Amid girls in feather headdresses and Elvis tunes, a slew of new restaurants by some of the world’s better-known chefs made their debut last night at the opening of the Las Vegas City Center. The $8.5-billion project of silver skyscrapers that was conceived in the boom but built in the bust - co-owners Dubai World sued to pull out, unsuccessfully, last spring – includes new concepts and big spaces from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Sirio Maccione, Julian Serrano and, in his first foray outside of New York’s Masa, Masayoshi Takamara. Wolfgang Puck and Todd English open early next year.
At the grand opening, each eatery offered four or five tastes to a 5,000-strong mélange of crabclaw-grabbing diners in tuxes or sequins sporting plastic VIP badges. In an early popular vote: Mina’s and Vongerichten’s eateries were by far the busiest, possibly due to the free Bellini’s at Vongerichten’s and the crunchy lobster roll at Mina’s. In a recession, some of the dozen or so other eateries opted for rice balls, excuse us, arancini, while the Bar Masa server described her offering as "chicken nuggets."
In the ten years since he opened Prime in next-door Bellagio, “Las Vegas F&B; has changed completely,” says Vongerichten. “Then we opened a classical steakhouse, now there’s no tablecloths, there’s stoneware and it’s a little more clubby (he gestures at a brown leather chandelier). But the big money’s still here.” In Vegas, food is “a fantasy…you have to fulfill everyone’s craving.” The new Jean Georges Steakhouse, as it’s called, is his 30th eatery worldwide.
The chefs were courted individually by MGM Grand about three years ago: Each had to bring a new concept and not a clone of an earlier eatery. Puck, for example, opens his first French brasserie, Brasserie PUCK, complete with moules frites and a selection of pates. He isn’t too worried about the economy, noting that his Borgata and Maui restaurants had their best years ever last year and says that he’s working the managers harder at the other ones.
Some of the restaurants seat more than 200, and large eateries are risks in this climate; Las Vegas occupancy runs in the low 80 percent – and that was before City Center added more than 4,000 new rooms. So, the restaurateurs are tweaking the menus slightly and the prices greatly. Vongerichten says he’ll be cutting prices already, while Chef Masa will charge $500 a head (Masa is $400 in New York) at his new Shaboo restaurant with induction-heat tables opening Christmas day. “It’s my high-rollers table,” he said, as David Rockwell and Adam Tihany dropped by his adjacent Bar Masa. Nonetheless, working in such a big hotel complex has issues, he says. “I order an onion, it goes somewhere else,” to another of the restaurants, he says.
Vongerichten thinks he’s got location on his side: his steakhouse, plus Mina’s “American Fish” and Maccione’s “Sirio” are right outside the new Elvis Theater where a nightly Cirque de Soleil tribute to the king will be performed. “Every night, 2,000 people will spill out of Elvis."