TRYING TO CHOOSE among Las Vegas' growing roster of restaurants is difficult. Those who go for weekend romps or short excursions have, at best, three nights to dine out, so must be selective.
It also takes advance planning if you want to get into two of the most exclusive restaurants, Picasso and Renoir, by virtue of the James Beard 1998 best chef awards bestowed upon their respective chefs, Julian Serrano and Alessandro Stratta. In late September, reservations were already being taken for November. At both restaurants, jackets are required for men.
Dining in the following establishments won't be cheap, but in just in case you win the jackpot, here are some places to celebrate, or not:
After being cloistered in the dark recesses of the casinos, stepping into Olives reminded me of that Sprint PCS commercial in which techno geeks are urged to unplug from their desk-bound hardware and step outside into the wireless realm, where they emerge all squinty-eyed and ready to rejoin life.
OlivesAt Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. Dinner for two about $75 to $85 without drinks.
Call (702) 693-7223
The sunny patio overlooking the dancing fountains of the Bellagio offers the best seats in town, with views of the Paris Hotel's balloon and mock Eiffel Tower. During warm months, this is the perfect setting for bare-backed, halter and sheer dresses that define flashy, somewhat trashy, casino chic.
It's so comfortable here, many an out-of-towner was spotted dining solo, taking in the sun, the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and the water shows spouting every 20 minutes.
Meals at the LV branch of Todd English's Boston-based operation start with baskets of flatbread and two lovely olive tapenades.
The desert heat isn't conducive to heavy dining so it's possible to pass over the entrees in favor of an all-appetizer selection. Choose from executive chef Clay Conley's tuna tartar ($14.50) served over a spicy mash of sweet butternut squash with a cucumber salad; the Italian classic peperonata ($14), combining stewed peppers, onions, mozzarella and topped with shaved Asiago cheese; or Thai-inspired green curried mussels ($15) accented with lemongrass, coconut milk and chorizo.
If you do manage to save room for entrées, do not miss the crispy confit duck leg ($26.50), crisp on the outside, wonderfully tender on the inside, though accompanying "dirty" basmati rice was much too salty to enjoy. Also excellent, the pan-seared New Zealand sea bass over grilled lobster fricassee ($28.50), accompanied by an orange and shaved fennel salad.
Recommended desserts are the falling cake or souffle, but again, the warm evening called for the simplicity of a sorbet tasting, with a dice of fresh seasonal fruit to accompany mango, lime and raspberry sorbets.
Beginners need not apply. Renoir provides the ultimate fine-dining experience for those who know their way around a table and search the world for excellence.
RenoirAt The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. Dinner for two about $190 without drinks.
Call (702) 791-7353
Renoir's staff aims to please and has considered every detail, down to the little step stools provided to women to place their purses. I'm sure the they don't intend to intimidate, but it can't be helped. Food is treated with utmost reverence, so this room --done up in pink, tan and cream-striped Italian silk -- is as serene as a temple. It would be sacrilege to yuk it up and risk disturbing others' quiet contemplation of the treasures laid out before them.
Chef Alessandro Stratta, a protege of Alain Ducasse, offers a $95 tasting menu (wine pairing $55) and $65 vegetarian tasting menu (wine pairing, $40). I had to pass over the tasting menu with its centerpiece of Roasted Quail because I had sampled Wild Pigeon at Picasso the night before and was no longer in fowl mode.
Stratta makes no misstep on a technique- and season-driven menu that might begin with amuse bouche offerings of proscuitto-wrapped breadsticks, a chickpea croquette topped with salmon salad and a puree of summer squash topped with succulent roast duck and a slivered round of green apple.
Follow with appetizers of summer squash ravioli ($14) or escargot with roasted garlic ravioli and herb sauce ($16). Few dishes are more decadent than Stratta's cream of lobster and wild mushroom soup slowly ladled at the table over lobster fricassee ($16).
