Archive for February, 2013

Yonaka Modern Japanese: Even More Modern-er

So, dig on this new restaurant, friends: YONAKA.  It’s been open for less than a month, but already it’s starting to beat out a lion’s share of the hip Japanese-fusion restaurants on the strip by a country mile, in my opinion.  Granted, we are plagued by those paint-by-numbers sushi joints in disguise, two or three to a casino property (hopefully a tide to be turned by the recent Palazzo top-tier sushi announcement), but honestly the quality and downright artistic creativity I’m seeing here is SHOCKING.

The meal starts out with an Amuse-bouche, mine was a little square of edamame tofu with just a dab of yuzu tobiko roe and maldon salt.  The nuttiness of this, I assure you, groves of nut trees would covet.  Nice to see this small but appreciated wink-and-nod to the coming meal can be practiced off-strip without being contrived.  It’s fun, it’s simple, and the creamy/nutty tofu with just that tiniest bit of citrus and fish comes off pitch-perfect.  Hopes, consider yourselves raised.  Looking back, this was going through my mind.


I’d covet this.


A cursory glance at the menu won’t give any real indicator to the food to come, but once you start noticing menu descriptors like “apple chips” and “kafir lime vinaigrette” and “preserved lemon”, one does begin to wonder.  Mainly choosing with my empty stomach, I got the item with two types of fishes (my stomach is not logical…), Konpa: Atlantic Salmon and Hamachi, with yellow bell pepper, almonds, tiny slices of preserved apricot, super thin jalapeno wheels, and almost transparently thin dehydrated tomato chips, all in an orange ponzu.  Whew, that’s quite a list of elements, but it really is a bit of a salad in and around and highlighting some extremely superb fish.  The duo of rich, fatty fish cut into sashimi bits contrasted well with the bright, tangy ponzu (like all their sauces, made in-house), sweet preserved apricot, and surprisingly addictive tomato chips.  Perhaps most surprising was palate of textures presented, making each bite a fun little game of “find the best combo” (although, if that puzzle was solved for me and topped neatly onto the sashimi, I wouldn’t complain…).


Atlantic Salmon and Hamachi hodge-podge salad


There’s even a beef-aficionado option for us bull-eaters out there, but it’s FINALLY an off-strip Wagyu I don’t feel the need to put quotation marks around.  It’s an Ishiyaki, so you get these super thin slices with more marbling than or the Caesars Palace (on-strip or Ancient, pick your reference), just a tad bit of salt and pepper, and you just lightly ssssssssssssssear it for a good one-Mississippi on each side with this big honkin’ polished river stone.  I wouldn’t even wait for the Maillard reaction to kick in for me to flip it and nosh it in one bite, mostly ignoring the sides of lemon-salt ponzu and mushroom sauce (while both good enough to bottle and take home, unnecessary for this tasty little slice).


Why should Wagyu have quotes? Is it ironic beef??


Now, most of this stuff is Japanese influenced on the main, but there was this one dish I thought was straight out of Bavaria.  Pork, apple, and fennel: can you get more German?  Throw in a sausage and a stein of schwarzbier and you may as well serve it in lederhozen.  Big cubes of crispy and rich Kurobuta pork belly, fresh slices of Granny Smith apple, tiny fried garlic chips, fennel as both dried chips AND purée, and a lemon shiso vinaigrette.  Besides the fact that these slices of fennel root and hunks of pork really were more of a knife and fork thing, it was a pleasure even with chop sticks.  It was that classic flavor profile, this time with properly cooked pork belly (why does EVERYONE, even Ramsay’s pub, have to render oil out of a belly to crisp it?) and an added layer of texture with the dried fennel and crisp apple.  There is one thing I noticed about this Chef Ramir DeCastro, he is very mindful about texture, something that may be unfortunately lost on some chefs these days.


Finally, a pork belly without the hype (or the oil slick).


Just a last word about this dessert.  You guys, this dessert, I swear.  Not only is it a Trio (Quartet, if you stretch the definition) of  really amazing items, all together they work in PERFECT harmony of unique and light flavor.  You’ve got a white grapefuit panna cotta (hiding behind the sugared and dried fennel), a “confit” of blood orange, a scoop of green apple sake-sorbet perched on a bed of pistachios, and a perfectly nutty pistachio purée dotted with candied kumquat slices.  Now I love my desserts, but I can’t remember a better one that wasn’t in Le Cirque or similar.  At this point, DeCastro is casting off any idea of Asian influence and is creating fantastic flavors from whole-cloth.  I’ve got more dishes with just little notes in the gallery below, and I’ve got even more I need to try, but honestly this dessert takes the proverbial cake.

