Eating Las Vegas

John Curtas is …

First Bites – BOTECO, ELIA, MERAKI, SALUD et al

We at ELV don’t wish to alarm you, but there’s a mini-restaurant boom a’ happenin’ in our humble burg. And we’ve been a busy beaver checking them all out lately.

For every closure (Standard & Pour, Zydeco, Glutton) there seems to be several new kids on the block springing up.

Thus have we recently seen everything from Korean Chinese (Yu Xiang) to Israeli (2 Bald Guys) to barbecue (Sin City Smokers) to Mexican (Salud) to Greek (Meraki, Elia) to Spanish (Boteco) to badly-named, half-baked concepts (7th & Carson) become major blips on our radar. Don’t forget, the hit-from-the-get-go Sparrow + Wolf is only a month old, and try to wrap your head around the fact that two of our best new eateries are….wait for it….GREEK!

The one that has blown us away is Elia Authentic Greek Taverna.

The one that has intrigued us is Salud Mexican Bistro and Tequileria.

The two that are packing them in are Meraki Greek Grill and Sparrow.

The rest of them have major uphill battles ahead.

For now, though, let’s accentuate the positive.

Meraki is doing a land-office business based with a fast-casual concept that is being expertly executed by Nikos Georgousis (formerly of Milos) and Girair Goumroian. (Try saying those names after a few ouzos sometime.) It’s basically your best hits of Greek casual food — gyros, (pronounced HEE-roe, not GY-ro) souvlaki, salad, tzatziki, taramasalata, avgolemono soup, dolmades, etc. — and all of it done to a “t”. We’ve tried about half the menu and can highly recommend all of the mezze (appetizers) and the gorgeous lamb burger:

https://s3-media4.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/K9wmPVpv-KXTXaYHtzXYxw/o.jpg

There are a dozen or so “Mediterranean” restaurants around town doing this food (many of them being run by Bulgarians and Russians, strangely), but Meraki is a cut above them all. As good as it is, though, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its first cousin a few miles away, as you’ll read below.

The just-opened 2 Bald Guys did not impress, but we plan on giving it another whirl. The food (shawarma, tabouli) seems technically proficient but is woefully under-seasoned. It’s the first restaurant I can remember where I actively reached for the salt shaker multiple times during my meal. On the plus side, the house-made hot sauces are fantastic…and necessary. This place can fill a much-needed niche downtown if it ups the ante on its seasonings, but if the food remains this timid,  we fear people will stay away in droves.

No automatic alt text available.

Boteco was a treat. It’s got a big city/small tapas bar vibe, and a small menu of innovative small bites like botequito sliders made with smoked Gouda and caramelized onions:

Dungeness- Singapore Chilli crab dip:

…and off-beat items like avocado crunch salad, escargot croquetas, and braised beef and Piedmontese rice — all dedicated to showing off the chops of Executive Chef Rachel LeGloahec, a veteran of Joël Robuchon’s kitchens and a girl with serious skills. Boteco is a sliver of a place in a monster of a strip mall in the middle of a town (Henderson) that treats chef-driven restaurants like leprosy colonies. Like we told Cory Harwell when he opened Standard & Pour: “Good luck (Rachel), you’ll need it.”

Image may contain: food
 YuXiang is for fellow travelers (and adventuresome eaters) only — although the crispy beef (lower left in the picture above)  with sweet-sour sauce would make anyone happy.

Sin City Smokers (above) showed us the best brisket we’ve seen in Vegas (other than our own), along with some serious sides.

It’s not Central Texas quality, but it’s a durn sight better than a dozen other mediocre spots in town, and its house-made sauces (especially the pepper-vinegar) are a treat. We weren’t as keen on the chopped pork, but the ribs were first-rate and smoky — not the borderline-inedible, chewy ones passed off by some joints in these here parts. There is definitely a return visit to SSS sometime in our future.

Image may contain: food

Salud is something of a mystery. It sprung up almost overnight in the old Rosemary’s space on west Sahara. We went in on a weekend night and it was mostly empty. Our hearts sank but our bellies were growling, so we took a seat, ordered some peppers stuffed with chorizo, ceviche, and guacamole, and expected some same old same old stuff. What arrived (above) showed the freshness and snap you don’t usually encounter in by-the-numbers, south of the border cantinas. “This is a lot better than I expected,” said the Food Gal®, and we had to agree with her. Time will tell if this place finds an audience in a ‘hood starving for good things to eat.

