I’ve just got back from a trip to Las Vegas – what a city! I went for
my birthday, and one of the highlights was a trip to Aureole
Las Vegas for my birthday meal. Although I’m really not qualified to pronounce
on such things, I’m sure that it’s one of the world’s great restaurants, and
it’s definitely top of the list of my Vegas bloggables.
Running a gourmet restaurant in Las Vegas is not the easiest thing in the world,
although it can be very profitable: one report I saw said that this one restaurant
makes $10 million a year. All top-end restaurants have to find excellent waiters,
sommeliers and cooks, of course, as well as source ingredients, maintain consistency,
etc etc. But in Vegas there’s so much more: the space has to be mind-blowing,
and you know that patrons are going to be walking in with sky-high expectations.
Aureole Las Vegas specialises in presenting its diners with the unexpected,
and then making those expectations seem positively pedestrian.
The centerpiece of the restaurant, in more ways than one, is its wine –
specifically, a 42-foot-high glass tower, filled with 9,000 bottles of wine,
which are retrieved by "wine angels" with wireless headsets flying up and down the tower on a mechanised pulley system. You enter
the restaurant by descending a staircase which wraps around the tower, admiring
3-liter bottles of 1996 Ornellaia ($975) and 1988 Yquem ($1,900) strategically
placed to whet the appetite.
The tower is carefully temperature- and climate-controlled, but even so, only
the younger wines live there. Your 1900 Chateau Margaux ($16,000 the bottle,
$28,000 the magnum) is kept in a proper underground cellar. Where the super-expensive
younger wines (like the $15,000 magnum of 1985 Romanee Conti) are kept, I’m
not sure. Sparklers have their own, colder, cellar – and as you’d expect
in Las Vegas, there are a lot of them. There are over 100 different Champagnes,
with vintages going back to 1962, as well as bubblies from Australia, Austria,
Italy, Germany, South Africa, and, of course, the United States.
It’s hard to overstate how enormous the wine list is. Most top-end restaurants
have 250 different wines to choose from; in Las Vegas, where the big hotels
on the Strip are always trying to outdo each other, 400 is not unheard of. Aureole,
in contrast, has 3,700 and counting: the list is growing every day. Take a wine
like Penfold’s Grange, from Australia: Aureole has 35 different bottles, including
17 magnums, going all the way back to 1964. There are 20 pages of California
Cabernets alone, at 14 bottles a page, including many of the cult wineries like
Screaming Eagle (the 1996 vintage will run you $2,000), and rarities like a
3-liter bottle of 1984 Opus One at $2,295.
Many of these wines, of course, might be represented by only one or two bottles.
They disappear off the list very quickly, and different bottles replace them
on a daily basis. There’s simply no way that a wine list could be printed often
enough to keep track of the comings and goings. The top end of the list, especially,
is very volatile, since high rollers can generally get any wine they choose
paid for by the hotel, and big winners like to celebrate in style. Besides,
a $10,000 bottle of wine doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you’ve been
gambling that much a hand on the blackjack tables for a couple of hours.
How, then, to present the wine list to patrons? Well, Aureole Las Vegas is
in the same town as the annual Comdex computer show, where, at the end of last
year, Microsoft introduced its tablet PC in a blaze of publicity. Now, when
you’re presented with your menus at Aureole, you’re also given a wireless tablet
PC, running a Java programme which will take you through the wine list. A slightly
pared-down version can be seen at ewinetower.com,
where I got all the prices for this blog.
Choosing your wine from an electronic list has upsides and downsides. Among
the positives are the fact that every wine is included the minute it arrives,
and you’ll never be told that the wine you’ve chosen is out of stock. If you
know exactly what you’re looking for, it’s great: there’s an advanced search
screen where you can put in a colour, country, region, grape variety and price
range – and presto, a list of wines appears. Any you’re interested in
you can add to your bookmarks, for later advice from the sommelier. Some wines
also come with detailed tasting notes, which is wonderful.
But there are big problems with the wireless wine list, too. For one thing,
the computers are not particularly reliable: mine froze a couple of times, and
there are known issues with the special stylus which operates the touch screen.
Also, something isn’t fast: I don’t know if it’s the speed of the wireless connection,
the speed of the database, or the speed of the application, but it can take
a long time for a page to appear. Clicking through pages is not something which
can be done quickly: it’s a laborious and time-consuming process.
