Spring Menu Highlights: Starting Off 2013 Right

Over the past couple weeks, as is our position, Mr. Curtas and I have eaten out on our own, and have noted some new dishes of the season’s menu change that deserve their due recognition.  We’ve taken the best of the best and are bringing to you those that really struck a chord with us.

For anyone wanting to take up the fun little occasion of a “Dine Around”, this would be a great guide for it.  Why did I do a top 9 instead of a top 10?  Well, you could say that last spot is for YOU, dear reader, to tell me in the comments your top pick in new spring menu items.  I look forward to reading it, and maybe even trying it out for myself…

Curry Scallops with Cauliflower (Les Saint-Jacques au Chou-Fleur et Curry) – Le Cirque in Bellagio:

New Executive Chef Paul Lee is making full use of his new position as “fine dining guy to keep your eye on” by really veering away from the commonplace, the expected, and the national dining character itself.  While everyone is tripping over themselves trying to chip this and gelee that, Chef Lee is de-complexifying things.  These scallops were indeed scallops, but the specter of a spicy green curry and nutty roasted pistachios added to its natural sweetness and buttery flavor.  Each bite (I took mine with the endive salad) finishes off with nutty roasted Sicilian pistachios and tangy, umami tamarind vinaigrette.   It wasn’t in your face, but it was really in your head.  If I had to really describe it, it would be the difference between a pretty lady coming up and ripping your shirt off, and the same just giving you a wink from across the room.  Paul Lee is really exemplifying the maxim “Less is more”.

Foie Gras with Rhubarb compote – Public House in The Venetian:

Danged near everywhere, I’m seeing this massive influx of rhubarb, especially rhubarb and foie gras.  I think I’ve seen four in the past couple weeks that all had that same formula.  I think this was the best example of it (I have yet to try the Foie Gras w/ rhubarb 3-ways by John Courtney at Pinot Brasserie.) because of simply the quality of the brioche, the range in flavor of the compote and jus, and the technical precision of the foie.  Each bite had that livery richness, a perfect level of salt, not too much sweetness, and a beautiful blend of spice notes from the jus.  While I usually prefer to err on the savory side of the foie gras spectrum, this was a wonderful example of the sweet side.

Grilled Barramundi – The Barrymore in The Royal Resort:

While I do share the skepticism Mr. Curtas has towards the hip new sustainable “Replacement fishes”, and generally consider them about as appropriate a replacement as a clown car is for fire truck, this is the first time I’ve had a Barramundi dish that went for a more traditional Thai style.  It’s done with a ginger-cilantro sauce and some preserved lemon, on top of coconut herb rice.  It’s not exactly a sashimi fish, so it makes for a solid canvass for the exotic palate of flavors.

Dungeness Crab Salad – Carnevino in The Venetian:

I plan on doing a full article on the back-stage tour and beautiful meal I had just recently, but I’d like to include particular dish because of how incredible it was.  Firstly, you have these Dungeness crabs flown in weekly, living just a day or two before it’s on your plate.  Then you have these bizarre variety of avocado called “Surprise Avocado” from a California Farmers Market, which are about the size of an ostrich egg and have a creamy, tangy style to them.  Little bit of kumquat diced in the salad and sliced right on top, bit of butter lettuce, fresh cream and herbs for the crab, and you have one really interesting dish.  It showcases the oceanic flavor of the crab and contrasts it with the sweet and citrus-y bitter kumquat, becoming a fresh and almost addictive dish (Keith the Sommelier paired it with this lovely very northern Italian white: very crisp and minerality, complimented the crab perfectly).

Southern Fried Chicken – Public House in The Venetian:

I’m just not a fried chicken guy, and even less of a dark meat guy, but something about this ale-brined free range bird and the Tabasco Orange-Blossom honey made it so finger-licking good (seriously, it can get messy).  Super moist, so much more flavorful than the supermarket chickens that share more in common with tofu than a hen house, and fried perfectly.  Not oily at all, and the skin didn’t slough off like the Colonel’s will.  It’s rare to see it done well, and even rarer to see it without a DAMNED waffle underneath it, like some kind of superstitious “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” watchers attracting totem.

