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The Capital of Cuisine

The Las Vegas restaurant boom is proving that the best tables are not for gambling
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

Six steaks in one night is probably overdoing it, even in a place that encourages excessive consumption like Las Vegas. My friend and I ate a filet mignon, New York strip and rib eye in two top steak houses on the Strip within an hour of each another, not to mention the creamed spinach, mushrooms, potatoes and various condiments. I left considering a course of Lipitor. She certainly planned to spend an extra hour or two in the gym when she got home.

Health issues notwithstanding, I had decided that the best way to find the top steak in Sin City would mean a head-to-head competition between Wynn Las Vegas's SW Steakhouse and Bellagio's Prime. In the home of million-dollar poker showdowns, sometimes you have to go all in to find out who's best. (While Prime's steak was slightly better quality, SW was the superior experience, with super food, excellent wine, great service and exciting ambience. I put the latter at the same level as my favorite American steak houses: Delmonico, located at The Venetian, and Del Frisco's, which is off the Strip.)

Great steak houses, ultra-sophisticated French restaurants, homey Italian eateries, fashion-forward sushi bars and California cuisine cathedrals are just a few of the dining experiences you can expect to find in Vegas these days. It's hard to think of another city in the world with so much good eating in such a small area. A five- to 10-minute taxi ride will take you to some of the greatest restaurants in the world. Many of the top names in global gastronomy are already here: Alain Ducasse (Mix), Joël Robuchon (Joël Robuchon at The Mansion) and Thomas Keller (Bouchon). Furthermore, Guy Savoy, the three-star Michelin master, is expected to arrive at Caesars Palace in May with a 75-seat restaurant that is said to be a duplicate of his ultrachic Parisian establishment. Moreover, a number of American chefs are making their own reputations here, including Alex Stratta, with his restaurant, Alex, at the Wynn, and Bryan Ogden, who has taken the helm of his father's kitchen at Bradley Ogden at Caesars.

"Las Vegas is great," says Joe Bastianich, the New York restaurant guru, who, with the chef Mario Batali, has partnered in such noted New York restaurants as Babbo and Esca and made Italian food the hip cuisine of the new millennium. Bastianich is opening a restaurant and a wine shop in The Venetian in September. "Everything about Vegas is exciting, and especially the restaurants," he says. "At the end of the day, that's what people want."

It's almost hard to believe considering less than a decade ago a good meal in Vegas meant cheap steak, greasy fries and soggy vegetables-all for $8.95. Buffets with mountains of cheap and cheerful grub were what gamblers-granted a majority of them one-armed-bandit players-lived for. For many, quantity meant quality, and Vegas was more than happy to provide. But today that has changed. Yes, the buffets do exist. And so do numerous greasy spoons and fast-food joints. However, many visitors now come to Vegas just for the excellent restaurants and pulsating nightlife. And casino owners and restaurateurs are more than happy to please them. Especially when you consider that casino revenues from dining alone total billions each year.

"There is something for everybody here," says Larry Ruvo, the president of Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, the biggest such supplier in Nevada. "Vegas has not forgotten anybody. We simply expanded the universe. We still have the buffets, but there is now no limit to restaurants here. The famous chefs of the world, they need to be in Las Vegas."

Top chefs continue to sign lucrative contracts with casinos each month. The most impressive contract to date has been between MGM and Joël Robuchon. It's a Michael Jordan sort of tale whereby Robuchon was lured out of semiretirement in France to open a small, mega-expensive restaurant in The Mansion, the high-end inn that adjoins the MGM Grand. You needn't travel to France for the deluxe, three-star Michelin dining experience. Joël Robuchon at The Mansion delivers on every level, from the precision cooking to the ultra-elegant decor and sophisticated service. However, it may be cheaper to fly to Paris. The 16-course tasting menu is $350, and that doesn't include wine or other drinks.

"Las Vegas is unique," adds Ruvo. "When you have a restaurant like Joël Robuchon-to spend that sort of money [to establish the restaurant], you have to have the offset of the casino and the gaming. These chefs have found a whole new element. The casinos now know that the chefs bring players. The high rollers used to go to Paris, but now they come to Vegas for the food, shopping and shows. They have the convenience of Vegas now. It is the real deal here."

