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Winning hands

Chefs and their dining rooms: new stars of the Strip

Chef David Burke will open a new restaurant inside the Venetian Hotel & Casino this summer, which means he has some decisions to make.

There’s definitely going to be a chef’s table in the open kitchen, probably a small pool in the middle of the dining room and some blown-glass art pieces growing out of the ceiling. But when it comes to the fog machine, he can’t make up his mind.

“The fog could be like the door you walk through,” he says. “That could become our entranceway.”

Amid the cutthroat competition that defines Las Vegas fine dining, every restaurant has its fog machine.

At Mix in THEhotel in Mandalay Bay, dinner comes with a view — one that’s 64 stories tall. Mandalay also has Red Square, a café that features an ice-frosted bar and a vodka vault that offers customers fur coats to wear as they sample the wares. Bellagio’s Sensi has a sunken open kitchen encased in glass, while the Venetian’s Tao features a 20-foot Buddha and models lounging in bathtubs strewn with rose petals.

“You need a lot of eye candy in this city,” says Burke, who estimates that it will cost $3 million-$5 million to renovate the space that formerly contained Royal Star Seafood. “Your food has to be top notch, but there’s got to be some other elements — scenery, music, décor. It’s especially important when we’re coming in later in the game.”

When Wolfgang Puck opened Spago-Las Vegas in 1992, fine dining still meant a $9.99 surf-and-turf special. Today, every four-star casino trades on a cadre of celebrity chefs. An abbreviated list would include Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina, Hubert Keller, Bradley Ogden and Todd English.

With more culinary talent per square inch than any other city in the world, Vegas has become a dining mecca. However, if a restaurant is going to survive on the Strip, it has to take a tip from its neighbors at Cirque du Soleil: Put on a good show.

“At first, I resisted the open kitchen,” says Rick Moonen, who moved to Vegas from New York to open rm Seafood Restaurant in Mandalay Place. “Now I’m into it.”

Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino houses the most famous example in Aureole, the Charlie Palmer restaurant with a four-story, floor-to-ceiling wine tower made of steel and glass. Diners order from a computerized touch pad and “wine angels” rappel up and down the vertical cellar to collect the bottles. “People place such high value on surprise and fantasy that it becomes the most important selling tool for any kind of venue,” says tower designer Adam Tihany, whose Vegas credits also include Bouchon at the Venetian, SeaBlue at the MGM Grand and Cravings at Treasure Island. “Entertainment comes first.”

Robin Stotter agreed with that perspective when he began brainstorming design ideas for AquaKnox, a seafood restaurant inside the Venetian.

“I said, ‘Let’s have a fish tank with a ladder,’ ” remembers Stotter, corporate executive chef for the Orlando, Fla.-based E-brands restaurant group. ” ‘We’ll hire a midget with goggles and he’ll swim and catch the fish for you.’ Thank God we didn’t do it.”

Stotter and e-Brands chief operating officer Charlie Robinson honed down the concept considerably to arrive at what is now AquaKnox’s focal point: a water-encased walk-in wine cellar.

“That’s about as flashy as we want,” says Stotter, who’s also working with Burke on his new design. “You have to focus on the elements that matter: good food and service.”

There’s little chance that the Michelin-starred Robuchon ever considered goggled midgets in his restaurant’s design, but even he’s embraced his inner exhibitionist at L’Atelier. Wearing black-and-red chef jackets that match the restaurant’s glossy interior, his staff is on constant display in the open-air kitchen that lets diners witness every element of a dish’s creation.

“This is Las Vegas,” says L’Atelier assistant general manager and sommelier Diego Requena. “The show must go on.”

Restaurant: L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
(MGM Grand)
For the eye: A chorus line of perfectly trained chefs. Forget the histrionics of “Kitchen Confidential.” Whether its draping whole avocado slices over flaked crab or sculpting steak tartare into perfect circles, L’Atelier has the air of a sleek and glowing sushi bar dead set on perfection.
For the mouth: There’s a reason Joel Robuchon was the first chef to win three consecutive Michelin stars. He’s not often on the premises, but his restaurant is run by hardcore loyalists. Recommended: quail stuffed with foie gras, truffled mashed potatoes, chartreuse soufflé.
Best bet: Sit at the bar and enjoy the view. The chefs take palpable (and justifiable) pride in their work, and the service is never stuffy. This is the more casual (but by no means cheap) of Robuchon’s two restaurants at the MGM.

Restaurant: restaurant rm
(Mandalay Place)
For the eye: Underpromise, overdeliver. Although the kitchen under glass with silent automated sliding doors is pretty cool, Rick Moonen’s restaurant isn’t flashy. However, with leather chairs that go “pouf” when you sit, rm is sleek and comfy – a rare combination in this town.
For the mouth: First-rate seafood in the middle of the desert sounds like an oxymoron until you consider that Los Angeles is just an hour’s flight and Moonen takes deliveries daily. To try: toro tartare with black truffle; rainbow runner ceviche with yuzu and cilantro
Best bet: Downstairs is an open-air kitchen and raw bar at the more casual r Bar Café. Take a seat at the bar and you’ll be in the line of fire for freshly baked cream biscuits and cornbread.

Restaurant: Jean-Philippe Patisserie
For the eye: Willie Wonka meets Rube Goldberg. The Bellagio claims the world’s tallest chocolate fountain, pumping two tons of climate-controlled white, medium and dark confectionary chocolate each day.
For the mouth: The fountain’s chocolate is just for show, but there’s plenty of sweets for the eating. There’s a crepe station at the front while the glass cases contain more than 30 kinds of pasteries, including a few that are sugar-free
Best bet: Yes, it’s a blatant tourist trap, but one that’s done so well. Give yourself a few minutes to marvel at this seamless marriage of marketing and engineering.

Restaurant: Aureole
(Mandalay Bay)
For the eye: Oh, those wine angels. Created six years ago by veteran Las Vegas designer Adam Tihany, the 42-foot- tall wine tower and its catsuitted bottle retrievers have lost none of their charm.
For the mouth: Charlie Palmer was one of first celebrity chefs to assay the Las Vegas frontier, but he’s rarely in town. The wine tower stood tall without him; the tasting menu fell short.
Best bet: The smaller dining rooms is the more romantic of the two; it overlooks a pond with a waterfall and swans. Nothing against the birds, but we’d rather be in the main room to watch the angels.

Restaurant: Daniel Boulud Brasserie
For the eye: “Lake of Dreams”? If you say so. If you have one of the windowside tables in Boulud’s elegant dining room, prepare yourself for the Wynn’s eccentric automated outdoor cabaret that’s equal parts light show, water show and animated flower from “Pink Floyd: The Wall.”
For the mouth: If you’ve been to Boulud’s Gotham restaurants, this is Cafe Boulud, not Daniel. However, you can expect to see some of the dishes he made famous in New York, including the $32 DB Burger (9 oz. of ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle).
Best bet: “Lake of Dreams” is a startling, if not distracting, visage, and one that doesn’t really match the warm and sedate restaurant. The waterworks go better with a stiff drink. Request an outdoor seat at the bar next door, Parasol Down.

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