Chilled Razor Clam Cru – Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan:

Remember when Comme Ça was going for that strange farm-to-table thing, and wasn’t really pulling it off?  Just a few months ago?  Well somebody wised up and flipped the danged script, because now they are no longer avoiding the Hoity-Toity that comes along with good french food (waiters are still wearing plaid, though).  Served in the shell, this mix of diced clam, diced peppers, citrus (a blend I think, couldn’t quite put my finger on it), and applewood smoked salmon roe had all the markings of unique modern French, and none of the “locavore” pandering.  The few ingredients struck a really nice “chord” of flavor. Refreshing, simple, and just really fun, it’s the start of a good trend at Comme Ça.

Lamb “Pot-au-Feu” (L’Agneau Printanier du Colorado) – Le Cirque in Bellagio:

In the same vein as the scallops, this dish is an interesting turn on the rustic.  A perfect little braised shoulder medallion, a chop, veggies, and a full bodied consomme.  There’s also a bit of sweetbreads (another emerging trend), but done to avoid the overly salty way others can be.  Where the scallops were “complex but subtle”, this was “subtle but complex”.  This is one of those dishes where you can reset, clear your mind, and truly enjoy the natural flavors of well-sourced vegetables and meat.  If you can appreciate the classics, go for this one ASAP.

HONORABLE MENTION


“The Flying Lariat” by Nathan Greene – RM Seafood in The Mandalay Bay:

With the growing, exploding high-end cocktail scene we’re seeing these days, I would be remiss in excluding this.  Nathan Greene just launched his seasonal cocktail menu, and on it his award winning Bols Genever cocktail.  For those of you still skeptical on the culinary versatility and ability of mixology, this is one that will convert you to a believer.  It’s a mix of the Bols, vermouth, aperitif wine, amaro, bitters, and just a touch of absinthe.  It has great balance, a classic dryness, modern complexity, and showcases each of the main ingredients well.  This one is on their bar-only “Secret Menu”, so be sure to come early to dinner or stay late.  Oh, and I found a neato little video of Nathan teaching you how to make it!  On top of a mountain no less…

BEST OF SHOW

Parisian Gnocchi – Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan:

I wish I got a better picture to do this justice, but the darkest dining room on the strip holds no love for my bargain camera.  Dig this: 50/50 pâte à choux and Gruyère, rolled into little balls and cooked in brown butter, with house-made goat cheese, crisped up braised lamb neck, and mint.  This is Comme Ça being trying to be more French than Charles De Gaul as a mime eating a baguette surrendering to the Eiffel Tower.  Easily the fluffiest, lightest gnocchi I’ve had in town.  It’s beautiful, comforting food, and I really could eat it by the bucket.  Go there, get this, no matter what.

Public House Hosts Beer vs. Booze Showdown

The Public House in The Venetian has many reasons to celebrate, and allowed them to culminate in the popular form of a course pairing dinner showdown. Reason One to celebrate: The grand old time that is the Nightclub and Bar Show was in town, a thing that to liquor professionals is like a week-long bacchanalia. Reason Two: Grant Grill of San Diego Mixologist Jeff Josenhans was in town for the NCB Show, and a friendly competition with hometown-hero Cicerone Russell Gardner seemed like the natural thing to do. Reason Three: Do we really need a reason?It sounds amazing! After the little knot of other food writers said their hellos, the staff wasted no time in getting starting this off right.

