A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099

 

 

The Best Burger in Town

America’s obsession with juvenile food is subsiding.

Press your ear (or stomach) to the ground (as we do) and you’ll find the food media paying scant attention to tacos, pizzas and burgers these days.

People aren’t going apeshit over ramen like they were five years ago, cupcakes have been consigned to the corner (where they belong), small plates are sooo 2014, and Brobdingnagian milk shakes have been marginalized.

With any luck, perhaps one of these days the New York Times will end its decade-long love affair with David Chang.

In the meantime, Chang and his bao buns notwithstanding, grown up dining has returned. Classics are back.

If you require evidence, just look at what’s opened here in the past few months. Cipriani, Vetri and NoMad are nothing if not throwback dining experiences. Look past the modern industrial look of Factory Kitchen and what you’ll find is a classic Italian meal. The only thing modern about Mott 32 is the decor and the cocktail program.

Heck, some of these places even offer cheese at the end of your meal. How fin de siecle is that?

But some things never go out of style, and a great burger is one of them.

Amidst all the Eataly anticipation at the end of the year, a sizeable (300 seat) meat emporium quietly opened in the Palace Station hotel. Called BBD’s (Beers, Burgers, Desserts) it brought forth a gargantuan menu of everything from burgers and steaks to amazing bowls of duck ramen ($18) to never-seen-before dishes like Buffalo burnt chicken wings ($13):

On top of those, it also features probably the best beer selection in town (notice I said “best” not “biggest”), fried pickles and hot chicken. There’s a Philly cheese steak served with smoked onions ($15 and excellent) , a one-pound Bavarian pretzel, and even lamb gyros for those so inclined.

But the real stars of the show are the burgers. Three are offered: the dry-aged prime steakhouse burger ($19), a griddle burger ($10 single, $14 double) that seeks (and succeeds) at elevating the In-N-Out burger template, and a steamed burger ($8 single, $12 double) mimicking the chopped onion, grey meat magnificence of a White Castle slider.

They offer 20(!) different sauces (all made in-house), potatoes a number of ways (the classic french fries above, are potato perfection), three salads (who gives a fuck?), and the usual frivolous fat-filled fried stuff (onion rings, poppers, cheese sticks and such).

But your attention is drawn to the meat from the moment you walk past the butcher shop at the entrance, and that’s where your gaze should stay.

Those burgers are each superb. Made with in-house ground beef, juicy and packed with the kind of dense, mineral-rich beefiness that is but a wisp of memory in the hamburgers most people consume. I’ve said for years: the best burgers are always found in good steakhouses, because good steakhouses use the best beef and treat it right.

The beef here tastes like it could’ve come straight from Delmonico or CUT. The grind is coarse and the packing is just firm enough to hold together and sear properly, the better to retain the juiciness essential for proper burger apotheosis. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted better.

Seasonings are on-point, too, telling you that someone in the kitchen is paying close attention to the details.

As much as well love all of the cheeseburgers here, I have to admit the steamed mini-burgers (above) are my favorite. They taste like what White Castles would be if they were 3xs thicker, used great meat sandwiched in a superior bun and satisfied your cravings without laying in your stomach like a cheap, greasy brick. (The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been parking booze in your gut all night.)

Those minis are not to be missed, but neither are any of these meat patty sandwiches. The beef in the dry-aged prime burger (above) is aged for 40-50 days and achieves that tinge of umami-laden gaminess true beef aficionados look for. The grilled beauties (not pictured) are next-level delicious as well — one bite and you might forswear In-N-Out forever.

Put them all together and you have a hamburger hamlet of unbridled greatness, the likes of which Vegas has never seen under one roof.

All of this is the handiwork of one Ralph Perrazzo — a Long Island chef (and Bradley Ogden alum) who won some burger battle on some food network show, paving the way for his expansion to Vegas. Sorry Ralph, but I don’t take those shows very seriously anymore, but your food is the real deal, and whether it’s juvenile or fashionable or not, I intend to eat many more of your burgers, and take them very very seriously while doing so.

(A burger lunch or dinner for two, without booze, should run between $25-$50, depending on how many sides or appetizers you tackle. The beer selection is for serious suds lovers.)

BBD’s

Palace Station Hotel and Casino

2411 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.221.6513

https://eatbbds.com/experience/

 

NOMAD – The Restaurant

The first test of a restaurant is, does it make you want to return?

if you think about it, nothing else really matters,  Fine points about the done-ness of your steak or the freshness of your veggies pale before the only issue that counts: Will you come back for another meal?

Consider the following. When you’re in the middle of your first meal at a restaurant, do you:

> Gaze longingly at the dishes being served all around you?

> Think about what you didn’t order WHILE YOU’RE EATING?

> Contemplate your next meal there… in the middle of this one?

> Think to yourself, “I can’t wait to come back”?

if you answered yes to any of these questions, then the restaurant has done its job.

