Chef of the Year – Brian Howard

Until Brian Howard had the foresight to place an American gastropub on Spring Mountain Road, this three-mile stretch of “Chinatown” was the exclusive province of all things Asian. Now, it’s where gastronauts go for boutique lettuce salads, beet and green apple tartare, and giant steaks served with a dozen side dishes.

Those sides are an homage to the Korean banchan available up and down the avenue, and give a strong hint about how Howard loves to mix and match his meal metaphors. While one table is fighting over an Hamachi collar, another may be torn between the lamb neck with herb crêpes, scallop robata, or Chinatown Clams Casino.

By making Sparrow + Wolf our most interesting restaurant, Howard did more than just fuse a number of cuisines. He bridged a great divide between our various gastronomic cultures, inspired others (Partage, Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar, EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine) to follow suit, and turned this neighborhood into our number one dining destination.

SPARROW + WOLF

4480 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.790.2147

PARTAGE

(The Three Musketeers)

A Francophile’s dream come true. The chefs are French, the decor is French, the bartenders are French and the food is as French as Bastille Day. And the whole enchilada is in Chinatown. Go figure.

When Vincent Pellerin, Nicolas Kalpokdjian, and Yuri Szarzewski (above) came to the United States in 2015, they had a dream — they wanted to bring healthy French food to Las Vegas. Anyone with a brain would’ve told them the idea had as much chance for success as a Mormon nightclub, but arrive and succeed they did, first with their casual EATT Gourmet Bistro on West Sahara, and now with a more upscale (but still very laid back) place in a shopping center more at home with massage parlors and noodle shops than croque monsieurs and Pays Nantes.

Because it’s in Chinatown (in the old Chada Street space) the curb appeal is practically nil….and so is the parking. (At busy times you may have to inch your way around the lot once or twice to find a space. If ever there was an off-Strip property begging you to take a LYFT to it, this is it.)

The signage is as simple as the storefront and gives not a clue as to the wonders behind the long glass facade. But as soon as you step through the doors, you can sense that magic is about to happen. Seating are plush but not too so. Cozy booths line one side of the room and a long L-shaped bar dominates the other. The lighting is dim (but not too dim) and flattering, and even at peak occupancy, you can still hear yourself think and talk.

Towards the back you’ll see a large window behind which the chefs operate, and a glass wine room holding the all-French, all-nicely-priced selections. While the list isn’t long, it’s broken down by region (Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.) and the bottles are marked up 100% over retail, rather than 2-300% gouges you’ll find a mile to the east. Another thing I love are the easy to read prices ($65 for a Gigondas; $120 for Dom Ruinart, etc.) with none of that $59 v. $63 nonsense you see at the big hotels. (I’d love for some wine director to edify me sometime on why one Cali cab is priced at $118, while another fetches $121. Is it because there’s a 2.8% difference in quality between the two bottles? Ridiculous.)

Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. 20 small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit):

….or a single lobster ravioli in a small cup of bisque, or perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. Everyone seems to feature trilogies of oysters these days (whassup with that?), but the version here is top drawer, with the yuzu hollandaise being the one you’ll remember. As good as they are, the real stars of the show are the salmon croquettes (almost Japanese in their deep-fired, ultra-light crispiness):

 

…and the squid “risotto” — the risotto in this case being finely diced pieces of squid bound together by a barely-there pesto, filled with flavor but not filling you up.

If you’re looking for richness, Szarzewski has you covered. His sweetbreads are a godsend for lovers of all things thymus — accented by lotus root and a smooth tonka bean cream — the tight little sauteed gland giving not a hint of how dense and filling this offal can be. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow,  served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious toast:

If hunger still lingers after these (doubtful), tuck into a quail leg garnished with umeboshi and foie gras, or a few nibbles of good Spanish pata negra served with a small puck of olive oil cake and fennel sorbet:

Jamon platters are everywhere, but this little one may be the cutest of the bunch.

The anti-ham crowd will enjoy digging into things like ratatouille-stuff squash blossoms, burrata Caprese salad, a melange of root veggies, and the best damn pea soup you’ve ever slurped — this one given a kick by lemon-basil sorbet and finger limes.

About the only dish I can’t recommend is the king crab coated with black garlic. It tastes of pure, sweet crustacean slicked with the tamarind-like essence of aged allium, but it looks like something the cat left behind. If there’s an award for the best tasting, least attractive dish in town, this would litter-ally win by a landslide:

(Honey! The cat’s been at it again!)

Large groups will want to go large format with big cuts of 18 ounce rib eye, or a 32 ounce tomahawk steak — smoked with either hickory, applewood or hay (your choice!). Two pound lobsters and whole duckling breasts served on the bone, and sea bass baked in salt crust is also offered for the whole table to swoon over. In keeping with the “healthy French” thing, sauces are kept to a minimum. Not to my taste, exactly — the duck, pork and bass suffer from the lack of liquids — but the presentations are in keeping with how modern French food is done these days.

 

Desserts are a dream, and Pellerin’s rolling cart (above) is not to be missed. Whether he’s doing a baba au rhum (injected at table with some high proof spirit), a caramel candy bar, or a flaming baked Alaska (below), you can be assured no one, in any neighborhood in Vegas, is eating a dessert as good as the one you’re getting. Pastry chefs are an endangered species these days, and having one as accomplished as Pellerin working in the ‘burbs is quite a statement for a local joint.  His macarons (when available) should be ordered by the dozen.
(Like this baked Alaska, Chinatown is en fuego!)

