ESTHER’S KITCHEN

Ground Zero for downtown’s dining renaissance. So crowded, as Yogi Berra said, no one goes there anymore. So popular, a seat at the bar (any night of the week) is harder to find than a Mario Batali fan.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a meal here….only that when you do, you’d better plan ahead, before the downtown denizens descend.

What began with Carson Kitchen four years ago took a giant leap forward in 2018 with the opening of this intimate space just off Main Street in the Arts District. But where CK is all gastropub-y with it’s burgers, salads, wings and such, here chef/owner James Trees goes full Italian, bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and porchetta (never as good as I want it to be). Nothing wrong with a giant loaf of rolled pork, mind you, I’ve just never been impressed by the dish, in or out of Italy.

Another thing CK and EK have in common is ear-splitting, military jet afterburner noise levels. Be forewarned: this is not a place for intimate (or even business) discussions. If anything, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern urban dining — an atmosphere where people come for the food and “to party” (as Trees puts it), not for contemplation or conversation. My solution is to come either for a late lunch or an early dinner, or, weather permitting, sit outside. Another minor criticism is the way you order and pay at the counter at lunch, grab a number, and wait for your food to be delivered. None of this affect the exquisite food coming out of the open kitchen, but it does give the place a fast-casual feel that detracts from the foodie vibe. On the plus side, once you’re done eating, there’s no waiting for a check, you just get up and go.

Picky picky picky, you’re probably saying to yourself right now (especially if you’re under 40), but like I said, none of this affects the food, almost all of which is drop-your-fork gorgeous.

Begin with the bread, because it’s baked in-house and out of this world. Then proceed to the meat and cheese platter — one of the prettiest in Vegas. From there, dive into the verduras (veggies): cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and capers, mushrooms with house-ground polenta, an above-average Caesar, and a chopped salad so enticing everyone at your table will grab a forkful. At lunch you’ll love most of the sandwiches, with the grilled truffle cheese with mushroom, on house bread crusted with fontina cheese, attaining second level status in the pantheon of grilled fromage. The garlic poached tuna “Niçoise Things” is too healthy for us (and occasionally under dressed), but the “Spicy Greens” with candied pecans, pickled (and we mean pickled) plums, brie and prosciutto, hits just the right balance between produce, spicy and sweet.

As good as the left side of the menu is, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant wars and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are handmade, portioned for two and presented to elicit oohs and aahs for their perfection of pasta porn.

Where you’ll really gasp, though, is when you see his radiatorre with black garlic, lemon and cream, a palate-coating belly bomb of the best kind:

Nothing is run of the mill about these noodlelicious dishes — they use top shelf groceries, rotate the recipes seasonally, and unlike so many other restaurants, aren’t afraid to get in your face with flavor. When Trees says “amatriciana” he means it. The spice will be there as surely as the pepper in the cacio e pepe will light you up.

Pizzas are far from standard issue, either, with beautiful, charred cornicione (above), good cheese, and always a surprise or two in the topping department — like salty bacon with caramelized onion, or Greek sausage and fennel.

All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, amazing amaros, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: feed its customers (and quench their thirsts) in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(Lunch for two should run around $40, with dinner about double that, exclusive of drinks, which shouldn’t be excluded, ever. There’s a reserve wine list in addition to the $40/btl  one, and it’s a lot pricier, if no less exciting.)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.570.7864

https://www.estherslv.com/ 

PIZZERIA MONZU

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Las Vegas upped its pizza game considerably over the past decade, but it wasn’t until Pizzeria Monzú opened this year that it had a true, Sicilian superstar. It’s something of an insult that food this good is located right behind an Arby’s, but there it is  — in a strip mall that’s seen better days — beckoning like no other Italian in town. Sicilian restaurant scion Giò Mauro (of Nora’s family fame), took over the space of the old Nora’s (the new one is now a block away), and expanded and modernized it. What was once an old school, Italian-American, now reeks of wood smoke, craft cocktails and foodie cred.

