Postcard From Tom: In Vegas, a Diner's Jackpot
It's a Recession. That Means Great Restaurant Deals.

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:

* * *

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!)

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S. in the Wynn; 702-248-3463. Entrees $29-$54.

* * *

Even before you reach a table, your ears beg for relief from the pulsing rock-and-roll soundtrack and whatever games happen to be playing on multiple flat-screen TVs. And once you sit down, the temptation to bolt is strong. Noisy and brash, the year-old BLT Burger could pass for a Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood. But my heart was set on a good burger, and if any place here could fulfill that request, it is probably an offshoot of BLT Steak and a formula from New York chef Laurent Tourondel. (He's the LT part of the popular bistro empire.)

Here's a survival tip: Grab a seat at the curved yellow bar. It's set with bowls of peanuts in their shells for munching, and it looks onto one of the busiest grills I've ever seen: At peak times, 300 burgers might sizzle to doneness every hour. Even so, you get your seven-ounce patty the way you ask for it (in this case, cooked medium-rare and enhanced with blue cheese and sauteed onions). The beef is a blend of chuck, sirloin and brisket; the bun comes with a faint crunch from toasting. "Tip waiters, not cows," reads the T-shirt of the guy who delivers our juicy sandwiches. Beef is the theme but not the only draw at BLT Burger. The options extend to burgers made with lamb, turkey and American Kobe beef and average an easy-to-digest $12. I vote for the crunch and the cool in the ground-shrimp-and-pork burger, designed to taste like a Vietnamese banh mi with cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots. Twenty brews on tap and six pedestrian wines by the glass give the advantage to beer drinkers.

Reminders that you're in Sin City and not just Anywhere, USA: a life-size desert panorama on the wall, milkshakes spiked with booze and the option of ordering the Stripper. That's a burger without a bun.

3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S. in the Mirage Hotel & Casino; 702-792-7888. Burgers $10-$17.

* * *

A noisy casino sprawls right outside the entrance of Joël Robuchon, but once the curved glass door of the restaurant is closed, you feel as if you've been transported to Paris and a jewel box brimming with edible art.

It takes a few minutes to absorb all the richness. The intimate, 42-seat main dining room is plush with purple velvet banquettes, a quiet fire, enormous sprays of flowers and a sparkling chandelier; to the side is a second room, "the vertical garden," its walls covered with English ivy and the floor fragrant with flowers. Named for the Frenchman who was hailed as "chef of the century" for his magic at the late Jamin in Paris, the four-year-old Joël Robuchon is an utterly civilized scene, but not so stuffy that you can't relax. The guy next to me isn't wearing a jacket; the woman behind me is softly laughing.

Robuchon's amuse bouche raises the bar for gifts from chefs. The gratis treat is sweet crab paved with glistening osetra in a caviar tin set into a shiny black frame. What follows is all beautiful and mostly delicious, although I can relate to the well-traveled chef who confided in me when he said, "It's one of the top three meals in the United States, but I can't remember what I ate." With a few exceptions, no single dish dazzled me as much as did the accumulation of details here. One of those exceptions -- smoked mackerel brushed with creamy mustard, dotted with orange roe and staged with a perfect garden of vegetables atop a glass-and-mesh plate -- is brilliant on multiple levels. Still, I think I could make a meal of the bread cart alone, neatly arranged as it is with a baker's dozen of French classics, including tender milk buns, miniature baguettes, glossy brioches and small rolls green with basil. And the sweets cart, proffering exquisite bonbons, bite-size cakes and macaroons, turns every adult into a wide-eyed kid again.

Robuchon's 16-course tasting menu costs $385 per person for food alone. (One good thing to come from the recession: In May, the restaurant introduced less costly notions, including a three-course menu for $89.) The price of admission is not inexpensive, but the meal qualifies as a feast, factoring in an amuse bouche, that bread service, one of the most sensual rooms in the city and a sense of why Robuchon, the man, rightly continues to be revered.

3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S. in the MGM Grand Hotel; 702-891-7925; Tasting menus from $89 to $385 per person.

* * *

If you want to know where some of the city's top chefs go when they're not working, snag a cab for the short ride from the Strip to a nondescript stretch of shops and a tiny Japanese pub named Aburiya Raku. A chorus of spirited "hellos" from the servers makes a diner feel immediately at home. Their mention of tofu made right there and the availability of live scallops suggest the presence of a chef who pays attention to the details.

Mitsuo Endo, formerly of the very good Megu in New York, does not disappoint. His specialty involves grilling meat and fish (chicken thighs, pork cheeks, those scallops) over a Japanese charcoal fire. Delicately smoky, they're good on their own, although a splash of "chili water'' from Okinawa or a dusting of hot pepper flakes heightens their pleasure. Endo's tofu, light and fluffy as fresh ricotta, is turned out of a small basket, leaving a woven pattern on its ivory surface. Garnishes of bonito shavings, grated ginger and chopped scallions lend color and depth to what's already a thrilling thing to eat. As I watch several parties gently turned away at the door of this chocolate-colored shoebox, I'm glad that I booked ahead for one of only seven tables. Dinner for two, with more food than we can finish, costs $120, a sum that includes drinks, tax and tip. Seemingly everything we eat or drink comes with a little story or a quiet surprise. The pebbly casing on an appetizer of asparagus "tempura" turns out to be crushed rice crackers, a server confides. The chilled earthenware cups for our sake let us taste first with our fingertips. Admiring the slender wooden support for a tasting of three sakes, I ask a bubbly server about its design. "Mitsuo made it," she says.


5030 Spring Mountain Rd.; 702-367-3511. Entrees $7.50-$30 (for whole fish).

* * *

Spirits gurus predict that rum is poised to be the next "it" liquor. Rhumbar, a vision in white, is all the evidence I need to toast the forecast. The theme of the slender lounge, as well as its source of inspiration, surface in mostly subtle details: a fancy cigar display to the side and some metal rooster sculptures displayed in glass cases. "Cock-fighting is a big sport in Puerto Rico," a bartender says, explaining the three-dimensional art.

It would take someone two months of nightly exploration to sip his way through the bar's 65 rums. The fantasy is fun to think about, but I've got only a weekend, so I stick to my options on the cocktail list, almost 20 drinks strong. They're an elegant and slyly potent bunch. If you think you don't like rum, the Hemingway daiquiri here will change your mind; lime juice, maraschino liqueur and fresh grapefruit juice can be very persuasive. If you're already a fan of rum, the spicy Latin Manhattan topped off with Jamaican ginger beer reminds you why. The $49 Scorpion Bowl lives up to its reputation (we're talking 8 ounces of gin and three types of rums) and requires a two-person minimum. The average cost per cocktail is $12, however, not bad given the craftsmanship.

The bartenders, who come up with two new cocktails using a different rum every month, take few shortcuts. The daiquiri mix is made with freshly squeezed lime juice, and even basil leaves are squeezed for their liquid for another cocktail.

Rhumbar extends to one of the few outdoor patios on the Strip, where overhead misters help keep loungers cool in the heat of the day. But I prefer one of the hubcap-size, marshmallow-soft stools at the bar and the chance to see my mai tai -- the real deal, based on a 1944 recipe and flavored with lime, curacao and French orgeat (almond flavoring) -- shaken before my eyes.

3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S. in the Mirage; 702-792-7615. Cocktails $12-$20.

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