Botero's at top of its game but problems distract from atmosphere

I don't hang around with chefs.

That's not uncommon for serious restaurant critics in most cities, and it's not because I'm antisocial. It's because I know that chefs go into the business not for the easy routine, ample time off, ridiculously high profits and worldwide fame but because they're passionate about food and totally dedicated to that passion. I've never met anyone above a fry cook who didn't consider their job their entire life. And if all were not well, it could be tough to tell that to a friend.

Botero chef Mark LoRusso certainly is a shining example of chefs' dedication. I've interviewed him numerous times over the years and came away impressed by his extensive knowledge and the determination with which he puts that knowledge to work. Plus, he seems like a nice guy.

So, despite the fact that LoRusso is a mere acquaintance, it still pains me somewhat to have to report this: All is not well at Botero.

Oh, the food is great. As for atmosphere? I'm not sure most of us would complain when the view is a choice of a monumental statue by Colombian master Fernando Botero or the elaborate gardens and pool area of Encore at Wynn Las Vegas.

No, the snags we encountered were in the area of service. And while they'd be easy to overlook in a mid-range eatery, they shouldn't exist when a restaurant's steak prices are in the $50s.

For example: We deterred our waiter twice (in quick succession) when he asked for our beverage order. When we said we were indeed ready to order beverages, he took our order but then said he'd go ahead and get the rest at the same time, despite the fact that our menus were still open. It felt hurried, and this isn't a turn-the-tables type of restaurant.

Then there was the runner who deposited bread and butter with no explanation whatsoever. Yeah, we could figure out the hard-crusted French in the overlapping, interlocked style that I seem to remember is called Figaro, and that the other rolls were flavored with cranberries. But what was that that had been poured over the butter? It took a couple of dips directly into it with the plain bread before it was revealed as olive oil -- a novel treatment and a tasty one, but it would have been nice if the runner had told us.

And then there was the fact that our dessert was served quite a while before our coffee arrived. And so we sat and waited. And waited. And waited. We're used to lingering over coffee, not while awaiting it.

Again, they weren't major transgressions but things I wouldn't expect in a restaurant of this caliber -- and all easily fixable.

The kitchen, as I said, seemed at the top of its game, and that extended to its customer service as well. After we said we'd like to split a wild mushroom tart ($16) as a starter, it was served neatly bifurcated on separate plates, enabling us both to enjoy the slightly flaky pastry, firm texture and forest-floor flavors of the mushrooms and nutty assertiveness of the Gruyere.

A duet of Pacific fish ($34) was served on a double-ring circus of a plate, each of the sides given over to one fish, the Asian-inspired Arctic char and caviar-sprinkled Pacific salmon. Perfection.

Brioche-crusted Colorado rack of lamb ($48) was perfectly medium-rare as ordered, with a mellow onion-potato gratin and feta-stuffed piquillo pepper, the latter of which showcased the piquant and earthy notes, respectively, of its ingredients.

In an unlikely but most appealing trio of flavors, asparagus spears ( $11) benefitted from a crust of crushed pistachios and a Nicoise aioli, even if the runner mumbled "asparagus and olive mayonnaise" as he plunked it down.

And dessert, a lovely, slightly tart mascarpone panna cotta ($12) paired with a sweet strawberry gelee and very mildly flavored rhubarb sorbet. And our coffee, when it finally arrived, hot and fresh.

So what it comes down to is this: a reaffirmation that LoRusso certainly knows what he's doing and can transmit his passion to his guests.

But he might want to keep a closer eye on whoever's running the front of the house.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or hrinella@review


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