August 23, 2012

Spa time makes getaway special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Relationships, Travel, Women at 11:14 pm by dinaheng

Like many family reunions, our recent sisters (plus Mom) getaway weekend to Las Vegas revolved around food and relaxation.

After losing more than we’d like to slot machines, roulette and Black Jack tables over two nights, we started our last full day with breakfast at Serendipity 3, a cheerful rendition of the famous New York eatery, started in 1954 by three friends who wanted to be in show business and ended up opening New York’s first coffee house boutique instead.

Today, the popular Upper East Side restaurant offers a full menu that still features its trademark “Frrrozen Hot Chocolate” drinks, and has been the scene of several movies, including the 2001 romantic comedy “Serendipity,” which starred John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (well worth renting if you haven’t seen it).

The Las Vegas Caesars Palace location, adjacent to the fountains on The Strip, is a charming old fashioned ice cream parlor that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and along with a kids’ menu. Its bright pink and teal color scheme brings a smile to the face, with a bar offering on one wall for the adults and a Hello Kitty gift counter on the other wall for the kids.

For breakfast, we chose two orders of “Lucky 7’s,” which included two pancakes, three eggs, two sausage links, and breakfast potatoes ($16 each), a Breakfast Quesadilla ($16), Balsamic Strawberry Cream Waffles ($16), and an Egg White Shrimp Frittata ($18). Even though we were all stuffed, we couldn’t resist ordering an Amaretto Almond Frrrozen Hot Chocolate ($11) with five straws.

Everything was delicious, and if you’re a family on a budget, the large size portions can be easily shared. The only criticism we’d make is that there’s nothing on the menu that’s sugar-free. The eatery doesn’t even offer sugar-free syrup for the pancakes and waffles, which is crucial for diabetic diners.

As we tasted each other’s items, we shared memories of past Vegas trips. My sister Linda and Mom were the first ones to visit Sin City.

“The first time we came, I bought a package deal that included plane fare, hotel and a tour of Vegas,” said Linda, who couldn’t remember how many years ago that trip was. “We stayed at the Imperial Palace, and they used to have trolley cars that went up and down The Strip that you could ride for $1.”

Mom said she learned to play the slot machines by sitting next to Linda in the casinos and just watching.

“On one trip, I put a quarter in a slot machine, and a ton of quarters came out,” Mom said, laughing. “That’s when I started gambling. You’d have to have buckets to hold the coins that came out of the machines. At first, I’d only play the nickel ones.”

“Now she plays the dollars,” Linda teased.

My sister Jane and her husband soon followed, as did Wendy and her husband.

“Mike and I came and stayed in Harrah’s when he was in law school,” Wendy recalled. “The second time came on the tail end of our honeymoon. We were so excited to see everything on The Strip, and would take pictures of all the casinos.”

This afternoon, the excitement centered around going to Qua Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace. I was surprised to learn that two of my sisters have never had a massage or facial in a spa, so that made our girls getaway even more special.

Waterfalls, mood music, and soft lighting set the tone in a spa that plays on the Roman Baths concept with multi-temperature pools of mineral-enriched water for relaxation. Before our treatments, Wendy and Linda sat for a few minutes in a Cedarwood dry sauna, designed to detoxify the body and encourage muscle relaxation.

Qua Roman Baths

I’m not one for sweating, so I joined them after their dry sauna in the Arctic Ice Room, a room where the air is kept at 55 degrees to stimulate the heart and healthy circulation while tiny flakes of fake snow fall from the ceiling. It was definitely a cool experience (ha ha).

The spa offers a range of services, including massages, chakra balancing, body wraps, hypnosis for wellness, facials and more.

Jane and Karen opted to try the Coffeeberry Yoga Facial ($200 for 50 minutes), while Wendy chose the Fountain of Youth Massage (($170 for 50 minutes). Linda and I had the Qua Signature Hourglass Treatment ($200 for 60 minutes), a customized treatment that allows you to design your own hour of relaxation.

Those who think of spa treatments as a decedent luxury would be right, but when you realize you can stay in the spa all day for the price of one treatment, it becomes more than a fleeting moment of relaxation. I love spas because they take you out of the everyday world, allowing you to unwind, reflect, and release stress, which is the underlying cause of many illnesses.

My Hourglass Treatment included a massage, a mini-facial, chakra balancing and energy work with Carole, a very intuitive therapist. Chakras, in the yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, are areas of the body thought to collect energy tied to major organs or glands. Balancing the chakras leads to a healthier body, aligned with the mind and spirit.

