Culinary Vegas

Awash in cash, tourists and imagination, Las Vegas has unseated the planet’s great food cities, fuelled by the arrival of restaurant legends like Wolfgang Puck, Joël Robuchon and Charlie Palmer       

My wife and I are luxuriating in the magnificently appointed dining room at one of the premier restaurants of the world. That would be the MGM Grand’s Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, under a glittery Swarovski chandelier adjacent to a gaudy Lalique sculpture.

We are about to embark on a 16-course, $360-a-person tasting menu. It will include several of the Three-Star Michelin chef’s signature dishes, two of the more notable ones being cauliflower cream with caviar, and langoustine ravioli with black truffle.

Factor in a bottle of French wine, tax and service, and the meal will cost around, in Vegas parlance, “one large.” To the rest of the planet, that’s $1,000 for two. The service here, it must be said, is almost embarrassingly regal.

This isn’t the only place in Sin City to offer such repasts.

Parisian Guy Savoy operates his own Three-Star establishment at Caesars Palace, a minimalist room designed by world-class architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, where you will eat similarly opulent fare like the chef’s renowned artichoke soup, or foie gras-stuffed guinea fowl.

Furthermore, there are restaurants like Picasso at the Bellagio, stocked with more than a dozen original oils by the master himself, and Alex at the Wynn Las Vegas, a superb establishment featuring a Hello Dolly staircase and the cuisine of Alessandro Stratta.

Picasso offers tasting menus by Spanish-born, French-trained Julian Serrano, while Stratta is a protégé of Alain Ducasse, another Three-Star chef who operates Mix, an ultra-modern, $15-million restaurant and nightclub atop Mandalay Bay. Both these chefs dazzle their minions with elegant Mediterranean fare, such as Serrano’s quail salad and an array of ever-changing seasonal menus from the hand of the amazing Stratta.

Also at the Wynn is Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, where chef Paul Bartolotta does what no other North American chef can claim to do. For his restaurant, the chef flies in at least a dozen fresh fish from Italy, several times a week, thanks to his personal relationship with actual fishermen in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.

As a result, it’s possible to eat a meal here identical to one you’d eat seaside in Naples or Venice.

It could only happen in Vegas.

It may have been the pull of the casino and the high roller, perhaps, that lured these chefs to Vegas, but none of them would be here if they had to compromise their quality or reputation.

As chef Robuchon, voted “Chef of the Century” in his native France, insists, “The work ethic in the States is often better than in France, and products like American produce and beef are terrific.”

There are actually too many celebrity chefs to count in this town these days, in places done by famous architects like Adam Tihany (Aureole), Tony Chi (Michael Mina) and the quirky Japanese design team SuperPotato (Sensi at the Bellagio.)

Aureole in particular is of note, because the four-storey Lucite wine tower, replete with “angels” on pulleys gliding up to retrieve wines from a 2,500-plus-label wine list, draws as many looky-loos as customers. It’s the ultimate in restaurant-as-theatre, and the world-class cooking of chef Charlie Palmer does much to advance the restaurant’s cause.

Palmer, who also owns Charlie Palmer Steak in the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel, is one of the more visible members of the Vegas celebrity chefs club, as are two of his disciples, chefs Michael Mina and David Burke, both of whom have their own Vegas restaurants.

Palmer chose to open in Vegas because, “the town was wide open. I knew I could be a pioneer.” His one-time apprentice, Mina, now has four Vegas restaurants: the eponymous Michael Mina; the San Francisco-inspired Nobhill at the MGM Grand; Seablue, also in the MGM Grand; and Stripsteak, a steakhouse concept at Mandalay Bay, with slow-poached meats finished on a wood burning grill and a SuperPotato design filled with running water and resin casts from Singapore.

Mina, who operates a Two-Star Michelin restaurant at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, is one of the most creative chefs on the planet and loves working in Vegas. “When I work there, the thing that is so special is that everyone is there to enjoy themselves, and are willing to try things they might not experience at home,” he says.

New York star David Burke, meanwhile, loves to play with his food like no one else. In his new Venetian casino restaurant, he serves dishes like the “crisp and angry lobster cocktail” (on a bed of nails), and a cheesecake lollipop “tree”—a creation that is pure inner child. Burke wanted his new place to be “elegant but hip,” and “really New York.”

In a way, that’s the essence of this new culinary capital’s food scene. Vegas is today, if nothing else, a microcosm of our 21st-Century world.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. For decades, after Ben “Bugsy” Siegel first started things in the ’40s at the Flamingo, Vegas was a culinary desert.

Years of endless chuckwagon buffets and so-called “gourmet” rooms where Continental fare was served under silver domes, dominated the restaurant landscape.

But then, in the early ’90s, chef Wolfgang Puck took a chance on Vegas when he opened Spago Las Vegas, a restaurant still going strong at Caesars Palace.

Then followed TV chef Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans, who continues to draw them in at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM Grand. Then, after Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian, came the deluge.

Delmonico, which many consider first in the city’s diverse steakhouse game (consider Tom Colicchio of Top Chef’s Craftsteak, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime and Charlie Palmer’s place), is also notable for having a female chef de cuisine, Dana D’Anzi. D’Anzi loves to work in Vegas because, “everything here is so accessible, and you can get anything you want.” Steaks here are wet- and dry-aged for up to two months, which coaxes their deep flavour and unique quality.

Another female celebrity chef is Saipin Chutima, of the Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam, named by Gourmet Magazine as “the best Thai restaurant in the country.” Chutima has refused countless offers to expand, because she insists on being in the kitchen at all times. Her off-Strip location makes visiting her restaurant a touch daunting for the casual diner, but it is an absolute must for any committed food fan.

Perhaps the spirit of Las Vegas dining is best summed up by über-chef Puck, though, who presently has five Vegas eateries, and about to open a second Cut, his seminal L.A. steakhouse, in the new Palazzo Tower next to the Venetian.

The irrepressible Puck, now 58, has more energy than ever, criss-crossing the country constantly, while keeping his empire under tight control. And he’s innovating as much as ever. He recently banned foie gras in his restaurants—one of the first major American chefs to do so—as part of his adherence to cage-free eggs, organic produce and general awareness of cruelty to animals. Fois gras, of course, is the result of force-fed geese and is the scorn of animal rights groups the planet over.

In the master’s own words, “Vegas is no longer the capital of quantity, but of quality. We proved that this town could sustain fine dining, and soon, a new generation of chefs reared and trained here will be making their mark on the food world.”

Amen to that. And if you disagree with him, the buffet line is over there on the right.


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