Betting on Good Taste

S. Irene Virbila is The Times' restaurant critic. Her last article for the travel issue was about Piedmont, Italy

The foie gras custard melts in your mouth.

The soup, a celery root puree poured over that shivery custard and ripe pear nuggets, is astonishing. We've got a great table, one of the half-dozen booths set at a discreet distance from where the famous French chef is cooking for our dining pleasure. Standing center stage in the open kitchen, he works with the concentration of a surgeon, fileting a fish with a few deft turns of his boning knife under the rapt gaze of his young kitchen crew. Just as I sneak another bite of my neighbor's wild mushroom ravioli, something flies across the kitchen, and the cooks go into a huddle.

What was that?

Our waiter goes to investigate, and comes back smiling. "A live fish that got away." Soon that very fish, after being captured, is roasting in the wood-burning oven under a coverlet of herbs. And we are feasting on truffled quenelles, cuttlefish and tiny crayfish tails, and lobster wrapped in caramelized endive leaves. We marvel at the crepinette of lamb and wild mushrooms. We're enraptured with the trio of pear desserts.

The tousled French chef is Jean-Louis Palladin, who garnered two Michelin stars in Southwest France before making his considerable reputation in this country at the now-closed Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. His present address is not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. It's Las Vegas, specifically Napa Restaurant in the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino.

When the Rio tapped Palladin to open its high-end restaurant last year, it must have made the world-class chef an offer he couldn't refuse. Other casinos are doing the same, for Palladin is one of an unprecedented number of well-known chefs from around the country opening restaurants in Las Vegas.

Until recently, the idea of Las Vegas going gourmet seemed, to put it mildly, preposterous. The capital of the $4.99 prime rib and the endless buffet becoming a mecca for big-spending epicures? But Las Vegas is in the midst of reinventing itself--again. White tigers, magicians and impressionists still attract the hoi polloi, but casino owners are hot in pursuit of a higher class of guests, and big-name restaurants are one lure.

What this all means is that in the near future, not only can visitors experience casino-resort fantasy versions of the Italian Lake Country, New York, Hollywood, Paris and Venice, they can also dine on food from an impressive collection of top chefs. Just how closely any of these glitzy Vegas establishments will match the quality of the original restaurants remains to be seen, however. Only Palladin and Julian Serrano, the highly regarded chef from Masa's in San Francisco, are living in Las Vegas. The others will supervise their kitchens from afar. Serrano will be cooking at the Picasso restaurant in the posh new $1.6-billion Bellagio, reportedly at a salary of $400,000 a year--a whopping amount for a chef.

Every casino has always had expensive restaurants where winners (and losers) could order Dom Perignon and Cristal and get something vaguely continental, but these weren't serious restaurants. It took Wolfgang Puck's opening of Spago Las Vegas in 1992 to turn the food world's attention to the gaming capital. After that, MGM Grand executives decided they'd like some upscale restaurants in their new casino and brought in Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, Emeril Lagasse of Emeril's in New Orleans and Puck to do a Wolfgang Puck Cafe.

For the piece de resistance, MGM Grand built a jewel box of a restaurant for Charlie Trotter, of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. But its hushed, formal atmosphere and intricately orchestrated tasting menu didn't go over well with the high rollers. After a year, by mutual agreement, the restaurant closed. And Trotter took the remainder of his hefty 10-year fee home to build a test kitchen.

Spago didn't start out as a runaway success either. It opened in December, in the slow season. The casual cafe in front has always been busier than the more formal dining room in back. And though it's now a steady earner, Puck says, "I think it's harder to manage a restaurant there than in L.A. or San Francisco or New York because you have so many ups and downs. At one extreme you have so many people waiting, you have no idea where you're going to put them, and at the other, you don't know where you're going to get enough people to fill the restaurant."

