Taking a chance on Vegas

Wednesday, June 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS - The Las Vegas Strip has become the nation's ultimate restaurant row.

The list reads like the schedule at the Beard House. Wolfgang Puck led the charge in 1992 with Spago Las Vegas, the first of his four restaurants here.

Emeril Lagasse is here, and so are Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Jean-Louis Palladin. Bellagio alone boasts seven Beard Foundation award winners in its chef roster.

Last year, Stephan Pyles and Star Concepts opened both a Star Canyon and the group's new concept, Taqueria Cañonita, in The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino. Hometown fans back in Dallas will have to wait for a taste of Taqueria.

Is this really the nation's newest restaurant town? Or is it all just smoke and mirage, just like the faux Eiffel Tower and Chrysler Building jutting up along The Strip?

Yes, and yes.

The bottom line is, if you have the means to be in Venice, that's where you would be. Certainly the man who popped the question to his girlfriend on a bridge in front of The Venetian would have preferred actual Venice for the proposal.

But if you find yourself in Vegas, floating down a turquoise canal in a scaled-down gondola - under a counterfeit indoor sky, no less - dinner at Lutece seems like a fine idea. Way better than the $1.99 shrimp cocktail.

Those who can, go. Those who can't, go to Las Vegas.

One thing is very real, though, and that's the five-star ratings recently handed out by Mobil, the first in Las Vegas. You're probably familiar with the restaurant names - but not for the reasons you would suspect.

Picasso and Renoir are named for the artwork lining their walls. Both have chefs who live and cook here full-time.

Chef Julian Serrano left Masa's in San Francisco to work at Picasso at Bellagio. Chef Alessandro Stratta was working in Scottsdale when he was asked to open Renoir, at the Mirage.

Both chefs brought impressive resumes, including Beard Foundation awards. Chef Serrano says he was thinking about "the whole package" when he came to Vegas; chef Stratta admits he set his sights on the stars. Within seven months, he had a handful.

Along with Charlie Palmer's Aureole at Mandalay Bay, Renoir and Picasso are the toughest reservations in town, according to Muriel Stevens, the food, wine and travel editor of the Las Vegas Sun. She also edited the 2000 Zagat guide for Las Vegas.

The live swans at Aureole, and its vertical wine tower - wine stewards are strapped into harnesses to retrieve bottles - make the restaurant a tourist attraction.

At Star Canyon, chef Pyles says you can often walk in without a reservation. But don't try it during the bigger conventions. (Check The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas 2000 by Bob Sehlinger (Macmillan, $16.95) for convention dates.)

"This is an expense-account clientele," chef Pyles says. And they expense-account food, like steaks and chops and lobster (which you won't find at Star Canyon Dallas).

Wolfgang Puck's Vegas restaurants all include a casual (read: cheaper) cafe and a more upscale dining room.

Chef Puck, a boxing fan, opened Spago Las Vegas at Caesars Palace just in time for the 1992 National Finals Rodeo, in early December.

Cowboys lined up at the open kitchen, thinking it was a buffet.

When the MGM Grand wanted a slice of Mr. Puck's pizza pie, he suggested they approach Santa Fe chef Mark Miller. Next came Emeril and the rest of the A-list chefs.

"All of a sudden hotels . . . started to take food seriously," chef Puck says. Today, Vegas has "more fine dining restaurants than any other city except maybe New York City."

Chef Pyles says that in Vegas, you can sample regional cuisines from around the country.

"I have diners here at Star Canyon who go out for the weekend now," he says - and while they may drop a few quarters in a slot machine, they're going for the food.

Chef Puck says Las Vegas is "a place to come to eat," just like New Orleans and San Francisco.

The chef, who has restaurants around the country, comes to Vegas when he's needed: "If I have 10 kids, I have to take care of the ones who need me the most," he says.

Chef Pyles goes a couple of times a month, two or three days at a time.

Star Canyon is definitely a "destination" restaurant, he says, while Taqueria Cañonita, where his sister Alena Pyles is chef, sees more drop-in tourist business.

The interior of Taqueria Cañonita is done in bold Southwestern colors, with accents of wrought iron and Mexican folk art.

But step through the arches onto the patio, and you're zapped to faux-Venice faster than the Concorde could ever get you there.

You can sit canalside drinking margaritas and eating tacos while a gondolier serenades his passengers. And that's the kick of eating out in this crazy made-up world called Las Vegas.