There are, alas, no gastronomic reminiscences accompanying these reveries (well, there was a Rock Cornish hen meant to be eaten with the hands during the horse show, but once sampled, it was easily ignored). I've never been a fan of cheap buffets, and they were all that Vegas seemed to offer (well, some casinos had swanky, Continental restaurants, of the type that Calvin Trillin calls "La Maison de la Casa House," for high rollers likely to blow hundreds of dollars on a bottle of indifferently stored vintage wine and unlikely to be too critical of tough meat under congealing sauces).
But as the casinos added high-end shops and roller coasters worthy of theme parks and replicas of famous European monumental architecture to lure people (I almost wrote "suckers") to their tables, they also enticed a number of brilliant chefs (that is, those with a certain level of celebrity) to open outposts in the desert. One approaches these collaborations with a certain amount of cynicism (just how often is Emeril Lagasse going to drop by Emeril's New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand?), and nods knowingly when Jean-Georges Vongerichten chooses to open a steakhouse in Las Vegas rather than an eatery featuring his signature French cuisine with Asian accents (it's so much easier to find people to man a grill than to re-create his "nearly raw" lobster with miso, mustard, and caviar).
A recent excursion under the aegis of my friend Mary, who writes a number of different guidebooks to Las Vegas, introduced me to several of the town's four-star restaurants (including a couple with San Francisco connections). I was whisked from the airport to our suite at the Hotel at Mandalay Bay, a harbinger of one of the newest trends on the Strip (big resorts annexing small, stylish boutique hotels, which are accessible through a quiet lobby rather than the usually inescapable casino). I barely had time to count the plasma TVs (a widescreen beauty in the living room, a normal-sized model in the armoire in the bedroom, and, yes, a smaller but still entirely adequate one in the bathroom) before Mary swept me off to the just-opened Burger Bar (702-632-9364) run by Fleur de Lys' Hubert Keller, in the new chichi shopping mall, Mandalay Place.
What is it about Las Vegas? It's barely been 10 minutes and I'm trying on gaudy Barry Kieselstein-Cord sunglasses with gilt wings on the earpieces, pure Showgirls, as though I actually might buy them. (And, even more unlikely, wear them.) Still, once ensconced in a booth at the Burger Bar, I don't fall for the pricey Rossini burger made from Kobe beef, with foie gras, truffles, and Madeira sauce, for $55; Kobe beef is too soft to make a good burger. There are two other name-brand meats on offer, and I'm pointed toward the Ridgefield Farm ("no antibiotics, no growth hormones, 100% vegetarian diet") over the Black Angus ("midwestern cornfed"). I choose modestly from the vast list of accompaniments (which includes seared foie gras at $16): cheddar, avocado, extra raw onion. Alas, the burger, although tasty, is still too soft for my tastes; I like a charred crust with some tooth to it. I get the impression that the Burger Bar, which was initially created by another restaurateur, was taken over by Keller because of his ongoing deal to open Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay this summer.
That night we're due to dine at Vongerichten's Prime (702-693-8484) in the Bellagio. More than meat joy! We're given a prime (pun intended) table, right by the windows, overlooking the amazing computer-generated dancing fountains; Mary frets that we can't hear the music the jets of water are choreographed to, but she mimes so effectively to "One ... singular sensation" from A Chorus Line that I get the joke. The joke at Prime is that I like everything else I eat (a dazzling salad of scoops of Dungeness crab paired with scoops of a mustardy mango purée; a big, beautiful baked potato; spinach drowned in pure cream) more than the enormous $44 porterhouse, which is still quite beautiful, and certainly as good as many fancy steakhouse steaks I've had. Our big beef day hasn't really revealed Las Vegas' new gastronomic riches.
