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Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare: A Seafood Mecca in the Desert

Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare: A Seafood Mecca in the Desert

Along the shopping promenade within the Las Vegas Wynn Casino is where you'll find Paul Bartolotta's namesake restaurant, Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare. A seafood mecca in the middle of the desert, this modern multilevel restaurant lives up to its hype.

Dinner at Bartolotta is an exceptional experience from start to finish. The Italian-inspired menu is set up in courses, allowing guests to get a taste of several appropriately portioned items in one meal, with the grand finale being the chosen fish. Varietals with exotic names like orata, scorfano, and gallinella are flown in regularly and presented to diners in large rolling carts, and the servers go to great lengths to point out each fish and describe its preparation. With this in mind, my husband and I decided to share the octopus salad, the linguini and clams, and a salt-encrusted branzino.

I've had octopus salad in the past, but have never tasted one quite this good. Lightly dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, the Ligurian octopus was so tender it melted in my mouth. Served with two small potatoes and some arugula, it was the perfect introduction to what was yet to come. The following pasta course was linguini with clams, which was also delicious, with the pasta cooked to a perfect al dente consistency and sauced just right for my taste.

The main course, branzino, was encased in two pounds of salt, and seasoned with fennel and citrus. Our server expertly removed the crust and filleted the fish tableside as he described the low and slow cooking method that was used. Plated with some new potatoes and sautéed zucchini, it was the perfect portion for two. Common in Sicily, this cooking method produces a moist, almost creamy fish with just a hint of salt. It's a remarkably simple, fool-proof way to cook delicious fish.

The dessert menu included a few Italian standards: semifreddo, Ligurian lemon cake, gelato, and a chocolate almond cake. We shared the chocolate almond cake and couldn't have been happier. Topped with homemade vanilla bean gelato, it was a great way to end the meal.

The quality and preparation of the food and the knowledge and service provided by the staff at Bartolotta is exceptional. If you’re in Vegas, love seafood, and have a few extra dollars to spend, I highly recommend a dinner at Bartolotta.


Finding Romance in Vegas

Forget what Nicolas Cage would have you believe from his 1992 masterpiece Honeymoon in Vegas, that Vegas is not a place for love. In fact, you should really be paying closer attention to the lessons of Nicolas Cage in 1995&rsquos Leaving Las Vegas, where he finds out that Vegas is not a place for love. Based on that movie, though, Vegas appears to be a place to see Elisabeth Shue naked, so the love thing may not matter so much. I just spent six days in Vegas &mdash four days too long &mdash and while you can&rsquot find love in Sin City, you can finally find some romance in the amazing collection of restaurants that now dot the town.

Paris the city is romantic, Paris the hotel and casino is not. That&rsquos because Paris has centuries of history and charm behind it, while Vegas is a 60-year-old tourist trap built in a desert to encourage hedonism and reduce one's life savings. Keep that in mind, because romance in Vegas is the exception, not the rule, and the first thing you need to learn is the difference between a girl looking for romance and a girl looking for something else. You know that gorgeous girl sitting by herself at the video poker bar? She&rsquos not there for romance. She&rsquos there for you to pay her at the end of the night. In fact, any attractive single girl by herself in Vegas should be regarded as off-limits. It&rsquos just safer that way. Stick to the obvious tourists and you&rsquoll be in good shape.

Whether you go to Vegas solo or with your significant other, the real challenge is finding those rare romantic spots. Since Vegas is gaudy and terrible, those spots are almost always restaurants that feel like they&rsquore not in Vegas. You can eliminate any restaurant that&rsquos part of the casino&rsquos attached mall. Nobody has ever felt romantic eating in a mall. What you need is a restaurant that feels completely isolated from the rest of Vegas. That leaves us with Mandalay Bay and The Wynn/Encore.

Mandalay Bay gets points for Mix from internationally acclaimed Chef Alain Ducasse. Incredible food and the best view in the city make for a very romantic evening. If you want to feel like a Bond film supervillain overlooking your criminal domain from the 64th floor, Mix is the place to be. The Wynn and Encore, however, offer a feature that Mandalay Bay can&rsquot compete with: waterfalls. There&rsquos something about a good waterfall that turns any dinner into a romantic one. Luckily, The Wynn is overflowing with them. Whether you&rsquore enjoying the over-the-top waterfall show at SW Steakhouse or relaxing with some teppanyaki at Okada, the waterfalls at The Wynn make for an incredibly romantic background. My new favorite doesn&rsquot have a waterfall, though. No, Bartolotta has its own private lake. Secluded and intimate, this &ldquoristorante di mare&rdquo (read: boatloads of Italian seafood) is my vote for the most romantic spot in Vegas. I had dinner there two weeks ago with a dude friend of mine, and despite the fact that we both have girlfriends, we almost made out. It's that romantic.

Finding the perfect romantic spot is a challenge in a class-starved desert like the Vegas Strip. If you&rsquore smart about it you can find yourself an out-of-the-way restaurant that will help you forget the benjamins you just flushed away at the craps table. If romance isn&rsquot your thing, go ahead and talk to that hot young thing at the video poker bar. She doesn&rsquot care if you take her to Margaritaville, as long as you leave the money on the dresser at the end of the night.


All Star Chefs Picnic in the Valley of Fire

A group of celebrity chefs with outposts in white-hot Las Vegas gather for a cool 4th of July picnic in the Nevada desert.

Most people wouldn&apost pick a place called the Valley of Fire for a picnic, but then most people don&apost work in broiling professional kitchens. Chefs, it seems, have a different relation to heat than the rest of us𠅎specially chefs with restaurants in white-hot Las Vegas. "We were even playing touch football right on the rocks," says chef Paul Bartolotta, of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Wynn Las Vegas. "It was pretty crazy."

For this Fourth of July picnic in the desert, Bartolotta and his friends—including Todd English of Olives Las Vegas, Bradley Ogden of Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas and Wynn Las Vegas&aposs executive vice president of restaurants, Elizabeth Blau𠅍rove to Valley of Fire state park, an hour outside Vegas, for a mini vacation. The picnickers passed around a few dishes of their own, plus some from star chefs who couldn&apost attend—this time, at least. Bartolotta&aposs rich Italian tuna, white bean and arugula salad brought the Mediterranean to the desert. English came with a picnic classic, potato salad, enlivened with three kinds of mustard. And Craftsteak&aposs Tom Colicchio added peperoncini (pickled peppers) to his lemony chickpea salad for a tangy bite.

Once the salads were set out, the group started unwrapping sandwiches. Smoky bacon and crumbled blue cheese made Ogden&aposs crispy chicken subs irresistible. Emeril Lagasse of Emeril&aposs New Orleans Fish House Las Vegas supplied piquant muffulettas, stuffed with salami, mortadella, provolone cheese and olive salad. For dessert, pastry chef Sherry Yard of Wolfgang Puck&aposs Spago (which has a Las Vegas outpost) contributed flaky, buttery, bite-size nectarine tarts—how many, no one knows. They were devoured so quickly there wasn&apost a chance to count them.


The Fine Dining Restaurants of Vegas “Top Chef”

The Houston Chronicle recently did a piece on Top Chef, recognizing the Chefs and fine dining restaurants of Vegas. Here is the listing.

Chef Alessandro Stratta’s sumptuous Alex serves what he calls French Riviera dining. We call it stupendous. Everything about the enterprise — the lavish interior, the expert service, the exquisite food — is at the top of its game. Housed in Wynn Las Vegas, home to an embarrassment of culinary riches, Alex offers dishes such as John Dory with fondant potato, ocean trout with charred cuttlefish, crispy pork belly with peas and Serrano ham, braised American Wagyu short ribs with onion jam and roasted squab with seared foie gras. If you’re going for broke, you might as well splurge on the $295 tasting menu, including wines. After all, you only live once.

