Dining

[The Strip Sense]

A rock and a Chinese place

The Woo family’s move to the Palazzo might not have been the best thing for all

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Sometime back in the 1990s, an eccentric fellow wanted to eat at a restaurant. He sent his advance team to scope out the place and its various exits, baffling the owners of the fine establishment.

“Is the president coming?” Theresa Woo remembered thinking.

No, no. It was just Sheldon Adelson, then the owner of the Sands Expo Center and the construction site that would become the Venetian. Even then, he was a peculiar presence, running with his bodyguards and concerned about perceived enemies lying in wait to kill him.

To Woo, Adelson and wife Miriam became just another well-known pair of clients at the Mayflower Cuisinier, the go-to spot for upscale Chinese food tucked away in a strip mall at Sahara and Decatur.

Yet as the years went on, the Adelsons and other Las Vegas Sands executives started dreaming of bringing the family-run operation to the Strip. And Rob Goldstein, the president of the Venetian, finally made the Woos an offer they couldn’t refuse: Las Vegas Sands would build them a $6 million space on the second floor of the under-construction Palazzo’s shopping area.

There was a catch, though. A tragic, weird, totally unnecessary catch. According to Woo, Goldstein required the family to close the Mayflower. And so, in January 2008, they did.

Woo Restaurant opened shortly thereafter. It’s beautiful and spacious, all dramatic high ceilings and bamboo and worm-eaten butternut. Oh, and, for most of the year that it has been open, hardly the jammed house the always-busy Mayflower was.

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We’ll get back to that in a moment, but first you ought to know that there are few classic Vegas stories more charming than that of the Woo family. Ming See, Theresa’s mom, was 6 when her family fled the Chinese mainland for Hong Kong amid the Communist takeover. She met Henry Woo, had two of their three children and then moved to Vegas to become American citizens. Henry dealt cards; Ming See worked as a dishwasher at the Dunes.

In the late 1970s, the couple quit their jobs to open a restaurant off Paradise near McCarran. They named it the Mayflower for the Hong Kong restaurant where they celebrated their wedding years earlier. Ming See, whose culinary experience was largely limited to her own kitchen, became the main chef after their original cook quit. Henry and their children evidently weren’t to be her only fans; her offerings of both authentic Chinese dishes and standard American-Chinese options made the place an instant hit, especially with Chinese tour groups passing by en route from the airport to the Strip.

Yet McCarran would seize the property for runway expansion and force the Woos to relocate to a suburban berth four miles west of the Strip in 1991. By this point, siblings Peter and Theresa returned to Las Vegas from college with more worldly palates, so the family renamed their place the Mayflower Cuisinier and offered upscale American spins on the Chinese dishes. Peter and Ming See were in the kitchen, and Theresa and younger brother Tony ran the dining room.

“We would take something as recognizable as Mongolian beef, and we’d do it with a tenderloin, we’d have the Mongolian sauce, alter the sauce a little bit, serve it with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables and suddenly that Chinese chop suey dish looked more like a French plated dish,” Peter Woo said. “That’s where our thought was; let’s do something fun with the food.”

It worked so well that the city’s top food and beverage scouts, not to mention celebrities, became fans and regulars. Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields, for instance, held their engagement party there. Ming See and Peter were hired in 1993 to help open a now-gone Chinese spot at Luxor called Papyrus, spending a year there before returning their focus to the Mayflower.

By the end of that decade, Peter was hired away to the newly opened Vegas outpost for the legendary Japanese eatery Nobu. Woo had no formal culinary training and didn’t even know much about Japanese cuisine at first but nonetheless became executive chef at one of the city’s most popular and respected restaurants. Under his six-year leadership, Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel increased from $2 million to $11.5 million in annual revenue.

When I interviewed Theresa early last year, she was already exuding a fear that the decision to close Mayflower for Woo was a mistake. The mall area at the Palazzo is badly designed, with lousy signage and precious little to spur foot traffic. Promotion by the resort was also weak. Not even Adelson or Goldstein stopped in to eat much.

Chef Peter Woo from Woo's Restaurant at the Palazzo.

Chef Peter Woo from Woo's Restaurant at the Palazzo.

Last week, though, she insisted business has picked up despite the hotel’s plummeting occupancy rate. It’s hard to say whether she’s just being careful not to criticize the casino bosses, because that same look of nervousness reappeared with my questions about Goldstein’s edict to close the Mayflower. She said, albeit unconvincingly, that she has no regrets and that it was “time to move on to bigger and better things.”

Maybe so, but the Woo family clearly misses the Mayflower. On April 6, they held the first of what Theresa hopes will be a monthly Mayflower Night, creating a special menu of favorites from the shuttered eatery. And she’s offering 25 percent off the check to folks who can produce Nevada IDs, another attempt to recapture the attention of locals whose hearts were broken by the untimely demise of the other restaurant.

I understand why she can’t be more forthcoming; it could be uncomfortable at the resort. Happily, though, I’m under no such constraints, and the whole thing seems to me like a crying shame.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for the Woos, who are probably losing a lot of money these days but who took a chance in the face of someone building them a $6 million space on one of the world’s most popular tourist thoroughfares.

But I can’t comprehend why Goldstein and Adelson forced them to choose. It’s not like they’re Steve Wynn-caliber foodies who demand chefs toil in their namesake Vegas kitchens; the Venetian and Palazzo have restaurants from Charlie Trotter, Charlie Palmer, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. I doubt any one of them regularly cooks on the property.

And yet for the magnanimous favor of giving the Woos a Strip location, Goldstein and Adelson forced the family to throw away the enormous, enthusiastic following they’d spent decades building. Never mind that if the Mayflower still were open perhaps its fans would be motivated to come check out Woo on the Strip and tell their tourist friends to do so as well.

No, for some reason Goldstein and Adelson didn’t trust the Woos to make sure the quality was high in both places, even as they trusted famous absentee chefs to do so. It’s odd because they actually knew these people, knew how conscientious they are.

“You’re going to tell me,” I asked after Theresa became animated about what fun the Mayflower night was, “that you don’t miss the experience of having that restaurant?”

“Well,” she said, pausing and laughing in tacit agreement before finishing her sentence, “we like being here.”

I sure hope so. But there’s no good reason why they couldn’t be here and there. As much as Theresa insisted all is well, there’s little doubt she’d be feeling a whole less anxious these days if her family’s future wasn’t so completely dependent on decisions made by Adelson and Goldstein.

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