How many high-end restaurants can Vegas support, particularly in this economy? Easily a dozen more just opened in the new $11-billion CityCenter complex on the Strip and a number of them definitely have enough wow factor to pull in the hungry tourists.
Admittedly, the planning for CityCenter began long before the slump, still, here comes Michelin three-star Paris chef Pierre Gagnaire joining his illustrious (and extravagantly starred) colleagues Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy in a gamblers' paradise.
Ten years ago, the idea of such world-renowned chefs deigning to grace Vegas with their cooking seemed preposterous. Today, though, Gagnaire's debut at the Mandarin Oriental with his first American restaurant seems almost ho-hum.
Yet I can't help but think that this new group of restaurants from Masa Takayama (Masa in New York), Shawn McClain (Spring in Chicago) and Julian Serrano (Picasso in Vegas' Bellagio), among others, may be the last such extravagant wave of restaurants for quite awhile.
They're sophisticated and glam, reflecting the thrilling architecture of the complex designed by some of the world's most lauded architects. But what a disappointment inside the Aria casino: Instead of taking the opportunity to redefine the genre, MGM Mirage has gone with the same-old same-old and scribbled over the space inside with busy ornamentation as if the beautiful plain spaces made the bosses nervous.
Here then, for your dining explorations, is my pick of the CityCenter crop.
With Twist at the top of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire has opened a quietly confident restaurant. It's certainly not over-the-top luxurious, but more like a smart restaurant in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement. It has just 60-some seats, a view of the Strip's tangled neon (yes, that's Mickey D's down there on the left) and a flight of glowing glass balls overhead. Service is more relaxed than it would be in Paris, making everyone comfortable.
The great thing here is that whether you order a la carte, or go for the six-course $185 tasting menu, you get all the three-star bells and whistles. First come the canapes — and more and more canapes until the entire top of the table is covered with dainty bites of this and that. My favorite? The salmon chantilly to spread on crisp, bubbly house-made rice crackers. The tasting menu runs six courses without being as overwhelming as his menu in Paris, where each course bristles with five or six side dishes. This food is much less elaborate, much more approachable and is built on impeccable technique and arresting flavors. Scallops with rare squab breast, foie gras and black olive gelée is brilliant. I also loved the John Dory fillet poached in Malabar black pepper-citrus butter and served with cannellini beans and a seafood velouté. His signature dish is langoustine five ways, each served on its own small plate and each as different as can be, a tour de force. At the end, a flurry of mignardises arrives. You'll want to linger over these delicate sweet bites, basking in the crazy quilt of neon lights and the desert night.
As someone who very much misses Ginza Sushiko, the legendary sushi bar in Beverly Hills, I was thrilled that Masa Takayama was opening Bar Masa at CityCenter. In a soaring space the size of an airplane hangar, Takayama presents sublime sushi, and in the adjacent Shaboo, set-price shabu-shabu meals at $500 per person. For me, Masa is one of the country's greatest chefs. But Bar Masa is by no means Ginza Sushiko, and it isn't supposed to be. The a la carte menu is pretty standard sushi fare, albeit with seafood flown in daily from Tokyo's Tsukiji market.
To understand why Masa is so revered, order omakase, or chef's choice. Since someone I know had recently spent more than $400 per person here, I told the waiter we didn't need any of the pricier items like Kobe beef or caviar. You set the price: The minimum is $100 per person, but we upped it to $150 per person. It wasn't much food, basically four modestly sized dishes for two of us to share, plus three pieces of exquisite sushi and three pieces of sashimi each. In the end, we went away a little hungry and disappointed. To get the real experience, you'd need to spend at least $300 per person. And if you're going that deep into your pockets, why not just go full pop for the $500 shabu-shabu? But reserve ahead of time. That night a party of 26 had booked the room, and the kitchen had run out of uni, hamachi and kampachi. And I thought we were in a recession.
One of the things I remember with, well, longing from this trip is the paella at Julian Serrano, the Spanish restaurant from Madrid native (and Picasso chef) Julian Serrano. At lunch, I shared a paella for two, the Valenciana, sitting on a high stool at the bar of this bright, inviting restaurant just off Aria's lobby. The paella is the most authentic I've had in this country. Cooked in the typical shallow metal pan, the rice layer is just an inch thick, each grain separate and suffused with the taste of high-quality saffron and tomato and larded with chunks of moist rabbit, chicken and chorizo sausage. I found myself scraping off every bit of rice from the edge of the pan where it gets a little crunchy. If I'd had the time, I would have come back to taste the seafood version too, or the fideua (made with noodles instead of rice).
Since it takes the kitchen 35 minutes to cook the paella, order a few of the generously sized tapas to eat while you're waiting. Escalivada — grilled eggplant, sweet peppers and sweet onions, drizzled with good olive oil and sea salt, is perfect. They've also got padrones, stubby green peppers from Galicia simply seared on the griddle and sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil. There are fine chicken croquetas and lipstick-red piquillo peppers stuffed with molten goat cheese too. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of Serrano having lunch by himself at the bar. Finally, a restaurant with real Spanish food.
