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The City Within Sin City

The new visionary CityCenter may be the sparkling future of Las Vegas
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

(continued from page 1)

Though a similar conclusion could be reached about Adelson's signature Venetian property, folks at MGM would argue that it is not supposed to be another New York but a more sophisticated Las Vegas. "A couple weeks ago we had the President of the United States here," remembers Murren. "He personally thought it was beautiful and progressive and forward-thinking."

Despite what competitors and Wall Street investors (who drove down stock prices for MGM Mirage immediately after its 2009 fourth-quarter conference call in February) may think now, Baldwin expresses certainty that CityCenter-with all of its ups and downs and lingering issues that still include the star-crossed and unfinished Harmon Hotel-will prove to be a smart decision in the long run. Clearly, he believes that the property lives up to what executives at MGM had hoped for. "Jim Murren wanted high density and he has it," says Baldwin. "CityCenter is designed to be different from everything else. It creates an energy that is different from that of its competitors."

One of the first things you notice upon entering Aria-which serves as the centerpiece of CityCenter-is that it is laid out differently from your typical resort casino.

For starters, the most intriguing restaurants rank among the first things you see after checking in. Bar Masa and the more refined Shaboo (domains of Japanese food god Masa Takayama), Sage (an elevated New American offering from Chicago-based, James Beard Award-winner Shawn McClain) and Julian Serrano (a high-end tapas and paella restaurant from the man behind Bellagio's haut Picasso) come into sight just beyond the front desk. Normally, these prized dining destinations would be strategically tucked away, so that you have to walk past gambling enticements before you get a chance to scan a menu. Murren says that the idea was to defy Vegas logic and situate the restaurants where they will be most convenient for his customers.

Elsewhere are eateries from the usual suspects: Michael Mina's American Fish, a steak emporium courtesy of Jean Georges Vongerichten, Sirio Maccioni's take on classic Italian. But, dining-wise, the greatest surprise is Sage. It's a restaurant that manages to be simultaneously casual in terms of surroundings and ultra high-end where the food is concerned. Foie gras custard brûlée, which is really a soufflé of velvety goose liver, is not to be missed.

Clearly, though, CityCenter's biggest scores are Chef Masa's eateries. Dinner at his top restaurant in Manhattan can easily run $1,000 per couple, after sake and supplements get tacked on. Shaboo is even pricier. As would be expected, his sushi is top grade-it ships in from Japan, making one stop in New York and then next in Vegas-and Shaboo promises to be an omakase experience that you won't want to miss if your bankroll (or, preferably, comp dollars) can withstand the tab.

Not surprisingly, McBeath reports that the cigar-loving Masa was a particularly tough chef to land. "We originally spoke with Nobu [the restaurant chain was deciding whether or not to renew its relationship with the Hard Rock], but when they told us what the Hard Rock does for them economically, we told them that we can't match it," says McBeath. "Then we wondered how it would be to pull in Masa." After a good deal of negotiating and wooing, he came along on the condition that "if we extended his brand, we would be giving up a lot of creative control in the process." On the upside, McBeath knew that his customers would be enjoying Masa's delicacies in precisely the way that Chef Masa wants them to be eaten.

Taking a cue, perhaps, from Steve Wynn's playbook, natural light seeps onto the gambling floor here, which is colored darker and appears more sophisticated than other casinos around town. The poker room has been outfitted with a big-ante enclave that will host high-stakes games when preferred players happen to be in house-though it's not expected to usurp the cachet of the Bellagio's famous Bobby's Room. In fact, Aria has been designed to be unique enough to cannibalize as little business as possible from other MGM Mirage properties. McBeath sites the fact that Bellagio held its own in the face of competition from Steve Wynn's ventures and he says that so far it's doing the same against CityCenter.

So if significant numbers of people are not leaving Bellagio for the new place, where are customers coming from? According to Murren, CityCenter traffic is feeding in from the most desired outlets of all: "More people are coming to Las Vegas. We've had four months of increasing visitation, so one course is incremental visits. We're also taking share from our competitors. Right now Bellagio is up year over year. We think it has benefited from all the excitement surrounding CityCenter."

Fitting with CityCenter's urbane theme, the best suites at Aria are more sophisticated than the classic Las Vegas villas you'll find at Bellagio or The Mansion at MGM Grand. That, too, serves to differentiate it for the coveted whales who may prefer private patios and Jacuzzis over 26-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows, sleek furnishings, spiral staircases and a personal en suite elevator if the steps get to be too tiresome.

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