What’s more, if you don’t know exactly what you want, there are problems. If
you want a claret, for example, you need to decide off the bat which one of
eleven different appellations you’re interested in. If you’re searching in Pauillac,
you won’t find a Graves. Even if you do know what you want, it can be hard to
find: if you’re looking for a Solaia, say, or a Grange, then you need to know both the
region and the dominant grape variety before being able to bring up a list of
vintages. And it’s impossible to select more than one category at a time, so
you can’t search for wines under $100: you have to decide if you’re looking
for under $50 or for $50-$100. Searches aren’t remembered, so can’t be tweaked:
every time you want to do a new one, you have to start all over again from the
There’s also the lack of a voyeuristic element. With a physical list, you can
flick quickly through the expensive Burgundies and Bordeauxs on the way to the
affordable New World stuff, raising your eyebrows at the umpteen different vintages
of Lafite without spending much time on them. With the computer, that kind of
thing takes far too much time, and if one person is choosing at a table for
two, the person without the computer is likely to get very bored very quickly.
Still, most of these problems can be solved. Aureole should invest in this
system, and make it really great: speed it up, and add a lot of functionality.
Make the search much more powerful, with saved searches and the ability to choose
multiple categories. Input the menu into the computer, and then write a program
which makes recommendations based on the combination of dishes that people are
ordering. Create a "best of" list with maybe just a dozen bottles
or so in each price range: every sommelier has his favourites, which he recommends
a lot, so put those in the computer. Let people take advantage of the range
of wines, most of which they’ll never have heard of: have a function where they
can select their personal favourites, and then see a list of similar wines which
they might like more. Maybe cross-reference the list to the wine.com database,
so that it’s possible to see an independent opinion of many of the wines.
Nevertheless, even in its present, nascent state, the Aureole wine list is
incredibly impressive. And it’s more than matched by the food, which is just
mind-blowingly good. It’s full of fresh, zingy flavours in innovative combinations,
and even the heaviest dishes come with a light touch. Take the roasted guinea
hen with a large piece of foie gras on top, accompanied by braised leg ravioli:
it sounds delicious, but what’s surprising is how quickly it disappears, how
the weight doesn’t overwhelm the taste.
Everything is presented in a gorgeous setting: if you’re well seated, your
table abuts a door which exits onto a private terrace overlooking a small pond,
complete with waterfall and three swans. There you have your aperitif, before
retiring back into the sumptuous surroundings of the restaurant (gilded this,
waterfall that) for the meal proper.
The only disconcerting part of the meal was in the service. I can see why in
a restaurant of this size it might be hard to find the sommelier in a hurry,
but it was still a bit weird to see him wearing an earpiece, rather as though
we were being served by an FBI bodyguard. And our waiter, while perfectly friendly,
had a peculiar habit of referring to all our food in the future tense: "this
will be a pan seared piece of monkfish, which will placed atop a garlic-thyme
vinaigrette, and will be accompanied by zucchini and baby garlic". After
a few courses (we had the tasting menu), each of which had two or three such
future foods, my head was positively dizzy with temporal realignment. It put
me in mind of Schrödinger’s cat, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:
it was as if the tasting of the food was necessary for its existence, as though
the plate with food on it was just proto-food, which would become activated,
the waveform collapsed, only when meat touched tongue.
The following day, however, when we took a shuttle bus to the airport (thereby
saving a sum roughly equal to 20% of the tip on the meal), the driver announced
that we’d reached our destination with the words "this will be United Airlines".
So it might just be a Vegas thing.
All quibbles aside, however, I can say with certainty that top-end dining in
Las Vegas has now equalled, if not surpassed, New York standards. Every major
hotel has a $100-a-head gourmet restaurant, and many have a few: the Mandalay
Bay, home of Aureole, has another three or four restaurants in the same price
range just a stone’s throw away. Each attempts to outdo the last: Aureole trumped
Nobu, at the Hard Rock Casino, and in turn has lost quite a lot of buzz to Prime,
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s steakhouse at the Bellagio (which is also home to
Olives, Le Cirque, etc). Las Vegas is a city of excess, and now you can add
dining to the sex and drugs and shows – and gambling, natch – at
which Vegas has always excelled. What’s more, at the end of the evening, you’ll
never find yourself spat out onto a harsh and blustery New York street. What’s
not to like? Just make sure that when you go, you’re carrying a lot of cash.
It goes fast in this city.