Friday, May 2, 2008

Las Vegas 2008 (a mini treatise)

The Palazzo Tower viewed from the pool

Las Vegas is an easy city to mock from a distance and it is indeed a strange place-- constantly destroying itself and rising again out of the ashes, more spectacular in every new incarnation. I am not a gambler, nor in the market for the kind of legal and somehow sanitized smut that Vegas sells. Las Vegas is a temple to Mammon. Though many people balk at paying their taxes for the greater good, Vegas seduces thousands into willingly pouring their incomes into slot machines and watching amazed as the golden palaces they have funded rise up in the desert.*

The construction never stops (the view over my shoulder at the Palazzo pool)

I have been accompanying N to a huge tradeshow for over a decade and I still don’t know entirely what to think. Vegas never would’ve been high on our list of destinations, but I confess we’ve enjoyed most of our visits. Tourist towns are often single faceted, but the tourists in Las Vegas are far from homogeneous and the city is more complicated than you’d think. Flying in over the impossibly vast desert, though, it is difficult to escape the sense that this glittering oasis surrounded by the harshest of landscapes, entirely dependent on imported food and water, is the very model of unsustainable consumption and perfectly poised for its very own Armageddon.

A slightly colour-enhanced view of the vast desert en route to Vegas

In the meantime, though, the world continues to flood in to Vegas--often not as pure tourists, but as business people attending the myriad tradeshows, not to mention new residents. Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the US

When we first went to Las Vegas a dozen years ago it was difficult to find a decent cappuccino on the Strip and now there are espresso shops everywhere, bakeries as fine as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon bakery, and many Michelin starred restaurants.

A perfect macaron--the croissant and beignets didn't last long enough to be recorded

Just 300 miles away, LA food lovers were alarmed this year that a restaurant in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon (at the MGM Grand), and none in Los Angeles had been awarded Michelin’s highest three star rating. Some hotels (Wynn) have insisted that the big-name chefs actually be present in the kitchens of the restaurants sporting their names.

Images from Bouchon: encaustic tile floor, pain perdu, zinc bar, white aproned waiter

N and I have enjoyed many of our meals in Vegas. Our favorite have been in the beautiful room of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in the Venezia tower at the Venetian—a quiet oasis far from the casino floor filled (by day) with sunlight from the courtyard and pool gardens beyond, a long gleaming zinc bar, gorgeous patterned encaustic tile floor, white-aproned waiters and sparkling glass and silverware. We’ve eaten breakfast and dinner there many times over the past few years. On one memorable evening, owls swooped over the courtyard as we dined on the terrace under the clear desert sky. The food at Bouchon is classic bistro fare—duck confit and steak frites, rustic pate with cornichons, artisanal cheese, and tarte citron. It’s the food we love. Accompany dinner with a bottle of Schramsberg sparkling Blanc de Noir and we are almost as happy as we are in France, but we have no illusions; we’re in Vegas and we know it. At breakfast there is ‘pain perdu’-style French toast, eggs gratin, and lovely, buttery, flaky, tender croissants and brioche in a basket.

Views from Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn (left, right) assorted pickles with my pate (centre)

This year we also dined at the Daniel Boulud Brasserie overlooking the spectacular golden waterfall and temperate forest at Wynn (yes, perverse, but very seductive). The food was good, also French bistro fare, but the mood is much more lush and dark and much more about spectacle than at the classic crisp and sparkling Bouchon. We also had a passable dinner at Woo—a pan-Asian concept restaurant in the Palazzo (our luxurious hotel next to the Venetian--every room a suite), which offered far less of a culinary adventure than it purported to. We did enjoy a bottle of unfiltered sake there, though—mild and slightly thick. Though noisier and less romantic, I'd recommend Noodles at the Bellagio over Woo any day.

The Guggenheim-Hermitage and Vegas--a doomed seven year menage a trois

While great food might find a comfortable home in Las Vegas, some partnerships are too unholy to survive. For the last few years I’ve enjoyed visiting the Guggenheim/Hermitage Museum in the Venetian hotel, where I’ve seen some excellent exhibitions (two Van Dyke portraits being a revelation to me when seen for the first time in person). Unfortunately for me, the museum will close forever this May. I loved the small museum and its hybrid shows drawn from the collections of two of the world’s finest museums, but I guess I should’ve surmised, based on the fact that I was usually alone with the art and several security guards, that it would never last. For me, it was one of the most redeeming and incongruous features of Las Vegas.

The Palazzo lobby; the golden falls at Wynn; a view from the outdoor bar at Wynn

Another is the architecture. Yes, much of Vegas is terrible architectural pastiche, but nowhere in the world can you experience the soaring spaces exquisite surfaces and amazing craftsmanship (by imported plasterers, stonemasons, tile setters and other specialized trades) in such abundance—not to mention the constant spectacle of new construction, which is exciting in itself.

Rooftop intrigue out my window: the A-team deploys (right); and what happened here?

If you can abandon any quest for authenticity (usually a doomed pursuit anyway) and look instead for an atmosphere, a fleeting mood, I'm sure you can find a spot to love in Las Vegas. Like everything else in Las Vegas, though, the architecture is divorced from context—everything is trying to be someplace or something else—the ultimate simulacrum. And yet, Vegas clearly is itself; there is simply no other place like it. I think that’s the thing that has people so alarmed—the idea that Vegas could assert authority as its own particular place and not merely a pale imitator masquerading as something else. Vegas is beginning to mark its territory and declare its identity as clearly as the cities it takes as inspiration. Las Vegas is a self-referential alternate universe, constantly engaged in its own reinvention.

I haven't even started on the wonders of the surrounding desert, and I won't, at least not this time...

*We’re perfectly happy to pour our dollars into food, drink, car rentals, and accommodation, which probably makes us equal contributors--just worshipping at a different altar.


hex said...

I remember hating Vegas the first night I was there, but by the end of our 5 day trip, and after three hikes in the desert, the city had won me over (sort of). Vegas will never be a place I could fall in love with, I think, but I'd definitely go back to see what it's up to now.

S & N said...

I agree, the city is too shifty and disreputable to ever really love, but it's great for a fling. I think my own feelings about Vegas will always be conflicted, but I've learned to put blinders on while I'm there and only see what I want to--a self-deluding exercise in which I invent my own experience.