Out: Cheap prime rib. In: Duck tongue tacos.
You’ve just completed one of the greatest sit-down dinners on the planet – an alchemic, 15-course opera of texture, flavor and presentation. The savory delight of the frog leg fritters lingers meaningfully on your palate. You smile at the memory of the spectacular pea soup with flan of foie gras. All of it wonderful, all of it blurring slightly behind the combined magnifying effect of the expertly-matched wine that you sipped throughout the two-hour ordeal.
You emerge from Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand and collide head-on with several thousand people exiting the night’s Manny Pacquiao/Timothy Bradley middleweight championship bout, becoming – quite possibly – the first person in recorded human history to finish a Michelin-starred meal and immediately find himself in a sea of pissed-off Filipino fight fans.
How can you not love Las Vegas?
Certainly, the town has always had its surreal and sensual charms, but modern Las Vegas boasts something the bygone Rat Pack Vegas of the ’60s and ’70s lacked – a thriving international food scene. Local pundits trace the city’s fine-dining transformation to 1992. That was the year Wolfgang Puck opened a Spago outpost at Caesar’s Palace, triggering an unprecedented migration of celebrity chefs and high-concept, high-dollar gustatory destinations to the Nevada desert. Evidently, gamblers do not live on $9.99 prime rib alone.
Arguably, the two-mile sliver of Las Vegas Boulevard stretching north from the MGM Grand encompasses more high-end dining than any comparable stretch of real estate in the world – so many remarkable restaurants, in fact, that you could not possibly try them all in a single visit without courting a Leaving Las Vegas-style consumption coma. But if you have three days and a nice stash of blackjack winnings at your disposal, this Strip-focused itinerary makes for a true culinary jackpot.
Let’s assume you just touched down at McCarran International. It’s around noon and you have a dull, uncomplicated hunger. A burger is logical – but does that mean you should slum it at the Burger King in the Tropicana? Lord, no. Hit up Holsteins Shakes and Buns at the super-slick Cosmopolitan Resort and Spa (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-698-7940, holsteinslv.com). Done in cheeky animated cow murals and diner-style booth seating, it bustles on a Friday afternoon with weekend early-birds wolfing down elevated pub-grub – including delicious crispy-brown Ipswich fried clams with green goddess dressing ($14) – and Zinburger-style haute hammies. Price-point-wise, the star of the menu is the Billionaire Burger ($28), so named for the lobe of foie gras and dollop of truffle mayo spread over a patty of Kobe beef. It’s an umami-bomb, no doubt about it. For something a little less Type II diabetes-y, try the Rising Sun – a teriyaki burger inventively topped with crispy yam and tempura avocado ($17).
According to no less an authority than Jeremy Pacheco – the talented executive chef at Lon’s at the Hermosa – the Cosmopolitan has amassed one of the most lavish stables of culinary talent in Vegas. So why not stay for dinner? Better yet, grab appetizers at China Poblano (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-698-7900, chinapoblano.com), the brash fusion restaurant from small plates maestro Jose Andres that performs like a gourmet version of the Valley’s own Chino Bandido. Take heart: This is not the Latin-Asian answer to the gentrified “ethnic” cuisine of P.F. Chang’s. It can be hardcore. The fantastic sui mai beef dumplings with daikon radish ($14) are relatively tame, but fans of Asian exotica will freak over the “Silencio” duck-tongue taco ($5.50) with lychees, or the “Viva China” tendon taco with Kumamoto oyster ($5.50). To answer the inevitable question: Duck tongue has the texture of shiitake mushroom. And tastes like chicken, naturally.
Next, amble upstairs to Comme Ça (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-698-7910, commecarestaurant.com/las-vegas) – the Vegas outpost of chef David Myers’ acclaimed Los Angeles brasserie. Overlooking the Strip, the restaurant is classy but studiously unpretentious, with a menu of farm-to-plate French country delicacies that strike clean notes throughout. Start with the spectacular roasted beet salad, expertly phrased with mascarpone and smoked salmon under a mustard-seed vinaigrette ($12). I’ve never had better. And don’t miss the Berkshire pork trio, which unites tete de cochon (head cheese, yo), belly and rack meats in a discreet but delightful carnival of porcine succulence. It’s some truly fine swine.
