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Best of Gary Trask
Sinatra and master chef combine for dining excellence at Encore Las Vegas7 December 2009
By Gary Trask
Putting your ego aside for the greater good isn't always an easy thing to do.
But as far as Chef Theo Schoenegger is concerned, there was simply no other way to handle the conversation he had with the Encore Las Vegas management last year, six months before his signature restaurant was set to open its doors. Schoenegger came to Steve Wynn's new casino from the highly acclaimed Patina in Los Angeles for the opportunity to unveil a restaurant with his name on it. It would be called "Theo's" and would be featured in one of the newest and most luxurious casino-resorts in the world. His excitement for the project was building with each day, but in May of 2008 he was told there had been a change in plans.
Thanks to a close relationship from his days in Atlantic City, Wynn had struck a last-hour deal with Frank Sinatra's family for a restaurant that would honor Ol' Blue Eyes himself, the only one of its kind in the world that would have the family's blessing. Genuine Sinatra artifacts – such as his Oscar and Emmy awards, hand-written letters from Sammy Davis Jr. and photos of Sinatra with Wynn, Dean Martin and Audrey Hepburn – would be put on display. Sinatra's voice would serve as the constant background music and massive 50 foot-by-100 foot portraits of the late Las Vegas legend would be prominently displayed throughout the dining room.
The catch, however, was that the name would be changed. Instead of "Theo's" shining in bright lights, it would be "Sinatra." Schoenegger was understandably taken aback when told about the new developments.
"I was surprised at first, for sure," says Schoenegger, who was born and raised in Italy and has become known for his four-star cuisine from Europe to New York. "But once they explained everything, it made a lot of sense. Hey, if your name is going to be replaced by someone, it may as well be Frank Sinatra."
So it was done. Wynn's in-house designer Roger Thomas created an open, airy environment meant to invoke images of a Tuscan garden, complete with an inviting outdoor patio. The carpet has flavors of rich browns and red-orange tones and the walls are decorated with mirrors that reflect the outside garden. Five custom-made olive green chandeliers made from hemp rope and burlap hang from the ceiling. The bar area features a pair of nine-foot tall crystal beaded obelisks made in Sicily in the 1920's. And the dining tables are surrounded by cozy leather chairs.
The result is the kind of place where you know you are in for a unique experience well before you even get seated at your table.
"For several glorious years, I had the chance to be associated with Frank Sinatra here in Las Vegas, and also in Atlantic City," Wynn said back in January a few weeks after Encore, the sister resort to Wynn Las Vegas, opened its doors. "Those moments and memories light up my life, even today. This restaurant gives me a delicious opportunity to share Frank with my friends once more. I think he would dig this place."
Indeed he would. And not just because of the extraordinary setting or its lavish décor. Schoenegger's name may not be on the front door, but his mastery as a chef is what makes Sinatra a must-visit when in Las Vegas as he brings a modern version of the classic Italian meals that were always a favorite of Sinatra himself.
During Casino City's visit to Sinatra, Managing Editor Vin Narayanan and I had a dining experience like neither of us had ever experienced before. The service was impeccable, particularly from Jonathan Feiler, our sommelier who carefully suggested our choice of wine for each of our five servings.
Before we could order anything, however, the affable Schoenegger came to our table and asked if he could take the opportunity to personally choose our menu for the evening. We, of course, accepted the offer and then Schoenegger asked if we had any dietary restrictions. When Vin told him that he was a vegetarian, Schoenegger jokingly rolled his eyes and said that his work was now really cut out for him.
Somehow we both had the feeling that he'd be able to pull it off.
For the next 80 minutes, Vin and I combined to savor nine different servings. If you enjoy dining where smaller plates are offered, but with a combination of different tastes and flawless presentation, then Sinatra is the perfect choice.
The meal began with two salads -- the Caprese, which is a combination of bufala mozzarella, tomato and basil and the Panzanella con Granchio, which features blue crab, brioche croutons, tomato, cucumber and avocado cream. The Fettuccine serving was next and we both were treated to an incredible plate of pasta with summer truffles and a light cream sauce with a porcini mushroom shaved onto our plates by Schoenegger himself, who has an engaging personality and frequently comes out from the kitchen to make sure his guests are pleased with his efforts. As for the six different wines we tasted during our visit, the 2002 San Michelle Eppan, Pinot Nero, Trentino was my favorite.
For the next serving, I was treated to the Capesante, which is a plate of seared Maine diver scallops, summer peaches and braised artichokes while Vin dove into a plate of Eggplant Parmigiana. And just when our taste palates thought things couldn't get any better, the next serving featured the Agnello (for me the meat eater), which was grilled Colorado lamb chops, couscous and olive salmoriglio. Vin's eyes lit up when his plate of Risotto was delivered.
We capped the night of with a couple of espressos and two scrumptious desserts – the Mille Foglie, a banana and crème brûlée with Napoleon hazelnut gelato, and the Tiramisu, which had mascarpone cream and espresso-soaked ladyfinger biscuits.
Schoenegger returned once again to our table as we were finishing off our desserts and was genuinely delighted when we told how impressed we were with his carefully crafted menu selections. When we looked around the room, it was quite evident that we weren't the only party in the room enjoying the experience.
We spoke with Schoenegger for a few minutes about his new venture and you could tell by the look in his eyes that this was something he was very proud of, even though his name wasn't on the menu cover.
"This really has been an opportunity of a lifetime," he told us. "Look around. How can you not love this place?"