Chef City

Famous Las Vegas restaurateurs are finally making meals to match the hype.

Could it be worth going to Las Vegas for the food? I sure never thought so. Everything about the first, overpublicized Las Vegas revival—when the Bellagio began an arms race of glossy restaurants—had a gold-rush whiff. Word in the restaurant community was that press-savvy chefs were simply renting out their names and never showing up in the kitchens, effectively turning themselves into two-armed bandits.

That word is out of date. Las Vegas is in the midst of a second-wave restaurant renaissance, in which food is truly good and not (necessarily) outrageously priced, and at some (though not all) hotel restaurants, a desire to serve innovative food has replaced cynicism. In fact, the most interesting meal I’ve had this year was at a restaurant a well-known chef was using as a laboratory to test his newest ideas: José Andrés’s China Poblano in the brand-new Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas, which opened over New Year’s. And even “off-Strip” restaurants are acquiring national reputations.

Some of the gold-rush chefs, it turns out, discovered that Las Vegas could be more than a place to cast a few pearls before swine. It’s a congenial city to set up shop and even raise a family. And restaurant workers who can’t afford a comfortable middle-class life in most big cities—dishwashers and servers—discovered they can in Las Vegas. Because so many of the hotels are unionized, many restaurants are unionized too—something both rare and contentious in cities like New York, where restaurateurs can’t afford the wages or, they say, the inflexibility that unions impose. Workers who have to hold several jobs in New York or Los Angeles can work one in Las Vegas, and keep it for years—a stability almost unheard-of in the restaurant world.

Part of the second wave is that chefs are opening ambitious mid-priced restaurants too (surprising in a resort town) and even, improbably, reinventing the buffet, that cruise-ship scourge. Hotels, particularly the Wynn and the Cosmopolitan, offer reasonably priced ($30–$40) buffets where the food is individually plated in prettily presented portions—like a fantasy Automat where the food is actually good.

It’s hard to get used to the idea of serious food in what looks like an airport, let alone expect provocative and original restaurant design. At the Cosmopolitan, where floors are arranged as eccentric ovals around an atrium and an undulating three-story chandelier, the throngs of drink-carrying customers are constant, with earphone-dangling security guards circulating like pilot fish.

Even glimpsed through the crowd, China Poblano is arresting. There are neon-signed takeout windows for Chinese food on one side and for Mexican food on the other, and a sculpted Chinese-filigree doorway. At one bar, you can watch Chinese chefs roll out noodles and fold dumplings; at another, Mexican chefs make tacos and carnitas.

The Mexican menu at China Poblano is appealing, particularly the tacos with standard fillings and unusual ones like duck tongues. But familiar: Andrés has done Mexican, at Oyamel in Washington, D.C. He has also done classic Spanish, of course, though perhaps never so well as at the new Jaleo (an outpost of his well-known D.C. restaurant), one floor up from China Poblano. There I had the best paella I’ve had in this country, because it was cooked over a wood fire in a spectacular “paella pit” in the middle of the crowded restaurant, with crusted, browned rice at the bottom of the wide pan fragrant from the wood smoke.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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