The first course was their crispy duck egg roll, with a little bit of apricot jam. This was paired with a truly great beer by Jolly Pumpkin, Bam Bier. The white pepper tastes and funky tartness from their famous wild yeast cut the richness and the oil of the fried roll. Jeff’s cocktail, the Asian Cowboy Sour, did a great job contrasting by using High West White Whiskey, pressed Meyer lemon, purple basil and Cointreau. Right into the second course was a Public House favorite, and a running item in all of Anthony Meidenbauer’s menus, grilled octopus salad. The light salad and sweet charred octopus was paired with a kind of yeast-forward and slightly bitter Grimbergen Blonde Belgian ale and a cocktail called the “Venetian Arrangement.” It was made with Sarpa Di Poli Grappa Moscato, Antica Carpano Sweet Vermouth, a sweet aromatic wine from the barachetto grape, Fee Brother’s Lavender Water, pressed Genoa lemon and muddled rosemary. The cocktail was so complex and so unique, but its execution came off perfectly. It was aromatic, floral, and balanced against the dish perfectly.

The “main” course was a braised short rib, cooked and reduced in Deschutes Black Butte Porter, with a side of English pea mashed potatoes. Now, being braised in a rather smoky porter, both the mixologist and the cicerone went in the direction of smoke. Russell went for something of a wildcard with Aect Ochlenferla Urbock Rauchbier. Smoked beers are often heavy-bodied and semi-sweet, but this kept the smoke but was more clean and crisp, like an urbock lager usually is. Jeff created a cocktail called “Spirit Grocer’s Soiree” using Templeton Rye, smoked dark muscovado simple syrup, Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned Bitters, and a Guinness foam topped with just a touch of smoked paprika. The whole course was smoke-central, and both had their own distinctive qualities towards the dish.

This next course was somewhat obtuse in the description, “Beer, Cheese and Booze Trio.” What it actually was is a trio of cheeses, each one paired with one beer and one small cocktail. The first cheese/beer/booze bite was a St. Andre triple cream, a soft rind buttery cow’s milk cheese, paired with a citrusy trippel-Anchorage Brewing Co.’s The Tide and Its Takers, and a “Little Jig” of Tito’s Vodka, St. Germain, tangerine champagne and cardamom. The aged English cheddar went with a nice malty Firestone DBA and a Beefeater Gin, Graham’s Tawny Port, bruised parsley, lime and Luxardo Syrup Cocktail. Lastly was a slightly salty and in-your-face American style blue cheese, Roquefort Blue, paired with a very American-style Sculpin IPA, and a cocktail of Pusser’s 15 Rum, a sauternes wine, and fresh pressed pineapple juice. The realization that the mixologist went for the classic pairing of wine and cheese, but using wine-centric cocktails, was quite stunning. This one cheese course was like a meal in itself, but there was still dessert to go.

The final course was a dark chocolate mini-tart with a little layer of crumbled peppered bacon. Both masters of pairings went top-notch with the finale, with Russell choosing the very heavy bodied and complex Firestone 16, full of toffee, bourbon, and especially chocolate notes. Jeff went with a cocktail called “Smooth Criminal,” a mix of Breaking and Entering St.George Bourbon, white creme de cacao, Funkin Raspberry Puree, and cinnamon-infused whipped cream. Honestly, dinners like these only have one winner: the diners. Both Russell Gardner the Cicerone and Jeff Josenhans the Mixologist did an amazing job of not only creating a wonderful dinner of libations, but showing to everyone how true masters of their respective crafts operate.

Rollin’ Smoke BBQ: Smoking Section, Please!

The new winner for widest gulf between location and quality, ever since Sheridan Su’s Great Bao no longer occupies Chair 4 at a hair salon, is Rollin’ Smoke Barbecue.

Located right in the heart of an only medium-scary strip club district, almost under a freeway, and next to an AM evangelical radio station, it’s not the most hospitable of places.  Despite this, it’s known by BBQ-experts and Southerner Ex-Pats as the best down-home meat experience money can buy here in town.

Speaking of money, pretty danged cheap too!  Thirteen clams gets you a trio of meats, one of their kicked-up unique sides, and a drink; all of this is enough for one very hearty meal.  There’s even an All You Can Eat (conflicting prices on in-store signs and website, either $18 or $25),  which I’m guessing is a perfect form of suicide.  Death By Meat, but what a way to go!

