Asian persuasian: Strip courts high-end Chinese restaurants that elevate traditional cuisine

It was mid-October when the construction walls on The Cosmopolitan’s third floor dining hub came down to reveal the grand, almost regal entrance to the resort’s new Chinese restaurant Red Plate. Even from the outside, the space is impressive: gray marble inlays on the floor outlining the gated perimeter that juts out dramatically into the promenade. Through a pair of grandiose doors sits a lounge decorated in black lacquer and an open dining area bathed in chic gray tones.

It’s immediately clear this is a fine-dining restaurant targeting a globally sophisticated clientele. That impression is reinforced by the menu, which offers upgraded versions of traditional Chinese fare for the discerning Asian and American palates. Authenticity and luxury intermingle in dishes such as quail egg dim sum wrapped in a delicate bird’s nest-style lattice and topped with a dollop of caviar and flakes of gold, a simple corn soup made elegant with the addition of foie gras or a stir-fry of $95-per-pound Australian lobster.

Las Vegas has long offered authentic Chinese cuisine for those willing to travel a few minutes off the Strip to a collection of humble-yet-delicious eateries on Spring Mountain Road or to other neighborhood haunts. Red Plate, however, is an example of the growing trend in Strip resorts: genuine Chinese (usually Cantonese) cuisine designed for high-rollers, serious foodies and others in search of a more upscale Asian dining experience. It follows longtime Wynn Las Vegas favorite Wing Lei and China Tang, which debuted at MGM Grand in January. Later this month, the internationally acclaimed Mott 32, which currently has outposts in Vancouver and Hong Kong, will open its doors at Palazzo.

Each of these restaurants is well-suited for a well-traveled clientele accustomed to the finest things in life. What may be most striking about Las Vegas’ top Chinese restaurants, however, is how traditional they are.

A visitor to one of the Strip’s top French, Japanese or even Italian restaurants likely will encounter novel, experimental and/or avant-garde creations. The wow factor in many restaurants is derived from presenting food many customers have never before encountered. Elite Chinese restaurants, however, operate a little differently.

“It’s a very high-end experience, (but) the food is very approachable,” The Cosmopolitan’s chief strategy officer Patrick Nichols says of Red Plate. “It’s traditional in the sense that it’s something you get in China or other parts of Asia.”

These include selections of dim sum, congee (rice porridge), rice and noodles, as well as an entire menu dedicated to Chinese hot pots.

Mott 32’s Jesse Shen agrees that the trick in serving this market is not to stray too far from the familiar.

“We do a lot of staples, but we also elevate them as well.”

By way of example, he points to ma po tofu, a humble tofu dish you can get for $10 or so in several restaurants on Spring Mountain Road. It’s just one of the 100 or so items Shen expects to include on Mott 32’s menu. The catch, however, is that their version will incorporate lobster, and be priced around $80.

No dish illustrates this goal of elevating the familiar better than Peking duck, a classic that serves as the star attraction at most gourmet Chinese restaurants. China Tang, perhaps the most moderately priced local restaurant in this sphere, invested $75,000 in an oven used to make this one dish. Yet despite elaborate tableside presentations, the dish is almost always prepared in the traditional manner. What separates it from what’s served at casual neighborhood establishments is the sourcing of the ducks and the time chefs spend on its preparation, which is why many restaurants only offer it in limited numbers and recommend guests order it a day or two in advance.

This dedication to Chinese tradition doesn’t mean casual American fans of that culture’s cuisine will be left without familiar options. Chinese-American staples also are represented, though in a more refined form.

While 80 percent of Mott 32’s menu will consist of dishes from its Hong Kong original, the rest is being designed specifically for the Las Vegas market.

“We’re going to do sweet and sour pork,” explains Shen. “But it’s going to be the best sweet and sour pork that you’ll ever taste.”

Similarly, China Tang has upgraded the familiar takeout classic walnut shrimp by substituting fresh mango and mango sauce for the more mainstream combination of honey, sugar and mayonnaise. Red Plate caters to the American palate with a “BBQ and Roasted Indulgences” section of the menu featuring roast chicken, suckling pig and honey-glazed barbecue Iberico pork alongside the duck.

The result is what Nichols refers to as a new level of comfort food.

“It’s traditional. It’s high-end. But … it’s going to be comfortable to you because you know the cuisine.”