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 The Mirage Merging Two Concepts, Gourmet Dining and Buffet-style Restaurant; The 32,000 sq ft, 600-seat Cravings Expects to Serve
A $32 Buffet for 3-4.000 Daily
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The Philadelphia Inquirer Gambling Column
By Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Apr. 5, 2004 - VEGAS CASINO'S NEW DINING CONCEPT: A GOURMET BUFFET: With just about every celebrity chef who has ever stirred a pot on the Food Channel opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, the city has taken its place alongside such fine-dining tourist towns as San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. 

However, those Las Vegas gourmet dining rooms -- say the five-star Picasso's at the Bellagio casino resort, or Renoir's at the Mirage Hotel-Casino -- can handle only a limited number of customers, and reservations can be hard to get. The dining experience that most Vegas visitors are more likely to encounter is the old Sin City standby -- the buffet. 

Now, the Mirage hopes to make a breakthrough merging the two concepts, bringing gourmet dining to a buffet-style restaurant called Cravings, scheduled to open in late May. 

To be sure, several casino resorts in Las Vegas have already broken ground in elevating the old $5.99 steamship-round-and-chicken-wing buffet to something considerably more appetizing. Some Sunday brunches, the Sterling Brunch at Bally's Las Vegas for instance, are indeed gourmet-caliber, but they are only on selected days and can be relatively expensive ($52.95 for the Sterling). Bellagio's daily buffet, at about half the price on weekdays, is recognized as perhaps the best high-end, seven-day, all-you-can-eat restaurant, with exotic dishes such as pepper-crusted top sirloin of buffalo. 

However, Cravings hopes to deliver a buffet experience with an ambience that approximates a gourmet room such as the industrial-chic Aureole at Mandalay Bay, and evokes New York sophistication. The Mirage has enlisted world-class designer Adam Tihany -- who created interiors for Aureole as well for as Bellagio's Le Cirque and Wolfgang Puck's Spago Las Vegas, among others -- to design the new buffet. 

"Cravings will be very contemporary," Tihany said. "It will be cutting-edge using very sleek materials, steel tubing, bronze and wood ... this will be new age." 

The dining room will be surrounded by what will appear to be free-standing buildings where the food stations are located, Tihany said. Booths will provide a low-profile barrier between the serving areas and the tables at the center of the room to create the feel of a modern piazza. The orange and burgundy of the dining area will be a softer, more comfortable contrast to the metallic cool of the buildings, according to the designer. 

Of course, the success of any restaurant -- gourmet or buffet -- is in the food. 

Mirage's vice president for food and beverage, Bart Mahoney, hopes to make Cravings a gourmet experience, not just with premium cuts of meat, fresh fish, and hand-prepared desserts, but also with presentation. 

"We will have exhibition kitchens where the customers can actually watch their food being prepared," Mahoney said. "Exhibition kitchens create a lot of animation... when you see a chef preparing your food, you know it's fresh." 

Mahoney described the Mirage's former buffet as "comfort food prepared in a uniform manner and presented in a uniform manner." Cravings will eschew the buffet idiom of side-by-side chafing dishes, he said, and make clear that the food preparation is as careful and individual there as it is in a fine restaurant. 

"There won't be any signs hanging over the food," Mahoney said. "When you walk up to the Italian station, you'll see sun-dried tomatoes and dried pasta and grapes. You'll understand immediately when you walk up." Along with traditional ethnic and American offerings, Cravings will feature rodizio -- grilled meats -- at the Latin station, Japanese sushi, and individually prepared deli foods. 

The ambition of 32,000-square foot, 600-seat Cravings can be told in the numbers. A gourmet room can handle 300 to 400 people a day, Mahoney said. A buffet at a major casino-hotel, such as the Mirage, will handle more than 10 times that number. And while dinner in a fine-dining restaurant will run from $75 to well upwards of $100 per person, Cravings expects to price itself in the same general range as Bellagio's, which charges $24.95 on weekdays and $32.95 on weekends for dinner. 

Yet, Cravings -- if it accomplishes what Mahoney and Tihany predict -- will be very much an individual experience for diners. 

"This is not people just lining up for food at chafing dishes," Tihany said. "Here, you will have a much more interactive experience, with people watching the chefs preparing their food, discussing ingredients, and learning about food." And, Tihany added unabashedly, it is also "a moment where design comes to the masses." 

On the East Coast, one of the most elaborate buffets in Atlantic City has been Harrah's Fantasea Reef Buffet ($19.99 weekdays, $24.99 weekends), which opened eight years ago with a decor featuring aquariums filled with sea creatures from the Pacific and the Caribbean. 

With hot and cold crab legs, wok specialties, and a half-dozen soups from Harrah's gourmet dining rooms, the underwater-themed buffet room has been immensely popular. But operators of the Fantasea Reef know that, like anything else in the competitive environment of casinos, upgrading is essential to success. 

The restaurant can be hard to get into on weekends, and a new $1 million expansion will provide more seating, raising capacity to about 475, and add a new dessert station that will triple the current size. 

Expected to be ready by early May, a chocolate waterfall will be the centerpiece of the new goodies table, where fresh fruit will be dipped into dark or white chocolate -- whichever happens to be cascading that day. In addition, there will be freshly fried ice cream and cheesecake and, rolling out of the oven, warm cookies and breads. Fruit cobblers, hand-scooped ice cream, and bananas Foster are also on the dessert menu. 

"It's the openings and closings that get people's attention," said Michael Bowman, vice president of food and beverage for Harrah's Atlantic City and Showboat. "If you have a good feeling walking in, you're more likely to have a good experience. One of the first things people will see and smell when they come in is that chocolate waterfall. People eat with their eyes and noses." 

Bill Ordine: ordineb@aol.com. 

-----To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com 

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MBG, HET, 


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