ELV note: We know the title of this web site is “Eating Las Vegas,” but we also know that you know that we do not confine ourselves simply to the pleasures of dining in Sin City. Indeed, we travel the world, calibrating our palate to the cuisines of its greatest chefs, the better to give us (and you) a baseline from which to judge all great restaurants. Below is our love letter to the enchanting hotel we visited late last year in Germany’s Black Forest (“Schwarzwald” – pronounced SCHVARTZ-vald). We hope you get a chance to visit there someday, but even if you don’t, we hope you will take some pleasure in living vicariously through our travels, and through these words and pictures.
There’s a lot to do at the Traube Tonbach. Spas, swimming (indoors and out), skiing, hiking, exploring the picturesque valleys and towns of Baiersbronn, all await you, all while taking in some of the crispest, cleanest, pine-scented air in the world. If you’re the shut-in type, you’ll find nothing to complain about either. The 153 rooms are enormous, the bathrooms even more so, and it seems everywhere you look (out of giant, wood-trimmed windows) you see one stunning, forest view after another.
Calling the Traube enchanting is an understatement. From the traditional Tyrolean garb of the crackerjack staff:
…..to the oversized, Black Forest decor, everything about it has a formal-yet-friendly precision that seduces you from the moment you sink into an overstuffed chair or start sipping a crisp glass of Riesling. You can be as laid back or active as you wish at the Traube Tonbach, but what you really ought to be doing is eating.
Harald Wohlfahrt’s Schwardwaldstube (pictured below) has held three Michelin stars since 1992. The name means “Black Forest Room” and the thickness of the wood, the chairs and the linens give not a clue as to the lightness and freshness of his cuisine.
The room only seats 40 customers, but so precise is the food, you get the feeling that there are at least that many cooks in the kitchen. Wohlfahrt told me (through an interpreter) that his cuisine has become more international over the years, and like most chefs in this league, he now plays with flavors from around the globe. Some might fault him for letting these flights of foreign fancy overtake him, such as when he accompanies beautiful poached Gillardeau oysters with ponzu jelly, shredded beetroot and horseradish, plus a chives vinaigrette, but to my mind, everything harmonized the way it’s supposed to with highfalutin fusion food. What Wohlfahrt’s elemental, not-bashful cooking told me was that I was in a bigger, bolder, German version of a French restaurant, not a dainty Gallic one.
“Not bashful” would be my same description of the Swabia-meets-Bologna construct of Wohlfahrt’s ravioli. Stuffed with a moist, dense, “confit” of calves head, and garnished with sweetbreads, and tongue — it was elegant and earthy, not an easy feat in any language. Festooned with truffles, it was part French, part Italian, and definitely Deutsch, and genuflected to all three cuisines without surrendering to the heaviness of its pedigree.
About the only clinkers in the meal were the desserts, that seemed terribly overwrought — almost as if the pastry chef was trying too hard to keep up with the pirouettes taking place on the savory plates — and a serious service lapse towards the last quarter of the meal, when everything seemed to slow to a crawl. To be fair, there were several large parties in the restaurant, all of whom were spending way more money on wine than we were, so that may have backed up the kitchen. By the way, this was the third Michelin 3-star meal I’ve had in the last year — the others being at Meadowood in Napa Valley and Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace — where the highly visible and solicitous maitre’d seemed to disappear from the dining room for the second half of the meal. Perhaps this is the 21st Century job description: show up, look good, kiss hands, and then vanish. Or perhaps these impeccably groomed face men have second jobs posing in department store windows. Either way, it strikes a small, discordant note where there should be none.
As for wine, the list is extensive (750+ labels, 36,000 bottles) and shoulder deep in great German and Alsatian Rieslings. Markups were more than fair — especially compared to New York and Las Vegas — with dozens of great bottles for 100 euros or less. My rule of thumb when star-grazing in Europe is to look for bottles in the 50-100 euro range, and I’m consistently amazed by the quality at those prices. I took the wine pairing with my degustation, and it, along with our young sommelier (who didn’t disappear from the room) was superb.
The Schwarzwaldstube would be a fitting crescendo to anyone’s visit to the Traube, but we worked in reverse order for our two day stay. Dinner number two found us again across the street from the main hotel (at the original, heavily timbered inn that now houses the “Black Forest Room,” an international restaurant (that we didn’t try), and a traditional restaurant (the Bauernstube) that we did. Those timbers, low ceilings, plaster walls and wooden benches give the Bauernstube (pictured above) a distinctly 18th Century feel, but this being the Traube, the linens are as thick and crisp, and the table ware every bit as formidable (if several clicks more casual) than at its starred sister restaurant down the hall. They share the same wine list, and the food is every bit as satisfying and rib-sticking as you would expect southwestern German food to be.
