777 Harrah's Way, Valley Center
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.