American Cuisine: Fused and Confused

http://www.thepoorpantry.com/uploads/5/4/2/4/54246035/638784925_orig.png(Tofu with tagliatelle?)

The problem is there aren’t any rules anymore.

Not in politics, and not in restaurants.

Rules are what give us comfort. They provide context and boundaries to how we’re supposed to act and how we’re supposed to eat.

By nature, I’m not a rule follower. Laws are just suggestions, I’m fond of saying, but I don’t really mean it, especially when social intercourse is involved, and especially when dining pleasure is at stake.

Civility, decorum, manners, tradition — they’ve all taken a beating over the last decade, a beating that shows no signs of abating.

In that same vein, upscale eating has become a no-holds-barred, free-for-all.

Fish sauce in meatloaf. Clam toast. Uni shooters. Baby back ribs mingle with roasted cauliflower — in a supposed Italian restaurant. (Boy, do American chefs LOVE roasted veggies.) Soffrito this and lamb burger that.

Mocha oatmeal stout mole with beef cheek, brown butter, and a masa dumpling?

Misho kosho polenta? With duck katsuboshi? Bloody Marys that take 20 minutes to make. ENOUGH ALREADY!

Stoner food. Comfort food. Everything has to be cravable. Nothing is tethered to anything but the chef’s imagination — imaginations that are running wild from coast to coast because everyone is copying everyone else’s Instagrammable dishes.

On and on it goes from Grant Achatz to chefs from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

I don’t want to eat Iberian-inspired cuisine, I want to eat the real thing…or at least an American restaurant’s close approximation of the real thing. Simply tossing some pata negra ham on something does as much for me as putting pesto on peanut butter.

“Their food aesthetic is hard to define.”is what wins you national publicity these days, but who in the hell wants to eat something they don’t understand?  Grownups want definition;  teenagers need it, and young adults are searching for it. The only people who don’t want definition are children too stupid to know how essential structure is for things to make sense.

American restaurants, I’m here to tell you, and especially new American restaurants, have stopped making sense.

I get it: chefs are in the business of making food that people want to eat. If the crowd wants eclecticism, then pile French foie gras alongside Peruvian tiradito topped with a lamb necks and Millennials will beat a path to your door.

But there’s a big problem with this kind of eating: it’s exhausting.

Thematic restaurants are comforting. Whether it’s a Umberto’s Clam House, Joël Robuchon or In-N-Out Burger, you know what you’re getting when you walk in. You know (or hope) you’re going there to be fed something recognizable, and relax while you’re eating it.

When you have to figure out what’s good, something has been lost. When you have to constantly strain to parse what the chef is up to, then you’ve lost a big battle with my stomach before the war has barely begun.

I’ve been to Europe a lot in the past two years. Even as I type these words I am pining for the beef bourguignon in Beaune, or that pork shank in Munich. I find myself dreaming about Japanese fish restaurants and orgies of Roman pasta. What I don’t dream about is some Japanese-Mexican chef trying to make “Iberian-inspired” cuisine with a Nipponese twist. The worst foreign restaurants I’ve ever eaten in were “eclectic” in their cooking. The worst American restaurants I’ve eaten in were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Just because we live in a melting pot doesn’t mean our restaurant food has to reflect that.

There’s nothing new in food, despite what some chefs will try to tell you. There’s a reason you put ground up pork and not turkey meat in dumplings — because turkey meat brings nothing to the party. All those ingredients you see in Korean stews? Each one is there for a reason. Red wine with meat; white wine butter sauce with fish? The French figured this out a thousand years ago.

Why does no one put pasta in clam chowder? Because potatoes lend better starch and texture to the broth.

The other thing all the world’s cuisines figured out is how to eat. And by “how to eat” I mean the progress of a meal.

Light to heavy, climbing the food chain, all of it makes sense in the context of every country’s cuisine. Even the Ethiopians will tell you in what order to attack your injera. Simply throwing a bunch of small plates on the table confuses both the mind and the palate, to say nothing of lessening our sense of civility.

Thus have America chefs taken the whole cross-cultural thing too far.

Who wants to spend time deciphering whether to get the Bento box and Scotch egg or the fried calamari with some riff on ramen? Or how about salmon with forbidden rice and tomatillo sauce? In a Vietnamese-American restaurant?

The best restaurants in Las Vegas know what they are and what they’re trying to emulate. Carnevino is an Italian steakhouse in the best sense of the word. Twist is French to its core, and Yui Edomae Sushi is a direct copycat of a hidden Ginza sushi joint. They are “foreign” restaurants (and they are essentially theme restaurants), but like all great orchestras they stick to the music and leave improvisation to the fools.

American restaurants have no idea what they are, and spend too much time concocting wild variations of dishes done better somewhere else by cooks who specialize in that kind of cooking. (I get it; chefs get bored. But thinking up oddball combinations to combat boredom is an insult to gastronomy.)

