There are passion restaurants and there are money restaurants. Rarely do the twain ever meet, and asking them to do so in Las Vegas is like expecting a stripper to take a check.
A cynic would say all casino restaurants are only about numbers and cash, but Steve Wynn has tantalized us before with the prospect of great food, generated by a passionate chef, generating lots of dough in the High Mojave. For what was Alex Stratta’s Renoir in the Mirage but an attempt to blend haute cuisine with lowbrow gambling?
Then came the Bellagio in 1998 — a place that sold its soul to the celebrity chef devil (igniting that stampede in the process) — and which took a fair amount of heat from the national food press for pretending to be passionate about food even as its absentee chefs did little more than wave at their operations from 30,000 feet as they flew from coast to coast.
The mold was re-shaped again with the opening of Wynn in ’05 — by the Steverino’s insistence that his chefs wouldn’t be phoning it in. By and large they didn’t and don’t, and it still boasts a Murderer’s Row of restaurants that make a lot of money, but exhibit (for a tourist town at least) a fair amount of chef-driven passion in what they serve (at least as much as they can within the confines of a 3,000 room, multi-billion dollar hotel operation).
Now Wynn has given us Encore — a hotel that promises to top all that has gone before (not in size necessarily, but certainly in substance).
The trouble with it (food-wise anyway) is that all its restaurants are boring. They’re big fancy, expensive, over-designed joints that have the fingerprints of food and beverage “experts” all over them. Each has a talented, creative chef behind the stoves, but you’d never know it because they’ve been over-thought and over-designed to such an extent that all originality and personality has been bled from the premises.
And methinks that’s just the way Wynn wants it.
Permit me a digression. For what is gambling but an illusion? It is capitalism without product as my father used to say, and it gives the player the illusion they are buying something that, inevitably, they will never get.
And when you pay your considerable sums for a meal at Sinatra, Botero, Switch, Wazuzu, and Society Cafe, what you pay extra for is the illusion that Wynn and his minions are producing the best food experience you can get, from top-shelf, on-premises chefs who are cooking their asses off for you.
What they’re really doing (at Switch and Botero anyway) is grilling a bunch of steaks and playing it ultra-safe. And at Wazuzu, all you’re getting is recycled Asian-fusion food straight from the Nobu playbook.
Things improve considerably when you get to the gussied up Italian food of Sinatra, and the middle-brow treats of Society, but by and large, those bean-counters are hoping you don’t notice how been there, done that all the food concepts are — the same way casino owners hope you don’t think too hard about the odds at whatever game of chance you’re playing.
Take Wazuzu for instance:
It comes to us with a hot shot young chef (Jet Tila), who probably spends as much time plotting his television career as his menu (we’ve been three times now and he’s nowhere to be found), and comes complete with a Swarovski crystal serpent on the wall that had to cost more than a few samolians. Regardless of where the chef is, the joint is as luxurious, comfortable, manageable, and pleasant to be in as any Asian restaurant you’ll ever find this side of Hong Kong or Tokyo.
Unlike meals in those cities, however, here you get a melange of cooking styles and Asian foods that run the gamut from pretty decent, if hackneyed sushi to atrociously bland Thai offerings that seem calculated (by those F&B folks no doubt), to appeal to the lowest common, taste-bud denominator. How else to explain tasteless, chunky chicken larb that would be laughed out of any third rate Thai restaurant, or pad Thai kon kaen that was likewise flavor (and spice)-free. (FYI: We asked for medium spicy on both dishes, which the kitchen must interpret as: Gringo no like pepper of any kind.)
Other menu misses included a pedestrian Chef’s Special Thai basil stir-fry that at least had some heat to it, but, once again, wouldn’t pass muster at any mom and pop joint, tepid panang chicken curry that wouldn’t have shocked our grandma (an Irish lass (born Hazel Brennan) who thought salt and pepper were pretty exotic), and shrimp har gow that were mostly filler and can’t hold a candle those at Beijing Noodle #9.
The bottom line on Wazuzu: It’s trying to do so many different types of cuisine that it isn’t that flavor-faithful to any one of them. But its operators (presumably including the always-absent Mr. Tila) hope the turistas won’t notice how dumbed down the food is amidst all that table finery and striking decor. And mostly, they’re right.
