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January 9, 2009

The Best Restaurant in Las Vegas That Nobody Goes To

Filed under: Food, Las Vegas, Travel — anotherheader @ 6:17 am

Looking back, it sure seems like I’ve spent a lot of time in restaurants in Las Vegas. It wasn’t the plan starting out, but somehow it worked out to 16 visits to some of the more notable restaurants on the Strip.  While sixteen visits certainly do not qualify for expert status, it won’t stop me from sharing my opinion either!  My thoughts on the Vegas restaurant scene come with the standard caveats—your tastes may vary, my palate could have been off on the given day, my taste in food could be unusual.  In other words, your mileage may vary.  And, of course, this is not a complete survey of all of the Las Vegas Strip restaurants.  I’d happy to help out there, but someone would have to pick up the checks!

Mesa Grill (Caesar’s Palace, 1 visit approximately 4 years ago)

I visited once soon after they opened and was disappointed.  Previously, I had eaten at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in NYC and really, really liked it, but something was missing the translation in Las Vegas.  In particular, the complexity, punch, and flavors of the seasonings that defined the dishes in New York were missing in Las Vegas.  Maybe I should try this one again.  The restaurant recently lost its one Michelin star.

B&B (Venetian, three visits over the last 3 years)

I dined at Mario Batali’s B&B soon after it opened, a couple of months later, and then on our last trip.  In our visits I have had the tasting menu (the “standard” tasting menu the first two times and then the pasta tasting menu on our last visit).  With the meals, I had the “Reserve” wine pairing.

The tasting menu has fewer items than many high-end restaurants, which kept the meal from being overwhelming.  I really liked the food on all visits and found the smaller number of courses and the variety and intensity of the flavors to be appealing.  It is always a good sign when I remember the flavors of particular dish from a restaurant years after dining there.  The wine matches were also well chosen.  This restaurant was not particularly well received in the Wine Spectator.  I’m not sure I understand this.  Though it doesn’t aspire to the level of the “elite” restaurants, I prefer it over all of the one Michelin starred Las Vegas restaurants we have visited.

Bouchon (Venetian, one visit perhaps 2 years ago)

Bouchon at the Venetian has Thomas Keller’s restaurants typical perfection of execution.  The food was classic French bistro, steaks, pomme frites, and all.  Nothing is exotic here, it’s just good food.  This is not our favorite style of restaurant food, but is does seem to be what sells in Las Vegas and the restaurant was packed.  If you are looking for classic steakhouse food, Vegas has numerous options that excel.  Bouchon is certainly at the top of the list and the crowds were there to support it.  Though there is no star for the Vegas version, Michelin gives the Bouchon’s Yountville version one star.

Aureole (Mandalay Bay, 2 visits, last visit >3 years ago)

Charlie Palmer’s outpost in Mandalay Bay has an impressive interior that features the iconic tower of wine serviced by suspended “wine angels.”  The food is not particularly exotic but there’s enough there to challenge the palate.  On our first visit, I was underwhelmed but I liked the food much better the second time and would return if we were in that area of The Strip again.  It has been quite awhile since I have eaten there, so things could certainly have changed.  Aureole has one Michelin star.

Picasso (Bellagio, 1 visit about 5 years ago)

Having enjoyed a great meal at Masa’s in San Francisco when Chef Julian Serrano was in charge, I was eager to try his then new restaurant at the Bellagio.  Unlike many of the Las Vegas Chefs, Serrano actually moved to Las Vegas and, in theory, his offerings should not have been diluted, except, perhaps, that Picasso’s has many more seats to fill than Masa’s.  Picasso’s is a beautifully decorated restaurant serving excellent food.   Unfortunately the food misses mark for me when it comes to generating excitement, either from the flavors or the execution.  Michelin gives this one two stars.

Chinois (Caesar’s Palace, one visit about 3 years ago).

Wolfgang Puck’s forgettable fusion offerings blend into the rest of the Las Vegas scene.

Wing Lei (Wynn, one visit about a year ago)

I ordered a la carte on our visit.  The food was good but it didn’t distinguish itself from the San Francisco area Chinese restaurants that I go to, particularly given the price.  I was hoping for a Chinese version of SF’s Slanted Door, but Wing Lei came up short.  Sometimes it’s a cliché to say that the visit was not memorable, but when I learned during out last visit that Wing Lei has one Michelin star, I went down stairs to check it out.  Only then did I realize that I had already eaten there.  I didn’t go back.

