John A. Curtas has been the voice of the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the author of eating Las Vegas – The 50 Essential Restaurants, which will have its 5th edition published in December, 2016, as well as being the author of the Eating Las Vegas website.
There are three things you’ll notice about Hatsumi as you approach it: 1) the strange neighborhood it’s in; and 2) the walled-off fortress (inside a refurbished motel, above) that encases it; and 3) its nondescript entrance (below).
I’m not calling the approach to Hatsumi daunting, but missionaries feel more welcomed in a meth den. There’s a sign on the outside the compound telling you Hatsumi is in there, and an entry gate facing the street, but unless you already know about it, you’ll see the sign and think, “Okay, something vaguely Japanese is going on in there.”
Something vaguely Japanese is going on in there, but neither the block nor the fortress would seem the place for it.
Can we come right out and say it? The Downtown Project has been a disaster, restaurant-wise. Creating a viable food and restaurant scene downtown has been a slow, painful, uphill climb. I’ve lost track of the failures, the buy-outs and the re-boots of various places. The game-changers (Carson Kitchen, PublicUs), as good as they are, didn’t end up changing the game all that much, and Tony (Mr. Personality) Hsieh’s real estate maneuvers have stultified, rather than revitalized, much of the neighborhood.
After ten years of dumb ideas and over-hyped music festivals, downtown continues to struggle due to its primary problem: a lack of critical mass of residents to support its non-casino businesses.
What Hsieh and his sycophants have done, however, is create a cult of insiders who treat downtown Las Vegas like a private club. There’s really not enough of them to support more than a few bars and restaurants, but the whole point of the Fergusons (the walled-off space housing Hatsumi) is that there may be enough of them to turn this renovated motel space into a foodie-centric hipster hangout…er….uh….excuse me…a “curated market cultivating local music, art, nature, food and creatives/makers.” (Think Container Park without the smell of desperation and commercial mishaps.)
To do this, the DP has recruited Dan Krohmer — one of our most successful local chefs (cf. Other Mama) — to create a food and drink scene compelling enough to make these folks want to flock here. (Krohmer, apparently, being one of those “creatives” who doesn’t mind being called by an adjective.)
Approaching the courtyard, you’ll see some giant, upended truck sculpture that signals you’re in the land of Burning Man. Impressive it is, but you’ll still not have a clue about the restaurant. Then you’ll see the meager doorway — nothing giving you an inkling that a robatayaki/yakitori restaurant lies behind it.
This is intentional. The whiff of exclusivity is everywhere. You’re just supposed to know, you know? In other words, if you have to ask about Hatsumi, you’re probably not hip enough to be here.
When it comes to Krohmer’s food, however, there are plenty of reasons to raise your coolness quotient.
Once you enter, things get much nicer. The elongated, skinny room is situated sideways with the kitchen and bar right in front of you, just a couple of steps from the doorway. To the left and right are comfortable booths, and the left-to-right wide space is surprisingly comfy and welcoming.
Krohmer, however, would seem to be a fish out of water in more ways than one. Other Mama, his other restaurant, is all about seafood, and he’s received much local acclaim for his unique spin on sushi, crudo and all things swimming. With Hatsumi, he’s ditched the yanagi for a yaki in order to marinate, skewer and grill a host of bite-size Japanese delicacies — the sort of quickly-consumed food you find underneath train tracks all over Tokyo.
At first glance, Krohmer’s menu is striking in its foreignness, and rather stubborn insistence on hewing closely to the izakaya template. How he carefully articulates the flavors of Japan, without compromise, is something to be admired. Whether it will be enough to pull customers in from all over the valley will be something to watch.
What you’ll start with involves either a cocktail, beer or sake. The wine list is practically non-existent — just like in Japan. The selection of sakes is impressive, and priced for all budgets. (I make no claims of brewed rice beverage expertise, beyond knowing that, as with wine, you rapidly hit a point of diminishing returns as you go up in price.) Bottles are offered in both 300ml and 720ml sizes, making light imbibing a breeze if you’re a party of one or two. Nothing goes better with this food.
If you want to turn completely Japanese, you’ll head straight to the okonomiyaki — a savory cabbage pancake here spiked with shrimp and bacon. It may not be composed with the same tenderness as the ones as Tatsujin X or Raku, but it be pushes all the right umami buttons. From there you should proceed to the breaded and deep-fried eggplant katsu, which will have even eggplant haters reflexively grabbing for second bites.
(Tantalizingly terrific tataki)
Both of these come under the “Plates” section of the menu and are meant to be shared, as are the gyoza (here with that crispy skirt thing that’s all the rage), beef tataki salad (swimming in ponzu), and Lomi Lomi (ocean trout, also swimming in chili-enhanced ponzu). Less acidic, but equally satisfying, are the poached chicken salad, nicely dressed with a mild, miso vinaigrette and full of big chunks of cashews, and asparagus chawanmushi — a baked, grainy, white tofu custard that tastes better than it looks.
Having made three visits here, it appears this section of the menu is a work in progress. Krohmer made his name by creating a core menu and then playing off it, seasonally. I expect some of this menu is still in flux, depending upon how the neighborhood reacts to his warm mushroom salad (a bit dense for summertime), or a jumble of braised pork bellies (kakuni) on a plate — a recipe straight from the David Chang playbook, circa 2010.
if they’re available, get the crispy quail breast stuffed with ground pork flecked with veggies. Unless you’re a tofu lover skip the house-made (thick slabs in a cool dashi broth with woodsy slices of cured ‘shrooms). If you love the stuff, you have my blessing to go nuts. My recommendation is to get the pickled vegetables — they’re a lot tastier and a treat unto themselves.
(Smoke some kushi, grab a kushi)
Then, there are the skewers. Lots of them, grilled carefully over binchotan charcoal, and glazed with sweet soy. The perfect bar food. Food you can contemplate, or absentmindedly nibble as you drink or concern yourself with more incorporeal matters.
