My Las Vegas Gastro-Thon
Published: March 2012
So many restaurants, so little time; GARETH DAVIS sets out to prove the culinary credentials of Las Vegas…
So. My eleventh visit to Vegas and it still manages to floor me; the sheer scale of the place. This city’s size has multiplied beyond my math in the 15 years that I’ve been coming here. The hotels of course are cities in themselves. Woe betide you find you’ve left something in your room. It can be a good 20-minute schlep from The Strip to your bedroom door. And then there are the joys of a Friday check-in. Vegas, one of the US’ top weekend getaways, heaves with end-of-week incomings. There are queues at check-in, HUGE waits on the hotel phone as you try and book a restaurant. I finally gave up and wandered down to the lobby in frustration. But there’s that buzz. Beyond the thrum of the fruit machines, the energy is tangible, so as long as you exercise patience and allow yourself to be carried along, you’re in for a great ride. Oh, and by the way, I don’t gamble. So what the hell brings you to Vegas you may ask? Food. This city is one of the world’s great gastronomic destinations.
The casinos may still be the largest single revenue earners but shopping and dining combined has overtaken them. Vegas’ hotels showcase some of North America’s hottest culinary talents and offer an eating experience that’s up there with London, Paris and New York. Change is also programmed into the Vegas nerve system so this is a place to monitor trends. Take the newest incarnation of Hubert Keller’s venue at the Mandalay Bay. I reviewed it some years ago when it was Fleur de Lys, a high-end French eatery. Now it’s simply Fleur. Quality has been maintained but replaced by a contemporary tapas menu and the surroundings are a lot more casual. Hubert has always been one to set the tone.
Mandalay Bay is my first base on this gastro-thon. It’s no longer as good as it gets in Vegas terms but is still a beautiful property thanks to its colour palette of creams, golds and soft spring shades. As with all accommodation in this city, the rooms are hugely… well… roomy. The South East Asian cum colonial theme is typified by the amalgam of statuary and louvred bathroom doors. There’s definitely a whiff of the rubber plantation, at least visually. There’s no faulting this city on functionality.
Everything works so it’s the little things that make all the difference. Here it’s a fairly big thing. The hotel’s location is both a plus and a negative. At the southernmost point of The Strip, glorious views are delivered but it also means that getting around is a bit of a drag. For me the big plus of course are the dining venues; there are 22 in total and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole is one of the best in town.
The wonderful cathedral-like entrance immediately generates excitement. You descend from the casino floor on a winding steel staircase that’s wrapped around a tower of wine into an airy space of soft shades and crisp white linens. The pumped music however is a tad annoying. Sometimes I just want to leave the party outside. Aureole is one of James Beard-winning Charlie’s umpteen outlets and has been a recipient of a Michelin star year on year since 2009.
The wine list modishly arrives on a tablet. But hey guys, get an I-pad. This thing weighs a ton. I order a hugely reasonable glass of Napa Chandon, and a generous flute at that for $16. The cooking is progressive American with a big dollop of French style. A lovely plate of canapés arrives; salmon mousse in a potato cup, spring roll terrine, and tuna tartare. It’s all spot on though the tuna tartare is the stand out.
American Wagyu Beef Carpaccio to start displays a fantastic quality of meat served on a thin tomato crostini. The beautiful tomato brings the whole thing together and the carpaccio is probably the best I’ve ever had. Chevril Crusted Alaskan Halibut for the main is stunning. Sat in a ginger and spring onion broth, flavours are beautifully counterbalanced. It’s accompanied by a seasonal vegetable medley, consisting mainly of varieties of squash, which are as sweet as candy.
In addition to the cooking, Aureole is a testament to something that is so often derided in Vegas. It’s architecturally wow. As you descend the staircase, you do so through a huge open portrait frame. The casino sounds recede and once inside, the frame hovers on the wall above you. You’re Alice and you’ve made it through the Looking Glass.
One of my all-time favourite venues on The Strip is Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris, for years the only dining location with al fresco eating on a terrace above the sidewalk, and a front row seat at the Bellagio’s dancing fountains. But how disappointing to find that the whole experience is now marred by buskers. As the fountains fandangoed to Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, all I could hear was a guy with a snake and tinny music pumping out of a box. “Roll up! Roll up and touch my snake!” Yes, the double entendre is beyond entendre. Apparently the restaurant can do nothing because Paris may own the sidewalk but the city owns the kerb: very sad indeed.
A visit to Cirque at the Bellagio is a first for me. I sit surrounded by dark woods under a glorious circus canopy of rainbow silks. It’s a beautifully relaxed space and the soft tinkle of a piano is as acceptable as it gets when eating. The menu is unabashedly French. It’s $98 for 3 courses with supplements on selected dishes.
I have Wagyu Kobe Beef Tartare to start; ooh, far too eggy for my taste. The beef is lost in goo. The Russian River Pinot Noir ($19) however is surprisingly oily with deep spice, a bit like Xmas petrol; fantastic. To follow, duck in port wine is gloriously cooked and the sauce has wonderful depth.
