Sometimes, you just know too much.
There comes a time when there have been too many meals in too many restaurants over too many decades. So many, in fact, that you can take the measure of a place within minutes of sitting down.
You get to where you can see the wheels turning and hear the exact conversations that went into the concept, the menu, and the cooking.
You get to the point where you spot the corporate calculation in every corner, and all you can do is sigh.
Such is the case with Herringbone: the latest concept being rolled out at the Aria to impress people who think “Zarkana” is the heighth of entertainment.
Herringbone continues our newest tradition of overlong, dumbed-down, hackneyed menus being placed in the hands of talented chefs — not so the chef can strut his stuff — but rather, so he won’t screw up an eatery that was designed by committee and run by accountants.
So it is with Mark LoRusso at Costa di Mare and Bruno Riou at Rivea — two chefs of exquisite taste who are now slumming it for the sake of their employers. To this impressive lineup we can now add the name of Geno Bernardo — a first-class fellow being asked to play patty-cake with a menu so rehashed it would’ve been considered old hat ten years ago.
If you remember NOVE at the Palms you may remember Geno. He brought quite a bit of Italian class and sass to a hotel that had neither. His pastas were heavenly; his fish divine. He even did cicchetti at the bar there to beat the band. No longer. Now he’s executing something called “coastal cuisine” (from which coast isn’t specified) that attempts to give a fishy alternative to the meat, French and Italian options on the 2nd floor top-shelf restaurant ghetto at the Aria.
The menu lists all the usual suspects: ceviche, shellfish platters, tuna poke, and various swimmers, all of them accented with a couscous here and a romesco there, and few of them hinting at Bernardo’s ancestral cooking chops, or an original idea.
After okay oysters (with a kick-ass kimchee mignonette), we proceeded through some yellowfin and yellowtail sashimi (tuna v. hamachi/amberjack if you will), to a tuna poke that poked along as well as any of the other 487 versions you can find around town, to the “whole fish ceviche” — pictured at the top of the page with its tail in its mouth. As we said above, none of it was that bad, but all of it is calculated to impress people who live a thousand miles from an ocean.
Those acquainted with good fish restaurants will be amazed and puzzled by the length of the menu: fourteen fishy appetizers, five salads, a dozen main courses, and twenty-five separate side dishes do not inspire thoughts of pristine produce. And just who among the fanny-packers do you think can parse the differences between white sea bass, black sea bass and branzino? And not to kick a concept when it’s down, but just how much citrus can you drizzle on uncooked fish anyway?
That’s why we were relieved when Geno brought his mussels and clams (steamed in a closed plastic bag with his “fregola sarda” sauce) to the table
…that was brimming with the taste of ripe, roasted tomatoes, saffron and lemon. Unfortunately, the aforementioned muscles of the bivalves were roughly the size of my little fingernail, and altogether wouldn’t have filled three shot glasses (just like the bean counters want), but at least they were tasty…and something you don’t find on every bar menu in town.
The same could be said of our skate wing — the one interesting-sounding main course — but, unfortunately (#2) it was tough, stringy and overcooked, with the spaetzle being a gnarly lump on the plate barely accented by a mustard sauce that was absent without leave:
If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that sauce hugging the edge of the wing. If you closed your eyes while you were eating it, you wouldn’t have known it was there. Which is probably what you should expect from a California restaurant run by an Italian chef cooking a French dish with a German starch.
We expected better things from the buttery risotto that was brought to the table and personally stirred by Geno, but its starchiness belied a need to rush it to the table when it needed another five minutes on the simmer. No better were fried-beyond-recognition Brussels sprouts (tossed with candied pecans to keep the weehawkers* happy), although things (not to mention the size of the seafood) improved considerably with Bernardo’s seafood spaghetti in a spicy tomato sauce that really got our attention. Unfortunately (#3), his vaunted meatballs were on the dry side, without the seasoning you would expect from someone whose name ends in a vowel.
The spaghetti confirmed that Bernardo hasn’t lost his fastball; the meatballs told us the Thanatopsis-length menu has spread him too thin. He’s a solid, inventive, passionate chef who could turn Herringbone into an Italian seafood palace of uncompromising intensity. Instead, he’s hamstrung cooking everything from shishito peppers to kale salads to crab cake poppers. Seafood-starved tourists will love it. Epicures will not.
Like we said, sometimes you know too much.
ELV’s meal was comped, but he spent $170 on wine and left a $75 tip.
In the Aria Hotel and Casino
3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
* A northeastern red-neck; a hick from New Jersey; e.g., the entire cast of Jersey Shore.