Las Vegas doesn’t have a pure yakitori restaurant — one specializing solely in grilling chicken parts — but this is the closest we’ve come. Yes, there are izakayas on Spring Mountain Road and points south, but Hatsumi is the first to raise the grilling of bird parts to a specialty of its own. Heart, liver, thigh, meatball, you name it, they’re grilling it…to a “T”. Juicy, succulent, meat from the whole bird comes to your table on point and perfect. Like a lot of seemingly simple food, the beauty is in the details — in this case cutting each morsel to a similar size and watching them to the exact second of proper doneness. Nothing is worse than overcooked chicken, and nothing less appealing than the opposite. Here, you won’t have to worry about either and will drop your kushi in appreciation.
As for dessert, just remember what you’ve been told (by me) dozens of times: if you want a great dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.
Will Hatsumi make it? Is downtown Las Vegas ready for a Japanese izakaya? Are there enough residents, true believers, and Downtown Project acolytes to provide it with enough customers? Could it (shudder) be good enough to actually draw people from the ‘burbs to these long-neglected blocks?
Well, it certainly drew these three gals down there one night, and each of them looked about as hip as a halter top…so there’s hope.
My first meal here was comped; my next two ran us around $100/two including a small bottle of sake and two cocktails. You can easily get out of here for half that if you want just a few skewers, a share plate and some sides. .
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.
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.
Kaiserschmarren (As Made By Wolfgang Puck) - YouTube
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.
There isn’t a backwater anywhere in America that doesn’t sport at least one Chinese restaurant. In places as far flung as rural Texas, godforsaken South Dakota, or suburban New Jersey — there would always be a “Jade Palace” or “Chang’s Garden” holding down the corner of a building, slinging their stir-frys and satisfying customers with gloppy sauces and kung pao predictability.
In many of these places, the family running the joint (and make no mistake, the entire family worked there) would be the only Chinese-Americans in town. Like many poor immigrants, they were shunned at first and had to find work where they could. And feeding people (themselves included) was one business readily available. So the Chinese spread throughout America in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing their tasty-if-predictable food with them. And for about 150 years, things stayed pretty much the same.
Like many Americans, I didn’t discover Chinese food until I left home as a young adult. (I don’t think the idea of going to a Chinese restaurant ever occurred to my parents.) I remember thinking how strange moo goo gai pan was the first time I tasted it. Ditto, shiny roast Chinese turkey, won ton soup and a host of other standards. What was chop suey? And what were these strange, slick, shiny sauces on everything? Who was this Foo Young character, and why was he deep-frying my eggs and bathing them in brown gravy? Confused I was, but intrigued as well.
Making things worse (and almost blunting my enthusiasm entirely) was a concoction put out by La Choy called Chicken Chow Mein— which was probably many American’s introduction to non-restaurant Chinese food. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that La Choy did for China’s gastronomic reputation what Mao Tse-Tung did for high fashion. Amazingly, even though one of the founders of La Choy was killed by lighting (a sign from the heavens, no doubt, concerning his product), it perseveres.
Thus did generations of Americans learn about this cuisine through a cultural prism refracting decades of tribulation, compromise and synthesis, until the red-gold, banquet hall Chinese-American restaurant became as familiar as an old shoe…and just about as interesting.
(Hot and sour Shanghainese xiao long bao)
All of that started to change in this century, as almost by sheer weight of China’s cultural muscle did its various cuisines start to assert themselves on the American palate. In place of egg rolls came xiao long bao. Candied spare ribs suddenly took a back seat to cumin lamb skewers, and dry-fried this and boiled that became the order of the day, with luminous, supercharged Sichuan fish opening up our sensibilities as well as our sinuses.
If the 19th and 20th centuries represents American-Chinese food’s birth and growing pains, then the 21st century is truly version 3.0 — with a blossoming of taste awareness and appreciation that this cuisine’s great great grandparents could only dream off. The textural subtleties of Canton province have been replaced by the noodles of the north, the dumplings of the east, and spices of the western plains. Regional differences are now celebrated, not glossed over in a sea of cornstarch, and intrepid fellow travelers scour the internet for the best bao, or the most luscious lamian. Knowing your chop suey from your chow mein is no longer enough, now one must be able to parse the fine points of jelly fish salad and fried pig intestines.
So, how does the novice reconcile all of these regional specialties into an easily digestible format? The hard way is to seek out little warrens of authenticity –the holes-in-the-wall in Chinatown (wherever you find a Chinatown) –where unique dishes are celebrated and compromises few.
Or, you can make it simple on yourself and go big box — in this case, with a trip to Mott 32 — the pan-Chinese restaurant that does to Chinese food what Morimoto did to Japanese cuisine a decade ago: present a modern menu in a hip, funky-cool space having more in common with a nightclub than any Chinese restaurant you’ve ever seen.
(Dinner and a show – this open kitchen provides both)
Mott 32 seemed to pop up out of nowhere in 2014 in Hong Kong, and immediately asserted itself as a major player on the upscale Chinese restaurant scene. Its website is deliberately opaque about its origins, stating only that it is named after an address in New York City(?). It opened here around New Years and plans are underway for global, big-box Chinese restaurant domination. Singapore and Bangkok are next on the horizon. Vancouver and Dubai have already been conquered.
The glamour you’ll see from the get-go; the money behind these digs drips from every opulent detail. It takes about 10 seconds of checking out the fabrics and comfy booths to figure out that you’re no longer in “Wok This Way” territory. Giant doors off the casino floor lead to a broad and deep bar area, with an ocean of top-shelf alcohol on the shelves, ready to bathe the long bar with their magnificence alchemy into complicated cocktails. (I don’t much bother commenting on great cocktails anymore, because interesting libations are everywhere in Vegas these days. For the record, this bar’s A-game is better than most.)
The lighting is diffuse and muted, but not too much, and the young women dotting the place (at the hostess stand, behind the bar) are as sexy and shiny as a lacquered Chinese box. Dresses are short, black and tight, and the cleavage is so profound, this joint’s nickname ought to be Mott 32D.
Don’t let all the comeliness fool you, though, because the food is the tits as well.
With a bases-covering menu of everything from Cantonese dim sum to hand-pulled noodles to Peking duck ($108), the whole point of M32 is to present upscale Asian with fashion-forward cocktails, in a glamorous setting in hopes of enticing a stylish crowd to descend. The website touts its Cantonese roots, “with some Beijing and Szechuan influences in our signature dishes” — which explains the nightly dim sum (limited if great), and perhaps the best roasted duck you’ve ever eaten.
