WINNER IS SERVED

Jerome's, 4503 Paradise Road, Las Vegas, 1-702-792-9539. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, seven days a week, 5 to 11 p.m.

Every Super Bowl weekend, I make a male-bonding, gambling-and-eating pilgrimage to Las Vegas with two old buddies. This is the neon forest primeval, where we can forget about making car payments, attending kiddy piano recitals and pretending to share our wives' interests.

We focus instead on manly deeds that define manhood's essence in this town: finding the big game's point-spread winner, rolling dice at 5 a.m. and, through the miracle of satellite technology, betting every horse race in the Milky Way. (Who do you like in the third at Neptune Downs?") Round-the-clock gambling is as strenuous as lumberjacking or working the lower 40. By the end of a long first day, our gastric juices began flowing as intensely as the primal ones. Having been nourished principally by alcoholic refreshment served by obliging cocktail waitresses, we found ourselves not merely hungry but ravenous. Where should we eat?

We immediately ruled out the hotel dinner buffet. Sure, the food there is cheap, convenient and plentiful. But it can't meet even the Iraqi Army's standards for taste. Even at $3.95, it's wretched.

My friends, Harvey and Mark, struggling with cholesterol levels high enough to fell a moose, suggested a meal heavy on green, leafy, fiber-loaded nourishment. I agreed, but cleverly persuaded them to put it off til Monday.

Smug with the prospect of future virtue (the best kind), we headed off to Jerome's, lured by its appealing, San Francisco-style food and atmosphere.

It's got a casual, sophisticated feel. Smart-looking prints and posters hang from the walls, alongside stylish, art-deco lights. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge peers out from behind some faux shutters. Tablecloths are covered with butcher paper, and diners are supplied with crayons and encouraged to doodle. We drew a keno board and keno tickets, then called our own numbers and claimed victory.

Hunger may be the best sauce, but I suspect Jerome's will seem first-rate even if you're not famished. Great San Francisco sourdough bread, with its distinctive tang, is flown in daily. It's as irresistible as a free spin on a slot machine.

The starters here are superb. The two duck turnovers come encased in phyllo pastry, stuffed with duck, spinach, pine nuts and gold raisins. A clever, spicy pear sauce made an ideal dip. A medley of baked white cheeses in a puddle of lingonberry sauce is another fine way to edge into dinner. But I wouldn't miss the mussel saffron soup, capped with crusty puff pastry. It's wonderfully rich and creamy, dotted with tender mussels and heavily scented with pungent saffron.

The entrees are no gamble. Double lamb chops are a good way to recharge batteries run down from ten straight hours of handicapping horses. The tender beauties at Jerome's are marinated in rosemary, charbroiled and nestled on herbed sourdough toast. If your system can't simultaneously handle nonstop action and heavy doses of animal protein, the cioppino may be the answer. This San Francisco seafood specialty, a version of bouillabaisse, comes stocked with two large shrimp, scallops, salmon, crab, mussels and some chewy clams. They're all swimming in a basil-drenched tomato broth, the perfect vehicle for sopping up the sourdough bread.

The chicken-hearted won't finish out of the money by opting for breast of chicken stuffed with Cajun-style Andouille sausage. It's filling without being too heavy, an important consideration when you plan to be on your feet all night shooting dice.

Anyway, you'll need to leave room for outstanding desserts. Jerome's tiramisu comes on a plate artfully laced with a chocolate-and-berry sauce and garnished with thick slices of orange and plump strawberries. It gave my taste buds the same feeling the rest of me gets when I hit an exacta.

Equally divine is a concoction called chocolate pt. Chunks of white, milk and dark chocolate rest in an intense fruit sauce, topped with whipped cream covered with shaved chocolate and dusted with powdered chocolate. It ought to come with a complimentary tube of Clearasil. Anthony's, 3620 East Flamingo Road, Las Vegas, 1-702-454-0000. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Reinvigorated with energy, we stormed the casinos. Looking around the room, we spotted many of the seedy lowlifes we recognized from previous visits. Then, we noticed that they were staring back and probably making a similar assessment. We passed most of the night and another adrenaline-filled day at the tables. Harvey and Mark called home, assuring their wives that they were taking their medication, getting plenty of rest and betting only $2 to show on the ponies.

Dinnertime rolled around, and we hungry three needed to convene and map out the next day's Super Bowl betting strategies. What do you eat the night before the big game?

Big game, of course.
Anthony's specializes in such exotic fare as lion, wildcat, camel and bear. Unfortunately, those beasts were no-shows the night we visited, so we made do with alligator, venison and wild boar.

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