John Curtas is …

Food

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A Tale of Two Noodles

 It is the best of noodle times, it is a long way from the worst of noodle times. It is the season of shoyu; it is the winter of our udon contentment. In other words, if you love Asian noodles in all their forms, you should be in hog heaven these days. As recently as seven years ago, no one in Las Vegas knew a soba from a shiso. These days, you’ll find Asians, Asian-Americans, and haolies of all stripes hunched over steaming bowls of long hand-pulled noodles, and debating the merits of mentaiko versus mian.

With the opening of Monta seven years ago, informal, Japanese eating took a giant leap forward and has never looked back. But one thing has always been missing: an udon parlor to call our own.  Thankfully, yet another Southern California import — Muragame Monzo Udon — has now planted its flag here, allowing our Chinatown to take yet another small step towards ubiquitous deliciousness.

For the uninitiated, udon are thick, white, long strands of wheat starch. These are not noodles to be contemplated; these are carriers for a variety of sauces and toppings, adornments that Monzo delivers in spades. To taste them in their purest form, try them cold (bukkake* style) doused with a clear, intense broth. Of the “signature udon” that we tried, the Food Gal® is partial to the Mentai Squid Butter (flecked with crunchy fish roe and bits of squid), while I found no fault with the Hot Dragon Udon (pictured above) — it being dressed with lots of spicy ground pork and Chinese chives. Some people are fond of the Miso Carbonara and Sea Urchin Cream versions featured here, but to my mind, these overwhelm the chewy, wheat-i-ness of the noodle, and thereby miss the point.

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Not to be outdone, Shang Artisan Noodle (pictured above) brings a Chinese spin (and that wonderful, hand-tossed lamian) to west Flamingo Road. I’ve always considered the way they can pull and toss and stretch a huge wad of dough into individual strands of noodles to be an ancient form of Chinese magic. There’s also something magical about the dense, beefy broth that accompanies the Shang Beef Noodle, or the dry, spicy kick of their dan dan mian:

….  or the over-the-top chewiness of the Beef Pancake — it being more like a large, juicy, xiao long bao stuffed with a steamed, onion-flecked hamburger:

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I don’t wish to start an international incident, but it’s now a dead heat as to who makes the best thick Asian noodles on earth.

MURAGAME MONZO UDON

3889 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.202.1177

https://www.facebook.com/marugamemonzolv/

SHANG ARTISAN NOODLE

4983 W. Flamingo Road Ste B

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.888.3292

https://www.facebook.com/ShangArtisanNoodle/?ref=py_c

* Do not, under any circumstances, look this up.

The Hottest Dish in Town

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 If you’re they type who thinks supermarket taco sauce is too spicy, read no further. If the mere mention of Mexican food makes you meek, or Korean makes you queasy, or southern Indian inspires thoughts of gastro-injuries, click elsewhere. Because we’re here to celebrate the bringing of the big heat. The pinnacle of pepper-dom. The capsaicin crown, if you will.

Yes, we think we’ve found the hottest dish in town. As shockingly, electrically, volcanically hot as anything we’ve ever put in our mouth. And pilgrim, we’ve stuffed a lot of hot peppers into this piehole in our day.

Before we get to our chili champ, a little pepper primer is in order. Capasicin is the active chemical component of chili peppers. It is an irritant to mammals and produces a burning sensation in whatever tissue it comes in contact with. Pepper plants probably produce this off-putting present as protection against predators, i.e., animals and fungi that might want to eat them. Capsaicin collects in quantity in the seeds and the placental tissue surrounding them. That is why you are told to “scrape the seeds” out of various peppers before you use them, as a way of muting the effect. Amazingly, no matter how much pain a pepper produces, there are no ill effects to the human body from eating them. (Except what you might experience the next day.)

The “Naked Shrimp” dish at Ocha Thai (Gung Che Num Pa) is made with freshly ground Thai birds eye chili peppers. The chefs do not scrape the seeds. Instead, they pound these devils into a paste with mint, garlic, fish sauce and onions, and festoon the raw crustaceans with the mixture. You pick up the shrimp by the tail and take it whole, as it drips with a dollop of chilies. The effect (that takes about 15 seconds to set in) is one of having an electric, hallucinogenic shock sent through your nervous system —  a jolt that gives way to a searing heat that threatens not to leave for a week. After a minute or so panic sets in — a fear that the entirety of your mouth has been irreversibly seared by an oily, unctuous flame that has permanently attached itself to the sides of your tongue.