The duck ($108, above) is the centerpiece of every meal here and it deserves to be. The two-day process it takes to bring one to table produces a bronzed, brittle, gleaming skin having bite-resistance of a thin potato chip. There are decent Peking ducks all over town (Wing Lei, Jasmine, Blossom, New Asia BBQ and Mr. Chow spring to mind), but the effect here is an otherworldly contrast of moist, rich meat topped with a duck fat-slicked crisp. Duck doesn’t get any duckier — its only drawback is you should have at least four people at your table before you order it. When you’re asked how you want your second course — as a deep-fried duck “rack,” or minced meat in lettuce cups — insist upon the latter, as the former (above bottom right), is a waste of time and bones.
It’s a shame they aren’t open for lunch, because dim sum at dinner feels as strange as dried fish maw ($498/pp(!)) for breakfast. Those dried fish bladders are for Chinese high rollers who love their squishy, gelatinous texture. (Their appeal to the western palate is, shall we say, a bit elusive.)
The dim sum are more approachable, and you’ll find no better xiao long bao (here called Shanghainese soup dumplings) in Las Vegas. They come four to an order ($14), and you’ll want to try both the traditional pork and hot and sour versions — the latter providing plenty of punch.
Next to the dim sum and the duck, the Pluma Iberico pork (above, $42) gets pushed the most by the staff. It is dense with flavor, a bit too sweet, and juicy — with as much in common with basic Chinese BBQ as that duck has with a McNugget. Before it arrives, you might want a few smaller plates, like the crispy dried Angus beef (below, $16), which comes out like a tangle of wispy, deep purple folds that shatter in the mouth with barely a bite. It is the barest gossamer beef, the antithesis of jerky. In another type of restaurant you might even call it molecular.
(We’re no longer at Panda Express, Toto)
For those wishing something meatier, the Triple Cooked Wagyu Short Rib ($88) provides enough beef for four hungry souls to gnaw on…although its inclusion on the menu feels like the restaurant is (literally) throwing a bone to its conspicuous carnivorous customers.
Those not wanting to spring for a whole duck can get some shredded quacker in a Peking duck salad ($18) with black truffle dressing. Lighter appetites will appreciate the wild mushrooms in lettuce cups ($20), or thick slabs of deep-fried Sesame Prawn Toast ($18) — which, in bulk and pure shrimp-ness, redefines this usually bland standard.
Not many non-Chinese are going to drop two Benjamins on the kitchen sink soup known as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall ($198), but hot and sour ($14) and won ton ($11) give plenty of soupy satisfaction for the price. If you’re dying to try fish maw, $68 gets you a cup of spongy, tasteless collagen. Yum!
In keeping with its Cantonese roots, there are plenty of expensive seafood options, none of which (abalone, sea cucumber, etc.) make much sense for Occidentals. But there’s plenty to love about the lobster “Ma Po Tofu” (above, $68) with its chunks of shellfish swimming with spicy/silky bean curd, as well as the smoked black cod ($42), and the poached fish (usually sea bass, $42) — floating in a Szechuan pepper broth — makes up in refinement what it lacks in kick.
Just for grins and giggles, we ordered two old reliables — Kung Po Prawns ($38) and General Tso’s Chicken ($28) — on one of our four trips here, and they each were flawless, properly spicy and not too sweet. You’ll have no complaints about the nutty shrimp fried rice, either.
(The Cantonese love their custards)
Desserts got my attention as well. (When’s the last time that happened in a Chinese restaurant?) They feature the au courant (Bamboo Green Forest (top right, $16)) alongside the classical (Mango with Coconut (sticky) Rice Roll ($12) on the split (Modern/Classic) dessert menu. Even an old bean paste hater like me found myself slurping the pure white custard-like Double Boiled Egg White (bottom left, $12) , on top of some grainy/pasty Black Sesame something-or-other. The pastry chefs at Guy Savoy have nothing to worry about, but for a restaurant working within the Chinese vernacular, these are damn tasty.
Mott 32 is as slick as that duck skin, but no less satisfying. The eclectic menu signifies that Chinese food has now taken a great leap forward into the promised land of high-end, gwailo dining dollars (something Japanese food did twenty years ago). Just because it’s a huge, expensive, well-financed chain doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed. The casual, luxurious vibe and ingredient-forward cooking are calculated to appeal to purists and tourists alike, and by and large, they pull it off.
More than anything else, though, Mott 32 represents a modern Chinese invasion. A China no longer burdened by its past; a cuisine no longer defined by egg rolls, fortune cookies and orange chicken. Whether you’re impressing a date or hanging with a crowd of conventioneers, you won’t find any better Chinese food in Las Vegas.
Like I said, this place is expensive. Expect to pay at least $100 for two (for food) unless you go crazy with the high-end, Chinese gourmet stuff, which you won’t. The wine list is Strip-typical, meaning: aimed at people with more money than brains. The somms are very helpful, and eager to point you to the (relative) bargains on the list, most of which go much better with the food than overpriced Cali cabs or chichi chardonnays. One of our four meals here was comped; another (for three) set us back 460 samolians, with a $100 bottle of wine.
The Rooster Boy Cafe is every food lover’s dream: a small (minuscule really) restaurant where the chef is at the stoves every day, sourcing local ingredients, and cooking and baking her little pea pickin’ heart out to the applause of her faithful customers. It is the type of intimate place that nurtures the soul of a food community. It is the type of place that Las Vegas still has too few of.
Good restaurants start with good groceries and chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal is justifiably proud of hers. Every week she gets a delivery from Kerry Clasby’s Intuitive Forager truck from SoCal, and every morning you can taste the difference they make. If there’s a more locavore, personal, handmade restaurant in town, I haven’t found it.
El-Nawal is a veteran of the New York and Las Vegas food scene. Having worked with industry giants like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Julian Serrano, her resumé has taken her from San Francisco to the Big Apple to Miami and finally, Las Vegas. Along the way, she’s invented desserts for Nobu, boiled bagels in Brussels, and catered in Mexico City. Looking at her history, you’d think running a minuscule breakfast/lunch spot in at out-of-the-way shopping center is the equivalent of A-Rod coaching Little League. And so it might be. But we in Las Vegas are lucky to have an all-star of her quality slumming it in our midst.
