While Las Vegas has come to represent a glittering oasis where our uninhibited vices go to flourish and hide, the city has also established itself as one of the greatest restaurant destinations in the country.
Yes, you can still go downtown and find a shrimp-and-steak dinner for less than the cost of a seat at most blackjack tables, but Las Vegas has transformed into a gourmet’s delight.
You can trace the roots of Vegas’ blossoming restaurant scene to Wolfgang Puck, who opened Spago at Caesars Palace in 1992. But the arrival of Steve Wynn’s Bellagio in 1998 marked a culinary explosion.
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The spectacular Bellagio opened with restaurants from renowned chefs and restaurateurs Michael Mina (Aqua), Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque, Circo), Todd English (Olives), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Prime) and Julian Serrano (Picasso). The Venetian and Mandalay Bay arrived soon after with their own rosters of culinary stars.
“From then on, every time a major casino opened it was a big deal, and it got bigger and bigger with the food. Everybody felt food needed to be a major component,” said Al Mancini, a Las Vegas food critic and co-author of the book “Eating Las Vegas.”
Buffets aren’t as important as they once were in Las Vegas, but several heavy hitters on the Strip have been engaged in a battle of one-upmanship, escalating the buffet from the ranks of gluttonous trough dining.
The Wicked Spoon is the Cosmopolitan hotel’s expansive update on buffet dining. The restaurant presents food from all over the world: American fried chicken served in individual metal fry baskets, Italian meatballs, Korean-style ribs, green papaya salad from Thailand, Tandoori chicken from India and mac and cheese with bacon and Sriracha.
While some hotels have brought in chefs with more marketing appeal than restaurant bona fides (see: Guy Fieri and Giada De Laurentiis, whose restaurant is expected to open soon at Caesars Palace), the Cosmopolitan turned to an international wizard to serve as its culinary cornerstone.
“Nobody had ever seen a chef of Jose Andres’ capacity here before,” Mancini said of the chef who has three restaurants at the Cosmopolitan. “He’s the mad genius. He’s the rock star. He’s the crazy guy.”
Despite his fame as a trailblazer in molecular gastronomy, Andres has delivered two very approachable restaurants to the Cosmopolitan — Jaleo, an outpost of his Washington, D.C., Spanish tapas restaurant, and the unique hybrid China Poblano, which serves Chinese and Mexican food, a nod to a cultural exchange dating back to the 16th century.
We dabbled in the Mexican side of the menu but focused on the Chinese food. The highlights were dumplings filled with scallops beneath pearls of roe, and others filled with pork and shrimp, topped with a poached quail egg and toasted scallions.
For those wanting to see Andres at his most inventive, there is also the eight-seat é by Jose Andres. Located inside Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan, it is one of the hardest tables to secure in Las Vegas.
Steak, steak, steak
Andres’ micro-restaurant represents the avant-garde of Las Vegas dining, but, thanks to broad appeal and conventioneers on expense accounts, Las Vegas remains a steakhouse town. You’d have trouble finding a major casino without a steakhouse, and many have more than one.
For our steak fix, we turned to the man who helped start Vegas’ restaurant revolution and headed to Puck’s Cut at the Palazzo.
Gold and silver accents bounce light through geometric fixtures in the dining room that feels like something Superman would have built for himself if he were a CEO. Cut offers a deconstructed and modern take on the steakhouse, and that modernity is reflected in an impressive wine list presented on a digital tablet.
My 9-ounce rib-eye ($88) from Snake River Farms in Idaho had the greatest crust of any steak I’ve ever eaten. I was worried the seasoned char meant an overcooked inside. Wrong. The crackling armor protected a crimson and juicy cut of meat.
Most tourists will recognize names like Puck or Emeril Lagasse (who has four restaurants in Las Vegas), but if you want to find some of the best food in town, you have to venture off the Strip. Lotus of Siam opened east of the Strip in 1999, and Jonathan Gold (then at Gourmet magazine) called it the best Thai restaurant in North America.
Fifteen years later, Japanese restaurant Kabuto is creating a similar sensation on the west side. Kabuto, named one of Bon Appétit’s Top 50 new restaurants in America in 2012, is one of several Asian restaurants located in a strip mall in Chinatown.
We ordered a yoroi tasting ($80 each), which included aperitif sake, amuse-bouche, four types of sashimi, three items from the grill, eight pieces of nigiri, a hand roll, miso soup and dessert.
The fish, flown in daily from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, stuns with freshness and simplicity — from meaty blue fin tuna to sweet and buttery yellowtail, textured opal eye, a teardrop oyster piqued with chili and a tangy silver-skinned mackerel. It was a sublime experience and a study in pride and restraint.
Brunch at Tableau at the Wynn the next morning was a contrast in style and testament to Vegas’ love of the grand (and expensive) statement. Hotels spare no expense in designing their showcase restaurants.
Tableau bursts with color in an atriumlike wonderland perched near a pool lined with canopied lounge areas resembling the French Riviera.
With the sun splashing on our table and steam wafting from a lobster-shrimp frittata as a server replenished our cocktails, I felt like we could be movie stars, or arms dealers, or tech entrepreneurs.
But that opulence and decadence are not what lingered in my mind as I headed home. I started to nod off on the plane. And dream of sushi.