The Road to Mandalay Bay

What would a trip to Las Vegas be without copious amounts of eating, drinking, and nightlife? Herewith, a bon vivant’s guide to the southern tip of the Strip.

My first trip to Las Vegas since last June’s JCK show begins, appropriately enough, in a restaurant full of furniture upholstered in gemstone colors: amethyst, tanzanite, pink tourmaline. My mom, Natasha, and I are eating lunch at Raffles Café at Mandalay Bay on a sunny, brisk day in late February. We’ve just checked into a suite upstairs after a short, breezy flight from Los Angeles. As the ceiling fan stirs the languid air, I steal glimpses of the hotel’s famed beach through the café’s windows. Its white sands haven’t yet opened to spring break revelers. The deserted scene reminds me of an abandoned tropical shore.

Photograph by Sarra Fleur Abou-El-Haj, Styling by Brooke Magnaghi
Fan earrings in 18k gold, $3,420, Adeler, Great Falls, Va., 703-759-4076,; Rustic cuff in 18k gold, $14,400, Arunashi, Los Angeles, 213-291-2391,; Cinta bracelet in 18k gold, $25,000, silver and 18k gold Kali Arus bracelet, $8,850, John Hardy, NYC, 888-838-3022;; Natur Kirsten ring in 18k gold with quartz and diamond accents, $3,700, H.Stern, NYC, 212-688-0300,

Or maybe that’s just the mai tai talking.

In any event, I can think of no better way to kick off three days of unapologetic decadence in Las Vegas—strictly of the eating and drinking variety, mind you—than with Natasha at my side. Recently retired, she’s eager to join me on my mission: to rediscover Las Vegas from the southern end of the Strip—or “the beginning of the Strip,” as Chuck Bowling, president and CEO of Mandalay Bay, later corrects me.

Like most people in the jewelry industry, I’m a creature of habit. After nearly a dozen frenzied trips to Las Vegas for jewelry market week, I have my routine down pat. Between walking the show floor and tossing back cocktails at all the usual haunts around the Sands Convention Center, I sneak in a game of dollar slots at Casino Royale, the endearingly old-school casino wedged between Harrah’s and the Venetian.

Now, given the opportunity to visit Mandalay Bay and the next-door convention center in advance of the JCK show’s much-anticipated move there in May, I jump at the chance to scope out some new rituals. It’s high time to shake up my Vegas itinerary, which long ago ceased being memorable.

Left: CityCenter, a joint venture between MGM Resorts International and Infinity World Development Corp., occupies 67 acres on the Las Vegas Strip. ARIA, the crown jewel of the complex, is the largest hotel in the world to have received LEED Gold certification; bottom left: Fleur by Hubert Keller at Mandalay Bay; bottom right: acrobats perform at Viva ELVIS, Cirque du Soleil’s newest resident show at ARIA.

From Milan to Manhattan

Our first order of business: a visit to ARIA, a sister property to Mandalay Bay within the MGM Resorts International group of properties. Opened on Dec. 16, 2009, the hotel and adjacent CityCenter complex is one of the Strip’s newest and shiniest attractions. When we arrive for dinner at Sage, award-winning chef Shawn McClain’s cozy yet upscale New American dining room, I am sufficiently impressed by the high ceilings, elegant décor, and classy artwork (check out the gorgeous Manet and Renoir reproductions) to feel displaced—are we in Milan, New York City, or Las Vegas?

The cocktail list settles it. We’re somewhere in between, or so the “From Milan to Manhattan,” a bourbon, vermouth, and bitters concoction, would have it. The chef’s $79 signature tasting menu is another impressive ode to internationalism. The first course, a tangy plate of market oysters floating in a Piquillo pepper and Tabasco sorbet, is followed by Maine lobster agnolotti, Iberico pork loin, and a fourth course so delicious, the memory will torment me for months to come: a crunchy chocolate and peanut butter tart drizzled with toasted marshmallow sauce. My mom sums it up when she scoops the last bite of tart off my plate: “That was heavenly.”

As we settle into our seats at the theater on ARIA’s second floor for a performance of Viva ELVIS, Cirque du Soleil’s newest resident show, I wonder what the King would think of how Sin City has remade itself in the three decades since he was a fixture here. The narrative of Las Vegas’ transformation from a retro gaming destination into a mecca for resorts offering world-class dining, nightlife, and retail experiences is colorful, complicated, and way beyond the scope of this article. But I will say this: The legendary bon vivant would surely have lived it up at ARIA.

