The Bellagio Turned 20 Yesterday and No One Cared

Image may contain: 9 people, including Samuel DeMarco, people smiling, people standing

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino turned 20 years old last night at 8:00 and no one gave a shit.

Not a peep from its corporate parent; no parties; no press releases; no kudos from the casino industry that has become one gigantic fat cat because of the ground it plowed.

As long as we’re mixing metaphors, think of it this way: until Steve Wynn planted his flag and took his casino to “11”, restaurants were considered small fish swimming around in a large gambling pond. When he decided to ring his casino with nine superb eateries — Sam’s, Shintaro, Le Cirque, Circo, Jasmine, Aqua, Olives, Prime, and Picasso — it was big news in the culinary world. As I’ve written before: when the Bellagio opened, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder. Something big, really big was happening here; something that would change Las Vegas’s culture and reputation in huge ways, and the food world in many small ones.

To be fair, what Wynn wrought was simply a more extravagant version of changes that had been underway for the previous five years. Wolfgang Puck was the original pioneer, along with Gamal Aziz (the MGM F&B executive who first expanded its culinary horizons with Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller and Charlie Trotter). Together with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse — the first upscale national chain to come here in 1989 — they proved that there was gastronomic gold in our tourism hills, and that people (mainly Boomers who were coming of age) had cash to spend on good restaurants — not just the coffee shop, steakhouse, buffet and “continental” dining rooms of decades past.

I turned 40 in the 90s, and like many of my age bubble, I looked at fine dining as a signifier of the good life I aspired to. And like many of my contemporaries, I started making some real money in those years and had cash to spend on things I had previously only dreamed of.

And spend it I did, and to the Bellagio I went — on October 15, 1998, with my then-wife — to walk around and take in the magnificence of it all. Sam’s (headed by New York chef Sam DeMarco) looked like a set from a Flintstones cartoon, and had tweaked American classics like hot dogs and grilled cheese and burgers like Vegas had never seen before. Memories have dimmed but I recall appetizers served in all sorts of fun, odd dishware, incredible mini-burgers, and wonderful fried seafood. “Too hip for the room,” were my thoughts then and I turned out to be right. Despite great food and a super-groovy decor, what Bellagio wanted/needed was a mediocre steakhouse (to catch the overflow from its superb one downstairs), and that’s what Sam’s was replaced with after a couple of years into its run.

But no matter, on that opening night, it was magical, as was Shintaro, the sushi bar with back-lit jellyfish floating above it, Prime (then and now, one of the most beautiful restaurants in America), Picasso (headlined by Julian Serrano – San Francisco’s best chef, lured here by Wynn), Aqua (helmed then by a seafood wünderkind named Michael Mina), and finally the jewels in the crown: Le Cirque and Circo. Never before had any hotel (in Vegas, in America, in the world) seen so much kitchen, menu, architectural, and cooking talent in one hotel at one time. It was a murderer’s row of restaurants, and  every chef, manager, restaurateur, and dishwasher in America couldn’t help but take notice.

And notice it they did. And within two years the Venetian and Mandalay Bay came on line to compete, and within five years the whole culinary world, from Parisian chefs to Food Network stars, were knocking on Vegas’s door asking to be let in.

And do you know how Mirage Resorts International (Bellagio’s corporate parent) celebrated this groundbreaking birthday yesterday? With crickets.

Nada. Nothing. Bupkus.

Not a tweet, not a mention, nary a “Hey, it’s Bellagio’s 20th birthday!” press release.

Why? Because they don’t give a shit. Like all casino corporations, this property is just another profit center to them. They’re not interested in legacies or histories or nostalgia. (They’re also probably not interested in celebrating anything invented by Steve “Tennis Shorts Testicles” Wynn.) The entire gambling industry, indeed the entirety of Las Vegas, is built on the here and now. Long term memories are not conducive to shilling any of the products Vegas is selling. Short term memory needs to be as short as possible — the better to keep you at the table and looking forward to winning something (YOU WON’T!), or induce you to spend money on something you don’t need, or mindless entertainment that’s like chewing gum for the eyes.

Lest I be seen as being too hard on the hotel’s owners, it must be pointed out that Las Vegas as a whole didn’t give a shit about Bellagio’s birthday, either. Maybe because the revolution in started in our food scene has faded considerably in the past five years. The Guy Savoys aren’t clamoring to come here anymore, and all we get these days is hype fatigue from Giada opening a fast casual outlet in Caesars (who the fuck cares?), David Chang slapping his name on something, or Gordon Ramsay phoning it in with another licensing deal.

