MICHAEL MINA Returns to the Sea

I almost sued Michael Mina once. More accurately, Michael Mina’s partners tried to hire me to sue him.

My law firm wanted me to take the case, but I demurred because….well….simply because I liked his restaurant so much.

The underpinnings of that suit had to do with the divorce that was then underway between the Bellagio and the Aqua Group — the company (and restaurant) that launched Mina’s career in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. By 1997, Aqua had become Frisco’s most famous seafood restaurant, and Steve Wynn (who had already lured Julian Serrano here from there), needed a seafood star to complete his murderer’s row of chefs at the Bellagio.

Aqua Las Vegas opened to great acclaim in 1998 (as did all of Bellagio’s stars), and for 7 years it was the unchallenged cooking champion of all things from the sea. As its eighth birthday approached, deals were coming to an end and leases needed re-negotiating. Mina apparently wasn’t in step with whatever his partners wanted, and that’s when both sides started lawyering up and I got the call.

I don’t know anything else about the dispute except that within a matter of months, Aqua was out and Michael Mina (the chef and the restaurant) was in.

Smartest move me and the Bellagio ever made.

Aside from a drift away from the seafood that made him famous, not a lot has changed at Michael Mina over the years. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Vegas (you can thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. The one design flaw was the bar to the left as you enter. Originally designed as a sushi bar, it was small and awkward and not conducive to cocktails (or a pre-prandial glass of vino) — with the drinks (formerly) being handed down over a high ledge in front of the seats. As you can see above, this is no longer a problem.

Neither is the menu re-vamp, which returns Michael Mina (the restaurant) to its roots. With this re-boot, the fish-friendly MM of yore is now alive and swimming in the Bellagio Conservatory. Taking a clue from Estiatorio Milos, a seafood display tempts as you are led past the bar, and if looking at whole branzino, John Dory, striped bass, Hawaiian kampachi and Arctic char doesn’t put you in the mood for a fish fry, nothing will.

Mina made his name as a seafood chef. His early fame came from treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and pairing tuna with foie gras. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than delicate flowers to be barely trifled with.  Where the Italians and Greeks barely dress their seafood with anything more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French nap theirs with the barest of butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be assaulted (in a good way) with sauces. Thus does lobster come bathed in brandy and cream (in his ethereal pot pie), while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory gets a dressing of intense, fermented black beans and bok choy. In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc with the phyllow-crusted sole, but he can’t resisted coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream,  His chefs will grill one those whole fish (or a half for 1-2 diners) and adorn it with grilled peppers and preserved oranges, or accent it with Thai green-coconut curry after deep-frying it Asian-style.

When it comes to fish, yours truly is something of a seafood snob (imagine that?). My rules of thumb when ordering a whole fish are simple:

Rule #1: If John Dory (aka San Pierre, aka San Pietro) is on the menu, get it.

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The John Dory is an exquisite fish – thick and meaty, but also delicate, not-too fatty and finely-grained. There is a firmness to the meat which will stand up to all sorts of preparations, but a soft sweetness to it that demands a careful hand. It goes well with a variety of sauces, and will stand up to strong accents — like the scallions, Serrano peppers and fermented black bean treatment it gets here. When properly cooked, it takes a rightful place in my pantheon of perfect pisces, along with wild turbot, fresh-caught Pomapno, and true Dover sole.

Rule #2 is: Only eat fish in a fish restaurant.

Rule #3: In a fish restaurant as good as this one, either close your eyes, point and pick, or ask the knowledgeable staff about the variations in species and how they are complimented by the cooking styles.

That last one is crucial, because on any given night, 6-8 whole fish are laid out before you, each begging to be grilled/smoked over applewood, broiled and beaned, or deep-fried with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed fish (snapper, sea and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating and sauce, while the denser Dory, kampachi and char demand to be basically broiled.

Before you get to them, however, you’ll have to navigate the shellfish waters, which are teeming with terrific options. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe pointed us to the “petite charcoal-grilled platter” ($130) which is more than enough for four. Nothing against the brisk and briny oysters and cold lobster you find all over town, but this time of year calls for warmth, and grilling the scallops, oysters and Maine lobster with a miso-garlic-yuzu glaze is just the ticket on a brisk fall evening:

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The only problem with the new menu is there are too many great choices. Sharpe and g.m. Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between the Mina classics (caviar parfait, tuna tartare, hamachi crudo), with these new (“Market Light”) items to build your best meal, and that sounded like a sound plan to me.

Speaking of classics, most of them are still there. (Pagani told me there’d be a revolt among some regular customers if the tartare, parfait, pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole were taken off the menu.) And why should they be? They’re classics for a reason. There may be no better starting course on earth than Mina’s caviar parfait:

….and even his steak Rossini is justifiably famous,. But for my money, the real show-stopper (a blend of Mina’s oeuvre, old and new) is his seared tuna and foie gras starter:

Mina has always known fatty liver like a Korean knows cabbage, and three forkfuls will prove it to you. Take a bite of the tuna, then take a bite of the foie, then take a bite of them both together. No meat-meets-fish dish ever became greater than the sum of its two (magnificent) parts than this beauty. It’s expensive ($57), but it’s more than enough for two and almost a complete meal in itself for one.

If you have room after all that seafood-y goodness, don’t miss the classic chocolate bar with salted caramel mousse, or the Egyptian rice pudding (almost as good as Greek!), or the pineapple granita with vanilla panna cotta and Sicilian pistachios (below). Desserts here have been wonderful for as long as I can remember (which is all the way back to 1998), and as with the fish, whatever you point to will be worth it.