The treatment was totally calming, and the therapist reminded me to slow down and connect more with my own intuitive self. She then took the time to write down some wellness tips for me after the treatment.

The others enjoyed their treatments as well, with those getting facials saying their skin felt pampered and smooth as silk. For Wendy, who had never experienced a massage, the jury was still out.

Qua Treatment Room

“I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure if I want to do it again,” Wendy shared. “I had so many knots in my shoulders, it hurt for the therapist to work on them. But I can see why people would want to spend their whole day here.”

After our treatments, we picked up Mom from her room and headed for some comfort food at Beijing Noodle No. 9 downstairs. Since we wanted to save room for dinner, we choose mostly dim sum items from the Northern Chinese cuisine menu. Dim sum, which translates to “treasures of the heart,” refers to hors d’oeuvre-size portions of specialty dishes often served as teahouse snacks.

Mom wanted to try the War Wonton Noodle Soup ($16.99), and the rest of us ordered a Seasonal Vegetable Plate, with asparagus, bok choy, Chinese broccolini and choy sum ($15.99), Green Onion Pancake ($7.99), Pork Fried Dumplings ($10.99), Shrimp Dumplings ($10.99), Beef Dumplings ($10.99) and Spring Rolls ($6.99).

While the quality of the food was high, like many casino restaurants, the prices were nearly double what you’d pay at a good Chinese restaurant elsewhere. Eating in the dining room, which lacked acoustical dampening, was authentic in another way — it was as noisy as any typical Hong Kong restaurant, with a dour wait staff and cooks who banged away while cooking in the open kitchen.

That afternoon, we tried our luck at various gaming tables and slots, then rendezvoused at Paris Las Vegas for dinner at Gordon Ramsay Steak, which features upscale steak and seafood dining at its best. Ramsay, a TV personality who’s known for shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Master Chef,” has fans around the world, so the offering of a four-course tasting menu (signed autographed photo included) for $135 per person for the table was not unexpected.

If you’re not inclined to try the tasting menu, you can expect an average check of $85 per person in this trendy, disco-pounding restaurant that features alcove tables in the mezzanine and a main dining room floor that includes an open kitchen and bar.

Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris Las Vegas

Our waitress brought an iPad to the table, which could be used to order cocktails, wine and beer, then wheeled out a cart with an artful display of the various cuts of meat offered on the menu.

Since we’re all tee-totalers, we went straight to the food. For the six of us, we ordered two, 24 oz. Bone-In Rib Eyes ($56 each), Beef Short Ribs with Potato Puree and Wild Mushrooms ($40), Fish and Chips ($42), Sauted Spinach ($11) and Fingerling Potatoes ($11).

While waiting for the entrees, we enjoyed a selection of breads that was outstanding — Lemon and Thyme Focaccia, Brioche Pinwheels with Roasted Pancetta Fig and Truffle Mushroom, and Walnut Stilton Bread with English Devonshire Butter and Volcanic Sea Salt.

For foodies like us, the meal was the capstone to a girls getaway we’ll long remember. And like all great slumber parties, we chose to take dessert from the casino’s Cafe Belle Madeleine patisserie back to our rooms to enjoy with a last, late night gabfest.

All too soon, our long weekend came to an end, and we headed out to the airport the next morning. There were no jackpots to brag about this trip, but the memories from our time together will no doubt grow even more valuable as time goes on.

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Family getaway totally rewarding

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Relationships, Travel, Women at 11:13 pm by dinaheng

In a family of seven sisters, there isn’t a lot we all agree on. But when it came to planning a family reunion, most of us agreed that the best place for our girls’ weekend was Las Vegas.

Four of my sisters and our mom — who love to gamble — flew in to Sin City recently from Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas. I took a short flight over from Los Angeles. While my gambling limit is usually $25 a day, their penchant for playing slots and table games usually scores us “free” hotel rooms and comp meals.

Some of my sisters participate in Caesars Entertainment’s Total Rewards program, a loyalty reward program that credits you for gambling, dining, buying tickets to shows, or staying at nearly 40 resorts and casinos around the country.

A quiet perk of having a Total Rewards membership is being able to work with their in-house concierge service, which offers complimentary trip planning and VIP access for groups staying at any of the nine Caesars Entertainment Las Vegas resorts. The trip planning is tailored to the occasion — whether it’s a wedding, girls getaway, or family reunion — and designed to fit your budget.

For our family reunion, we were upgraded to VIP rooms at Caesars Palace, which opened its new Octavius Tower, the resort’s sixth hotel tower, in January. Two of us stayed in Octavius, and four of us had connecting rooms in the Augustus Tower. Both towers share a private valet entrance and separate registration area.

