When Bruce and Eric Bromberg (pictured above) shuttered Blue Ribbon last year (after six years at The Cosmopolitan), few shed a tear for its demise. It was an attractive, if disjointed restaurant that always seemed in the throes of an identity crisis. Was it a lounge? A sushi bar? Two different sushi bars? Who knew and who cared? By trying to combine their two iconic New York City restaurants (their gutsy American bistro, and the separate Blue Ribbon Fish), the Brombergs achieved the confusing result of making the whole lesser than the sum of its parts. Not that it wasn’t good (the Brom-boys don’t know how to do “not good”), it just wasn’t focused.
Now they’ve re-opened, ditched the fish, and gotten back to what they do best – which is cooking the most ethereal, eclectic, American comfort food on the planet.
Blue Ribbon started twenty-five years ago in lower Manhattan. It practically invented the whole upscale American food thing (popularizing everything from bone marrow to fried catfish) and was known for the best burger in the business until Daniel Boulud came along with his foie gras-stuffed version, and got everyone on the burger bandwagon. Elevating simple food has always been the mission statement here, and artistic cooking for unfussy gourmands is what has made BR a critic’s (and chef’s) darling since Bill Clinton was President. Now, with its re-boot, BR has gotten back to basics, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Gone is the sushi, the dark lounge-y bar has been replaced with a bright, front-and-center friendly one, and the menu is back where it’s supposed to be: chock full of the specialties that made the Bromberg’s famous.
No one disdains something-for-everyone menus more than yours truly, but it these hands you can just close your eyes and point. Mazoh ball soup? They’ve got you covered? Fried oysters? Leeks vinaigrette? You won’t find better versions anywhere on Las Vegas Boulevard. Duroc pork ribs come sweetly glazed with their own mini-hibachi, the clam soup would make a Mainer proud, and the country pâté deserves to be in the charcuterie hall of fame.
The red (sea) trout with spätzle is also a thing of beauty, and the burger (pictured above) every bit as good as I remembered it….from 1993. We only tried one dessert, but they had us at “chocolate chip bread pudding.”
American bistro cooking is everywhere these days, but the Brombergs did it first and they still do it better than anyone. There are certain restaurants that just belong in Las Vegas, and the new Blue Ribbon – which is really the old Blue Ribbon I’ve known and loved – is one of them.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino
Something-for-everyone cooking has defeated more than one Las Vegas chef. Feeding tourists means trying to please everyone, and catering to everyone means you’re aimed at no one. Restaurants that specialize in something-for-everyone cooking have usually thrown in the towel before the bell has rung, e.g. the now-defunct Daniel Boulud Brasserie. That’s because customers who demand all-over-the-map cooking couldn’t care less about on-the-plate excellence of what they’re eating.
Welcome to Las Vegas — the world’s capital of something-for-everyone restaurants. Reading a Las Vegas menu is like being stuck in an endless loop of pasta, pizzas, wings, Caesar salads, shrimp, steak, pork, chicken and salmon. If you’re lucky, you might find another fish, and if you’re really lucky, you might be treated to every pork bellied, bone marrow-ed cliche in the book. Every Vegas menu, at its core, is composed of the the same basic appetizers, vegetables and proteins. Only around the edges do things get interesting, and it’s up to the intrepid gourmand to hunt for the nuggets of deliciousness buried in the same old same old stew.
At the just-opened Chica, those nuggets are everywhere, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find them.
At first glance, you might be excused for thinking that Chica’s menu is a fount of cliches in its own right. Your glance quickly picks up the mandatory guacamole, tacos, calamari, quesadilla, Caesar and ceviche that you’ve seen hundreds of times before. Turn to page two and you find the mandatory chicken, shrimp, steak and fish. Your heart will at first sink, thinking it’s in another by-the-numbers Mexican tourist joint. But then you remember something. What you remember is that Mike Minor is the kitchen. With that, your spirits begin to soar, and to your delight, the flights of fancy will continue on the wings of (almost) every bite coming out of his pan-Latin kitchen.
To be clear, Chica is not a “Mike Minor” restaurant. Nor is it a Mexican restaurant. It is a “Lorena Garcia” restaurant, and Garcia (a Venezuelan by birth) is all about introducing you to the glories of empanadas, amarillo, choclo, and all sorts of interesting spices. Minor is simply the chef tasked with executing Garcia’s vision from far away Florida.
For those not in the know, Garcia is one of those Food Network stars who seemingly came out of nowhere to suddenly become a household name among those who can’t get enough of “Guy’s Grocery Games.” (JEALOUS? YOU BET!) Hers is not a Mexican sensibility; hers is a cuisine informed by her heritage. You’re going to get Latino cuisine here, and South American food, and food that reminds you of Mexican food but that is decidedly not Mexican food. And for that, all we can say is, “praise the lord and pass the arepas!”
