The Best Burger in Town

America’s obsession with juvenile food is subsiding.

Press your ear (or stomach) to the ground (as we do) and you’ll find the food media paying scant attention to tacos, pizzas and burgers these days.

People aren’t going apeshit over ramen like they were five years ago, cupcakes have been consigned to the corner (where they belong), small plates are sooo 2014, and Brobdingnagian milk shakes have been marginalized.

With any luck, perhaps one of these days the New York Times will end its decade-long love affair with David Chang.

In the meantime, Chang and his bao buns notwithstanding, grown up dining has returned. Classics are back.

If you require evidence, just look at what’s opened here in the past few months. Cipriani, Vetri and NoMad are nothing if not throwback dining experiences. Look past the modern industrial look of Factory Kitchen and what you’ll find is a classic Italian meal. The only thing modern about Mott 32 is the decor and the cocktail program.

Heck, some of these places even offer cheese at the end of your meal. How fin de siecle is that?

But some things never go out of style, and a great burger is one of them.

Amidst all the Eataly anticipation at the end of the year, a sizeable (300 seat) meat emporium quietly opened in the Palace Station hotel. Called BBD’s (Beers, Burgers, Desserts) it brought forth a gargantuan menu of everything from burgers and steaks to amazing bowls of duck ramen ($18) to never-seen-before dishes like Buffalo burnt chicken wings ($13):

On top of those, it also features probably the best beer selection in town (notice I said “best” not “biggest”), fried pickles and hot chicken. There’s a Philly cheese steak served with smoked onions ($15 and excellent) , a one-pound Bavarian pretzel, and even lamb gyros for those so inclined.

But the real stars of the show are the burgers. Three are offered: the dry-aged prime steakhouse burger ($19), a griddle burger ($10 single, $14 double) that seeks (and succeeds) at elevating the In-N-Out burger template, and a steamed burger ($8 single, $12 double) mimicking the chopped onion, grey meat magnificence of a White Castle slider.

They offer 20(!) different sauces (all made in-house), potatoes a number of ways (the classic french fries above, are potato perfection), three salads (who gives a fuck?), and the usual frivolous fat-filled fried stuff (onion rings, poppers, cheese sticks and such).

But your attention is drawn to the meat from the moment you walk past the butcher shop at the entrance, and that’s where your gaze should stay.

Those burgers are each superb. Made with in-house ground beef, juicy and packed with the kind of dense, mineral-rich beefiness that is but a wisp of memory in the hamburgers most people consume. I’ve said for years: the best burgers are always found in good steakhouses, because good steakhouses use the best beef and treat it right.

The beef here tastes like it could’ve come straight from Delmonico or CUT. The grind is coarse and the packing is just firm enough to hold together and sear properly, the better to retain the juiciness essential for proper burger apotheosis. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted better.

Seasonings are on-point, too, telling you that someone in the kitchen is paying close attention to the details.

As much as well love all of the cheeseburgers here, I have to admit the steamed mini-burgers (above) are my favorite. They taste like what White Castles would be if they were 3xs thicker, used great meat sandwiched in a superior bun and satisfied your cravings without laying in your stomach like a cheap, greasy brick. (The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been parking booze in your gut all night.)

Those minis are not to be missed, but neither are any of these meat patty sandwiches. The beef in the dry-aged prime burger (above) is aged for 40-50 days and achieves that tinge of umami-laden gaminess true beef aficionados look for. The grilled beauties (not pictured) are next-level delicious as well — one bite and you might forswear In-N-Out forever.

Put them all together and you have a hamburger hamlet of unbridled greatness, the likes of which Vegas has never seen under one roof.

All of this is the handiwork of one Ralph Perrazzo — a Long Island chef (and Bradley Ogden alum) who won some burger battle on some food network show, paving the way for his expansion to Vegas. Sorry Ralph, but I don’t take those shows very seriously anymore, but your food is the real deal, and whether it’s juvenile or fashionable or not, I intend to eat many more of your burgers, and take them very very seriously while doing so.

