High Steaks

Las Vegas: Once the home of rubber-chicken roulette, the gambling mecca improves the odds for fine dining with the addition of several big-name, sure-thing restaurants

May 09, 1999|By John Kessler | John Kessler,Cox News Service

Talk about arid, colorless and void. For years, the Las Vegas dining scene was a bad joke of all-you-can-eat buffets, cheap steaks and rubber-chicken banquets.

But now that this once-and-future gambling mecca is also the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country (with a population exceeding 1 million) and a major convention destination, true fine dining has finally emerged.

Wolfgang Puck led the pack when he opened a satellite of Spago, his benchmark Los Angeles restaurant, in the Forum Shops at Caesar's. Jean-Louis Palladin (formerly at the Watergate Hotel in Washington) opened Napa, a cutting-edge eatery in the Rio, and proved Vegas was ready for world-class restaurants.

Meanwhile, the town awaits the imminent arrival of Charles Palmer (the chef from Aureole in New York) at Mandalay Bay and Joachim Splichal (Patina in L.A.) at the Venetian.

But for now, everyone's talking about Bellagio and its boggling lineup of restaurants. I managed to hit most of them during a recent visit and, with a couple of exceptions, found them worthy of their reputations.

Picasso

With so many superstar restaurants from which to choose at Bellagio, the showcase eatery better have something remarkable to offer. Picasso, in fact, has two: an astonishing collection of original Picassos on the walls (valued at $37 million) and the talents of resident chef Julian Serrano, lured from Masa's, San Francisco's top-rated venue for fine dining.

Serrano is Spanish, but his style of cooking is haute French with a California palate. Time and again, he takes a classical dish and gives it a subtle New World tweak.

The brief menu offers a choice of a four-course prix-fixe menu with choices ($65) or a set six-course degustation menu ($87.50) with wine pairings offered for a $57.50 surcharge. Try the degustation if only to splurge on the fascinating wines, precision-matched to Serrano's recipes.

A super-crisp Prager riesling from the Wachau region in Austria makes an ideal foil for the subtly dynamic but rich flavors of the first course, a warm lobster salad with saffron-poached potatoes in truffle vinaigrette.

Next comes one perfect scallop -- jiggly and sweet on a cushion of potato mousseline and a pool of satiny veal jus. A glass of Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Gris provides another spot-on match, fuller-bodied and with a rounder flavor as lingering and gentle as the food.

A crisp-edged slab of seared foie gras with lavishly truffled Madeira sauce is high-test luxury on the plate, with an elegant botrytised late-harvest Chappelet Chenin Blanc served alongside.

Truffles reappear in the sauce for an exceptionally tender loin of lamb, crusted with tiny bits of cumin and caraway seed and served with a Bruno Clair Marsannay, a medium-bodied Burgundy with all sorts of spicy nuances integrated into the fruit.

A stunning trio of molded apple, quince and pear sorbets takes these flavors to the nth degree and identifies each by a sheer crisp made from the dried fruit. Is there better sorbet on the planet?

All around me, guests are moaning in delight. Gloria and Jack Sisk of Beverly Hills, Calif., claim Picasso served the best meal they've ever eaten in Las Vegas. And they've been coming here five or six times a year since they first saw Danny Thomas at the Flamingo in 1939.

Olives

This franchise of Todd and Olivia English's Boston favorite looks nothing like the original. Whereas the Boston restaurant is tucked snugly into a converted townhouse, this spot opens wide onto the Via Bellagio shopping arcade and has a shiny mosaic floor that glints like a million diamonds in the sunlight pouring through the windows. Just as glittery is the food, which to my taste gives the most gustatory bang for your buck of all the Bellagio restaurants. I'm in love with the flatbreads, which are big, misshapen ovals of crackery-chewy pizza dough baked with inspired toppings, such as balsamic-fig jam, prosciutto and Gorgonzola on a rosemary crust.

At Olives, you want to splurge on the oddities because you sense they'll work. And then you're rewarded with perfectly tender chargrilled squid and octopus, outfitted with chickpeas and tomato bits in a garlic-parsley vinaigrette. Or you may luck into a pearl couscous carbonara tossed with creamed spinach, bacon and the barest whiff of white truffle oil.

I'm less impressed with the signature cod cakes with lobster remoulade and Boston baked beans -- a heavy plateful that might stick to your ribs in snowy Beantown, but here just sticks to your arteries.

(Entrees: $19-$27.)

Le Cirque

"Have a seat," says the hostess coolly, motioning to a lounge where clearly no seat is available. Expensively turned-out people are crowding the tiny bar three deep, as they wait for a table in the restaurant.

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