LAS VEGAS – The cadre of baby-faced fraternity boys in the rows behind me barked and yelped like a pack of slobbering pups on the verge of their first hunt.
A cocky young man in front of me rattled off gambling tips to the enthusiastic women next to him. Members of a bachelor party high-fived across the aisle, sharing their club-hopping itinerary with a group of pretty 20-somethings celebrating a birthday. They should all meet up later, one of the guys exclaimed.
“It is on,” another kept pronouncing.
We were headed to Las Vegas.
The cabin buzzed with the kind of fervor you’d expect from a group of people first in line for a rock concert. People were hungry for action.
All I could think about was dinner.
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 paradise.
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.
“Wolfgang Puck set everything in motion, and then Steve Wynn was the catalyst of change,” said Elizabeth Blau, a Las Vegas restaurateur and Wynn’s former vice president of restaurant development.
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.”
The sleek and sexy Cosmopolitan is the latest hotel to add its voice to the growing culinary chorus. Since I was staying at the adjacent Vdara, a beautiful and serene smoke-free hotel just off the Strip that doesn’t offer gaming or restaurants, I decided the Cosmopolitan should be my first stop.
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’s expansive update on buffet dining. The culinary Epcot Center presented 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 from whatever brilliant country came up with that idea.
And,“Oh my goodness, is that entire island over there just desserts?” Yes, it is. Go low-brow with Rice Krispies Treats (once you settle on chocolate or raspberry) or more refined with a goat cheese and lavender panna cotta.
Waddling downstairs like stuffed penguins, we grabbed drinks at the stunning Chandelier bar, the multi-floored seating areas engulfed in a drape of jewels and glistening light. On the way out, we hit the more understated but equally impressive Vesper Bar for a perfect Manhattan, the tawny classic a noble contrast to the hotel’s glitz and glamour.
While some hotels are bringing in chefs with more marketing appeal than restaurant bona fides (see: Guy Fieri and Giada De Laurentiis, coming soon to 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.
Arrive before your lunch or dinner reservation at China Poblano and watch staff handcraft tortillas on one side of the restaurant and noodles on the other side. Bicycle wheels and glass bauble lamps re-creating Chinese paper lanterns adorn the bright but warm space.
We dabbled in the Mexican side of the menu, but with plenty of Mexican options closer to home, we 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.
Lamb pot-stickers arrived partially hidden behind a crispy lace of thin fried dough dotted with baked-in edible marigolds that whispered Indian influence. The 20-vegetable fried rice, with a cornucopia of colors and flavors, has earned the attention of the“Today” show, but it left less of an impression than the two desserts: fresh mango with sticky rice, and a caramelized-banana-strewn warrior sculpted of chocolate that cracked to reveal chocolate-peanut butter mousse.
For those wanting to see Andres at his most inventive, there is also the eight-seat e by Jose Andres. Located inside Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan, it is one of the hardest tables to secure in Las Vegas.
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. Puck’s Cut at the Palazzo will make you feel like a whale even if you’ve been nursing cocktails like a minnow at a $20 video poker machine for much of the evening (not that I’d know, of course).
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.
A sommelier assisted us in selecting a bottle of 2004 Neal Family cabernet ($125) – thanks to my buddy Craig who milked that video poker machine for a few thousand dollars – that complemented our array of steaks with notes of vanilla, oak and dark berry.
The velvety bone marrow flan draped with earthy mushroom marmalade nodded to the contemporary, but centerpieces at Cut are the timeless steaks. My 9-ounce ribeye ($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.
Indulging in the spoils of his good fortune, Craig ordered the 8-ounce Wagyu from Japan ($155). It was the most expensive steak I’ve ever eaten, and unlike any I’ve tasted. The fat was distributed so evenly that, when presented at the table for ordering, the ribeye had the color of cotton candy. I didn’t realize a piece of meat could be that buttery, though I preferred the homegrown steak.