Being strangers to Swabian cuisine, we didn’t know what to expect, although we suspected that the six mile hike we took earlier in the day was probably a good idea. As with every German restaurant, the difficulties of the language are always looming to surprise you with a disconnect between what was described, what you thought you ordered, and what shows up. For example: three, fist-sized stuffed ravioli are described as a “snack” on the menu, but what appears could fill up a sumo wrestler.
(In a similar vein, a chef once told us he mistakenly ordered a plate of butter as an appetizer in a German restaurant.)
Undaunted by our “snack,” we sallied forth with the rest of our meal and found everything to be as enjoyable as a meal of golf ball-size sweetbreads (used to “garnish” a perfect blanquette de veau, no less), tennis-ball sized liver dumplings, football-sized noodles, and brook trout can be. The trout tasted as if it had jumped right from the stream onto our plate (because it almost did, we were told), and, filling or not, those dumplings, veal and sweetbreads are two dishes I’m still dreaming about.
My parents told me decades ago about the wonders of German breakfast buffets in upscale hotels, but it wasn’t until I forced myself into an early awakening on my second morning here that I saw what they were talking about.
“Get here early,” one of the staff told me, and so I did, bleary-eyed and still wrestling with my weightlifter’s repast of the night before.
What I confronted was more temptation than any one man should face while he’s still digesting Swabian dumplings: Every bread and pastry imaginable, right out of the oven. Miles of meats, cheeses, fruits, jams, and jellies. Scores of butters and spreads. Eight kinds of milk. A dozen fresh-squeezed juices. Every kind of smoked fish you’ve ever heard of and more sausages than you can shake a stick at. Carved beef, cured ham (four kinds!), smoked ham, eggs out the wazoo and half a dozen local honeys. Aged fromage from all over Europe, and did I mention the pastries and meats?
And the wurst was yet to come!
Everything from the coffee to the head cheese was exemplary, and the finest of its kind of any buffet I’ve ever been to. It was so good it restored my faith in overeating.
My parents were right: The Germans do breakfast better than anyone. Their hotels and 3-star restaurants concede nothing to the French, either, with everything correct down to the last detail. Michelin is right too: this magical place is definitely worth a special journey.
Our dinner for (two tasting menus + one wine pairing) at the Schwarzwaldstube came to 461 euros including a generous tip. (Yes, they tip in Germany, usually around 10%.) The Bauernstube dinner was 108 euros, and I don’t remember what the breakfast buffet cost, but it’s worth anything they want to charge for it.)
HOTEL TRAUBE TONBACH since 1789 – Familie Finkbeiner KG
72270 Baiersbronn im Schwarzwald, Germany, Telephone +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-0, Reservations +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 22
Fax +49 (0) 74 42/4 92-6 92, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Facebook Hotel Traube Tonbach – Baiersbronn
You’ve gotta hand it to THE Steakhouse at Circus Circus. It’s been around since 1983 and it still looks and feels the same way it did when I first walked through its manly-musky-meaty facade thirty-three years ago.
Truth be told, I had been avoiding going there ever since I finished my roundup of vintage Vegas dining spots a month or so ago. So depressed was I from hauling my ass from one sad, tired, tourist trap of a meal after another (over the past year) that I couldn’t handle another “Vintage Vegas” disappointment. And I sure as hell didn’t want to write another word about another regretful experience, much less chew on shoe leather and tepid memories.
But memories are a powerful thing. And I remembered the sweet whiff of mesquite smoke that had perfumed my last (very good) steak here seven years ago. And the room — a thick, dark, paneled-and-padded homage to days of old — always held a lot of appeal. It had always been a time warp of sorts, but unlike the faded, shopworn tackiness of the Golden Steer, perhaps it hadn’t gone to seed.
Service as I recalled, had always been top notch as well — with a crackerjack waitstaff that looked proud to be there, rather than just going through the motions.
With all these things in mind, I braved the environs of Circus Circus — overrun with families and reeking of bargain-basement desperation — and found the familiar sight of that heavy, wood-paneled entryway:
One of the joys of eating here is the incongruity of it all. Everywhere you look there are fanny-packers and families — none of whom look like they can afford a Vegas vacation — and smack dab in the middle of it all is a plush steakhouse that would be right at home in mid-town Manhattan.