Still, you have to wonder if the real deal for Vegas is trés sophistiqué French restaurants. It seemed surreal to walk out the doors of Joël Robuchon and encounter a brightly lit casino full of slot machines, not to mention the drunken cowboy at the door who was turned away when he asked for a seat. One of the waitstaff at the restaurant even made a joke about the cloning of this Parisian restaurant in garish Las Vegas when I commented to him in French about the incongruity of the scene. "At least it's not the Barbary Coast," he smirked, adding that Vegas was certainly not Paris.

That's right. Nor do people come to Vegas for the Parisian experience. Paris is uptight. Vegas is pure fun, and that atmosphere clearly translates into its restaurants. The fact that you can get away with a pair of jeans and a nice shirt in most restaurants in Vegas underscores the casual chic of the dining there.

"It's not an education when you dine out in Las Vegas," says Alex Stratta, who's been cooking in the city-first in The Mirage's Renoir and now at his namesake restaurant in Wynn-since 1998. "If you are spending $200 a head or more for a meal, you have to know what you are eating. Also, you have to feel good when you are there. A top restaurant has to have the wow factor. It has to have everything, including great food. It's like theater. Restaurants are entertainment and that's what dining out in Vegas is."

Stratta's words mirrored my main criterion for critiquing the restaurants in this article, which is why, in my opinion, his restaurant, Alex, is the city's best. From the great food to the chic dining room, it has the biggest wow factor. It is like going to the theater or, better, a Vegas show. In every restaurant reviewed for this story, I was looking for exceptional food, but the excitement and the character of the city had to be part of the dining experience as well. That's, after all, why we love Las Vegas.

(Restaurants are in order of preference.)

Alex Wynn Las Vegas
No better fine-dining experience exists in Las Vegas at the moment. Alex Stratta, the young chef at Wynn's top-of-the-line restaurant, not only produces hearty yet refined food, but he maintains a friendly and efficient staff as well as an excellent and extensive wine list. He certainly achieves the wow factor he mentions. The 160-seat dining room is luxurious, with the air of one of Europe's great ballrooms or historic hotel dining rooms. Its lush red decor, with wood paneling, plush drapes and pretty table settings, is warm and opulent. But it's never stuffy or pretentious. Stratta's food is equally welcoming. While Stratta began his career with one of the world's great chefs, Alain Ducasse, his style has evolved over the years from precise three-star Michelin cuisine to full-throttle, full-flavor cooking with carefully chosen ingredients. For instance, a starter of roasted scallops with a cauliflower puree, hazelnuts and caramelized pears showed a wonderful balance of nutty, fruity character that enhanced the freshness of the seafood. A main course of lamb with spelt, apricots and honeyed glaze was rich, hearty and succulent. The seven-course tasting menu is $145. Try it with a glass of wine for each course-$235.

Joël Robuchon at The Mansion MGM Grand
If you're celebrating a big win on the tables or just love chic French restaurants, this is clearly the place. And it has the best food in Las Vegas. Still, I am not convinced this is what most people want in great dining here, even though the 66-seat dining room with its elegant feel of colonial Indochina is drop-dead gorgeous. Nonetheless, the food is phenomenal. It's like eating in the great chef's Paris kitchen in the 1980s when he received the world's accolades at his restaurant Jamin. For example, a main course of pan-fried sea bass with lemon grass foam and stewed baby leeks was crisp, moist and delicate with laser-guide intensity in flavor while the sautéed veal chop served boned and sliced in its juice with vegetable and pesto was flavor-packed yet precise and refined. There are only two menus: six courses for $175, and 16, for $350. The expansive wine list is equally high-priced, but a few good buys can be found in the red Burgundies.

Bradley Ogden Caesars Palace
Bryan Ogden, the 28-year-old son of California cuisine genius Bradley, is quickly making his mark here. He follows the same gastronomic path as his father: he finds the top ingredients in the States and then perfectly prepares them to maintain their inherent goodness. The young man is giving even more vigor and flavor to what arrives on the table than his father. For example, a main course of citrus-steamed Atlantic cod on a bed of thick and creamy clam chowder topped with smoky yellow foot mushrooms was moist and flaky with flavors that were so rich they were almost decadent. Young Ogden is also setting a standard for wine, with the best selection from California in the city. His 1,000-plus-label list is the stuff of wine collectors' dreams, including 25 different selections of Turley Zinfandels and 10- and 20-year-old vintages of such classics as Ridge Montebello and Dunn. The large bar area is good for smoking cigars.