(A burger lunch or dinner for two, without booze, should run between $25-$50, depending on how many sides or appetizers you tackle. The beer selection is for serious suds lovers.)

BBD’s

Palace Station Hotel and Casino

2411 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.221.6513

https://eatbbds.com/experience/

 

NOMAD – The Restaurant

The first test of a restaurant is, does it make you want to return?

if you think about it, nothing else really matters,  Fine points about the done-ness of your steak or the freshness of your veggies pale before the only issue that counts: Will you come back for another meal?

Consider the following. When you’re in the middle of your first meal at a restaurant, do you:

> Gaze longingly at the dishes being served all around you?

> Think about what you didn’t order WHILE YOU’RE EATING?

> Contemplate your next meal there… in the middle of this one?

> Think to yourself, “I can’t wait to come back”?

if you answered yes to any of these questions, then the restaurant has done its job.

Whether a taco truck, a fast food joint, or haute cuisine palace, getting you back in the door is every restaurant’s first mission….and woe to the place where a customer walks out thinking, “been there, done that.”

Getting you there the first time is the product of hype, word-of-mouth, or whatever. That’s easy. Getting you to return is the hard part.

Getting people to come to The NoMad Restaurant won’t be an issue, given the name, its reputation, and the marketing muscle of MGM.

Getting locals in the door might be a different story. Getting me to come back is going to be even harder.

More on that later, but first let’s review a few things before I get to the food, because several things about NoMad, besides the food, require a reminder.

NoMad is corporate to the core. It is all calculation and concept, conceived solely to cash in on the fame chef Daniel Humm (pronounced Hūme) — fame that was achieved (with the help of some big money investors) at Eleven Madison Park. (For those who don’t hunt big restaurant game as an avocation, EMP is the mega-expensive, impossible-to-get-into, multi-course, World’s Best blah blah blah restaurant that Humm has helmed since 2011.)

As Adam Platt so deftly described, the trouble with having the world’s best anything is plenty of suitors are going to show up at your door enticing you with ideas on ways to “expand your brand,” and make a boatload of cash while doing so. In the case of Humm and partner Will Guidara, that meant springing into hotel/restaurant mode in 2012, and then planning to conquer the world by taking their expandable concept to places like London and Las Vegas.

Apparently, the only thing holding them back these days is where to find enough old books to stock the shelves. Books, you see, being the leitmotif of this place. Oh the irony, I’m sure you’re thinking, stocking a fake library with real books to surround a generation of diners who don’t read them. True enough, but the effect is stunning just the same.

The place is huge (200+ seats) but also dark and clubby  — quite the design feat, again calculated to take your breath away, and it does.

Those shelves surround you from the moment you step into the huge, fancified, fake Victorian library.  20+ foot ceilings (stocked to the brim with those books) threaten to engulf you. All of this mimics the vernacular of the New York original (much as Carbone does) while inflating it, size-wise, to keep up with the conventioneers who will be descending upon it.

NoMad you see, wants it all ways. It is trying to redefine dining for the second (and soon-to-be third) decade of the 21st Century as a place devoted to classics in a casual way. Formal dining, if you will, without the folderol. By and large it succeeds in this mission, hearkening back to days of yore when gentlemen dined in style, dressed to the nines, and surrounded by literate luxury.

No one is dressing for success anymore (shame), but even in cargo shorts, you’ll find a lot to like here, once you find a table, and therein lies a tale.

As you approach the restaurant you will see very large doors that give you a hint as to the scale of the place. Right inside those doors, to the left, is the hostess stand. That stand, on both of my visits, has been filled with drop-dead beautiful young women, none of whom seems to have a clue what they’re doing — a simple “hello, my name is ______ ” sending the bevy of them into paroxysms of wide-eyed uncertainty of the sort one usually sees at a Jimmy Choo sale.