The prices are rather Manhattan-esque too, which only adds to your sense of victual vertigo. $61 is a lot for a porterhouse, getting right up there into Carnevino territory, but this one is properly aged, even if it was cut a bit thin and cooked a bit much:
….and the gorgeous pile of fresh spinach with just the right sort of hot and sour dressing:
We were also nuts about some big, beefy(?) shrimp that came with their own, warmed-over-a-candle garlic butter, and the a top-notch bread basket. The service is top shelf as well, full of old pros who know what they’re doing and make everyone feel at home.
It was fun eating at THE Steakhouse, in part because no one recognized us. We had avoided Charlie Palmer STEAK for years precisely because we always get recognized there and were tired of holding our tongue about how pedestrian it was.
If you recall, CP Steak was the steakhouse that Anthony Bourdain’s (now soon-to-be-ex) wife called “the worst steak she had ever eaten” four years ago, sparking a tempest in a Twitter teapot between me and Mr. “Fuck Nuts.” Good times.
Truth be told, we weren’t surprised to discover, when the dust cleared, that Bourdain’s terrible meal had occurred here. Of all the steakhouses in Vegas, it had been under-performing for a decade. Of all our celebrity chef steakhouses, it consistently ran dead last, and was not even in the same league as CUT, Carnevino, Prime et al.
What was holding it back? Tough to say. Complacency might have had something to do with it. As the main dinner restaurant at the tony Four Seasons Hotel, it could be assured of hitting its numbers, no matter how uninspiring the decor or boring the food. And, as a steakhouse in a steakhouse town, all it had to do is keep a bunch of big hitter California cabs on its list to keep the fat cat, middle American conventioneers swilling…and swearing it was the best damn steakhouse they’d ever been to.
Even at its worst, CP Steak would’ve still been the best damn steakhouse in dozens of American cities. But this is Las Vegas — home to the greatest beef emporiums in the country outside of the Big Apple — and the bar is set pretty friggin’ high. So, how could the estimable Charlie Palmer — one of America’s greatest chefs — get his meat market back in the ballgame? After sixteen years of running on cruise control?
Well, a facelift was a good place to start. (See picture above) Gone is the beige on beige interior. Chairs are brighter and the mood (and the lighting) is lighter. ELV ain’t no arch-EE-teck, but he can tell when thangs have been spruced up to a fare thee well. And indeed they have, and indeed this place now looks like a top-notch beef emporium, not a forlorn hotel dining room.
Elevating Master Sommelier Steve Geddes as Director of Operations was a plus, as was giving Executive Chef Tom Griese license to upgrade the menu. Neither is brand new to the operation, but along with the remodel, they’ve brought some caché back to the wine and food. Everything seems snappier and happier about the joint, right down to the platings that no longer look like they got lost on their way to Morton’s.
One dinner for two people is just scratching the surface, but this was the first time in years we found ourselves excited by the meal and stunned by the salad:
….and the pasta:
We opted for the dry-aged strip (with a little Kagoshima A-5 thrown in for good measure) and both cuts were the equal of anything in town. The basil ravioli with guanciale and chanterelles was no slouch either, and would’ve been right at home at B&B Ristorante. It, along with that superb spinach salad, had me and the Food Gal® fighting for the last bite.
But what really floated our boat (as it was clogging our arteries) was the duo of foie gras:
A dish that tasted as good as it looked and was au courant without being over-done. It reminded us of the food that made Charlie Palmer famous over 25 years ago: confident, precise and bold. French technique given American sass and style. “Very Charlie Palmer,” I thought to myself when it arrived. Very Charlie Palmer indeed.
Welcome back, Charlie.
ELV’s dinner for two (with one porterhouse and two glasses of wine) at Circus Circus came to $126 + a $30 tip. The meal at CP STEAK was comped and we left a $60 tip.)
THE STEAKHOUSE AT CIRCUS CIRCUS
In the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino
CHARLIE PALMER STEAK
In the Four Seasons Hotel
How you feel about Standard & Pour will pretty much depend upon your venison tartare temperament.
Does the above dish look lip-smackingly good to you? Or like something the cat left behind?
Do you want its moist, raw, fresh, well-seasoned deer flesh to envelop your tongue? Or will you not give it a chance to impress you, as bits of white chocolate intermingle with fallow freshness and the crunch of onions?
Do you even know what cherry mostarda is? Do you care?
In other words, are you an avid foodie who’s up for something adventurous and tasty….or do you live in Henderson, Nevada?
Because if you’re the former, you’ll love the place; and if you’re like most people who live within a ten mile radius of the south Eastern Avenue corridor, you’re more likely to sniff around here once or twice and then head to your comfort zone. (More on this in a minute.)
