ELV note: It was just announced this week that the executive chef of Momofuku Las Vegas (Michael Chen) left after only two months on the job. We doubt this will affect any of the food there, however, as the “executive chefs” in most celeb chef Strip restaurants are little more than functionaries, executing a menu that is pre-determined thousands of miles away. Our objections to the food (as you will read below) has much more to do the recipes as conceptualized, not as they were cooked.
ELV Note #2: The following review appears in this month’s issue of Desert Companion magazine.
UMAMI BOMBS AWAY!
It’s hard not to admire what Chef David Chang has done with Momofuku (“Lucky Peach” in Korean). What began as an eight-seat eatery in lower Manhattan in 2004 has spawned an empire that now stretches from Soho, New York to Sydney Australia. It’s also not hard, after eating your way through Momofuku, to sometimes wonder what all the shouting is about – shouting from the rooftops being what the influential New York food media has done almost from the day Chang opened. Once they laid the groundwork, social media took over, and for well over a decade, foodies the world over have been inundated with tales of Chang’s influence and ground-breaking cuisine.
When other chefs and restaurants went into recession hibernation in 2008, Chang kicked his expansion into high gear, opening noodle bars, Vietnamese restaurants and impossible-to-get-into joints in New York — expanding his brand while taking full advantage of the rise of the Millennials and their need to have something tasty (and Instagram-worthy) to eat. There are now five Momofukus in the world, more are planned, and to the delight of his fans, Las Vegas finally has one.
In the beginning, the entire Chang oeuvre consisted of barely a handful of items. Because of its small size, the original Momofuku Noodle Bar in lower Manhattan featured a few bowls of ramen, a couple of appetizers and some stuffed bao buns and that was it. On such bare bones was a food empire born.
The genius of Chang did was in upgrading those noodles, enriching the broth, and loading smoky bacon onto classic Korean and Japanese items that, until he came along, most Americans wouldn’t touch with a ten food chopstick. He also cooked (and seasoned) the Korean fried chicken like a real chef, and made a big deal about using better ingredients. No bottom bin ham for him. He used real Virginia country ham, Kurobuta pork, and the fluffiest bao he could find. He cured his own pickles too, (a big deal in 2004) and made sure everyone in the food media knew about it.
Most of all, though, Momofuku became all about umami — umami being the word for the intense, savory quality that only the densest, saltiest, most amino-acid rich foods (like steak, cheese, smoked meats and soy sauce) possess. In the Chang universe (then and now), it’s all about overwhelming your palate with this fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). His food does this at the expense of delicacy and refinement but his audience didn’t seem to care one bit. Subtlety being as important to a David Chang meal as dialogue is in a Vin Diesel movie.
Thus will most of your meal be so umami-drenched that your palate will be screaming for mercy after several plates appear, each overloaded with whatever miso-shoyu-smoky-kombu concoction Chang can’t help buy incorporating into every bite.
If smoke is your thing, you’ll be in smoked hog heaven. By all means then, don’t miss the pork meatballs swimming in (you guessed it) plenty of smoked black-eyed peas. Is Momofuku’s pork ramen soup good? Yes, but it’s also so smoky that three sips in you will want to run up the white flag. Ditto the oysters Momofuku – the seafood essence of which is obliterated by smoky bacon bits. There’s also a smoked pork chop and roasted mussels on the menu, with the mussels being festooned with (wait for it) plenty of smoked Benton’s bacon. The food is so smoky here it ought to be sponsored by Marlboro.
When Chang and his troops are through pouring on the smoke, they find many other ways to up the umami ante. Sichuan rice cakes are thick stubby rice noodles smothered with pork sausage, while chilled spicy noodles get a heap of sausages and cashews to effectively overwhelm the interesting starches and spices beneath them – pork sausage and cashews being the belt and suspenders of the umami-overload universe.
