300 pounds of lobster, 300 bottles of Champagne, 12 pounds of caviar—for starters
When we think of Las Vegas, we think of massive size and overwhelming excess, epitomized by football-field-sized buffets. Seven days a week, three meals a day, the world is plated up and hustled down your gullet, from tacos to tempura to tiramisu. But Bally’s Sterling Buffet works on a more intimate scale: Just brunch, just Sundays, the way it’s been for over 30 years. They’re not out to simply overwhelm you with the array of options, but to offer a smaller range in luxe abundance.
“Standard for the brunch has always been sushi, caviar, oysters, shrimp, rack of lamb, filet mignon, lobster, crab. Stay as long as you like, drink as much as you like and eat as much as you like,” says waiter Tony Kerbrat. He’s been handling the plates with panache since this was the MGM Grand, Captain & Tennille lit up the marquee and Dean Martin was shooting his Celebrity Roast TV show in the Ziegfeld Room. “I started working for this property in June of 1977. Management calls us the legacy waiters; there’s five of us old guys.”
The “old guys” skim around the dining room in blue jackets, topping off glasses of bubbly. (One never asks for more Champagne at the Sterling; it simply appears.) Brunch—a combo of buffet and ordered items—is served in the BLT Steak restaurant, a low-lit room of glossy paneling and comfortable booths that invite leisurely indulgence. “We do have those regulars that come in at opening and leave at closing,” says assistant manager Charlayne Buckley. “We do not have a time limit.”
“It's 300 lbs of lobster every Sunday, about 300 bottles of Champagne—which is crazy since we’re doing about 380 guests,” says assistant executive chef Erin Fouhey, adding, “We do about 12 pounds of caviar every Sunday and about 300 lbs of crab legs.”
She’s not exaggerating: Service starts at 9:30 and, by 9:34, the platter of butter-drenched lobster tails is replenished for the first of many, many times. An early-arriving quartet of diners have carry-on luggage tucked under their tables, planning on a tipsy, sated flight home. A woman tears into a Gruyere popover as she tells her companion that she’s “not going to fill up on bread,” while nearby a man sits alone, tucking into the first of several plates heavy with crab legs and steak.
Along with the brunch classics, there are often specialty dishes—such as cotija-chorizo eggs and a tomatillo salmon filet during Mexican Independence weekend or turkey with all the trimmings in late November. “The more traditional things that people are looking for at that time of year,” says Fouhey, “for New Year's brunch or Christmas weekend we'll do extra things, a few seasonal items.”
The seemingly endless stream of California rolls and petit fours issues from the cavernous Bally’s kitchen, crafted by the swift and skilled hands of veteran cooks, many of whom have been here for over two decades. “We have about 20 on hand today—that’s just for six hours of service, so it's pretty labor-intensive,” explains Fouhey, who points out that the first workers start arriving at 4 in the morning, while other crews get prime rib and slab bacon into the ovens by 6 a.m.
Unlike the usual, cramped, noisy “Behind you!” warren, the kitchen space is vast, divided into areas with lots of room to sling pans and swing tongs. In one, a legion of miniature filets mignon are grilled on tiny iron pans; in another, a bucket of béchamel simmers on the stove, ready to finish off filet- and lobster-topped eggs Benedict. Between stations, stacks of pots and pans and wooden troughs are heaped in one area, giant under-the-bed boxes of flour lined up in another.
One of the most beloved dishes at the Sterling is its take on French toast: a croissant variation with a bananas Foster topping. It’s rich, dense and almost like bread pudding. The first bite of French toast may incite a momentary impulse to burst into song—or at least vigorous humming—but the crepes will reduce a diner to stunned silence. They’re delicate yet rich, with a sweet-sugar caramelized crunch to the top, a fluffy interior and a swath of passion fruit sauce.
Back at the buffet, the another rack of lamb is being carved while a chef works three pans at once at the omelet station, sprinkling them with a smattering of chives, a dash of sea salt. Across the room, a couple hovers in front of the bloody mary bar, considering garnishes, while another pair stand at the dessert display, debating mousse vs. brulee. In the spirit of old-school tableside service, Kerbrat is making a party Oysters Alla Czar—oysters topped with caviar and a shot of vodka. “It’s a pullback to Las Vegas to the days when we used to take care of the guests and let them dine and drink,” he says. "You don’t see that in Vegas anymore because it's become so corporate.”
A small boy clutches two cake pops in each hand and swaggers through the dining room like Sinatra, while a woman of a certain age in a tilted fedora sets down her flute of Perrier-Jouet and picks up a shrimp. Another of the “old guys” glides across the dining room bearing a plate of crepes adorned with a birthday candle. Kerbrat sets down the platter of oysters, then steps over to twirl a bottle of Champagne in its silver bucket.
“It’s a terrible way to live, isn’t it?” he asks with a smile. It sure is, Tony, it sure is.