Is Las Vegas Undergoing a Culinary Revival? A Case Study
Back in the era of big name European celebrity chefs establishing outpost restaurants, in the heyday of places like the Bellagio, when the Las Vegas strip was establishing itself as not a kitschy, wild-west gambling hall destination, but rather a luxury oasis in its own right, the Michelin guide was ranking restaurants in Vegas, and there were some major standouts.
Since then, these restaurants have become rather dated and old-fashioned, and the casinos they inhabit are starting to show their age and are getting passed up by the younger, hipper crowds in favor of glitzy new properties like the Aria and Cosmopolitan. While this was happening, the Vegas culinary scene, one which is still pretty great, started to succumb a bit toward an over-commercialized den for chains and thoughtless, soulless outposts of various TV chefs. Meanwhile, the places that were true culinary destinations in the 'aughts gathered dust.
Don't get me wrong––these places, most of them at least, are still operating, and producing world-class food, but they aren't the hip places to visit in Vegas anymore. Few people go to Vegas and seek out a high-end, traditional French tasting menu at a place like Guy Savoy in Caesar's Palace, or Julian Serrano's lakeside tasting menu classic Picasso at the Bellagio, or the insanely expensive temple to Parisian decadence, Joël Robuchon, for some reason located at the rather mediocre MGM Grand. Even me, who loved my fountainside meal at Picasso years ago and still yearn to have the type of money to eat at Robuchon, would rather visit somewhere a little more cutting edge and exciting while visiting Vegas, or any other destination for that matter.
I love Las Vegas, and tend to stay at the Cosmopolitan or the Wynn when I visit. The former is just ten years old and a good scene for younger professionals like me, and is my destination of choice when I want a bit more of a glamorous, party-like atmosphere, while the Wynn is the pinnacle of elegance and is better for a quieter, older, and generally more international crowd, which my old soul sometimes craves. The food at the Cosmopolitan has always been good, but rarely world-class-level great. One exception is José Andrés' "é," his flagship tasting menu counter, which sits behind his outpost of tapas-focused Jaleo in the Cosmo, a fine place to dine as well. But by the time I left my tenure in LA, during which I was visiting Vegas almost monthly, I had started to run out of new/exciting places to eat at the Cosmo.
On an early August trip to the Cosmopolitan, my first overnight trip to Vegas in well over two years (!), I was pretty surprised to see a near-complete overhaul of the restaurant collection. The commercial celebrity chef outposts––like Milos––were gone, often replaced by international food empire chains, yes, but chains with their own identities. Also notable was a food hall called Block 16 teeming with all sorts of fantastic-looking counter-service casual spots, including a killer and inexpensive hand roll place, something woefully absent from the Cosmopolitan in the past. Knowing that I didn't want to venture out into the Nevada desert summer sun much during this trip, I largely stuck to the Cosmopolitan for food, and was excited to see what was new.
The first place I was surprised and excited to see pop up in Vegas was Zuma, an international sushi and robatayaki chain that gets stellar accolades everywhere it emerges. In Miami, where I almost patronized Zuma, it's on the Eater 38, and it also made the most recent Eater 38 here in Vegas. It's right at home in a glitzy casino in Vegas, too, because with outpost cities like Mykonos, London, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Phuket, it's definitely leaning in to a reputation with the wealthy tourist, celebrity, and "see-and-be-seen" crowd.
I normally hate that type of restaurant, but if the Eater 38 editors feature it in at least two excellent food cities, Miami and Vegas, it's worth a try in my book. And so it was––on a Sunday night, I made my way through the maze of conference rooms between the Chelsea Tower and the restaurant level at the Cosmo, and found myself sat dead center in front of the robata grills chatting with one of the cooks.
Even better, it was happy hour. A martini with Japanese vodka, lychee, citrus, and rose hips appealed to me, and though for happy hour the price was still an eye-popping $14, I was happy to enjoy this refreshing, sweeter drink at $5 off the normal price. A good way to settle in!
Shishito peppers are a mainstay of izakaya/robatayaki fare, and I was happy to see a single-digit price point for these on the happy hour menu, served with a yuzu-sesame aioli and smoked salt. Delicious, and given that the last time I had grilled shishitos they tasted like hairspray, these were evidence that my tastebuds are back on the rebound after my I-might-have-gotten-COVID-in-Peru incident. I was also thrilled to see their fried calamari on the happy hour menu, a basic bitch style dish, but still one that I love. This calamari had very thinly sliced fresh serrano pepper on top and a spicy salt as well, and when topped with the squeezed lime, was a fantastic permutation of calamari. Last but not least, they also had a sashimi/crudo course among the happy hour offerings. Made with a jalapeño and red onion condiment and served with slices of pickled garlic and ponzu, this yellowtail sashimi was delicious, and I particularly loved the slices of pickled garlic, which were at once pungent and tangy.
