THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC – The Struggle is Real

“Kitchen at Atomic Sticking With Elevated Cuisine” read a recent headline. The article asked, primarily, how can you have an upscale restaurant right next to a dive bar? The point of the piece, if there was a point, read like the author was throwing a publicity bone to a place he wishes would quit with the fancy stuff.

But the point of The Kitchen at Atomic is not to be fancy, it’s simply to be good. Not burger and fries good, but foodie good, interesting good — the kind of chef-driven good that packs them into gastropubs from Boston to San Diego Bay. The kind of excellence that still struggles to find an audience in Las Vegas.

And the struggle is real. Because people struggle with the idea of paying for good food here. Mass-produced franchise food and soulless shopping malls create a race to the bottom for pricing, which puts local restaurants on their back foot from the jump.  (I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “Why should I pay $20 for something I can get for 15 at ____?”) Even when intrepid gastronauts take a place to their bosom (Esther’s Kitchen, Sparrow+Wolf, EATT), there’s not enough of them to go around.

The City of Las Vegas estimates that to hit critical mass for a vibrant downtown, you need 50,000 gainfully-employed people living there. Right now the number is around 5,000. God bless ’em (both the City and the residents), because they’re doing what they can to create a vibrant social, cultural and gastronomic scene between Charleston and Fremont Street, but there’s only so much discretionary income those 5K folks can spread among the restaurants vying for their attention.

The real issue comes down to this: Do enough people want a real restaurant on East Fremont Street? Not finger food, not another cocktail lounge, and not, god forbid, another uncomfortable, loud-as-fuck hipster hangout — but a real down-to-earth bar/restaurant serving coursed out food with good drinks.  You know, the way grownups eat.

Let’s analyze the data to (try to) answer this question. And by “analyze the data” I mean share the opinions springing feverishly from my brain as I type these words.

The Kitchen at Atomic began two years ago as an adjunct to Atomic Liquors — an über-cool, laid back cocktail/beer bar (above) with a steady clientele of Millennials, and a smattering of Gen Xrs. Like most things Millennial, half the people at AL look like they’re there for a purpose (quality imbibing, hooking up), while the rest look like they showed up because the ‘gram told  them to. Most of the AL crowd looks like it’s more at home discussing session beers and saison ales than it does the fine points of hamachi crudo, or the piquancy of a yogurt-herb vinaigrette as it plays off the herbaceousness of fresh English peas.

Atomic Liquors was an old bar given new life six years ago by owner Lance Johns. It retains the feel of a place Charles Bukowski might’ve called home in the 60s, but its craft cocktails and PhD beer program make it more like a run-down jalopy with a shiny new turbocharged engine under the hood. It operates on many levels — old Vegas icon, new Vegas hangout — and has an avid following of both locals and tourists.

TKAA resides in the shiny renovated space adjacent to AL. In a previous life it used to be a gas station. In its present incarnation, it will strike you as as a sleek and somewhat cold industrial space — no more than 50 feet from its louche neighbor next door. The incongruity lies with these two co-joined siblings existing in two separate universes. At AL, you drink; at TKAA the food is the star. And quite a star it is, even if the drunks next door don’t know it.

The menu checks all the right boxes as a destination restaurant — marrow, long beans, cured fish, charcuterie platter, artisanal greens — with appetizers hinting at the kitchen’s creativity, and mains driving the point home.  The attention to detail given to those beans, or a cold cucumber/grape gazpacho, announce a new level of cooking for downtown, and offering a whole fish at market price is a bold move indeed for a neighborhood still pockmarked with vacant lots and tattoo parlors.

(Marrow me; beet me)

Glistening knobs of quivering marrow may be as foreign to East Fremont Street as a hooker with teeth, but you’ll forget where you are as you slather these jewels of adipose protein on the gorgeous, nutty toasted bread served with them.  Grilled halloumi cheese may not fit with the neighborhood either, but the squeaky fromage will fit just fine as an appetizer for four. Raw seafood is everywhere these days, but the crudo, or denser, cured, striped bass, are both light and punch-packing — either with chili lime, or sumac and sherry vinegar.

(How green was my salad? Pretty friggin’ green.)

“Spring has sprung” were the words dancing in my head as I wolfed down the tumble of crunchy greenery called the Spring pea salad (above), while “clams to beat the band” was my mantra for the colorful array of grilled, sweet shellfish frosted with breadcrumbs and tinged with Fresno chili (below). In my lexicon of least favorite eats, raw veggie salads rank somewhere between frosted cupcakes and gummy hummus, but I found myself grooving on every bite of those snappy greens. The clams are simply in a class by themselves. You won’t find a better version of baked bivalves, on or off the Strip.

