SPAGO Redux

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No matter what it does, it does well. No matter what you order, expect it to be one of the best versions you’ve ever had. Call it Wolfgang Puck magic; call it a great management; call it hiring good chefs at the top of their game. Whatever it is, call it consistency. Because if there’s one thing that sets Spago apart from its competitors, it is an almost military precision to its food. You will rarely have a bad dish in any Puck restaurant. At Spago, you’ll never have a bad bite.

Las Vegas got its first taste of Spago in December. 1992, and for the next twenty-five years it loomed large over the Strip dining scene as the granddaddy of all of our great restaurants. When its lease finally was up at the Forum Shops in 2018, it decamped for the Bellagio. Puck signed a management deal with the hotel (no more operational headaches for him!), and with a wave of the hand (and a “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”), the dreary Olives got a bright, modern makeover into Spago 2.0.

About the only thing not to like about the new location is the front of it (seen above). Instead of signaling you’re in for a big deal meal at one of the most famous restaurants in America, the signage is abstruse to the point of invisibility, and you can be right in front and not know there’s a restaurant there.

Once you’re inside, this aesthetic sin will be quickly forgotten. The bar still hugs the right side of the restaurant, and low-slung table seating allows you to eat or linger near all those top-shelf cocktails. Large windows and glass doors now frame an outdoor patio that provides the best seating in the hotel for the fountain show. (There are lots of tables outdoors, but they go fast at peak times, so reserve ahead if al fresco is how you want to go.)

Whether you sit outdoors or in, the menu will provide the sort of soothing satisfaction Puck has always delivered: a blend of classics (veal wiener schnitzel, steamed cod “Hong Kong style,” smoked salmon pizzas, crispy skin branzino), with the seasonal (sweet corn agnolotti, heirloom tomato salad, Santa Barbara spot prawns, vegetable ragout with asparagus velouté), and the formidable (veal chop, lamb rack, and a côte de bouef for two – each as good as any steakhouse’s). Sometimes there will be big eye tuna crudo, sometimes foie gras ice cream. Whatever specials your waiter recites, rest assured it will be worth the tariff.

(I’m just mad about saffron…risotto)

Mark Andelbradt, a Puck veteran, has been at the helm since the move to the new digs, and his facility with pasta is every bit as nimble as his command of roasted cauliflower. If his proteins are the equal of a beef emporium, his noodles match up nicely against any Italian. More than once I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of Spago’s house-made pastas with some celeb-chef versions around town, and every time Spago’s has come out on top. Andelbradt’s spicy lamb Bolognese cavatelli, squid ink garganelli, and those agnolotti are textbook examples of the genre, and when he’s doing saffron-seafood risotto, don’t miss it.

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When you’re done with the savories, the sweets are there, just waiting to destroy your willpower. The spiked lemon with yuzu cream, chiffon cake and citrus mousse (above) has been on the menu so long, it’s almost iconic as those pizzas. The chocolate chip cookies are worth a trip by themselves, but as memorable as those are, the thing to get is Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren — a showstopping souffléd pancake (for two) that actually feeds four…but which will probably be wolfed down by the first one lucky enough to get to it.

The wine list holds few surprises. (It was pretty boring at the old location, too.) There are plenty of overpriced bottles from the usual MGM-Bellagio offerings. (Yes, they standardize the wine selections throughout the MGM family of hotels these days. Because accountants.) Stick with the by-the-glass selections if you don’t want to feel like you’ve been asked to bend over and grab your ankles.

You don’t go to Spago looking for culinary adventure anymore than you go to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in search of a pork chop. What Spago is selling, what Spago has always sold, is a Cal-Ital blend of Europe technique with American panache — a hybrid cuisine that’s as fresh today as it was 35 years ago; a cuisine as elemental as a pizza and refined as caviar.

All of America owes a debt to Spago for the way we eat nowadays — combining finely-tuned, gutsy food with just the right sophisticated spin without pretense. Open kitchens, upgraded pizzas, casual dining with killer food — all of these started with Spago. In a way, every gastropub from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is an homage to the type of cooking first popularized by Wolfgang Puck. But he did it first, and in many ways, Spago still does it best.

