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Haute Streak

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.

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.

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.

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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