Joel Robuchon at the Mansion (MGM Grand, one vist approximately a year ago)

This it the only three starred Michelin restaurant in Las Vegas.  It was also one of the most disappointing meals I have had, as our expectations were much higher.  I have been to five Michelin three star and five Michelin two star restaurants in the States and in Europe.  It is a bit much to expect a restaurant to live up to the standard of the likes of The Fat Duck, El Bulli, or The French Laundry, but I would put Joel Robuchon at the bottom of the list of the two and three starred restaurants I have visited, at least food wise.

So what’s wrong with the food?  I had the tasting menu and found the food to be well prepared and seasoned.  The problem was that the items on the menu tasted similar to each other.  Pretty much everything on the tasting menu was savory.  There was little to clean and refresh the palate.  There was absolutely nothing that was distinctive or defined itself as being new.  The theme seemed emphasize using the most expensive ingredients from France more than making a distinctive and memorable taste experience.  It was so overwhelmingly monolithic that it became hard to eat at the end.  I can definitely see how others views on this restaurant could vary, but this is not the type of food we like from the best restaurants.  I want to be excited, challenged, and enthused about the food I am trying.  From the best restaurants, I want to taste flavor combinations that are new to me or have the intensity of the flavors brought out in a manner we have never experienced. Or perhaps I can be wowed by the subtlety and finesse like we have been at the French Laundry.  At Robuchon, I was underwhelmed by the food.  Being underwhelmed is not good.

Another thing I didn’t like was the absence of a wine pairing.  Even an impromptu pairing like that offered at the French Laundry was not possible at Robuchon.  And, of course, it didn’t help that this was the most expensive meal and wine list I have ever seen by about 150%.   The current price for the 16 course tasting menu at Robuchon is $385 without service.  For comparison, the French Laundry in Yountville is $240 including service for their tasting menu.  With truffles, the Robuchon menu is $500.  It’s also a lot easier to get into Robuchon than it is to get into The French Laundry so the price doesn’t seem to reflect the demand.  It seems to us that the point of the meal is that it was expensive.  Apparently being expensive is a selling point in Vegas.

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Caesar’s Palace, one visit about a year ago)

Much of what I said about Robuchon applies to Restaurant Guy Savoy.  Nevertheless, I did like our meal at the 2 Michelin starred Guy Savoy better and the price for the tasting menu is $290 per person (without service) which is at least cheaper than Robuchon.  Again what I missed was something, anything, that excited our taste buds and took us to a culinary place that we had not experienced.  Well-prepared food with expensive ingredients obtained from far off lands was served.  Perhaps that’s enough for many customers.

Daniel Boulud Brasserie (Wynn, visited once on this trip)

Daniel Boulud’s brasserie at the Wynn serves well-executed French food of the style that is more central to the norm in Las Vegas.  The food is good and the location in the Wynn is attractive.  Like many places in Las Vegas, the service lacks the professionalism and polish that you see in cities where waiting tables at sophisticated restaurants has selected a highly refined wait staff.  It doesn’t matter much in practice, the orders are taken and the food is served, but the art of the service is missing (more on the service in Las Vegas later).

All in all though, the food and restaurant experience is good though it certainly does not aspire to the levels of the upper echelon restaurants.  Michelin has given Daniel Boulud one star, which, based on the one starred Michelin restaurants we have seen in Europe, is reasonable.  Then again, I could easily name 20 restaurants in the States that I like equal to or better than Daniel Boulud’s Brasserie in Las Vegas.  If I got out a little more, I’m sure the list would be much longer.

Overall, I’d say that of the restaurants we have been to in Las Vegas, Daniel Boulud’s is most similar to Bouchon.  Daniel’s is more sophisticated, but if I was having the same dish at each of the restaurants, I suspect I would like the food better at Bouchon.

Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie (The Palazzo at the Venetian, one visit to Restaurant Charlie, two visits to Bar Charlie, all within the last year)

The title of this segment is “The Best Restaurant in Las Vegas That Nobody Goes To.”  That title doesn’t apply much to the restaurants described above which, while not full, tend to be reasonably well occupied.  Nor does this title apply to Restaurant Charlie where there are always seem to be customers.  The title applies to Bar Charlie.

