I Once Flew to Paris Just to Have Lunch

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I once flew to Paris just to have lunch

To Paris I went without care, without crunch

I once flew to Paris just ’cause I could

On a plane, on a whim, on the hopes of meals good

To Paris I flew, alone as it were

Leaving the wife to her toils, don’t think me a cur

A fantasy it had been throughout my manhood

To fly just for lunch, thinking I should…

Learn French, eat France, explore all things Gaulois!

My fate I once thought, it wistfully was

Today on this day, I thought of such things

And the swings of good fortune which enabled such flings

To meet Mariani, a gastronome friend

Paris did beckon us fellow curmudgeons

On landing that morn, I rubbed out the sleep

Where I’d dreamed to myself of lambs, ducks and geese

Image(Duck confit with summer vegetables)

To the Ritz as it were, did we travel that day

Where a meal was awaiting the French call déjeuner

The difference you see, is one of degree

For in France you can feast, and here we just feed

A pity it seems, so to France I did fly

To eat like a king and kiss troubles goodbye

How much do you ask, would be this repast?

Expensive it is, too much for mere mortals

But walking is free among these luxe portals

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This is insane, I thought on the Seine

To travel for food so many disdain

But undaunted I was, so to lunch I did go

For dining so fine it sets me aglow

The Ritz is The Ritz, as ritz as they come

As were our courses, one after one

So beautiful they were, elegant, precise

Both John and I could’ve eaten them thrice

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And the bread, oh the bread, for which French are so famous

Rising and baking Français are not aimless

Crusty, yeasty, with softness yet crunch

One travels an ocean to have it for lunch

Image(Pan-fried Dorade with mussel tortellini and artichoke purée)

And while we’re at it, did we mention the fish?

Nowhere on earth, is it found this delish

The French have a way with all things that swim

While America flounders with fins the most grim

Image(Raisin Einset en compotée et sorbet, crème montée et meringue croustillante)

Image(aka grapes in vanilla cream sorbet in meringue crust)

And it goes without saying that desserts reign supreme

Anywhere the French are whipping some cream

The Ritz, as you imagine, is kingly of sorts

When it comes to sorbets, meringues, tarts and tortes.

An art form lunch is, in France like no other

With wine, with cheese, with friends or a lover

I once flew to France just for a feast

On food so sublime all troubles did cease.

Image(Crab “Napoleon” with lobster sauce)

Image(Tomate stracciatella, crémeaux basilic poundré à l’olive noire – but you knew that)

 

 

GUY SAVOY

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The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves. – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

FRANCE

As clichés go, the one about Americans falling in love with France is an old one. It probably started around the time they helped us win our independence from England, gained more currency when noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, and gathered full steam when the literary lions of the Roaring 20s (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al) took France to their bosom and spent most of the mid-20th Century living there and writing about it.

When I began traveling there in the early 1990s, France was still the ne plus ultra of dining. The rise of Spain in the early aughts might have eclipsed it for a while (as did the mercifully short New Nordic fad), but the French gastronomic meal (an official UNESCO cultural heritage icon) is still the standard by which all western dining is judged.

More accurately, the progression of how we eat our formal meals — from light to heavy, fish to meat, soup to nuts — is based upon culinary rules set down hundreds of years ago. They’ve lasted this long because they make sense — both from a taste and digestion standpoint — and because:

The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.

In other words, there’s a reason you don’t start dinner with ice cream and steak, proceed to chocolate cake, and then end with a hunk of sautéed skate, and those reasons were first codified by the French when native Americans were still throwing rocks at each other.

FRENCH FOOD

Image(It’s tough to clam up about GS)

From a food writing perspective, that same period (deep into 1990s) was dominated by the French. From M.F.K. Fisher to Richard Olney to Elizabeth David to Julia Child, if you were “into food” back then, you were into France. Couldn’t help it. Whereas these days the food media goes a ga-ga over obscure Asian soups and South African street food, then it was pot au feu or bust.

