Beyond the Bridges

Boom Town

Say so long to Las Vegas’s Disney past. (Yes!) The era of decadence is in full swing.

By Jill Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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 IN THE MIDDLE of the night on a Tuesday in mid-November, just after a fireworks spectacular had spewed from its roof, the New Frontier Hotel-Casino, packed with explosives, imploded and crumbled to the ground. The destruction sent a mushroom cloud of dust rolling across the Strip—Las Vegas’s casino-lined main drag—and the throngs that had gathered to watch let out a collective woooo before breaking into a cacophony of hell yeahs and other expletives of joy.

Although it was the second casino to be built on the Strip (back in 1942) and the site of Elvis’s first Sin City appearance, God forbid that anyone should get all misty-eyed over the New Frontier’s demise. After all, Las Vegas didn’t become the single most visited city in the United States (39 million people in 2006) by nostalgically clinging to the past. Quite the opposite. Vegas’s charge always has been to anticipate our innermost hedonistic desires, and then exceed them in a display of marvelously vulgar American wealth.

And yet my own hedonistic desires, like those of many people I know, never quite synced up with the whole Las Vegas experience. For one, I typically don’t gamble; for another, casinos like Excalibur, New York New York, and the Luxor’s iconic pyramid of glass are just too Disney for my tastes. Cavorting with drunken hordes on the Strip just seemed icky, and for much of the 1990s, the food, though plentiful, was—excepting a few restaurants opened by pioneering chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse—plenty awful.

But now, at long last, I’m in the throes of a full-on Las Vegas love affair, because the hedonistic desires that Vegas currently fulfills match my own to a T. The glittering town plunked in the middle of the Mojave Desert is fast becoming the gastronomical epicenter of the United States, with scores of high-end chefs and hoteliers partnering to create dining experiences that are as memorable for the restaurants’ architecture as they are for the extravagance on the plate. (The city boasts 16 restaurants with Michelin ratings.) The paradisiacal pools and man-made beaches of Mandalay Bay set a new standard for catching rays, and hotels like the Wynn have managed to strike a more sophisticated balance between elegance and fantasy.

Best of all, more of this new version of Vegas is yet to come. That pile of New Frontier rubble? It’s slated to become a 3,500-room Plaza Hotel; nearby, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, a looming stack of gold coins glittering in the Nevada sun, will open this year; and the Encore, an annex to the Wynn, is slated to open in early 2009, and (rumor has it) will contain an indoor lake and waterfalls. All are places where opulence (albeit of a candy-colored ilk) manages to hold its own next to the city’s remnants of schmaltz.

And so, after arduously avoiding the city for so many years, I decided it was finally time to embrace it by embarking on one of those classic girls’ weekends. As a trio of thirtysomethings, our mission was to seek out and then luxuriate in Vegas’s more grown-up, sophisticated side. We would eat sumptuous meals, sip cocktails in fabulous bars, embrace any and all opportunities for decadence, and try not to feel guilty about any of it.

(Note that if, like us, you are stupid enough to try to drive up the Strip on a Saturday night en route from the airport, you will not see sophisticated Vegas, but rather the antics of street-cruising revelers chugalugging frozen drinks from yard-long plastic goblets. And you may wish that someone would put explosives in your head and implode it like the New Frontier, because it will take you more than an hour to go a mile.)

The good news is that champagne, croque madame and a platter of exquisite French pastries the morning after has a way of dispensing with any lingering stresses. The very best of all three can be found at Bouchon, a brasserie at the Venetian Resort opened four years ago by French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. While elsewhere in the Venetian, faux gondoliers poled tourists about the hotel’s canals, we three sat at a corner table that overlooked a courtyard garden and worked our way through a good portion of the menu.

If you’re one who thinks that a brunch menu couldn’t possibly showcase Keller’s culinary mastery, you’d be mistaken. Here, “French toast” translates into layers of brioche, vanilla-scented custard and apples that have been baked into a soft and luscious bread pudding and drizzled with maple syrup. Such a reinvention of the old breakfast standby elevates it to something extraordinary. A crock of pork rillette that’s been spiced with red-wine-soaked prunes, pears and orange rind and then cooked with champagne vinegar, mustard and clove tastes utterly sublime spread on toasted slices of house-made baguette. And the only problem with the croissants is that they make all others seem uninspired by comparison. 

