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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.

It's a spiffy place, way off the tourist track, that caters almost exclusively to discerning locals who, like me, wouldn't poke a hotel dinner buffet with a pitchfork.

Done up in gleaming black and white, Anthony's features Ert prints and long mirrors in the small room. Billie Holiday songs are piped in at low volume. Young, earnest, tuxedo-clad waiters with the appealing habit of calling us "Sir" at every opportunity furnished smooth service. Appetizers are scrumptious. Scallops Ren features half a dozen moist, barely cooked scallops garnished with artichoke hearts in a powerful garlic cream sauce. Stuffed mushrooms come smothered with shrimp and topped with a bubbling layer of molten cheese. And the caesar salad is prepared tableside, authentically laced with heavy doses of Parmesan and anchovy.

The appetizers helped to ease my companions' apprehensions about the main dishes. You'd think that someone like Harvey, adventurous enough to take Phoenix minus 24 points against the Dallas Mavericks, wouldn't quake at the mention of venison. Meanwhile, the waiter reassured Mark that the alligator was farm-raised, not hauled up from a Florida swamp by a cracker named Zeke. And I quieted all worries about the wild boar, telling my friends that Anthony's serves no swine before its time.

Pleased with the lusty, gamy flavor, Harvey surprised himself by devouring the fresh, fork-size morsels of venison. It certainly didn't hurt that the meat was served in an out-of-this-world amaretto cream sauce that was good enough to scoop up with a tablespoon.

Mark initially looked at his alligator dish, fashioned Creole-style with peppers and onion, with a bit of discomfort. The alligator was cut into strips, like chicken, and, in fact, had a similar taste and texture. But once he shed his prejudices, he managed to down most of it, unhappier about the too-spicy sauce than he was about the gator meat.

The wild boar, served as medallions, had no shortcomings. Milder than the venison but more intense than pork, it was wisely paired with a heavy, cream peppercorn sauce that enhanced the flavor without overwhelming it.

Whatever your feelings about wild game, Anthony's is worth a stop for its bananas Foster dessert. All the ingredients are wheeled up to the table, and then the show starts. Ripe bananas are coated with caramelized sugar and doused with banana liqueur, vodka and brandy. It's all set aflame and cooled on a bed of vanilla ice cream. Despite some mixed thoughts about venison, alligator and wild boar, we agreed completely about another species--Buffalo. This would be the year the underestimated Bills would crush the overhyped Dallas Cowboys and claim Super Bowl victory. We headed back to the casino to put our money where our mouths were.

Binion's Ranch Steakhouse, 128 Fremont Street (Binion's Horseshoe hotel), Las Vegas, 1-702-382-1600. Hours: seven days a week, 5 to 10:30 p.m.

On their last night in Las Vegas, where do real men go to forget about tomorrow's return to reality? Where do they go to forget about the crushing blow Dallas delivered to their wallets and their football-handicapping egos? Where do they go to get the best and most reasonably priced steaks on the planet?

If they have any sense, they go to Binion's. The small room is always jammed, crowded during prime eating hours with high rollers and favored hotel guests. We managed to get in, though, wise to the old dining-room custom that inevitably melts the heart of even the balkiest maitre d': First, we flashed him our toothiest grins; then, we flashed him a ten-spot.

This place has a real steak-house atmosphere. Pastoral paintings featuring edible farm animals fill the walls. Lights are low enough to hide the tears of Buffalo fans. Big, comfy booths and big, comfy bourbons and water help to ease the tension of three days and two nights of unrelenting casino battle. And the service is understanding and sympathetic--yes, our waiter agreed, the Bills should be individually tarred and feathered before being burned at the stake.

Binion's offers a couple of appetizers that were tasty enough to make us put off for a few minutes our animal lust. Six escargots came hot enough to burn the tines off a fork, bubbling in garlic and butter under a canopy of puff pastry. The scampi starter consisted of five big critters treading in a lake of garlic cream sauce. The fresh, hot French bread got a workout in both dishes.

 

But what sets Binion's apart are its steaks. They're aged U.S. prime, cooked on an open pit over mesquite charcoal. They're so good that our homicidal thoughts toward the Bills gradually softened. Flush with beef and mercy, we agreed that several years of incarceration would be ample punishment for the 52-17 thrashing they inflicted on their supporters.

Every steak I've ever had here has been fabulous. Pick out any of your favorite adjectives--juicy, tender, moist, beefy, flavorful; they all apply. And none of these hunks of meat costs more than $20.

The man-size, 20-ounce porterhouse steak made us wish we lived in a world without cholesterol and waist sizes. It's astonishingly tender, and juicy enough to require a glass instead of a knife.

But just when we thought no other steak could possibly match it, out came the 12-ounce New York strip. It's even beefier than the porterhouse, beautifully marbled and packed with taste.

The ten-ounce, fist-size hunk of filet mignon is my favorite. Soft as butter, I cut it as thinly as possible, because even small bites can satisfy the most intense meat craving.

But eating here does present steak lovers like me with a problem.
I've gotten spoiled. Most steak houses simply can't compete with the quality at Binion's. And if they can, it's unlikely they can match the price.

What's the answer? Harvey, Mark and I have it solved. We'll be back next year. Let's hope the Bills won't.


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