The chef in front of me kept making a delicious-looking crudo dish that prompted the person next to me to inquire about it, to which the chef responded "it's off-menu but everybody orders it; it's spicy toro." The next question, from me, "how much is it?" was answered with an eyebrow-raising "48 dollars," so even though he recommended it, I wasn't super interested in six tiny pieces of o-toro drowned in ponzu. Fortunately for me, while I was waiting for my next dish, he graced me with a little sample of it. Made with spicy ponzu and topped with sesame and pepper, it was exactly what I thought it would be––o-toro drowned in ponzu. Tasty, sure, but my least favorite way to enjoy the glorious, fatty goodness of tuna belly. At least I didn't spend $48!
I can't say no to salmon belly, so the torched salmon belly nigiri on the menu was sure to be among my selections. This version, made with tomato mayo and shaved black truffle, was indeed delightful, if a shade uninspired, though I think truffle may be among the things I still can't really taste after my maybe-COVID. Devastating!
I wasn't really blown away by any of the raw fish I had, though none of it was bad, so I decided to stick to robata for the rest of the meal. The robata grill consists only of ingredients cooked over an open fire made from Japanese charcoal, and the flavor of each of these was incredible. I started with their massive diver scallops, served with pickled plum, a shiso condiment, and mentaiko butter, the Japanese answer to bottarga––the spicy cured roe sack of the pollack fish. Holy shit, these were good. Charred outside but perfectly cooked inside, brimming with sweet scallop essence, coated in umami from the mentaiko butter, and completed with the acidity of pickled plum. The perfect bite.
It's Vegas, so I have to have a steak, right? The server was insistent that this prime ribeye on the robata grill was the best thing on the menu. Served with a chili ponzu that my maybe-had-COVID palate had a hard time picking up, the gloriously caramelized steak was tender and flavorful, and with wasabi and salt was exactly what I needed to satisfy my steak craving.
Asked about dessert, I was compelled not by their dessert menu but instead by the robata sweet corn, seeing how sweet corn is in season right now. Being an honorary Iowan and having just come from Iowa, where it's sweet corn season, I asked the server where they get the corn, to which he replied "I've never been asked that before," and dashed off to ask the kitchen. The cook in front of me initially told me Kansas, which was an acceptable but uninspiring answer, but at least I knew it would be midwest sweet corn rather than trash grown somewhere in the west coast deserts. They slather this corn in shiso butter before grilling it, then season it with more shiso butter and Japanese peppercorns. My god, it was good, and sweet enough to be a serviceable dessert, though I later found out the corn was from California. Fine, I guess...
The best thing of the night, though, was a cocktail that is the special in-house cocktail of the Vegas outpost of Zuma, and one that I almost asked them to cancel when it was delayed significantly at the end of the meal, but my server implored me to wait for. The first step, though, was for him to bring out a rib from a sherry cask used by The Macallan for aging their whisky, which he burned for a while with a torch until it released a sweet smoke. The glass was then placed upside-down on the rib so the smoke filled and coated the glass, and then the cocktail poured inside, with a napkin atop to keep the smoke in "for as long as" I wanted for flavor. I kept it on a while, and was thrilled with the result––one of the best whisky cocktails I had tasted in a very long time. Made with Suntory Toki whiskey from Japan, it was perfectly balanced––a bit of spice from ginger, some aromatic citrus from yuzu, sweetness from honey, none of which were overwhelming in the slightest, all brought together with the glorious Toki and sweet smoke from the Macallan cask. A perfect cocktail.
Color me rather impressed by Zuma––perhaps Las Vegas was exhibiting not just celebrity chef names and luxury ingredients, but actually had some culinary and mixology creativity up and coming! My second meal of the trip would also test this theory, and was the restaurant I was most looking forward to trying in the city.
David Chang's Momofuku is considered to be one of the most important restaurant empires in the world. Before Momofuku, Asian cuisine in the US was largely confined to traditional places. David Chang changed all of that when he showed American chefs how to modernize and elevate Asian food and ingredients. Since then, his Momofuku empire operates over ten restaurants worldwide, including a flagship in New York with two Michelin stars, and sells wonderful products to at-home chefs. And David Chang even has his own Netflix series!
I had seen that the Cosmopolitan was opening a Momofuku branch in Las Vegas, but hadn't really taken serious note of it until it was time to return to Vegas, and I saw it featured on Vegas' Eater 38. Despite the importance of Momofuku to the US food scene, I'd yet to have a full meal at a Momofuku restaurant––the closest was a brief stop at Momofuku Kawi in Hudson Yards, where I really just went to sample the raw crab dish that had taken the city's culinary community by storm, and then leave Hudson Yards as quickly as possible. The cool thing about Momofuku is every restaurant is immensely different, and creative control lies in the hands of the chefs at that location, so you can't get the same dish at two Momofuku restaurants. It's a "chain" but not a chain. And it was my Monday night dinner reservation.
