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Eating Las Vegas

A Top Chef’s guide to stuffing your face, on the Strip and off.

“This is where we come to rejuvenate,” says Rick Moonen, proprietor of Vegas fish mecca RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino and fiery runner-up on Season 2 of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. We’re crowded around a table at China Mama—a stucco box dropped into the middle of a strip-mall parking lot. Las Vegas, it turns out, has a Chinatown. Or a Chinastreet. Either way, not many tourists know about it, but all the city’s chefs do. A gaggle of friends surround us, pawing at dishes like blazingly spicy fish in chili sauce and miraculous soup dumplings. “No place we go in Chinatown is based on a review,” Moonen explains. “Fuck the review! This is different. It’s real.”

And “real” is one of the highest compliments you can give in a town like Sin City. In the past decade the Strip has become something of an Epcot for foodies, amassing replicas of the best restaurants from the best chefs in the world. Such culinary heavyweights as Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, and Mario Batali have set up shop. Looking for world-class Italian? There’s Scott Conant’s Scarpetta. Steaks and chops? Hit up P.J. Clarke’s. The transformation has made Vegas a global gastronomic destination and, not unrelatedly, the most expensive restaurant city in America. Maxim arrived not just to explore this scene but also to unearth the real scene behind the scene.

“We’ve got this network of people who talk to each other,” says Moonen of the way Vegas chefs stay on top of the city’s food scene. “As you pass a table like tonight, you share with each other.”

The story of Vegas as a gastronomic oasis is a fairly short one. The first celebrity chef didn’t show up until 1992, when Wolfgang Puck installed an outpost of his L.A. hot spot Spago at Caesars Palace. Until then casinos assumed gamblers wanted nothing more than a cheap buffet. “Pre-Spago, Las Vegas was the Town That Taste Forgot,” explains food critic John Curtas. “Wolfgang broke the mold.”

The next night Moonen takes me on a tour of his favorite Strip restaurants. The first stop is Sage, an opulent space from Chicago chef Shawn McClain, at Aria. Soon we’re buried beneath a parade of deep, rich dishes that range from roasted sweetbreads with glazed pork belly to an astonishing foie gras crème brûlée. This is fine dining at its best, but that isn’t always the case. Many people point to the international attention and increased competition brought by the 2005 arrival of French superstar Joël Robuchon as the moment that many Strip joints raised their games. So it’s fitting that Moonen and I next make our way to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, at the MGM Grand. As we settle in, Robuchon’s Vegas lieutenant launches an assault on our stomachs: foie gras parfait with Parmesan foam, a langoustine tail fried in a pastry sheet with basil, and a single, perfectly cooked sea scallop.

“When a chef stops by, you go straight to your kitchen and say, ‘OK, we want to blow this guy out of the water,’ ” Moonen explains. “Everyone wants to prove themselves to their peers. It’s like comparing at the urinal.”

Stuffed and a bit tipsy, Moonen makes a procla­ma­tion. “These days Vegas’ top 10 restaurants are as good as the top 10 in any other city in the world,” he announces. “Bring it on. We’ll have a throwdown.”

Hear that, Paris? Bring it!