And then there’s Elia, which means olive in Greek.

One of my cousins told me I had to go. “It’s real Greek food,” he said. “No hummus, good bread, not pita (which Greeks consider Arabic bread), real pork souvlaki, out-of-this-world fish, amazing tyrokafteri (spicy whipped feta), great vegetables,” he continued,  “actual gigantes beans in fresh tomato sauce, just like my mother makes (ELV side note: his mother is a wonderful Greek cook), you’ve got to go!” He was so excited he drove me there. One bite in and I could see what he was talking about.

Those beans were a treat unto themselves:

 

The lamb as perfect as lamb can get:

 

Those potatoes beside the lamb were beyond wonderful; the french fries with the souvlaki as crispy and melting as fries can be. (Real Greeks, not Bulgarians-pretending-to-be-Greeks, have a thing about seasoning potatoes correctly – with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon.)

They even do a beets thing here, topping them with chunky, garlicky potatoes sprinkled with green onions that is so good (this from a beet hater) you will want the recipe:

 

The galaktoboureko is the best I’ve ever had (outside of my yia yia’s house):

 

..and the 40 seat restaurant is a charm to sit in, with a small selection of good Greek wines at soft prices.

Elia might be the most exciting new restaurant in town. (I’m not saying this because I’m part Greek.) It certainly is the best, most authentic, beautifully composed Greek food Las Vegas has ever seen. You might be tempted to drive right past it (on south Durango) thinking it’s just another souvlaki/gyro shop. Don’t. Stop your car. Park it and walk in and taste this cuisine the way it’s supposed to be.

Kali Orixi! (“bon appetit”  in Greek).

BLUE RIBBON Re-booted

When Bruce and Eric Bromberg (pictured above) shuttered Blue Ribbon last year (after six years at The Cosmopolitan), few shed a tear for its demise. It was an attractive, if disjointed restaurant that always seemed in the throes of an identity crisis. Was it a lounge? A sushi bar? Two different sushi bars? Who knew and who cared? By trying to combine their two iconic New York City restaurants (their gutsy American bistro, and the separate Blue Ribbon Fish), the Brombergs achieved the confusing result of making the whole lesser than the sum of its parts. Not that it wasn’t good (the Brom-boys don’t know how to do “not good”), it just wasn’t focused.

Now they’ve re-opened, ditched the fish, and gotten back to what they do best – which is cooking the most ethereal, eclectic, American comfort food on the planet.

Blue Ribbon started twenty-five years ago in lower Manhattan. It practically invented the whole upscale American food thing (popularizing everything from bone marrow to fried catfish) and was known for the best burger in the business until Daniel Boulud came along with his foie gras-stuffed version, and got everyone on the burger bandwagon. Elevating simple food has always been the mission statement here, and artistic cooking for unfussy gourmands is what has made BR a critic’s (and chef’s) darling since Bill Clinton was President. Now, with its re-boot, BR has gotten back to basics, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Gone is the sushi, the dark lounge-y bar has been replaced with a bright, front-and-center friendly one, and the menu is back where it’s supposed to be: chock full of the specialties that made the Bromberg’s famous.

No one disdains something-for-everyone menus more than yours truly, but in these hands you can just close your eyes and point. Mazoh ball soup? They’ve got you covered? Fried oysters? Leeks vinaigrette? You won’t find better versions anywhere on Las Vegas Boulevard. Duroc pork ribs come sweetly glazed with their own mini-hibachi, the clam soup would make a Mainer proud, and the country pâté deserves to be in the charcuterie hall of fame.

The red (sea) trout with spätzle is also a thing of beauty, and the burger (pictured at top) is every bit as good as I remembered it….from 1993. We only tried one dessert, but they had us at “chocolate chip bread pudding.”

Image may contain: food

American bistro cooking is everywhere these days, but the Brombergs did it first and they still do it better than anyone. There are certain restaurants that just belong in Las Vegas, and the new Blue Ribbon – which is really the old Blue Ribbon I’ve known and loved – is one of them.

BLUE RIBBON

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

702-736-0808

https://www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/restaurants/blue-ribbon

CHICA En Fuego

Something-for-everyone cooking has defeated more than one Las Vegas chef. Feeding tourists means trying to please everyone, and catering to everyone  means you’re aimed at no one. Restaurants that specialize in something-for-everyone cooking have usually thrown in the towel before the bell has rung, e.g. the now-defunct Daniel Boulud Brasserie. That’s because customers who demand all-over-the-map cooking couldn’t care less about on-the-plate excellence of what they’re eating.

