Chinese New Year Las Vegas
Marlene Karas  /  AP
Chef Zhang Xiowzhi prepares dragon whisker noodles for the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Culinary Festival at the Pearl restaurant at MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Feb. 4. The Diaoyutai State Guesthouse of China, the exclusive retreat of Chinese royalty, sent a team of chefs along with the tableware, decor and the exotic ingredients to Las Vegas especially for this festival, which is being held in the U.S. for the first time.
updated 2/7/2008 3:39:08 PM ET 2008-02-07T20:39:08

The city's casino industry has long rolled out the red lanterns for high-rolling Asian gamblers on Chinese New Year. This year, MGM Mirage Inc. is literally giving them royal treatment with a feast up to now reserved for China's official state guests.

To prepare the repast, the casino giant flew in nine chefs, three managers and seven young female performer-servers from the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a revered institution that has served every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, and more than 1,300 heads of state.

The weeklong extravagance is a small expense for the holiday beginning Thursday that regularly boosts Nevada's baccarat handle by half — last February it hit $1.03 billion, topping even blackjack, the king of card games.

With competition from other operators and the burgeoning market of Macau, MGM Mirage said it went to special trouble this year to have its Las Vegas offerings stand out.

The culinary treat created such buzz that 85 percent of its seatings were prebooked, mostly by Chinese flying over from Asia, where access to the palatial, 800-year-old Diaoyutai complex of villas is restricted at best.

"There's obviously the cachet of having the premier culinary team in China here at your facility," said MGM Grand's vice president of food and beverage, David McIntyre. "And the cachet of knowing that normally, outside of invitations to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, the regular Chinese man in the street is not going to get the opportunity to experience food like this."

Chinese New Year is a time for families to get together, for children to get red envelopes stuffed with money, for food, firecrackers and lion dances — and for many, the first chance to see if good fortune at the baccarat tables will greet them this year.

Nevada casinos won $117 million on baccarat last February, which put even the Super Bowl to shame with its take of $12.9 million. This year, the Super Bowl lost a record $2.6 million for Nevada casinos because of the New York Giants' upset win.

Chinese characters, decorative red and gold banners and lanterns, symbolizing good fortune and prosperity, and tangerine trees laden with oranges have popped up around casinos.

MGM Mirage's Bellagio has redecorated its conservatory complete with rodent-shaped bushes to welcome the Year of the Rat.

"It's become a citywide celebration," said Debbie Munch, spokeswoman for Caesars' owner, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which began a lion dance on the Strip in 1975. "Like St. Patrick's Day in Chicago and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Chinese New Year celebration is a time for vacationers to enjoy a resort getaway and is popular with many ethnicities."

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Staff at The Venetian and Caesars Palace will set off firecrackers and paint in the eyes of giant dancing lions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And Wynn Las Vegas is hosting a dim sum buffet until Feb. 17 for the auspicious price of $58.88, which uses a preponderance of the Chinese lucky number eight.

Inside the Pearl restaurant at MGM Grand, patrons will get a taste of food once reserved for those who have eaten at Diaoyutai, a series of villas run by the foreign ministry that began as a "fishing terrace" 800 years ago for Emperor Zhangzong of the Jin Dynasty.

Queen Elizabeth II, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, NBA star Steve Nash, and Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates have eaten there. Former president Bill Clinton famously wanted to stay a few extra days to sample more of the cuisine.

Chef Hao Baoli, 51, has led the team for the last 29 years using the principles of beautiful environment, beautiful food, beautiful tableware and excellent service.

The items are low in sodium, sugar and fat, and high in protein — and they use ingredients that are as rare as they are expensive.

Because he could not acquire sturgeon marrow for a soup in the United States, chef Hao replaced it with a broth that combines the "tian ma" root herb found high in the Chinese mountains and the nest of a red bird found in Thailand — which costs $2,200 per pound.

MGM Mirage is seeking to learn from and adapt the Diaoyutai's sensibilities as the two entities develop their first two joint-venture non-casino luxury resorts, one in Beijing and the other in Tianjin.

The projects, currently in the design phase, will combine MGM Mirage hotel management, entertainment and restaurant offerings with the Diaoyutai's service standards, recruiting network and, of course, its culinary traditions.

"It will borrow from the best of both companies to really provide a very unique experience to Asians and international clientele that would stay there," said Gamal Aziz, president of MGM Mirage Hospitality, an MGM Mirage subsidiary.

After the week is complete, the chefs will make the rounds of other MGM restaurants, to learn from the company's methods and share their knowledge of an ancient cuisine.

In one special touch for the festival, MGM Mirage shipped in 1,500 pounds of the Diaoyutai's custom-made china to serve each of the 60 guests who will eat together.

Diaoyutai general manager Liu Tingting speaks animatedly of the dishware, much of which is embroidered with imperial yellow and blue dragons. One gilded bowl, bearing the characters for "Long live the Emperor," is modeled after the dish China's monarch would use, into which servants would deposit items of his choosing.

"This was the emperor's bowl," Liu said, cupping it in her hands. "Now it has become a bowl for side dishes for the customer."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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