Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cosmo: A Catalyst Is Born?

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is set to open tonight, and The Strip is ablaze with chatter, rumors, optimism, concern, and so much more. John Unwin keeps saying he sees this not as a "book end" or "end of an era", but rather as "a new beginning". Could this be true?

John Curtas seems to be especially hopeful.

Interestingly, most of the big name restaurants: Jaleo, Comme Ça, Milos, and Scarpetta are located on the third floor, and essentially adjacent to each other as they wrap around the main escalator. The effect is striking (and very convenient for galloping gourmets), and gives the appearance of the ultimate, up-, upscale food court — featuring the best of Spanish, French, Greek and Italian cuisines.

None of them are especially intimate (a quick scan puts each at around 175 seats), but if the hype and reputations of these places is to be believed, the only place in America that comes close to such an intense concentration of gourmandia is the Time Warner Building in the Big Apple. [...]

You heard it here first: The Cosmopolitan is going to shake the gastronomic ground in the High Mojave Dessert, and the whole world is going to feel the shudder.

A few days later, Mr. ELV wrote this stunning critique of how most casinos do business with your tummy (and your wallet).

What we’ve been thinking about is the difference between hotels who own their own restaurants (à la Wynn/Encore, Caesars, Bellagio, et al) and those who four- wall (i.e lease out) their food service operations (à la Venetian/Palazzo, Palms, and the soon-to-open THE Cosmopolitan).

We won’t bore you with all the pros and cons of one business model versus another, but suffice it to say the big, corporate hotels who dominate the Strip (and who own their own restaurants), are always teetering on the brink of reverting to the Vegas of old — when hotel gourmet rooms and coffee shops were almost indistinguishable from one another — and whatever personality the dining spots had was confined to cossetting the guests and getting them back to the tables quickly. Food wasn’t the point back then, the illusion of luxury was, and metronomic operations were the rule. [...]

The trouble is, big, corporate gambling palaces aren’t that good at food service operations. What they’re good at is running hotels and casinos. If any of them were being honest, they’d admit they don’t even want to run restaurants, they just have to. Since 1994, when MGM made the first big splash with Emeril, Mark Miller, and the original Charlie Trotter, the hotels have been locked in the restaurant equivalent of a cold war arms race — each feeling it has to top the other or risk being forever marginalized by the upscale tourist market they are all aiming to attract.

So how might Cosmo change this? Well, they're not even trying to take full control of the restaurants. They're simply leasing out their restaurant spaces, thereby allowing the chef-owners to have more control over their operations than the typical casino restaurant overseen by F&B (the casino's food and beverage department, that is).

Might this be a model for Strip casinos and restaurants in the future? We'll have to wait and see. Venelazzo and Palms have done this for some time, but it hasn't seemed to catch on yet.

Honestly, there are upsides and downsides to splitting the casinos from the restaurants. We'll see where that goes.

But believe it or not, that may not be the biggest change coming with Cosmo. Mike Dobranski could hardly hide his excitement on Monday about this. While he originally expressed doubt about Cosmo being all that much of a game changer, he's been warming up to it since.

Finally the resort us fans of food have been waiting for, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, will be open to the public on Wednesday, December 15th at 8pm. If I had to pick the three or four restaurants I’m most looking forward to, I’d have to tip my hat to both of José Andrés’ places with Jaleo and especially China Poblano, David Myers’ Comme Ca (pronounced ‘come saw’ for We-The-Frenchy-Deficient) and Block 16 Hospitality’s (folks that brought us LBS Burger) Holsteins.

Jaleo is Chef José Andrés’ Spanish tapas emporium, so obviously the tapas slut in me is excited about that. For me, the most exciting restaurant in the building is Andrés’ China Poblano, and original concept of his that will be a Mexican / Chinese fusion. Sounds good to me…and oddly logical considering I don’t know of that combo being done anywhere else. While Comme Ca is an import from Los Angeles, it will be nice to have an accessible, centrally located French Brasserie in town to go to. Last, but not least, Holsteins will be the requisite burger joint, but feature natural and organic ingredients and house-made sausage.

While most of Cosmo's "new" restaurants are either LA or NYC imports, they are from chefs who have not been exposed to Vegas before. And some of what they're offering, such as Milos' fine, authentic Greek food, hasn't been experienced here before. Hopefully, we'll be in for good eating.

However, what's even more exciting is that Jose Andres and Scott Conant will actually bring original concepts to Vegas! Andres will open China Poblano this week, which will be a very unique Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant... Talk about "East Meets West"! Meanwhile Conant will open DOCG, and Italian wine bar and small plates joint that's coming first to Vegas. Not since Steve Wynn hand-picked previously little known chefs to come to Vegas and become culinary superstars (such as Julian Serrano, Alex Stratta, and Jet Tila) have we seen a Strip casino bring such exciting new concepts to town.

For such a long time, Vegas' culinary star-power has relied on New York, San Francisco, and Paris superstar chefs bringing "photocopies" of their restaurants here. And while just this alone has helped improve fine dining here, it's nonetheless no substitute for real, homegrown talent. Thankfully we are starting to see more homegrown talent emerge, but they've yet to achieve the sort of "critical mass" of attention that celebrity superstar chefs regularly get when they import more restaurants here.

Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future we'll finally see this happen, but in the mean time it's encouraging to see some new culinary ideas shine through at Cosmo.

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