The vegan dishes found in every Wynn Las Vegas restaurant have evolved to hold their own among the resort's haute offerings.
Garden dim sum of red beet, corn, spinach and pea tendrils at Wing Lei in Wynn Las Vegas
It is a balmy early June evening at a coveted patio table at Lakeside restaurant that extends virtually right into the Lake of Dreams—one of the best places to take in the transporting effect of a restaurant in the desert serving fish so fresh you might temporarily forget where you are. A parade of fragrant wood-roasted lobsters makes its way to surrounding tables, along with Hawaiian fish that, thanks to a long-standing relationship with dedicated fishermen, is plucked from waters around Hana and arrives faster here in Las Vegas than virtually any restaurant in Maui.
Fregola salad with fava beans and pistachios at Costa di Mare
A crispy “crab” cake studded with big chunks of meat and redolent of Old Bay seasoning comes out first, followed by a smoky, rich chowder. If you hadn’t specifically ordered them from the vegetarian menu, you might never know that the meat is actually fresh hearts of palm, braised slowly in kombu broth to take on nearly the precise texture and flavor of lump crab. Kombu broth, along with cashew cream, is also the base for the chowder, in which smoked oyster mushrooms stand in for the bivalves, imparting a slight bacon flavor. Both dishes are vegan standbys from a plant-based menu that contains convincing vegan replacements for the restaurant’s seafood dishes, and now a growing number of items that stand in for nothing but their own incomparable ingredients.
When Wynn developed vegan menus for all its restaurants in 2011, the goal was clear: give an increasing number of vegetarian and vegan guests their own artfully planned menu. Mark LoRusso, executive chef of Costa di Mare, remembers years prior in other restaurants, when “a server would say, ‘There’s a vegetarian here,’ and we’d run from station to station grabbing vegetables to steam and put on a plate. Here we’ve embraced plant-based dining. Hopefully those guests don’t feel like they’ve had an alternative dining experience at all—just a really great meal.”
The challenge at the outset was coming up with thoughtful dishes that weren’t one-size-fits-all veggie patties, but integral to each of a diverse range of restaurants that include a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, opulent steakhouses, a loungey Asian fusion social dining spot and a seafood restaurant specializing in difficult-to-obtain, seasonal seafood from the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, among others.
A view of Lake of Dreams from the patio at Lakeside
Enter Tal Ronnen, the plant pioneer who, among other accomplishments, catered Arianna Huffington’s party at the Democratic National Convention and the first vegan dinner at the US Senate and was pronounced “the best vegan chef in America” by Oprah Winfrey. Now the owner of popular Los Angeles vegan restaurant Crossroads and founder of Kite Hill, he was introduced to Wynn by Dr. Dean Ornish, himself a trailblazer in demonstrating that diet changes can reverse heart disease. Over several months, Ronnen collaborated with the chefs at each of Wynn’s restaurants to create dishes for 22 menus in all, from the most refined restaurants to in-room dining and even the employee cafeteria. “The chefs and I have developed a close friendship over the years. David Walzog [executive chef of SW Steakhouse and Lakeside] was known for cooking great steaks, and now he and I are coming up with the most creative dishes. He’s integrating more plant-based ingredients into his own home life, and that’s accurate for a lot of the other chefs. They’re tasting food all day long and finding that eating a little healthier can get them through a long shift. And now they’re really going for it!” Ronnen has returned at least twice each year for the last eight years to consult on the updates, in which time he says he’s seen both the menus and guests’ palates evolve. “We’ve been calling them vegetarian menus, although the food is actually vegan. Now I feel like the word ‘vegan’ might not be as scary.”
The staircase at Costa di Mare
On the day we eat our way through nearly the entire vegan menu at Lakeside, chef de cuisine David Middleton is debuting a charred abalone mushroom that is meant to evoke nothing but the giant, meaty mushroom itself. “We score it like foie gras and roast it on the charbroiler, then we marinate it with sherry vinegar and Dijon mustard,” he says. Dotted with a Worcestershire sauce rendered vegan by its lack of anchovies, it’s served with farro, almonds and sherry-soaked raisins—hitting virtually every taste receptor. “People have been talking about sustainable seafood for 20 years now,” Middleton says, “but with data so much more accessible now, people are more conscientious about what they’re putting into their bodies when they’re going out."
Taking advantage of seasonal produce is the purest expression of Italian cuisine, LoRusso explains. New on his menu is a salad made of fregola (a Sardinian semolina pasta), freshly blanched fava beans and pistachios. “We’re using the American produce that you’d see in Italy: We get favas and peas from California every day, beautiful morels from the Pacific Northwest or from northern Michigan, pickled wild ramps from West Virginia, and beautiful tomatoes from California, Nevada and Arizona,” he says. As fall approaches, the produce changes but not the approach. “Last fall, I got these big sugar pie pumpkins and served them as an agnolotti filling in Tal’s vegan pasta, which is made without eggs,” he says. A summery classic tomato panzanella is replaced by a roasted squash, celery root, Brussels sprout, cranberry and chestnut version.
Spiced Gardein Chick'n with roasted Holland peppers, Castelvetrano olives and chickpea fries at Lakeside
A bit of science does come into play, Ronnen explains, as meat substitutes have become more sophisticated. In fact, Wynn was one of the first resorts in the world to use the so-called “Impossible” meat, made of wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and other ingredients, and containing heme— which makes up part of the molecule hemoglobin and imparts meat’s unmistakable metallic flavor—and can actually be sourced from the root nodules of legumes. The convincing ground beef alternative is finding its way not only into the Impossible Burger at Andrea’s (served with frisee, kimchi, pickles, kalbi sauce and gochujang aioli), but also Thai crispy rice cups with Impossible meat, mint, cilantro, chili, onion, ginger and peanuts. “We’re taking our time and really infusing techniques into the preparation,” Ronnen says. “Of course we’re using the protein alternatives where they make sense, and we’re also really using those Asian techniques that are already inherently plant-based, with different dashis, broths and sauces.” A current favorite of Ronnen’s: a pressed maitake mushroom brushed with an already-vegan barbecue sauce at Wing Lei. “It’s grilled like a mushroom rib, and you wouldn’t believe it,” he says. As Wynn’s chefs have fostered their vegan menus’ independence, some are even finding that the vegan offerings influence the rest of the menu. “I usually try to figure out how to make most of the dish vegan,” Middleton says, “and then showcase whatever protein we’re serving. I think most of our fish dishes are vegan if you were to remove the fish.” Another new addition is a Gardein Chick’n protein rubbed in a citrus spice served atop citrus stewed peppers and a delicate green chickpea puree and topped with a chickpea panisse—a preparation Lakeside regulars will recognize from the swordfish.
Crispy impossible sliders at Andrea's
And where Ronnen has been able to collaborate with Wynn’s chefs over the years, he’s now looking forward to teaching his second Wynn Master Class. “There were people from all over the country and the world, and we got to share the kitchen together. It gives us the opportunity to gauge how people are thinking about food, and they get to see firsthand the kind of care that goes into the menus at Wynn,” Ronnen says. “We’re all cooking together, then sitting down together to eat what we’ve made.” Whether attendees are lifelong vegans or new to plant-based eating, that’s a notion that’s both universal and timeless.