Saturday, January 15, 2011

Final Thoughts on Alex

In the coming days, I'll finally be sharing with you some good eats I've enjoyed this past week. But before I go there, I want to share some final thoughts on this weekend's saddest event. Eric Gladstone nailed it IMHO in Las Vegas Weekly.

[...T]his isn’t just another closing, because even on a street loaded with star chef dining, Alex wasn’t just another restaurant. It began life as the crown jewel of the dining-focused Wynn resort. It’s arguably the most lavishly romantic and elegantly served restaurant on the Strip. It’s also helmed by Alex Stratta, a James Beard-award-winning chef who trained with Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud and legitimized Bellagio’s ambitious fine-dining program before moving with Steve Wynn to his new namesake. It represented, almost uniquely, not just an established star bringing his talent to town, but also one making his reputation exclusively in Las Vegas, with plenty of awards and accolades to show for it.

So what happened? “High-end French dining is not what people want these days,” was virtually the only explanation from Wynn Resorts PR. Considering that Wynn has long been considered a visionary when it comes to dining in Las Vegas (now a major business component, thanks to him), that’s a statement to be taken with some seriousness. But inside sources indicate the closing of Alex doesn’t signify a change in diners’ desires so much as a change in the willingness of a resort to subsidize a business that had not been highly profitable for some time—if ever. At least part of that failure must be blamed on marketing. Alex undoubtedly suffered from a perception—even within the Wynn organization—as “high-end French dining,” which it wasn’t, entirely. The restaurant was also tucked away in the property, without much promotional signage. [...]

Of course, every Vegas resort makes decisions about how to reinvest in itself. Wynn recently placed big bets on Encore Beach Club and Surrender; signed Garth Brooks and Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra: Dance With Me; initiated a major room remodeling; and opened La Cave wine bar and Lakeside Grill. Meanwhile, Chef Richard Chen, who made Wing Lei one of the country’s only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurants, quietly departed, and former XS nightclub co-owner Victor Drai was rather loudly bought/ushered out. Now comes news that talented master baker Frederic Robert has left, too. A well-sourced rumor claims the next restaurant there will be—wait for it—a gourmet burger concept.

Taken as a whole, these moves send a clear message: The patron who would best appreciate Alex is no longer the target of Wynn/Encore.

So what does this mean? Let me explain.

Early on, Steve Wynn wanted to outdo his own amazing work at Bellagio (including luring living legends like the Maccionis and up-and-coming culinary superstars like Julian Serrano to his new casino) by upping the luxury ante at Wynn Las Vegas to something we had never seen before. And yes, he was originally targeting a “more mature” clientele with top-notch restaurants like Alex, Daniel Boulud, and Wing Lei. But as The Great Recession raged on in 2009, room prices hit rock bottom, and Wynn had to offer deep discounts to keep occupancy high at Wynn LV & newly opened Encore, Mr. Steverino looked at what was happening elsewhere along The Strip and realized what he had to do to return his Las Vegas casinos to profitability.

(Hint: It wasn't about the food at the restaurant any more, but the party at the club later in the night.)

Without a doubt, Wynncore is still catering to high-end tourists. Look at their current room rates, store lineups, and restaurant prices for that matter. But instead of appealing to mature gourmands, Wynncore thinks its bread is better buttered by the "MTV celebutante wannabe" crowd hoping they can catch a glimpse of the newest, “hottest” reality stars shaking their groove thangs at Tryst/XS/Surrender. Basically, I think Wynncore is becoming a Strip five-star version of Hard Rock/Palms, if that makes any sense.

Frankly, it's a disturbing trend that frightens me. And we're not just seeing it at Wynncore, although it seems they're now leading the way in homogenizing and "casualizing" all their good eats. John Curtas offered a good quote in his last piece on Alex.

The rush to less formality, smaller plates and more options may, in the long run (and despite the hype of a brave new world of restaurant dining), signal nothing more than a retreat (and an excuse to retreat) from quality.

So am I anti-"tapas"? Hell to the no! Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for small plates. The tapas/small plates concept itself is not a bad thing.

Am I anti-"luxury fast food"? Honestly, this is something I'm still wrestling with. When well done, a "gourmet burger joint" or "pizza palace" can be quite delicious. But sometimes, I just have "slider" overload and I can't handle any more variations of the basic Italian American pizza "flatbread".

What I am genuinely concerned about, however, is when good restaurants are being sacrificed for the sake of "trendy" food fads. Contrary to what some may think, I believe there will always be room for good fine dining. And though some may forget this, one of Las Vegas' top attractions remains our array of top-notch gastronomic palaces. Maybe closing Alex will save Wynn Las Vegas money in the short term, but in the long term this may do Wynncore some real damage. They're only ripping apart their own culinary reputation in letting their fine dining lineup fall apart, and hopefully more Vegas casinos don't follow suit

1 comment:

  1. The Wynn and Encore will always be a staple of Las Vegas high quality. I live in Cali and frequent Surrender night club. I love all the remodels. I booked with Red Carpet VIP and had a table there in the main room across from Kevin Spacey. Its always a great time there.