The room is big, bright and airy; the tables are comfortable and well-spaced. High ceilings keep the noise level down to conversational levels, and a small stage off to one side gives you a hint that live entertainment will be in the offing.* Those wanting upscale spritzers, and gorgeous (all-Italian) wines by the glass will not be disappointed. Those wanting to imbibe some serious beer, and wines by the bottle, will sit up and take notice.  Twelve brews on draft are offered, ranging from local IPAs to Michigan brown ales, and the wine list is a dream come true — dozens of modestly-priced vintages from up and down the Italian peninsula, all with brief, pithy descriptions of what you’re getting. It might be the best short wine list in all of Vegas.

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Once you’re seated, get the appetizers, all of them: squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and mint, ascolane (sausage-stuffed) olives (above), stuffed chicken wings, agrodolce (sweet and sour) meatballs, and the brightest of all in this galaxy of six stars, the “stuffed lemon leaves” (below), which aren’t as much stuffed as they are skewered and grilled in leafy envelopes. Each order is enough for four, and a table full of these plates makes a meal unto itself.

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If you insist, the salumi and fromaggi antipasti are also a good place to start, as Mauro is justifiably proud of his meats and cheeses, and the bruschette (whether plain or speckled with roasted garlic and anchovies, Sicilian-style), will satisfy as well. The only problem with all of these is if you fill up too fast and you won’t have room for the main event: pizza alla pala. As big as a small desk and easily feeding 4-6 hungry adults, these big boys come in all sorts of combos.

We’re partial to the the “Simple” (crushed tomatoes, basil and mozzarella), but the “Regina Margherita” (above) gets a deeper sweetness from cherry tomatoes, and a certain tang (from buffalo mozz) that is as far from your average slice as the Godfather II is from Sharknado. No matter which one you get (and some of the combos like “Pork Reigns” and “Vegas Meets Italy” are a tad overloaded for our tastes), you can’t help but notice the chewy, tangy, dense and satisfying bread providing the foundation. This is serious stuff — long fermented dough, from an ancient starter, that shines on its own. ‘Tis almost a pity to cover up this toothsome crumb with bacon, goat cheese and arugula (Apricot) or Gorgonzola, walnuts and honey (‘Nduja), but if you do, you’ll still find yourself fighting your table-mates for the last slice.

I am told that the large proteins offered here — a “Polpettone” (giant meatball), grilled swordfish, and a 34 oz. rib eye “Fiorentina” — are wonderful, but I’m always too busy grooving on the pizza to notice. The one I’ve had — crespelle al forno  (baked lasagna with meat sauce) — was a meaty, cheesy, béchamel-topped delight.

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Anyone who doesn’t order Sfgini di San Giuseppe – fist-sized Sicilian doughnuts (above) filled with sweetened ricotta — should be consigned to sleep with the fishes.

(Dinner for four, with a few drinks, all those appetizers, a big pizza and dessert will run around $191.95….exactly what I paid for it.)

PIZZERIA MONZÚ

6020 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.749.5959

http://monzulv.com/index.html

* No one hates music more in restaurants than I do. Music in restaurants ruins both the music and the food. But when Gio Mauro takes the stage to belt out some opera (he’s classically trained) or an old standard, it all seems to fit, and I don’t mind it a bit.

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas…and Paella! (Part 3)

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar is a small plates purveyor of a different stripe. Where Pamplona shoots and scores with authentic, Madrid-style tapas, and Edo gives an updated spin to their Spanish classics, MBWB takes the tapas thing in several different directions. And those directions have as much to do with wine as it does with shareable food. The good news is both are pretty nifty.

What confronts you when you enter is a long, in-laid, colorful three-sided bar. Very L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon that. This counter represents latest manifestation of the side-by-side dining that has been all the rage since Robuchon made such a splash with it in Paris in 2003. Grownups may find it a tad awkward, and for us there’s a couple of high-boy tables in one corner where 4-6 people can actually talk without leaning in and out with every sentence. Hearing is another matter, as you’ll see below.

Once you get comfortable (and to their credit, the staff here puts everyone at ease), you will observe the hustle and bustle behind that bar, as well as the refrigerated wine racks, and all sorts of people moving to and fro, taking orders, mixing drinks, pouring wines, and delivering plates.  It’s really quite a scene, but only three months into its run, the staff and kitchen seem well-synchronized. If you score one of those tables, don’t expect to hear any whispered sweet nothings from your dearly beloved though, as that would require a bullhorn over the din. (In this regard, side-by-side seating makes a lot of sense.)

