Las Vegas is the Rodney Dangerfield of restaurant towns. Despite 40 million visitors a year, an Asian food scene that puts almost every American city to shame, and more great restaurants crammed together than anywhere in the world, neither the national food press, nor the James Beard Foundation give us the respect we are due.
Vegas is also the $40 whore of American food cities — used and abused by that same press whenever they want/need a quickie headline or a furtive assignation to get an article off.
We are seen as the soulless, steroid-stuffed homunculus of the eating out world because food writers (not without reason) have always viewed Vegas as an inorganic, top-down phenomenon — a sui generis, celebrity chef money machine without any deep cultural roots to support its restaurant renaissance. And let’s face it, at times it’s been hard to argue with them.
As it is, one of them, Bon Appetit magazine waltzes in here for a few days in the Spring, works our chefs and hotels to the bone for its food festival, and uses the Las Vegas brand to sell ads in its magazines. Whatever benefit accrues to Vegas (or the restaurants) for these three days of star-chef-fucking is tangential to promoting the Bon App’s agenda. Good luck finding any Vegas coverage in the ‘zine when it doesn’t relate to Vegas Uncork’d.
And when the James Beard awards come around in the Spring, we have a name for them around the ELV household: Passover.
But things are getting better. And more authentic. And legitimate — as in making great food from the ground up, not flying it in on some casino’s dime. Examples abound everywhere right now. From Alex Stratta’s about-to-open tapas bar in Tivoli Village, to PublicUs’s baked goods downtown, to a game-changer on the Strip called HEXX Kitchen + Bar.
HEXX is the successor to the Sugar Factory, and promises to be a notable improvement over the 900 item, 100 page menu previously offered on these premises. (Okay, it just seemed that long.) Were it just another glorified coffee shop in a big hotel, we would pay it no never mind, as my Papap would say. But off to the side, behind the gift shop, lies Las Vegas’s first bean-to-bar chocolate factory. And from a space the size of a large living room is coming the most phenomenal terroir-driven chocolate you will ever taste.
And for this you have to thank Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski.
Silverman, if you recall, was the executive chef at Vintner Grill for a long time. He was known for his cheese program there, wherein he was making his own cheese! Lots of it, in a dozen different styles. It was just about the cheesiest thing this cheesy town had ever seen, but cheez whiz, the program cheezed off some big cheeses and couldn’t cut it…leaving Silverman free to become Vegas’s first, authentic, bean-to-bar chocolatier.
In case you haven’t noticed, artisanal, hand-made chocolate is a big deal these days. We’re not talking about chocolate bon bons, truffles and other assorted goodies crafted by the Megan Romanos and Jean-Marie Auboins of the world. Those delectables are fashioned from pre-made bars — like Valrhona or Scharffenberger — by pastry chefs skilled in manipulating the ready made stuff into all sorts of confections. What we’re talking about here is the actual making of those bars, from dried beans purchased from the great cacao regions of the world. And once you become familiar with them, the nuances of taste and territory of these finished chocolates become almost as fascinating as anything wine or coffee can throw at you.
But before we pile on anymore accolades, let’s review just how the stuff is made, courtesy of chocolatier extraordinaire, Oompa Loompa lover, and Willy Wonka wonk Carol Garcia:
It all starts with the beans:
…according to Ms. Garcia, which she was more than happy to spill for us:
Those bags of beans — from Madagascar to South America — are the product of those cacao pods that have been picked, had their beans (seeds) removed, and then sun-dried (the beans) before they get packaged for shipment.
Once they arrive, each bag gets hand-sorted and picked through to remove the broken shells or other defective beans:
Needless to say, this is a tedious (but necessary) process, and essential if only high-quality beans are put into the roaster to cook evenly:
From there the beans are shelled:
…so that the good part (the cocoa nib) can be separated from the hard shell:
Once that shelling is complete, you’re left with a giant bin of cocoa nibs:
…ready for conching and tempering. Note that all of these (time-consuming, labor-intensive) steps occur before you get anywhere close to actually making chocolate. How the Aztecs and Mayans figured this out thousands of years ago is anyone’s guess.
Next comes the conching:
…a process named after the original devices that did it, which resembled a conch shell. What these devices resemble is a stainless steel tub with two large, very heavy rollers in them, which rotate at high speeds for three solid days, extracting and emulsifying all that great cocoa powder and butter into a smooth, silky mass.
All that’s added to the sorted, roasted, shelled, conched beans is palm sugar (refined sugar being too strong and overpowering the aromatics, according to Garcia), and then the two ingredient product (yes, high quality chocolate contains only two ingredients), is then tempered into sweet, viscous, lip-smacking liquidity:
…after which it is cooled, formed into bars or chunks, and rested until it is fit for human consumption:
And what consumption it is.
The Madagascar beans make a chocolate with so many citrus notes, you’d swear someone dumped a gallon of orange juice and lemon peels in the vat; Tanzania is a mocha-choco-coffee lover’s delight. Taste your way through pieces of these and Ecuadoran, Peruvian, and Venezuelan beans, and you’ll be talking like a chocolate snob in no time.
Will the national food press take notice? Probably not. If an operation like this opened in Charlotte or Chicago, they’d be doing back flips about it. As it is, they’ll see that HEXX is attached to a big Vegas hotel and immediately pooh pooh its corporate mediocrity (in their minds if not in print).
Regardless, this is the real deal. We’ve eaten artisanal chocolates from Bernachon to the Bay Area, and they’ve got nothing on these bars for freshness and intensity. It remains to be seen how creative HEXX gets with it’s wonderful raw materials (they are serving the Las Vegas tourist market, after all), but from now on, we’re not buying our chocolate anywhere else.
HEXX KITCHEN + BAR
In the Paris Hotel and Casino
3655 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109