The Review: Three Fine Dining Nights in Vegas (VERY Long!)
My apologies, in advance, for the heft of this posting. We had a veritable food-orgy and it was hard to condense, so here it goes…
About six weeks has passed since I posted here, asking for your feedback on the best “cost is no object” fine dining experiences that Las Vegas has to offer. You responded, and responded, and responded some more, and we ended up having our Concierge at the Wynn hotel book us dinner reservations at the following:
Alex (at the Wynn) on Thursday night
Craftsteak (at the MGM Grand) on Friday night
Guy Savoy (at Ceasar’s) on Saturday night
A couple of qualifiers before I get to the good stuff. My wife and I are not big gamblers, nor are we big “show” people, and our trip to Vegas was really designed around eating some good meals and getting some much needed rest (we have two young kids…enough said). We like to eat – a LOT – and frequent all different types of restaurants in the Phoenix Metro. We aren’t “food snobs” but we do appreciate great food and service. For perspective, we LOVE Binkley’s, Zinc Bistro, Fine’s Cellar, et al, but we also enjoy Sabuddy, Hiro, and the occasional chicken wing at Native New Yorker. In short: nothing is off limits to us and we think that the ambiance and service – in addition to the food itself – contribute to the total dining experience.
After an indulgent three hour nap on Thursday, we scrambled to get ready for our 9 pm reservation at Alex, located inside the Wynn hotel. Everything about Wynn seemed just a little bit nicer than everywhere else…the rooms were tasteful but not gaudy, the air was nearly smoke-free throughout the hotel (and the casino was exceptionally well ventilated), and we had heard nothing but over-the-top accolades for Alex. Needless to say, our expectations were very high…perhaps too high, as it turned out. We arrived at about 8:45 and were seated promptly. We were escorted down the staircase into the dining room which, disappointingly, was about 75% empty. I like to feel the energy of a room – even if that energy is quiet and refined – but I’ve been to nursing homes with more energy that Alex.
Granted, the room is beautiful in a Las Vegas kind of way...highly designed and decorated, dark yet well-lit where needed, feeling rich. Our table was nearly in the center of its area so it didn’t feel particularly intimate; rather, I felt exposed. My wife commented that she didn’t love the table, and I was remiss in not saying anything about it. My wife was given the requisite stool for her purse and we were greeted. The menu was explained to us, but we already had our minds set on the tasting menu, with wine pairings. Our head waiter told us that they had debuted a new tasting menu that night. I responded, half-jokingly, with “so we’ll be your guinea pigs?” He didn’t quite know how to take that, and assured me that the menu had already been tested.
I am going to forego specific comments about each course because I don’t have the training or culinary expertise to be a food critic. I’d rather spend my time commenting on the total experience. The menu is below, followed by the rest of my comments:
Marinated Toro with Heirloom Tomato, Potato Crisp and Golden Osetra Caviar
Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Black Trufle Pasta, Artichokes and Lemon Verbena
Foie Gras “en Torchon” with Wasabi Crisps, Spiced Apricots, Cardamom and Muscat Syrup
Roasted Monkfish with Endives, Beets, Raisins and Red Wine Lobster Sauce
Wagyu Beef with Caramelized Onion Custard, Black Mission Figs, Arugula and Red Wine Sauce
Meyer Lemon Gratin with Vanilla Citrus
Chocolate Cherry with Port and Caramel
The food was good and some of it (Wagyu Beef in particular) was great. There was nothing wrong with it; the quality was excellent, portion sizes just right, the wine pairings interesting and unexpected, unique and challenging. The food was plated beautifully and presented to us in a synchronized fashion. The staff was attentive. But nothing here in totality approached greatness. I always prefer iced-tea to water and expect that my iced tea glass will be refilled without asking; each time (about 5 times during the meal) I had to ask for a refill every time. There were so many servers, assistants, etc, that we never felt like we connected with the staff. They were silent and speedy but the service felt a bit cold to me, perhaps accentuated by the fact that we were seated in an open area that had little warmth and the restaurant was nearly vacant around us. Quiet is good; I actually crave quiet. (When you have a 4 month baby at home, the notion of quietude is coveted!) But Alex was quiet to a fault. Maybe the economy has taken its toll on restaurants of this caliber (and price range), but I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if it had been busier.
