John Curtas is …

A LAKESIDE Lament

The trouble with the Lakeside Grill is ELV can’t get excited about it. The food is good. Real good. The vegetarian* food is even better. Everyone from Wynn designer Roger Thomas to Executive Chef David Walzog have busted their humps to update the old Daniel Boulud Brasserie space, and provide a top shelf casino/hotel dining experience.

But that’s the problem. Once you get past the flashy orange and white decor, the comfortable chairs, impeccably crafted apps and perfectly cooked mains, what you’re left with is a restaurant without a soul. And therein lies the problem.

On the brink of the Cosmo opening, ELV has been thinking a lot lately.

And no, it didn’t hurt.

What we’ve been thinking about is the difference between hotels who own their own restaurants (à la Wynn/Encore, Caesars, Bellagio, et al) and those who four- wall (i.e lease out) their food service operations (à la Venetian/Palazzo, Palms, and the soon-to-open THE Cosmopolitan).

We won’t bore you with all the pros and cons of one business model versus another, but suffice it to say the big, corporate hotels who dominate the Strip (and who own their own restaurants), are always teetering on the brink of reverting to the Vegas of old — when hotel gourmet rooms and coffee shops were almost indistinguishable from one another — and whatever personality the dining spots had was confined to cossetting the guests and getting them back to the gambling tables quickly. Food wasn’t the point back then, the illusion of luxury was, and metronomic operations were the rule.

The whole celebrity chef thing changed all that, of course, but keep in mind, the two household names who first made the biggest splashes here were Puck and Lagasse — two gents who, to this day, employ their own people and pay rent for their space. When the Bellagio opened twelve years ago, it ushered in the era of management agreements with big name chefs, whereby the hotel owned and employed everything, and the big names came and went according to their contract demands — not when they felt the need to maintain quality control. Thus, did the hotels retain control of the operation (it was their money after all), while gaining the benefit of a big shot chef’s brand.

The trouble is, big, corporate gambling palaces aren’t that good at food service operations. What they’re good at is running hotels and casinos. If any of them were being honest, they’d admit they don’t even want to run restaurants, they just have to. Since 1994, when MGM made the first big splash with Emeril, Mark Miller, and the original Charlie Trotter, the hotels have been locked in the restaurant equivalent of a cold war arms race — each feeling it has to top the other or risk being forever marginalized by the upscale tourist market they are all aiming to attract.

Wynn/Encore altered this paradigm by employing big name chefs, but over time, that idea has been losing steam. So Wynn loses Daniel Boulud (the only chef on a management contract there, and who brought (at least initially) a ton of Gallic passion to the operation), and then decided it can do just as well with a home grown concept that doesn’t have a pesky, high-falutin’ chef hanging around arguing with the F&B bean counters over what butter to use or why his pâté de Grand-mere beats another t-bone. From a business standpoint, it may make sense to make every restaurant in Vegas into an Italian steakhouse (or a something-for-everyone eatery like LG), but if you want to maintain your culinary cred with the gourmets and national food press who went crazy for the Wynn’s offerings in ‘o5, you are risking a lot.

What you risk is everyone shrugging and saying “big deal, I’d rather go someplace where the place looks and feels like people with passion for the food are running things,” and not just there to cover all the bases.

This doesn’t mean a hotel can’t run world class, hyper-delicious restaurant (Vegas has dozens of them, two of which are in the Wynn), but when certain economies of scale get factored in, being just a cog in a wheel of a giant hotel operation means, over time, soulfulness will be compromised. (It’s the reason why snobby, back east food writers disdain Las Vegas restaurants — “Too corporate,” is what they always say.)

Which brings us back to LG. It is the quintessence of an all-things-to-all-upper-middle-class-eatery. It has meatballs (fabulous), clam chowdah (good if a tad less clammy than we’d like), fusion-y sesame and seaweed-crusted crab on the one hand and plenty crabby Maryland crab cakes on the other. It has Atlantic sea scallops being served alongside Mediterranean sea bass. You can get sticky sweet, beautifully smoked pork ribs or crisp Dover sole rolled like a rollmop and served with Israeli couscous (toasted pearl pasta).

Two of our favorites items (worth going back for, in fact) were the baked potato pavé (a baked, thinly sliced, de-constructed-then-re-constructed potato of uncommon richness), and orange-braised fennel atop celery root purée that was so smooth and tasty we finally understood why Steverino stopped eating McRibs. Everything, every bite in fact, well-conceived, beautifully cooked and presented…and boring as hell.

Not because Walzog isn’t a fine chef (he is**), or because the setting isn’t striking (it is seriously so), but because, in the end, all of it looks and feels like it was conceived in a corporate boardroom.

Which it was.

ELV’s meal for two was comped. He left a $60 tip.

