The Fork Lift Mitchell Davis
Crustacean Vegas May Be Bringing Back the Sleaze,
But the Eating’s Still Mighty Fine
now that Las Vegas has stripped its “family vacation” veneer to return to its Sin City roots, a few of us who worry about such things feared the dining options might also do an about face and revert to their $3.99-all-you-can-eat-prime-rib beginnings. Luckily, no such reversal seems underway. To the contrary, with the imminent opening of Steve Wynn’s new multibillion-dollar resort--which, like Bellagio, no doubt will attempt to outdo


everything that has been done before--the other hotels and casinos on the strip are kicking up their restaurants a notch, too.

A recent dining tour of recently opened restaurants revealed that dining in Las Vegas remains a decidedly un-sleazy, grown up affair. In fact, given the poor attempt of Cirque de Soleil to rise to the sleaze-please campaign of the city--their new adult Zumanity show at New York, New York, is about as erotic as a Liberace concert and Celine’s show is about as entertaining--the restaurateurs and chefs who have opened restaurants of late should be commended for not compromising on quality of food or service.

One thing worth mentioning is that, given what I can only imagine are favorable rents on restaurant locations, menu prices in Las Vegas’ fancier restaurants are surprisingly high. Entrées at the best restaurants seem to hover at the $40 range, and I even spotted some at $50 and one at $150! Wine prices are outrageous, even if the prices include high-tech, interactive wine lists and women in cat suits suspended on belay (as they do at Aureole, see below). It helps if you win big at the gaming tables, or if you lose big and the house comps your meals. Vegas has always been about making people feel like big shots, and I imagine pricing is just another way people can puff themselves up. At least for that money these days you get a decent meal.

Bradley Ogden
Caesars Palace, facing the Coliseum
3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South

By far the best meal of the trip—one of the best meals I’ve had in a very long time, in fact—was prepared by Bradley Ogden. The handsome, modern, American dining room across from Celine Dion’s Colisseum matches Ogden’s handsome, modern, American food. He says he’s working so hard in the kitchen because this is the only restaurant he operates with his name on it. Perfectly ripened heirloom tomatoes, pedigreed melons, and other exquisite produce accompany farm-raised meats, hand-made cheeses and other highlights of northern California’s bounty. Whereas Californian cuisine can seem cluttered and messy in many chefs’ hands, Ogden’s definitive interpretation is precise and beautiful. It would be hard to pick favorites from the menu, but try to sample the Point Reyes Blue Cheese Soufflé, the Caesar Salad, the Organic Chicken and Foie Gras, the Summerfield Prime Strip Steak, and the Rack of Lamb. The desserts, too, were simply superb.

Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South

While Charlie Palmer’s Aureole was part of the first wave of fine dining to hit Las Vegas, there’s a new chef in the kitchen and a new (electronic!) wine list in the dining room. French-born Philippe Rispoli was most recently chef of the exclusive (and private) Mansion at the MGM Grand. He worked in Daniel Boulud’s dining empire before that. (Note: Boulud has signed a deal with Wynn to open in the new resort.) Now everyone can enjoy his creative, French-inspired cuisine. Perhaps even more interesting--but certainly less tasty--is the restaurant’s new, interactive wine list, built on Microsoft e-book technology. It combines the best of the computer and wine geek worlds. Maps, winery descriptions, flavor notes, pairing suggestions, and pages and pages of other information are available at the tap of a screen. It offers hours of entertainment. What’s more, when you order, those women in cat suits shimmy up the wine tower in the center of the entrance to the dining room to find your bin number. About the only thing the wine list doesn’t tell you are which wines are located at the top of the tower.

