THE server shows off the charred bistecca fiorentina, then carves the massive porterhouse into finger-thick slices. At $160 for two, it's easily the most expensive steak I've ever eaten, if not the most expensive piece of aged meat in the country. Want to anoint it with horseradish sauce? Here at Carnevino, Mario Batali's new restaurant on the Strip, that'll be $5 more.
A few steps away, in a private dining room floating above a state-of-the-art kitchen, six businessmen spend a minimum of $350 each to work their way through the tasting menu at Restaurant Charlie. That's without wine, tax or tip. Or chef Charlie Trotter in the kitchen.
In another casino, guests step out of an elevator and are ushered into a small lounge just inside Guy Savoy's hyper-chic, very French restaurant. Here they sip $75 glasses of Champagne before floating off to their tables for $280 dinners.
Though everybody may be pinching pennies at home, Las Vegas seems untouched by the prevailing winds of economic downturn, operating by its own rules and logic. The economy may be contracting elsewhere, but here the casinos are still building. And building, with thousands more hotel rooms yet to come.
The Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino, a 3,000-room, all-suite extravaganza next to the Venetian, has just opened, and that's where you'll find most of the new wave of notable restaurants. In a town where "wine angels" in black cat suits rappel down a glass wine tower to fetch a special bottle for a table, where you can dine on a raft moored under a faux waterfall spilling from a faux mountain or indulge in an opulent multi-course meal from a French chef with three Michelin stars -- actually, there are three three-star chefs here -- what could possibly be next?
Less flash, less gimmickry -- and less invention. This time around, menus are more traditional, the design sometimes so conservative you can't believe you're in Vegas. They're luring in crowds with no more than good food, high comfort and great service.
And for that, they're charging enough to give even high rollers indigestion.
Batali's newest venture
MARIO BATALI and Joe Bastianich swagger into the Palazzo with Carnevino, their new Italian steakhouse just up the mall from B&B, their year-old ristorante at the Venetian. I like the spaciousness of the rather formal room, its high ceilings, heavy drapes and dark wood sideboards. What makes Carnevino unique is its obsessive pursuit of the best meat. Adam Perry Lang is a kind of meat forager for the restaurant: His job is to visit farms in the Midwest and choose specific animals for the steakhouse. At the moment, he has 15,000 pounds of beef aging in his humongous Vegas meat locker.
Naturally, the star of the steak menu is that pricey fiorentina for two, which by the time I visited a second time had been reduced to $145 from $160. Aged about nine weeks, it is massive, about two inches thick, and cooked without wood or mesquite to keep the flavors pure. If you want to save 10 bucks, order the hefty rib-eye for two, which is more heavily marbled than the fiorentina's porterhouse. The quality of the meat is exceptional for both, but my vote goes to the fiorentina for its texture and the way the rich beefy flavor lingers like a fine wine.
But first, before everything else, is a small crock of pure pork lard flavored with rosemary that arrives with some oily focaccia. I defy you not to finish it, the lard is so flat-out wonderful. The salumi plate for two or more includes slices of that marvelous lard, prosciutto cut like silk, coppa and more -- not a bad way to start a meal here. Carne cruda (steak tartare) is seasoned with capers and too much olive oil -- and salt. Lobster two ways -- the tail as thick-cut sashimi, the claws fried in Prosecco-dosed tempura batter -- is delicious, especially the fried lemon slices, if you can countenance $60 for a first course. The alternative is a half order of pasta, such as ravioli with duck liver and aceto balsamico sauce, duck cannelloni or pappardelle with porcini sauce (and too much butter).
Salt makes too strong an entrance in many dishes. And what's with the Milanese? The pounded pork cutlet comes fried to a crisp and absolutely swimming in butter. Sides bring out the Italian in the kitchen with Tuscan fries (fried fingerlings pan-roasted with rosemary and Parmesan), braised fennel with sambuca, and fresh peas with walnuts.
Do not skip dessert, especially if it's the tender rice torte with a topknot of honeycomb or the gubana, a special yeast-raised cake filled with nuts and dried fruit with grappa poured over at the last minute. Bottom line: As good as the beef is here, I'd rather eat at B&B, Batali's more intimate Italian restaurant in the Venetian next door. It's not cheap, either, but it's got more soul -- and a more consistent kitchen.
Puck's 6th Vegas venue
WOLFGANG Puck's Cut just opened in the Palazzo, too, making that three -- count 'em-- steakhouses under one roof (the third is Morels French Steakhouse from the Grove in L.A.). This one is in sight of the luscious Barneys New York store in the Palazzo and its full complement of bling. Buy something, a $400 T-shirt or a $19,000 sultanesque ring, say, and wear it right over to dinner. Want a dress? You'll need a home equity loan.
Though the menu is almost identical to the Beverly Hills steakhouse, the look is quite different from the cool white expanses of Richard Meier's design for the original Cut. This one, from the local design firm ABA, is warmer, featuring generous booths, a striped rug underfoot and bulky geometric chandeliers. There's an inviting lounge too, where you can order up some of Cut's signature mini-Kobe beef sliders or oysters on the half shell.
Prices, at least compared to Carnevino's, seem almost moderate, though in the real world, of course, they're vertigo-inducing -- a 3-pound lobster is a mere $110. Wine prices, though, are very fair, especially for the more esoteric choices on the interesting, wide-ranging list. For a restaurant that was a mere 2 weeks old when I visited, the whole operation was very professional, with a first-rate front of the house. But then, Puck is no amateur: This is his sixth Las Vegas restaurant.
The amuses -- crisp skinny breadsticks shaggy with Parmesan, dainty gougères and pillowy potato knishes -- are suitably amusing. Go easy, though -- there's lots more to come. Austrian oxtail bouillon with chive blossoms and bone marrow dumplings, a Cut's classic, is ethereal. Asparagus on a slab of toast topped with a poached egg and a single piece of bacon makes a great first course too. And so does a salad of tender little fava beans and baby artichokes with pecorino Romano, mint and Meyer lemon; it practically defines spring.
Steaks -- Nebraska dry-aged 35 days and Illinois aged 21 days, plus pricey Kobe beef from Japan and domestic Kobe-style Wagyu beef -- are the heart of the menu. Dry-aged rib-eye for $61 has plenty of flavor, but it's an awfully thin cut. I much prefer the $54 bone-in sirloin cooked with a nice char and served with a slick of butter on top and a gutsy Armagnac black pepper sauce.
But there's much more than steaks here: a terrific double-thick Kurobuta pork chop, roast duckling with lavender and thyme and whole roasted wild French turbot for two. The best deal is the rotisserie-roasted poussin for $31 with a graceful black truffle jus. Sides include a tall tower of thinnest gold onion rings in a lacy tempura batter, delicious chard and escarole greens, and fresh English peas with pea pods and pea tendrils.
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.