In Las Vegas, chocolate seduces the senses

Chocolate? It's not just a candy anymore. It's an experience here, one that comes with the requisite cravings to be satisfied in Vegas style.

A bite into an Ethel M nugget, for instance, releases a flow of bourbon, Scotch or Irish whiskey in what becomes an exquisite pairing of the distilled fruit of the cacao and the spirit at hand.

Ethel M has been a signature of Las Vegas for several decades. But even Grandma Ethel has a whole new bag -- this one is at the Fashion Show Mall. Ethel's Chocolate Lounge is a cafe with attitude: fondue, coffee-and-chocolate combos, chocolate drinks and artisan chocolate.

Chocolates here strive for a retro appeal. Buy 10 chocolates and hot cocoa for two for $18. Chocolate fondue for two, with strawberries, bananas, marshmallows or pound cake for dipping, costs $18 to $25.

Chocolate has been elevated to an art form in this city, and there is a bit of snobbish competition among the chocolate houses along the Strip. Blame it on the star-chef energy blasting through the top hotels.

Take Jean-Philippe Patisserie at the Bellagio. Jean-Philippe Maury, the pastry-chef-turned-chocolatier, has been with Bellagio since it opened in 1998 but not before garnering awards for his confections in France and working at Payard Patisserie in New York.

Today his namesake cafe pops as many eyes as the adjacent conservatory garden designs. A 27-foot floor-to-ceiling fountain of chocolate pours three types of creamy elixir at 120 quarts per minute through 25 suspended glass vessels. Move over, Roald Dahl.

If you like your crepes sweetened with Nutella and whipped cream, this is the place. The counter can sell up to 450 pastries on a particularly indulgent day. Imperials are popular -- chocolate mousse, vanilla crème brûlée and crispy nuts -- as is white chocolate cheesecake.

Waddle over to Caesars Palace for a whiff of two new venues guaranteed to bring chocoholics to their knees. Payard Patisserie opened last fall, the latest outlet for the French confection connection. The Caesars brand comes with an open-counter design in gold, coffee and wood tones followed by a secret adjunct in the back with white-clothed tables.

You can order the Tout Chocolate dinner and savor a three-course meal that includes warm chocolate tarts with cocoa nibs tuile (caramel mixed with candied nuts and chocolate custard cream) and gianduia ice cream (smooth hazelnut-flavored Swiss chocolate).

A fixed-price menu for $45 a person includes a cheese and fruit course, a coffee, caramel and nut course, an orchard course and a chocolate course. The Tout Chocolate option costs the same.

In the resort's Forum Shops (go -- the walk will do you good) lies the purple-and-white sensory-soaked counter of Vosges Haut-Chocolat. Owner Katrina Markoff considers herself more a sorceress of chocolate than a pastry chef and has spent the last decade studying the uses of this ingredient in kitchens all over the world.

The result is a novel use of chocolate -- high-end Belgian and French chocolate dusted with curry or Hungarian paprika and accented by mangoes or ginger and wasabi.

Her spicy chocolates have showcases in Chicago and New York and are served in "tasting flights" at the Vintner Grill in Las Vegas, with or without a sommelier-guided pairing of wines. At the Purple Door, as she calls her store in the Forum Shops, patrons can come away with the Sensory Collection, just in time for Valentine's Day. A mere $375 buys a box of dark, milk and white chocolates made from beans from around the world.

A discussion of chocolate in Sin City would not be complete without a nod to Wynn Las Vegas. The resort tower is practically a monument to chocolate in its delicious rich brown tones. Inside, a shop called Chocolate sells the sweet stuff.

A sophisticated palate will want to venture into the deeper riches -- to the tables of Daniel Boulud's Brasserie, if only for his Valrohona chocolate souffle and chocolate turtle coupe; and Alex Stratta at Wynn, which serves sinful chocolate with warm orange caramel and coco-orange tuiles, and white bitter chocolate cream napoleons with milk chocolate ice cream.