(Beauteous bivalves)

In many a gastropub, the larger the format, the worse the food gets — big proteins lacking the sexiness of high-concept tweezer food to some chefs. Not so to newly -installed Executive Chef Jackson Stamper, who seems to lavish just as much attention on pan-seared cauliflower steak and grilled swordfish as he does on his starters. I liked the menu of his predecessor, but the food now feels more focused, and the platings are prettier.

The biggest of his big boys is the Creekstone Farms dry-aged rib eye (at the top of the page). It’s priced by the ounce, and around $80 will get you enough mineral-tinged properly stored steer to feed four hungry souls. It may not have the iron-y tang and Roquefort-like zing of super-aged beef, but you won’t find a better steak within three miles of this one.

(Peak pork perfection)

And then there’s the rum-brined chop (above) — a dulcet compaction of pork so luscious and savory you will re-think your prejudices against this usually boring entree. Broccoli rabe, rum jus and mustard seeds complete the picture, and you’ll be tempted to graze upon another one as soon as it’s gone.

Desserts are more elemental and less chef-y than the savories. The deconstructed apple pie is a nice twist on an old standard, and the Guinness chocolate cake (below, really more like a dense, lacquered brownie), will have you reflexively polishing it off in defiance of all common dietary sense.

They seemed to have dialed back the beer and wine list, but it’s still interesting and well-priced — probably not enough for a true oenophile, but certainly so for the clientele. I won’t bother praising the top shelf cocktails because a bad mixed drink is now harder to find in Las Vegas than a good mixed drink used to be.

(Just what the doctor didn’t order)

Two years on, The Kitchen seems to have hit its stride. The talent is there, and the cooking is there, but will it be enough? Here is a restaurant that is doing almost everything right — from the bar to the service to the decor and to the food. Will it find its audience? Is there enough audience to find? Publicus down the street (with the most unwelcoming location in town) is packed all the time. Hatsumi (a stone’s throw across the street) seems to have hit a home run. But neither of them is a traditional, three-course restaurant. Are Millennials (the only customers that count downtown) ready to embrace this place?

Who knows? I’ve been at this too long to make any predictions. What I do know is that Las Vegas is in a constant battle with itself. The chefs and owners and food lovers — folks who really care about what they put in their mouths — desperately want downtown to become another Seattle or Denver….but you look around some days and realize we’re barely beating Bakersfield.

We are in the middle of another boom to be sure, and East Fremont and the Arts District are now on everyone’s radar. Will there be enough customers to sustain not just TKAA but all of these businesses? Or will there be a regression to the mean?

Las Vegas doesn’t need anymore average anything. (That’s what Henderson is for.) But mediocrity is still what sells. Only time will tell.

(Apps run $15-$20; mains from $25-$30; and sides $6-$8. Dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $125. The rib eye is at least 30% less than you would pay for a comparable cut on the Strip, and worth every penny.)

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC

927 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.534.3223

 

Father’s Day…is for Feasting!

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A maudlin, insincere printed card…means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman [or man] who has done more for you than anyone else in the world. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card. – Anna Jarvis on Mother’s Day

Even when my dad was alive, neither of us was into the whole “Father’s Day” thing.

I have two sons, neither of whom is much into the whole “Father’s Day” thing, either.

My family has always considered the whole Mother’s Day thing fairly ridiculous, too.

Face it: If you need a special day of the year to appreciate your parents, then I feel sorry for you…and your parents.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which is wholly a 20th century American invention (completely disavowed by its inventor, Anna Jarvis, btw), Father’s Day goes back to the Middle Ages. (Perhaps in those less scientific times, men needed a day of the year to take stock of all the seed they had sown. Or maybe, it was just one more acknowledgment of society’s patriarchal dominance, as if anyone needed reminding that cocks and balls controlled things in 1557.)

Mother’s Day got corrupted by the floral industry, greeting card manufacturers, and later, restaurants. It remains an absurdity of our culture fueled by guilt and dime store sentimentality.

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Father’s Day, thankfully, doesn’t keep Hallmark in business. Ugly ties, golf gear, and preserved horse turds are more its thing.

Dad’s Day has something else going for it, too: it’s a fine day to go out to eat.

