John Curtas is …

Food

LE CIRQUE: Then and Now

If two restaurants can be said to have jump-started our food revolution, Spago and Le Cirque must be given the credit. Spago got the ball rolling in December, 1992, but it was Le Cirque’s arrival on October 15, 1998 that caused a seismic shift in our taste tectonics. Steve Wynn wanted to make a big splash with his restaurant line-up at the Bellagio, and as good as the rest of his eateries were (Picasso, Prime, Olives, et al), he knew he needed a big hitter from the Big Apple to really get the food world’s attention. Enter Sirio Maccioni and family, bringing with them what was, at the time, the most famous name in American restaurants.

Those early years were exciting times. Las Vegas had never seen a jewel box like Adam Tihany’s 60-seat design, nor witnessed food so fine or service so precise. With the Maccionis patrolling the room and paterfamilias Sirio making constant appearances from his throne in New York, Las Vegas was a satellite operation, but one every bit the equal of its hallowed namesake. A succession of great chefs (beginning with Marc Poidevin) has kept this kitchen firing on all cylinders since day one, and one of the best service staffs in the business keeps the dining room humming like a long-running musical where everyone still belts out showstoppers after years of hitting their marks.

Showstopping has always been what Le Cirque has always been about, but I was afraid that show might come to an end in 2013 when the management deal with the family ended. With Sirio getting older (he’s deep into his eighties now) and son Mario gone, there is no longer a strong whiff of Italian buon gusto to go along with Le Cirque’s inimitable savoir faire. No one is showing me the contracts, but these days the operation is a licensing rather than a management deal — more Bellagio, less Maccioni. The good news is the food hasn’t suffered for it. Nor has the service.

Credit for that crackerjack service goes to a team that has barely changed in nineteen years. To put that in perspective: if you came here back when Bill Clinton was President, and returned today, you would see all the same faces serving you. Frederic Montandon still pours vintages (French, please! California, if you insist) with a twinkle in his eye, while Ivo Angelov manages with the touch of an orchestra conductor. A lot of restaurants start feeling stale after two decades. Here, phoning it in isn’t in their vocabulary.

The food has changed over time, but never wavered. Some of the chefs (Poidevin, David Werly) were superstars in their own right, while others were just putting in their time. But whoever was at the helm, the kitchen has always been solid — rendering classics like rack of lamb with glazed sweetbreads and rabbit with mustard cream sauce with the same aplomb it devotes to gold-crusted quail stuffed with foie gras, or blue crab under a robe of caviar. You can still get a lobster salad here that is almost note-for-note what Daniel Boulud invented in 1988, or have your taste buds startled by current wunderkind Wil Bergerhausen’s “hidden” spring garden of English peas, tendrils and garbanzos misted with strawberries.

What used to be dueling menus of Le Cirque classics versus more modern (read: lighter) fare has expanded under Bergerhausen into four offerings at all price ranges. You can do everything from a $108, pre-theater affair to a $350 extravaganza that steps into the ring with whatever punches Savoy, Gagnaire, or Robuchon are throwing and doesn’t flinch. There’s even a delicious-sounding five course vegetarian menu offered ($115) that looks like a good idea, in the same way that yoga classes, wheat grass and prostate exams do.

Now that we’ve rebounded from the Great Recession, every night seems like New Year’s Eve here. High rollers, celebrities and hedonic jet-setters treat this place like a private club, making a reservation a tough-to-impossible on weekends. Personally, I like to go early in mid-week, grab and seat at the bar, and watch the choreography unfold before me. After almost two decades, the balletic grace of Le Cirque is still something to behold.

LE CIRQUE

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

702.693.8100

https://www.bellagio.com/en/restaurants/le-cirque.html

 

 

Spoiled, Rotten, Delicious

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Let us not forget the value of rot. All great cuisines use decay and stench as part of the palate. Red wines from Burgundy and Loire can have a goût de terre — and earth taste, like good garden soil being turned over in the spring — or they can have a goût de merde — a shit taste, which has the fragrance of fine cow manure, old slightly dry , and hay like on the outside with  just enough interior wetness to propel the fragrance outward, and all this nestled in a field of fresh green grass. These tastes, the goût de terre and goût de merde are prized by connoisseurs and old bodies like me.

It is a portion of rotten apples that gives good cider its and and subtlety. I knew a man in Maine who claimed his parents’ longevity came from eating a lot of bread with blue penicillin mold on it. Botrytis cinerea, that mold that grows on the grapes that make Sauternes, aid the evaporation of water from the grape, making a more concentrated flavor in the wine.

Decay. Pickles are decaying cucumbers. Cheese, yogurt and buttermilk are decaying milk.

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Beer is decayed malt and hops. Whiskey is decayed grain (barley, corn, rye0. Vodka is decayed potatoes. Sauerkraut is decayed cabbage. Wine is decaying grapes, continuing its decay in the bottle, making fine old wine. Some English people like their beef aged to the point where maggots are crawling through it. A good beef stew or red spaghetti sauce, should sit on the stove, melding its flavors, for a least a day. I once left a red sauce out for three days and it began to ferment like wine, and had spritzy little bubbles in it. I was leery at first, but I heated it up to kill any strange growths and  delicious it was. – George Vincent Wright, “Cuisine Sauvage”

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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

 

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