THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC – The Struggle is Real

“Kitchen at Atomic Sticking With Elevated Cuisine” read a recent headline. The article asked, primarily, how can you have an upscale restaurant right next to a dive bar? The point of the piece, if there was a point, read like the author was throwing a publicity bone to a place he wishes would quit with the fancy stuff.

But the point of The Kitchen at Atomic is not to be fancy, it’s simply to be good. Not burger and fries good, but foodie good, interesting good — the kind of chef-driven good that packs them into gastropubs from Boston to San Diego Bay. The kind of excellence that still struggles to find an audience in Las Vegas.

And the struggle is real. Because people struggle with the idea of paying for good food here. Mass-produced franchise food and soulless shopping malls create a race to the bottom for pricing, which puts local restaurants on their back foot from the jump.  (I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “Why should I pay $20 for something I can get for 15 at ____?”) Even when intrepid gastronauts take a place to their bosom (Esther’s Kitchen, Sparrow+Wolf, EATT), there’s not enough of them to go around.

The City of Las Vegas estimates that to hit critical mass for a vibrant downtown, you need 50,000 gainfully-employed people living there. Right now the number is around 5,000. God bless ’em (both the City and the residents), because they’re doing what they can to create a vibrant social, cultural and gastronomic scene between Charleston and Fremont Street, but there’s only so much discretionary income those 5K folks can spread among the restaurants vying for their attention.

The real issue comes down to this: Do enough people want a real restaurant on East Fremont Street? Not finger food, not another cocktail lounge, and not, god forbid, another uncomfortable, loud-as-fuck hipster hangout — but a real down-to-earth bar/restaurant serving coursed out food with good drinks.  You know, the way grownups eat.

Let’s analyze the data to (try to) answer this question. And by “analyze the data” I mean share the opinions springing feverishly from my brain as I type these words.

The Kitchen at Atomic began two years ago as an adjunct to Atomic Liquors — an über-cool, laid back cocktail/beer bar (above) with a steady clientele of Millennials, and a smattering of Gen Xrs. Like most things Millennial, half the people at AL look like they’re there for a purpose (quality imbibing, hooking up), while the rest look like they showed up because the ‘gram told  them to. Most of the AL crowd looks like it’s more at home discussing session beers and saison ales than it does the fine points of hamachi crudo, or the piquancy of a yogurt-herb vinaigrette as it plays off the herbaceousness of fresh English peas.

Atomic Liquors was an old bar given new life six years ago by owner Lance Johns. It retains the feel of a place Charles Bukowski might’ve called home in the 60s, but its craft cocktails and PhD beer program make it more like a run-down jalopy with a shiny new turbocharged engine under the hood. It operates on many levels — old Vegas icon, new Vegas hangout — and has an avid following of both locals and tourists.

TKAA resides in the shiny renovated space adjacent to AL. In a previous life it used to be a gas station. In its present incarnation, it will strike you as as a sleek and somewhat cold industrial space — no more than 50 feet from its louche neighbor next door. The incongruity lies with these two co-joined siblings existing in two separate universes. At AL, you drink; at TKAA the food is the star. And quite a star it is, even if the drunks next door don’t know it.

The menu checks all the right boxes as a destination restaurant — marrow, long beans, cured fish, charcuterie platter, artisanal greens — with appetizers hinting at the kitchen’s creativity, and mains driving the point home.  The attention to detail given to those beans, or a cold cucumber/grape gazpacho, announce a new level of cooking for downtown, and offering a whole fish at market price is a bold move indeed for a neighborhood still pockmarked with vacant lots and tattoo parlors.

(Marrow me; beet me)

Glistening knobs of quivering marrow may be as foreign to East Fremont Street as a hooker with teeth, but you’ll forget where you are as you slather these jewels of adipose protein on the gorgeous, nutty toasted bread served with them.  Grilled halloumi cheese may not fit with the neighborhood either, but the squeaky fromage will fit just fine as an appetizer for four. Raw seafood is everywhere these days, but the crudo, or denser, cured, striped bass, are both light and punch-packing — either with chili lime, or sumac and sherry vinegar.

(How green was my salad? Pretty friggin’ green.)