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 Appetit’s Top 50 new restaurants in America in 2012, is one of several Asian restaurants located in a strip mall in Chinatown. You need to know what you’re looking for when you head there. The building features little signage, just a small Japanese symbol of the restaurant’s name, which is also a type of Japanese warrior helmet. And these guys mean business.
You can peer into second-generation sushi master Gen Mizoguchi’s restaurant through a thin horizontal window. That silent image tells the story of what’s going on inside – serious craftsmen working with no fanfare in a muted space that lets the food triumph.
This Spartan, but not cold, space comes as close to approximating what I imagine to be the feel of a Tokyo sushi restaurant – an assumption informed by first-hand accounts and multiple viewings of the wonderful documentary“Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The staff-to-customer ratio is about 1-3 in the restaurant that seats about 30. (Make reservations in advance.)
We ordered a yoroi tasting, 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. At $80, it is a spectacular value. (Kabuto also offers a deluxe $120 tasting menu and a $48 nigiri tasting menu.) The fish, flown in daily from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, arrives with little accoutrement or flourishes, and stuns with freshness and simplicity – from meaty blue fin tuna to sweet and buttery yellowtail, textured opal eye, a tear-drop 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.
“It’s all about the room,” Eater Las Vegas editor Susan Stapleton had told me in recommending restaurants on the Strip.
Tableau bursts with color in an atrium-like wonderland perched near a pool lined with canopied lounge areas resembling the French Riviera. As with every experience in Las Vegas, Tableau offered impeccable, world-class service, from the staff’s demeanor and promptness to the fact that brunch begins with your choice of four fresh popovers.
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. Or people in credit card debt. That’s the charm of Vegas. It makes you feel special, if only for an hour, whether at a hot craps table or a cool brunch one.
But that opulence and decadence are not what lingered in my mind as I headed home. As my return flight ascended and a few drunken winners reveled in the dark amid the almost audible internal moans of those slinking home with their tails between their legs, the long weekend took hold. I started to nod off. And dream of sushi.
IF YOU GO
The Cosmopolitan (The Chandelier, China Poblano, Vesper Bar, Wicked Spoon)
3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd. 702-698-7000, CosmopolitanLasVegas.com
5040 W. Spring Mountain Road. 702-676-1044, KabutoLV.com
Tableau at Wynn Las Vegas
3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd. 702-248-3463, WynnLasVegas.com
2600 W. Harmon Ave. 702-590-2111, Vdara.com
Wolfgang Puck’s Cut at the Palazzo
3325 S. Las Vegas Blvd. 702-607-7777, Palazzo.com
TIPS FOR EATING OUT IN VEGAS
Reservations. Make them. People from around the world go to Las Vegas to eat at some of the country’s best restaurants, so there’s competition for seats. Most top-tier restaurants have online reservations systems. Use them.
Save some cash for gambling. Get a taste of some of the best chefs in Las Vegas at discounted happy hours. Spanish chef Julian Serrano’s eponymous restaurant at Aria serves tapas for less than $7 and $5 sangria, Sunday-Thursday. Critically acclaimed Greek seafood restaurant Estiatorio Milos serves small plates starting at $4, Monday-Thursday.
Get off the Strip. Kabuto, Raku and Lotus of Siam are just three of the excellent restaurants serving award-winning Asian cuisine away from the glitz of Las Vegas Boulevard. Head to the western suburbs for Elizabeth Blau’s farm-to-table restaurant Honey Salt.
Go casual. Smashburger, Due Forni Pizza & Wine, Naked City Pizza Shop, Bachi Burger and Holsteins Shakes and Buns at the Cosmopolitan are just a few of the restaurants driving the burger-and-pizza trend in Vegas.
Tea time. It’s not all about the booze in Las Vegas. The Tea Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental offers a chance to breathe – and take in one of the best views of the Strip in a Zen-like setting. Daily tea service runs from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.