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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | LAS VEGAS

Betting on Good Taste

Can the Capital of All-You-Can-Eat Buffets Become an Epicurean Mecca? By Luring the Country's Top Restaurant Talent, Casinos Hope to Attract a Higher Class of Customer.

September 13, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | S. Irene Virbila is The Times' restaurant critic. Her last article for the travel issue was about Piedmont, Italy

The foie gras custard melts in your mouth.

The soup, a celery root puree poured over that shivery custard and ripe pear nuggets, is astonishing. We've got a great table, one of the half-dozen booths set at a discreet distance from where the famous French chef is cooking for our dining pleasure. Standing center stage in the open kitchen, he works with the concentration of a surgeon, fileting a fish with a few deft turns of his boning knife under the rapt gaze of his young kitchen crew. Just as I sneak another bite of my neighbor's wild mushroom ravioli, something flies across the kitchen, and the cooks go into a huddle.

What was that?

Our waiter goes to investigate, and comes back smiling. "A live fish that got away." Soon that very fish, after being captured, is roasting in the wood-burning oven under a coverlet of herbs. And we are feasting on truffled quenelles, cuttlefish and tiny crayfish tails, and lobster wrapped in caramelized endive leaves. We marvel at the crepinette of lamb and wild mushrooms. We're enraptured with the trio of pear desserts.

The tousled French chef is Jean-Louis Palladin, who garnered two Michelin stars in Southwest France before making his considerable reputation in this country at the now-closed Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. His present address is not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. It's Las Vegas, specifically Napa Restaurant in the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino.

When the Rio tapped Palladin to open its high-end restaurant last year, it must have made the world-class chef an offer he couldn't refuse. Other casinos are doing the same, for Palladin is one of an unprecedented number of well-known chefs from around the country opening restaurants in Las Vegas.

Until recently, the idea of Las Vegas going gourmet seemed, to put it mildly, preposterous. The capital of the $4.99 prime rib and the endless buffet becoming a mecca for big-spending epicures? But Las Vegas is in the midst of reinventing itself--again. White tigers, magicians and impressionists still attract the hoi polloi, but casino owners are hot in pursuit of a higher class of guests, and big-name restaurants are one lure.

What this all means is that in the near future, not only can visitors experience casino-resort fantasy versions of the Italian Lake Country, New York, Hollywood, Paris and Venice, they can also dine on food from an impressive collection of top chefs. Just how closely any of these glitzy Vegas establishments will match the quality of the original restaurants remains to be seen, however. Only Palladin and Julian Serrano, the highly regarded chef from Masa's in San Francisco, are living in Las Vegas. The others will supervise their kitchens from afar. Serrano will be cooking at the Picasso restaurant in the posh new $1.6-billion Bellagio, reportedly at a salary of $400,000 a year--a whopping amount for a chef.

Every casino has always had expensive restaurants where winners (and losers) could order Dom Perignon and Cristal and get something vaguely continental, but these weren't serious restaurants. It took Wolfgang Puck's opening of Spago Las Vegas in 1992 to turn the food world's attention to the gaming capital. After that, MGM Grand executives decided they'd like some upscale restaurants in their new casino and brought in Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, Emeril Lagasse of Emeril's in New Orleans and Puck to do a Wolfgang Puck Cafe.

For the piece de resistance, MGM Grand built a jewel box of a restaurant for Charlie Trotter, of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. But its hushed, formal atmosphere and intricately orchestrated tasting menu didn't go over well with the high rollers. After a year, by mutual agreement, the restaurant closed. And Trotter took the remainder of his hefty 10-year fee home to build a test kitchen.

Spago didn't start out as a runaway success either. It opened in December, in the slow season. The casual cafe in front has always been busier than the more formal dining room in back. And though it's now a steady earner, Puck says, "I think it's harder to manage a restaurant there than in L.A. or San Francisco or New York because you have so many ups and downs. At one extreme you have so many people waiting, you have no idea where you're going to put them, and at the other, you don't know where you're going to get enough people to fill the restaurant."

The four new casinos opening in the next year--Bellagio (October), Mandalay Bay (March), the Venetian (April) and Paris (fall)--will provide about 15,000 new luxury accommodations. The big question is whether Vegas will be able to pull in enough upscale guests to fill the rooms--and the top restaurants. When I ate at Spago, the new Chinois, Emeril's New Orleans Fish House and Napa this summer, they were one-third to one-half empty.

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