If you want to visit the bar, you will be led through the restaurant to a long counter recessed from the main room. If you are ready for your table (after a quick cocktail), neither the hostess nor the well-meaning barkeep will know how to communicate this fact to the other, or impart the necessary information you’ll need to locate one (the hostess or your table).

Persevere and eventually someone will show up. Then, you’ll be taken back to the hostess stand (not a small hike), from which another bewildered lass will lead you to your seats. It’s all quite the production, necessitated by the demands of a (relatively) small-bore, big city eatery deciding it wants to increase its volume and siphon off some Vegas cash.

Humm and company started raking in their dough six years ago with a something-for-everybody style carefully planned to appeal to everyone from the meat-and-potatoes crowd to inveterate Francophiles. The concept seems more Vegas-ready than most of our usual transplants (cf. Vetri), and from your first glance, you will see a menu that confidently mixes its metaphors.

You won’t mind a bit seeing Italian pastas like tagliatelle with crab and lemon ($36) and cavatelli (above) with black truffle and sausage ($28) sitting beside French classics like lobster Thermidor ($64) and beef Rossini ($58), especially when everything is this tasty. Those pastas may not be in the same league as Marc Vetri’s, but the portions are larger and both starches pack a punch.

Before you get to them though, you’ll have to navigate the appetizers. Again, you’ll find a blend of food styles aimed at pleasing the largest swath of customers possible, Thus does rudimentary kanpachi ceviche ($21) share space with an excellent foie gras torchon ($36), while pata negra ham ($38) can be ordered alongside a buffalo mozz/bibb lettuce.

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Oysters (above, $34) come two ways (chilled with champagne mignonette and broiled with Parmesan and breadcrumbs), and may be the best composed bivalves in town — the first being (literally) sparkling with acidity, while the second finds four plump specimens warmly nestled beneath an herbaceous, cheese blanket. It’s not easy to accent oysters without overwhelming them, and both versions here walk that tightrope without a stumble.

This sort of all-over-the-map eating could be a disaster in less capable hands, but Humm’s crew faithfully recreates the pristine (those kanpachi) with the iconic (Paul Bocuse’s fabled truffled chicken in puff pastry, $32) without a hiccup. The soup is a marvel of simplicity, and any misstep (with the broth, the bird, or the mille-feuille), could turn this homage into a cheap forgery, but as at Auberge du Pont de Collonges, they have obviously honed their skills in making this famous concoction down to a science, and the lip-smacking results are not to be missed by any serious gastronome.

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If there’s a dish NoMad can be credited with bringing back from the dead, it is the simple roast chicken for two (above). Once a staple of French dining rooms, it fell out of favor in the 90s as two generations of baton-twirling chefs sought to distinguish themselves with whatever cartwheel they could fit on a plate. (When I lamented the loss of the simple pleasures of a perfectly roasted bird to several chefs a decade ago, they all looked at me like I was advocating the return of the tasseled menu.)

The version here has been gussied up to a fare-thee-well, and finds a beautifully bronzed specimen, “stuffed with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche, dark meat fricasse and sauce suprême.” With a description like that, you expect trumpets to be playing when it’s brought to the table. When you taste it, you find a gorgeous bird bathed in a rich cream sauce containing whispers of all the other ingredients rather than a chorus of them. For the price ($94), one expects more. At that price, you deserve the 1812 Overture.

 

Not to get tacky about it, but cost-to-value ratio is definitely an issue here. $58 brings forth two small tournedos of (probably sous-vide) filet mignon, one topped with a cute piece of foie gras, the other plopped with a black substance that tastes like stewed blackberries but which is, in fact, onion “jam.”

Jelly on meat is one thing, but this invention comes across as a way to distract you from the minimal presence of (the expected, required) truffle flavor in the dish, and an excuse not to use any more foie gras than necessary.

