THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC – The Struggle is Real

“Kitchen at Atomic Sticking With Elevated Cuisine” read a recent headline. The article asked, primarily, how can you have an upscale restaurant right next to a dive bar? The point of the piece, if there was a point, read like the author was throwing a publicity bone to a place he wishes would quit with the fancy stuff.

But the point of The Kitchen at Atomic is not to be fancy, it’s simply to be good. Not burger and fries good, but foodie good, interesting good — the kind of chef-driven good that packs them into gastropubs from Boston to San Diego Bay. The kind of excellence that still struggles to find an audience in Las Vegas.

And the struggle is real. Because people struggle with the idea of paying for good food here. Mass-produced franchise food and soulless shopping malls create a race to the bottom for pricing, which puts local restaurants on their back foot from the jump.  (I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “Why should I pay $20 for something I can get for 15 at ____?”) Even when intrepid gastronauts take a place to their bosom (Esther’s Kitchen, Sparrow+Wolf, EATT), there’s not enough of them to go around.

The City of Las Vegas estimates that to hit critical mass for a vibrant downtown, you need 50,000 gainfully-employed people living there. Right now the number is around 5,000. God bless ’em (both the City and the residents), because they’re doing what they can to create a vibrant social, cultural and gastronomic scene between Charleston and Fremont Street, but there’s only so much discretionary income those 5K folks can spread among the restaurants vying for their attention.

The real issue comes down to this: Do enough people want a real restaurant on East Fremont Street? Not finger food, not another cocktail lounge, and not, god forbid, another uncomfortable, loud-as-fuck hipster hangout — but a real down-to-earth bar/restaurant serving coursed out food with good drinks.  You know, the way grownups eat.

Let’s analyze the data to (try to) answer this question. And by “analyze the data” I mean share the opinions springing feverishly from my brain as I type these words.

The Kitchen at Atomic began two years ago as an adjunct to Atomic Liquors — an über-cool, laid back cocktail/beer bar (above) with a steady clientele of Millennials, and a smattering of Gen Xrs. Like most things Millennial, half the people at AL look like they’re there for a purpose (quality imbibing, hooking up), while the rest look like they showed up because the ‘gram told  them to. Most of the AL crowd looks like it’s more at home discussing session beers and saison ales than it does the fine points of hamachi crudo, or the piquancy of a yogurt-herb vinaigrette as it plays off the herbaceousness of fresh English peas.

Atomic Liquors was an old bar given new life six years ago by owner Lance Johns. It retains the feel of a place Charles Bukowski might’ve called home in the 60s, but its craft cocktails and PhD beer program make it more like a run-down jalopy with a shiny new turbocharged engine under the hood. It operates on many levels — old Vegas icon, new Vegas hangout — and has an avid following of both locals and tourists.

TKAA resides in the shiny renovated space adjacent to AL. In a previous life it used to be a gas station. In its present incarnation, it will strike you as as a sleek and somewhat cold industrial space — no more than 50 feet from its louche neighbor next door. The incongruity lies with these two co-joined siblings existing in two separate universes. At AL, you drink; at TKAA the food is the star. And quite a star it is, even if the drunks next door don’t know it.

The menu checks all the right boxes as a destination restaurant — marrow, long beans, cured fish, charcuterie platter, artisanal greens — with appetizers hinting at the kitchen’s creativity, and mains driving the point home.  The attention to detail given to those beans, or a cold cucumber/grape gazpacho, announce a new level of cooking for downtown, and offering a whole fish at market price is a bold move indeed for a neighborhood still pockmarked with vacant lots and tattoo parlors.

(Marrow me; beet me)

Glistening knobs of quivering marrow may be as foreign to East Fremont Street as a hooker with teeth, but you’ll forget where you are as you slather these jewels of adipose protein on the gorgeous, nutty toasted bread served with them.  Grilled halloumi cheese may not fit with the neighborhood either, but the squeaky fromage will fit just fine as an appetizer for four. Raw seafood is everywhere these days, but the crudo, or denser, cured, striped bass, are both light and punch-packing — either with chili lime, or sumac and sherry vinegar.

(How green was my salad? Pretty friggin’ green.)

“Spring has sprung” were the words dancing in my head as I wolfed down the tumble of crunchy greenery called the Spring pea salad (above), while “clams to beat the band” was my mantra for the colorful array of grilled, sweet shellfish frosted with breadcrumbs and tinged with Fresno chili (below). In my lexicon of least favorite eats, raw veggie salads rank somewhere between frosted cupcakes and gummy hummus, but I found myself grooving on every bite of those snappy greens. The clams are simply in a class by themselves. You won’t find a better version of baked bivalves, on or off the Strip.

(Beauteous bivalves)

In many a gastropub, the larger the format, the worse the food gets — big proteins lacking the sexiness of high-concept tweezer food to some chefs. Not so to newly -installed Executive Chef Jackson Stamper, who seems to lavish just as much attention on pan-seared cauliflower steak and grilled swordfish as he does on his starters. I liked the menu of his predecessor, but the food now feels more focused, and the platings are prettier.