It’s no surprise that even in the short time Yonaka has been open, it’s become an after-hours place for F&B types to take their staff and show off in a “Look!  Learn!  And remember who brought you here!” kind of way.  Honestly, as far as off-strip high-quality Asian fusion is concerned, it’s looking like Poppy Den will have an equal in Yonaka.  Now, for off-strip high-quality Asian fusion with some real, honest character to them, that primarily empty category may be filled yet…  Like John mentioned last week, our local food scene is in the infancy of a boon-time, but we can be lacking soul.  Well, if Yonaka is an indication, then let me tell you: WE HAVE SOUL.


Don’t make me choose!


Yonaka Modern Japanese

4983 W Flamingo Rd, Ste A
Las Vegas, NV 89103
(702) 685-8358

Chinita Mexican Bar and Grill: Summerlin’s New Meh-xican

In an effort to diversify my reviews, I made sure that this time I wasn’t going to do yet another Asian or Asian Fusion place.  Anyone who keeps one eye on the new openings in town can attest that this is becoming somewhat taxing.  Next week will no doubt be some kind of infused tapas, so don’t get used to this.  Submitted for your approval is one Chinita Mexican Bar and Grill, located in the slowly but surely growing collection of Summerlin restaurants.  As far as sit-down Mexican places, I believe the only real name in the area is that corporate-sterile “Modern Mexican” Cantina Laredo in Tivoli.  Its redeeming quality seems to end at putting something interesting like spinach or pinapple mostly in dishes that deserve it,  maybe avoiding some of the cliches in decor, but not much else.


Fortaleza Flight


Chinita has become something of a polarizing series of experiences, and I think I have narrowed down the reasons for them.  Apart from a few key details, they have really missed the mark on things.  Their tequila list is muy bueno, fair-ish priced, and Vicente behind the bar has a great working knowledge and ability to recommend to your tastes.  The flight of Fortaleza blanco, reposado, and anjeo ran us a bit, but was worth the damage.  Their margaritas seem like they were made with the awkward lunch-date social lubrication in mind (however committing that cardinal sin of making a few anjeo margaritas), but aside from their cucumber one I couldn’t imagine ingesting too much of that sickly sweet stuff.  I can only say that I was happy they were not obliterated in a blender, and I could imagine getting excited over them if I was used to your average World Famous Chili’s ‘rita sampler.


Cucumber Jalapeno was… alright.


There’s one thing I got excited over and will probably find myself going back for is their AYCE tacos tuesdays for only one Zander Hambone.  Their pulled pollo is almost too juicy and flavorful, the pork is delicious little cubes crispified on one side, the steak is… well lets just say I stuck with the chicken and pork after my first round.  Nothing wrong, just nothing special.  I get them Mexican style, just cilantro and onion.  Leave the shredded cheese and lettuce for the plebs!  The best part about it is that it avoided what I disliked the most in the rest of the menu: No nasty rice and beans!  I swear these rice and beans you get at literally every Mexican restaurant must come in a cargo ship because their uniform sadness would make Budweiser jealous.  Next time I’m subbing for their house-made onion rings, and damn any up-charge they may dare!


I put away about three of these plates


Aside from that swell deal, I can’t recommend much.  The Camarones a la Diablo were small, scant, and downright angelic compared to the spice levels I expect from “A La Diablo”.  Twenty two of my  dollars got me a handful of frozen tail-on shrimp, a dollop of a mediocre tomato sauce, but enough beans and rice to craft a life sized bust of myself.  The app sampler came almost entirely out of a fryer, and boy could you tell.  The only thing I found myself enjoying were the nachos, and there were like four!  Next time, getting a plate of those and skipping the rest.


Camarones of a milquetoast, cartoonish Devil


Their Chorizo hamburgesa was about the only redeeming original/special item.  It had all the smoky, spicy, identifiable chorizo flavor in the burger, some of their pretty solid guacamole, and you can get it with those onion rings I mentioned.  Now, it’s not usually a great sign when the burger is the best thing in a Mexican place, but at least it’s a better “tex mex” style burger than danged near anywhere else that’s tried.


Half and half pork/chicken enchilada style burrito: delicioso!


Overall, I’d say you should gamble the ten-spot for Taco Tuesday as soon as you can, get a little education in the tequila for the curious, maybe try a Mexican staple with that tasty pork or chicken or the hamburgesa, but leave the rest for El Diablo.  Until someone steps up the Mexican game in town (or someone gives the so-far best in town Tacos el Gordo a satellite), we’re stuck with Summerlin having two places worth going to satisfy a specific craving, but not much more.