Whether a taco truck, a fast food joint, or haute cuisine palace, getting you back in the door is every restaurant’s first mission….and woe to the place where a customer walks out thinking, “been there, done that.”

Getting you there the first time is the product of hype, word-of-mouth, or whatever. That’s easy. Getting you to return is the hard part.

Getting people to come to The NoMad Restaurant won’t be an issue, given the name, its reputation, and the marketing muscle of MGM.

Getting locals in the door might be a different story. Getting me to come back is going to be even harder.

More on that later, but first let’s review a few things before I get to the food, because several things about NoMad, besides the food, require a reminder.

NoMad is corporate to the core. It is all calculation and concept, conceived solely to cash in on the fame chef Daniel Humm (pronounced Hūme) — fame that was achieved (with the help of some big money investors) at Eleven Madison Park. (For those who don’t hunt big restaurant game as an avocation, EMP is the mega-expensive, impossible-to-get-into, multi-course, World’s Best blah blah blah restaurant that Humm has helmed since 2011.)

As Adam Platt so deftly described, the trouble with having the world’s best anything is plenty of suitors are going to show up at your door enticing you with ideas on ways to “expand your brand,” and make a boatload of cash while doing so. In the case of Humm and partner Will Guidara, that meant springing into hotel/restaurant mode in 2012, and then planning to conquer the world by taking their expandable concept to places like London and Las Vegas.

Apparently, the only thing holding them back these days is where to find enough old books to stock the shelves. Books, you see, being the leitmotif of this place. Oh the irony, I’m sure you’re thinking, stocking a fake library with real books to surround a generation of diners who don’t read them. True enough, but the effect is stunning just the same.

The place is huge (200+ seats) but also dark and clubby  — quite the design feat, again calculated to take your breath away, and it does.

Those shelves surround you from the moment you step into the huge, fancified, fake Victorian library.  20+ foot ceilings (stocked to the brim with those books) threaten to engulf you. All of this mimics the vernacular of the New York original (much as Carbone does) while inflating it, size-wise, to keep up with the conventioneers who will be descending upon it.

NoMad you see, wants it all ways. It is trying to redefine dining for the second (and soon-to-be third) decade of the 21st Century as a place devoted to classics in a casual way. Formal dining, if you will, without the folderol. By and large it succeeds in this mission, hearkening back to days of yore when gentlemen dined in style, dressed to the nines, and surrounded by literate luxury.

No one is dressing for success anymore (shame), but even in cargo shorts, you’ll find a lot to like here, once you find a table, and therein lies a tale.

As you approach the restaurant you will see very large doors that give you a hint as to the scale of the place. Right inside those doors, to the left, is the hostess stand. That stand, on both of my visits, has been filled with drop-dead beautiful young women, none of whom seems to have a clue what they’re doing — a simple “hello, my name is ______ ” sending the bevy of them into paroxysms of wide-eyed uncertainty of the sort one usually sees at a Jimmy Choo sale.

If you want to visit the bar, you will be led through the restaurant to a long counter recessed from the main room. If you are ready for your table (after a quick cocktail), neither the hostess nor the well-meaning barkeep will know how to communicate this fact to the other, or impart the necessary information you’ll need to locate one (the hostess or your table).

Persevere and eventually someone will show up. Then, you’ll be taken back to the hostess stand (not a small hike), from which another bewildered lass will lead you to your seats. It’s all quite the production, necessitated by the demands of a (relatively) small-bore, big city eatery deciding it wants to increase its volume and siphon off some Vegas cash.

Humm and company started raking in their dough six years ago with a something-for-everybody style carefully planned to appeal to everyone from the meat-and-potatoes crowd to inveterate Francophiles. The concept seems more Vegas-ready than most of our usual transplants (cf. Vetri), and from your first glance, you will see a menu that confidently mixes its metaphors.

You won’t mind a bit seeing Italian pastas like tagliatelle with crab and lemon ($36) and cavatelli (above) with black truffle and sausage ($28) sitting beside French classics like lobster Thermidor ($64) and beef Rossini ($58), especially when everything is this tasty. Those pastas may not be in the same league as Marc Vetri’s, but the portions are larger and both starches pack a punch.

Before you get to them though, you’ll have to navigate the appetizers. Again, you’ll find a blend of food styles aimed at pleasing the largest swath of customers possible, Thus does rudimentary kanpachi ceviche ($21) share space with an excellent foie gras torchon ($36), while pata negra ham ($38) can be ordered alongside a buffalo mozz/bibb lettuce.

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Oysters (above, $34) come two ways (chilled with champagne mignonette and broiled with Parmesan and breadcrumbs), and may be the best composed bivalves in town — the first being (literally) sparkling with acidity, while the second finds four plump specimens warmly nestled beneath an herbaceous, cheese blanket. It’s not easy to accent oysters without overwhelming them, and both versions here walk that tightrope without a stumble.