The biggest of his big boys is the Creekstone Farms dry-aged rib eye (at the top of the page). It’s priced by the ounce, and around $80 will get you enough mineral-tinged properly stored steer to feed four hungry souls. It may not have the iron-y tang and Roquefort-like zing of super-aged beef, but you won’t find a better steak within three miles of this one.

(Peak pork perfection)

And then there’s the rum-brined chop (above) — a dulcet compaction of pork so luscious and savory you will re-think your prejudices against this usually boring entree. Broccoli rabe, rum jus and mustard seeds complete the picture, and you’ll be tempted to graze upon another one as soon as it’s gone.

Desserts are more elemental and less chef-y than the savories. The deconstructed apple pie is a nice twist on an old standard, and the Guinness chocolate cake (below, really more like a dense, lacquered brownie), will have you reflexively polishing it off in defiance of all common dietary sense.

They seemed to have dialed back the beer and wine list, but it’s still interesting and well-priced — probably not enough for a true oenophile, but certainly so for the clientele. I won’t bother praising the top shelf cocktails because a bad mixed drink is now harder to find in Las Vegas than a good mixed drink used to be.

(Just what the doctor didn’t order)

Two years on, The Kitchen seems to have hit its stride. The talent is there, and the cooking is there, but will it be enough? Here is a restaurant that is doing almost everything right — from the bar to the service to the decor and to the food. Will it find its audience? Is there enough audience to find? Publicus down the street (with the most unwelcoming location in town) is packed all the time. Hatsumi (a stone’s throw across the street) seems to have hit a home run. But neither of them is a traditional, three-course restaurant. Are Millennials (the only customers that count downtown) ready to embrace this place?

Who knows? I’ve been at this too long to make any predictions. What I do know is that Las Vegas is in a constant battle with itself. The chefs and owners and food lovers — folks who really care about what they put in their mouths — desperately want downtown to become another Seattle or Denver….but you look around some days and realize we’re barely beating Bakersfield.

We are in the middle of another boom to be sure, and East Fremont and the Arts District are now on everyone’s radar. Will there be enough customers to sustain not just TKAA but all of these businesses? Or will there be a regression to the mean?

Las Vegas doesn’t need any more average anything. (That’s what Henderson is for.) But mediocrity is still what sells. Only time will tell.

(Apps run $15-$20; mains from $25-$30; and sides $6-$8. Dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $125. The rib eye is at least 30% less than you would pay for a comparable cut on the Strip, and worth every penny.)

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC

927 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.534.3223

 

East Fremont Street Hits a New Low

ELV note: We have temporarily suspended the highlighting of our favorite summer dishes (Summer Dish Review) for two reasons: 1) we are hard at work finishing the copy on the 2017 Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants, and 2) several things have come across our desk in the last couple of days that are beyond the fu*king pale. The first one was posted yesterday about a bordello in Parhump (natch) that’s decided to get into farming(?), and today we confront the last (and tackiest) nail in the coffin of East Fremont Street.

Eating Las Vegas has nothing against charity. Charity, at home and elsewhere, is a good thing. It allows the more fortunate to benefit the less so. At its purest, it is one of mankind’s most endearing qualities.

Eating Las Vegas, however, has quite a lot against people who use their “charitable giving” as a way to sell you something.

It’s been our experience (through decades of adult living) that the more someone trumpets their charitable giving, the tighter your hand should be on your wallet.

We’ve also learned that the louder someone is about their generosity, the more likely they are either a) filthy rich, or b) desperate. If patriotism truly be the last refuge of a scoundrel, then bragging about benevolence is the first subterfuge of any scallywag’s p.r. pitch.

Exhibit One: The PGA Tour. If you’ve ever noticed, every single golf tournament (except the four majors) loves to trot out how much $$$ they give to charity. They don’t do this because they love giving away money; they do this to keep their tax-exempt status (as a non-profit entity, yeah right) so they won’t have to give even MORE of their money to the Federal Government (in the form of income taxes).

Exhibit Two: Sleazy politicians. Especially supposedly rich sleazy politicians. You know the type: the kind that are always telling you how much money they give to charity, when, actually they don’t give any money at all.

Exhibit Three: Desperate restaurants (see above) run by clueless investors who think putting a bunch of tacky sculptures in front of their once-promising-now-insignificant business will somehow boost their numbers, while increasing sales for an artist (“sculpturist”) no one cares about (see above, again) because. let’s face it, he’s not the first one who ever thought of making crap art out of scrap metal.

And of course, it’s all being done for “charity.”

Not any named charity, mind you, just for “a local children’s charity” and “children in need.”

How touching.

How poignant.

How benevolent of these unselfish, giving, kindhearted folks to be thinking of the children in these dire times.

How can we thank them for their munificence? How can we reward them for their beneficence?