This production focuses entirely on Elvis’ life and music—much like Cirque’s Beatles tribute, LOVE, at the Mirage. Archival photos and video footage, combined with live action dancing and acrobatics, bring the milestones of his career to life (watching Elvis in scenes from “Viva Las Vegas” is a meta-trip). When a giant blue suede shoe appears on stage, like something from a rock-and-roll version of the Brothers Grimm, I can’t help but smile at the psychedelic vision.

A Place in the Sun

Day two begins with an entirely different form of decadence: a 50-minute “Scents-of-you” massage at the Bathhouse, the spa at Mandalay Bay’s boutique property, THEhotel, which opened in December 2003. The signature treatment incorporates warm stones and a custom blend of ­“aromapothecary” oils tailored to my mood and personality (based on a questionnaire I fill out upon arriving).

The two-story spa spans 14,000 square feet and includes 12 treatment rooms (nine for massage and three for aestheticians) notable for their gray slate walls and studied minimalism. In addition, there are two steam rooms, a dry sauna, two whirling pools, and four private tubs, where clients can soak up 25-­minute mud, aromatherapy, and herbal treatments.

If I didn’t have a lunch date with my mom, I would happily float my entire day away here, detoxing and sipping cucumber-infused water. Alas, we have a 12:30 p.m. reservation at Fleur by Hubert Keller, located in the arcade of restaurants on the edge of the Mandalay casino. Keller is a classically trained French chef with a prestigious reality-TV pedigree (some may remember him as a contestant on Season 1 of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters). Dubbed “a rebel with a Cuisinart” by The New York Times for his four-star approach to vegetarian menus, Keller remodeled his restaurant in December, from a traditional French fine-dining destination into a more casual, small-plates experience.

Aureole is renowned for its 42-foot-tall glass-and-steel tower, where 10,000 bottles of wine, ranging from $35 to $45,000, are kept at a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent humidity.

“The best part of the remodeling is that you get to see the sun,” Keller says as he stops by our table. We’ve chosen a lovely spot on the patio, which didn’t exist before. With a wall knocked out, the space now provides diners a direct view of a beautiful tiered skylight. Through its glass, we catch a glimpse of the sun as it reflects off the gilded façade of the THEhotel. Conventiongoers, who have to pass this stretch of restaurants en route to the meeting rooms, can’t miss it.

Pressing on with our epicurean mission, we order a flight of specialty cocktails guaranteed to transport us to the tropics: a Fleurtini, a Sumo, and a Sparkly Peach Blossom. When Owen, the manager, pulls up a cart beside the table to prepare the bar’s signature blood orange margarita, we know our afternoon visit to the Shark Reef Aquarium—where 1.6 million gallons of seawater house various species of shark, giant rays, endangered green sea turtles, piranha, moon jellies, and rare golden crocodiles—is in peril. He mixes a jug of orange-infused tequila with liquid nitrogen, stirs it up, and serves it in a shot glass salted with cayenne pepper. “We take it to a sorbet consistency so you can eat your cocktail,” he says, as I take a spoon to the beverage.

The meal arrives in an eclectic series of small plates, including Keller’s famous “In the shower” lobster mac and cheese. (Apparently, when he competed on Top Chef Masters, he was forced to cool his colander in the communal shower of a dorm.) But dorm food this isn’t. The maple-glazed pork ribs, pork schnitzel, Angus sliders, tuna tacos, and truffle-oiled onion soup are a true gourmand’s version of comfort food. “Wow,” my mom says in between bites, though it sounds more like vow in her trademark Russian accent. “I need a nap.” So much for the aquarium.

Puppets and Pairings

Later that night, as we taxi over to the Mirage to catch the Terry Fator show, I have a sneaking suspicion that the night will end in yet another scene of gluttonous splendor. For someone who’s dined in Las Vegas countless times, it’s thrilling to know there are plenty of culinary surprises out there, ready for the tasting.

Fator won the second season of America’s Got Talent for his uncanny ability to impersonate Cher, Garth Brooks, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, and the Beatles, among others, without opening his lips. It’s stand-up comedy–meets–musical theater–meets the strange, eccentric art of ventriloquism. For his opening act, Fator brings out Winston, the Impersonating Turtle, and launches into a rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” that is as hilarious as it is absurd.

