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May 27, 2011

Las Vegas - Day V

Hoover Dam Dominic Armato

After four days like that, I'm okay with day five being a little anticlimactic. It's always tempting to try to cram in one more off-strip ethnic joint, one more roadside diner... but sometimes you just want to take it easy, fall into the hotel restaurant, get some eggs and head home.

WaffleDominic Armato

MOzen Bistro (MOzen... Mandarin Oriental... get it? Oy.) is exactly what you expect from the casual restaurant at an upscale hotel. It's crisp, clean, offers a lot of standards with minor twists (Asian ones, in keeping with the hotel's theme), everything's crisply executed and nothing's too risky, at least for breakfast (dinner looks to be another matter). So if you order a Belgian waffle, you get a Belgian waffle. Throw on a few berries, some toasted pecans, a little butter, a small carafe of real maple syrup, charge almost $20 (eek!), and you've got a nice, if pricey, breakfast. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a sucker for this kind of thing. As much as I'm focused on the food, the food, the food, when the room is bright and the china's fine and the staff is polished, it's kind of nice every now and again to feel like you're really dining... like you should be coming in the door with a brightly colored sport jacket and the Corriere Della Sera under your arm... even if that waffle is ridiculously overpriced.

Nantucket EggsDominic Armato

I first ordered the Japanese bento. I love that for breakfast. And moments later, I realized that I didn't want it. I wanted eggs. And... um... seafood. So I went with the Eggs Nantucket, a pair of poached atop spinach and a generous serving of crab, a splash of hollandaise, a little steamed asparagus and roasted tomato, compulsory potato hash and slice of ham. Safe and perfectly executed? You bet. Perfectly poached eggs, crab cakes that were 98% crab, a hollandaise that was rich without getting gluey, fresh spinach, decent ham... it hit all the marks. Speaking only of breakfast at MOzen Bistro, I can't see any reason to make it a destination, but if you're in the hotel or right nearby and did pretty well at the tables, it's a nice stop for a breakfast with a little elegance.

Gus' Really Good Fresh JerkyDominic Armato

And not 15 minutes after walking out of MOzen, it was time to bid Vegas farewell. I heard about Eat At Joe's in Wikieup (check out the website for a hilariously charming blast from 1997 or so) a day too late, sadly, but we were in a hurry to get home anyway. The little ones are darling, but exhausting for anyone to take care of for five days, and we figured grandma was probably just about ready for the cavalry to arrive. I did, however, manage to finagle a quick stop at one of the many beef jerky stands by the side of 93. Gus' Really Good Beef Jerky (that's the name) certainly had the most billboard coverage, and I'd ordinarily try to pass over the big guy for the little guy, but when the big guy is this little, I'm happy to make an exception. Gus' is a dusty little shack a little ways north of Kingman, and though they sell a selection of nuts, honey and dried fruits, I made a beeline for the jerky selection. I love beef jerky and am always looking to sample the local roadside product.

Sweet & SpicyDominic Armato

It wasn't until a couple of days later that I got around to cracking it open, and you know what? It IS really good. You eat enough of the mass-produced junk and you start to forget just how great real, fresh beef jerky can be. With the exception of "natural smoke flavoring" (which, sadly, I presume means liquid smoke), the ingredient list on Gus' jerky is refreshingly plain. I picked up three packs, but trying to make it last, I've only cracked into the sweet and spicy thus far. It's called out as brisket, and I see no reason to doubt the claim. It sure looks like brisket. And it tastes like beef, sweet and tender (as jerky goes) without any gristle or junk. It's a little expensive at $9 for a four ounce bag, but I got more edible meat than I've gotten out of some mass-produced packages twice the size. I like that it's just a little sweet and spicy, not saturated with corn syrup in an attempt to detract from the meat's shortcomings. I don't expect to make this drive frequently, but I'm prepared to make Gus' a mandatory stop henceforth. And I especially like that Gus isn't getting all carried away with overblown claims. A less humble Gus might've named it Gus' Amazing Beef Jerky, or Gus' World Class Beef Jerky. But this Gus went with Gus' Really Good Beef Jerky, which is the epitome of truth in advertising. Bravo, Gus!

