In Las Vegas, the Stars Are Out

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Long before the term “foodie” was invented, gastronomes were planning trips around reservations at the world’s top tables. In 1900, the Michelin tire company produced “Le Guide Michelin,” adding its three-star rating system in 1926 to encourage readers to drive to dinner. While the guidebook has not yet reached Las Vegas – New York recently became the first American city rated, and a San Francisco guide will debut this fall – the city has become the site of an unlikely desert constellation.

French uber-chefs Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon both have restaurants in Las Vegas.The most recent arrival is Guy Savoy, who has virtually duplicated his eponymous three-star Parisian restaurant at Caesars Palace. Why are the three-star chefs in Vegas? The short answer is money.

Las Vegas became a dining destination in 1998, when the Bellagio Hotel opened, bringing celebrity chefs and restaurants, such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Le Cirque, to the strip. The hotels’ one-upmanship means that the market for high-end dining has not abated. “In the last decade, Las Vegas has become one of the most exciting destinations in the U.S., with a particular emphasis on the luxury lifestyle,” Mr. Ducasse said. “People now come to Las Vegas as much for the restaurants and shopping as for the entertainment and casinos.” Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud also have casino eateries. And Mario Batali will open two restaurants later this year.

When Caesars Palace approached Mr. Savoy to be the crown jewel in the new Augustus Tower, it wouldn’t settle for small. “They asked us not to do a bistro or brasserie but a copy of Guy Savoy Paris,” Mr. Savoy’s son, Franck Savoy, said recently in French. Part of what convinced the Savoys they should work so far from home was that they were given the means to do almost whatever they wanted: “What other city in the world can spend millions of dollars on a restaurant?” he said.

Perhaps the most crucial element in successfully re-creating the Paris restaurant is Mr. Savoy’s family and staff. “I am always at the restaurant,” Guy Savoy, in New York last month on his way to the opening, said. “This presence and watchfulness is important to the esprit de la maison. Las Vegas is only possible because my son Franck agreed to go.” Franck Savoy moved to Las Vegas a year ago with his wife, Laura.They will stay for at least two years, serving as general manager and private dining manager, respectively.

The Parisian restaurant’s design was replicated in Las Vegas by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who added a 15,000-bottle wine cellar, outdoor terrace, grand windows, a chef’s table in the kitchen, and a bar that 18 rue Troyon could never accommodate.

Running the kitchen is chef Damien Dulas, who’s been with Chef Savoy in Paris for five years. The menu at the new Restaurant Guy Savoy (3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 702-731-7286) is almost identical to the original, with variations based on availability of ingredients in both counties. “The products here are superb,” Franck Savoy said, noting the quality of American beef and veal, West Coast oysters, and Hawaiian fish.

The big difference between Las Vegas customers and the Parisian counterparts is that the former are on vacation and the latter are traveling primarily on business. “Vegas is more supple, people want to interact with the staff, the waiters and sommelier,” Mr. Savoy said. “Businessmen don’t want to be disturbed.”

He declines to discuss how he thinks the restaurant will rate against those of Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon just a mile away at the south end of the boulevard. “I grew up with these people. They’re more like friends and family than competitors.”

When Alain Ducasse opened Mix at the top of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 702-632-9500) in December 2004, he was the first three-star French chef to land in Las Vegas. The menu is a collection of Mr. Ducasse’s greatest hits from his restaurants in Paris and Monte Carlo.

The restaurant is a partnership between Mandalay Bay and Jeffery Chodorow’s China Grill Management, which has five outlets in the hotel and another restaurant with the Group Alain Ducasse.”The combination of its unique and exciting location, the lavish resorts, and the amazing culinary talent on the Strip made opening a restaurant in Las Vegas an obvious addition,” Mr. Ducasse said recently via e-mail.

Joel Robuchon came to Vegas on a handshake with the president of MGM Grand, Gamal Aziz, in 2001. “I had a lot of offers to come to the U.S., but I was afraid of the size of the restaurants,” Mr. Robuchon said, explaining that his kitchens serve 50 diners at most, and American restaurants tend to have hundreds of seats for maximum profit. “I told him small is okay, you can do what you want,” Mr. Aziz said. “I will give you the restaurant of your dreams.”

In 2001, Mr. Robuchon had opened L’Atelier de Robuchon in Paris, which combined the service of a sushi or tapas bar with his version of casual cuisine. (L’Atelier will open later this year in the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.) Mr. Aziz approached Mr. Robuchon and asked if the MGM Grand could have one, too. Last September, he opened two restaurants: the casual L’Atelier (702-891-7358) and the gastronomic paradise Joel Robuchon at the Mansion (702-891-7925), which both opened to rave international reviews (3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South).Mr. Robuchon said that when he closed his eponymous three-star restaurant in Paris to retire in 1996, he never planned to cook again, let alone open two restaurants in Las Vegas. “For me, I choose the man, not the place.”

While all the chefs talk about the extraordinary means the hotels have given them to create their dream restaurants, they won’t talk details. The casinos keep their financials confidential, though they all say they’ve spent millions of dollars. Will the restaurants ever reach profitability? That seems beside the point. For diners, these chefs are the rarest of Vegas commodities: a sure thing.

The New York Sun

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