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Dining á Las Vegas

Las Vegas Restaurants
Harvey Steiman
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

Sooner or later, Las Vegas will run out of star chefs and hot restaurant names. What then? Serrano, for one, suggests that the chefs and managers who are laboring under someone else's imprimatur should get the chance to put their own names on a marquee. "These are talented people," says Serrano. "When the hotels give them the support that they gave the star chefs, then this whole fine dining phenomenon will start to put down some roots."  

"[Serrano] is dead on," says Goldstein of The Venetian. "You don't need to get the biggest name in the world. You get a talented young guy and set him up with something special. You could do that today."   Others are not so sure. "This town is still about show business," says Rino Armeni, marketing director for Southern Wine and Spirits, the wine and liquor distributor. "Some of the homegrown chefs will show their talent, but we need the name appeal. Great talent coming from out of town will always be the most important thing in Las Vegas."  

So what's next? The latest rumors involve Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Neither would say anything for the record, but the smart money is betting that older hotels will have to get in the gourmet game if they want to compete with the latest generation of Las Vegas establishments.  

All of the newest hotels upped the ante in different ways. Mandalay Bay included Aureole, Border Grill, China Grill and a Wolfgang Puck enterprise, Trattoria del Lupo, in the mix. Then came Bellagio, which, in addition to lining up brand-name luxury restaurants, took the extraordinary step of setting up a star chef, Julian Serrano, with his own, Picasso. The Venetian, instead of signing the big names to management contracts, leased them the space and let them manage their own enterprises. Aladdin installed Commander's Palace of New Orleans, Anasazi of Santa Fe and upscale restaurants that already had cloned themselves in other cities, such as Italy-based Bice and Chicago-based Macanudo Steakhouse.  

Paris Las Vegas took a different tack. In the planning stages, president Pusateri says, the hotel sought marquee French chefs, including Alain Ducasse, but opted instead to create its own restaurants with consulting chefs who already were familiar with operating from afar. "We didn't need a big name because big names in the other hotels were already drawing the fine dining crowd to Las Vegas," Pusateri explains. "Everybody in the world knows the city of Paris. We knew we could market ourselves if we could make it feel traditionally French."  

The hotel approached Rich Melman, whose Lettuce Entertain You group includes Everest and Ambria, two of Chicago's top-rated restaurants. Melman delivered chef Jean Joho of Everest to focus on the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Paris Las Vegas's fanciest dining room, and Gabino Sotelino of Ambria to work with Mon Ami Gabi, the hotel's brasserie.  

"The other restaurants we manage ourselves," Pusateri adds, noting that the hotel hired all the chefs from France, and contracted with Gaston Lenôtre to run the chocolate and pastry shop. (Lenôtre has patisseries all over France, and in 1980 he was among the first French culinarians to make a foray into the United States when he supervised the French bakery at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World.)  

All this adds up to a sea change in the way hotels approach food, not just in Las Vegas, but everywhere. In Las Vegas, a snazzy new hotel needs to put a name up on the marquee, just as it does to woo guests into the nightclubs. It can't just open a dining room with the hotel's own chefs, as most hotels and resorts elsewhere do. As Goldstein of The Venetian says, "The days of running it yourself without having some kind of identification are gone."  

For all the drawbacks of absentee chefs and once-removed concepts, the payoff is that dining in Las Vegas is several leaps above what it was, and it keeps getting better.  

Harvey Steiman is the editor-at-large of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.    

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