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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.

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