Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sahara Casino-Hotel

The end of an era?

On December 15, 2009, it was announced that 2 of the 3 guest room towers were closing indefinitely, due to weak demand. The Sahara Casino-Hotel, which opened in 1952, was the setting for the original 1960 Oceans Eleven film (along with the Flamingo and Riviera casinos), and the only Las Vegas resort still standing with its original show room where legendary performers from the heyday of lounge acts performed: Louis Prima, Connie Francis, Bobby Darin, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Hackett, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr. In 1963 the Moroccan-themed Sahara was a film location for Viva Las Vegas!, starring Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley.

In November, 2009, a “Rat Pack” tribute show opened in the original Congo Room lounge (nightly performances at 7:00 pm). Rush to see it while you can!

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the hottest comedy act of the early 1950s, and were regular performers at the Congo Room at the Sahara. They had an acrimonious split in 1956; however, several (infrequent) reunion performances took place, as indicated by the photo above, in which Martin appears with Lewis at the Sahara, which hosted the Jerry Lewis MDA Marathon.

Those iconic camels still guard the driveway. From time to time they are given new paint colors, however.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Louis Vuitton at City Center

The Las Vegas Boulevard facade of retailer Louis Vuitton at City Center's Crystals Mall sports a fantastic light show.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

City Center

Photo of fireworks atop the Aria Hotel and Casino on its opening day: December, 16, 2009.

At $11 billion (with a "b"), the 68-acre City Center is the costliest privately funded construction project in U.S. history, a joint development by MGM Mirage and Dubai World. Original cost estimates were in the $4 billion range, but delays, changes and inflation took its toll. To date more than $8 billion has been spent, but the project is far from complete. MGM Mirage sold its Treasure Island strip property for $750 million in order to raise enough cash to complete the project, which was started well before the recent financial and real-estate collapse (at one point MGM Vegas considered bankruptcy, and Dubai World sued MGM along the way, but that's too complicated for this blog).

Most of the hotels, restaurants and shops opened in December, 2009, after a mere 3 years of continuous 24-hour-a-day construction, following groundbreaking in June, 2006. When fully completed, City Center will employ more than 12,000 workers.

Of the four hotels in this complex (situated on Las Vegas Blvd. at Harmon, between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo properties), only the 61-story Aria has a casino (the gaming-free hotels are the all-suite Vdara, Mandarin Oriental and Harmon, the latter not yet opened and reduced from a planned 48 to 29 stories - it's complicated and more than you want to know; however, the Harmon's race-track oval architecture springs from the drafting table of Sir Norman Foster; how classy is that?). The 4,800 hotel rooms are bolstered by 2,400 residential units. The Mandarin Oriental has rack rates of $595, preposterous for Las Vegas. A quick Internet search discloses that rooms at the Mandarin Oriental are already being discounted to $298. All hotels except Aria are completely non-smoking. Trivia: the made-up name "Vdara" means nothing.

An unusual feature is the Veer Towers complex of matching 40-story residential buildings that slant and twist away from each other above Crystals, the 500,000 sq. ft. retail and entertainment development that looks for all the world as if architect Frank Gehry slept here (the copy-cat architect of Crystals is Daniel Libeskind with interiors designed by David Rockwell -- architectural and design royalty). If you have a hankerin' to blow $1200 on shoes, this is the place to do it, ladies.

In January, 2010, Cirque du Soleil (who else?) will unveil ELVIS at City Center (now in previews), its newest offering on the Vegas strip, here housed in a purple walled theater seating 1,800+.

A distinctive collection of contemporary art and sculpture enhances the complex, featuring some of the worlds most renowned artists, including Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje Van Bruggen, Nancy Rubins, Frank Stella, Henry Moore, and Richard Long. The entire complex is so conservative and tasteful that it's hard to believe this is Vegas - nothing shaped like a pyramid, the Doge's Palace, Eiffel Tower or the NYC skyline fronts the Las Vegas Boulevard entrance. The only hint of wretched excess, the watchword of Vegas, is the immense scale of the project.

