November 6, 2000 | Feature

Eating Las Vegas

November 6, 2000

    Las Vegas? Moi? I felt it was just a shade whimsical when my boss dispatched me to determine whether readers of my ilk (a spoiled, self-indulgent, orally fixated, congenitally paranoid New Yorker) want to . . . need to . . . ought to take a bite of the new, New Las Vegas. Not the bring-the-family Las Vegas but the luxury-resort (fuhgeddabout-the-gambling) Vegas that might actually tempt our fancy. Sorry, I'm too tight to gamble. Isn't it enough I gamble my digestive equilibrium every night to protect yours? I write for sensualists and sybarites, not for masochistic dreamers.

    Vegas. I love it. Love the sleaze, the glitz, the cheese. I was born for this marble-bidet-and-high-tech pampering. Born to wallow in the old-style breakfast buffets. Love both "Mystère" and "O," haunting works by Cirque du Soleil. Love the theme parks. Love the Liberace Museum and the view from my aerie up Las Vegas Boulevard with the Chrysler Building tucked behind the Eiffel Tower and volcanoes exploding every fifteen minutes. I thought dancing waters leaping orgasmically into the air every twenty minutes would be hopelessly corny. In fact, the H2O chorus line is stirring, cooling, witty, especially if you're outside and can hear the music. And don't let me forget entertainment. It's a smorgasbord, too: Blue Man Group, Tommy Tune in EFX, classic Vegas showgirls, Flamingo's afternoon topless show, the Temptations, Tina Turner. Las Vegas is loyal too. Jerry Lewis just signed a twenty-year contract with the Orleans. He intends to live longer than George Burns.

    I hate Las Vegas, too. Hate the inexplicable hour wait for bags to tumble off the carousel at this small-time airport. Panicking at the creeping hotel check-in lines, I flee to the VIP check-in, hoping somehow to be recognized as a VIP even though I'm trying to be anonymous. Not that Las Vegas knows from Manhattan status. Dedicated gamblers are the VIPs here. High rollers get flown in free, are comped into posh suites our money can't buy, and eat shark's fin and foie gras on the house. And spare me the cabbies, so friendly, so folksy, till suddenly they turn into crocodiles. ("You call this a tip?!" "I haven't got change, so I'll just keep your three bucks.")

    Actually, it takes me 48 hours to find my Las Vegas mind-set. Have I wandered into the bar scene of Star Wars? Wherever I go, I find myself elbowing dawdling women and too-friendly children, crushing toes with my lethally loaded Tumi to break a path through the oncoming horde. Nothing quite prepared me for how fat Americans are. Or for the wardrobes: Seventy-year-old flab in cutoffs and camisoles, hairy backs in turquoise tanks. Scary.

    From a distance, the $785 million Paris Las Vegas is brilliant with its spanking-clean, worshipful replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, l'Opéra, the Louvre, and its half-size, 7 million­ton Tour Eiffel (from Eiffel's original blueprints). Alas, inside, not even Monet-inspired carpeting masks the torturous whine of the relentless slot machines. It's cute that the hotel serving staff tosses off a few words of French. "Madame," they say. And "Merci." "Combien du bagage?" a porter asks. The supposedly upscale doubles are quite spartan, with no mini-bar, no bottled water, and smallish tubs. There's no nighttime housekeeping service, no chocolate bonne nuit, no change of sheets the second day unless you ask. This is luxury? Yes, the painted sky in the faux Paris Casino is lovely, but it's perpetual twilight on the cobbled Rue de la Paix of shops and eats -- somber, very Les Misérables.

    There's almost always a line at Le Village Buffet, with its arcade of food stations dedicated to Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Alsace, etc., and waitresses in vintage peasant dirndls. The $10.95 breakfast feast is a bargain, with more ups than downs: lemony Hollandaise, crusty pommes Lyonnaise, a respectable omelette, smoked salmon, and salmon pastrami. The croissants make everyone else's taste plastic. The king of Parisian patisserie, Gaston Lenôtre, sent a team to coach the house crew.