(Photo Credit/Star Bulletins: Chef Alessandro’s creation)

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare

There’s a reason Paul Bartolotta won best chef in the Southwest at this year’s James Beard Awards. His restaurant in Wynn Las Vegas has been described by food critics as one of the most breathtaking seafood experiences in the world. Much has been written about the restaurant’s way with sea creatures flown in daily. But the true gauge is your own taste: Go for the whole branzino (sea bass), orata (sea bream) or roasted aragosta (spiny lobster). From the tiny clams in garlic tomato sauce to the seafood risotto to the turbot, Bartolotta is out to impress. And impress he does. The prices may shock Poseidon, but you’ll have to travel far to find a better Italian seafood experience.

BLT Burger

High-end restaurants may be suffering in this economy, which makes a burger (especially a good one) a logical dinner option. Chef Laurent Tourondel, seen in Episode 4, knows from a good burger, and his BLT Burger in Mirage is ready to serve up the quintessential American meal, paired with expert fries and thick milkshakes. The spiffy restaurant makes you feel like a grown-up player while plying you with kiddie comfort foods such as mozzarella sticks, onion rings, nachos, s’mores and Krispy Kreme doughnut bread pudding. Hard to resist, so don’t even try.

Bouchon

Finding Thomas Keller’s bustling bistro in the Venetian’s Venezia Tower is a bit of a chore. But your rewards are many at this grand café from the chef whose French Laundry is one of the world’s most sought-after dining experiences. Bouchon serves up expert French bistro fare, including goat cheese salad, duck confit, roasted leg of lamb, croque madame, brandade, steak frites and profiteroles. It’s homey fare in a casual setting that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The bread is heavenly. Don’t miss the rillettes of salmon (and excuse to consume even more bread). The raw bar is ready to serve you oysters and a cold glass of Sancerre. In the middle of the desert, you feel you’re in Paris.

Craftsteak

Head judge Tom Colicchio’s posh steakhouse in MGM Grand is probably the ultimate Top Chef restaurant. The same laser eyes that Colicchio trains on contestants are focused on his menu of grilled and roasted meats from the top of the beef heap. But as we saw in Season 6’s episode with Natalie Portman, Craftsteak is more than a temple of cow it also serves impeccable seafood and the most pristine vegetables. If you’re craving Vegas razzle-dazzle you won’t find it in this rather serious dining room. But you will find expert service and terrific food.


For Las Vegas Chefs, the Odds Grow Longer

Robert Martinez, a 33-year-old waiter at Rao’s in Caesars Palace, said these heavyweights “had wads of $100 bills and gave them to everyone on the staff, and tipped generously on $12,000 to $15,000 checks.”

But now, said Kevin Carter, a 49-year-old waiter at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, “the whales have migrated.”

Last year, a fourth of the country’s highest-grossing restaurants were in Las Vegas. But the feast has transitioned to famine. Fewer revelers are arriving, and they are spending less. With the economy reeling, more than 5,000 food and restaurant workers are unemployed here.

“We look out and we see every jet coming and going,” said Michael N. Baker, 50, a waiter for eight years at the Top of the World restaurant in the Stratosphere Casino Hotel tower. “They used to be stacked up all day long,” he added. “Then there was nothing out there. That was scary.”

Many of the town’s 2,900 restaurants are beset by fabulousness fatigue.

“It was gold, and suddenly it became fool’s gold,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, who heads a restaurant consulting firm that bears his name.

Bill Lerner, a principal of Union Gaming, a research company, said that there were “too many five-star restaurants, shows, spas — too many celebrity chefs.”

On the Strip, near Circus Circus, is the yawning emptiness of the $4.8 billion, 87-acre Echelon project, halted last August along with its 12 to 15 new restaurants, including those of chefs such as David Chang of Momofuku Ko in Manhattan.

The unfinished, mirrored blue eyesore of the $2.9 billion 3,815-room Fontainebleau tower across from Circus Circus looms over the city like a prophecy. It went bankrupt and took 6,000 jobs with it.

But in the desert restaurant universe, a mirage has now arisen that could mean either salvation or doom: the $8.5 billion CityCenter project.

Bristling with construction cranes and gleaming in the 100-degree sun, the CityCenter casino, hotel, convention center, mall, residential and entertainment metropolis looks like a hallucinogenic 67-acre Red Grooms parody of the Las Vegas Strip. The development spans a quarter-mile, from the Bellagio to the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, and is scheduled to open in December.

Some 30 restaurants are to inhabit the jumble of seven buildings — from tapered towers to crystalline shards — designed by eight celebrity architects, including Sir Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind. On display, and on trial, will be the concepts of lionized chefs, among them Pierre Gagnaire, Michael Mina, Masayoshi Takayama, Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

For some, CityCenter, developed by MGM Mirage and Dubai World, will offer treasures that transcend buzz and hype: 4,000 food and restaurant jobs, a third of the complex’s 12,000 new jobs.

But if it cannibalizes existing restaurants it could further wound this once-sleepy railroad watering stop beset by a sere immensity of sand.

Already sin city has become a sandbox of incentives, discounts and promotions, where even luxury properties like the Bellagio are offering free hotel nights, plus gambling, food and drink coupons to their club-card customers.

Some economizing tourists are fleeing their casinos to dine off-Strip. But neighborhood restaurants are under growing pressure from the Strip, since residents are being courted as never before by casinos with “staycation packages” that include restaurant meals.

And so, amid the hawkers and escort-service card-flippers, a dizzying profusion of bargain-eats signs are competing. They include giant come-ons for the “$5.99 New York Steak N Eggs” at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon the mammoth billboard at the Tropicana Casino & Resort vaunting its “Legendary Lobster Special $19.95,” and the ultimate deal, the Siegel Suites billboards proclaiming “Live Here Eat Free.”

On the high end, there is a desert fiesta of advertised “summer tasting menus” at the MGM Grand ($60 at Craftsteak, $59 at Shibuya, $45 at SeaBlue, $39 at Nobhill Tavern). At Aureole and Mix in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, there are new prix fixe menus. Also offering deals are Mario Batali and David Burke in the Venetian, Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Caesars Palace and reduced-price “Taste of Wynn” promotions (including $36 menus at Society Café Encore and Daniel Boulud Brasserie).

Steve Wynn, the chairman of Wynn Resorts, said that his customers “aren’t buying that bottle of Margaux, and they aren’t ordering as much — but they are here.” His Wynn and Encore, like several properties at the high end, have 90 percent occupancy.

Mr. Wynn said he is encouraged that “each month the booking window is getting longer — it used to be 90 days, then 30 last fall, now it’s coming back — and bookings are up as well.”

Last year, “the sky was falling, and people were terrified,” said Elizabeth Blau, a restaurant consultant. “Now things have stabilized.”

But for many Las Vegas restaurateurs, flat is still the new up, and for some, “being down 10 percent, that’s the new flat,” said Joseph Bastianich, Mario Batali’s partner in three restaurants at the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino.

Mr. Bastianich said his Carnevino Italian Steakhouse in the Palazzo at the Venetian was projecting $18 million in revenues this year but now “we expect to do $13 million to $14 million.”

Sirio Maccioni, a Las Vegas fine-dining pioneer with his restaurants Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio, cautioned that “it will take a very long time for it to come back to the way it was.” He noted that recently revenues from his restaurants have been down 5 to 10 percent, and last year were off 25 percent.

Waiters at high-end properties have suffered a reduction in tips from 20 to 50 percent. “Our membership has declined 10 or 11 percent since last year,” said D. Taylor, the secretary treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 50,000 food and beverage workers and other employees in hotels and casinos.

Mr. Martinez of Rao’s said the staff had agreed to a reduction in the workweek from 5 days to 4, and in the workday from 8 hours to 6, just to save all their jobs. He estimated the average check cost for his tables was down $30, to $50.

And a grim recession game of musical-chair seniority has commenced. Francisco Rufino, a 33-year-old fry cook at the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel for the last nine years, was bumped down to a cafe there because of cutbacks at a higher-end casino restaurant. “In turn, I displaced another cook — who was laid off,” he said.