LAKESIDE GRILL

In the Wynn Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770.3310

* Enough with all this vegan shite. ELV hereby refuses to call eating vegetables anything other than what it’s always been: vegetarian.

** From pizzas and pastas to hot shellfish to chilled shellfish to share plates to poached and braised to oven roasted to grilled steaks, chops and and fish, LG’s menu had to be a monster undertaking. Our staff thinks DW deserves a raise just for thinking of it.

10 Responses to A LAKESIDE Lament

  • One word: Robuchon.

    Nine words: It seems like you’re saying it’s not snobby enough.

    A Lot of words: It sounds like what you’re complaining that it is, essentially, dressy American fare, but American fare nonetheless. The ja ne sais quoi you’re looking for is there is no foreign, exotic ingredient that makes your typical white-bread Bismarck ND tourist visibly wince and, once forcing down the dish, say “what in the heck is THAT?!”

    Not that YOU’RE being a elitist, mind you, but that the culinary world is. You’re just pointing it out for what it is, and wondering what the jet-setting fine dining audience is going to think of Wynn’s reputation when they see the place. Fair enough.

    But the reality is, even the people who dine at the “Casual Dining” level and don’t feel shame about it need a place to go to for the occasional splurge once in a while, too. As someone with taste preferences that are so sensitive and geared toward the fryer/salt/sugar diet that is dominant in this country (I’ve sometimes said I have “McTasteBuds”), I’m glad there’s finally a place around the Lake Steve that I can eat without feeling like I wasted my money on Poached Duck’s Lips or some other foo-foo food that I can barely swallow.

  • You completely nailed it. The presence of a chef taking risks with the food or cooking from the heart is the difference maker. Once the F&B goons get involved its all over.

  • Based on the review, I definitely will go to Lakeside. sometimes you just need solid food that is well prepared and a treat for the senses. I kind of get sick of everyone trying to one up each other and for that sometimes even the uber chefs get it wrong.

    At the end of the day, isn’t delicious food what most of us want!!!!!

  • Hey I’ll take decent “corporate food” any day over snobby service, a horrible table and mediocre food at the over-rated, over-hyped Daniel Boulud.

  • Good points, Mr. ELV…

    But Mike C also has a point here. IMHO he revealed why Wynn had no problem replacing DB with this. He’s betting that las turistas want to go somewhere that won’t “intimidate” them, and that them coming in will outnumber whatever foodies decide to go somewhere more exciting. And since not all high rollers have sophisticated palates, maybe there’s a market for this at Wynn.

    Without a doubt, Cosmo is taking a risk in renting space to so many edgy New York and LA hotspots, but hopefully it’s a risk that will reward them immensely. I guess it depends on how many foodies will be compelled to detour to Cosmo, and how many gamers and partiers there will be craving something different.

  • I totally agree with your points but from a different perspective. I base my view on the experience we had in planning and organizing a dinner for 18 for my wife’s birthday. We settled on either Wynn or Palazzo and contacted both for venues, etc. The Wynn food service people totally blew us off after their initial response. They later claimed they “lost” our second e-mail but made no apology. Palazzo referred us to the Puck people and they treated us like royalty. We settled on CUT, had a marvelous meal in a wonderful setting with tremendous service. Your right–casino hotels do not know how to run food service.

  • Yesterday I disagreed with ELV on his review of Burger Bar at Mandalay Place. Yet today a new day dawns and I agree with, (and am glad the issue was once again addressed), ELV’s platform about this issue. Will Cosmopolitan be the catalyst for changing the way Vegas eats?

  • In a town now overflowing with world-class chefs and wannabe foodies, sometimes it is the service that sets a place apart. (And why I never went back to DB.)

    I agree w/ Louis ~ just celebrated my daughter’s 16th b-day at CUT, and had an amazing meal with service to match. There are plenty of places in Vegas to get a $60 steak, and we will happily return to CUT for that privilege again :)

  • if cosmo is the catalyst for changing the way Vegas eats, hopefully as well its the catalyst that actually attracts high or equal quality restaurant/food critics.

    Not sure ELV professional blogging can stand up to such art and sophistication.

    Maybe for 2011 – ELV should pop the ego and use the juices that spurt out from that explosion to expand the ELV empire and begin to let the leash loose and start out sourcing other talented critics and perhaps some folks that understand food a wee bit more than him… But ELV loves the lime light so the idea of actually expanding and giving Las Vegas some actual street cred amongst other cities might be beyong his vision.

    Only time will tell; cosmo grand opening tomorrow. VIVA LAS VEGAS!!!!

  • I agree with Mr. Curtas.

John’s Tweets
John at Work Restaurant reviews, quips, picks and pans-with some seriously salivating history-from the man who eats his way through Sin City every day.
Follow eatinglasvegas on Twitter Follow eatinglasvegas on Twitter