They sat me at a spot overlooking the kitchen again, which was cool, as I had a bit of a show, but incredibly loud, since the chefs had to shout to be heard in the long, L-shaped kitchen. the dining room, decked out in minimalist decor and graffiti, looked much more appealing. Despite that, I did enjoy watching the chefs work.
A "calamansi collins" was my opening cocktail of choice. Calamansi is grown primarily in the Philippines and the Malay peninsula, and is a tangy hybrid between a kumquat and an orange. Made with Japanese vodka, a bit of amaro, elderflower, calamansi, and bubbly, this cocktail was insanely tasty and refreshing, and given my dehydration from the amount of Hendricks consumed on the casino floor the night before, went down way too quickly for a $17 drink.
I had the server give me suggestions, and he put a little star by all the dishes he loved the most on the menu. I started with the only dish he put two stars next to––big eye tuna cut into cubes, served with sweet seasonal fruit, pine nuts, and shaved foie gras. Just as good as he said it was, the tuna was hearty and snappy and the fruit provided acidity, while the pine nuts and foie added heft. I also appreciated that they were using a much more sustainable tuna than bluefin! Fantastic dish and a great way to start the meal.
After ordering another calamansi collins, I was ready to venture further into the menu with two more of his suggestions. The first sounded so good that he didn't have to recommend it for me to know I was going to order it––"popcorn octopus" served with fried basil leaves, a basil aioli, lemon, and dusted with spicy salt. Just as tasty as promised, but remarkably difficult to eat––I have pretty sensitive gums, and after finishing the dish, I noticed that the gums surrounding my back teeth were pretty cut up from chewing the fried morsels of octopus. Still delicious, but could have done with a bit lighter on the batter. Thankfully, a trip a few weeks later with Kayleigh featured much lighter batter, and the octopus was perfect.
The problem was that the next dish––Brussels sprouts and cauliflower––didn't really help the gum issue. Made vaguely in the style of a Japanese cabbage pancake, okonomiyaki, the sprouts and florets were topped with katsu sauce, Japanese mayo, and slowly-melting smoky bonito flakes. The flavors were delicious, but some of the larger Brussels sprouts were undercooked, hard, and impossible for my chewed-up gums to process, and in a rare moment for me, I did not finish more than half the dish.
Something much softer was next, fortunately, and the portion was so large that I was happy to make it my last dish that night. Spaghetti was tossed in uni (sea urchin) butter and a touch of spicy XO sauce and topped with chives and some Hokkaido urchin lobes. Oh sweet lord, all two of my loyal readers must know how much I loved this. Uni uni uni in every bite, with a glorious umami and spice from the XO. And then some steamed broccoli for some reason. Thank god sea urchin isn't among the foods that have been affected by my I-think-I-might-have-gotten-COVID-in-Peru incident. A glass of rosé bubbles from the Loire followed nearly ten minutes after I finished the dish despite ordering them at the same time, and I was happy to enjoy it for liquid dessert and even happier to see the server didn't charge me for it because of the delay.
At my second visit just weeks later, Kayleigh and I enjoyed their glazed pork chop, recommended to me by the waitstaff, as well as their shrimp buns, also recommended. I forgot to photograph the pork chop, because I had foolishly left my backpack at the Bellagio pool earlier in the day, but it was delicious, and I did manage to snap a photo of the shrimp buns, ultimately forgettable but featuring some very festive Momofuku logo flags!
If what is happening at the Cosmopolitan is a symptom of what is happening in many resorts in Vegas, the culinary outlook for the city is bright indeed. We have two restaurants here that are being truly inventive and ingenious with their dishes and their cocktails and not (completely) succumbing to overly commercialized practices (as much as that's possible in Vegas, of course).
There is evidence this is happening elsewhere as well––at the Park MGM, the newly-renovated Monte Carlo, Daniel Humm brought his NoMad brand to the renovation with stellar critical response. James Beard finalist Alan Ji heads up a new Hong Kong-inspired spot, Mott 32, in the Palazzo. From LA, Roy Choi brought Mexican-Korean fusion fare to the Park MGM with Best Friend. The Wynn continues to churn out amazing dishes at its top-notch restaurants like Lakeside, Wing Lei, and Mizumi that have always been in the highest echelon's of the city's cuisine. And off the strip, a cadre of amazing Asian restaurants join local tasting menu joints like Partage serving some of the best food in the city for locals and more mobile tourists alike. It's thrilling to see, and it makes me very excited to observe the culinary future of Las Vegas, though I still want to hit some jackpot and eat at Robuchon!
When in Vegas, a city of endless parades of buffets and soulless steakhouses from celebrity chefs who haven't actually been in a kitchen in decades, keep an eye out for these spots helmed by exciting young chefs who are really driving the culinary conversation in the city these days. You won't be disappointed!