Seventeen years ago, the Palms casino resort opened as the darling of Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes, with its over the top theme suites, NBA team ownership connections and location setting for an MTV series. But Vegas visitors love shiny new things, and as several larger properties opened in the interim, the luster faded a little for the Palms. Not anymore. Now under new ownership (Stations Casino), the hotel is wrapping up a massive top-to-bottom $620 million re-imagining that has improved nearly every inch of the resort, from $25,000 a night jaw dropping luxury “Sky Villa” suites to a multi-million-dollar contemporary art collection to several new bars and lounges, but most of all, the dining scene has been totally transformed. In its original incarnation, the Palms was one of the few big hotels without a laundry list of celebrity chefs and famed restaurants, but that has changed dramatically, and suddenly the Palms is a must-visit Vegas dining destination – whether you stay here or not.
On the culinary front, the first big opening of note was Scotch 80 Prime, which artfully combines two things Vegas is obsessed with – whiskey and red meat. In the land of high-end steakhouses, Scotch 80 is the hottest new option in town, and the latest among a handful of Vegas eateries authorized to import and serve authentic Kobe beef, still a rarity confined to less than two dozen spots in the nation, with most menus containing “Kobe” blatantly fraudulent. Besides rare Japanese beef there is plenty of aged USDA Prime, and the restaurant is carving a signature out of dramatic and flashy tableside presentations such as a Mesquite Fired Crustacean Tower that arrives on fire, a Liquid Nitro Dessert Trolley serving a Fire and Ice Banana Split, and a custom caviar tower carrying a round of vodka shots. But it also has big appeal to fans of brown spirits – as the name suggests, Scotch 80 Prime has a serious focus on whisky, employing a dedicated “Scotch master” who oversees a $3 million scotch inventory, which among many other things, includes more than over 35 different offerings form the highly coveted Macallan Fine & Rare collection, ranging from 1937 to 1991.
Scotch 80 Prime is a big deal, but it was just the first foodie salvo at the new Palms, which has recruited not one, not two, but three James Beard Award winning Chefs, two of them brand new names in Vegas. Within a year these will be joined by an outpost of Hong Kong’s revered Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan.
Opening in just two weeks (mid-November), Vetri Cucina is the Vegas debut for Philadelphia’s beloved Marc Vetri, the very first satellite anywhere of his original Vetri Cucina, a City of Brotherly Love favorite for more than two decades. His specialty is a gourmet take on rustic Italian dishes, showcasing regional antipasti, pasta, meat, fish, and dessert offerings. Vetri signatures include a Sweet Onion Crepe with parmigiana and white truffle fonduta, Swiss Chard Gnocchi with ricotta salata and brown butter, and Capretto with polenta milled in-house. How many restaurants can say that? There are a lot of Italian eateries in Vegas, but many are mediocre, and this one has many creative dishes you won’t find in the others. Vetri operates a group of four gourmet brick oven pizzerias in Philadelphia and Washington, DC that I have eaten at and was suitably wowed, and I cannot wait to check out his Palms restaurant.
In his 20+ year career, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) grad has been named one of the country’s Top 10 New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine, won the prestigious Best Chef James Beard Award, won an Emmy Award for The Chew, and is a frequent guest on several shows, including Iron Chef America, Food Feud and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. He is the author of the cookbook Carnivore and specialist in all things meat.
This may well be the single most important Vegas opening of 2018, because oddly, Sin City is the biggest dining destination in the country lacking a great BBQ joint, at least not on around the Strip. BBQ is hot nationwide, but while you can hardly take a step here without running into a sushi bar, fancy take on burgers, or steakhouse, smoked meat has largely been a black hole in Vegas (except for the excellent Latin spin on it at BBQ Mexicana in Mandalay Bay, from the award-winning Border Grill crew).
Here’s the rub – Symon loves his hometown and stresses Midwest influences, and he has done the same for “Southern” barbecue, adorning it with lots of things pickled, sauces with Cleveland’s famous Ballpark mustard, kielbasa, and pork-studded cabbage as a side dish. It’s not a gimmick, it is excellent, and I know because I did an in-depth review of the original (and only other) Mabel’s BBQ location, the Cleveland flagship, for USA Today, which you can read here. It’s fantastic, and bonafide slow smoked BBQ. In fact, Symon’s pickle juice and brown sugar glazed ribs are among the best in the entire country – really. He also smokes pork belly, gigantic beef ribs, and even serves up “Pig Parts,” including crispy tails, crispy ears and cracklings. There’s an enormous two-page whiskey list with Scotch, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat, Canadian, Irish, Japanese and private barrel offerings, and an equally impressive craft beer selection. Mabel’s is not just a boon for BBQ fans in Vegas, it is a legit BBQ pilgrimage destination. The Palms location will feature a back patio, complete with games and space for live entertainment.