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Las Vegas Dining

Ten dining rooms that rise above the rest

Posted: May 10, 2004

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Picasso continually impresses with dishes such as sautéed halibut served atop a purple Peruvian potatoes carpaccio.
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Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Telephone (702) 693-7223
Web site www.bellagio.com
Open Dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Cost Menus $85, $95
Credit cards All major
Food 96 Wine 94 Service 95 Ambience 97 Weighted average 95
Grand Award

Great chefs make magic. They take seemingly ordinary ingredients and create something transcendent with them, finding combinations of flavors and textures that far exceed the sum of their parts. Julian Serrano, the first star chef to make Las Vegas his home, makes this magic happen in every meal at Picasso.

On the menu, "roasted langoustines with pisto and lemon balsamic vinaigrette" sounds pretty good. In the mouth, it's pure "wow." Two sweet tails of the prawnlike shellfish, taken from a tank only seconds before meeting the flame, are arranged on a colorful molded disc of herb-infused summer squash. Swirls of the vinaigrette, redolent of porcini oil, add a surprisingly welcome touch of earthiness to the party. A sip of delicate, minerally Adegas Morgadío Albariño Rias Baixas 2002 ($58) only lifts things higher.

The same sort of taste-bud sleight of hand happens with U-10 day-boat scallops, the briny sweetness of the gigantic scallop (U-10 is the largest size) set off by a drizzle of veal reduction and potatoes mousseline. A crust of truffles and humble chunks of Parmesan potatoes frame the gamy edge of aged lamb perfectly. The natural sweetness of lobster gets an extra boost from the corn soup beneath it and the kernels around it. In each of these dishes, Serrano finds a way to balance the essence of the ingredients, complementing the main element with perfect flavor accents that create more complexity.

A native of Madrid, Serrano builds his cuisine on a foundation of French technique, looking to the Mediterranean for inspiration, occasionally slipping in a Spanish touch, as with a sofrito that adds an earthy element to an ethereal boudin of diced lobster, shrimp and scallops. There's no letdown with dessert, either. Warm chocolate fondant, dark and not at all sweet, reveals an American touch with its accompanying peanut brittle ice cream.

The wine list of 1,300 selections, which earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2003, offers plenty of options. It boasts one of the strongest Spanish selections in the United States, is even deeper in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and has a knowing roster of California bottlings. It touches on every part of the world and every price range. Big spenders can opt for Château Latour 1945 ($7,055) or the 1959 ($3,834). There's also a 20-vintage vertical of Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico from 1962. Those of us who didn't strike it rich in the casino can revel in Château Léoville Las Cases 1970 ($325), Stony Hill Chardonnay 1991 ($125) or M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône 1999 ($36).

Wine makes an impression from the moment you walk in the door. A series of glass-fronted, temperature-controlled wine cabinets in the entryway holds some of the big name wines, and a big, bouquet-bedecked credenza dominates the dining room. At the credenza, wines are opened and decanted. The opulent but still appealingly rustic room is all warm brick and wooden beams against a vaulted ceiling. The ceilings themselves are stunning; I especially like the upturned ceramic pitchers in the entryway.

And then there are the Picassos. There are more than 10 originals hanging on the walls, as well as signed ceramics and photographs of the artist. All told, they are worth more than $55 million. As if that were not distraction enough, a row of French doors opens onto a terrace that overlooks the Bellagio's lake and its dramatic dancing fountains. Maybe Serrano's best trick is get everyone so focused on the food that they don't even notice when the fountains go spouting off.

Piero Selvaggio Valentino
Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Telephone (702) 414-3000
Web site www.venetian.com
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Menus $50, $65, $75, $99
Food 94 Wine 95 Service 93 Ambience 92 Weighted average 94
Grand Award

At almost 40 pages and encompassing 2,300 listings, the Grand Award-winning Valentino wine book is an imposing document. You could do worse than to put yourself in the hands of manager Arturo Nieto, who has worked with Piero Selvaggio here and in the original Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant for more than two decades. If you tackle the list yourself, others at your table could be drumming their fingers while you slaver over the possibilities on every page.

There's a whole page of Gaja Barbaresco back to 1978 (at four-digit prices), another of Sassicaia back to 1978. Names such as Marcassin, Bryant Family, Paradigm and Ridge Monte Bello leap from the California pages, and the awesome Bordeaux cellar has eye-popping verticals that include gems such as Margaux 1961, Lafite 1955 and Cos d'Estournel 1970 at commensurate prices. But you can also find Mommessin Beaune Premier Cru 1993, a good wine from an outstanding vintage, for $60, and legions of Chilean, Spanish and Australian stars.

It's easy for a wine lover to be waylaid by all this largesse, but don't let it distract you from the menu. Chef Luciano Pellegrini, originally from Bergamo, Italy, made his reputation cooking at Selvaggio's Posto restaurant in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, moving to Las Vegas in 1999 to open this one.

Pellegrini makes the best Italian food in Las Vegas by a wide margin. He can balance flavors and textures like an Italian grandmother in classics such as perfectly light gnocchi with a deeply satisfying duck ragù. But the real stars of his menu are the new-wave marvels. Lobster salad gets intensity and refinement from semidried tomato and burrata, a most delicate fresh mozzarella, with a streak of arugula pesto adding bite. Smoked onion marmalade livens up grilled duck breast. Fig-flavored balsamic sauce and warm artichokes enrich a crab salad antipasto that is virtually all crabmeat, fresh-picked. A seven-course menu of dishes like these costs $99. A four-course menu composed of dishes from Selvaggio's cookbook is $75.

