Celebrity Chef Hell
It’s been quite the Winter/Spring. Trips to Italy, France, Germany, and Georgia. Countless trips to Chinatown, and too many trips taken (kicking and screaming) to inexplicably popular Italian-American restaurants.
Since I live and work downtown, I pretty much cover that beat without breaking a sweat, and getting to the Strip is no big deal either, although more and more I find myself less and less interested in dining there.
Maybe that’s because the Strip has finally settled into what it was always destined to be: a conglomeration of tourist restaurants, each formulaic in its own way, each playing a massive numbers game. That doesn’t mean there isn’t inspiration to be found there, but for every Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, there are dozens of places just going through the corporate motions.
And let’s face it: we at ELV can only tell you so many times what a wonderful place Prime or Libertine Social is without sounding like a broken record.
And dollars to doughnuts, the next time (if ever) we re-visit the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Yellowtail, Rao’s or Mizumi, we will have the exact same experience we had five years ago. That doesn’t mean these places aren’t any good, it just means that they’re not that interesting (anymore) to anyone who has eaten in them multiple times.
So, in our constant attempt to keep ourselves interested, and this site fresh in its 10th year of operation (Yes, we celebrated our 9th anniversary on April 1. Hooray us!), we periodically publish The List: a current snapshot of everyplace we’ve eaten in the past several months, along with the occasional pithy, erudite, incisive and astute commentary for which we are known.
As usual, all places mentioned are listed randomly and come highly recommended…unless otherwise noted:
Urban Turban – Remarkable, chef-driven, upscale Indian (dots not feathers). Not your usual mix and match soups and stews.
Evel Pie – Vincent Rotolo shoots and scores! By bringing a slice of the New York streets to Fremont.
Andre’s Bistro & Bar – The Dover sole is worth traveling across town for. Fabulous short wine list. Equally fabulous desserts.
Prosecco – Only one quickie meal so far, but encouraging enough that we will return.
Cleo – Still our best Mediterranean.
The Kitchen at Atomic – First bites were tasty and well-composed, if under-seasoned. The rib cap was a standout.
Le Pho – The soup that saved Las Vegas.
Carson Kitchen – Almost three years old and better than ever.
La Comida – Tequila heaven, solid if uninspiring Mexican.
Rosallie Le French Café – Now with wine to compliment Vegas’s best quiches and pastries.
Cornish Pasty Company – Gut-busting fare for the Welsh coal miner in you. Nice beer list, friendly people.
Vesta Coffee Roasters – Compelling coffee, amazingly good (if limited) food, always a superb soup-of-the-day.
The Goodwich – The Patty deserves to be in the hamburger hall of fame.
Bazaar Meat – I’ve run out of praise for this place.
Carnevino – Ditto.
El Sombrero – Politics schmolitics, Irma Aguirre makes great Mexican food.
Estiatorio Milos – The fish is still the freshest in town, and the lunch is still a steal.
Le Cirque – Every gastronome in Vegas (all twelve of us) now makes a seasonal pilgrimage to taste Wil Bergerhausen’s current menu.
Italian-American Club – Fuggidibadit.
Piero’s – REALLY Fuggidibadit.
Starboard Tack – Holy Habana, Batman, the rum cocktails here are no Joker! The food has yet to be tried. The location is in the middle of nowhere.
Morel’s Steakhouse & Bistro – Solid from top to bottom. Three meals a day.
CUT – Someone CUT the cheese, please!
Bardot Brasserie – My only issue with BB is that once you’ve eaten here a few times, you’ve basically covered the whole menu.
Marche Bacchus – Tom Moloney is now at the helm. Here’s hoping they let him do his thing.
Americana – Will it beat the jinx of this jinxed location? First bites showed some flair, but flair (and a gorgeous setting) may not be enough.
Niu-Gu Noodle House – Best xiao long bao in town, by a Shanghai mile. The stir-fries are other-worldly too.
