Visiting Vegas: Sure bets in Sin City

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2012 - 4:56 PM

Las Vegas restaurants, from high-end to humble, deal diners the ace card.

Deciding where to dine in Las Vegas is a little like determining where to gamble. Or shop, for that matter. The choices are seemingly limitless.

Ten years ago, when an influx of culinary talent first revved up tourists' appetites, the city needed chefs more than chefs needed the city. But now it feels as if the Crocs are on the other foot. A second wave of name-brand chefs have only underscored Las Vegas -- a destination once notable only for its all-you-can-eat buffets and el cheapo steak dinners -- as an against-all-odds food lovers' Mecca.

These newcomers are probably hoping to use the attention-getting platform that is the Strip (the stretch of Mall of America-scaled properties lining Las Vegas Boulevard) to burnish their reputations, heighten their national profiles and, in true Sin City fashion, hit the jackpot. But the real winners? Diners.

Center stage in City Center

"The chef is going to keep you busy," said my waiter, and he wasn't kidding. I was at Twist, one of the cavalcade of exceptional dining experiences to be had inside City Center, the $9 billion, 68-acre hotel-shopping-condo complex that wields contemporary architecture the way the nearby Venetian wraps itself in ersatz Italian kitsch. The restaurant is inside the understated Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the aforementioned chef was Parisian maverick Pierre Gagnaire.

Shortly after my arrival, I was greeted not by one but five amuse bouche, each a tiny exercise in precision: a thimble-shaped blood orange gelée, a coin-sized cheese tartlet and tiny, meticulously carved pickled vegetables.

My first course was four eclectic takes on shellfish, each beautiful enough to merit its own Tumblr. The rest of the evening followed suit: a parade of museum-quality delectables, served by a staff so seamless that my mind kept going to Spanx, and all for the price of a ticket to the Donny & Marie show at the Flamingo. Money well spent.

Washington, D.C., chef José Andrés has two must-dine outlets in the upscale food court inside the relentlessly stylish Cosmopolitan hotel, adjacent to the City Center complex. They're exactly the kind of fun-loving, food-forward destinations that a Saveur-subscribing tourist would hope to find while on a Las Vegas vacation.

At China Poblano, Andrés revels in two of his great culinary loves -- Mexican and Chinese -- and what's most admirable about the menu is what he doesn't do: There's no fusion and nothing gets the off-the-rack treatment. Instead, the adventurous street-inspired fare includes sturdy steamed noodles fashioned from oats rather than wheat or rice, crispy lamb-filled potstickers, tacos stuffed with tender beef tongue, succulent scallops cured with bright Key lime juice and other quirky, meant-to-be-shared dishes.

One floor up at Jaleo, the menu's key players are well stocked paellas, coaxed to fruition over a showy open hearth. But it's also a prime grazing ground, with tapas that lean toward addictive marinated olives, cipollini onions with pine nuts and green onions wrapped in smoky bacon. The bar is one of the city's top performers; I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a more gloriously refreshing gin and tonic, garnished with juniper, bay leaves and lemon peel.

The line that forms next door and snakes down an unmarked hallway is for Secret Pizza, a decent replica of a New York-style slice shop. It's 2 a.m.-and-I'm-drunk food at its best, with abundant toppings covering a crisp, chewy crust. One caveat: The $4.50 price is a tad steep. The name, by the way -- a nod to the counter's under-the-radar presence -- is pure gimmick; when a slice joint has more Yelp followers than Wolfgang Puck, it's hardly hush-hush.

Three final City Center notes: Take a seat at the raucous, marble-topped bar at the Todd English P.U.B. for a superb happy hour (weekdays, 3 to 6 p.m.), when more than four dozen globally sourced draughts -- pulled by the pint, half-yard and pitcher -- are half-price, and oysters are 2 bucks a pop.

While many visitors spend their afternoons relaxing poolside, hitting a golf ball or indulging in one of the city's countless spas, I recharged my batteries by sinking into a velvet-covered Chippendale sofa in the lovely tea lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The by-the-book repast, gold-rimmed Narumi bone china, gracious service and postcard-worthy view were more than worth the $36 price tag; my psyche's temporary refuge from the city's around-the-clock honky-tonk was priceless.

Diners could happily consume their body weight at the Wicked Spoon Buffet, the Cosmopolitan's genre-changing feedlot. The adage You Get What You Pay For totally applies. Prices run $22 to $35, a reasonable fee for an all-you-can-eat spread that places a premium on variety, creativity, presentation and freshness.