The fanciful 50-ft. tall canoe sculpture seen below is by Nancy Rubens:

It is important to note that six structures at City Center have received LEED Gold status; the multi-use project was designed with green technologies to make it one of the world's largest environmentally sustainable urban communities. Plans included the use of reclaimed water and an on-site power plant. Even the fleet of limos at the Aria hotel run on compressed natural gas. A tram connects City Center to its neighbors Bellagio and Monte Carlo (public transportation? what a concept!).

Note: Click photo to enlarge.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thomas Keller's Bouchon Restauraunt

Mosaic floors, a zinc bar and marble-topped bistro tables lend an air of authenticity to Bouchon, located on the third floor the Venezia Tower of the Venetian Resort (difficult to locate, so ask for directions; facing the Venetian registration desk, look to the right to find the entrance to the Venezia Tower).

702-414-6200; open for breakfast and dinner daily; brunch Saturday & Sunday
Reservations through opentable.com

Something unusual happened in Las Vegas in the early 90s, when big-name, star-laden chefs from all over the world started to move into the larger hotels. The mainstay all-you-can-eat buffets were suddenly out-the-window, and luxury dining was in. The Strip now boasts restaurants by the likes of Joel Robuchon (book a month in advance - I'm not kidding), Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, Charlie Trotter, Todd English and Guy Savoy. Las Vegas is today one of the great fine dining destinations of the world.

Bouchon is the vision of world-renowned chef Thomas Keller, who was named "America's Best Chef" by Time magazine. He is also the sole recipient of consecutive "Best Chef" awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Born at Camp Pendleton to a Marine drill instructor, Keller eventually found his way to Paris, where he apprenticed to several Michelin-starred chefs. However, Thomas Keller is the one and only chef to receive three Michelin starts for two separate restaurants -- Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Napa Valley.

Bouchon brings to Las Vegas the top cuisine and service that made the original Napa Valley location, just down the street from the French Laundry, an institution in Yountville. Earlier this year Keller opened a Beverly Hills branch of Bouchon, to great acclaim.

Like the original bouchons of Lyon after which it was modeled, Bouchon serves a menu of bistro classics in a main dining room or in the garden poolside setting. As opposed to haute cuisine, a bouchon stresses comfort food, with an emphasis on meats, such as sausages, duck pâté and roast pork. Coq au vin, steak frites and pot au feu are typical bouchon offerings. Desserts include profiteroles and a classic pot de crème. This location is particularly noted for the breakfast they serve, and the French Fries are legendary (and available at breakfast, as well). In photo below: trout with cauliflower and the classic steak frites.

Keller's perfectionist bent shows in the ingredients . Mushrooms are trucked in from the Northwest, fish flown in from Florida and New York, lamb procured from a farm in northern Pennsylvania, mussels from Maine and oysters from Puget Sound. Bouchon's grand plateau of fruits de mer consists of a whole lobster, 16 oysters, eight shrimp, eight clams, nine mussels and seasonal crab, all ocean fresh and served with a number of sauces. His classic steak frites is a pan-seared flatiron topped with maitre d'hotel butter (butter enhanced by lemon juice, Italian parsley, and salt and pepper) flanked by a pile of the best French fries you'll ever eat. Poulet rôti (roast chicken) is served on a bed of Swiss chard and sweet cipollini onions; Keller's version will forever change your mind about humble roast chicken.

There are ripe and strongly scented French cheeses for dessert, as well as a lemon tarte and profiteroles (pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and doused with a chocolate sauce). A further nod to authenticity is a blackboard menu touting the daily specials.

In 2005, when Bouchon opened in Las Vegas, the restaurant was named Best New Restaurant, Best Strip Restaurant, Best French Restaurant and Best Overall Restaurant. There is an oyster bar (from 3:00 pm daily) and French bakery adjacent to the restaurant's bar.

Renowned designer Adam D. Tihany created the interior that features a zinc bar, a mosaic floor, velvet banquettes, antique light fixtures and a hand-painted mural by noted French artist Paulin Paris. Approached from the over-the-top excess of the Venetian Resort architecture and decor, this space is a welcome haven of restraint, balance and comfort; and its out-of-the-way location provides a respite from the noisy casino floor, which afflicts so many fine dining establishments in Las Vegas.

