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THE KING HAS NO CLOTHES ON
Does John Mariani hate Vegas or is he just telling it like it is? To decide for yourself, go to KNPR.org and read his recent column about how fine dining in our town is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Mariani is the national restaurant critic for Esquire magazine, as well as a columnist for the Wine Spectator, the author of The American Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, AND of the best Italian-American cookbook ever published. So you might say he's a guy who knows his forks.
As he sees it, the hype about Vegas' great restaurants is nothing more than an illusion. An illusion born of delusions of grandeur. To him, the same moronic mentality that celebrates Elvis impersonators and gapes at fake lakes, can easily be fooled into thinking that a superstar chef's name on the door means his Vegas outpost is just as good as the restaurant that made him famous. He also takes celebrity chefs to task for sticking their names on marquees and then not doing so much as brewing a cup of coffee in the places they're only too happy to rake in the dough from.
Now solely by coincidence, at the same time Mariani was giving foodies a reality check about Vegas, a letter of mine was published in New York Magazine where I claimed that Vegas welcomes whatever ersatz, dumbed-down, re-tread of a restaurant is bestowed upon us by whatever big name chef is looking to cash in. Upon reading this, A loyal listener-let's call him Right Said Fred--took me to task for going out of my way to denigrate one of the premier attractions in our town.
Well I'd like to say something sarcastic like: the truth hurts...but the truth is, whether Mariani and I are right is beside the point. Las Vegas now has dozens of top flight restaurants when 10 years ago it had....uh....er....none. These quantum leaps in quality have occurred precisely because a few well known chefs decided to stick their name on the door, cash in, and yes, to a certain extent, sell out. Now the whole food world is beating a path to our door. We're never going to be Paris, New York or even Chicago....the lack of an ocean or any agriculture sees to that. And no matter what some hypemeister says, the food of a famous chef is always better at the place that made him famous....but so what? The fact that a couple of food snobs like Mariani and me find flaws in what Thomas Keller's or Wolfgang Puck's third string is rustling up, doesn't detract one bit from this progress. Once this celebrity chef mania passes-and it is soooo 1998---Las Vegas will have a legacy of fine dining that should continue for decades.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS IN LAS VEGAS
by John Mariani (reprinted with permission - Esquire)
The Real Elvis
Las Vegas dining has come very far very fast, but it's got a long, long way to go before the city is more than a place where the headliners on the restaurant marquees aren't the guys cooking in the restaurants. Remember: Vegas is the home of the best Elvis impersonators--some of whom are so damn convincing, who needs the real Elvis?
Or at least that's the way Vegas and its celebrity chefs have thus far promoted themselves. Five years ago, with the opening of $1.6 billion Bellagio, the stakes rose far higher than anyone could have imagined for fine dining in what was formerly a citadel of bad taste, a living museum of kitsch, and a monument to greed. Now, the taste level has risen to theme park glamor, although tawdriness still abounds; indeed, casino shows, once titillatingly risqué, now ape the lower forms of sexual exhibitionism found in the lap dance venues off the Strip, and there is now a private pool area at one of the casino/hotels serviced by topless cocktail waitresses. Greed is still the driving force of Vegas. Let's face it, Las Vegas is, for most visitors, a Disneyland for morons. If that seems harsh, consider that Vegas could not exist unless the overwhelming majority of its visitors leave town as losers, which strikes me as the kind of odds only a moron would entertain. (Some estimates indicate that people with gambling addictions account for about 5% of all players, but 25% of casino and state lottery profits.)
Still, Bellagio, opened in 1999 by visionary Steve Wynn, was an amazing attempt to bring a certain class to a city built on a complete lack of it. In Wynn's mission statement for Bellagio, he wrote, "Gaming as a unique or special kind of attraction to support tourism is a historical fact, but not a current dynamic. . . . The challenge became building a place so preemptive, so overwhelmingly attractive and delicious, that it would attract people who do not come to Las Vegas now--people who are not that impressed with gaming. Put another way, how do you make Las Vegas a successful competitor to London, Rome or Paris?"
How indeed? Laying in Carrara marble by the truckload everywhere, garishly reproducing Renaissance ceilings at the Venetian, installing a few Picassos at Bellagio, erecting an abbreviated Eiffel Tower at The Paris (below, right), and putting "dancing fountains" in a man-made lake in the desert are hardly the kinds of things that cause sophisticated world travelers to start ooh-ing and ah-ing as they do over the Sistine Chapel, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Empire State Building. Who's kidding whom? Vegas architecture is built to attract Joe Six-Pack and Japanese tourists who dutifully train their video cams on the chubby gondolier at the Venetian plying a crystal clear Grand Canal past an antiseptic, pigeon-free repro of the Piazza di San Marco.
Nevertheless, the new restaurants at Bellagio and the casino/hotels that followed were definite improvements over what they superseded, and Wynn was the leader in that, bankrolling celebrated chefs from New York and L.A. to open spectacular restaurants that bore little or no resemblance to the originals. But while those celebrated chefs were always being photographed in their spanking clean whites for and by the media, the truth was, most spent a minuscule amount of time anywhere near their Vegas outposts. As Wolfgang Puck, who now has several restaurants in different casino/hotels in Vegas, told his chef colleagues about coming--but not moving--to Vegas, "Don't be crazy! They put up the money, and you only have to be there a few times a year!" Despite their reputation for haute cuisine, many of those chefs did nothing to bolster the idea that Vegas was ready for fine dining, which is why Jean-George Vongerichten, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Palmer, and Tom Colicchio all opened steakhouses (a genre of which there are at least 20 other examples in town, including all the major chains).
