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Bistro Bows In

Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

Having swept in past the streaked-glass booths, admired the huge pastry oven against the back wall and ruminated over the wine list, the man in the bow tie orders the tasting menu, inspired by classic San Francisco dishes. His companion in heels asks for ravioli and a side order of fried leeks, nothing more. When the ticket rolls up the printer in the kitchen shortly after 6 p.m. on this July evening, chef Michael Mina claps his hands. The sound echoes through the stainless steel like a starter's gun. Nob Hill is a reality. It has been a long time coming.

The fate of the restaurant called Gatsby's at the MGM Grand was sealed on the October day in 1998 when Steve Wynn opened the doors of the Bellagio and changed dining in Las Vegas forever. Before the Bellagio, with its celebrated chefs and glorious dining spaces, food on the Strip was more endured than enjoyed. There were buffets and coffee shops for sustenance, bars to toast triumphs and drown sorrows. Then everyone headed back to the tables.

In a matter of hours, it seemed, the paradigm shifted. Fine dining was an essential part of the Vegas experience. Celebrity chefs were drawn there like flies to foie gras.

By late 2000, the influx had reached saturation. Diners could choose between Le Cirque and Lutece, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Jean-Louis Palladin, Wolfgang Puck's gourmet pizzas, his New American cuisine and his fast food. They could have Julian Serrano and a roomful of Picassos or Alex Stratta and Renoir. There were wine angels at Aureole and a wall of vodka at Red Square.

Not only were these restaurants luring visitors to their hotels' casinos, they were profit centers. That had been the genius of Wynn's vision. The Venetian soon had a formidable roster of successful culinary concepts. Caesars Palace frantically tried to hire star chefs and catch up.

Meanwhile, Gatsby's sat half-empty. A conventional room that served classic cooking in a cruise-ship setting, it was white linen and candlelight and not much fun. Even the name was off. Gatsby's sounded like the bar at some Midwestern Marriott, not the centerpiece of a grand Las Vegas hotel.

Fortunately, the MGM team had inherited more than the bricks and mortar from the Mirage stable when it acquired Wynn's properties last fall. Elizabeth Blau, who had brokered the original deal to bring Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo to the Bellagio for restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, and later helped Wynn fill the Bellagio restaurant slots with top names, stayed on at MGM Mirage after the merger to oversee restaurant development. Gamal Aziz had opened the Bellagio's restaurants for Wynn. As the head of food and beverage at the MGM Grand, he would serve as the point man on the project to reinvent Gatsby's.

Over the first half of this year, Gatsby's was transformed into Nob Hill, a San Franciscoñinspired restaurant that is the talk of Las Vegas. It happened because Aziz and Mina were committed to do more than merely import a successful restaurant from somewhere else. It wasn't easy. The constraints on creating an original concept for such a visible space are formidable; putting a new restaurant on the Strip is not like opening one in Pittsburgh or Providence, or even New York.

It also presents a far different challenge than it would have even three years ago. Competition today is intense; big names alone aren't enough. "You have to distinguish yourself with a concept," Aziz says. "You can walk up and down the Strip and see plenty of name chefs that have failed to generate interest."

As it happens, one of the biggest had failed in the same space. In 1995, Charlie Trotter opened a branch of his Chicago restaurant in the MGM Grand. A copy of the original, it had the same impeccable service and lavish food. But Trotter's timing was off, by about five years. And Trotter was inflexible. He demanded that his patrons devote three hours to eat his formidable cuisine. They could have the tasting menu, or nothing at all.

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