Only the jolokia ghost pepper at Mint Indian Bistro comes close to this level of heat. The difference being, the jolokia (at over a million Scoville Units) obliterates all taste sensation, these birds eye bad boys (checking in at 350,000 Scoville Units), actually enhance what you’re eating. (By way of comparison, the jalapeno rates a mere 2,500-5,000 Scoville Units.)

Through the pain, you can still taste the shrimp. And the mint. And the garlic. After two bites, you are entranced, spellbound, enveloped by pain and compelled to seek more eating pleasure. Such is the beauty of the dish. Such is the allure of Thai food.

Relax pilgrim, in five minutes your mouth will return to normal. After three or four Thai iced teas.

Serious chili heads owe it to themselves to check this dish out. The rest of you: bring a flamethrower, or just kick back and enjoy the rest of the very solid (and much less spicy) Thai menu.

OCHA THAI CUISINE

1201 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.386.8631

http://www.ochacuisine.com/

 

 

AUREOLE’S Identity Crisis

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Aureole is a restaurant that no longer knows what it wants to be. And the disconnect between what it once was, how it still looks, and what shows up on your plate is startling. If you have a long history with the place, as I do, you will leave your meal here — be it in the main, cavernous dining room or the bar — scratching your head. If you’re the kind of new customer it is now hoping to attract, you might be satisfied, but you won’t be a thrilled. And that’s a pity.

The most pitiful thing they’ve done to the dining room (with this new reboot) is to darken it (with lighting and fabric) in an attempt to warm things up. What before was a stunning, three-story architectural wonder with 40 foot ceilings, blond wood and a stark, sophisticated feel, now has the same bones, but feels like a feeble attempt to “go casual” with print fabrics, awkward place mats, and muted atmospherics. The effect being one of trying to turn a gastronomic temple into a something-for-everyone dining hall.

They’re not fooling anyone. Anyplace this big and striking advertises itself as a very special, big deal meal emporium, but big deal meals are no longer in favor, so the powers that be are stuck with trying to fit a ho-hum concept into a gourmet hole.

The poor fellow in charge of trying to make all of this work is Johnny Church, one of our most talented chefs, who has the unenviable task of crafting an all-over-the-map menu and somehow make it distinctive so prices can be charged commensurate with the architecture.

Church is an inventive, resourceful guy, but here he’s a thoroughbred  being chained to a milk wagon. The menu is filled with the usual suspects — surf, turf and root — with each dish trying very very hard to distinguish itself from dozens of other rooms in town doing the exact same salmon, steaks, kampachi crudo and roasted beets. Crafting a menu for a 335 seat restaurant cannot be easy, but why bother composing a beef and octopus carpaccio that tastes of neither? And leave the pastas to the Italians, rather than sling a beef cheek ravioli was so thick it could be used to patch a tire. But the sea bass comes with its head on it (and standing up(?) the head that is), and there’s all sorts of dribbles and drabs on the plates to impress the rubes. (And, apparently, every other food writer in town.) But look closely and you see a lot of been there done that dishes. This isn’t a Charlie Palmer restaurant anymore; this isn’t a Johnny Church restaurant. It’s just a random assortment of recipes in an eye-popping setting. Throw in the obligatory Caesar salad, risotto, meatballs (very good), four fish and three pricey steaks and a California crab roll…and voila! you have a menu that’s obviously been designed by committee.

The service at the bar was terrible on the night we tried out the happy hour menu, as were the dips: tzatziki, babaganoush and hummus. But at least the bread was stale.

The wine list is outstanding. If you can get the bartender’s attention.

Think of it this way: What is the thing that keeps you coming back to a restaurant? (Or, put another way, why do you go somewhere in the first place?) At Mr. Chow it’s all about the spectacle of intensive care service and upgraded Chinese standards. Carbone ropes you in with old fashioned Italian food made formal and fun, with a great retro vibe permeating the place. Le Cirque is classic, old school French, with marvelous food in a jewel box setting. Spago is Spago. Sui generis. The place that invented the type of Cal-Ital menu it serves — a menu that’s been copied a million times by now. Aureole used to be about the soaring, inventive American cuisine of Charlie Palmer, with drop-your-jaw decor (along with a soaring wine tower) to dazzle you along with his architecturally precise food.

Now, there is no focus, nor theme. This is functional food designed to dazzle conventioneers from Kansas. MGM (the parent company) did the same thing when they re-booted and ruined FLEUR a few years ago. Because they figured Norm and Edna from Evansville want to see Hubert Keller (one of America’s greatest French chefs) do tacos.

A restaurant should me more than the sum of its parts. Really special restaurants are. Aureole has ceased to be really special, and at the prices it’s charging, it cannot afford not to be.

AUREOLE

Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino

3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.632.7401

http://www.charliepalmer.com/aureole-las-vegas/

 

 

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