The service at le Cirque is strangely off-kilter. As I sit in the bar waiting for my table, there’s a lot of bickering between staff. And why does my cheese take so long? Twice the waiter has to reassure me that it’s on its way.
ARIA is Base Camp Two for my visit. Situated centre-Strip, it’s part of the City Centre development that opened in 2009, the largest ever privately financed development in the US. The whole thing’s breath-taking, plenty of gusto, towers rise and lean Pisan-like, turquoise pools glisten in urban spaces. Equally breath-taking is Crystals, a shopping mall where the cheapest outlet is probably Tiffany & Co. ARIA is one of Vegas’ top properties, up there with the Wynn and Bellagio. It’s also has the most technically advanced accommodation in the world using the Control 4 system. Everything is operated from a tablet, and your room will wake you up, curtains opening et al. The foyer is a glorious space of glass, bronze, wood, and marble. It absolutely evokes the Nevadan landscape with its palette of ruddy browns. Lines are primarily sharp and angular but suddenly a curve intrudes and one’s reminded of the West’s gullies and canyons, carved by the winds. This vivid evocation also has a retro aspect to it, summoning up ranches and Western modernism of the 50s and 60s.
And yes, the rooms are technically a wonder. Woods are dark and again, functionality is bang on the button; button being the operative word. Your bedside touchpad is central command for lights, sheers and drapes. I never actually exploited the touchpad’s full potential and I wondered how many people do. Technophobes like me require a one-on-one master class and how do you deliver that in a 4000+ room hotel?
One touch that I loved was the attention to detail. How lovely to come back at the end of the day and instead of finding your toiletries pushed up against the wall, they’re all carefully arranged on napkins. And supervisors pop in to make sure that all is as it should be. The only downer I’d say is the free toiletries and towels, the former need to be upgraded and the latter? Well, just a bit fluffier. Yes, THAT’s how fussy one becomes.
Shawn McClain is the culinary star at ARIA and Sage is his eatery. Shawn is a gastronomic big noise from the Midwest, a James Beard nominee who started his career in Chicago and subsequently pitched his pans in Vegas. Sage was Esquire Magazine’s Restaurant Not-To-Miss in 2010.
The space absolutely reeks of a chill out lounge post clubbing so I was a little apprehensive of it at as a dining space It’s all dim low-lighting, orange globe lamps seem to hang unsuspended in the air below a ceiling that disappears above soaring pillars. Up lighting from behind banquettes and large purple washes of light across canvasses all add to the late night ambience. The main thing that makes Sage feel a bit too “nightclubby” is the music. It’s all too trance and made me feel I should be smoking something illicit. Tip to Shawn; classical music would absolutely transform the vibe. But hey, I’m just an old fart and clubs and chill out bars is absolutely where Vegas has been at for the past 5 years.
Sage showcases modern American cooking with an emphasis on ingredients from the southwest. Echoes of Europe sing through with polenta, brulee, foie gras, jamon iberico and so on. Starters are from $15, mains from $24, and there are two tasting menus, a 4 courser at $79 and a 6 at $120. Wine pairings are available with both, and maintaining a funky no-fuss Midwestern approach, there are even beer pairings. I opted for the 6 courses and kicked my palate into starting orders with a sparkling aged oyster in aged vinegar and Tabasco.
Bigeye Tuna Belly to start was as soft and delicate as angel cheeks and displayed top-notch craftsmanship. The Foie Gras Brulee that followed was a beautifully conceived light mousse of a thing, punching huge flavour. I’m not someone who like his foie gras fiddled with but this was an exception. Scallop and Potato Ravioli was another marvellously crafted dish, the smell of truffle rose as the plate landed. Liberty Farms Duck Breast beat everything else on the menu to first place; complemented by sour orange and figs, but 38 Hour Beef Belly left me non-plussed. I felt the life and flavour of the meat had been literally braised out. And Blackberry and Chocolate Cremeaux to end was deep, dark and as intense as any woman would love.
The cooking at Sage is simply dazzling and demonstrates a huge understanding of balance between depth and texture; huge amounts of flavour are delivered in the lightest of creations. It makes Le Cirque look like a tired old inn.
By this stage, the spa beckoned, not that I couldn’t make it into the lift or anything. ARIA has one of the most beautiful spas I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen some. There are two main attractions. One is the Japanese shio or salt room where marbled white and ochre salt bricks infuse the air whilst you lie on curved recliner seats listening to ambient music which vibrates through the seat. The salt is good for respiration. The other area is a dark room of stone beds. What could be mistaken for a Spartan cell is actually a haven. The stone is heated and there you lie whilst your muscles relax. There are also plunge pools, a eucalyptus steam room, a red cedar sauna and a unisex outside balcony infinity pool. The latter was a little loud for me, what with the heady partying below at Liquid, ARIA’s adult only pool. A visit here is a definite highlight. Oh, and I opted for a 5 Diamond Gemstone Facial that left me a teenager again, well, ish.
