No longer just an oasis of sin veneered with innocent kitsch, the millennial Las Vegas is a delirious cocktail of grand historical gestures and mind-boggling special effects. An Eiffel Tower looms over the Doges' Palace. The Chrysler Building casts its shadow on an Egyptian pyramid. Dancing around them are singing fountains, erupting volcanoes, seas with fake waves. Check your sense of reality at McCarran airport.
And the restaurants — the restaurants! The shrimp cocktails and 50-cent prime ribs of yore have been beamed back to Planet Nostalgia, replaced by an edible nirvana of pleasure and spectacle. No wonder celebrity restaurant designers and chefs are turning Vegas into their latest outpost. Sometimes the clones outshine the originals. Aureole's awkward quarters in Manhattan can't compete with its outrageously sleek digs at the Mandalay Bay hotel. Jeffrey Chodorow's Las Vegas China Grill is way cooler than its South Beach predecessor. And with only 70 seats, the Vegas Le Cirque can tune its food even finer than the New York location. Don't believe me?Go see for yourself.
careful, these are originals!
When, like Steve Wynn, you panel your signature restaurants with genuine Renoirs and Picassos, you don't install a Xerox chef in the kitchen. In a city rife with impersonators, Alessandro Stratta is the real goods. Born into a glamorous Italian hotel family—in Mexico one year, Malaysia the next—he cooked at Le Cirque and at Monte Carlo's Louis XV before turning Mary Elaine's in Scottsdale into one of the hautest joints west of Manhattan. When Wynn lured Stratta to Vegas, he put him in charge of the tacky "fine-dining" restaurant at the Mirage. Stratta sulked. But Wynn (who at press time was negotiating the sale of Mirage hotels) was good to his chefs: after a no-expense-spared renovation, the place was reborn as Renoir, a petite gazebo padded with Italian silks, awash in flowers, and accessorized with three real Renoirs.
Here Stratta cooks like a prince. An ambrosial, satin-textured lobster purée is ladled around lobster fricassee. A glowing fillet of black bass arrives in an aromatic emulsion of fennel and olive oil, and bits of caramelized chestnuts for texture. And Stratta's pastas are everything you expect from an Italian schooled by Alain Ducasse: diminutive braised-duck cannelloni on a bed of leeks; impeccably light, ricotta-filled ravioli paired with a winy ragoût of plump snails. As a Vegas simulation of a Michelin-star experience, Renoir is so convincing it's uncanny. Royal and flush.
Picasso at Wynn's Bellagio trumps even this. Today, it may well be the greatest dining act on earth; if a better one exists, please show it to me. Where else can you eat surrounded by $50 million worth of Pablo's artwork (mind you, all these may disappear once the sale goes through); gaze at the dancing fountains on a fake Bellagio Lake (imagine Old Faithful directed by Busby Berkeley); or experience such tightly choreographed service?
And Julian Serrano's cuisine?The dignity of his conceits and the expressive purity of his ingredients lend depth to the entire production. (To Wynn's credit, hiring Serrano for Picasso was like casting Meryl Streep in a Broadway extravaganza.) The fortyish Spaniard has forsaken the more baroque style he favored at Masa's in San Francisco for spontaneity—his daily-changing menus aren't set until 3 p.m.—dressed up with classic, classy finesse. He will serve you the world's sweetest, most precious langoustines accented by dots of balsamic reduction. A dusting of truffles doesn't distract from the amazing flavor of the Colorado lamb. And Serrano will go to great lengths to ferret out a snowy piece of Maine halibut (set on a potato carpaccio) that is as poetic as fish ever gets.
This is where I'd go for my last meal.
catch of the day
Last summer the Hard Rock Hotel threw down the gauntlet before the competition by convincing sushi emperor Nobu Matsuhisa to open his fourth Nobu in the hotel's frenetic restaurant arcade. Designer David Rockwell, taking cues from the first Nobu in Manhattan, created an enigmatic neo-primitivist space where Finnish birch forest meets Japanese pebble garden, while fuzzy sconces and vaguely fetishistic objets leer from the walls. The place is perpetually mobbed and the service is spotty, but that's cool with the rowdy music-industry crowd. (What's with the Todd Rundgren look, anyway?) Go for Matsuhisa's signature "new-style" sashimis and miso-glazed black cod—or say "omakase" (chef's choice) and be surprised by a cycle of edible haiku, each tiny course a meditation on texture. A composition of cool and slippery cucumber, raw whitefish, and shrimp tingles with the citrusy perfume of yuzu, a Japanese fruit. Pieces of buttery seared salmon and toro are offset by the pucker of invisible jalapeño vinaigrette. A small hunk of Chilean sea bass is richly unctuous yet completely ethereal—something to inhale rather than digest. Did I say ethereal?Famished after an eight-course degustation, I broke down and ordered a flamboyant soft-shell-crab roll. It was the single best thing I tasted in town.
According to Vegas concierges, Aqua at the Bellagio is one of the toughest dinner tickets in town. You'll see why when you pass the swank, gleaming lounge—yes, those are Rauschenbergs on the walls—and settle into an intimate Nordic Moderne dining room that hums with big-city energy (the original Aqua is in San Francisco). If Aqua was in your town—and your company just went public—you'd eat here every Saturday night, and you'd never get bored with its seafood creations. How could you?That mouthwatering tuna tartare deftly tossed at your table with pine nuts and sesame oil . . . the flirtatious tempura of langoustine accompanied by a cute and spicy soybean coulis . . . that sassy piece of porcini-crusted turbot on a plate painted with a red-wine reduction . . . the caviar cart loaded with a lavish selection of glistening fish eggs. For the rest of the week, you'd fantasize about Aqua's incredible ice cream, served from another cart and sprinkled with crunchy bits of praline and shavings of bittersweet chocolate. Among the make-believe restaurants of Vegas, Aqua feels most like the real world—a friendly, hip, and very wealthy world. Which makes it that much more unreal.
how haute can you go?
As you stroll down Mandalay Bay's sleek restaurant row, you peek inside Aureole and witness a scene from Mission: Impossible—a girl in a catsuit, strapped to a harness, being hoisted 45 feet up a Plexiglas wine tower to retrieve a bottle of Bordeaux. (What if she made off with Steve Wynn's Picassos?) Designer Adam Tihany has pulled out all the stops at this New York transplant, creating a grandiose and glamorously blond room that feels like an Art Deco bank aboard a giant ocean liner.
My first meal here, a year ago, somewhat embarrassed the setting. But this time the menu (from Charlie Palmer protégé Joe Romano) struck a winning balance between ambition and comfort. Everything I tasted was scrumptious, from the flawless nuggets of lobster in a tomato compote zapped with candied citrus to the mushroom ravioli lavished with morels and tiny white beans. And I'll always cherish the memory of the duck pot-au-feu, an intense truffled game broth teeming with baby vegetables and slivers of duck under a shattering lid of puff pastry. Want a rare grand cru to accompany that venison chop in a rich, glossy reduction?Aureole is your place. But with such clever wines by the glass, lay your inheritance on the baccarat table instead.