LAS VEGAS BETS BIG ON ITSELF in John Mariani’s The Virtual Gourmet
ELV note: The following article, penned by you-know-who, was published on John Mariani’s website late yesterday. Avid ELV readers (and you know who you are!) will recognize some of the prose and observations as having appeared on this website in the past few months. Click on the link above to read it in its original format or continue below for the whole enchilada.
After a few shaky years when further development of Las Vegas had been shut down by the recession, hope still springs eternal. Last year Aria Resort and Casino opened, with a slew of good restaurants that included Sage, Julian Serrano, Sirio, and American Fish. The next big thing in Las Vegas is here and it’s called The Cosmopolitan, which opened over New Year’s Eve.
On the third floor of this über-hip joint is a circle of six, upscale restaurants (Comme Ça, Scarpetta, D.O.C.G., STK, Blue Ribbon, Milos, and Jaleo) that are all within a stone’s throw of each other, and a lot more casual eateries throughout. Locals are already calling it the Ultimate Gourmet Food Court, and it seems to have kindled the flame for food-focused (as opposed to celebrity-chef-focused), restaurants. Although, to be fair, each of them, with the exception of José Andrés’ China Poblano and Holstein’s one floor below, are off-shoots of the same concepts in other cities.) Regardless, this opening may well signal another epicurean wave, similar to Bellagio’s chefs surge in 1998, and the arrival of the French Connection (Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy) in 2005-2006.
Here’s a look at (some of) The Cosmopolitan’s new entries in the Vegas dining sweepstakes.
3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South
“In Spain and Europe, even middle-class people are proud to spend their money on the best, fresh food from farmers and fisherman. But too many people here [read: Americans] have gotten spoiled and now want everything cheap.” So said José Andrés (one of the chefs with the most food cred in America right now) to me as we discuss the most remarkable restaurant to open in Las Vegas in the past five years. Essentially, that restaurant is his competition — sitting as it does a stone’s throw from Jaleo (his new spot) across the third floor of The Cosmopolitan — in what will soon be called The Ultimate Gourmet Food Court by every gastronome in America. “When you consider the freshness and quality he is bringing to the table, his prices aren’t really that high at all,” Andrés offers, as he cuts up a quickly-fried egg for me and mixes it with Spanish caviar. “It is the way people who care about what they eat do around the world. Americans just need to be taught.”
Our conversation was about Estiatorio Milos, taking place while José is (literally) dashing to and fro, kibbitzing with customers, gently berating waiters, and rushing by my spot at the tapas bar to pop the occasional deep-fried quail egg with artichoke or molecular olive into my mouth. The effect is like trying to interview Andrés Iniestia during a soccer match, but in between his Spanish-flecked patter and good-natured ribbing of this restaurant writer, he is full of admiration for what Chef-owner Costas Spiliadis is doing across the hall.
What he’s referring to is the conceit that underlies both his restaurant and Milos — that of exquisite food meant to be shared. Both restaurants eschew the “I’ll have the Dover sole” form of ordering in favor of making the ordering and eating of everything a communal experience. While Jaleo may trumpet its wacky, fabulous tapas served in a blizzard of small plates, Milos, as befitting the standard bearer for the culture that founded Western Civilization, prefers a more formal approach. Both restaurants are best experienced in groups of three to six– the better to enjoy a variety of the bounty they offer, and at Milos, it’s also the best way to get the most bang for your buck.
Consider this: a whole, three-pound fish will run your table around $150. (They don’t serve fillets here, believing rightly, that flavor and freshness is lost by cutting up a fish before it is cooked.) Split two ways, both the cost and the amount of fish is more than the average couple would want to spend. Bring one or two more hungry souls to the table, though, and that pristine pisces now costs no more than the average strip steak. The same holds true for the appetizers and salads. The Eipirotaki salad — a major mound of sliced cabbage dotted with dill, Bleu des Causses, and orange slices — seems expensive at $16.50, but not if you split it four ways–and there is plenty to feed four. Thus are all items on this menu made for a table of at least three adults, making the price/person more than reasonable — especially in the realm of high-end dining with such impeccable provisions.
Once you bite into a perfect piece of charred, slightly chewy octopus, or dip your lightly fried eggplant into a thick, tangy tzatziki sauce from another planet. Paper thin, fried zucchini accompany the eggplant in the “Milos Special,” along with cubes of Graviera cheese saganaki. Crunch, cheese, yogurt and vegetables effectively becoming a celebration of all that is good and holy about the Mediterranean diet. Follow these with a platter of four spreads (tzatziki, fava, lemony hummus, and a silky taramosalata) and you’ll start getting with the Peloponnesean program.
