CIPRIANI

I liked the location at once because it was at the end of a dead-end street….This meant that the customers would have to come there on purpose and couldn’t just stop in as they were passing by. That is the way I wanted it. To this day people have to come to Harry’s Bar on purpose. – Giuseppe Cipriani (1900-1980)

You go to Cipriani on purpose. You don’t go 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. (Venetian cuisine being perhaps the least-traveled of all regional Italian foods.)

The restaurant is there to serve you, but it has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows the aria from Madame Butterfly. It’s been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully since 1931. There is no need for it to change. 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 you’ve probably never tasted before.

If you resist this submission you will be disappointed. If your idea of Italian food is Tuscan meatiness, Neapolitan flamboyance, Calabrian heat or Emilia-Romagna-Sicilian-Roman largesse, you may look at your plate and wonder what all the shouting is about. But if you’re open to experiencing the deceptively simple yet hyper-delicious food of the Veneto —  — you will be transported to a cuisine both rustic and refined.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Ernest Hemingway and Giuseppe Cipriani prepare for their hangovers, Venice, 1950)

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas (pronounced chip-ree-AH-NEE LAS VAY-gus) is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that trace their lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice (Italy, not California). Harry’s Bar was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani — the grandfather of the founding family — and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. (Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway were constant habitués, even though they hated each other, and once almost came to blows in the place. Orson Welles and Truman Capote were also regulars, and also hated each other, but the only punches they landed had rum in them.)

Being something of a louche, café society lover myself, I consider it my home away from home whenever I’m in Venice. (Unlike Hemingway, however, I find myself constitutionally incapable of parking six bottles of Amarone in my liver (as he did) every night before bedtime.)

Nevertheless, hanging out at Harry’s Bar has been de rigueur when I’m in town, perhaps in hopes of absorbing a bit of Ernest’s mojo. (In case you’re ever there, the first seat at the bar, by the cash register, is the one with my name on it.) So far, it hasn’t worked — I am also constitutionally incapable of writing short, declarative sentences —  but it’s made me more than a little acquainted with the bottom of a Bellini glass, and what constitutes a definitive seppie in tecia (cuttlefish served in its own ink).

When Arrigo Cipriani (Giuseppe’s son) answered the siren song of expanding and branding Harry’s Bar to other locales in 1989, he chose New York City  – specifically a space on the ground floor of the Sherry Netherland hotel. Then and now, the family considers the name “Harry’s Bar” to be sacrosanct, and chose their last name as the brand for their empire. (Arrigo originally wanted the first Harry’s Bar clone to be called “The Copy” but thankfully someone talked him out of it — no doubt because “Let’s meet at Cipriani” has a much more musical ring to it than “Let’s go grab some ‘Copy’ for lunch.”)

When I was frequenting New York in the early 90s, I found myself perched there many a time, too, although in 1992 I remember the prices to be cripplingly expensive. Now they don’t bother me at all — 30 years of “Eating Las Vegas” having immunized me from all restaurant sticker shock.

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani in the world. They stretch from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. This alone probably explains why the quality remains high, and why the food in Las Vegas may be as close to the original as one could ever hope for.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Harry’s Bar)
(Cipriani Las Vegas)

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, 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 (they and the chairs are about 3″ lower than standard height) 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-seven years on, the details still matter, whether you’re in Las Vegas or one of the other Ciprianis around the world. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized (Arrigo hates big, clunky knives and forks), 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 decor — all polished woods and gleaming brass — makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

And then there is the food. It’s the real deal, not an Americanized version of the idiosyncratic cuisine of Venice, but as pitch perfect as you could hope for thousands of miles from its homeland.

Before you get to it, 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?” Purée them and add the sparkling wine was the answer. He then named it after a 15th Century Venetian painter — Giovanni Bellini — and the world, literally, started beating a path to his bar.

The good news is that those Bellinis are cheaper here! They cost $17.00 in Vegas, and 30 euros in Venice, so have two! (They’re pretty small.)

