Remember when it seemed preposterous that a French three-star chef would sign on for a restaurant in Las Vegas? And it turned out that not one but four highly decorated French chefs eventually launched Vegas outposts?
Even in these rocky economic times, Vegas is sprouting new restaurants. As long as visitors keep rolling their bags up to hotel reception desks, Vegas keeps building. Latest entry? The Cosmopolitan, and in its wake a starry collection of restaurants from well-known chefs and restaurateurs. Yet the Cosmo's collection of restaurants seems more about dazzling diners with good food than jaw-dropping design and opulent details.
Welcome to the new Las Vegas, with restaurants that cater not only to tourists but also to the half a million or so residents of the sprawling desert city. In Vegas, a good restaurant no longer amazes: The city is full of them.
On a recent four-day trip to update my Vegas files, I focused on the Cosmopolitan. Even so, I couldn't take in every single restaurant at the multimillion-dollar hotel and casino. I checked around. I wrote a list, whittled it down and made some reservations. In all, I made it to five of the Cosmopolitan's 13 restaurants, skipping Comme Ça and Scarpetta because we have those in L.A. Here's what I thought:
After the long drive through the desert, I met friends for dinner at D.O.C.G., an Italian wine bar from Scarpetta's Scott Conant. The name refers to Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest classification of quality for Italian wines. Behind the long bar, wine names are used as a graphic element, each spelled out in a different typeface.
The wide-mouthed wood-burning oven at the back means pizza. Yes! It's Neapolitan style, the crust blistered from the searing heat, the supple dough smeared with a terrific tomato sauce. No surprise, that. Conant's salsa di pomodoro is famous and goes onto a $24 plate of spaghetti at Scarpetta. Our pizza margherita is seriously good, with pools of molten bufala mozzarella.
Order some of the excellent mixed cured meats too. I just wish the prosciutto and speck were cut a tad thinner. Assagini (tastes) are a good deal at four for $13, including generous nibbles of pickled cipollini, artichokes and sorrel, fennel and orange or cauliflower and mint.
Leave it to the New York chef to propose some interesting regional pasta dishes. I loved the duck ragù served with hand-rolled pici, though I couldn't find much evidence of black truffle. And the pasta is overcooked — a little gummy. Same thing with the other pasta dishes we ordered. I would expect better from Conant. Meanwhile, I'll stick with the terrific pizza and a bottle of Barbera. The good news is that you can get a pie — mushrooms with fontina and pancetta, soppressata with red pepper and fresh ricotta — all day long.
Lunch the next day is at China Poblano, José Andrés' Chinese-Mexican hybrid. The décor is wild — a neon "open" sign for each cuisine at either end of the façade, a dim sum station with stacked bamboo steamers, Mexican masks on the walls, bicycle wheels and red lanterns on the ceiling. Above our table is a giant three-dimensional head onto which Chinese and Mexican faces and landscapes are projected. Fun.
Made-to-order guacamole is served with fragrant freshly made tortillas and is not as spicy as ordered. "When Pigs Fly," steamed buns filled with hand-minced Chinese barbecue pork, make a great starter or snack. The Caesar salad is a good one — even better, one of finely julienned hearts of palm in a thrilling tamarind dressing.
I had a hard time choosing which of the many noodle dishes to order. Wild mushrooms with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and knife-shaved noodles, or dan dan mian, hand-cut noodles with a spicy pork sauce? I went with the latter. Noodles have a wonderful firm texture, delicious in a fiery, pork-laden sauce.
Tacos are small, two to an order, with a mix of traditional and eccentric fillings. My picks: the gutsy beef tongue taco in salsa pasilla or the marvelous cochinita pibil. Not to mention silencio — duck tongue with rambutan fruit — and "viva China," filled with soft beef tendon, kumamoto oysters and scallions.
Andrés gets right out there on the edge — and he pulls it off.
Years ago, I'd eaten at the high-end New York Greek restaurant Estiatorio Milos. It's at the Cosmopolitan too, and if you love seafood, save up for this one. The look is elegant Greek taverna with stone pillars, white tablecloths, giant urns, reproductions of ancient Cycladic sculptures and classic lanterns swaying from the ceiling.