Here’s where I give kudos to James Trees for knowing what he wants to be and what he’s good at. Esther’s Kitchen may not sound like a modern Italian restaurant but that’s what it is.

James Trees knows the rules. He’s not afraid to tweak things here and there, but he sticks to the catechism of Italian cooking pretty closely.

I wish his competition was so inclined.

There are many things to like about Carson Kitchen, 7th & Carson, The Black Sheep, Sparrow + Wolf, Boteco, and The Kitchen at Atomic, but thematic consistency isn’t one of them.

To their core, they are new American restaurants that are all over the map with their (relatively short) menus. And to be blunt about it: this kind of cooking is rarely transporting. It may be picture-worthy and just fine for sitting in deafening rooms with screaming 35 year olds raving about how “amazing” everything is, but at the end of the day, it fills your belly but rarely your soul.

No matter how talented a hotshot young chef is, they’re never going to make a mole as well as a Mexican mamacita who’s been doing it all her life. Ditto raw fish. There’s a lot more to it than just putting some raw slices on a plate and throwing some lime dressing on top. Deep frying is an art, too, as is roasting. But restaurants that are trying to all of these things will excel at none of them.

Fusion food has had an interesting ride over the forty years I’ve been paying attention to restaurants. What started in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck’s Cal-Ital-French menus took a sharp turn east when Jean-Georges Vongerichten took New York by storm a few years later with his Thai-inflecked French. By the 1990s, Nobu Matsuhisha and Roy Yamaguchi had everyone talking about pan-Pacific flavors. But by the early 2000s, every food writer in America was over all of it. “Fusion-confusion” was how we mocked it back then.

Then, instead of going away, it took over. The recession had something to do with it. Fancy dining was dead (at least we thought so at the time), and restaurateurs, searching for an audience, had to find something casual and hip and, god help us, picture-worthy, to drive business in the door.

Enter restaurants with more moving parts than a Game of Thrones episode. All of it helped along by the molecular craze — which may have jumped the shark a decade ago, but which gave casual eateries license to try all kinds of wacky combinations.

The foam-thing may have died, but the “anything goes”legacy remains. And what we’re left with is wood-fired grills throwing Bento boxes at us…and udon carbonara.

I’m not necessarily against combining the world’s flavors into interesting combinations, but I am against it when it makes no sense….and when that’s all you’ve got. What I’m looking for is focus — on the menu and in the recipes — focus that seems to be lacking when all of these cultural lines get blurred.

Which leads me to ask: Do they teach this kind of cooking in culinary schools these days? I think not. I think it’s all a direct result of social media creating a “can you top this?” attitude among young chefs. Which deceives them into thinking they’re doing something fresh, when in reality, they’re all posing for the same selfies.

The mission statement of any chef in any restaurant is to satisfy his or her customers. And when all you’re doing is trying to dazzle someone, you don’t allow them to get comfortable enough to be satisfied.

Creativity is a great. The world can’t run without it. But creativity is a slippery slope when it comes to food — a slope that too many chefs are sliding down these days.

I think we’re slowly evolving past the small plates thing, and the something-for-everyone-thing, and the let’s-throw-Asian-accents-on-everything-thing.

This is a good thing, I think. Or maybe I’m just hoping.

It’s time to get back to basics — food that makes people feel good, not impress them for all of the wrong reasons.

 

First Bites – SPARROW + WOLF

“It’s very chef-y,” said the Food Gal. “It feels like the chef is cooking to impress other cooks.”  Indeed, how you feel about all these cheffy impressions will probably depend on how many cartwheels you like to see from a kitchen. Because there is no doubt that much of what you will eat here is tasty, but none of it is what I would call simple.

Before we explain the menu, a little background is in order. Sparrow + Wolf is the brainchild of veteran Strip chef Brian Howard – who was last seen doing David Myers’ bidding at the now-shuttered Comme Ca. Tired of cooking for tourists, Howard has made the bold move of bringing his elevated world cuisine to the ‘burbs – but not too deeply into the neighborhoods. Instead of trying to woo the fickle Summerlin or Green Valley crowds, he’s opted to open on Spring Mountain Road – a mecca for foodies and tourists alike.

He’s done it by hollowing out an old pho parlor, cutting it in half, bringing in a wood-burning oven, and creating an open, airy coziness in a space that used to look like a budget cafeteria. There’s a long bench against one wall, and an 8 seat bar that looks into the kitchen. There’s also complicated cocktails and a menu full of things to eat that you have never thought of.

