LAS VEGAS—THE server shows off the charred bistecca fiorentina, then carves the massive porterhouse into finger-thick slices. At $160 for two, it's easily the most expensive steak I've ever eaten, if not the most expensive piece of aged meat in the country. Want to anoint it with horseradish sauce? Here at Carnevino, Mario Batali's new restaurant on the Strip, that'll be $5 more.
A few steps away, in a private dining room floating above a state-of-the-art kitchen, six businessmen spend a minimum of $350 each to work their way through the tasting menu at Restaurant Charlie. That's without wine, tax or tip. Or chef Charlie Trotter in the kitchen.
Though everybody may be pinching pennies at home, Las Vegas seems untouched by the prevailing winds of economic downturn, operating by its own rules and logic. The economy may be contracting elsewhere, but here the casinos are still building. And building, with thousands more hotel rooms yet to come.
The Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino, a 3,000-room, all-suite extravaganza next to the Venetian, has just opened, and that's where you'll find most of the new wave of notable restaurants. In a town where "wine angels" in black cat suits rappel down a glass wine tower to fetch a special bottle for a table, where you can dine on a raft moored under a faux waterfall spilling from a faux mountain or indulge in an opulent multi-course meal from a French chef with three Michelin stars -- actually, there are three three-star chefs here -- what could possibly be next?
Less flash, less gimmickry -- and less invention. This time around, menus are more traditional, the design sometimes so conservative you can't believe you're in Vegas. They're luring in crowds with no more than good food, high comfort and great service.
And for that, they're charging enough to give even high rollers indigestion.
Batali's newest venture
MARIO BATALI and Joe Bastianich swagger into the Palazzo with Carnevino, their new Italian steakhouse just up the mall from B&B, their year-old ristorante at the Venetian. I like the spaciousness of the rather formal room, its high ceilings, heavy drapes and dark wood sideboards. What makes Carnevino unique is its obsessive pursuit of the best meat. Adam Perry Lang is a kind of meat forager for the restaurant: His job is to visit farms in the Midwest and choose specific animals for the steakhouse. At the moment, he has 15,000 pounds of beef aging in his humongous Vegas meat locker.
Naturally, the star of the steak menu is that pricey fiorentina for two, which by the time I visited a second time had been reduced to $145 from $160. Aged about nine weeks, it is massive, about two inches thick, and cooked without wood or mesquite to keep the flavors pure. If you want to save 10 bucks, order the hefty rib-eye for two, which is more heavily marbled than the fiorentina's porterhouse. The quality of the meat is exceptional for both, but my vote goes to the fiorentina for its texture and the way the rich beefy flavor lingers like a fine wine.
But first, before everything else, is a small crock of pure pork lard flavored with rosemary that arrives with some oily focaccia. I defy you not to finish it, the lard is so flat-out wonderful. The salumi plate for two or more includes slices of that marvelous lard, prosciutto cut like silk, coppa and more -- not a bad way to start a meal here. Carne cruda (steak tartare) is seasoned with capers and too much olive oil -- and salt. Lobster two ways -- the tail as thick-cut sashimi, the claws fried in Prosecco-dosed tempura batter -- is delicious, especially the fried lemon slices, if you can countenance $60 for a first course. The alternative is a half order of pasta, such as ravioli with duck liver and aceto balsamico sauce, duck cannelloni or pappardelle with porcini sauce (and too much butter).
Salt makes too strong an entrance in many dishes. And what's with the Milanese? The pounded pork cutlet comes fried to a crisp and absolutely swimming in butter. Sides bring out the Italian in the kitchen with Tuscan fries (fried fingerlings pan-roasted with rosemary and Parmesan), braised fennel with sambuca, and fresh peas with walnuts.
Do not skip dessert, especially if it's the tender rice torte with a topknot of honeycomb or the gubana, a special yeast-raised cake filled with nuts and dried fruit with grappa poured over at the last minute. Bottom line: As good as the beef is here, I'd rather eat at B&B, Batali's more intimate Italian restaurant in the Venetian next door. It's not cheap, either, but it's got more soul -- and a more consistent kitchen.
Puck's 6th Vegas venue
WOLFGANG Puck's Cut just opened in the Palazzo, too, making that three -- count 'em-- steakhouses under one roof (the third is Morels French Steakhouse from the Grove in L.A.). This one is in sight of the luscious Barneys New York store in the Palazzo and its full complement of bling. Buy something, a $400 T-shirt or a $19,000 sultanesque ring, say, and wear it right over to dinner. Want a dress? You'll need a home equity loan.
Though the menu is almost identical to the Beverly Hills steakhouse, the look is quite different from the cool white expanses of Richard Meier's design for the original Cut. This one, from the local design firm ABA, is warmer, featuring generous booths, a striped rug underfoot and bulky geometric chandeliers. There's an inviting lounge too, where you can order up some of Cut's signature mini-Kobe beef sliders or oysters on the half shell.
Prices, at least compared to Carnevino's, seem almost moderate, though in the real world, of course, they're vertigo-inducing -- a 3-pound lobster is a mere $110. Wine prices, though, are very fair, especially for the more esoteric choices on the interesting, wide-ranging list. For a restaurant that was a mere 2 weeks old when I visited, the whole operation was very professional, with a first-rate front of the house. But then, Puck is no amateur: This is his sixth Las Vegas restaurant.
The amuses -- crisp skinny breadsticks shaggy with Parmesan, dainty gougères and pillowy potato knishes -- are suitably amusing. Go easy, though -- there's lots more to come. Austrian oxtail bouillon with chive blossoms and bone marrow dumplings, a Cut's classic, is ethereal. Asparagus on a slab of toast topped with a poached egg and a single piece of bacon makes a great first course too. And so does a salad of tender little fava beans and baby artichokes with pecorino Romano, mint and Meyer lemon; it practically defines spring.
Steaks -- Nebraska dry-aged 35 days and Illinois aged 21 days, plus pricey Kobe beef from Japan and domestic Kobe-style Wagyu beef -- are the heart of the menu. Dry-aged rib-eye for $61 has plenty of flavor, but it's an awfully thin cut. I much prefer the $54 bone-in sirloin cooked with a nice char and served with a slick of butter on top and a gutsy Armagnac black pepper sauce.