Everyone I met attending the Palazzo's opening celebration in Las Vegas last week was trying to figure out why it was happening. Only four of the 13 restaurants had opened in time.
All of the chefs and restaurateurs involved showed up anyway to participate in a media presentation, but they were kind of scratching their heads. "Why are we doing this?" asked Joe Bastianich, partner with Mario Batali in Carnevino, one of the few actually serving customers. "Nobody else is open."
The answer was obvious. The Palazzo had invited a horde of media to cover the opening and they needed to show them something about the food. So they set up tables and a bar in the grand ballroom at the Venetian (of which Palazzo is an extension), and some of the restaurants prepared a dish or two to show off what they would be doing.
Bastianich and Batali simply invited folks to stop by Carnevino for some prosciutto and bellinis, but Charlie Trotter (scheduled to open Restaurant Charlie in mid-February) made a skate wing terrine, Wolfgang Puck (opening Cut about the same time) sliced some servings from freshly grilled steaks and Emeril Lagasse (hoping to open Table 10 Jan. 28) offered a shrimp dish. Sushisamba made raw Kobe beef sushi, Dos Caminos put together little fish tacos and Mainland, an Asian noodle bar from the owners of Tao, made do by pouring shots of sake.
It all looked kind of thrown-together. So did the hotel. Although the casino floor was jumping, the sound of power tools wafted from one closed-off space after another around the edges and upstairs on the retail level. Projected openings for later this month and early next could be optimistic. It might be March before all the key elements are in place.
When it all gets done, it strikes me as one of the smartest layouts for casino hotel in Las Vegas. You still must walk through the casino to get to the main elevator bank, but a wide aisle through the shorter direction of the rectangle connects the lobby in a straight shot to the elevators. One end of the casino leads to the four-story atrium of high-end shops, which connects to the Venetian. For those who know their way around, that's where Batali's B&B and Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse are. AquaKnox, David Burke and the Blue Man Group theater are just beyond, and the Venetian ballrooms are just to the left.
Escalators at several points connect the casino to more retail shops and restaurants on the floor just above it. One comes up in front of Emeril's Table 10, another just around the corner from SushiSamba and Woo, a new pan-Asian restaurant from the owners of the popular Las Vegas restaurant Mayflower Cuisinier. The other restaurants are arrayed around the casino.
Morel's, which is billed as a French steakhouse, opens onto the lobby. One of the few restaurants already open, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise when I tried it on my visit, not least because it offers a couple of dozen reds by the 2-, 5- and 8-ounce pour that most restaurants sell only by the bottle. Wines such as Sassicaia, Screaming Eagle, Gaja Langhe and Château de Beaucastel are kept in a sealed preservation system, and sell for $60 to $500 a glass instead of $300 to $2,000 a bottle. If you're on your own, or if you want to do a little tasting, it's a nice approach.
The food isn't bad, but it doesn't show the deft touch of the top-shelf restaurants. The menu lists a lot of bistro items, but the bavette steak was about three times as thick as what you would get in a real French bistro (and very juicy as a result) and the ratatouille was more like a vegetable sauté with underdone peppers and eggplant than the tender stew it should be. But the wines are presented with savvy, and I enjoyed Le Cuilleron St. Joseph Les Serines 2005 ($42 for a 5-ounce glass) with the steak.
For better bistro food, walk to the other end of the Venetian for Bouchon. Thomas Keller's place has a much better kitchen, if not quite the depth on the wine list.