The Octavius rooms (starting at $169 a night), are done in contemporary decor and are outfitted with the latest in tech toys, such as an auto-switching MediaHub that lets you stream direct from any smartphone, tablet or game console to the room’s 42-inch HiDef television. A mobile app lets you order room service, request amenities, and other fun things from your cell phone.

The Augustus rooms (starting at $159 a night), feature a plush chocolate brown and green color palette, and offer similar upgraded amenities in the bathroom, with a flat screen TV off the dual sink vanities and separate jacuzzi tub/shower.

Caesars Palace Las Vegas

With any girls weekend, the action starts… in the bedroom. Arriving on a Thursday night, we gathered in Mom and Karen’s room. Picture five women sprawled across two beds, a couch and a couple of chairs, kicking off their shoes and uttering a collective sigh of relief to be on vacation.

Karen, who left four kids (all under the age of 9), at home with her husband for the weekend, said the little ones weren’t upset at all that Mom was leaving for a few days.

“Hannah said, ‘Good, then we can have fun with Dad,’ “ said Karen, laughing. “I don’t know why they think they’ll get away with more things with him.”

Jane, who left two kids at home with her husband, shared a more serious story.  Her son Max, 9, had been playing baseball earlier in the week when a larger boy knocked Max down while running toward a base.

“Max got a concussion, and we had to go to the emergency room,” Jane said. “He’s going to the neurologist tomorrow to get more tests.”

It’s not easy being a mom, and as Wendy (who joined us the next morning) noted, getting away from the kids is essential to parental health.

My sister Linda and I, the single ones in the family, were happy to get away from the routine of work for a weekend. Mom was just happy to see most of her daughters together (two were unable to join us).

For dinner our first night, we went down to Rao’s, a delightful Italian restaurant modeled after its famous New York parent, a 100-year-old restaurant in East Harlem, which was once a legendary Italian neighborhood.

“They have 10 tables there, and it’s a two-year wait to get in because the regulars ‘own’ their tables and are accustomed to eating there on certain days and times,” explained our waitress Rebecca. “It’s a real family-type place.”

Rao’s at Caesars Palace

Apparently, back in the 1950s, when Uncle Vincent took possession of the restaurant in March, the Christmas decorations were still up. He decided to leave the tree and decorations in place, declaring it would be Christmas all year at Rao’s. The Yuletide theme is maintained in the Vegas establishment as well — from garlands over the bar to a tree in the foyer — making a cheerful statement about the importance of family, faith, and joy.

As for the food… it was wonderful. Being Chinese-American, we like to eat family-style, so we ordered Fritto Misto, otherwise known as deep-fried calamari ($22); Caesar Salad ($15); Spaghetti Marinara ($23); Meatballs ($16); Veal Picatta ($38); a special of Seared Shrimp over Linguine with Fresh Cherry Tomato and Basil Sauce ($36), and Peas and Prosciutto ($15).

“The peas are so good,” said Jane. “I could eat this as a dish by itself.”

Dessert was a shared order of Tiramisu, New York Cheesecake with Mixed Berries and a Peanut Butter Tart ($12 each). Needless to say, we rolled out the door more than satisfied.

Having never stayed at Caesars Palace before, we were surprised to discover how large the property is. The resort sits on 85 acres, has eight swimming pools (which range from family-friendly to European style, tops optional), and The Colosseum, which features performers like Celine Dion, Jerry Seinfeld and coming later this year, Shania Twain. We hit the casino for an hour of gambling, then gave in to jet lag and the need for sleep.

The next morning, we gathered in Mom’s room again. The talk this time was about our childhood in Houston, where we were one of the few Asian families in our largely white and Hispanic school district.

“You girls used to get picked on at school all the time,” Mom remembered. “With you older girls, we’d always write a letter to the teacher, telling them that kids were harassing you at school. With Dinah, the boys would stick bubble gum in her hair.

“With the others, they would constantly poke your legs under the table with a pencil, hit you, or pulled your hair. When Jackie got to kindergarten, she told the boy who poked her with a pencil, ‘Don’t poke me with that again. It hurts. If you do, I’ll tell the teacher on you.”

When the boy poked her leg with a pencil again, Jackie told the teacher, “If he does it again, I’m going to hit him.” She sat back down, and sure enough, the kid poked her with the pencil again.

“So Jackie hit the boy in the nose, and his nose bled,” Mom said. “The boy ran to the teacher, saying, ‘Jackie hit me.’ The teacher said, ‘Well, you deserve it.’ The next year, Jackie told Jane, ‘If anyone bothers you, you tell me and I’ll hit them for you.’ After that, no one bothered the rest of you.”

