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You may have heard that a great part of the fun in Vegas these days is the eating. This is true. Where once Vegas was, at best, ignored by anyone with a palate and, at worst, openly mocked, it is now considered one of the best dining towns in the country. All sorts of celebrity chefs have set up shop here, from the ubiquitous Emeril to Julian Serrano. Branches of a number of significant restaurants (Bouchon, Fleur de Lys, Commander's Palace, Aqua, Aureole, Le Cirque, Lutece) can be found here, though of course, rare is the day you are going to find the signature chef in the kitchen. But the city boasts a few Vegas-based master chefs who can compete with any of those dudes on the Food Network.
On the other hand, the town of the great meal deal-the 99¢ shrimp cocktail or $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet!-has now reversed itself. For the most part, if you want to eat well, you need to be well-heeled. But you, the non-gambler, with all that money you've saved from the clutches of the craps table, may well be able to take full advantage of the haute cuisine currently offered. And while little hole-in-the-wall ethnic places aren't nearly as abundant as we would like, there are a few noteworthy spots-including perhaps the best Thai restaurant on the continent-and we will help you find your way to them. We may make you drive to certain finds, but don'tworry; we've included even a few hotel-based midprice restaurants worth your patronage as well, plus we've picked our favorites among the many buffets around-after all, it's not a trip to Vegas unless you've piled your plates with a mound of shrimp and endless helpings of prime rib.
1 South Strip
Aureole *** NOUVELLE AMERICAN This branch of a New York City fave (it's pronounced are-ree-all) run by Charlie Palmer is noted for its glass wine tower. Four stories of carefully chosen bottles (including the largest collection of Austrian wines outside that country-well worth trying) are plucked from their perches by comely, cat-suited lasses who fly up and down via pulleys. It's quite the show, and folks come in just to watch.
Should you come for the food? You bet. The current chef is a wonder, serving a seasonal three-course prix-fixe menu, though flirting with your waiter might earn you luxurious extras like pate on brioche topped with shaved truffles or an espresso cup of cold yellow pepper soup with crab. Expect other marvels like a tender roasted lamb loin and braised shoulder, or a rack of venison accompanied by sweet potato puree and chestnut crisp. Everything demonstrates the hand of a true chef in the kitchen, someone paying close attention to his work and to his customers. Service is solicitous, and desserts are playful, including a bittersweet chocolate souffle with blood orange sorbet and a Bartlett pear crisp with toasted cinnamon brioche and lemongrass foam. There is also an excellent cheese plate. Do try the wine list; it comes on a handheld computer, designed not just to guide you through their vast tower but also to recommend pairings with your meal choices.
In Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 877/632-5300. aureolelv.com. Reservations required. Fixed-price dinner $69-$95. AE, DISC, MC, V. Daily 6-11pm.
Charlie Palmer Steak ** STEAKHOUSE There are many, many steakhouses in Vegas, as if there is some natural law which states that any hotel without one will suffer from entropy and eventually collapse into a black hole. Discerning palates know there can be a significant difference among steakhouses; discerning wallets might not care. If you find yourself among the former, do try Charlie Palmer's, probably the best of the costlier Shrines to Beef. Those with the latter can be reassured that with entrees weighing in at around 22 to 45 ounces each, diners can legitimately, and in the name of decency ought to, share portions, which makes this a much more affordable experience than it might appear at first glance. And why not? Those enormous slabs o' meat are as tender as anything because with the big bucks, you do get the best cuts. Charlie Palmer, by the way, is the chef mind behind Aureole on the other side of Mandalay Bay; this makes two for two for this one celeb chef.
In Four Seasons Las Vegas, 3960 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/632-5120. charliepalmersteaklv.com. Reservations recommended. Main courses $21-$42. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Daily 5-10:30pm.
Commander's Palace ** CREOLE This is an offshoot of the famous New Orleans restaurant, which is considered the best in that town, and sometimes even the best in the country. Vegas's version isn't nearly all that, but it's one of the better choices in town, with a menu where nary a dish fails. You would be best off getting the $39 three-course Creole favorite, featuring the justly legendary turtle soup with sherry, Louisiana pecan-crusted fish, and signature bread pudding souffle, three things Commander's does very, very well indeed. Pork chops sound humble, but here they are thick cut and juicy. Try the Chocolate Sheba in addition to the bread pudding for dessert. The menu is shorter at brunch and lunch, but just as delightful. Revel all the while in the fantastic, doting service.
In the Desert Passage in Aladdin Resort & Casino, 3663 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/892-8272. commanderspalace.com. Reservations recommended. Main courses $22-$25 at brunch, $16-$28 at lunch, $25-$39 at dinner. AE, DISC, MC, V. Mon-Fri 9am-11am, 11:30am-2pm, and 5:30-10pm; Sat-Sun 10:30am-2pm and 5:30-10pm.
