Chefs and shows rule The Strip

Celebrity plays a big role in Las Vegas

Published Jan 19, 2014 at 12:11AM

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LAS VEGAS —

When Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in the Caesar’s Palace resort casino in late 1992, Las Vegas was not a city known for fine dining.

The Austrian-born Puck, who had risen to fame 10 years earlier after opening his first Spago restaurant on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, was a so-called “celebrity chef” long before the Food Network was created.

He had begun to make television appearances as early as 1987, and his cookbooks helped to cement his reputation and expand his restaurant business.

Puck took a leap of faith when he moved into the Vegas casino scene. “There really weren’t any places to eat then, except for buffets and steakhouses,” said current Spago Las Vegas general manager Michael Schwarz.

Greater Las Vegas, which then had a population of less than half of its current 2 million, didn’t know how to respond. “Initially, it was empty,” Schwarz said. “He was concerned that he might have made a mistake.”

Then the post-holiday convention season began — “and they could barely keep up,” Schwarz said. “It became super popular, and that opened up the whole concept for everybody else.”

Today, Puck owns six Las Vegas restaurants in as many casino hotels. And he is not alone. Each of the highly regarded chefs on this incomplete list has one or more restaurants in America’s gambling capital: Joseph Bastianich, Mario Batali, Giada de Laurentiis, Todd English, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Michael Mina, Rick Moonen, Bradley Ogden, Charlie Palmer, Gordon Ramsay, Julian Serrano, Joachim Splichal and Buddy Valastro.

Add famous Frenchmen Alain Ducasse, Hubert Keller, Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy, along with Japanese superstars Nobu Matsuhisa, Masaharu Morimoto and Masa Takayama, and it’s not hard to see why Vegas now rivals New York and San Francisco as the food capital of North America.

“Dining has become such a big aspect of the Las Vegas economy,” Schwarz said. “Food and beverage, if you include nightclub profits, now generate about 60 percent of the city’s income.” And with more Vegas visitors spending their time in fine dining and entertainment, gaming — while still of key importance — no longer dominates the city as it once did.

January dining

On annual visits to Las Vegas, I’ve had an opportunity to dine at numerous restaurants owned by these chefs. My most recent visit, two weeks ago, took me to Puck’s Spago, Flay’s Mesa Grill and the new Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, all in the broad Caesar’s Palace complex. In previous trips, I have dined at English, Mina, Palmer, Robuchon and Serrano establishments. And I have dined elsewhere at Morimoto, Splichal and Thomas Keller restaurants.

I had a simple lunch at Spago, its tables extending out beneath the indoor “skies” of Caesar’s Forum Shops like the cafes that surround the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Hand-cut fettuccine noodles, tossed with wild mushrooms, arugula and roasted shallots, and generously sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, left me feeling as if I were in Italy for an afternoon. My meal, including a single glass of Spanish albarino, came to $39 with tax and tip.

At the colorful Mesa Grill, which specializes in Southwestern-style cuisine, I started my meal with a blue-corn pancake filled with barbecued duck. Dressed with a sauce that blended habanero chili with star anise, it was something I could eat daily. My main course of three giant, pan-roasted shrimp, atop a bed of green-chili rice with a smoked butter, was almost its equal. The cost, including a glass of wine: $59.

The Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill characterized itself as the place where the British-born Ramsay himself would prefer to dine if he were in his native London. But I doubt that he’d pay $28 for fish and chips or $23 for a shepherd’s pie beside the Thames. Nevertheless, the food and service here were terrific. A perfectly prepared double pork chop, with a side dish of English peas and a pint of Bass ale, came to $64, all inclusive.

Recent dining

If I have a favorite chef in Las Vegas, it’s Spanish-born Julian Serrano. I enjoyed one of my most memorable meals anywhere a couple of years ago at Picasso, his restaurant in the elegant Bellagio Las Vegas hotel and casino. The five-course “Menu Dégustation” included a lobster salad with apple-champagne vinaigrette, sauteed fois gras with poached rhubarb and a vanilla reduction, and roasted lamb with a sweet bell-pepper stuffing.

The price tag of $123, not including wine pairings, was reasonable by Vegas fine-dining standards. Impeccably served by a team of professional waiters at their formal best, it was presented amid a $100-million collection of original Pablo Picasso oil paintings, pencil sketches and ceramics in a room that could have been modeled after Picasso’s own studio.

More recently, Serrano has opened a self-named tapas restaurant, Julian Serrano, in the ARIA Resort & Casino in the City Center complex. The orientation here leans heavily toward seafood, with such plates as salmon-avocado cannelloni, paprika octopus and black rice with calamari and lobster. A moderately priced, three-course lunch menu runs $19, dinner $39.

You may hear a lot about the elegant Joel Robuchon restaurant in the MGM Grand, with its crystal chandeliers and white-tablecloth service. But if you don’t want to spend $348 on a 16-course menu, you might go next door, as I did last year, to dine at the more casual L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. From lobster carpaccio to free-range quail stuffed with foie gras, the subtle tastes left me craving more. So carefully executed was the cuisine that chefs used tweezers to place food on dishes polished with microfiber cloths. Menus start at a “mere” $78.

I have heard mixed reviews of Charlie Parker Steak in the Four Seasons, but I’ve been delighted with Parker’s other Vegas restaurant, Aureole, in the adjacent Mandalay Bay Resort. The classic styling of Chicago-based chef Parker takes on an added French flair under executive chef Vincent Pouessel. And no other restaurant has Aureole’s famous four-story wine tower, attended by harnessed “wine angels” who fly past the racks to select bottles.

