Eating Las Vegas

Warm quail salad, citrus-braised lobster, grüner veltliner, and luminous, towering desserts: A pack of gorgeous new restaurants is transforming Las Vegas from a culinary desert into an oasis of fabulous food.

Spago restaurant in Las Vegas

Tourists vulnerable to bouts of severe disorientation are advised to steer clear of the window in Room 13-314 of the Mandalay Bay Resort on the Las Vegas Strip. It was from this vantage point that I beheld a panorama that might have discombobulated Richard Halliburton. There, immediately outside the window, stood the Great Pyramid of Cheops. A short distance away rose the turrets of Camelot. Just beyond was the New York skyline, dominated, of course, by the Empire State Building and the spiraling tower of the Chrysler Building. And scarcely a stone's throw from the skyscrapers loomed, in all its Erector Set glory, the Eiffel Tower.

These were not optical illusions, but merely the facades of a few of this neighborhood's massive zillion-dollar hotels— Luxor, Excalibur, New York-New York, and Paris Las Vegas. They are masterworks of imitation and innovation. And so, I learned, are the wonderful new restaurants that have sprouted inside them. A visiting diner longing for "home cooking" can find Le Cirque, Gallagher's, and Smith & Wollensky from New York; Spago from Los Angeles; and Postrio from San Francisco. But each has taken on a Vegas look, a Vegas feel, and, be not mistaken, a Vegas excellence. All this, mind you, in a town where fine dining was until recently defined as a well-stocked salad bar. In the indecently short span of 10 years, this gambling mecca has emerged as one of the preeminent restaurant cities in the world, a place where you can dine on everything from duck-sausage pizza to gnocchi with black truffles to Long Island oysters in champagne sauce.

In fact, wrote restaurant critic Jonathan Gold last year in Gourmet magazine, it is "probably the de facto capital of American cooking at the moment, the place where the greatest chefs come together at the table. . . . The best 25 restaurants in Las Vegas may be as good as the best 25 in any city in the world."

The chef generally given credit for invigorating a sadly mediocre restaurant scene is the celebrated Wolfgang Puck, who, following the success of his Spago restaurant in West Hollywood, spotted a saucepan of gold on the desert sands. Actually, he was persuaded to open the Las Vegas Spago only after his friend Sheldon Gordon assured him that beyond the slot machine clamor there was a market for quality dining. Gordon had been one of the developers of the upscale Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, and it occurred to him that the high rollers there might enjoy a delicious Spago smoked salmon pizza after a spending spree in the stores.

And, as Spago managing partner Tom Kaplan has observed, the Forum complex "is not your typical shopping mall," not with the likes of Versace, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton holding forth there. And Spago, artfully decorated in bold colors by the internationally acclaimed restaurant designer Adam Tihany, is not your typical eatery.

Puck put Kaplan in charge of the Las Vegas Spago when it opened in Decem-ber of 1992, barely three months after the Forum Shops themselves opened their doors for business. A handsome 42-year-old former college wrestler who was originally more interested in architecture than artichokes, Kaplan had been working with Puck for 10 years when he somewhat warily embarked on this great adventure.

I had no idea we'd be pioneers," he said one afternoon. "Before we opened, we had few people here we could go to for advice. But Wolf was convinced the sporting crowd, the boxing people, and the conventioneers would pay for good food. December, however, is a slow month here, and we had a bad opening night, maybe a hundred dinners. I started to wonder if this was going to be Bugsy Siegel all over again," a reference to the Vegas mobster who, as legend has it, was murdered by his partners for failing to make good on their investment in his Flamingo Hotel. Kaplan, of course, had no fears of being bumped off. He was just worried about going bust.

But when December was over, business picked up tenfold, Spago quickly becoming one of the most popular spots on the Strip. "For the first six years, we had something of a monopoly on fine dining here," says Kaplan, who was joined at Spago by executive chef David Robins. "And then, with the new hotels, other restaurants came. But I can assure you, there wouldn't be fine dining in Las Vegas if not for Wolfgang Puck."

Puck is such a Las Vegas celebrity today that the waxen figures of him and his wife, designer Barbara Lazaroff, enjoy positions of honor near the entrance to Madame Tussaud's museum adjoining the Venetian. Puck, in chef's smock, stands frozen in time offering a glass of champagne to his attractive missus, who is wearing a "stirring gown by Baracci." Beyond the Pucks come such lesser celebrities as the Rat Pack, Ivana Trump, Liberace, Bette Midler, and the ill-fated Siegel.

Puck started the kitchen parade. He was followed by, among others, such maestros as Emeril Lagasse of Emeril's in New Orleans, Marc Poidevin of Le Cirque in New York, and Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C.

"This has been not so much a renaissance in dining as it has been an explosion," says Don Logan, president and general manager of the Las Vegas Stars, the city's Triple A baseball team, and a resident of Vegas for nearly 20 years. "The dining and shopping have been a lure for the upper-end customer. The marketing efforts in the major resorts are now aimed at that upper or upper-middle market. After all, there is legalized gambling elsewhere—on Indian reservations, riverboats, and in Atlantic City. It's all competition for Vegas."

