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The Gambling Gourmet

Seven must-try restaurants for serious foodies
Image: Picasso Restaurant
Picasso RestaurantCourtesy of Bellagio Hotel & Casino
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Las Vegas, these days, is all about sin—the good kind of sin, that is.  Benign and legal variations on the Seven Deadly, with Sloth getting a non-workout by the pool or during a massage at a gorgeous spa, and Lust being taken for a spin by new racy adult shows like Cirque de Soleil’s somewhat nekkid “Zumanity”. So Gluttons—oops,we mean, “gourmets” or even “foodies”—are rejoicing. No longer do they need satisfy themselves at all you can eat buffets and .99 shrimp cocktails. It’s a whole new game in the kitchen, as just about every celebrity chef has opened up an outpost—or two, or three—in Las Vegas.

Wolfgang Puck led the way (and now has over five restaurants in town), Emeril was hot on his heels, and since then, Vegas has greeted Charlie Palmer (Aureole at Mandalay Bay), Jean-Georges (Prime at Bellagio), Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Fenniger (Border Grill at Mandalay Bay), Julian Serrano (Picasso at Bellagio), Todd English (Olives at Bellagio and Onda at the Mirage) and Alex Stratta (Renoir at the Mirage). The late Jean Louis Palladin had his last restaurant, Napa, at the Rio. There is a branch of New Orleans’s venerable Commander’s Palace (in the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood hotel) that can stand up proudly with its famous sibling. Northern California’s Bradley Ogden has his first namesake restaurant in Caesar’s Palace. Bobby Flay will be opening his first restaurant outside of New York City in Caesar’s Palace in early 2004. By the time you read this, no less than Thomas Keller, he of Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry, possibly the best restaurant in the United States, will have opened a branch of his Bouchon at the Venetian.

All this is good foodie news, right? Well, sort of. Vegas has always been more or less about bait-and-switch—remember the “Vegas is For Families” campaign the city and hotels now disavow with a vengeance? Even as today’s promise of luxury resorts actually translates to lush-appearing pools that are only three feet deep in most spots, and extra charges to even set foot in a spa or health club, just because a restaurant is supported by a celebrity chef doesn’t mean said chef, celebrity or otherwise, is in the kitchen cooking away. A chef can only be present in so many of their kitchens any given night, and some will just have to function without him/her. Which isn’t to say that those same kitchens aren’t staffed by some extremely talented, if more anonymous, chefs. (In the case of Bouchon, the chef will be Michael Demiers, who worked with Palladin at  Napa.) But it does mean that what you think you see isn’t what you are necessarily getting.

Another pitfall of gourmet dining, Vegas-style, are particularly high prices. With the advent of celebrity chefs and name value restaurants have come prices as high as anything in New York or San Francisco. That Vegas is no longer a budget town is increasingly obvious, and menu prices at the top end places slam the point home. It’s not hard to spend upwards (and more) of $100 per person, and that’s before wine. Some of this may be attributed to the need to truck or fly just about everything in to this desert town. But it’s still not hard to feel vaguely cheated when you notice that the menus here can be shorter and more pricey than those at the original locations.

With an eye towards avoiding at least one of these culinary hazards, we’ve assembled a list of can’t-miss Vegas restaurants, each offering something special, be it a true celebrity chef, two chef stars in the making offering their own witty twists on regional cuisine,  an irresistible combination of thoughtful cooking and a glorious setting or just plain delicious food that won’t break your bank even if the slots do.

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South (in the Bellagio Hotel)
702-693-7223 / 888-987-6667

The absentee celebrity chef is not a problem at Picasso. Original owner Steve Wynn went personally to Julian Serrano, chef at San Francisco’s beloved Masa, possibly the finest French restaurant that city has ever seen. An offer was made that couldn’t be refused. The result is that Serrano is now the most famous chef in Vegas who is actually nightly in his kitchen. He has no other establishment other than the one lined with paintings from the master whose name is on the sign, and whose son designed the interiors. It’s a pricey experience and a completely worthwhile one. Choose between either a four course prix fixe that offers three options per course, or a five course, set degustation (with two options for the entrée), and savor what happens when a Spanish chef cooks French-influenced cuisine in an oh-so-modern-Vegas space. One small complaint might be that Serrano doesn’t vary his offerings too much, having settled on some tried and true formulas, but when those include the creamy sunshine of corn flan (part of “corn three ways”), roasted pigeon with a crust of honey, walnuts and almonds, or perfectly done lamb roti, crusted in truffles, it’s hard to complain.

8125 W. Sahara Blvd.

A case can be made to forget the part-timers and other imports, if you want to be sure of attention in the kitchen. After all, Vegas has its own celebrity chef in the making, Michael Jordan, who came to town thanks to Emeril. Jordan and his wife Wendy cooked at some of the best restaurants in that best of restaurant towns, New Orleans, then helped open Emeril’s first Vegas restaurant in the MGM Grand, before turning their attention to their own establishment. While their cooking is neither strictly Southern nor Creole, that regional sensibility influences the menu at their own Rosemary’s. There are two, one slightly higher end version in the old Napa space at the Rio, and one far west on Sahara. Because a free-standing restaurant is so unusual in this town of hotel-based restaurants, and because the menu there is a little bit more jaunty, the Sahara location has the edge. It’s in a strip mall, but so is everything not in a hotel, so don’t be put off. The inside is sweetly low-key stylish, and includes seating overlooking the open kitchen.