“Spring has sprung” were the words dancing in my head as I wolfed down the tumble of crunchy greenery called the Spring pea salad (above), while “clams to beat the band” was my mantra for the colorful array of grilled, sweet shellfish frosted with breadcrumbs and tinged with Fresno chili (below). In my lexicon of least favorite eats, raw veggie salads rank somewhere between frosted cupcakes and gummy hummus, but I found myself grooving on every bite of those snappy greens. The clams are simply in a class by themselves. You won’t find a better version of baked bivalves, on or off the Strip.

(Beauteous bivalves)

In many a gastropub, the larger the format, the worse the food gets — big proteins lacking the sexiness of high-concept tweezer food to some chefs. Not so to newly -installed Executive Chef Jackson Stamper, who seems to lavish just as much attention on pan-seared cauliflower steak and grilled swordfish as he does on his starters. I liked the menu of his predecessor, but the food now feels more focused, and the platings are prettier.

The biggest of his big boys is the Creekstone Farms dry-aged rib eye (at the top of the page). It’s priced by the ounce, and around $80 will get you enough mineral-tinged properly stored steer to feed four hungry souls. It may not have the iron-y tang and Roquefort-like zing of super-aged beef, but you won’t find a better steak within three miles of this one.

(Peak pork perfection)

And then there’s the rum-brined chop (above) — a dulcet compaction of pork so luscious and savory you will re-think your prejudices against this usually boring entree. Broccoli rabe, rum jus and mustard seeds complete the picture, and you’ll be tempted to graze upon another one as soon as it’s gone.

Desserts are more elemental and less chef-y than the savories. The deconstructed apple pie is a nice twist on an old standard, and the Guinness chocolate cake (below, really more like a dense, lacquered brownie), will have you reflexively polishing it off in defiance of all common dietary sense.

They seemed to have dialed back the beer and wine list, but it’s still interesting and well-priced — probably not enough for a true oenophile, but certainly so for the clientele. I won’t bother praising the top shelf cocktails because a bad mixed drink is now harder to find in Las Vegas than a good mixed drink used to be.

(Just what the doctor didn’t order)

Two years on, The Kitchen seems to have hit its stride. The talent is there, and the cooking is there, but will it be enough? Here is a restaurant that is doing almost everything right — from the bar to the service to the decor and to the food. Will it find its audience? Is there enough audience to find? Publicus down the street (with the most unwelcoming location in town) is packed all the time. Hatsumi (a stone’s throw across the street) seems to have hit a home run. But neither of them is a traditional, three-course restaurant. Are Millennials (the only customers that count downtown) ready to embrace this place?

Who knows? I’ve been at this too long to make any predictions. What I do know is that Las Vegas is in a constant battle with itself. The chefs and owners and food lovers — folks who really care about what they put in their mouths — desperately want downtown to become another Seattle or Denver….but you look around some days and realize we’re barely beating Bakersfield.

We are in the middle of another boom to be sure, and East Fremont and the Arts District are now on everyone’s radar. Will there be enough customers to sustain not just TKAA but all of these businesses? Or will there be a regression to the mean?

Las Vegas doesn’t need any more average anything. (That’s what Henderson is for.) But mediocrity is still what sells. Only time will tell.

(Apps run $15-$20; mains from $25-$30; and sides $6-$8. Dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $125. The rib eye is at least 30% less than you would pay for a comparable cut on the Strip, and worth every penny.)

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC

927 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.534.3223

 

OLD SOUL

And the winner for Best Food in the Most Obscure Location goes to…….Old Soul!

There’s no other way to say it: Old Soul is so hidden, so oddly-placed, and so not-where-you’d-expect-a-restaurant-to-be that you’ll feel like congratulating yourself once you find the front door. Once you find it, and eat there once, these issues will disappear. From then on, you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to mind the locale.

That location is inside the World Market Center — a behemoth of a building complex near downtown Las Vegas containing three, intimidating buildings and no retail spaces, save for this single door stuck between darkened windows of one ground floor corner. Even as you valet your car (and you will have to valet it), you’ll glance around inside the Land of the Giants courtyard and wonder where you’ll be eating. The car park will point to the modest sign, and you’ll stroll in, wondering, like all first timers: who in the world in is eating here? (The answer is: fans of chef/owner Natalie Young, Smith Center devotees, and culinary culture vultures looking for her particular brand of gutsy, elevated American food.)