Another thing that bugged me: they made it very clear that “jackets are recommended” for men. So I was happy to get dressed-up for a change and put on a nice jacket and slacks. Even thought I’ve written on this board that one can wear jeans at Binkley’s, I really do like to get dressed-up every now and then…especially when it doesn’t involve going to Synagogue or a business function! But I was pretty disappointed to see that very few men in the restaurant were wearing jackets and several were wearing jeans and t-shirts. I know that it didn’t say “jackets REQUIRED” (more on that later in this review), but I thought the dress code should have been enforced a bit better. A nod to a frequent poster on this board, Bill Hunt, whose opinions I really respect. You’re right Bill…a little formality can go a long way towards elegance.
A nice touch on the way out was a small container of fantastic French macaroons, presented to my wife, as a “thank you.”
I almost feel guilty saying negative things about Alex. People on this board have raved about it, and Las Vegas locals seem so proud to have it in their city. I respect that, a lot. I expected so much and was so excited to eat there but we left feeling a tad deflated. It was good but not terribly special. And in spite of my less-than-enthusiastic response, none of my sentiments had anything to do with the food, which was very good and well-prepared. I couldn’t find one particular glaring problem. It’s the “everything else” that let us down. I expected – and paid for - greatness, and got “very good” instead.
A final thought: our tab, including wine pairings and gratuity was $841 dollars. That’s a lot of money; it could keep my SUV fueled for a month with enough left over for the 5-course tasting for two at Binkley’s. Or fuel a small private jet for the flight home to Phoenix. Or make a daring bet at the blackjack table. And I can’t help but feel like that bet might have been more rewarding.
On to Craftsteak…a totally different experience. Located in a shopping-mall area adjoining the MGM Grand, Craftsteak didn’t appear too promising. From the outside it could have been any restaurant in a non-descript city. Again, we arrived a tad early and were told that our table would be ready soon. We took a seat at the bar and both ordered a cocktail before we waited. Looking around, the tables appeared to be small and cramped and the lighting very, very dark. I could feel the wind being let out of my sails already. But before I knew it we were escorted to our table in a grand, open room around the corner. What fools we were…the small tables were the bar tables; the dining room was around the corner! We were seated in a huge U-shaped booth; we like to dine next to one another when possible and doing so left enough space on each side of us for Shaq to lay down and take a nap.
Having had Wagyu beef the night before, we elected to start with the Ceasar Salad and Foie Gras as appetizers. I ordered the 16 oz New York Strip ($44) and my wife had the “Surf and Turf Combo” ($120) - I hate that term...sounds like we’re at Denny’s! - which consisted of a 7 oz Ribeye and a Lobster Tail in saffron infused broth. We also ordered Gratin of Potatoes and Leeks to share. I had my usual iced tea (I never had to ask for a refill, by the way!) and a glass of Pinot Noir and my wife had a martini.
After what seemed like a long wait, our salad and foie gras arrived. I LOVED this ceasar salad. Whole hearts of romaine in a light, lemon-y dressing, which excellent salty cheese on top and white anchovies on top. Yum. Light, fresh, salty and cold. The foie gras was also a nice surprise; it was a terrine of foie gras instead of a seared lobe. Very rich, creamy and buttery, served with toast points. Round one was a pleasant surprise.
Our entrees arrived in good sequence thereafter. Our steaks were served in copper sautee pants and my steak was already sliced from the bone. It was very juicy, well marbled, and bursting with flavor. I usually don’t like my steak pre-sliced, but it had obviously already been allowed time to rest and retained its juice and flavor. I devoured it. My wife liked her Ribeye but loved the lobster tail, which was already shelled and basting in a fantastic saffron broth.
