Of the four big-name chefs opening new restaurants at the Palazzo, the glitzy new addition to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, only Mario Batali managed to get his restaurant open in time for the Jan. 17 opening.
Emeril Lagasse? Charlie Trotter? Wolfgang Puck? I peeked into their spaces when I was there last week. They remain unfinished. Lagasse is the closest to being open, but from what I could see of the dining room through the paper-covered windows, the walls were still drywall, and there was no furniture in sight. On a tour of Trotter's space, workmen were still laying floor tiles.
That's about par for the course for this hotel, which managed to make only about three quarters of its rooms available to paying customers. If the ones they did finish were like mine (banged-up furniture, missing light bulbs, drawers that wouldn't close, wi-fi that kept cutting out), they could have used even more time.
And for anyone interested in food and wine, Palazzo's was a non-opening opening. I had some outstanding congee, roast pork and cucumber salad at Jade, the Asian noodle restaurant, and I liked the country wheat bread and English muffins on the breakfast at Grand Lux. And I did drop in on Carnevino, Batali's Italian steakhouse, where the featured item is a $160 bistecca Fiorentina porterhouse for two.
For Batali and his business partner, Joe Bastianich, getting open first was akin to hitting the jackpot. All the honchos there for the opening popped in for dinner, and the place was humming.
I liked the bistecca, even if it's made from organically grown American beef and is half the size of the ones from big, muscular Chianina animals they grow in Tuscany for these classic steaks. I liked other things even better, especially a superb poached duck egg with greens and crisp guanciale, or pork-cheek bacon. A black pasta with crabmeat and chile peppers was as simple and good as pasta gets.
"Our secret weapon is handmade pasta, as it is in all our restaurants," Batali smiled. "We're also a little less slick than the other places, more homey," added Bastianich. Carnevino's centerpiece is a life-size, anatomically correct bronze bull.
I also managed to corner the big-name chefs and get them to talk about their plans.
Steak lovers will have a tough time deciding between Carnevino and Cut, a close copy of Puck's insanely successful steakhouse in Beverly Hills. Cut's counter to Batali's $160 bistecca is Puck's $20-an-ounce Kobe beef ribeye. Cut Beverly Hills offers a wide range of items beyond the usual steakhouse fare, from eclectic appetizers and vegetables to whole fish.
With a successful steak house under his belt (Delmonico in the Venetian, just over the border from Palazzo) and a fish restaurant at MGM Grand, Lagasse wants his new restaurant, Table 10, to be a more eclectic American restaurant centered on a big rotisserie rather than a grill or a pizza oven. "It's more like the original Emeril's, but less focused on New Orleans," he explained.
Table 10 at the original Emeril's, right behind the host's lectern, is where Lagasse used to set up shop in the dining room. He met visitors there during the day, tasted wines he was considering for the list, and, after dinner, gathered cooks he was mentoring, to eat and learn.
"It's a symbol for me of going to back to roots," said the chef, whose quiet demeanor in the real world is totally unlike his manic television persona. "Nobody seems to be doing anything American any more. They're putting in pizza ovens, or going Mediterranean. That's why we built this one around a rotisserie."
Instead of creating plates with side dishes, garnishes and sauces, the "deconstructed entrées" part of the menu leaves it up to diners to have it their way with Berkridge Farm Korabuta pork loin, Cedar Springs leg of lamb or Ashley Farms chicken cooked on the rotisserie.
When it opens in mid-February, Restaurant Charlie will mark a return to Las Vegas for Trotter, whose restaurant at MGM Grand came and went before the wave of big-name dining spots that arrived in the late 1990s. "We had offers, but nothing felt right until this," he said. In the interim, he opened C at the One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, his only other current venture outside his home base in Chicago.
Trotter's restaurant at Palazzo will focus on seafood and vegetables, but not exclusively. On one side, a high-end 18-seat sushi bar called Bar Charlie will serve classic and creative sushi, modeled after Masa in New York, but more casual. Trotter wants it to open by mid-afternoon and to serve late, so that diners can drop in for 20 minutes for a snack, or sit for 2 hours exploring what chef Hiro Nagahara can do. In the main dining room, the à la carte menu will offer small bites and larger dishes.
Trotter is planning appetizers such as rouget with dehydrated black olive and leek confit, and Maine lobster tart with Spanish chorizo, black trumpet mushrooms and caramelized onions. Among the entrées: grilled hamachi with braised veal cheek and chantrelle mushrooms, and whole roasted monkfish tail with ankimo (rolled and steamed or poached monkfish liver) and caramelized cauliflower.
Ambitious wine programs figure in all the top chefs' restaurants. Carnevino's list has 350 wines on it, including significant selections of Bordeaux and California reds, a departure from Batali's usual all-Italian fare. Table 10 will start with 400 wines, cherry-picking the best sellers from the chef's Grand Award-winning lists at Delmonico's Las Vegas and Emeril's in New Orleans. Lagasse expects the cellar to grow rapidly.
Trotter, whose Chicago restaurant also has a Grand Award, built a 5,000-bottle display cellar wall in Restaurant Charlie to separate the dining room from the cocktail lounge. The opening list will have 450 wines. Puck expects Cut to offer at least 500 wines when it opens, which is more than Cut has in Beverly Hills, and plans to seed the list with older California Cabernets from some of his Los Angeles restaurants, especially Chinois-on-Main.
Another wine destination in Palazzo that no one seems to be talking about—yet—is Double Helix, a wine bar and retail shop helmed by Raymond Nisi. Pending final inspections it is ready to open later this week. It's located right in the middle of the retail floor (one floor up from the casino, easily reached by escalators). For wine lovers, it may be the hidden gem of them all.