Steve Wynn, the legendary Las Vegas hotelier, sounded irritated. He was on the other end of a phone call recently. "Why," he demanded, "is Wine Spectator calling me about what our restaurants are supposed to be? Can't you make your own judgment?"
Actually, no, I couldn't. I needed to clarify the difference between the two steak houses at his eponymous Las Vegas resort hotel for my Wine Spectator story on the new American steak houses, appearing in the current (August 31) issue. I had called Wynn because everyone else in his employ deferred to him on my query.
It seemed to me that both SW (the initials being Wynn's) and The Country Club qualified as new, not traditional, steak houses, in which chefs with contemporary cooking sensibilities embroider on the familiar menu. They get creative with appetizers and side dishes. They lavish as much attention on chicken, duck, fish and seafood as they do on beef. They take wine seriously, too. As I report in my story, these new-style steak houses are wine-selling machines.
If you blocked out the name at the top, it would be difficult to say which menu belonged with which steak house at Wynn. Was it SW, which sits in a prime position off the main lobby, right next to Daniel Boulud's Brasserie, facing the pool with the projected light show? Or was it The Country Club, with its traditional paneled-wood décor, its view overlooking the golf course?
Plus, how unusual is it for a hotel to have two restaurants it calls steak houses? When I asked Wynn, he bristled. "They all do," he huffed. "Bellagio has Prime and Fix. Caesars has Neros and The Palm. A big hotel is like a neighborhood in a busy city. The same neighborhood could have more than one steak house."
I thought about that. Bellagio identifies Prime as its only steak house, Fix as a casual contemporary American restaurant. I don't know of anyone who thinks of it as a steak house. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Neros is the only steak house in Caesars. The Palm is in the Forum Shops, a separate mall (which also has Boa, a Brazilian-style steak house, and Joe's Stone Crab, Seafood and Steaks, which could also qualify.)
But I didn't say this to Wynn. He was still talking, and eventually he did get around to answering my original question.
"The Club is like being in North Carolina. It has the feeling of an older, more traditional environment. SW is more razzmatazz, a high-energy place that has entertainment popping up in the lagoon every 20 minutes."
So, even though The Club looked traditional and SW looked more contemporary, the main difference was the chef's own style, said Wynn, who then said something that stopped me in my tracks.
"You go to the good restaurants in America, and three-quarters of them have the same menu. They have fish, chicken, beef, lamb, and the only differences are the nuances of the chef and the environment they create.
"That's the American taste, and we see it over and over again. Really good cooks get very competitive about giving very traditional food non-traditional spins."
In broad strokes, Wynn was absolutely right about the similarity among good restaurants, under their skin. The new-style steak houses blur the line separating steak houses from contemporary fine dining in America. The only thing that makes them steak houses is the extra emphasis on meat, which generally arrives all by itself on a sizzling hot platter, and the menus are almost all à la carte. You won't find a chef's tasting menu in a steak house.
"The steak house is built into every American's DNA," says David Walzog, the chef who runs SW. Fitting a few fresh ideas into the genetic makeup, Walzog and his more storied cousins, including Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina, Charlie Palmer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, have redefined what a steak house could be.
If, as Wynn says, it is all just variations on a theme, then like a great jazz riff it's what makes the whole tune move forward. And worth paying attention to.