Note: Bouchon operates a bakery under the escalators adjacent to the Venetian's Phantom Theater. This should be your last stop before check-out. The cheese danish is not to be missed.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Crazy Horse Paris at MGM Grand

MGM Grand has reproduced the venerable Paris Crazy Horse theatre in scrupulous detail.

13 dancers are in each show (an arty, topless review).

720 pairs of false eyelashes are used each year.

2500 pairs of stockings are replaced each year.

More than 500 women a year apply to dance for Crazy Horse.

MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris recently celebrated its 8th year anniversary in 2009 in Las Vegas. The show opened in Paris in 1951, where it still enjoys a continuous run on Ave. Georges V.

Dancers rotate between Paris and Las Vegas every 6 months.

I'm a Good Girl:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Treasure Island - bargain on the Strip

2885 Rooms, 36 Floors

Originally conceived by Steve Wynn as an adjunct tower to the neighboring Mirage, Treasure Island was built as an independent property connected to the Mirage by monorail (still in use). The $450 million property opened in 1993. Its pirate theme (dropped for a more adult approach in 2003) was meant to attract families. It is one of the real bargains on the strip, with amenities similar to its neighbors (Mirage, Venetian, Palladio, Wynn Las Vegas) at about half the price. Basic rooms are 400 square feet and offer either one king or two queen beds. “Petite” suites have two bathrooms and 650 sq. ft.; there are many larger, deluxe suites.

The property was re-branded as "TI" in 2003; since March 2009, the property has been owned and operated by real estate investor Phil Ruffin. MGM sold this casino resort for $775 million in order to raise cash to continue the massive City Center construction project (set to open in December, 2009).

Entertainment and dining options:
Mystère by Cirque du Soleil (since 1993) is still considered one of the top shows in Vegas; it was the first Vegas show housed in a purpose-built theater, seating 1600.
Sirens is a deliberately cheesy pirate parody with bare-chested men and barely-clad women.

Christian Audigier (ultra-hip nightclub overlooking the lagoon), Mist (bar & lounge), Breeze Bar, Tequila Bar (inside Isla Mexican restaurant), and Kahunaville Party Bar (inside Kahunaville restaurant).
Upscale dining: Khotan (Pan Asian), Isla Mexican Kitchen, The Steak House.
Casual dining: Kahunaville, Pizzeria Francesco’s, Pho (Vietnamese), The Coffee Shop (24 hrs), Canter’s Deli, The Buffet, plus Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Quiddlers at MGM Crazy Horse

The Quiddlers entertain between scenes of the Crazy Horse Paris show at MGM Grand. This video is of their performance at Monaco's Sporting Club, which is a slightly sanitized version of the Michael Jackson act they perform as part of the MGM Grand Crazy Horse review.

Bellagio Fountains: Sinatra & Luck, Be a Lady

The fountains at the Bellagio Casino and Resort is an expansive, choreographed water feature with performances set to special lighting effects and music. The fountain shows are visible from the street and neighboring structures, most notably from the top of the 540-ft. tall Eiffel Tower replica across the street at Paris Resort and Casino. The fountain show takes place every 30 minutes in the afternoons and early evenings, and every 15 minutes from 8 p.m. to midnight. The fountain display is synchronized to diverse pieces of music, including opera, show tunes and classical selections. Featured singers are Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Gene Kelly, Elton John and Celine Dion.

The fountains, set in a nine acre man-made lake, incorporate a network of pipes with more than 1,200 nozzles that make it possible to stage fountain displays coordinated with more than 4,500 lights. The fountain show, which debuted in 1998, came with a price tag of $50 million.

Three types of nozzles are used for the various effects:
Oarsmen - Jets with a full range of spherical motion
Shooters - Shoot water straight upwards
Super Shooters - Send a water blast as high as 250 ft into the air.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mirage Volcano

This venerable attraction in front of the Mirage Resort debuted in a completely reworked form on December 8, 2008. Anyone who stands near enough to see it will feel the menacing heat, which is a factor that makes this new version so effective. The musical accompaniment is from legendary Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla sensation Zakir Hussain, who joined forces with "Fountains of Bellagio" design firm WET to create this audio/visual spectacle.