Nevertheless, many still have hopes. Mr. Bastianich is planning a restaurant at the Venetian, tentatively titled Nancy’s Luncheonette, offering the food of Nancy Silverton, his Los Angeles partner in Osteria Mozza with Mr. Batali.

Mr. Maccioni, who said he is 75, has not been deterred from opening a Tuscan-themed restaurant in CityCenter — “with 175 seats and a beautiful bar,” he said — to be called Sirio.

The city’s restaurateurs have hardly stopped rising to astounding levels in offering luxury to refined palates. The 300-seat Carnevino offers source-verified grass-fed beef, dry-aged for seven weeks in its own Las Vegas aging facility where computer chips control air flow and humidity.

And the 230-seat Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn flies in a ton of seafood every week from the Mediterranean, including soft-shell crabs from Venice and imperial red shrimp from Morocco. Some of the fish is delivered live, and all of it is transported “on passenger airliners that would be flying whether my fish is on them or not,” said Paul Bartolotta, 48, who once trained at Taillevent in Paris and cooked at Spiaggia in Chicago.

Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in the Mandalay Bay offers three kinds of East Coast oysters, as well as live Dungeness crabs and Maine lobsters. “You have to be crazy to want to offer sustainable seafood in the middle of the desert,” said Mr. Moonen, who was awarded three stars from The New York Times in 2002 for his work at RM Seafood in Manhattan, and now, like Mr. Bartolotta, lives out here.

But Mr. Moonen and others are finding that luxury can only take them so far these days. At his sleek $6 million nautically themed restaurant, volume is up, he said, but the check average, which used to be $65 to $70, is now “in the 40s.” Three months ago, Mr. Moonen had to close his 80-seat fine-dining restaurant, RM Seafood Upstairs, where the average check was $120. “It was a terrible day,” he said, “but we’ll reopen in the fall.”

Alessandro Stratta said his casual restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas, Stratta, with its average check cost of $60, “is 30 percent busier this year than it was last year.” But his high-end restaurant, Alex, with an average $320 check per person, is down 15 percent in revenues, and is now open four days instead of five.

In this economy, said David McIntyre, vice president for food and beverage at the MGM Grand, “it’s not enough to just come out with a prix fixe menu, you have to redefine your product.”

So the casino’s Nobhill Tavern reconceived its menu boards and now “there is a 40 percent decline per check,” Mr. McIntyre said. “But now we’re up 60 percent in total volume.”

And though the 66-seat Joël Robuchon still offers a 16-course $385 menu dégustation, it now serves two courses for $89.

Therefore, the arrival of competing restaurants at CityCenter is not universally awaited.

“I don’t wish ill to anyone,” Mr. Bartolotta said, “but do we need 20 more restaurants? No. Now, everyone is vying for a part of a shrinking pie.”

But Bart Mahoney, vice president for food and beverage of the CityCenter partner MGM Mirage, said that “We hope to grow the market.”

Robert Goldstein, the 54-year-old president of a competitor, the Venetian, sounded sanguine about CityCenter as he sat in his second-floor office overlooking the casino’s signature 90-percent-scale replicas of the Campanile and the Bridge of Sighs. “It’s not going to be the end of the world, and it’s not going to restart tourism in Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s just another project opening in a tough time.”

He referred to a Life magazine cover article of June 20, 1955, that he had framed, depicting casino cancan dancers and proclaiming: “Las Vegas — Is Boom Overextended?”

He added: “Las Vegas is down a bit now, and right now the town is overbuilt. But do you really think all of this is going to fade away and go to black?”


Meals of Fortune

I telephoned Danny Meyer, all-knowing New York restaurateur, and told him I had a question about Las Vegas.

Before I could continue, he cut me off.

“The answer is money,“ he said. “What’s the question?“

It would have been this: Why can’t chefs say no?

Today, everybody goes to Las Vegas to gamble, except chefs, who go there with their fortunes guaranteed. Name a chef who has published a cookbook (good), won a James Beard Award (better), regularly appears on television (best), or has his own cooking show (jackpot), and somebody from Vegas will be calling. The new motto of the Vegas hotel mob: Kill ’em with cash.

Before Vegas hotel ecutives discovered the awesome profit potential of food, I loved eating there. Not at the buffets, those feedlots for the human race. I’m talking about an earlier time, when every hotel had three kinds of restaurants—no more, no less. They spoke of the city in the same way that the Brown Derby spoke of Hollywood, and now they’re gone.

The coffee shops were community centers, hubs of political, social, and sometimes even family life. The best was at Caesars Palace, where I had Thanksgiving dinner in 1968 with the hotel’s head of gambling, an old family friend. He wanted to give me a nice send-off before I left for Vietnam, so he had a couple of tables pushed together, and I ate turkey and stuffing with his family. Afterward, his wife loaned me her pink Pontiac convertible to drive around town, and he loaned me a showgirl for when I wasn’t driving around town.

The casino showrooms weren’t just for ogling career girls gone astray. They also provided regal dining (usually on prime rib) before Steve and Eydie took the stage. Now showroom seating is almost always theater-style, and you won’t get a free performance with dinner unless you’re in the mood for jousting at King Arthur’s Arena (Invading armies! Dancing maidens!). The gourmet rooms were for high rollers—they weren’t called whales yet. Almost everybody was comped, a practice that held firm until the ’90s. The gourmet rooms generally featured the gaudiest possible gastronomy plus first-growth Bordeaux from bad years. They had wonderful names: Sultan’s Table at the Dunes the Regency Room at the Sands Palace Court at Caesars Palace House of Lords at the Sahara and the Candlelight Room at the Flamingo.

If you’ve been to Vegas in the past few years, you probably think it has become a great restaurant city. You may be right. It just isn’t a very good food city. The hotel restaurants—nobody cares about the other kinds—are all the same, cavernous and expensive. They have no significant differences except for their decorations, which can be pretty astonishing, everything from Limoges china to swan-filled lagoons. Still, when every restaurant costs $6 million to $10 million to build, similarities exceed distinctions. It’s the curse of the overly affluent: There are just so many places a person with unlimited money can shop.

Fine dining in Vegas is about the glittery and the new. It’s high-end corporate cuisine for the masses. It’s about seating a lot of people and quickly moving them along to the casinos and the showrooms. Most customers plow through their tasting menus in ninety minutes, but all you have to do is ask and the food will come even faster. Size isn’t limited to square footage. Cubic feet count for a lot, too. Restaurants not only have to be wide, they also need to be high—forty-two feet in the case of Aureole. Is everybody happy? I’m afraid so.

Here’s a bulletin: These new restaurants are not just changing the city. They are also changing fine dining in America. That’s big news. Vegas is up to 40 million wide-eyed visitors per year, and their only mandatory recreational activity, besides acting silly, is eating. Vegas is now the template where lessons on eating well are being imprinted on the collective consciousness of America.

Inexperienced customers are finding out that luxurious restaurants offer sensory overindulgence combined with gastronomic uniformity. Were they spending their money in San Francisco or New York, they might learn something different, but they aren’t going to those cities to become accomplished diners, not anymore. Their schoolrooms are restaurants geared to conventions, expense accounts, and blowout vacations, establishments without history or traditions, restaurants that didn’t exist ten years ago.

Here’s the first troubling message: They’re being taught that a restaurant can be great even if it has no past, no personality, and no uniqueness. America invented food standardization in order to sell fifteen-cent hamburgers, and now the monster is loose.

Visitors to Vegas believe that dining at chef Guy Savoy’s restaurant in Caesars Palace is no different from dining at his restaurant in Paris, and that dining at Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Vegas is the same as dining at Daniel in New York. (Guy Savoy in Vegas is indeed intended to be a culinary replica, but Boulud’s somewhat casual place in the Wynn differs considerably from the New York flagship.) To average Americans—absolutely satisfied with adaptations and too indifferent or too blasé to care about experiencing originals—Vegas has become the real thing.

