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Friday, January 23, 2009

Steve Wynn Opens New Encore Hotel

When Steve Wynn decides to open a casino/hotel, you know it's sure to be a big deal. He's going to come out swinging and do his best to present unique experiences. He did it with Mirage and Bellagio, but then he seemed to be out of the game after those stellar properties got snatched away by Kirk Kerkorian's MGM in 2000. Five years later, though, with the launch of Wynn Las Vegas, Wynn offered the greatest guest rooms in town, Vegas's best gambling environment and, arguably, its top restaurant via the Mediterranean seafood gem Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (which I frequent so regularly that I just call it Paul Bartolotta's Place).

Later, as was part of his master plan, Wynn decided to outdo himself for a fourth time — with the appropriately named Encore. No doubt, Encore, which opened last month, sounded like a great idea at its conception, back when Vegas was booming and the definition of enough did not seem to be in any Strip hotelier's lexicon. Between blueprint and completion, though, something unexpected happened. Las Vegas imploded. Real estate tanked. The economy went to hell. Casino stocks out-bled the Dow Jones. Nobody wanted to spend $450 per night for a room in the desert, much less gamble at the mega-high stakes that factor heavily into keeping Vegas's luxe operations profitable.

Wynn pressed on, initially seeming to ignore the international economic doldrums, and he has indeed fashioned a casino/hotel that outdoes all competitors. Standard rooms are mini-suites, stylish and comfortable, elegantly designed, and smartly put together. They feature straw-colored textured walls, iPod docking stations and so many mirrors that you better hit the gym before checking in. Windows stretch from floor to ceiling; a single high-definition, flat-screen TV swivels so that it can be watched in bed or in the living room; artwork is tasteful; an L-shaped sofa invites lounging; and the king-sized bed is probably more comfortable than what you have at home.

For now, promotional rates are being offered at a steal of $149 per night ("violently discounted" in the parlance of Wynn, though you'll need to ask for this rate in order to get it) and table stakes for blackjack at Encore go as low as $10 per hand. Don't worry, though, high rollers, betting a minimum of $100 to $500 per shot, still get their own plush enclave in which to push around black and purple and yellow chips. Meanwhile, the rest of us risk our money along an intimate casino floor, plushly carpeted and illuminated by maraschino red chandeliers. Best of all, walls of windows allow in natural light — something that I've never before seen in a Vegas gaming room.

Thanks to the unexpected price reductions, you won't be staying and gambling in a ghost town (in fact, post cuts, unlike almost everywhere else in Vegas, Encore is well booked for the foreseeable future). Plus, you'll have extra cash to drop in the spa, restaurants and nightclubs. This is a good thing. The spa here is Asian-themed, installed with deluge showers (there's a deluge of water from all sides, get it?), oversized whirlpools and massages that can be transformative. I try the Good Luck Ritual, which gets a little hokey with gonging and talk about enlivening your senses and bringing you fortune (yeah, right). But the treatment itself, administered by a chatty woman with very cool blonde dreadlocks, is augmented by scrubs, hot towel wraps and a scalp rub that leaves me feeling so invigorated that maybe, I think, just maybe, I will be able to transfer karmic energy to the blackjack gods (it works … for a while; then it doesn't).

While all the food at Encore is good (nothing beats a Mediterranean feast at Paul Bartolotta's Place in Wynn, though curry chicken at pan-Asian Wazuzu and paper-thin agnolotti filled with ricotta at Sinatra are right up there), my favorite restaurant on the new property is Botero. It was created by nightlife impresario Victor Drai, named after the artist Fernando Botero and decorated with his work. The seared foie gras appetizer, sitting on caramelized apple slices, is truly memorable. Steaks range from New York strip to Kobe pampered, and the restaurant vibe resonates cool sophistication. The Scotch selection is small but elite — topped out by a 21-year-old Macallan — and Martinis get served in gold-stemmed glasses.

Botero's outdoor tables line the hotel's European-style pool, where topless female sunbathers get asked to cover up before sitting down at the al fresco blackjack tables. Right next door, the club XS, also part of Drai's domain, was built at a cost of $100 -million and draws the hottest crowd in town. It sports banquettes upholstered in crocodile skin, gold walls embossed with larger-than-life-size renderings of the female form, and a cabana-adorned swimming pool (stretching over from Botero) that feeds onto the dance floor. No question, Encore is a great companion piece to Wynn Las Vegas. But still, times being what they are, the man behind both properties would have good reason to be sweating like a high roller on a bad run. However, that does not seem to be the case. On the afternoon that I spot Steve Wynn leading a visiting VIP past a theater on the property that's been custom built to accommodate über-entertainer Danny Gans, Wynn has an unlit torpedo cigar in his hand and an assertive grin on his face. He seems to be laughing at a joke and walking on air, as if nothing in the world could possibly touch him.