It’s the food, stupid

Las Vegas’ culinary evolution now stresses simplicity

Shawn McClain.
Photo: Jeff Kauck
Grace Bascos

These are interesting days for the Las Vegas culinary scene. We have an arsenal of renowned chefs at the helms of our restaurants; we have been designated as one of the top dining destinations in the country and recognized by the Michelin Guides. Vegas certainly isn’t a town to rest on its laurels, constantly reinventing and rejuvenating its image to the world. And as Sin City evolves culinarily, there has to be more to it than just celebrity status and fads.

Throughout its rise to culinary greatness, Vegas has seen the same food trends as the rest of the world: small plates, foam on everything, deconstruction of classic dishes into seemingly random piles of gelées and purées on rectangular plates. Some of it has worked, but most of it hasn’t. The term “molecular gastronomy” was tossed about as if it was the second coming a few years ago, but show me a restaurant that tried to survive with molecular gastronomy, and I’ll show you a restaurant that quickly had to change its menu: to wit, Company American Bistro, DJT, The Restaurant at Platinum, to name an obvious few.

With the opening of CityCenter, four new hotels obviously are going to need restaurants, and those that haven’t harvested from our local talent crop are searching for chefs who can translate what they do elsewhere into a successful operation here, which likely means less espuma, more simplicity and seasonality.

This widespread adaptation perhaps explains why, recently, instead of opening a high-end, fine-dining establishment, renowned French chef Laurent Tourondel opted to sling burgers (though truly excellent ones) at BLT Burger at Mirage. Or why modern Japanese cuisine master Masayoshi Takayama, opening a new restaurant at Aria at CityCenter, has opted to go with his more casual Bar Masa concept and a shabu shabu restaurant, despite winning three Michelin stars for Masa in New York.

Kobe beef with soft-poached quail egg, basil-smoked paprika.

Kobe beef with soft-poached quail egg, basil-smoked paprika.

Chicago chef Shawn McClain is another one of those wunderkinds, and recently announced the opening of his new restaurant, Sage at Aria at CityCenter. If you’ve never heard of McClain, you probably haven’t dined in Chicago recently at his three forward-thinking restaurants there, Custom House, Green Zebra and Spring, with their steakhouse, vegetarian and seafood menus, respectively.

McClain is also one of the featured stars at the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America weekend, October 24-26, and will preparing one of the dishes for the October 25 gala. The James Beard Foundation is dedicated to the education, preservation and celebration of the American culinary identity, something McClain takes very seriously.

And with McClain’s Vegas venue, he has kept in mind what has worked for him in Chicago: “I know what I do, and I guess it’s kind of learning a new market and exposing lifestyles to a lot more people. I’ve seen the preliminary layouts of the restaurant, and it’s a very cool, warm, chic atmosphere. I’d love to match that without being too trendy. I’m obviously always trying to work for the long haul, for longevity to the restaurants, trying to stick to some basic principles and take them out there. I think avant garde these days has really gone off the charts.”

And when it comes down to it, maybe the growth of the chef is a metaphor for the maturation of Vegas dining. “As I get older, the food gets simpler,” McClain says. “Ten years ago on some of the food, I was like, ‘How many ingredients can I put into one dish?’ but [now] it’s just more focusing on the types of olive oil, the type of fish, the cuts and how they’re presented versus trying to mask things and cover them up.”

Undoubtedly, it’s the Emerils and Wolfgang Pucks of the world who have given Vegas some street cred to the masses who are becoming more and more educated about food thanks to the Food Network. And the cognoscenti have been baited with offerings by Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and Thomas Keller, three of the biggest names in epicurean lore. But after the names, ultimately what diners are searching for is that familiarity of food, to know that what they’re eating is fulfilling and satisfying, rather than a trend.

Las Vegas will always have the big names, but here’s to hoping they’ll always have the best food as well.


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