I’m not even sure what the names attached to restaurants mean anymore. Do Daniel Boulud and Guy Savoy represent real people to those eating at their restaurants, or are they merely logos? Maybe Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse are perceived as flesh and blood because they’re seen on TV. Everybody else is a trademark. To neophyte diners, chefs are no longer people who cook.

The culprit here is branding, which is mindless replication. Charlie Palmer, a chef with two Vegas restaurants, is planning a condo-hotel, the next (but surely not final) step in creating a comprehensive Charlie Palmer lifestyle. This is occurring in the name of our two great American ambitions, making money and having fun.

Fundamental to the essential breakdown of the fine-dining experience is the nonappearance of famous chefs. I went to thirteen restaurants in Vegas, and only three chefs were present: Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Guy Savoy, in town for the opening of his restaurant at Caesars Palace and Tom Colicchio, who runs Craftsteak in the MGM Grand. Colicchio happened to be in the city taping an episode of Top Chef for Bravo, not to suggest he wasn’t toiling in the kitchen between takes. Chefs with restaurants in Vegas are likely to earn $300,000 to $750,000 a year, basically for the use of their name. A few who come to work regularly can earn additional bonuses for showing up.

Most Vegas restaurants, regardless of cost, are high-end franchises. They have big names, big budgets, and little else. They are knockoffs. This is tragic, because franchising destroys creativity. It halts the development of chefs. It deludes customers. Established restaurant owners, for the most part, disagree with me.

I asked Drew Nieporent, the famed New York restaurateur, whether he thought a replica of a cherished establishment was superior to an original from an unheralded chef, and he replied, “The knockoff is better.“ He opened a branch of Nobu in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino—when I was in Vegas, it was the most difficult reservation to obtain. He says, “These big developers would rather call somebody like me than create something new and original. It’s easy, and it’s packed. In fact, it’s off the charts. They think it’s effortless, and for somebody with money, it is.“ Adds Charlie Trotter, who had an unsuccessful restaurant in Vegas in the ’90s and is expected to try again next year, “Let’s say Spago in Las Vegas isn’t as good as Spago in Beverly Hills. I don’t know if it is, but isn’t a Spago that’s 85 percent as good as the original better than a hotel operator opening a restaurant?“

I’ve eaten at Nobu in New York and in Vegas. The same for Spago in Beverly Hills and in Vegas. The problem is that they’re not 85 percent. I’d give 60 percent to Nobu in Vegas, partly because the ecution is sloppy and partly because the joint is chaotic. Spago in Vegas drops under 50 percent because it’s not nearly as ambitious as the estimable Spago in Beverly Hills and because the food seems to be ecuted mechanically—the famous Chinese chicken salad looked and tasted as though it had been assembled in a Cuisinart.

Trotter is correct in principle: If those restaurants were at 85 percent, they might be acceptable, but they’re not close. They lack animation and spirit. Most are classy looking, but they look like the creations of hotel corporations, not restaurateurs, and the most exciting day for a hotel ecutive is the one in which a chandelier salesman stops by. There are no adventures in dining in Las Vegas. Missing are independent-minded restaurants, such as Montrachet in New York and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, the places that launched the careers of Nieporent and Trotter.

Visitors to Vegas are getting the message that restaurants aren’t worth patronizing if they haven’t made a name for themselves somewhere else.

Even before Las Vegas ecutives created their new economic prototype—hotels, casinos, and restaurants as revenue partners—hotel dining in America had undergone a revival. Owners realized that restaurants could bring life, as well as customers, to the terrible void that was their lobbies and bars. And if they brought in restaurants with the right names, the seats were practically presold. Only beloved old Broadway musicals are more of a sure thing. Vegas gets no credit for ending the terrible ennui that was hotel dining. What it has done brilliantly is work out a particular ambience problem. It created a perverse form of alfresco dining, seating areas open not to the air but to the noise and lights of the casino. To some guests, this constitutes entertainment. At the very least, the clatter is an excuse for people dining together to engage in no conversation whatsoever.

Hotel planners follow systems, like card counters at blackjack tables. The architect David Rockwell, who designed the interior of the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, calls the climactic design element at every Vegas hotel the Big Weenie. He explains, “It can be a lake, a volcano, a sphinx, a pyramid.“

There are Restaurant Weenies, too. The most famous is Aureole’s four-story wine tower, which features “wine angels“ soaring up and down on wires—they have a lot more in common with rappelling Army Rangers to me. The ultimate Restaurant Weenies are at Alain Ducasse’s Mix in Las Vegas, on the sixty-fourth floor of the Hotel at Mandalay Bay. Above the bar, suspended from the ceiling, is an intimate seating area my showgirl-quality waitress described as “a strawberry that’s landed in the dessert.“ In the dining room is a huge white amorphous blob, a kind of space platform, possibly representing a champagne bubble. Celebrities canoodle in both the berry and the bubble.

The most normal-looking restaurant I visited was Michael Mina’s. It has low ceilings, an open kitchen, and simplicity of design. I never ate in one similar to it. The overly colorful Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare is a tribute to a time-honored fishing technique—toss a stick of dynamite into a lake and splatter bits and pieces of things everywhere. The room has several centerpieces, Mini-Weenies, huge urns that appear to serve no apparent purpose, although they are large enough to hide the bodies that the Mob used to bury in the desert. Oddly, this restaurant also offers one of the most serene and attractive dining options in Vegas, cabana-style tables circling an artificial lake. Such a wacky indoor-outdoor contrast could exist only in the mind of a Vegas entrepreneur.

Absent from Vegas restaurants are women. Don’t expect hatcheck girls. There are none. Don’t look for female celebrity chefs. Not represented. Mother Nature doesn’t get much respect, either. In Vegas, the natural world exists only in bogus form. Hotel owners love ordering up artificial lakes or indoor gardens, and most are predictably calming, an exception being Wynn’s Lake of Dreams. I found it unsettling to eat while staring out at a bunch of semi-immersed statues that seemed to represent naked gamblers drowning themselves after losing their shirts. At Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, just as the chef was telling me that he wanted his restaurant to feel as though it were on the coast of Italy with speedboats roaring by, along came a vacuum-cleaning machine about the size of a Zamboni, noisily sweeping the carpet outside his front door.

Noticeably missing from Vegas restaurants are smells, which are sucked away with uncanny efficiency. Hotels are continually invaded by tourist bodies sweaty from walking up and down the Strip. Once a magical string of lights, the Strip has been transformed into a garish indoor-outdoor mall with a scorching pedestrian walkway. Walkers walk in. Walkers cool off. Walkers walk out. The coefficient of perspiration—my term—must be stupendous. Without gigantic ventilation systems, hotels would ripen. Think of the crew quarters on nuclear submarines. Still, something is lost when restaurants become as sterile as operating rooms.

Another lesson: The natural world never wins in Vegas.

Las Vegas is essentially artificial, a cubic zirconium. The hotels shimmer in the desert, one part Imax, one part simulacrum, one part mirage. The city offers one great experience that no other major city on earth can match, free parking for one and all. (You can upgrade to valet parking at no additional charge.) The restaurants are the apex of American extravagance. They have the tallest ceilings, the biggest rooms, the largest portions, and the maximum prices. This, by the way, is good news for struggling chefs across the country. The people who visit Las Vegas are learning to pay staggering prices for food.

Surf and turf at Michael Mina’s goes for $85. Rack of lamb at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier, $55. Colicchio’s ten-ounce Kobe filet, $110. My meal for two at the newly opened Guy Savoy was about $500 without wine. The last man I knew who operated an all-comp room was Trotter. He opened at the MGM Grand in 1994 and was out of business a little more than a year later. A nonrival restaurateur said of Trotter’s failure, “He did tasting menus, the same as he was doing in Chicago. That’s just what a person who has lost $50,000 gambling wants to eat—minuscule portions for four hours.“


4 thoughts on &ldquo RM SEAFOOD &rdquo

I agree with you John, Chef Moonen is more than deserving of recognition by Michelin and also the James Beard Foundation.