3663 Las Vegas Boulevard South

As at its Beverly Hills and San Francisco sister restaurants, the French colonial Vietnamese food served at Crustacean is richly flavored and very satisfying. But one of the main reasons to visit this plush restaurant abutting the Aladdin Casino is the spectacular décor. Every inch of the mutli-level, mutli-roomed space decorated by Elizabeth An is covered with fine Asian antiques, radiant fabrics, and beautiful fixtures. You can eat in a cozy table cut out of an ornately carved opium bed, or in a private upholstered booth overlooking the dance floor. (The restaurant turns into a nightclub on weekend nights--stay away then if you don’t like eating to the accompaniment of a loud, pulsing baseline.) There are private dining rooms, sitting rooms, tables made out of barrels, light fixtures made out of hats, dragon-patterned silk chintz chairs. The overall effect is dazzling. The food is the domain of Helene An (Elizabeth’s mother), the matriarch (and chef) of the family, whose heritage traces back to the Vice King of Indochine. You can’t argue with the family’s famous garlic noodles with tiger prawns--soft, silken noodles pumped with garlic served with grilled prawns--but you might quibble with the $38 price. Other highlights include seared foie gras with banana (a surprisingly complementary combination), hamachi sashimi perfumed with yuzu, and a subtle, chilled lotus chicken salad.

Fiamma Trattoria
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South

A larger, more casual outpost of New York’s hot Italian restaurant, Fiamma, this Trattoria in the MGM’s Studiowalk delivers on its promise (announced via incessant in-house commercials on a video monitor near you) of simple Italian food, well prepared. Michael White (chef in New York) oversees Anthony Amoroso’s cooking. Charred octopus, crispy calamari, tuna carpaccio, and a number of other familiar, but skillfully prepared starters are on offer. Pastas are one highlight. Especially the signature ricotta-filled ravioli, the garganelli with ham and peas, and half-moons of pasta dough filled with braised short ribs. Secondi are equally simple, and tend toward Vegas-sized portions of protein, such as veal chop, pork chop, NY Strip steak, and seared tuna or swordfish.

MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Located just across the Studio Walk from Fiamma Trattoria, like the original Craft in New York, Craftsteak is at its heart an homage to the great American steak house. The design is simultaneously modern and traditional--I’m not sure how they accomplish such a feat, but rich woods, muted colors, and soft lighting help. It is both austere and warm, like the food. The menu is deconstructed so that diners select and combine proteins, vegetables, and starches. The food arrives unadorned on simple white plates to share or to hoard, as you see fit. In a phrase, everything is “comme il faut,” how it should be, exactingly cooked and pure. Desserts, which also require some selection/combination, are also simple, seasonal, and very satisfying.

Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino
3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Without a big name chef behind it or another restaurant somewhere in Los Angeles or New York to fall back on, 3950 may slip under the radar of Vegas diners looking for serious fare. But the handsome, bordering on zany, room and friendly service provide a comfortable backdrop for chef Scott McCarter’s modern American fare. He rose through the ranks of the kitchen, and this restaurant is, in a sense, a reward for his hard work. Portobello napoleons and pan-seared sea bass with wild-rice, lobster griddlecake are indicative of the creatively soulful style of American food McCarter serves up in generous portions. Don’t skip over the lobster bisque, which is a rich and satisfying rendition of a classic.

Lotus of Siam
Commercial Center
953 E. Sahara Ave, #A-5

It isn’t new, but when the noise of slot machines and the sense of being manipulated into having a good time make you feel like a taking a break from the Strip, head for lunch or dinner to Lotus of Siam. Located in an unlikely strip mall that’s sleazy in an original Vegas kind of way, this Thai restaurant is ranked by Chowhounds and foodies alike as one of the best in the country. Although I still prefer the food at my local Sripraphai in Queens, New York, if I lived in Las Vegas I would be a regular at Lotus. If you go at lunch, skip the all-you-can-eat, old-style-Vegas Chinese buffet and order à la carte. Try the sour sausage with green onion, peanut, chili, and crispy rice (Nam Kao Tod) and the hot and sour fish soup (Tom Kong Pla Krob). Drunken noodles with minced chicken, northern Thai pork stew, Issan fish with curry paste, and other unusual (primarily northern Thai) dishes are all prepared well. Order plenty of rice; the food is hot.