CIPRIANI

I liked the location at once because it was at the end of a dead-end street….This meant that the customers would have to come there on purpose and couldn’t just stop in as they were passing by. That is the way I wanted it. To this day people have to come to Harry’s Bar on purpose. – Giuseppe Cipriani (1900-1980)

You go to Cipriani on purpose. You don’t go because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy. (Venetian cuisine being perhaps the least-traveled of all regional Italian foods.)

The restaurant is there to serve you, but it has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows the aria from Madame Butterfly. It’s been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully since 1931. There is no need for it to change. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like you’ve probably never tasted before.

If you resist this submission you will be disappointed. If your idea of Italian food is Tuscan meatiness, Neapolitan flamboyance, Calabrian heat or Emilia-Romagna-Sicilian-Roman largesse, you may look at your plate and wonder what all the shouting is about. But if you’re open to experiencing the deceptively simple yet hyper-delicious food of the Veneto —  — you will be transported to a cuisine both rustic and refined.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Ernest Hemingway and Giuseppe Cipriani prepare for their hangovers, Venice, 1950)

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas (pronounced chip-ree-AH-NEE LAS VAY-gus) is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that trace their lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice (Italy, not California). Harry’s Bar was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani — the grandfather of the founding family — and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. (Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway were constant habitués, even though they hated each other, and once almost came to blows in the place. Orson Welles and Truman Capote were also regulars, and also hated each other, but the only punches they landed had rum in them.)

Being something of a louche, café society lover myself, I consider it my home away from home whenever I’m in Venice. (Unlike Hemingway, however, I find myself constitutionally incapable of parking six bottles of Amarone in my liver (as he did) every night before bedtime.)

Nevertheless, hanging out at Harry’s Bar has been de rigueur when I’m in town, perhaps in hopes of absorbing a bit of Ernest’s mojo. (In case you’re ever there, the first seat at the bar, by the cash register, is the one with my name on it.) So far, it hasn’t worked — I am also constitutionally incapable of writing short, declarative sentences —  but it’s made me more than a little acquainted with the bottom of a Bellini glass, and what constitutes a definitive seppie in tecia (cuttlefish served in its own ink).

When Arrigo Cipriani (Giuseppe’s son) answered the siren song of expanding and branding Harry’s Bar to other locales in 1989, he chose New York City  – specifically a space on the ground floor of the Sherry Netherland hotel. Then and now, the family considers the name “Harry’s Bar” to be sacrosanct, and chose their last name as the brand for their empire. (Arrigo originally wanted the first Harry’s Bar clone to be called “The Copy” but thankfully someone talked him out of it — no doubt because “Let’s meet at Cipriani” has a much more musical ring to it than “Let’s go grab some ‘Copy’ for lunch.”)

When I was frequenting New York in the early 90s, I found myself perched there many a time, too, although in 1992 I remember the prices to be cripplingly expensive. Now they don’t bother me at all — 30 years of “Eating Las Vegas” having immunized me from any and all restaurant sticker shock.

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani in the world. They stretch from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. This alone probably explains why the quality remains high, and why the food in Las Vegas may be as close to the original as one could ever hope for.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Harry’s Bar)
(Cipriani Las Vegas)

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will.

Arrigo Cipriani, in his written history of Harry’s Bar,  explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes (they and the chairs are about 3″ lower than standard height) and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-seven years on, the details still matter, whether you’re in Las Vegas or one of the other Ciprianis around the world. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized (Arrigo hates big, clunky knives and forks), and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy decor — all polished woods and gleaming brass — makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

And then there is the food. It’s the real deal, not an Americanized version of the idiosyncratic cuisine of Venice, but as pitch perfect as you could hope for thousands of miles from its homeland.

Before you get to it, you will first have a Bellini: a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” Purée them and add the sparkling wine was the answer. He then named it after a 15th Century Venetian painter — Giovanni Bellini — and the world, literally, started beating a path to his bar.

The good news is that those Bellinis are cheaper here! They cost $17.00 in Vegas, and 30 euros in Venice, so have two! (They’re pretty small.)

(A proper carpaccio)

After the Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio: the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani. Only slightly younger than the Bellini, its invention (in 1950) stemmed from some “ravishing countess” telling Giuseppe that she couldn’t eat cooked meat. “No problemo, segnora,” was his reply, “I’ll just pound a raw filet paper thin and dress it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce.” He could have called it anything he liked, but the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio happened to be hanging about Venice at the time (his paintings, at least). Giuseppe loved his bold red and white colors, so “carpaccio” it was, and every raw, flattened piece of food ever since has been stuck with the name.

