Forget showtime—in today's Vegas, the biggest thrill is mealtime. Hotel owners have put their money on a smart new breed of restaurants, both original and imported. So how do the chips stack up?

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.

Given the great act of transformation in Aureole's kitchen, I had high hopes for Lutèce—another New York clone, this one at the Venetian hotel. During my visit in March it felt like a rehearsal in progress: the Riesling was warm, the roasted-vegetable-and-goat-cheese napoleon almost frozen. The room seemed pretty chilly as well: austerely black and white, and hung with a strange tubular artwork that looked as if it had been hacked off from the Guggenheim.

Some of the chef's ideas were puzzling, too. Why bring out the bitter notes in foie gras by pairing it with acidic blood orange?Or drown the natural sweetness of lobster in a cloying grape-and-port compote?But then there were flashes of brilliant simplicity: silky slices of smoked black cod and a tangle of crisp arugula leaves accented with white truffle oil; a warm potato-and-crab salad fit for a picnic of angels. When Lutèce hits its stride, this will be one to bet on.

lunch acts
It's 2 p.m. at the Venetian Hotel. You've gawked at the Campanile and glided in a gondola down the Grand Canal. Time for lunch at Postrio, the latest Wolfgang Puck offshoot, whose "sidewalk" terrace faces the action on an indoor St. Mark's Square. The ogling crowds, the greedy gondolier: this could almost be Venice, except you'd never find a Postrio on the real Piazza San Marco. Such emphatically cordial service, such beautiful Gorgonzola-and-artichoke pizza. And the awesome lobster club sandwich, on terrific grilled bread from La Brea Bakery, makes up for all the dry, overpriced panini you've swallowed by the true Grand Canal.

Lunch at Bellagio's Osteria del Circo restores all the good memories of eating in Italy: platters of sparkling frutti di mare; eggy pappardelle in a rich pheasant ragù; and generous slices of tuna carpaccio, seared and spiced around the edges, scattered with capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Located next to the exquisite, silk-draped Le Cirque—both are run by Sirio Maccioni's son Mario—Circo is a big, bright, expensive toy of a place, as entertaining as Barnum & Bailey but as sophisticated as Cirque du Soleil.

Now to the Far East. Taiwanese and Hong Kong high rollers need to be fed, and fed well, so the battle for good Chinese chefs in this town is as fierce as a professional game of mah-jongg. The cool, celadon-hued Royal Star at the Venetian—from L.A. restaurateur Kevin Wu—is one of the latest attractions. Private banquet rooms, a tank full of live fish, shrimp steamed in lotus leaves, and a whole deep-fried fish in pricey X.O. sauce from Hong Kong will please the Asian gambling tycoons. But it's the heavenly dim sum at lunchtime that should tear you away from the slots.

grazing grounds
So you're seeing EFX—oh, you must see EFX at the MGM Grand. Neyla, the new Middle Eastern beauty in town, is perfect for a post-theater nibble. With its arcade of Moorish arches and water trickling down walls of backlighted frosted glass, the design (by Adam Tihany, once again) evokes both a New Age spa and a postmodern caravansary. Graze on the fabulously authentic mezes, smoke a hookah, chat with the affable Lebanese manager. Here's your magic carpet—why wait for Aladdin?

With China Grill, designer Jeffrey Beers delivered one of the swankiest spaces in Vegas to the Mandalay Bay. You could eat in the main restaurant, which resembles a Chinese flying saucer, but the Alice in Spaceland lounge is more fun. The food—crusted, sizzled, swizzled, completely overembellished, and pretty delicious—reminds you why fusion was once so entertaining. Order a "sake-tini" with those ginger lobster pancakes.

Compared with other new hotels, the Paris puts on a rather tame food show (a branch of Gaston Lenôtre's legendary Parisian bakery notwithstanding). Still, if you're lucky in love, there's nothing like cocktails in the panoramic lounge of the Eiffel Tower restaurant. Sitting in a neo-Empire basket suspended in the metalwork of the Eiffel Tower—dazzling neon staring you right in the face—you feel so starstruck, you don't even notice the caviar sampler.

address book
Aqua Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $115.
Aureole Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7777; dinner for two $150.
China Grill Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-6900; appetizers for two $35.
Eiffel Tower Restaurant & Lounge Paris Hotel, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/948-6937; appetizers for two $40.
Le Cirque Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-8100; dinner for two $200.
Lutèce The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/414-2220; dinner for two $130.
Neyla MGM Grand Hotel/Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/736-2100; meze assortment for two $39.
Nobu Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 4455 Paradise Rd.; 702/693-5090; dinner for two $80; omakase menu from $70 per person.
Osteria del Circo Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-8150; lunch for two $70.
Picasso Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $150.
Postrio The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/796-1110; lunch for two $60.
Renoir The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/791-7353; dinner for two $140.
Royal Star The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/414 1888; dim sum for two $25.