His knowledge of not only seafood, but the sugar content of different types of peaches (paired with silky foie gras), is incredible-and it shows in his cuisine.

In my book, while some of the other upscale fish restaurants in town are quite good, I think RM’s overall cuisine, (which focuses on seafood), ranks it as the top seafood restaurant in town.

We ate at the downstairs RM Seafood restaurant on Wednesday and I got the Restaurant Week menu with the crab cake and scallops. The food was okay but pretty pedestrian. My scallops were gritty and I thought the red pepper coulis was too sweet and overpowered the scallops. The service was really annoying too with the waiter taking everyone’s plates as soon as people finished, even though other people were still eating.

I wasn’t planning on going back there, is the upstairs restaurant worth a second chance?

I would definately recommend the upstairs dining room. We found the service to be almost too attentive. Not to the point of taking plates away too fast like you experienced at the Cafe. (But how many times can they scrape the crumbs off the table cloth!).

Really, they were very gracious and all of the wait staff were well-informed as to how the dishes were prepared and the source of the ingredients. The wine service was especially good.

We ate upstairs a couple of weeks ago and everything was superb. Even my abalone dish was cooked perfectly and every dish on the table was completely on point. Sommelier/GM Jeff Eichelberger is a consummate professional and is creating a amazing list of sustainably farmed wines to compliment Chef Moonen’s sustainable food philosophies. I have always been a big fan of Rick Moonen the person and now I am an extremely big fan of Rick Moonen the Chef!

PS. The Ice Cream game is the perfect way the end the meal, especially after two bottles of wine!


10 GREAT MEALS

If you eat one meal in Las Vegas, do it at Lotus. (Well, that and breakfast at the Wynn buffet – see below.) Yes, this Thai dive has been lauded coast to coast, but it still feels like one of the city’s best-kept secrets, largely due to its location. It’s tucked away inside Commercial Center, one of Vegas’ most famously dodgy strip malls, east of the Strip. Stores run the gamut from Serge’s Showgirl Wigs to a Filipino Christian church to a variety of sex clubs licensed (but poorly concealed) as novelty shops and health spas. Don’t let that put you off some of the best Thai food west of the Mississippi. Easy-to-miss, the walls of this diminutive dining room are plastered with the hundreds of press clippings that justifiably praise chef Saipin Chutima’s cooking. Avoid the bafflingly bad lunch buffet and request the Chiang Mai menu to try her northern specialties like sai ua (country pork sausage full of basil) and kai soi (curry noodles garnished with pickled vegetable, red shallots and lime). A warning: Trust the waiters on the heat levels or you’ll leave with seared taste buds. From the main menu, try seared scallops with chile and mint leaves, tangy beef jerky and fried, salted fish chunks. Cool down with the other big surprise: Lotus’s incredible wine list, full of hard-to-find Rieslings that perfectly douse the flames.

INFO: 953 E. Sahara Ave. (702) 735-3033

2) Rosemary’s Restaurant

This mostly-locals spot on Sahara, just ten minutes west of the Strip, serves incredible comfort food derived from the Southern and Midwestern roots of chefs Michael and Wendy Jordan, influenced by France. If it sounds like a strange combo, you’ll be converted when you try the dishes. The menu changes often, but some items thankfully never go away, like Hugo’s Texas BBQ shrimp, served over Maytag bleu-cheese-laced coleslaw. Other standouts include thick pork chops with hopping John (rice and peas seasoned with fatback) and Creole mustard reduction and striped bass with crispy skin atop a hash of andouille sausage, rock shrimp, and fingerling potatoes with a Creole meuniére sauce. The best time to go is Sunday nights, when chefs and sommeliers come here on their nights off, bottles of wine are half-price and you can eat at the bar or one of the high tables surrounding it and overhear some of the best restaurant-industry gossip in Las Vegas.

INFO: 8125 W. Sahara Ave. (702) 869-2251 rosemaryrestaurant.com

3) Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare

One of the most extravagant Mediterranean seafood experiences, well, ever, Bartolotta receives a daily shipment of langoustines, cuttlefish, and prehistoric-looking slipper lobster from the Ionian, Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and Ligurian seas. Chef Paul Bartolotta (formerly of San Domenico in New York, Spiaggia in Chicago and still a household name in his native Milwaukee), is nearly always in the kitchen, ensuring the astounding quality of everything that comes out. The theatrical bi-level room – with neo-Baroque chandeliers and tented outdoor dining loggias surrounding a lake – is maximalist. The best dishes – fish you can choose from a cart piled high and then simply grilled with olive oil, lemon and parsley – are minimalist. The best way to eat at Bartolotta is family-style. Bring along as many friends as you can and order either the Menu di Paranza or the Gran Menu di Mare (for $135 and $155 per person), and allow the chef to prepare a meal of the day’s best ingredients. In a town filled with big-ticket restaurants, this is one so very worth the splurge.

INFO: 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South (inside Wynn Las Vegas) (888) 372-3463 www.wynnlasvegas.com

4) Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas

Even non-buffet people will like this fanciful departure from the usual Vegas trough, er, buffet line (generally characterized by harsh décor and overcooked, institutional food). First, and most importantly, it’s lit overhead by natural light, evoking a garden party (unlike other buffets, which evoke the fluorescent-lit school cafeterias of our youth). Towers of fruit and flowers fill the central atrium, around which are arranged multiple stations. You’ll find faultlessly fresh maki rolls, ceviche, tandoori chicken and truffled risotto among the Mexican, seafood, Japanese, Indian and Italian selections. An entire sweetshop-style room is devoted to pastries, baba au rhum, lemon tarts, bread pudding, and a full complement of gelato flavors. The pastry chef has even thoughtfully included sugar-free desserts so everyone can indulge. If you’re not in a hurry, offer to wait in order to secure a table in the atrium – you’ll be glad you did.

INFO: inside Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South (877) 321-9966 www.wynnlasvegas.com

5) Vintner Grill

While most of the best restaurants off the Strip can be found in a strip mall, Vintner Grill has mixed things up and opened in an office park. Never mind: They’ve done a grand job creating a Hamptons-like environment in the all-white modern dining room, which opened in 2006. Close to Red Rock Casino (a 15-20 minute drive from the Strip), the Mediterranean-influenced American dishes include Moroccan-spiced lamb spareribs crispy wood-fired flatbreads (try prosciutto with roasted peppers, fennel, micro arugula and white truffle oil) and halibut with toasted orzo, lemon gremolata, and sweet tomatoes. Everything is well paired with a reasonably priced wine list of more than 200 bottles, half-bottles, and wines by the glass, from 10 different countries. Dinner for two, with wine, $150.

INFO: 10100 W. Charleston Blvd, Suite 150 (702) 214-5590 www.vglasvegas.com

6) Marche Bacchus

What began as a wine shop called Marche Bacchus has evolved over the years into Bistro Bacchus: Pass through the impressive shop and you’ll find yourself on a tiered patio on a manmade lake – definitely one of the Vegas valley’s most transformative experiences. The waterfront tables are the most romantic in town, lit by torches and tiny twinkling lights. Wander the aisles inside and select your own wine (competitively priced to the Strip even with the $10 corkage fee) and order the charcuterie plate with pate, French salami, prosciutto and red onion confit or moules frites steamed in wine with Parmesan-crusted frites. The whole experience is very affordable – two can easily slink out down only around $60.

