Our experience at American Fish is a good example of all that is glorious and challenging about being ELV.
Glorious, because there aren’t many diners who get to have Michael Mina personally guiding them through and serving them practically the entire menu in a single evening. Difficult, because when a chef is (almost) watching your every bite, and he’s as nice a guy as MM, there’s a tendency to want to swoon and praise every morsel.
The big issue one must confront when perusing the offerings here is how much of the menu is a gimmick and how much of it really matters to the way the seafood is supposed to taste.
We say this because that menu is all about cooking techniques: poached sous vide in Hawaiian sea water(?), baked in sea salt, griddled over cast iron, or grilled and smoked — these are what the menu forces you to pay attention to and to choose between.
So let’s examine each of them within the context of our Meal With Michael, and evaluate their effectiveness…
POACHED IN OCEAN WATER:
If you choose this, you’ll get the same, oddly-textured fish that professional chefs have been foisting on us ever since Thomas (I’m not a culinary god, Ruhlman just treats me like one) Keller published “Under Pressure,” and taught a generation of chefs how to take shortcuts and overcharge for them. What the Hawaiian sea water adds to the equation is anyone’s guess, but MM flies in gallons of it daily so that excellent pieces of John Dory and organic, British Columbia salmon can stew in it (and their own juices) and then attain an identical, denuded, texture. (Fun fish fact: sealing saltwater fish in sea water doesn’t brine them; sealing the same fish in a brine solution of identical salinity does.)
That being said, the flavor of the slab of the John Dory (aka San Pietro) we had was wonderful, as was the hollandaise that Mina personally ladled over the top.
Verdict: An excellent piece of fish that should be prepared another way. But you can’t ask for it another way because each piece is individually sealed in a plastic bag before going into its thermal bath. Pity.
Now, where were we? Oh yes…
GRIDDLED OVER CAST IRON:
Here you get a choice of two fish that are right at home being pan-fried over a camp fire: rainbow trout and sturgeon. Mina didn’t foist the sturgeon upon us, but he wraps his in bacon – probably to disguise the muddy taste of this oddball, bottom-sucker. What he did serve was probably the best piece of rainbow trout ($28) we’ve ever had — cornmeal-crusted, moist and tasting of a sweet, cold, mountain stream. Forget the fact that they’re farmed these days, this fish will restore your faith in fresh water.
Verdict: Fish the way it tasted back in your Boy Scout days…if you lived in Idaho, your scoutmaster was a master chef, and he liked to fly fish.
BAKED IN SEA SALT:
We’re sure the rack of lamb ($44), and the prime rib for two ($120) taste just fine prepared this way, but fish is what we’re here for, and the Tasmanian sea trout ($32) and branzino from Spain ($36) don’t disappoint. That salt doesn’t brine the flesh, but it does hold in moisture while seasoning it ever-so-slightly, and results in such a perfectly-cooked swimmer that you’ll be wondering why everyone doesn’t do it. We also appreciated the way it honors the structural integrity of the fishes’ flesh, and doesn’t turn it into something resembling pre-chewed food. The crispy artichokes and olive oil decorating the plate were also notable for their intensity, and exemplify Mina’s philosophy of providing just enough accent for the fish, but never too much.
Verdict: Sea salt is the new sous vide! ELV can only dream. Sigh.
WOOD-GRILLED AND SMOKED:
Mina’s mustard-marinated black cod may (and should) replace Nobu‘s miso-glaze as the next seafood cliche. Thick, dense, sweet, tangy and simply grilled, it is a piece of fish that even a meat eater can love.
Verdict: Strong swimmers lend themselves to grilling, and Mina knows how to match the muscle with the technique. He’s also a master marinate-or.**
Overall, high marks must be given to three of the four methods of preparation. Things get a little dicier when the apps are approached, but all will be forgiven once you dive into the sides.
Of those apps, we found the crab cake to be over-salted, and the geoduck clam (an acquired visual taste if ever there was one) — done two ways (fried and crudo/sashimi-style) — to be competent but underwhelming. Likewise, the shabu shabu (swish swish) is more trouble than it’s worth. The ingredients were impeccable — perfect, lush hunks of foie, and beautiful, raw Kobe that poached perfectly in the simmering broth — but Mina (as we sometimes have to remind him) is one of the world’s great fish cooks, so we wish he’d stop trying to get us to like his beef.
Imagine Paul Bartolotta bragging about his cassoulet, and you’ll get our drift.
We relayed these thoughts directly to MM as we were eating…and you’ve gotta hand it to the big guy…he took it like a man.
Before we lavish further praise on the rest of our meal (incredible fries, caramelized cauliflower et al) a word or two about the single biggest highlight of the night — grilled Spanish mackerel. Served in a light ginger broth with sea beans, its elegant simplicity demonstrates the tender hand Mina (along with corporate chefs Anthony Carron and Sven Meade) always displays with all things that live in water. There never seems to be too much or too little surrounding the star of on the plate, and the distinctiveness of the species always shines through. Great cooking is knowing how to season something, and knowing when it is done. It’s all about balance, if you will, and Mina and his well-trained troops find a fishes’ fulcrum as well as any brigade in the country.
Each of the aforementioned sides aims for, and hits their all-American targets. We don’t know where Mina got the inspiration for dusting his fries in malt vinegar powder, but the result makes them just about the best spuds on the planet. Likewise, his hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas and brown rice), sweet potato puree, and collard greens update these down-home classics, while retaining the earthiness from whence they sprang. (ELV loves using phrases like “…from whence they sprang,” because it makes him sound like Flo Rogers.)
By now, you’re probably asking yourself why we haven’t mentioned the wine list. That’s because we were inundated with hand-made cocktails most of the night. Most are in the classic mold, and the menu is divided into “shaken” and “stirred and built” sections. No molecular mixology here. These drinks are for purists, and perfect for those who want to know what a real Tom Collins, gimlet or old fashioned tasted like back in the day.
The two desserts tried: Valrhona chocolate custard with chunks of torn brownies garnishing it, and a butternut spice cake with buttermilk panna cotta (concocted by pastry chefs Lincoln Carson and Tanya Reyes), are so good they should be illegal.
When City Center (which is neither a city nor in the center of anything) was being planned, it was only natural that MGM-Mirage food and beverage execs let their stars — Mina, Julian Serrano, the Maccionis et al — expand their empires into the new venue. It’s fairly obvious that each of the restaurateurs was given the mandate to make their menus simpler than their stores in the Bellagio. Mina (now with seventeen restaurants under his belt) has followed the script by making his menu homey (if you can call $36 pieces of fish “homey”), and accessible. No trios, no pirouettes on the plate, just solid ingredients that are respected and cooked with care. American Fish won’t send you away swooning, but its something-for-everyone approach exhibits as much passion and pride of product as any place can that is a corporate restaurant in a behemoth of a hotel.
And let’s face it, Michael Mina doing simplified fish, is still something to behold.
Despite all that simplicity, price points at all Aria eateries are comparable to those in the Bellagio. A three course meal for two with a couple of sides and drinks will run you around $200. ELV’s 19 course/5 cocktail meal was comped.
* Remember ELV’s motto: “All opinions guaranteed or your money back!”
** ELV, of course, has always been a master-debater.
In the Aria Resort and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109