LAS VEGAS - In the spotlessly clean, chrome-plated kitchen that serves Le Cirque, chef Marc Poidevin pulls out a plastic container from a top shelf to reveal his prize.
Inside is a dirty and gnarled bit of fungus the size of a jumbo potato and it sends the native Frenchman into a swoon.
"That is the biggest truffle harvested this season," he says, gently cradling his earthy, aromatic 1-pound white truffle recently shipped to him from Italy. "A customer has already offered me $1,600, but I said no. It stays here."
Le Cirque, with its colorful European circus-themed decor and haute French fare, and the adjoining Osteria del Circo, with its Tuscan menu and no less glittery decor, are sisters to New York's famous restaurants of the same name. They are nothing if not indulgent, extravagant, overstated and wonderfully fun, and therefore perfectly suited to Las Vegas.
That's right, Vegas, home of the $4.99 prime-rib dinner, the all-you-can-eat buffet and many other gastronomic atrocities, has discovered the joys of five-star cuisine and, like any gambler on a roll, keeps raising the table stakes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Bellagio, the $1.6 billion luxury hotel that boldly embodies the concept of conspicuous consumption.
Bellagio is home not only to Le Cirque and Circo, but also to Picasso, perhaps this city's finest restaurant, as well as a branch of Boston-born Olives, San Francisco's Aqua, New York's Petrossian and a steakhouse created by super-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
But it doesn't stop there. Farther down the strip, there are restaurants developed by a who's who of American chefs: Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin and Alessandro Stratta of Picasso's crosstown sister, Renoir, in the Mirage hotel.
Less than a decade ago, gourmet food in Las Vegas meant A.1. Steak Sauce on the table. Today, the selection of top restaurants has put the city on the culinary map - if not as a leader, then at least as a devoted copier of some of the nation's best dining.
"Everyone is trying, but not everyone is succeeding," says Grant MacPherson, Bellagio's former executive chef. "It's expensive to be on this level."
The chefs who have come to Vegas in recent years have found it an eye-opening experience. Even in the midst of a national recession, the city has been growing at a dizzying pace. Not only must food be trucked into this desert city, but so must labor; some chefs have been known to bring along their entire kitchen staff when they relocate here.
"There is no culture here. It's all artificial," says Poidevin. "We have rocks. We have sand. We have cactus. We don't have much of anything else."
Julian Serrano, who opened Picasso in October 1998, was initially reluctant to move to Vegas from San Francisco.
Las Vegas was a city without a local cuisine, except perhaps for certain types of cactus, he says, and certainly no local suppliers of the high-quality ingredients his restaurant would require. He moved his family into the Mirage in midsummer when temperatures peaked at 118 degrees - toasty even for a native of Madrid.
"My wife thought I was crazy," he recalls. "It turned out she was right."
But the resulting French restaurant with its original Picasso oils and ceramics has won as much notice for the artistic delights on the plate as on the walls. Serrano won a coveted five-star rating from Mobil last year. He was the first Las Vegas chef to win a regional James Beard Award.
"Vegas is beginning to become well-known for its restaurants," Serrano says. "Now, people are moving here who know restaurants."
Indeed, the growth of Vegas fine dining can be traced to what almost everything in the city owes its creation to: money. The city's casino owners used to consider dining a kind of loss-leader; their restaurants provided cheap dining to keep the legions of gamblers happy.
But Las Vegas' early flirtations with fine dining in the mid-'90s (Palladin and Puck were among the first pioneers) demonstrated that restaurants could actually be profit centers. Today, not only does Vegas rake in as much money from hospitality as it does directly from gaming, but restaurants and luxury hotel rooms also appear to be the keys to future growth.
Steve Wynn, the man who developed Bellagio, has begun building an even bigger and more outlandish luxury hotel down the street. His plans call for 18 restaurants in the $2 billion Le Reve (French for the dream), and he recently lured MacPherson from Bellagio to run the hotel's food service.
"Ten percent of my customers fly here in their own jet," says Poidevin, who formerly worked at Maxim's and Le Cirque 2000 in New York. "Only 2 percent of the customers come from the casino."
Poidevin and others say their customers are a discerning lot. Their diners include A-list celebrities and the super-rich who not only have sampled the finest French cuisine but also have likely done so in Paris and perhaps even did so just last week.
"They know what they are talking about," says Poidevin, who recalls being host to super-chef Alain Ducasse at Le Cirque just a few days earlier.
Mark LoRusso, head chef at Aqua, agrees. Many of his patrons have been to the San Francisco Aqua, with its French-inspired California cuisine, and they don't balk at paying an average $100 per person for dinner (not including beverages). The 130-seat restaurant remains a tough place to get a weekend reservation, serving about 300 dinners on a typical Friday night.
"We've done better than we thought," says LoRusso, who recently signed a three-year contract to stay at the Bellagio restaurant. "Las Vegas may not be at the point of being a great food city, but it's certainly become a good one."
One advantage that Aqua and the other Bellagio restaurants have had has been the power of numbers. Most of their supplies are purchased directly by the hotel. That gives them a great deal of collective clout - about a quarter-million dollars worth of food comes through their dock each day. And the hotel can afford to be demanding: No eggs are purchased, for instance, unless they were laid within the previous four days. Almost everything is shipped in from the West Coast.
Still, like almost everything else in Las Vegas, the restaurants are reproductions - faithful duplicates, perhaps, but generally based on formulas that were successful elsewhere. To reach the next level of culinary art, the city needs a world-class restaurant that is truly original.
"What we need now is a truly Vegas-generated restaurant, not an imitator. That's the next big thing," says MacPherson, who suspects such a place would need to play on the city's growing Asian influence. "When you're trying to do quality, the more the merrier. We're going to keep growing."