Postcard From Tom: In Vegas, a Diner's Jackpot

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009

As far as restaurants are concerned, it's a buyer's market in Las Vegas these days. What's bad for the city's 5,000 unemployed food workers is a bonanza for diners in search of bargains.

"Everywhere you go," says John Curtas, who has been writing about the restaurant scene since 1995, "there are deals galore."

Save for the $25 pot of coffee I foolishly ordered from room service at the tony Wynn Las Vegas last month, the food critic for Nevada Public Radio and is right. Just about everywhere I went, I saw (and sometimes tasted) the upside of the recession. Carnevino, chef Mario Batali's pricey Italian steakhouse in the Venetian -- calamari for $23, anyone? -- just launched a daily "burger brunch." For $30, diners get a cheeseburger, salad or chips and two beers, Bellinis or bloody marys. Since February, 13 of the Wynn's restaurants have been offering three-course dinners for as low as $29. (Meanwhile, guest rooms can be had for $20. That's the price Hooters Casino Hotel, a block off the Strip, charges for a package that throws in two breakfasts and show tickets.)

Restaurants on the Strip have long paid lip service to residents. Now, they're reaching out as never before. Earlier this year, to help fill seats that weren't being taken by tourists, MGM Grand introduced "limos for locals." When at least six Las Vegans reserve to dine at one of 10 upscale restaurants, the hotel dispatches a car to see the group from home to table and back.

For a food lover, three days in Las Vegas isn't nearly enough time to scratch the surface of possibilities. But what I learned in 72 hours of table hopping is that the cooking on the Strip is generally better than the cooking off of it; that midweek is a more relaxed experience than Friday or Saturday, when big crowds still flock to town; and that fancy double-digit cocktails in the desert show no signs of going the way of Liberace. Asked about business in the city, my bartender at the youthful Rhumbar in the Mirage smiled and said, "People will drink if they're rich or they're poor."

From my notebook to yours:

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Sea World has nothing on the fish trolley at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare. On any given night, the glass-topped display might pack in turbot, John Dory, sole from the Adriatic, pink snapper and an animated lobster or langoustine. The piscine tour, offered during the first few minutes of an evening in this upscale Italian restaurant, sets a diner up for impeccably fresh ingredients and tabs that underscore such quality. It's not every restaurant that has its own fish tank and employs a marine biologist to watch over the contents, as this one does.

Don't expect a lot of fireworks as far as presentation is concerned. The restaurant prefers you to savor the fish and seafood, flown in three to five times a week, in as pure and simple a way as they are probably enjoyed on the coasts of Italy where they're caught. That still leaves something to swoon over on the plate, maybe steamed clams in a winy tomato sauce or, even better, a perfect fritto misto of octopus, silvery little fish and baby soft-shell crabs, fat buttons of pleasure culled from Venice. After consultation with the maitre d', a companion and I settle on ordering sea bream and having it roasted in a salt crust. The snowy-sweet fish comes simply embellished with crisp potatoes and sliced zucchini but also an herbed anchovy sauce that I'd kill to be able to get on my home turf.

It's not just the fish that whisks you to Italy from course to course. The pasta is terrific, too. Seafood risotto is as much lobster, scallops and shrimp as rice, while ravioli stuffed with sheep's milk cheese are supple hats anointed with a glaze that hints of Marsala and veal stock.

You will pay dearly for all the pedigree: That sea bream for two set me back $120. But it's definitely the most exquisite catch in the desert, and on a par with the fare at the finest fish houses on either U.S. coast. Besides, there's always the option of Bartolotta's Taste of Wynn, three courses for $69. Among the entree choices are a seafood stew and baked fish with artichokes and oregano.

Bartolotta is one of only a handful of celebrity-chef destinations in Las Vegas whose namesake owner actually toils there on a regular basis: Paul Bartolotta earlier this year won his second regional cooking award from the James Beard Foundation for this impressive seafood establishment. His is not the most glamorous dining room on the Strip, but I appreciate the view, from my table, of a pool floating silver balls and ringed by cabanas, and a sommelier who not only chooses wines at a lesser price than I'm considering but also keeps stain remover in her purse for clumsy guests. (Guilty!)

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