How many high-end restaurants can Vegas support, particularly in this economy? Easily a dozen more just opened in the new $11-billion CityCenter complex on the Strip and a number of them definitely have enough wow factor to pull in the hungry tourists.
Admittedly, the planning for CityCenter began long before the slump, still, here comes Michelin three-star Paris chef Pierre Gagnaire joining his illustrious (and extravagantly starred) colleagues Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy in a gamblers' paradise.
Ten years ago, the idea of such world-renowned chefs deigning to grace Vegas with their cooking seemed preposterous. Today, though, Gagnaire's debut at the Mandarin Oriental with his first American restaurant seems almost ho-hum. Yet I can't help but think that this new group of restaurants from Masa Takayama (Masa in New York), Shawn McClain (Spring in Chicago) and Julian Serrano (Picasso in Vegas' Bellagio), among others, may be the last such extravagant wave of restaurants for quite awhile.
They're sophisticated and glam, reflecting the thrilling architecture of the complex designed by some of the world's most lauded architects. But what a disappointment inside the Aria casino: Instead of taking the opportunity to redefine the genre, MGM Mirage has gone with the same-old same-old and scribbled over the space inside with busy ornamentation as if the beautiful plain spaces made the bosses nervous.
Here then, for your dining explorations, is my pick of the CityCenter crop.
With Twist at the top of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire has opened a quietly confident restaurant. It's certainly not over-the-top luxurious, but more like a smart restaurant in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement. It has just 60-some seats, a view of the Strip's tangled neon (yes, that's Mickey D's down there on the left) and a flight of glowing glass balls overhead. Service is more relaxed than it would be in Paris, making everyone comfortable.
The great thing here is that whether you order a la carte, or go for the six-course $185 tasting menu, you get all the three-star bells and whistles. First come the canapes -- and more and more canapes until the entire top of the table is covered with dainty bites of this and that. My favorite? The salmon chantilly to spread on crisp, bubbly house-made rice crackers. The tasting menu runs six courses without being as overwhelming as his menu in Paris, where each course bristles with five or six side dishes. This food is much less elaborate, much more approachable and is built on impeccable technique and arresting flavors. Scallops with rare squab breast, foie gras and black olive gelee is brilliant. I also loved the John Dory fillet poached in Malabar black pepper-citrus butter and served with cannellini beans and a seafood veloute. His signature dish is langoustine five ways, each served on its own small plate and each as different as can be, a tour de force. At the end, a flurry of mignardises arrives. You'll want to linger over these delicate sweet bites, basking in the crazy quilt of neon lights and the desert night.
Sushi on high
As someone who very much misses Ginza Sushiko, the legendary sushi bar in Beverly Hills, I was thrilled that Masa Takayama was opening Bar Masa at CityCenter. In a soaring space the size of an airplane hangar, Takayama pre- sents sublime sushi, and in the adjacent Shaboo, set-price shabu-shabu meals at $500 per person. For me, Masa is one of the country's greatest chefs. But Bar Masa is by no means Ginza Sushiko, and it isn't supposed to be. The a la carte menu is pretty standard sushi fare, albeit with seafood flown in daily from Tokyo's Tsukiji market.
To understand why Masa is so revered, order omakase, or chef's choice. As someone I know had recently spent more than $400 per person here, I told the waiter we didn't need any of the pricier items like Kobe beef or caviar. You set the price: The minimum is $100 per person, but we upped it to $150 per person. It wasn't much food, basically four modestly sized dishes for two of us to share, plus three pieces of exquisite sushi and three pieces of sashimi each. In the end, we went away a little hungry and disappointed. To get the real experience, you'd need to spend at least $300 per person. And if you're going that deep into your pockets, why not just go full pop for the $500 shabu-shabu? But reserve ahead of time. That night a party of 26 had booked the room, and the kitchen had run out of uni, hamachi and kampachi. And I thought we were in a recession.