The last time we were in Las Vegas, the huge City Center complex was still being built.
But barely, since work on the largest privately funded development in history ($9.8 billion) was stalled by the crash and loss of funding. After the financial and economic crashes and loss of the funding needed to complete the project, the partners had just announced that they found an alternate source of funding required to complete and open the development.
This was our first trip to Las Vegas since then. Given that nothing else new and interesting has opened since our last trip–and that the mid-August temperature was well over 100 degrees—we decided to limit our exploration to the air-conditioned confines of the architecturally stunning, and for us, unexplored, City Center.
City Center was always intended as a showplace. It is a veritable constellation of showplace buildings designed by renowned architects including Helmut Jahn and Kohn, Pedersen Fox. The buildings, which consist of fascinating juxtapositions of shapes and angles, include:
- Three high-end hotels, Aria, Mandarin Oriental, and Vdara;
- A two-tower condo;
- A luxury shopping mall, Crystals, with stores such as Hermes, Fendi, Harry Winston, and the other usual suspects;
- A broad range of stores and, of particular interest to us, more than a dozen restaurants, including those from chefs including Masa Takayama, Michael Mina, and Jean-George Vongerichten;
- The Gallery Row “art mall”, with large galleries dedicated to the works of artists including Dale Chihuly (glass art) Richard MacDonald (sculptures) and Rodney Lough, Jr. (nature photographs);.
- More than a dozen public artworks commissioned from leading artists including Maya Lin. Henry Moore, Frank Stella, and Julian Schnabel; and since this is Las Vegas;
- A big casino; and
- Its own Cirque de Soleil show, Viva Elvis.
Another not-yet-completed condo/hotel building, called the Harmon Building, is separate from the main complex. It, however, is currently subject to a legal dispute between Perini Building Co. (the contractor ) and MGM Resorts International (the developer/owner of City Center). Perini wishes to finish the tower and MGM wants to implode and cancel the structure.
A Sampling of City Center Restaurants
We stayed at Aria, in a spacious, well-designed and appointed room with a very nice bathroom, good views of the complex, and a partial view of the Strip.
Since we were otherwise occupied during the days for a convention, we had only three evenings to explore the complex. We managed to explore the entire property, enjoy most of the public art and browse the galleries. Although we copiously avoided the lures of the casino (despite having to walk through it to get anywhere from our room), we did manage to eat at four of the Center’s many restaurants:
- Julian Serrano, a Spanish restaurant that offers a range of tapas. We enjoyed three dishes: Stuffed dates with almonds wrapped in Applewood bacon with a spicy pepper sauce; Ahi tuna tempura with avocado and mango ensalada, ahi tartare, and wasabi foam; and especially a Tuna-raspberry skewer with “molecular” raspberry (especially a solidified jelly) with wasabi and sesame seed. The Grilled octopus on potato with Spanish paprika was somewhat less impressive. All, however, went well with tempranillo. The service was competent and attentive.
- MOzen (Now closed), a pan-Asian restaurant with dishes from India and all across Eastern Asia. We enjoyed the miso soup, naan, and the Tom Yum Goong (shrimp, lemongrass, and kafir lime in a rich, spicy chili and cilantro broth). The Singapore Chili Crab (soft shell crab with chili, tomato, garlic, and beaten egg), however, was a standout, with a nice melding of flavors and just enough spice to add a nice edge. The same could not be said of the Gaouti Kebab (smoked minced lamb patties with spices and mint chutney), which had the taste and texture of a bland filler, rather than an Indian kebab. The spice from the food was nicely balanced by the fruit and sweetness of a Riesling;
- Lemongrass, a Thai (with some Japanese and Chinese mixed in) restaurant. We began with something new, at least for us: Jellyfish in sesame oil with chi flakes. (FYI, the chili was very mild and the dish had little taste. Its distinctiveness comes primarily from its texture, somewhat Jello-y, but surprisingly firm and even crunchy.) I had Padang duck with red coconut curry, ground peanuts, and lychee. Joyce A seafood udon, a noodle soup with scallops, squid, fishcake, dried seaweed, and scallions. Although I would describe the jellyfish as “fun and interesting,” the other two dishes were excellent, as was the service.
- American Fish, (Now closed) a Michael Mina restaurant, was, not surprisingly, our favorite of the three. We began with the tuna tartare, a house specialty, with arugula, pine nuts, olives, and a quail egg. Although a bit spicy for Joyce, Tom really enjoyed the taste and the tang. The poached shellfish dinner (with lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels blue potatoes a dollop of caviar), was served with a cucumber beurre blanc which, while somewhat salty, worked well. We had these dishes, with a serving of horseradish whipped potatoes and two wines–a red and white burgundy. The white worked particularly well with the entrée.
Although we enjoyed all four of the restaurants, Lemongrass and especially American Fish, were our favorites.
Viva Elvis (closed 2012)
We also took in what was probably our (or at least Tom’s ) tenth Cirque de Soleil show. Viva Elvis was certainly entertaining. The music brought back memories, the narrated history (which some who know Elvis much better than do we claim takes liberties) provided context and the production was, as would be expected, elaborate. The biggest production numbers, Viva Las Vegas, Suspicious Eyes, Hound Dog, and especially Blue Suede Shoes were visual feasts, some with more than 40 dancers and musicians on stage at a time. We, however, generally preferred some of the more subdued numbers, particularly those that featured gymnasts, rather than dancers. Our absolute favorite, however, was Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do. Although far from our favorite song, we were captivated by the incredibly choreographed and synchronized trampoline scene (although we have always been suckers for Cirque de Soleil’s trampoline acts).
Overall, however, although we enjoyed the show, we rate it behind others such as O, Ka, and Love. But while we may have only liked Elvis, Aria clearly loves him, with banners outside, busts and pictures inside, and of course, a big Elvis gift shop.
Although we remained inside the complex (and inside the air-conditioned buildings) for most of our time at City Center, we made one brief stop next door, at one even newer development that opened one year to the day after City Center: The Cosmopolitan, with its somewhat over-the-top (even for Vegas) Chandelier Lounge.
We also hoped to take advantage of some City Center’s other amenities, such as some of its other restaurants (including Sage, Twist, BarMASA and Blossom) and at least one of its three swimming pools. Oh well, perhaps the next conference.