Emeril's New Orleans Fish House * CONTEMPORARY CREOLE Chef Emeril Lagasse, a ubiquitous presence on cable's Food Network, probably needs to focus on his name restaurants; the original in New Orleans is just as good as ever, but this one has lost some of its punch. How else to explain that the best dish is Creole-spiced rib-eye? And that the duck on the duck salad is better than the salad itself? But the famous savory lobster cheesecake is still a must-try, and we do love his version of barbecue shrimp, slathered in a garlicky herb-Worchester-tinged sauce, paired with a rosemary biscuit. And it all seems worthwhile when you have a slice of the banana cream pie with banana crust and caramel drizzle.
In MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/891-7374. Reservations required. Main courses $12-$18 at lunch, $18-$38 at dinner (more for lobster). AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Daily 11am-2:30pm and 5:30-10:30pm.
Fleur de Lys *** FRENCH CONTINENTAL One of the most sophisticated restaurants in Las Vegas, this is an offshoot of a highly regarded San Francisco establishment run by chef Hubert Keller. Continuing the tradition of visually show-stopping restaurant spaces in Mandalay Bay, most tables are set in the semicircular two-story interior consisting half of '70s-style stone brick walls, half of billowing drapes, behind which are concealed a few dining booths. It's one of the few places in town where you ought to dress up to dine, but in a good way. At this writing, one orders from a three-, four-, or five-course tasting menu (including a well-thought-out vegetarian option), featuring seasonal choices such as an appetizer of delicate seared ahi tuna with a gelee of chili and garlic, a silly appearing but hearty ocean "baeckeoffe" (a collection of seafood options including a sort of seafood burger-style crab cake on a brioche), pan-seared diver scallops with parsnip fires served in a cunning mini flower pot, perfect roasted Maine lobster with an artichoke puree soup, and roasted guinea hen breast and leg confit topped with crispy basil. Our descriptions won't do these playful, sexy dishes justice. It's food as art, certainly, but not so that the point of food-the eating of it, the very taste-is lost. Despite the presence of a perfect white and dark chocolate mousse on the "Chocolate Feast" sampler plate, you owe it to yourself to try the fresh fruit minestrone-basil sorbet, raspberries, mango, and more, all strong fresh fruit flavors that harmonize beautifully-for once, a no-fat dessert worth ordering.
In Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 877/632-9200. Reservations recommended. Jacket recommended. 3- to 5-course menu $68-$88. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Daily 5:30-10:30pm.
Red Square ** CONTINENTAL/RUSSIAN It's the restaurant with the giant beheaded statue of Lenin out front and the bar made of ice (all the better to keep your drinks chilled) inside. It's the place for vodka and blow-your-expense-account Beluga (we prefer Osetra, in case you are treating us), along with Roquefort-crusted, tender filet mignon-one of the best filets in a town full of red meat. Silly theme drinks keep up the goofy quotient (the "Cuban Missile Crisis," for example, features rain vodka, dark rum, sugarcane syrup, and lime juice), but do consider trying a vodka flight. Dessert is not so clever but is worth saving room for; we liked the Chocolate Trilogy, a white-chocolate cake tower topped with chocolate mousse and wrapped in chocolate.
In Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 877/632-5300. Reservations recommended. Main courses $17-$31. AE, DC, MC, V. Daily 5:30pm-midnight.
Border Grill *** MEXICAN More entries from Food Network denizens-in this case, the "Two Hot Tamales," Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. In a riotous-colored venue (the highly popular original is in Los Angeles), you will find truly authentic Mexican home cooking-the Tamales learned their craft from the real McCoy south of the border-but with a nuevo twist. So don't expect precisely the same dishes you'd encounter in your favorite corner joint, but do expect fresh and fabulous food, arranged as brightly on the plates as the decor on the walls. It might be hard to get kids interested in anything other than tacos and enchiladas, but you should try the cochinita pibil (marinated shredded pork) or some of their excellent tamales. Stay away from the occasionally bland fish and head right toward rich and cheesy dishes such as the chiles rellenos (with perfect black beans), or try the mushroom empanadas. Don't miss the dense but fluffy Mexican chocolate cream pie (with a meringue crust).
In Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 877/632-5300. Reservations recommended. Main courses $15-$20. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Sun-Thurs 11:30am-10:30pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm.
Burger Bar * DINER What to do, what to do? We get exhausted by the relentless Vegas-high-concept that takes a simple idea like a hamburger and gives it an entire restaurant, an entire menu designed so you can "build" your own burger with dozens of options available-People, cheese! Ketchup! Onions! Why do you need more? Why, why, why?-so that the naive could suddenly turn their affordable lunch into something approaching $20 a person. Assuming, of course, that you didn't fall for pricey gimmicks like Kobi beef (Tip: too soft for a good burger) and foie gras, in which case you would be looking at more like $50 a person. But then again, we love gimmicks. We also see the point of avocado bacon burgers. Plus, they make excellent shakes here, and there is that "sweet burger" (a donut "bun" with a chocolate pate patty and fruit!), which is so charming we are disarmed. And the burgers are good. So. Order carefully, don't show off, and don't forget about the genuine (and appropriately priced) hamburgers sold at the Tiffany's coffee shop near the Strat.
