Craftsteak Goes to Vegas

Craftsteak Goes to Vegas

Tom Tavee
Tom Tavee
What happens when a top Manhattan chef decides to play his hand in Vegas?Peter Jon Lindberg goes behind the scenes at the opening of Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, the latest of the big-name restaurants that are redefining Las Vegas.

Tom Colicchio is standing in a hidden corner of the MGM Grand hotel, shouting above the whine of a band saw. Dodging sparks from an arc welder, coughing through a cloud of plaster dust, he gazes around the room and flashes a grin. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Well, not at this moment, exactly. Drop cloths cover the floor; hook lights dangle from what may someday be a ceiling. The vast room is empty save for a scissor lift, piles of plywood, and a dozen cursing construction workers. It's impossible to believe that this $5 million show will debut in five weeks—as of right now, there isn't even a stage set.

Colicchio isn't worried. He has seen much worse. The launch of his last restaurant, for instance—Craft, in New York, which opened after a four-month delay in March 2001. "A freak show," he recalls. "First, the stoves wouldn't fit down the stairs to the kitchen. Then an electrical panel fell off a delivery truck and broke. On opening night, we lost our hot water and heat—we had to bring in space heaters. Then the fire alarm wouldn't stop ringing." He laughs. "So, really, this is going pretty well."

He has reason to be hopeful: Craft went on to earn a three-star review from the New York Times and a James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant in America. Colicchio is a familiar face at the Beard awards: he was named Best Chef in New York in 2000 for his cooking at Gramercy Tavern, which he still co-owns, and last year his book, Think Like a Chef, won a prize for Best Cookbook.

Perhaps a well-deserved break was in order?

Nah. Even before Craft opened, Colicchio was plotting his next move. The restaurant would be called Craftsteak. And he'd do it in Las Vegas.

FROM VELVEETA TO VELOUTÉ A decade has passed since Wolfgang Puck stormed into Vegas to open a branch of Spago, his celebrated L.A. restaurant. It's easy to forget just how risky this move was. Back in the B.S. (Before Spago) era, casino meals were meant to appease guests, not impress them. Restaurants competed by lowering prices, not by serving better food. In the days of $1.49 buffets, creativity was confined to the waitstaff costumes.

Spago broke the Jell-O mold. Though the Caesars Palace outpost couldn't match the original's flair, its tables were jammed every night with high rollers, conventioneers, and curious tourists. Casino owners were baffled—and intrigued. Soon, food stars such as Charlie Trotter and Jean-Louis Palladin were being invited to the Strip. But the haute dining trend really took off in 1998, with the opening of the $1.6 billion Bellagio resort. Gamal Aziz, its food and beverage director, was given a bold mandate: coax five or six of the nation's top chefs to open at Bellagio. Despite Spago's success, the plan was far from foolproof. "There was no indication that a hotel with half a dozen great restaurants would work," Aziz says now. Even Bellagio's then-owner, Vegas impresario Steve Wynn, had doubts, Aziz says. "His attitude was, 'Why complicate things with fancy chefs who'll want the asparagus to look a certain way?They'll drive the purchasing department crazy.' "

But Wynn eventually came around, and Bellagio recruited such culinary icons as Sirio Maccioni (of New York's Le Cirque), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges and Vong, in Manhattan), and Todd English (Olives, Boston) to create splashy, high-end dining rooms. The formula worked. "We expected to do a hundred twenty million dollars in food revenue our first year, and ended up doing two hundred million," Aziz says. "Suddenly our restaurants were running a twenty-five percent profit, which was unheard-of in Vegas." The feeding frenzy had begun.

These days, of course, celebrity chefs are household names, with the inevitable frozen pizza lines and Food Network shows to prove it. And nowhere are they more revered than in Vegas, the capital of brand worship. It's a given that a resort will have at least two big-name chefs heading up its "signature restaurants" (read: the good ones). It may seem odd to see Emeril Lagasse sharing a neon billboard with David Copperfield, but in today's Vegas, chefs are the new magicians.

"Twenty years ago, a young cook wanted to work in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. That was it," Colicchio says. "Now Vegas is one of the top food cities in the country."