Postprandial Extra: Roll yourself across the street to Vdara (2600 W. Harmon Ave., 702-590-2111, vdara.com), the all-suite, no-casino, eco-friendly hotel just off the Strip, and get yourself an Arnica Muscle Repair Massage (50 min., $140) to limber up for your next feast.
What’s the best buffet in Las Vegas? According to a USA Today poll of eight Sin City dining experts conducted in 2011, it’s Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-698-7000, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com). Featuring such non-standard staples as Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and spit-broiled al pastor tacos, Wicked Spoon certainly feels a cut above the typical casino-buffet cattle drive. For a food tourist, it makes an ideal breakfast spot ($22); the coffee’s great, and the carving-station attendants slice bacon as thick as a paperback book.
If yesterday’s China Poblano visit has you hankering for more hybrid magic, beeline to Sushisamba (3327 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-607-0700, sushisamba.com) at the swank Venetian Hotel Resort Casino. This time, the Latin-Asian tango is of the Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian variety, yielding such revelatory mash-up dishes as robata-grilled sea bass with roasted Peruvian corn, and a pass-out-rich, curry-like mushroom toban with tender duck morsels. The ceviche – with mango and banana strips – is like a sweet kabuki musical in your mouth. My favorite dish at Sushisamba was the Peruvian-style sashimi plate, featuring kanpachi with truffle oil, tuna with Granny Smith apple and jalapeño, yellowtail with spicy lemongrass, and a buttery salmon with tangy miso. If it’s not one of your top five raw-fish experiences of all time, you’re several degrees more sushi-spoiled than I am.
Ready for true art appreciation? Come sunset, hail a cab for the Bellagio and its flagship restaurant, Picasso (3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 866-259-7111, bellagio.com) – the capacious Michelin-starred dining palace where chef Julian Serrano oversees a nightly matrimony of French and Spanish cuisine. Routinely ranked among the city’s top three restaurants, Picasso – so named for the 14 original paintings by the master that hang on its walls – won’t afford you much room for error in terms of dish selection; the menu is composed solely of four tasting flights, including the chef’s famous menu dégustation ($175), a five-course faith-healer that begins with Serrano’s angelic Maine lobster salad and features a sautéed steak of foie gras with cherry-sweet rhubarb puree and blood orange sauce. It’s like eating a pie made out of butter.
Almost as striking as the food is Picasso’s commanding view of the 8-acre Bellagio lake and dancing water fountain. “I started here eight years ago,” a server says wistfully as all eyes turn to the balletic sprays. “And I thought I’d get sick and tired of [the fountain]. But I never have.”
Postprandial Extra: Follow your stogie sixth sense to Rhumbar (3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-735-8322, rhumbarlv.com) at the Mirage, a Caribbean-themed patio play-space that specializes in fine tobacco and strong drink.
You’re entering the final leg of your Vegas food tour, and you have excruciatingly important decisions to make. Why not mull them over at Central Michel Richard (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-650-5921, centrallv.com), the upscale diner concept from the French-born creator of Washington, D.C. hotspot Citronelle? A baker by training, Richard is eminently qualified to deliver patisserie-style treats like French toast crème brûlée ($17). Better yet: Central – located in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace – is open 24 hours, so if you get the late-night munchies, a beautifully constructed, loaf-style Caesar salad ($19) or signature meatball burger ($19) is in the offing.
