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Craftsteak Goes to Vegas

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.

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