That program consists of a deceptively simple, two-page menu, with eleven appetizers on the left side, five salads and vegetables on the right, two Creekstone Farms steaks, Gleason Ranch lamb chops, and a single heading that says simply, “From The Sea.” Under that heading are the entries: fish in sea salt, and Astakomakaronada (an Athenian lobster pasta for two that will set you back a cool $120). But the deliciousness of this place is in the fine print at the bottom of the menu, that refers you to Milos’ “display” — the huge fish/seafood/vegetable counter against the far wall, beside the open kitchen, where the day’s catch is displayed for you to peruse and choose from.
Before you get to them, though, one appetizer is mandatory: avgotaraho aikieroto, aka bottarga, the famed roe of the Mediterranean gray mullet. One of the world’s great delicacies, you will neither find nor taste a better version of this briny, nutty, haunting essence of the sea. Not too bad a deal for $32.
Of the whole fish, they beckon to you like Poseidon’s soldiers, begging to be eaten so their sacrifice was not in vain. After you are seated, your waiter will ask if you’d like to view the display — a cagey marketing move bent on capturing an already captive audience — and will take you through the pedigree of each fish as if each were a personal friend. Clear-eyed with glistening skin, each species is a wonder of the edible ocean so prized by seafood aficionados. Order the lavraki (loup de mer) roasted under a crust of Mediterranean sea salt (yes, even the salt comes from a certain supplier prized by Spiliadis), and you will get the whole show from Executive Chef Pericles Koskinas as he carefully chips away the crust, then rolls back that skin without breaking it, before portioning out the dense-but-soft, fragrant flesh. A few capers and a lemon/olive oil emulsion of unmatched intensity is all you need to appreciate your piece of perfection.
Most of these swimmers are also offered raw, and while the presentation won’t make any sushi chef jealous, the sparkling fineness of the meat will have you questioning what you ever saw in tuna tartare.
Landlubbers will feel right at home as well, since the provenance of the lamb chops (Gleason Ranch Sonoma) and the beef (Creekstone Farms) is as impeccable as their seasoning and roasting. We were lying in the weeds for those chops, expecting the same old, denuded, tasteless lamb that has become de rigueur in American restaurants ever since New Zealand figured out a way to sell frozen lamb by making it taste like de-natured beef. Instead, a big platter of chops arrived (again, enough for four), just to the medium side of rare — instead of the other way around — best showcasing their intense, lamb-ness.
There is a serene elegance to Milos, whose original is in Montreal and branches in NYC and Athens, that strikes as soon as you enter the low-ceilinged, softly lit space, and continues throughout every refined, discriminating ingredient and taste placed before you. From a simple plate of lemon-grilled heli (eel) to the sweetest, thickest, creamiest goat’s milk yogurt circled with the best, thyme-infused honey you have ever tasted, this cuisine walks the walk of the best ingredients treated with the utmost respect.
3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South
The most interesting thing about Comme Ça (pronounced “kohm sah,” meaning “like that”) is that it isn’t afraid to challenge nearby Bouchon and Mon Ami Gabi at their own game, that is, classic French bistro food. That Comme Ça thinks it can do so within a stone’s throw of one and just a half mile from the other is a testament to the confidence of a baby-faced Californian chef named David Myers. After contemplating all this Gallic competition, you’ll next notice CC’s classic menu — straight from the Rive Gauche in Paris: steak frites, omelets, soupe à l’oignon, steak tartare, that is a dead ringer for much of the same fare at the other two. The third thing you’ll notice is the more aggressive seasonings Myers brings to that highly similar fare, like his steak tartare, and finally, after noticing all of those things, you’ll see that everything seems to be being done on a slightly higher, and tastier plane than at Mon Ami Gabi (no small feat that), and can compete, tartare to tartare with anything Bouchon can throw at you.
After you’ve taken notice of all that, then swooned over your crispy skate wing Grenobloise — sharply accented by capers and lemon, and bathed in brown butter — and sat up and savored every last lardon in your salad frisée, you’ll get knocked out by how fantastic the burger and fries are. Those fries are twice-fried in peanut oil, crisping them to a fare thee well, while allowing a strong potato flavor to burst from within. Dusted with some fleur de sel, they are as addictive as any fries in town and could foil Bouchon’s in a french fry face-off. That burger is a flat out, mineral-rich, beefy, juicy delight, on a gorgeous lacquered bun, and dripping with good cheese. In a town now dripping with good ground beef, it is one of the best.