Fifteen years before I actually went there, I immersed myself in French cooking. Pierre Franey, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pepin were my guides (as were two subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines), and I soaked up information like a baguette in bouillabaisse.

Reading about French food is nothing like tasting it, though, and tasting it in France is incomparable to eating it anywhere else. This I had to learn the expensive way.

French food is about technique — French chefs are drilled with military precision into masters of slicing, dicing, braising and plating. Their repertoire is vast and their training so thorough they can break down chicken or fish with the ease of a blindfolded Marine dismantling his rifle.

The French spend more time thinking about steaming a bundle of asparagus than an Italian thinks about vegetables his entire life. And when it comes to sauces, no country can touch them. A Greek’s idea of a sauce is squeezing a lemon over something; the Japanese don’t have them at all. A Gaulois will massage a demi-glace for hours.

Image(Ex-cepe-tional Parisian eats)

French food gets a bad rap because it’s complicated — and it is — in the same way all worthwhile things are. Do you refuse to listen to classical music because too many instruments are involved? (Too many notes!) Do we avoid art museums because studying all those pictures hurts our eyes? Should we disdain books because they overload us with information? Criticizing French food for being multi-layered, richly-textured, and densely fascinating is like knocking Mozart because you can’t dance to him. The old triticism about La Cuisine Française being too heavy — another insult tossed about by those challenged by anything beyond a meatball — hasn’t been true since 1972.

Modern French cuisine really began with Escoffier over a century ago. It was further lightened up by the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s — spearheaded by Paul Bocuse, Jean Troigros and others —  and settled into post-modern form (if you want to label it thus) around the time Guy Savoy received his second Michelin star (back when they actually meant something) in 1985. Thirty-five years later, he is still cooking some of the best food in Paris…which means some of the best food in the world.

French restaurants continue to dominate any list of the world’s best, and at the time of the Covid shutdowns, Savoy was riding high atop (or near the top) of many of them.

Having spent forty years with this food, we don’t place a lot of stock in the opinion of others. Nor do we cotton to the idea that there a “best” restaurant anymore than there is a best concert, movie, or book. The “best” of anything really can’t be measured unless a score or finish line is involved. At most what you have is a continuum of quality, and at the pinnacle (as with art, literature, and music) there is a level of excellence only a select few ever achieve. All the rest of us can do is sit back and enjoy the show.

The show at both Guy Savoys is always on the plate. No one and nothing seems to be trying too hard, and the effect is one of seamlessness — like a virtuoso who is barely breaking a sweat. As the audience, we soak it all up, blissfully unmindful of how much training and repetition goes into making it look so easy.

PARIS

Image(Guy Savoy Paris)

Invariably, whenever I update my review of Restaurant Guy Savoy, the question is asked: How does Vegas compare to Guy Savoy Paris? The most honest answer I can give is: GS Paris is great French food in France; RGS in America is sublime, but it’s an extension of the original that’s traveled 6,000 miles to get here. Nothing compares to eating a cuisine on its native soil, and nothing, not clam chowder, tacos or Lièvre à La Royale improves once it is transported to another locale for interpretation.

This is not to take away from our off-shoot (as you will read below), but only to point out that the edges are finer, the applications more punctilious, the snap and sizzle a tad sharper in Paris than anywhere not Paris. Eating French bread and French cheeses on French soil, or desserts too, for that matter, is the apotheosis of alimentation — black belt gastronomy at tariffs to match.

The French know these things and are very proud of their culinary heritage, but the old saw about French restaurants being snooty is as out of date as the guillotine. Yes, you have to have the coin to dine in these temples, but if you come with an open mind and a smile on your face, you will be charmed out of your socks. Everywhere in Paris, restaurant staffs are young, way better looking than waiters were in my day, multi-lingual, and cheerfully solicitous. Anyone who thinks French waiters are sour and condescending ought to visit Germany sometime.

