The Food Gal® and I recently subscribed to Milk Street – Christopher Kimball’s new food and cooking ‘zine. As an old Kimball fan, I’ve plowed through more issues of Cooks Illustrated than I can count, and still consider his old “America’s Test Kitchen” show to be the definitive television cooking show. Kimball’s Milk Street show on PBS recently debuted, and I’m sure that it will be every bit as good as his old enterprise.
Milk Street is very 21st Century in its sensibilities. Instead of the “perfect meatloaf” and “how to make a pie crust” articles of decades past, it is chock full of foreign foods and travel tidbits. There are also quite a few recipes for things like Peruvian ceviche, Indian curries and southeast Asian soups. All of which got our staff to wondering: What recipes are best left to the professionals, i.e., when are you biting off more than you can chew when you try to cook something at home that is always better in a restaurant?
The following lists are by no means definitive, but after 50 years of restaurant-going, and 40 years of serious home cooking, I’m a pretty good judge of when a recipe (or a type of food) is a waste of time for anyone but those who immerse themselves in it daily. These should give you a good start on what to avoid trying, even if a pro like Chris Kimball is doing the teaching. No offense to him (or avid home cooks everywhere), but no matter how hard you try, the best you can hope for is a distant approximation of what the pros turn out daily:
LEAVE IT TO THE PROFESSIONALS:
Bread (unless you bake all the time)
Vietnamese food (unless you’re Vietnamese)
Korean food (unless you’re Korean)
Chinese food (Take it from someone who spent the 80s cooking his way through a number of Chinese cookbooks.)
Indian food (unless you’re Indian and have a larder the size of ELV’s ego)
French food (Even simple French food has more steps than a Fred Astaire movie.)
Barbecue (unless you have the tools and the patience of Job)
Mexican street food (sophisticated Mexican food is another animal entirely)
Steaks (Although the best steakhouses always get the best beef, and they use higher heat, to get a better Maillard reaction than you can.)
Soup (Except ramen, pho and any number of other Asian noodle soups. NEVER try to make these at home. You will never master them so don’t even try.)
Stews of any kind
Rack of lamb
Filets of fish
Fruit (Fruit is its own best friend in the kitchen. You can get away with anything when you’re using good, ripe fruit.)
Home cooking is like any other skill: you have to do it all the time to be any good at it. Milk Street is a great place to learn, but never forget that your cooking reach should never exceed your cooking grasp.
ELV note: A major metropolitan/international newspaper recently asked us to compile a list of the top fine dining destinations in Las Vegas — places that are sui generis, nonpareil, and unmatched for the finest food and drink in town. Most of these are price-is-no-object joints; all of them serve some of the best food of its kind you’ll ever find. (To balance things out, we also submitted a list of “Hidden Local’s Favorites” containing a number of places that mere mortals can afford.) Buon gusto!
THE TOP 20 FINE DINING RESTAURANTS IN LAS VEGAS
‘e’ by José Andrés (Cosmopolitan) – The toughest seat to score in town, made by e-mail reservation only, gets you one of eight “golden tickets” for a molecular ride the likes of which you won’t experience anywhere else this side of Espana. Feran Adria was Andrés’ spiritual mentor, and his influence is everywhere on the seasonal menu. In the wrong hands, this cuisine is pretentious; here it is profound.
Lotus of Siam (953 E. Sahara Ave.) – Multiple expansions haven’t dimmed the star of America’s best Thai restaurant. (So sayeth me and every other critic who’s eaten here.) Go early for dinner or late for lunch if you want to get a table, and bring a thirst for German/Austrian/French wines. Bill Chutima’s Riesling list has become almost as famous as his wife’s northern Thai cooking. Not exactly “fine dining,” but so good it deserves to be in whatever “best of” list gets drawn up for Las Vegas restaurants.
Prime (Bellagio) Eighteen years on, Prime still boasts one of the prettiest dining rooms in America. A revamped bar area provides more room for nibbling and sipping, and the main room blends beefiness with romance as well as anyplace in which you’ll ever enjoy a peppercorn-crusted strip steak.
