Dining in Las Vegas has been moving from buffet to gourmet for at least a decade, but with the latest round of restaurants, it's vying to become the country's culinary capital.
Westerners can attribute much of this to their own good taste: The hottest new restaurants are led by chefs from Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. Menus now are less formal and more fresh, less about showmanship and more about substance.
Las Vegas has become a kind of litmus test of culinary importance ― come here after you've made it elsewhere. "Las Vegas is a headliner kind of city, so casinos brought in recognizable names," says Thomas Keller of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California. He opened Bouchon, a French brasserie similar to his Napa Valley eatery of the same name, in January in the Venetian's new tower, Venezia.
The influx of big names means that the Strip is now a smorgasbord of food trends. Along with Keller, in the last year and a half, other chefs who have opened up shop Strip-side include the Lark Creek Inn's Bradley Ogden, Maya's Richard Sandoval, the Bellagio's Michael Mina (who now has three Vegas venues), and Hubert Keller, whose second restaurant here, Fleur de Lys, has just opened. And then, of course, there is the city's original culinary innovator, Spago's Wolfgang Puck, who launched his latest, a bar and grill, at the MGM Grand last summer.
It was Puck who prompted Las Vegas to shed its humble all-you-can-eat beginnings when he opened Spago here in 1992. By the late '90s, with the opening of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino and Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, the city was gaining gourmet heft. Other big-name chefs had followed Puck's lead, including New Orleans' Emeril Lagasse and Frenchman Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The elaborate dining rooms at Le Cirque, Picasso, Prime Steakhouse, Renoir, and Valentino featured classic French and Italian menus, and were pure Vegas, with the over-the-top formality of a Bally's chorus line: fantastic, but full of artifice.
The newest restaurants also showcase celebrity chefs, but in less formal (though stylish) venues. And more than ever, these chefs are focusing on fresh, honest flavors and highest quality ingredients flown in from small producers all over the world.
Even Puck marvels at the city's new character. "I think it's amazing what has happened in Las Vegas," he says. "You can go five or six times a year, for two to three days, and never eat in the same place ― and always have great food. It seems that Las Vegas is a bigger food town than San Francisco or Chicago. Maybe only New York is bigger."
The new heavyweights in Las Vegas
From classic French comfort to California fresh to cutting-edge seafood, the city's latest generation of restaurants is definitely packed with knockouts.
Of the headliner chefs in this city, Bradley Ogden is the only one who actually appears in his show; he's in the kitchen most nights, along with his son, Bryan, who is one of his senior chefs tournants.
Beautiful produce from all over the country populates the kitchen, and there's a California sensibility to the simple, sophisticated combinations that emerge: a warm Maytag blue cheese soufflé with pluots, candied walnuts, and greens in an ice-wine verjus vinaigrette; beautifully crusted striped bass on a green-onion cake, surrounded by a peppery arugula purée. $$$$. Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/731-7410.
At Diego, executive chef Christopher House imports authenticity from Oaxaca, Veracruz, and the Yucatán. Guacamole made tableside and six salsa choices are just a start. While appetizer execution is still developing, crispy empanadas, packed with crab, roasted poblanos, corn, and Chihuahua cheese, are a winner.
As for entrées, the chicken mole might be the best north of the border ― tender, smoky meat in a sauce with the complexity of some 32 ingredients. And real memories of the Yucatán are evoked by the cochinita pibil, pork marinated in achiote paste and orange juice, then slow-cooked in banana leaves and served with roasted green chiles, black beans, mandatory pickled red onions, and a habanero salsa that brings tears to your eyes. $$$. MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.mgmgrand.com or 702/891-3200.
Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill
Puck's new prototype restaurant resides in the middle of the MGM Grand casino. "The ultimate California patio," he's calling it. We'd call it a Las Vegas-style diner (views over the shoulders of blackjack players being rare on California decks).
He does have the ultimate Las Vegas snack ― crisp, warm, paper-thin potato chips drizzled with creamy blue cheese sauce and pungent white truffle oil; pair them with a glass of champagne.
All the grill favorites are here in fresh, fine form: crab cakes, Puck's signature duck bratwurst sausage, and wood-fired pizzas. Drinks are even better ― try a prickly pear mojito or a fruity "chop chop." $$$. MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.mgmgrand.com or 702/891-3000.
A kaleidoscopic wall behind the sushi bar draws people into this Japanese restaurant. With executive chef Eiji Takase's fresh fish, in sweet, earthy, briny rolls of salmon, shiso, and avocado topped with salmon roe, or the ultimate silky toro sushi, that would be enough. But dining rooms follow ― one a kelp-forest world of both traditional and innovative dishes, like miso-glazed wild salmon with a lotus root-and-ginger sauce; another, a line of teppan grills where simple cooking becomes performance art.
Here, stellar ingredients ― Kobe-style beef from Oregon, organic chicken from California, oyster mushrooms ― are grilled in front of you and offered up in a series of courses. Sake served in flights or cocktails shows its range of styles and quality. Try the Kah Pah ― cucumber sorbet shaken with sake and vodka ― with a salmon roll. $$$$. MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.mgmgrand.com or 702/891-3001.
Michael Mina's newest (and coolest) Vegas venture opened in fall 2003. Build the beginning of your meal from a priced-by-the-piece assortment of shellfish; a salad bar on paper that enables you to make checks next to your choices (snow peas, shaved crimini mushrooms, teardrop tomatoes, olive focaccia croutons); and sets of appetizers categorized by cooking method: raw, steamed, or fried (don't miss the delicious, ridiculous lobster corn dog ― a delicate seafood sausage encased in sweet, crunchy cornmeal).
For entrées, stick with the jet-fresh "surf" list from the grill or the tagines, prepared using the Moroccan clay-pot cooking method adapted by Mina for his quick-braised seafood.
Seablue's wine list is boldly white-heavy, with Rieslings, Gewürztraminers, Viogniers, and Grüner Veltliners from their respective sources all over the world. $$$$. MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.mgmgrand.com or 702/891-3486.
In the vein of "just like Mom used to make ― only better," Thomas Keller's Bouchon offers every classic French comfort dish the way it should be done: steamed mussels in a tangy wine and mustard broth; deeply flavored onion soup; rosy slices of roast leg of lamb on a ragout of artichoke bottoms, niçoise olives, and tomato confit; steak and perfect frites. No muddled flavors here (a common vice of comfort foods) ― just pure ingredients and great technique.
Keller's Napa base, along with the menu's heritage, is reflected in the wines; the chef's special French selection can offer a great value and a lesson in French wines. And breakfast on the patio ― coddled eggs, almond-topped brioche, oversize lattes ― is a French treat. $$$. Venezia Tower at the Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; www.bouchonbistro.com or 702/414-6200.