We were too full for dessert. Even though it lacked the sophistication of Alex, Craftsteak proved to be a better all-around dining experience. The service was spot on and well paced, drinks were refilled without asking, the room was bustling but not loud and the food surpassed our expectations in every regard. I wish we had this place in Phoenix; it’s definitely a “different” kind of steakhouse and would be an interesting counterpoint to the glut of steak restaurants that have already invaded our city. The tab, including two entrees, two appetizers, one side dish and two drinks, came to about $300. Expensive, but by Vegas standards it felt like a good value.
RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY
Ferris Bueller, one of my heroes, once said “If you have the means, I highly recommend that you pick one up” – uttered in reference to Cameron’s dad’s priceless Ferrari 250GT California Spyder. Similarly, if you have the means, I highly suggest you try Guy Savoy. And if you don’t have the means, try it anyway. It would be worth the interest rate on your credit card.
Throughout our mellow Saturday at the spa and pool, we kept our caloric intake to a minimum in anticipation of our final dining extravaganza - - the gut-busting, Platinum-Card-annihilating ode to modern French cuisine otherwise known as Restaurant Guy Savoy. Get a second mortgage, sell your children on eBay at no reserve, sell your soul if you have to…Guy Savoy is worth the staggering price of admission and lived up to the hype. The tasting menu, which is what we selected, is listed below followed by my commentary:
Oysters in Ice Gelee
Colors of Caviar
Crispy Sea Bass with Delicate Spices
Foie-Gras “en Papillotte” and Spring Radish Bouillon
Artichoke and Black Truffle Soup, Toasted Mushroom Brioche and Black Truffle Butter
Poussin a la Broche, Black Truffle Potato Puree and Young Vegetables
Selection de Fromages Affines
Chocolate Fondant, Crunchy Praline, Chicory Cream
Although not on the menu, we were also brought “Peas All Around and Poached Quail’s Egg” as well as two amuses:
Foie Gras Toast with Black truffle on a small skewer that was handed to us.
Fennel Soup with Celery and Duck
The also brought wine to accompany these extras, gratis.
We were so excited about this meal that we arrived at Ceasar’s almost an hour early. After wandering around the casino, throwing money into the slots and playing “who’s the prostitute in the hotel bar,” we finally killed enough time to make our way to Guy Savoy. The room is not what I expected; it’s very modern, sleek, high ceilings, and precise lighting. Stark yet comfortable. For a restaurant that was insistent upon “Jackets Required for Gentlemen”, I was a bit disappointed to see that several men were not wearing them and one was wearing jeans. Note to Guy Savoy: If you SAY it, ENFORCE it! But the rest of the experience was enough to make me forget this altogether.
As soon as we were seated we were greeted by Fabrece, our European waiter – a very tall man with a thick accent and friendly smile. Oddly enough, he had worked at Christopher’s in Phoenix back in the early 90s. He presented our menus to us and summoned the sommelier, who brought over a cart with about six bottles of champagne in it. He explained each one to us, offered us each a glass (which we accepted!) and moved on. I didn’t realize until later that the glass my wife selected was $65 per glass and mine was $45 per glass. But this seemed like penny-slots compared to the rest of the meal. We had already made up our minds that we wanted the “Menu Prestige” tasting menu, and asked the sommelier to pair a wine with each course. The sommelier was GREAT….totally friendly, totally approachable, and took the time to understand what liked and did not like. He said that, due to the menu, the pairings would be heavily biased towards whites, and asked if that would be a problem for my wife, who prefers reds. We got it worked out and the onslaught of extravagance ensued.
The food was often served “El Bulli” style, with the server telling us how to eat it; “sprinkle this on that,” “eat this first, then that”, “take a deep spoonful of that.” It was fun, not rigid. And every course proved to be better than the last. The menu was full of surprises. The food quality was absolutely exceptional. Preparations were flawless. Portions just right. Everything felt decadent, yet still approachable. Nothing was predictable.
