Aria Steak Smackdown

Since the Las Vegas Weekly can only print a couple of snaps of food with every article, here are a few more of our meal at Union Restaurant and Bar and Jean Georges Steakhouse for your precautionary, palate perusal:

Continue reading after the jump if you’d like to read the review(s) in a different format.


One is a huge restaurant, seemingly without walls or windows that opens onto the casino floor. The other is a warren of dark rooms, equally large, but tougher to find on the second floor of this behemoth of a hotel. Each is operated by a restaurant company with major stakes in the steak business. Neither plows any new ground with its concept or menu, but both will do just fine in figuring out how to separate tourists from their cash.

Nothing but a shiny railing separates the groovy design of Union Restaurant and Bar from the casino action (and the people watching), but the place is so big (240 seats) that you will feel as if you’re dining alone even if you’re sharing the space with a hundred other carnivores. UR&B is the newest offering from The Light Group — known for serving beef and interesting appetizers in hip surroundings.

TLG started as a nightclub company, but has since opened several satisfying steak emporiums (FIX, STACK and BRAND), as well as Yellowtail, in several upscale hotels. Corporate Executive Chef Brian Massie is known for jazzing up everything from sliders to beanie weenies, and making mundane munchies sexy for the party-as-a-verb-crowd.

We’ve always found Massie’s food at is other joints to be fun – his pigs in a blanket, and steak “hot rocks” at STACK are legendary – but our four starters here were disappointments. Neither of the two soups – the white clam “chowda” and roasted tomato — were conceived with subtlety in mind, and both were so thick you could stand a spoon in them. Both are just fine, though, if you like your food to (literally) stick to your ribs.

Equally disappointing was the “Union Signature Crispy Duck” — a small pile of semi-dry, shredded duck meat and skin, accompanied by ultra thin Chinese pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce for making your very own Peking-style duck. The small portion is $35 and will easily serve four as starters, but the time and trouble of making your own food is not worth it when the end product is this tepid.

What the “King Crab Scampi” lacks in finesse it makes up for in bulk. Four huge chunks of crab leg meat are placed atop individual crab leg shells – each lined with a cracker mush and topped with minced bacon braised in butter. Artful it is not, but $18 gets you plenty of bites of sweet crabmeat, and is probably the best deal among the apps.

Things improve when you get to the main point of your meal. Our American Kobe flat iron steak ($44) was perfectly cooked, and full of the mineral-rich flavor an expensive steak should have, and the dry-aged, bone-in filet ($48) was a baseball-sized hunk of tender beef was about as good as a filet can get.

Of the two sauces tried, the classic Bordelaise was deeply imbued with beef demi-glaze and red wine flavors and chunks of intense marrow floating throughout the sauce, but the béarnaise tasted of hollandaise – which is to say it needed more tarragon.

For dessert, nothing is too fancy, but they do justice to staples like Key Lime pie, warm Mexican churros, apple pie (with a fabulous maple pecan ice cream), and five “pudding pops” of fine frozen flavors (milk chocolate, butterscotch, vanilla, peanut butter and banana).

Since things steadily improved during our meal, and ended on those dessert high notes, so we left with smiles on our faces. Had the appetizers been stronger, Union Restaurant and Bar might crack The Light Group’s top tier. As it is, it’s probably doing exactly what its lease with MGM-Mirage is telling it to – give the post-baby boom generation a steak place in which to see and be scene.

Upstairs, its competitor, the Jean Georges Steakhouse, is playing for higher stakes. Not only has this vaunted Alsatian-American chef (Jean-Georges Vongerichten) already dazzled Las Vegas with one of its biggest culinary hits – Prime – he’s also revered the world over as chef’s chef . When he opened Prime eleven years ago, it was one of his first forays outside New York. Vongerichten has since expanded his empire the world over, and this place is now just another link in his chain.

It’s a shame that a chef of Vongerichten’s reputation doesn’t bother dry-aging at least some of his steaks (like they do at Union and at other premium steakhouses like CUT, Carnevino, Nero’s, Delmonico and Craftsteak). That being said, the wet-aged, bone-in rib-eye (18 oz. – $50) was charred to a fare thee well, and was mighty tasty, but it lacked the dense, complex minerality a true steak connoisseur expects.

Highlighting the steak were three splendid sauces – a whipped béarnaise, soy-miso, and hot mustard – that were more complex and finely tuned than those at Union. (At Union, the sauces are $5 each, here there’s no charge.) After years of eating his food at Prime, we’ve decided Chef de Cuisine Robert Moore doesn’t know how to make a second rate sauce.

Even more stunning than the steak was the Chilean sea bass under a miso-yuzu glaze that set off the sweetness of this swimmer swimmingly. Lovers of that old warhorse tuna tartare will find this version more than acceptable – mixed with puffed rice and avocado, seasoned with some real kick, and bathed in a soy-ginger dressing.

