Twenty years ago a nice meal in Las Vegas meant gnawing some surf and turf as you listened to a guy in Dacron sing about love, the casino jingling in the background. You were better off with the dollar kielbasa at Slots-A-Fun; at least it made you want to drink for the right reasons. Then in 1992, Wolfgang Puck opened Spago at Caesars Palace and everything changed. Soon every other high-profile chef would have a satellite in Vegas. So what if few of them are actually at those outposts for more than a weekend flyby? Though the town loosened the ties between cook and stove, its flair for spectacle also helped loosen up the cooks themselves, presenting each with a core question: Are you able to bring a moment of euphoria to those who pass through your doors?
Vegas isn’t a place for subtlety. Even the restaurants that aim for decorum have to do so in a big way here. That’s one reason why to purists the town will always stand for what’s bogus. But the dining scene is showing signs of maturity. Vegas is no longer trying to muscle its way onto the culinary map; it’s there. Chefs are ceding the diva roles to Cher and Celine, relying more on craft than splashy showmanship. Today the Strip, a four-mile stretch between Mandalay Bay and the recently shuttered Sahara, is like a microcosm of the national dining scene. At some spots tasting menu extravaganzas can be enjoyed in cosseted chambers; at others, tables bearing mounds of hand-sliced jamón ibérico spill onto walkways. Perhaps in Brooklyn gastropubs serving parsley-flecked bone marrow makes a proletarian, gastronomy-for-the-people statement; here they put the matter to the people by serving hefty crosscut bones beside the beef haunches at the Wicked Spoon buffet in the Cosmopolitan. If it sells, keep it. Reality rules in Vegas, and that’s refreshing.
American Fish is an ideal example of the hybrid restaurant the city has perfected. A venture from ubiquitous San Francisco chef Michael Mina, it shifts attention away from the personality and places it on the main ingredient. Located deep in the hold of the new Aria Resort & Casino, the room is modeled on a fishing lodge in which the design elements have been reduced to wood and fire. Behind a glass wall the kitchen seems to be in a constant conflagration. Grills that can be raised or lowered by massive wheels are suspended over flames that could cook an ox. Curious what fish could withstand the onslaught of fire, I go up for a closer look and discover they’re grilling nothing more than bread. Such pyrotechnics would bother me in some other place. But by Vegas standards, they’re effective. You can almost imagine Hemingway’s Nick Adams, back from a weeklong trout-fishing trip in the Michigan backwoods, downing a Schlitz at the long bar.
The menu pre-sents four ways to cook your fish: It can be poached in ocean water that’s flown in from Hawaii, seared in cast iron, baked in sea salt, or grilled over wood. Those would seem to be constraints, but they liberate Mina, taking him away from warhorses like lobster potpie that he usually trots out. A mackerel appetizer is masterfully put together, the skin crisped in a skillet, the smoked trout roe adding pop to the brothy vinaigrette. Cubes of serrano ham might sound incongruous in shrimp and grits, but their farmhouse note brings the flavors into sharp focus. Scored with bands of char and served with corn bread to soak up the juices, the mixed grill of scallops, salmon, and jumbo prawns has a pitch-perfect simplicity. The best dish is the poached halibut, which separates into thick, moist flakes. The ribbon of cucumber beurre blanc adds richness, but what lingers is the taste of the sea.
Commanding its own lake, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn takes a different, which is to say more traditional “New Vegas,” approach to dining. Soon after I’m seated, a waiter pushes a cart full of Mediterranean fish toward me. (Anyone wheeling anything toward you in Vegas means you’re in a place with stratospheric prices.) Tucked amid the San Piertos and the gilthead sea bream are langoustines that cost $30 apiece. I order one. Sensational. After I suck up the flesh and the last drop of roe-flavored juice in the shell, I move on to a little salad of mullet with crushed olives, and then I wait for the main course of whole roasted pink sea bass. Fifteen minutes become 30. The waiter has spent so much time describing the fish to a table of eight, he’s ignored everyone else. One group wants wine, another the check. My wife and I would like cutlery. Just when we contemplate abandoning ship, the waiter appears and fillets the fish, its inner cavity stuffed with roasted thyme. Served with oven-browned fingerlings, it is peasant and elegant, like it’s just been made for us by a fisherman wearing rope-soled shoes. This might be as close to the Amalfi Coast as my wife and I ever get.