In most cases the Vegas offshoots were only shadows of their originals. In one case, Lutèce at the Venetian, it is now a shadow of a ghost, after the original Lutèce in NYC closed this year. In only two cases did a major chef actually move to Vegas and cook there on a nightly basis--Juan Serrano at Picasso in Bellagio, and Alessandro Strata at Renoir in the Mirage. Thus grew the notion that, more than anywhere else, a chef manqué could rise to prominence and wealth without ever so much as brewing a cup of coffee in the restaurant that bears his name.
Now it's five years later. Wynn lost Bellagio in an expensive take-over, and few new places have opened, until now. As everyone expected, Wynn recouped and is now building an even more spectacular casino/resort to open next year, with at least a dozen new dining venues. But this time he promises things will be different: Stung by the criticism that the celebrity name restaurants are but further examples of Vegas' smoke and mirrors, Wynn has hired the brilliant Elizabeth Blau, who'd helped him develop all the Bellagio restaurants, then went on to become the city's major restaurant consultant before opening her own restaurant--Simon's in the Hard Rock casino/hotel--with Chef Kerry Simon, to sign up well-known chefs for the new property with sweetheart deals that won't cost the chef a dime of investment capital. With one catch: Those chefs must now live in Vegas and actually cook in their restaurants--a momentous change from what has gone on before. At least that's Plan A: NYC's Daniel Boulud will open a restaurant in Wynn's casino/hotel but he will not be moving to town. In the same spirit Brad Ogden has moved from San Francisco with his family to Vegas and opened a namesake restaurant at Caesar's Palace where he contends he spends 90 percent of his time, actually cooking.
But is such really the stuff of the future? I suspect not. The new action that has rolled into town seems to hold to the same "who-cares-if-the chef's-never-here?" attitude of the past. Hubert Keller, Chef/partner at San Francisco's Fleur de Lys, has opened a Burger Bar at Mandalay Place, to be followed by a branch of Fleur de Lys; Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in St. Helena and now Per Se in NYC, opened a copy of his Napa Valley bistro, Bouchon in the Venetian; Alain Ducasse will debut a branch of his NYC restaurant Mix at Mandalay Bay; Bobby Flay will open another Mesa Grill; Michael White is reprising his award-winning NYC Italian restaurant, Fiamma; Michael Kornick will be the name chef at Nine Steakhouse; Rick Moonen at RM; Tom Colicchio is doing Craftsteak at MGM; Eric Ripert of NYC's Le Bernardin and Mario Batali of Babbo are said to be considering ventures in the Venetian's new Palazzo Tower. Even France's illustrious JoËl Robuchon and Paul Bocuse are negotiating to open restaurants in Vegas. But does anyone seriously believe these fellows will be spending a major part of their time there? Can you see the 78 year-old Bocuse shuttling back and forth between Lyons and Las Vegas every two weeks? Don't bet the farm on it.
One might also reasonabley ask how these chefs can both spare and urge their best sous-chefs to move out to Vegas? The chefs always say, "He's been with me for nine years as my chef de cuisine." But if he's 1,000 or 10,000 miles away from his master and has to work with a Vegas-based union kitchen crew, how close can he come to reproducing the master's food and wishes? As so often happens, these sous-chefs go out to Vegas, get things up and running, then move back or somewhere else after a few months.
The money is, of course, irresistible, and the casinos will use the restaurants as a way of keeping their customers in the casino. Yet the odd thing is, with all the puffery about the new sophistication of Vegas visitors, a gourmet could nearly starve to death trying to find much above the level of an Olives or Wolfgang Puck CafÉ open for lunch in this town. Lunch is a major part of fine dining in NYC, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, and other international cities. But in Vegas, with a few exceptions like Circo, it's tough to find much beyond an Asian noodle counter or a buffet line open at lunch--this, in a city that prides itself on being open 24 hours a day. If indeed Wynn's original vision is for people to come to Vegas as they go to London and Paris and New York, where can they eat at lunchtime?
Why anyone should be surprised at the amount of hype that layers over the truth of the matter in Vegas is beyond me. Can you dine well out there? Absolutely. Are the restaurants "serious" about quality? In many cases, yes. Are the wine lists among the deepest in the world? Without a doubt: high rollers must have their Opus One and Lafite! (The photo to the right shows Aureole's "wine angel" retrieving one of 10,000 bottles in a tower based on the Tom Cruise's wire act in "Mission Impossible.") But in many cases, the intrinsic elements that make an individual restaurant great and a city a great gastronomic beacon are not the number of flashy restaurants nor the names on the door. It is the breadth and depth of restaurants run by chefs and cooks and families and restaurateurs whose vested interest is in their own reputation, not in the amount of money they bring to the bottom line.
It should be obvious that Las Vegas is not a great city in the sense that complex, culturally rich, history-making cities are. Vegas is what it is and probably will be for a long time--a gambling (sorry, "gaming") city offering good restaurants and lots of entertainers like Wayne Newton and CÉline Dion. And for a city to be a great restaurant town it must have ethnic neighborhoods rife with small, wonderful storefront eateries; it has to have singular restaurants, not copies, whose elemental beauty is based on the personal style of the owner and its situation on a real waterfront or in a lush valley or overlooking a real river--not a man-made lake with dancing water fountains and decor designed to dazzle rather than express a personal spirit. A great restaurant town is one where the locals know the best places for every occasion, whether it's a tiny sushi bar or a small pizza joint. A great restaurant city grows its own great restaurants; it does not just tack other city's great restaurant names on the door.
A great restaurant city is one where the Real Elvis performs, night after night, until he drops. So, unless Steve Wynn manages to change the dynamic yet again--and I hope he does--Las Vegas will continue to be a city of Elvis impersonators onstage and in the kitchen.