YuXiang Korean Chinese Cuisine – Korean-Chinese is a sub-species of Korean cookery. It’s hearty, it’s a little more refined than traditional Korean fare, and it’s delicious.
Chada Thai – Sometimes I forget how fabulous the food is at Chada Thai, but one bite reminds me of how elevated Thai cooking can be. (See pic at top of the page.)
Chada Street – Slightly rougher around the edges than its sister restaurant a couple of miles down Spring Mountain Road; no less excellent; incredible wine/champagne list. There’s almost no reason to drink wine anywhere else in town.
Chengdu Taste – Real Szechuan that will light you up. Not for the faint of heart or timid of palate. Easy-to-navigate menu and congenial staff make it easy on round-eyes.
Yuzu Japanese Kitchen – Best. Japanese. Period. Call ahead for a kaiseki dinner that is straight from a side street in Shibuya, or wander in and just say “omakase, arigato!”
Capital Grille – My favorite chain. Wonderful room with a view; excellent steaks, classic salads.
JinJu Chocolates – Bon bons galore! Great cookies too.
Gelatology – Desyrée Alberganti’s concoctions are the stuff ice cream dreams are made of.
Yui Edomae Sushi – A slice of Japan in our own backyard. Fish so good it tastes like it just leapt out of Tokyo Bay. Call ahead and tell ’em Curtas-san sent you.
Japanese Curry Zen – How can rice on gravy be so tasty?
Meraki – Fast casual Greek. Made by guys who know their way around a souvlaki.
Origin India – Top to bottom, our most consistent, classic Indian. Nice bar and wine list, too.
Shang Artisan Noodle – Shaved or hand-pulled, these noodles are life-changing.
Momofuku – Umami bombs away! Strictly for Millennials who don’t know any better.
Milk Bar – Over-sugared, pre-packaged pedestrian fare raised to heights of slavering devotion by the Instagram generation. Nothing about it or Momofuku is as good as its reputation.
Udon Monzo – Eat anything here (or at Shang Artisan Noodle) and you’ll realize how overrated Momofuku (and David Chang) is.
Zuma – We are sooo over big box Japanese, but the food here is pretty nifty.
Turmeric Flavors of India – Four meals, each one worse than the last. Proceed at your own risk.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – Why anyone would eat at Piero’s when Ferraro’s is just down the street is anyone’s guess.
RM Seafood – I’ve had my last meal here. I’ll start caring about this place when its absentee celebrity chef does.
There you have it: four months, forty-four places (give or take) — and for one of those months we were out of town. Don’t let anyone ever tell you they eat out more in Las Vegas than we do. We’re doing it so you won’t have to, and so that you, dear consumer, can spend your eating-out dollars wisely.
ELV note: It was just announced this week that the executive chef of Momofuku Las Vegas (Michael Chen) left after only two months on the job. We doubt this will affect any of the food there, however, as the “executive chefs” in most celeb chef Strip restaurants are little more than functionaries, executing a menu that is pre-determined thousands of miles away. Our objections to the food (as you will read below) has much more to do the recipes as conceptualized, not as they were cooked.
ELV Note #2: The following review appears in this month’s issue of Desert Companion magazine.
UMAMI BOMBS AWAY!
It’s hard not to admire what Chef David Chang has done with Momofuku (“Lucky Peach” in Korean). What began as an eight-seat eatery in lower Manhattan in 2004 has spawned an empire that now stretches from Soho, New York to Sydney Australia. It’s also not hard, after eating your way through Momofuku, to sometimes wonder what all the shouting is about – shouting from the rooftops being what the influential New York food media has done almost from the day Chang opened. Once they laid the groundwork, social media took over, and for well over a decade, foodies the world over have been inundated with tales of Chang’s influence and ground-breaking cuisine.
When other chefs and restaurants went into recession hibernation in 2008, Chang kicked his expansion into high gear, opening noodle bars, Vietnamese restaurants and impossible-to-get-into joints in New York — expanding his brand while taking full advantage of the rise of the Millennials and their need to have something tasty (and Instagram-worthy) to eat. There are now five Momofukus in the world, more are planned, and to the delight of his fans, Las Vegas finally has one.
