LAS VEGAS - For decades, Las Vegas simply meant gambling, interspersed with 24-hour all-you-can eat buffets, tacky wedding chapels, outlandish floor shows and cheap motel rooms. Words like tawdry, sleazy, garish seemed to have been created just for this neon-glazed town.
Like many Americans who wanted to stay as far away as possible from such a substanceless place, I spent 53 happy years of my life having never set foot in the state of Nevada.
Then everything began to change. Familiar faces in the American food world - Charlie Trotter, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin, Emeril Lagasse - were heading for Vegas, making deals that would alter the face of this desert town forever.
Stephen Wynn, the head of Mirage Resorts and the figure credited with sanitizing Las Vegas, is a man of ''serial passions,'' and one of his latest passions is food. It did not take long before chefs, sous-chefs, sommeliers and waiters, as well as eager diners, were flocking to this Disneyland for adults.
Today Las Vegas is creating a cultural revolution in America, a new set of values for leisure, and one that quite naturally has an international impact. Once a nickel-and-dime gambling joint, the city is now a true family vacation destination with a European feel.
With Americans more sophisticated and moneyed than ever, the city plays right into their hands, and foreign visitors are enjoying it, too. Want entertainment? At the Bellagio, you have the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil production with its international cast of synchronized swimmers, divers and acrobats. Want pampering? At the Venetian there is the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, a mini version of the famous spa in Tucson, Arizona, where you can sample the famous unsinfully delicious 125-calorie chocolate cake. Want to go to Europe without purchasing a trans-Atlantic ticket? Then ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower in the 2,900-room Paris hotel or take a gondola ride on the faux canals at the 3,000-room Venetian hotel. And almost everything is available 24 hours a day, with the hum of slot machines ever present in the background.
Wynn, also creator of the Bellagio, says that his goal is to have the best Broadway show not on Broadway, the best French restaurant not in France, and the best world-class art not in a world-class museum.
He is not far from it. His Cirque du Soleil can easily compete with anything on Broadway. His art gallery is filled with works by Cezanne, Degas, Matisse and Picasso. And after four days of sampling the awe-inspiring variety of restaurants with chefs from all over America and the world, I would say that Las Vegas qualifies as a food lover's destination of the first order.
A FINE SMORGASBORD The city now serves as a smorgasbord of some of the country's finest restaurants. At the Bellagio alone, the lineup includes Sirio Maccioni's Le Cirque from New York; Olives from Boston; Jean-Georges Vongerichten of New York changing gears with a simple steak house called Prime; and great seafood from San Francisco in the name of Aqua.
The Bellagio's own staff includes Julian Serrano from San Francisco for Picasso and Grant MacPherson, longtime executive chef at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
And don't forget the Bellagio's Jasmine (refined Chinese with a chef from Hong Kong), Shintaro (a sushi bar), Noodles (specialties from Thailand, Japan, China and Vietnam), Cafe Bellagio, Sam's American from New York, and The Petrossian Bar from Paris and New York. Not to mention that all the artisanal bread in the house comes from the famed La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles.
At the newly opened Venetian hotel, restaurants have been created at a cost of $3 million to $9 million each. They include Eberhard Muller's Lutece from New York; Piero Selvaggio's Valentino from Los Angeles; Stephen Pyles's Star Canyon from Houston; Joachim Splichal's Pinot Brasserie from Los Angeles; Kevin Wu's Royal Star, featuring master chefs from Hong Kong; Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse from New Orleans, and Puck's Postrio from San Francisco.
Elsewhere, there is Palladin's Napa at the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino; an excellent outpost of New York and London's Nobu in the Hard Rock Hotel, and the only offshoot of Charlie Palmer's New York Aureole, at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.
The end result of most of these new showcase restaurants is stylish, sophisticated, elegant and fun. Certainly the prime dining experience of the moment can be found at the Bellagio's Picasso, a place with a clear lesson on how it pays to pay attention to detail.
In the 116-seat dining room at the edge of the Bellagio's eight-acre lake, one sits beneath a changing gallery of Wynn's collection of Picasso paintings, offset by a large display of colorful Picasso ceramics. The carpet and the furniture were designed by Picasso's son Claude. Indoors one has a spectacular view of the hotel's water show, astonishing for its choreography, complexity and scale with about 1,000 fountains rising as high as 240 feet (73 meters), dancing to the music of Pavarotti and Sinatra.
The food - a Mediterranean mix of specialties from France and Spain - includes the biggest scallops I have ever seen, Maine day-boat scallops roasted to perfection, topping a potato mousseline in a pool of flavorful jus de veau. It would be hard to choose between chef Serrano's sublime wild Atlantic turbot teamed up with a confit of leeks, or the rich aged roasted lamb chops served with tender rosemary potatoes. The wine list is a veritable tome, including treasures from the entire world of wine.
At Aureole, I was prepared not to like the gimmicky wine wall, a four-story glass wine tower housing a $2 million collection of wine.
To retrieve a selection from the 10,000 bottles stored there, a lean and sexy wine server wearing a harness and a cat suit scales the tower to snare the bottle. Once I was face to face with this modern wonder, I loved it. It is pure Las Vegas: glitzy and glamorous and fun.
I was less taken with the food there, despite excellent service and a chic and elegant dining room. It was simply boring, from tasteless and textureless cardboard lobster to a filet mignon without a personality and a much touted Oregon pinot noir that lost its punch long before we were able to finish the bottle.
We fared better at Emeril Lagasse's New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand Hotel, where spice is the order of the day. Best bets included a tempura-fried spicy salmon roll served with an infused soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger; and his rich cornmeal-fried Louisiana oysters served with marvelous addictive grits dotted with smoked gouda cheese. Only the pan-fried Louisiana crab cakes disappointed, as I searched for the crab bits hidden among the breading.
Near the tour's end, a simple dinner at Nobu made up of a gargantuan platter of sushi and sashimi, washed down with a flinty white French sancerre, left me planning a return trip, soon.
- Picasso, Bellagio
3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Tel: (702) 693-7223.
Fax: (702) 693-8563.
Open for dinner only, Thursday to Tuesday. $75 prix fixe, $85 tasting menu.
- Noodles, Bellagio
3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Tel: (702) 693-7223.
Fax: (702) 693-8563.
Open daily. Dishes priced from $4.50 to $24.75.
- Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, MGM Grand Hotel
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Tel: (702) 891-7777.
Open daily. Main dishes priced from $19 to $36, $65 tasting menu.
- Aureole, Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Tel: (702) 632-7401.
Fax: (702) 632-7425.
Open daily for dinner only. $95 tasting menu (with optional $45 wine pairing), $75 prix fixe.
- Nobu, The Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Road
Tel: (702) 693-5000.
Fax: (702) 693 5010.
Open daily for dinner, and for lunch Friday to Sunday. About $50 for dinner, not including wine, $70 tasting menu.