The four new casinos opening in the next year--Bellagio (October), Mandalay Bay (March), the Venetian (April) and Paris (fall)--will provide about 15,000 new luxury accommodations. The big question is whether Vegas will be able to pull in enough upscale guests to fill the rooms--and the top restaurants. When I ate at Spago, the new Chinois, Emeril's New Orleans Fish House and Napa this summer, they were one-third to one-half empty.

Nevertheless, the stampede is on. Casino headhunters must have reached out to just about every name chef in the country. Who is coming? From Los Angeles, Valentino, Nobu Matsuhisa, Pinot, maybe a Border Grill, and a new Italian concept from Puck; from San Francisco, Aqua and Postrio, in addition to Serrano; from New York, it's Le Cirque, Osteria del Circo and Aureole, and a restaurant from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; from Boston, Olives. Also in the works is a French restaurant from an as-yet-unannounced Michelin-starred chef.

Hotel executives are also scouring the country for maitre d's and sommeliers, offering as much as double their salaries. According to Rio wine director Barrie Larvin, president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Vegas now has seven Master Sommeliers of 37 in the entire country. That's more than in New York, San Francisco or, for that matter, Los Angeles (which has just one). If you're a wine expert, the best-paying jobs are in Las Vegas now.

To fathom what lies ahead, we took a recent look at the high-end restaurants already open and found some pleasant surprises and one notable disappointment.

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At Napa, the view from one side of the understated, elegant restaurant encompasses a neon landscape with hotel guests frolicking in the pool below. Through a bank of windows on the opposite side of the dining room, we see a frenzied Mardi Gras extravaganza high above the gaming tables. Suspended from the ceiling, elaborate floats sail by carrying scantily clad dancing girls and elaborately costumed figures wriggling to a samba beat as they toss beaded necklaces to the revelers below. From this side of the glass, it's all a pantomime: We can't hear a thing as we contemplate a wine list of grand proportions and dizzying prices (the Rio's wine cellar is valued at more than $6 million). Watching Palladin perform, I can't help but think of a gentle, bespectacled lion who has been drafted, in midlife, to the circus.

Downstairs in the cellar, behind a jumble of stacked boxes sprouting hand-lettered signs and kitschy wine gifts, locked glass cases display some of the rare wines that Larvin has bagged at wine auctions around the world. These include a set of seven methuselahs (the equivalent of eight normal bottles), one each from Domaine Romanee Conti's fabled vineyards from the 1985 vintage. The price for the set? $400,000. That's "$395,000 cash," jokes Larvin. His wine-buying power is no joke, though. According to Ursula Hermacinski, Christie's Los Angeles-based wine auctioneer, Larvin is the major player in the rarefied world of fine wine auctions right now. He's certainly not shy about opening bottles to taste in the wine cellar's tasting room, where about 200 wines are available by the glass for $5 to $65.

Spago Las Vegas is a short stroll away from the animatronic fountain that has become the Trevi Fountain of the Forum at Caesars. The cafe in front is always packed. The kitchen, under the direction of David Robins, has settled in. And the new young sommelier, Kenneth Fredrickson, has revved up the wine list considerably. On slower nights, you can ask the chef to do a tasting menu, which Fredrickson will match with wines. This is the best way to eat here.

The Spago style was set years ago at the original West Hollywood location. Puck may be doing more exciting food at his new Beverly Hills flagship, but his familiar fare, including those gourmet pizzas, is still a crowd pleaser. I particularly enjoyed the Mediterranean fish soup with calamari, mussels and rouget (a Mediterranean fish) in a tomatoey broth, and a fabulous creme frache ice cream drizzled with 40-year-old aceto balsamico.

For more adventurous fare, head for the new Chinois, in a new expansion wing of the Forum at Caesars. The two-story space designed by Puck's wife and partner, Barbara Lazaroff, looks positively subdued by Vegas standards. Decorated with a fortune's worth of genuine Asian art and artifacts, it's Santa Monica's Chinois with elbow room--and a more refined version of the same East-West food. The sauces are less concentrated, less sweet, with more delicate nuances. Since few visitors know the Santa Monica restaurant, the kitchen offers a well-conceived tasting menu by way of introduction. The Chinois chicken salad is superb, as are the ribs in a sticky star-anise-scented sauce. Big-eye tuna encrusted with coriander seeds is terrific, too, and Cantonese duck is served in a delicious grapefruit pepper sauce that plays beautifully against the richness of the duck.