A word about wine. No one goes to the Bellagio looking for wine bargains, but this list is well-chosen with lots of white wines at (for the Strip at least) reasonable prices that match well with the food. My sweet spot when looking at Strip wine lists is the $60-$120 range, and if you root around, you’ll find a few German Rieslings that fit the bill — like Müller-Catoir Kabinett for $80. The bright acidity of drier German whites compliments Mina’s love of bold, rich flavors, as do the more mineral-rich Chablis and less-complex (read: cheaper) white Burgundies — which you’ll find more than a few bottles of that don’t break the bank. Anyone who orders a Cali cab with this food ought to be taken out and shot (figuratively speaking).

The half-fish here run around $60-$75, which is a (relative) bargain. Most of the whole fish (that easily feed four) are double that. If you split some appetizers and go this route, you can get out of here for around $100/pp. Tasting menus are $138 and $188, respectively, and are more than worth it if you’re the “go big or go home” type. The last time I paid for a meal at MM, Bill Clinton was president.

MICHAEL MINA

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

866.259.7111

https://www.bellagio.com/en/restaurants/michael-mina.h

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/

The Scariest Thing in Las Vegas

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Boo!

Happy All Hallow’s Eve!

We at ELV hope you enjoy your horrors on this night of terrors.

Which got us to thinking (and no, it didn’t hurt): What is the scariest thing to most people?

Spiders?

Snakes?

Commitment?

Clowns under your bed? (see above)

We looked up “phobias” and the list was so long we instantaneously developed pinaciphobia – a fear of lists.

Then we got to thinking a little harder (and yes, it began to hurt, a little), and then we realized what scares us more than anything in Las Vegas: wine lists with lots of commas.

And then we realized, without thinking hard at all, what was the scariest thing in Las Vegas restaurants, and the answer was easy. Behold if you can, ladies and gentlemen, the most terrifying thing in Las Vegas, the wine list at Carnevino:

As you can see, it is not for the timid. It is huge: it is massive; it is intimidating; it can be hard to read, and it is also stocked with only a single bottle for under $100 — a mediocre, overpriced prosecco in the upper left hand corner for $85. The cheapest Italian white wine on the list is $150. (Ed. note: there isn’t an Italian white wine on earth worth $150/btl.)

The last thing it is for (as you’ll read below) is selling wine to the average, well-heeled restaurant consumer who has a healthy interest in drinking Italian wines.

It is a list so overpriced as to make a mockery of every other tourist-soaking, conventioneer-gouging, fuck-you wine list on the Strip.

It is a list so ridiculous it will make you run to Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire for relief.

It is wine pricing so outrageous that it should embarrass co-owner Joe Bastianich, who, in the foreward to his 2010 book Grandi Vini – An Opinionated Tour of Italy’s 89 Finest Wines (2010)  wrote that wines on restaurant wine list should never be priced at “over 2 1/2 times over their wholesale cost.”

This is the same Joe B. who wrote in his book Restaurant Man (2012): “We’re in the business of of taking people’s money, but we’re not in the business of ripping people off.” He also claims in the same book that he sometimes “can’t sleep at night” thinking about the size of the checks in his restaurants.

To which I call horseshit.

So what is it Joe? Are you interested in people appreciating wine, or just bending over high rollers? Or are you and Mario Batali too busy being TV stars to care anymore?

Bastianich also says that the price of wine is “…more like art than cars — the subjectivity is what drives its price, but the quantitative costs quickly dissociate themselves from the price when the product reaches the consumer.”

To which I would ask him: What subjectivity makes a $60 bottle of Jermann Tunina (that cost you $30) worth $210 on your wine list? Is it really your appreciation of the “art” in the bottle that has you selling your entire wine list for 4-5xs the wholesale price of these wines?

Wine most definitely is not like clothing, or furniture, or cars. It is the only consumer product I know of where a certain type of retailer (restaurants) unblinkingly, unapologetically, charge double or triple the retail price of something you can buy much cheaper just down the street. Because, atmosphere.

To which I am finally forced to call bullshit.

But there is a reason for this rapacity, oh yes, there is.

As one general manager of another Strip restaurant told me, “Carnevino has a partnership with the Venetian, so all it (the wine list) is there for is to soak up comps.”

Another local wine purveyor of great repute calls the list a “rape job,” and that about gets it right.

None of this will endear me to the folks at Carnevino, but someone has to say it out loud, because enough is enough.

I love you Carnevino, I love your food, and I love your atmosphere, and I love what you’ve done for the Las Vegas food community and restaurant scene. And I used to love your wine list, like five years ago when it was merely expensive.

But I know a clip joint when I see one, and I will drink wine no more in your establishment.

Your list has given me a bad case of oenopinaciphobia (fear of wine lists), and the only cure I know for it is to do my Italian wine drinking in Italy. Or Ferraro’s.

I am divorcing the “vino” from Carnevino, until some sanity is restored. Until then, enjoy counting your money Mario and Joe, and stop slinging the bull about sleepless nights and your “love” of Italian wine.

>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<

ELV update: Last night at dinner we received this tweet from Mario Batali:

 Mario Batali Retweeted John Curtas

hey jc for tonite we have 29 wines under $80 16 wines under $60 2 wines under $50 and that’s just the start! thanks bud!

Mario Batali added,