It was Steve Wynn, creator of the Las Vegas theme-hotel boom, who persuaded Spanish-born Julian Serrano to leave the opulent restaurant Masa's in San Francisco and come to the 3,005-room Bellagio, a hotel, even with the gambling acreage, of astonishing elegance—not to mention size. Serrano's job was to start what is in all likelihood Las Vegas's premier restaurant—Picasso. The name is not fanciful, for on Picasso's walls depend an estimated $30 million worth of paintings by the master. A diner—who likely booked the table 60 days in advance—sits among the impressive artworks in French country-style splendor under high ceilings and with a view of the dancing fountains of Bellagio's man-made lake. The Eiffel Tower is not far away.

I had the four-course $75 prix fixe menu: warm quail salad with sautéed artichokes and pine nuts, boudin of fresh lobster, shrimp, and scallops with sofrito and Nantua sauce, a filet of Canadian halibut with purple Peruvian potatoes carpaccio and sauce meunière, and a spectacular roasted veal chop with rosemary potatoes au jus. With each course the appropriate wine is poured from the cellar of sommelier Keith Goldston. Serrano himself is a merry table-hopping presence.

"The timing was perfect," he told me. "And timing is everything. I'll have been here two years on October 15. And when I came I was concerned about everything. I'd never been here before, and people were telling me my food was too advanced for Las Vegas. But then people started coming in—Hollywood people like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Rupert Murdoch has been here. Sammy Sosa. And the former prime minister from England, John Major. We had more than 30 million tourists in Las Vegas last year." He laughs. "And I only need 40,000. You know, there are times when I don't even feel like I'm in Las Vegas. Look around. If you use your imagination here, you can be anyplace you want to be."

Picasso's principal rival in high-stakes dining is Aureole, located in the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. It's a far larger restaurant (340 seats to 116) and features a decor that is otherworldly high-tech. (Call 30 days in advance if you want a table on a weekend night.) You enter Aureole through imposing glass doors and descend a winding staircase past a 42-foot-high wine tower through which lovely young women wearing formfitting black costumes ascend to fetch selections from among nearly 10,000 bottles. If, after examining the 63-page wine list, your choice should by chance be the 1900 Château Mouton Rothschild, you will be obliged to fork over a cool $40,000. I skipped past that page.

Aureole is a spin-off from chef Charlie Palmer's original restaurant in New York, but I suspect it makes the Gotham version look like a bus stop in comparison. I worked my way stoutly through the splendid seven-course $95 prix fixe menu: chilled diver scallop escabèche, basil-infused gazpacho with grilled prawns, delectable citrus-braised lobster with shaved fennel, thyme-roasted quail with tiny foie gras raviolis, a terrific filet mignon with a crisp paupiette, and a dessert of various lovely sorbets. I also knocked back glasses of the 1993 Iron Horse Aureole Cuvée, a 1998 grüner veltliner, a 1997 cabernet-merlot from the Villiera Estate Cru Monro in South Africa, and a 1997 South African muscat de Hambourg.

It was a demonstration of gustatory excess that might have raised a burp from Henry VIII. A gentleman at a neighboring table inquired solicitously, after I had polished off the last scoop of sorbet, "Are you able to stand after eating all that?" I ignored this impertinence and staggered past the rappelling maidens on my way upstairs to an early and dyspeptic retirement.

Of course, a Vegas visitor need not indulge himself so outrageously or so expensively. The casino buffets are to be found in abundance. Spago is reasonably priced in comparison with Picasso and Aureole, and there are any number of fine and less elaborate restaurants in and out of the hotels. (See "Winning at the Tables" on page 47.) My favorite luncheon spot is Pinot Brasserie in the Venetian. There among the faux campaniles, gondolas, and canal bridges is this charming little French restaurant, safely tucked away from the casino cacophony. Pinot, too, is an offspring, modeled after chef Joachim Splichal's bras-series in Los Angeles and the Napa Valley. But it has that Vegas feel. The bar is refreshingly dark, and tapes are played there of, among other virtuosos, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Dorsey-era Frank Sinatra.

With only rare exceptions, there is no dress code in all of Las Vegas. And its lack is faithfully observed. Men and women who should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for wearing shorts in public wear them with apparent impunity. The exquisite lobby of Bellagio, where one almost expects to see Sophia Loren in full flower or a tuxedoed Cary Grant lounging at the bar, is overrun instead with grown-ups who look as if they were dressing for parts in an Our Gang comedy. It's a scene from a Buñuel movie, the canaille trashing the palace.

Oh, there are certain strictures. Le Cirque in Bellagio is the lonely holdout for coat and tie. Those attending performances at the theater in the Mirage are warned: "No tank tops or swimsuits. Shoes are required." Spago advises diners that "ripped clothing and athletic wear are NOT permitted." Then again, as Spago boss Kaplan says, "The guy in a tank top and shorts may have just won $10,000 at the blackjack table, so what are you going to do?"

