Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Las Vegas: America's Culinary Playground

For a real foodie, it's an edible Disneyland

Without question, no other city in America has undergone a culinary transformation like Las Vegas.

Remember the days of .25 shrimp cocktails and $1.99 steak and eggs?


Truth be told, Las Vegas had a major problem some 10 years ago… how to compete with every Tom, Dick and Indian Reservation that offered localized gambling. It was a real problem, and the fate of sin city was in question. It could turn into a discount den… or step up to the plate and further its reputation as a worldwide destination…. and that it did.

Today, Las Vegas is a true entertainment destination for everyone (gulp, even families)… and gambling is only an attraction instead of the main show. Today’s Vegas has it all…. sprawling hotels with amazing water-park like pools, top notch Broadway entertainment, theme park areas with thrill rides, A-list music concerts…. and food. Oh my, the food.

Vegas is simply a playground for the world’s top chefs. From the Emeril’s, to the Palmer’s, to the Flay’s and Puck’s… Las Vegas may be the most exciting culinary destination in the world. Really.

Not to say that New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, etc… don’t have amazing spots. It’s just that all of these spots are crammed into a 2.2 mile stretch of land called the Strip. Each hotel which used to have a “signature” restaurant, now has 5… and counting. You can literally have any experience you want here, and rest assured it will be fantastic.

Because it has to be. It’s Vegas.

This week I have been reintroduced to the culinary scene here, and will be reporting back about a few terrific spots… some old, and a few new, including the hip Mirage eatery “Stack”. Look for a blog in the next few days about it.

Lunching at Spago today was a joy. Yes, it’s Spago, and sure, it is a Vegas staple… but good is good. The “Rich and Famous” pizza… thinly sliced salmon and caviar layered over crème fraiche on thin, crispy dough. Homemade, hand cut pastas, freshly roasted meats…. and a Weiner schnitzel topped with capers served with tangy roasted German-style potatoes. Damn.

Puck and his team of talented chefs have figured out something that many places miss. They cook food people want to eat. Sounds silly, but the pretentiousness of the Puck empire was lost years ago, when they figured out that no matter how high brow they wanted to be, they needed to make your mouth water when you looked at the menu. This means that even a simple palate could fall in love with meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto, go home and tell 10 people. It is a genius approach, and one that Wolfie has taken to the bank. Well done.

Simplicity isn’t lost on me… as much as I like to adventure while dining out (yes, I’ve ordered a lobster corn dog or two in my day), I enjoy getting back to the basics. The Spago menu accomplished just that, in more ways than one… so make a reservation, and see for yourself…. and oh yea, you just may see a celeb or two while you are there.

So, what else do I recommend? Here are my favorite Las Vegas dining spots, in no particular order…..

In my opinion, one of the best steaks Vegas has to offer. Get the chocolate soufflé.

Commander’s Palace
The sister restaurant to the legend in New Orleans, they just do everything right.

The food is solid. The setting is out of this world.

The vertical wine celler is reason enough, but Palmer backs it up with amazing dishes.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Maybe the best French in Vegas…

Le Cirque
Has never lost a step since the day they opened at the Bellagio… worth the money.

In and Out Burger
Sure, you can have a kobe beef burger at 5 different places, but where can you get a double-double animal style?

Stay tuned… there is more Las Vegas on the way……