Now, decisions: Where to do lunch? If last night’s Picasso feast whet your whistle for all things Serrano, try the chef’s eponymous tapas restaurant – Julian Serrano (3730 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-590-8520, arialasvegas.com) – at the Aria. Hardcore Vegas foodies debate which tapas eatery reigns over the heap: Serrano, or Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan. I didn’t try the latter, but Serrano’s explosively-seasoned black rice with lobster and sofrito ($12) and densely-sweet, almond-stuffed dates ($8) would seem to leave little room for improvement. The chef democratically splits his time between this restaurant and Picasso, and the lower price-point makes it an attractive option for diners who want to sample his brilliance without the overhead.
Then again, after the culinary orgy of last night – and mindful of the one yet to come – you might be wise to lunch less richly. In that case, grab a healthy California-French nosh at the celebrity-chef-conceived fine-diner that started it all: Spago (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-369-6300, wolfgangpuck.com) at Caesar’s Palace. The menu changes seasonally, but select Wolfgang Puck dishes are mainstays, like the chopped vegetable salad ($12) with English peas, red onions and other garden goodies. My pan-roasted halibut – with its subtle caramelizing and bed of bitter greens – hit the spot ($14).
Finally, the pièce de résistance: The final meal of your three-day culinary tour. Prudent souls might be tempted to conserve their remaining chips, but you are not prudent. You will go big. You will dine at Joël Robuchon (3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-891-7925, mgmgrand.com) in the MGM Grand. Only a handful of restaurants frequent the best-resto-in-Vegas conversation: Guy Savoy at Caesar’s, Picasso, Michael Mina at the Bellagio, three or four others, and Robuchon, naturally. After all, this paragon of post-nouvelle French cuisine boasts the only three-star Michelin rating in the city, and its eponymous founder – whose restaurants have amassed a remarkable 28 Michelin stars worldwide – was named “chef of the century” by the Gault Millau guidebook in 1989. So, the Robuchon pedigree is unbeatable – and so is the chef’s degustation menu ($425/person), a 16-course maelstrom of small plates and trial-sized delicacies that feels like the culinary equivalent of a day at Disneyland. Set in a velvety faux living room space ripped straight from a Vanity Fair art director’s pipe dream, the dinner begins with the finest bread trolley I’ve ever laid eyes on. No joke. Three-tiers-deep with ficelle, pain de Campagne and superfine croissants, the cart could make a carb-fanatic out of Victoria Beckham.
The tasting menus change seasonally, but a few iconic Robuchon dishes seem to haunt the restaurant year-round, including “La Tomate” – a salad of tomato with basil-infused olive oil posted next to a slick of tomato gelée flecked with pebbles of mozzarella, which look like nothing if not dozens of tiny eyeballs trained in your direction. It’s fascinating and, yes, quite tasty.
And then the pea soup. And then the caviar trio. And then a shockingly-good filet of salmon with black-pepper mangos. And so on, until the servers wheel over the dessert trolley lined with dozens of petit fours – each one an immaculate fortress of tongue-pleasing sweetness. You have so little energy, or stomach-space, left – but they’re so good. So you eat five.
Congratulations. Your Vegas food tour is complete. Now you have the fortitude to battle those Pacquiao fans for a cab.
STEAK YOUR WINNINGS
For as long as inebriated gamblers have foolishly frittered away their winnings in Vegas, restaurants have served them expensive steaks. Modern-day Vegas is stacked with world-class steakhouses, including Wolfgang Puck’s Cut and Carnevino at The Palazzo. Old Homestead at Caesar’s Palace (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 877-346-4642, theoldhomesteadsteakhouse.com) is new to the conversation, but your ears – and other parts of your anatomy – will definitely perk up when you sink your teeth into the restaurant’s “lollipop ribeye” ($70), a bone-in monstrosity that gets its earthy flavor and improbably succulent texture from 30-day aging. Shwing.
Postprandial Extra: If Robuchon’s cherry gazpacho puts you in the mood for “Strawberry Fields,” check out Love (3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-791-7111, mirage.com), the Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil show at the Mirage. Full of high-flying acrobatic artistry and charming Fab Four esoterica, it’s all you need.