Yes, the days of having Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Kerry Simon, Serrano, Mina, and DeMarco all in their kitchens at the same time are long gone. But Las Vegas eats so much better today than it did in 1997, and even in eclipse, our restaurants are still world-class — something no one thought possible until Steverino flung open those doors exactly two decades ago, and told the world it needed to come to Las Vegas to eat.

You shoulda been there; it was really something.

{From L-R in picture at top of page: Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Todd English, Dawn Varming, Steve “Tennis Shorts” Wynn,” Kerry Simon, Michael Mina, Sammy DeMarco, Julian Serrano}

PARTAGE

(The Three Musketeers)

A Francophile’s dream come true. The chefs are French, the decor is French, the bartenders are French and the food is as French as Bastille Day. And the whole enchilada is in Chinatown. Go figure.

When Vincent Pellerin, Nicolas Kalpokdjian, and Yuri Szarzewski (above) came to the United States in 2015, they had a dream — they wanted to bring healthy French food to Las Vegas. Anyone with a brain would’ve told them the idea had as much chance for success as a Mormon nightclub, but arrive and succeed they did, first with their casual EATT Gourmet Bistro on West Sahara, and now with a more upscale (but still very laid back) place in a shopping center more at home with massage parlors and noodle shops than croque monsieurs and Pays Nantes.

Because it’s in Chinatown (in the old Chada Street space) the curb appeal is practically nil….and so is the parking. (At busy times you may have to inch your way around the lot once or twice to find a space. If ever there was an off-Strip property begging you to take a LYFT to it, this is it.)

The signage is as simple as the storefront and gives not a clue as to the wonders behind the long glass facade. But as soon as you step through the doors, you can sense that magic is about to happen. Seating are plush but not too so. Cozy booths line one side of the room and a long L-shaped bar dominates the other. The lighting is dim (but not too dim) and flattering, and even at peak occupancy, you can still hear yourself think and talk.

Towards the back you’ll see a large window behind which the chefs operate, and a glass wine room holding the all-French, all-nicely-priced selections. While the list isn’t long, it’s broken down by region (Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.) and the bottles are marked up 100% over retail, rather than 2-300% gouges you’ll find a mile to the east. Another thing I love are the easy to read prices ($65 for a Gigondas; $120 for Dom Ruinart, etc.) with none of that $59 v. $63 nonsense you see at the big hotels. (I’d love for some wine director to edify me sometime on why one Cali cab is priced at $118, while another fetches $121. Is it because there’s a 2.8% difference in quality between the two bottles? Ridiculous.)

Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. 20 small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit):

….or a single lobster ravioli in a small cup of bisque, or perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. Everyone seems to feature trilogies of oysters these days (whassup with that?), but the version here is top drawer, with the yuzu hollandaise being the one you’ll remember. As good as they are, the real stars of the show are the salmon croquettes (almost Japanese in their deep-fired, ultra-light crispiness):

 

…and the squid “risotto” — the risotto in this case being finely diced pieces of squid bound together by a barely-there pesto, filled with flavor but not filling you up.

If you’re looking for richness, Szarzewski has you covered. His sweetbreads are a godsend for lovers of all things thymus — accented by lotus root and a smooth tonka bean cream — the tight little sauteed gland giving not a hint of how dense and filling this offal can be. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow,  served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious toast:

If hunger still lingers after these (doubtful), tuck into a quail leg garnished with umeboshi and foie gras, or a few nibbles of good Spanish pata negra served with a small puck of olive oil cake and fennel sorbet:

Jamon platters are everywhere, but this little one may be the cutest of the bunch.

The anti-ham crowd will enjoy digging into things like ratatouille-stuff squash blossoms, burrata Caprese salad, a melange of root veggies, and the best damn pea soup you’ve ever slurped — this one given a kick by lemon-basil sorbet and finger limes.

About the only dish I can’t recommend is the king crab coated with black garlic. It tastes of pure, sweet crustacean slicked with the tamarind-like essence of aged allium, but it looks like something the cat left behind. If there’s an award for the best tasting, least attractive dish in town, this would litter-ally win by a landslide:

(Honey! The cat’s been at it again!)

Large groups will want to go large format with big cuts of 18 ounce rib eye, or a 32 ounce tomahawk steak — smoked with either hickory, applewood or hay (your choice!). Two pound lobsters and whole duckling breasts served on the bone, and sea bass baked in salt crust is also offered for the whole table to swoon over. In keeping with the “healthy French” thing, sauces are kept to a minimum. Not to my taste, exactly — the duck, pork and bass suffer from the lack of liquids — but the presentations are in keeping with how modern French food is done these days.

