Sensational Toffee

Hermit Cookies

Sweethearts' Chocolate Cake

Chocolate-Vanilla Pudding

Sweet Spot


Special Section: Stephanie Visits Sin City

I attended a dessert and pastry conference in Las Vegas this past fall. I'd never been there before, so I took a few extra days to wander around. My impressions and opinions follow...

In the past decade or so, Las Vegas has undergone a dining revolution. It used to be the norm that one could eat very cheaply there, but much of the food was less than wonderful. Now, with many celebrity chefs opening branches of their big-name restaurants there, prices at some eating establishments are high, but sometimes it is possible to get some very good food. Two menu "staples" are creme brulee and a breadbasket containing foccaccia and a flatbread/crispbread (usually with cheese and/or herbs); everyone seems to be serving both. Also, almost all of the resorts either already have or are constructing noodle houses, great places to get a snack or dim sum. Reservations are essential at many of the more famous restaurants, especially on weekends. Where reservations aren't accepted, it might be helpful to go at off-peak hours if standing in line isn't your thing. The restaurants I discuss here are in no particular order.

--Fiore (in the Rio Suites). This is a pretty and classy place with subdued lighting. I was much pleased by the thoughtfulness of the service here, especially as the wait staff managed to be attentive but not overly-solicitous. In addition, the wait staff knows about the food they serve, and, if they don't know the answer to a question you have about it, they'll find out. The food was of first-rate quality, and in general it was very well-prepared. Recommended dishes: Parmesan bread (served at the beginning of the meal); roasted foie gras with raspberry coulis; hearts of romaine lettuce with bleu cheese vinaigrette; tower of mixed berries with sorbet and berry sauce. The "tower" is a beautiful and ingenious dessert, with a great combination of tastes and textures. The only down side to my meal here was the smell of smoke that drifted in from the smoking section of this restaurant. Definitely worth a try though, particularly if you're looking for a romantic dining spot.

--Cafe Spago (in Caesar's Palace). Directly adjacent to Spago, the restaurant, but with much less expensive prices. I was not impressed by most of the food I tried here or by the service, which got slower during the meal. Presentation is important here, and it's true that most of the food looked quite appetizing. The cafe was crowded and noisy at 1:30 pm on a Sunday, and it remained so throughout the meal. Recommended dish: fresh papardelle with chicken sausage (be aware, though, that the sausage is on the spicy side).

--The House of Blues Gospel Brunch (in Mandalay Bay). This must be the ultimate in irony, even in Las Vegas. A gospel brunch in a casino. And did I mention that they serve alcohol? The biggest attraction here is the music; I was told that nationally-famous groups sometimes perform here. I saw a local group called "Visions of Praise", and they were simply outstanding. A decent buffet, with some standard items (scrambled eggs with dill and smoked salmon, fresh fruit, and muffins, for example) and some Southern dishes (jambalaya, fried chicken, turnip greens, and more). You MUST reserve in advance for this brunch, and there is a no-cancellation policy. There are two seatings, 10 am and 1 pm, and apparently both usually sell out. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, and, ridiculously, you'll have to bring a picture ID to claim your ticket(s). The group I saw performed for only about 40 minutes; considering that this brunch will set you back about $38 per person as of this writing, I didn't think that was long enough. This is more of a concert with food than a dining destination.

--Napa (in the Rio Suites). After the glitz of The Strip and the public areas of the Rio Suites, the atmosphere in Napa is most refreshing. It's quiet and classy; from where I sat, there was a partial view of both the kitchen and the city of Las Vegas. Courteous and attentive service seems to be a standard here, and the kitchen turns out some innovative food. Recommended dishes: roasted foie gras with rhubarb puree and rhubarb coulis, pea tendril broth with spiny lobster, the trio of ice creams with hot chocolate and butterscotch caramel sauces. I must say a word or two about the latter. Please have dessert; the pastry chef, Jemil, is a young man of considerable talent, evidenced in his gianduja (milk chocolate-hazelnut) and roast corn ice creams (yes, roast corn ice cream, and it's fabulous), his excellent butterscotch caramel sauce, and the small plate of petit fours that ends every meal here. If you choose any of the day's specials, make sure you inquire about their price, as it might be considerably higher than other offerings in that category. This is a place to go for refinement, graciousness, and some inspired cuisine.