In Mandalay Place in Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/ 632-9364. Burgers $8-$20. AE, DISC, MC, V. Sun-Thurs 10am-11pm; Fri-Sat 10am-1am.
Dragon Noodle Co. ** ASIAN FUSION A strong choice for a reasonably priced meal, Dragon Noodle is one of the better Chinese restaurants in town. We were glad to see that in addition to the usual suspects, there are some other interesting (if not radically less safe) choices on the menu. Note also the many Asian clients (part of our criteria for the authenticity of a place) and that the restaurant can handle large groups. Food is served family style and prepared in an open kitchen, so you know it's fresh. Be sure to try the very smooth house green tea. You might let your waiter choose your meal for you, but try the crispy Peking pork, the sweet pungent shrimp, the potstickers, and perhaps the generous seafood soup. We were a little disappointed by the popular sizzling black-pepper chicken, but you may not be, so don't let us stop you. And they now have a sushi bar!
In Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, 3770 Las Vegas Blvd. South (between Flamingo Rd. and Tropicana Ave.). 702/730-7965. Main courses $5.50-$17 (many under $10). AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Sun-Thurs 11am-11pm; Fri-Sat 11am-midnight.
Grand Wok and Sushi Bar ** Value PAN-ASIAN A pan-Asian restaurant runs the risk of attempting to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but somehow, this new MGM eatery pulls it off. You can choose among Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and probably more-we just aren't sure what Laotian food looks like (but would love to learn). Sushi is fresh and lovely, and the Vietnamese soups are enormous, full of noodles and different kinds of meat or fish; four people can easily split an order, so this is a great budget option for lunchtime.
In MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/891-7777. Reservations not accepted. Main courses $9-$14; sushi $4.50-$9.50. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V. Restaurant Sun-Thurs 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-midnight; sushi bar Mon-Thurs 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-midnight, Sun 11am-10pm.
Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill ** CALIFORNIA This transformed Puck Cafe is still a desirable, if slightly less affordable, option in MGM Grand. There is nothing surprising on the menu if you've eaten in any modern cafe in the post-Puck era; it's not his fault his influence has extended so far. There is enough variety that everyone in your party should find something to please them, from crab cakes with basil aioli, to a prime rib sandwich, to homemade veal ravioli, to Puck's pizzas, plus a good wine cellar. The fresh salads (we love the seasonal roasted beet) are better constructed than those at comparable eateries in town while Puck's hand is still on someone's helm; witness the silly potato chips drizzled with truffle oil and melted bleu cheese. It's all set in an almost entirely open space, a minimalist art take on a country kitchen, and it's a bit noisy, thanks to proximity to the casino floor and cheers from the nearby sports book. Expect it to be crowded right before and after KA but possibly quiet during.
In MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/895-9653. Reservations not accepted. Main courses $10-$23. AE, DC, MC, V. Mon-Thurs 11:30am-11pm; Fri 11:30am-11:30pm; Sat 10am-11:30pm; Sun 10am-11pm.
Calypsos * Value DINER Here's a solid, reasonably priced place to eat, which is pretty rare on the Strip. Honestly, it's kind of like a Denny's, but its traditional coffee-shop choices (including a "create your own burger") are somewhat better than you might expect. There are also some eccentric items, such as a chopped Mediterranean shrimp salad, a smoked salmon plate, a rosemary chicken sandwich on onion focaccia bread, and a strawberry puff swan for dessert. Note also a very good (and low-fat!) Thai shrimp satay, loaded with vegetables, which is listed under "classic American" dishes.
In Tropicana Resort & Casino, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/739-2222. Reservations not accepted. Main courses $6-$19. AE, MC, V. Daily 24 hr.
Jodi Maroni's Sausage Kingdom *** Kids SAUSAGES There are several worthy fast food stands in the New York-New York food court, but this one deserves an individual mention. What began as a humble stand on the Venice boardwalk in Los Angeles has expanded into a sausage empire, and we are glad. You will be, too, especially if you take a chance on the menu and don't just stick with the basic hot dog (though they do offer three tempting varieties-and kids love 'em) and instead try something a little more adventurous, like the tequila chicken sausage made with jalapenos, corn, and lime. Maybe some chili fries, too. Our first choice for fast food in the immediate area.
In New York-New York Hotel & Casino, 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. South. 702/740-6969. Everything under $10. No credit cards. Daily 10am-11pm.
Excerpted from Frommer's Portable Las Vegas for Non-Gamblers by Mary Herczog Excerpted by permission.
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