At Caesars and the Wynn

Overheard at Caesars Palace: "Remember when we were on 'Jerry Springer' last year?" So Las Vegas, right? It was my second-favorite memory of the hotel. My first was lunch at Central, a marvelous rendition of a 24-hour diner, albeit one helmed by a James Beard award-winning chef, in this case Michel Richard of Washington, D.C. I could definitely make a habit of Richard's playful, satisfying cooking, from anchovy-topped deviled eggs and a decadent lobster burger to airy Gruyère gougères and golden French fries.

If Vegas has a weakness, it's that so many of its top-flight restaurants are avatars of established operations elsewhere. Not Bartolotta. Chef/namesake Paul Bartolotta relocated from his native Milwaukee to the glitzy Wynn, where he presides over an eye-catching two-story dining room. A ton of ultra-fresh seafood is delivered from hand-picked Mediterranean sources each week, a disciplined and expensive protocol that only billionaire hotelier Steve Wynn could afford. It goes without saying that Bartolotta & Co. handle this treasure with finesse. Their way with pasta is similarly sublime.

Off the Strip

Diners have plenty of reasons to venture off the overblown carnival that is Las Vegas Boulevard. Start with the city's surprisingly lively Chinatown district, a series of strip malls roughly 10 minutes from the Strip by cab.

Ramen is huge in Vegas, and I learned the hard way that waiting in line is part of the experience at the tiny, inexpensive and impressive Monta Noodle House. I loved the pristine, scrupulously prepared Japanese cooking next door at Raku, including delicate, coral-colored slices of raw Kobe-style beef livers, glazed and grilled pork ears and some of the silkiest tofu I've ever encountered.

On the opposite side of town lies the pinnacle in off-the-Strip dining: Lotus of Siam. The seedy shopping-mall surroundings don't make a memorable first impression, and the restaurant's plain interior -- a standout in a design-obsessed city -- isn't much of a step up. But oh, the food.

The novella-length menu boasts more than 100 Thai favorites, but I skipped straight to the back to explore the traditional, almost grandmotherly dishes that chef/owner Saipin Chutima prepares from the northern reaches of her homeland: a teasingly hot red chile dip scooped up with fried pig's skin, a steaming bowl of crimped noodles finished with pickled vegetables and a richly sweet-hot coconut curry, and a gleefully sour chicken soup, its intense flavors blossoming on my tongue. Seriously, wow.

There wasn't much in Las Vegas' teetering-toward-revival downtown, unless you count the tasteless eatertainery sideshow that is the Heart Attack Grill, where patrons who weigh more than 350 pounds eat for free, diners wear hospital gowns and a vintage ambulance greets customers on the sidewalk. I stumbled across it on my way to the far more compelling Mob Museum -- more on that in a moment -- and kept on walking, partly because hunting down a great burger in Vegas is a snap. After a friend with a Las Vegas condo raved about an off-the-radar spot a block off the Strip, I made a beeline for the Barrymore.

The surroundings -- a faded property once owned by Debbie Reynolds -- were not promising, but once inside, the cozy restaurant (a Vegas rarity) proved a jewel, with a menu of all-American favorites along the lines of pesto-brushed grilled artichokes and a pristine chicken soup with pitch-perfect matzo balls. No wonder locals have made it their hangout.

Best of all was the burger, a monster of a thing. Its ground steak patty was grilled to perfection and topped with a complementary medley of flavors: oven-roasted tomatoes, a rich garlic aoili, spidery frisee and bacon-laced caramelized onions. The diner seated next to me took one look at mine and ordered it. He was not disappointed. Nor was I, which pretty much summarizes my 72 hours of Las Vegas eating.

As for the Mob Museum (official title: the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement), it's a must-see for fans of "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas." The $42 million project, which opened last month, is housed in the only structure within the city limits that appears to predate Joey Heatherton, a carefully restored Depression-era federal courthouse. Its three floors of interactive exhibitions are a potent cocktail of criminals, government officials and the media.

Among the displays are these words of wisdom, culled from crime-family kingpin John Gotti: "Don't ever say anything you don't want played back to you someday."

I'm going to remember that the next time I send an e-mail.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • A vegetable Paella dish is served at Jaleo restaurant.

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