The last couple hours of the drive, I felt like I wasn't quite ready to come home, though the full dance card might have dictated an early exit even if our schedule didn't. Vegas is such a funny restaurant town. On the strip it's all big, big, big, and though so much of it is mediocre, there's some really stellar food if you can wade through the marketing blitz and separate the good spots from the pretenders. It's a gamble (ha!). I've had plenty of disappointing meals in Vegas from supposedly excellent restaurants, but this trip was kind. We ate well and had a great time. And I fully expect that the next time I roll into town, half of these places will be closed and there will be two dozen new restaurants I need to try. One thing Vegas can't be accused of is staying the same. Except for Emeril's Fish House. It'll undergo three more facelifts, but somehow that place will still be standing two decades from now. So it's all big plates and big names and big prices, and then just five minutes off-strip is another world, where little unassuming gems are hidden in strip malls. I feel a little guilty for focusing more on the former than the latter for this particular trip. If I were ever to get back to the point where I was coming a few times a year (wow... that's been a long time), I'd dedicate a trip or two solely to trying off-strip spots. But that'll have to wait. Vegas is practically in our backyard now. I both expect and hope that we'll be back before too long.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

MOzen Bistro
3752 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89158
888-881 9367
Mon - Sun6:30 AM - 10:00 PM

Gus' Really Good Beef Jerky
4001 North U.S. Highway 93
Golden Valley, AZ 86413
Mon - Sun8:00 AM - 7:00 PM

May 26, 2011

Las Vegas - Day IV

The Strip Dominic Armato

Here's where fatigue starts to set in a bit.

Not typical Vegas fatigue. We were in a hotel without a casino, so it was pretty mellow. I'm not a big drinker, a couple of short stints at the craps table fulfill my gambling desires for a Vegas trip, and we slept in as late as our bodies demanded. What I refer to is appetite fatigue. After three days of dining like this, salads start to look mighty fine. But it was a rare escape and a short trip, so I truly wanted to make the most of it while I could. With 24 hours remaining, it was time to power through.

We'd kick off day four with brunch at Bouchon which, though lacking for lunch options on the weekdays, offers a pretty decent menu on either side of noon on the weekends. Bouchon is, of course, Thomas Keller's lone addition to the Vegas pantheon of celebrity chef restaurants. I've hit the original in Yountville a couple of times, and was rather delighted on both occasions. It's pretty much straight-up bistro fare, treated with Keller's signature finesse, clinical bordering on pathological. I felt a little guilty using a meal on an outpost of a place I've visited twice rather than exploring some of the off-strip joints I'd noted, but what can I say? My ladylove and I dig good bistro.

I swooned when I saw an extensive selection of raw seafood items at the top of the menu, an opportunity to right the crushing disappointment of day two before me. Sadly, this elation would last for but a moment, when I noted that the seafood wasn't offered until 11:00, and it was only barely past ten. I briefly considered stalling, but concluded that even the densest and/or most understanding server on the planet wouldn't buy (or appreciate) the suggestion that I required 55 minutes to peruse the menu and decide.

Rillettes aux Deux SaumonsDominic Armato

This led me to the rillettes aux deux saumons, which wasn't chilled lobster and crab, raw oysters and clams, but it was cold seafood, and mighty fine cold seafood at that. Arriving in a crock with toasted bread, this is elegant flavor in a rustic package. Keller combines steamed salmon and diced cold-smoked salmon with a lot of butter and a few other seasonings, topping the resulting pate-like mixture with a layer of clarified butter that must be removed so that you can get to the fish. Our server performed the butter removal with unnecessary (but appreciated) surgical precision, but I asked him to save the butter for me because... you know... not enough butter in the crock already, right? At any rate, it was simple and delightful, the pure, creamy essence of salmon with just a touch of shallot and pernod, on simple toast. Great dish, and a simple recipe that says dinner party to me.

