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Craftsteak Goes to Vegas

KEEPING IT REAL Still, some tastes are slow to change. Take the case of the Sinatra impersonator. Bobby Barrett was a popular lounge act at the old Brown Derby; now the hotel wants him back to play the bar at Craftsteak. Jason Lapin, the restaurant's 33-year-old general manager, can only roll his eyes. "Craft is about reality," he says. "How does an impersonator fit with that philosophy?" He and Colicchio are arguing for a jazz trio.

This is Lapin's second tour of duty in Vegas: 10 years ago, he helped to open Spago. After stints in New York and L.A., Lapin returned here to work at Craftsteak and found the landscape utterly changed. "Back in '92, it was impossible to convince people in the food trade to relocate here," he says. "Vegas was a backwater. Now it's a great place to build a résumé."

Chris Albrecht, Craftsteak's boyishly handsome head chef, agrees. "This is about as exciting a city as you could work in. Plus, you can actually afford to buy a house here." After six years at Gramercy Tavern and Craft, Albrecht and his wife left New York for a town where they didn't know a single person besides Lapin and his wife. Not that cooking leaves much room for a social life. Long before the stoves will be fired up, Albrecht is already logging 12-hour days, designing the menu and assembling his kitchen staff.

CATTLE CALL It's barely noon, and Colicchio and Albrecht are huddled over a stove in a spare MGM kitchen, grilling up a dozen steaks that have been flown in from six different ranches. After much considered chewing, only one cut passes muster: a Kobe-style strip from Hawaii, so richly marbled it's almost white. Unfortunately, it costs $49 a pound. A frustrated Albrecht decides to call in more samples. Opening night is less than a month away, yet Craftsteak still doesn't have its steak.

Colicchio takes it all in stride. "Except for the beef, we're using a lot of the same suppliers we use in New York," he explains. "For example, my lamb farmer's in Virginia, so the shipping costs to Vegas are roughly the same." Ditto the custom-ground cornmeal from South Carolina and the hand-picked shiitakes from Massachusetts. Colicchio is famously devoted to the green-market ethic, cooking only what's in season and available at local farms. But in Vegas, it's possible to eat "locally" even from 2,000 miles away. With hundreds of flights landing at McCarran airport every day—and with the hotels' immense buying clout—a chef working in the desert often has better access to fresh, unique ingredients than his counterparts in other cities.

The perks go beyond express-mail shiitakes. "Because of the MGM's purchasing power, we're able to buy things we couldn't even consider in New York," Colicchio says, glowing like a kid in a candy store. "Here, Frette table linens are as cheap as regular linens back home. And we're getting these great steak knives that we could never afford at Craft. Meanwhile, the construction is incredibly fast. They're demolishing and rebuilding the entire space in four months. It took a year and a half to build Craft in New York, and that's half the size. These guys are pros."

A four-month renovation may seem speedy by New York standards, but in Las Vegas, it's an eternity. For every hour a restaurant is closed, the hotel loses a great deal of money. Now MGM executives are putting the pressure on Colicchio's team: be ready in four weeks, no excuses.

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