Once we were seated, something caught my eye — live eels in a tall glass cylinder at the far end of the room. How could I have missed the gigantic display of whole fish on ice behind them? I go to inspect. A langoustine languidly waves its tentacles next to an array of bright-eyed whole fish, with market price noted.
The wine list features more Greek wines than I've ever seen in one place, but hardly anything under $60 and no information about wines other than name and vintage. I should have done some research. But I did score on one point: ordering avgolemono, the classic Greek lemon soup, ahead of time. It's wonderful, with just the right balance of lemon in rich chicken broth loaded with rice and chunks of chicken.
Avgotaraho, the Greek version of bottarga, is sliced and served on a gentle garlic purée on little toasts. I'd choose this over caviar anytime. Grilled octopus is some of the best I've had, charred and sweet, garnished with capers, a little oregano and fine Greek olive oil from owner Costas Spiliadis' sister's estate.
For a main course, it must be a whole grilled fish, ours a tsipoura (gilthead sea bream) for two. It comes perfectly cooked, boned, with just capers and a lemon wedge. Nothing could be simpler, but every bite is satisfying. With it, we get wild dandelion greens and fried potatoes with oregano. Dessert is walnut baklava with handmade filo. Wow.
Another day, I go back for lunch, which may be the biggest bargain in Vegas right now: three courses for $20.11.
Next up: Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill for dinner. The New York transplant is packed with fans. Everywhere you look, a sushi chef is cutting fish. You can eat in the lounge or at booths and semi-private tables in the back. I could use some sushi right now. Opening the menu, prices are a shock. An order of housemade pickles is $19.50. And our waiter touts the day's fried rice, Alaskan king crab with summer truffles at $45. No, thank you.
We're just finishing hijiki (seaweed salad) when our fried chicken and oxtail fried rice arrive. "You want the appetizers first?" the runner asks when we wonder what's going on. Kanpachi sashimi with dots of yuzu pepper doesn't seem freshly cut, and the fish has no taste. We'd asked for sushi nigiri after everything else, but here it comes — with the rest of the appetizers. Frankly, the sushi is sorry looking, more like something you'd get in a strip mall sushi joint.
By 8 p.m., they're out of half a dozen items. They do have their signature fried chicken, though, which is crisp and juicy. But what's with the idea of dipping it in a gelatinous honey sauce?
Blue Ribbon's sushi is for beginners or those who don't have a clue. The New York restaurant dates from 1995, when sushi there was still something of a novelty. But in 2011, they have to do better than this.
Every night when I walked by Jaleo, Andrés' tapas restaurant, it was bursting at the seams and felt like a wild and wonderful party. The bar turns out some stellar cocktails.
Try the Negroni made with tomato water. At the paella station in the middle, a chef adds lobster after lobster to a wide pan over a wood fire. This is the real deal, and he keeps it up all night long.
Jaleo celebrates rustic Spanish cuisine with the best embutidos (cured meats) available in this country — gorgeous jamón ibérico de bellota, a well-edited selection of Spanish cheeses and an array of lusty small plates. Start with pan con tomate, rafts of bread rubbed with tomato and topped with a single fat anchovy. Wonderful deep-fried empanadas, filled with a salt cod cream, come drizzled with honey. (This kitchen really knows how to fry.)
We want to order everything and practically do: escalivada (grilled sweet red peppers, eggplant and onions), butifarra (pork sausage) with wild mushrooms, a classic potato and onion tortilla. We nibble on a platter of grilled lamb ribs with a superlative romesco sauce. We order paella with the ribs of the black-footed pig that's used for Spain's famous jamón. Each grain of rice is suffused with flavor.
Happiness is a table with friends at this rollicking Spanish restaurant. Be prepared to shout: Everyone is having too much fun to be subdued. Maybe it's those carafes of sangria, I don't know. However much you eat, you must order dessert, specifically the crema catalana, an ethereal custard with the faintest hint of lemon.
In one short stay at the Cosmopolitan, I've visited China, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Japan and Spain, culinarily speaking. I would say that's cosmopolitan, no?