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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Perfect PB&J (thanks, Bellagio!)

The Bellagio Hotel & Casino opened in October of 1998, and, a month or so after that, the Princess & I decided to check it out.

I remember being duly impressed with the conservatory's botanical displays, the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures above the registration lobby, the art gallery (which would later feature the collection of comedian Steve Martin), and, of course, the fountains in the lagoon. But what made the most lasting impression on both the Princess & me was what we got at the snack bar.

After about an hour of jostling with the crowds of fellow gawkers, we found a small snack bar near the rear of the casino and decided to give it a try, since every restaurant seemed to have a waiting line. Normally, we would have avoided the least-busiest eatery as a sign of its relative quality (or lack thereof), but we were hungry & impatient.

It was set up like the typical casino snack bar, with a large posted menu replete with burgers, sandwiches, and salads, though in keeping with the Bellagio's lushness & detail, the place was softly lit and lined with plush booths. I ordered a basket of chicken fingers & fries, but the princess went a different route (as she is still wont to do), spying, in a corner of the menu, something I had never heard anyone order from any restaurant ever in my life.

What she ordered was a Peanut-Butter & Jelly sandwich. Even the counter girl seemed taken aback by this, turning around as if to make sure it was actually on the menu board. I chuckled, and the Princess looked at me and shrugged, saying, "It sounds good to me right now." (In our years together since, I have grown used to this phrase and its accompanying shrug.)

We paid (and I remember being appalled at the $9 that the PB&J cost) and took a seat in one of the booths facing the snack bar itself, where we watched a cook in a tall chef's hat working furiously.

After about 10 minutes, the cook put a small box up and the counter girl brought it to us. It was my order, the chicken fingers & fries, delicately arranged in a specially-decorated cardboard box, with the fingers splayed around a small container of bleu-cheese dressing (no lowbrow ranch at the Bellagio!) and the fries stood on-end in a golden sheaf of deep-fried, salty crunchiness.

With apologies to the Princess (and after surrendering a few fries), I tucked in. I remember the fingers as having a certain peppery bite to them, as if the batter had been exotically seasoned. And the chunky, pungent bleu-cheese dressing was their perfect complement. I enjoyed them so much that it wasn't until I'd finished that I noticed that the Princess was still waiting for her order.

I walked up to the counter and the cook, who was still doing a lot of moving around, looked up and waved at me. "I'm working on it," he said. "I'll bring it out to you."

I went back to our booth and sat, not having to say anything since the Princess had seen & heard everything.

"What could be taking so long?" the Princess asked. "It's only a sandwich."

"Maybe no one's ever ordered it before, so he didn't know where they keep the peanut butter," I replied.

"Very funny."

Within a few minutes, the cook came out from the behind the counter and approached our booth, holding a box that looked identical to the one that my order had come in. With an apology for the wait, he laid the box down in front of the Princess and retreated.

This is what we beheld: a large, thick sandwich had been diagonally-halved, with both triangular sections arranged around a small container of whipping cream (the real stuff, not Reddi-Wip). Each fat half had a thin, even layer of peanut butter accompanied by an even thinner layer of grape jelly. And the bread, which formed the bulk of the sandwich, wasn't bread at all -- it was buttery pound-cake that had been grilled to form a carmelized, firm crust on the outsides of the sandwich.

It was so rich & delicious that the Princess, as famished as she was, could only eat one half. I dutifully attacked the other half, but the fingers & fries had done their damage. I managed only a few heavenly bites before conceding defeat. It seemed such a waste to throw away such a sublime creation that we actually lounged for a while in order to scrounge up the requisite appetite to finish those last few bites.

This Peanut-Butter & Jelly sandwich was worth the wait, and the Princess & I made a point of going back up to the counter to let the cook know it. He was a tall, gracious African-American who laughed when we related how flabbergasted we were that a PB&J should take so long to make, only to be handed a creation that was the culinary highlight of our weekend.

Back at our respective offices, the Princess & I couldn't shut up about the PB&J we got at the Bellagio. Our coworkers must have thought that sandwich had been made with cocaine.

Sadly, a few months later, we went back for another sandwich, but the snack bar was gone, replaced by another restaurant.

Last year, when I had a chance to meet celebrity chef Jeff Henderson, who made his bones at the Bellagio, I asked him about the snack bar & its amazing PB&J, but he had no idea what I was talking about.

Might it all have been...a mirage?

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