After three trips around this menu, I threw in the towel. There are some good things to eat here – the spicy cod hotpot being good fish, well-treated; the katsu chicken an old-fashioned, mushroom cream sauce delight – but by the time you get to them, you will have been drowned by a tsunami of umami. By all means get the pork belly buns (the ones that made Chang famous), but skip the chicken karaage version – they being sad and stringy. The vaunted rotisserie chicken comes with deep-fried bones (some edible, some not), and is not as good as it thinks it is.
What is good is the seating. You may have trouble getting one, but that’s only because every under-40 in Vegas seems to be beating a path to this second floor location in The Cosmopolitan these days. What they find is a large restaurant fronted by a long bar that itself is five times the length of the original operation. Beside that bar are a number of high tops – for waiting, drinking or overflow dining – and beyond them a huge open kitchen that looks like it could feed an army base. For its size, the room is remarkably comfortable, the tables well-spaced, and the noise level (relatively) civilized. Service is also top notch, with management and waiters who are well-versed in the food. The wine list is sinfully overpriced, and the sake/sochu list woefully sparse.
David Chang deserves a lot of credit. He made this food safe for aspirational foodies and non-Asians alike — folks with limited resources who wanted to hop on the foodie bandwagon and expand their knowledge of chewy noodles, miso broth and various edible esoterica. All of this was a treat when you were ducking into a teeny tiny noodle emporium for a quick fix of soup and a bao bun. To put an entire meal together from this food, however – after your taste buds have been bludgeoned into one-dimensional submission – is a big-box experience of a different order. If you still use party as a verb, and don’t mind that everything on your table tastes the same, you might feel right at home amongst all the umami.
Nothing about Momofuku is as good as its reputation, but in this day and age, that’s enough.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino
2016 will go down as one of the most eventful years of my life. Getting married took the cake, of course, but publishing two editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (Huntington Press) was quite the undertaking as well. Factor in trips to Atlanta, Albuquerque/Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Washington D.C., Tokyo, Austin, Texas, and Rome (Italy, not Georgia) and you have one whale of a rotation around the sun. Through it all, I managed to eat over two hundred meals in local restaurants. Here are the best of the best that I tasted in the past twelve months:
Wine List of the Year – Aureole (see above). Not only is it the broadest and deepest list in town, it’s also back to being on the printed page, making it a joy to peruse. Would that all those damned, dastardly digital lists be consigned to the techie hell from whence they came. Digital wine lists tried to solve a problem that wasn’t there. And people ended up ordering less wine, because they’re so cumbersome to use. A pox, a pox I say, on all digital wine lists. End of rant.
Cocktail Bar of the Year – Libertine Social
Pasta of the Year – (tie) Carbone; Carnevino; Ferraro’s
Burger of the Year – Libertine Social; runner up – Gordon Ramsay Steak
Steak of the Year – (tie) porterhouse at CUT; aged rib eye at Bazaar Meat
Fish Dish of the Year – Scorpina (scorpion fish) at Estiatorio Milos
Sommelier of the Year – Chloe Helfand at Bazaar Meat
Pizza of the Year – Due Forni; runner-up – Evel Pie
Downtown Restaurant of the Year – Le Pho
Chinese Restaurant of the Year – Chengdu Taste
Thai Restaurant of the Year – Ocha Thai
Vietnamese Restaurant of the Year – Pho Annie
Korean Restaurant of the Year – Magal Korean BBQ
Japanese Restaurant of the Year – (tie) Yui Edomae Sushi, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Japanese Kitchen
Fabulous Frenchies of the Year – Nothing can top the lip-smacking delights that Rosallie Le French Cafe, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Eatt Healthy Food brought to the ‘burbs.
Dim Sum of the Year – No contest: Pearl Ocean at the brand new Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino.
Coffee Bar of the Year – The just-opened Vesta Coffee Roasters is giving the term “fresh roasted” a whole new meaning.