There’s nothing low rent about the food, however, or the beverages. They serve excellent La Colombe coffee here, and the espresso is one of the better ones in town. You pour your own if all you want is a cup of Joe, but the fancier cortados, cappucinos and con leches are just as compelling.
From the moment you approach the cozy dining alcove (practically hidden from the parking lot) and see the table laden with pastries, you know you’re in the hands of a baking and breakfast master. The vibe tells you whatever you get is going to be top notch, and watching the chef/owner patrol the premises (and work the line) just confirms the point.
(Get this galette)
Much is made of El-Nawal’s “Rooster Boy Granolas” and if your idea of going to a restaurant is to eat something you can just as well dump in a bowl at home, go nuts. (Lots of her roughage-seeking customers do.) For our dinero, though, your breakfast cravings will be better served by one of her hand-crafted galettes, pastries, or pancakes. No matter what you order, when you see a Dutch Oven soufflé pass your table, expect to be immediately gripped by ordering envy.
Veggies are market-driven, so whatever looked good that day is what you’re going to get. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh corn (above) tossed with green onions and then walloped with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar. If you insist upon something lighter, the “From Back Home” brings Middle Eastern healthiness in the form of a pillow-y flatbread surrounded by labne, cukes, tomato and a dusting of zaatar.
That same fluffy pita provides a foundation for Shashouka — eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce — while El-Nawal’s brioche provides the starch surrounding the Frenchy — a superlative baked egg unfortunately dressed with white truffle oil. (I suppose even a chef of El-Nawal’s caliber has to take a shortcut now and again.) They also cure wild-caught salmon here into a firm, gorgeous gravlax. Try finding another breakfast/lunch spot anywhere in Vegas that does this.
(Check out these chilaquiles!)
All of these are worthy contenders for top menu honors (as are the croissants, ginger cake, and pain au chocolat), but the “Mi Corazon” chilaquiles (above) deserve special recognition. These are not your mamacita’s chilaquiles. In place of forlorn tortilla chips drenched in sauce and topped with an indifferent egg, here you find a tangle of fresh-fried crisps laced with cotija cheese, cubes of perfect avocado, and tomato and onion — all sitting in a pool of tangy, herbaceous green chile sauce laced with Mexican crema. The peppery bite is there, but also something deeper, more elemental, more ingredient-driven. In other words: exactly what you’d expect when a cultural standard gets refracted through the lens of a top chef.
On weekends the lines form early, so first timers are advised to go midweek and early, when it’s just Sonia, her tiny staff, and a few regulars at the counter or outdoor tables. What they accomplish in a restaurant less than 500 feet square is something you need to see for yourself.
One day recently we caught her cooking in a dress and pearls after she’d returned from an early morning photo shoot. “No time to change,” she smiled. “This place fills up fast.” And so it was and so it does — our smallest, most intimate restaurant doing what every chef claims is their golden grail — cooking heartfelt recipes for loyal clients who know and appreciate the good stuff. Las Vegas needs a dozen more Rooster Boy Cafes, but there’s only one Sonia El-Nawal. She’s the best thing to happen to cooking in pearls since June Cleaver baked cookies for Wally and The Beav.
Prices range from $8-$13, meaning: it’s really hard for a couple to spend more than forty bucks here, even if you go crazy with ordering toasts, eggs, pastries and galettes…as you should. Get This: chilaquiles; shakshouka eggs; Frenchy – baked egg in brioche; croissant; pain au chocolat; ginger cake; granola; breakfast galette; wild salmon gravlax; Dutch Oven pancake; buttermilk pancakes; From Back Home – labne with pita; coffee.
“Kitchen at Atomic Sticking With Elevated Cuisine” read a recent headline. The article asked, primarily, how can you have an upscale restaurant right next to a dive bar? The point of the piece, if there was a point, read like the author was throwing a publicity bone to a place he wishes would quit with the fancy stuff.
But the point of The Kitchen at Atomic is not to be fancy, it’s simply to be good. Not burger and fries good, but foodie good, interesting good — the kind of chef-driven good that packs them into gastropubs from Boston to San Diego Bay. The kind of excellence that still struggles to find an audience in Las Vegas.
And the struggle is real. Because people won’t pay for good food here, not off the Strip at least. Mass-produced franchise food and soulless shopping malls create a race to the bottom for pricing, which puts local restaurants on their back foot from the jump. Even when intrepid gastronauts take a place to their bosom (Esther’s Kitchen, Sparrow+Wolf, EATT), there’s not enough of them to go around.
The City of Las Vegas (where I work, BTW) estimates that to hit critical mass for a vibrant downtown, you need 50,000 gainfully-employed people living there. Right now the number is around 5,000. God bless ’em (both the City and the residents), because they’re doing what they can to create a vibrant social, cultural and gastronomic scene between Charleston and Fremont Street, but there’s only so much discretionary income those 5K folks can spread among the restaurants vying for their dollars.
The real issue comes down to this: Do enough people want a real restaurant on East Fremont Street? Not finger food, not another cocktail lounge, and not, god forbid, another uncomfortable, loud-as-fuck hipster hangout, but a real down-to-earth bar-restaurant serving coursed out food with good drinks. You know, the way grownups eat.
Let’s analyze the data to try to answer this question. And by “analyze the data” I mean share the opinions springing feverishly from my brain as I type these words.
The Kitchen at Atomic began two years ago as an adjunct to Atomic Liquors — an über-cool, laid back cocktail/beer bar (above) with a steady clientele of Millennials, and a smattering of Gen Xrs. Like most things Millennial, half the people at AL look like they’re there for a purpose (quality imbibing, meeting a mate), while the rest look like they showed up because the ‘gram told them to. Most of the AL crowd looks like it’s more at home discussing session beers and saison ales than it does the fine points of hamachi crudo, or the piquancy of a yogurt-herb vinaigrette as it plays off the herbaceousness of fresh English peas.
Atomic Liquors was an old bar given new life six years ago by owner Lance Johns. It retains the feel of a place Charles Bukowski might’ve called home in the 60s, but its craft cocktails and PhD beer program make it more like a run-down jalopy with a shiny new turbocharged engine under the hood. It operates on many levels — old Vegas icon, new Vegas hangout — and has an avid following of both locals and tourists.
