Dining: Discovering the Tasteful Side of Las Vegas

I am unapologetic about my affection for Las Vegas. Sure, Sin City represents everything that's tacky about America: garish design, fanny-pack-toting tourists, an overabundance of pinkie rings. But it's fun if you're in on the kitsch joke. Besides, anyone who has visited recently knows this gambling mecca has developed another side entirely: Sophisticated. Elegant. Serious. And this evolution is most pronounced on the dining scene, where a sweep of chic, understated restaurants flourish alongside the carb-loading buffets. Michelin this year bestowed 21 hard-earned stars on Las Vegas's culinary treasures. It's easy to see why.

At Alex in the Wynn Las Vegas, patrons step down a deep, wide stairway into the grand dining room, like Streisand in "Hello, Dolly!" Huge Murano glass chandeliers gently light a space swathed in voluminous caramel-colored satin drapes, while dozens of tuxedoed waiters move in balletic rhythm from kitchen to table. Chef Alex Stratta, who has ridden the ranges at Wynn's best restaurants for more than a decade, earned two Michelin stars this year for his first eponymous restaurant. His wild turbot, stuffed with razor clams, shellfish fricassee and Chateau Chalon sauce is masterfully delicate and flavorful (wynnlasvegas.com).

Chef Julian Serrano's French-inspired cuisine at Picasso at the Bellagio resort is enhanced by the room's display of original Picassos. Serrano, who also earned two Michelin stars this year, serves a classic gastronomic menu that includes sautéed true Nantucket scallops with potato mousseline and jus de veau—the finest preparation of scallops that I have ever encountered (bellagio.com). At Caesar's Palace, Parisian chef Guy Savoy (pronounced Sahv-wah) wears two Michelin stars for his impeccable French cuisine. Restaurant Guy Savoy (RGS) serves the same menu as the Parisian branch, including the exceptionally prepared Poussin à la Broche with black truffles, fingerling potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms (caesarspalace.com).

Also at Caesar's Palace, Payard should be a required stop, for breakfast, lunch or dessert. This very French patisserie from Francois Payard, who also has a bistro in Manhattan, serves authentic flaky croissants and lighter-than-air brioche, as well as crepes and sandwiches of European meats and cheeses. Don't leave without sampling Payard's creamy chocolates and candies next door.

San Francisco's favorite chef, Michael Mina, has several creative eateries in Las Vegas but his namesake restaurant—at Bellagio, with one Michelin star—is quietly elegant and contemporary. Mina's savory black-mussel soufflé with a saffron and chardonnay cream is addictive. And his caviar service, delivered on a silver cart with all the trimmings, is exquisite. Las Vegas's only Michelin-starred Asian restaurant, Wing Lei at the Wynn Las Vegas, has a pleasingly formal vibe and a menu that, thankfully, is not dumbed down for American palates. The roasted Peking duck, sliced tableside, is tender and full of flavor.

The ultimate not-to-be-missed Las Vegas dining experience is unquestionably restaurant Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand, the city's sole dining establishment with three coveted Michelin stars. Intimate banquettes are positioned to best admire the restaurant's jewel-box décor, with plush purple seating underneath a massive Murano glass chandelier (mgmgrand.com), Robuchon's cream of cauliflower soup with caviar and seafood gelée may be the most extraordinary thing I've ever eaten. There, I said it. The most delicious meal I've experienced happened not in New York or Paris or Tokyo or Monte Carlo but in Las Vegas. Right next to Elvis.