We sampled one dessert, a coconut crème brûlée recommended by our server, which proved to be of the heavy, eggy school. It comes with a sweet, gritty Blue Mountain caramel coffee sauce. After tasting the sauce with a spoon, we declined to pour it on.
Open Wednesday--Sunday, continuous lunch and dinner from 11:00 a.m.--11:00 p.m. Appetizers $6.50--$10 (for one); salads $6--$11; sandwiches $9--$10. Entrées $3.49 (one taco)--$24. Desserts $5--$7. Full bar, creative cocktails.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, the three top restaurants (Fiore's, Oyster Bar, Cabana Cove) are closed. The International Buffet is everybody's fall-back -- hey, what's a casino visit without a buffet pig-out? Vegetarians will find this the best choice of all of Harrah's eateries.
"Gold," "Platinum," and "Diamond" members (people who've earned points by spending on games and meals at any of Harrah's Casinos) enter first and eat at comfortable banquettes and booths. Plebes get tight little tables in the middle of the aisle. Once you hit the buffet tables, everyone's equal but for the length of their arms and the scope of their hunger.
The buffet offers (from left to right) Italian, American, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, with a central salad bar and a humungous dessert case.
We started with the small Mexican sector, essentially a roll-your-own-taco station, perhaps because the fillings aren't up to flying solo. Start with the center basket of soft flour tortillas and scoop on passable chicken stew, dry beef strips (posing as carne asada?), or batter-fried fish in the mode of Van De Kamp's. Next, edge right to the salsas, where you'll find red and green cooked sauces, salsa fresca, sour cream, shredded lettuce, shredded bicolor cheese, fresh and pickled chiles, and yucky puréed guacamole fit to play the green-peas role in The Exorcist. Go left for gluey refried beans and rice amended with bits of veggies. Your taco will be edible, but if you're craving genuine Mexican flavors, you'd be better off heading into Valley Center proper for a meal at Casa Reveles on Lilac Street (to be reviewed later).
The Asian section isn't bad for buffet food. The dishes are light, veggie-strewn stir-fries, with decent noodles and the same rice that's served in the Mexican zone. We were pleasantly surprised by a meaty, greaseless egg roll and a tasty fake-Szechuanese sweet-and-sour beef with wok-charred dried chiles.
America occupies the middle of the buffet. The outstanding selection here is fried chicken. I chose a moist thigh in a well-seasoned batter. Accompaniments include bread dressing, mashed potatoes, and cafeteria-style brown gravy. The fried shrimp was disappointing, all batter. Most popular is a carving stand that offers roast beef and roast turkey. The bird looked dry. The roast was rare, but the meat tasted tough and flavorless, with that lack of marbling that tells on lower-grade (e.g., Select) beef. About a month ago, a chef from New Orleans took charge of the buffet -- by now, the American portion of the buffet may offer Cajun-Creole specialties.
Italy, Harrah's-style, was a disaster. The meatballs tasted Swedish, the tomato sauce was watery, the scampi had no flavor, the manicotti skins were hard-baked -- all in all, below the standards of Chef Boyardee canned goods. Farfalle in pesto sauce were okay. There's a giant array of pizza and calzone slices sitting under hot lights. All are thick-crusted. My neighbor at the next table tried a slice, said "Ugh," and abandoned it at first bite.
The salad bar, however, is a joy. It's long and varied, and even the tomatoes were ripe. One half features fresh fruits and Jell-O concoctions (with and without cottage cheese), the other offers green salads and all the relishes you might want, plus several composed salads (macaroni, pickled green beans with ham, pickled mushrooms, etc.).
In the eternal words of Fishrox (Who?), "Life's short. Eat dessert first." This is the place to do it: Francesco Santoro, a third-generation pastry chef from Foggia, Italy, pulls out all the stops with an extravaganza of expertly made sweets. The dessert cases are 2/3 as long as the entire international concourse, with fruit pies and cookies, layer cakes, cheesecakes, and cream pies. Many items are offered in sugar-free versions. There's also hot bread pudding, warm caramelized bananas, ice cream and hot fudge sauce, and a bowl of whipped cream to drown in. The only limit on quantity is your appetite -- or your conscience.
The brownies are fudgy, the oatmeal-raisin cookies satisfying. The coconut cream pie is a dreamy, airy chiffon. The tres leches cake is airy, too, but more like uno leche, whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon between the cake layers. It tastes good anyway. You're not supposed to take home food from an all-you-can-eat buffet -- but we saw a lot of cookies diving into handbags.
Lunch Monday--Friday 11:00 a.m.--3:30 p.m., $10; dinner Sunday--Thursday 5:00--9:00, weekends to 10:30 p.m., $13. Weekend brunch 10:30 a.m.--3:30 p.m., $14 ($17 with two glasses of champagne). Alcoholic beverages extra. Special all-you-can-eat weekend dinners (Friday clambake, Saturday barbecue, Sunday steak and shrimp), $17--$22. Full bar.
San Luis Rey Café
This casual restaurant is the source of the hotel's room-service meals, and the menu and wine list are almost identical to the latter's offerings. Open 24/7, it offers a breakfast special from midnight to 3 a.m. At lunch and dinner, the bill of fare includes sandwiches, salads, a pasta du jour, sports pub-style appetizers (chili fries, buffalo wings, shrimp cocktail), and American comfort-food entrées such as steaks, pork chops, and chicken fajitas.
The roast beef is your standard, old-time Vegas casino version: It's over an inch thick, cooked to a beautiful rose-red at the center. But the only tender part is the browned rim, where fat pockets soften the meat. The center of the slab is lean and tough -- a mediocre grade. It comes with a tasty baked potato, a lightly cooked veggie medley, plus butter and sour cream for the spud, horseradish sauce and "au jus" for the beef.
A bacon-wrapped meatloaf is a good choice, tasting just like somebody's mom's. The formula seems identical to a recipe that ran in Cook's Magazine in September 1996: It's a giant meat-muffin, packing a weight of about a pound (including a little breadcrumb filler). The loaf is free-form, so it browns on the sides, and it's baked until the bacon crisps. It comes with mushroom gravy and hand-mashed potatoes with pieces of skin, fried onion "crisps" (like Durkee's, but these are house-made), and the same veggie medley as the roast.