I’ve eaten at Spago so many times I’ve lost count. This new incarnation I’ve been to five times. They never comp me, but a few freebies always show up. Dinner for two will run around $150-$200, including a shared dessert and a couple of drinks each. Service is uniformly excellent whether they know you or not.

Get this: Artisanal salumi pizza; smoked salmon pizza; spicy shrimp pizza; spicy tuna tartare; foie gras ice cream; Gulf shrimp cocktail; prime beef burger; field mushroom soup; roasted cauliflower; Anson Mills grits; veal wiener schnitzel; steamed cod “Hong Kong” style; branzino; all pastas; seafood-saffron risotto; Santa Barbara spot prawns; vegetable ragout; veal chop; lamb rack; côte de boeuf rib eye steak for two; cookie platter; spiked lemon with yuzu cream; Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren.

SPAGO

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.693.8181

MOTT 32

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Chinese food used to be everywhere and nowhere. Every town had one; no one paid much attention to them.

Those of us of a certain age remember Chinese food as it used to be — slightly mysterious, slightly boring, and ubiquitous.

Today, if TED talks are to be believed, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King combined.

There isn’t a backwater anywhere in America that doesn’t sport at least one Chinese restaurant. In places as far flung as rural Texas, godforsaken South Dakota,  or suburban New Jersey  — there would always be a “Jade Palace” or “Chang’s Garden” holding down the corner of a building, slinging their stir-frys and satisfying customers with gloppy sauces and kung pao predictability.

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In many of these places, the family running the joint (and make no mistake, the entire family worked there) would be the only Chinese-Americans in town. Like many poor immigrants, they were shunned at first and had to find work where they could. And feeding people (themselves included) was one business readily available. So the Chinese spread throughout America in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing their tasty-if-predictable food with them. And for about 150 years, things stayed pretty much the same.

Like many Americans, I didn’t discover Chinese food until I left home as a young adult. (I don’t think the idea of going to a Chinese restaurant ever occurred to my parents.) I remember thinking how strange moo goo gai pan was the first time I tasted it. Ditto, shiny roast Chinese turkey, won ton soup and a host of other standards. What was chop suey? And what were these strange, slick, shiny sauces on everything? Who was this Foo Young character, and why was he deep-frying my eggs and bathing them in brown gravy? Confused I was, but intrigued as well.

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Making things worse (and almost blunting my enthusiasm entirely) was a concoction put out by La Choy called Chicken Chow Mein— which was probably many American’s introduction to non-restaurant Chinese food. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that La Choy did for China’s gastronomic reputation what Mao Tse-Tung did for high fashion. Amazingly, even though one of the founders of La Choy was killed by lighting (a sign from the heavens, no doubt, concerning his product), it perseveres.

Thus did generations of Americans learn about this cuisine through a cultural prism refracting decades of tribulation, compromise and synthesis, until the red-gold, banquet hall Chinese-American restaurant became as familiar as an old shoe…and just about as interesting.

(Hot and sour Shanghainese xiao long bao)

All of that started to change in this century, as almost by sheer weight of China’s cultural muscle did its various cuisines start to assert themselves on the American palate. In place of egg rolls came xiao long bao. Candied spare ribs suddenly took a back seat to cumin lamb skewers, and dry-fried this and boiled that became the order of the day, with luminous, supercharged Sichuan fish opening up our sensibilities as well as our sinuses.

If the 19th and 20th centuries represents American-Chinese food’s birth and growing pains, then the 21st century is truly version 3.0 — with a blossoming of taste awareness and appreciation that this cuisine’s great great grandparents could only dream off. The textural subtleties of Canton province have been replaced by the noodles of the north, the dumplings of the east, and spices of the western plains. Regional differences are now celebrated, not glossed over in a sea of cornstarch, and intrepid fellow travelers scour the internet for the best bao, or the most luscious lamian. Knowing your chop suey from your chow mein is no longer enough, now one must be able to parse the fine points of jelly fish salad and fried pig intestines.

So, how does the novice reconcile all of these regional specialties into an easily digestible format? The hard way is to seek out little warrens of authenticity –the holes-in-the-wall in Chinatown (wherever you find a Chinatown) –where unique dishes are celebrated and compromises few.

