ESTHER’S KITCHEN

Ground Zero for downtown’s dining renaissance. So crowded, as Yogi Berra said, no one goes there anymore. So popular, a seat at the bar (any night of the week) is harder to find than a Mario Batali fan.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a meal here….only that when you do, you’d better plan ahead, before the downtown denizens descend.

What began with Carson Kitchen four years ago took a giant leap forward in 2018 with the opening of this intimate space just off Main Street in the Arts District. But where CK is all gastropub-y with it’s burgers, salads, wings and such, here chef/owner James Trees goes full Italian, bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and porchetta (never as good as I want it to be). Nothing wrong with a giant loaf of rolled pork, mind you, I’ve just never been impressed by the dish, in or out of Italy.

Another thing CK and EK have in common is ear-splitting, military jet afterburner noise levels. Be forewarned: this is not a place for intimate (or even business) discussions. If anything, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern urban dining — an atmosphere where people come for the food and “to party” (as Trees puts it), not for contemplation or conversation. My solution is to come either for a late lunch or an early dinner, or, weather permitting, sit outside. Another minor criticism is the way you order and pay at the counter at lunch, grab a number, and wait for your food to be delivered. None of this affect the exquisite food coming out of the open kitchen, but it does give the place a fast-casual feel that detracts from the foodie vibe. On the plus side, once you’re done eating, there’s no waiting for a check, you just get up and go.

Picky picky picky, you’re probably saying to yourself right now (especially if you’re under 40), but like I said, none of this affects the food, almost all of which is drop-your-fork gorgeous.

Begin with the bread, because it’s baked in-house and out of this world. Then proceed to the meat and cheese platter — one of the prettiest in Vegas. From there, dive into the verduras (veggies): cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and capers, mushrooms with house-ground polenta, an above-average Caesar, and a chopped salad so enticing everyone at your table will grab a forkful. At lunch you’ll love most of the sandwiches, with the grilled truffle cheese with mushroom, on house bread crusted with fontina cheese, attaining second level status in the pantheon of grilled fromage. The garlic poached tuna “Niçoise Things” is too healthy for us (and occasionally under dressed), but the “Spicy Greens” with candied pecans, pickled (and we mean pickled) plums, brie and prosciutto, hits just the right balance between produce, spicy and sweet.

As good as the left side of the menu is, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant wars and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are handmade, portioned for two and presented to elicit oohs and aahs for their perfection of pasta porn.

Where you’ll really gasp, though, is when you see his radiatorre with black garlic, lemon and cream, a palate-coating belly bomb of the best kind:

Nothing is run of the mill about these noodlelicious dishes — they use top shelf groceries, rotate the recipes seasonally, and unlike so many other restaurants, aren’t afraid to get in your face with flavor. When Trees says “amatriciana” he means it. The spice will be there as surely as the pepper in the cacio e pepe will light you up.

Pizzas are far from standard issue, either, with beautiful, charred cornicione (above), good cheese, and always a surprise or two in the topping department — like salty bacon with caramelized onion, or Greek sausage and fennel.

All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, amazing amaros, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: feed its customers (and quench their thirsts) in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(Lunch for two should run around $40, with dinner about double that, exclusive of drinks, which shouldn’t be excluded, ever. There’s a reserve wine list in addition to the $40/btl  one, and it’s a lot pricier, if no less exciting.)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.570.7864

https://www.estherslv.com/ 

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.

 

I Like Italians, Really I Do

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I like Italians, really I do.

Without Italians we would have no pizza; no opera, no Joe DiMaggio.

Leonardo Da Vinci? Big fan.

Fiorella La Guardia? How would you get to New York without him?

There’s a downside of course. Italy has heaped cultural abomination after cultural abomination upon America for centuries. Italy has also given us Jersey Shore, Topo Gigio and tiramisu. And for every Dean Martin, there’s a Sacco and Vanzetti. You show me a Giorgio Armani and I’ll raise you a Donatella Versace.

And let’s face it: much of the worst of our popular culture begins and ends in Little Italy. Frankie Avalon: Italian; Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino: really Italian; overuse of the word fuck: so fucking Italian it fucking hurts.

Without any of these, you must admit, the world would be a better place. No Italy, no Sonny Bono. I rest my case

But these are minor quibbles. In the great scheme of things, Italy and Italians have been at the heart of advancing western culture for two thousand years. From Cicero to Galileo to Enrico Fermi, our arts and sciences have been enriched by Italians. Where would art be without Michelangelo, or music without Jerry Vale?

Italians may have a slightly inflated view of themselves, but on the whole, their pride, at least in Europe, is justified.

The trouble with Italy isn’t Italians; it’s with Italian-Americans.