THE BIG GAMBLE Colicchio's flirtation with Las Vegas began two years ago with an unexpected phone call from Gamal Aziz. Aziz had left Bellagio and was heading up the MGM Grand, a gargantuan, family-oriented hotel that possessed little of Bellagio's cachet. "My first priority was to overhaul the restaurants, which were in a sorry state," he says. Aziz was convinced he could step up the MGM's image and "credibility" using the same approach he'd taken at Bellagio. "And since I'd always loved Gramercy Tavern," he says, "Tom was the first person I called."

The plan was to spruce up the Brown Derby, the MGM's obligatory steak house. (Every Vegas hotel has one.) While the Derby did a healthy business, Aziz contends that "there wasn't enough focus on food and service. It needed help." He proposed a $250,000 renovation.

Colicchio was curious. But he had no interest in "just putting my name on someone else's package." He wanted to control the redesign himself, and to create an entirely new menu. He also insisted, with typically brash confidence, on calling the place Craft—even though the Manhattan restaurant hadn't opened yet. But MGM wanted the word steak in the name. "So, naturally, we threw them 'Craftsteak,' " Colicchio says. MGM agreed. To design the space, Colicchio brought in Peter Bentel, the architect behind Craft and Gramercy Tavern. Plans called for a 320-seat dining room and bar (more than twice the capacity of the restaurant's New York namesake), as well as a state-of-the-art kitchen. Soon, the $250,000 "renovation" swelled into a $5 million project.

Speaking in his office five weeks before the scheduled opening, Aziz is sanguine."Craftsteak will be the anchor for the MGM Grand," Aziz says. But it will also be a far cry from Vegas-as-usual.

BACK TO BASICS Honesty and integrity are the last words you'd expect to apply to a restaurant in a casino hotel, but those are the very terms Colicchio uses when outlining his plans for Craftsteak. Like Craft, the new restaurant will focus on the purest ingredients—from family-run farms and ranches, day-boat fishermen, and artisanal producers—and then, as Colicchio puts it, "get out of the way." Rather than distracting diners with fussy presentations, Colicchio's approach lets ingredients speak for themselves.

Nor will the dining room rely on theatrics. Peter Bentel's sketches are striking for their sober simplicity: grown-up woods and muted earth tones. Craftsteak will look, in short, like a stylish restaurant in Manhattan—quite a departure for this town, where design is still all about excess. Witness the bungee-corded stewards rappelling down the 50-foot wine tower at Aureole, or the $10 million canvases hanging at Picasso. Craftsteak offers a quiet rebuttal: no flash in this pan, thank you very much.

But will such a pared-down approach succeed in a town long devoted to spectacle?Will Vegas diners really care about "purity" and "integrity," or whether the beets came from an organic plot on Long Island?(Do people even eat beets in Vegas?)

Colicchio refuses to believe that diners here are different from those in New York. "Sophisticated diners are everywhere now, whether it's San Francisco or Milwaukee," he insists. "People's idea of a great meal doesn't change just because they're in Las Vegas."

If that's the case, is Vegas even Vegas anymore?Judging from the style and tone of some of the city's newest clubs, hotels, and restaurants, a change certainly seems to be under way. That's nothing new in itself—like Cher, its patron saint, the city has had countless incarnations. But this year's models are surprising for being so very "un-Vegas": sleek, urbane, even (dare we say it?) cool. Hip hotels like the Palms, chic nightclubs like V Bar (at the Venetian) and Light (at Bellagio), and now elegantly understated restaurants like Craftsteak are challenging old notions of a "Vegas sensibility."

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.

THE FINAL PUSH "We've gotta move back the opening," Tom announces. It's two weeks later, and Colicchio is examining the schedule with Albrecht and Lapin. "We need more time for training."

Colicchio knows that the staff will be a critical factor for Craftsteak. "I have no doubt that we can make great food here," he says. "The challenge lies in bringing our brand of service to Vegas. Taking a group of waiters who may not have been taught this way, and imparting our knowledge, attitude, and style." Colicchio's restaurants are renowned for assured service: the waitstaff can explain the origins of Jerusalem artichokes as easily as they can recommend a great Pinot Noir.

