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New Las Vegas restaurants give you the world

In this ever-changing city, a slew of new restaurants at the Cosmopolitan is mostly a win-win for visitors.

June 05, 2011|By S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic
  • Jaleo celebrates rustic Spanish cuisine.
Jaleo celebrates rustic Spanish cuisine. (Jeff Green / Cosmopolitan…)

Remember when it seemed preposterous that a French three-star chef would sign on for a restaurant in Las Vegas? And it turned out that not one but four highly decorated French chefs eventually launched Vegas outposts?

Even in these rocky economic times, Vegas is sprouting new restaurants. As long as visitors keep rolling their bags up to hotel reception desks, Vegas keeps building. Latest entry? The Cosmopolitan, and in its wake a starry collection of restaurants from well-known chefs and restaurateurs. Yet the Cosmo's collection of restaurants seems more about dazzling diners with good food than jaw-dropping design and opulent details.

Welcome to the new Las Vegas, with restaurants that cater not only to tourists but also to the half a million or so residents of the sprawling desert city. In Vegas, a good restaurant no longer amazes: The city is full of them.

On a recent four-day trip to update my Vegas files, I focused on the Cosmopolitan. Even so, I couldn't take in every single restaurant at the multimillion-dollar hotel and casino. I checked around. I wrote a list, whittled it down and made some reservations. In all, I made it to five of the Cosmopolitan's 13 restaurants, skipping Comme Ça and Scarpetta because we have those in L.A. Here's what I thought:

After the long drive through the desert, I met friends for dinner at D.O.C.G., an Italian wine bar from Scarpetta's Scott Conant. The name refers to Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the highest classification of quality for Italian wines. Behind the long bar, wine names are used as a graphic element, each spelled out in a different typeface.

The wide-mouthed wood-burning oven at the back means pizza. Yes! It's Neapolitan style, the crust blistered from the searing heat, the supple dough smeared with a terrific tomato sauce. No surprise, that. Conant's salsa di pomodoro is famous and goes onto a $24 plate of spaghetti at Scarpetta. Our pizza margherita is seriously good, with pools of molten bufala mozzarella.

Order some of the excellent mixed cured meats too. I just wish the prosciutto and speck were cut a tad thinner. Assagini (tastes) are a good deal at four for $13, including generous nibbles of pickled cipollini, artichokes and sorrel, fennel and orange or cauliflower and mint.

Leave it to the New York chef to propose some interesting regional pasta dishes. I loved the duck ragù served with hand-rolled pici, though I couldn't find much evidence of black truffle. And the pasta is overcooked — a little gummy. Same thing with the other pasta dishes we ordered. I would expect better from Conant. Meanwhile, I'll stick with the terrific pizza and a bottle of Barbera. The good news is that you can get a pie — mushrooms with fontina and pancetta, soppressata with red pepper and fresh ricotta — all day long.

Lunch the next day is at China Poblano, José Andrés' Chinese-Mexican hybrid. The décor is wild — a neon "open" sign for each cuisine at either end of the façade, a dim sum station with stacked bamboo steamers, Mexican masks on the walls, bicycle wheels and red lanterns on the ceiling. Above our table is a giant three-dimensional head onto which Chinese and Mexican faces and landscapes are projected. Fun.

Made-to-order guacamole is served with fragrant freshly made tortillas and is not as spicy as ordered. "When Pigs Fly," steamed buns filled with hand-minced Chinese barbecue pork, make a great starter or snack. The Caesar salad is a good one — even better, one of finely julienned hearts of palm in a thrilling tamarind dressing.

I had a hard time choosing which of the many noodle dishes to order. Wild mushrooms with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and knife-shaved noodles, or dan dan mian, hand-cut noodles with a spicy pork sauce? I went with the latter. Noodles have a wonderful firm texture, delicious in a fiery, pork-laden sauce.

Tacos are small, two to an order, with a mix of traditional and eccentric fillings. My picks: the gutsy beef tongue taco in salsa pasilla or the marvelous cochinita pibil. Not to mention silencio — duck tongue with rambutan fruit — and "viva China," filled with soft beef tendon, kumamoto oysters and scallions.

Andrés gets right out there on the edge — and he pulls it off.

Years ago, I'd eaten at the high-end New York Greek restaurant Estiatorio Milos. It's at the Cosmopolitan too, and if you love seafood, save up for this one. The look is elegant Greek taverna with stone pillars, white tablecloths, giant urns, reproductions of ancient Cycladic sculptures and classic lanterns swaying from the ceiling.

Once we were seated, something caught my eye — live eels in a tall glass cylinder at the far end of the room. How could I have missed the gigantic display of whole fish on ice behind them? I go to inspect. A langoustine languidly waves its tentacles next to an array of bright-eyed whole fish, with market price noted.

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