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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.

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.

 

THE VISIONARIES

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.

 

THE VISION

Bellagio had been a phenomenal opportunity, an unprecedented stage, so Mina had felt comfortable creating another Aqua, a concept that he knew would work. But with the economy waning, he wonders, how many great restaurants can Las Vegas support?

He also doesn't want to do fish again. Mina offers to put Aziz in touch with another chef who might be hungrier, eager for a break. But Aziz won't give up. Another Mina restaurant in Las Vegas makes sense for several reasons, he argues. Mina already has a client base from Aqua. He has infrastructure and staff here. And while Aqua was created by Condy, this is a chance to succeed in America's most competitive restaurant environment with a concept of his own. Aziz wants Mina to know that he isn't wedded to fish. Perhaps there's something else Mina has wanted to do?

There is. In 1990, Mina had worked briefly as the pastry chef at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles. What he proposes now is a restaurant built around a giant oven. He wants to put the oven in the dining room, where everyone can see it. He'll bake his own bread, turn out variations on the lobster pie that's so popular at Aqua, make great desserts.

Aziz is intrigued, but worried. In the desert, with temperatures reaching 110 degrees, anything that might generate too much heat must be avoided. He's starting to sweat just thinking about an oven in a dining room. Nevertheless, he wants Mina, and Mina wants an oven, so Aziz asks the MGM's engineers. They propose shooting the hot air generated by the oven out through the walls of the hotel and replacing it with cold air. The only problem, they admit, is that the solution is merely theoretical. In practice, it probably won't work.

Aziz decides to move ahead with a concept for an oven-based restaurant, but with a conventional kitchen oven. He commissions Tony Chi, who had designed Aqua, to do a rendering. When Mina sees it, his face drops. "It has everything I want," he says. "Except the oven."

Aziz is worried that Mina, who hasn't signed a deal, will back out. He's almost as worried that Mina will continue, but without enthusiasm. The project is teetering now, its outcome in doubt. Then, dramatically, the engineers call back. They've concocted a way to keep a dining room cool despite a massive oven. Aziz doesn't wait for the details. He calls Mina immediately.

In Mina's vision, the oven is set against one wall of the dining room, with a service table in front. There'll be no beautifying of the food out of sight of the patrons, he ordains. It will emerge from the oven, be plated, get sent out. Mina even thinks he knows the oven he wants. It's at the Las Vegas outpost of La Brea Bakery, which bakes bread for the Bellagio. La Brea has outgrown it; Mina sees it and pronounces it perfect.

 

THE CONCEPT

Now that the oven is paid for, it begins to drive the concept. "A neighborhood restaurant," Aziz says, "where the bar is a great place to hang out, and there's all this activity with the oven." It works for him as a marketable idea because it's cutting-edge yet what will be served in the dining room is upscale comfort food, such as pot pies and whipped potatoes.

By late February, the project has solidified enough for Aziz to present it to Lanni. Aziz knows that Aqua was Lanni's favorite Las Vegas restaurant even before MGM owned the Bellagio. Still, Aziz has no idea how he'll react to the giant oven, or to Chi's design. Chi has flown in to present the concept to Lanni, whom he doesn't know. Chi's a master at using his sketches and his words to make nebulous ideas come alive, but sometimes outsiders get lost amid his enthusiasm.

Instead, Lanni gets swept up in the narrative. The details, including a bar that's designed so the bottles are freestanding yet virtually unseen, reveal a concept with real depth. "The intrigue of the little booths as you come in on the right, like private railroad cars," Lanni remembers. "That exciting oven in the dining area. I felt it was all extremely inventive." At the end of the presentation, Lanni tells Aziz and his team to go ahead.

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."

 

THE EVOLUTION

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."

 

THE CHEF

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.

 

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.

Mina is jazzed now. This restaurant, which has existed in his mind for almost a decade, is on the verge of becoming reality. The next day, he can't stay away. He's in the kitchen by 10 o'clock. In the lull before the opening, he spends a moment getting perspective. "What I like best about it is its flexibility," he says. "You can have a salad and just a salad, or a tasting menu." In that sense, Nob Hill is everything that Charlie Trotter wasn't.

At 5:30 the doors open. The man in the bow tie and the woman in heels are first to arrive. They have no reservations, but they're intrigued by the dramatic design. They get a table for two against the long side wall. The wait is over. Now the work has begun.

 

Nob Hill

MGM Grand, Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd, 702/693-7223

 

Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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