Bistro Bows In

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Aziz needs a name to pull the concept together. So far, that name is Amusé. They envision terrific canapés at the bar. "Gorgeous canapés, like coming into someone's home," Mina says. "You sit down to this great bread, and some things you can share. A French feel."
Except that Lanni and Blau don't want a French restaurant. "A French restaurant sends a different message, especially to a gaming clientele," Lanni tells them. Instead of huge checks, the MGM needs repeat business. The goal is 180 covers on a good night, up from the 70 or 80 of Gatsby's.
At this point, there are five restaurants evolving in five different heads. During the proposal to Lanni, Chi had stressed the neighborhood concept. He referenced New York neighborhoods such as his own, but Mina is spiritually and geographically a San Franciscan. He proposes thinking about a San Francisco name. Union Square is taken by Danny Meyer, but Pacific Heights? Presidio?
In early March, Aziz circulates a list with three names: Nob Hill, Presidio and Pacific Heights. Chi pushes for Nob Hill. "Two words dictate the whole design," he says. "One is playful, the other elegant. We are selling a culture. We are selling a spirit." His argument is persuasive; the name is chosen by acclimation. Only Lanni shrugs.
"I think 90 percent of the people who come in have no idea Nob Hill means San Francisco," he says. "But to me, the restaurant can be called Joe's Place, as long as the food is good enough."
Nob Hill will have the soul of a San Francisco restaurant, but it has to make sense for Las Vegas. Examples of this start showing up in the design. The lounge area is huge, almost the size of the dining space. "People like to drink when they're in Vegas, and we want to take advantage of that," Aziz says. "There's profit in it, but it also generates an energy we need."
That will be captured, too, in the mood of the room as set by the service staff. "When people come to dinner in Las Vegas, they're in a good mood," Aziz says. "If a server spends a bit more time with a table, laughing and joking, it's OK."
Aziz expresses all of this to his new general manager. Didier Palange has run Bouley and Danube in New York. Hiring someone of Palange's caliber is something Aziz never could have pulled off before. Three years ago, even as Las Vegas restaurants like Le Cirque and Lutece were making their way from the drawing board to reality, the city was not only a topographical desert, but a culinary desert. Aziz had to sell an entire corporate vision to get talent to relocate to a city that served its best food for $5 a plate. "Now," Aziz says, "my résumé file has some of the best in the country."
That's true in the kitchen, too. "People who want to get out of big cities are leaning toward Las Vegas," Mina explains. "It used to be you'd go to New York or San Francisco and starve yourself so you could work 18 hours a day in a kitchen. Now you go to Las Vegas, work a year at Aqua, a year at Picasso, a year at Le Cirque, build a nice résumé. At the same time, you can afford to buy a house."
Each week, Nob Hill evolves a little more. Mina calls one day with the idea of a potato cart, five flavors of whipped potatoes to be served at every table. This has design ramifications. The centerpiece on each table now becomes a heating element, to keep the potatoes warm. That gives Nob Hill yet another point of difference from the rest of the Strip. Chi admits he's getting design inspiration from his own hangout, an Irish pub in Manhattan. "The booths there are used for all purposes," he says one day. "In the afternoon, I go and read my newspaper. In the evening, I have a great meal and get entertained."
Chi has the mesmerizing ability to turn the description of a restaurant into a short story. Whenever Mina starts to worry, he picks up the phone for an earful of Chi's soothing visions. "We're a neighborhood restaurant," Chi says. "We create the perception that this is a humble tavern, without pretensions. You look at the menu, and you might even have a meat loaf. But the quality is unexpected, and the level of service will bring joy until the end.
"Now, when you come to the big dining room in the back, it's a dining hall. I love the word ëhall,' by the way. High ceilings, 16 feet tall, with a parchment chandelier on the ceiling that casts a glow. Then you have the oven tucked into a corner, with a visible flame. That speaks of autumn. Americans get together in autumn. It's all about meal-period celebration."
Chi understands that in Las Vegas, unlike anywhere else, atmosphere-setting can work all year. No outside world intrudes on
the man-made reality. "You're surrounded by such a huge indoor environment," he says. "Does it really matter that it isn't autumn outside? You don't know what season it is. You don't know what day it is. You don't even know what time it is."
In search of a chef, Aziz and Mina hold a series of tastings. Brian Konopka, the executive chef at Le Cirque in Las Vegas, poaches a lobster for them alongside potato gnocchi and sautÈed quail egg. He concocts a Wellington of foie gras and wild mushrooms. He braises veal shank with veal cheek risotto. "We were astounded," Aziz says.
In late April, they decide to offer Konopka the position. But before they do, another chef calls. "A three-star chef, who works for a total superstar in New York but wants to move to Las Vegas," Aziz says. "He's heard we're putting together a team for Nob Hill, and he wants to do a tasting. I haven't worked with him but I've tried his food many, many times." The chef is Francis Raynard, Daniel Boulud's lieutenant at Restaurant Daniel. His rÈsumÈ is so good that Aziz decides to give him a chance.
