Las Vegas hotels have been opening outposts run by some of the worlds top chefs with such consistency that I felt the time had come to eat in them rather than just read about them. But I am grateful to three Americans, one from the east coast, one from the west coast and one from Detroit, Michigan as well as a Frenchman and a Scot for insights into why this has been happening
It was a lugubrious waiter at Bartolotta, the excellent Italian seafood restaurant in the Wynn Hotel which came highly recommended by a New York restaurateur, who noted the specific time the city changed. Ive been here 13 years, he explained as he delivered a very authentic Ligurian octopus salad, and until five years ago Las Vegas could still have been called a buffet town. But now people definitely come here for the restaurants. And although we were very busy last night serving about 500 customers this isnt really the limit of our business. Were all here because of the conventions when the higher spending executives are in town. Vegas wouldnt be Vegas without the convention business.
Judging by the queue I saw outside the entrance to the buffet at the Bellagio Hotel, which must have been several hundred long one Sunday lunchtime, these seem no less popular than they have ever been with some serving up to 1,500 meals a day. This, however, only served to underline what had made Jean Philippe Teresi, born in St Tropez and formerly at the Louis XV in Monaco, leave the Mediterranean to become General Manager of Bradley Ogdens restaurant in Caesars Palace.
Theres nowhere else in the restaurant world that has the same concentration of visitors in such a small area. About 40 million come here every year and most of them spend their entire stay within two miles along the strip where there are four hotels – here, the Bellagio, Wynn and the MGM Grand – each with annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars. New York, Paris or even London can match that, I would guess, he added with a smile. And we are hardly ever quiet. Its a little less busy from now until September because its so hot here now but just look around, were pretty full, he said with more than a touch of Gallic pride.
The emergence of these restaurants has also added an extra competitive edge to the hotels which are investing very heavily to outdo one another. Building costs were authoritatively quoted to me at between $800-$1,000 per foot, which equates to overall costs of between $8-10 million for the more luxurious restaurants.
I certainly could not say that the interior of either Bartolottas restaurant or Joel Robuchons restaurant in the MGM Grand excited me as much as the food I was served but in both instances the hotels management have had the foresight to let each chef be very distinctive.
Other than its physical size, and the fact that it is located considerably further from the sea, the octopus salad, the grilled squid, the seafood risotto and the lemon sorbet at Bartolotta took me back to a table in one of those romantic small, coastal restaurants in southern Italy. And while the entrance to Robuchons restaurant bears the black and red interior that has become the leitmotif of all of his restaurants worldwide, the approach to service is quintessentially French, something which its highly experienced Breton general manager, Loic Launay, insisted upon when he too left France to open here three years ago. The quality of the ingredients, the precision of the service and the artistry of the bread and desserts which emanate from Kamel Guechidas pastry section are exceptional. And while the menu prices are high, from $250-$385, the current weak dollar softens the bill as does the generosity with the caviar servings.
Two days on the sizzling strip, with the outside temperature at 105 degrees F, prompted two short excursions. The first, a 15 minute taxi ride, was on the recommendation of a wine merchant in San Francisco and definitely confirmed a locals description of Las Vegas as a strip surrounded by strip malls.
My destination was Saipin Chutimas Lotus of Siam, located amongst a plethora of Asian restaurants in a most unassuming lot. But this small restaurant has been a beacon for over a decade for not just its Thai food but also for its wine list with its particular emphasis on German rieslings. We joined the noon rush for a table and after a 15 minute sat down to spicy Thai fish cakes, fried tofu, rice with Thai sausage, peanuts, chili and ginger and a deep red rice vermicelli curry from the north of Thailand, a dish which, our Bangkok born waiter explained, was so specific to that region that he had never eaten it until he came to work here. Lotus of Siams interior is basic but the combination of Thai cooking and its wine list, all served with Thai warmth, is exceptional.
My appetite whetted for the citys local restaurants I subsequently set out for Summerlin, 2,200 acres owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation a 25 minute drive from the strip. Originally intended to be the site of an airline factory, it is now home to many of the citys legal and commercial companies, numerous wealthy homes, golf courses and country clubs and, naturally a casino or two.
Our destination was Agave Comida y Tequila, the first of two restaurants established by developer Michael Corrigan, whose family were amongst the first to have settled here in the early 1960s, and his talented chef, Matthew Silverman. We chose here because the opportunity to eat authentic Mexican food is still sadly so rarely available outside Mexico and particularly within Europe. Silvermans approach, backed by a Mexican brigade only too keen to replicate their grandmothers recipes he told me, is bold but authentic, best exemplified in his refined mushroom tamales, tuna tostadas and lobster empanadas. Table 32 at their latest restaurant, Vintner Grill, has now become the much sought after table for the local billionaires, I was reliably informed.
My last port of call was the windowless office in the basement of the MGM Grand belonging to David McIntyre. Born in a small town on the west coast of Scotland, McIntyre is now responsible for the $300 million sales of food and beverage and on one large wall is a plan of the hotels vast ground floor with each different café, bar and restaurant clearly delineated. A part of his role was to maximize the revenue per seat hour from this entire area and while he continued to scour the world for the best chefs who would want to open in his hotel, he believes that Las Vegas may soon be entering a new and distinctive phase. So many top chefs have come here and in setting up their own restaurants have brought on the skills and techniques of many young, local cooks. Soon they will want to go on and open their own restaurants and that will present new, and I believe, really exciting opportunities.
Lotus of Siam, www.lotusofsiam.com
Agave Comida y Tequila, www.agavelasvegas.com
Vintner Grill, www.vglasvegas.com
Flights to Las Vegas are available on United Airlines from London Heathrow, starting from £635.30 including all taxes. To book, please visit www.united.co.uk or call 0845-8777111.