Mark LoRusso deserves to be a show horse. Not that he’s a showy or flashy guy. Far from it. He’s one of those humble, workaholic chefs who prefers to let his cuisine do the talking. As the Chef de Cuisine of Michael Mina’s Aqua (now Michael Mina), he was that kitchen’s secret weapon, and a guy whose reputation among fellow chefs was exalted long before the public had ever heard of him.
His work at Tableau in the Wynn from 2005-2007 earned him Chef of the Year honors in ’07 from KNPR, and when he’s on his game (which is just about every day and night) the guy is the Tiger Woods of kitchen consistency. Unfortunately, what he’s being asked to do at Botero is the equivalent of chaining a thoroughbred to a milk wagon — and then asking it to make deliveries at 50 miles an hour. Thus has the show horse become a work horse, and because of it, the results are mixed.
Before you even get to the food, however, there’s a lot to like about Botero. The Colombian artist/sculptor is obviously a favorite of Steve Wynn’s, and gives this place it’s name — although what he or his art have to do with it (apart from providing a tax shelter for some of Steverino’s collection) is puzzling. But there’s no denying the drama provided by the steatopygiac female nude that dominates the room, or the snorting bull that graces the outdoor patio.
Dramatic touches abound throughout, but sadly, not enough on the plates. The entryway and small bar are fittingly welcoming and eye-popping (c.f. Hot Hostess Watch #14), the huge circular room provides everyone with good sight lines of who’s coming and going, and the outdoor pool area is visible to all — giving the whole operation a seductive, theatrical, indoor-outdoor feel.
One of ELV’s constant complaints about Vegas restaurants is their size and soullessness, but even at well over 200 seats, this place never feels cavernous or impersonal. The great lighting helps, and a crackerjack service squad keeps things humming through several turns a night.
Where that food factory feel rears its ugly head is in the menu. LoRusso does his level best to sex up a steakhouse menu, but there’s a been-there, done that feel to yet another meat emporium being foisted upon us.
Eating Las Vegas’s pet theory is that every restaurant in town would be a steakhouse if they could get away with it. Nothing puts fannies in the seats and cash in the till like peddling slabs ‘o steer muscle and overpriced, domestic, big-hitter cabernets to a credulous bunch of meat hounds who willingly pay over fifty dollars for a piece of grilled food.
Another theory of ours is that the whole recalibration of the steak house formula — with its endless variations on cuts of beef, provenance of products, and farm-to-table sides, is a reflection of the inherent worn-out nature of the menus that put Palm, Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s et al on our map. Something had to be done to recapture the dollars of bored boomers who grew up with creamed spinach and softball-sized filets, so what the new wave of steakhouses did was make steaks snobby.
It’s really a great con, because prices shot up to stratospheric levels (remember when a $30 strip was the cat’s meow?), and operators learned they could get away with charging a fortune for vegetables.
The last laugh is always on ELV, however, ‘cuz none of these places is ever empty. Which leads to ELV’s Immutable Steak Rule: Americans like the idea of beef much more than its actual taste, which is why fork tender, flavorless beef sells so well.
Wynn steakhouses (all four of them) aspire to snobbishness (and have the prices to prove it), but aren’t nearly as serious about their beef as even Capital Grille or Strip Steak, not to mention Craftsteak, CUT or Carnevino. But then again, they don’t have to be. Carnivores still beat a path to their door even if the cryovac’d rib-eye is tasteless (it was) and the strip (ELV refuses to call them “wet-aged”) — dry as a bone, even when properly cooked to medium rare (no mean feat that).
On the plus side, the dry-aged rib-eye (aged off premises) was one of the best steaks we’ve had in town (it tastes as beef is supposed to: mineral-rich, tangy, beefy and with a bit of funk to boot), and the loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass), as perfect a fish filet as you’ll find anywhere but the Amalfi Coast. Other menu gems include roasted bone marrow (a gooey, unctuous delight), lollipop-like frog legs, a nice crudo platter, and a lightly-dressed frisee lettuce and beet salad that almost had us declaring we like beets. (FYI: ELV hates beets almost as much as he hates this guy.)
But the thick, tough shrimp and chips wouldn’t have passed muster at Tableau, and the crab two ways failed to wow us with either of them. Likewise, the dazzle factor of six little cupcakes would impress a six year old, but seemed like a by-the-numbers corporate calculation to this oldster. And our chocolate souffle was undercooked to the point of soupiness, although it was accompanied by superior vanilla and coffee sauces. (LoRusso is constitutionally incapable of serving an insufficiently succulent sweet or savory sauce.)
The wine list is small and manageable, all over the map, and priced much lower than it would’ve been a year ago.
We expect many of Botero’s minor missteps to be corrected (after all, this place is merely a month old), but regardless, it is destined to remain a cash cow instead of a showplace for the talents of its chef. ELV can only hope that, perhaps one day, Mark LoRusso will get a restaurant worthy of his metier.
We didn’t pay for either of our two meals here, but unless one of you agrees not to eat a thing, dinner for two will run at least $250.
At the Encore Hotel and Casino
3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109