    To escape the gloom and jangle of this tacky Paris, we cross the street and jump on Caesars Palace's moving sidewalk in search of the Forum Shoppes. Ah, shopping, Mother Nature's Prozac. I rarely have time to shop in New York, so the Forum is like Candyland to me -- Escada, DKNY, Armani Exchange, Dior, Judith Lieber. I buy a pink straw hat and then follow the crowd past FAO Schwarz to catch the on-the-hour-every-hour fire, lightning, and drama as Atlantis rises out of a fountain in front of the Cheesecake Factory while animatronic gods struggle for power. It's a must. The two of us scope out the eclectic mall crowd at lunch in the terrace café of Spago as the Forum sky goes from afternoon bright to sunset pink and twilight, then back to dawn, while we share a Puckian pizza, a decent Caesar, a much too sweet Chinese chicken salad, and an irresistible almond-butter-crunch tart and their "best ever" brownie sundae.

    We've moved closer to the equator now, to the Mandalay Bay Resort, with its vast Coral Reef Lounge and man-made jungle, hulked at the southern extremity of Vegas civilization. It's too big (3,800 rooms), too far from mid-Strip, where I'd want to be if I had just four or five days to skim the cream off this town. Still, the eleven acres of Mandalay Beach are an engineering marvel, with sand beach and four pools, including one that makes waves up to eight feet high. (It had to be turned down because it had sent surfing guests crashing into its concrete lip.) Mandalay also has a hotel within a hotel: The Four Seasons (424 rooms), its decorous lobby tacked onto Mandalay's hip and its five floors of seriously deluxe, contentedly styleless rooms stashed in the tower. Charlie Palmer Steak is confidently clubby. And the Verandah's tastefully tailored buffet is a breakfast hangout for local deal-makers. No casino. No gambling. No tumult. No pheromones.

    Of course, just steps away, beyond an unmarked door, is Mandalay Bay's younger, party-animal crowd at Trattoria del Lupo (Wolfgang does Italy); China Grill; Red Square, with its ice bar; and a mating mosh at RumJungle (exotic drinks, Trader Vic­ish nibbles, spottily dressed girls who dance overhead). Worth the hike for foodies is L.A.'s Border Grill (chiles rellenos, quesadillas, griddled tacos). I keep hearing raves for Aureole too, but our one visit is a strikeout. As advertised, the room is smashing, very Mission Impossible. But the night we're there, the kitchen runs on automatic pilot, and our waiter, unbearably suave, glides in and out looking like he might kiss his own hand. With Zorro advising, we choose a $250 Cos d'Estournel from Aureole's celebrated four-story glass tower. Oh, sob. It is dull and muddy. "Sorry," says Zorro. "What do you expect of an '89?"

    My lifetime stats suggest great dining doesn't require a star chef's presence. Even so, expectations flutter when we find Jean-Louis Palladin actually poking his finger into the pots in the open kitchen of Napa at the Rio. On this sultry night, our choices seem high-risk -- foie gras with rhubarb, braised pork with wild mushrooms, Kentucky short-rib pot-au-feu cooked in a bladder (don't ask). But with the first bite of ahi-and-hamachi tartare in a stunning curry emulsion, we go rocketing off into one of the best meals of the trip.

    We're on the move again. Checkout time in Las Vegas seems to be about noon or one. The Hard Rock refuses to let us into our pitiful, no-frills, motel-like cubby till 4 p.m. You bet I'm grumpy. Though I do see the honey for baby-boomers on a budget: a swim-up blackjack table and showgirls lazing away. (Does someone pay them to come?) I've sworn off young boys myself, but I do crave a flirtation with Nobu's sushi bar. "Omakase" ("Let the chef decide"), we say to a veteran sensei on loan from Nobu/SoHo -- and slowly, gauging our tastes, he sculpts edible drama in a dozen acts: another one of the best meals of our marathon.

