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.
Appetizers include Turtle Soup au Sherry at $7.50; Shrimp Remoulade at $9.50. The Pan Roasted Gulf Oysters, with half a dozen hot, plump oysters and chunks of tender artichoke broiled in a double-cream sauce, is decadent and delicious at $9.75.
Entrees include the Louisiana Pecan Crusted Gulf Fish, a huge, tender and juicy slab of grouper with a crisp, vinegary green salad served atop a crushed corn cream sauce topped with spiced pecans, at $27.50.
Desserts include Bananas Foster, French Quarter Beignets and Molten Chocolate Cake, all at $7.50.
The wine list is traditional, well-organized. It has a small list of wines by the glass for $7 to $9. Wines by the bottle are nicely arranged on the list, from the lightest to the fullest. Whites are listed in such helpful categories as "oaky" or "full body, less oak;" reds into such categories as "light" or "formidable." Nothing cutting-edge here. Just big portions of satisfying traditional Créole food. As Martha Stewart would say: It's a good thing.
* Anasazi of Santa Fe Restaurant, in the Desert Passage at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, 3663 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 702-836-0989.
Chef Randall Warder has brought his award-winning Anasazi Restaurant from Santa Fe to Las Vegas, working here with chef Paul Vigil. They call the cuisine a combination of Native American and American Cowboy Cooking, but Gabby Hayes never rustled up any vittles like these for Roy Rogers and posse.
The room evokes an old Mexican hacienda, with wood beams, slate floors, luminaries lining the faux roof under a ceiling painted the midnight blue of a desert sky at night.
Appetizers include Diablo Shrimp with Griddled Corn Cakes at $14 and Lime-Glazed Lobster Fajitas with Papaya-Cucumber Salsa and Corn Tortillas at $15. The Rosemary Skewered Scallops and Foie Gras Nacho with Eggplant-Goat Cheese Roll and Smoked Tomato Sauce, at $14, is two huge scallops perfectly grilled, redolent with rosemary, with the unexpected combination of a small, tender slice of foie gras atop a corn chip -- chi-chi on a shingle, if you will, but delicious in its creamy, smoky tomato sauce.
Entrees include Habanero-Merlot Glazed Tuna Mignon with Cowboy Beans and Seared Spinach at $30. The Dry-Aged Rib Eye Steak with Western Steak Sauce, Sour Cream Baked Potato and Buttermilk Onion Rings, at $36, would satisfy a whole herd of cowboys. The steak is huge, a full 16 ounces of nicely grilled if not thoroughly trimmed beef; the mammoth potato is laden with sour cream laced with cheddar, chives and bacon. Straight-forward, satisfying.
The medium-size wine list offers a good range of prices for wines, both by the glass and by the bottle. A glass of 1999 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc is $8; a glass of 1999 Sterling Winery Lake Pinot Noir is $11. Several wines from California, France and Alsace are $20 a bottle -- or there's the 1989 Krug Clos du Mesnil Champagne for $650.
Desserts include Margarita Pie at $8.50; Warm Chocolate Truffle Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Cream Sauce at $9.
* Piero Selvaggio's Valentino and P.S. Italian Grill, in the Venetian Hotel & Casino, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 702-414-3000.
Veteran restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, well-known for his Los Angeles restaurants, Primi and Posto and the award-winning Valentino in Santa Monica, has opened a fine-dining restaurant here also called Valentino, combined with a sidewalk café and an informal restaurant called P.S. Italian Grill.
The sidewalk café is in a loud, busy hallway filled with overweight Elvis impersonators leading to the casino's entertainment areas, 20 feet from the nearest binging, bonging slot machine.
Just inside is the P.S. Italian Grill, an informal restaurant serving salads, pastas and grilled items with entrees from $16 to $38. It's all noisy elegance, very Vegas-like, with Eurotech decor of natural wood and brushed metal with muted orange splashes of color.
Appetizers include tender fried calamari with spicy horseradish sauce for $11.75; and Valentino's trademark grilled pizza with aromatic tomato sauce, cheese and fresh herbs at $11.75.
Grilled entrees include Lamb Chops Scottadito with Minty Balsamic Vinegar at $23.75. The Speidini di Carne is skewers of aromatic fennel sausage, spicy turkey and tender, rare beef accompanied by golf-ball-size chunks of crisp, tender grilled polenta, accompanied by unusual, aromatic sweet-and-sour vegetables, is $18.75.
The grill's wine list is limited but imaginative. A nice touch is a portion of the list that lets the diner buy, say, the 1998 Falesco Grechetto white wine from Umbria at $3.50 for a two-ounce glass, $8.75 for a six-ounce glass or $35 for a bottle.
The dessert list includes Tiramisu at $7.95 and Creme Brulée with bananas and strawberries at $7.50.
Passing through the grill, the fine-dining patron finally reaches Nirvana in the cozy main room, an elegant mix of wood, a vaulted ceiling and lighting that filters through Venetian glass.
Here, finally, all is quiet and warmth. Here, the wine list has 2,000 choices. Here, entrees include Wild Mushroom Timbale with Fonduta Sauce and Red Mullet Filet with Port Wine and Fresh Black Summer Truffle. And the prix fixe tasting menus cost $80 and $100 per guest.