Vegas Places its Bets on Bonbons

Along with an obviously well-deserved reputation as Sin City, Las Vegas has a sweet side. That would be sweet as in chocolate, caramel, marzipan, and just about anything else crammed with sugar and calories.

One of the latest trends in Las Vegas are so-called sweet spots - shops that sell gourmet pastries, candies, and ice cream creations, sometimes in surroundings akin to a nightclub.

The most ambitious so far is the Sugar Factory at the Paris Hotel & Casino, with a high-profile storefront along one of the busiest stretches of the Vegas Strip.

This Sugar Factory, which opened in March, has four major components  - a 24-hour brasserie, a chocolate lounge, a retail store, and a nightclub. Among these, the chocolate lounge seems the most calorically decadent.

Bar seating and tables are equipped with individual heating elements for fondues of dark, milk, and white chocolate with accompanying dipping ingredients, from strawberries and marshmallows to cheesecake chunks and gummi bears.

"People like to be reminded of their childhood, of the things that make them feel good," said Michael Gillet, the Sugar Factory's corporate pastry chef.

But the chocolate lounge tilts toward grown-up kids, offering wine and champagne pairings with dessert, and both the lounge and 24-hour brasserie have attracted a partying celebrity clientele, such as Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian, and West Chester Jackass daredevil Bam Margera.

Sweets-inspired cocktails are a Sugar Factory specialty, including the $36 signature Lollipop Passion, a smoking giant chartreuse fishbowl of tropical flavors and liquor.

The brasserie's menu is broad, from omelets to steaks, but it's the sweet stuff that headlines, such as the chocolate pizza made with chocolate custard, chocolate crunchies, brownie chunks, and bunches more of, yes, chocolate ($14).

The retail store is heavily trafficked and carries the Sugar Factory's trademark couture lollipops, about $25 including glittery holder.

The atmosphere is more low-key at Jean-Philippe Patisserie at the Aria resort in the CityCenter complex, but there's no lack of passion for precious sweets.

"We want to give people a feeling that they are almost in a museum," chef Jean-Philippe Maury said. "Or in a jewelry store where every piece is made of chocolate and sugar."

Maury's pastries at his stores in both Aria and the Bellagio do resemble works of art, but he insisted that taste and consistency are the true test. Among the more popular treats at Jean-Philippe Patisserie is a crepe wrapped around a vanilla souffle cream and topped with a choice of berries, chocolate fudge, bananas Foster or tropical fruits ($8.70).

Serendipity3, the Las Vegas outpost of the New York original, occupies some conspicuous real estate in a stand-alone building outside Caesars Palace overlooking the pedestrian parade on the Strip. The restaurant serves meals all day but is perhaps best-known for its desserts and oxymoronic specialty drink, Frrrozen Hot Chocolate ($10), with more than 100,000 served.

The cocoa concoction with the consistency of a daiquiri is served in a goblet topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, and comes in several variations, including Oreo and peanut butter.

In the Caesars Palace Forum Shops mall, Max Brenner has a bistro built around his gourmet chocolates. The Brenner Vegas shop - there's also one in Philadelphia - has seating on two levels and an all-day menu. But like other high-end sweet spots, Brenner features waistline-threatening desserts - or dishes that serve the same purpose, such as a breakfast of cinnamon apple and white chocolate truffle cream French toast ($14.95).

Closer to the casino area of Caesars Palace, chef Francois Payard has a patisserie and an intimate all-day bistro that attempt to evoke Parisian pastry shops. The wow factor at Payard's is a 13-foot chocolate clock complete with spinning gears that actually dispense truffles. For those not so lucky to be standing by when the free truffle pops out, an alternative would be one of a dozen or so elegant pastries such as the popular George V, a round package of chocolate and vanilla mousse with caramelized peanuts and black sacher biscuit ($8).

For old-fashioned sundaes, a Ghirardelli ice cream parlor and candy shop just south of Harrah's casino-hotel serves jumbo ice cream concoctions in an informal, family-friendly atmosphere.

The grande dame of Las Vegas fine chocolate, the Ethel M brand, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and while the company has no fancy bistros, visitors who travel the nine miles from the Strip to the chocolate factory can take a self-guided tour of the candy-making process (with free samples) and a three-acre cactus garden.

Finally, M&M World near the south end of the Strip, with a facade featuring giant versions of the cartoon candy characters, is an homage to the classic confection. The four-floor store stocks tons of M&M clothing, toys, and gadgets, and customers can mix and match candy from among 22 colors and even have their M&Ms imprinted with personalized messages, including a particularly fitting one: "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas."

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