Craftsteak, Colicchio hopes, will be no different. To that end, he has insisted on taking charge of staff training, an area usually overseen by the hotel. There's a catch: since MGM is a union hotel, many of the Brown Derby's workers were retained after its closing, per union rules. They now make up 80 percent of Craftsteak's front-of-house staff. So a large part of their training will be devoted to "unlearning" old habits and techniques.

Lapin makes this point clear later that morning, at the first all-staff meeting. "Put aside everything you know," he tells the crowd in a hotel conference room. "The way you braised meats, the way you answered the phone, all of it—take a deep breath and let it go." A few eager trainees audibly exhale. The rest cast weary looks at the massive tome resting on their laps: an exhaustively detailed, 200-page training manual.

The manual is a veritable encyclopedia of food and drink, covering everything from seasoning to coffee to single malts. A 100-term glossary accompanies the tea section; legumes merit several pages of description. "I want everyone to study the manual thoroughly," Lapin intones, "whether you're a line cook, a runner, or a hostess. By the time we open, each of you should know this stuff by heart." Nervous whispers float through the crowd: Can he possibly be serious?

READY OR NOT After two solid weeks of nine-to-five training, Craftsteak is finally due for a dress rehearsal. Tonight it'll stage the first of five previews for a handful of invited guests.

Since Colicchio's last visit, the space has been transformed. He stands flabbergasted, admiring the gleaming floors of Brazilian walnut, the long, sweeping banquettes upholstered in rich leather, the walls of slate, stucco, and glass. The room is just 100 yards from the MGM casino, with its themed lounges and clanging slots, yet it couldn't be further away.

In the kitchen, however, things aren't going quite as planned. To help with the early glitches, Colicchio has brought along a favorite sous-chef from Craft, Sisha Ortuzar, who is dealing with a slew of "bad orders" from tonight's guests. "All they want is lobster and well-done meat," he complains. One table requests A.1. sauce for the porterhouse. Ortuzar confesses he's never tasted A.1. He sends an assistant out to procure a bottle, samples it ("Yikes!"), then proceeds to concoct his own variation. It's infinitely better, but that doesn't appease Mr. Porterhouse. Another party wants ranch dressing on the shaved fennel salad. "They don't get it," Ortuzar groans, throwing up his hands. Albrecht assures him it's not the normal clientele—most are fellow MGM employees here only for a free steak. Still, it's poignant to see the sous-chef wince as he sends out the A.1.

Orders are better at the next night's rehearsal, but the crowd is overwhelming. Though Colicchio has limited bookings to 26 guests per hour, assorted MGM executives and VIP's keep showing up unannounced, demanding tables for 10. What started as a casual training run soon becomes a full-blown dinner for 200. The buzz has clearly begun: seemingly all of Vegas is curious about the new kid in town.

Five nights later, a packed house is on hand for Craftsteak's official opening—and two years of planning, four months of construction, and weeks of training finally pay off. The warble of Chet Baker's trumpet fills the room ("No Sinatra!" Lapin says triumphantly). Passers-by wander in on their way to the casino to marvel at the space. And the food positively sings—from the braised lamb shank, tender as the finest osso buco, to the Hawaiian grass-fed strip steak, with its shockingly direct, earthy flavor, so unlike that of typical grain-fed beef. As at Craft in New York, the sides are as powerful as any main course: the roasted beets glow in vibrant Technicolor; a simple plate of baby carrots has one diner asking for the farmer's name. Though it's nominally a steak restaurant, Craftsteak may also be the best vegetarian option in town. (As one waiter puts it, "We're putting the 'veg' back in 'Vegas.' ")

When the last tables have been cleared, Colicchio strolls out of the kitchen. Despite the chaotic end run, he looks remarkably relaxed. The crew is convening for margaritas at the Mexican cantina down the hall, but Colicchio graciously opts out and heads upstairs to his hotel room: Aziz has wangled him a 7 a.m. tee time at Shadow Creek, the exclusive golf course owned by MGM.

