Guest Contributor | July 24th, 2012
Las Vegas gets a bad wrap for many things. Affectionately, or perhaps unaffectionately referred to as ‘Sin City’, it is certainly not widely known for its cuisine offerings. But, it should be. Vegas has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita, than anywhere else in the world. The last time I visited almost ten years ago I had one of the best meals of my life out there at Le Cirque in the Bellagio Hotel. So I was well overdue a trip back to check out some of the restaurants which have made the city one of the fine dining capitals of the world.
I was spending four nights in Vegas, travelling on a direct flight from Auckland as part of an Air New Zealand ‘Grabaseat’ promotion. Four nights, gave me four dinners, as well as the odd brunch and lunch. The hardest thing was trying to identify and select the restaurants I would visit. In my research the same names kept popping up, some had been there for many years, some for just a few weeks. I ended up selecting the ones I would visit based on some pretty random criteria, but for anyone wanting to eat well in Vegas it’s a good starting point.
Night one was a particularly good one as I managed to squeeze in two meals! First up an early dinner a T bones Chophouse, at the Red Rock Casino, about twenty minutes away from the strip. Recently voted the best steakhouse in Vegas, it is a stunningly outfitted restaurant where kiwi Sarah Frances Johnston is currently in residence, singing jazz to diners four nights a week. The chef, Philipp Norsetter talks me through my options and starts me off with a selection of his two signature salads, a Caesar made with a horseradish and Dijon mustard dressing and their house salad made with bacon, gorgonzola, tomato and avocado. For my main I have their special a 10 oz ‘flat iron’ wagyu beef steak, served with fried onion rings and their house made steak sauce. The meat is perfectly cooked, tender and full of flavour. My Vegas journey has begun! After taking in a show I head to one of the new casinos in town The incredibly impressive Cosmopolitan and their Tapas restaurant ‘Jaleo’, two standout dishes here; braised veal cheeks and a warm spinach salad with raisins and pine nuts.
Next on my quest to eat my way through Las Vegas was Sage at Aria, one of the city’s newest and classiest offerings. Sage describes its food as ‘contemporary American cuisine spiced with global influences’. Chef Shawn McClain is particularly interested in ‘clean’ and sustainable produce and farm- to –table produce. To be honest the high point of this dining experience was our incredible ‘server’ Bond. Yep that was really his name. Bond was like no waiter I have ever had in my life and embodied everything the service industry hopes to be. Funny, Charming, educated on his food and wine, he took over the ordering and brought us course after course with perfectly matched beverages from champagne, cocktails and wines from the old and new worlds.
The food was simple, tasty and beautifully presented. The most memorable for me were the Alaskan king crab, which I had never tried before, and a foie gras crème brulee. Sage was voted last year’s best new restaurant in Vegas, and from what I experienced, it is well deserved.
Along with the higher end offerings, I also experienced some more causal dining. The restaurants in the Tropicana hotel where I was staying are well-priced and world class. The Beach Café offers a great breakfast buffet (don’t be afraid of the buffet, some in Vegas are excellent) and is a great place to eat overlooking the pool. One of the better known poolside eating spots is Simon at The Palms. I had their signature French toast, brioche bread crusted in cornflakes and served with maple syrup and fresh berries, they also serve surprisingly good coffee by American standards, and something us kiwis do not take for granted!
One thing America does do well is sushi, thanks to a proliferation of Korean and Japanese chefs. I went to the newest Japanese restaurant in Vegas, Mizumi, in Wynn’s casino. From an aesthetic perspective it was one of the best dining experiences I had. The restaurant opens out onto a Japanese garden and a man made waterfall, so we were able to eat virtually ‘outside’ something that is sometimes hard to come by in Vegas. Chef Devin Hashimoto had come from being sous chefs at a French fine dining restaurant and is renowned for his ability to marry Japanese flavours with French techniques. We were treated to his ‘Omakase’ menu, six courses of his specialties matched with cocktails, wine and sake. The courses were small, intricate and stunning presented with incredibly complex, yet clean flavours. The yellow tail sashimi with Jalapeno Gelee had an amazing bite to it, the Spicy King Crab and Taro tacos had wonderful textures. I also loved wagyu beef tartare with furikake brioche croutons. Every course was delicious but for me the real highlight was the dessert, an amazingly delicate green tea and chocolate crème brulee, so good, I was literally fighting over it with my dining companion!
I also visited Yellowtail, the Bellagio’s Japanese restaurant. In my opinion, it has the best position of any restaurant on the strip and we dined on a balcony overlooking the Bellagio Lake and it’s wonderful fountain show. While everything we tried here was fantastic, I had come to Yellowtail to try one dish in particular, the Big Eye Tuna Pizza, which I had read about several’ foodie’ publications and had to try it for myself. It is impossibly thin slices of raw tuna drizzled with truffle oil and served on top of a crispy pizza base. It was all it had promised to be and much more. Their Popping Spicy Crab sushi is also not to be missed. Saving the best for last and the crowning glory in my dining adventures was dinner at Joel Robuchon at MGM, considered to be on the best restaurants in America. Robuchon was recently crowned ‘Chef of the Century’ he lives between Paris and Spain, and has thirteen restaurants around the world, two in Las Vegas.
At any one time there may be as many as forty chefs working in the kitchen at Robuchon. As soon as you walk in to the lavish dining room, it becomes obvious this is no ordinary dining experience. The room is incredibly ornate, and dominated by a huge chandelier. While it is undeniably formal with diners and wait staff speaking in hushed tones, it is also very comfortable with the service attentive without being stuffy. We were ushered into a plush, purple, velvet booth which we were promptly told was Celine Dion’s regular table! Clearly, she wasn’t eating that night. I opted for a four course degustation menu which began with an amuse bouche of cherry gazpacho. The bread trolley was a unlike anything I have ever seen before. More than fifteen varieties of bread served with freshly churned butter from Brittany and spicy Alicante olive oil. The wine list was as long as a novel, and overwhelmed by the selection I left it to one of their master sommeliers to make my choices. For starters we shared a langoustine ravioli and a Crispy soft boiled egg with smoked salmon and oscetra caviar. Next up, sweet pea soup with almonds and bacons and for mains a duck and foie gras served with Robuchon’s signature mashed potato. Dessert was a perfectly formed chocolate soufflé and if that didn’t push me over the edge, it was followed by an incredible trolley of more than forty kinds of handmade sweets and chocolate. I left Las Vegas, completely replete. More than just a few kilos heavier, happier and basking in the glow of some of the best eating experiences of my life. Turns out there are other, more satisfying, ways to get your kicks than Vegas is best known for.
Belinda Henley flew to Las Vegas courtesy of Air New Zealand.
Belinda Henley is a freelance journalist based in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. During her career she has worked around the world for broadcasters including CNN, Reuters, BBC and Al Jazeera English. A passionate advocate of all things Kiwi, she has spent much of her career helping push New Zealand film and music on a world stage. She now devotes much of her time to the more leisurely pursuits of good food, wine and travel.