Croque MadameDominic Armato

I then righted a wrong from years before by ordering the croque madame. The first time we hit Bouchon, for dinner, I gently chided my ladylove for choosing a croque madame over the myriad options available to her. Then I tasted hers and was jealous. Well, on this day, the croque madame would be mine (and hers), and while I can't say it was quite as sharp as the one we sampled in Yountville, it more than satisfied. Simple ham and cheese in the middle, bread toasted to a beautiful, light crisp, topped with a fried egg with runny yolk and smothered in a creamy, rich mornay sauce, it's really a great example of how you don't have to get cute to knock one out of the park. I inhaled it. On day one, I would have inhaled the frites as well, but this being day four, I got about halfway through them before tapping out. In my defense, there might've been three large potatoes' worth on the plate.

After brunch, some Grade A hemming and hawing ensued. I'd originally planned for dinner at RM Seafood, but it was the only one of the four dinners that I wasn't full-bore excited about. I'd heard mixed things, and with so many other options, I had a hard time standing pat. I thought about Pierre Gagnaire's Twist, but I wasn't sure if we were prepared for another epic French feast, and I fretted over the fact that I hadn't brought a jacket. (What does "jacket requested" mean? Should I wear one or not?) I craved the kind of real Thai I knew I could get at Lotus of Siam, but my ladylove is chile-impaired, and I couldn't bring myself to do that to her. I still hadn't managed to kick the seafood cravings and briefly considered Bartolotta, but that was mostly hot rather than cold and would've made for Italian two nights in a row. Thankfully, our dining companions at brunch (some old friends who happened to be in town the same weekend), planted a seed that bore fruit. They'd had a great meal at Sage, and suggested we do the same. Glad they did.

Absinthe Dominic Armato

Though I took a look when making reservations for the trip, I kind of glossed over Sage as a known commodity. Shawn McClain is a Chicago chef, and while I haven't visited his newer ventures, Green Zebra and Custom House, I'd been to Spring a few times in the pre-blogging days and rather enjoyed it. McClain's thing is definitely American, despite some obviously French and Italian influences, and among other things he's known for some rather muscular takes on seafood (this was something of a hallmark at Spring). Sage is... not Spring. Not in terms of appearances, anyway. It's kind of the new Vegas goth, the haunted mansion meets the speakeasy, dark and purple and velvety with gold accents, highly ostentatious by any standards other than Vegas'... does anybody open a restaurant in Vegas with anything less than 25 foot ceilings anymore? I poke fun, but it's really not too bad by Vegas standards. Such is the state of Sin City, I suppose, and it isn't the least bit offensive, even if it is kind of funny. The tasting menu beckoned, but we'd punished ourselves enough for one trip and decided to order a la carte. Turned out it wasn't such a bad call.

Oysters with Tequila MignonetteDominic Armato

My seafood craving would not be denied, damnit! No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from the oysters, and boy, am I glad I didn't. Were they blue point oysters? I don't recall, but they were wonderful, plump and firm and sweet, fully-flavored with a pronounced but crisp salinity. More impressive, they stood up to some downright belligerent toppings. Dressed with a pungent aged tequila mignonette and a dollop of seriously spicy piquillo pepper and tabasco sorbet, these were bivalves with major punch. I'd read the menu. I was skeptical that the oysters wouldn't get totally lost. But man, I wanted that raw seafood and I'm glad my instincts were wrong. I loved these guys.