LAS VEGAS REVISITED Three months later, Colicchio strides into his Manhattan office, fresh off an afternoon flight from Vegas. He makes the trip every four weeks now. Business so far has been steady and strong, with an even broader clientele than Colicchio expected—though this presents its own complications. "To market this restaurant, we need to figure out who we're marketing to," he says. "Right now it's hard to say. We've had everything from families to bachelor parties to fight-night crowds, plus a lot of locals—not the typical Vegas clientele.

"Then again," he adds, "we're doing something unusual. Most people are surprised—like, 'Hey, this is a real restaurant, not a Disneyland version.' When you walk in the door, you leave the casino and the hotel and even Vegas behind you."

Not to mention the A.1.

Las Vegas has gone from rinky-dink frontier town to swinging Rat Pack mecca; from Sin City in the seventies to family playland in the nineties; from all-you-can-eat buffets at Binion's Horseshoe to all-you-can-spend dinners at Bellagio. Now the city has upped the ante once again, reaching out to a more urbane crowd with a cool new breed of hotels, restaurants, and clubs. Welcome to Las Vegas version 8.0.


Craftsteak At Tom Colicchio's place at the MGM Grand, meat is the headliner—try the braised veal shank and the grass-fed strip steak. But where the kitchen really shines is in the side dishes: roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, squash blossoms, Jerusalem artichokes. dinner for two $120 3799 Las Vegas blvd. s. 702/891-7318

Nobhill San Francisco chef Michael Mina, of Aqua fame, moves beyond fish at his polished new room in the MGM Grand, with fresh, hearty American dishes (roast rack of pork, lobster pot pie, seared foie gras) and amazing bread. Nominated for Best New Restaurant in America last year by the James Beard Foundation (it lost, oddly enough, to Craft in New York). dinner for two $115 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. s. 702/891-7337

Alizé André Rochat, creator of André's (the doyenne of French restaurants in Vegas), took to the Palms resort last November for his newest shrine to French cuisine, perched atop the hotel and offering the best views in town. The two-story wine cellar contains 1,500 labels. dinner for two $125 Palms casino resort & Hotel, 4321 W. Flamingo Rd. 702/951-7000


Palms Casino Resort & Hotel The theme is there is no theme: the Palms is simply a stylish, retro resort a mile off the Strip with a great casino and a sexy pool lounge; both have been packed with young hipsters since the opening last November. After dark, check out Little Buddha, an offshoot of Paris's notorious Buddha Bar, or the sultry Ghostbar, 55 stories up. doubles from $99 4321 W. Flamingo Rd. 866/942-7777 or 702/942-7777

Green Valley Ranch Resort This plush, vaguely Mediterranean resort opened in December in nearby Henderson, about 20 minutes off the Strip. The trek doesn't discourage trendy locals and out-of-towners from flocking to the hotel's Whiskey Sky club (see below) or the sumptuous pool complex, on a hillside with great views of the Vegas skyline. doubles from $200 2300 Paseo Verde Pkwy., Henderson 866/782-9487 or 702/617-9487


Whiskey Sky The first Vegas outpost from nightlife impresario Rande Gerber (a.k.a. Mr. Cindy Crawford) is certainly among his grandest: a sprawling playground that combines a dance club, a quieter bar, and an eight-acre pool area (Whiskey Beach) with actual sand, private cabanas, and live entertainment. Green Valley Ranch Resort 702/617-7777

V Bar Can you believe it?Inside the over-the-top Venetian Resort lurks a chic, minimalist lounge that could have been airlifted from SoHo or West Hollywood. (In a sense, it was: the owners also opened Lotus in New York and the Sunset Room in L.A.) Acid jazz, neo-soul, and edgy scenesters complete the vibe. Venetian Resort, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. s. 702/414-3200

Light A wildly successful branch of the popular New York club, Light may be as sophisticated as Vegas nightlife gets. Candles, scarlet drapes, and sleek mod furnishings make the moderately sized space seem worlds away from the Strip. Well-heeled couples and the occasional celeb (recent sightings: Anthony Kiedis, Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio) only confirm the beyond-the-velvet-rope feeling. Bellagio Hotel & Casino, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 702/693-8300

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