37 hours. 9 meals. 21 pounds of beef. Putting his cholesterol count on the line, Daniel Duane embarks on a gluttonous quest to discover the future of steak.
I think of Vegas as a place that had to exist somewhere and that exists in the Nevada desert only by coincidence. So fundamental are the human hungers on which it thrives — greed, lust, and gluttony, the fun three of the seven deadly sins (who’d build a resort based on pride, wrath, envy, and sloth?) — that inevitably someplace was going to exploit them. But what makes Vegas so peculiarly American is the crazed free-market competition for a piece of the action. Back in the 1950s this meant opening a gambling hall and selling cheap steaks, only to see the next guy start paying his cocktail waitresses not to wear shirts. Now you’re flying over to Paris and importing an entire French titty show, except then some other casino is putting up a 300-foot neon sign the suckers can’t miss. And so on, until you’ve got exact replicas of the Eiffel Tower competing with the entire Manhattan skyline and full-scale pirate ship battles in which huge British sailing frigates genuinely sink in vast man-made lagoons, despite the fact that we’re in one of the driest places on Earth.
The Vegas dining scene used to be about all-you-can-eat buffets, but then in the late 1980s casino-magnate Steve Wynn figured out that high-class restaurants were yet another way to wow the yokels — especially if the chef had done some time on TV. One thing led to another, and the Vegas of today is a nonstop culinary talent show with unlimited funds, and nearly every big-name American and French chef has been lured into opening at least one restaurant here, sometimes several. The de rigueur Las Vegas meal has remained the big steak, but all these culinary geniuses, motivated by a perpetually spree-spending male clientele, are now engaged in a decentralized, unplanned, unmonitored, yet world-historic celebrity chef death match to create the finest, most decadent, most luxurious beefsteaks ever experienced by humankind.
This is not a gross overstatement. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Joël Robuchon — they’re all here. The new $2 billion Wynn Hotel and Casino, to name just one example, has both the Country Club (self-billed as “a new American steakhouse”) and SW Steakhouse, which offers a 42-ounce chile-rubbed double rib eye for $98 — a single portion of which, unless my math betrays me, could provide a generous and fairly typical half-pound steak portion to each of five hungry men. Slice it up for stir-fry, throw in some broccoli, and you’re feeding a Laotian village. But only a block away, at the even newer $2 billion Palazzo Hotel and Casino, fully three of seven brand-spanking-new restaurants are also wildly ambitious and expensive steakhouses. Morels, a so-called “French steakhouse,” whatever that means, offers, among other things, a 10-ounce “A-5 Wagyu strip steak frites with parmesan & truffle pommes frites and foie gras butter,” which is about as turbo-charged as pure steak decadence can possibly get and doubtless somehow still a bargain at $185.
In any other city this dish would qualify Morels as the go-to beef-lover’s temple par excellence, but in the Las Vegas of today, Morels is absolutely outclassed within the same casino by Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, where the appetizers include Kobe steak sashimi, prime sirloin steak tartare, and bone marrow flan, and where the steak list offers the discriminating carnivore the opportunity to compare corn-fed Illinois prime dry-aged 21 days with corn-fed Nebraska prime dry-aged a full 35 days, and to contrast a crossbreed of Japanese wagyu and American Angus with purebred Japanese wagyu, just to be sure you’re on top of the key distinctions. The very future of steak, in other words, is being redefined in Las Vegas, and we’d flown into town to eat it.
But first, a definition: Japanese A5 Kobe, the single most expensive and highest-status animal protein currently consumed by humans (roughly $400 a pound retail for filet mignon), comes from a wagyu breed of cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan (of which there are fewer than 20,000 head). A5 is the highest pedigree for this beef, and it means your cow is guaranteed to have come from five consecutive generations of Kobe cattle. Mystery shrouds the exact breeding and rearing techniques, which are carefully guarded by both the Japanese Agriculture Ministry and the handful of small ranchers who actually produce A5 Kobe, but various reports describe cattle in total confinement and darkness, serenaded by soft music to keep them absolutely relaxed, with their weight supported by belly straps as they feed endlessly on beer and rice, with regular sake-rub massages to further soften their muscles. The result is meat marbled with fat only in the sense in which ice cream is marbled with cream. So-called American wagyu beef and Australian wagyu beef, such as we tasted at Craftsteak, comes from the same Japanese cattle breed but is raised elsewhere and without the same coddling, so the meat is a little more like meat and less like some entirely different food you’ve never dared dream might exist.
We didn’t get any A5 until we arrived at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s posh Prime Steakhouse, downstairs at the Bellagio and next door to the Picasso Restaurant, which has $100 million worth of genuine Picasso paintings on the wall and decor by the great man’s son. Where the Picasso place is bright yellow, Prime is all blue velvet and blue drapery, cool and calm and quiet like a super-elite men’s club in a classy northern city.
“May I recommend a small-batch American bourbon, perhaps?” This was our waiter’s opening move.
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” Pageler replied. “What’s your view on pairing whiskey with beef?”
“Well, sir, the conventional wisdom holds that a properly grilled steak, with a properly charred exterior, can support a whiskey neat.” He paused to clear his throat, and it was obvious the man loved the theater of all this. “But if, on the other hand,” he continued, “you’re considering a more subtle cut, such as a filet mignon, it’s generally considered desirable to add a little branch water.”
The waiter laughed. “Creek water. Just, you know, water.”
Then the A5 arrived and melted my face.
Before I get lost in describing it, let me say that it was only a nibble compared to what followed: a 16-ounce New York strip, an 18-ounce rib eye, and a 16-ounce filet, accompanied by sides that included truffled mashed potatoes and by an assortment of steak sauces: a peppercorn sauce with brandy; another with soy and rice wine; a classic béarnaise with herbs and butter; and an Asian-inflected sauce with lemon zest, lime zest, orange zest, and miso.
But back to the A5, because it was the big news. We each got four thin slices on a white plate as an appetizer, paired with balsamic-preserved portobello mushrooms stuffed into a Japanese shishito pepper. And from the moment I placed the first slice in my mouth, I felt as though I’d eaten the red pill in The Matrix. It was the most transporting single bite of food ever to pass between my lips; the paper-thin crispy exterior yielded to such oozing and sumptuous fats that I felt as if I’d discovered a whole new pleasure organ within my own anatomy.