Note for the impatient: the eruption does not begin until the 42 second mark:

Hash House a Go Go: B-I-G food

6800 West Sahara Ave (about 4 miles west of the Strip)
Breakfast/lunch Hours: 7:30am-2:30pm

The logo is a tractor, the decor is industrial chic (think corrugated aluminum), and the food is B-I-G. Imagine the largest plate of breakfast food possible. Now double it. That’s about the size of things at this branch of the venerable San Diego classic. They could get by on the novelty of the portion sizes, but the prices are a bargain, and the food is top notch. A winner, and an unforgettable experience. Warning: each portion could easily feed four. Don’t believe me? Burgers are a full pound of ground beef, then stuffed with your choice of peppers, cheeses, etc. Did I mention the the serving plates are the size of small table tops? Check it out.

Breakfast in a 14" square iron skillet (the rosemary garnish is a foot tall):

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Venetian

Understatement has no place at the Venetian Resort. An extravagant barrel-vaulted passage connects the hotel lobby to the casino. Click photo to enlarge.

3355 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109

The ten year old Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, with 4,049 rooms (all of them suites at a minimum of 700 sq. ft.) is the largest AAA Five-Diamond rated Resort in the Americas. This Venice-themed luxury property is located on the east side of the Las Vegas Strip on the site of the old Sands Hotel, between venerable Harrah's and the The Palazzo (opened January, 2008). Combined with the adjacent Sands Expo Convention Center and The Palazzo Hotel and Casino Resort, The Venetian is part of the largest hotel and resort complex in the world – totaling 8,108 hotel rooms and suites.

Among the room features are marble foyers, step-down living rooms, dining tables and chairs, remote control Roman shades and curtains with “Touch Control” technology, wireless dual-line telephones, in-room wi-fi, minibars, bathroom with dressing tables (see photo below), dual sinks, whirlpool tubs and separate glassed-in showers and toilets in a separate room.

For guest’s entertainment and comfort, each suite has three TVs: a 17" LCD in the bath, a 32" in the living room, and a 42" plasma in the bedroom area, which boasts Sealy pillow-top mattresses, 100% Egyptian cotton Anichini bed linens with 100% white goose down duvets, along with angora wool throws from New Zealand.

The Venetian has an extensive indoor retail mall called the Grand Canal Shoppes, which houses stores and 17 restaurants situated along artificial canals and a mock-up of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where costumed singers perform Italian opera arias several times each day. In addition to the lake in front of the casino, the indoor canals are used to provide gondola rides. The hotel also hosts the Las Vegas Madame Tussauds wax museum.

Reproduced at full size are Venice’s Campanile and Rialto Bridge at the entry to the resort complex. A production of Phantom of the Opera is housed in a theater that is itself a replica of the Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier), the setting of the Andre Lloyd Webber musical.

Entrepreneur Sheldon Adelson spent $1.5 billion to complete the first phase alone, which included a fine art museum branch of the Guggenheim museum, called the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. The first exhibit of paintings was called Masterpieces and Master Collectors: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings.

The "understated" check-in lobby:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Encore Las Vegas

Encore Las Vegas is a new $2 billion, 50-floor, 2,034-room casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip that opened December 22, 2008. It is connected to its sister resort, Wynn Las Vegas, by the Esplanade shopping arcade. Both are owned by Wynn Resorts Limited, headed by noted casino developer Steve Wynn. Both properties are sited on land that was the location of the 1950s era Desert Inn. At 653 feet (100 feet taller the DC's Washington Monument), the Encore is the tallest on the main Strip, and its location is directly opposite the Fashion Show Mall. The building itself is an enormous curved bronze-glass structure highlighted by creamy white horizontal stripes.

The Encore property is one of the most expensive on the Las Vegas Strip. Standard rooms, averaging 700 sq. feet, are priced from a bargain $300 per night, only because the Las Vegas market is so depressed; Internet specials at slightly more than half that price were already on offer less than a month after the resort's Dec. 2008 opening. But the deal I snagged was obtained through Travelocity by bundling this hotel with airfare. For about $160 more than airfare alone, I got a "standard" room at the encore plus a $100 MasterCard dining credit (which was automatically applied to the lunch tab ($125 for 3) at the Society Café restaurant. That means the room itself cost only $60. Unbelieveable!