With the help of a seven-piece band, willowy assistant Taylor Makakoa, and a slew of puppets with idiosyncratic, prickly personalities—from a busted-up Elvis impersonator named Maynard Tompkins to the yodeling Grand Ole Opry star Walter the Cowboy, who claims he’s “the kind of guy who can leave Clay ach-in’—but I’m not that kind of guy”—Fator keeps the crowd in stitches. After seeing the show, I’m less incredulous of the reported $100 million Fator earned for a five-year contract at the Mirage (not to mention his own theater), but I’ll be honest: The news of his recent marriage to 21-year-old Makakoa bewilders me.

When Fator’s performance calls for an audience member to appear on stage, middle-aged Mark from Tucson volunteers. He gamely dons a Dolly Parton puppet emphasizing the singer’s famous assets. Fator then signals to Mark’s girlfriend, Tanya, in the audience, and voices what her mute, immobile ­boyfriend is surely thinking: “Tanya, I’d like you to take my credit card and buy the biggest engagement ring you can find.”

My inner jeweler chuckles. It’s hard to miss the not-so-subtle references to weddings, brides, and rings that seem to be a staple of virtually every Las Vegas production. Back at Mandalay Bay for a late-night dinner at Aureole, even the swan couple cruising around the pond near the dining room reminds me that life really does come down to pairings.

Of food and wine, that is. Chef Charlie Palmer’s $95 Parallel tasting menu features four courses, each boasting two degustations. From a piquant salad of Maine lobster and green papaya to a pistachio-crusted lamb loin, the flavors at Aureole are the stuff of foodie wet dreams.

Left: THEhotel’s Bathhouse spa offers private baths for 25-minute soaks; bottom left: walu wrapped in asparagus at Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood; right: a 12,200-gallon saltwater exhibit in the Mandalay Bay lobby is a prelude to the 1.6 million gallon experience that awaits visitors to the Shark Reef Aquarium at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Which is to say nothing of the wine list. Aureole is renowned for its 42-foot-tall glass-and-steel tower, where 10,000 bottles of wine, ranging from $35 to $45,000, await their final orders. The restaurant even employs a “wine angel,” a woman who sails up and down the tower in a harness, plucking vintages and impressing diners with the occasional somersault.

My mom and I are so exhausted that we actually pass on all of them. Rather, we devour a selection of desserts by pastry chef Megan Romano that might as well be dubbed “death by chocolate.”

Appetite for Living

So what better excuse to eschew the swimsuit on the next morning’s stroll around Moorea Beach Club? The dipping pools, candy-apple red daybeds, and happening bar scene will have to wait until this summer, when my mission no longer involves eating my way through Vegas. (Oh, who am I kidding?)

So all-consuming is my appetite that even during the evening’s performance of The Lion King, the only line I remember from the larger-than-life production belongs to the hot-headed, perpetually hungry hyena Banzai: “It’s time to chow down!”

And I do, at nearby Rick Moonen’s RM seafood, where the fish is fresh, inventive, and served by some of the most articulate waiters in town. The $135 seven-course tasting menu at RM Upstairs is one way to do it. We opt for the a la carte experience—and sleep like babies in a seafood-induced slumber.

By the time I make it back to ARIA the next day to scope out Crystals at CityCenter—a distinctive glass-and-steel emporium housing boutiques for Tiffany & Co., H.Stern, Bulgari, Cartier, and de Grisogono—my mom has flown home and I’ve lost steam. I’m not accustomed to maintaining this level of indulgence.

Summoning my last bit of gusto, I go for broke at Julian Serrano, ARIA’s tapas place, ordering ­ceviche with Peruvian peppers, Spanish tortilla, beef and cheese soaked with honey and pecans, and pineapple crema catalana. In the bathroom, the Spanish lessons piped in through the sound system (“Esposa. Wife. Primo. Cousin.”) should offer a translation for the overeaters among us: “Stop eating when it starts to hurt.”

Back at the table, I wash it all down with white sangria, toasting my mom (and myself) for surviving three days of intensely fun gluttony. Those of you headed to the JCK show next month…a word to the wise. Bring a backup stomach and liver. You’ll need them.

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