INFO: 2620 Regatta Drive (702) 804-8008

7) L’Atelier de Joi 1/2l Robuchon

The 16-course tasting menu at Joi 1/2l Robuchon at the Mansion is nothing short of amazing – and totally ponderous (it’s also more like 20 courses, after cheese, bread, multiple sweets courses, coffee, etc.) A better way to sample the three-Michelin-starred master chef’s French cuisine can be found next door, at L’Atelier de Joi 1/2l Robuchon, a microscopic, sushi bar-style counter surrounding a very open kitchen. Order the tangy steak tartare with perfectly crispy crinkle fries, and watch the chefs execute each precisely plated dish. Throw caution to the wind and order Robuchon’s cream-and-butter laden signature pommes purée along with the fries. Sure, there’s one in New York, but this one’s so much more laid back (plus, there’s way more bar seating).

INFO: Inside MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South (702) 891-7358 www.joel-robuchon.com

8) Paymon’s Mediterranean

Las Vegas’s least likely favorite college hangout is also one of its best restaurants: a former Mediterranean deli that morphed into an incredible Turkish, Persian, and Greek restaurant near the UNLV campus on the eastside of the Strip. Paymon’s, named after Iran-born Paymon Raouf who began cooking his childhood favorites here in the late 1970s, has a new location 20 minutes west of the Strip on Sahara. Here, you’ll find a more grown-up crowd, but eating the same intricately spiced dishes like fesenjan, chicken in crushed walnuts and pomegranate sauce and cinnamon-spiced moussaka. Or, just spend the entire time in the hookah lounge next door, slouching in its velvet banquets beneath sexily lantern-lit, tapestry-bedecked walls. It’s as authentic as any Middle Eastern sheesha café. Order one of the fragrant fruit and floral hookahs to pass around (try the rose), and a selection of appetizers like meat-stuffed grape leaves and hummus.

INFO: 8380 W. Sahara Ave (702) 804-0293

9) Abuyira Raku

Tucked in the back of one of the many shopping centers that comprise Las Vegas’ vibrant Chinatown, this small Japanese joint is a current chef favorite – come here after midnight on a Friday and it could just end up being a who’s-who of major players on the strip. Its extensive robata (grilled items) and oden (broth pot) menus are a draw, as are the specials: On a recent evening, we tried the golden-eye snapper collar with a tofu-laden broth – a steal at $35, but priced through the roof compared to the rest of the very reasonable menu. It’s open until three o’clock in the morning on weekends, perfect when you’ve got the late-night munchies for something other than a bad buffet. Points if you order the “meat guts,” which actually turn out to be a very tasty pork stomach dish.

INFO: 5030 Spring Mountain Road, (702) 367-3511

10) T.C.’s Rib Crib

Vegas is a town with its share of barbecue pretenders, but this is smoked meat at its most authentic, from a man who left Katrina-ruined Louisiana with family recipes in his pocket. At this way-west, pocked-sized shrine to Southern cooking, you’ll eat at cafeteria-style tables under harsh, fluorescent lighting. And you’ll like it. Choose from moist pulled pork, spare ribs, baby backs and beef ribs (pork is better) with sides like spicy collards and fried okra. Ask for sweet tea or Kool-Aid (on tap), and check the chalkboard for the glazed-doughnut bread pudding. We like to order one of the giant “Lots O’ Meat” meal deals, which come with sides named after various uncles and cousins. We also take perverse pleasure in ordering it to go, back to as fancy a hotel room as we can manage.


Tag: Desert Companion

We seemed invincible once, didn’t we? Thirty years of ever-expanding prosperity will do that to you. Having survived Gulf wars, dot-com busts, recessions, mass shootings and depressions, it was a cinch the public’s appetite for all things Las Vegas was insatiable. Since 1994, we had seen one restaurant boom after another: celebrity chefs, the French Revolution of the early aughts, Chinatown’s twenty year expansion, Downtown’s resurgence — all of it gave us rabid restaurant revelers a false sense of security. A cocky confidence that the crowds would flock and the champagne would always flow.

And then we were floored by a Covid left hook no one saw coming. Poleaxed, cold-cocked, out on our feet. In an instant, literally, thirty years of progress hit the mat. To keep the metaphor going, we’ve now lifted ourselves to the ropes for a standing eight count. The question remains whether we can recover and still go the distance, or take one more punch and suffer a brutal TKO.

There was an eeriness to everything in those early months, as if a relative had died, or we were living in a bad dream. A sense of loss and apology filled the air. Like someone knocked unconscious (or awakening from a nightmare), our first instincts were to reassure ourselves. Restaurants were there to feed and help us back to our feet and the feelings were mutual. Reassurances and gratitude were the watchwords whenever you picked up a pizza or grabbed take-out from a chef struggling to make sense of it all.

Then, as quick as an unseen uppercut, the mood turned surly and defensive. The moment restaurants were given the go-ahead to start seating people again, the battle lines were drawn. It took some weeks to build the trenches, but by July, what began as a “we’re all in this together” fight for survival devolved into a multi-front war pitting survivalists on all sides against each other. Mutual support evaporated as tensions arose between those needing to make a living and those who saw epidemic death around every corner. Caught in the middle were the patrons: people who just wanted to go out, take advantage of our incredible restaurant scene and have a good time. Suddenly, everyone felt uncomfortable, and in a matter of a few calamitous weeks, dining out in America went from “we’re here to have a good time” to “let’s all struggle to get through this’ — not exactly a recipe for a good time, which is, after all, the whole point of eating out.

Reduced hours and crowds meant shorter menus, since every restaurant in town was forced to narrow its food options. No one seemed to mind, since anyone taking the time to dine out was simply happy the place was open. But if you sum it all up — the rules, the emptiness, the fear, the feeling of everyone being on guard — it’s a wonder anyone bothered going out at all. But going out to eat is what we do, because it is fun, convenient and delicious, and because we are human.

As Las Vegas’s most intrepid gastronaut, I’ve had to curb my voracious appetite more than anyone. Overnight my routine went from visiting ten restaurants a week to a mere few. Even in places where I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, the experience is as suppressed as the voices of the waiters. Instead of concentrating on hospitality, the singular focus is now on following all the rules. All of which makes you appreciate how the charm of restaurants stems from the sincerity of those serving you — something hard to notice when you can’t see their face.

Nowhere are these feelings more acute than on the Strip. “Las Vegas needs conventions to survive,” says Gino Ferraro, facing the simplest of facts. “If the hotels suffer, we suffer.” He’s owned Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar since 1985 and will be the first to tell you how thin the margins are for success in the business. Restaurants are in your blood more than your bank account, and micromanaging, cutting costs, and (hopefully) another year of government assistance are what he sees as keys to their survival. “Good restaurants will survive, but there’s no doubt there will be less of them.”

Unlike the free-standing Ferraro’s, the Strip is different. There, the restaurants are amenities — like stores in a mall if you will — and from Sunday-Thursday (when the conventions arrived) they used to thrive. These days, like Ferraro’s, they still pack ’em in on weekends, but almost all are closed Monday-Wednesday. This doesn’t mean the food or the service has suffered, far from it, only that everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and this anxiety is palpable when you walk through the doors. The staffs are almost too welcoming, which is nice, but you can sense the fear and it’s not pretty, and it is not going away for many months to come.

As Vegas slowly re-opens, one thing you can no longer take for granted is that each hotel will have a full compliment of dining options, from the most modest to world famous. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that a year from now, some hotels may field a smaller team of culinary superstars, and their bench will not be as deep, and those stars will have another season of wear and tear on them without any talented rookies to come along and take their place.

Long before the shutdown, there were signs we had reached peak Vegas and things were starting to wane. Some fancy French venues were showing their age, the Venetian/Palazzo (with its panoply of dining options), seemed overstuffed, and rumblings were heard that even the indefatigable David Chang had lost his fastball. The same could be said for the whole celebrity-chef-thing, which was starting to feel very end-of-last-century by the end of last year. The Palms’ murderer’s row of newly-minted sluggers was mired in a slump, and our gleaming, big box, pan-Asian eye-candy (Tao, Hakkasan) were not shining as bright as they once did.

