Haute Streak

Picasso / Le Cirque

Whether you opt for the prix fixe menu or menu degustation, you get the same dessert list. These sweets end the meal on the high note it's been on ever since you sat down two hours ago. If you're looking to finish up with a knockout blow, go for the warm chocolate cake with the hot molten chocolate interior. Made with first-class Valrhona chocolate, this confection assaults you with nonstop intensity. The pastry chef gets a little quirkier with his passion fruit flan, a light custard surrounded by a refreshing fruit "soup" flecked with mangoes and kumquats.

Can Picasso do no wrong? Well, yes and no. A busboy, I thought, was a little too eager, removing our plates just moments after we set our cutlery down. I casually mentioned it to the waiter. A minute later, two complimentary glasses of Perrier-Jouet champagne appeared at our table. (Later, the manager told me that guests are often in a hurry, either to catch a show or get back to the tables.)

Picasso is a jewel, run by people who care passionately not only about food, but also about the total dining experience. Unlike almost everything else in this city, it's no gamble.


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

It's hard to believe a New York original like Le Cirque could possibly blossom in this neon desert. After all, "elegance" and "sophistication" are words that haven't often been connected to the Las Vegas dining scene.

They are now. Proprietor Sirio Maccioni has sent his sons out from New York to direct this Le Cirque, and they've made it, like the Big Apple original, into a destination spot with rich, high-powered fare and a clientele to match.

Initially, it was hard to keep my eyes off Andrew Lloyd Webber, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, who were dining at the next table. (From eavesdropping on the conversation that drifted our way, I learned that Antonio is starring as the Phantom in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, and that Griffith and Banderas are having trouble figuring out how to decorate their new 9,000-square-foot home.)

But it doesn't take long to discover that Le Cirque doesn't need celebrity sightings to thrive. The playful decor keeps the restaurant's otherwise formal tone from turning stodgy. A multicolored, circuslike "tent" is gathered into the overhead light. In keeping with the theme, the walls are painted with murals of old-fashioned circus scenes: costumed monkeys, harlequins, jugglers. Even the dinner plates pick up the circus motif, adorned with figures of clowns and trapeze artists.

There's an artist in the kitchen, too. It's Marc Poidevin, formerly sous chef at the New York Le Cirque, and now head chef here.

I'd call the fare updated French. Despite the contemporary touches, though, the food has a classic base. That means just about everything that passes through your lips will be luxuriously rich and flavorful. This is not a place for wimps, dieters or vegetarians.

Start with Coquille St. Jacques en "Black Tie." It's a Le Cirque original, a signature item that can still turn diners on. A huge sea scallop is sliced horizontally into several layers, each separated by black truffles. Then, the scallop is enfolded in puff pastry lined with spinach. The look and the taste are exquisite. The terrine of foie gras, marinated in Sauternes, is another powerful way to edge into dinner.

We could have happily filled up by nibbling on Le Cirque's dynamite breads: a crusty French loaf, terrific cheese-spiked lahvosh, focaccia and raisin walnut loaf. But then we wouldn't have had room to split one evening's special, an explosive champagne risotto topped with sliced summer truffles that left me stunned with admiration.

This kitchen certainly knows a thing or two about sauces, as a pair of entrees clearly demonstrates. The magnificent blanquette de lapin is a lush rabbit stew, the boneless meat braised in a potent Riesling cream sauce and teamed with wild mushrooms and ethereally light spatzle. The paupiette de loup de mer is another Le Cirque signature dish that successfully survives the trip to the Pacific Time Zone. It's a thick hunk of black sea bass, with a crisp, paper-thin potato coating, nestled over braised leeks. It's all smoothed by an elegant Barolo wine sauce that can leave you gasping.

Desserts range from clever to classic. If you value creativity, check out the chocolate "dice," a big cube of chocolate hazelnut mousse cake, whose six sides are decorated with pieces of white chocolate to resemble a die. If you prefer tradition, opt for the vacherin, a frozen meringue treat layered with wild strawberries, accompanied by a mound of berries drizzled with a warm vanilla rhubarb sauce.

If you've got champagne tastes and a budget to match, Le Cirque is where you want to indulge them. On these tables, you can't lose.

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