Las Vegas, Part II
We just returned from our second trip to Las Vegas in the last three months; having tasted with over 60 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists in our combined trips, we feel we have a good grasp on the culinary scene. Vegas is certainly maturing: we are seeing the first signs of the culinary community incorporating farmers and local – or as local as possible – producers, from sourcing specialty eggs from a local farmer to picking heirloom peaches from the University of Nevada’s agriculture project. See our Las Vegas Trends feature It’s All About Connections for more on one major development in Vegas dining – farm to plate.
Our week in Vegas took us on a whirlwind tour of what’s happening on- and off-strip. Executive Pastry Chef Kamel Guechida of Joel Robuchon, L’Atelier, and The Mansion invited us into the finely appointed Joel Robuchon and introduced us to his pastry masterpieces. Guechida’s perfectionism and keen eye for presentation is nothing less than stunning with desserts that float between being luxurious and ethereal. His La Fraise is presented in a small glass fishbowl (like a stemless red wine glass) set on top of a puffy nest of cotton candy. Inside the bowl is a beautiful and delicate landscape of white chocolate coated marshmallows, candied edible flowers, ripe strawberries in a poppy seed syrup, and strawberry sorbet.
For pastry chefs Andrea Sans of Bradley Ogden and Aaron Lindgren of Restaurant Charlie, the trick is in finding inspiration and innovation in more classically American desserts, like carrot cake and S’mores. Sans’ Carrot Cake Bread Pudding with Toasted Pecan Flan, Candied Carrot and Butterscotch Sauce is a testament to her ability to give a tried and true but a little tired classic a fun and delicious make-over.
Lindgren is the opening executive pastry chef at Restaurant Charlie; he’s setting up an excellent pastry department in Vegas before heading off to the next Trotter project. Lindgren’s Mint-Infused Strawberries with Lime and Hempseed Ice Cream has bright, tart flavors that refresh your palate while the ice cream satisfies the need for something rich and creamy.
The Restaurant Charlie staff is looking solid after just three months since opening at the new Palazzo. Beverage Director Desmond Echavarrie and Mixologist Jeremy Merritt showed off their talents – each pairing a wine and cocktail with every dish. The beverage program at Restaurant Charlie is aiming high and could very well set a new standard for Vegas restaurants. Merritt and Echavarrie paired both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages with dishes, explaining their approach as both an option for those who do not consume alcohol and a “break” in the wine or cocktail pairings. Merritt’s Coconut Conundrum (with tequila, young coconut juice, almond milk, and gingerroot ginger ale) cocktail pairing with the Butter-Poached Lobster, Housemade Curry Sauce, Lotus Root, Coconut and Kaffir Lime Emulsion was an eye-opening experience, hitting at the potential for a trend in cocktail and food pairings.
On the subject of new restaurants, we got a sneak preview of Executive Chef Akira Back’s cuisine of the soon-to-be-open Yellowtail at the Bellagio. The menu is modern Japanese with international influences, and includes a sushi bar. Back’s presentation was simple but artful with occasional flourishes, like his Wagyu Tataki with Garlic Chips, Nashi, and Truffle-Yuzu that looked like a caterpillar or dragon.
Las Vegas Rising Star ’05 Alum Martin Heierling and Sommelier Joseph Phillips of Sensi and Executive Chef David Werly of Le Cirque and Sommelier Jason Quinn of Prime showed us how established restaurants are continuing to stay on top of the game in the Vegas culinary scene. Heierling’s ability to layer and balance flavors, often leaning in the East Asian and Southeast Asian direction, is precise and poignant with soy, yuzu, tamarind, and miso blending with Kobe beef, pork, foie gras, and lamb. Phillips’ wine pairings kept up with the dishes and took a few surprising and refreshing turns from the norm, like a New Zealand sparkling Shiraz with Tamarind-Braised Beef Short Ribs, and Moscato d’Asti with Rice Flake-Crusted Maine Lobster with Coconut Tapioca and Malaysian Mango Slaw.
Werly is in that special class of Vegas chefs who adhere to a classical French base but still find ways to keep it fresh and updated. Werly’s Roasted Scallops with Langoustine "En Kadaifi," Mosaic of Beets, and White Balsamic Dressing and Roasted Alaskan Halibut, Pesto Emulsion, Calamari Popsicles, Borlotti Beans, and Tomatoes are great examples of his ability to walk the thin line between classic and updated. Sommelier Jason Quinn’s skills were really put to the test: this Prime sommelier paired wines with Werly’s dishes (without having tasted any) and blew us away with two pairings in particular, namely the Kitterle Domaines Schlumberger with the scallops and langoustine and a Rinaldi Barolo with the Alaskan halibut.
At the brand new Palms Place, Chris Vaughn of Simon Restaurant and Lounge (one of Kerry Simon’s restaurants) is ironically a rare breed in Vegas – the Executive Chef of the restaurant and hotel. Vaughn oversees the restaurant, in-suite dining, banquets, and employee dining at Palms Place. For added “wow” factor, the roof-top restaurant and pool are glass filled to allow maximum visibility and light in the day time.
For a photographic guide to all of our most recent tastings, see the photo galleries in the sidebar.
Speaking to the ever-present issue of volume in Vegas, we interviewed Tao’s Executive Chef Mark Andelbradt. He’s running the show at Tao, a restaurant with a whopping 1,200 average covers on weekend nights – and doing so without compromising the standards of quality instilled in him from his fine dining background. We talked to him about the ins and outs of running the kitchen of a $68 million a year restaurant.
Busy as it is, Vegas isn’t immune to the summer slowdown (especially when temperatures exceed 100°F). We’re coming up on the time of year when diners are choosing back porches and beaches over restaurant tables, but why not offer a take-out menu as a way to capitalize on this summer downturn? Check out our Summer Picnics feature for ideas. Perhaps not in Vegas, but elsewhere, a low-stress take out option can keep a steady revenue stream, and it’s easier than you’d think!
Coming up… We will be announcing New York City and Las Vegas Rising Stars for 2008; finishing work on the 2009 edition of Chefs to Know; and finalizing our stellar line up for our 3rd annual ICC So stay tuned!