Or, you can make it simple on yourself and go big box — in this case, with a trip to Mott 32 — the pan-Chinese restaurant that does to Chinese food what Morimoto did to Japanese cuisine a decade ago: present a modern menu in a hip, funky-cool space having more in common with a nightclub than any Chinese restaurant you’ve ever seen.

(Dinner and a show – this kitchen provides both)

Mott 32 seemed to pop up out of nowhere in 2014 in Hong Kong, and immediately asserted itself as a major player on the upscale Chinese restaurant scene. Its website is deliberately opaque about its origins, stating only that it is named after an address in New York City(?). It opened here around New Years and plans are underway for global, big-box Chinese restaurant domination. Singapore and Bangkok are next on the horizon. Vancouver and Dubai have already been conquered.

The glamour you’ll see from the get-go; the money behind these digs drips from every opulent detail. It takes about 10 seconds of checking out the fabrics and comfy booths to figure out that you’re no longer in “Wok This Way” territory. Giant doors off the casino floor lead to a broad and deep bar area, with an ocean of top-shelf alcohol on the shelves, ready to bathe the long bar with their magnificence alchemy into complicated cocktails. (I don’t much bother commenting on great cocktails anymore, because interesting libations are everywhere in Vegas these days. For the record, this bar’s A-game is better than most.)

The lighting is diffuse and muted, but not too much, and the young women dotting the place (at the hostess stand, behind the bar) are as sexy and shiny as a lacquered Chinese box. Dresses are short, black and tight, and the cleavage is so profound, this joint’s nickname ought to be Mott 32D.

Don’t let all the comeliness fool you, though, because the food is the tits as well.

With a bases-covering menu of everything from Cantonese dim sum to hand-pulled noodles to Peking duck ($108), the whole point of M32 is to present upscale Asian with fashion-forward cocktails, in a glamorous setting in hopes of enticing a stylish crowd to descend. The website touts its Cantonese roots, “with some Beijing and Szechuan influences in our signature dishes” — which explains the nightly dim sum (limited if great), and perhaps the best roasted duck you’ve ever eaten.

(Just ducky)

The duck ($108, above) is the centerpiece of every meal here and it deserves to be. The two-day process it takes to bring one to table produces a bronzed, brittle, gleaming skin having bite-resistance of a thin potato chip. There are decent Peking ducks all over town (Wing Lei, Jasmine, Blossom, New Asia BBQ and Mr. Chow spring to mind), but the effect here is an otherworldly contrast of moist, rich meat topped with a duck fat-slicked crisp. Duck doesn’t get any duckier — its only drawback is you should have at least four people at your table before you order it. When you’re asked how you want your second course — as a deep-fried duck “rack,” or minced meat in lettuce cups — insist upon the latter, as the former (above bottom right), is a waste of time and bones.

It’s a shame they aren’t open for lunch, because dim sum at dinner feels as strange as dried fish maw ($498/pp(!)) for breakfast. Those dried fish bladders are for Chinese high rollers who love their squishy, gelatinous texture. (Their appeal to the western palate is, shall we say, a bit elusive.)

The dim sum are more approachable, and you’ll find no better xiao long bao (here called Shanghainese soup dumplings) in Las Vegas. They come four to an order ($14), and you’ll want to try both the traditional pork and hot and sour versions — the latter providing plenty of punch.

Next to the dim sum and the duck, the Pluma Iberico pork (above, $42) gets pushed the most by the staff. It is dense with flavor, a bit too sweet, and juicy  — with as much in common with basic Chinese BBQ as that duck has with a McNugget. Before it arrives, you might want a few smaller plates, like the crispy dried Angus beef (below, $16), which comes out like a tangle of wispy, deep purple folds that shatter in the mouth with barely a bite. It is the barest gossamer beef, the antithesis of jerky. In another type of restaurant you might even call it molecular.

(We’re not in Panda Express anymore, Toto)

For those wishing something meatier, the Triple Cooked Wagyu Short Rib ($88) provides enough beef for four hungry souls to gnaw on…although its inclusion on the menu feels like the restaurant is (literally) throwing a bone to its conspicuous carnivorous customers.