What indeed. One sweltering day in June, after consuming a superb Caesar salad and a glass of sauvignon blanc in the cool and cozy Pinot Brasserie, I stepped through its impressive wooden doors to be confronted with yet another disorienting scene. There, amidst Venetian splendor, hordes of the scantily clad were clanging coins into a raging sea of slot machines. I'd just left a French restaurant in an Italian hotel and found myself immersed in a crowd of gambling Americans. I wasn't sure exactly where I was or even who I was.

In an effort to disengage myself from this confusing scene, I chanced upon a vast and apparently unpopulated corridor of the gaming emporium. After walking for what seemed a mile or two, I reached a doorway leading presumably to the teeming outdoors. As I retreated from it, I glanced to my left and was astonished to see that I was not alone. There close by me was a somewhat paunchy and disheveled senior of glowering mien. His forehead glistened with perspiration. His sunglasses were askew. His silver hair was in turbulent disarray. Oddly enough, he was wearing trousers.

I was so startled by his sudden and completely unexpected appearance that I reflexively reached out toward him in self-defense. This gesture was abruptly terminated, however, when my fingers collided with the hard and cool surface of what turned out to be a wall-sized mirror.

Vegas will do that to you.

Aureole (702) 632-7401; Picasso (702) 693-7223; Pinot Brasserie (702) 414-8888; Spago (702) 369-6300. For Las Vegas travel information pick up AAA's California/Nevada TourBook.

Winning at the tables

By Max Jacobson

High rollers aren't the only ones who can enjoy a great meal in Las Vegas. Here are seven terrific, reasonably priced restaurants, serving everything from scrumptious Thai squid salad to down-home apple cobbler. Unless otherwise specified, prices are for dinner.

Wild
Sage Café
, 600 E. Warm Springs Rd., (702) 944-7243. American. Entrées run $12-$21. A
city's status as a dining destination can be judged by its restaurants catering to the hometown crowd. This winsome café run by Wolfgang Puck alumni specializes in almost perfect American comfort foods: meat loaf, rack of pork, roasted free-range chicken with a rustic apple-sage dressing, and wonderful desserts.

Joyful House, 4601 Spring Mountain Rd., (702) 889-8881. Chinese. Entrées run $6.95-$15.95 (more for specialties like abalone and shark's fin). Joyful House is an uncompromising and authentic ethnic restaurant that is, not surprisingly, the choice of Chinese visitors longing for their native dishes. Order from the blackboard or choose a live fish from one of several tanks. Star dishes include stewed pork leg, panfried string beans, and fried chicken.

Memphis Championship Barbecue, 2250 E. Warm Springs Rd., (702) 260-6909. American. Entrées run $5.69-$14.99. Pit master Mike Mills is a four-time world champion at the international Memphis in May barbecue competition, and no wonder. His tender meats, baby back ribs, and fiery hot links are cooked for hours and infused with hickory and apple wood. They're the best in the city. Try the Memphis-style dry ribs sprinkled with a spice mixture called Magic Dust. Desserts are also worth a shout, especially the strawberry shortcake.

Border Grill, in Mandalay Bay, 3950 S. Las Vegas Blvd., (702) 632-7403. Nuevo Latino. Entrées run $13.50-$24.50. Television's Too Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, are superb chefs, which they prove on a daily basis in this fun, exuberant restaurant. Start with one of the refreshing, summery drinks like the minty lime cooler. Then eat your way through habit-forming appetizers like sea bass ceviche and green corn tamales, main courses like grilled skirt steak marinated with garlic and cilantro, and, for dessert, the very best Key lime pie anywhere.

Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Ave., (702) 735-3033. Thai. Entrées run $6.95-$14.95. The
New York Times once touted Saipin Chutima, the cook at this storefront, as the best Thai chef in the United States. No argument here. Chutima prepares dishes from northeast Thailand and her native Chiang Mai. Among her exceptional creations: green papaya salad, nam kao tod (crispy rice with minced sour sausage), and the world's best beef jerky.

Original Pancake House, 3460 E. Sunset Rd., (702) 433-5800. American. Pancakes run $2.50-$7.50. This franchise began in the early 1950s in Oregon by selling mouthwatering pancakes made from a secret sourdough starter. Today people come for the amazingly crunchy, sinfully large apple pancakes with a cinnamon glaze. Also popular are the huge German pancakes and gooey 49er flapjacks.

Noodle Asia, in the Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd., (702) 414-1444. Chinese. Entrées run $9.95-$14.95. Long, wheat-based ba bao noodles are tossed in a red chili sauce with minced pork, diced shrimp, and roasted peanuts—one of the most delicious noodle creations ever. On the milder side, try cha tsai noodles in a broth with pickled Szechuan vegetables and sliced pork.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy

This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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