Eating Las Vegas loves to hate “Mediterranean” restaurants. ELV — the man, the myth, the Greek god — considers that catch-all appellation to be synonymous with mediocrity.
What it usually means is the owner or the cooks know a little something about the spices or recipes from one or two countries bordering that ocean, and think if they throw enough of those spices, lemon juice and yogurt on things, the credulous American dining out public will buy it….and they usually do.
“Middle Eastern” places are even worse. They are usually Persian or Syrian or Turkish or Lebanese or Israeli restaurants whose owners are too afraid of their own ethnicity (or afraid of a public backlash towards their ethnicity) to be honest about what they are actually cooking.
In defense of these two misnomers, we at ELV can pretty much tell you that all of the food in all of these countries is pretty much the same — save for some sumac here or a thicker form of yogurt there.
True, the Greeks use more lemon and oregano, and the Persians do things with their super-long-grain rice that no other country can touch, but an odyssey around this ocean of great eats demonstrates that everyone took their cues from the Greeks and the Saracens and incorporated pretty much the same herbs and spices into their meat, seafood and vegetable concoctions.
Thus is an Egyptian dolmas not that much different from a Greek dolmades, and perhaps a full-time expert can parse the differences between an Israeli shawarma and a Pakistani one, but even this expert thinks such distinctions just get in the way of how wonderful it all tastes.
But how wonderful it all tastes is the problem. Because you can disguise a boatload of badness with enough babaganoush, and all of those sensational seasonings give half-assed operators a license to steal when it comes to selling cheap ingredients and crappy cooking to the gullible public.
All of which is a long (325 word) way of saying ELV hates most of the restaurants of this ilk. Between the indistinguishable menus, barely-fair falafel and Sysco seasonings, there hasn’t been an original thought in a “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean” restaurant in this (or any other) town since T. H. Lawrence was writing his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
And then Cleo came along.
At first glance, we were underwhelmed, as the menu seemed to be all-over-the-map. As we perused it, we couldn’t help thinking: “The jack of all trades is master of none.”
And then the food started showing up.
It would be easy for us to lead with the cliché: “This is not your father’s Mediterranean restaurant,” but that’s about the size of it. Look no further than Kibbeh Nayyeh — a spicy amalgam of chopped raw lamb, bulgar wheat and mint. It is both a revelation and a wake up call that tells your palate it is in uncharted Mediterranean waters. Or the artichokes with lemon, the cauliflower with cashews or the blistered shishito peppers with Parmesan — all of them tinged with wood smoke and all of them like nothing you’ve ever tasted in some souvlaki hut.
The best way to experience the menu is to create your own mezze platter from the 30+ offerings at the top of the menu — making sure to include a couple of dips (labneh with feta, carrot harissa, and/or a babaganoush to beat the band) — with some of those roasted veggies, a couple of kebabs and dolmades that need no apologies. From there, you picks your country and you takes your chances. But believe us, it’s a safe bet you’ll be tasting versions of these dishes you’ve never even imagined.
As great as all the plant matter is here (and fear-of-food vegetarian/vegans could learn a thing or three by studying these recipes), the proteins are no slouches either. We’ve had two tagines (Hello Morocco!), and what they lack in size (one is only a few nibbles for two) they make up for in flavor punch. Just as good were the two seafood items we tried: Garlic Shrimp with Castelvetrano Olives (that either Spain or Sicily could claim) or Grilled Branzino atop cauliflower couscous — as perfect a brick of fish as can be cooked.
Turkish borëk is a fraternal twin to Greek tyropitas, and the ones here would be right at home in Istanbul or Athens (Greece, not Georgia). We’re not sure what country invented Brussels sprouts, but we’re pretty sure these folks never thought of serving them with capers, almonds and a sharp vinaigrette. Nor could this be considered an Italian restaurant by any stretch, but the Raviolo — stuffed with chevre and encircled by an earthy beet-horseradish sauce with real bite — is a first class pasta dish…as are the fluffy Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings.
Tapas is an overused word these days — on the verge of crossing the Martini Line — but these fit the format beautifully. What distinguishes Cleo from every other same old same old pastitsio parlor is the sharpness of flavors and the boldness of the seasonings. The fact that they use good groceries is also a major plus. The chefs here obviously have great respect for the cuisines they are reproducing, but aren’t afraid to jazz things up and dress them to a “t” — all to great effect.
Claiming the mantle of “Best Mid-East-Med Restaurant in Las Vegas” is a bit like being the best piano player in Paducah (or the best food writer in Nevada). The competition is so weak, and bar set so low, there was no where to go but up.
But claim it Cleo does. One or two bites in and you might give up on cheap gyros forever.
Favorite dishes: Hummus with Tahini; Lebaneh with Feta; Carrot Harissa; Babaganoush; Artichoke with Lemon; Cauliflower, Vadouvan, Cashews; Shishito Peppers, Parmesan; Borëk; Raviolo with Chevre, Beet-Horseradish; Spanakopita; Kibbeh; All Kebabs; All Sausages; Garlic Shrimp; Grilled Branzino; Lamb Shawarma; Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon; Lamb Tagine with Apricots, Silan, Couscous; Kibbeh Nayyeh; Brussels Sprouts; Zucchini Keftedes; Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings.
SLS Las Vegas