Speaking of dumb, it doesn’t get any dumber than the conceit behind Switch…
….a place where someone greenlighted the spending of tens of millions of dollars (ELV heard 40 mil) on a restaurant where, every twenty minutes, you get thirty seconds of bland, piped-in music signalling that one set of walls will be raised and another lowered, to change the look of the place. For what purpose you ask? To distract from the food? To give bored conventioneers something to talk about?
The irony of it all is that the overall look barely changes. The music starts, the lighting flickers, one set of partitions moves up and another takes its place. The whole shootin’ match is over in a minute and you’re still sittin’ there, starin’ at the same plate, with different walls surrounding you. ELV hasn’t seen anything this inane and nonsensical since his first wedding.
Watching this inanity over the course of a two hour meal, all we could think of was: Never in the course of human (restaurant) existence, has so much been spent by so many for so little.
After the second changeover, the novelty is gone, but the banality remains. Upon reflection, we’ve decided the corporate calculation behind this abomination centered on distracting restaurant critics and other uber-foodies from the fact that one of America’s greatest chefs (Marc Poidevin) is being asked to toil in yet another steakhouse. (They don’t call it a steakhouse of course, but that’s exactly what Switch is.)
Given Poidevin’s pedigree (Daniel, Le Cirque New York, Le Cirque Las Vegas) you can expect the cooking to be perfect, but once again he’s shackled by a steakhouse formula that leaves precious room for his considerable expertise. When it was announced Poidevin was getting his own restaurant, we at ELV envisioned weekly trips to Switch to see whatever haute-to-bourgeois, Americanized-French or Frenchified-American grub he was whipping up that night.
Instead Switch is the kind of restaurant where they train their waitstaff to brag about their “55 day wet-aged steaks” because the management is confident no one will tell them what a bunch of hooey such palaver is. Cryovac’d beef that’s hermetically sealed in thick plastic is no more being “aged” than those lamb chops you have stuck in your freezer. It’s a cheap, little lie that makes bottom-line laziness seem like the height of gourmandia — and it’s typical of an tourist economy that believes its own hype and hopes no one will notice.
Move away from the steaks, and you will notice competently done items like chicken stuffed with black truffles, sole meuniere that’s good (but not as pristine as Le Cirque’s), and sides that are about as interesting as steakhouse sides can be (lobster mac ‘n cheese, pencil thin asparagus, perfect spuds done a number of ways etc.), but again, at the end of the day, they’re just a bunch of formulaic dishes that a chef of Poidevin’s caliber doesn’t break a sweat to produce.
Before we leave the yawn-inducing menu and moving wall thing of Switch, (and in the spirit of trying to find something positive to say for which he is known), ELV asks you not to forget his Immutable Law of Constantly Moving Vegas Objects:
The more we hate some casino-contrived “spectacle,” the bigger success it will be.
This law has held firm through everything from the Mirage’s “volcano” to those idiotic, incomprehensible “talking” statues at Caesars, to the Fremont Street Experience to that stupid cartoon show on at that psuedo-lake at the Wynn. Each of these succeeds as a monument to people’s love of bright, shiny, moving objects; and since each has been a huge success with the hoi polloi, there may be hope yet for the insensibility of Switch.
Returning to those positive notes, what floats our boat about Society Cafe…
…. is the delivery of good, solid grub without pretension. Chef Kim Canteenwalla is a veteran of The Light Group, and along with fellow vet and front-of-the-house-guy Oliver Wharton, he serves up cafe (coffee shop?) food that is by turns lovely to look at and pleasing to taste at prices that won’t choke you — at least at lunch. Dinner for two can easily exceed $150 if you go hog wild –much less if you stick with small plates.
What Canteenwalla and crew have practically made a specialty of over the years is what we call gourmet/upscale bar food — basics like burgers, wings, dips and nibbles done to the nth degree. Nothing will scare or intimidate grandma (or a nine year old for that matter), but everything just seems to be one of the best (or certainly one of the better versions) of comfort food you’ve ever come across.
Thus are staples like superb steak salad, pea soup, mac n’ cheese, pretzel bread, a ham and cheese sandwich and mini-quiches done at a very high level — and consumed in a grand salon setting that could be straight from La Belle Epoque.
