The pioneering Mirage takes steps to stay fresh

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When the Mirage debuted in 1989, its opening heralded the launch of the current generation of Las Vegas destination resorts. Its erupting volcano, lush grounds, white tigers and shark tank laid the foundation for the new rule -- the spectacle defines the hotel -- that would govern resort development on the Strip for a decade. 

Although overshadowed by newer and larger resorts in recent years, the Mirage still maintained its place in a respected niche, just as a slightly over-the-hill celebrity might hold on to fame. Respect, however, doesn't cut it in modern-day Vegas. Relevance does. 

So parent company MGM Mirage opted to transform the property with a host of new and newly redone restaurants, public areas and nightlife options -- all within a two-year span.

This December, West Hollywood, Calif.-based celebrity stylist Kim Vo, of ABC's "Extreme Makeover," will open a salon and shop on resort premises.

In fact, the renovation is continuing right through 2008, with a complete guest room remodel and the opening of a new, as yet unnamed, restaurant. 

Culinary rejuvenation

To regain an edge in Las Vegas' increasingly competitive dining environment, management turned to several reliable sources. The dining transformation began in late 2005, with the introduction of Cravings, noted hospitality designer Adam Tihany's radical but overly streamlined redesign of the classic Las Vegas buffet.  

Next, Light Group, a Miami-based nightclub operator with a firm toehold in Vegas, was tabbed to create Stack, a concept restaurant, for the property. Chef Brian Massie presents a menu that pays homage to classic American cuisine while updating the concept with fresh twists. 

Roasted tomato soup with a grilled cheese mini-sandwich is a fun starter, as are the sweet onion rings, stacked in perfectly narrowing concentric circles.

On a recent visit, an off-the-menu Kobe skirt steak was a highlight. Side dishes are attractively presented on a three-tier "Stacked" frame.

High ceilings and warm mahogany walls are designed to draw guests into the space. The music level is cranked up starting at 7 p.m., so diners looking for a relaxed ambience might opt for the three-course, early prix-fixe dinner, a relative bargain at $49.

The old Mikado space has been completely transformed into Japonais, an offshoot of the popular Chicago pan-Asian restaurant. Artfully presented small plates, meant for sharing, dominate the menu. Many items reflect the co-executive chefs' Japanese heritage, but Chinese influences also play a strong role. 

Sushi is well represented in myriad forms, and hot items like crab cakes and lobster spring rolls cross cultural boundaries. Menu choices are hit and miss, but a winner is Le Quack Japonais, Chef Gene Kato's version of the Mandarin classic mu shu duck. 

Japonais inhabits a beautiful, comfortably lit space bathed in brown and orange hues. Mellow music wafts in from the adjacent Japonais Lounge, a circular oasis ringed by diaphanous curtains and set with comfortable, low banquettes.

Haute Chinese restaurants are in vogue at Strip hotels, so the Mirage brought in respected Chef Chi Choi to preside over a kitchen that uses seafood fresh from its own tank and market produce to turn out top-quality, Hong Kong-style cuisine. Fin's design is refined and elegant with gold and jade accents.

Kokomo's, the resort's flagship steak restaurant, has been updated with new decor and a new menu, while Onda, the Italian restaurant/wine lounge, has received cosmetic enhancements that bring it in line with the newer restaurants.

With the opening of "Love" at the Mirage in late 2006, MGM Mirage and Cirque du Soleil debuted their fifth Las Vegas collaboration. Cirque created the spectacle as an ode to the spirit and passion of the Beatles.

The show unfolds as a flowing poem, with digitally remastered tracks and Cirque du Soleil's trademark choreography. The alliance also produced a new nightlife option for the Mirage: the Beatles Revolution Lounge.

Featuring interactive tabletops (at reserved tables only) that project guests' artwork onto central pillars, Revolution is designed to attract pre- and post-show audience members from "Love" as well as walk-in clientele. 

On a recent Saturday night, however, Revolution was fairly quiet while the long line for Jet, the property's white-hot nightclub, snaked through the reception area.  The Big Apple Bar, which essentially operates as a casual front-end to Revolution, is smartly designed and inviting. 

Despite the scale of the revamp at the Mirage, one unalterable feature of the property's structural design remains a throwback to old-school Vegas thinking: Guests checking in, or returning from the Strip must make a lengthy trek through the casino to reach the elevators. Whether they've seen "Love" or not, they might find themselves humming "The Long and Winding Road" -- one Beatles tune management probably didn't intend to evoke.

The high-limit gaming area has been completely redesigned and now features an appealing interior with a contemporary look adorned with several glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.   

Going swimmingly

The rebirth of the Mirage took a literal turn in June with the birth of Sgt. Pepper, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. He now swims beside his mother in the pool in the resort's Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat attraction. In an only-in-Vegas juxtaposition, the dolphin tank butts up against Bare, the property's recently opened, adults-only topless pool. Families queued up to see Sgt. Pepper have their view of Bare obstructed by an opaque tarp. 

The Mirage holds up well at 18 years old, especially after the recent remix. Service is crisp and attentive. The little-used North Valet parking area is a welcome alternative to the busy main valet area. And that volcano still spews right on time, every hour, with what seems like just a little more "oomph."

For more info, call (800) 374-9000 or (702) 791-7111 or visit www.mirage.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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