You eat with your eyes, the old saying goes, and everything about Savoy’s new digs (since 2015) in Paris is an eyeful. As at Caesars Palace, the location is in an unlikely place: in this case through a courtyard of a large building that used to house the Paris Mint (Monnaie de Paris), up two massive flights of stairs, to an entrance desk leading to a warren of small rooms, each holding 3-4 tables looking out onto the Pont Neuf (Ninth/New Bridge).

The maze is impressive and effective — preparing you for your entry into the rarefied air of the French meal at its most refined. Four centuries of savoir faire distilled into edible things on a plate, served course by course, all so delicious they will send a happy shudder down your spine.

Image(Sweetbreads and peas in Gay Paree)

Many months after my last meal there, the details are still vivid: the petit pois with sweetbreads (above); woodsy cèpes — tasting of good clean earth — folded into a flower around an onion-bacon marmalade; San Pierre with the sweetest razor and baby clams; bread and butter to die for; a langoustine seemingly dropped from a Norway fijord onto to your plate; les fromages; les desserts…as I sit here writing it all comes flooding back, haunting me like Proust ruminating on a madeleine:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

All it took was a few crumbs from a tea cake for Marcel; with me, it is sitting down to a meal at Guy Savoy to make my mortality and the burdens of existence but a fleeting thought for a few hours. A great meal in a great city by a great chef will do that to you.

LAS VEGAS

Image(There’s a lot to loaf about Guy Savoy)

By the time Guy Savoy planted his flag in Las Vegas in May 2006, I had dived deeply into the restaurants of France multiple times. His was a name revered for his Michelin stars and his innovative take on the gustatory pleasures of France, but it was one I had missed amidst all my high-altitude eating.

In the early days of Restaurant Guy Savoy, I was like a kid in a French candy store, probably dining there ten times in its first two years, sometimes on my dime, sometime on his. As our dining scene cranked up, the competition got stiffer (Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud to name a few) so my visits cooled, even if my ardor didn’t.

In normal times, we hit RGS about once a year. But these are anything but normal times, mon ami. August 2020 finds a double-sawbuck of Vegas hotels closed, and the open ones running at half-steam, if that.

Cruise any hotel on a mid-week evening and you’ll find only a handful of spots open. Even the mighty Bellagio is operating with Picasso, Le Cirque, Michael Mina (and others) closed until further notice.

The late, great Joël Robuchon’s twin destinations in the MGM (his namesake and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – the world’s classiest chain restaurant) are shuttered right now. Pierre Gagnaire looks to be kaput over at the Waldorf, and the Eiffel Tower is but an empty vessel these days.

What this means is Savoy has the territory all to himself, and those looking for a high-falutin’, once-in-a-lifetime, big deal French meal — the kind becoming rarer and rarer anywhere outside of France and a few cosmopolitan world capitals — have but one place left in Las Vegas, and that place is located up a flight of stairs in an obscure corner of Caesars Palace.

Repeat customers will notice how things have changed: the bar is closed, the menu is accessed through your phone, the bread is sliced and served from the kitchen, and the cheeses and desserts are lesser in number and covered with plastic lids (yummy). What hasn’t changed is the precise cooking and plating, the fork-dropping combinations of flavors in each dish, and the jaw-dropping amazement one feels at the beginning, middle and end of each dish.

Image(Berry berry berry good)

Great French chefs (unlike the Japanese and Italians) are never content to leave well enough alone . They, like the Chinese, never saw an ingredient they didn’t think they could make taste like more of itself (see blueberries times three above). Unlike the wacky Spanish, they rely more on extracting an ingredient’s essence and less on culinary sleights of hand. What sets Savoy apart is his ability to simplify, amplify, and still astonish without ingenuity for its own sake.

You start your meal with an amuse of something tiny — ranging from the world’s miniest miniburger to an etoile (star)-shaped nugget of poached foie gras. You will, at first, think nothing of this trifle until you pop it in your mouth. It will be rich yet light, intriguing but beckoning you to want more. OMG you will say, either to yourself or to your companions, I could eat ten more of these. And so you could, and so has the amuse-bouche accomplished its job.

