Kerry Simon and I have had a rather prickly relationship over the years. We both like each other on a personal level, but he hasn’t always liked what I’ve written and I haven’t always liked what he has cooked.
That said, we have a certain wary respect for the other’s craft — which usually leads us to warmly greet each other — even if, two minutes after hugs are exchanged, we start debating one of his recipes or one of my sentences.
By way of a little history, I first tasted Simon’s cooking on August 30, 1988. It was a spectacular degustation at a restaurant called Lafayette in the Drake Swissôtel it New York City. Jean-Georges Vongerichten was getting all the press as executive chef, but Kerry was his number one — executing a menu of French sensibilities tweaked with Indo-Chinese and Thai technique that was as delicious as it was dazzling. (The exact date is remembered because it was in then-celebration of my then-wife’s birthday.)
It was ten more years before we crossed paths again, this time when he moved to Vegas to open JGV’s Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio (with Wylie Dufresne) in 1998. From there I’ve followed him to the seminal Simon Kitchen & Bar in the Hard Rock Hotel (ground breaking for its day), and then to Simon at Palms Place — a restaurant which I have tried (and failed) to like since the day it opened.
When he and I are crossing swords over his co0king, I like to remind him that I’ve often said if I had one (American) chef to cook me my last meal, it would be him — but it would be the Kerry Simon who can cook the bejesus out of French-inflected fusion food (and tweaked American classics), not the one who is running a sushi bar mixed with a hotel hash house (albeit one with mega-hot hostesses).
But none of this really matters anymore. What matters are two things: 1) Kerry Simon is very sick, with a particularly virulent form of Parkinson’s disease — known as Multiple Symptom Atrophy — and, 2) as his swan song, he has opened a restaurant serving the best food downtown Las Vegas has ever seen.
Carson Kitchen is a small place (only 46 seats as of this writing), that reminds us of Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, or Bar Jamon in New York City. The open kitchen is framed by an L-shaped bar, and you are so close to some of the action you can practically quiz the cooks on what they’re making as you wait for your plates. There are four tables at the front and then another large bar, on the other side of the small room, which doubles as a cocktail venue and communal seating for an array of drop-dead dishes the likes of which will shock you with their intensity and perfection.
“Is it L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon-like?” some of you galloping gourmets may be asking yourself right about now. Not that refined, is our easy answer, but it is exactly what it bills itself as: great, accessible, farm-friendly food that tastes like something a great chef would serve you in his own home.
Not that we’ve ever tasted veal meatballs with sherry foie gras cream in any chef’s home — or any restaurant for that matter — as caramelized, crispy, meaty and silky as the ones pictured above. That foie gras cream is a stroke of genius and makes you wonder why the Joël Robuchon’s of the world didn’t think of it first.
Plenty of chefs have thought of doing deviled eggs, but Simon’s “Devil’s Eggs”:
….topped with crispy pancetta and caviar are such a creamy, crispy, sweet and salty delight they will have you shaking your head in appreciation.
They are among six of the nine apps we’ve sampled, all of them unique (Spam croquettes, tempura green beans, crispy chicken skins with smoked honey), and all of them begging to be shared. Speaking of unique, the bacon jam, brought forth with a melted slab of brie:
…is so chock full of the sweet and savory combinations Simon is so fond of, you will find yourself reflexively dipping piece after piece of your baguette into it, blithely ignoring whoever entreats you “not to fill up on bread.” One order will not be enough — even if there are only two sharing it.
Then there is the butter burger:
…an homage to the butter burgers of Minnesota and Wisconsin, this one bathed in butter rather than stuffed with it. It is a hand-formed patty of good, coarsely-ground meat, seasoned to a “t”, and presented with crumbly Boursin sprinkled atop melted cheddar on a mush-ready brioche bun. It’s a belly bomb to be sure…but also a beautiful one.
Those looking for lighter fare will be tempted by the ten “Farm & Garden” items on the menu — each echoing a certain ABC Kitchen vibe, and every one a winner.
My table couldn’t get enough of the Baked Mac & Cheese, or the Roasted Young Beets with orange and pistachio (great combo that), or the Rainbow Cauliflower, perfectly in harmony with lemon and garlic, or the Broccoli Crunch with real green goddess dressing (hooray!). If ever there was a restaurant to teach the fear-of-food crowd what wonders can be done with common, edible plants, this is it.
All of these are accompanied by the obligatory hand-crafted cocktails, good beers,blah blah blah…. and decent enough wines (well, decent enough for the downtown crowd, not necessarily for moi) — all priced to sell.
Finally, there are three desserts of which we’ve had two: the Bourbon Fudge Brownie (with bacon-brown butter ice cream) and the Glazed Donut Bread Pudding:
…served with two sauces — three rum caramel and creme anglaise — the whole so much greater than each of its stupendous parts. One order is too much for one, but won’t be enough for two. (Do you sense a theme here?)
It’s hard to put into words just how terrific this little gem of a joint is. Carson Kitchen is the restaurant I always knew Kerry had in him. It is the restaurant Honey Salt wishes it could be. There are more interesting ideas and palate-popping flavor combinations on its simple, one page menu than you will find in a month of dining at tourist traps masquerading as gastro-pubs, or an evening endured at Park on Fremont or other dreck passing for quality downtown, or in the ‘burbs.
How funny is it, at this late date in our relationship, for both of us to realize that Kerry Simon had to go small, to make it so big.
Eating Las Vegas has either been comped or had others pick up the check for each of his three meals here. Sharable apps run $6-$12; sandwiches $10-$14; veggies $8-$12; and meat and fish well under $20 a plate. Desserts are $6 and cocktails hover in the $12 range…making this place a steal by any standard.
124 South 6th Street (at Sixth and Carson)
Las Vegas, NV 89109