LAS VEGAS -- Kelly O'Neill peered into the pans on a recent Saturday night at Le Village Buffet in the Paris Las Vegas Casino: seafood bouillabaisse, salmon flambe with sorrel sauce, veal stew marengo.
"What is this?" the 22-year-old O'Neill from San Diego said. "I don't know what this is. The mac and cheese has a weird name. Where's the lasagna and spaghetti?"
Welcome to the new buffet Mr. O'Neill -- the haute buffet.
The Bellagio, Paris Las Vegas and the Aladdin are among the Las Vegas strip hotel-casinos that have installed elaborate buffets filled with sushi bars, smoked salmon and sumptuous eclairs. The Mirage and MGM Grand plan to roll out upscale buffets this year.
Such delicacies come at a fat price. While it once ran just a few bucks to gorge on Baron of beef and tubs of mashed potatoes, it now can cost more than $32 to dine at a casino buffet.
"That's why we eat the Bellagio," said Fred Murabito, 44, of San Francisco. "We've never gotten sick."
But don't be misled. These buffets still move a lot of food. Tons of food. All the time.
The Aladdin's Spice Market Buffet feeds from 3,500 to 4,000 people a day. The weight in food is dizzying. It goes through 3,000 pounds of salmon and 900 pounds of Veal osso buccu a week. Assorted sushi? Try 13,000 pieces.
"Everything is made from scratch," Aladdin Buffet Chef Charles Clark said. "There's no cutting corners on the buffet. There's got to be standards."
Hold the iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, today's tourists line up for mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette.
This new theme in dining can be found in its extreme at the Bellagio, which sits atop the buffet pyramid.
The other day, hordes of people paid more than $17 for a chance to chow their way through the casino's lunch buffet, one that featured more than 60 items extended over 11 food stations.
Executive Chef Michael Frauenheim lords over the vast operation that serves some 4,000 people a day and employs 82 men and women. The monthly price tag to stock this extravaganza: $1 million.
"Buffets aren't made to be profitable," he said.
But they are made to draw in customers.
"Think about the people staying at their casinos," said David Hickey, an expert on Las Vegas culture and recent winner of the McArthur genius grant. "Who gambles? One millionaire from Taiwan or 10 rednecks in a camper?"
The Bellagio offers a "gourmet buffet" Friday and Saturday nights that includes Kobe beef, venison and buffalo. Frauenheim intends to raise the price to $34 in the next month or two. He says people will continue to pay for freshness and quality -- a novel idea considering the Las Vegas buffet's reputation for casseroles, popcorn shrimp and heat-lamped fried chicken.
The Bellagio's vast kitchen cleans and fillets its own whole fish -- salmon, sea bass, wahoo, red snapper, monk fish and mahi mahi -- and prepares its own stocks. There are even sugar-free deserts. The shrimp, sadly, is frozen.
But the tourist's palate is only so daring.
"Foie gras, we tried it a few times, but it didn't go over so well," Frauenheim said. "It's liver. Ah!"
Frauenheim says he checks out other buffets every two or three weeks.
"Some were decent. Some were insulting."
Dortch Oldham, 52, a financial adviser from Nashville, Tenn., sat down for lunch with his wife. He came to the Bellagio to celebrate his 30th anniversary with his wife.
Asparagus salad with mimosa dressing and a Bellagio Greek salad topped his plate.
"I couldn't get past the salad bar," he said. "Even the olives are good and I don't like olives. The texture is wonderful."
After the starters, Oldham piled up on pesto-basil potatoes and Chicken Wellington.
"The potatoes are delicious," Oldham declared. "I didn't know you put pesto in mashed potatoes."
Whether the buffet will continue to evolve is unknown, but the essence of it remains unchanged, experts say.
"The buffet is no mystery," said Daniel Benyshek, a nutritional anthropologist at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. "They are celebrations of excess. The Las Vegas buffet is the perfect example of the contemporary feast, eating with reckless abandon."
"I've eaten at the Bellagio," Benyshek said. "Well past the point where I was enjoying it.
That's when you've had a successful run at the buffet, when you're uncomfortable."
ON TH NET
Las Vegas buffets Web site: http://www.vegasbuffets.com/