Second Helpings

Buffeted: What if you can't afford dinner at Picasso or Le Cirque? (See this week's Cafe "review.) You can still eat well at the Bellagio, if not as elegantly, for just a fraction of the cost.

The Bellagio's dinner buffet, like almost everything else at this hotel, is so over-the-top that you can scarcely believe your eyes. Your principal investment at the buffet will be time, not money: At peak dining hours, say, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., you can expect to spend about an hour waiting in line. The cost, meanwhile, is $19.95.

Given the scope and quality of the fare, it's a more-than-reasonable tag. In fact, I don't know how the Bellagio could possibly make money on this operation.

The massive king crab display will astonish even jaded buffet habitues. It's hard to believe there's a single king crab still left swimming in Alaskan waters. Needless to say, this is the most popular buffet station, and it's a rare diner who can resist loading up two plates with the crustaceans.

In fact, the entire seafood section is a marvel. Along with the crab, you can easily make a meal out of the big shrimp, marinated mussels, ceviche, calamari salad, baked salmon and barbecued eel.

But then you'd never forgive yourself for passing up the Asian food. A lot of Bellagio's guests are from the East, and they don't have to pine too hard for home-country delights. Pork buns, pot stickers, congee, orange chicken, ginger beef, braised bok choy and clams in black bean sauce are some of the offerings.

Naturally, the main dish station exhibits items like prime rib, chicken and salmon. But how many buffets have you been to that put out Muscovy duck breast, loin of lamb and venison? The duck is particularly outstanding, moist, meaty and not too fatty.

If you want, you could turn the buffet into a pizza party. These pizzas come bubbling out of the oven, with a real pizza-parlor crust and an exotic assortment of toppings.

A few other dishes also caught my eye. Scallops and lobster tossed with sherried mushrooms is good enough to be on a restaurant menu. So is the free-range chicken paired with polenta. And who came up with the idea for sausage and sweet potato stew? I never would have thought of it, but the dish is absolutely yummy. Scallop and artichoke tortellini, wild mushroom lasagna and black bean enchiladas also have merit.

The least thrilling part of this buffet experience is dessert. Most of the sweets look institutional. Of course, my guess is management probably figures that no could possibly be hungry at dessert time, so there's no need to go make them especially attractive. I confined myself to putting together my own ice cream sundae.

If you want to eat more lightly, and less expensively, check out Noodles, just off Bellagio's lobby. It specializes in meal-in-a-bowl Asian noodles soups. Look for Japanese seafood udon, Cantonese dumpling noodles, Vietnamese pho and even braised pork knuckle noodles. The soups range from $7.50 to $13.95.


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