We all laughed, and Jane shared that when her son Max went to camp recently, one kid teased him with constant chants of “Ching-Chong,” until Max exploded and told him to “Shut up!” When the kid complained to the counselor, she said, “That’s what you get for calling people names.”

It’s sad to know that racism still lives, but at least — in this instance — pencil stabbing has given way to name calling.

After that discussion, we decided it was time for some retail therapy and headed for The Forum Shops. While many casinos now include shopping venues, we learned that Caesars Palace was the first one on the Strip to have retail attached to its casino.

The Forum Shops, owned and operated by Simon Property Group, is a mall of 160 shops and restaurants that boasts the world’s largest H&M. Originally featuring luxury  boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, the shops expanded to include more moderate offerings like Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic.

Fifty of the stores participate in the Total Rewards program, offering discounts or VIP service to shoppers, as well. For shoppers with kids, there’s a free animatronic show, recreating the Lost City of Atlantis, every hour at the top of the hour near The Cheesecake Factory.

My sister Linda, who loves to shop, found a pair of silver earrings for our sister Boo (who couldn’t make the trip) at Judith Ripka with the help of client specialist Antonietta Bonfitto. “I told her I didn’t want to spend much money, and she spent a lot of time helping me,” Linda said. “She looked through everything, and was so understanding about shopping on a budget.”

After dinner, we ended the evening by popping in to see Matt Goss perform in The Gossy Room at Cleopatra’s Lounge (tickets are $40 plus fees). Goss, a singer from the U.K., riffs the legendary Rat Pack performers, wearing a Frank Sinatra-like fedora and performing standards like “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Luck be a Lady.”

Accompanied by a 9-piece band and Vegas dancers, his show gives a taste of old Las Vegas to a crowd in an intimate, packed theater. Be warned, this show is general admission, so show up early, or you’ll be left, as we were, sitting behind a column that blocked the view of the stage.

Pretty soon, it was time to hit the casino for one last round at the slot machines before going up to bed. Mom was already in bed when the rest of us trooped in. She asked if Jane, who was staying in the other tower, had gotten back to her room all right.

That’s the thing about families — no matter how old you get, Mom never stops worrying about you.

Next: Spa time makes getaway special

August 14, 2012

‘Odd Life’ shares sweet family tale

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 6:01 pm by dinaheng

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a sweet fairy tale about family and parenthood from novelist Peter Hedges (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), who also directs the Disney film that stars Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton as a happily married couple longing for a child they’ve been told they cannot have.

One stormy night, a charming boy named Timothy (played by CJ Adams) shows up in the couple’s house, covered with mud and brimming with innocence. The three become an instant family, teaching each other — and the small town of Stanleyville — some interesting lessons about life along the way.

“I hope audiences will get the feelings I get when I see ‘E.T.,’ ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ “ says Hedges, who also directed “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life.” “We only have so much time as parents. We’re not going to be perfect. But if we love and live, so much is possible.

“I heard a crew member say one day that the thing about being a parent is that you’re hired as their manager, then they fire you. If you’re lucky, they rehire you as a consultant. Making this film made me more willing to let my kids go. I’m more capable now of letting them lead me to who they want to be, as opposed to me trying to shape them.”

Hedges wrote the “Odd Life” screenplay from an original story by producer Ahmet Zappa. While the magical idea of a child coming out of a garden with leaves on his ankles is endearing and sweet, the storytelling here falls short. While we see snippets of family life and familiar characters (the sister who always outshines you, the boss who nobody likes), there’s no discernible theme that plays through.

It isn’t until the director explains what he intended with the symbolism of the leaves that a clearer picture of Timothy’s role in these people’s lives emerges. Even then, it’s hard to see what affect the little boy had on some of the supporting characters.

Suffice to say, the real gift in this film lies in the chemistry between Garner, Edgerton and Adams, who clearly bonded as a family unit.

“We auditioned 1,000 kids, and some of the finest child actors we have came in for the role,” Hedges says. “But the character Timothy requires a unique kid — someone who possesses innate wisdom, but isn’t obnoxious; who is smart, but not snobby.

“I was looking for the male Abigail Breslin, and was reluctant to cast CJ at first because he’d been in “Dan in Real Life’ and I thought he didn’t have enough experience. But with each callback, CJ took another step and another. By the third callback, I knew he could be Timothy.”