Is the food good at Standard & Pour? Of course it is. It’s Kerry Simon food. Cory Harwell food. Comfort food, elevated. Well thought out, impeccably dressed and carefully executed.
But that’s beside the point.
The point is: This place has done everything right and still might be wrong for the neighborhood.
Is Henderson ready for a cool and cozy patio? A second floor walk-up restaurant that’s spent real money on a groovy bar, with-it decor, and foodie-friendly accoutrements: craft beers, bespoke cocktails, aged-this and smoked-that?
Do the people who keep Carraba’s and Panda Express and LYFE Kitchen humming really care that offal-ly good “tongue & cheek” agnolotti, snail Wellington, and house-cured gravlax:
….are within their grasp?
Put another way: Are there more than a hundred or so intrepid epicures in the entire southeastern quadrant of our humble burg?
The answer is, of course, no.
The whole point of Eastern Ave. is big box, developer-friendly, franchise-safe stores. Predictablility and profits are what this entire community was zoned for (thank you bought-and-paid-for politicians!), and anything unique or personal is frowned upon.
“But my kids really like Grimaldi’s,” you say, “and what’s so wrong with Twin Peaks?”
Of course you’re right. You moved to stucco city precisely because you loved the predictability and conformity. No outside the box eating for you. Applebee’s for everyone!
People have tried to argue with you, but to no avail. There have been five previous restaurants in this space and all have failed. David Clawson tried serving a similar menu of chef-driven creations, a couple of miles up the road and he lasted one year. Bread & Butter didn’t make it. Pizza Novecento was a bust. All while BJ’s Brewhouse is packin’ them in.
But if you, dear reader, are not one of the slack-jawed hordes, take heart. If you are in that .00001% of Henderson residents who are interested in really good, interesting food at a fair price, this place will become your personal clubhouse in no time.
Lest we be too promiscuous with our praise, let us state that the menu, as good as most things are, is still a work in progress.
As much as we wanted to like this carrot risotto:
…we found it irredeemably gummy. Ditto an overly dense (but very cheesy) mac & cheese and some much-too-salt-i-ly sauced chicken thighs.
But those were the only clinkers in an all-over-the-map menu that scores time and again with incredible salt & pepper fries:
….crispy oysters (not pictured), and some magnificent meatballs:
For every miss (we didn’t care for the messy, confusing kimchi tacos), there was hit after toothsome hit.
Pulling off recipes that run the gamut from sambal shrimp to the aforementioned snails Welllington is no easy feat, and Executive Chef Jake Dielemen (a veteran of MarcheBacchus, Carnevino and Alizê) has the chops to do it. (Don’t miss his ode-to-Carl’s Jr. mini-burgers.)
Desserts are as far from your standard “ice cream, cake and cookies” as Boulder City is from Beijing. Fruit Loop Panna Cotta has no discernible fruit loops, but is dotted with enough fresh-made raspberry “gummies,” blueberries, and hazelnuts to keep the kids (and many an adult) happy. Our saffron rice pudding suffered from being slightly under-cooked, but packs a real flavor punch when garnished with the available pomegranate seeds, dates, and pistachios.
Eclectic, around-the-world restaurants define the new American eating experience for a certain level of upper-middle-class gastronauts, but they must be hell on wheels when it comes to getting the seasonings right. Here, with one exception (out of twelve dishes tried), they get the seasonings right. With a little work on their starches, they’ll get the textures right, too.
Multifarious, cross-pollinated menus may be all the rage elsewhere in America, but is Hendertucky ready for them? Whether it is or not, the cocktail bar here may be its salvation. Henderhipsters desperately need a place to congregate, and this may be just the ticket.
As much as we love to bag on Millennials, you have to give them credit for not buying into the same old, chain-link, suburban lifestyle shite that filled up the houses of Monochrome Valley two decades ago. The under 35 crowd may take to S&P like Molly to an electric daisy. (If you don’t get the reference, dollars to doughnuts you own a house that looks exactly like your neighbor’s.) These youngsters want something fresh and un-franchised. This concept is designed to dazzle them, not their elders.They may ultimately be the crowd that saves Standard & Pour.
The problem is, when we dined here, we were surrounded by people who looked like they got lost on their way to a slot tournament at Green Valley Ranch.
Until you weed them out (or they revert to form and their early bird specials), S&P — the concept, the cocktails and the comestibles — will be too hip for the room.
We hope we’re wrong about this.
ELV’s dinner was comped, but dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $100-$120. Cocktails are $12/each and all wines on the very limited list are under $50. What the list lacks in variety it makes up for in lack of imagination.