Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thoughts on Food in Las Vegas - Part 1 of 2

I just spent four days in Las Vegas. On the way to the Strip, a grizzled taxi driver said how he missed the good old days where everything was run by the mob. Now, he lamented, everything is run by corporations. Las Vegas may say something about the future of the American restaurant industry. And I don't like it.

Las Vegas has two restaurant phenomena: (1) the high-end buffet, and (2) the celebrity chef restaurant. Right now, we have very few of those types of restaurants in Houston. Unfortunately, they may be the future of American dining.

1 - The Las Vegas Past: Casino Buffets

As a relic of Las Vegas' past, almost every casino/hotel has an upscale all-you-can-eat buffet. The price at most is over $20. The food quality tends to be very high.

Houston does not have this type of buffet. Sure, if you travel outside the Loop, you will find low quality American chains or Chinese restaurants with buffets. But these buffets are much cheaper. The food almost always suffers from low quality ingredients, unimaginative preparation, and damage from heat lamps or steam tables.

In Vegas, I tried the buffet inside Tillman Fertitta's Golden Nugget, which serves everything from prime rib to sushi to tortilla soup. It is not the best buffet in Vegas, but it is representative. All the food I tried was much better than the chain buffets in Houston. Despite the steam tables, each item here seemed to be the correct temperature and not too damaged by sitting out for too long.

Still, it is hard to escape the inherent problems with buffets. You feel compelled to eat your money's worth, which is too much food. Worse, a buffet that offers something of everything results in an incoherent mess on the plate. My plate had prime rib, eel sashimi, sweet potatoes, barbecue, ceviche, spinach, and grilled salmon. Everything was fine by itself. Nothing fit together in combination.

As Houston grows, or rather as the waist of Houstonians grow, we may see more upper end buffets. Buffets offer the promise of food as an endless commodity. They present a future of unlimited gluttony. And they threaten the artistry of dining.

NEXT: Part 2 -- The Las Vegas Future: Celebrity Chef Restaurants

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