The stakes are much higher when you consider the reputation of Las Vegas as a whole. Survey the landscape these days and all you can ask is, how much of this damage is permanent? It took from 1989-2019 to take Las Vegas from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to a world class, destination dining capital — a claim to fame like no other — where an entire planet of gastronomic delights, cooked by some of the best chefs in the business, was concentrated among a dozen swanky, closely-packed hotels. Now, what are we? A convention city with no conventions? A tourist mecca three days a week? Can we recapture this lost ground, or is some of it gone forever? Everyone is asking but no one has the answers.

Perhaps a culling of the herd was already in the works and all Covid did was accelerate the process. Are the big money restaurant days over? Certainly until those conventions return, and no one is predicting that until next year, at the earliest. If that’s the case, it will be a leaner/meaner gastronomic world that awaits us down the road — not the cornucopia of choices laid before you every night, no matter what style of food struck your fancy. The fallout will include the casinos playing it safe not throwing money at chefs like they once did, and sticking with the tried a true for awhile. Less ambitious restaurant choices? Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine a single European concept making a splash like Joël Robuchon did in 2005, or any Food Network star getting the red carpet treatment just for slapping their name on a door. The era of Flay, Ramsay, Andrés and others is over, and the “next big thing” in Las Vegas dining won’t be a thing for a long time.

If the Strip’s prospects look bleak (at least in the short term), locally the resilience has been astounding. Neighborhood venues hunkered down like everyone else, but now seem poised for a resurgence at a much faster rate than anything happening in the hotels. If the Strip resembles a pod of beached whales, struggling to get back in the water, then local restaurants are the more nimble pilot fish, darting about, servicing smaller crowds wherever they find them. Four new worthwhile venues are popping up downtown: upscale tacos at Letty’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Sake, Good Pie and the American gastro-pub Main Street Provisions, all in the Arts District. Off the Strip Mitsuo Endo has debuted his high-toned yakitori bar — Raku Toridokoro — to much acclaim, and brew pubs are multiplying everywhere faster than peanut butter stouts.

Chinatown — with its indomitable Asians at the helm — seems the least fazed by any of this, and Circa will spring to life before year’s end on Fremont Street, hoping to capture some of the hotel mojo sadly absent a few miles south. Going forward, some of these imposed restrictions will remain in place to ensure survival (more take-out, smaller menus, fewer staff), but the bottom line is look to the neighborhoods if you wish to recapture that rarest of sensations these days, a sense of normalcy.

Watching my favorites absorb these body blows has been like nursing a sick child who did nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. In a way it’s made me realize that’s what these restaurants have become to me over decades: a community of fledgling businesses I’ve supported and watched grow in a place no one thought possible. As social experiments go, the great public health shutdown of 2020 will be debated for years, but this much is true: Las Vegas restaurants were at their peak on March 15, 2020, and reaching that pinnacle is a mountain many of them will never again climb.


On High-Stakes Tables in Las Vegas: Fish, Not Chips

LAS VEGAS - JOËL ROBUCHON and his creations travel very nicely, thank you.

His newest venture, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, which opened on Monday in the MGM Grand hotel here, represents a leap back into the rarefied realm of haute cuisine, from which he "retired" in 1996. During the tryouts preceding its official debut, the restaurant served the best food in Las Vegas, by a decisive margin, and some of the very best French food I have ever eaten on this continent.

This is no revolutionary Robuchon, like his Ateliers (including one here and, soon, in New York), where one eats at a counter and talks to the chefs. It is no casual, scaled-down, moderately priced Robuchon, like La Table de Joël Robuchon in the chic 16th Arrondissement, and its counterparts in Monte Carlo and Asia. This is full-scale, damn-the-torpedoes, three-stars-or-bust Robuchon, worldly, luxurious, costly.

Getting there is none of the fun. You walk through the crass clamor of hundreds of slot machines, past a Starbucks and other lesser diversions and into a bombastic stone doorway more suited to a central bank than a casino. But inside you are in Paris, in a subdued neo-Deco room lighted by a glamorous Swarovski crystal chandelier, furnished with handsome chairs in the fashion of Ruhlmann and graced by Lalique vases.

A small glass of lemon gelée flavored with vanilla and topped with an anisette-infused cream sets the tone straight away -- a complex, entirely original and appetite-rousing prelude to the many delights that lie ahead, and a vivid demonstration of the French master's familiar maxim that three tastes in any one dish are quite enough.

Mr. Robuchon's arrival signals another step in the evolution of Las Vegas as a culinary capital, and the onset of a struggle between two visions of its future. Will it specialize in a kind of ghost cuisine, conceived but seldom cooked by absentee chefs who made their names elsewhere, or will it nurture its own kitchen superstars?

Steve Wynn, whose gigantic new $2.7 billion casino opened in the summer of 2005, helped put Las Vegas on the world's gastronomic map in 1998 when he lured luminaries like Julian Serrano, Alessandro Strata and Sirio Maccioni to the Mirage and Bellagio, the Las Vegas resorts he then owned. Mr. Serrano and Mr. Strata moved here, and their food profited from their daily attention. But many of the chefs and restaurateurs who followed in their profitable wake did little more than phone in menus.

Mr. Wynn said that one evening in 2000 he ran into Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Prime, the Bellagio steakhouse that bears Mr. Vongerichten's imprimatur. Mr. Vongerichten, who is involved in restaurants in New York and around the world, told the casino boss that it was the first time he had cooked at Prime since it opened two years earlier.

That set Mr. Wynn to thinking, he told me, and he decided that "the only thing that matters is who's cooking dinner, not whose name appears on the door." As a result, most of the nine fine-dining restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas (among 22 food operations) are run by younger chefs, well known in the cities where they formerly cooked but not nationally celebrated. All have relocated to Las Vegas as a condition of employment, except Mr. Strata, who has moved over from the Mirage, and Daniel Boulud.

"A sense started spreading that something was fishy here," Mr. Wynn said. "If Steve Wynn paints a painting he doesn't get to sign it Picasso. So we're going down a different path. It's a bit of adventure, and I admit I'm not sure it'll work."

Gamal Aziz, who ran Bellagio's food and beverage operation and who considers Mr. Wynn his mentor, thinks not. Now the president of MGM Grand, the Egyptian-born Mr. Aziz is still reaching for stars. He persuaded Mr. Robuchon to set up shop here, where the chef is contractually required to spend just two weeks a quarter.

"I think it's an uphill battle to bring in these relatively unknown chefs and introduce them," Mr. Aziz said. "Most of our clients come to the desert for four or five days, not long enough to get used to new faces. They want to recognize names. I think we gain a competitive advantage by associating ourselves with the very best, and it will not be easy to top Joël Robuchon."

Well, Guy Savoy, another Paris heavyweight, holder of three Michelin stars, may come close if he wants to. His Las Vegas entry, on the second floor of the new Augustus Tower at Caesars Palace, a kitschfest even by Las Vegas standards, is set to open early in 2006 Mr. Savoy's son, Franck, has arrived to oversee it.

Some equally big names have decided not even to pretend to reproduce the food they serve at their home bases. At Wynn, Mr. Boulud runs a brasserie, not a replica of Daniel, his brilliant Manhattan establishment (although the executive chef, Philippe Rispoli, who grew up near Lyon, like Mr. Boulud, makes a rough-textured pâté de campagne, unctuous pork and goose rillettes and other dishes that would evoke cheers in New York).

Thomas Keller transplanted his bistro, Bouchon, not the French Laundry or Per Se, to the Venetian in Las Vegas. And the omnipresent Alain Ducasse, with two Michelin three-star restaurants, in Paris and Monte Carlo, eschews French classicism for a more populist approach at his local spot, Mix, perched on the 64th floor of a tower at Mandalay Bay. With sensational views across Sin City, it is much more endearing than its recently departed New York namesake. Thai beef salad and curried lobster cohabit happily on the menu with the best baba this side of the Atlantic, served with a choice of three premium rums. Hanging from the ceiling, thousands of shimmering Venetian glass baubles, said to have cost $500,000, remind you that you are in the world capital of wretched excess.