--Olives (in Bellagio). The wait staff here appears to be in great athletic condition when this place gets busy; they really hustle. That means prompt service, but you might feel a bit rushed at peak times. I thought that the prices in this restaurant were a bit steep, and, although I was most pleased with my appetizer, my entree, a flatbread with portobella mushrooms, did not work. The bread itself, the size of an individual pizza, was fine. The mushrooms on it were both pureed and in slices, a nice visual contrast. But salt had been sprinkled much too heavily along the edge of the mushroom-cheese-onion center, and the salt unpleasantly dominated the taste of everything else. Recommended dish: carpaccio (that was my appetizer, and the portion is enormous).

--Royal Star (in The Venetian). As of this writing, dim sum is served here from 11 am to 5 pm daily, but a regular menu is always available. The restaurant is sparely but pleasingly decorated in black, jade green, and white. Service is swift and efficient, but never rude. Located along the Restaurant Row of this upscale resort, Royal Star is a nice, quiet place. Recommended dishes: vegetable spring rolls, barbecued pork buns.

--Tre Visi (in the MGM Grand). This restaurant can get busy and rather noisy on a Saturday night, but service was pretty good throughout the meal. Much of the food, however, was mediocre at best. The garden salad was uninspired; the pappa al pomodoro (a tomato soup thickened with bread) had a good consistency but was overbearingly acidic; and the chocolate creme brulee was overcooked. Recommended dish: spinach ravioli. With so many other dining choices in town, Tre Visi needs work in the kitchen.

--Noodles (in Bellagio). Guess what they serve here? Yes, lots of noodle dishes, but they also serve dim sum from 11 am to 3 pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Although mere steps from the slot machines, Noodles provides a quiet haven for some good food. It's a pretty little place, too, with a lot of wood and light. A regular menu is available all the time, as well; the man at the table next to mine was enjoying congee (a traditional-for-breakfast porridge in some Asian countries) while I had my dim sum. Brisk but friendly service means your plate won't be empty for long, if at all. Recommended dishes: vegetable dumplings, shrimp and pork dumplings.

--Wolfgang Puck's Cafe (in the MGM Grand). Another cafe right in the middle of banks of slot machines, this is a cheerfully eccentric place. I half-expected a lot of attitude to go with the name, but there was none; I saw a waitress discussing an upcoming college football game with an older couple a few tables away, and they were talking like old friends. Pizzas, pastas, salads, and rotisserie specials dominate the menu, with some vegetarian offerings. Recommended dish: Puck's original shrimp BLT club sandwich, a large and delicious combination of good bread, shrimp, bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onions, and more. Generous portions and prices that are reasonable by Vegas standards.

Chocolate in Las Vegas:
There is some good chocolate to be found here, but much of it is in restaurant desserts. Outside of that, for European-style chocolates, your only option seems to be Gaston Lenotre, a branch of the famous Parisian bakery, located in Paris in Las Vegas. I enjoyed Lenotre's truffles, but I wasn't much impressed by the assorted chocolates; of the three pastries I tried (an "Opera", a "Concerto", and a "Charlotte Cecile"), only the "Concerto" was very good. For American-style chocolates, visit any Ethel M Chocolates; there are at least two right on The Strip. This company uses no preservatives in their candies, and the ingredients are of decent quality. A very long cab ride from The Strip, you'll find Danielle's Chocolates and Ice Cream, at (702) 259-7616. It's a friendly little place, with a good variety of decent chocolates from which to choose (I haven't tried the ice cream).