 

Desserts are a dream, and Pellerin’s rolling cart (above) is not to be missed. Whether he’s doing a baba au rhum (injected at table with some high proof spirit), a caramel candy bar, or a flaming baked Alaska (below), you can be assured no one, in any neighborhood in Vegas, is eating a dessert as good as the one you’re getting. Pastry chefs are an endangered species these days, and having one as accomplished as Pellerin working in the ‘burbs is quite a statement for a local joint.  His macarons (when available) should be ordered by the dozen.
(Like this baked Alaska, Chinatown is en fuego!)

Las Vegas came of age as a restaurant town in 2018, and exhibits 1-4 are Sparrow & Wolf, Mordeo Wine Bar, EDO Tapas, and Partage. By recognizing the true foodie potential of Chinatown, these venues have broadened its horizons and done the same for serious gourmands — local and tourist alike. Partage may not be for everyone (the food might be a little too precious for the meat and potatoes crowd) but it’s given a boost to our dining scene in all the right ways. Vive la France!

PARTAGE

3839 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.582.5852

https://partage.vegas/

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

Ground Zero for downtown’s dining renaissance. So crowded, as Yogi Berra said, no one goes there anymore. So popular, a seat at the bar (any night of the week) is harder to find than a Mario Batali fan.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a meal here….only that when you do, you’d better plan ahead, before the downtown denizens descend.

What began with Carson Kitchen four years ago took a giant leap forward in 2018 with the opening of this intimate space just off Main Street in the Arts District. But where CK is all gastropub-y with it’s burgers, salads, wings and such, here chef/owner James Trees goes full Italian, bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and porchetta (never as good as I want it to be). Nothing wrong with a giant loaf of rolled pork, mind you, I’ve just never been impressed by the dish, in or out of Italy.

Another thing CK and EK have in common is ear-splitting, military jet afterburner noise levels. Be forewarned: this is not a place for intimate (or even business) discussions. If anything, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern urban dining — an atmosphere where people come for the food and “to party” (as Trees puts it), not for contemplation or conversation. My solution is to come either for a late lunch or an early dinner, or, weather permitting, sit outside. Another minor criticism is the way you order and pay at the counter at lunch, grab a number, and wait for your food to be delivered. None of this affect the exquisite food coming out of the open kitchen, but it does give the place a fast-casual feel that detracts from the foodie vibe. On the plus side, once you’re done eating, there’s no waiting for a check, you just get up and go.

Picky picky picky, you’re probably saying to yourself right now (especially if you’re under 40), but like I said, none of this affects the food, almost all of which is drop-your-fork gorgeous.

Begin with the bread, because it’s baked in-house and out of this world. Then proceed to the meat and cheese platter — one of the prettiest in Vegas. From there, dive into the verduras (veggies): cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and capers, mushrooms with house-ground polenta, an above-average Caesar, and a chopped salad so enticing everyone at your table will grab a forkful. At lunch you’ll love most of the sandwiches, with the grilled truffle cheese with mushroom, on house bread crusted with fontina cheese, attaining second level status in the pantheon of grilled fromage. The garlic poached tuna “Niçoise Things” is too healthy for us (and occasionally under dressed), but the “Spicy Greens” with candied pecans, pickled (and we mean pickled) plums, brie and prosciutto, hits just the right balance between produce, spicy and sweet.

As good as the left side of the menu is, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant wars and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are handmade, portioned for two and presented to elicit oohs and aahs for their perfection of pasta porn.

Where you’ll really gasp, though, is when you see his radiatorre with black garlic, lemon and cream, a palate-coating belly bomb of the best kind:

Nothing is run of the mill about these noodlelicious dishes — they use top shelf groceries, rotate the recipes seasonally, and unlike so many other restaurants, aren’t afraid to get in your face with flavor. When Trees says “amatriciana” he means it. The spice will be there as surely as the pepper in the cacio e pepe will light you up.

Pizzas are far from standard issue, either, with beautiful, charred cornicione (above), good cheese, and always a surprise or two in the topping department — like salty bacon with caramelized onion, or Greek sausage and fennel.

All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, amazing amaros, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: feed its customers (and quench their thirsts) in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(Lunch for two should run around $40, with dinner about double that, exclusive of drinks, which shouldn’t be excluded, ever. There’s a reserve wine list in addition to the $40/btl  one, and it’s a lot pricier, if no less exciting.)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.570.7864

https://www.estherslv.com/