I do as he suggests, and I take a bite of the jellyfish, a coil of translucent threads that cleverly avoid my teeth as I start to chew. It tastes remarkably like cellophane noodles, at least texturally. There is an earthiness, a savoriness to jellyfish that’s almost like a black truffle crossed with a scallop. It’s been lightly dressed with sesame oil, which coats my tongue with a thin layer of fat, the way a great piece of sushi would.
The Champagne cuts through the submissive fat and leaves my mouth with a minerally blast of fruit that I can almost chew. In the presence of the Champagne, the jellyfish seems to come alive. Everything becomes animated. It is indeed an expert pairing. And it’s the last sort of thing most people would expect from a Chinese restaurant.
It’s a sad fact that most of us never associate grace and finesse with Chinese restaurants. You go to Chinese restaurants to eat, not to dine. But I’m at Blossom, at Aria, in Las Vegas – and this is no ordinary Chinese restaurant.
Blossom is extraordinary – a temple of fine dining on par with Vegas’ Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire – that happens to be Chinese. On a previous visit, my meal begins not with jellyfish and tendon but with foie gras that’s been brushed with a traditional Chinese black-pepper glaze and seared until barely rare. The sommelier pairs the duck liver brilliantly with an Argentine torrentés. Before this, of course, there’s an amuse-bouche: a dice-size cube of crisp Chinese plum resting in a teardrop of fresh-squeezed cranberry juice. And a lychee martini.
The restaurant is cleverly removed from the hubbub of the casino, tucked into a quiet corner near Aria’s Sky Suites entrance, next to the glamorous Baccarat room. Guests are greeted at the front door by beautiful hostesses who lead you into the dining room at a gentle, studied pace, forcing you to slow down and leave Las Vegas behind. The hushed dining room seats 130 people, which is incredibly intimate by Las Vegas standards. There is a freshly clipped orchid blossom on every table, resting in a few drops of water with a couple of polished black river stones, like a miniature Chinese zen garden. The wine glasses we’re drinking from are the very expensive kind, where each successive pairing requires a glass of a different shape. Wang trained for several years under the Bellagio’s master sommelier, Jason Smith. The chef is Chi Choi, originally from Hong Kong, and he is a celebrity chef on par with Robuchon and Gagnaire, only hardly anybody knows it.
The first time I dine at Blossom, I opt for the chef’s tasting menu because the à la carte menu is simply overwhelming, with more than 120 choices. And that’s not including a second menu for abalone, and another for shark’s fin, both (presented only upon request) with stratospheric prices. I immediately set the menus aside, including the digital wine list, and put myself in the hands of the chef and sommelier.
But before I seal the deal, I’ve also heard through the grapevine about a couple of off-menu specialties that aren’t listed on any of the printed menus. So I ask about these, to see if there’s anything that might be a good fit for my tasting.
General manager Tony Lee comes to the table with a smile that suggests I’ve spoken the correct secret code. “Can you handle spicy? I mean, really spicy?” he asks.
I assure him that I can. The secret dish he has in mind is the ma lat fish, made with Chilean sea bass. The Western name, he says, which is not a direct translation, is “spicy water fish.” It’s a specialty of Szechuan, and it’s not listed on the menu because the chef will not alter the recipe for anyone, and you’re not allowed to send it back if you can’t handle it. He recommends pairing it with crab fried rice, which is also off-menu.
The rice ends up being a godsend. It’s the only thing that keeps my mouth from exploding. The sea bass arrives in a large clay pot, and when the waiter gently removes the lid from the pot, releasing a whoosh of steam into the air, all I see is red chilies. I scoop around the pot and dig up a couple pieces of fish. I bring a bite to my mouth, and before I can get my chopsticks away from my lips, my tongue feels as if I’ve just licked a nine-volt battery. The shockwave radiates through my face, reverberating more loudly with each successive wave. I look at my partner, who has just experienced the same shocking sensation. We break into spontaneous laughter, which quickly disintegrates into uncontrollable coughing.
A waiter we’ve never seen before rushes to our table with a look of fear on his face. “Can I help you with …” he starts to say, but then he looks down and sees the clay pot filled with Szechuan chilies. A look of relief flushes across his face. “Ah, the spicy water fish. I’m afraid you’re on your own,” he says, only half jokingly.
Within seconds, we’ve recovered and are spooning more of the fish into our mouths, which isn’t merely hot, like chilies. It’s practically electric, thanks to obscene amounts of Szechuan peppercorns. Even in China, I never experienced this level of convulsive heat.
By the third or fourth bite, we’ve learned why Lee recommends the crab rice. It acts like an antidote, providing an instant chilling effect.
Through the course of multiple visits over two months, I inch my way through the menu, but there’s really no way to make a proper dent. I’ve enjoyed exquisite Peking duck, carved tableside so gracefully yet so quickly that the meat is still hot, not merely warm, when I’m eating it with soft, pillowy bao. The carcass is hauled away, but the meaty scraps return in a stirfry with scallions and red peppers.
I enjoy an amazing Santa Barbara spot prawn, which is peeled live, then dipped into the yolk of a duck egg and flash-fried. I discover pork neck, stir-fried with red and green bell peppers. My knife glides effortlessly through lamb chops that are two-ribs thick, slathered in garlic and wok-fried.
When I taste the Hong Kong typhoon-shelter-style lobster, it hauntingly transports me back to Victoria Harbor, where I first tasted this pungent garlic- and chili-laced dish made famous by the Yau Ma Tei boat people. But alas, I’m in Las Vegas.
And on each visit, as we get up to leave, a waiter or perhaps a hostess comes to the table to bid us goodbye and to walk us out the same way they walked us in. Slowly, gracefully, perfectly Zen.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: Aria Resort, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas
Hours: 5:30-10:30 p.m. nightly
Don’t miss: Black pepper foie gras, Peking duck, spicy water fish*, Hong Kong typhoon shelter lobster*. (* “secret” off-menu items)
Best place to sit: Semi-private booths on the upper level
About the noise: Whisper-friendly and romantic
Cost: Appetizers, $12-$32; seafood, $22-$290; meat/poultry, $26-$79; hot pot, $16-$160; noodles/rice, $15-$32; vegetables, $14-$20; shark fin, $58-$250 per person; bird’s nest, $130-$180 per person; abalone, $80-$300 per person; chef’s tasting menu, from $79; sommelier wine pairings, from $39; desserts, $10-$12.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.