More specifically, what they’ve done to the food of this great nation, when they decided to move over here en masse around 120 years ago. Because for every beautifully composed carpaccio you find in America today, there are football fields of baked ziti; for every bottle of Chianti Classio, an ocean of Gallo Hearty Burgundy is drunk. What Italian-Americans have done to pasta is criminal, and what they do to salad and chicken (like putting chicken on salad) should be grounds for an en masse deportation.

Italian-Americans take a certain perverse pride in perverting their cuisine (and then shouting from the rooftops how “fucking awesome” it is). The crimes against nature they commit in thousands of Italian restaurants in America daily are too numerous to count, but for every Rao’s, Carbone or Buddy V’s out there trying to elevate American-Italian classics, there are, at any given moment, 10,000 cooks pouring a quart of canned sauce onto a half pound of overcooked pasta and smothering it with Sysco cheese, all to the ohs and ahs of its goomba-loving audience.

In spite of twenty years of refinement, publicity and a quest for authenticity by chefs, food magazines, and home cooks alike  — bad Italian food still rules the roost in this country. And its popularity shows no sign of abating.

Exhibit One: The Italian American Club.

Possessing all the charm of a church basement, the furnishings of a convention hall, and the comfort of an Elk’s Lodge, this ode to ersatz Eye-talian packs a crowd in nightly that seems quite content with the fare. So who am I to argue?

I’m not and I won’t. Much.

I will however point out a few things to a few of you that might make you think twice before showing up.

Those chairs you sit in will be straight from that church basement. The crowd is so old it makes Piero’s look like the Encore Beach Club. The music (from a non-stop, not-untalented crooner) comes straight from the Perry Como school of somnambulant listening, and the art on the walls (should it catch your eye) will remind you of pictures that once did the same thing on a street corner.

Of course, calling anyplace called The Italian-American Club “old school” is like calling Mussolini a bit of a hot-headed, fascist dictator. It’s like calling Sophia Loren a gal with a nice figure, or a Lamborghini a two-door sedan.

Exhibit Two: There’s a classic tenet of Italian restaurants that goes: The more pictures of Frank Sinatra there are on the walls, the worse the food. Be advised: there are lots of pictures of Frank Sinatra on these walls.

The circumstantial evidence says it all, and the food says it louder than anything.

 Old school salads taste of white lettuce and bottled dressing. The butters come in three shades of tasteless margarine; the veal Marsala tastes of veal but not Marsala; and the aglio e oglio pasta (pictured above) tastes only of burnt garlic. In old school Italian-American restaurants, you’re not supposed to notice these things. In old school Italian-American restaurants, everyone is too busy filling up on cheap starches and proteins to give a shit, and the owner is too busy counting his cash to care.

On the plus side, I’d eat here again in a heartbeat over Piero’s, so there’s that.

My mother still makes me a dish (occasionally) from my childhood that I love. It consists of ketchup combined with brown sugar, poured over pork chops upon which a lemon slice or two has been placed. She then bakes the whole thing to death in a 400 degree oven for an hour until the chops are like shoe leather and the lemons have shriveled into tart chewy circles of sourness. The whole thing is quite the culinary massacre but I love it. It reminds me of sitting at our kitchen table in Winter Park, Florida and feeling the cool linoleum beneath our feet while the whole family hunches over dinner in 1965 on a hot Sunday night. I know this recipe is terrible but I love it to this day. The trouble with Italian-American restaurants is that they  based an entire cuisine on such atrocities, and then seduced an entire country of white-bread/unseasoned meatloaf/pot roast loving Protestants to buy into it. What little taste and imagination this food might’ve once had (Tomatoes! Garlic! Olive oil! Herbs!) has been so co-opted by bad restaurateurs, and so diluted over the past hundred years that the iconic dishes are now little more than pentimenti of what was once noble and delicious.

Of course nothing is preventing the cooks from doing these classics right. Done right they’re some of the most toothsome recipes on the planet. But doing them right is not what bad Italian restaurants are about. Doing them cheaply and shoveling the slop to a bunch of customers conditioned to accept these short cuts (because anything beats tuna-noodle casserole and a jello mold), is what created this lousy genre.

White lettuce and burnt garlic never killed anyone, of course, and if no one complains, nothing is ever going to change. In America, for the last half of the 20th Century and the first 16 years of this one, nobody’s complaining. Except Italians from Italy, of course, and anyone who cares about what they eat.

ELV’s dinner for two with an $11 glass of wine came to $76, and he left a $20 tip.

ITALIAN AMERICAN CLUB

2333 E. Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.4357.3866

http://www.iacvegas.com/

P.S. For those of you who want to read more on this subject (and discover that I’m not just pulling some of these fucking theories out of my fucking ass) I recommend you to read John Mariani’s How Italian Food Conquered the World, and John Dickie’s Delizia! – The History of Italians and Their Food. Certain Italian-Americans won’t bother, I’m sure, preferring instead to think of me simply as a fucking asshole.