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Vegas Diaries: Four dinners and a brunch...

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Dessert cart at Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

It wasn’t a dare, I promise. But I was in Las Vegas this past weekend, and when you pair up with John Curtas (Eating Las Vegas), it’s a little like going down to Bridgeport with one of the Daley boys. Curtas has not only been to every restaurant of note in town, he’s been to each one twice. This is no small accomplishment, but again, Vegas doesn’t have near the breadth and depth of dining options we do in Chicago. In fact, it’s kind of weird how just about all of the major players – the ones you hear about in the national press – tend to co-exist all along or adjacent to The Strip, in a 4.5 mile radius. I was partly there to visit Sage, Shawn McClain’s new place, tucked into the massive Aria Hotel, which itself is part of the $9 billion dollar City Center complex. My head was spinning after touring the sleek new Mandarin Oriental, its 23rd story lobby lounge, über cool bar and signature restaurant – Twist – from acclaimed 3-star Michelin French chef Pierre Gagnaire. I really wanted to just chill out and take in the view; I did it once at the Mandarin in New York City, overlooking Central Park (and have the $140 bill to prove it), but there’s something odd when you’re paying top dollar for dramatic views of the street below, containing more neon and golden arches than I care to see (at least in the daytime).

Vegas is full of dichotomies. On one hand, they’ve assembled a Murderer’s Row of culinary talent: Savoy, Gagnaire, Puck, Robuchon, et al. On the other hand, you can still get a $10 buffet (you just have to look a little harder). In a city that is a literal mirage, where the electricity is purchased elsewhere and the water is shipped in from Colorado, you can dine like a sultan on the most luxe ingredients prepared by the greatest culinary talent served in the most beautiful surroundings on the finest china in the world. Oh yeah, there’s also 18 master sommeliers in town, more than any other U.S. city. This is in the desert, mind you.

We’ve all come to realize that these “celebrity” chefs (hate that term, by the way) are businessmen. They have brands. They have incredibly large staffs to train. But because their names are on the front doors, many of them make a point to keep that image polished frequently. Curtas is a fountain of knowledge about the local scene, and knows who is phoning it in (English) and who is minding the store (Savoy). So I asked Mr. ELV if he would accompany me on a whirlwind “greatest hits” of what’s new and worthwhile. It would have to be relatively quick; I would have a video camera in tow, which he would have to operate. I did my best to train him. I think the man did an admirable job for having zero experience. Kudos to him for the effort.

After a splendid lunch on Saturday at Origin India, one of the finest off-Strip restaurants I have experienced (next to the cult-favorite Lotus of Siam and the more revered Raku), Origin reminded me of the kind of places I’ve eaten in London. It also brought to mind the food of Suvir Suran, a New York-based chef and restaurateur who cooks bold dishes, each with a superb depth of flavor. Chiles, mustard seeds, curry leaves and toasted spices are the norm; the addition of spice-laden cocktails and Belgian beers provide relief in a way no bottle of Taj or Kingfisher can.

Dinner inside the Aria began with Shawn McClain’s Sage. You can see my video from there, so I won’t go into too much detail. But I wanted to get back to the Aria to see some other newcomers as well. This is where we decide to pack it in on Sunday.

After a quick brunch at Simon, inside the relatively new Palms Place (a boutique hotel and condo complex off the Strip) next to the Palms Casino, they have a “Pajama Party Brunch” on Sundays. I nibbled on fried chicken and waffles, some cornflake-crusted french toast and a breakfast pizza, while my friend helped herself to the bloody mary bar and a small breakfast buffet of sushi, paninis and smoothies. I waited patiently for dinner, trying to build up steam, and an appetite.

Pristine oysters from Guy Savoy (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

Our first stop: Caesars Palace, the site of Restaurant Guy Savoy. As some of my regular readers will recall, I had the opportunity to dine at the flagship in Paris about a month ago (this was totally by accident, I had run into Guy in a bistro in the 14th, recognized him, introduced myself, mentioned a friend in common and got invited to lunch two days later. Talk about luck). So I was extremely curious to see what the Savoy brand is like in the desert. I’m greeted at the door by his son, no less. Franck Savoy lives here full-time, making sure the food and service live up to his father’s name. Just like Paris, there is obscure yet appealing modern art on the walls. In Paris, you feel as if you’re dining in someone’s townhouse; in Vegas, the room’s ceiling is much broader (and higher) and there’s the addition of an inviting patio, where you can sit down and sip some champagne before dinner. But rather than stare at a manmade waterfall like they get to at The Wynn, here, you gaze out onto the jarring site of a 40 foot high Donnie & Marie Osmond ad plastered onto the side of a hotel, while “Hot Girls Who Want To Meet You” billboard trucks drive down the Strip and signs beckon with $24 all-you-can-eat buffets. As my new friend and fellow foodie Sarah Feldberg from Las Vegas Weekly put it: “embrace the disparity.”

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