Michael Mina (Bellagio) – Start with the tableside-mixed tuna tartare (everyone does), then throw caution to the wind as you order the whole lobe of foie gras. Follow that with Mina’s decadent lobster pot pie and a rack of lamb and you’ll have plenty of reasons to hit the Stairmaster once you return to your life of kale smoothies and denuded chicken.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (Mandarin Oriental) – Twist isn’t for everyone. Like all restaurants in the Gagnaire oeuvre, it takes a decidedly adventuresome tack towards most of its menu. Here they take creative seasonality seriously, making boredom an impossibility. Get a tasting menu, buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Or get a steak and bathe in one of the best Bordelaise sauces in the business.
Joël Robuchon (MGM) – The big daddy of big deal meal restaurants in Vegas. You’ll be surrounded by Asian high rollers, a few punters, and some Eurotrash, but none of that will matter once the food starts showing up. Intricate, high-flying French are the watchwords here, but it’s best to have a second mortgage on hand before you approach the wine list.
Sage (Aria) – High ceilings and theatrical décor set the stage for some of Las Vegas’ most dramatic food. The seven-course tasting menu is a flat out steal at $150, but you won’t want to miss the standards on the menu – foie gras brûlée, roasted sweetbreads, kusshi oysters with peppers – either. The bar and bar menu are as stunning as the main room, and an excellent spot to drink your dinner, if that’s your thing.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (MGM) – There are multiple L’Ateliers around the globe these days, but this one takes a back seat to none of them. Chef Steve Benjamin has been at the helm since it opened (in 2005) and the dishes pouring forth from his open kitchen never fail to astonish. The dizzying array of menus and a la carte options encourage abandon but demand restraint. Do what we do: just close your eyes and point. And get the sweetbreads. And the hangar steak. And the spaghetti. (ELV update: Benjamin recently left his position at L’Atelier to pursue other adventures in sunny SoCal. We have not been in since his departure, but if the Robuchon machine runs true to form, we doubt there will be a dip in the quality of the cuisine.)
Carnevino (Palazzo)– Vegas has the greatest steakhouses in the world, next to New York, and Mario Batali’s steak and wine emporium can go hoof to hoof with them any of them. Here, the beef is aged in-house, for months not days, and the “riserva” steaks call to you from the ginormous menu, as do the pastas, salads and house-made salumi. The wine list is a dream for lovers of the “killer Bs” — Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. But bring your bank.
Bazaar Meat (SLS) – Calling it a meat emporium is a little unfair, since the seafood and wacky Spanish (read: molecular) creations are every bit as good as the steaks. Everyone raves about the cotton candy foie gras, but it’s the tartares (both tomato and steak), that deserve your attention first. Then it’s on to jamon croquetas, suckling pig, or whatever else suits your fancy in the Andrés repertoire…and it’s a huge repertoire.
Restaurant Guy Savoy (Caesars Palace) – When it’s on its game, one of the best restaurants in the world, with neither the pyrotechnics of Robuchon nor the in-your-face creativity of Gagnaire. What Savoy brings is gorgeous, sophisticated food that doesn’t need to pirouette on the plate to impress. The deep, refined flavors do that all by themselves. The wine list is a treasure trove, with more than a few bargains, if you’re willing to dig.
Carbone (Aria) – A New York import that arrived in the Nevada desert with its pedigree intact. Throwback dining packs them in every night, meaning: lots of table-side histrionics to go with gutsy pastas and the priciest veal parm this side of Manhattan. You’re going to hate yourself for loving this place as much as you will.
Mr. Chow (Caesars Palace) – Purists may balk, but Mr. Chow is about unabashed big-deal meal service, a luminous setting, and a sense you’re being fed by, and dining with, grownups. Get the Peking Duck and the Dressed Dungeness Crab, and enjoy this throwback in all the right ways.
Wing Lei (Wynn) – A jaw-dropping room, white-gloved service, and upscale Chinese food (at a price) that will knock your socks off. Be you a Mandarin or from Main Street, you’ll find something to love on this menu, but we’re partial to the steamed fish, hand-pulled noodles and perfect stir-fries.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (4480 Paradise Road) – Slightly off the Strip lies one of our best Italian restaurants, family run, and dishing up the kind of pastas and proteins that compete with anything Giada or Mario can throw at you. The Ferraro’s (who are always on the premises) had the good sense to put Francesco di Caudo in charge of the kitchen a couple of years ago, and he upgraded the food to put it on par with their world-class (Italian) wine list. Leave the gun; take the cannoli.
