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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.

AUREOLE’S Identity Crisis

http://www.charliepalmer.com/content/slides/mb-aureoleentrance-v3s1.jpg

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/

 

 

Dat Sum PEARL OCEAN Dim Sum

For a town swimming in great Asian food, Las Vegas has always been a dessert when it comes to  dim sum.  Sushi is everywhere, pho parlors seem to breed like rabbits, and Korean bbq is fast becoming the chop suey of this generation. But finding decent dim sum can be tougher than spotting a slot junkie with a savings account. Considering that just three hours down the road — in the San Gabriel Valley of California — you have some of the best dim sum joints this side of Hong Kong, it’s a little sad that we have a bare handful of (barely adequate) places to indulge in our passion for these little bites of steamed succulence.

And when we say “barely adequate,” we mean it. The few off-Strip places that offer these treats put forth limited offerings of standard issue dumplings served with all the passion of a stewardess flinging airplane peanuts. It’s gotten so bad over the past few years that the only places we can get excited about are Noodles in the Bellagio (only on weekends) and Wing Lei at the Wynn (serving for only a couple of weeks a year – around New Years and Chinese New Year).

Then, along came the Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino last month, and with it Pearl Ocean — the first dim sum I’ve had in Las Vegas that reminds me of what you find all over Alhambra. To begin with, there is the selection. Here you order off a menu (like you do in the tonier spots of SoCal, and Hong Kong) and what the helpful picture menu shows are dozens of off-beat offerings like “whole abalone minced chicken tart” to “spicy Szechuan dumplings” to “Five Guys Xiao Long Bao” —  five different buns (spinach, squid ink, flour, beets, and turmeric) stuffed with everything from kale to crab roe:

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Each highlight the delicate way the Chinese play starches, veggies and proteins off each other. Each will disappear fast, as will the superior cha siu bao (baked pork buns) and the pea shoots and shrimp dumplings.

Besides the selection, the easy-to-navigate menu, and the friendliness of the staff, the thing that distinguishes Pearl Ocean from the tired joints serving this type of food along Spring Mountain Road is the quality of the groceries. No gristle-y pork here, at least not on my three visits, and the shrimp in the har gow actually sparkles, instead of tasting flat and freezer-burned. Some of this food is more about texture than flavor — such as the bright red “fish chip red rice roll” in the montage above — but all of it is about one of the tastiest lunches in town.

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 PEARL OCEAN

Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino

300 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.579.1287

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