And then you get to the overpriced sides. $18 for a baked potato (mine came with white truffles, I’m not sure everyone else’s does), $15 for sauteed mushrooms, and…wait for it…. $26 for roasted broccoli.  Of course it comes with two little Parmesan crisps as garnishes, so there’s that.

The baked Alaska is no bargain either ($28), but it’s a wonder of layered composition — fruit, cake, cream — flamed tableside to your delight at any price. I would’ve happily paid double for it in exchange for knocking the broccoli off the bill. The chocolate mousse ($14) is scooped tableside from a large bowl and is also drop-your-spoon delicious.

Finally, there is the service. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I rarely comment on it. This is for two reasons: 1) many restaurants in Las Vegas know me, so, as a result, I receive more attention than the average diner; and, 2) I don’t really give a shit about service. As I’ve said before, I don’t care if they dump soup on my head as long as it’s great soup.

I may not care about service, that doesn’t mean I don’t notice it. No matter where I dine, from a place like Le Cirque (where we’ve been dozens of times) to my two visits here, I’m watching how the waitstaff treats every one around me. How is their greeting? Is the water getting re-filled? Is there a lag between courses? Does the check show up on time? How have they handled a complaint? My gaze may not be riveted on any one table, but my antennae are always out.

And out or in, I couldn’t help but noticing that service here is not commensurate with the prices. It starts with that hostess stand and continues through the meal: a lot of attractive young people scurrying about, but vaguely confused about how to get the job done.

Menus show up haphazardly. Four different people ask you the same question. Long lag times. Liquid replenishment is problematical, and one entree shows up five minutes before another (at a two-top, on a weekday evening with the restaurant not half full). Vegetables appear at random, and a glass of wine ordered with your entree shows up with dessert.

At a more modest establishment, these would be chalked up to growing pains. With this reputation and these pretensions, such failings are inexcusable, or, at the very least, mentionable.

If I seem on the fence about NoMad, it is because I am. There’s a lot to like about the place. Some of the dishes take your breath away, the room is spectacular, and the libations (cocktails and wine) are well thought-out, and a treat. (Someone on the Strip obviously got our memo about wine lists a few years ago, as the lists we’re now seeing —  here, Vetri, Cipriani, Scotch 80 and others — are stocked with more bottles in the $50-$125 range.)

But if the true test of a restaurant is whether you want to come back, I don’t see myself trekking here anytime soon. I may be looking forward to my next Vetri adventure, or plowing through pastas at Cipriani, or diving into dumplings at China Mama, but when it comes to NoMad, I think I’ll stick with the hamburger and the hot dog  being sold next door at the NoMad Bar, and leave the fancy dining to those who don’t mind paying twenty-six bucks for a bunch of broccoli.

(Our two meals – for two – came to $521 and $325 respectively, but the first one included a $140 bottle of wine. Expect to pay around $125/pp, exclusive of booze.)

THE NOMAD RESTAURANT

The Park

3772 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.730.6785

https://www.nomadlasvegas.com/en/restaurants/the-nomad-restaurant.html

 

 

VETRI

Italian food and Las Vegas have had a stressful relationship for decades.

Like a lousy marriage, lots of things suck, but familiarity keeps us together. There are zero surprises, but at some level, that’s all you want from each other.

Bad Italian and Vegas have always gone together like Stella and Stanley, or Sunday gravy and melted mozz, but the good stuff has been harder to find than a goomba with a good vocabulary.

To keep the metaphor going, think of great Italian food like a good marriage: it’s simple, and relaxing, but also full of wonderful little grace notes that reassure you you’ve made the right decision, and with occasional surprises that remind you why you fell in love in the first place.

Sure, we’ve had plenty of celeb chef phone-ins (Giada, Scarpetta), and sea of red sauce joints (Rao’s, Buddy V’s, Maggiano’s, a bajillion joints off Strip), but anything close to authenticity has always taken a back seat to stuffing the conventioneers with as much chicken parm as they can swallow.