This sort of all-over-the-map eating could be a disaster in less capable hands, but Humm’s crew faithfully recreates the pristine (those kanpachi) with the iconic (Paul Bocuse’s fabled truffled chicken in puff pastry, $32) without a hiccup. The soup is a marvel of simplicity, and any misstep (with the broth, the bird, or the mille-feuille), could turn this homage into a cheap forgery, but as at Auberge du Pont de Collonges, they have obviously honed their skills in making this famous concoction down to a science, and the lip-smacking results are not to be missed by any serious gastronome.

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If there’s a dish NoMad can be credited with bringing back from the dead, it is the simple roast chicken for two (above). Once a staple of French dining rooms, it fell out of favor in the 90s as two generations of baton-twirling chefs sought to distinguish themselves with whatever cartwheel they could fit on a plate. (When I lamented the loss of the simple pleasures of a perfectly roasted bird to several chefs a decade ago, they all looked at me like I was advocating the return of the tasseled menu.)

The version here has been gussied up to a fare-thee-well, and finds a beautifully bronzed specimen, “stuffed with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche, dark meat fricasse and sauce suprême.” With a description like that, you expect trumpets to be playing when it’s brought to the table. When you taste it, you find a gorgeous bird bathed in a rich cream sauce containing whispers of all the other ingredients rather than a chorus of them. For the price ($94), one expects more. At that price, you deserve the 1812 Overture.

 

Not to get tacky about it, but cost-to-value ratio is definitely an issue here. $58 brings forth two small tournedos of (probably sous-vide) filet mignon, one topped with a cute piece of foie gras, the other plopped with a black substance that tastes like stewed blackberries but which is, in fact, onion “jam.”

Jelly on meat is one thing, but this invention comes across as a way to distract you from the minimal presence of (the expected, required) truffle flavor in the dish, and an excuse not to use any more foie gras than necessary.

And then you get to the overpriced sides. $18 for a baked potato (mine came with white truffles, I’m not sure everyone else’s does), $15 for sauteed mushrooms, and…wait for it…. $26 for roasted broccoli.  Of course it comes with two little Parmesan crisps as garnishes, so there’s that.

The baked Alaska is no bargain either ($28), but it’s a wonder of layered composition — fruit, cake, cream — flamed tableside to your delight at any price. I would’ve happily paid double for it in exchange for knocking the broccoli off the bill. The chocolate mousse ($14) is scooped tableside from a large bowl and is also drop-your-spoon delicious.

Finally, there is the service. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I rarely comment on it. This is for two reasons: 1) many restaurants in Las Vegas know me, so, as a result, I receive more attention than the average diner; and, 2) I don’t really give a shit about service. As I’ve said before, I don’t care if they dump soup on my head as long as it’s great soup.

I may not care about service, that doesn’t mean I don’t notice it. No matter where I dine, from a place like Le Cirque (where we’ve been dozens of times) to my two visits here, I’m watching how the waitstaff treats every one around me. How is their greeting? Is the water getting re-filled? Is there a lag between courses? Does the check show up on time? How have they handled a complaint? My gaze may not be riveted on any one table, but my antennae are always out.

And out or in, I couldn’t help but noticing that service here is not commensurate with the prices. It starts with that hostess stand and continues through the meal: a lot of attractive young people scurrying about, but vaguely confused about how to get the job done.

Menus show up haphazardly. Four different people ask you the same question. Long lag times. Liquid replenishment is problematical, and one entree shows up five minutes before another (at a two-top, on a weekday evening with the restaurant not half full). Vegetables appear at random, and a glass of wine ordered with your entree shows up with dessert.

At a more modest establishment, these would be chalked up to growing pains. With this reputation and these pretensions, such failings are inexcusable, or, at the very least, mentionable.

If I seem on the fence about NoMad, it is because I am. There’s a lot to like about the place. Some of the dishes take your breath away, the room is spectacular, and the libations (cocktails and wine) are well thought-out, and a treat. (Someone on the Strip obviously got our memo about wine lists a few years ago, as the lists we’re now seeing —  here, Vetri, Cipriani, Scotch 80 and others — are stocked with more bottles in the $50-$125 range.)

But if the true test of a restaurant is whether you want to come back, I don’t see myself trekking here anytime soon. I may be looking forward to my next Vetri adventure, or plowing through pastas at Cipriani, or diving into dumplings at China Mama, but when it comes to NoMad, I think I’ll stick with the hamburger and the hot dog  being sold next door at the NoMad Bar, and leave the fancy dining to those who don’t mind paying twenty-six bucks for a bunch of broccoli.

(Our two meals – for two – came to $521 and $325 respectively, but the first one included a $140 bottle of wine. Expect to pay around $125/pp, exclusive of booze.)

THE NOMAD RESTAURANT

The Park

3772 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.730.6785

https://www.nomadlasvegas.com/en/restaurants/the-nomad-restaurant.html