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Celebrity chefs bring haute cuisine to Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — In just a decade, the Land of Cheap Buffet has been transformed into a mecca for world-class gourmet dining.

Since Austrian-born Uberchef Wolfgang Puck hit the culinary jackpot with a Spago restaurant in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, nearly every celebrity chef in the country has antied up.

There's Charlie Palmer's Aureole in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, a flashier version of the chef's New York original, featuring a four-story, 52,000-bottle wine tower. Order a bottle, and one of Charlie's "Wine Angels" — slender, well-coifed women dressed in skintight black Spandex jumpsuits — will dangle from a rigging of "Mission: Impossible"-style pulleys and cables to retrieve your selection.

There's Picasso, a restaurant in the famed Bellagio Hotel featuring $30 million worth of Picasso's art on the walls and the culinary arts of former San Francisco chef Julian Serrano on the plate. In one of the most dramatic restaurant settings in Las Vegas, the terrace seating offers a spectacular view of a dancing water show set to music and lights.

Can't get a coveted reservation at Le Cirque or Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Prime Steakhouse, both in the Bellagio Hotel? Mosey on over to the more casual Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay Hotel for some upscale Mexican food conceived by the Food Network's "Too Hot Tamales" gals, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.

In the pre-Puck era, Las Vegas was the leader of inexpensive, all-you-can-eat buffets. All that changed in 1992 when the Los Angeles-based chef and boxing fan traveled to the city for a prize fight and was immediately struck by the lack of high-quality eateries on the Strip.

"I always thought Las Vegas food was long lines at a buffet and was measured not by the quality but by how much food-by-the-pound you could get on your plate," Puck told members of the Association of Food Journalists who gathered there for their annual convention in October.

Tourists and convention-goers on expense accounts, as well as diners who call the city home, were eager to trade the mass-produced, often mediocre food under heat lamps and on steam tables for Puck's gourmet smoked salmon pizzas topped with caviar.

Today the sheer volume of fine dining choices is mind-boggling, and in some cases wallet-splitting. A prix fixe dinner at Picasso's will set you back $79, before wine, tax or tip.

The Bellagio alone racks up $33 million in wine sales per year, making it the largest wine business in the world, according to Gil Lempert-Schwartz, a wine writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"For the first time in the history of Las Vegas, restaurants are bringing in as much money as gaming," said Muriel Stevens, food editor and restaurant critic for The Las Vegas Sun.

Stevens, who moved to Las Vegas in 1954, has witnessed the city's transformation into a dining destination firsthand. "To say I hated it was putting it mildly . . . ," she said of her arrival. "Today I can't imagine living anywhere else."

When Tobias Mattstedt left the Ritz Carlton Kapalua-Maui in April, his co-workers were incredulous that he would willingly move to Las Vegas to "serve buffets."

But soon after taking the reins as a vice president of food and beverage at MGM Grand, Mattstedt knew he had come to the right place.

Competition is fierce. About 100 restaurants operate within a 3-square-mile radius of the MGM Grand. Every 90 days a new restaurant opens, according to Mattstedt.

And the stakes are high. MGM Grand, for instance, plans to spend $12 million on capital expenditures for its restaurants in 2001 and plans to do the same next year. "We're trying to create restaurants that are second to none," he said. "Las Vegas is changing from copying other restaurants in the world to creating great concepts."

Wine writer Lempert-Schwartz came to Las Vegas from Hong Kong, an international city he refers to as "another dining mecca." But Hong Kong "pales in comparison on many levels with Las Vegas," he said. "Not only does it attract five times the visitors, but the dining scene in this town has gone to tremendous lengths to accommodate the tastes of the world."

"Today Las Vegas has one of the greatest spectrums of restaurants in any city in the world," said Max Jacobson, a restaurant critic and food editor for Las Vegas Life magazine. "It seems every chef wants to come here and has."

Emeril Lagasse might be a household name, but celebrity chefs such as Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe, Santa Fe, N.M.), Michael Mina (Aqua, San Francisco), Joachim Splichal (Patina, Los Angeles), Todd English (Olives, Boston) and Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu, New York) also have found a home away from home on the Strip.

Of course not every chef finds Las Vegas a good fit. Chicago-based superchef Charlie Trotter, for instance, came and left Las Vegas in less than a year.

Absenteeism also is a problem. For diners who want to see the celebrity chef at work, it's hit or miss. Local restaurant critics say meals and service can be noticeably better when the signature chef is in town to oversee the kitchen.

Yet the high number of celebrity chefs has elevated the overall caliber of the city's food professionals. "Las Vegas has become a university for chefs with a wide array of styles," Puck said.