjoyed the Alsatian-style accompaniments of braised cabbage, cubes of apples, and fingerling potatoes. Only the crisp disks of rolled pancetta were flavored strongly enough to survive.

In my opinion, the best aspect of our two dinners was the opportunity to pair foods with an adventurous choice of wines available by the glass. As at most gaming houses, drinks are affordable, but Fiore's wine list is interesting, filled with international bargains. For the salmon tower, I chose a Stuart Vineyards Viognier from nearby Temecula, with lush aromas hinting of honeydew and honeysuckle. With the duck, I enjoyed a complex Chilean L'Apostolle Merlot from a winery that's been winning raves in Wine Spectator. To accompany the steak, instead of a typical tannic red, I gambled (and won) on a hunch that the lighter Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages would profitably conspire with the tarragon in the sauce.

The short, sweet dessert list at Fiore's offers five confections by the hotel's skilled pastry chef, Francesco Santoro (more about his desserts next week). A velvety ricotta cheesecake with a topping of frozen strawberries in their own syrup was everything it should be. Other choices include bananas Foster, tiramisu, molten chocolate cake, and vanilla crème brûlée. In the past, the waiter told us, crème brûlée was offered in a "flavor of the day," but none of the customers would order anything but vanilla.

THE OYSTER BAR

The Oyster Bar is attached to Fiore's like a barnacle to a ship. It's literally a bar, behind which there's an oyster-shucking station, a steam table, and a separate space where the shucker serves as sushi chef. Overseen by Chris O'Connell, head chef at Fiore's, the bar offers an array of popular seafood dishes (half-shells, cocktails, chowders, etc.). The menu is both chalked onto chalkboards and printed on stand-up cardboard rectangles. At 6 p.m., the Oyster Bar is full, while Fiore's is near-empty. At 8 p.m., the situation is reversed.

We started with a "seafood combo on the half-shell" -- freshly shucked oysters, bland boiled shrimp, scallop ceviche, Hawaiian ahi (with salsa, not an island-style poke), salmon (more salsa, and a lime marinade), and blue-crab salad. The oysters are fresh but generic in flavor. The cocktail sauce is finish-it-yourself, with a blob of grated horseradish in the center and lemon wedges on the side. The scallop ceviche featured sweet little bay scallops. The crab salad, however, was too sweet and tasted better smeared on the house roll than eaten solo.

The bar recently added sushi, a limited selection of four "fancy rolls" (futo maki). The song of all novice sushi chefs is "I wish they all could be California rolls..." At this bar, they are. (It's a relatively easy roll to carry off.) We chose an "Asian Roll," featuring cured salmon and avocado with a fillip of daikon sprouts. The young oyster shucker struggled with his knifework on the slippery salmon, and the nori had been toasted too far ahead; it was chewy rather than crisp. The rice was heavily sweetened. At the center sat the sweet blue-crab salad of a standard California roll. (It seemed to be the same salad served in the "seafood combo" described above.)

I was tempted by the entrée "pan roasts," featuring various maritime species. Luckily, my neighbor saved me by ordering first. Instead of a true pan roast (butter, olive oil, garlic, herbs, maybe a splash of cream and/or a scattering of tomato cubes), the dish arrived looking like cream-of-tomato soup with a scoop of rice in the center. The lady tasted a spoonful and asked, "What is this?" "Oyster pan roast," the server replied. "Not where I come from," she parried, "and I come from a place where seafood pan roasts come from." (I'm not sure where that is, but I believed her.) Visibly disgusted, she pushed it away after a second spoonful.

The Oyster Bar is open Wednesday--Thursday 5:00--10:00, Fridays and Saturdays until 11:00 p.m., Sundays noon--7:00 p.m. Soups, salads, sushi, and appetizers $5--$12; seafood pastas and entrées $11--$17. A few mainstream supermarket wines (average $9/bottle retail, low $20s here), available by the bottle or glass; full bar.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Christopher O'Connell, chef de cuisine at Fiore's and the Oyster Bar, was born in Manhattan and grew up in San Francisco, so he started life eating well. "I'd always enjoyed great food," he says. "I started out working as a busboy and I was always enamored with the chefs, but I didn't even know how to go about getting into that. I worked under chef Reed Hearon at the Corona Bar and Grill, and he gave me my first opportunity to cook. After about a year, I made the decision that that was what I wanted to do. Then I worked for that same company, Kimco [which runs several boutique hotels and restaurants in San Francisco], for about 3 1/2 years. During the off-seasons, I worked at Cafe Pescatore, Rosalie's, Bix. I went on to a huge convention hotel, the San Francisco Hilton. I worked in the fine-dining area, I worked banquets, I did all that. Then I decided to go to school and figure out what it's really all about.

"I went to the California Culinary Academy for 16 months. Afterwards, I liked the opportunities that big companies and hotels offered, so I moved out to L.A., worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel just after the remodel in '95, then at the Ritz Carlton Del Rey for almost three years. I had a lot of friends in San Diego and had my business cards [circulating] out here. One day, I got a call from Pascal Vignau, then the chef at the Four Seasons Aviara, and I went there for 4 1/2 years. I also worked at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, another Four Seasons Hotel.

"I got kind of tired of doing production, and I wanted to get back into a kitchen and run my own dining room. I wanted my next job to be executive sous chef or chef de cuisine, and I decided to come in here, and it's been great. I have a family, and this is a great place to raise kids.

"I'm in charge of the Oyster Bar, too. It really has a loyal following. We have some people from the neighborhood who come in three times a week.

"Obviously, we cater to the gamblers, but one of my goals is to make Fiore's a destination that people can drive to for a good dinner. I like straightforward food, clean food, I like you to see what you're getting. I don't like to mask good product. We use Shelton chicken, Certified Angus beef, and I'm proud of it. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel or press the envelope. Here in the casino world, we like to be somewhat simple -- but simple-elegant."

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