And fuggidabadit if you expect dedicated Italian chefs to refine their craft here. The kind of genre-expanding cooking that big cities take for granted, e.g. Sarah Grueneberg in Chicago, Fabio Trabocchi in Washington D.C., or Andrew Carmellini in New York City, is unknown in these parts.

Make no mistake: Las Vegas is the spiritual home of bad Italian food. There may be worse Italian restaurants in Nebraska and North Carolina, but we have more of them, per capita, than anywhere in the country.

Around here, quality not only doesn’t sell; in fact it’s actively spurned. Around here, people like being bored by their Italian food, and numbed into complacency.

A good Italian restaurant is ingredient-driven. A great Italian restaurant takes the world’s greatest raw ingredients and gives them a higher purpose — much as a preeminent musician takes their instrument to heights no one else can achieve.

Even at its most basic level, Italian food is soothing (that’s why it thrives on mediocrity). Average Italian satisfies the way pop music does: it is catchy and popular and forgettable. Great Italian food, like opera, will take your breath away.

Image may contain: food(Tonnarelli grana arso with seafood)

VETRI, if you let it, will take your breath away.

The qualifier is important, because, splendid  as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. There are no easy answers here, toe-tapping is kept to a minimum, and crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary. And like all great Italian food, it often accomplishes more with less.

Consider the following:

Clichés of all kinds have been canned.

Pizzas are kaput.

Soups and scampi have been scuttled.

Meatballs are missing in action.

Caesar is nowhere to be found.

Place settings are spartan.

No giant hunks of cheese or curled ribbons of prosciutto will be ceremoniously brought to your table.

The bread basket is oddly modest.

Something-for-everyone proteins (pork chops, salmon, chicken breasts) are non-existent.

In other words, if you’re looking for a typical Italian meal, as defined by your typical upscale Italian restaurant, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But if you have the chops for a black belt modern Italian food experience — like the best ristorante in Italy are putting out these days — you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Bergamo.

(Fusilli with saffron)

Consider this #2:

Your typical dinner here will might go foie gras pastrami with brioche and mostarda ($28); Swiss chard gnocchi with brown butter ($30), tonnarelli grano arso (toasted wheat pasta, with seafood, $38); and some whole roasted baby goat (more than enough for a couple, $52).

Or perhaps you’d like something a bit lighter, like a squid and artichoke galette ($22), raw fish crudo, a pickled veggie/antipasti platter ($32), and some simple spaghetti with chunky San Marzano tomatoes and basil ($26).

(Veal tartare with crispy sweetbreads)

Or maybe you want to throw in with the big boys and take down some veal tartare with sweetbreads, a sweet onion crepe (really more like a thick tarte) served with white truffle fondue, followed by either a whole roasted branzino for two ($110), or a a brontosaurian bistecca Fiorentina (also for two, $195), that, like the sea bass, is enough to keep 3-4 trenchermen occupied.

Mere plebes may be happy with a gorgeous stuffed guinea hen breast ($48, also enough to split), and the cutest little bone marrow raviolini ($30) you’ve ever seen:

However you want to slice it, Vetri can make it work.

Make it work, mind you, if modern, intense, thoughtful, elegant Italian cuisine is what you are after.

To put it bluntly, if you’re the type who sings the praises of Piero’s, do yourself a favor and stay put.

If you’re looking for volume with your starches and proteins, look elsewhere.

Because Vetri is something of a contradiction — one both underwhelming at first (minimalist decor, an unfussy look, short, simple menu, that bread basket) and then one that dazzles with its attention to detail.

In short, it is sophisticated Italian food, the kind that well-heeled Italians eat.  Food that echoes the shuttered B&B Ristorante , only more finely-tuned. Food to be enjoyed, contemplated, and discussed, not gorged upon. The kind that you’ll find at Dal Pescatore in Mantova, or Del Posto in New York. All of it served in a nonpareil setting — without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country —  56 floors up. The location puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Those breads, you will discover, are baked in-house, with artisanal wheat (from Arizona, of all places), which is ground into flour in-house. (Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like grinding your own flour.) And when you bite into the bread, or dip it into superb olive oil, or get that firm, toothsome, sweet-wheat sense from your noodles, you realize the payoff is worth it.