Welcome to Las Vegas — the world’s capital of something-for-everyone restaurants. Reading a Las Vegas menu is like being stuck in an endless loop of pasta, pizzas, wings, Caesar salads, shrimp, steak, pork, chicken and salmon. If you’re lucky, you might find another fish, and if you’re really lucky, you might be treated to every pork bellied, bone marrow-ed cliche in the book. Every Vegas menu, at its core, is composed of the the same basic appetizers, vegetables and proteins. Only around the edges do things get interesting, and it’s up to the intrepid gourmand to hunt for the nuggets of deliciousness buried in the same old same old stew.

At the just-opened Chica, those nuggets are everywhere, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find them.

At first glance, you might be excused for thinking that Chica’s menu is a fount of cliches in its own right. Your glance quickly picks up the mandatory guacamole, tacos, calamari, quesadilla, Caesar and ceviche that you’ve seen hundreds of times before. Turn to page two and you find the mandatory chicken, shrimp, steak and fish. Your heart will at first sink, thinking it’s in another by-the-numbers Mexican tourist joint. But then you remember something. What you remember is that Mike Minor is the kitchen. With that, your spirits begin to soar, and to your delight, the flights of fancy will continue on the wings of (almost) every bite coming out of his pan-Latin kitchen.

To be clear, Chica is not a “Mike Minor” restaurant. Nor is it a Mexican restaurant. It is a “Lorena Garcia” restaurant, and Garcia (a Venezuelan by birth) is all about introducing you to the glories of empanadas, amarillo, choclo, and all sorts of interesting spices. Minor is simply the chef tasked with executing Garcia’s vision from far away Florida.

For those not in the know, Garcia is one of those Food Network stars who seemingly came out of nowhere to suddenly become a household name among those who can’t get enough of “Guy’s Grocery Games.” (JEALOUS? YOU BET!) Hers is not a Mexican sensibility; hers is a cuisine informed by her heritage. You’re going to get Latino cuisine here, and South American food, and food that reminds you of Mexican food but that is decidedly not Mexican food. And for that, all we can say is, “praise the lord and pass the arepas!”

Besides bringing this South American spin to Latino cuisine, the smartest thing Garcia did was to install Minor in the kitchen. As top toque at Border Grill for years, he knows a thing or two about executing a menu conceived by ground-breaking female chefs. He also knows how to excel at elotes:

And cajole you with churros:

Those churros are the handiwork of Sara Steele (another Strip veteran) and between the two of them, they are laying out a menu that is sock-blowing-off scrumptious.

That ceviche (big chunks of firm fish in a perfectly balanced tigre de leche) might be the best version we’ve had that was either 1) not in Mexico, or 2) not at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo. Just as good, if not better, was the best cephalopod we’ve seen this century.

Spoon tender and spiced in all the right ways, it put even certain Greek versions in town to shame.

Everyone knows we hate brunch, but, truth be told, this Latin-infused take on everything from chicken and waffles to corn pancakes stopped us in our tracks. And by “stopped us in our tracks” I mean licking our plates and finishing every bite.

About the only dishes that didn’t deliver were the chewy chicken chicharrones (we were expecting crispy skin, we got dried out meat), and mushroom quesadillas that delivered a lot of ‘shrooms, but were lacking in the promised huitlacoche and bleu cheese flavors.

No biggie when you consider how strong the rest of the menu is. From the watercress Caesar:

….to the porchetta with crispy yucca hash:

….this is a menu full of eye-opening surprises.  Something-for-everyone South American food hasn’t been done before in the High Mojave Desert — at least not to this degree of distinction. It’s time to spread your Latino wings, and Garcia and Minor are just the right flight instructors.

One meal of ELV’s meals was comped; another (for two) came to $140 + a $30 tip, including a couple of stellar “mocktails.”

CHICA

Venetian Hotel and Casino

702.805. 8472

https://www.venetian.com/restaurants/chica.html

 

John’s Tweets

John at Work Restaurant reviews, quips, picks and pans-with some seriously salivating history-from the man who eats his way through Sin City every day.
Follow eatinglasvegas on Twitter Follow eatinglasvegas on Twitter