Raynard flies to Las Vegas to cook a meal. The five-course presentation is masterful, starting with a salad of crunchy vegetables and langoustines and culminating in grilled squab with sautÈed chanterelles. "Brilliant, absolutely brilliant," Aziz says. "The consistency of the sauces, the intensity of the flavors. His ability to do something simple, like a vegetable salad, and have it talked about all lunch long. Everything he did showed a very confident hand."
Now they have a dilemma. "This project has Michael's style, his thinking and his food written all over it," Aziz says. "He has ideas that are entirely his, and he wants the execution to be a certain way. Francis has been the rising star who is now looking for stability. Brian still wants to make a name for himself." Aziz offers Raynard the job. He mollifies Konopka by assuring him that he's high on the list for future MGM projects.
As soon as Raynard returns from an Italian trip, Mina plans to sit down with him and go over the menu, which is taking shape. Half the appetizers offered will be for the table, Mina has decided. The tasting menu will be San Francisco-driven, with witty variations on some of the San Francisco classics. "Once Francis gets a feel for the style, he'll start putting in dishes," Mina says. He has already done a sea bass in salt crust that Mina likes so much, he wants it on the menu.
Then the unexpected happens. Raynard decides not to come. He leaves Mina a message saying that he's sorry, but he can't move to Las Vegas after all. Attempts to contact him prove futile, and then Mina stops trying. He has his own problems now. Six weeks before the scheduled opening, he has no chef.
That's when he makes a fundamental decision. Although he has a new baby at home, he decides that he'll live in a suite at the hotel and cook at Nob Hill himself for at least a few months. Rather than find someone willing to execute a Mina concept, the MGM will get Mina. For Nob Hill, it's a turning point.
Mina is personally involved with every detail now. He has someone in San Francisco scouring farms and markets for him on an ongoing basis. Three-quarters of the food at Nob Hill, maybe more, will be made from Bay Area products, meat and poultry and fish and greens. That's how he'll create a legitimate San Francisco restaurant in the Nevada desert.
"The challenge is, how do you integrate the small farms and tiny suppliers into a large hotel's purchasing department?" Mina wants to know. Six weeks out, with Gatsby's scheduled to be demolished in a matter of hours, Aziz doesn't have an answer for him yet.
In late June, the MGM's Kristin Koca begins to release promotional material about the restaurant. Her mandate from Aziz is mostly to tell the public what Nob Hill isn't. "It's not a tavern, not a bistro, not ethnic, not American, not Californian," he explains. Most important, it's not some Disneyfied version of the San Francisco experience, cable cars and sourdough bread for the masses.
With the opening fast approaching, Mina hires an old culinary school roommate to help run the kitchen. But the bigger news is Aziz's promotion to president and chief operating officer of the hotel. "I think Gamal is going to be one of the finest hotel and casino presidents in this industry," Lanni gushes. "He dares to think outside the scope of the given subject." The promotion will put another layer of personnel between Aziz and the restaurants, and force him to occupy much of his time with other concerns. But it also puts a food-savvy executive in charge of what Lanni characterizes as the company's second most important property, after the Bellagio. This sends a message.
By now the restaurant looks spectacular, maybe too spectacular. It's primarily walnut and streaked glass, stark and simple. If this is a neighborhood restaurant, someone says, I'd love to see the neighborhood. The oven looms over one corner of the dining room, lessening its formality. Mina shows off the gleaming kitchen, still in the original space that Trotter had commissioned.
In subtle ways, Nob Hill has evolved into a real Las Vegas restaurant. There's the theme of elsewhere, the Strip already having done New York, Paris, Italian lakes, Venice, ancient Egypt and Persia. There's the oven, providing the necessary "wow." There's the performance involved with the service, waiters appearing with trays of this and carts of that, and unique toys, like a bread basket with a heatable slab of marble in the bottom to keep the bread warm. In Las Vegas, competition being what it is, such details provide a point of difference. The wine list, quirky and impressive, is another. As with the produce, Mina and Aziz have been able to skirt the massive purchasing system of the hotel.
For a week, employees and various VIPs eat at Nob Hill for free to help the restaurant stretch its muscles. Next comes the media party, a walk-around dinner for local journalists and personalities, with the opening to follow the next night. Aziz is nervous, but last time was worse, he recalls. "We got so many warnings that Bellagio was going to be a disaster," he says. "I was totally and absolutely frightened." Back then, even Wynn hadn't been sure. "I just hope I don't lose my shirt on your fancy chefs," he had told Aziz. In his weakest moments, Aziz recalls that conversation.
Party guests start arriving at 6:30. The booths up front, walled in by the streaked glass, fill up first. The bar turns out one colorful drink after another. Mai Tais taste like the San Francisco originals, more sour than sweet. There are Bellinis and Cable Cars, Mojitos and Margaritas. Trays arrive with shrimp wrapped in pancetta, oysters and clams on the half shell, seafood egg rolls. In the dining room, pot pies and charcuterie and sliced beef are served at various stations. The line for the whipped potatoes is the longest.
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