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GREEN ZONE

BY ANDREA RADEMAN

Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, etc.) blast us into the Green Zone, the protected International Zone in central Baghdad. It’s 2003 and chaos reigns as Damon’s U.S. Army officer and his team encounter bombs and booby-traps in their hunt for weapons of mass destruction. When they realize they’ve been fed faulty intelligence, Damon goes rogue to get to the truth and avert an unnecessary war. To escape the pandemonium of Los Angeles, head for our own Green Zone, a vibrant oasis carved out of the parched desert that surrounds Las Vegas. This conglomeration of glitzy casinos, entertainment spectacles, eye-popping designer shops and 9,000 square foot “villas” that rent for $25,000 a night has so many Los Angeles chefs it’s hard to know which town you’re in. Here’s a sure-bet guide for people who prefer to do their gambling in a casino rather than a restaurant.

Kerry Simon, who has a foothold in each city, got his start working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York and made it big at SIMON RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE AT PALMS PLACE in Las Vegas (702-944-3292) before expanding to Simon LA at the Sofitel Hotel Los Angeles. His trademark down-home dishes made with upscale ingredients, including the Simon Junk Food Sampler are available in both cities, although in L.V. it’s part of the Sunday Pajama Brunch, where people do show up in pj’s. Palms Place is modern and comfortable and, even in this non-stop town, it’s party central. Even at Simon’s latest venture, the newly-opened L.A. MARKET (JW Marriott at L.A. Live, 900 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213-765-8630), where the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus span the globe, it’s the signature dessert.

Steve Wynn’s Encore hotel is home to WAZUZU (702-770-5388), where the executive chef is Jet Tila, whose folks founded Bangkok Market, America’s first Thai grocery, in L.A. He’s a multi-faceted talent who started teaching cooking in his backyard when he was just 22, has written for the Los Angeles Times, been on “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for preparing the world’s largest stir-fry, a mere 1,805 pounds. He is inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, China, Japan, and Korea. Favorites are the dim sum, Korean short ribs, Thai barbecue chicken with sweet chili sauce, Pad Thai Kon Kaen, Wazuzu fried rice with roasted duck and pineapple, and drunken noodles with shrimp, chicken, or beef. We’ll alert you when he’s in L.A. doing a guest chef stint.

From Wazuzu, it’s a short (indoor) walk to ALEX at the Wynn Hotel (702-770-3300), where Alessandro Stratta, who has two stars from Michelin, presides over an Old World dining room entered down a sweeping staircase. The $185 tasting menu might feature hot and cold foie gras with Spanish ham, pineapple, Brussels sprouts, and spiced duck sauce; American Wagyu short rib with gnocchi, roasted asparagus, Parmesan cheese, and red wine; and toasted vanilla custard with maple rhubarb and crème fraîche ice cream. Despite the awesome setting and his elevated stature, Stratta is down to earth and, as with all chefs in Wynn Hotels, he is always on site.

Tokyo chef Masayoshi Takayama opened Ginza Sushi-ko in an L.A. strip mall, then relocated to Two Rodeo Drive, where he earned four stars and lots of money. After turning the spot over to his sous-chef, who runs it as Urasawa, he decamped to New York to launch Masa and Bar Masa. Recently he boomeranged west to debut a second BAR MASA and the exclusive SHABOO, where a $500 Japanese hot pot is the specialty of the house. The exotic cooking equipment and ingredients such as wild bluefin tuna belly, taraba crab legs, winter yellowtail, and Ohmi beef account for some of the cost, which might go even higher since Masa has his eye on $80,000 golden bowls. The white truffle ice cream dessert seems almost a bargain at $95.

Chef Michael Mina has the excellent XIV on L.A.’s Sunset Strip and AMERICAN FISH on the Vegas Strip. At MICHAEL MINA at the Bellagio, where the brilliant Spanish chef Julian Serrano helms the kitchen at the elegant Picasso (702-693-8105), windowside tables overlook the famous fountains and the dining room is filled with $30 million worth of art. Son Mario Maccioni, of New York’s landmark Le Cirque, oversees Le Cirque and Circo restaurants in the hotel. If you lose at the craps table, you can find happiness at the Bellagio buffet lunch ($19.95) or dinner ($27.95) or weekend Champagne brunch ($28.95.)

Over at the Mandarin Oriental, also at Citycenter, the latest three-star Michelin chef to hit our shores, and the one with the wildest imagination, is producing his “classic French cuisine with a modern spin” at TWIST BY PIERRE GAGNAIRE (702-590-8888). He has, restaurants in Paris, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Dubai, and Hong Kong but this is his entrée into the U.S.

GUY SAVOY reigns over the dignified Augustus tower at Caesars Palace (877-346- 4642). The food is precious but pricey. If you don’t want to splurge on the full 10-course tasting menu, sit in the bar for the Bites and Bubbles menu and select two, three, or four items for $20, $30 or $40 which you can pair with a glass of excellent Champagne.

There are plenty of steakhouses here, including Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Carnevino, an Italian version that serves handmade pastas, classic antipasti, and their own organic super prime beef but we can’t imagine anything more delicious than Chef John Schenk, at STRIPHOUSE at Planet Hollywood, who has won high praise from Forbes Magazine, Zagat, and others for his perfectly charred prime cuts of beef, incredibly rich sides, extensive wine list, and the only 24- layer chocolate cake we’ve ever tasted that was worth all 24 layers of calories.

WOLFGANG PUCK was a fine dining pioneer here and today he’s the kingpin at CUT (Palazzo at the Venetian); Postrio (Venetian); Spago (Caesars); Trattoria del Lupo (Mandalay Bay); Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill (MGM Grand); Brasserie PUCK (CityCenter); and The Pods (Crystals Retail and Entertainment District, which is also home to Eva Longoria’s Beso Las Vegas and Mastro’s Ocean Club). His colleague and tennis partner, Piero Selvaggio, has GIORGIO RISTORANTE at Mandalay Place (702-920-2700), where Sardinian Executive Chef Nico Chessa is a master of home style cooking, is the casual offshoot of VALENTINO LAS VEGAS in the Venetian Hotel (702-414- 3000), where chef Luciano Pellegrini leads the kitchen there and at the Grill at Valentino.

SUSHI ROKU, whose contemporary sushi incorporates ingredients from Latin America (e.g. jalapeños) and Europe (e.g. olive oil), and BOA STEAKHOUSE, are at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. Fans of BORDER GRILL and HOUSE OF BLUES flock to their outlets at MANDALAY BAY. Craft is in Century City in L.A.: Craftsteak is in the MGM Grand, as are the Rainforest Café, Stage Deli, Shibuya, and SEABLUE. If you’re jonesing for kokomo’s, BLT Burger, Cravings, or California Pizza Kitchen, you’ll find them all within The Mirage. For Il Fornaio or Chin Chin Café, go to New York-New York. CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL has eleven locations.

The popularity of his new “must try” menu at KABUKI RESTAURANT (Town Square, 6605 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 702-896-7440), induced Executive Chef Masa Kurihara to bring it to Hollywood (1545 N. Vine St.; 323- 464-6003) and his other Southern California locations. Aside from the Vegas Roll, a mixture of Cream Cheese, Avocado, Krab, and Salmon fried in a light Tempura batter, he is making Hawaiian-inspired Poké Tuna; Baja Roll; and the highly original Lasagna Roll, featuring layers of Parmesan, Mozzarella, and Cream Cheese on top of a traditional California Roll with Krab and Avocado.

VEGAS UNCORK’D happens May 6-9 in Las Vegas, coinciding with Mother’s Day weekend, and benefits the Three Square Food Bank there. ▼

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