Chinatown Report

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Chinatown Vegas: Las Vegas creates Chinese dining capital

This is a repost of BRAD A. JOHNSON / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTERPublished: Nov. 3, 2013 Updated: Nov. 13, 2013 10:38 a.m.

DESERT DYNASTY: Top hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip have added ultra-luxurious Chinese restaurants. Register restaurant critic Brad A. Johson found some of the best food and service he’s experience anywhere in the world.

Chinese food is supposed to be cheap and quick. The best, or at least the most “authentic,” Chinese restaurants require a certain amount of funk and grime. We gladly put up with service that is gruff or indifferent, even downright rude because, well, that’s the way it is. Or so goes the stereotype.
But when I’m dining at Pearl in Las Vegas, and the amuse-bouche – for lack of a better word – arrives, a far different reality emerges. The waiter leans in and gently speaks, almost whispering: “This is homemade tofu with shredded thousand-year-old egg, along with flying fish caviar and XO sauce, compliments of the chef.”
The waiter is wearing a tailored gray suit. I never hear his footsteps. He comes and goes in silence, announcing each new dish with the grace and finesse of a British butler.
The amuse-bouche is but the opening salvo in a multicourse chef’s tasting menu at Pearl, a luxury Chinese restaurant inside the MGM Grand. Still to come are king crab legs – live only moments earlier – coated with some sort of ultra-delicate tempura and lightly fried, plus Maine lobster stir-fried with chilies, followed by black pepper wagyu beef and more, culminating in an elegant tableside tea service that includes hand-rolled leaves from artisanal producers. The provenance of each tea is described with the same passion and detail that I typically hear from only the best sommeliers. I learn that the Long Jin tea from Hangzhou is picked three days before Ching Ming, a Chinese festival that falls on the first day of the fifth solar term. I learn that the oolong comes from a small, steep farm on Taiwan’s Dongding Mountain. After dinner, each guest is given a small gift of tea to take home.
The Strip full of luxury
Chinese dining like this does not exist anywhere else in America. But in Las Vegas, it abounds. The Strip has quietly become one of the world’s most important destinations for Chinese cuisine. Outside of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and perhaps Singapore, Chinese dining of this caliber rarely exists. France welcomed its first such restaurant two years ago when the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotel opened a Paris outpost. And there’s a chic Chinese restaurant in Madrid, but it pales in comparison to what’s happening in the Nevada desert.
This kind of dining is obviously not new to Shanghai or Hong Kong – Hong Kong’s Lung King Heen was the first Chinese restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars nearly 10 years ago. But neither of those cities today can boast as many ultra-high-end Chinese restaurants as Las Vegas. These are restaurants where the art and craft not just of Chinese cuisine, but of fine dining in general, has been elevated with the same reverence and grace that we’ve long come to expect from the Michelin-starred French restaurants in Paris, or the finest restaurants in America, like New York’s Per Se and Saison in San Francisco.
Every top casino in Las Vegas has one. The MGM has two: Pearl, and the newest player in town, Hakkasan, which is trendier and admittedly more focused on scene than cuisine. At Aria, the restaurant is called Blossom. At Wynn, it’s Wing Lei. At Mirage, Fin. Caesars Palace has Empress Court. And when the Bellagio opened in the ’90s, the casino reserved its best, most panoramic view of the now-famous fountains not for the American celebrity chefs but for its Chinese restaurant, Jasmine. The tables at Jasmine are set with exquisite china by Versace, plates that retail for more than $200 each.
It’s precisely this high price tag that prompts naysayers to dismiss these restaurants without stepping inside. They mistakenly argue that these places can’t possibly be authentic because they’re too posh. They insist that Chinese food shouldn’t cost more than $20 or $30 per person at the high end, even for lobster. They point to Monterey Park or perhaps San Francisco’s Richmond district, where indeed some very good Chinese food is being served at a fraction of the price – in fairly grungy restaurants with stereotypically gruff service. No offense, but the nicest restaurant in Monterey Park is about as upscale and romantic as the local Denny’s.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The waiters at Wing Lei wear white gloves. The sommelier at Blossom trained under master sommelier Jason Smith at the Bellagio.
The somewhat minimalist Pearl was imagined by legendary restaurant designer Tony Chi, who also designed Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach.
The restaurant’s main dining room seats 80 people, making it one of the most intimate restaurants in Las Vegas, about the same size as Joel Robuchon at the Mansion or Pierre Gagnaire at Mandarin Oriental.
Similarly, Fin at Mirage seats only 76 and was designed by Yabu Pushelberg, who also designed David Yurman’s jewelry boutique in Beverly Hills.
Wing Lei was extravagantly designed by Jacques Garcia, the guy who decorated the lavish Four Seasons George V in Paris, but that wasn’t good enough. This month, Wynn closed Wing Lei for a total gutting and redecorating.
The hotel is remaining mum on the details, only to say everything will be revealed when the restaurant makes its re-entry into the scene in December, with the same chef and menu. These aren’t second-tier restaurants.
A hidden scene
If you ask anyone today why they go to Vegas, they will often list dining as one of their top reasons, placing restaurants ahead of gambling. But ask those same people if they’ve eaten at Jasmine or Pearl or Wing Lei and the like, they’ll say, “Where? What? Never heard of it.”
Very little has been written about Las Vegas’ luxury Chinese restaurant scene. That’s probably because dinner at any one of these places can easily exceed $100 per person, or quadruple that, or more. That might seem like a lot, but it’s perfectly in line with the prices everyone pays to dine at the Vegas outposts of Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay, celebrity chefs who don’t live in Las Vegas and rarely even visit.

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