In the beginning, the entire Chang oeuvre consisted of barely a handful of items. Because of its small size, the original Momofuku Noodle Bar in lower Manhattan featured a few bowls of ramen, a couple of appetizers and some stuffed bao buns and that was it. On such bare bones was a food empire born.
The genius of Chang did was in upgrading those noodles, enriching the broth, and loading smoky bacon onto classic Korean and Japanese items that, until he came along, most Americans wouldn’t touch with a ten food chopstick. He also cooked (and seasoned) the Korean fried chicken like a real chef, and made a big deal about using better ingredients. No bottom bin ham for him. He used real Virginia country ham, Kurobuta pork, and the fluffiest bao he could find. He cured his own pickles too, (a big deal in 2004) and made sure everyone in the food media knew about it.
Most of all, though, Momofuku became all about umami — umami being the word for the intense, savory quality that only the densest, saltiest, most amino-acid rich foods (like steak, cheese, smoked meats and soy sauce) possess. In the Chang universe (then and now), it’s all about overwhelming your palate with this fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). His food does this at the expense of delicacy and refinement but his audience didn’t seem to care one bit. Subtlety being as important to a David Chang meal as dialogue is in a Vin Diesel movie.
Thus will most of your meal be so umami-drenched that your palate will be screaming for mercy after several plates appear, each overloaded with whatever miso-shoyu-smoky-kombu concoction Chang can’t help buy incorporating into every bite.
If smoke is your thing, you’ll be in smoked hog heaven. By all means then, don’t miss the pork meatballs swimming in (you guessed it) plenty of smoked black-eyed peas. Is Momofuku’s pork ramen soup good? Yes, but it’s also so smoky that three sips in you will want to run up the white flag. Ditto the oysters Momofuku – the seafood essence of which is obliterated by smoky bacon bits. There’s also a smoked pork chop and roasted mussels on the menu, with the mussels being festooned with (wait for it) plenty of smoked Benton’s bacon. The food is so smoky here it ought to be sponsored by Marlboro.
When Chang and his troops are through pouring on the smoke, they find many other ways to up the umami ante. Sichuan rice cakes are thick stubby rice noodles smothered with pork sausage, while chilled spicy noodles get a heap of sausages and cashews to effectively overwhelm the interesting starches and spices beneath them – pork sausage and cashews being the belt and suspenders of the umami-overload universe.
After three trips around this menu, I threw in the towel. There are some good things to eat here – the spicy cod hotpot being good fish, well-treated; the katsu chicken an old-fashioned, mushroom cream sauce delight – but by the time you get to them, you will have been drowned by a tsunami of umami. By all means get the pork belly buns (the ones that made Chang famous), but skip the chicken karaage version – they being sad and stringy. The vaunted rotisserie chicken comes with deep-fried bones (some edible, some not), and is not as good as it thinks it is.
What is good is the seating. You may have trouble getting one, but that’s only because every under-40 in Vegas seems to be beating a path to this second floor location in The Cosmopolitan these days. What they find is a large restaurant fronted by a long bar that itself is five times the length of the original operation. Beside that bar are a number of high tops – for waiting, drinking or overflow dining – and beyond them a huge open kitchen that looks like it could feed an army base. For its size, the room is remarkably comfortable, the tables well-spaced, and the noise level (relatively) civilized. Service is also top notch, with management and waiters who are well-versed in the food. The wine list is sinfully overpriced, and the sake/sochu list woefully sparse.
David Chang deserves a lot of credit. He made this food safe for aspirational foodies and non-Asians alike — folks with limited resources who wanted to hop on the foodie bandwagon and expand their knowledge of chewy noodles, miso broth and various edible esoterica. All of this was a treat when you were ducking into a teeny tiny noodle emporium for a quick fix of soup and a bao bun. To put an entire meal together from this food, however – after your taste buds have been bludgeoned into one-dimensional submission – is a big-box experience of a different order. If you still use party as a verb, and don’t mind that everything on your table tastes the same, you might feel right at home amongst all the umami.