Equally arresting are the chicken diable and cheesy onion soup, along with a tarte flambé that even Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys would have to admire. When a dining companion ordered the chicken diable at one of our lunches, we scoffed at her pedestrian choice. Two bites later, and we were converts: its peppery crust might not pass muster in Paris (Parisians run away at the mere mention of a hot pepper), but provides a nice, multi-cultural kick to a superior piece of chicken meat. The basil and mustard sauces might also curl a Frenchman’s toes, but were carefully rendered and disappointing only in there not being more of them.
I admit to being a little biased towards bistro food – having probably spent more time in Parisian bistros that most people spend in restaurants their entire lives — but to these taste buds, it is the best everyday food in the world, and Myers’ renditions of these classics are so spot on, you could take them to the Left Bank. By the way, CC is an offshoot of the Los Angeles original.
AND ONE MORE OFF THE STRIP. . .
5030 W.Spring Mountain Rd #2
The three questions I hear most as a restaurant critic are: How did you become one, how many times a week do you eat out, and, how do you not weigh 300 pounds? There is almost always a fourth question that follows closely on the heels of those three and it is: What is the best restaurant off the Strip? For the record, the answers are: It’s a long story, ten times a week, and I have the metabolism of a hummingbird. The answer to the fourth question is easy: Aburiya Raku.
The name means “Charcoal House Enjoyment,” and from the minute it opened in May, 2008, gourmands of all stripes have flocked here to taste Chef/owner Mitsuo Endo’s precise renderings of robata-cooked food. For the uninitiated, robata or robatayaki cooking is a simple yet sublime form of charcoal grilling, using Japanese oak charcoal to cook vegetables, fish, and meat around a small, pyramidal, glowing pyre of bright orange logs. But this charcoal house does not live by grilled foods alone. Endo’s house-made, fried, agedashi tofu and foie gras soups have become legendary, and legendary is what his kaiseki dinner is about to become.
A kaiseki dinner is Japanese eating at its most structured, complex and beautiful. Japanese chefs consider it an art form balancing all the senses with the color, appearance and texture of its multiple courses. Everything from the seasonal ingredients to the serving vessels they come in (or on) must complement and build upon your total immersion in the dishes and techniques of the chef. No detail is ignored, nor considered too small to perfect. It is to traditional, barbaric western eating (giant slabs of protein, huge bowls of starch) what heavy metal is to haiku.
To put you in the mood for the delicacies to come, Endo begins this three-hour feast by presenting what looks like a child’s wooden toy. Your server instructs you to push the fresh Takigawa tofu through the box and into a bowl by pressing on the wooden handle, and presto – ribbons of soft, silky curd magically drop into a pristine broth of sweet/savory intensity. Next, a platter is presented containing sweet, marinated smelts (ayu nanbantsuke) alongside a tiny whole crispy crab (meant to consumed whole), asparagus coated in crispy rice cracker crumbs, and tofu topped with salmon roe – each bite harmonizing with what has come before and afterward.
From there a dobinmushi clear soup of pike eel, chicken, shrimp and ginko nuts, then sashimi of almost Bar Masa-like freshness, followed by wooden spoons upon which rest two circles of tofu – one seasoned with green tea sea salt, the other with a grapeseed, balsamic soy glaze. Even as Endo ratchets up the protein – with a foie gras egg custard that will bring tears to your eyes, and an ebishinjo (shrimp) soufflé suffused with a hidden, umami depth charge of uni (sea urchin) – he is careful to keep anything from coating your palate with fat, or sticking to your ribs with starch — the better to keep your senses heightened at all times.
The seven different sakes poured during the feast also help, rather than hinder, your appreciation of each mind-blowing course. The other animal proteins making an appearance are Kobe beef fillet seared on hot stones and flamed with cognac — homage to the world’s greatest beef – and gamy, funky, softshell turtle meat encased in a gray-green turtle aspic that made for the single strangest thing we’ve tasted in years.
Even if you can’t stand gurgling down some Yertle, this food will work its magic on you. Japanese food can be subtle to the point of invisibility, but Endo’s kaiseki dinner highlights this love of delicacy while bringing forth enough strong flavors to captivate his American eating audience. It is a Japanese food education in fifteen courses.
The kaiseki dinner must be ordered in advance by calling the restaurant. Depending upon the number of courses and types of sake ordered, the cost will run approximately $75-$150/person. Open for dinner Mon.-Sat.