Eat the house

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Oh my, what a trip. Inside the MGM Grand Casino there are no windows and no clocks. MGM controls reality in casino-land. The noise is overwhelming. Is there a sound track of coins falling? On how many levels am I being manipulated?

The Earl of Sandwich invented the BLT so he would not have to interrupt a game of cards, but in casino-land you must leave the floor and spend some (more) bucks.

There are two way-upscale restaurants on the premises (Maine lobster clocks in at $60 at the Hollywood Brown Derby). The Grand Buffet is the common man’s eatery.

Maybe you would prefer just a bite to eat. Too bad. No such animal in casino-land (although you can easily get a bite to drink).

At $17.95, everything included except liquor and cappuccino (Cappuccino! Let’s not be cheap, Mr. MGM), the Grand Buffet defies you to beat the house by pigging out (which is roughly how "le grand bouffe" translates from the French).

"Grand" is the favorite word. The hostess kept asking us, "How is everything? Grand?"

Reasonably grand. Think of the food court at your local mall. Now ratchet up several notches, because everything is done to excess in casino-land.

There are 10 food stations: The American Grill, The Bayou, The Wok (a miniature Mongolian barbecue), Mexican Fiesta (stay away from the guacamole – it’s green but it doesn’t taste like avocado), soul food (under the banner "Local Favorites"), Italian, and a salad bar, coffee bar, ice cream bar and dessert bar.

The rules to beat the house are simple. Skip the carbohydrates, proceed to meat. And there’s plenty of it. Pork chops smothered in strips of yellow and red peppers. Barbecued chicken. Italian meatballs. Grilled sausage and great ribs at the American station, but pass on the rib-eye steak.

Great jambalaya (and no one will scold you for picking out as many slices of andouille sausage as you desire), but pass on the popcorn shrimp.

If you must have vegetables, go for the marinated artichokes or the marinated mushrooms, which are punctuated with some exotic varieties.

If you must have carbos, there is a good pasta with basil and ricotta cheese. Ditto for the stuffing and yams.

At the dessert station, pastry chef Augustine Powell is having the time of her life making crepes to order. "I get up in the morning and I can’t wait to come to work," she says. Powell stands behind two identical frying pans. She pours the delicate batter in one and tips the pan wildly like a tacking sailboat. In the other pan, she melts a little butter, adds a spoonful of tart cherries and a squirt of brandy. Yummy!

Powell, who graduates from cooking school in three months, steered me toward the desserts that are made in-house: the peach and apple cobblers, both good. I didn’t try a cream pie because it was a shocking shade of pink, but the pecan pie and banana split cake were both a thumbs up.

On the way out, my dining partner asked me if the petunias and marigolds were real or plastic.

"Plastic is real," I replied.

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