When a casino resort opens on the Strip these days, a great portion of the anticipation rests with the restaurants within. People now come to Vegas just as much to eat as to gamble, shop and party, and that leads to some interesting developments. There is no exact equation to determine which restaurants will capitalize on the wave of buzz, which will exist quietly and which will struggle.
It could go many ways for Lemongrass, in CityCenter's Aria. The culinary offerings in the new casino-resort are vast, and there is no celebrity chef or prime position just off the hotel lobby to boost business here. Then again, Lemongrass is unique—it's the first Thai restaurant on the Strip. And it's a peaceful, beautiful room, adorned with a variety of dark wooden tables and chairs, a wall of shiny, creamy green stone, and intricate woven-rope installations overhead. It's the kind of place I'd rather not write about—so I can keep it to myself.
Everyone thinks Thai food is great in Las Vegas, so our big-casino Thai restaurant will need to be reliably authentic, yet refined and innovative. Chef Krairit Krairavee satisfies those points, perhaps as effortlessly as the restaurant's smooth service and presentation. Here you can receive a superior experience just sticking to the classics from your favorite neighborhood Thai joint (wonderful chicken Tom kha soup, spicy and smooth green curry, the mint-versus-chili nirvana that fuels Yam Nuea Yang grilled beef salad). Or you can branch out into some worthy Pan-Asian experimentation (there is Vietnamese pho, wonton and Szechuan beef noodle soups, and garlic and lime steamed cod with chili and mint). There are four pricy lobster and crab preparations, including yellow curry with Dungeness crab, but the rest of the menu is affordable.
Chicken satay isn't Thai but it sure is good, with creamy peanut sauce, cucumber salad and grilled bread. Other interesting appetizers include two simple, earthy dishes: braised bamboo shoots marinated in garlic and soy, and lightly fried abalone mushrooms. Clean-tasting vegetables are a perfect complement to the bold, spicy flavors associated with Thai cooking. Along with that great grilled-beef salad, there is Yam Poo Nim, soft-shell crab with mango and cashews, or the seafood-laden Yam Ta Krai, with spicy lemongrass salad and a tamarind dressing. Som Tam spicy papaya salad packs a lot of heat, but there are too many other more adventurous dishes to rest with just this one.
Main courses are generally light, with the heaviest eating coming in the form of marinated and grilled pork neck. The curry dishes are well-balanced — and well above average. The kitchen seems to have a subtle, refreshing touch with almost everything. The simple and delicious home-style tofu has large chunks of carrot, mushroom, bamboo shoot and pea pods intermingling with the absorbent tofu in a light, slightly garlicky sauce. Despite the diversity on the menu, it is difficult to order things that don't go together well.
Because it is hiding toward the back of the casino level, and for many other reasons, it might be easy to overlook Lemongrass. But for old-fashioned diners still stuck on played-out models — you know, steakhouse-buffet-Italian-Chinese in every casino — Aria, and the rest of CityCenter, is a game-changing environment. And Lemongrass is deserving of a spot here, the new culinary mecca of the Strip. It is one of the best Thai restaurants in Las Vegas.