Lobster CasoncelliDominic Armato

Did I mention I have a weakness for pasta with lobster? Two nights in a row, I know. I got another winner, though. Sort of. Casoncelli (one of Italy's innumerable subtle regional variations on stuffed pasta) didn't really work as pasta. Between the lobster, mascarpone, glazed spring onions, spinach puree and, I suspect, a goodly amount of butter, it was way too busy for such a thin and delicate pasta, which was almost totally lost. The Pasta Prime Directive is that pasta is, first and foremost, about the pasta, not what's in it or on it or under it. But ignore the pasta framing and approach this dish as a non-denominational dumpling? Completely delicious. Make something this tasty, and you can break all the rules you want. I'll frame it however I have to. I don't know that I'm prepared to call it Italian, but it was really, really good.

Braised Veal Cheeks with PolentaDominic Armato

What is it that possesses me to choose something this rich on day four of a five day eating odyssey? I mean, again, I'm glad I did, but there's a certain level of culinary masochism going on here that, believe it or not, would only get worse before the night was out. These were tender, succulent, beautifully fatty braised veal cheeks, glistening with a thick glaze of dark veal stock. They sat with braised spring onions and mushrooms, a polenta so loose it might as well have been soup, and a crouton that had undergone some process that infused it with the flavor of bone marrow while leaving it lightly crisped. The black garlic was a smart choice too, adding that distinctive flavor, but in deep, caramel-flavored fashion. This is the kind of dish that's easy to make enjoyable with a moremoremore approach, and the veal cheeks were, indeed, truly decadent, but they were smart, too. It wasn't a wildly creative dish, but it was more subtly layered than it needed to be, and I really appreciated that. The only thing I didn't appreciate was that the bowl was metal, hotter than a branding iron, almost as deep as it was wide and I had no spoon. Getting at my dinner was like a game of Operation with second degree burns. And, damn you Shawn McClain, I'll gladly sear myself again if I have to.

48 Hour Beef BellyDominic Armato

Then, just when I thought dinner couldn't get any richer, my ladylove handed me her plate, half-finished. Good gravy, was this a killer dish, and I'm still not sure whether I'm more thankful that she left half of it for me, or was good enough to leave only half for me. The 48 hour beef belly wasn't even technically available a la carte, listed only as part of the signature menu, but at my ladylove's request the kitchen determined they had enough for the evening to plate a full serving for her. I don't believe I've ever had beef belly before, and I don't expect I'll have it any better than this. If you're looking for a mental analogue, think short rib meets pork belly, with the flavor of the former and the fat of the latter. The meat undergoes a two-step process, first smoked for 24 hours and then braised for another 24. The result is one of the most meltingly succulent pieces of beef I've ever tasted, playing a little like BBQ because of the smoke, but only a touch, glazed like a short rib and served with some bright accompaniments -- pickled spring onions and bell peppers -- to keep it from getting too sticky. Oh, and morels? Bonus. Talk about a dish you can get lost in. This one's going to stick with me for a while. (I think it's still stuck TO me.)

Warm Carrot CakeDominic Armato

If ever there was a night to skip dessert, this was it, but I love carrot cake too much to pass on it, especially when it had just received a ringing endorsement from a friend that morning. It was a warm, spiced version, sitting in a sweet but very light coconut sauce and filled with a lightly tart cream. Carrot cake isn't carrot cake without cream cheese frosting, and this didn't disappoint. Of course, I'm not sure how cream cheese frosting would work on a warm cake, so instead it was off to the side, a scoop of cream cheese ice cream atop toasted coconut and candied ginger, a textural and temperature contrast to the cake. There wasn't anything revolutionary here in terms of flavor. This was little more than a repackaging of a classic, but it was done in such a smart way that it felt like a new take while maintaining that old familiarity.