Yui Edomae Sushi (3460 Arville Street) – Nonpareil sushi and sashimi, edomae (Tokyo) style. Simple, direct, and sliced by the piece for an omakase meal like none other. This is purist sushi, truly Japanese, with nary a California roll in sight. The A-5 wagyu beef (grilled over binochatan charcoal), will take your breath away with its silkiness, fattiness and price.
Le Cirque (Bellagio) – A jewel of a restaurant in a jewel box of a space. The Maccionis (who own the original one in New York) have little to do with this outpost any more (other than a licensing deal with the Bellagio), but the food, wine and service remain as spot-on as when Sirio himself was kissing cheeks and badgering waiters. The food – under culinary wunderkind Wilfried Bergerhausen – has gotten more inventive and less stuffy.
Picasso (Bellagio) – Where else in the world can you walk around a restaurant and see a dozen works of the master himself? Even if you wouldn’t know a Picasso from black velvet Elvis, you’ll still be impressed by Julian Serrano’s menu that, after eighteen years, continues to get the best venison and scallops west of the Hudson. The wine list could keep you occupied for days.
Raku/Raku Sweets (5030 W. Spring Mountain Road) – Mitsuo Endo was the first chef to bring elevated, izakaya cooking to Las Vegas (in 2008), and he still does it best. Raku is for a certain kind of adventuresome food lover, but its sweet sister a few doors down serves finely crafted desserts that can be analyzed, consumed wholesale, or admired for their art.
Estiatorio Milos (Cosmopolitan) – The best fish in town, period. Also the best Greek food in town by a Peloponnesian mile. You’ll pay through the nose, but you’ll also be shouting “Opa!” with every bite. Come for the $30, three course lunch if you’re on a budget.
LOCAL’S HIDDEN FAVORITES
- Settebello (2 locations – 9350 W. Sahara Ave., 140 S. Green Valley Pkwy.) – Smoke-tinged, wood-fired, Napoletana-inspired pizza at its absolute best.
- EATT (7865 W. Sahara Ave.) – Three young French fellows are trying to prove that real French food (and desserts!) can be as healthy as it is delicious. And they do. And it is. (See picture above)
- Japaneiro (7315 W. Warm Springs Road) – Perhaps the best food in the unlikeliest location in Las Vegas. Kevin Chong’s fusion fare is spot on, whether he’s mixing and matching uni with oysters, or putting out an umami-laden rib eye for two.
- Other Mama (3655 S. Durango Blvd.) – Seafood in all its guises, tucked away in a strip mall, overrun nightly with intrepid foodies and chefs on their day off.
- Chada Thai & Wine (3400 S. Jones Blvd.) – The name says it all: incendiary food married with the wines (mostly white, mostly Riesling) that match it so well.
- Yuzu Japanese Kitchen (1310 E. Silverado Ranch Blvd) – A little slice of Tokyo hidden behind a car parts store. Authentic sushi; amazing kaiseki; off-the-hook omakase.
- Carson Kitchen (124 E. Carson Ave.) – Small but mighty. The restaurant that started the downtown food revolution. Good, inventive small plates; good cocktails; good luck getting a seat.
- Bratalian (10740 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Traditional Neapolitan Italian in a quirky dining room dished by the sexiest Brazilian-Italian dish ever to vongole your linguine. Carla Pellegrino is a local legend who gives Henderson denizens a reason to go out at night.
- Standard & Pour (11261 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Cory Harwell’s newest venture (just down the road from Bratalian) is a Carson Kitchen clone in all the right ways. Everyone gets the escargot, and the meatballs. You’ll want to get everything on the menu.
- Marche Bacchus (2620 Regatta Drive) – Al fresco dining connected to a wonderful wine store. The markups are gentle ($10 over retail) and the tables are filled with oenophiles day and night. By all means, buy that second bottle and tuck into the best brunch in the ‘burbs.
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