SW Steakhouse Wynn Las Vegas
Lots of choices for great steak exist in Vegas, but Wynn's take on a steak house is thoroughly European. It reminds me of some of the great brasseries of Paris. This is obviously the influence of the head chef, Eric Klein, a Frenchman from Alsace. He adds sophistication to Vegas steak with his accompaniments, from beautifully roasted fall vegetables to Alsatian spaetzle, a kind of French pasta. All the steak is wet-aged for 38 days and grilled. Plenty of seafood platters and grilled fish are also on the menu. This restaurant generates some of the biggest buzz in the city, with a big, affluent yet casual crowd ready to eat and party. The excellent wine list is especially strong on Rhône wines, offering close to two dozen Châteauneufs.

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare Wynn Las Vegas
You would have to go to Italy to find seafood this sublime. Chef Paul Bartolotta flies in the best fish from the Mediterranean each week. His cooking is straightforward and homey so that, as Bartolotta says, nothing is taken away from the goodness of the extraordinary ingredients. His antipasti, or starters, such as the succulent warm octopus salad or earthy seared sea scallops with porcini mushrooms, are meals in themselves. Don't miss the seafood pastas or a simple grilled sea bass. This is how Italians love their seafood. Friuli white wines are a must here, so try a bottle from Jerman or Livio Felluga. Prices range from about $17 for starters to $58 for main courses.

Daniel Boulud Brasserie Wynn Las Vegas
Don't get the idea that this is simply a restaurant that resembles a French brasserie. It's chic and elegant with flawless service and serious food. Chef Philippe Rispoli, under the guidance of New York's superstar Daniel Boulud, is producing designer French bistro cuisine with lots of flavor and focus. OK, the menu does include many typical brasserie dishes such as steamed mussels and fries, roasted-beet salad and duck confit. But the food is much more sophisticated than what you find even in the best brasseries in Paris. It's star-quality food masquerading as uncomplicated fare. This is a place to drink Burgundy or Rhône. An entire page on the wine list is devoted to the single-vineyard Côte Roties of Guigal.

Delmonico Steakhouse The Venetian
It would be enough to come to this restaurant just for the large bar, where cocktails and after-dinner drinks are always available to accompany a good cigar. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurant offers excellent seafood as well as steaks in an elegant and refined ambience. The food is no-nonsense, hearty fare, and the wine list fantastic (it garnered a Grand Award from our sister magazine, Wine Spectator). What's more, the service is friendly. Be sure to take advantage of the guidance of superstar sommelier Kevin Vogt. I seldom go to Las Vegas without eating here.

Prime Steakhouse Bellagio
It's hard to think of a sexier restaurant in the city, and Bellagio's steakhouse offers the most flavorful meat in Las Vegas. Whether it's because of the three-week dry aging or the sourcing of the beef in the Midwest, Prime's steak is as good as it gets. Every piece of meat is grilled and then finished in the oven. The big drawbacks here are aloof service and a merely average wine list. But it's definitely worth a reservation.

Picasso Bellagio
Until recently, Spaniard Julian Serrano dominated the Vegas food scene with his creative and flavor-driven seafood dishes. Some of the brilliance of his cooking may have been lost, but his restaurant continues to impress. The elegant dining room with 11 Picasso paintings and its picture-window view of Bellagio's man-made lake and fountains is breathtaking. The service is impeccable and the wine list is fantastic-Wine Spectator Grand Award. What's not to like?

MICHAEL MINA Bellagio
Some might call the food here fusion. Others might simple say it's creative. Regardless, the cuisine, with its Tokyo meets San Francisco style, is always excellent. A trio of raw fish dishes comes out of the kitchen, and the foie gras preparations are also always very good. The sophisticated, big-city feel of the dining room and its service more than add to what arrives on your plate. This restaurant has only gotten better after changing its name from Aqua to the chef's name.

Mix THE hotel at Mandalay Bay
The restaurant is worth a visit if only for the view of the Las Vegas skyline and its adjacent nightclub-cum-lounge. This is easily the coolest place to eat in the city, with its modern white and red decor in a 1980s futurist style. The food, which is overseen by France's super chef Alain Ducasse, seems slightly confused at times with just about every type of food covered on the menu, from Tuscan to Thai. The wine list is well chosen, with lots of interesting bottles, particularly from the Rhône Valley. Try to reserve an outside table on the balcony on a warm summer's night. And stick around after dinner for a cigar in the lounge.