    Next stop, the MGM Mirage, not to sleep but to eat and see the dolphins. The arrival of this casino, gambling impresario Steve Wynn's potent froth of luxury and theme, raised the stakes in this town's building boom. (He sold it to MGM earlier this year.) Don't miss the sensory overkill: real orchids in a stage-set rain forest, a 20-foot aquarium behind the registration desk, tigers and lions snoozing in Siegfried and Roy's Garden, and the volcano exploding outside every quarter-hour. A salsa band and a David Rockwell­detonated riot of cobalt blue, red neon, and yellow bananas draw us into the Samba Grill, a vibrating canteen in the Mirage casino, for the $28.95 all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue. Waiters armed with rotisserie skewers whirl by dispensing sausage and peppers, honey-basted turkey breast, chicken Hawaiian-style, and slow-roasted pork loin till you signal . . . enough.

    Unlike some people I know, I didn't grow up with Renoirs on the walls, so I am ready to be wowed by the Renoir, a chintz-swathed sanctuary at the Mirage. But I am equally knocked out by the unexpected pleasure of Alessandro Stratta's $65 vegetarian tasting in this unlikely boudoir setting -- a crash of different florals, like Mario Buatta in overdrive. This is the best vegetable tasting I can recall: A pow of fresh black truffle in tempestuous cream-of-green-garlic soup. Gratin of asparagus cannelloni wrapped in spinach and morels. Marvelous sweet-pea risotto with spring vegetables and shards of Parmesan. In a moment when everyone is braising short ribs, the red-wine-simmered beauties, relished by the carnivore across the table, are unforgettable. Definitely major-league.

    It doesn't upset me at all that the glorious, stained, stinking, and sinking Venice, where I often winter, has been airbrushed and shrunk into the $1.5 billion Venetian, fronted by eerily pristine mock-ups of the Clock Tower, the Doge's Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs. A gondolier leans against a marble column in the astoundingly grand lobby, singing an aria. It's a giggle. The soaring "Tiepolo" domed ceiling, painted by New York artists, and the dramatic patterned marble path to the casino aren't silly. They're astounding. Agreed, it's a claustrophobic trundle to guest-room elevators. But every room is a suite with sunken living room, smartly decked out, and in-room fax machines and mini-bars. My trendy pal Cassandra, grousing over the untrendy hordes, sought amnesty in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub below, with its rock-climbing wall, fabulous facials, and fruit slurpies whipped up to order in the Café.

    This marble pile (3,036 suites), built on the imploded ruins of the Rat Pack's famed Sands Hotel, boasts an awesome roll call of all-star restaurants, and the new VBar, run by a coven that includes the Lotus duo from Manhattan, Will Regan and David Rabin. Some of the Grand Canal Shoppes remind me of Times Square going-out-of-business emporiums, but I'm tickled by the loving pasticcio of bridges and rooftops, the American gondoliers navigating its truncated canals in pint-size gondolas, and the clever abbreviation of the Piazza San Marco -- minus San Marco itself. And all of it under a bright-blue faux sky.

    The Venetian's pride, Lutèce, was in free fall the first time we visited. Overfussy food and insolent service in a Buck Rogers space capsule. It only made me regret that I ever criticized Andre Soltner, the original Manhattan Lutèce's former chef, for his old-fashioned Alsatian ways in that unfussy little Parisian bistro. Four months later, the house has settled. Our waiter is supercilious, not rude. Mint perks up the crabmeat-and-peach salad. Snipped greens freshen asparagus-and-chanterelle risotto. And the New York strip with béarnaise is respectable, the molten chocolate cake actually thrilling, in a dinner that can run $125 per person. But it's still not Lutèce. I'm afraid we will not always have Paris, Bogey.

    The morning crew at Stephan Pyles's Star Canyon act as if breakfast had caught them by surprise, and I grind my teeth at being forced to queue up surrounded by empty tables. But we love the Texas breakfast -- huevos rancheros for my guy; for me, scrambled eggs on a biscuit. Later, we watch the gondola traffic from the terrace at Taquería Cañonita (run by Pyles's sister), where quesadillas, tacos, and tamales with delicious slaws both spicy and creamy make a gently priced lunch. Revelers costumed for carnaval amuse the tourists after dark as we settle into Wolfgang's Postrio, jammed as always with seemingly happy campers, in one corner of the piazza. But too much acid in the vinaigrette sabotages my beet salad. The saffron angel hair comes in a hideous clump. And grayish ahi is so tainted by salty soy I can't even eat the bok choy it sits on. I take comfort in wickedly frosted chocolate-caramel torte.

