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That word is out of date.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.

Chinese is new to Andrés, and, typically, he’s taking an interest both scholarly and entrepreneurial—studying history, watching chefs, and bringing over cooks he’s met on trips to Beijing. The combination came to him when he learned that in the mid-1600s, Spanish galleons delivered Asian spices and fruits to Mexico, and brought Central and South American peppers back to China. He originally thought he would fuse the cuisines, but decided to separate them, to get each one right.

China Poblano is the test kitchen for Chinese-themed restaurants Andrés has in mind for Washington and other cities. So far noodles are the specialty. Zhang Aifeng, a master chef he found at a Beijing restaurant, showed me how to make the noodles that, of the many kinds I slurped up, most captivated me: kao lao lao, which start with an unusual oat-flour dough, hand-mixed using hot water and worked while still warm. Knobs of the dough are pushed out one by one with the thumb, steamed, and served in upright rolls. The noodles are nutty and spongy, perfect for sopping up “tiger” sauce, and good both hot and cold. I took two orders to snack on in my room.

The must-go Vegas restaurants foodies tell each other about have in fact long been Asian. (Along with China Poblano, the Cosmopolitan just opened the top-flight Blue Ribbon Sushi, a branch of the New York chef hangout.) First on the list is Lotus of Siam—incongruous in a mall with sex clubs and gay bars—which some critics, notably Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly, say serves the best Thai food in the country; it won a James Beard award in this year’s Best Chef: Southwest category. The newer pilgrimage is to Aburiya Raku, a Japanese robatayaki-style grill in Vegas’s thriving Chinatown, where shop signs and newspapers are all in Chinese. I was impressed by the elegance of Raku, and by its butter-sautéed scallops and skewered chicken, despite the modesty of the (non-sex-themed) mini-mall it’s in. But what most impressed me was the idea that a city I snobbishly didn’t even think of as a real place could have a restaurant culture of its own—both on and off the Strip.