Image(Spinach-truffle “Napoleon”)

From then on, you can’t go wrong, no matter what you order. As per everything post-Covid, the menu has been truncated: only one seasonal tasting menu is offered ($355); a la carte sees five starters and six entrees are on the card and that’s it. Newbies with purpose, appetite and purse would do well to go whole hog, but mere mortals will find a shorter experience just as enchanting by sticking to three courses – which quickly become more like six once various treats are tossed your way by the kitchen. (Dessert always seems to be a three course affair, no matter what you order.)

It all starts with the bread (above). The point of French food at this level is that everything has a purpose, and bread is as elemental to the French as water and wine. Échiré butter (salted and un- always at the correct temperature) accompanies it and resistance to their charms will be futile. (This is no place for the gluten or lactose averse.) The whole point of the bread and butter being to transport you to French soil, and within two bites, you’re imagining yourself on the Champs-Elysée.

Those mini-bites of foie gras (along with another perfectly round, seared slab appearing in tiny truffle-d sandwich form) are another symbol of French food — representing classic cuisine both new and old. A larger portion can be ordered as an appetizer, seared and served on brioche, which gives a foie liver lover all they can handle.

Image(The world’s greatest soup)

Savoy’s classic artichoke, truffle, Parmesan soup is always on the menu (even though its flavor profile fits cooler climes than a Las Vegas summer), but by now, its reputation precedes it, so no Savoy meal is without. Likewise “Colors of Caviar” — a multi-hued concoction of  caviar in various guises (creamed, naked, vinaigrette) layered in a small glass with a green beans, is a wonder of tastes, textures and temperatures in a compact vessel that, by all rights, shouldn’t be able to hold so much sumptousness in such a small space. Is it expensive? Yes ($90), but it also represents a level of delicacy very few kitchens in the world can match.

Savoy’s oyster trilogy is remarkable as well, even if they’re out of season. The shellfish are plump and fat and come bedecked with uni, caviar, and a citrus gelée. We could do without the uni (it’s a flavor bully who doesn’t always bring a lot to the party except brininess – something not in short supply with good oysters), but if you insist on ordering ‘ersters in summer, you will find no better.

Image(Tomato “carpaccio” and sorbet)

The cheapest appetizer on the menu right now ($65) is also the best: “Tomatoes All Around.” A play on another Savoy signature, “Peas All Around,” — a  seasonal wonder presenting the love apple in three, distinct ways: as a carpaccio, giving way to a gazpacho (deceptively parked underneath the top plate), accompanied by a thick-flesh tomato compote of pure, aching, tomato sweetness.

At this level of dining, everything counts, everything on the plate has a purpose, every swirl, garnish and smudge is there for a reason. If Japanese food is the most inscrutable, and Italian the most crowd-pleasing, then French is the surely the most thoughtful. Little bites give way to bigger ones: lobster with coral sauce; veal chop and sweetbreads; roast duck in all its glory; John Dory (St. Pierre fish en Français) come sprinkled with crispy fish scales in a nice-sized pool of impeccable beurre blanc.

When Andy Hayler reviewed our Guy Savoy six years ago, he took issue with the quality of the produce (compared to Paris), While there’s no denying the superiority of some European products, I’ve never found the fruits and veggies here to be lacking; where I’ve had some (minor) quibbles has been with the fish. Las Vegas, no matter how good the air freight, can’t compete with Paris for the absolute freshness and variety of French oysters or cold water European seafood…and absolute freshness is everything when considering fish. Just ask François Vatel.

Not sure if chicken has ever appeared on this menu, but we must concede to French authority there as well.

Image(The French know ducks like a Korean knows cabbage)

Savoy himself has told me he prefers American beef, so we will brook no debate with Hayler or anyone else about the quality of the major proteins here (including veal and that roast duck). All compete on equal terms with anything Paris can throw at you.

Chef Nicolas Costagliola runs the kitchen these days, and I have yet to find a misstep in his recitation of the Savoy catechism. No doubt some of these recipes are now so rote the cooks could do them in their sleep, but at this level, every detail must be attended to and it is.  Here, the craftsmanship is so meticulous it is almost invisible, which, at this lofty perch in the fine dining universe, is how it should be.