Nothing about Momofuku is as good as its reputation, but in this day and age, that’s enough.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino
(Is he cool or what?)
I’m happy for David Chang.
Happy that that the teeny tiny Momofuku Noodle Bar, that I first ate at in 2006, has spawned an Asian-American empire that now stretches from Soho to Sydney.
I’m ecstatic that he can now open restaurants the world over, trusting his food to a rotating cadre of young cooks; chefs who weren’t even in high school when Chang made his fame serving up-scaled bao buns on eight toadstools to the trend-loving New York food media.
I’m glad Chang took the ho-hum bun from so-so street food into a foodie favorite — mainly by upgrading the pork and not steaming the shit out of it like most Korean restaurants do.
And who doesn’t love the fact that he’s elevated dishes like bo ssäm and Korean fried chicken into cult-like status, and now has the luxury (and pretension) of operating his very own, Ferran Adrià-like, (not-so-secret) secret test kitchen?
I’m elated that he can parade his food out to compliant critics like Mitchell Davis, and sit there while they swoon over every bite. After all, every Pollock needs his Clement Greenberg; every Scorcese his Pauline Kael.
I’m overjoyed that David Chang can pretend to write magazine articles for star-fornicating magazines, because it gives him eminent foodie street cred to be a published author, along with his many other duties and talents.
I’m amused that he can ironically expound on the attributes of shitty beer, and has the time to run a media empire built upon “we’re cooler than you” food articles, filled with tales of him hangin’ with other “bad ass” media mogul chefs. (Isn’t it wonderful how, as soon as a chef gets “hot” or mega-successful, they immediately turn into a highly literate writer, capable of turning phrase after phrase with wit, precision, and poignancy, not to mention proper syntax, grammar, and diction? Like most ardent foodies, I’m exultant when this happens!)
And it gruntles me that Chang (and Christina Tosi, his pastry chef) have made time-worn standards like butter cake, crazy milkshakes and above-average cookies “a thing,” mainly by catching the wave of young Millennial’s FOMO (fear of missing out), at the dawn of the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram age.
It also pleases me no end that a championship golfer (TRUE!) of Chang’s caliber, who describes himself as “the worst cook in every kitchen I ever worked in” has now found peace and happiness (and no small fortune) by tweaking the humblest, saltiest and densest of Asian cuisines into gringo-friendly formulas that no other Korean-American cook ever thought of.
We’re beside ourselves over his cult-like status among foodies; and his bro-tastic cred among other uber-cool dudes like Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio and Wylie Dufresne. (For a terrible line cook, that’s really saying something.)
I’m overjoyed when he whispers (sotto voce) to Food & Wine magazine, “I don’t want Mario (Carbone) to get mad at me, but I think the Carbone in Vegas is better than Carbone in New York.” How cool is it that that he could be so ironic, so “inside baseball,” such a name dropper, and such a humble braggart AT THE SAME TIME, IN ONE QUOTE! (Shhh, but please don’t tell him or Mario Carbone I said this.)
And who among us isn’t jubilant over his arrival in Sin City, where he can expand his empire of small, personal restaurants into a 263 seat behemoth. I mean, how bro-tastic is that, dude?
All of these things make me happy for David Chang.
But eventually you have to get to his food, and aye, there’s the rub.
Or rather, there’s the umami.
Because, you see, David Chang is overtly enamored of umami.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually on cloud nine about umami. But eating Chang’s one-dimensional food will quickly kill any exaltation you usually feel about this fifth taste.
And since murdering your taste buds’ appreciation for any semblance of subtlety is what Momofuku’s food is about, let’s consider the evidence, shall we?
