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Las Vegas bets the future on a game-changing new hotel complex

Even as the recession still reigns, Las Vegas bets the future on CityCenter -- a pricey, game-changing new hotel complex.

At the Mandarin, men in top hats opened the door to the first-floor lobby, where the Asian-inspired decor made for an elegant introduction to the 47-story hotel. The trip to the 23rd floor was well worth it. On one side of the building, you get a stunning view of Paris Las Vegas. I took a seat at a table on the other side, where the windows look out on an equally blow-you-away view of New York New York and the MGM Grand.

My enthusiasm faded when I looked at the menu. The cheapest drink was a $16 glass of wine.

After downing one glass, I returned to the Aria and made my way to the casino, hoping to win some money to pay for dinner. I'm not really a gambler, so I headed for the slot machines rather than the blackjack table, where, the night before, Roy had lost a bundle as I watched in horror.

I chose a machine called the "John Wayne Spinning Streak" and put in $5. Just as I got down to my last dollar, the machine lit up. I'd hit a spinning streak and won $15. And so it went for a while: I'd lose a little, then win a little more. In the end, I made a $14 profit. I have to say, it was kind of a thrill to win, even if it wasn't even enough to cover my glass of wine at the Mandarin.

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If you're not a gambler and you can't afford Tom Ford, what is there to do in CityCenter? Eat.

It's been a recent trend for some of the most celebrated chefs in the country (and the world) to open restaurants in Vegas. Now, almost two dozen have opened venues in CityCenter. The Mandarin has Twist by Michelin three-star-winning chef Pierre Gagnaire. Aria recruited such top chefs as Julian Serrano, Michael Mina, Sirio Maccioni and Vegas newcomers Masayoshi Takayama, who owns Masa in New York, and Shawn McClain, who owns three restaurants in Chicago. Vdara has Martin Heierling, who runs Bellagio's Sensi.

Roy, another friend and I hit Julian Serrano, a Spanish tapas bar in the lobby of the Aria. Serrano serves traditional tapas such as chicken croquetas and a Spanish tortilla, but he also offers what he calls "new tapas," such as the amazing avocado canelonne, made with Scottish salmon and seaweed. A shrimp seviche with yellow and red peppers was less satisfying, but the grilled Angus flatiron steak was tender and delicious.

At McClain's Sage, we ordered the Pacific yellowtail crudo and the Vancouver Island kusshi oysters. The crudo was light but filled with texture, and the oysters were fresh. But nothing could match the roasted loin of Spanish Iberico pork. The loin was so tender and the pork shoulder cannelloni so flavorful that I had to stop myself from eating the whole thing. (The gym was $30 a visit, after all, and I couldn't bet that I wouldn't get caught the next time I tried to sneak in.)

One morning, Roy and I had breakfast at Silk Road, the only restaurant at Vdara. I've rarely seen a menu with morning sliders, so I had to order them. One came with grilled tenderloin and tomato confit, the other with Vermont cheddar, bacon and a fried egg. Both were in a brioche bun, and both were scrumptious.

But the best thing about Silk Road was the chef, who likes to circulate around the colorful room. The German-born, New Zealand-raised Heierling told me that he's ecstatic about opening another restaurant in Vegas. "I always think Vegas is the epitome of the American dream," he said.

I couldn't help thinking he was right, somehow. So of course we couldn't leave town without seeing that proto-American show, Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis," a musical salute to the King.

After waiting in a long, slow line, we got into the theater a few minutes too late for the opening scene. But no matter. It was all about singing, and the singing was terrific. Much of the show featured clips of Elvis, then performers doing their renditions of his songs. The "Love Me Tender" performance was so beautiful that Roy and I both got teary.

This was Cirque du Soleil, after all, so we got our share of acrobatics. Performers dressed as superheroes strutted their skills to the tune of "Gotta Lotta Lovin.' " In a scene depicting Elvis's stint in the military, men and women dressed as GIs danced to "GI Blues."

In the middle of the show, some kind of glitch forced the performers to take an unscheduled break. But we didn't care. We were having fun.

"Bring back the GIs!" Roy shouted as the break stretched on. No one seemed to mind. Even though we were in the upscale, sophisticated CityCenter, we were still in Vegas.

And such shenanigans are what Vegas is all about.

Details: CityCenter

Gallery: Las Vegas's big gamble

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