Las Vegas came of age as a restaurant town in 2018, and exhibits 1-4 are Sparrow & Wolf, Mordeo Wine Bar, EDO Tapas, and Partage. By recognizing the true foodie potential of Chinatown, these venues have broadened its horizons and done the same for serious gourmands — local and tourist alike. Partage may not be for everyone (the food might be a little too precious for the meat and potatoes crowd) but it’s given a boost to our dining scene in all the right ways. Vive la France!

PARTAGE

3839 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.582.5852

https://partage.vegas/

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas…and Paella! (Part 3)

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar is a small plates purveyor of a different stripe. Where Pamplona shoots and scores with authentic, Madrid-style tapas, and Edo gives an updated spin to their Spanish classics, MBWB takes the tapas thing in several different directions. And those directions have as much to do with wine as it does with shareable food. The good news is both are pretty nifty.

What confronts you when you enter is a long, in-laid, colorful three-sided bar. Very L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon that. This counter represents latest manifestation of the side-by-side dining that has been all the rage since Robuchon made such a splash with it in Paris in 2003. Grownups may find it a tad awkward, and for us there’s a couple of high-boy tables in one corner where 4-6 people can actually talk without leaning in and out with every sentence. Hearing is another matter, as you’ll see below.

Once you get comfortable (and to their credit, the staff here puts everyone at ease), you will observe the hustle and bustle behind that bar, as well as the refrigerated wine racks, and all sorts of people moving to and fro, taking orders, mixing drinks, pouring wines, and delivering plates.  It’s really quite a scene, but only three months into its run, the staff and kitchen seem well-synchronized. If you score one of those tables, don’t expect to hear any whispered sweet nothings from your dearly beloved though, as that would require a bullhorn over the din. (In this regard, side-by-side seating makes a lot of sense.)

Image may contain: 2 people, including Luis de Santos, people smiling, drink

If the term “wine bar” in the name doesn’t give you an idea what this place is all about, then the two-sided list will. It’s compact — five whites, six reds, some sake, several sherries — but (almost) everything is price to sell. Strip wine maven/veteran Luis de Santos (pictured above) co-owns and runs the libations side of things, and he has tailored his list to go with the food, but also to be quaffed and enjoyed, not pondered and discussed.

The whole point is to try a couple of bottles with your food, and when you can get a pretty Clarete rosé from Rioja for only $34, and tempranillo-syrah for the same price, there’s no reason not to try both. (Those are bottle prices, not the by-the-glass gouges you find on The Strip.) You almost get the feeling that he and chef/owner Khai Vu are testing the waters with these wines, as they try out which ones, at what price point, will appeal to their customers. Something tells me the offerings will expand as this place gains its footing, and every bottle won’t always be in the $30-$50 range. But for the time being, everything is quite a bargain. Even the beer.

Tasty, inexpensive wine may be what brought you through the door, but the food is what will keep you here.

Here, you’re just as likely to find a Mexican-inspired elote corn skewer, and snow pea leaves with garlic, ginger and sake, as you are a satisfying fingerling patatas bravas. This all-over-the-map menu has them all, and by and large, you won’t be disappointed. The Lomi Lomi Ocean Trout (pictured above) can only be described as zesty. It may be the best ceviche you’ve ever had in Vegas. Right beside it on the ceviche list are a classic, Mexican shrimp aguachile, and Maine lobster with mango salsa, and they’re no slouches, either.

Just as enthralling as all that sparkling seafood is The Cloud — thin, and we mean really thin, slices of Iberico de Bellota Cinco Jotas on top of a super thin, almost invisibly crispy chicharrónes :

— as perfect a nibble with a glass of verdejo as has ever been invented.

They do something they call Beet Garden here — red and golden beets with a goat cheese mousse — that is as wine-friendly (and pretty) as any root veggie dish can get:

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The meaty king crab leg (at $38, the most expensive thing on the menu, but not the most photogenic) is crabby enough for two, and the cold, briny oysters, and ginormous Nigerian prawn (below) show they’re also serious about their seafood:

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Other winners include a meaty La Asada (grilled Angus skirt steak with some kick-ass chimichurri sauce), and a stew of clams, chorizo, and mussels (pictured above with the prawn) that has quite a kick of its own (from the white wine/sriracha sauce).

Desserts are only two in number (and always in flux), but if this mango rice pudding (made to look like a fried egg) is offered, don’t miss it:

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You’ll have no complaints about the flan, either, but when was the last time you complained about a flan?

Too many many modern restaurants, in their endless attempts to mash up American food into with every cuisine on the planet, try too hard to dazzle you with their footwork at the expense of harmony and balance. There is both ingenuity and restraint in these dishes, which is rare these days. While it’s easy to decry the menu’s lack of focus, the wild ride you take among these flavors captivates your palate without ever wearing it out.

If you squint a little you’ll see a lot of similarities to what Edo is doing just down the street. But whereas Oscar Edo keeps his eye on Spain, Khai Vu let’s his wander a little farther, and tosses in everything from Mexico to the Japanese/Chinese kitchen sink. That he does this without ever going a seasoning too far is quite extraordinary. Mordeo, like its competition, may have hit on just the right formula to drive complacent palates down to Spring Mountain Road: interesting, hand-tooled, strongly-seasoned, wine-friendly food. The kind of food Las Vegas has needed since I moved here in 1981. The kind you can now find in three restaurants (Pamplona, Edo and Mordeo) all within a couple of miles of each other.

(Dinner for two, with a few drinks, or a bottle of modestly-priced wine, should run around $100/couple, excluding tip.)

MORDEO BOUTIQUE WINE BAR

5420 Spring Mountain Road #108

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.545.0771

https://www.mordeolv.com/