Chinita Mexican Bar and Grill

In Village Square

9440 W. Sahara Ave #165
Las Vegas, NV 89117

Fun With Beer: Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale -or- The Problems With Complexity

There’s a trend in all things consumable these days, and very likely in entertainment as well, for the insatiable need for more and more stimulation in the form of complexity.  A look at your average recipe-swap on the internet, and you’ll find that the ones that garner the most attention are the ones that shove as many flavors as possible.  Cranberry pomegranate green tea buttercream ganache cupcakes with coconut lemon basil frosting.  Cherry chocolate Dr. Pepper marinated pulled pork with aged, roasted, and pureed serrano, chipotle, jokola, habanero, jalapeno, shoshito, hatch, and bell peppers.  Snickerdoodle cookie dough and birthday cake batter ice cream, peanut butter and jelly ice cream, and cayenne dark chocolate truffle and Earl Grey tea ice cream neopolitan sandwich on oatmeal bacon salted caramel cookies.

Why am I proving my own point wrong by describing such seemingly delicious food?  Imagine a musical super team-up of Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Nirvana, and Yo Yo Ma.  Could be amazing, right?  Unless Freddy and Elton were playing the guitar, Jimi the drums, Nirvana was a flugelhorn section, and Yo Yo Ma was the leading vocalist.  Ok, this may be a bit of an extreme example, but the fact is that so many of these recipes are coming from people who MIGHT not be the best judge of these things.  There’s an ‘event horizon’ of complexity in all things, and putting every pepper you can name in or just loading on as many combinations is a sure fire way to make it all taste like a mush.  We learned the basics of this in kindergarten; mixing all the paints together doesn’t make rainbow paint, it makes deuce-brown.  Combined with the battle call of “More bacon!”, there’s much to dodge out there for this reason.
Thankfully, this is a trend that has hit beer minimally.  There have been certain transgressors (I’m looking at you, Maple Bacon Voodoo Doughnut!), but the serious connoisseurs have universally reviled them.  Some, however, skirt this universality and can be very polarizing.  Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale is one of these beers, and taking a look at the big-two review sites highlights this.  Beer Advocate gives it basically a C+, Rate Beer an abysmal 33.  Now, in matters of this, I try to forget that Beer Advocate owner (Todd Alstrom) is one of the biggest douches on planet earth (something about Hurricane Sandy and Storm Nemo and terrible schadenfreude).  Generally I consult both, but my own experience puts me in the Rate Beer camp (also, I have to admit I really like their App), this beer is downright disappointing.  As a brown ale it’s far too light-bodied, as a nut brown ale it’s hardly nutty, but as a maple nut brown ale…  Well, you can taste SOMETHING like maple.  It’s just cloyingly sweet, like imitation maple breakfast syrup in a just passable brown ale.  I’m not dissuaded from trying Tommyknocker’s other stuff (I hear the imperial maple nut brown ale is better, maybe), but this is one I won’t trifle with again.

Le Cirque Founder Returns to Release New Book

Mitchell Wilburn, Sirio Maccioni, John Curtas

Le Cirque, for lack of a better word, is an institution.  This was true when the mother-ship opened in 1974 New York City (otherwise known as when NYC was extremely scary and fine dining was scarce), and it is doubly true today in every location another Le Cirque or Sirio or Circo opens.  The founder and patriarch of this family-owned business has been a classic character in the New York food scene, but on special occasion the man himself, the consummate host, will make it out to our humble metropolis.  Sirio Maccioni has been masterminding and marshaling a legacy of amazing chefs, consistently head-turning food, a social-club for the elite, and arguably has been the axis on which the fine dining of our great nation has spun on for the last forty years.  In this age of celebrity chefs and TV cooking competitions, there seems to have been a shift in restaurant culture.  This shift is not necessarily towards the food, but rather away from the “experience”.  In this realm, the realm of greeting guests, being a likable and charismatic host, and giving your restaurant its personality, Sirio Maccioni was the Gordon Ramsay, the Joël Robuchon, the Thomas Keller of his day.
Sirio came back to Vegas to promote his new book, A Table at Le Cirque.  Part coffee-table book, part photo-memoir, part cook book, it’s yet another release from the Maccioni family to yours. While the last few media releases from the Maccionis have either been collections of old family recipes from his wife, Egidiana Maccioni, personal and in-depth autobiographies, or even a behind-the-scenes HBO special on the family’s tribulations in moving Le Cirque from the Palace Hotel to the Bloomberg Building, A Table at Le Cirque has been more of an honest look at the restaurant in its heyday.  Sirio has garnered a world-class assortment of anecdotes, ranging from his most impressive guest (among which, Pope John-Paul: “He knew fifteen languages!”) to frequent dining stars like Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, and Diana Ross.  And of course, for the chefs in all of us you’ll find a few of the dishes that made Le Cirque an icon.  Their time periods are reflected in their style, and as Le Cirque as a whole in the position of a trend setter.  Mr. Maccioni, whose three sons Mario, Marco, and Mauro continue his legacy in professionalism, is still a host at heart.  Always quick to hospitality, at his age he still signed any book needing signed and posted for photos with whoever wanted one, ever a affable face to fine-dining’s usual stony visage