Chinese food is supposed to be cheap and quick. The best, or at least the most “authentic,” Chinese restaurants require a certain amount of funk and grime. We gladly put up with service that is gruff or indifferent, even downright rude because, well, that’s the way it is. Or so goes the stereotype.
But when I’m dining at Pearl in Las Vegas, and the amuse-bouche – for lack of a better word – arrives, a far different reality emerges. The waiter leans in and gently speaks, almost whispering: “This is homemade tofu with shredded thousand-year-old egg, along with flying fish caviar and XO sauce, compliments of the chef.”
The waiter is wearing a tailored gray suit. I never hear his footsteps. He comes and goes in silence, announcing each new dish with the grace and finesse of a British butler.
The amuse-bouche is but the opening salvo in a multicourse chef’s tasting menu at Pearl, a luxury Chinese restaurant inside the MGM Grand. Still to come are king crab legs – live only moments earlier – coated with some sort of ultra-delicate tempura and lightly fried, plus Maine lobster stir-fried with chilies, followed by black pepper wagyu beef and more, culminating in an elegant tableside tea service that includes hand-rolled leaves from artisanal producers. The provenance of each tea is described with the same passion and detail that I typically hear from only the best sommeliers. I learn that the Long Jin tea from Hangzhou is picked three days before Ching Ming, a Chinese festival that falls on the first day of the fifth solar term. I learn that the oolong comes from a small, steep farm on Taiwan’s Dongding Mountain. After dinner, each guest is given a small gift of tea to take home.
The Strip full of luxury
Chinese dining like this does not exist anywhere else in America. But in Las Vegas, it abounds. The Strip has quietly become one of the world’s most important destinations for Chinese cuisine. Outside of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and perhaps Singapore, Chinese dining of this caliber rarely exists. France welcomed its first such restaurant two years ago when the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotel opened a Paris outpost. And there’s a chic Chinese restaurant in Madrid, but it pales in comparison to what’s happening in the Nevada desert.
This kind of dining is obviously not new to Shanghai or Hong Kong – Hong Kong’s Lung King Heen was the first Chinese restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars nearly 10 years ago. But neither of those cities today can boast as many ultra-high-end Chinese restaurants as Las Vegas. These are restaurants where the art and craft not just of Chinese cuisine, but of fine dining in general, has been elevated with the same reverence and grace that we’ve long come to expect from the Michelin-starred French restaurants in Paris, or the finest restaurants in America, like New York’s Per Se and Saison in San Francisco.
Every top casino in Las Vegas has one. The MGM has two: Pearl, and the newest player in town, Hakkasan, which is trendier and admittedly more focused on scene than cuisine. At Aria, the restaurant is called Blossom. At Wynn, it’s Wing Lei. At Mirage, Fin. Caesars Palace has Empress Court. And when the Bellagio opened in the ’90s, the casino reserved its best, most panoramic view of the now-famous fountains not for the American celebrity chefs but for its Chinese restaurant, Jasmine. The tables at Jasmine are set with exquisite china by Versace, plates that retail for more than $200 each.
It’s precisely this high price tag that prompts naysayers to dismiss these restaurants without stepping inside. They mistakenly argue that these places can’t possibly be authentic because they’re too posh. They insist that Chinese food shouldn’t cost more than $20 or $30 per person at the high end, even for lobster. They point to Monterey Park or perhaps San Francisco’s Richmond district, where indeed some very good Chinese food is being served at a fraction of the price – in fairly grungy restaurants with stereotypically gruff service. No offense, but the nicest restaurant in Monterey Park is about as upscale and romantic as the local Denny’s.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The waiters at Wing Lei wear white gloves. The sommelier at Blossom trained under master sommelier Jason Smith at the Bellagio. The somewhat minimalist Pearl was imagined by legendary restaurant designer Tony Chi, who also designed Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach. The restaurant’s main dining room seats 80 people, making it one of the most intimate restaurants in Las Vegas, about the same size as Joel Robuchon at the Mansion or Pierre Gagnaire at Mandarin Oriental.
Similarly, Fin at Mirage seats only 76 and was designed by Yabu Pushelberg, who also designed David Yurman’s jewelry boutique in Beverly Hills.
Wing Lei was extravagantly designed by Jacques Garcia, the guy who decorated the lavish Four Seasons George V in Paris, but that wasn’t good enough. This month, Wynn closed Wing Lei for a total gutting and redecorating.
The hotel is remaining mum on the details, only to say everything will be revealed when the restaurant makes its re-entry into the scene in December, with the same chef and menu. These aren’t second-tier restaurants.
A hidden scene to most
If you ask anyone today why they go to Vegas, they will often list dining as one of their top reasons, placing restaurants ahead of gambling. But ask those same people if they’ve eaten at Jasmine or Pearl or Wing Lei and the like, they’ll say, “Where? What? Never heard of it.”
Very little has been written about Las Vegas’ luxury Chinese restaurant scene. That’s probably because dinner at any one of these places can easily exceed $100 per person, or quadruple that, or more. That might seem like a lot, but it’s perfectly in line with the prices everyone pays to dine at the Vegas outposts of Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay, celebrity chefs who don’t live in Las Vegas and rarely even visit.
The chefs at the Chinese restaurants live in Vegas. Chef Kai-Wa Yau at Pearl was recruited from Hong Kong, originally for the restaurant Dragon Court, which Pearl replaced. Chef Chi Choi at Blossom is originally from Hong Kong, too.
Jasmine’s chef Hiew Gun Khong comes from Singapore, where he led some of that city-state’s finest Chinese restaurants. Their kitchen crews are entirely Chinese as well.
These guys are the Wolfgang Pucks and Michael Minas of Cantonese cuisine. They’re just not as media savvy – because they don’t need to be. Their best customers already know who they are, and they are devoutly loyal.
In 2012, more than 263,000 Chinese travelers visited Las Vegas, a 40 percent increase over 2011, according to the most recent numbers from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
These Chinese visitors keep the restaurants plenty busy. Between October (when China celebrates National Day) and February (Chinese New Year), Chinese tourists account for as much as 75 percent of the clientele at Blossom, says general manager Tony Lee.
Jasmine and Pearl report similar statistics. But a lot of these customers aren’t just any Chinese tourists. They are among Las Vegas’ most coveted high rollers – finicky diners from mainland China and Hong Kong who will not tolerate Chinese cuisine that isn’t authentic, be it Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuan or anything else.
Blossom’s Lee tells me of a regular guest who travels to Las Vegas two or three times a year from China. On his most recent visit, he stayed for 45 days and dined at Blossom almost every night – without ever looking at a menu. And for the upcoming Lunar New Year, Aria is hosting a party for 3,000 invited guests, mostly from China.
The chefs from Blossom will prepare the food, a lavish imperial banquet of abalone, lobster, fish maw, sea cucumber, roasted duck and caviar. It is expected to set a world record for the most abalone served at a single banquet. The guests are coming not just to gamble, but because they adore chef Choi.
It’s a similar scenario at the other casinos. That’s why the Chinese restaurants are usually located next to the baccarat rooms, where only the wealthiest players are allowed.
Know what to order
But while the existence of these restaurants remains one of Vegas’ best-kept secrets, there is an even bigger secret: knowing what to order. As might be gleaned from Lee’s comment about the guest who never looked at a menu, there is a deeply ingrained culture of off-menu ordering.
All of these restaurants bill themselves primarily as Cantonese. And as such, every menu offers a few standards that any Westerner should recognize, like honey glazed shrimp with walnuts or some version of orange chicken.
And while the sweet-and-sour pork at Pearl might be one of the brightest, most refreshing, least cloying sweet-and-sour dishes I’ve ever tasted, it is really just a decoy for the hapless tourists who don’t know what else to order.
A lot of Pearl’s customers come from China’s Sichuan province. And the people of Sichuan don’t care for the Cantonese cooking of Hong Kong. So Pearl employs a Sichuan sous chef who serves a vast roster of intensely spicy dishes from his home province, which can be prepared family style or as a tasting menu – but there’s no mention of this anywhere in the restaurant.
Nor is there a secret printed menu that one can ask for. The chef simply stands ready to prepare whatever his Sichuan customers desire. Fortunately, it’s a secret that’s open to anyone who asks.
So I put down the six-page menu and ask. And the maitre’d smiles. His eyes light up. “Do you like lamb?” he asks. I say yes, and a few minutes later he delivers an off-menu stir-fry of lamb with Sichuan red chilies. “That’s one of my favorites,” he says.
Of course, the staff isn’t going to come right out and give you a list of everything that’s possible. The more you dine, the more they will reveal. And it’s like this up and down the Strip.
More than meat and rice
Wing Lei is best known for its authentic Peking Duck. And one night when I’m enjoying the six-course Peking Duck service, I notice the white-gloved waiters preparing a special rice dish tableside for a group of Chinese guests on the other side of the dining room.
The waiter has wheeled out a large trolley, and on top of it he’s cooking rice in a clay pot. The aroma wafting from the pot is intoxicating. It is heady and aromatic, almost like meat cooking over a wood-fired grill, only more exotic than that. It reminds me of how the air smells at the night markets in Hong Kong.
“What is that?” I ask my waiter, pointing to the clay pot spectacle across the room.
“Ah, yes, that,” he says, smiling. “It’s a house specialty. Sizzling rice with fermented Chinese sausage.”
“I didn’t see that on the menu,” I say.
“It’s not on the menu,” he says, smiling.
“Can anyone order it?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “We don’t advertise it. But most of our regulars know about it. All you have to do is ask. It takes about 20 minutes, and it’s best shared with at least four people.”
Blossom makes a similar version of this dish, but it’s prepared in the kitchen rather than tableside. They call it simply “preserved meat on rice hot pot.” And it is extraordinary. It tastes every bit as amazing and exotic as it smells.
Blossom also serves something called ma lat. Ma is the Sichuan word for numb. Lat means spicy. Ma lat is a dish so spicy it numbs your entire face and throat.
The chef won’t alter the recipe for anyone, not even for the baccarat room regulars. If you think you might not be able to handle it, then don’t order it, the staff will warn. The English name for the dish is spicy water fish. They’ll also make a version with beef. I order the former.
“Are you sure you can handle spicy?” Lee asks. “This dish you cannot send back.”
I take my first bite, and my mouth instantly begins to vibrate. The dish is filled not only with fistfuls of spicy Sichuan red chilies but also with equally profuse amounts of face-numbing Sichuan peppercorn.
By the third bite, my nose feels as if it’s going to float off of my face. My eyelids feel loose. I can’t feel my lips. It’s better than Novocain.
Blossom also serves an off-menu lobster inspired by the typhoon shelter cuisine of Hong Kong’s disappearing Yau Ma Tei boat people. Live lobster is stir fried with copious amounts of garlic and red and green chilies. It’s another dish that cannot be altered to suit timid tastes. To alter it would be foolish.
When I ask the chef at Jasmine what dishes he serves off-menu, he remains quiet. “We only have what’s on the menu,” Khong tells me.
“Oh, come on, really?” I ask.
He hesitates. “Well, it’s not that we don’t serve anything off-menu,” he says. “Rather, the Chinese guests simply don’t like to look at a menu. They know what they want before they come in.”
And they want what they want, which is usually some sort of live fish, simply steamed or made into a soup. The kitchen always has to be ready for anything.
“But isn’t there one dish that’s become a popular off-menu request?” I ask.
Khong pauses again before answering. “Well, yes. There is this worm fungus from China. It’s very rare. We do get a lot of requests for that.”
He’s referring to a parasitic fungus that attaches itself to ghost-moth caterpillars, paralyzing and mummifying them. They’re a sought-after aphrodisiac with a long history in Chinese medicine.
“Next time, if you want to try it, I’ll make it for you in a clam soup with mushrooms,” he says.
“How much does it cost?” I ask.
“It’s more expensive than gold,” he says.
Blossom at Aria
(Casino level, next to Baccarat, near the Sky Suites entrance)
Dinner only, nightly
Wing Lei at Wynn
(Near Baccarat and the High Limit slots; use the South Valet, Tower Suites entrance)
Dinner only, nightly
Pearl at MGM Grand
(The District concourse)
Dinner only, Thursdays-Mondays
Hakkasan at MGM Grand
(Casino floor, near the New York New York bridge)
Dinner only, nightly
Jasmine at Bellagio
(Casino floor, overlooking the Bellagio Fountains)
Dinner only, nightly
Empress Court at Caesars Palace
(Palace Tower, second floor, overlooking Gardens of the Gods)
Dinner only, Wednesdays-Sundays
Fin at The Mirage
(Casino level, just inside the main entrance to the right)
Dinner only, Thursdays-Mondays
WHAT TO ORDER
Black pepper foie gras
Crab fried rice
Spicy water fish or beef *
Preserved meat on rice hot pot *
Hong Kong-style typhoon shelter lobster *
Salt-and-pepper king crab
Black pepper Kobe beef
Sichuan lamb stir fry *
Seared scallops with mango and chili sauce
Roasted duck with spicy mustard and kumquats
Shanghai fried lamb tenderloin
Coconut tapioca pudding with spiced pineapple
King crab and mango salad
Six-course Peking Duck menu
Dungeness chili crab
Fermented duck and rice hot pot *
Sichuan roasted chicken with garlic and black vinegar
Clam soup with hon-shimeji mushrooms (worm fungus optional) *
Malt-sugar marinated lamb chops
Cream of mango soup (dessert)
* Off-menu, by request
This article originally appeared in the OC Register.