For example, who would’ve thought that a tangy, white Alabama barbecue sauce would marry perfectly with a thick slab of halibut? It sounds odd, and isn’t a whole lot to look at, but it’s lip-smackingly good. Ditto the crab two ways: one topped with kimchee, the other a fried egg, or a shallow bowl of sliced duck, with bits of salted cucumbers and a tangle of sautéed mushroom in a sweet-sour plum-duck broth. It’s a dish that sounds Asian, looks vaguely French, and tastes like the best of both worlds.

Howard’s food likes to toggle around the globe – as when he stacks his lamb tartare, fresh oysters and charcuterie into bento boxes – and some of the combinations don’t make much sense (Why are octopus tentacles on top of a really good dry-aged steak?), but once the food hits your palate, you know he’s on to something. Some combinations need work – as when tough, bacon-wrapped cabbage distracts from beautiful sweetbreads – but the hits far outnumber the misses.

There are also a few items we’re not sure about, such as the Chinatown Clams Casino at the top of the page (an umami bomb – clams, cream, bacon, uni – tasting like it was dropped from a David Chang menu), and the beef cheek/marrow dumplings are best consumed by a crowd around a roaring fire in the dead of winter, not in 105 degree Vegas heat. Ditto the udon Bolognese: a triple-rich homage to wafuu (Japanese/Italian) pasta that slayed us after two bites.

Rib-sticking or not, this is clearly an ambitious restaurant – more aspirational than anything since Other Mama opened. And Howard is banking on corralling the same clientele to his less seafood-centric version of a gastropub. The foodies will flock here for sure, and some tourists will traipse, but will Asians and others adapt to these intriguing alimentations? Only time will tell.

SPARROW + WOLF

4480 Spring Mountain Road

702-790-2147

JAPANEIRO – Against All Odds

Kevin Chong’s Japañeiro is going on 3 years old now.

To be perfectly blunt, its survival has always been in doubt to us. Not because it isn’t exceptional, but because it is in an exceptionally difficult location — probably the worst in town for a place serving such fine food.

If you haven’t been, allow us to paint a picture for you. On a desolate corner in the southwest part of town there is a strip mall — one of those L-shaped jobs with spaces for maybe 10 tenants. Japañeiro occupies the corner space, while a few other renters hold on, as they weather the various stages of going into or out of business. There is a sad looking video poker bar on the corner pad, and a lot of depressing dust and emptiness on the other 3 corners of Warm Springs and Tenaya. If you were picking the worst place in town to create extraordinary meat and Asian seafood combinations — dishes that would make even the fussiest gourmand sit up and take notice — you couldn’t pick a more dire location.

But survive Chong has — against all odds. And how’s he’s done it is by bringing in everything from true Belon oysters, to live Japanese abalone to Kegani Hokkaido hairy crabs in season. He’s done it with technically precise combinations and point perfect cooking.

He’s done it by doing Asian fusion food as well or better than anyone on or off the Strip.

Chong previously worked at Nobu, and his facility with blending Japanese ideas with in-your-face seasonings shows his pedigree, and the influence of his sensei, Nobu Matsuhisa. You won’t find better kumamoto oysters with uni and foie gras anywhere — and that includes at Nobu. He toggles back and forth between Asia, France and the U.S.A. with equal aplomb — plating gorgeous escargot with the same flair he shows to giant Nigerian prawns doused with truffle butter, or the best beef gyoza in town:

Speaking of meat, there isn’t a better cut of beef in the ‘burbs than Chong’s 24 oz. dry-aged rib eye, sliced and cubed off the bone and served with an array of salts and dried garlic:

He also does top shelf sashimi:

….and a green tea tiramisu and fried bananas to beat the band:

Put it all together and you have one of our most unique, tastiest, chef-driven restaurants — the type of place foodies are always pining for, and that Las Vegas has precious few of.

With all this in mind, you might be asking yourself, “Why isn’t there a line out the door for this food?”

The answer, of course, has something to do with the location, and a little more to do with the price point. This is not the place to come for bargain basement fusion food. It is the place to come for some of the most unique creations in Las Vegas, made by a chef who’s passionate about what he does. Chong, like Dan Krohmer at Other Mama, is sourcing Strip quality ingredients and giving them an East-meets-West spin that always maintains a delicate balance between creativity and understatement. Cooking this fine is worth the tariff, even if a tab for two can get to $150 very quickly — $75 being price of his multi-course omakase dinner. Ordering a la carte will  keep things right around a hundy for a couple.

Those who blanch at that tariff will be happy to know there’s a happy hour (where everything’s under five bucks), and that the (huge) rib eye (at $65) is a flat out steal.

Location or not, anyone interested in interesting food ought to be eating here.

ELV’s dinner for two with a bottle of $50 wine came to $200 and we left a $40 tip.

JAPAÑEIRO

7315 West Warm Springs Road

Las Vegas, NV 89113

702.260.8668

https://www.facebook.com/Japaneiro/