TKAA resides in the shiny renovated space adjacent to AL. In a previous life it used to be a gas station. In its present incarnation, it will strike you as as a sleek and somewhat cold industrial space — no more than 50 feet from its louche neighbor next door. The incongruity lies with these two co-joined siblings existing in two separate universes. At AL, you drink; at TKAA the food is the star. And quite a star it is, even if the drunks 40 feet away don’t know it.
The menu checks all the right boxes as a destination restaurant — marrow, long beans cured fish, charcuterie platter, artisanal greens — with appetizers hinting at the kitchen’s creativity, and mains driving the point home. The attention to detail given to those beans, or a cold cucumber/grape gazpacho, announce a new level of cooking for downtown, and offering a whole fish at market price is a bold move indeed for a neighborhood still pockmarked with vacant lots and tattoo parlors.
(Marrow me; beet me)
Glistening knobs of quivering marrow may be as foreign to East Fremont Street as a hooker with teeth, but you’ll forget where you are as you slather these jewels of adipose protein on the gorgeous, nutty toasted bread served with them. Grilled halloumi cheese may not fit with the neighborhood either, but the squeaky fromage will fit just fine as an appetizer for four. Raw seafood is everywhere these days, but the crudo, or denser, cured, striped bass, are both light and punch-packing — either with chili lime, or sumac and sherry vinegar.
(How green was my salad? Pretty friggin’ green.)
“Spring has sprung” were the words dancing in my head as I wolfed down the tumble of crunchy greenery called the Spring pea salad (above), while “clams to beat the band” was my mantra for the colorful array of grilled, sweet shellfish frosted with breadcrumbs and tinged with Fresno chili (below). In my lexicon of least favorite eats, raw veggie salads rank somewhere between frosted cupcakes and gummy hummus, but I found myself grooving on every bite of those snappy greens. The clams are simply in a class by themselves. You won’t find a better version of baked bivalves, on or off the Strip.
In many a gastropub, the larger the format, the worse the food gets — big proteins lacking the sexiness of high-concept tweezer food to some chefs. Not so to newly -installed Executive Chef Jackson Stamper, who seems to lavish just as much attention on pan-seared cauliflower steak and grilled swordfish as he does on his starters. I liked the menu of his predecessor, but the food now feels more focused, and the platings are prettier.
The biggest of his big boys is the Creekstone Farms dry-aged rib eye (at the top of the page). It’s priced by the ounce, and around $80 will get you enough mineral-tinged properly stored steer to feed four hungry souls. It may not have the iron-y tang and Roquefort-like zing of super-aged beef, but you won’t find a better steak within three miles of this one.
(Peak pork perfection)
And then there’s the rum-brined chop (above) — a dulcet compaction of pork so luscious and savory you will re-think your prejudices against this usually boring entree. Broccoli rabe, rum jus and mustard seeds complete the picture, and you’ll be tempted to graze upon another one as soon as it’s gone.
Desserts are more elemental and less chef-y than the savories. The deconstructed apple pie is a nice twist on an old standard, and the Guinness chocolate cake (below, really more like a dense, lacquered brownie), will have you reflexively polishing it off in defiance of all common dietary sense.
They seemed to have dialed back the beer and wine list, but it’s still interesting and well-priced — probably not enough for a true oenophile, but certainly so for the clientele. I won’t bother praising the top shelf cocktails because a bad mixed drink is now harder to find in Las Vegas than a good mixed drink used to be.
(Just what the doctor didn’t order)
Two years on, The Kitchen seems to have hit its stride. The talent is there, and the cooking is there, but will it be enough? Here is a restaurant that is doing almost everything right — from the bar to the service to the decor and to the food. Will it find its audience? Is there enough audience to find? Publicus down the street (with the most unwelcoming location in town) is packed all the time. Hatsumi (a stone’s throw across the street) seems to have hit a home run. But neither of them is a traditional, three-course restaurant. Are Millennials (the only customers that count downtown) ready to embrace this place?
Who knows? I’ve been at this too long to make any predictions. What I do know is that Las Vegas is in a constant battle with itself. The chefs and owners and food lovers — folks who really care about what they put in their mouths — desperately want downtown to become another Seattle or Denver….but you look around some days and realize we’re barely beating Bakersfield.
We are in the middle of another boom to be sure, and East Fremont and the Arts District are now on everyone’s radar. Will there be enough customers to sustain not just TKAA but all of these businesses? Or will there be a regression to the mean?
Las Vegas doesn’t need anymore average anything. (That’s what Henderson is for.) But mediocrity is still what sells. Only time will tell.
(Apps run $15-$20; mains from $25-$30; and sides $6-$8. Dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $125. The rib eye is at least 30% less than you would pay for a comparable cut on the Strip, and worth every penny.)
A maudlin, insincere printed card…means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card. – Anna Jarvis on Mother’s Day
Even when my dad was alive, neither of us was into the whole “Father’s Day” thing.
I have two sons, neither of whom is much into the whole “Father’s Day” thing, either.
My family has always considered the whole Mother’s Day thing fairly ridiculous, too.
Face it: If you need a special day of the year to appreciate your parents, then I feel sorry for you…and your parents.
Unlike Mother’s Day, which is wholly a 20th century American invention (completely disavowed by its inventor, Anna Jarvis, BTW), Father’s Day goes back to the Middle Ages. (Perhaps in those less scientific times, men needed a day of the year to take stock of all the seed they had sown. Or maybe, it was just one more acknowledgment of society’s patriarchal dominance, as if anyone needed reminding that cocks and balls controlled things in 1597. )
Mother’s Day got corrupted by the floral industry, greeting card manufacturers, and later, restaurants. It remains an absurdity of our culture fueled by guilt and dime store sentimentality.
Father’s Day, thankfully, doesn’t keep Hallmark in business. Ugly ties, action figures and preserved horse turds are more its thing.
Dad’s Day has something else going for it, too: it’s a fine day to go out to eat.
On Mom’s special day, everyone and their brother is falling all over themselves to take “Mom” out to eat. This tradition started presumably because “Mom” was slaving away at the stove the other 364 days of the year. (How many moms slave away at a stove these days?)