Restaurant RM Mandalay Bay
Don't forget this small luxury restaurant in a remote corner of Mandalay Bay. The location in the mall may make it seem like an afterthought to the casino, but executive chef Rick Moonen has exquisitely replicated what he did so well at the original RM in New York City, from the elegant decor to the bold-flavored fish dishes. A lighter touch with the sauces might be better, but the food is very hearty and satisfying whether he's using line-caught wild salmon or diver-harvested scallops. The dining room is opulent yet intimate with warm wood paneling and subtle lighting.

Mesa Grill Caesars Palace
While Southwest cuisine may seem passé, Bobby Flay manages to put an updated twist on the genre at his amplified version of New York's Mesa Grill. The spices and chilies that produce the bold flavors do not overpower the excellent ingredients. This is more like California cuisine with attitude. The wine list is weak, so think beer or a Margarita.

Craftsteak MGM Grand
This is essentially the same thing as the build-your-own-meal Craft restaurant in New York City, but it attracts a much younger, hipper crowd. Excellent quality meats and fish are either grilled or roasted and then customers decide on everything else, from the vegetables to the condiments. There's usually a good bar crowd, too.

Fleur de Lys Mandalay Bay
Hubert Keller is known as one of the most talented chefs in San Francisco. So when he opened a clone of his Bay Area eatery in Las Vegas, people were expecting great things. For the most part he delivers, with a lot of help from the resident chef Laurent Pillard. It's basically French country cuisine with an urban sophistication. Main courses include roasted squab breast stuffed with foie gras and black truffles in a Sauternes sauce, and grilled veal with a light dusting of porcini mushroom powder.

NOBHILL MGM Grand
This is another high-end restaurant from San Francisco chef Michael Mina. The food is slightly less complicated than at his namesake eatery at Bellagio, but the cuisine is equally tantalizing in a modern California style. Everything is about the ingredients, which are sourced from the best farms across the country. It bills itself as a San Francisco-neighborhood-inspired restaurant, but it's much more sophisticated than that.

Aureole Mandalay Bay
Wine dominates this restaurant with its 42-foot-high glass "cellar" in the dining room and mountain-climbing sommeliers fetching bottles. Customers use a wireless tablet computer to make their wine selections. But as well as vinous gadgetry, Charlie Palmer's first Vegas restaurant offers good modern American cuisine-just like his original restaurant in New York City.

Charlie Palmer Steak Four Seasons
It's hard to maintain an excitement for this restaurant with all the hot steak houses in town, but Palmer (a keen cigar smoker) continues to deliver good, no-nonsense grilled meats with all the usual accompaniments in copious proportions. The Martinis are always good at the bar. And it's very cigar-friendly.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon MGM Grand
The main reason to come here is to be able to say you ate Joël Robuchon food without paying the hundreds-of-dollars-a-person tab you would be charged at his high-end restaurant only a short walk away. Eat at the bar and enjoy his Paris brassiere food, which comes as tapas. It's a sort of sushi bar without the sushi, à la Française. Friendly.

Bouchon The Venetian
Don't expect to experience much of the magic of Thomas Keller's food at this brasserie. This is not Napa's French Laundry or New York's Per Se. However, it is a good bistro with plenty of soulful dishes, from succulent roasted chicken to tangy braised pork and cabbage.

Piero Selvaggio Valentino The Venetian
The food here is starting to look a little dated compared with new names in Italian cuisine on the Strip. But chef Luciano Pellegrini's pastas, roasted fish and grilled meats are always satisfying. Its Wine Spectator Grand Award wine list has the best Italian selection in the city. A little Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and salami with a great bottle of Barolo always make a satisfying light lunch or dinner.

Nobu Hard Rock
You don't need to go to New York City, or even London, to experience the best of sushi and sashimi guru Nobu Matshisa. The ubiquitous chef's signature dishes are all here, including the black cod with miso, the new-style (pan-seared) salmon sashimi and the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno. The quality of the food is as good or better than at its New York City counterpart, and the restaurant is loud, casual and full of a young crowd from the casino. Order some German Riesling with your sushi.


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