That is, until Caesars Palace decided to throw $17 million at its own buffet, which used to be known as Lago but is now Bacchanal. Let's get the obvious joke out of the way: No, there's no vomitorium, even as a cute name for the bathrooms.
What there is is a new species in the dining menagerie: the glam buffet. This is a buffet as we've never seen it before, with all the social cues to let you feel as though you're dining at an upscale, of-the-moment restaurant (colored glass accents, food-in-jars as decor, menu items like charcuterie, and watermelon and feta salad) while still offering the option of gorging on crab legs.
Bacchanal opened to the public just a couple of weeks back, and seeing as I was in Vegas last weekend, I skipped Guy Savoy (average check is $250 per person, according to the restaurant's website) and Joël Robuchon (a bargain at $120 per person as a starting price!) and shelled out my $39.99 after waiting an hour in line to get into Bacchanal.
What that $39.99 bought (it's less during lunch and on weeknights) was basically an approximation of the food at a lavishly catered wedding from a standard caterer. But much, much more of it. Bacchanal claims 524 menu items, with seafood, meat, Italian, Asian and Mexican stations, as well as a giant array of desserts. The bang for your buck, unsurprisingly, is in the seafood and meat areas, where you could easily scarf enough oysters (labeled only as "East Coast," but I believe they were Blue Points) and eat enough ribeye to get your $40 worth. Crab legs, lamb chops, brisket and other meat and seafood options are also available. But of course, the huge variety is what brings you to a buffet, so while sticking to this small section of the action would make the most sense economically, the filler food calls.
Here's an accounting of what I sampled at Bacchanal, a tiny, tiny fraction of what's available: oysters, ceviche, an oyster shooter, creamed corn, cured meats, cheeses, 5 different kinds of dumplings, tamales, pozole, congee (hidden at the back of the Japanese station-- you have to flag down a cook and ask for it), mac-n-cheese, asparagus, ribeye, a lamb chop, sushi, various kinds of tawdry Chinese chicken and beef, lasagne, a crepe, a chocolate and passion fruit mousse parfait-type thing, some gelato, a macaroon, and a banana soufflé. I skipped the slightly sad approximations of shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and beet and goat cheese salads. I skipped a lot.
By far the best thing was the bowl of pozole, which was deep, deep red and actually tasted like it was made with some heart. It came with tiny hand-made tortillas, which are cooked to order as you watch (you can also get tacos with a variety of fillings with these tortillas). Other "ethnic" options -- the congee, the dumplings -- were pretty hit or miss. The sushi was downright icky, with that weird pink-gray tuna paste topping most of the rolls.
But desserts were pretty good, especially if you keep that wedding catering benchmark in mind. If nothing else it's impressive to watch the cooks turn out hundreds of soufflés and crème brûlées at a time. That's the other nod to modernity at Bacchanal: The kitchens are open, allowing you to understand the insane amount of labor an operation like this requires.
It'll be interesting to see how long Bacchanal can keep its shiny new feel. Right now, for $40 and an hour in line, there's probably no place on earth better to be a fat American.