Fredrickson's wine list has got to be the hippest in town--in fact, it's eclectic enough to be cutting-edge in Manhattan or West Hollywood. This is a list put together by someone who loves wine and is willing to put in his time on the floor to persuade big-label drinkers to try something different, like an Austrian Riesling or a luscious Bonnezeaux, a dessert wine from France's Loire Valley.

Emeril's New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand is a decided disappointment. The chef had been in town the day before for a meeting about the steakhouse he's planning in the Venetian casino. I wish he'd eaten the meal we had. The only first course with any appeal for my guests was a salad of rock shrimp and feathery greens, though I did like a very rich clam chowder that tastes like straight cream.

Crab cakes were soggy. Crawfish cannelloni in smoked shrimp sauce was inedible. Baked oysters with Creole stuffing were simply awful, smothered in enough tasso hollandaise to put two seasoned trenchermen under the table. The best thing was banana cream pie, made, the waiter told us proudly, with 17 bananas per pie, mortared in place with banana butter cream and topped with a good four inches of whipped cream.

Lunch at the seafood bar--a tired chilled seafood plate and shrimp remoulade salad--wasn't much better. The wine list, however, reads like a who's who of sought-after bottles from California, France and Italy.

Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe and Grill Room in the MGM Grand is also a Vegas restaurant pioneer. With their color-stained stuccoed walls, Mexican folk art and twig shutters that screen out the shiny new sports utility vehicle gamblers can win, Miller's restaurants look vibrant and appealing. At the Coyote, waiters in blue denim shirts and bolos at the casual cafe serve up great Southwestern breakfasts--huevos rancheros on blue corn tortillas drenched in a beautifully rendered salsa, and fluffy, irresistible blue corn pancakes strewn with pine nuts and accompanied by a pinon honey butter.

The lunch menu is good but not brilliant. For dinner, the best choice is the more ambitious Grill Room, a smaller dining room next door decorated with hammered copper doors and etched glass panels of cactus and chile peppers. The appetizers sounded so much more interesting than the main courses, so I ordered four or five to start, and then asked the genial waiter's advice regarding the main course.

"Get the cowboy steak," he said. "It's of Flintstonian proportions and more than enough for two." I loved a pale green soup of chayote squash swirled with goat cream. Ditto the meaty crab cake in a subtle smoked avocado sauce. And that steak, with chile onion rings, was substantial. The real revelations here were the desserts. Andrew MacLauchlan, who was Charlie Trotter's Vegas pastry chef, has taken the tired Southwestern theme and run with it. His creations include a spectacular cheesecake with goat's milk caramel and a tiny skillet of peach melba.

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These restaurants, as distinguished as they are, may soon be outclassed--at least in showmanship and glitz--by the next wave of restaurants about to open.

The first will be in Bellagio, Steve Wynn's $1.6-billion, 3,000-room luxury hotel and 8.5-acre lake inspired by those in Italy's Lake Country. The linchpin in the Bellagio's prestigious restaurant lineup is restaurateur Sirio Maccioni's Le Cirque, the celebrated New York society restaurant. Why is Maccioni going to Vegas? "Because Steve Wynn is a great salesman and I have three sons. I need to let them make their own mistakes," he explains. Son Mario, who just had twins, has moved to Vegas to run both Le Cirque and its more casual spinoff, Osteria del Circo.

Once Le Cirque was announced, says Maccioni wryly, "everybody else wanted to go to Bellagio." San Francisco's posh seafood restaurant Aqua signed on, along with Todd English of Olives in Boston, and white-hot New York chef Vongerichten of Jean-Georges in Manhattan. He'll open a French-style steakhouse called Prime.

