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Casino Mogul Takes Gamble on Vegan DishesLAS VEGAS (Aug. 23) -- The staples of Vegas cuisine are so famous they're part of nearly every punchline about the city: 99-cent shrimp cocktails, midnight $2.99 steaks, the gargantuan feeding frenzy known as the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Now we may have to add to that list grilled royal trumpet mushrooms with polenta, tofu napoleons and (doesn't this just sound divine?) fava bean puree.

Those are just three of the dozens of vegan dining options now available at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Las Vegas, two resorts operated by mogul Steve Wynn, who recently decreed that every restaurant at his Vegas properties would provide several vegan choices. That includes, yes, even the lowly buffet, which now has a vegan dessert section.
In doing so, the 68-year-old Wynn -- strongly rumored to have gone vegan recently himself -- is executing the most significant embrace by the mainstream of the no-meat, no-animal-byproducts eating style. Up to now, veganism in pop culture probably was limited to a handful of celebrities and an occasional challenge (bemoaned mercilessly by contestants) on "Top Chef."

"This would be like having vegan menu options at every food outlet at Disneyland," said Elizabeth Turner, editor-in-chief of Vegetarian Times. "I wonder if Steve Wynn is really vegan, but even if he isn't, he's sort of recognizing that this is a growing need."

Whereas many vegetarians will eat eggs and milk, vegans eschew all animal products, including honey. A Harris Interactive survey taken last year found that 3.4 percent of Americans were vegetarian, while 0.8 percent said they were vegan. The Western United States, which included Nevada, had the highest concentration of vegetarians, at 5.4 percent.

Wynn was unavailable to discuss the decision and the resort's publicists declined to confirm his dietary choices. Yet David Snyder, executive chef overseeing all Wynn and Encore eateries, said the move was simply a formalization of the fact that many of the restaurants had already offered vegan items. "It's printed on the menu now," Snyder told AOL News on Thursday. "It's a little more in-your-face that we're doing this."

It's also not the easiest thing to do, given that fine cuisine goes hand in hand with butter and cream. "Our chefs took it as a new challenge -- and it definitely has challenges -- but we've found almond milk and things like that work well as substitutes," Snyder said.

The announcement drew raves from Las Vegas Sun columnist John Katsilometes, who is chronicling his decision to go vegan for the summer in a series of blog posts. He's come upon a variety of vegan options in other resorts, but they're not as easy to find as what Wynn and Encore now offer.

"I swear to God, I was thrilled" by Wynn's announcement, Katsilometes said. "The places that are really vegan-friendly in Vegas are nowhere near the Strip. ... This very well could have a domino effect. You could see the other resort chains announcing, 'We've got vegan menus, too.'"

The vegan dishes at Wynn and Encore won't be cheap, however. At the steakhouse Switch, the tofu carpaccio appetizer is $14 and a mushroom polenta cake entree is $32, both in line with meaty menu options. A three-course vegan tasting menu at Alex, the fine dining restaurant with a Michelin rating of two stars, costs $80 per person, and includes a marinated heirloom tomato and cucumber salad, crudites of summer vegetables with zucchini sauce and a saute of vegetable fricassee with black truffles. Dessert is coconut tapioca.

Other properties are adjusting to veganism's popularity surge with a patchwork approach. A publicist for Caesars Palace, which has restaurants from stars like Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay, could cite a handful of examples, mostly limited to veggie burgers.

"Serendipity 3 will wrap the veggie burger in lettuce to make it vegan," said Caesars spokeswoman Celena Haas, who acknowledged guests are increasingly asking for such options. "Other Caesars restaurants will accommodate but [vegan dishes are] not on the menus currently."

All of this represents a sea change for Las Vegas, which has become a culinary destination in recent years but still greets millions of tourists seeking a great piece of meat. Famed seafood chef Rick Moonen, owner of RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay, admitted years ago he was forced to include steak options on his menu despite his devotion to fish because of customer demand.

E.C. Gladstone, who writes about the Vegas food scene for Orbitz.Com, doubts Wynn's decision will bring in hordes of new tourists. But he also doubts that's why the resort is doing it. Wynn has a long history of providing amenities that enhance the luxury experience at his hotels without generating direct revenues, most obviously the famed fountains outside the Bellagio.

Gladstone wonders if there was more pushback from some chefs than Snyder is willing to acknowledge, and notes that some of the ingredients required to make creative vegan dishes could be more expensive.

"Obviously, this lends itself in a positive way to Wynn's legacy as a trendsetter in the culinary field in Vegas," Gladstone said. "And any chef worth his salt loves the challenge of cooking vegetarian. Perhaps doing vegan can be a little harder."

Turner is impressed by what this says about Sin City's evolution. "Ten years ago, the buffets were just horrible cheap food, but Vegas has really evolved to be a cool place to eat," she said. "It's sort of the next step. It gives you the choice to eat things you can feel good about in between all those free cocktails in front of the slot machine."
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