My final pied a terre on this trip was an interesting concept at a surprising venue; Hotel 32 @ Monte Carlo. Now, the Monte is a Strip stalwart and not in the upper echelons of Vegas accommodation. Described by a friend in the know as “aspirational”, its references to that other Monte what with all the statuary, architectural detail and so on attracts a crowd in search of perceived glamour. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly acceptable hotel but well, not in ARIA’s league. Hotel 32 however has its eyes on the stars. It occupies the top floor in a series of studios, lofts and penthouses, and it ticks a lot of luxury boxes. There are free transfers to and from the airport, free laptops, and a lounge with complimentary beverages and nibbles between 5 and 8pm.
My loft consisted of a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom. There were two large flat screens, one in the lounge, the other in the bedroom. The small inset TV in bathroom mirror was fun and far too addictive. The twice-daily maid service is immaculate, the décor modern but not modish. This is another tech environment but one even an antique like myself can master – for drapes press drapes, for lights press lights, and so on.
Hotel 32 is a bit of a puzzle because of where it is; the upmarket atmos fades as you literally come back down to earth. Mardi Gras has high street food outlets and there’s a limited choice of bars. What I mean is there are no quiet areas to escape to. I ended up in the Sport and Book Bar to enjoy my drink and scribble in my notebook. And then I discovered Andre’s.
This is the property’s high-end restaurant, unashamedly French, and what a wonderful oasis it is. Since 1997 Andre’s has been lauded. The dining room is as trad as you can get; all cornicing, mirrors, Belle Epoque flourishes, and large upholstered booths. Linen and glass shine and sparkle in a gently lit space.
During my visit the wine list was a work in progress, gradually being overhauled to shift away from the overly-French emphasis to take in new territories. There’s a large selection of Wines of the Month, in my case they were all Riojas, some dating back to 1942.
Andre Rochat’s menu is steeped in France; there’s foie gras, onion soup and escargots but the net of ingredients is cast wide taking in Colorado lamb, Maine lobster, and imported Dover Sole. There are also flashes of the US with a trad shrimp cocktail and bison carpaccio. Starters are from $13, mains from $37. The 5 course tasting menu is $95, add $60 for wine pairings or for $95 enjoy the sommelier’s special attention. I kicked off with a glass of bubbly, Nicolas Feuillatte, at $22.
One thing I’ve noticed in Vegas’ restaurants is an unsettling obsession with whipped butter. The result is an insubstantial, creamy concoction that’s as undemanding as cotton candy. At Andre’s I was at last served a straightforward well-salted butter; a promising beginning. So was the amuse bouche; an unctuous chilled sweet corn soup, deep and creamy.
I was so impressed at the outset that I launched into the 7 course tasting menu at $125 with wine pairings an additional $85. To begin, Almas Ara Caviar offered a salty kick over cold ice. The creamy caviar had a long finish kept rigorous by subtly spiced blinis. In fact, this was the lightest blinis I’ve ever tasted, and all delivered with a blast of rose bubbly. Beef Tongue, smoky and velvet, provided a wallop of Americana, perfectly matched by a Mersault. Seared Foie Gras was as expected, but Berkshire Pork Belly, accompanied by a Chateau Quinault 1998 St Emilion, exuded salt and sweet onion, all sliding along the oily river of a red.
Calotte De Boeuf is a dish that brings meat back to the table in a big way. It has all the qualities of a Sunday roast, gorgeously moist meat, but upstaged by the star wine of the evening, a glass of Jarin Vineyards Blend 2002 from Napa combining damson jam and burnt fruits.
Of the two desserts I couldn’t tell you a thing, they were so outclassed by the pre-dessert sliver of thinly cut fruit, arranged in a mosaic with two tiny globules of Key Lime panacotta, the acidity trounced and tamed by lavender. Let’s call it the Dessert with No Name and it’s the best I’ve had in 2 years.
So in an almost negligible corner of a mainstream resort, I found more culinary magic. There it is. Unassuming and impressive, in the place where boys in baseball caps and goatees, and girls, all lipstick and little else, exit the hotel for a night on The Strip. Andre’s is a true haven, an incongruity in what some ignorantly call the barbarian West. Welcome to the paradox that is Las Vegas.
Oh and things were about to get even better….
NEXT MONTH GARETH DAVIS REVIEWS JOEL ROBUCHON AT THE MGM GRAND
My Las Vegas Gastro-Thon
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.
Gareth travelled to Las Vegas with British Airways and stayed at Mandalay Bay, Aria and Hotel 32, all part of MGM Resorts.
To find out more about British Airways visit
To find out more about Mandalay Bay visit
To find out more about Aria visit
To find our more about Hotel 32 visit
To find out more about MGM resorts visit