As soon as you enter, what awaits is a capacious, rather dark interior, with well-spaced tables, a civilized noise level, and some oversized art on the walls. The old silent movies they run on the back wall near the bar are a hoot. Between those and the antique furnishings (including the mismatched dishware), the vibe is one of cool comfort, designed to make you forget about what’s outside. Once you dive into the food, the whole place starts feeling, well, like an old, overstuffed sofa you’ve sunk into and don’t want to leave.

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The space might be an acquired tasted, but Young’s food is not. She is a self-taught, long-time Strip veteran who found her mojo with the opening of Eat downtown 2012. Her talents have toggled over the years between high-toned French (Eiffel Tower Restaurant) to steaks (P.J. Clarke’s)  to superior flapjacks (Eat), but here she’s found her wheelhouse: boldly-flavored, elemental American dishes with a certainty of purpose that only comes from a confident chef.

Young describes herself as an old soul. Old souls, she’ll tell you, get right to the point. Old souls have seen it all and they know that honesty and simplicity are what counts. An old soul eschews the novel, the contrived, and the overwrought, for simple authenticity. (It’s the reason some old souls jump on planes to Europe whenever they can to taste a country’s food where it originated — not after it’s been deconstructed and reconfigured by Instagram-addicted culinary school graduates. But enough about me.)

An old soul like Young has the confidence to put liver and onions on a menu. She knows a lot of people like liver — especially liver tossed with caramelized onions, and given a piquant punch by grainy, stone ground mustard — and that an older crowd (the types that attend Smith Center concerts religiously), will appreciate a throwback item given just the right update.  Young or old will appreciate the same attention given a thick slab of meatloaf — this one not like your momma used to make, but adorned with cauliflower puree, meaty ‘shrooms, a splash of tomato concasse and a dribbling of red wine jus. It’s comfort food to be sure, but soothing has never had so much sparkle.

Chicken (half a Cornish game hen above) get some gussying up as well with the help of a wild rice pilaf speckled with bits of pickled veggies, and a tongue-slapping chimichurri sauce. Both were so good the Food Gal® and I couldn’t decide which was more worth fighting over: the bird or the starch.

Before you get to these mains (available at lunch and dinner for the same price), you’ll have to navigate the starters, and rather than steering clear, I’d advise you to bump into as many of them as your gustatory canoe can handle. The house-made chicken liver pâté could give a few torchons of foie gras a run for their money, and the smoked trout with house-made applesauce and chive corn cakes will have everyone at your table straining for superlatives.

Most spectacular of the bunch is a head of roasted cauliflower (above), studded with pickled raisins and peppers, sprinkled with more of that chimichurri, and festooned with herbs. All of it sits on a pool of sharp, acidic sauce that’s listed as “tahini dressing” but comes off more like “tangy/fruity vinaigrette.”

As nuts as you’ll be about all of these, it will be the fried oysters (below) with horseradish aioli that will have you making plans to return as soon as you leave. Crispy, meaty and devoid of oiliness, one bite took me straight back to a Connecticut clam shack.

(All that’s missing are the seagulls)

There are also sandwiches available at lunch — including Young’s definitive pan-seared chicken breast with pesto mayo and a veggie “burger” that didn’t make me gag — as well as simple and chopped salads for those who insist.

But if you come here looking to eat light, you’re sort of missing the point. This is soulful American food made by a chef who blends flavors like a maestro — seemingly without effort, but building to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The food here is as pretty as it is delicious, and that’s really saying something.

(Live a little! This pie is to die for.)

For dessert, get whatever cobbler they’ve made that day. And the cherry pie (above). Each of them a la mode. You’ve come too far to deny yourself such a sweet release, so give in to temptation. You can thank me later.

(Open for lunch and dinner. With starters in the $10-$15 range, and mains all under $25, the food here is a serious bargain, particularly at dinner. Full cocktail bar with plenty of whiskies and libations, but the wine choices – what few there are – are of interest only to an octogenarian alcoholic.)

OLD SOUL

World Market Center

495 S. Grand Central Parkway

Las Vegas, NV 89106

702.534.0999

Alimentary, My Dear Asian

Do you remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes one bite of Remy’s ratatouille and is transported back to the tastes of his childhood?

That’s what it felt like to me after my first bite of the steamed dumplings at Fu Man Dumpling House — although in this case, the memories weren’t of my Taiwanese childhood (HEY! IT COULD’VE HAPPENED!),  but of a trip I took to Hong Kong a dozen years ago just to eat dumplings.

You heard me right: I once flew 15 hours across the Pacific Ocean just to gorge on Chinese dumplings in the place that made them famous.

One bite of these beauties and I was back there: in a little cafe off of Hollywood Road that specialized in the tasty little pillows filled with all sorts of meat and vegetable combinations. The Food Gal® and I timed our visit to be there when it opened (not hard to do when you’re waking up at 3 am every morning), and as I recall they came 12 to a platter and we polished off two of them (platters not dumplings). (She also loves to remind me about watching some of the raw dumplings falling on the floor before they could be dropped into their bubbling bath and the cook casually picking them up and tossing them in. Oh, those Chinese.)

The soft packets of pleasure awaiting you at Fu Man are larger than what you find in China (stuffed that way for us big-eatin’ ‘Muricans I’d guess), but they are no less tasty. They are made to order and filled with gently poached ground pork and green onions that beg for bite after bite. The dumpling wrappers are necessarily thick (to stand up to the filling and the boiling) but somehow neither starchy nor filling. Polishing off ten of them is a lot easier than you think. Especially when dipped in the hauntingly sweet, and pungent garlic sauce they make here…the spikiness of raw garlic being muted by whatever they do in cooking it, but still sweetly floating through your senses for hours afterwards:
Honest to Christ, I could take a bath in the stuff; it’s that good.

Don’t miss the hot and sour soup, either — it being exactly what this old standby soup is supposed to be: plenty sour, and intensely hot from a shower of white pepper. It’s the best version I’ve had in Las Vegas.

About the only thing not to like about Fu Man is the location: in a forlorn little shopping center on Smoke Ranch Road. I don’t know why they located something so authentically Chinese ten miles from Chinatown, but people in the northwest part of Vegas should be thanking their lucky stars.

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Another unlikely place to find authentic Asian eats is in a teeny tiny, 14-seat storefront tucked away in the Arts District downtown. Open just 6 months, D E Thai Kitchen took over from an in-authentically awful pasta place and has made the space sing with a small-but-mighty menu of blow-your-socks-off Thai dishes.

On both visits, even an old Thailand hand like yours truly was taken aback by the intensity of the cooking in dishes like larb, Khao soi, and even the simple grilled pork. But what really rang our chimes were two dishes you don’t see a lot of in Thai restaurants: the Kua Gling, an incendiary, dry curry:

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….and soft shell crab with garlic pepper sauce:

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That crab is a fairly tame beast (by Thai standards), but the stir-fried minced pork in the Kua Gling will light you up — the heat seeming almost mellow at first, then coming in waves of fire that roll through your palate and crash around your tongue and the inside of your lips. Best to have a mango slushie or Thai iced tea close by to quell the flames….although the heat will linger for many many minutes. Lovers of chicken wings will love these — they’re carefully spiced, fried and sticky, and even the Thai curry puffs (filled with potato) are made with an extra level of attention that this starchy standard usually doesn’t get.

There is a lot of competition among Thai restaurants these days, and lovers of Siamese sweet/hot/savory/pungent flavors have plenty of options (even downtown where there are now four Thai restaurants within a couple of miles of each other). But D E Thai (named after chef/owner Jompon Chotikamars’ two children) is a worthy newcomer that can stand pepper to pepper with the best of them.

Our plethora of pan-Pacific table pleasures is one of the greatest things about living in Las Vegas. The Food Gal® and I often discuss leaving Las Vegas to conquer another city in America, but we both agree that walking away from all of the great Chinese/Thai/Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese food we have here would be difficult.

It’s obvious, after all, that our Asian allies in alimentation ever afford us awesome,amazing eats — and that would be tough to walk away from, alimentary-wise.

 A dumpling meal for two with a small soup at Fu Man will run you $12….for two. Great food doesn’t get any cheaper. A big lunch or dinner (for two) with 3-4 dishes at D E should be around $30-$40. Like I said: great food doesn’t come any less expensive.

FU MAN DUMPLING HOUSE

6679 Smoke Ranch Road

Las Vegas, NV 89108

702.646.2969

https://twitter.com/fumandumplinglv?lang=en

D E THAI KITCHEN

1108 South 3rd Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.979.9121

https://www.dethaikitchen.com/