And when you inhale the nut bread they bake for the cheese selection here, you’ll wonder if you’ve ever tasted any better.

Between the breads and the pastas, it’s hard not to fill up and forget about the rest of the menu. You can craft an ideal meal here without ever venturing into the “secondi” section, and to my mind, the starters and pastas are where the kitchen does its best work.

Las Vegas had the benefit of B&B’s stylish pastas for almost a decade, but it’s gone now and we live in constant threat of regression. This may be just fine with many — let’s face it, Piero’s and The Bootlegger are packed every night — but to a certain level of epicurean, they just don’t cut it. Not when there are goodies like thinly-sliced porchetta with tuna sauce to be had ($22), or casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives ($32), or foie gras pastami on the bill of fare:

Before you get to your table, a stop at the bar to take in the view and one of David Cooper’s cocktails is mandatory. After that you’ll want to navigate Rafael Garcia’s wine list, which isn’t exactly chock full of bargains, but didn’t piss me off, either — which means there’s plenty of drinkable stuff that mere mortals can afford. The by-the-glass list is a treat unto itself, and covers the Italian peninsula from Sicily to Venice.

After three meals here, I can’t claim to have conquered the entire menu, but I’m close. The only disappointing dishes have been the mesquite grilled seafood misto ($52 and very much by-the-numbers), and an antipasti platter that was more style than substance.

The cheese selection is also a little thin, but what they had was in peak condition. My guess is bets are being hedged to see how much of the stuff actually moves. This is Las Vegas, after all, land of the fromage-frightened….unless, of course, it’s mountains of melted (cheap) mozzarella.

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives)

All of this urbane elegance 50+ floors above Flamingo Road begs the question: How did Vetri get here and how is Las Vegas going to react to his stylish cuisine?

He got here somewhat serendipitously because the Lorenzo Fertitta’s son was graduating from Villanova two years ago. The son had booked his graduation party at the original in Philadelphia,  and when Marc saw the name on the reservation book, he realized it was the same people who had previously approached him about coming to Vegas. He then knew he could kill two birds with one spectacular dinner, so he cooked up a storm, the Fertittas were suitably impressed, and now we may have the second best Vetri in our backyard — which means we might have the second greatest Italian restaurant in America right here.

Which doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to your average Vegas visitor.

So I had to pop the question to MV: was How he was going to adjust his food for the sake of the Vegas market?

“Not at all,” he assured me.

Having tackled his menu, I believe him. For the time being.

The second thing I did was warn him that he would soon have hotel honchos telling him more basic Italian food is “what our customers want,” and “Why can’t you put a meatball on the menu?”

He pooh poohed the idea. They all pooh pooh it at first.

It’s bound to happen. It’s happened with everyone from Joël Robuchon to Sirio Maccioni. RESIST MIGHTILY, MARC VETRI!

Sooner or later (usually sooner) some hotel executive gets tired of hearing customers (or casino hosts) complain about the food at their fancy restaurant. “Would it hurt them to put a scallop dish on the menu?” the refrain usually goes, or “If it’s Italian, why isn’t there any pizza? My kids wanted pizza and I just dropped 50gs at the craps table fer chrissakes.”

Silly boy, I thought to myself. I should’ve bet him a bottle of Barolo it will happen…but I respect the guy too much to take his money.

Yes, Marc, your cuisine is stellar, and the room is gorgeous, the service is precise, and on any given night you might be running the first and second best Italian restaurants in America. But that doesn’t mean people won’t want you to dumb yourself down for the sake of the good old dollar.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

VETRI CUCINA

Palms Hotel and Casino

4321 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.944.5900

http://www.palms.com/vetri-cucina.html