BY SUSAN STAPLETON | March 25, 2014 | Food & Drink
Mario Batali puts the “It” in Italian.
In a town where competition for the favor of fickle diners means that restaurants often have shorter shelf lives than in any other city, becoming a culinary icon is no small feat. Still, a few have managed to devise their own special algorithm for success. Call it the Vegas restaurant X factor.
Naturally, it doesn’t hurt to be helmed by a legend. A chef with name recognition like Puck, Batali, or Boulud is an attraction on his or her own. When the Michelin-starred Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn closed in 2010, it left a noticeable gap in the celebrity chef–driven culture of the Strip. Now the acclaimed French chef is returning with DB Brasserie, opening at Venetian this April, and he’s bringing what Sebastien Silvestri, Venetian’s vice president of food and beverage, says will be some of his time-honored specialties. “We want people to identify the food with what I am,” says Boulud. “I’m not a chef who needs to follow the trends.”
Part of that brand recognition, Silvestri explains, has to do with the ability of Boulud and other celebrity chefs to deliver a consistent meal regardless of where they land. “I’ve visited Mario Batali’s restaurants all around the world,” Silvestri says. “I go to Hong Kong and order his extraordinary beef-cheek ravioli, and it is consistently executed with the same excellent ingredients everywhere you go.” That reliability is just part of a global branding effort by Batali, who owns four restaurants at Venetian and Palazzo with Joe Bastianich. “Essentially,” Batali says, “we have a series of one-offs, each of which has a different personality. Each has an edge that’s distinctly our own, which allows tourists and fans of my TV show The Chew to recognize our brand.”
Las Vegas’s first It chef, Wolfgang Puck.
If anyone knows about building a brand, it’s Wolfgang Puck, the chef who took a chance 21 years ago by opening Spago in a city accustomed to buffets and $6 prime-rib dinners. Since then, the world’s first true celebrity chef has created a global empire. Fans can see him on television, eat his food at the airport, or buy it from the grocery store freezer section. While this culinary juggernaut recognizes the importance of brand identity, he also acknowledges that he had to hire the right people to replicate the impeccable standards behind the Puck name.
The famous smoked salmon pizza at Spago.
Of course, in a city whose population changes each week by 765,000, one key to not becoming a flash in the pan is appealing to repeat visitors (aka the people who live here). According to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, best known for their Food Network cooking show and companion cookbook, Too Hot Tamales, locals are the Vegas holy grail. The two are expanding their incredibly successful Border Grill concept—the restaurant has been operating in Mandalay Bay for 15 years now—with a second Vegas location this summer, at the Forum Shops. “Locals are always the people we want to blow away,” says Feniger. “We want them coming to our tequila dinners, our cooking classes. We always want people to know our team and feel like it’s a home away from home.”
Border Grill’s tacos are just part of why Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s modern Mexican restaurant is opening a second Vegas location this summer.
Ten miles—but a world away—from the cutthroat competition of the Strip, Elizabeth Blau and her husband, chef Kim Canteenwalla, have lived in their Summerlin neighborhood for 16 years, developing concepts for clients from Le Cirque to Light Group and operating Buddy V’s at Grand Canal Shoppes and Simon at Palms Place. They opened their own popular local spot, Honey Salt, as a stand-in for entertaining at home. And if its affectionate moniker, “the Summerlin cafeteria,” is any gauge of success, they have achieved their goal. “It’s great to walk in on a Saturday night and see so many regulars, so many friends,” says Blau. One secret to Honey Salt’s success: It really does feel as you imagine their home would. Surrounded by wish-you-were-here photos from the couple’s trips to Cape Cod, guests dine on silken burrata with blood orange, basil, and balsamic (“Kim’s style,” according to the menu, features shaved bittersweet chocolate).
Honey Salt’s burrata draws guests back time and time again.
That dish is on its way to iconic status—another hallmark of success. As smart as it may be to expand for the masses, there is something to be said for creating an item that’s hard to duplicate at home. Dishes like these become part of the culinary world’s lexicon not just because they’re delicious (although that’s a prerequisite), but also because there’s simply no replicating Guy Savoy’s artichoke and black truffle soup, Joël Robuchon’s foie gras–stuffed quail and mashed potatoes, or Masa Takayama’s truffle ice cream with gold flakes at barMASA (welcome to Vegas).
Truffle ice cream with gold flakes at barMASA.
Change is an inevitable part of a restaurant’s life—particularly in food fashion–conscious Las Vegas. “To me, a great restaurant should be part comfort and part innovation,” says Puck. “It’s nice to find maybe Wiener schnitzel on the menu, but it’s also important to keep on reinventing and changing the menu.” Paul Bartolotta’s Mediterranean seafood favorite, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn Las Vegas, recently revealed a dramatic renovation, even though it had been performing spectacularly well. So why fix something that isn’t broken? “When you have a guy like Steve Wynn saying you need to keep it fresh,” says Bartolotta, “you remodel.”
Wynn’s newly redesigned Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare.
Recognizing that diners also want some fun is the way to clinch success, says Silvestri, and he’s happy to give credit where it’s due. As with nightlife, in which a venue like Hakkasan or Tao becomes a draw because people want to be surrounded by its glamorous clientele, diners simply want to be around others who are having fun. “It’s not one of our restaurants,” Silvestri says, “but you walk into José Andrés [in Cosmopolitan] and it’s fun, convivial, loud, and it tastes good.” A winning formula, indeed.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEMAL COUNTESS (BATALI); BILL MILNE (BURRATA); BARBARA KRAFT (BARTOLOTTA); Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images (Puck); John Ormond (Pizza); Jenna Dosch (ice cream); courtesy of Border Grill (tacos)