As with the Bellini, a proper carpaccio couldn’t be any simpler, but as with all unadorned, exquisite things, there is no room for error. The raw ingredients must be impeccable, and their treatment must be precise, the better to let the result transcend the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, as with the martini, bourbon, pizza, sushi, etc., the letter and spirit of the original is honored more in the breach these days.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.)

You’ll find the wine list of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range. Maybe it’s the water of the Venetian Lagoon, or it’s famous fish, but I’ve always found white wines go best with this cuisine…even the meat dishes.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these are what spring to mind when most Americans think “Italian food”.

Venetians love their fine white cornmeal (from the Friuli region) and serve it with everything but pasta and gelato. Good polenta — and at Cipriani it is always good — is much more than mere mush. It stands alone, like great pasta, for its elemental purity and strong sweet flavors of the earth. Polenta is as Venetian as a gondolier and learning to love it is your first step in obtaining your Venetian food diploma.

(Baby artichokes alla Romana)

Of things not to be missed (after that carpaccio) should be an order of baby artichokes “alla Romana” and Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta).

The first will be the best artichokes you have ever eaten — soft, small and delicate — so unlike the woody, giant, indigestible globe artichokes we are stuck with in America.

Americans resist mightily the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich), but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold veal — another exquisite recipe of extreme foreignness to American palates. Vitello tonnato appears on menus from Turin to Trieste, and is an umami-rich, meat-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer.

(Seppie in tecia)

Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by the plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia — a real test of your Venetian food chops — it being a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich.

It would be nice if they could offer some of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea/Venetian Lagoon here (moeche, canoce, barboni, etc.), but a 6,000 distance makes seafood a secondary protein on this menu, rather than its focus. You’ll forget all about the fish, however, as soon as you dive into the pastas.

(Baked tagliatelle with ham)

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two, and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure to any of them could become habit forming.

It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragú as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle — the latter being another must-try signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” (a.k.a. a la meuniere) here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like the Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”:

(Fegato alla Veneziana – liver and onions, Venetian-style)

The Venetians claim to have invented the dish, but as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin. It is true, however, that nobody does it better.” And nobody does it better in Las Vegas than Cipriani. Even if you think you hate liver, you should give it a try.

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease knuckle-dragging Americans) —  but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Something called “YOTTO Japanese Cuisine” is also on the menu, presumably because when people go to an Italian restaurant, what they really want is some Japanese food.

Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-i-est gelato you have ever tasted. No foolin’….it is truly extraordinary gelato, worth a special trip all by itself.

(Best. Gelato. Ever.)

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor horde-imploring. Some people won’t “get it” in the same way people don’t “get” classical music, haiku poetry, new wave cinema, or the lines of a simple black dress. Cipriani is a state of mind. The ease and grace with which it displays its good taste is something new here — refinement and subtlety being to Las Vegas what strippers are to the Piazza San Marco. But there is a seductive reassuring quality to its flavors and its atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. Cipriani is not for everyone. It is for the cognoscenti. You have to go there on purpose.

(Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, with the same menu for both. Most dishes are easily split between two people with apps and pastas running $15-$30, and mains in the $30-$50 range, meaning: a modest lunch or dinner for two can run well under a hundy, or a more extravagant one about $150, excluding booze. My first meal here was comped, my next three have run $72, $200, and $163. They also validate your parking. Anyone who orders “nigiri sushi” here should be (figuratively) shot.)

CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702.770.7390

http://www.cipriani.com/restaurant/?loc=las-vegas

Strip Restaurant of the Year – MICHAEL MINA

Ed. note: This year’s Desert Companion award for Strip Restaurant of the Year goes to an old reliable with a new format.  No matter how it’s presented, the seafood is always impeccably fresh, while the 20 year old restaurant itself has aged like a fine wine. As usual, click here to read about this award in its original format. Bon appetit!

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras.

These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with. Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways.

(Smoked trout with caviar cream)

In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream (above). If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

(Caviar parfait)

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait (pictured above), that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly re-imagined restaurant, they will never go out of style.

Restaurant(s) of the Year 2018

Ed. note: It’s that time of the year, food fans: time for the Desert Companion magazine’s restaurant awards, a.k.a. the only restaurant awards that count. For almost 20 years we’ve been handing these out, and unlike others in our humble burg, these are the result of meticulous eating, research and writing, not plagiarized listicles (Eater, Thrillist), ballot stuffing (the Review-Journal), or crowd-sourced nonsense (Yelp). Since I started to whole shebang back in the late 90s (at KNPR – Nevada Public Radio), I usually get the honor of writing the Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year entries. Back in the day, I was a committee of one, now, the candidates get thoroughly picked over, re-hashed, strained, refined and clarified (by me, Editor Andrew Kiraly, Jim Begley, Greg Thilmont, and Mitchell Wilburn) before the final selections are agreed upon. This was a watershed year for local restaurants and our winners reflect that. As usual, click here to read about all the awards in their original format. Buon gusto!

DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT(S) OF THE YEAR 2018

There couldn’t be just one. Not this year. Not in a year that was a watershed for great kitchen talent emerging in the suburbs. For the first time since I can remember (which goes all the way back to 1981) more great restaurants opened off the Strip than on it. And for the first time since our restaurant revolution began in earnest — twenty years ago with the opening of the Bellagio — all the serious foodies in town were not heading to a big hotel, but to Chinatown or downtown — places hitherto dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration by galloping gastronomes.

It was ten years in the making, this restaurant renaissance — the roots of which can be traced to the great recession of 2008, when real estate values nosedived, and chefs everywhere were thrown on the streets. As that recession hung on, two things happened in Las Vegas: the hotels lost their nerve, and young chefs started getting some. The mojo that enticed everyone from Sirio Maccioni to Pierre Gagnaire to come here gave way to a Strip scene reduced to celebrating warmed-over celebrities and licensing deals. Into this void stepped a few brave souls who wondered why Strip-quality cooking couldn’t succeed with locals. In a town of over two million people, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a thriving local restaurant scene, they thought, and with lots of diners coming of age who wanted the good stuff without all the tourist trappings, it was time for our neighborhood food scene to explode, and explode it has.

In terms of progress, downtown made the biggest jump with Esther’s Kitchen leading the pack. James Trees’ ode to Italy has become ground zero for a neighborhood (the arts district) that went from being little more than a collection of junk shops to a stroll-able, eatable and drinkable area all within the past year. Esther’s doesn’t sound very Italian but that’s exactly what it is–  bombarding you with antipasti, verduras (veggies), handmade pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and a thick, porky porchetta for mavens of meat. As good as they are, it’s those pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines.

Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant scene and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are the pinnacle of pasta porn. All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: satisfy its customers in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(The Three Musketeers)

If downtown came of age in 2018, Chinatown took a European turn. If someone had told me three years ago that this three mile stretch of pan-Pacific eats would be anchored by a French restaurant at one end, and a Spanish one at the other (with an excellent American gastropub – Sparrow + Wolf – in the middle) I would’ve told them to get their head examined. What Executive Chef Yuri Szarzewski, Pastry Chef Vincent Pellerin, and General Manager Nicolas Kalpokdjian (above) have done at Partage is nothing short of phenomenal: transplant a bit of sophisticated France to an all-Asian plaza with a beautiful dining room and drop-your-fork gorgeous food.

Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. Twenty small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit), or a perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow, served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious fried bread. The menu toggles back and forth between small bites and big proteins, with a significant nod given to vegetarians as well. A walk through this door transports you to a place I didn’t think could exist in Las Vegas: elevated French dining in a stunning, casual atmosphere, with a great bar and wine list, all served with flair at a fair price. Bon appetit, indeed.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Our milestone year ended with an olé! From its forty cozy seats to the giant mural dominating one wall to the rolling gin and tonic cart, Edo Tapas & Wine is a jewel box designed to make you fall in love with it from the moment you enter. It arrived at the western end of the Spring Mountain in mid-summer, and announced its serious tapas intentions from the get-go. Things may look unassuming from the front but there’s quite a pedigree behind that door. Chef/owner Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran, as is partner Roberto Liendo. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demands the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas thing may seem like old hat, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.

When it comes to those tapas, just pick and point. Chunky Maine lobster comes “salpicón-style — dressed with “tiger’s milk” — which lightens the richness of the crustacean, while croquetas get that Asian spin with kimchi pisto. After those, the hits just keep on coming: pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime), and something called “Bikini” — wafer-thin, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast. You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here — some are just more spectacular than others. One of the more eye-popping ones is huevos estrellados – a toothsome riff on this Spanish staple — assembling olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers and a melange of mushrooms atop fried potatoes. The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, and the paella is worth a trip all by itself.

By Las Vegas Strip standards, these are small fry, but what they represent for the future of our neighborhoods is a very big deal. Cooking this good — with serious cocktail and wine intentions — was unheard of five years ago outside of the hotels. By opening their doors, these operators announced that Italy, France and Spain (the gastronomic capitals of the western world) have arrived in our backyard. Eating out locally in Las Vegas will never be the same, and we have these three to thank for this tasty state of affairs.