Those not wanting to spring for a whole duck can get some shredded quacker in a Peking duck salad ($18) with black truffle dressing. Lighter appetites will appreciate the wild mushrooms in lettuce cups ($20), or thick slabs of deep-fried Sesame Prawn Toast ($18) — which, in bulk and pure shrimp-ness, redefines this usually bland standard.

Not many non-Chinese are going to drop two Benjamins on the kitchen sink soup known as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall  ($198), but hot and sour ($14) and won ton ($11) give plenty of soupy satisfaction for the price. If you’re dying to try fish maw, $68 gets you a cup of spongy, tasteless collagen. Yum!

In keeping with its Cantonese roots, there are plenty of expensive seafood options, none of which (abalone, sea cucumber, etc.) make much sense for Occidentals. But there’s plenty to love about the lobster “Ma Po Tofu” (above, $68) with its chunks of shellfish swimming with spicy/silky bean curd, as well as the smoked black cod ($42), and the poached fish (usually sea bass, $42) — floating in a Szechuan pepper broth —  makes up in refinement what it lacks in kick.

Just for grins and giggles, we ordered two old reliables — Kung Po Prawns ($38) and General Tso’s Chicken ($28) — on one of our four trips here, and they each were flawless, properly spicy and not too sweet. You’ll have no complaints about the nutty shrimp fried rice, either.

(The Cantonese love their custards)

Desserts got my attention as well. (When’s the last time that happened in a Chinese restaurant?) They feature the au courant (Bamboo Green Forest (top right, $16)) alongside the classical (Mango with Coconut (sticky) Rice Roll ($12) on the split (Modern/Classic) dessert menu. Even an old bean paste hater like me found myself slurping the pure white custard-like Double Boiled Egg White (bottom left, $12) , on top of some grainy/pasty Black Sesame something-or-other. The pastry chefs at Guy Savoy have nothing to worry about, but for a restaurant working within the Chinese vernacular, these are damn tasty.

Mott 32 is as slick as that duck skin, but no less satisfying.  The eclectic menu signifies that Chinese food has now taken a great leap forward into the promised land of high-end, gwailo dining dollars (something Japanese food did twenty years ago). Just because it’s a huge, expensive, well-financed chain doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed. The casual, luxurious vibe and ingredient-forward cooking are calculated to appeal to purists and tourists alike, and by and large, they pull it off.

More than anything else, though, Mott 32 represents a modern Chinese invasion. A China no longer burdened by its past; a cuisine no longer defined by egg rolls, fortune cookies and orange chicken. Whether you’re impressing a date or hanging with a crowd of conventioneers, you won’t find any better Chinese food in Las Vegas.

Like I said, this place is expensive. Expect to pay at least $100 for two (for food) unless you go crazy with the high-end, Chinese gourmet stuff, which you won’t. The wine list is Strip-typical, meaning: aimed at people with more money than brains. The somms are very helpful, and eager to point you to the (relative) bargains on the list, most of which go much better with the food than overpriced Cali cabs or chichi chardonnays. One of our four meals here was comped; another (for three) set us back 460 samolians, with a $100 bottle of wine.

MOTT 32

The Palazzo Hotel and Casino

3325 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.607.3232

Small But Mighty – ROOSTER BOY CAFE

The Rooster Boy Cafe is every food lover’s dream: a small (minuscule really) restaurant where the chef is at the stoves every day, sourcing local ingredients, and cooking and baking her little pea pickin’ heart out to the applause of her faithful customers. It is the type of intimate place that nurtures the soul of a food community. It is the type of place that Las Vegas still has too few of.

Good restaurants start with good groceries and chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal is justifiably proud of hers. Every week she gets a delivery from Kerry Clasby’s Intuitive Forager truck from SoCal, and every morning you can taste the difference they make. If there’s a more locavore, personal, handmade restaurant in town, I haven’t found it.

