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.
How you feel about Standard & Pour will pretty much depend upon your venison tartare temperament.
Does the above dish look lip-smackingly good to you? Or like something the cat left behind?
Do you want its moist, raw, fresh, well-seasoned deer flesh to envelop your tongue? Or will you not give it a chance to impress you, as bits of white chocolate intermingle with fallow freshness and the crunch of onions?
Do you even know what cherry mostarda is? Do you care?
In other words, are you an avid foodie who’s up for something adventurous and tasty….or do you live in Henderson, Nevada?
Because if you’re the former, you’ll love the place; and if you’re like most people who live within a ten mile radius of the south Eastern Avenue corridor, you’re more likely to sniff around here once or twice and then head to your comfort zone. (More on this in a minute.)
Is the food good at Standard & Pour? Of course it is. It’s Kerry Simon food. Cory Harwell food. Comfort food, elevated. Well thought out, impeccably dressed and carefully executed.
But that’s beside the point.
The point is: This place has done everything right and still might be wrong for the neighborhood.
Is Henderson ready for a cool and cozy patio? A second floor walk-up restaurant that’s spent real money on a groovy bar, with-it decor, and foodie-friendly accoutrements: craft beers, bespoke cocktails, aged-this and smoked-that?
Do the people who keep Carraba’s and Panda Express and LYFE Kitchen humming really care that offal-ly good “tongue & cheek” agnolotti, snail Wellington, and house-cured gravlax:
….are within their grasp?
Put another way: Are there more than a hundred or so intrepid epicures in the entire southeastern quadrant of our humble burg?
The answer is, of course, no.
The whole point of Eastern Ave. is big box, developer-friendly, franchise-safe stores. Predictablility and profits are what this entire community was zoned for (thank you bought-and-paid-for politicians!), and anything unique or personal is frowned upon.
“But my kids really like Grimaldi’s,” you say, “and what’s so wrong with Twin Peaks?”
Of course you’re right. You moved to stucco city precisely because you loved the predictability and conformity. No outside the box eating for you. Applebee’s for everyone!
People have tried to argue with you, but to no avail. There have been five previous restaurants in this space and all have failed. David Clawson tried serving a similar menu of chef-driven creations, a couple of miles up the road and he lasted one year. Bread & Butter didn’t make it. Pizza Novecento was a bust. All while BJ’s Brewhouse is packin’ them in.
But if you, dear reader, are not one of the slack-jawed hordes, take heart. If you are in that .00001% of Henderson residents who are interested in really good, interesting food at a fair price, this place will become your personal clubhouse in no time.
Lest we be too promiscuous with our praise, let us state that the menu, as good as most things are, is still a work in progress.
As much as we wanted to like this carrot risotto:
…we found it irredeemably gummy. Ditto an overly dense (but very cheesy) mac & cheese and some much-too-salt-i-ly sauced chicken thighs.
But those were the only clinkers in an all-over-the-map menu that scores time and again with incredible salt & pepper fries:
….crispy oysters (not pictured), and some magnificent meatballs:
For every miss (we didn’t care for the messy, confusing kimchi tacos), there was hit after toothsome hit.
Pulling off recipes that run the gamut from sambal shrimp to the aforementioned snails Welllington is no easy feat, and Executive Chef Jake Dielemen (a veteran of MarcheBacchus, Carnevino and Alizê) has the chops to do it. (Don’t miss his ode-to-Carl’s Jr. mini-burgers.)
Desserts are as far from your standard “ice cream, cake and cookies” as Boulder City is from Beijing. Fruit Loop Panna Cotta has no discernible fruit loops, but is dotted with enough fresh-made raspberry “gummies,” blueberries, and hazelnuts to keep the kids (and many an adult) happy. Our saffron rice pudding suffered from being slightly under-cooked, but packs a real flavor punch when garnished with the available pomegranate seeds, dates, and pistachios.
Eclectic, around-the-world restaurants define the new American eating experience for a certain level of upper-middle-class gastronauts, but they must be hell on wheels when it comes to getting the seasonings right. Here, with one exception (out of twelve dishes tried), they get the seasonings right. With a little work on their starches, they’ll get the textures right, too.
Multifarious, cross-pollinated menus may be all the rage elsewhere in America, but is Hendertucky ready for them? Whether it is or not, the cocktail bar here may be its salvation. Henderhipsters desperately need a place to congregate, and this may be just the ticket.
As much as we love to bag on Millennials, you have to give them credit for not buying into the same old, chain-link, suburban lifestyle shite that filled up the houses of Monochrome Valley two decades ago. The under 35 crowd may take to S&P like Molly to an electric daisy. (If you don’t get the reference, dollars to doughnuts you own a house that looks exactly like your neighbor’s.) These youngsters want something fresh and un-franchised. This concept is designed to dazzle them, not their elders.They may ultimately be the crowd that saves Standard & Pour.
The problem is, when we dined here, we were surrounded by people who looked like they got lost on their way to a slot tournament at Green Valley Ranch.
Until you weed them out (or they revert to form and their early bird specials), S&P — the concept, the cocktails and the comestibles — will be too hip for the room.
We hope we’re wrong about this.
ELV’s dinner was comped, but dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $100-$120. Cocktails are $12/each and all wines on the very limited list are under $50. What the list lacks in variety it makes up for in lack of imagination.