The new American restaurant from Chicago chef Shawn McClain is called Sage. The cozy bar up front staffed by expert mixologists gets a local crowd for the dashing bar menu (oxtail and beef marrow crostini, crispy sweetbreads and Wagyu beef tartare). The spacious and rather austere dining room is tucked away from view at the very back. McClain's food is deeply delicious and satisfying. He owns a steakhouse in Chicago, so it's no surprise that the menu is meat-driven. Start with his brilliant kushi oysters with a dab of Tabasco sorbet and tequila mignonette. Or his charred baby octopus caponata, a vivid bouquet of Mediterranean flavors. Sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi are tender and sweet; his slow-poached organic egg with a velvety smoked potato puree and shaved black truffles outstanding. As for that meat: Check out the Belgian ale-braised short ribs with the taste of hops and a tang of orange or the sumptuous melt-in-your-mouth braised veal cheeks with Picholine olives and shaved fennel. You may have to waddle back to the baccarat table, but who cares?
I could fit in only lunch at Lemongrass, a contemporary Thai restaurant from Bangkok chef Krairit Krairavee. Though the crowd was almost entirely Asian, I'd been cautioned that it sometimes tend to be on the mild side and to ask for my food Thai-style. Our Thai waiter took me at my word, suggesting dishes and asking how spicy we could take it. Seven was water-gulping hot, just how I like it. Grilled beef salad, thick fingers of rare beef with shallots, lime and chile could wake up any sleepy-headed gambler. Softshell crab salad weaves the flavors of crab, celery, lime, lemongrass garlic and chile into a beautiful composition. Rice noodles with squid, shrimp and scallops is less compelling. I loved that I felt so far away, eating such distinctive Thai food in such a smart setting. To cool down, have some young coconut juice from the shell or one of the shaved ices in exotic flavors.
Jean-Georges Steakhouse from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of New York's most lauded chefs, has a low-key glamour, with an open floor plan, caramel leather banquettes and a wall motif based on the shape of a cow's nose, of all things. The sophisticated take on a steakhouse has a menu strong in first courses and sides: terrific roasted sweetbreads with the rich floury taste of chestnuts or wonderful crab beignets with a blast of black pepper. Like Cut, Jean-Georges offers an array of Wagyu steaks from Japan at elevated prices — our waiter recommended the Wagyu tasting, a sampling of Wagyu steaks at $240 per person. I didn't win that big that night, so I went for the special Australian Angus 300 New York strip instead, which was truly impressive, not only for being cooked perfectly but also for its marvelous flavor. Yellow-gold fries were memorable, as were the lamb chops in chile-caramel sauce. For dessert, the tall fragrant passion fruit souffle had the texture of a cloud.
Design-conscious friends who live in Vegas suggested Silk Road in the Vdara Hotel at CityCenter for breakfast for its sweeping views of CityCenter's architecture. The LEED-certified design by Karim Rashid is kind of fun, futuristic swirls in the colors of the spice road. Chef Martin Heierling (who created Sensi in the Bellagio) is one of the best in Vegas. What he's doing at this below-the-radar spot, which now only serves breakfast and lunch, I don't know. But do try his Turkish eggs, poached and layered with free-range turkey hash and topped with fiery kirmizi (a Turkish red pepper) butter.
Then after breakfast, drive 17 miles west to the stunning Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and its stunning landscape for a post-prandial hike. That should set you right after a couple of days' indulgent eating at CityCenter.
In the Aria casino, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; restaurant reservations, (877) 230-2742; http://www.arialasvegas.com.
Bar Masa, (877) 230-2742. Chilled dishes, $26 to $89; salads, $15 to $18; braised dishes, $34 to $68; hibachi grilled items, $18 to $120; sushi items, $18 to $240; seasonal sushi or sashimi tasting, $98; omakase, $100 per person and up. Shaboo (the adjoining shabu-shabu restaurant), $500 per person. Open 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday to Monday.
Jean-Georges Steakhouse, (877) 230-2742. Appetizers, $13 to $32; entrees, $26 to $39; grilled prime beef, $35 to $78; sides, $8 to $16; four-course tasting menu, $85 per person. Open 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily.
Julian Serrano, (877) 230-2742. Dinner ceviches and seafood, $10 to $30; tapas, $8 to $14; cheese and charcuterie, $12 to $30; paellas, $40 to $50. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Lemongrass, (877) 230-2742. Dinner appetizers, $8 to $15; curries, $15 to $20; other entrees, $12 to $28. Open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Sage Restaurant, (877) 230-2742. Appetizers, $12 to $25; entrees, $33 to $49. Bar items, $16 to $19. Open daily 5 to 11 p.m.
In Vdara Hotel and Spa at CityCenter, 2600 W. Harmon Ave., Las Vegas; (866) 745-7111; http://www.vdara.com.
Silk Road Restaurant, (866) 745-7111. Breakfast items, $15 to $20; lunch items, $17 to $20. Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, 3752 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; (702) 590-8888; http://www.mandarinoriental.com.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, (888) 881-9367. Appetizers, $19 to $39; main courses, $42 to $56; desserts, $16. Six-course tasting menu, $185 per person. Open 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.