Buy buying a bunch of tacky, Burning Man-derivative, alt-art shit metal, and then coming into Therapy for some drinks and dinner, of course!

What a grand idea!

And it’s all for the kids, of course.

Doesn’t that make you feel better about things?

We didn’t think so.

The whole charade reeks of desperation, meretriciousness and mendacity.

Which makes it the perfect event to sound the death knell for East Fremont Street. A place I once had high hopes for, now headed headlong into the throws of irrelevance, as it casts its lot with bars, more bars and chain restaurants.

I also once had high hopes for Therapy, until it fired two good chefs within six months of its opening. Up until then, I had been beating the tom toms for the joint, hoping it would bring some laid-back cool to a street desperately in need of an adult place to hang out, rather than something that appealed to the dollar beer crowd.

At first it had great cocktails, groovy beers, and chef-driven food you could appreciate. That lasted about half a year — so management could garner some good reviews before it started cutting quality. Now it’s strictly Sysco-truck specials and sadness….limply chugging along in the wake of the noble failure that was Radio City Pizza, that stupid, failed fondue joint (by celebrity chef Sam Marvin!), and The (now defunct) Beat.

Seems the buck-a-beer crowd was East Fremont’s destiny all along. But to be fair to them, we’re guessing these fine folks, preoccupied though they may be, are still too parsimonious and perceptive to fall for something as craven as this scam. Look at it this way: If the artist’s work was any good, he wouldn’t have to display it in front of a shitty restaurant, and if the restaurant was any good, it wouldn’t have to use shitty art to get people in the door. Both of them are feeding off each other, and cannibalizing quality in the process.

As for East Fremont Street, if you’re a local, the only places worth going to are Le Thai and The Smashed Pig — both of which hold on (and put out a good product) against all odds.

East Fremont has officially hit the skids; it just took this final, foolhardy stunt to drive the point home to us.

Put a fork in it; it’s done.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Here’s the press release, letting you know right up front that the restaurant and the “artist” are doing it all for charity:

THERAPY PARTNERS WITH METAL SCULPTURIST

JOSEPH JILBERT TO BENEFIT CHARITY

 Tweet It: Join @Therapy_LV to celebrate the artwork of @JosephJilbert! #dtlv #vegas

 LAS VEGAS – There’s a new eye-catching addition on the streets of the Fremont East Entertainment District. Therapy, located at 518 Fremont St., has partnered with Downtown Project and renowned sculpture artist Joseph Jilbert to display his inventive pieces beginning with a gallery event at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept 15.

All artwork is available for purchase with a portion of each sale benefitting a local children’s charity.

Jilbert is known for creating his pieces strictly from discarded and recycled metal, turning trash into treasure since he was five years old. Creating whimsical sculptures of various sizes, ranging from a few inches tall to more than 45 feet in height, Jilbert has relocated some of the art to Downtown Las Vegas from his home state of Louisiana. Jilbert creates his sculptures using everything from scrap metal to old kitchen utensils, car parts to discarded machinery from major corporations.

Jilbert will introduce his artwork with an open gallery event hosted from 6 to 10 p.m. on Thursday evening at Therapy. The artist will discuss the background and process for creating each piece while answering any questions. Each sculpture is available for sale and 10 percent of each purchase will be donated to local children in need.

Therapy will continue to showcase Jilbert’s artwork and will also be encouraging metal donations of any kind to the restaurant, so the artist can continue his work. Jilbert also takes commissioned pieces and loans his sculptures for various time periods.

ABOUT THERAPY

Therapy has become one of Downtown Las Vegas’ top dining destinations at 518 E. Fremont St. Located in the vibrant Fremont East Entertainment District between 6th St. and Las Vegas Blvd., Therapy combines the best elements of downtown dining and drinking into one destination complete with an American gastro-style menu and full bar program with more than 40 craft beers. More information may be found at www.therapylv.com, calling 702-912-1622 or following on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @Therapy_LV.

Sheesh.

 

SIEGEL’S 1941 is Much Better Than It Has to Be

Monday night dining is not a fertile field for the hungry, intrepid gastronaut to explore…much less plow… if he’s downtown. Glutton is closed, as is La Comida,  and there’s only so many platters of finely-tuned fish ‘n chips one dude can put away at the always-reliable Smashed Pig. And ever since Therapy fired their second good chef in less than six months, we’ve decided to give up on it entirely…or at least until management gets its act together.

And don’t even think about a meal at that beyond-stupid sex-toy fondue joint (or The Perch), both of which may not be long for this business cycle. (What’s keeping either of them afloat is anyone’s guess.)

So, with options limited, we wandered in to the El Cortez last night (“wandering” being sort of a euphemism for dodging wheelchairs and various other nearly-dead geriatrics in various stages of one-foot-in-the-grave infirmities) and settled into a four-top at Siegel’s 1941 for some all-purpose dining.

And by “all-purpose dining” we mean a menu that’s so all-over-the-map it would make Magellan dizzy.

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