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If the term “wine bar” in the name doesn’t give you an idea what this place is all about, then the two-sided list will. It’s compact — five whites, six reds, some sake, several sherries — but (almost) everything is price to sell. Strip wine maven/veteran Luis de Santos (pictured above) co-owns and runs the libations side of things, and he has tailored his list to go with the food, but also to be quaffed and enjoyed, not pondered and discussed.

The whole point is to try a couple of bottles with your food, and when you can get a pretty Clarete rosé from Rioja for only $34, and tempranillo-syrah for the same price, there’s no reason not to try both. (Those are bottle prices, not the by-the-glass gouges you find on The Strip.) You almost get the feeling that he and chef/owner Khai Vu are testing the waters with these wines, as they try out which ones, at what price point, will appeal to their customers. Something tells me the offerings will expand as this place gains its footing, and every bottle won’t always be in the $30-$50 range. But for the time being, everything is quite a bargain. Even the beer.

Tasty, inexpensive wine may be what brought you through the door, but the food is what will keep you here.

Here, you’re just as likely to find a Mexican-inspired elote corn skewer, and snow pea leaves with garlic, ginger and sake, as you are a satisfying fingerling patatas bravas. This all-over-the-map menu has them all, and by and large, you won’t be disappointed. The Lomi Lomi Ocean Trout (pictured above) can only be described as zesty. It may be the best ceviche you’ve ever had in Vegas. Right beside it on the ceviche list are a classic, Mexican shrimp aguachile, and Maine lobster with mango salsa, and they’re no slouches, either.

Just as enthralling as all that sparkling seafood is The Cloud — thin, and we mean really thin, slices of Iberico de Bellota Cinco Jotas on top of a super thin, almost invisibly crispy chicharrónes :

— as perfect a nibble with a glass of verdejo as has ever been invented.

They do something they call Beet Garden here — red and golden beets with a goat cheese mousse — that is as wine-friendly (and pretty) as any root veggie dish can get:

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The meaty king crab leg (at $38, the most expensive thing on the menu, but not the most photogenic) is crabby enough for two, and the cold, briny oysters, and ginormous Nigerian prawn (below) show they’re also serious about their seafood:

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Other winners include a meaty La Asada (grilled Angus skirt steak with some kick-ass chimichurri sauce), and a stew of clams, chorizo, and mussels (pictured above with the prawn) that has quite a kick of its own (from the white wine/sriracha sauce).

Desserts are only two in number (and always in flux), but if this mango rice pudding (made to look like a fried egg) is offered, don’t miss it:

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You’ll have no complaints about the flan, either, but when was the last time you complained about a flan?

Too many many modern restaurants, in their endless attempts to mash up American food into with every cuisine on the planet, try too hard to dazzle you with their footwork at the expense of harmony and balance. There is both ingenuity and restraint in these dishes, which is rare these days. While it’s easy to decry the menu’s lack of focus, the wild ride you take among these flavors captivates your palate without ever wearing it out.

If you squint a little you’ll see a lot of similarities to what Edo is doing just down the street. But whereas Oscar Edo keeps his eye on Spain, Khai Vu let’s his wander a little farther, and tosses in everything from Mexico to the Japanese/Chinese kitchen sink. That he does this without ever going a seasoning too far is quite extraordinary. Mordeo, like its competition, may have hit on just the right formula to drive complacent palates down to Spring Mountain Road: interesting, hand-tooled, strongly-seasoned, wine-friendly food. The kind of food Las Vegas has needed since I moved here in 1981. The kind you can now find in three restaurants (Pamplona, Edo and Mordeo) all within a couple of miles of each other.

(Dinner for two, with a few drinks, or a bottle of modestly-priced wine, should run around $100/couple, excluding tip.)

MORDEO BOUTIQUE WINE BAR

5420 Spring Mountain Road #108

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.545.0771

https://www.mordeolv.com/