LAS VEGAS — 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 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 that Las Vegas — a destination once notable only for its all-you-can-eat buffets and el cheapo steak dinners — is an against-all-odds food lovers' mecca.
"The chef is going to keep you busy," said my waiter, and he wasn't kidding. I was at Pierre Gagnaire's Twist, one of the cavalcade of exceptional dining experiences to be had in City Center, the $9 billion, 68-acre hotel-shopping-condo complex. Twist is in the understated Mandarin Oriental Hotel (mandarinoriental.com/lasvegas/dining).
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 gelee, 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 seamless staff, and all for the price of a ticket to the Donny & Marie show at the Flamingo.
The line that 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.
Three final City Center notes: Take a seat at the raucous, marble-topped bar at the Todd English P.U.B. (toddenglishpub.com) for a superb happy hour (weekdays, 3-6 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 a pop.
While many visitors spend their afternoons relaxing poolside, hitting a golf ball or indulging in one of the countless spas, I recharged my batteries by sinking into a velvet-covered Chippendale sofa in the 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.
And next to City Center, Washington, D.C., chef Jose Andres has two must-dine outlets in the upscale food court in the stylish Cosmopolitan hotel. China Poblano (chinapoblano.com) and Jaleo (jaleo.com) are 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, Andres revels in two of his great culinary loves — Mexican and Chinese.
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 (centerlv.com), 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 Gruyere gougeres 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 Ristorante Di Mare in the Wynn Hotel (wynnlasvegas.com). Chef/namesake Paul Bartolotta relocated from Milwaukee to the glitzy Wynn, where he presides over a two-story dining room. A ton of fresh seafood is delivered from Mediterranean sources each week.
Off the Strip
Diners have plenty of reasons to venture off the overblown carnival that is Las Vegas Boulevard. Start with the 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 (montaramen.com).
On the opposite side of town lies the pinnacle in off-the-Strip dining: Lotus of Siam (saipinchutima.com). The shopping-mall surroundings don't make a memorable first impression, and the interior isn't much of a step up. But oh, the food. The menu boasts more than 100 Thai favorites, but I explored the traditional, almost grandmotherly dishes that chef/owner Saipin Chutima prepares from the northern reaches of her homeland: a hot red chile dip scooped up with fried pig's skin, a steaming bowl of crimped noodles finished with pickled vegetables and a sweet-hot coconut curry, and a sour chicken soup, its intense flavors blossoming on my tongue.
After a friend raved about an off-the-radar spot a block from the Strip, I made a beeline for the Barrymore (barrymorelv.com). The surroundings were not promising, but once inside, the cozy restaurant proved a jewel, with a menu of all-American favorites along the lines of pesto-brushed grilled artichokes and a chicken soup with pitch-perfect matzo balls. Best of all was the burger, a ground steak patty grilled to perfection and topped with a medley of flavors: oven-roasted tomatoes, a garlic aoili, spidery frisee and bacon-laced caramelized onions.