Appetizer of the Year – “Ham ‘n Eggs” at ‘e’ by José Andrés
Meals of the Year – Yuzu Japanese Kitchen; Yui Edomae Sushi; Twist by Pierre Gagnaire; Delmonico; L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon; Bazaar Meat; CUT; Sage; ‘e’ by José Andrés; B&B Ristorante; Yonaka; Strip Steak; Ferraro’s; Carbone; Chengdu Taste; Raku.
Chef of the Year – Steve Benjamin at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. No one does it better, or has for as long, as Stevie B.
Restaurant of the Year – Bazaar Meat. Fork–droppingly delicious is how I often describe a dish (or a meal) that knocks me out with its intensity and perfection. I dropped my fork a lot this year at Bazaar Meat.
Face it: we all eat too much meat. No one loves a great rib eye or cheeseburger more than yours truly, but consuming them isn’t good for our arteries, the planet or the cows. That’s where seafood comes in. People usually don’t associate great seafood with Las Vegas, and if you asked your average tourist, they’d claim buffets and steak houses as Sin City’s most iconic eats. But thanks to the wonders of modern transportation, and exotic, flown-in fare from around the world, seafood-centric chefs are plating a number of dishes that compete with anything you can find on the coasts. Las Vegas may be 286 miles from the closest ocean, but each of these taste like it just jumped from the water and onto your plate.
EMERIL’S CRAB CAKE
Resembling more of a tower than a patty, Emeril Lagasse’s jumbo lump beauty is an architectural marvel – big, buttery chunks of Maryland Blue suspended by the merest wisp of filler, capped with crunchy bread crumbs, and served with either a classic, coat-your-arteries remoulade, or a lighter, piquant relish in the warmer months. The fun comes in toppling that structure to reveal an almost disconcerting amount of plump crustacean within.
MILOS CARABINEROS ROSE SHRIMP
How red can seafood get? How delicious can shrimp be? These are but two of the questions that will be answered by your first bite of these Portuguese beauties. The third will be: How do I properly suck the head of a decapod? Why, with a dollop of sherry poured into the decapitated space, of course! The staff will happily guide you, and the impromptu shot of bisque you create will be a revelation in shrimp intensity
MR. CHOW DOVER SOLE
Urbane, theatrical, and expensive, Mr. Chow may be the perfect embodiment of the Strip’s culinary resurgence since the great recession. Its rice wine-steamed Dover sole might be Chinese fish at its most understated and elegant. The English and French may do wonderful things with this dense, cold water swimmer, but steaming it brings out a delicate, velvety smoothness that the Chinese prize above all else. All it takes is a little soy sauce and some bits of green garnish to complete a fish dish fit for the gods.
Genichi Mizoguchi, or Gen-san to his regulars, has singlehandedly turned Spring Mountain Road into a mecca for serious sushi hounds. First at Kabuto and now at Yui – his own restaurant – he features only the best fish from Japan or the west coast, each variety sliced and formed into the most ethereal combination of fish on rice that was ever popped into one’s mouth. This is minimalist, purist sushi, but whatever he’s slicing (and every night there are over a dozen featured species) it will be the best you can get this far east of the Far East. P.S. Yui Edomae Sushi celebrates its one year anniversary this week.
ANDIRON LOBSTER ROLL
Oh, Andiron lobster roll, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: Is it your soft, squishy, split-buttered bun? The rosy red-white chunks of shellfish? Barely held together by mayo? The crunch of celery? The wisp of dill? Truth be told, it is all of these things and more. The lobster roll at Andiron is the perfect evocation of sitting on a picnic table by the Connecticut (or Rhode Island or Massachusetts) shore, with the brisk salinity of an Atlantic breeze in your hair, eating the most iconic and American of foodstuffs. There should be nothing skimpy about the meat, and nothing too overpowering about the seasonings or binder. It should be all about the lobster, tucked and overflowing out of that beautiful bun. And here it is.