For the next big meal we walk up the sweeping staircase from the gaming floor of Caesars and into Guy Savoy, the offshoot of the Michelin-three-star palace in Paris. The towering ceiling and bare walls lend the dining room a bleak feel. As if on cue a waiter trundles a boulangerie on wheels in my direction (too bad the tomato fougasse is stale); he’s followed by the sommelier hauling a side table to rest the wine list on. Without even seeing the menu and its $70 appetizers, I already know the Vegas math: Furniture displacement x 2 = beaucoup d’argent. I glance around. A bunch of wealthy-looking Spanish speakers occupies one side of the room; across from them four fast-talking young guys who remind me of the card-counting MIT students in Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House order high on the wine list.
Savoy is known for adhering to the tenets of classic French cooking without displaying a trace of chauvinism. In the early ’80s, when everybody was embracing exotic spices and fussily dotted plates, Savoy made a civet de lièvre, a gamy hare stew, that was like a thunderclap from an angry god. He is a grounded chef. There are tasting menus of different prices (the cheapest is “The 90 Minute Experience” for $140), but I decide to eat à la carte. The $68 foie gras—a slab that’s seared and then poached in a plastic bag—is presented on a platter. The waiter pierces the bag, releasing a plume of heady steam, before returning to the kitchen and transferring the foie gras into an oversize soup bowl. In a touch that is pure Savoy, finely chopped beet ribs temper the meat’s opulence while taking on a robust grandeur in the golden fat. The veal chop for two (a staggering $175) is substantial enough that the exterior can be well charred while the interior remains gorgeously pink. I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt about the excess as I slip the $622 credit card receipt into my wallet.
A chef coming to Vegas has to carefully consider what level of dining he’s going for; it’s a crowded scene. Savoy went large, duplicating his highest-end restaurant instead of one of the many bistros he runs in Paris; Thomas Keller imported the bistro Bouchon rather than the higher-end French Laundry. Joël Robuchon has been having this high-low conversation for several decades, shuttering his ultraluxe Paris flagship to concentrate on L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, an international concept where most customers sit along a counter that wraps around the kitchen. At my appointed time I slide onto a stool in a corner pocket of the MGM Grand. The pointy ends of the neatly formed mini baguettes indicate skilled hand rolling and an artisanal approach. The dish I really want, beef stew gelée with parsley, isn’t available, so I substitute kusshi oysters and feel I’ve won out when they come to the table looking like sparkling jewels, lightly poached and bathed in melted échiré butter. Though sweetbreads carry a bitter tang from being skewered on a laurel twig, the meal is a declaration of craft and integrity that culminates in a chartreuse soufflé with pistachio ice cream. Unlike many soufflés out there, this is the real thing, rising out of its ramekin, the sides straight and high.
Such is the crowd-pleasing certainty of offering charred meat and hearty red wines that you can’t enter a casino without being beckoned by an interpretation of the steak house. It’s a malleable form that can be infused with ceremony by a staff in white jackets at the Palm or invested with a nightclub’s veneer, as at STK, where a DJ spins tracks as you eat. I go for neither. For a contemporary rendering, one that fuses the genre’s storied comforts with the modern fixation on sourcing, I head to Mario Batali’s Carnevino. The dining room occupies a curious wedge on the Palazzo’s main floor. Batali has two restaurant ideals: the classic Italian ristorante, in which managers sport bespoke suits, and the high-decibel cubbyhole, in which flannel grunge meets nonna. But Carnevino is more in the middle, the dark wood suggesting rather than embodying a setting for consuming expensive cuts. I take a seat in the section of the restaurant called the Taverna—a few tables by the bar with a less pricey menu—and order the arugula salad and a steak tartare. Too much salt makes the salad barely edible (Batali’s kitchens always push the limit in that department), but the steak tartare is superb. Aging the meat (and getting rid of all that flavor-dissipating moisture) spring-loads the intensity, so all it needs is the sour bite of capers to be released.
