by Anneli Rufus
Mussel-clam risotto crowned with whipped ricotta.
Glorious ham-hock mac-and-cheese. Greek loukaniko sausages with roasted black grapes. Tender gnocchi with life-changing lamb-tomato ragú. Macadamia pizza. Currant pilaf. Grilled quail in a pomegranate glaze. Nut tarts aglitter with gold leaf.
This is the food of fantasy, the sort of fare you'd expect to be served in a fairytale palace, in your talented grandmother's kitchen, and at elite urban hotspots where no one mentions the price. It's not the sort of fare you'd expect to serve yourself at a buffet restaurant, much less a buffet restaurant in the Nevada desert.
But yes. At a staggering cost of $3.9 billion, the Cosmopolitan casino resort opened in Las Vegas two weeks ago, and its Wicked Spoon buffet redefines the very notion of buffets — even for those of us who love buffets.
In a hip but exquisitely and spotlessly mellow setting, all cocoa-and-turquoise carpeting and vertical sheets of sheer shimmering agate, a dozen stations span the globe, their offerings served by white-coated chefs or set out small-plate style. Sushi — pre-cut or custom-rolled. Dim sum. Pasta. Seafood. Salads by the dozen, from sweet-beet-and-feta to asparagus-and-egg. Cheese after cheese. Exotica: red-skinned, black-speckled dragonfruit. House-baked rolls in exotic shapes, to be spread with fresh butter or house-made jams. Artisanal desserts, from wild-raspberry fudge to mango-gelato pushups to pineapple-pignole tart to actual silvered eggshells filled with faux eggs fashioned of mango and coconut cream. Attentive servers clear tables, bring drinks, further dispelling the idea that this is a buffet.
For an ever-shifting seasonal menu, chef de cuisine Bradley Manchester draws on classics as well as ethnic exotica. Seeking to expand the Wicked Spoon's meatless options, "I wanted to do some kind of vegetable-based cake," Manchester told me. "My best friend's wife is Lebanese, and she told me I should do mücver" — dilly fritters stuffed with zucchini grated superfine. "I took that idea and ran with it," creating yet another dish that will be new to many diners here: another atypical buffet experience.
"We're not like the buffets up the street that just throw basic things in metal hot boxes," said Manchester, who helms the Wicked Spoon's kitchen along with executive pastry chef Thomas Trevethen. "Our concept is not for everybody."
That's true for the rest of the resort. The fifty-story, 2,995-unit Cosmopolitan features bespoke room decor including Japanese soaking tubs and one-of-a-kind private terraces. It features a dozen restaurants, including tapas bar Jaleo, steakhouse STK, Chinese/Mexican street-food fusion hub China Poblano, and a multilevel cocktail bar designed to look and feel like the inside of a gigantic chandelier. It also sports a 100,000-square foot casino — and that's the whole point, according to UC Berkeley alum Alan Schoonmaker, author of The Psychology of Poker and other books.
"Casinos are oriented toward creating fantasies. Las Vegas" — where Schoonmaker now lives — "is one great big fantasy. Its fake New York, fake Paris, fake Egypt, and all that glamor is designed to make you forget reality" so that you'll gamble more, which is crucial, "because they can't build a multibillion-dollar casino if they're going to lose money on it.
"Take a look at casino architecture and you'll find very few straight lines. You won't see any clocks and you'll see few if any windows, because the designers don't want you to know where you are or what time it is. The name of the game is: Feed the fantasy and help people forget reality."
But we can beat the house by eating our fill of pistachio gelato, fried smelt with remoulade, and chocolate-dipped lady apples without wagering a dime on games of chance, said Schoonmaker, whose UCB PhD is in industrial psychology.
"Las Vegas is a cheap town if you don't gamble. If you come here for a vacation and don't gamble, you're beating us at our own game. Then you go home and tell your friends you had a great time and they ask how much you lost — and you say, 'Nothing.'"