In terms of all-around excellence, Cut outperforms the other steakhouses in town. And with it so difficult to get a reservation at the original in Beverly Hills, here's your chance right here in Vegas.
Trotter's seafood stop
THE restaurant opening with the most food world buzz has to be Restaurant Charlie from Chicago's Charlie Trotter. He doesn't have a slew of restaurants (just one other in Los Cabos, Mexico), so this is big news for the iconoclastic chef. And this isn't a clone of Charlie Trotter's (he did that years ago with the short-lived Charlie Trotter's in the MGM Grand), but an entirely new seafood-themed restaurant complete with that kitchen loft for big spenders.
He's got a prime location on the edge of the casino, but inside it feels as anti-Las Vegas as you can get. The design is very plain, with rumpled pale blue upholstered chairs that are so uncomfortable we asked to sit in a booth, but that wasn't much better. The backs are like ironing boards. And that chef's table, a.k.a. the Kitchen Table Loft? From our vantage point it looked like an office with glaring light as waiters ministered to a group of high rollers at $350 per person minimum.
Restaurant Charlie is really two restaurants. One is a la carte. Our server laid claim to Charlie Trotter's in Chicago being the ultimate tasting-menu restaurant, whereas this one is meant to be the ultimate a la carte experience. Part Two is Bar Charlie, where Trotter indulges his fascination with sushi in two prix fixe menus (8 courses for $175; 14 courses for $250). We opted for the a la carte menu in the main dining room, leaving Bar Charlie for next time.
The meal began on a strong note with a wonderful amuse of tuna tartare with avocado, olives and black sesame seeds. I liked a crab salad appetizer with sake sorbet and rice milk topped with a lacy rice cracker, too, but skate wing terrine cooked sous vide and lined up like a ruler on the plate was very bland. My favorite is the elegant tai snapper sashimi with ocher uni and a deep-flavored hibiki seaweed sauce.
Overall, though, the meal isn't exactly fireworks (and Mr. Trotter is not in-house that night). Alaskan halibut sits on lemon curd so sweet it could go into a pie. Arctic char on crunchy savoy cabbage is uninspired. And the delicate taste of poulard is bludgeoned by a thick chocolate sauce. Desserts, such as kabocha cake, are just as odd, and ultimately unsatisfying. Service is good, but stiff. There's no real conversation: It's like talking to members of the Charlie Trotter cult. Where's the fun? Where's the indulgence?
Lagasse drops the label
EMERIL LAGASSE is the fourth big-name chef to open a restaurant at the Palazzo. Oddly, for someone who's known to plaster his name on everything in sight, Table 10's sign doesn't give away the fact that this is the Food Network star's place. At lunch one day I find myself sitting "outside" on an indoor terrace framed by potted moth orchids and fake topiary, listening to dueling grand pianos playing at either end of the Palazzo's designer shops. A motley collection of tourists strolls by in the faux daylight. Where am I? What is this place? And why is Bauman Rare Books setting up shop near Chloé and Christian Louboutin? Curiouser and curiouser.
Our waiter informs us that Table 10's produce is organic and shipped in daily from Lagasse's farm. Lagasse isn't going for fireworks either: The menu is basic and not particularly inspired, and only a few tables are occupied. I know from previous experiences at Lagasse's Las Vegas restaurants, the simpler you order, the better. Here, that would be the rotisserie meats, but I want something lighter for lunch.
So I make it a bowl of his signature gumbo, which has a good flavor and a nice kick of pepper. Blue crab salad with remoulade sauce is OK, three scoops of crab salad flanking a boring mixed green salad. A Cuban-style sandwich made with Kurobuta pork is fine too. Service is sincere and attentive, but I still can't help the feeling that nothing much is going on here. With so many restaurants and so few meals, this one might merit a skip.
Osteen's secret spot
THE Palazzo doesn't have a lock on all the new restaurants in town. Maverick chef Louis Osteen bypassed the casinos entirely and opened his new place in the sprawling Town Square mall just south of the Strip. Could South Carolina's most famous chef have picked a more hidden location? We drove around and around looking for Louis's Las Vegas until we finally spotted a small placard pointing out the location -- upstairs at the back of a building, not even visible from the street. This place, however, is well worth the trouble for the chance to feast on Osteen's superb low-country cooking.
Instead of going for flash or glamour, he's opened a very sincere, very personal restaurant with a planed cypress tree as the reservation desk, an old-fashioned swinging bench for waiting and an elegant sideboard made by a master craftsman. He and his wife have actually moved to Las Vegas and are there most nights. He's also got the talented Carlos Guia, former executive chef of Commander's Palace at the Aladdin, as his chef de cuisine. This is the real deal, and it's such a pleasure to find so many things you'd like to try on the menu.
His jumbo lump crab and lobster cakes with whole grain mustard are mouthwatering examples of the genre. Barely cooked shrimp top a timbale of molded grits with a beautifully nuanced low country shrimp gravy that tastes as if it's been cooking for hours. Bourbon-cured and smoked duck breast is served like carpaccio with bourbon raisin poppers and fried crackling on top, a wonderful combination of flavors. And don't overlook the Charleston she crab soup with aged sherry either.
Main courses include a chicken-fried duck breast in a crisp fluffy batter with a sumptuous gravy (the guy is a master) punctuated with julienned candied kumquats. Check out his marinated charred rib pork chop with buttery fork-mashed potatoes. Sides are all terrific. And for dessert, consider the elegant bourbon brown butter pecan tart and the unusual many-layered Mississippi caramel cake dripping in caramel frosting, served with buttermilk ice cream. Louis's is as down-home as it gets in the glitzy town.
Meanwhile, it seems every restaurant in L.A. has designs on cashing in big in Vegas. Ago just opened at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Drai's has a new lease on life on the Strip. Boa, Valentino, Sushi Roku, Spago and Chinois, Koi and Trader Vic's -- they're all doing the bright lights, big city thing. But do we care? Probably not. Enough is enough. Except in Las Vegas, when it's never enough.