 

Pulled, link, and brisket

 

Almost everything they make in house, from jalapeno slaw to fried okra, spicy hot links (my particular favorite, but I’m always partial to sausage), catfish fry, and whatever golden ratio of spices they rub on all the meats.  They do about half a dozen different styles of ribs, each just a deep red from smoke and with nearly as much meat as a steak on a 3-bone portion.

The pulled pork shoulder is a smoke-bomb, and goes perfectly with their secret recipe sauce.  The tangy, peppery, and seducingly sweet paints the canvass of a pulled-pork sandwich perfectly.  I’ve noted the brisket can suffer the most from overcooking though.  The slow Tuesday I visited, it was fall-apart perfection, but the busy Saturday was rushed into stew meat.  Sad, but still on-par or above the “famous” chain-style barbecue dotting the landscape.

 

St. Louis rib, brisket, and link

 

In the way of non-smoked foods, sides notwithstanding, they stay in key with the southern tradition of fish+fry.  Cornmeal breaded catfish was a bulls eye,  and it came with these little jalapeno “corn ball” hushpuppies.  Outside of that, it’s all meat all the time.

Sorry Vegetarians.  This place is a addictive good (seriously, I’m getting the shakes thinking about those ribs), and if you need some pre- or post-strip club grub, bub, then you need to make a “pit” stop.

 

Catfish fry, jalapeno corn balls, potato salad

 

 

 

ROLLIN’ SMOKE BARBECUE

3185 S Highland Dr, Ste 2,3

Las Vegas, NV 89109

(702) 836-3621
http://www.rollinsmokebarbeque.com

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PINOT Envy Times Deux 2: a Good Day to DEUX

An interesting idea, credited to the Keeper of the Keys to this blog – Mr. John Curtas- is two critics taking in the same meal, writing a couple articles blind of each other’s impressions, and seeing where that leaves them.  This was doubly fortuitous, as in the making I learned of a crazy-good restaurant, easily overlooked for lack of PR, Pinot Brasserie.  Judging by our overlapping cares and qualms with the Franco-foods, it makes for an interesting look at things.

Pinot Brasserie, perhaps the most overlooked restaurant on the strip, has been punching out what can only be called “some seriously good food”.  Now I am generally loath to talk about food in the way people usually describe a burger stuffed with bacon and hair gel, but the dishes coming from the hands of Chefs Eric Lhuiller and John Courtney are definitely -seriously- serious.  The menu has a ton of old-school French staples, from escargot to lobster bisque, precicely what you’d expect from a Brasserie but missing the specter of pomp and pernicious hoity-toity-isms so often looming in even the most traditionally casual French concepts.  A “bouchon” is no longer synonymous with friendly home-spun Lyonnaise sausage-huts, and a “bistro” is anything but modest or moderate, but a brasserie still clings to it’s roots as relaxed.

 

Chefs Eric and John. Dang, them CHOPS!

 

There are some very VERY strong dishes that would be blowing people away if they were all hip and trendy and new, but it looks like you’d have to cover the walls in graffiti, pump in whatever pop singer my five-year-old niece is listening to, and call it “P” by Morton’s.  But it would be a downright crime to let the fog machines and bass beats cloud your perception of this delicious little langostino bite, poached with black truffles to double up on that richness, and perfectly seasoned by a salty, full bodied, consumme-ish aspic.  It gives what is sometimes felt missing with the better crustaceans, that little hint of the sea that makes oysters or urchin so addictive.

 

a perfect little two-bite

 

And their foie gras!  Don’t go telling me about your apricot compotes, or your mushroom reduced sauces, or your candied fig.  In a very inspired move, they go for complimenting flavors by pairing this seared taste of heaven with a smoked sausage coin, but then contrasting flavors with green lentils cooked in some kind of buttery, light, tangy sauce.  Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by another foie gras, such an iron-clad staple of French dining, I get my perceptions on the stuff challenged.

The “main attraction” of our tasting was a duo of lamb saddle and loin, rolled in a distinctly Moroccan spice blend (paprika-centric, but with some great aromatics).  Along side a sweet date sauce, it was an interesting little side-note from a predominantly “French as French can be” tasting.

