"I don't want Mario Carbone to get mad at me, but I think Carbone in Vegas is better than Carbone in New York," Momofuku chef David Chang says. "It just is. This is not to diminish anything in New York. I go to the one in New York all the time. I've probably been there 25 times."
But in Vegas, where Chang's new Momofuku at The Cosmopolitan is his largest restaurant yet with around 200 seats, everything is bigger and grander. The Carbone inside Aria is nearly 10,000 square feet, with a huge kitchen, a main dining room with a giant chandelier, a sprawling bar area, a private dining room and more than twice as much seating as New York's Carbone.
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"This is the other city that Carbone makes perfect sense in," says Carbone, who opened his Vegas restaurant in October 2015. "The Rat Pack era, the mid-century vibe and design, it's just as indigenous to Vegas as it is to New York. It feels at home there."
Chang, who debuted his Vegas Momofuku in January, and Carbone are part of a new era in Vegas, the latest crop of white-hot New York chefs and operators who are taking over the Strip. In many cases, these major players are good friends or even family. Chef Christina Tosi, Chang's partner who opened Milk Bar at The Cosmopolitan during the New Year's Eve weekend, is married to Will Guidara. Guidara's Vegas NoMad is slated to open in late 2018.
The NoMad is part of the redevelopment of what's currently the Monte Carlo, which will also include the new Park MGM casino-resort with an outpost of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Eataly. Nearby, Danny Meyer's Shake Shack has been busy selling burgers adjacent to New York-New York and inside the new T-Mobile Arena.
"If there's a happy coincidence of a lot of people opening at roughly the same time, I think it's just that all New York operators know their customer base is in Las Vegas three or four times a year," says longtime New York nightlife and restaurant boss David Rabin, who opened The Dorsey, a cocktail lounge at The Venetian in December.
"There's no collusion," Chang says, even though it might seem like a bunch of pals from downtown New York decided to collectively open in Vegas at around the same time. "I'm friends with all the guys, but I've been looking at Las Vegas for over a decade, just trying to find the right partner and space."
Chang admits he didn't even know that Eataly was coming to Vegas until I mentioned it to him, but he thinks "it's awesome" that it's happening.
In Vegas, we can play tag football in the kitchen. The grill is this massive woodburning thing that's beyond illegal in New York.—Mario Carbone
When I attended the preview of the Vegas Carbone, I overheard chef Carbone telling partner Jeff Zalaznick that he wasn't sure how to handle all the kitchen space. Now, executive chef Jonah Resnick (who previously helped open both Carbone and Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York) is dry-aging beef in the kitchen because there's so much room.
Carbone did 500 covers one recent night during CES week, and chef Carbone marveled at how easily the kitchen dealt with all the orders of veal parmesan, meatballs and spicy rigatoni vodka. The size of the kitchen allows Carbone to have, for example, one employee just dropping pasta in water and another to take it out of the water and sauce it.
"The kitchens in New York are upstairs and downstairs, these little cubbys," Carbone says. "We have shit everywhere. In Vegas, we can play tag football in the kitchen. The grill is this massive woodburning thing that's beyond illegal in New York."
Vegas is really about going bigger, and also about making food that's more festive. So Chang plans to install a fish tank for live seafood. The Vegas Momofuku has created new large-format items like braised cod and a version of the Clams Grand Lisboa noodle dish that's five times the size of what Chang serves at New York's Momofuku Nishi. Chang's got Korean stews, including one with braised short ribs, in huge bowls at the Cosmopolitan. He wants to add côte de boeuf to a menu that already has more items than he expected and is being edited down.
"People are buying way more caviar than I thought would happen," says Chang, who adds that sommelier Richard Hargreave "is like a little kid right now" because guests have really been ordering wine, too.
One new dish at Momofuku Vegas, a chicken katsu smothered in shiitake gravy, has been such a winner that Chang is also serving it occasionally at New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Being in Vegas gives chefs an opportunity to try new things, to be wilder versions of themselves. Milk Bar is making boozy Fancy Shakes, and Tosi says she feels free to change her menu frequently because she's serving new customers every weekend.
"You have the ability to just pivot and pivot and pivot, and I love that," Tosi says. "People go to Vegas to discover, they're curious, maybe they're looking for trouble. The obnoxious statement that what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas rings true for when people think about indulging in the best way. You have this captive audience from early in the morning to late at night."
Being slammed with customers at 1:00 a.m. can be a wonderful thing.
"Being a baker, I'm secretly a night owl," Tosi says. "I think the most fun things happen at night. I'm the most curious, the most creative at night. I feed off that energy."
Tosi has amped up her ice cream offerings in Vegas with MilkQuakes that blend soft-serve with her signature treats like Crack Pie. ("I grew up eating Dairy Queen, I love me a good blizzard," she says.)
And being in Vegas lets her relax a bit even when she's there for work, because you're more prone to go out and see friends and have fun when you're not in your own city. It also helps that her husband will be in town a lot, taking advantage of his chance to capitalize on things that only happen in Vegas.
"We're going to feel the freedom to go a little bit deeper," says Guidara, whose NoMad in New York is primarily known for its excellent food and cocktails but also focuses deeply on entertainment with events like magic shows, Jon Batiste performances and its legendary Halloween masquerade ball. "An experience is what we're serving, and it's half about whether or not the guest is in a place to want to receive it. There's plenty of things we've done in New York that if you're in a bad mood or you're cynical, you're not going to like it. In Vegas, everybody's looking to have a good time. It's fun to serve people who are looking to have fun."
"We love to entertain, we love to throw parties, have musicians and shows in our own world," NoMad chef Daniel Humm says. "There's no better place than Vegas to really indulge in that. Las Vegas is the mecca of entertainment, it speaks so much to what we love to do."
In Vegas, Guidara and Humm will be part of a NoMad hotel with its own casino, a pool and crowds who will no doubt swarm in before and after NHL games and concerts at the adjacent T-Mobile Arena.
"One of the beauties of NoMad is it does have the ability to scale and adapt," Guidara says. "You can have a bowl of fried chicken and a cocktail, or have a four-course meal."
That's the thing about Vegas. Whatever experience you're looking for is right there.
When Rabin's not at The Dorsey, you might see him playing poker at The Venetian, working out at Canyon Ranch or eating steak at Wolfgang Puck's Cut. Chang has enjoyed going off-Strip to eat pan roasts at Palace Station's Oyster Bar and hainan chicken at Flock & Fowl. Tosi's excited about revisiting restaurants like Lotus of Siam and Battista's Hole in the Wall, going to the Neon Museum, hiking at Red Rock and also "silly stuff" like taking her staff to the new Taco Bell Cantina.
On the night of The Dorsey's grand opening, another major New York operator, Noah Tepperberg (who runs Tao at the Venetian and Marquee at the Cosmopolitan), came over to wish Rabin well. It was a reminder that New York club moguls like Tepperberg and New York chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Palmer, Batali and Rabin's poker buddy Bobby Flay have been in Vegas for years, setting the table for this latest round of New York talent.
"This wave is probably no different than the last wave," Carbone says. "It's taking the most prominent people of the moment and giving them an opportunity. What they do with it is what matters. Carbone's been really successful because we put a shitload of effort into it. The Vegas community shouldn't care at all that Carbone started in New York. They should know it as a Vegas restaurant."