On the entree list, a tenderloin of veal ($38) is rimmed with pancetta and kept moist with garlic veal jus. Summer vegetables and fava beans complete the course. Striped bass ($34) is served with roasted peppers, fennel sauce and red cranberry beans that turn white when cooked.
Desserts created by Jenifer Witte are presented as whimsical sculptures. Even tiramisu ($12) gets a new look, shaped into a comma and punctured at its widest point by a chocolate cone filled with espresso granita.
As a final touch, we were presented with mignardises of lemon macaroons and chocolates served in a porcelain candy dish.
This is a remarkable dining experience if you can tolerate the fussy trappings.
If you've had your fill of Vegas kitsch, Picasso beckons. The opportunity to dine in a room surrounded by original art work by the Catalan master is tempting enough. The food is the icing on this rich slice of culture. I have the feeling the artist would have approved of this homage, particularly welcoming the classical menus as presented by fellow Spaniard Julian Serrano. With a concentration on technique and fine ingredients, entrees often involve little more than roasted meats dressed in au jus.
PicassoAt Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Dinner for two about $190 without drinks.
Call (702) 693-7223
Bellagio's premier restaurant offers only two set menus each evening. One is a prix fixe meal which allows you to one each of three or four appetizers, salads or entree choices; the other is chef Serrano's degustation, or tasting menu, which allows you to sample the finest of what is available that day.
The menus run about $75 to $85 per person. A sommelier's wine pairing is offered for $38 to $48 more.
On the prix fixe menu, Andalousian gazpacho was welcome relief from a stomach ache earned over a midnight, fast-food Philly cheesesteak consumed upon my arrival in Vegas.
Its counterpart on the degustation menu was an equally refreshing Peekytoe crab salad, splashed with apple-champagne vinaigrette.
This was followed by two succulent roasted dayboat scallops, ladled with jus de veau. The waiter looked puzzled as he set the dish in front of me.
"The chef must really like you. Everybody else only gets one."
I was honored. It pays to be pleasant.
This was followed by aged lamb roti au jus with a crust of truffles and Parmesan potatoes on the side.
Roasted pigeon on the prix fixe menu was nice and tender, tasting almost like rare duck, a far cry from the tough, teriyaki'd birds a former hunter boyfriend cooked up on his hibachi.
My sole disappointment: I was too full to enjoy the mignardises that came at the end of the meal.
Inspired by the brasseries of France, Joachim Splichal of L.A.'s Patina brings simple, hearty fare to The Venetian.
Pinot BrasserieAt The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Lunch for two about $30. Dinner for two about $65 to $80 without drinks.
Call (702) 414-8888
Pinot Brasserie Cafe is best known for its shellfish, particularly oysters on the half shell ($10 for half dozen or $18 for a dozen by day; $1 more in the evening) served with cocktail and horseradish sauces, plus a homemade mignonette. The Pinot Royal Platter ($39 day/$40 evening) is a splurge for those who love shellfish. It features oysters, poached shrimp, raw clams and chilled steamed mussels.
Unfussy comfort food is served in a room outfitted with tobacco-colored walls, red leather banquettes and brass railings.
Alan McLennan is the executive chef, offering for lunch onion soup gratinée ($6.95), sautéed jumbo shrimp with linguine pasta ($15.95) in a rich garlic-lobster nage; a grilled vegetable sandwich ($13.95) with arugula, grilled eggplant and bell peppers, or another of the house specialties, rotisserie chicken ($14.95). The latter two entrées are served with a large portion of the house pomme frites, or garlic french fries.
In the evening, start with appetizers of escargot ($13) or mussels ($10) steamed in Muscadet with shallots and garlic. Entrée selections include medallions of veal with a wild mushroom foie gras sauce ($31) or grilled salmon served with a ragout of artichokes, potatoes and mushrooms ($28).
Despite Vegas' attempt to bring all the world -- i.e. Paris, New York, Venice, Luxor -- to The Strip, the experience feels about as foreign as Disneyland.