It’s precisely because everyone goes out to eat on Mother’s Day, that it’s the worst day of the year to do so. Kitchens are stressed to the max, menus are dumbed-down, and service is invariably atrocious. Anyone who goes out to eat on Mother’s Day is a fool. If your mom is (or your family) insists, do yourselves a favor: take her out to eat some other day. Problem solved.
Father’s Day is just the opposite. It’s business as usual for restaurants, because, presumably, no one is trying to give every friggin’ dad in American a day off from their (non-existent) kitchen chores. Father’s Day is all about bonhomie and thanking pops for having sex with mom and sticking around after having done so.
So do dad a favor this Sunday: take him out to eat at a real, manly man restaurant where he can indulge all his dad impulses and appetites, and all of you will feel better, not worse, for the experience.
To help you with this pleasant chore, I’ll make some suggestions, as I did last week on News 3 Las Vegas. Here I am in all my book-shilling, pants-bulging glory:
And here is a longer list of where you should take dear old dad, if you want to show him how much you love him. If you don’t love him, go to a buffet.
Jamie Tran is no bigger than a goi cuon. Her restaurant isn’t that large, either (50 seats), but within it, this pocket dynamo has pioneered neighborhood dining in a big way.
The Black Sheep‘s modest dimensions belie its ambitions. Within you’ll find a small bar towards the back and a loyal following of local foodies who have turned this unassuming storefront (in another soulless shopping mall, natch) into a a mecca for a unique blend of Asia-meets-American eats.
The restaurant is named after Tran’s familial nickname, but meeting her, you’ll have a hard time wondering where that reputation came from. Tran is as bubbly as a glass of Prosecco, with a smile as wide as one of her luscious pancakes. She can also talk your ear off about food, family, or the fun she has running this restaurant, and the enthusiasm she brings to the conversation can be tasted on the plate. That a female chef this young has made such a big splash on our local restaurant scene is no small feat.
(Honey, toast me some hot chicken)
Calling her food all over the map is an understatement. But this is one time the term “fusion food” fits. Tran takes salmon skins (at the top of the page) and turns them into tacos; perfumes her duck confit with lemongrass; and punctuates Indonesian corn fritters with mango salsa. There’s not a metaphor she doesn’t like to mix, which may first strike you as odd, but then, after only a bite or two, as oddly delicious in a “I never thought of that” sort of way.
Dishes as diverse as duck prosciutto salad, Thai basil shrimp ceviche, and “hot chicken” on honey toast all come at you from multiple directions, but once in the mouth, they all make sense. Tran is playing with her food, to be sure, but she’s equally at home sautéing vegan Vietnamese noodles, deep-frying a whole trout, and braising a lamb belly, after spicing very French flageolet beans with the scents of Vietnam.
(Picky palates prefer puffy pancakes)
If that’s not enough to pique your palate, then there’s her brunch — a meal most of us epicureans love to hate. The most confusing of meals (booze for breakfast? dessert for lunch?) is usually caloric and boring beyond words. Somehow, in the Tran oeuvre, it achieves angles of interest — from the ordinary to the oblique — that will keep you fascinated.
The ordinary starts with old reliables like challah French toast and chicken and waffles, which quickly announce themselves as anything but old hat standards. The egg-y-yet-light toast gets a brandy syrup bath, eggs Benedict lie over meltingly-rich, soft ropes of lemongrass short ribs, and Tran’s hot chicken goes full kimchi/kaarage — managing a sweethotsoftcrunch from chicken set off by mustard seeds, fermented cabbage, and sriracha.
You can also go with traditional steak and eggs here (Creekstone Farms beef being topped and a fried egg), or a soufflé pancake (above), or watch Tran indulge her heritage with deep-fried Vietnamese Imperial rolls, given a boost with better ingredients (Duroc pork, briny shrimp) than you’ll ever find in a same old same old pho parlor.
If there’s a signature dish on the menu, it’s probably the hot chicken, but the bao sliders (above) — made with housemade pork sausage — give it a run for your money. The sausage gets its kick from fish sauce, the sliders cover all the flavor bases with their adornment of oozing quail egg, crispy shallots, and jalapeño-spiked aioli. You won’t find a more soothing mini-bite anywhere in Vegas.
They do serious cocktails here, too (doesn’t everybody these days?), but for my money, the wine list is where you should head. Owner Andy Hooper is obviously on a mission to bring good bottles at affordable prices to his ‘hood, which explains Veuve Cliquot champagne at $95, and Gaja ‘Promis’ for $90 — marked up at double the wholesale price, not triple the retail, like they do eight miles to the east. By-the-glass offerings all hover in the $10 range, and there’s even a selection of funky amaros for Italophiles who are into that sort of thing (like yours truly).
Tran does double duty as pastry chef in a tiny kitchen that used to be a sandwich shop, so desserts tend to be limited in number. When she’s doing it, the chocolate tres leches cake (above, beneath a bird’s nest of chocolate thatch) is not to be missed, nor should you pass on her macarons, cheesecake or persimmon bread pudding.
The Black Sheep calls itself a “New American Kitchen,” but it’s not like any American kitchen you’ve ever been in, or Vietnamese one, for that matter. What it is is American food filtered through the sensibilities of an Asian American who is equally at home blending the two cultures on a plate. In doing so, Jamie Tran is paying homage to both cuisines, and inventing a new vocabulary of restaurant food. She’s not the only chef doing it (Khai Vu at Mordeo and Kevin Chong at Japañeiro also spring to mind), but she’s one of the few doing it in Las Vegas. (No one on the Strip has the gumption or the chops to try to duplicate these highly personal brands of hybrid deliciousness.)
The Black Sheep is much more revolutionary than people realize. It is the direction in which all American food is headed. And chefs like Jamie Tran are leading the way.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m nuts about Japanese food. I was crazy about it for years (decades really) before I actually went to Japan.
For me, going to Japan was like having sex for the first time — something I thought about, read about, and fantasized about before it really happened. Then, once I went, I realized what I’d been missing. And like a love-struck teenager, all I could do was fantasize about doing it again.
It was in Tokyo when I realized that eating Japanese food in America was really nothing more than foreplay — most Japanese food here being but a teasing, pornographic representation of the real thing. The real deal envelopes you, transports you, titillates the senses and pleases the palate in ways that get lost once the recipes travel across the Pacific. (A country obsessed with fresh fish and umami will do that to you.)