The miracle is that Pellegrini achieves this brillance on a large scale-the restaurant has 323 seats. That count includes a casual front area facing the casino, called P.S. Italian Grill. But most of the seating occupies a series of dining rooms separated from the casino, several of them lined with temperature-controlled wine displays. The feel is modern, even a bit quirky, with tasteful coral and gray walls and a few simple sculptures and sconces. It's comfortable, and service is unruffled and friendly, a tribute to Nieto's experience.

Piero Selvaggio has held a Wine Spectator Grand Award for his Santa Monica restaurant since the inception of the program in 1981. This restaurant has a different tone, partly because it's twice as big, partly because of Pellegrini's menu, which is more avant-garde, and partly because it's in Las Vegas. It's sophisticated, and a lot of fun.

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Telephone (702) 693-7223
Web site www.bellagio.com
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $34-$55; menus $85, $115
Food 92 Wine 90 Service 94 Ambience 91 Weighted average 92
Award of Excellence

Even if you don't get wealthy at the gaming tables, there's plenty of richness across the Bellagio's lobby at Aqua. The food is rich with butter sauces, caviar and foie gras, but chef Michael Mina's refined touch achieves a delicious balance.

The original Aqua in San Francisco, which opened in 1991, wielded the knife-edge of a revolution that turned American seafood restaurants into fine-dining palaces. The Las Vegas Aqua takes the luxury up several levels, occupying a quieter, more comfortable space, marked by sound-absorbing carpeting and buffed burlwood on the walls and ceiling. Windows frame trees and bushes. Service hums with polished efficiency.

Mina's menu delivers intense flavor. The deep resonance of mushrooms and browned meat in a consommé jump-starts miso-glazed Chilean sea bass; a blast of tomato in a beurre blanc balances the vivid langoustine and Dungeness crab flavors in silky ravioli. Cylinders of Hawaiian spearfish, creamy at the center, rest on tiny piles of saffron linguine, garnished by two steamed manila clams and baby peppers. The plate could be a still life.

First courses carry a whiff of a modern chef's fascination with unexpected juxtapositions. A sweet pineapple upside-down cake sings counterpoint to scallops and fresh foie gras, a mouthful of endive salad bringing it all together. Likewise, crispy bacon and a poached quail egg offset butter-poached lobster, out of its shell, over stewed lentils.

This is high-end stuff from a high-end kitchen. The wine list fits the same mold, offering 450 options, emphasizing hot California names such as Kongsgaard and Hundred Acre and high-end white Burgundies such as Olivier Leflaive Frères. But there is relief when a white Burgundy such as Fontaine-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets 1998 costs only $89 and a red such as Mongeard-Mugneret Savigny-lès-Beaune 2000 is $53.

Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Telephone (702) 632-7401
Web site www.charliepalmer.com
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost $69, $85, $95
Credit cards All major
Food 89 Wine 96 Service 91 Ambience 93 Weighted average 92

"This is way too much fun," said my wine-savvy dinner guest, tapping away on the screen of Aureole's wine list, a notebook-size wireless computer displaying the restaurant's database. He was searching for a Spanish red for less than $50. With sommelier Andrew Bradbury's approval, he found Dominio de Tares Bierzo 2000 ($35). It turned out to be a great choice, as was the Austrian Mantlerhof Riesling Qualitatswein Trocken Kremstal Zehetnerin 1997 (also $35) Bradbury plucked from my search results on whites.

At the next table, a snazzily dressed man stared at his ewinebook and muttered, "They gave this to the wrong guy." It didn't matter. He seemed pleased with the chef's menu and the wines by the glass to go with it, served in the same oversized crystal used for bottled wines.

Guests enter the 200-seat dining room via stairs that wrap around a 42-foot glass-enclosed wine tower, where cat-suited "wine angels" pluck your bottle from Lucite bins. Few restaurants anywhere can match the fabulous range of wines-3,600 selections at last count. You can splurge on Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 ($1,895) or Domaine Leroy Chambertin 1991 ($895).

Chef-owner Charlie Palmer divides his time among New York, Washington, D.C., Healdsburg, Calif., and Las Vegas, where he also has Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons. French chef Philippe Rispoli, most recently at The Mansion, MGM Grand's exclusive 29-villa hotel within the hotel, took over the Aureole kitchen in late 2003.

On a December visit, Rispoli wowed us with a creamy red snapper fillet over vegetable risotto in a cloud-light truffle foam, tangy microgreens adding perfect contrast. Every combination of elements created bliss in a plate of crisply fried sweetbreads, satiny at the center, with braised apples, lightly cooked spinach and little pools of raspberry-laced sauce. But he stumbled with roast squab, its skin still rubbery, the bird lost in a dense morass of undercooked vegetables. A piece of burnt foie gras didn't help. Desserts, too, were a letdown.

Clearly, Aureole can be a great dining experience. The gamble on any particular evening is how well the kitchen will meet the challenge.

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