NeylaAt MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Dinner for two about $40 to $80 without drinks.
Call (702) 736-2100
Neyla is an exception. Hidden in the back of the MGM Grand, this restaurant is known for its exotic mezzas, a festive array of Lebanese pupu designed for grazers. Three or four can share the $44.95 petite mezza which features hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, shredded slow-roasted chicken shwarma, slices of feta, the roasted eggplant dip baba ghannouj, and stuffed grape leaves.
Meals here can be inexpensive or as extravagant as you want them to be.
Go the all-appetizer route with pistachio-and-sesame dusted deep-fried calamari ($8.95) served with hot peppers and tomato tahini, or try the sizzling shrimp ($11.95) sauteed in shrimp stock with garlic chips and chipotle chiles.
From the grill come chicken ($18.95), beef ($20.95) and lamb ($20.95) kebabs. The mixed grill with chicken, beef and ground beef sausage kebabs runs $29.95.
For those not quite ready for adventure, there is also pan-roasted filet mignon ($36.95), grilled lobster tail ($27.95) and seared Atlantic salmon ($19.95) served with couscous.
Dessert consists of ashta ($6.95), a rose-blossom custard that has all the appeal of soap with its foamy consistency and overwhelming rose essence. Rose blossom creme brulée ($6.95) was much subtler.
While I was dining at Aqua, star chef Michael Mina was gallivanting about Wailea, Maui, where he plans to open his next restaurant.
AquaAt Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. Dinner for two without drinks about $85 to $150.
Call (702) 693-7223.
Hopefully, he ate a lot of fish while in Hawaii and will share the experience back in Vegas. Although seafood is Aqua's claim to fame, I found most of the dishes overworked and overdone. Fresh seafood doesn't need to be tortured.
Dinner began auspiciously with caviar service, 28 grams of Sevruga ($55) to Beluga ($95). Have it the traditional way, with toast points, lemons and minced hard-cooked eggs, or the Aqua way, parfait style on a canape of crisped potato and shallots with diced salmon and crème fraîche.
Maybe because seafood is so good at home, I was unimpressed by a hamachi salad served on rice with tobiko, mizuna and a Thai chile vinaigrette. Medallions of ahi were overcooked, but it was no great disaster when served with a lovely piece of foie gras and pinot noir reduction.
One of my favorite dishes was not on the tasting menu. It was a seared sea scallop served with black mission figs stuffed with creamy foie gras.
I preferred the vegetarian tasting menu to the seafood one. This started with a salad of heirloom tomatoes -- yellow-green zebras and yellow and black crimsons -- accompanied by avocado puree and tomato jelly.
A handful of tortellini filled with basil, spinach and mascarpone was set adrift in a delicate vegetable consomme. Next was a wild mushroom ragout made with chanterelles, wood ears, shiitakes and enokis in a truffle beurre blanc.
A roasted corn souffle was also wonderful, with onion cream sauce oozing from its center.
Dessert was a selection of sorbets in a melon soup. The house specialty is a mini root beer float filled with sassafras ice.
A dim sum menu is a natural for attracting visitors from Hawaii. But although this restaurant has been getting good reviews in the national press, I'm afraid that Hawaii residents know better than to settle for har-gow ($4) and siu-mai ($3) with thick, chewy wrappers, or a $23 entree of citrus-and-chile-marinated shrimp tossed with pearl onions and bell peppers, which was not much different from sweet-sour shrimp. Kung pao chicken is $18 and pork fried rice is $10. At those prices, Royal Star must do much better.
Royal StarAt the Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Dim sum for two about $25.
The room is pretty though, with walls the color of honeydew melon and tables and chairs trimmed in black. Female servers wear red Mandarin-collar blouses, adding more color and contrast
An area once known for expedient buffets, Las Vegas Boulevard, from the MGM Grand to the Venetian, is now a gourmet Mecca. The casino complexes have the resources to attract the best of the nation's chefs, and provide them with the pricey ingredients they're accustomed to.
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