Michael Mina, born in Egypt but raised in Washington state, established his reputation at Aqua in San Francisco, where he now has a quartet of other restaurants. Today he owns 19 eateries across the country, including four in Las Vegas. I’m a fan of American Fish in the ARIA Resort & Casino, especially for its variety of wood-grilled seafood dishes.

Todd English, the winner of four national James Beard awards, opened his self-named “public urban bar” within the City Center Complex three years ago. Now the Todd English P.U.B. has added a raw bar and meat-carving station to its standard pub fare — including tacos, corn dogs and dozens of international beers.

The show lineup

Try though I might, I can’t be eating all the time when I’m in Las Vegas. I spend very little time gambling, but I do like the shows. In fact, I caught three of them during the first week of January, when I accompanied a friend to the city for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

“Absinthe” was the wild card of the trio. Staged in a tent beside the Las Vegas Strip, outside the south entrance to Caesar’s Palace, it was like a traveling gypsy theater-in-the-round with shades of Cirque du Soleil acrobatics. Vendors walked up and down the aisles, selling rum drinks and T-shirts, as a brilliant cast of athletic men and women displayed their gymnastic skills in numerous provocative routines.

Equally memorable, for better or worse, was the crudely scripted repartee between the male and female emcees of the show. Patrons were warned before “Absinthe” began that if they found coarse language and the baiting of audience members to be offensive, “You are in the wrong place.” The show lived up to those admonitions. A small number of people did walk out, but the vast majority of patrons found the bawdy humor hilarious.

The other two shows I saw appealed to my sensibilities as an old rock-’n’-roller. If I had to choose between “Jersey Boys” and “The Million Dollar Quartet,” both of them Tony Award-winning productions, I would recommend the former — but best of all is to take in both, as I did.

“Jersey Boys” is the story of the Four Seasons and lead singer Frankie Valli, whose string of hits in the early to mid-1960s was matched only by The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Playing in Le Théâtre des Arts in the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino, the show traces the quartet’s troubled history as seen through the eyes of each of its four founding members. It begins in the mid-1950s, introducing soprano-voiced teen idol Valli (played by Travis Cloer), and continues through the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Through legal and financial crises and failed relationships, the thread that holds the blue-collar band together is its music. Such hits as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” “Let’s Hang On,” “My Eyes Adored You” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” demonstrate the staying power that made them superstars between 1962 and 1975.

“The Million Dollar Quartet,” staged in Harrah’s Showroom, recalls a night in early December, 1956, when four of the greatest performers of early rock and country music — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — gathered in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tenn. The storyline weaving through the production shined a new light on the trials of achieving success in the recording business more than half a century ago.

Hits like “Hound Dog,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Blue Suede Shoes” sprang from the guitars of Presley, Cash and Perkins, while keyboard riffs from the impetuous young Lewis yielded to a “Whole Lotta Shakin’” on the stage. Justin Shandor as Presley and Benjamin D. Hale as Cash were especially memorable in their roles.

New in 2014

Several new shows are attracting attention in Las Vegas in 2014.

Chief among them is “Panda!” which has just opened at the Palazzo adjoining the Venetian resort hotel and casino. The first-ever Chinese produced show to have a residency in this city, “Panda!” features no live animals, instead featuring Chinese acrobats who wear panda costumes to tell a folkloric story of Long Long, a hero panda on a quest to save his Peacock Princess from the evil Demon Vulture.

Visitors can expect kung-fu theatrics from the team that choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. The Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe, the Shaolin Monks Monastery Troupe and the China Star Dance Troupe all are integral parts of the cast.

While a slate of Las Vegas regulars continue to perform in casinos on the Strip — Celine Dion, Elton John, Donny and Marie Osmond, Rod Stewart, Shania Twain, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill — the new year has brought pop diva Britney Spears to the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino for 32 shows: Jan. 29 to Feb. 22, April 25 to May 17 and Aug. 16 to Sept. 6. Spears is performing a production called “Piece of Me” in The Axis showroom, with ticket prices beginning at $59 plus service fees.

There are now seven Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, the newest being Michael Jackson’s “One” at the Mandalay Bay. Like other Cirque productions, it combines stunning acrobatic choreography with the music of one of pop music’s most beloved idols.

Elsewhere in the city, production troupes such as the Blue Man Group continue to perform, along with a variety of magicians headed by David Copperfield and Penn and Teller. Comedy shows, tribute productions and adult revues remain integral parts of the scene.

No show is for everyone. But there’s plenty to choose from, as there is with fine dining options. At the very least, it provides food for thought.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

La Cave

It’s not a “celebrity chef” establishment, but on this visit to Las Vegas, I had my best meal at the only privately owned restaurant in the Wynn Hotel Casino complex.

La Cave Wine and Food Hideaway isn’t front and center, either: I had to go looking for it. But the stroll to the restaurant, halfway down a rear hallway, was more than worth the search.

Five small plates from chef William DeMarco’s menu were more than enough to feed two, at a total cost of $74. Our meal included ahi tuna tartare with a sweet chili sauce; three-bean salad with roasted artichokes; diver scallops on polenta cake; two small beef filets on rostini with bleu cheese; and a slice of chocolate layer cake with mascarpone cream.

At La Cave, it wasn’t just about the food. Wine director Chloe Helfand has devised a set of 10 separate wine flights, each of them with tastes for four vintages, for prices between $20 and $65 per flight. My “Running with the Bulls” Spanish flight ($25) featured two unique whites and two reds to pair with my dinner choices.

Sometimes the best meals come not from celebrity chefs, but from those who may aspire to be.

— John Gottberg Anderson