On Mom’s special day, everyone and their brother is falling all over themselves to take “Mom” out to eat. This tradition started presumably because “Mom” was slaving away at the stove the other 364 days of the year. (How many moms slave away at a stove these days?)

Giving mom a day off from kitchen duty was the whole point behind taking her out to eat one day a year; now it’s as obsolete as June Cleaver baking cookies in her pearls.

It’s precisely because everyone goes out to eat on Mother’s Day, that it’s the worst day of the year to do so. Kitchens are stressed to the max, menus are dumbed-down, and service is invariably atrocious. Anyone who goes out to eat on Mother’s Day is a fool. If your mom (or your family) insists, do yourselves a favor: take her out to eat some other day. Problem solved.

Father’s Day is just the opposite. It’s business as usual for restaurants, because, presumably, no one is trying to give every friggin’ dad in American a day off from their (non-existent) kitchen chores. Father’s Day is all about bonhomie and thanking pops for having sex with mom and sticking around after having done so.

So do dad a favor this Sunday: take him out to eat at a real, manly man restaurant where he can indulge all his dad impulses and appetites, and all of you will feel better, not worse, for the experience.

To help you with this pleasant chore, I’ll make some suggestions, as I did last week on News 3 Las Vegas. Here I am in all my book-shilling, pants-bulging glory:

And here is a longer list of ideas where you should take dear old dad, if you want to show him how much you love him. If you don’t love him, take him to a buffet.

(Rum-brined pork chop at Kitchen at Atomic)

Foodie Dad: The Kitchen at Atomic

Pizza Dad: Pizzeria Monzú

Dad’s Day Brunch: HEXX Las Vegas

Vegetarian Dad: Shiraz Las Vegas

Burger Lovin’/Beer Swillin’ Dad: BBD’s Las Vegas – Beers Burgers Desserts

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (that didn’t make it into the TV segment, obviously, due to time constraints):

Barbecue Dad: SIN CITY SMOKERS or Mabel’s BBQ LV

Taco Dad: Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer or Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

Pasta Dad: The Factory Kitchen or Esther’s Kitchen

(Nordic waffles? Ja! At Saga Pastry.)

Viking Dad: Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Greek God Dad: Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Frito Bandito Dad: Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant

D-Day Dad: Ohlala French Bistro or Eatt Gourmet Bistro or Partage

Fit to be Thai’d Dad: Lamaii or Weera Thai Kitchen

Price is No Object Dad: Vetri Cucina LV

José Andrés Fan Dad: Jaleo or Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres at SLS Las Vegas

Wino Dad: MordeoLV or Marche’ Bacchus French Bistro & Wine Shop

(Jon BonJovi totally approves of taking your dad to Mr. Coco for a cocktail)

Cocktail Dad: Mr.Coco LV

Cocktail Dad (Reggae/Dreadlocks/Rum Swillin’ Version): Jammyland

(Café Berlin is the wurst place you can take your father)

Wurst Dad: Café Berlin

Steak Lovin’ Dad: Manzo At Eataly Las Vegas

Sushi Dad (Purist): Yui EdomaeSushi or Kabuto

Sushi Roll Dad: Soho Japanese Restaurant or Sushi Hiroyoshi

(Salmon skin tacos at The Black Sheep)

Fusion Food Dad: Japañeiro or The Black Sheep

Dim Sum Dad: New Asian Bbq or Ping Pang Pong The Chinese Kitchen

Dessert Dad: Sweets Raku

Yarmulke Dad: New York Bagel and Bakery

Happy Father’s Day to all you motherf*ckers out there!

THE BLACK SHEEP

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Jamie Tran is no bigger than a goi cuon. Her restaurant isn’t that large, either (50 seats), but between the two of them, these pocket dynamos are pioneering neighborhood dining in a big way.

The Black Sheep‘s modest dimensions belie its ambitions. Within you’ll find a small bar towards the back and a loyal following of local foodies who have turned this unassuming storefront (in another soulless shopping mall, natch) into a a mecca for a unique blend of Asia-meets-American eats.

The restaurant is named after Tran’s familial nickname, but meeting her, you’ll have a hard time wondering where that reputation came from. Tran is as bubbly as a glass of Prosecco, with a smile as wide as one of her luscious, cross-cultural pancakes. She can talk your ear off about food, family, or the fun she has running this restaurant, and the enthusiasm she brings to the conversation can be tasted on the plate. That a female chef this young has made such a big splash on our local restaurant scene is no small feat.