The Rosemary’s at the Rio space is somewhat more formal, but both locations offer a menu to thrill and consternate over, finally deciding there is nothing else to be done for it but to start planning a repeat visit, and fast. How else can you try both Creole-seared sea scallops with pumpkin, crispy prosciutto orzo, sizzled leeks and spiced mustard butter sauce or BBQ glazed salmon with a bacon and frisee salad? This isn’t to neglect the red meat dishes (including a tender-as-butter herb-crusted veal tenderloin with Maytag bleu cheese bread pudding), but every fish entrée we’ve tried here has been more stunning than the last. Starters worth trying include a twice-baked Parmesan soufflé, pistachio-crusted foie gras on a white cheddar grit cake, and their noted Maytag bleu cheese slaw. The menu also suggestions beer pairings along with wine, which makes for some delightful experimentation.

Rosemary’s is also an exception to high price fatigue. Not only is it a little cheaper than the others, but has recently added at $39 prix fixe;  your choice of appetizer, starter and Entrée, three courses for a reduced price that essentially means your dessert, should you still have room, is free.

4321 Flamingo Rd. (in the Palms Hotel)

For years, before the Food Network stars showed up, the last word (justly) in gourmet dining, at least in downtown Las Vegas, was the French-themed Andre’s. It’s still marvelous, but chef/proprietor Andre Rochat didn’t rest on his laurels. His Alize sits on top of the Palms hotel, just off the Strip, in a space bordered on three sides with full length windows, offering unobstructed views of the Strip, the desert and beyond. It’s perhaps the most beautiful dining space in Vegas. But drag your eyes away from the mountains and the twinkling lights long enough to look at the menu, which is a wonder of its own. It changes seasonally, but you should be able to try items like the phyllo wrapped baked Anjou pear and Roquefort salad (though it comes off more like a hot appetizer), or a stunning New York steak with summer truffles jus and potato herb pancakes, or meltingly tender lamp chops with shredded lamp shank wrapped in crispy crepes. (Fish here can be a little dry, which is why we are steering you in a carnivore direction.)

3600 Las Vegas Blvd S. (in the Bellagio)

Another wallet-easing option is to visit the star restaurant of your choice at lunch time, when charges can fall considerably. Take Todd English’s Olives, in the Bellagio hotel; Dinner entrees run from $19-$40, but at lunch, you can have prettily constructed grilled and sautéed fish or lovely pastas for $12-$18. Or skip the entrees, fill up on the endless bread basket (including herb foccacia), add a crisp salad (our choice is Bibb lettace with Maytag bleu cheese) and split a cracker-thin crust flatbread (topped with combinations like proscuitto, fig and gorgonzola), for about $10 per person.

Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Ave. #A-5

Fortunately for lesser budgets, the dining thrills are not confined to fancy pants restaurants with million dollar views and artwork. A can’t miss foodie experience can be found east on Sahara, in the ugliest strip mall you can possibly imagine. No less an authority than Gourmet magazine claims that Lotus of Siam is the best Thai restaurant in North America. Is it? Have any of us tried enough to say otherwise? Probably not, but let’s say this for sure; it’s worth the short drive to find out, and once there, you certainly won’t be disappointed. Unless you were looking for famous artwork, or indeed, any significant décor at all. What you will find is a special menu (be sure to ask for it) of Northern Thai specialties, which may include such authentic dishes as sua rong hai (grilled, marinated beef), nam sod (ground pork mixed with ginger, green onion, and lime juice) and nam kao tod (sour pork sausage served with crispy rice). The owner drives to LA several times a week to get the freshest ingredients, and the hard work and commitment shows.

324 W. Sahara  (call for other locations)

A family run chain that originated back east, Capriotti’s is a true budget delight. They make submarine sandwiches of near-divine perfection, all the basics kinds from a recommended spicy cold cut to hot meatballs, and each store roasts their own turkey and beef on the premises. But it’s the special combos that have made rapid fans among locals and regular visitors to Vegas, some of whom refuse to leave town without a Capriotti’s in fist, or chilling in a specially-brought cooler. Our favorites are the Bobbie (turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce—Thanksgiving on a roll!) and the messy monster Slaw B. Joe (shredded roast beef, cole slaw, Russian dressing and provolone cheese).  Even the small sandwiches here are hefty and the large comes in at 20 inches. With the latter costing $11, and feeding three, it’s the best bang for your buck in town. Aficionados note that while there are several Capriotti’s around town, there is one just two blocks west of the Strip, right on the way to the freeway, convenient to not just in-room hotel dining, but also exiting town. Unwrap one of these babies on the plane and all around will be as envious as if you won a big jackpot.

Paris Le Village Buffet
3665 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (in the Paris Hotel)

Let’s not entirely forget the traditions of Vegas dining, that staple of Old Vegas Lots For Little, the buffet. Most buffets fall into one of two classes: “cheap and it shows”, and “costly and can I really eat enough to justify it?” Still, there have been genuine attempts to move past the boring old carving stations and gummy hot dishes. Plus, a little math will show that even at the higher ends (around $22 at dinner), you are getting good value for your money, if you consider what one starter, one entrée, dessert and drinks would cost at a restaurant offering even a fraction of similar items. And it’s just a kick of an experience, one worth having at least once.

To this end, the best option is Paris’ Le Buffet, where there has been some interest brought to a tired genre. Stations are divided up into five provinces of France (Burgundy, Alsac-Lorraine, and so forth), and while the food within may not vary as much as it ought, it’s still a thoughtful variation on the ubiquitous mound of shrimp and prime rib. On any given visit, there might be a pretty good roast duck with green peppercorns and peaches and made-to-order crepes in Brittany, the carving station stands out by offering chateaubriand sauce and cherry sauce Escoffier and they just added a station called “La Raclette” where melted cheese will be paired with cured meats, French bread and assorted vegetables. Kids will be happy with the grilled meat skewers, and with the made-to-order bananas foster.