(A proper carpaccio)

After the Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio: the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani. Only slightly younger than the Bellini, its invention (in 1950) stemmed from some “ravishing countess” telling Giuseppe that she couldn’t eat cooked meat. “No problemo, segnora,” was his reply, “I’ll just pound a raw filet paper thin and dress it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce.” He could have called it anything he liked, but the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio happened to be hanging about Venice at the time (his paintings, at least). Giuseppe loved his bold red and white colors, so “carpaccio” it was, and every raw, flattened piece of food ever since has been stuck with the name.

As with the Bellini, a proper carpaccio couldn’t be any simpler, but as with all unadorned, exquisite things, there is no room for error. The raw ingredients must be impeccable, and their treatment must be precise, the better to let the result transcend the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, as with the martini, bourbon, pizza, sushi, etc., the letter and spirit of the original is honored more in the breach these days.

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.)

You’ll find the wine list of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range. Maybe it’s the water of the Venetian Lagoon, or it’s famous fish, but I’ve always found white wines go best with this cuisine…even the meat dishes.

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 are what spring to mind when most Americans think “Italian food”.

Venetians love their fine white cornmeal (from the Friuli region) and serve it with everything but pasta and gelato. Good polenta — and at Cipriani it is always good — is much more than mere mush. It stands alone, like great pasta, for its elemental purity and strong sweet flavors of the earth. Polenta is as Venetian as a gondolier and learning to love it is your first step in obtaining your Venetian food diploma.

(Baby artichokes alla Romana)

Of things not to be missed (after that carpaccio) should be an order of baby artichokes “alla Romana” and Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta).

The first will be the best artichokes you have ever eaten — soft, small and delicate — so unlike the woody, giant, indigestible globe artichokes we are stuck with in America.

Americans resist mightily 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.

Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold veal — another exquisite recipe of extreme foreignness to American palates. Vitello tonnato appears on menus from Turin to Trieste, and is an umami-rich, meat-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer.

(Seppie in tecia)

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 the plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia — a real test of your Venetian food chops — it being 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.

It would be nice if they could offer some of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea/Venetian Lagoon here (moeche, canoce, barboni, etc.), but a 6,000 distance makes seafood a secondary protein on this menu, rather than its focus. You’ll forget all about the fish, however, as soon as you dive into the pastas.

(Baked tagliatelle with ham)

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two, and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure to any of them could become habit forming.

It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragú 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 baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle — the latter being another must-try 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” (a.k.a. a la meuniere) 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 the Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”:

(Fegato alla Veneziana – liver and onions, Venetian-style)

The Venetians claim to have invented the dish, 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. It is true, however, that nobody does it better.” And nobody does it better in Las Vegas than Cipriani. Even if you think you hate liver, you should give it a try.

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease knuckle-dragging Americans) —  but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Something called “YOTTO Japanese Cuisine” is also on the menu, presumably because when people go to an Italian restaurant, what they really want is some Japanese food.

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-i-est gelato you have ever tasted. No foolin’….it is truly extraordinary gelato, worth a special trip all by itself.

(Best. Gelato. Ever.)

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor horde-imploring. Some people won’t “get it” in the same way people don’t “get” classical music, haiku poetry, new wave cinema, or the lines of a simple black dress. Cipriani is a state of mind. The ease and grace with which it displays its good taste is something new here — refinement and subtlety being to Las Vegas what strippers are to the Piazza San Marco. But there is a seductive reassuring quality to its flavors and its 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. Cipriani is not for everyone. It is for the cognoscenti. You have to go there on purpose.

(Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, with the same menu for both. Most dishes are easily split between two people with apps and pastas running $15-$30, and mains in the $30-$50 range, meaning: a modest lunch or dinner for two can run well under a hundy, or a more extravagant one about $150, excluding booze. My first meal here was comped, my next three have run $72, $200, and $163. They also validate your parking. Anyone who orders “nigiri sushi” here should be (figuratively) shot.)

CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702.770.7390

http://www.cipriani.com/restaurant/?loc=las-vegas

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.