(Honey, toast me some hot chicken)

Calling her food all over the map is an understatement. But this is one time the term “fusion food” fits. Tran takes salmon skins (at the top of the page) and turns them into tacos; perfumes her duck confit with lemongrass; and punctuates Indonesian corn fritters with mango salsa. There’s not a metaphor she doesn’t like to mix, which may first strike you as odd, but after a bite or two, as you’ll be calling it spot-on delicious in a “I never thought of that” sort of way.

Dishes as diverse as duck prosciutto salad, Thai basil shrimp ceviche, and “hot chicken”  on honey toast all come at you from multiple directions, but once in the mouth, they all make sense. Tran is playing with her food, to be sure, but she’s equally at home sautéing vegan Vietnamese noodles, deep-frying a whole trout, and braising a lamb belly…after spicing very French flageolet with the scents of Vietnam.

(Picky palates prefer puffy pancakes)

If that’s not enough to pique your palate, then there’s her brunch — a meal most of us epicureans love to hate. The most confusing of meals (booze for breakfast? dessert for lunch?) is usually caloric and boring beyond words. Somehow, in the Tran oeuvre, it achieves angles of interest — from the ordinary to the oblique — that will keep you fascinated.

The ordinary starts with old reliables like challah French toast and chicken and waffles, which quickly announce themselves as anything but old hat standards. The eggy-yet-light toast gets a brandy syrup bath, eggs Benedict lie over meltingly-rich, soft ropes of lemongrass short ribs, and Tran’s hot chicken goes full kaarage — managing a sweethotsoftcrunch from chicken set off by mustard seeds, fermented cabbage, and sriracha.

You can also go with traditional steak and eggs here (Creekstone Farms beef being topped and a fried egg), or a perfect soufflé pancake (above), or watch Tran indulge her heritage with deep-fried Vietnamese Imperial rolls, given a boost with better ingredients (Duroc pork, briny shrimp) than you’ll ever find in a same old same old pho parlor.

Image may contain: food(Bao before me)

If there’s a signature dish on the menu, it’s probably the hot chicken, but the crackling Imperial rolls, and bao sliders (above) — made with housemade pork sausage — give it a run for your money.

The sausage gets its kick from fish sauce, the sliders cover all the flavor bases with their adornment of oozing quail egg, crispy shallots, and jalapeño-spiked aioli. You won’t find a more soothing mini-bite anywhere in Vegas.

They do serious cocktails here, too (doesn’t everyone these days?), but bargain-hunting oenophiles know the wine list is the real libation star. Owner Andy Hooper is obviously on a mission to bring good bottles at affordable prices to his ‘hood, which explains Veuve Cliquot champagne at $95, and Gaja ‘Promis’ for $90 — marked up at double the wholesale price, not triple the retail, like they do eight miles to the east. By-the-glass offerings all hover in the $10 range, and there’s even a selection of funky amaros for Italophiles who are into that sort of thing (like yours truly).

Image may contain: food(Mexican-Vietnamese is a thing? Who knew?)

Tran does double duty as pastry chef in a tiny kitchen that used to be a sandwich shop, so desserts tend to be limited in number. When she’s doing it, the chocolate tres leches cake (above, beneath a bird’s nest of chocolate thatch)  is not to be missed, nor should you pass on her macarons, cheesecake or persimmon bread pudding.

The Black Sheep calls itself a “New American Kitchen,” but it’s not like any American kitchen you’ve ever been in, or Vietnamese one, for that matter. What it is is American food filtered through the sensibilities of an Asian American who is equally at home blending the two cultures on a plate. In doing so, Jamie Tran is paying homage to both cuisines, and inventing a new vocabulary of restaurant food. She’s not the only chef doing it (Khai Vu at Mordeo and Kevin Chong at Japañeiro also spring to mind), but she’s one of the few doing it in Las Vegas. (No one on the Strip has the gumption or the chops to try to duplicate these highly personal brands of hybrid deliciousness.)

The Black Sheep is much more revolutionary than people realize. It is the direction in which all American food is headed. We are a deeply cross-pollinated society and our cuisine should reflect that. More and more it does, and chefs like Jamie Tran are leading the way.

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(Starters run $6-$12, with mains in the $15-$30 range. Two people can dine very well here with a good bottle of wine or a few drinks for well under $150 — half that if you share a couple of dishes. Brunch is a steal for cooking this good.)

THE BLACK SHEEP

8680 W. Warm Springs Road

Las Vegas, NV 89148

702.954.3998