Haute Streak

Picasso / Le Cirque

Attention, gourmets! I've discovered an oasis of fine dining in the American desert Southwest.

Unfortunately, it's not in Phoenix. It's in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas? Isn't that the place where culinary sophistication means simultaneously balancing two heavily loaded plates at the $3.99 all-you-can-eat buffet? Isn't that the place where gastronomy means finding both $7.99 prime rib and keno in the 24-hour coffee shop?

It used to, especially during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. That's when Las Vegas was targeting the masses, aiming to become a "family friendly" destination.


Picasso, Bellagio Hotel, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1-702-693-7223. Hours: Dinner, Thursday through Tuesday, seatings from 6 to 9:30 p.m.
Prix fixe menu (four courses) $70.00
Menu degustation (five courses) $80.00

Le Cirque, Bellagio Hotel, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1-702-693-8100. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
"Black Tie" scallop:$29.00
Paupiette de loup de mer: $34.00
Blanquette de lapin: $34.00
Vacherin: $11.00

But to their dismay, casino executives found out that families don't gamble, at least not enough. So about five years ago, executives ditched the concept. Instead, they refocused their sights on a much more promising target: the high rollers.

How do you attract the high rollers? First, you impress them by building billion-dollar hotels so opulent they'd make a Roman emperor blush. Then, you fly the big bettors in, house them in lavish rooms and suites and provide them with front-row seats in the hotel showroom, all at no charge.

You also wine and dine them. And as part of that wining and dining effort, you bring in some of America's most famous chefs. Charlie Trotter, Jean-Louis Palladin, Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alessandro Stratta are just a few of the big names who've launched the high-end Vegas dining scene.

No hotel has gone after the gourmet-dining market as energetically, and successfully, as the Bellagio. If you're not a high roller or celebrity, and you want to eat at its two swankest restaurants, Picasso and Le Cirque, you may have to make your reservation as far as 60 days in advance. And make sure you don't tap out at the tables before you go: Dinner for two, with an inexpensive bottle of wine, will cost $250 to $300.

What do you get for such big bucks? At Picasso, you're likely to get the meal of your life.

But it's easy to be distracted from the food. From just about any table in the room, you'll look out over Bellagio's "lake" and enjoy the spectacular water ballet put on by its fountains. You can also gaze at the "Eiffel Tower" across the street, part of the new Paris Hotel, or the "Chrysler Building" down the strip at New York New York.

But you may not even want to turn your eyes toward the windows at all. That's because the walls are lined with several Picassos from the personal collection of Bellagio owner Steve Wynn. You'll also get a charge out of the beautifully designed room, with its vaulted brick and wood-beam ceiling, columns decorated with tiny mosaic tile and assorted pots and vases bursting with colorful fresh flowers.

Wynn lured chef Julian Serrano here from award-winning Masa in San Francisco. How? "By adding a zero to his salary," said our waiter with a smile. It was money well-spent.

Picasso offers two approaches to dinner. The prix fixe menu is a $70, four-course affair, where diners put together their own meal, choosing among several options at each course. The menu degustation, meanwhile, is an $80, five-course extravaganza, where the first three courses are pre-selected by the chef and only the main dish and dessert require diners to choose. Both menus feature contemporary fare, with heavy French and Spanish accents.

As you might surmise, Picasso is not where you want to drop in for a quick a la carte bite. Forget about going to a show--the two and a half hours you'll spend here is your evening's entertainment. And what a show it is.

I started off the prix fixe dinner with glorious oysters, poached in vermouth and decadently topped with caviar. Next came the chef's skillful seafood boudin. It's a sausage, formed with chunks of lobster, scallops and shrimp, teamed with a luscious sofrito sauce fashioned from tomato, pepper and olives. But both the oysters and boudin are merely prelude to the extraordinary entree of roasted pigeon. This bird is divine--each bite made me shake my head in happy disbelief that anything could taste this good. The inspired side of wild rice risotto only adds to the pleasure.

The menu degustation is just as impressive. On my visit, it led off with a warm lobster salad, fat chunks of meat tropically flanked by papaya and mango, all energized by a zesty citrus vinaigrette. Then came an enormous U-10 scallop (that means there are 10 or fewer to the pound), perfectly roasted and resting on a French-style bed of pureed mashed potatoes. Everything is moistened with a powerful veal sauce that vigorously attacks your taste buds.

The third-course foie gras, burnished with a rich Madeira sauce, was breathtaking. And if you order the menu degustation's wine pairings (a glass with the first four courses, for $48), you'll get to wash down your foie gras with a riveting, nectarlike vin santo, Tuscany's famous dessert wine.

For the main course, I went for medallions of lamb, and I have no regrets about the choice. The lamb is roasted with a crust of truffles, and served with Parmesan potatoes and baby carrots. A lusty red from Spain's up-and-coming Ribera del Duero wine zone makes the dish taste even better.

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