John Curtas is …

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Noshing on Noodles at NAKAMURA-YA

Unique, tasty, and underrated are the three of the words I use to describe Kengo Nakamura’s wafuu (Japanese-style) pastas at his namesake restaurant. What he whips up nightly is more interesting than 90% of the macaroni you find on the Strip, and the biggest problem you’ll have is trying to avoid ordering half the menu.

For the un-initiated, wafuu pasta is a style of Japanese restaurant that substitutes Italian pasta for rice in many traditional dishes. Here you get choices like spaghetti with squid ink sauce, pasta with crab and mentaiko (dried fish roe), miso carbonara, or fettucine tossed with tomato cream and kurobuta sausage. Kengo-san also heaps very good seafood on capellini in one of his simpler dishes, or tosses sea urchin with cream for one of his richer ones. He can wow you with his mochimugi (barley) risotto. or a delicate shabu-shabu salad.

One of the problems with this place is there are three different platforms to order off of. You are confronted by a large blackboard to your left as you enter the small room which contains the best hits of the menu. Then, there is the multi-page printed menu, and finally a specials blackboard that is presented to your table. Our advice: get everything on the specials board and pick and choose a few items from the other two.

Four things you won’t want to miss are the fried “Jidori” chicken – crispy dark meat with the thinnest of coatings – or the squid ink pasta with squid (pictured above), or the piquant octopus (or kanpachi) carpaccio, or the mizuno salad tossed with a delicate dressing and well-chosen greens. That chicken shows up again in an irresistible “Takana” spaghetti (swimming in a light chicken broth), tasting like the perfect marriage of ramen and Rome. Italy is paid further homage to in a red-white-green Italian “hamburg” covered in melted mozz, on top of a fresh tomato sauce, beside a bunch of broccoli. There’s a lightness to the pasta dishes you rarely find in American-Italians (although by Japanese standards this food is a gut-bomb), but every dish is adroitly sized for sharing between 2-4 diners.  There’s also a more than passable tiramisu, which tastes like it was made minutes earlier, rather than biding its time in the fridge for days.

Overseeing it all is Kengo-san (below right), who presides over the dining room from behind his open kitchen counter.

The bilingual waitresses are very helpful, and the beer and sake selection perfectly matched to the food. So many Japanese spots captivate us these days because of the carefulness of the cooking. But it’s also because the passion behind the projects is palpable. All restaurants aim to make money, but Americans too often cook for the cash. The Japanese look upon it as a calling.

NAKAMURA-YA

5040 West Spring Mountain Road

702.251.0022

 

JEAN GEORGES STEAKHOUSE

They had me at “wagyu brisket.” More on that in a minute. Actually, Jean-Georges Vongerichten has had me in his thrall since August 30, 1988, when I first tasted his then-groundbreaking Alsace-meets-Asia  take on French cuisine in New York City (at a birthday dinner for my then-spouse).

Back then, he was a wunderkind of French chefs, mixing and matching French technique with the mysterious scents and accents of Thailand. Today he has dozens of restaurants all over the world, and two of Vegas’s best steakhouses. The oldest one — Prime in the Bellagio — will always hold a special place in our heart. For nineteen years it has been Las Vegas’s prettiest steakhouse, and the food still sparkles as much as the room.

It’s seven year old sibling — the Jean Georges Steakhouse  —  has always had a more casual vibe.  The classic feel of Prime extends to its menu (which changes about as often as I go to a monster truck rally), while JGS is where Vongerichten lets his chefs play with their food. The lucky chef in this case is Sean Griffin, a baby-faced veteran who knows his way around steaks like his boss knows a khao niao from a kai yang.

Truth be told, we’ve eaten here several times in the past and always felt like menu was derivative, dumbed-down, and a pale imitation of what big brother was doing. With the new re-boot, JGV has finally found its sea legs (?), and Griffin’s cooking feels more confident and focused.

