In Sin City, a spot worth coveting

In Sin City, a spot worth coveting
A couple gets cozy in a seat suspended from the ceiling at Ghost Bar on the 55th floor of the Palms, where people-watching is the sport and a $20 cover is the weekend norm. (BOB CAREY / LAT)
The new Palms resort boldly hypes itself as Las Vegas' sex-iest adult playground--a way-cool, celebrity-studded, off-Strip boutique hotel and gambling joint. It's a big boast in a town that calls itself Sin City.

My wife and I decided to find out for ourselves, making the 4-month-old Palms our anchor for a weekend of classy food, high-class art and classic rock 'n' roll.

For context, know that Jeanne and I are a combined 100 years old, enjoyed Liberace when he performed at the Las Vegas Hilton, and a year ago paid to see Wayne Newton--and actually liked him.

For our getaway last month, we booked a standard room a few weeks in advance at $159 a night plus tax. But Vegas hotel rates fluctuate almost daily, and the night before our arrival, I noticed prices had dropped to $139. A Palms clerk cheerfully adjusted our rate.

After a smooth Friday evening check-in, we were in our supposedly "oversized guest room" with "extraordinary views of the world-famous Las Vegas Strip."

Well, not quite. The room felt cramped, and while we could see the Strip a few blocks away, our view was mostly the glare from the building's exterior floodlights. In fact, at bedtime we had to push two chairs against the curtains to cut the amount of light pouring in.

A large armoire held a 27-inch TV and a mini-bar. (Be advised: If you take a beer out of the fridge to make room for dinner leftovers, a computer will detect the motion and charge you for the beer. Call the front desk to have the charge removed.) The bathroom was nicely appointed but surprisingly dark, and as we competed for the same sink and mirror, we wished the vanity were larger.

Then we were off to dinner at Nine, an offshoot of a popular Chicago steakhouse. The walls are spare, the room done in silver and black, and the center occupied by a caviar bar beneath a vaulted ceiling illuminated in soft lavender light. Jeanne thought it a pleasant, spaceship ambience. It was as noisy as an engine room, too, with conversations competing with canned music heavy on the bass. Am I sounding crotchety?

We were won over, however, by a fine dinner. Jeanne started with lobster bisque poured around a spring roll; I had a Caesar salad. We both chose filets, done perfectly, and shared two sides, sautéed spinach with caramelized garlic and a "Yukon gold potato puree trio"--twice-baked potatoes to you and me--each topped with lobster, horseradish or caramelized onions.

We capped the evening at Ghost Bar and its open-air balcony on the Palms' 55th floor, as famous for who's seen inside as for the view that can be seen outside. The cover charge on weekends is $20, but the hostess at Nine (who didn't know I was a reporter) phoned our names upstairs and we slipped in for free.

Inside a chrome-and-glass room with undulating couches apparently taken from the Jetsons' home, the sport is people-watching. The DJ's selections included the Beatles, hard rock and something he called electro jazz.

Because we're 100, we didn't stay long.

We strolled around the casino and found it lacking distinctive features. It has a sports book, a poker room, plenty of the newest slot machines and blackjack tables covered in lime-green felt. The ceiling created an industrial ambience, highlighted by what looked like burlap-covered turbine blades. Tropical meets techno.

Saturday was more to our taste, far from the cacophony of casinos. We headed first to Steve and Elaine Wynn's art gallery, the Wynn Collection, at what had been the Desert Inn. Wynn, who introduced fine art to Las Vegas when he built the Bellagio, continues to grace the community with masterworks, including Picasso's "Le Rêve" (The Dream), for which he has named his next casino, soon to be under construction at this site. We don't know what Wynn paid for the painting, but the previous time it sold at auction, it went for more than $40 million.

The gallery is unpretentious, with 13 works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, Modigliani, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol (a portrait of Wynn). Listen to Wynn's recorded commentary and you'll learn a few things--and laugh too.

While you're there, examine the pattern of the rug, then the background of "Le Rêve," and ask yourself whether the similarities are just coincidence or reflect Wynn's subtle fun with interior decorating.

We drove a couple of blocks to the Venetian to view the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum's inaugural show, "Masterpieces and Master Collectors." It is the historic collaboration between the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the State Hermitage Museum of Russia, the show unabashedly situated in Las Vegas so that the masses can enjoy the masters.

The 44 pieces included works by Pissarro, Gauguin and Picasso that have been held in St. Petersburg and never before viewed in the United States. The bright gallery, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, is itself spectacular: The paintings hang by magnets on rust-colored, Cor-Ten steel walls that look almost velvety.

Unlike Wynn's gallery, where a tour includes recorded commentary, the Guggenheim Hermitage folks charge extra for audio accompaniment that's not as detailed.

We almost lost ourselves in the splendid richness of the art, but every time the exit door opened, we could hear the electronic pings and beeps of slot machines.

In its own way, dinner Saturday was also a masterpiece. We had reservations for Rosemary's, an off-Strip restaurant that has received abundant accolades.

Jeanne selected the butternut squash soup and rack of lamb with black-olive mashed potatoes. I chose a salad of carpaccio, Maytag Blue cheese, apples and candied walnuts drizzled with port, and the night's entree special, tasso-crusted Chilean sea bass with green onion creamed potatoes. Throughout the meal, the chef dispatched appetizers and sweets to our table and others. For dessert we shared a slice of lemon icebox pie. The service was sharp and graceful, and the meal simply one of the finest we have had.

Saturday night closed with a Vegas cliché: "Legends in Concert" at the Imperial Palace, with look-alike performers mimicking Tom Jones, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, the Temptations and Elvis. (We had picked up $3-off coupons, which are available all over town and on the Imperial Palace Web site.) The show was fun, even without a Liberace.

Returning to our room late Saturday, we weaved and cut through a young, pulsating casino crowd on the prowl, many of them queuing up for entrance into the Palms' nightclub, Rain. We now know what our daughter wears when she goes to clubs. Lord have mercy.

After checkout Sunday, we went to the most opulent of the Strip casinos, the Bellagio, for its decadent Sunday brunch buffet: prime rib, sushi, shrimp, an extensive pasta and salad bar, eggs Benedict, omelets, Chinese food, Mexican food, even "braised guinea fowl legs." Champagne was free-flowing--and good.

For all the offerings that have made the Bellagio buffet popular, I was smitten by the cereal bar, where you build your own granola mix of nuts, seeds and dried fruit.

We closed our weekend at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, which is exhibiting works by Alexander Calder. He brought motion to art with his innovative mobiles. The show, "The Art of Invention," was fanciful and fascinating.

It was a delightful way to conclude, and we didn't drop a single quarter in a slot machine.


Tom Gorman is a national correspondent for The Times.