LAS VEGAS -- A waiter at Picasso, the elegant restaurant in the Bellagio Hotel whose walls boast eight real (if minor) paintings by that fabled artist, reports that one diner recently ordered six $19 servings of foie gras with pear butter and pomegranate -- all for himself.
As long as this gambling city attracts high-living high rollers like him, its boom in fine restaurants seems likely to continue.
"Not too many years ago, going out to dinner in Las Vegas meant going to a buffet," says Heidi Knapp Rinella, restaurant critic for The Las Vegas Review Journal. "Now it's a dilemma when someone asks me what's the best restaurant to go to."
BEGUN BY PUCK
This year's hot new dining location is the $1.3-billion Aladdin Hotel & Casino and its themed marketplace, Desert Passage. The two boast a total of 21 new restaurants, including the New Orleans landmark Commander's Palace, the Native American and American Cowboy cuisine restaurant Anasazi and the Beluga Bar.
It's part of a building spree that in 1999 and 2000 saw the opening of 28 new hotels worth $5.4 billion.
The restaurant trend began in 1992 when Wolfgang Puck brought a version of his Hollywood restaurant Spago to the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace. Quickly, a flood of well-known restaurateurs followed: Chef Jean-Louis Palladin from the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., to Napa, in the Rio Suite Hotel; Chef Jean Joho of Chicago's Everest, to the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris; a dozen others.
In under a decade the city's cuisine was transformed.
"You can't go to one city anywhere else in the world and eat at so many restaurants from other cities," says Muriel Stevens, restaurant critic for the Las Vegas Sun.
Prices in the new restaurants are aimed at big spenders, with many appetizers in the $15 to $20 range, entrees soaring toward $40 and tasting menus at $90 before wine.
"But some of them combine cafés with their restaurants," Stevens says. "You can dine at the outdoor café at Postrio for half the price of dining inside."
Whether such a frantic pace of hotel construction and restaurant openings can continue, particularly in the teeth of a slumping economy, is unclear.
"Most of the new restaurants go into big casinos, and casino construction is slowing down now," says Rinella. "There are a couple on the drawing board, but nothing has taken off yet."
Here are three new and notable Las Vegas restaurants:
* Commander's Palace, in the Desert Passage at the Aladdin Hotel & Casino, 3663 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 702-892-8272.
Commander's Palace has come from New Orleans, with Brad Brennan, youngest member of the redoubtable New Orleans Brennan family, chef Carlos Guia and the famous restaurant's prized New Orleans/Créole cuisine. In 1980, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans, the Brennans celebrated by creating a sumptuous new dessert: Créole bread pudding soufflé -- a once-lowly sweet dish vaulted into ethereal lightness by being whipped into a froth, then pierced in the middle with a spoon to make room for a generous dollop of velvety bourbon whiskey sauce.
In 2001 the good news is that the fabled dessert has survived the trek to Las Vegas.
So has the restaurant's style. In the kitschy, faux-adobe shopping mall that surrounds the new Aladdin, it is an oasis of elegance with its dark-wood trim, stark white walls with wine shelving everywhere made of etched glass and New Orleans-style wrought iron.