The operation hits all of the stations on the steakhouse cross (dry-aged, Japanese-raised, grass-grazed), along with the requisite Flintstonean tomahawk chop (42 oz.) and the  ungodly-priced A5 Kobe — for those who like to feel their arteries hardening while they eat. But what really distinguishes this place are the little touches Griffin brings to things like a Summer Fruits salad:

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….phenomenal eggs-on-egg oscetra caviar toast — a construction so simple and perfect (rich, just-cooked yolk sandwiched between two thin pieces of toast, topped with fish eggs) that I couldn’t believe I’ve never encountered it before:

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If those don’t inspire a tip of the fedora to the kitchen, then try this pepper-crusted foie gras (with strawberry-rhubarb compote) on for size:

…and a crunchy breast of chicken in a shallow pool of uncommonly good hot sauce. By-the-numbers cooking this is not —  whether you’re diving into a big lumpy crab cake, or a citrusy-glazed sea bass. The steaks are grilled over apricot wood (and finished with rendered beef fat) and take a back seat to no one’s, but it’s those apps and sides that will get your attention. Summer corn is brought to life by Manchego cheese, chili and lime, and if there’s a better potato dish in town than Griffin’s smashed Yukons with jalapenos, I haven’t found it.

It’s the aggressive-yet-balanced use of strong, tangy accents (peppers, citrus, soy, etc.) that distinguish this menu from so many others, including its big brother. These flavors announce JGS as a steakhouse with real kick, and one that will keep your palate awake throughout the meal.

Back to that brisket, it was black as coal and smoky as a Texas wildfire. It tiptoed between fork tender and slightly chewy and was all the beef-eaten a rootin’ tootin’ carnivore could ask for. It needed a little sauce, but the four they make in house — chili glaze, JG steak sauce, soy miso and Bearnaise — are all equal to the task. The desserts are superb, and par for the course for a chef who’s had my gastronomic attention for half of my life.

JEAN GEORGES STEAKHOUSE

Aria Resort and Casino

3730 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.590.8660

https://www.jean-georges.com/restaurants/united-states/las-vegas/jean-georges-steakhouse/

P.S. My sister and her grandnephews are probably still talking about the Brontosaurus (marrow) bone we were served:

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Like everything else coming out of this kitchen right now, it was overwhelming (in a good way) and just about flawless.

ELIA AUTHENTIC GREEK TAVERNA

False advertising by restaurants is taken for granted. How many times do you just shrug when you see “homemade” on a menu, or “best ___ in town” on a sign? So inured are we to the hyperbole of food puffery that we barely blink when something tells us that some foodstuff is the greatest this, or the the most authentic that. Most of the time, most of us presume the exact opposite of what is being touted, and no one bats an eyelash.

When it comes to “real” Greek food, most Greek restaurants are co-conspirators against consumers and the land of their birth. Like the Chinese and Italians before them, these immigrants created facsimiles of recipes that dumbed-down the real thing, because, they thought (rightly at the time), Americans couldn’t handle the truth. Unlike other ethnic restaurateurs though (who simply watered things down), Greeks decided to invite entire countries into their kitchens. Thus can you often find everything from mezze platters (Persia), to falafel (Syria), to hummus (Israel), to Caesar salads (America) to kebabs (Turkey) in your average Greek restaurant. Imagine French chefs cooking up a passel of pizza, bratwurst and bangers in a bistro and you’ll get the idea. The bastardization of real Greek food started decades ago, and it shows no signs of abating, as most Greek food now gets compromised by a lava flow of babganoush and a enough shingles of pita bread(Lebanon) to tile a roof.

Amidst our Aegean sea of mediocrity there is an island of Hellenic serenity. With nary a cliche in sight, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna opened its doors a little over a month ago, and immediately started changing people’s preconceptions about this cuisine. There are no Greek flags flying. No hideous Greek statuary adorns, nor is the color scheme another variation of bright blue and white. The walls are muted, the linens are thick, and the tablecloths are real cotton. Even the bouzouki music is tuned to a nice, conversational level. In short, this small, 30 seat space is unlike any American-Greek restaurant you have ever been to.

Small it may be, but mighty are the things coming out of this kitchen. Whole fish, supple, grilled octopus, spanakopita (pictured above), gorgeous, oregano-dusted lamb chops, oven-roasted lemon potatoes, superb tomato salad, gigante beans, and the big 4 of savory dips (tzatziki, tarama, tyrokafteri, and skordalia), all pay homage to the kind of food that Greeks take for granted — be it at home or in the neighborhood taverna. The all-Greek wine list is well priced, and the welcome makes you feel like you belong — because you do, and because real Greek food finally does in America .

The only untrue thing about Elia is that it’s not located on a side street in Athens.

ELIA AUTHENTIC GREEK TAVERNA

4226 S. Durango Dr.

Las Vegas, NV 89147

702.284.5599

https://www.elialv.com/

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