    We check in to the brand-new Aladdin. Love getting rained on by the every-twenty-minute storm in the Desert Passage, but get lost in the maze of the casino and have to phone for help. And there's no pretense of pampering in our very beige room -- no evening housekeeping service, and again no fresh sheets the second day "unless requested." So much for the "magic carpet ride" the operator promises as she puts us on hold for the concierge. We are not going to tent again at Aladdin, I fear, not with its Third World concept of luxury.

    Weary nomads, wheeling our baggage through all those casinos, we feel like we've spent 40 years exiled in the desert. But now the promised land: Bellagio, Steve Wynn's consummate pleasure dome (also part of the MGM Grand buyout). Maybe Wynn had a Lake Como village in mind, but the theme got lost in an outpouring of $1.6 billion (3,000 rooms) and a Pavarotti-size hunger for perfection. From the live piano in the Petrossian Caviar Bar off the lobby, where a hundred or so outsize Dale Chihuly blown-glass flowers make a crystal-garden ceiling, to the vast Botanical Gardens (replanted seasonally) and the fringed chintz awnings that muffle casino din, Wynn is godlike in the details. Alas, there's a daily $25 fee just to step into the spa. It's also a journey to the tower lifts, but this time there's signage even the myopic can read from afar. Still, I wouldn't mind getting lost in the Via Bellagio shops -- at Chanel, or Moschino, or Gucci. I'd love to be found by some sugar daddy admiring vintage sapphires at Fred Leighton. Luckier babes are still trying on diamonds at midnight.

    Our perfectly pleasant double overlooking a parking lot is quite a letdown after that Venetian suite. Suddenly the phone rings. It's an old friend we're hiding from, a Bellagio power. "Is this Ramona Pierce?" she asks, recognizing my Vegas nom de fourchette. "Well, now that you've seen the double and can write about it, would you like to move?" With my weary mate threatening mutiny, I succumb and trade up to a spacious suite with an osprey view of the Strip, our own entertainment center, data port, bar with sink and fridge, and his and her marble baths (in one, a giant Jacuzzi).

    Now I'm glad we thought to sneak in earlier and eat anonymously. A lot of fussy tableside business -- tossing the mint-scented-Scotch-bonnet-chili-spiked tuna tartare (marvelous) and de-potting a lobster pot pie on a rolling cart -- keeps waiters on the run at sardine-packed Aqua, a San Francisco clone. Partner-chef Michael Mina is into high-concept -- seared sea scallops and foie gras with blood-orange-and-tangerine marmalade, tuna and foie gras in a Pinot Noir sauce. It works often enough that I'd come back, especially if someone else was picking up the check, easily $150 per person, all told. But soybean coulis and truffle cream are a lot of baggage for langoustines to carry, and there's not much mussel presence in a dull and grainy mussel soufflé.

    Gambling cognoscenti would have given you odds that Sirio Maccioni was writing his Vegas epitaph when he decided ties would be required at Le Cirque, but the townspeople seem to like dressing up, and even sacrosanct high-rollers in T-shirts eventually come around. The kitchen hums, contented and consistent. The space is a tiny, silk-tented jewel box with Fabergé details -- by far the handsomest room Adam Tihany has given the Maccionis. And why not? Veteran Marc Poidevin has only 80 mouths to please. Ours are purring over the intensity of white truffle, bits of pea for texture, and a float of crème fraîche in a wondrous cold soup. Tangy chopped tomato sets off the sweetness of perfectly sautéed sea scallops. Once the kitchen gives a bit more fire to the veal chop (we did say rare, not blue), it emerges deliciously caramelized. Except for a stale macaroon, desserts are the usual circus, all swirls and chocolate curls and melting lava.

