SPAGO Redux

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No matter what it does, it does well. No matter what you order, expect it to be one of the best versions you’ve ever had. Call it Wolfgang Puck magic; call it a great management; call it hiring good chefs at the top of their game. Whatever it is, call it consistency. Because if there’s one thing that sets Spago apart from its competitors, it is an almost military precision to its food. You will rarely have a bad dish in any Puck restaurant. At Spago, you’ll never have a bad bite.

Las Vegas got its first taste of Spago in December. 1992, and for the next twenty-five years it loomed large over the Strip dining scene as the granddaddy of all of our great restaurants. When its lease finally was up at the Forum Shops in 2018, it decamped for the Bellagio. Puck signed a management deal with the hotel (no more operational headaches for him!), and with a wave of the hand (and a “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”), the dreary Olives got a bright, modern makeover into Spago 2.0.

About the only thing not to like about the new location is the front of it (seen above). Instead of signaling you’re in for a big deal meal at one of the most famous restaurants in America, the signage is abstruse to the point of invisibility, and you can be right in front and not know there’s a restaurant there.

Once you’re inside, this aesthetic sin will be quickly forgotten. The bar still hugs the right side of the restaurant, and low-slung table seating allows you to eat or linger near all those top-shelf cocktails. Large windows and glass doors now frame an outdoor patio that provides the best seating in the hotel for the fountain show. (There are lots of tables outdoors, but they go fast at peak times, so reserve ahead if al fresco is how you want to go.)

Whether you sit outdoors or in, the menu will provide the sort of soothing satisfaction Puck has always delivered: a blend of classics (veal wiener schnitzel, steamed cod “Hong Kong style,” smoked salmon pizzas, crispy skin branzino), with the seasonal (sweet corn agnolotti, heirloom tomato salad, Santa Barbara spot prawns, vegetable ragout with asparagus velouté), and the formidable (veal chop, lamb rack, and a côte de bouef for two – each as good as any steakhouse’s). Sometimes there will be big eye tuna crudo, sometimes foie gras ice cream. Whatever specials your waiter recites, rest assured it will be worth the tariff.

(I’m just mad about saffron…risotto)

Mark Andelbradt, a Puck veteran, has been at the helm since the move to the new digs, and his facility with pasta is every bit as nimble as his command of roasted cauliflower. If his proteins are the equal of a beef emporium, his noodles match up nicely against any Italian. More than once I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of Spago’s house-made pastas with some celeb-chef versions around town, and every time Spago’s has come out on top. Andelbradt’s spicy lamb Bolognese cavatelli, squid ink garganelli, and those agnolotti are textbook examples of the genre, and when he’s doing saffron-seafood risotto, don’t miss it.

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When you’re done with the savories, the sweets are there, just waiting to destroy your willpower. The spiked lemon with yuzu cream, chiffon cake and citrus mousse (above) has been on the menu so long, it’s almost iconic as those pizzas. The chocolate chip cookies are worth a trip by themselves, but as memorable as those are, the thing to get is Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren — a showstopping souffléd pancake (for two) that actually feeds four…but which will probably be wolfed down by the first one lucky enough to get to it.

The wine list holds few surprises. (It was pretty boring at the old location, too.) There are plenty of overpriced bottles from the usual MGM-Bellagio offerings. (Yes, they standardize the wine selections throughout the MGM family of hotels these days. Because accountants.) Stick with the by-the-glass selections if you don’t want to feel like you’ve been asked to bend over and grab your ankles.

You don’t go to Spago looking for culinary adventure anymore than you go to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in search of a pork chop. What Spago is selling, what Spago has always sold, is a Cal-Ital blend of Europe technique with American panache — a hybrid cuisine that’s as fresh today as it was 35 years ago; a cuisine as elemental as a pizza and refined as caviar.

All of America owes a debt to Spago for the way we eat nowadays — combining finely-tuned, gutsy food with just the right sophisticated spin without pretense. Open kitchens, upgraded pizzas, casual dining with killer food — all of these started with Spago. In a way, every gastropub from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is an homage to the type of cooking first popularized by Wolfgang Puck. But he did it first, and in many ways, Spago still does it best.

I’ve eaten at Spago so many times I’ve lost count. This new incarnation I’ve been to five times. They never comp me, but a few freebies always show up. Dinner for two will run around $150-$200, including a shared dessert and a couple of drinks each. Service is uniformly excellent whether they know you or not.