Each of the entrees pushes way past a hundred dollars (most are in the $120 range), but, as we said, between the extra flourishes, the ingredients, and the flawlessness of the execution, you’re getting the best food money can buy.  As restaurant food goes, this is some of the priciest on earth. But the best of anything is always expensive, and unlike cars, clothes, and real estate, non-oligarchs can experience these delights for themselves, on equal footing with high rollers and trust fund babies.

Image(My usual at GS Caesars)

At these prices the service should never miss a beat…and it never does. As I’ve mentioned before, the wine list (now overseen by Andrew Hurley) remains an oenophile’s dream come true. The only things to fault are not the restaurant’s: the shortened menu, fewer desserts, cheeses, and the sense that you are eating in a restaurant operating with one hand tied behind its back.

But those hands are some of the most skilled in the business, and they’re right in our own backyard. Thomas Keller is closed; California is now being run by scared-of-their-shadow bureaucrats; New York is putting everyone on a sidewalk. Great restaurants are under siege, through no fault of their own. If and how they recover is anyone’s guess.

Guy Savoy is all we have left, ladies and gentlemen, the last Frenchman standing in America, if you will. Who knows what the future will bring, but if you are one of those intrepid types who seeks food so good it will make you weep, all you can do is applaud Caesars Palace for taking the bold move of reopening its most high-toned restaurant. From two recent visits, the gamble seems to be paying off, as most of the tables were full — telling us that even in this messed-up world, there are those who still seek the best when it is offered to them.

And make no mistake, Guy Savoy is the best. To completely contradict myself: Restaurant Guy Savoy is certainly the best restaurant in Las Vegas right now, and for the foreseeable future, it might be the best one in America.

My last two meals at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, cost $1,000 and $455 (for two). (The more expensive one was 50% wine.) My last meal at Guy Savoy Paris was comped; I left a 100E tip.

Monnaie de Paris
11 Quai de Conti
Paris, France 75006
+33 1 43 80 40 61
Caesars Palace
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702.731.7286
French chef Guy Savoy in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant in Paris.

Las Vegas Italians Up the Ante

Menu - La Strega - Italian Restaurant Las Vegas(Our Italians are finally putting on some mussels. Sorry.)

Ed. note: The following article appeared last week in John Mariani’s The Virtual Gourmet. Click here to read it in its original form.

Italian cuisine never goes out of style, and Las Vegas boasts its share of forgettable pasta palaces. But new entries – aiming for authenticity over the ersatz — have re-set the paradigm of quality when it comes to this much-abused food. While the tourist corridor has seen two famous, big city off-shoots plant their flags in the last year, off-Strip neighborhoods have been enriched by chef-driven (rather than red sauce-drenched) ristorante, and food all of them deliver is as stunning as a Ligurian sunset.

La Strega Archives — Being John Curtas

LA STREGA 

3555 S. Town Center Drive Ste 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702-722-2099

 Mediocre Italian restaurants are as common in Las Vegas as slot machines. So it’s big news when an off-Strip restaurant opens with ambitions of doing Amalfi Coast tasting menus, Roman-style artichokes, and pitch-perfect Neapolitan pastas. Throw some superior seafood into the mix, and you have a recipe for being packed every five nights a week and impossible to get into for Sunday brunch.

Gina Marinelli is the talent behind these menus and she’s serving them for over a year from an open kitchen in one of the sleekest rooms in town. Her knack with noodles has made her a celebrity among local pasta hounds, and her facility with fish is not far behind. She travels all over the Italian map, keeping her food seasonal and her customers intrigued, unlike few, if any, local Italians ever have.

Showing her range, Marinelli offers a first rate fritto misto (with calamari and rock shrimp) alongside rigatoni Bolognese, Lombardian scarpniocc, and Tuscan short ribs. Octopus is sparked by Calabrian peperoncino, while her tricolor salad (salami, mortadella, pesto, tomatoes) somehow manages to makes a kitchen sink of ingredients sing in harmony.