Adams, now 12, steals every scene he’s in with a face that embodies the innocence, joy, and pain of childhood. He’s never taken an acting class, and says he just has fun pretending to be someone else.

“What I liked best about playing Timothy is that he gets to be so nice to other people,” Adams says. “I like being a nice person who cares for others, so it’s easy to put myself in his head and become that person. Remembering lines can be hard, but it gets natural when you’re with really good actors and go with the flow.”

CJ, by the way, stands for Cameron John.

“CJ sounds cool, you know, instead of Cameron,” Adams says, twisting like a rock star.

The whole acting thing started six years ago when his older brother, who was interested in acting, asked if CJ would like to be in a movie (“Dan in Real Life”). Adams auditioned, got the part, “and now I’m in the movie business,” he explains. “My brother does lacrosse and doesn’t want to be in acting anymore.”

As for working on “Odd Life,” Adams says the hardest scene to film was the one in which Timothy gets plastered with food by his classmates.

“The food dried in my hair, and I had to pull it out in the shower,” he says. “Also the mud scene. With that one, I was always in the corner, and to get continuity, they had to do it over and over. But the mud was clean dirt.”

And where does he think Timothy came from?

“I think he came from the garden,” he says, with twinkling eyes. “His parents said what his personality would be like… and he was a gift from God.”

When he’s not on set, Adams likes to play soccer, multiplayer video games, and chill with friends. As for what it’s like being a child actor…

“It’s not that you don’t go to school,” he notes. “If you’re on set, you have to go to school at least three hours a day. I want everyone to know I’m not different from other people. I’m not snotty. I try to be as normal as anyone else. I’m not perfect. And I live in Rhode Island, so I like the Patriots.”

August 8, 2012

Grand time was had by all

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel, Women at 5:00 pm by dinaheng

Everything in Las Vegas is big — big neon signs on the Strip, big tour buses, big casinos. But when you’ve got a big family in search of a reasonably-priced dinner, the options aren’t so plentiful

For the budget-minded, there’s always McDonald’s or Subway-type fare, where you can get a meal for under $10. If you’re willing to pay a little more, most casino buffets offer unlimited portions for $15 and up, with the quality of the fare commensurate with the price. But if you’re not going to eat everything in sight, and are discerning about what you put in your mouth, there is another alternative.

Several family members and I recently gathered in the Entertainment Capital of the World for a weekend break, and after a day of losing money to the city’s one-armed bandits, five of us headed to The Venetian Resort, Hotel and Casino for dinner.

Tucked in the back of the casino is the original Grand Lux Cafe, a spin-off of The Cheesecake Factory that offers a similarly massive menu, large portions, and reasonable prices. For five women who enjoy eating “family style,” it was the perfect choice.

We started with two appetizers — Grand Fried Calamari ($12.95) and Creamy Spinach and Cheese Dip ($10.95). The portions were so large, we couldn’t finish them as a group, so one of my sisters decided to finish it as her entrée.

As a group, we ordered a Grilled Salmon with Mashed Potatoes and Asparagus ($19.95),  the Deluxe Drive-In Burger and French Fries ($9.95), a Grilled Ahi Tuna Burger ($14.95), Small House Green Salad ($6.95), Crispy Fish and Chips ($16.50), and a side of Asparagus ($6.50).

The asparagus was so popular, we almost cleaned the plate. Rarely is asparagus so perfectly steamed and not overly salted. The fish was flaky inside a light batter, and the fries got a thumbs up from the table. The ahi tuna burger came rare and the hamburger came medium rare, as ordered. The salmon disappeared without complaint. It isn’t often that a casual upscale restaurant delivers so consistently across its offerings.

To design the Grand Lux Cafe concept, David Overton, founder of The Cheesecake Factory restaurants, traveled through Europe, taking in French Bistros, Italian trattorias and Viennese cafes. While flavors from around the world are offered on the Cafe’s enormous menu, the selections have a decidedly American bent.

The look of Venice, however, is clearly seen in the restaurant’s elaborate murals, rich fabrics and hand-blown glass fixtures, designed to be reminiscent of a Venetian carnival.

“I love the coffered ceilings,” said my sister Wendy, the only one of us who has actually been to Venice. “The intricate details, glass, and colors really reflect the essence of Venice.”

Even though we were stuffed, we couldn’t leave without sampling dessert, so ordered the Fresh Strawberry Shortcake ($7.95) and the Deep Dark Fudge Cake ($7.50). Between the five of us, there wasn’t a crumb left.

For a grand meal in a sumptuous setting, the Grand Lux Cafe in Las Vegas isn’t just big.  It’s the best.