But as with many things edible and Asian, things have improved immeasurably over the last decade. Our finest Japanese places — Kabuto, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku, Kaiseki Yuzu, Monta, et al — do a fine job of recreating the food of their homeland. Thanks to an influx of dedicated chefs (and the wonders of air freight), faithful re-creations of noodle parlors and intimate sushi bars are now in our backyard. The fact that many of them are tucked away in odd locations only adds to their verisimilitude.
(A good rule of thumb when looking for the genuine article in Japanese food is to look for any Japanese word in the title of the restaurant. ( Korean-owned “Japanese” restaurants usually just slap the word “sushi” up there, knowing everyone will come for their California rolls.) Any nebulous Nippon nomenclature generally is a good sign, even if it tells you nothing. Because when it comes to most things Japanese, the more obscure something is, the better. )
And it doesn’t get much more obscure than Tatsujin X.
(Poetry on a teppan)
Stuck in the middle of an old strip mall in the shadow of the Palms Hotel, Tatsujin X (the name means “master”) is the most recent addition to our expanding catalogue of authentic Asian eats, and might be the last word in nondescript eateries. Only the noren cloth awning out front gives you a hint that something strange and wonderful lies within. As in Japan, the signage tells you nothing but the name.
Those in the know will discern its name to denote the teppanyaki cooking of Japan — the flat, steel griddle (teppan) upon which various foodstuffs are grilled, broiled or pan-fried (yaki). Call it a teppan or plancha or good old frying pan, what you get is food prepared on a hot, smooth metal surface upon which a dexterous chef can work wonders.
The showier aspects of this food gave rise to the post-WWII Japanese steak house craze, where knives got thrown and food got flamed, all to the oohs and ahhs of prom dates everywhere. But crowd-pleasing this place is not. Tatsujin is to your average “Japanese steakhouse” what Jiro Dreams of Sushi is to Beer Fest.
Think of Tatsujin as Benihana with a PhD.
What Grand Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa aims for at this bare-spare 13 seat counter is not the applause of wet-behind-the-ears teens or well-lubricated tourists. He is shooting for appreciation on a deeper level: the sort of gratitude bestowed by black belt epicureans who know the right stuff when they taste it. And what they taste is an 8-course meal like nothing in Vegas.
You have to go to a Shinjuku alleyway to find food this good, starting with a “chef’s choice” platter (above) of a crispy sawagani crab flanked by a bright salmon tartare, spicy edamame beans, a soy salad and meltingly tender strips of barely-grilled rib eye. All of it sets you up for a well-paced courses to come, from a sparkling wakame (seaweed) salad, to a dashimaki-tamago omelette gently wrapped around strands of king crab and oozing sea urchin. If there’s a bigger umami-bomb in town than this egg concoction, I’ve yet to find it.
(‘erster innards – yum)
As you’re swooning from the seafood omelette with its cross-hatching of mayo and sweet ponzu sauce, you’ll notice the seafood star of the show: a Brobdingnagian oyster the size of a filet mignon. It is designed to intimidate the most ardent ‘erster eater (me), and it does.
These five-year old beauts come from Washington State, and are not meant to be slurped, but instead, they are meant to be grilled and sliced…the better to see and taste all that fleshy bivalve muscle and those oyster innards. (There’s no way around it: what you see and eat are the oyster’s intestines. The good news is the only thing they’re filled with is algae and other microscopic sea veggies.)
Before you get to that big boy, however, you’ll first be served a hot, oily broth containing big, meaty chunks of clams. One of my dining companions called it a clammy bagna cauda, which pretty much summed it up. Both of these sweet bivalves will have seafood lovers in hog heaven. Less adventuresome types should take their favorite intrepid foodie friend along to share what they can’t handle.
From there you’ll move on to simple, teppan-grilled vegetables which act as an intermezzo to the proteins.
(Strip-san meet Rib eye-san)
Three steaks are offered (fillet, rib eye, strip), with a forth of imported Japanese wagyu for a $35 surcharge). Sea bass (excellent), salmon (good) are a bone thrown to non-meat eaters. Both are perfectly fine pieces of fish, well-handled and cooked, but they sort of miss the point of the joint. The steaks are the stars here, and they are lightly seasoned and gently cooked as perfectly as beef can be. There’s no denying the melt-in-your-mouth appeal of the expensive wagyu, but my Japanese friends profess to like the denser, beefy quality of the American “Kobe” better. Either way, the cuts are seared to a level of subtle succulence you don’t achieve with the pyrotechnics of charcoal grilling.
(American rib eye)
There probably should be a chicken option too, but as soon as Nakazawa starts trying to please everyone, this place will lose the vibe that makes it so special. The specialness comes from remaining true to the single set, coursed-out meals that defines many small restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is not a “something for everyone” culture — not eating-wise anyway. Restaurants do what they do well, and you’re expected to value them for their individual styles of cooking, not demand that you want something “your way.” This is going to be a challenge for Tatsujin as it moves forward.
However you like it, there’s no way to improve upon the final savory course. Choose either a thick, pork-filled okonomi-yaki pancake (above), or garlic rice. Both will have you dropping your chopsticks in awe. The pancake, served with waving katsuobushi (bonito) flakes dancing atop it, would almost be a meal unto itself somewhere else, and the garlic rice is a testament to great food coming in deceptively simple packages. It’s not much to look at, but soothing-sweet-nutty garlic permeates every bite of the sushi-quality grains. This is a grown-up rice dish for connoisseurs of starch.
Desserts are three in number and very Japanese. If you’re very Japanese, you will love them. If you’re not, stick to the ice cream.
To recap: Tatsujin is basically a fixed-price, fixed-meal steakhouse. (In Asia they call these fixed-course meals “sets.”) You pay one price (from $50-$70) and you receive eight dishes, four of which give you some choice (salad, protein, and whether you want the pancake or the rice, and dessert). It is not a menu for picky eaters; nor is it a place to take someone who demands to know whether they will “like something” before they order it. The whole idea behind teppanyaki restaurants is to sit down, enjoy the show and let the chefs work their magic.
Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work, I felt like I did in January, 2008, at the early days of Raku. Then, I was watching the birth of a new kind of restaurant — one that plugged into a new, sophisticated zeitgeist of budding internet gastronauts learning about Japanese food. Will Tatsujin be the next Raku (albeit with a much more limited palette)? Or will it be another Omae (remember it?) — a genre-bending, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broaden Las Vegas’s Japanese food cred?