A few words about service: we loved it. As opposed to Alex, which was smooth but impersonal, the phalanx of servers at Guy Savoy was warm, friendly, and funny. One of our main servers, a fabulous Frenchman from Toulouse, used to live in Tucson. And his son was the bread steward. (Note: they paired a different bread with each course, all brought out on an amazing cart displaying all the breads.) Fabrece, our head server, used to attend Phoenix College where he played basketball. The sommelier loves Scottsdale and enjoys the wine list at Cowboy Ciao and Sea Saw. As you can see, we got to know each person involved in our service and it added an incredible dimension to the experience. Ironically, almost everyone had an Arizona connection! It was an interactive dining experience but I’m certain that, if we wanted to have been left alone, we would have been.
They also got all the details right: the silver was Christofle, the knives Laguiole (in a great contemporary design made especially for Guy Savoy), and the stemware was Spiegelau. There was a selection of salts, presented in crystal vessels made especially for the restaurant. There was salted and unsalted butter, which was swiftly replaced as soon as it started to soften. A woman at the table near us expressed that she was cold; before you knew it, the waiter was at her table with a box offering her a selection of pashmina scarves for her to wear during dinner to keep her warm. Nice.
Again, I’m not a food critic so I don’t want to dissect each course, but there were a few highlights:
1. Colours of Caviar – The best caviar presentation I have ever had. Served in a small glass, is consisted of layers of different caviar preparations, and accompanied by a perfect mother-of-pearl spoon. We were told to dig to the bottom with each bite, getting a taste of each layer. It was a great alternative to the usual caviar, blini and crème fraiche.
2. Peas All Around and Poached Quail’s Egg – my wife and I both looked at each other and simultaneously said “it tastes like a garden.” Fresh, smooth, amazing freshness. Phenomenal.
3. Cheese Cart – 16 of them, to be exact. And you could taste as many as you wished. It was a staggering selection, each one explained to us in detail, and all delicious. (I tried three, my wife had four.)
4. Dessert Cart – this came AFTER we already had dessert, and like the cheese, was a selection of 10 – 15 “small” desserts….whimsical lollipops, ice cream and sorbet, chocolates, etc. Again…have as many as you like.
5. I liked how the Foie Gras was brought out to us “en papillotte”, sliced open at our table, brought to each of us so we could smell it, and then returned to the kitchen to be plated.
6. Similarly, the Poussin was brought out whole, on a platter, and then carved in the kitchen prior to plating. (although I’m secretly amused at the notion of how funny it would be if the display Poussin was plastic – like they have at some Japanese restaurants - and they brought it out again, and again, just for show!)
We were never offered coffee, but barely worth noting in the context of an otherwise great experience.
We spent some time talking to Fabrece after our meal. After about a 4 hour meal, we got up, stretched, were presented with two muffins to take home and felt like we had gotten our money’s worth from our $1,400 dinner for two at Guy Savoy. The wine pairings added $200 per person to the price, included above. For the money, I could have fueled my SUV for two months, stayed in a suite at Wynn, or taken a nice getaway to California for a couple of days, but I was happy to have given my money to Guy Savoy. It was truly an experience to remember. Nearly twice the price of Alex, but five times as good.
A final parting thought for the Phoenicians who are reading this review: My wife and I place several of our experiences at Binkley’s as our “best ever” dining experiences, and it is hard not to compare the cuisine at Alex and Guy Savoy to Binkley’s. I thought the food, service and value at Binkley’s was leagues above Alex. I thought the food at Guy Savoy was better than Binkley’s, the service was a tie, and the value better at Binkley’s. It made me realize how lucky we really are to have Kevin and Amy Binkley in our city. Binkley’s can compete with the best, and sometimes it wins.
Thanks again for your recommendations, feedback, thoughtful banter and guidance for our trip. We had a great time, departed well-fed - although a bit poorer - and look forward to returning soon.