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Bistro Bows In

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

(continued from page 6)

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.

 

THE OPENING

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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