Only time will tell, but we are a much more knowledgeable food community now than we were ten years ago. Our Japanese food scene has also increased exponentially since then. The time would seem to be right for us to embrace this sort of cooking in this sort of restaurant. Tatsujin is now our most unique Japanese restaurant and steakhouse, and it is certainly the closest you can get to Tokyo without flying there.
(The prices above do not include beverages, but as of this writing only water, tea and some soft drinks are offered. You can BYOB but they ask that you tactfully hand your covered bottles to the staff upon entering, and they will pour your (beer, sake, wine) from the kitchen into ceramic cups as you request. For the quality of the meat and the cooking and the show, and all the attendant dishes, this place has to be considered the best steak deal in town. One of our meals was comped, the other, with the Japanese wagyu surcharge, came to $225/two, including a $50 tip.)
And the winner for Best Food in the Most Obscure Location goes to…….Old Soul!
There’s no other way to say it: Old Soul is so hidden, so oddly-placed, and so not-where-you’d-expect-a-restaurant-to-be that you’ll feel like congratulating yourself once you find the front door. Once you find it, and eat there once, these issues will disappear. From then on, you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to mind the locale.
That location is inside the World Market Center — a behemoth of a building complex near downtown Las Vegas containing three, intimidating buildings and no retail spaces, save for this single door stuck between darkened windows of one ground floor corner. Even as you valet your car (and you will have to valet it), you’ll glance around inside the Land of the Giants courtyard and wonder where you’ll be eating. The car park will point to the modest sign, and you’ll stroll in, wondering, like all first timers: who in the world in is eating here? (The answer is: fans of chef/owner Natalie Young, Smith Center devotees, and culinary culture vultures looking for her particular brand of gutsy, elevated American food.)
As soon as you enter, what awaits is a capacious, rather dark interior, with well-spaced tables, a civilized noise level, and some oversized art on the walls. The old silent movies they run on the back wall near the bar are a hoot. Between those and the antique furnishings (including the mismatched dishware), the vibe is one of cool comfort, designed to make you forget about what’s outside. Once you dive into the food, the whole place starts feeling, well, like an old, overstuffed sofa you’ve sunk into and don’t want to leave.
The space might be an acquired tasted, but Young’s food is not. She is a self-taught, long-time Strip veteran who found her mojo with the opening of Eat downtown 2012. Her talents have toggled over the years between high-toned French (Eiffel Tower Restaurant) to steaks (P.J. Clarke’s) to superior flapjacks (Eat), but here she’s found her wheelhouse: boldly-flavored, elemental American dishes with a certainty of purpose that only comes from a confident chef.
Young describes herself as an old soul. Old souls, she’ll tell you, get right to the point. Old souls have seen it all and they know that honesty and simplicity are what counts. An old soul eschews the novel, the contrived, and the overwrought, for simple authenticity. (It’s the reason some old souls jump on planes to Europe whenever they can to taste a country’s food where it originated — not after it’s been deconstructed and reconfigured by Instagram-addicted culinary school graduates. But enough about me.)
An old soul like Young has the confidence to put liver and onions on a menu. She knows a lot of people like liver — especially liver tossed with caramelized onions, and given a piquant punch by grainy, stone ground mustard — and that an older crowd (the types that attend Smith Center concerts religiously), will appreciate a throwback item given just the right update. Young or old will appreciate the same attention given a thick slab of meatloaf — this one not like your momma used to make, but adorned with cauliflower puree, meaty ‘shrooms, a splash of tomato concasse and a dribbling of red wine jus. It’s comfort food to be sure, but soothing has never had so much sparkle.
Chicken (half a Cornish game hen above) get some gussying up as well with the help of a wild rice pilaf speckled with bits of pickled veggies, and a tongue-slapping chimichurri sauce. Both were so good the Food Gal® and I couldn’t decide which was more worth fighting over: the bird or the starch.
Before you get to these mains (available at lunch and dinner for the same price), you’ll have to navigate the starters, and rather than steering clear, I’d advise you to bump into as many of them as your gustatory canoe can handle. The house-made chicken liver pâté could give a few torchons of foie gras a run for their money, and the smoked trout with house-made applesauce and chive corn cakes will have everyone at your table straining for superlatives.
Most spectacular of the bunch is a head of roasted cauliflower (above), studded with pickled raisins and peppers, sprinkled with more of that chimichurri, and festooned with herbs. All of it sits on a pool of sharp, acidic sauce that’s listed as “tahini dressing” but comes off more like “tangy/fruity vinaigrette.”
As nuts as you’ll be about all of these, it will be the fried oysters (below) with horseradish aioli that will have you making plans to return as soon as you leave. Crispy, meaty and devoid of oiliness, one bite took me straight back to a Connecticut clam shack.
(All that’s missing are the seagulls)
There are also sandwiches available at lunch — including Young’s definitive pan-seared chicken breast with pesto mayo and a veggie “burger” that didn’t make me gag — as well as simple and chopped salads for those who insist.
But if you come here looking to eat light, you’re sort of missing the point. This is soulful American food made by a chef who blends flavors like a maestro — seemingly without effort, but building to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The food here is as pretty as it is delicious, and that’s really saying something.
(Live a little! This pie is to die for.)
For dessert, get whatever cobbler they’ve made that day. And the cherry pie (above). Each of them a la mode. You’ve come too far to deny yourself such a sweet release, so give in to temptation. You can thank me later.
(Open for lunch and dinner. With starters in the $10-$15 range, and mains all under $25, the food here is a serious bargain, particularly at dinner. Full cocktail bar with plenty of whiskies and libations, but the wine choices – what few there are – are of interest only to an octogenarian alcoholic.)
An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.
What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)
Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:
Manzo (inside Eataly)
The Factory Kitchen
All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.
What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.
Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.
Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.
To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.
The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.
Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.
If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)
These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.
The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.
Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!
Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.
The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.
While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.
Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)
Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).
As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet. The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.
“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.
Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.
(Ravioli di pesce)
Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle. He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.
The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.
(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu. The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.
TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.
Ignore the name and the decor and dive in. And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.
(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)