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.
In the Wynn Hotel and Casino
3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
* 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.