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."