Exhibit 1: Krappy Kaarage
See the one on the left? It costs $5.50 at Udon Monzo on Spring Mountain Road. It was crispy and just-fried and juicy and everything kaarage is supposed to be. The one on the right came from David “The King of Creative Korean” Chang’s kitchen at Momofuku in The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino (the restaurant we’re reviewing here if you’ve lost track). It costs $14 for two buns of dry, stringy, soggy chicken. Grade: C-. Grade when compared to the better stuff you can get up and down Spring Mountain Road: F.
Exhibit 2: Pork Meatballs with Black Eyed Peas and Benton’s Bacon
Here’s where Chang starts showing his true colors, and by “true colors” I mean obliterating the taste of everything by drowning it in a tsunami of umami. What appears at your table are two pork meatballs for $18. What you taste is a bunch of smoky, black eyed pea mush smothering whatever the pork is trying to do inside those orbs. Grade C-.
Exhibit 3: Country Ham with Red Eye Mayo
David Chang loves country ham. He also loves bacon. And smoked pork in all its forms. Why does he love them? Because they’re an easy (some would say a shortcut) way to add umami depth to anything they touch.
And by “add umami depth” I mean massacre the taste of anything and everything else on the plate.
At least with this dish, you get honesty (and your money’s worth – $26) by having the cooks shave the thing on a plate for you. The first time they do it (on the left) it’s a mess, but the next time (on the right) it’s properly sliced and appetizingly presented. The red-eye mayo tastes like light brown, store bought mayonnaise at meal #1, but by meal #3 they’ve gotten their act together and the coffee flavor comes through in the emulsion. (For the uninitiated, red eye gravy is simply liquid coffee added to the hot fat drippings of a fried country ham steak and then poured over the meat.) Nothing is being cooked here, but the ham is top notch, and this would be a great appetizer to share (along the lines of Italian prosciutto) if the rest of the meal gave you any respite from Chang’s non-stop umami overload. Grade: A-.
Exhibit 4: Momofuku Oysters
Here, Chang starts to reveal his innermost inadequacies. And by “innermost inadequacies” I mean a complete indifference to the flavor integrity of any ingredient other than smoke and the piling on of pork. These strike me as something that probably took the New York trendsetters by storm a decade ago. Kimchi on oysters? How novel. With better than average bacon? You bet! And on the backs of such mangled mollusks was a food empire born. Grade: C.
Exhibit 5: Pork Ramen
This is where David Chang really hits his stride. And by “hits his stride” I mean demolishes all subtlety in favor of loads and loads of smoke. The food at Momofuku is so damn smoky it ought to be sponsored by Marlboro. Here is another signature creation that’s about as refined as a tae kwon do punch to the solar plexus. Pile on the shredded, smoky pork, serve it in a smoky broth, add smoked kombu here and no doubt something else smoky there and pretty soon you feel like you’ve just swallowed a lit cigarette. There’s ramen just as good up and down Spring Mountain Road for a lot less than $18. But none of it as smoky. Grade: C+. If you love loads of overstated smoked pork in your ramen: B+.
Exhibit 6: Spicy Sichuan Rice Cakes
No one loves Szechuan food more than yours truly. These cakes (really thick, stubby, chewy noodles) were as good as you’ll get this side of Soyo Barstaurant on South Rainbow. At Soyo they’re half the price, but not smothered in pork sausage — another recurring theme of Chang’s as we’ll see below. For authenticity, crispiness, chewiness and overall eye and palate appeal they get a winning grade. For more of Chang’s same old same old, fatty-salty, umami-drenched flavor profile, they get a small deduction. Grade: A-.
Exhibit 7: Chilled Spicy Noodles
Yep, more noodles, this time cold, green, and spicy. Really spicy. No holds barred spicy. The kind you’d get in a real Korean restaurant where no one asks you how spicy you want them. The problem is, of course, that you can’t see them. Why can’t you see them? Because they’re buried under a mountain of pork sausage. And cashews. Pork sausage and cashews being the belt and suspenders of the umami-overload world. Still, a solid effort that taste just as good as they did when I had them at Momofuku Ssäm Bar (with Mitchell Davis of all people) seven years ago. Grade: A.
