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:
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.
Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino
300 West Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89102
It takes a lot to impress me these days. And most of what is going on inside our big hotels isn’t doing it. While individual stars stand out (Bazaar Meat at SLS, Carbone and Bardot Brasserie at Aria, Mr. Chow at Caesars), most hotels have settled down to tried and true lineups (e.g. Bellagio, Wynncore, Venetian/Palazzo), or given up entirely (the Mirage springs to mind).
But, as I’ve noted, Mandalay Bay is bucking this trend, upgrading some old warhorses (Charlie Palmer STEAK, Aureole, RM Seafood) and bringing something new to the table.
And the newest thing these days is Libertine Social — a place that somehow manages to capture the small plates/craft cocktail zeitgeist of the past half-decade without feeling soulless or derivative. It is a big casino concept restaurant to be sure, but it’s one that feels like a hangout — with personality to spare and intimacy beyond what you’d expect in a huge “concept” eatery.
The concept at hand was dreamed up by Shawn McClain (he of Sage and Chicago fame), and über-mixmeister Tony Abou-Ganim. McClain designed the food, TAG the booze, and between them they’ve hit a number of nails of the head.
Small plates being sooo 2010, this joint could’ve ended up featuring one cliché after the other, but here, McClain and Executive Chef Richard Camarota manage to make them sing…without lapsing into the same old same old, shared meal doldrums. There’s plenty to pass around here, to be sure, but be assured, boredom is not on the menu.
Olives get wrapped in sausage:
….churros get a savory, parmesan spin, and gazpacho is served as strawberry shots with crab meat:
It’s a typical, all-over-the-map, Millennial-friendly menu, but it never feels like it was borrowed from a Kerry Simon restaurant. Nor does it skimp on modernist complexity, such as in these “modern fried eggs” — an ovoid of eternally eggy pleasures, none of them fried, but all of them fascinating:
They might be my “Dish of the Year” if I ever got around to handing out any major awards for 2016 (which I probably won’t), but either way, you won’t find a more intriguing use of egg on egg on egg corn custard anywhere in America. Equally compelling are the flatbreads — one made with real guanciale and garlic oil, another displaying strips of real country ham set off by smoked blue cheese, pineapple and barbecue sauce. It may sound like an overwrought mess, but it all works:
That salty ham also helps whet the appetite for plenty of well-crafted cocktails (more on this in a minute).
Against all odds, I even found myself loving the sausage board (merguez, hot link and bratwurst) served with house-made hot pickles and a good, tangy sauerkraut, and the barbecued carrots — sitting atop a smooth kohlrabi puree. The double-cheeseburger is a dream (oozing with melted “Kraft-ed” cheese sauce, and the faked-named “American Kobe” flat-iron makes up for in beefy succulence what it lacks in honesty. (Memo to chefs, craven wholesalers and meretricious food execs: You’re not fooling anyone with your “American Kobe” false advertising. On second thought, as with fake “truffle oil,” maybe you are. Still, you should be ashamed of yourselves.)
Another thing the chefs should be ashamed of here in the agnolotti; it being as thick as the soles of my shoes and almost as tough. Face it: If you want pasta, go to an Italian restaurant. If this agnolotti were the only yardstick, one would have to conclude that Shawn McClain (whose food, generally, j’adore) is to pasta what Mario Batali is to sushi.
All sins are atoned for, however, when the booze starts flowing. Abou-Ganim is one of maybe half a dozen Americans who can truly be called cocktail icons. Like his buddy Dale DeGroff, he was in on the ground floor of our mixology Renaissance, and putting him in charge of the bar(s) here was a wise move indeed.
Whether you want a lesson in properly mixed booze, or just to get sloshed, you will be in for a treat.
Drinks come in a dizzying array of variety and packaging. Old school (Hello Harvey Wallbanger!), flavored shots, barrel-aged, and even bottled. (Yes, they take their time to actually bottle TAG’s creations like a Bardstown Sling (bourbon, crème de pêche, peach puree), Luce Del Sol (grapefruit vodka and aperol) and a few others.) There’s fifteen well-chosen beers on tap (even a Trumer Pils from Austria*), and cocktails on draft as well. For our money, though, the things to get are the fizzes and the swizzlers. Like the name implies, the fizzes showcase four or five ingredients given just the right of spritz to make them slide down your gullet like a stripper on a pole.
Abou-Ganim loves giving some of them a slight bitter edge (he’s a negroni fiend), but lovers of girlie drinks (of which yours truly is definitely a fan) will find plenty to love in the perfectly-balanced Bird of Paradise (gin, blackberry liqueur and lemon juice). The crowd pleasers are the Social Swizzlers — pitchers of easy to swill concotions mashed up at the table with a groovy wooden plunger (pictured above).
The wine list won’t dazzle any snobs, but the bottles are interesting (Bonny Doon syrah, Raptor Ridge pinot gris), and priced to sell (most around $50), rather than to make you run for the K-Y jelly.
But like we always say: Never order wine in a cocktail bar, because when you’re in one of the premier, large-scale mixology dominions in America, it would be a shame not to let Professor TAG further your libation education.
Yep, that’s what we’re always sayin’.
Of ELV’s two meals here, one was comped and the other came to $142 for four with a $30 tip.
In the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino
3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89119
* So sayeth the menu; one of our loyal readers says it’s made in Berkeley.
Once in a while, I’m able to eat out anonymously and see how the other 99.99% live. It doesn’t happen often – I get spotted everywhere these days, even sometimes in Chinatown – but when I can sneak in and experience restaurant service the way most people do, I am, to put it mildly, appalled.
Exhibit A: A brand new Indian restaurant in downtown Las Vegas. Two visits; two head-scratching experiences. Visit number one found me as the only diner in the place. I ordered two beers off the list; they were out of both of them.
I ordered a gin and tonic. “We have that!” and everyone sighed in relief.
I placed my order…and it took for…ev…er for the food to appear.
In an Indian restaurant.
Where I was the only person in the joint.
Getting the check was as challenging as getting the food, with my waitron apparently preoccupied with all of those other people who weren’t eating there. Visit number two was even worse. The food came faster, but the waitron disappeared multiple times, again taking care of who-knows-who. (The two other people seated were as lonely as I was.) When it came time to pay, I got her attention (if memory serves) by waving my underwear and singing the Star Spangled Banner.
When I finally get the bill, it has an item on it that was ordered and never delivered. To make matters worse, after I got home I found that they double-charged my account (for the price of the entire meal – $104) after someone disappeared for another 20 minutes to supposedly “fix things.”
Exhibit B: A brand new pub-restaurant on east Charleston serving English meat pies. Two different waitresses ask me three times if I want water. Water never shows. Ten minutes go by. Finally it does and I order. The soup comes reasonably fast, but a single meat pie takes for….ev…er. (Did I mention there were only six other people in the restaurant? And three of them were already eating?)
Three different sauces were offered with my meat pie, but I got the mustard cream whether I wanted it or not.
My dirty soup plate sat in front of me throughout the meal. Only when I was ready to pay did someone ask if I’d like a water re-fill. And for all I know, those dirty dishes are still sitting there.
A menu, some water, a little attention, the check — IT’S NOT THAT HARD, PEOPLE! If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone who does. Or don’t open your doors until you do.