We weren’t as keen as the side of a Comte cheese “fritter” showered with shavings of black truffle that brought nothing to the party. Its price tag alone ($12) alerts you that the truffles used are hardly of the best quality.

For dessert, we only ordered one: the molten chocolate cake, to see if Vongerichten is still on his game when it comes to one of his iconic creations. He is, and you can pretty much consider this the definitive version of this time worn treasure.

For years we’ve said every restaurant in Las Vegas would be a steakhouse if it could. Mr. and Mrs. Dubuque still get excited about big slabs o’ beef, Chilean sea bass, crab legs, iceberg lettuce salads, fried calamari, shrimp cocktails and tuna tartares, but to the foodie world, these tired formulas are the culinary equivalents of General Motors – wheezing and puffing their way to gastronomic bankruptcy while their acolytes remain oblivious to the food revolution around them.

We expected more from two restaurateurs known for playful innovation, and razor sharp concepts. What we got was the same old, same old, in updated surroundings. Mr. and Mrs. Dubuque will no doubt eat this stuff up. Both restaurants should be big successes.

Both restaurants are open for dinner only.

Union Restaurant and Bar: Appetizers $13-$18; Mains $28-$58; Desserts $9.

Jean Georges Steakhouse: Appetizers: $13-$32; Mains $36-$78; Desserts $10.

9 thoughts on “Aria Steak Smackdown

  1. bread bowl soup????? really, you sure you wernt at marie callenders!!!!

    time warp to the 80’s!

  2. Did they not bring you marrowbones at J-G? Did you not try the sable fish? Pity…

    Boo! on charging $5 for sauces…

    Just had a practically perfect 28-day dry aged CAB bone-in ribeye at Envy last nite myself. ;-)

  3. Hardly any of the food at Union looks attractive. While I occasionally like my Boudin sourdough bread bowl soup (which, btw, I’ll have to get when I’m in Cali next weekend), even I’m a little underwhelmed at seeing a supposedly “hipster” Light Group joint like Union making bread bowl soup that makes Boudin’s look groundbreaking. I’m also a big mac & cheese fan, but theirs isn’t looking all that visually appetizing to me.

    And sadly, Jean Georges only looks marginally more attractive… And for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, that just doesn’t cut it. I guess I shouldn’t be judging this book by its cover too much, so maybe I’ll goad my dad or a friend into going with me some time to try it out. As long as there are at least a few vegetarian options, I’ll survive.

    At least those desserts at the end look good, especially that molten chocolate cake! :-)

  4. “We weren’t as keen as the side of a Comte cheese “fritter” showered with shavings of black truffle that brought nothing to the party. Its price tag alone ($12) alerts you that the truffles used are hardly of the best quality.”

    this line alone shows amatuer reviewing, considering this restaurant is about numbers and quality. why would you think they would put fresh on app, that if they did, you would bitch it was $50 bucks.

    so which way do you want it, approachable, or robuchon style.

    also to mention, you dont know much about truffle considering an oz (28.35 grams) of fresh will run you about 45 dollars these days and if it was fresh each paper thin slice would probally cost roughly 40 cents max and thats for french tuber melanosporum, let alone summer truffle is much less, so do the math for an app portion before criticizing a restaurants choice on truffle, at least its not Chinese.

    but it looks like we have a food cost expert now, one week its sousvide, next week its seasonality, this week its truffle and in the coming week it will be stainless steal vs alluminum saute pans.

  5. Would you be able to tell it was or wasn’t melanosporum if you weren’t told or lied to, and if it wasn’t melanosporum, that doesn’t make what truffle used inferior.each varierty has its own vibe that makes it unique.
    It wasn’t chinese and not everyone has a white truffle budget to spend.
    You being the town food guru should know that many people that live and visit this city are trying truffle and other culinary items for the first time so there’s a balance of making things approachable and affordable, and eating truffle once regardless of variety a diner will not understand truffle, just like wine, olive oil or anything of variety.
    So your opinion of no flavor is biased, because you couldn’t name the truffle used, or even mention the preperation. Your just speaking from a white truffle budget state of mind.

  6. A few days ago I had the best ribeye I’ve eaten in a very very long time at JG. I think the grill uses Hickory wood.

  7. f&b master, could you name the species of truffle used??? tuber aestivum, tuber brumale, tuber indicum??

    i would bet my left nut that you couldnt tell the difference between any of them, along with 90% of the chefs in this town!!! truffle merchants have been mixing summer and winter truffles for years to make more money, once you put a summer truffle next to an aromoatic winter truffle, you cant really tell the difference until you shave into it.

    i assume the staff knew who elv was and added a nice pile of truffle for effect, either way get off your high horse about being a first culinary experience, in vegas chefs will add anything to the name of a dish to get more money!!! SHIT is SHIt no matter how you package it!!!!

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