Las Vegas: Haute Cuisine And High Rollers

Las Vegas has become a hotbed of world-class restaurants

A cruise down the Las Vegas strip these days is like a whirlwind Grand Tour, as Sin City tries to remake itself into, well, Old Europe. There's the imposing Italianate palazzo that's the Bellaggio, a 3,000-room edifice that would do a Medici proud. Across the street is a demi-Eiffel Tower, squished right up against L'Opera and a counterfeit Arc de Triomphe at the Paris Las Vegas. Farther along comes the Venetian, anchored by a Doge's Palace that's just one column shy of the original. Where are St. Mark's Square and the Grand Canal, you wonder? Up the escalator and to the right.

But behind all of the ersatz facades is a different kind of replica. Almost overnight, Las Vegas has cloned many of America's most celebrated restaurants. They are expensive--sometimes very expensive--but they're not just for the high rollers. Las Vegas hoteliers have reset their sights on visitors more interested in cuisine than craps: conventioneers with expense accounts and well-heeled travelers who fly in for superstar concerts and title boxing bouts. For the first time, visitors to Las Vegas are spending more on entertainment than on gaming.

I decided to check into the Venetian to do my own Great American Restaurant tour. How else, I thought, could I breakfast at Stephan Pyles' Star Canyon, a Dallas transplant, lunch at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio from San Francisco, and wind down the evening with a leisurely dinner at Eberhard Muller's legendary Lutce, of New York fame? Or, perhaps, substitute for lunch Pinot Brasserie by Los Angeles favorite Joachim Splichal? Or, appetite permitting, do the big meat thing at Delmonico, Emeril Lagas-se's New Orleans steakhouse with a decided-ly cajun touch? Bam!

And that's without ever leaving the hotel. Down the strip, the Bellaggio is similarly endowed, with the Maccioni family's Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo, Michael Mina's Aqua, Todd English's Olives, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first stab at a steakhouse, Prime. "In the food and wine world, this has become a very dynamic destination," says Max Jacobson, a former Los Angeles Times food critic who recently decamped for Las Vegas. "Every chef in the U.S. wants a presence here."

FROM SCRATCH. Yes, but when it came time to dole out stars, it wasn't the celebrity chefs' remote-controlled outposts that shone. Instead, the 2000 Mobil Travel Guide bestowed its coveted five stars on two chefs who moved to Las Vegas to execute their visions in person: Julian Serrano, who closed his successful Masa's in San Francisco to head up Picasso at the Bellaggio, and Alessandro Stratta, who left Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., to build Renoir from scratch at the Mirage. They are two of only 18 five-star restaurants in the U.S.

I change my plans to focus on the local stars--the food you can't get anywhere else--and pick off the transplants as I can. I start my tour at Renoir, where a generous Alex Stratta lets me trail him around his kitchen for several hours. He's gratified that Renoir got five stars after six months in business. But he's not really surprised. The key, he explains, is consistency--and a chef cannot guarantee consistency unless he's on the spot, supervising all the time.

As guests start arriving, the kitchen gets busy. I ask about the reddish-brown syrup he's drizzling on plates of foie gras with roasted pineapple, the second course of Renoir's $95 tasting menu. It's balsamic vinegar--a 100-year-old brew that fetches $100 a bottle. Stratta goes through a bottle every two days. "Alain Ducasse taught me that cooking is 60% product and 40% execution," he says. Stratta worked for the famed French chef for two years at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo.

One of the cooks puts up a series of plates of sweetbreads with roasted onions and dates in a puff pastry, a $16 appetizer on the a la carte menu. "The clientele in Las Vegas is very sophisticated," says Stratta, adding that he could never sell sweetbreads--aka calf thymus--and frog legs in Phoenix.

Like most of the new chefs here, Stratta credits Wolfgang Puck with discovering the market for fine dining in Las Vegas. Puck opened a branch of his Los Angeles flagship, Spago, at Caesars Palace in 1992, and still serves 1,500 pizzas and Asian-Mediterranean dishes a day.

BY THE GLASS. But it wasn't until 1997, when the Rio brought in Jean-Louis Palladin--the youngest chef ever to win two Michelin stars--that the high-high end took off. His Napa restaurant now serves a suckling pig terrine to start ($16), and oxtail crepinette with chestnut puree ($36) or venison loin with grapes and hubbard squash ($38).

The Rio also sparked a rush toward fine wines that has brought to Las Vegas 11 master sommeliers, out of only 36 in the U.S. Napa's master sommelier, Barrie Larvin, has built a $6 million collection with 1,290 wines, with more than 600 available by the glass.

Aureole has used its first venture outside New York, in the Mandalay Bay, to build a cellar to rival Napa's. The wine stewards at both are particularly good at matching wine to food. Wine suggestions chosen for each course of Aureole's $95 tasting menu can be had for a flat $45 extra. On the $55 prix-fixe menu, it's best to give your server a dollar limit and let him pour. Unlike most of the new restaurants, which pretend to be anywhere but in Nevada, Aureole has added touches of flashy Vegas showmanship: The room's centerpiece is a four-story, 10,000-bottle wine rack that requires "wine angels" suspended in harnesses to retrieve selected bottles.

You won't find that at Renoir or Picasso, where the only show is the original artwork by their namesakes hanging on the walls. And the food, naturally. Picasso, alas, was dark the day I visited. But the day before, Serrano was focused on the $75 prix-fixe menu, turning out such simple delicacies as poached oysters garnished with caviar and vermouth sauce.

I'll save that for another trip, now that I know that Vegas isn't all 99 cents shrimp cocktails and $5.95 prime rib. Which, by the way, you can still get. My cabbie says the Hotel San Remo comes highly recommended.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.