 

the Lamb

 

I’ll touch on desert last for the sake of chronology, but for the savory courses, I wanted to hit on this lobster bisque.  You guys THIS LOBSTER BISQUE, oh my stars and stripes.  It’s poured into the bowl at-table, around the standing claw meat and the little fresh cream lobster salad crustini, topped with a healthy bit of caviar.  There’s that note again, the sea-flavor of the caviar and the rich, sweet lobster, so perfect together.  That’s all great, but this bisque is mana from heaven.  It’s not the thick canned-soup bisque you get ladled to you everywhere else, but a frothy, creamy, but light concoction.  Fresh minced vegetables, roma tomatoes, a good helping of garlic, and something perceptively smoky (paprika again?).  Downright addictive, I’d buy it by the industrial drum if I could.  I’d have a cup of that in the morning to wake me up, just from pure enjoyment.

 

Get in your car. Order this. Thank me later.

 

The desert was something I enjoyed for it’s creativity.  Not the common confectionary of French places, but an interesting pairing between a strawberry and a Humbolt-Fog looking cheese.  The strawberry was sliced up like a hasselback potato, roasted and drizzled with a sweet and tangy balsamic and black pepper sauce.  It was the kind of ending of a tasting that I really prefer, not where it’s looked at like a challenge or prison sentence, but just a little unassuming bite of sweetness and complexity.

 

Le Fin…?

 

Of course there was much more to this meal than I can speak to.  The wine pairings were expertly picked (the dessert port especially, WOW), there was a cheese plate, a scallop course with a watercress puree done as well as you’d expect in such a great restaurant.  It’s unusual when a great crime of our undulating restaurant industry isn’t a place closing, but a place just not being a constant reminder of what a semi-casual French dining should be.  Unpretentious, comfortable, and once again, serious food.  Vive le Pinot!

PINOT BRASSERIE

In the Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.8888

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This was a ton of fun!

Cicerone v. Sommelier Showdown at Aureole

Cicerone: Sarah Johnson
Sommelier: Cristophe Tassan

With the importance of craft beer and the profession of a cicerone rising, traditionalists in the wine community may be leaning back on their heels at the hottest new staple in the Food and Beverage scene. While both practitioners of the fermented arts are no doubt dedicated to their service and education exploits, there is something of a friendly rivalry between those who plant their flag on the beer or wine side of the border. While there are so few beer-lovers expert enough out there to call themselves a cicerone, and essentially none that can be called an expert at both, the position of beer as a pairing has been received well by even the neophytes of the scene. And why not? What beer lacks in the pedigree and subtly of wine, it makes up with variety and approachable nature in spades. That said, there is still much debate on the pairings of both, right down to a dish-by-dish basis, with great points and criticisms for both sides. As something of an inauguration for the Mandalay Bay’s new Director of Food and Beverage and our city’s first lady cicerone, Sarah Johnson was charged with making a beer pairing for a five-course meal at Aureole. The twist was that Aureole’s wine director and resident sommelier, Christophe Tassan, made his choices on the same menu, with the diners to decide which pairing is the victor.

Of the five courses, there were stand out winners in both categories, and even a few “too close to call” moments. Wine truly won out on the first course, Charlie’s onion soup with foie gras, truffle and gruyere puff pastry being paired with Pommery “Pop” extra brut champagne, dry enough to cut through the richness, but with a sweet and complex flavor to complement the earthiness. On the beer side, the cheese course of a rock blue and poached pear tart, alongside a fromage blanc with artisanal maple syrup, fit best with the Rochefort “8” Trappist quad. The Oloroso sherry was an interesting match with the sweet portions, but it may have lacked the effervescent and full bodied properties needed to work with both strong aged and creamy cheeses. Dessert was also a big win for beer, mainly carried by the spiced mini-carrot cake with super light cream cheese frosting from the “American dessert sampler” being a nearly perfect pairing with Old Rasputin XV Anniversary Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout. The heavily roasted and chocolaty brew played off the cake so well you’d imagine they were made for each other.

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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

http://www.chinitamexicangrill.com