This property will not be to everyone's taste. The decor has a foreign, over-the-top vibe, like something one would expect in Dubai. No opportunity to add fringe or a tassel was missed. There is A LOT OF RED, and BUTTERFLY MOTIFS are everywhere. If you are not partial to red and butterflies, you'll want to run away screaming. Understated, it ain't. But the real problem for me is that the eye has no place to rest. Every element of the decor screams for attention.

The lobby resembles an indoor park, awash in natural daylight with full-height trees, lush plantings and floral clusters.

The (red) wall behind the reception counter sports (red) flower sculptures. The (butterfly) patterned carpeting is -- you guessed it -- red.

Moving along to the elevator landings on each floor, we're introduced to broad expanses of black, with red accents and floral/butterfly motifs woven into the carpet. The walls are covered in faux alligator skin black wallpaper. Sort of a "welcome to my sex dungeon" vibe, in case you're not already in the mood. But don't just take my word for it:

The elevator lobby on the 19th floor. (click to enlarge)

Bathrooms are huge and handsomely understated, clad in travertine and embellished with Matisse prints. A flat screen TV is well within sight of the tub, and there is a separate glassed-in shower (see floor plan below).

When was the last time you thought the best thing about a Vegas resort was the room? To my thinking, the encore suite provides a wonderful respite from all those mosaics, tassels and fringe, overwrought chandeliers, and ALL THOSE BUTTERFLIES and ALL THAT RED. Once you're in one of these handsome, understated rooms, you won't want to leave, and that's no good for the hotel! My suite #2930 was exactly like these photos.

Amazing fine touches are on tap: the draperies open and close by electric motors. Cool. Housekeeping turn-down service places slippers atop a mat next to the bed. Nifty. The drawers can't slam shut, because they are fitted with self closures that ease the drawer shut, sort of like the trunk on your grandfather's Cadillac. Über cool. The flat screen TV swivels so that it can be seen from either the living room or the bedroom. How awesome is that? The table lamps are on "smart dimmers." After one time, you'll wonder how you ever lived without that feature at home. The bed is so comfortable you'll want to weep. And if only there were a way to pack up the entire bathroom and drag it home. You wish.
And no tacky paper DO NOT DISTURB strips to hang on the door knob. Instead, there is an electronic switch that delivers the message to the housekeeping staff. Yeah, baby!

Encore features five restaurants, seven bars and an exclusive nightclub, XS, developed by legendary Victor Drai. Sinatra, one of the restaurants, is a 150-seat dinner-only steakhouse that features Frank Sinatra memorabilia, including Oscar and Grammy award statuettes on loan from the Sinatra estate. Switch is a French-influenced restaurant that features walls, ceiling and lights that rise, fall and change color every 20 to 30 minutes.

Botero Steak is a dinner-only steakhouse themed after the work of Columbian artist Fernando Botera and incorporates three of his artworks and two of his sculptures. Wazuzu offers Asian-inspired cuisine in a (red) room anchored by an enormous dragon wall sculpture constructed of thousands of Swarovski crystals. No lie:

The Society Café is the Encore's over-the-top take on a coffee shop, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner followed by a limited late night menu. The decoration, by Roger Thomas, mixes huge fuchsia tufted leather banquettes with black crocodile chairs atop a floor crafted of black, white and lime-green linked-chain mosaics. Did I mention the lime-green and fuchsia threadwork rugs? The large scale black and white stripe taffeta swag draperies? Trimmed with hunter green borders? Let's throw in a few lime-green Chinese lantern chandeliers while we're at it. See for yourself:

Because studies reveal that gamblers prefer low ceilinged, intimate spaces for gaming purposes, the casino has been divided into four distinct areas separated by draperies and columns.

There is a separate lobby and reception station for the Tower Suites:

The Porte-Cochere sports an abstract Matisse-inspired painted ceiling. Not sure exactly what they were aiming for with the incongruous chandelier. Weird: