It's safe to say that anyone who loves restaurants aspires to one day visit NYC and eat themselves into a self-induced food coma. But nowadays you don't even have to go to New York, where I live, to do New York–y stuff. You'll now find little pockets of Gotham City all over the world: with NYC restaurateurs opening outposts in London, Hong Kong and Dubai, you can get a taste of the Big Apple almost anywhere you roam. But just a short plane ride away for most is Las Vegas, the glittering desert mall that's a shrine to all things greatly American. It's no surprise that here you can indulge in a little bite of the Big Apple without leaving the Strip. From my room at the Aria Resort & Casino, I could gaze across the way at a petite replica of New York, New York's Chrysler building. I felt right at home. In the last decade or so, Vegas' dining scene, especially, has turned this desert city into a sprawling mini-Gotham.
Bouncer wouldn't let you into TAO Downtown? Don't worry: There's an even more ginormous TAO on the Strip. Craving the Bromberg Brothers' favorite comfort food? Mosey on over to Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken in Spring Valley. Not a fan of snow, slush or 17-degree days? Fuhgeddabout grim old New York! In Vegas you even have the pastrami piles of Carnegie Deli and Serendipity 3's overpriced ice cream sundaes!
With all this that in mind, I set out to try the Sin City versions of three New York favorites: the original uptown restaurant, Le Cirque; the Brooklyn pizzeria people ride an hour on the subway and wait hours in line for, Di Fara; and Carbone, the Greenwich Village red-sauce throwback that recently opened with fanfare in Vegas. Here's how my Gotham-style noshing unfolded.
I flew out in early November, conveniently just a few weeks after Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick debuted Carbone Vegas. The restaurant doesn't try to be a replica of the Greenwich Village original with its hodgepodge of cozy little dining rooms—it's too huge a space for that. Instead, this branch is divided into the loungey Blue Room up front, all dim lighting, black-and-white palazzo floors and cornflower-colored walls. The bar's in here too, and it's just the place to sip an excellent lime-zesty daiquiri and chat up Mario's cousin Louie, who oversees the place when the boys aren't in town. Louie wears the same burgundy Zac Posen tuxedo as the restaurant's "captains" and resembles a handsomer, less slouchy Dr. Evil. He's a nice guy, but there's that New York edge. You can picture him winning big down at the craps tables.
In back is the Red Room, decked out like the Milan Opera, as the press literature explains. There's not a bad red-velvet seat in the house; half-circle booths face the dining room floor, a playful riff on the idea of restaurant as theater. Just like in New York, diners are dwarfed by the comically oversize menus, which offer nearly the same lineup of upmarket red-sauce fare — including baked clams, rigatoni vodka, veal Parm. Ask for the Caesar salad, the Dover piccata or the bananas flambée, and half the preparation takes place at a cart your captain rolls up to the table, deftly tossing, boning or blow-torching as needed. The food quality is nearly indistinguishable from the NYC original. And just like in New York, you'll get a bit boozy on cocktails and wine and after-dinner rum (which arrives on its own cart). Just like in New York, you'll order more food than you can finish. Unlike in New York, you can actually get a reservation.
I vaguely remembered hearing a few years ago that Brooklyn pizza godfather Dom DeMarco had consented to let some Sin City restaurateurs open a Vegas branch of his cult pizzeria, Di Fara. What I'd forgotten is that it was located in Caesars Palace's Forum food court. So it is: not far from Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, next to Earl of Sandwich and in the vicinity of several giant pictures of Celine Dion sits Di Fara Pizza. This is not exactly Midwood, Brooklyn.
The similarities to the original Di Fara end pretty much with the name. Well, and the high prices: I paid $7.56 (with tax) for my cheese slice (pictured above), a bit more than I would've in New York. When I sidled up on a Sunday night, there was no line, despite massive numbers of runners hanging around who had just wrapped the annual Rock 'n' Roll marathon. (Aren't those people supposed to carbo-load?)
The pies immediately struck me as much more orange-colored than at Di Fara Brooklyn. DeMarco famously uses a three-cheese blend, and the pizzas in Midwood are orangey, but not this much. He's also famous for snipping basil onto each slice at the last minute and drizzling olive oil over everything. Thankfully, even at the Caesar's food court, someone had managed to round up some fresh basil, but they'd also brought a liberal hand to the olive oil. Even the nice char to the crust and a round of oil-blotting couldn't save my greasy slice. Fearing the wrath of the pizza gods, I only ate half and tossed the rest.
The tale of New York's Le Cirque is a glamorous, exciting, heartwarming one: ambitious Italian immigrant Sirio Maccioni opened the place in 1974 after displaying his gift for hospitality at the famous and now-defunct Colony. The original ladies who lunch have always lunched here. Chefs including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Jacques Torres have all spent time in the legendary restaurant's kitchens, where dishes likes tuna tartare and pasta primavera are said to have been invented. Now in its third home on East 58th Street, Le Cirque is still an uptown landmark presided over by the octogenarian Maccioni and his three sons.
How do I know all of this? Well, if you opt to dine solo at Le Cirque Vegas, you too might be invited to read all about it during mealtime lulls in the actually pretty great 2012 book A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes From New York's Most Legendary Restaurant. While couples celebrated anniversaries around me, I forked foie gras and lobster salad alone and nerdily reveled in learning more about this slice of New York lore.
The restaurant, rather incongruously for such a storied name, is located just off the slot machines and cigarette smoke of the Bellagio casino. Inside there's no trace of any of that; at the round tables, the plush booths, all you hear is the choreography of the famous fountains just outside the window, and the hush of heavy carpeting. You might think the original home of the ladies who lunch couldn't translate to a place where ladies are more apt to don fuchsia stiletto heels and stay up all night drinking and gambling. Yet somehow it does. The space may be much smaller (too small for tableside crêpes suzette, which I loved the one and only time I Le Cirqued it up in New York), but the service is just as world-class, the parade of special-occasion dishes just as luxurious. There's a family feeling too, thanks to a staff who have mostly all worked here since the place opened in 1998. It just goes to show: you truly can find anything you want in Vegas.