El-Nawal is a veteran of the New York and Las Vegas food scene. Having worked with industry giants like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Julian Serrano, her resumé has taken her from San Francisco to the Big Apple to Miami and finally, Las Vegas. Along the way, she’s invented desserts for Nobu, boiled bagels in Brussels, and catered in Mexico City. Looking at her history, you’d think running a minuscule breakfast/lunch spot in at out-of-the-way shopping center is the equivalent of A-Rod coaching Little League. And so it might be. But we in Las Vegas are lucky to have an all-star of her quality slumming it in our midst.

There’s nothing low rent about the food, however, or the beverages. They serve excellent La Colombe coffee here, and the espresso is one of the better ones in town. You pour your own if all you want is a cup of Joe, but the fancier cortados, cappucinos and con leches are just as compelling.

From the moment you approach the cozy dining alcove (practically hidden from the parking lot) and see the table laden with pastries, you know you’re in the hands of a baking and breakfast master. The vibe tells you whatever you get is going to be top notch, and watching the chef/owner patrol the premises (and work the line) just confirms the point.

(Get this galette)

Much is made of El-Nawal’s “Rooster Boy Granolas” and if your idea of going to a restaurant is to eat something you can just as well dump in a bowl at home, go nuts. (Lots of her roughage-seeking customers do.) For our dinero, though, your breakfast cravings will be better served by one of her hand-crafted galettes, pastries, or pancakes. No matter what you order, when you see a Dutch Oven soufflé pass your table, expect to be immediately gripped by ordering envy.

Veggies are market-driven, so whatever looked good that day is what you’re going to get. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh corn (above) tossed with green onions and then walloped with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar. If you insist upon something lighter, the “From Back Home” brings Middle Eastern healthiness in the form of a pillow-y flatbread surrounded by labne, cukes, tomato and a dusting of zaatar.

That same fluffy pita provides a foundation for Shashouka  — eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce  — while El-Nawal’s brioche provides the starch surrounding the Frenchy — a superlative baked egg unfortunately dressed with white truffle oil. (I suppose even a chef of El-Nawal’s caliber has to take a shortcut now and again.) They also cure wild-caught salmon here into a firm, gorgeous gravlax. Try finding another breakfast/lunch spot anywhere in Vegas that does this.

(Check out these chilaquiles!)
All of these are worthy contenders for top menu honors (as are the croissants, ginger cake, and pain au chocolat), but the “Mi Corazon” chilaquiles (above) deserve special recognition. These are not your mamacita’s chilaquiles. In place of forlorn tortilla chips drenched in sauce and topped with an indifferent egg, here you find a tangle of fresh-fried crisps laced with cotija cheese, cubes of perfect avocado, and tomato and onion — all sitting in a pool of tangy, herbaceous green chile sauce laced with Mexican crema. The peppery bite is there, but also something deeper, more elemental, more ingredient-driven. In other words: exactly what you’d expect when a cultural standard gets refracted through the lens of a top chef.

On weekends the lines form early, so first timers are advised to go midweek and early, when it’s just Sonia, her tiny staff, and a few regulars at the counter or outdoor tables.  What they accomplish in a restaurant less than 500 feet square is something you need to see for yourself.

One day recently we caught her cooking in a dress and pearls after she’d returned from an early morning photo shoot. “No time to change,” she smiled. “This place fills up fast.” And so it was and so it does — our smallest, most intimate restaurant doing what every chef claims is their golden grail — cooking heartfelt recipes for loyal clients who know and appreciate the good stuff. Las Vegas needs a dozen more Rooster Boy Cafes, but there’s only one Sonia El-Nawal. She’s the best thing to happen to cooking in pearls since June Cleaver baked cookies for Wally and The Beav.

Prices range from $8-$13, meaning: it’s really hard for a couple to spend more than forty bucks here, even if you go crazy with ordering toasts, eggs, pastries and galettes…as you should. Get This: chilaquiles; shakshouka eggs; Frenchy – baked egg in brioche; croissant; pain au chocolat; ginger cake; granola; breakfast galette; wild salmon gravlax; Dutch Oven pancake; buttermilk pancakes; From Back Home – labne with pita; coffee.

ROOSTER BOY CAFE

2620 Regatta Drive #113

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.560.2453

(Small but mighty)