Besides bringing this South American spin to Latino cuisine, the smartest thing Garcia did was to install Minor in the kitchen. As top toque at Border Grill for years, he knows a thing or two about executing a menu conceived by ground-breaking female chefs. He also knows how to excel at elotes:
And cajole you with churros:
Those churros are the handiwork of Sara Steele (another Strip veteran) and between the two of them, they are laying out a menu that is sock-blowing-off scrumptious.
That ceviche (big chunks of firm fish in a perfectly balanced tigre de leche) might be the best version we’ve had that was either 1) not in Mexico, or 2) not at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo. Just as good, if not better, was the best cephalopod we’ve seen this century.
Spoon tender and spiced in all the right ways, it put even certain Greek versions in town to shame.
Everyone knows we hate brunch, but, truth be told, this Latin-infused take on everything from chicken and waffles to corn pancakes stopped us in our tracks. And by “stopped us in our tracks” I mean licking our plates and finishing every bite.
About the only dishes that didn’t deliver were the chewy chicken chicharrones (we were expecting crispy skin, we got dried out meat), and mushroom quesadillas that delivered a lot of ‘shrooms, but were lacking in the promised huitlacoche and bleu cheese flavors.
No biggie when you consider how strong the rest of the menu is. From the watercress Caesar:
….to the porchetta with crispy yucca hash:
….this is a menu full of eye-opening surprises. Something-for-everyone South American food hasn’t been done before in the High Mojave Desert — at least not to this degree of distinction. It’s time to spread your Latino wings, and Garcia and Minor are just the right flight instructors.
One meal of ELV’s meals was comped; another (for two) came to $140 + a $30 tip, including a couple of stellar “mocktails.”
Venetian Hotel and Casino
“It’s very chef-y,” said the Food Gal. “It feels like the chef is cooking to impress other cooks.” Indeed, how you feel about all these cheffy impressions will probably depend on how many cartwheels you like to see from a kitchen. Because there is no doubt that much of what you will eat here is tasty, but none of it is what I would call simple.
Before we explain the menu, a little background is in order. Sparrow + Wolf is the brainchild of veteran Strip chef Brian Howard – who was last seen doing David Myers’ bidding at the now-shuttered Comme Ca. Tired of cooking for tourists, Howard has made the bold move of bringing his elevated world cuisine to the ‘burbs – but not too deeply into the neighborhoods. Instead of trying to woo the fickle Summerlin or Green Valley crowds, he’s opted to open on Spring Mountain Road – a mecca for foodies and tourists alike.
He’s done it by hollowing out an old pho parlor, cutting it in half, bringing in a wood-burning oven, and creating an open, airy coziness in a space that used to look like a budget cafeteria. There’s a long bench against one wall, and an 8 seat bar that looks into the kitchen. There’s also complicated cocktails and a menu full of things to eat that you have never thought of.
For example, who would’ve thought that a tangy, white Alabama barbecue sauce would marry perfectly with a thick slab of halibut? It sounds odd, and isn’t a whole lot to look at, but it’s lip-smackingly good. Ditto the crab two ways: one topped with kimchee, the other a fried egg, or a shallow bowl of sliced duck, with bits of salted cucumbers and a tangle of sautéed mushroom in a sweet-sour plum-duck broth. It’s a dish that sounds Asian, looks vaguely French, and tastes like the best of both worlds.
Howard’s food likes to toggle around the globe – as when he stacks his lamb tartare, fresh oysters and charcuterie into bento boxes – and some of the combinations don’t make much sense (Why are octopus tentacles on top of a really good dry-aged steak?), but once the food hits your palate, you know he’s on to something. Some combinations need work – as when tough, bacon-wrapped cabbage distracts from beautiful sweetbreads – but the hits far outnumber the misses.
There are also a few items we’re not sure about, such as the Chinatown Clams Casino at the top of the page (an umami bomb – clams, cream, bacon, uni – tasting like it was dropped from a David Chang menu), and the beef cheek/marrow dumplings are best consumed by a crowd around a roaring fire in the dead of winter, not in 105 degree Vegas heat. Ditto the udon Bolognese: a triple-rich homage to wafuu (Japanese/Italian) pasta that slayed us after two bites.
Rib-sticking or not, this is clearly an ambitious restaurant – more aspirational than anything since Other Mama opened. And Howard is banking on corralling the same clientele to his less seafood-centric version of a gastropub. The foodies will flock here for sure, and some tourists will traipse, but will Asians and others adapt to these intriguing alimentations? Only time will tell.
SPARROW + WOLF
4480 Spring Mountain Road