And ELV can’t remember when he had better chicken wings — these ones “lollipop’d” and served with an intense, blue cheese dipping sauce — the way they’re supposed to be. We’re also pretty crazy about the “sliders” of filet mignon, charred yellowfin tuna, and “sloppy joes” — that were so good they almost made us forget about all the forgettable food that preceded them in Society’s three sister restaurants.
We haven’t had Canteenwalla’s quail fry, lobster pot pie or braised pork short ribs with sweet potato fries, but if they’re half as good as his (and Chef de Cuisine’s Jeremy Pacheco’s) spiced sugarcane shrimp skewers, or spicy pigs in a blanket, or Grandma Rose’s meatballs, we know we’ve missed something worth a return visit.
And then there’s Sinatra…
As the most subdued of Encore’s restaurants, and one centered around our least favorite Rat Packer to boot, it was the one venue we were least prepared to like. Even worse (we thought) it is Italian in theme — the only category more overworked (and more steeped in mediocrity) than steakhouses in these here parts.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hating it: Chef Theo Schoenegger turned out one tasty six course meal for us during media week (i.e. we didn’t pay for it), and we turned up recently for a re-match (with Schoenegger gone but his Chef de Cusine Alexandre Ageneau in the house), and we were again dutifully impressed from soup to nuts.
Of course those soups and nuts will cost you a pretty penny: at Encore, $50 a la carte entrees are the norm. But if you’re willing to pay the freight, what you’ll get is a lesson in why Theo was so highly thought of for so long down in LaLa Land. (His last gig there was at Patina with Joachim Splichal.)
A pitch-perfect seafood trio — octopus and tuna crudo, and barely cooked shrimp — began our first meal here, and at our second, we went for the “land” assortment for our starter. Those four dishes included first-rate proscuitto (not culatello quality, but close), with fresh persimmon, cotechino sausage with lentils, bufala mozzarella with basil buds, and twin cylinders of poached foie gras that couldn’t have been any better.
Pastas are all made in-house and are excellent, but one of the simpler items on the menu: the zuppa di fagioli, made with a cream of borlotti beans, tubettini pasta and garlic and rosemary oil, is a symphony of simplicity that will take your breath away. Likewise, the squab is a perfect evocation of this tiny bird, and the osso buco “My Way” may sound hokey (and straight from Hoboken), but is a refined take on this classic that will stick in your mind almost as much as all the Sinatra tunes that play non-stop throughout your meal. We especially liked the slightly bitter brunoise that sat atop the veal shank — cutting through the dish’s richness and giving it an edginess and a tinge of sophistication that most versions lack.
The only flaws we’ve found in either of our meals were a perfectly cooked, yet egregiously over-salted scallop, and the strange, risotto-stuffed cannelloni pasta that sits atop even more saffron-tinged risotto that shares the plate with the veal — a starch within a starch on top of a starch being the culinary equivalent of wearing a belt with a belt with suspenders.
All is forgiven, though, with one sip of uber-cocktail gal Patricia Richard’s Sinatra Smash (a somewhat sissified concoction containing bourbon, creme de cassis and vanilla syrup) that ELV (not to mention his staff) found highly palatable, but that Ol’ Blue Eyes would’ve rolled his at, or any of Master Sommelier Bob Kelly’s excellent (if overpriced) wines by the glass. Who, we wonder, but us, is springing for a $30 glass of aglianico these days?
The food at Sinatra doesn’t plow any new ground, but is compelling for its use of excellent ingredients tweaked ever so to intrigue your taste buds (the use of that brunoise atop the osso buco being but one example). Because of those admirable attributes, it remains one of two restaurants at Encore to which we look forward to returning.
As for Botero, Switch and Wazuzu, we’ll seek our steaks and Asian food elsewhere.
Prices at all of the Wynn’s premier restaurants (at Encore that means Botero, Switch and Sinatra) are among the highest in town. For example: ELV dining alone at Sinatra, ordering three standard courses with two glasses of wine, spent $180 for one. Three meals at Wazuzu exceeded $50/person and our meal for three at Switch came to $377 with a modest bottle of wine.
Encore Hotel and Casino
3131 Las Vegas, Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Central Reservation Line – 702.770.DINE (3463)
After around 4 PM, generally, the restaurants can be reached individually at these #’s.
SOCIETY CAFE ENCORE 702.770.5300