"Trying to replicate a Paris three-star on the 64th floor, maybe anywhere in Vegas, would have been a big mistake," said John Cunin, Mix's general manager.

What to Cook This Weekend

Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the weekend. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.

    • In this slow-cooker recipe for shrimp in purgatory, the spicy red pepper and tomato sauce develops its deep flavors over hours.
    • Deploy some store-bought green chutney in this quick, saucy green masala chicken. could be good for dinner, and some blueberry muffins for breakfast.
    • For dessert, watermelon granita? Or a poundcake with macerated strawberries and whipped cream?
    • And for Memorial Day itself? You know we have many, many recipes for that.

    Obviously Mr. Aziz and Mr. Robuchon don't think so, and for now at least they seem to have brought it off. Mr. Robuchon took an almost obsessive interest in the design of the menu and the kitchen and put two seasoned Breton friends in day-to-day charge: Loïc Launay as general manager, and Claude Le Tohic, who worked at Mr. Robuchon's side during the glory days at Jamin in Paris, as executive chef.

    Mr. Le Tohic holds the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France), a coveted distinction awarded by a jury of his peers, so no one doubts his credentials. Seven cooks and six front-of-the-house people also came from Robuchon operations in Paris and Tokyo. Only time will tell, however, how long they will stay and who will replace them when they go.

    Two set menus are offered at Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, 9 small courses plus coffee for $165, and 16 small courses plus coffee for $295. Many items are also served à la carte. The 750-entry wine list includes risibly expensive items, presumably for those who have hit several jackpots, such as 1978 Le Montrachet from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at $8,845 a bottle. But for mere mortals, 2002 Puligny-Montrachet from Dujac at a modest $108 should more than suffice. It did so for me.

    Though relaxed, service is in the grand French style, with main courses delivered on silver trays (or carved at table side, in the case of the lobster and turbot and delectable roasted guinea hen with foie gras). Breads, cheeses (all French, all ripe), digestifs and after-dinner treats roll to the table on handsome wooden carts. The lighting is subtle, the air-conditioning far less overpowering than the Las Vegas norm the tables are well spaced. Only 40 people can be seated in the square dining room, centered on a black fireplace with gas-fired flames, with room for a dozen more on a side terrace and 10 in a small private room.

    If the gelée amuse-bouche attested to Mr. Robuchon's unflagging creativity, a mille-feuille consisting of two triangular layer cakes of fresh king crab, Fuji apple, watercress and bibb lettuce with perfectly fitted tomato lids bespoke his artistry. They rested on a red disk formed by a coulis of tomato and Périgord verjus (unfermented juice of unripe grapes), delightful in its balance of acid and fruitiness, with minuscule green dots of parsley-infused mayonnaise around its circumference. So precisely was all this applied, each dish reportedly requiring 20 minutes to complete, that I thought for a second that it was part of the decoration of the plate. Magic.

    I could not resist trying langoustines, a Robuchon specialty, which are not often seen in the United States. Pulled into tight circles, enveloped in ephemeral ravioli cases with more than a few slivers of truffle, and cooked for only a few instants, these were meltingly sweet and ultratender. A hillock of barely steamed baby Savoy cabbage shared the plate, along with a slick of glossy veal reduction. Nothing else.

    The langoustines had been flown across the Atlantic, of course, but the milk-fed veal was all-American, from the highly regarded Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. Listed on the menu as a veal chop, it was in fact two rectangles, less than half an inch thick, judiciously cooked to a uniform pink from edge to edge and moistened with deeply flavored pan juices. This time the accompanying act was a nest of taglierini made from carrots, zucchini and broccolini and lightly sauced with pesto. Somebody somewhere may do a more succulent veal dish -- there are lots of restaurants in this world -- but if so I have never sampled it.

    Everything I ate was thought-out and free of frivolous gestures. Each combined delicacy with a certain muscularity of taste in a most unusual equilibrium. And each left my palate fresh as the dawn.

    THINGS have gotten off to a bumpy start at Wynn. Its nightclubs are already being revamped, its computer system has been plagued by bugs and one of its regional chefs, Jimmy Sneed, formerly at the Frog and the Redneck in Richmond, Va., left before the resort even opened, after personality clashes and a dispute over what style of food he should cook.

    Some of the other restaurants still seem a little ragged, including Okada, where the gifted Takashi Yagahashi cooks European-influenced Japanese food.

    The look of the place is a bit of a letdown as well. Whereas Bellagio's lyrically swaying fountains evoke Busby Berkeley musicals, Wynn's ersatz Yosemite, waterfalls and all, comes straight out of B-movies.

    But Wynn has had its triumphs as well, including Alex, the new domain of Mr. Strata and his rich, layered Franco-Italian food, which is one of the town's handful of truly successful haute cuisine restaurants. Its two steakhouses are booming, too Las Vegas has always loved beef.

    From my viewpoint, Paul Bartolotta's Ristorante di Mare is as thrilling as it is unexpected: an Italian seafood trattoria smack in the middle of the American desert. Although forewarned, I leapt with surprise when he wheeled out a trolley banked with bright-eyed orata, branzino, triglia (red mullet), spigola and other fish -- even ugly, fiery red scorfano, the rascasse so vital to bouillabaisse -- from Venice, Sicily, Liguria and other maritime parts of Italy, which come directly from a Milanese broker.

    Milwaukee-born, trained in top kitchens in New York, France and Italy, Mr. Bartolotta, 44, made Spiaggia in Chicago the best Italian restaurant between the coasts. When they met, Mr. Wynn said, "I wanted a normal Italian menu -- you know, veal piccata -- but he insisted on doing something different and wore me down."

    So seafood it is: steamed mussels with cannellini beans, tender octopus salad, linguine with clams and tomatoes, charcoal grilled lobster or langoustines and those beautiful fish, simply poached or roasted whole with olive oil and perhaps a touch of grapefruit for balance, dressed with herbs and some simple condiment like salsa salmoriglio (olive oil, lemon, garlic and oregano) -- real seaside stuff -- with a few token meat dishes like rabbit, chicken and rack of lamb. No veal piccata.

    "I'm shooting for extreme simplicity and explosive flavor," Mr. Bartolotta said, and he is hitting those targets.

    Another veteran of the Chicago restaurant wars, Taiwan-born Richard Chen, who won acclaim at the Peninsula Hotel's Shanghai Terrace in Chicago, also seems to have hit his stride in Las Vegas. He cooks Western-inflected Chinese food at Wing Lei at Wynn, including a fabulous Peking duck salad that owes a debt to a similar dish at Hakkasan in London, a lobster spring roll, thinly sliced abalone with a spicy green papaya salad and a memorable Dungeness crab slow-cooked with ginger, scallions and garlic in a clay pot.

    All fine eating -- and a joy to look at as well, as is the miniature garden that lies just beyond a wall-size window, with a pair of 100-year old pomegranate trees and a big black Fernando Botero sculpture.

    Still, the question remains: as important as dining has become to Las Vegas, where gambling now accounts for only 40 percent of revenues, can a rootless place with no indigenous gastronomic traditions and no local raw materials (except for the odd blood orange and sprig of rosemary) ever be a great restaurant town, as opposed to a resort town with good restaurants -- "a Disneyland for foodies," as the restaurant consultant Clark Wolf calls it?

    "I doubt that you will ever have a true food culture here, in the sense that Lyon and Venice and San Francisco have food cultures," commented Elizabeth Blau, executive vice president for restaurant development at Wynn Resorts, who is considered one of the savviest food people in the city. "Nothing is local."

    I asked Mr. Aziz whether Las Vegas is yet a great restaurant city.

    "No, not yet," he replied, "but we've made some quantum leaps. We've built a strong foundation, and eventually we'll get there. This is a large, prosperous region now. We have the economic means to support not only great restaurants in the casinos, but also the bistros and other places that are popping up in the neighborhoods."


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