But that happens the next night, when we dine at Aureole (702-632-7501), a branch of Charlie Palmer's snug town-house restaurant in midtown New York. I'd read about the Vegas location's massive wine cellar, which has grown to some 4,000 different vintages (and is "cellar" really the right word when many bottles are stored in a soaring glass-walled tower, to be plucked from their perches by "wine angels" who fly up the stacks in pulleys?). But I didn't know that the "wine list" is contained in a seductive little handheld computer, disclosing at a touch an extraordinary depth in Austrian wines, say, or Château d'Yquem, and worthy of a couple of hours' study. And I certainly didn't know that we would be treated to a feast, thanks, I'm sure, to the place's reinvigoration by a new young French chef, Philippe Rispoli, veteran of Paul Bocuse in France and Daniel Boulud in New York, who's been in place for six months. (And to the ministrations of many servers, led by the impeccable Richard, who was complicitous in our pleasure.) An amuse-bouche of goat cheese on a Parmesan crisp arrives, then a series of unexpected tastes -- pâté de foie gras on brioche topped with shaved black truffles, an espresso cup of cold yellow-pepper soup with crab, tiny slivers of Serrano-wrapped melon, one oyster topped with caviar, and a flawless risotto with more black truffles; followed by what I'd ordered, a cold lobster perched on a bed of ratatouille in tiny crisp dice, and tender lamb loin paired with braised shoulder of lamb. The $69 prix fixe includes three courses -- in my case, the lobster, lamb, and a very good cheese plate for dessert; the luxurious extras are sent out from the kitchen in deference to Mary and our companion, Michael, an extraordinary juggler in Lance Burton's production at the Monte Carlo who also writes and produces Penn & Teller's Showtime series Bullshit! (and who started out doing street shows at Fisherman's Wharf as a teenager). We see several other tables getting extra treats, too. When Michael's wife Teresa joins us for dessert after finishing her performance in Mamma Mia! steps away in the Mandalay Bay Theater, the table is covered with sweets, including a warm bittersweet chocolate soufflé with blood orange sorbet and a Bartlett pear crisp with rum raisin ice cream and, yes, lemongrass foam. Is it any wonder we take the handmade chocolates away with us (in little silver boxes tied with pale blue ribbons)?
Twenty-four hours later, and magically I am hungry again, as we walk through the surprisingly posh and beautiful Bellagio (though now owned by the MGM hotel group, it was built by Steve Wynn, whom I'd never thought of as a classy guy). We pass the Petrossian caviar bar, stroll under a riotous ceiling of enormous, highly colored glass flowers, and then through the amazing Conservatory, which changes floral displays every six weeks or so and is currently Chinese New Year-themed, to arrive at Aqua, a branch of our own local fish palace. "San Francisco style, Las Vegas attitude," I mutter, quoting the slogan billboarded outside Caesar's Palace for its Bradley Ogden restaurant: The woody, brightly lit room has little of the hushed charm of the S.F. Aqua, and the water and bread service feel as caring and polished as a coffee shop's, especially after the cosseting we'd experienced the night before. My "tasting" of Hudson Valley foie gras, which normally indicates more than one preparation, is a nicely seared slab served with an interesting parsnip tarte Tatin. I am surprised when the crust of the Maine lobster pot pie is placed on the plate and heaped with lobster, carrots, potatoes, pearl onions, and broth, guaranteeing sogginess, but I still enjoy the dish (though I'm happy not to be paying for it, at $59). Not as stellar a meal as the night before.
Once back in San Francisco, it seems only fair to dine at our Aqua, where my parents and I experience near-perfection in setting, cooking, and service: the kind of evening you hope for when you set out for a pricey dinner in a temple of cuisine but that rarely happens. Brilliant starters -- roasted chestnut soup with tiny bay scallops, bacon, and thyme; strong-flavored shellfish consommé with lobster quenelles, langoustine, black truffles, and a poached quail egg; and a true tasting of three cold foie gras preparations (a peppered terrine, au torchon with wine-pickled grapes, and a "nougat" with bits of prunes, crunchy pistachios, and almonds) -- prepare us for another lobster casserole (whose crust is merely used to seal the copper pot), with lardons and a rich parsley béarnaise in addition to potatoes, porcini, and pearl onions (and only $45!), and rare, juicy duck breast with dried fruit compote, a port jus, and a lovely, creamy parsnip gratin. (I'm less enamored of my mild-mannered petrale sole in a creamy chowder sauce.) As we float out after a pear mille-feuille with caramel ice cream, an ethereal Meyer lemon soufflé, and a plate of seven cheeses, I reflect back on my dinner at Aqua in Las Vegas: a pale simulacrum, something more than the one-third-scale Eiffel Tower outside the Paris Casino, but considerably less than the towering monument to fish on California Street.