Get this: Artisanal salumi pizza; smoked salmon pizza; spicy shrimp pizza; spicy tuna tartare; foie gras ice cream; Gulf shrimp cocktail; prime beef burger; field mushroom soup; roasted cauliflower; Anson Mills grits; veal wiener schnitzel; steamed cod “Hong Kong” style; branzino; all pastas; seafood-saffron risotto; Santa Barbara spot prawns; vegetable ragout; veal chop; lamb rack; côte de boeuf rib eye steak for two; cookie platter; spiked lemon with yuzu cream; Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren.

SPAGO

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.693.8181

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/ 

PIZZERIA MONZU

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Las Vegas upped its pizza game considerably over the past decade, but it wasn’t until Pizzeria Monzú opened this year that it had a true, Sicilian superstar. It’s something of an insult that food this good is located right behind an Arby’s, but there it is  — in a strip mall that’s seen better days — beckoning like no other Italian in town. Sicilian restaurant scion Giò Mauro (of Nora’s family fame), took over the space of the old Nora’s (the new one is now a block away), and expanded and modernized it. What was once an old school, Italian-American, now reeks of wood smoke, craft cocktails and foodie cred.

The room is big, bright and airy; the tables are comfortable and well-spaced. High ceilings keep the noise level down to conversational levels, and a small stage off to one side gives you a hint that live entertainment will be in the offing.* Those wanting upscale spritzers, and gorgeous (all-Italian) wines by the glass will not be disappointed. Those wanting to imbibe some serious beer, and wines by the bottle, will sit up and take notice.  Twelve brews on draft are offered, ranging from local IPAs to Michigan brown ales, and the wine list is a dream come true — dozens of modestly-priced vintages from up and down the Italian peninsula, all with brief, pithy descriptions of what you’re getting. It might be the best short wine list in all of Vegas.

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Once you’re seated, get the appetizers, all of them: squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and mint, ascolane (sausage-stuffed) olives (above), stuffed chicken wings, agrodolce (sweet and sour) meatballs, and the brightest of all in this galaxy of six stars, the “stuffed lemon leaves” (below), which aren’t as much stuffed as they are skewered and grilled in leafy envelopes. Each order is enough for four, and a table full of these plates makes a meal unto itself.

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If you insist, the salumi and fromaggi antipasti are also a good place to start, as Mauro is justifiably proud of his meats and cheeses, and the bruschette (whether plain or speckled with roasted garlic and anchovies, Sicilian-style), will satisfy as well. The only problem with all of these is if you fill up too fast and you won’t have room for the main event: pizza alla pala. As big as a small desk and easily feeding 4-6 hungry adults, these big boys come in all sorts of combos.

We’re partial to the the “Simple” (crushed tomatoes, basil and mozzarella), but the “Regina Margherita” (above) gets a deeper sweetness from cherry tomatoes, and a certain tang (from buffalo mozz) that is as far from your average slice as the Godfather II is from Sharknado. No matter which one you get (and some of the combos like “Pork Reigns” and “Vegas Meets Italy” are a tad overloaded for our tastes), you can’t help but notice the chewy, tangy, dense and satisfying bread providing the foundation. This is serious stuff — long fermented dough, from an ancient starter, that shines on its own. ‘Tis almost a pity to cover up this toothsome crumb with bacon, goat cheese and arugula (Apricot) or Gorgonzola, walnuts and honey (‘Nduja), but if you do, you’ll still find yourself fighting your table-mates for the last slice.

I am told that the large proteins offered here — a “Polpettone” (giant meatball), grilled swordfish, and a 34 oz. rib eye “Fiorentina” — are wonderful, but I’m always too busy grooving on the pizza to notice. The one I’ve had — crespelle al forno  (baked lasagna with meat sauce) — was a meaty, cheesy, béchamel-topped delight.

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Anyone who doesn’t order Sfgini di San Giuseppe – fist-sized Sicilian doughnuts (above) filled with sweetened ricotta — should be consigned to sleep with the fishes.

(Dinner for four, with a few drinks, all those appetizers, a big pizza and dessert will run around $191.95….exactly what I paid for it.)

PIZZERIA MONZÚ

6020 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.749.5959

http://monzulv.com/index.html

* No one hates music more in restaurants than I do. Music in restaurants ruins both the music and the food. But when Gio Mauro takes the stage to belt out some opera (he’s classically trained) or an old standard, it all seems to fit, and I don’t mind it a bit.