VEGAS INC Coverage
It was the greatest dining experience of my life. And it happened on a Tuesday.
When I became friendly with Maguy Le Coze—and subsequently her brother, Gilbert—I’d never heard of Le Bernadin, the legendary restaurant they co-owned in Paris and had recently opened in Manhattan to unprecedented acclaim. To me, Maguy was glamorous, self-deprecating and giggled a lot at my biting comments. The fact that my then-roommate and food and wine expert, Terry Zarikian, was extremely close friends with the attractive powerhouse French siblings made my many encounters with them all the more enjoyable. Those two were really something.
But when I visited Le Bernadin for the first time as Maguy’s guest, I had no idea what I was in for: Best. Dinner. Ever. As I devoured the endless seafood courses, appreciated the wine pairings, marveled at the synchronized waiters, laughed at my hostess’s tales about her beloved Mustique, I realized toward the end of this three-hour trip to culinary heaven that it simply didn’t get any better than this. Anywhere. And, given my track record, I felt comfortable making such a declarative statement.
Since I didn’t cook—not even a boiled egg—until three years ago, by sheer necessity every meal I ever had was prepared by others and a lot of the times, lucky me, by master chefs in fancy restaurants. Hey, it was the 1990s and 2000s in NYC, San Francisco, Miami and LA. So good food usually meant great chefs. And I had some really good food.
In New York City, I’ve enjoyed fewer meals more than anything prepared by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at any and all of his numerous restaurants. His namesake, Jean-Georges, rivals Le Bernadin for its attention to detail and refinement, but his other establishments, Perry Street, 66, Spice Market and Vong were also incredible. But his first spot, JoJo, my favorite lunch destination, was an early sign of the magic to come. San Francisco, of course, had the ridiculously delicious Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ hub across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley. And a little further out in Napa, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry was a must. In the city, I had a soft spot for The Slanted Door, and the roasted chicken and polenta at Zuni Café was epic. Back in the day, Miami didn’t have many jaw-dropping options (Joe’s Stone Crab was the exception) but then Mark Militello at Mark’s Place, Norman Van Aken’s savory-meets-citrus fusion joint on Ocean Drive and Douglas Rodríguez’s couture Cuban fare at Yuca all seemed to land simultaneously to get Miami on the culinary map. Now, Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s) carries the foodie baton proudly in South Florida. In Los Angeles, I stuck with the classics: Spago, Mr. Chow, The Ivy. Later, Koi, The Tower Bar at Sunset Tower, Sur, Michael’s Santa Monica, Il Sole, Lucques and Simon LA joined my yummy Cali restaurant roster.
Now, Las Vegas.
Of all the places in all the world I’ve ever lived in or visited, nothing comes close to what Las Vegas has to offer: The planet’s best chefs packed into a two-mile stretch of sparkly road competing head-to-head in a nightly battle of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better or, if you prefer, "Iron Chef, All-Star Edition." Joël Robuchon, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer, Michael Mina, Susan Feniger, Tom Colicchio, Alain Ducasse, Bobby Flay, Nobu Matsuhisa, José Andrés, Todd English, Emeril Lagasse, Hubert Keller, Julian Serrano, Kerry Simon and on and on and on. I mean, c’mon!
The fact that the culinary world isn’t flocking to Las Vegas, Mecca for fine dining, is the fault—like so many other times—of poor marketing by a gaming-first, gaming-only mind-set in this town. If Dallas or Atlanta or Phoenix or, yes, San Francisco, Miami or Los Angeles, had even one-third of the four-star restaurants we have, a ten-story billboard would welcome visitors to those cities with the words: “Welcome To Restaurant City.” So, where’s our billboard? Where’s our advertising campaign? Where’s the strategy? Where, oh where, is any of it?
Naturally, the vast majority of my meals haven’t been prepared by celebrity chefs—just enough of them have for me to know the difference—but the idea of dressing up and making the mundane act of eating into an event will never get old for me. Some of the greatest moments of my life happened in those kind of restaurants: My parents telling me how proud they were the night I graduated from Tulane University over dinner at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans (I still dream about the rare Cajun peppercorn steak); receiving incredible career news at Manhattan institution Le Cirque (The duck. Oh my.); Realizing that love is real at Prime 112 in South Beach (Oysters, please); finding the best of Vegas at Bouchon, Jaleo, N9NE Steakhouse and Nobu. Big nights demand the requisite atmospherics: Great company, great conversation, great food. Am I alone on this? Didn’t think so.
The other day I was thinking about Maguy Le Coze as I endured a subpar lunch at a faux Parisian-inspired bistro. Running a restaurant is hard. Running a perfect restaurant is impossible. With Le Bernadin, Maguy has done the impossible: Perfection. I’m just glad for her sake, she didn’t decide to open Le Bernadin in Vegas. No one may have known that the impossible—the sublime—was hiding in plain sight.
But today, right now, Las Vegas is unequivocally Restaurant City. There, I said it. Let the food fight begin.