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Some things are acquired tastes, like the three-color dessert fashioned from cassava, sweet potato, mung bean, seaweed, peanuts, coconut and sugar. And it takes a confident cook to bring some of the meats and fish into the kitchen: salmon belly and head, gaspergou, barracuda, goat, duck feet and pork uterus.
But we never hesitate over such hard-to-find items as live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, catfish and carp, or on-ice critters including squid, cuttlefish, massive shrimp, rabbit loin, filet and deer flank. Whatever we need, it's here -- fresh banana leaves, rice steamers, incense, oyster sauce, Thai iced tea, avocado ice cream and pickled lemon.
We love ya, Lee Lee.
Appetizers are awesome, such as crispy fresh-grilled asparagus with prosciutto and shredded phyllo napped in a zippy citrus vinaigrette; sweet lobster and shrimp puff pastry on a lush fire-roasted red-pepper cream; or fat chile rellenos with forest mushroom duxelles and smoky Gouda corn sauce.
Entrees challenge our established "name" restaurants, with specialties like pan-roasted pheasant married with cabernet cassis (black currant), roasted shallots, cranberry-apple conserve and vegetable couscous. The veal chop is out of this world.
Kicking back with coffee and sinful desserts, it's almost impossible to believe we're just a few feet from frenzied gamblers in this clubby dining room (just 10 tables or so), with a soaring, leaded-glass wall that separates us from the slots.
Oh, and the final score? The casino doesn't charge any tax. On a meal that averages $85 for two -- an easy tab at Cholla -- we figure we've won an extra glass of Teifen Pinot Grigio. Now that's real luck.
Cafe Istanbul offers endless variety in entrees, and excellent value, too. Meals are served with soup or salad, rice or vegetables and pita bread. The shrimp scampi is stellar, sautéed in special Lebanese seasonings, as is the vegetarian dinner of zucchini, eggplant, spinach, carrots, banana squash and sweet potatoes in a luscious white sauce. Or just taste it all in a huge platter: The Al Amir combo brings a bounty of hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, baba ghanouj, mjadara, loubyeh, falafel, lamb, chicken and kafta kebab.
With 80 appetizers and entrees to select from, we'll never get bored. Which is good, because suddenly, we have an irresistible urge to visit Pho Bang again.