Exhibit 8: Spicy Cod Hot Pot
One of the prettiest dishes in the Chang lexicon. (David Chang generally does pretty about as well as Vin Diesel does Shakespeare.) It’s the lightest thing on the menu, and the fish is of good quality and not boiled to oblivion like you get in many an Asian hot pot. If it was a stand alone dish there would be little to complain about. The problem is you get the same chili/salt/umami profile here as you do with every other dish in the Chang oeuvre. The question has to be asked: Has he never eaten in a Japanese restaurant? Is he unacquainted with refined French? Why is he wedded to hitting you over the head with the same salt and spice with every recipe? Still, if you need a let up from all the smoke, this is the way to go. Grade: A.
Exhibit 9: Chicken
Chicken is where the Chang oeuvre most reveals itself. And by “reveals itself” I mean bludgeon you with his incessant umami aura. The rotisserie bird (a portion of which look deep-fried) is competently done, if a bit dry, but nothing that El Pollo Loco doesn’t do equally well. It’s salvaged a bit by a ginger-scallion garnish (the closest you’ll ever get to sharpness on a Chang menu), and subtracted from by deep-fried bones that are more gimmick than substance. Chang has been quoted as saying, “I wanted to strip away as much excess flavoring as possible….” which makes absolutely no sense but sounds really cool when he says it. His Smothered Katsu Chicken is smothered all right — with so much sauce that the poultry is superfluous. To be fair, the shiitake gravy was damn tasty, even if it brought more of the same, flat flavor palette to the table. And if Chang ever served the lifeless, “fresh” kimchi under the roasted chicken to his grandmother, he’d be laughed out of the house. A Midwesterner expecting so-so slaw would probably applaud. Grade: C+ for the roasted chicken that’s not nearly as good as it thinks it is, and B+ for its crispy, gravy-laden cousin.
Exhibit 10: Vegetables
So there you have it. No nuance. No balance. No piquancy. No acidity either. Plus a complete absence of refinement. (The bibimbap at your local Korean bbq joint is a model of Grant Achatz artistry next to these plates.) Sweetness is in short supply too. Which might explain the child-like, overly-sugared desserts that Tosi throws at you from Milk Bar next door.
Like I said, though, I’m happy for David Chang. I do not begrudge him his success. He took an obscure Asian cuisine and made it palatable for Millennials. For ten years they’ve been beating a path to his door, and from day one in The Cosmo, they’ve been lining up to get a seat. This food was not as much created by Chang as it was tailored to capture the attention of the flannel shirt and man-bun crowd — a youthful, insecure, and finicky bunch who were notoriously resistant to real Korean cuisine (“What is that?” “I like to know what I’m eating.” “Do they use MSG?”) — by giving them something cheap and good to eat. As with ramen, beer and tacos, everyone could become an expert in this food with relatively little effort, or cash.
And seemingly everyone has. People love it, even if they don’t understand that the range of flavors runs the gamut from A to B. There are no peaks and valleys here, just a slog through an umami swamp. The art of the meal never occurred to Chang when he was making his name with his noodle bar, and it won’t occur to you when you’re eating here. A Korean-American friend once told me, “everyone eats everything at once in a Korean restaurant.” That was an amusing but sensible explanation. What he didn’t say (because it’s not true with real Korean food) was that everything always ends up tasting the same.
Our three meals here averaged around $140 for two with a couple of glasses of wine. Some of the dishes were comped, i.e., sent out gratis from the kitchen. There is the obligatory fancy cocktail list and the usual obscenely-priced wine list, and a shockingly sparse sake and sochu selection. Shocking because they (along with beer) make the best matches with this food. Most wines would be annihilated by it, although the Baumard Chenin Blanc ($65) held up well to some of the less smoky items.
MOMOFUKU LAS VEGAS
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino