Bistro Bows In
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01
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The restaurant lasted a matter of months. "Serious gamblers have one word they don't like, and that word is ëno,'" says Terry Lanni, who runs the MGM Mirage empire for majority investor Kirk Kerkorian. "I have tremendous regard for Charlie Trotter, but I think he would have been far more successful in Las Vegas if he'd understood that. Generally people walking into a restaurant in Chicago have not just lost $75,000. It creates a different atmosphere. They're willing to pay in Las Vegas, but they want to get exactly what they want."
Gatsby's was the MGM's response to the failed Trotter experiment. By the time Aziz arrived in September 2000, it was dying. "We have a restaurant with 5,000 rooms above it, yet we can't fill it every night," he said. "What that means is, we have to change our business model."
This is the story of how they did it.
At 44, Aziz has reached the middle of his career with a reputation as a careful manager and a creative thinker. He arrived at the MGM Grand knowing he must replace its restaurants with more exciting concepts. Gatsby's, which he refers to scornfully as an "anniversary room," will be first to go. He can't afford a special-occasion restaurant taking up valuable space, not in the midst of some of the most precious real estate in America. "People sleeping in your hotel end up eating elsewhere," he says. "When that happens, you lose them for the night."
Whatever replaces Gatsby's will set the tone for the repositioning of the entire hotel. It must be intriguing enough to lure guests from competing properties, and offer the flexibility and value to keep them coming back. Aziz wants elegance, but not the $40 entrées that accompany elegance in Las Vegas these days. Yet the restaurant must also make money. For weeks, Aziz rolls these seemingly disparate ideas around in his head, looking for a concept to unite them.
In Las Vegas, succeeding without a name chef is too hard. Aziz has known Michael Mina since Mina started at Aqua in San Francisco a decade ago and Aziz was the food and beverage director at the Westin St. Francis in Union Square. Now 33, Mina remains part-owner and executive chef at Aqua, and he also consults at and owns part of San Francisco's Charles Nob Hill, Pisces in Burlingame, California, and the Bellagio's Aqua. With flashing eyes and a charismatic presence, he started his career under Charlie Palmer at New York's Aureole. By 1991, he had arrived in San Francisco, where he teamed with investor Charles Condy at Aqua.
Aziz came to San Francisco at about the same time. At their first meeting, Mina cooked him a sophisticated 14-course meal. They discovered both had been born in Cairo. Over dessert that night, Aziz tried to hire Mina for the St. Francis. "Gamal, I just don't work in hotels and I never will," Mina said. "It's too limiting." Years later, when Aziz was recruiting chefs for the Bellagio, he tried again. He knew an upscale fish and seafood restaurant like Aqua, with its sophisticated ambience and boutique wines, would be perfect for a city in which fine dining still meant massive steaks and chops. Once Mina sensed the level of commitment that Wynn and his team were bringing to the Bellagio's restaurants, he agreed to open Aqua there.
Mina's Aqua has been perhaps the Bellagio's biggest success. It is almost always full, reviews have been exceptional, and Mina is a hot property. Now Aziz wants him for the flagship space in the MGM Grand.
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