Restaurant Charlie and Bar Charlie are Charlie Trotter’s outposts in the Palazzo tucked into a sidewall off the casino floor.  Perhaps this is not the most scenic of locations.  Once inside the cocoon of the restaurant, however, you could be anywhere.  Bar Charlie is a smallish bar type area off the main restaurant that evokes a sushi bar and serves innovative small plates with a strong Japanese influence.  Restaurant Charlie is more traditional and serves many items that come from Bar Charlie along with more conventional offerings.  Restaurant Charlie recently received one Michelin star (likely no separation between Bar Charlie and Restaurant Charlie from the Michelin perspective).

Given my multiple visits in the last year, it is probably clear that I like the food at these Charlie Trotter’s outposts.  At Restaurant Charlie, the food is fresh and innovative with the intensity and freshness of the ingredients coming though.   Acidity is used in dishes to brighten the flavors.  If you were looking for the familiar fare, this would not necessarily be the place to go.  If you were looking for something not too far out there but distinctive, Restaurant Charlie would be the place for you.

Bar Charlie is Restaurant Charlie to the extreme.   The food at Bar Charlie is unique.  It could be described as sushi, sashimi, or Japanese but none of that would be entirely correct.  The “kaiseki” menu that Chef Hiro Nagahara presents has plenty of amazing raw fish beautifully served and presented with a dizzying array of side ingredients that were at times familiar and at times unusual.  Acidity and sweetness were balanced with the limits being pushed, as were the fresh aromatics and the strong savory flavors.  The earlier dishes in the menu keep your palate fresh and awake so you can experience the full meal.  You can’t really categorize this food nor really adequately describe it.  It must be experienced.  If you are a foodie that likes different, sometimes challenging, and definitely unique food experiences, this is the place in Las Vegas for you.

Obviously I like Bar Charlie.  It might even be worth the trip from the San Francisco area to Las Vegas on its own.  What I find odd is that when we have dined at Bar Charlie, the restaurant bar has been nearly empty.  On both occasions, the casino has been hoping and there are plenty of people in town, and the bar was empty when I’ve entered.  On my last visit, we were the only guests at Bar Charlie.  On our first visit, there were only two foodie types who joined us later for the meal.  In our opinion, if Bar Charlie were in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or LA, it would be a hard ticket.  Could it be that the best foodie experience on the Las Vegas Strip has been lost in the plethora of steakhouses and the morass of big ticket and modest quality restaurants on the Vegas scene?

Service

The service standard in Vegas restaurants is certainly adequate enough to get the job done.  Objectively, the service is good, orders are taken promptly and the food comes out on time.  What is missing is art of the service that is the standard at the best restaurants in the world—the wait staff holding back unseen and bringing the plates to the table at the same time, the deeply personal understanding of the difference between a white and black truffle, the mastery of all elements of the menu including the details of how the food is prepared, an obsession to grant the guests every request.  In the best front of the houses, the staff is always there when you need them, but unseen when you don’t.  In Vegas, it seems like the staff at some Michelin starred restaurants view it as a job, a step up from their last gig at Red Robin.  Or perhaps, at places like Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon, the old school mercenary staff has lost their passion the profession and has tired of dealing with customers unfamiliar with the nuances dining in fine restaurants, “Can I have a Bud Lite to go with that foi grass?”  Service is friendly and efficient, but lacking the finish, style, and perfection that you might find at a top restaurant.  It’s not like I need the well-oiled front of the house at the French Laundry serving me all my meals, though it is something to behold in action.  In Las Vegas, you should not expect to find the carefully choreographed ballet that is service perfection.

What does this all mean?

Are you looking for a good restaurant in Las Vegas?  If you are a steak and potatoes type, you are in luck.  There are plenty of excellent options though they are on the expensive side.  If mainstream continental cuisine floats your boat, Vegas offers numerous excellent options.  If you are looking for a new, high-end, table top book worthy food experience, beyond Restaurant and Bar Charlie, your pickings are slim.

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3 Comments »

  1. Very good and different type of post i have seen. It is great description of the taste of Las vegas restaurant food. To write this type of article also need good experience.

    Comment by Tuscany Villas Rental — February 11, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  2. Totally agree with you. I have been Bar Charlie’s 6 times since it has opened. In a four day period, I went twice. Hiro the chef was great. He made a special menu for the second visit.

    Comment by Kevin — May 8, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  3. Very informative! This may help a lot of people out when visiting Vegas. I you happen to venture past the strip and have any notable “encounters” in any restaurants off the strip I would love to hear about it. I am looking for restaurants to post on my Las Vegas Directory http://www.mylv411.com any suggestions you might have would be great. As my site is brand new, I am offering complimentary listings for a select few applicants.

    Comment by klandy — September 4, 2009 @ 1:33 am


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