We spent the afternoon walking the streets of downtown, where ticky-tacky souvenir shops share space with ticky-tacky topless bars. What lends an air of charm to the scene are 1940s-era casinos like the Golden Nugget, which has updated its décor but maintained its retro-cool image. Here you’ll find blue-haired ladies playing the nickel slots, while at the pool a see-through water “tube” bores through a tankful of sharks. 

That evening, we headed to dinner at Nobhill, one of four Las Vegas restaurants owned by chef Michael Mina, who made a name for himself at San Francisco’s Aqua and now heads a mini-empire of restaurants. At Nobhill, you’ll find a romantically dark (if somewhat austerely modern) dining room in the MGM Grand, about 100 yards past the lion habitat, where a rotating cast of felines lounges within view of the slots. In addition to featuring dishes from the Michael Mina cookbook, like Maine lobster pot pie, the menu incorporates flavors of the Pacific Rim while giving a nod to Italy. Citrus-steamed black cod with miso-braised Kobe beef short ribs holds its own next to Mina’s signature North Beach cioppino. With images of San Francisco embossed on the glass walls enclosing the booths, the restaurant oozes artistic sex appeal. So does the presentation of the food, which can appear painted onto a plate—as with the trio of sauces accompanying the olive-oil-poached lamb loin.

It was at the Palms Casino Resort, our home base, located about a mile off the Strip, that we attempted to gallivant with Vegas’s younger set: Looking to relax by the pool, we instead encountered pumping jams and scantily clad partiers, which meant that we spent little time near its waters. The Palms’ partnership with Hugh Hefner means that the hotel’s “Fantasy Tower” is brandished with a Playboy logo, its ears seemingly unzipping the building to expose Lord knows what naughtiness going on inside. This hotel also is home to the Playboy Club, where one of my cohorts lost $50 to a dark-haired bunny dealer in under 30 seconds.

We recovered, however, by heading one flight up to the Moon Nightclub, where an outdoor balcony proffers a heady view of the city. If only we could have afforded a night at the Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, which features a glass elevator, an infinity pool and rotating beds. Unfortunately, that privilege costs $40,000 per night. 

Still, as we discovered at the Venetian’s B & B Ristorante (as in Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich), it is possible to eat a meal so good that you feel you are rich. We worked our way through a tender lamb’s tongue and chanterelle salad topped with a velvety poached egg, and beef-cheek ravioli with shaved black truffles. By the time we tucked into the fennel-dusted sweetbreads, we decided that the pleasures of the meal would trump any pleasures we’d derive from the burlesque show we had tickets to and skipped it altogether. We had no regrets staying in the capable hands of sommelier Henry Davar, whose ability to lyrically describe each wine’s precise qualities made navigating the voluminous Italian wine menu a pleasure.

On our last night, we sat at a table on the patio of Parasol Up, Parasol Down, a whimsical little drinking enclave in the Wynn. Cosmopolitans in hand, we looked out over the “Lake of Dreams,” in which four naked bathers—fiberglass statues—stared at a white wall of cascading water. Nearby a quartet of businessmen puffed cigars; at another table, a man admired his date’s ample breasts. The oasis was decadent, yet calming. We let out satisfied sighs. 

And then, without warning, jungle beats came blasting into our ears, and the wall of water we’d serenely gazed upon transformed into a video screen across which animated snakes danced, mouths agape. A cut-out, illuminated moon ascended from a forest of trees, and then a pair of fluorescent 30-foot-tall puppets appeared, jiggling to the beat. By the time a 3-D head of a woman rose from the lake, lip-syncing the words, we were crying with incredulity. It was ridiculous, nonsensical spectacle, and we loved it.

The next day, when we mistook an actual pile of construction dirt for a faux-volcano and a swath of blue sky for a video mirage, we knew our minds had been co-opted. But my perception of Vegas had finally undergone a sea change. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the city will think of next.