Though Batali has Osteria Mozza on Highland, he’s not an L.A. chef; David Myers, who recently opened Comme Ça in the Cosmopolitan, is. The restaurant is a reimagining of the original he opened on Melrose. I’ve been a fan of Myers since his days at the Raffles L’Ermitage. He’s a perfectionist who’s forged his own knives, but he’s not at the top of his game in Vegas. Myers serves bone marrow and oxtail together, a pairing of fat on fat that gains nothing in the bargain. And the roasted half chicken has been slathered in what seems more like barbecue sauce than jus. A bottleneck entryway that blocks the view of the dining room doesn’t help; the main problem, however, lies in the kitchen, where Myers’s penchant for finely calibrated cooking isn’t coming through.
Things are more upbeat across the floor at José Andrés’s Jaleo. With a crowded bar, cured hams being sliced, and paellas cooking over open fires, all the restaurant needs are customers spitting shrimp heads onto a sawdust floor to complete the tapas bar atmosphere. Still, seeing as how I’ve already eaten at the Jaleo in D.C. and grew up on tapas, I’m more interested in Andrés’s China Poblano, one floor below. The restaurant is perilously balanced on the conceit that Spanish galleons freighted with chiles from the New World in the 16th century sparked a culinary dialogue between Mexico and China. Knife-shaved noodles with a hint of smoky huitlacoche help bolster the argument, but he does a better job keeping the traditions separate than he does showing how they may relate. Gaspacho morelia—bearing cubes of pineapple, jicama, cucumber, and dragon fruit sprinkled with queso fresco and chile piquin—is a brilliant compression of the Mexican street fruit cart. Earthier than wheat or rice noodles, the kao lao lao oat noodles with a fiery dipping sauce are unyieldingly authentic. As I pry the sawtooth-edged ribbons out of the bamboo steamer, my eyes slowly focus on the busy area across from the entrance. I’m eating kao lao lao noodles across from a crowded sportsbook, I keep telling myself.
The Mandarin Oriental hotel is a short walk but a long way from such concerns as the over-under on the Texas Tech game. A Kiton boutique (a men’s store whose prices make Brioni seem like a deal) is the only inroad that retail has established. The elevator that rises to the 23rd-floor lobby is lined with what resembles the dark cast iron used for ceremonial bells. My wife and I step out of the elevator and follow a corridor lit by votive candles to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist. Gagnaire is France’s most inventive chef, and I’ve come to Twist to take the ride. With a long lilac banquette as the sole accent, the spartan yet refined room permits total concentration on what emerges from the kitchen. The combinations are so original that I have to ask my wife to remember as many as she can before I give up the ruse and start scribbling in a notebook myself. I write so fast, the notes are a jumble. Did the pastis gelée accompany the langoustines with piment d’espelette or the toasted flour gnocchi? Was that really a foie gras parfait served under the diced daikon? Gagnaire’s courses are multidish affairs in which the surprise element that will crown perfection is inevitably being poured, scooped, or shaved over the plate. Pop Rocks? Not here. Who knew a quenelle of whiskey ice cream required a scattering of finely disked radishes to be complete? By meal’s end I find myself looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Strip. It’s calm up here, but I miss the bustle.
On my last night I want to feel that energy and decide to try Prime Steakhouse, another expensive destination from another celebrity chef, in this case Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Vegas, missionary style. Soon I’m walking down the bifurcated steps at the Bellagio that lead from the pricey stores to the lakeside dining room. The interior is a neoclassical stage set of swooping draped curtains and empire chairs, with waitstaff lifting silver plate covers from the dishes. Maybe the old-school elements have had their effect, because I find myself hewing to dishes so classic, they’re clichés. The building block of the onion soup is a deep-flavored, long-simmered broth that reaches an even richer dimension when capped with melted Gruyère croutons. The breast of duck à l’orange is crisp, its thin layer of fat providing a lush counterpoint to the tart Asian pears and tangy tamarind sauce.
The dish is almost good enough to put alongside those oysters poached in échiré butter at L’Atelier and the noodles at China Poblano, but an element is missing. I’m asking myself what it could be as I watch the busboys cover the contents of their trays with clean napkins after they clear (it’s a nice touch, a way to avoid walking through a dining room with a stack of dirty plates), when the fountains go on with a whoosh. Outside, the water jets are swaying to the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” and its first line, “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free.” That’s when I get my answer: What the room needed was that little show—its moment of euphoria. Now everyone is transfixed.