L.A.'s La Brea Bakery will open a bakery there to furnish the restaurants with artisanal breads. And to cap it off, Wynn has enticed Serrano from San Francisco for the Bellagio's Picasso restaurant.

The $2-billion, 6,000-room Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, an all-suite hotel and casino linked to the convention center, is set to debut next spring. It will house a Valentino from Santa Monica's consummate Italian restaurateur, Piero Selvaggio. Somehow the hotel's concept, which includes a replica of the Doges' Palace and St. Mark's Square, complete with lagoon and gondolas, will be stretched to include the French-California brasserie Pinot Vegas, by L.A.'s Joachim Splichal.

The Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino (scheduled to open in March) is a 3,700-room monolith with a mystical Eastern theme, and it will include a 424-room Four Seasons Hotel with its own restaurants and a House of Blues. Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York is building a restaurant at the resort featuring a dramatic glass staircase entry that wraps around a 43-foot glass wine tower stocked with 10,000 bottles. One of designer Adam Tihany's ideas, still to be worked out, is to have the wine server strap on a circus harness with a joy stick that will hoist him up to the bottle he wants to reach. "Las Vegas is no longer just the lights and the Strip," says the enthusiastic Palmer. "Everything there is moving in the direction of quality."

Those Too Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, may open a clone of their Santa Monica contemporary Mexican restaurant, Border Grill, in the Mandalay, too. And Puck is thinking of trying a new concept here, an Italian place where you can get everything from bistecca alla fiorentina (Tuscan steak) to good old spaghetti and meatballs.

Bally's, which is building Paris Las Vegas, has announced its lineup of French restaurants; Paris' executive chef Eric Scuiller says they're still in negotiations with an as-yet-unnamed three-star Michelin chef for its 200-seat restaurant on the first level of the half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower. If they can get Alain Ducasse, it would be a real coup. He, after all, has three stars in Paris and three more in Monaco. Already established casinos are looking to upgrade their restaurants, too. Peter Morton, Hard Rock Cafe founder and owner of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, has persuaded Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Nobu in Manhattan to add a Nobu to the hip casino's attractions.

It's all a little dizzying. More than 30 million people visit Las Vegas each year. And if Chinois or Le Cirque or Valentino or Aureole can persuade a small proportion of those visitors to join the audience for fine dining, everybody wins. Who knows? It's early yet, but in the fickle world of fine dining, Las Vegas is, against all odds, beginning to look like a player.

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Guidebook: Eating Las Vegas

Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for Las Vegas is 702. Prices are for dinner for two, food only.

Getting there: Las Vegas is less than an hour from Los Angeles by air. United, Southwest, Northwest, American Eagle, Reno Air, America West, Delta and Hawaiian airlines offer daily flights. By car, it's about a 300-mile drive, taking four to six hours, depending on traffic. Take I-10 east to I-15 north through Victorville and Barstow, then to Las Vegas.

Where to eat: The Forum at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. South: Chinois, 737-9700; $70 to $100. Spago Las Vegas, 369-6300; $65 to $120.

MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South: Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, 891-7374; $65 to $100. Coyote Cafe/Mark Miller's Grill Room, 891-7349. Coyote Cafe, $25 to $60; Grill Room, $65 to $95; Wolfgang Puck Cafe, 895-9653; $20 to $30.

Rio Suite Hotel & Casino, 3700 W. Flamingo Road: Napa Restaurant, 247-7961; $65 to $100. The Wine Cellar Tasting Room & Retail Shoppe, 252-7962; wine tasting by the glass, $5 to $65.

The Bellagio hotel is scheduled to open Oct. 15 at 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South, (888) 987-6667. Restaurants include Aqua, Le Cirque, Picasso and Prime.

For more information: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 3150 Paradise Road, Las Vegas, Nev. 89109; 892-0711, fax 892-2824.

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