La Strega — Gaby J Photography

Everyone sources Nigerian prawns these days, but Marinelli dresses hers up without overdoing it – by floating them in a lobster broth of just enough intensity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Dressings on the salads are equally demure — whether they be a sweet-sour accent to crunchy pazanella, or bitter frisée greens enhanced with a subtly tart vinaigrette and an unctuous poached egg. The Witch’s Garden of fresh veggies, to be dipped in whipped chickpeas, is at its peak in summer, and looks almost too good to eat.

Pastas change with the seasons, as does most of the menu, but that rigatoni is gut-busting (in all the right ways) no matter what time of year. It hews close to a classic Bolognese, while some of the lighter offerings (spaghetti pomodoro with blistered tomatoes, linguine vongole with Manila clams, preserved lemon and chives) tweak the recipes just enough to peak your interest without losing the soul of what made them famous. When available, the bucatini Genovese – a tangle of dandelion pesto, potatoes and green beans – is a lip-smacking example of how Marinelli innovates without losing the subtle rhythms of Italian cooking.

LA STREGA, Las Vegas - Menu, Prices, Restaurant Reviews ...

Big proteins are well represented – roast chicken with rapini, whole fish (usually branzino) stuffed with herbs, the obligatory sirloin – but it’s in the appetizers, pastas and salads where this kitchen really shines. Pizzas subscribe to the more is more philosophy of toppings, but there’s no denying the quality of the crust or cornicione.

Back when bars were allowed to act like bars, this was one of the liveliest in the ‘burbs. The craft cocktails are just as good these days, only now you have to take them at your table. You won’t find much to complain about on the wine list, either – it being manageable with prices well-underneath what you pay for the same bottles twelve miles to the east.

The cannolis filled with house-made ricotta are worth a trip all by themselves.

La Strega is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. and for weekend brunch. Appetizers and salads are priced from $7- $20, pizzas and pastas are in the $15-$25 range, big proteins run from $26 (chicken) to $72 (sirloin), and $8 for dessert.

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MATTEO’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

Matteo’s aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined fashion. Without the pedigree of Cipriani, what it does it does well, at a friendly price point with lots of options. It began its run in Las Vegas as an offshoot of The Factory Kitchen, a popular Los Angeles Italian once located in an actual abandoned factory. What was groovy and hip in LA made no sense in Vegas, so, less than a year after opening, the name was changed to give more of a clue to the Italian cuisine served.  Thankfully, they didn’t change a thing about the food, which includes some of the best pasta in town.

The wine list is of manageable size and almost entirely Italian, with  well-chosen bottles, priced to drink, rather than to soak the high rollers. There are plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil, the real deal from Liguria, with herbaceousness to burn and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next week. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just as in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those earthy notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up that awesome olive oil, you’ll confront a menu with dishes you may never have heard of— ortolana; peperú; sorrentina,  and mandilli di seta sit beside those you have— carpacciofritturapappardelle, branzino.,  all of them eye-popping and mouth-dropping; all are translated into English.

Image(They had us at “brown butter sage ravioli”)

Over a dozen starters are offered, covering the Italian map from north to south. Surprises abound, such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), and the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto fanned out in slices sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics that Italian food achieves effortlessly when the ingredients are right. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

The other starter is the “sorrentina” — Chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy. Grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans are enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing.

Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they are, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha-roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good ingredients, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate.

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The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-thin noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above) will be a revelation to those who’ve spent any time in the Cinque Terre. Likewise, the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples.  Pastas are all fairly-priced between $21-$31) and meant to be shared. Executive Chef Eduardo Perez (who held the fort down for years at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo), executes this menu to a degree of faithfulness far beyond what you find at most of the other Italians in the Venetian/Palazzo complex, most of which are skewed to the Cedar Rapids crowd.

You may probably stuff yourself on those pastas but if self-control takes hold, save room for the lamb chops, which are superb, as is the branzino, the veal, and the 16 oz. ribeye steak.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re made in-house and fantastic.