    Between the frigid air inside, the toasty air through the open window, and a little spray from the dancing waters, we're in a catbird seat next door at Circo, sharing a pizza lunch. It's late and quiet, and the large room with its cheerful clown dress is almost empty. The sheep's-milk-ricotta ravioli in butter sage taste just like they do when Mama Maccioni is coaching the kitchen back home. I let my mate polish off the gamberetti with cannellini beans so I can save myself for the house's mythic Bomboloni tre Gusti, the trio of chocolate-, jam-, and custard-filled doughnuts I find it impossible to resist.

    Only one Picasso has vanished from the Bellagio's Picasso restaurant since Wynn sold his stake and took his museum of masterworks home. I still get goose bumps being fussed over, sipping my penny-pincher's Chilean Cabernet with a dozen Picassos surrounding me. Not that it feels like a museum. Not with jets of water springing up outside the window, the eccentrically arranged flowers, Claude Picasso's marvelously bold carpet underfoot, and Cindy Adams at a nearby table. Chef Julian Serrano isn't fazed by sharing his spotlight with the art. He's already picked up five stars from Mobil and countless critical raves. I was not moved by Serrano's food at Masa's when he had San Francisco's critics at his feet. Too overwrought for me, as is the amuse-bouche tonight -- tuna tartare with caviar, grated egg, and an overpowering sauce, tucked into an endive spear. I'm not knocked out, either, at this late date by seafood sausage or vegetables lashed together with scallion. But the man does have a way with birds. His impeccably roasted pigeon will be my pigeon standard . . . well, until the next great pigeon lands on my plate.

    Sitting here, noticing how much better Cindy Adams looks than poor doomed Dora Maar, I realize that the answer is yes. Yes, you need to see Las Vegas once. But will you make it a habit? I know I'll be back, especially to show it to friends. (Preferably pals with private jets.) But it is still a special taste. As one fan pointed out to us, where else can you bet $10 million, ride a roller coaster, and eat a 99-cent breakfast at 3 a.m.? As the good sage says: Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a guy named Doc. And never bet against a man named Wynn.

    Gael's Best of Vegas

BEST HOTEL The Bellagio; the Venetian


BEST MEAL Nobu at the Hard Rock; the Renoir at the MGM Mirage; Napa at the Rio; Prime and Le Cirque at the Bellagio

BEST SHOPPING Caesars Forum Shoppes; the Via Bellagio at the Bellagio; Desert Passage on the Strip (702-866-0703)

BEST BUFFET BREAKFAST Le Village at the Paris; Garden Court Buffet at Main Street Station

BEST PASTRY Lenôtre at the Paris; Palio at the Bellagio

BEST POOL Mandalay Bay; the Mirage

BEST SPA Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian

BEST SHOW Cirque du Soleil's "Mystère" and "O" at the MGM Mirage (800-392-1999 or 702-796-9999; tickets for "Mystère" are $68, for "O" $90 and $100); "Danny Gans: The Man of Many Voices" at the MGM Mirage (tickets are $67.50)

BEST RIDE The Big Shot Drop from atop the Stratosphere Las Vegas tower (if your heart can take it; 800-99-TOWER; admission is $6)

BEST SPECTACLE The Bellagio's Dancing Waters; the Fountain of the Gods Show at Caesars Forum; Masquerade in the Sky at the Rio (all free)

BEST VIEW The blimp ride over the Strip, provided by Las Vegas Air Ship ( or 702-646-2888; tickets start at $179, pickup in North Las Vegas)

BEST MUSEUM The Liberace Museum (702-798-5595); Madame Tussaud's Celebrity Encounter (702-990-3530)

BEST EXCURSION Champagne picnic in the Grand Canyon, provided by Heli USA Airways' VIP Pegasus Tour (702-736-8787; tickets are $299, including van pickup at your hotel); the drive to Red Rock Canyon (for driving directions, call 702-363-1921 or take Gray Line tours, 702-384-1234; admission is $5 per vehicle)

Click here for my roundup of Las Vegas steak restaurants