Open for lunch and dinner, with starters ranging from $10-$25; pastas from $21-$36; main courses $32-$54. The wine list is heavily Italian, organized by regions, and marked up far less than its competition.

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 CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702-770-7390

You don’t go to Cipriani because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy.

The restaurant is there to serve you but has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows an aria from Madame Butterfly. In its original incarnation Cipriani has been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully for decades. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like most Americans probably have never tasted before.

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that traces its lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice, founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani—the grandfather of the family—and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. Giuseppe was fond of saying he deliberately made Harry’s Bar hard to find, because he wanted people to go there “on purpose.”

Cipriani Restaurant | Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Resort

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani-run restaurant in the world, stretching from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. Las Vegas’s Cipriani references the look of the original but spruces it up more than a bit to give the premises a flashy sense of urbanity the original has only by way of reputation. (First timers to Harry’s Bar in Venice often walk through the almost-hidden side door, look around and say “This is it?”) Where the original boasts only ten low-slung tables in its main room and a modest eight-seat bar, with faded furniture, pale yellow walls and a few windows you can barely see out of, the “copies” around the world polish things to a fare thee well. The tables are still low, but the bold tan, white, and dark blue color scheme bespeaks a nautical, unpretentious elegance that you will slip into like a pair of well-worn Ferragamos.

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will. Arrigo Cipriani, Giuseppe’s son, in his written history of Harry’s Bar, explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-nine years on, the details still matter. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy décor—all polished woods and gleaming brass—makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Before you get to the menu, you will first have a Bellini—a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” He then named it after the 15th Century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.  They cost $17 in Vegas, more in Venice, and they’re pretty small, but an essential part of the experience.

After your Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio, the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, this one from 1950, stemming from some  “ravishing countess” whose doctor said she couldn’t eat cooked meat. Cipriani simply pounded a raw filet paper thin and dressed it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce, naming it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, whose works happened to be on exhibition in Venice at the time.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.) The list is of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these is what springs to mind when most Americans think “Italian food.”

Of things not to be missed are the baby artichokes “alla Romana” and the Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta). Americans usually resist the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich, but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

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Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold Vitello tonnato, an umami-rich, meat-meets-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer. Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by beautiful shrimp (above), plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia—a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two to four and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure could become habit forming. It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragù as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or been baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle, another signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like a Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver alla Veneziana, a dish the  Venetians claim to have invented, but, as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin.”

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease Americans, no doubt),  and they are quite good, but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Image(You gelato be kidding!)

Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-y gelato you have ever tasted.

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor elitist. It is Italian style made accessible; simple, sophisticated food served with panache. There is a seductive, reassuring quality to its flavors and atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. But Cipriani is not for everyone. You have to go there on purpose.

 Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers and pastas running $14-$34, main course  $30-$64.  The $29 prix fixe lunch is a steal.

BONUS FEATURE!!

As an added bonus for those who are craving Italian these days, here is a complete list of my favorite ristorante in Las Vegas. These are the best of the best; they are also the only places I will go to when I crave a fix of Italy (in no particular order):

Monzù (go for the pizzas; stay for the Sicilian specialties)

Allegro (a gem of Neapolitan cooking in the Wynn)

Esther’s Kitchen (the bread, the wine, the pastas, that steak)

Osteria Fiorella (just opened last month at Red Rock Hotel and Casino, destined for greatness)

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (the granddaddy of them all still has its fastball)

Casanova (in The Venetian – get the cioppino)

Spago (gorgeous, hand-made pastas)

Costa di Mare (go fish….for more than just seafood)

Carbone (take a crowd, and a second mortgage)

These also happen to be the only Italians open right now. A few others out there are either closed, in flux, or have futures which are in doubt (e.g. Eataly, Rao’s et al). Sorry if I offend your favorite pasta palace, but most of them are cheap and lousy and you know it. Others, like Sinatra in the Wynncore, and a few others on this list, are just plain boring and you know that, too.