Absinthe PreparationDominic Armato

I was positively delighted to find that the dessert card also listed several selections of absinthe, which seems to be something of a signature offering of the house. I'd never had it served in classic fashion, but had always wanted to. I love anise-flavored liqueurs, and I'm a sucker for a little bit of ritual. Seemed a natural. I'd read about T.A. Breaux and was anxious to sample one of his creations, but alas, I was told they'd recently exhausted their stock. I selected Grande Absente, and once the ritual was done -- poured over a sugar cube, the sugar ignited, extinguished by a trickle of ice water that turned the clear green color to a pale milky sheen -- I was left with a light and pleasant enough drink that struck me as surprisingly one-dimensional. After poking around online for a bit, it appears I may have made a poor choice. Ah, well. Nothing was going to put a damper on a great meal, and now I'm just going to have to hunt down some of the better absinthes out there. Suggestions solicited!

Sage snuck up on me. I had this pegged going in as a meal that would be enjoyable, but I really didn't expect it to be at the level of the other three. Surprise! We went 4-for-4. These were big flavors, some traditional, some creative, all smartly conceived and deftly prepared. I'd go back in a second. And I really need to give Custom House a pass next time I'm in Chicago. (Apparently McClain hasn't been associated with Custom House for a while... thanks, Ed!)

Here's where I really should have thrown in the towel, but nooooooooo... one of my Baltimore friends and favorite enablers, 1000yregg of This Is Gonna Be Good, told me I really needed to stop by a newish late-night Korean joint called Soyo. Off-strip, open late... no website? Yeah, I'd better check that out.

"The Wheel of Soyo" Dominic Armato

After a break to digest and take one last crack at the craps table (a good run!), I hopped in the car and headed off to the awkwardly named Soyo Korean Barstaurant. Saturday night, 1:00 AM and the place was a zoo, every table filled inside, no fewer than a dozen people hanging around outside, neon buzzing, K-pop blaring... clearly, this is a happening spot. All the more impressive is that they've built this buzz exclusively via word-of-mouth. No ads, no website... I don't think they even run their Facebook page (I offer [poor] photos of the menu as a public service - 1, 2, 3, 4). But the Yelp reviews are approaching triple digits, and the secret is clearly out. Soyo is a scene, loud and busy and mostly populated by a young Korean crowd. The soju flows in multiple flavors, the sidewalk out front is crowded with smokers, and if you spend $75 on certain nights, you get a spin on the "Wheel of Soyo," which can win you rewards such as... well... I'm not sure. It's all in Korean. But free booze, food and discounts seems like a reasonable assumption. The good news is that coming alone means you can park at one of three bar seats, avoiding a wait. The bad news is that most of the food, "Korean Tapas" moniker notwithstanding, is more suited to sharing than nibbling. After consulting with the exceptionally friendly staff, I picked a few dishes that I thought were on the smaller side. I don't know a whole lot about Korean -- I'm desperate to learn more -- but what little I tasted was pretty darn good.

Fried Dumplings (Mandu)Dominic Armato

I hesitated to order the mandu. It's such a menu standard and it's usually so forgettable. But the fact that it's standard means it's one of the few benchmarks I could use, and I'd heard Soyo's were unusually good. To somebody who's probably never had first-class Korean, they were, indeed, unusually good. Nine out of ten times, I'm sure they're pulled out of a freezer bag. These were larger than those to which I'm accustomed, circular and three inches in diameter. The filling was unusually delicate, a mix of ground meat, cellophane noodles and scallions. They were pan-fried, lightly crisped in places while still chewy in others, sprinkled with a fairly hot dried chile powder, and served with a mellow vinegary dipping sauce. I dug 'em. They weren't paradigm-shifting, but they were certainly an improvement over any I'd tasted before.

Cold Buckwheat Noodle in Spicy SauceDominic Armato

Spicy cold noodles are tricky for me to get away from, and these were no exception. They're buckwheat noodles, so sticky you first need to go at them with kitchen shears to prevent the whole bowl from coming up together. They were tossed with slivered cucumbers and carrots, topped with thin slices of daikon radish and a soft-cooked egg, and completely drowned in a sauce that was the antithesis of subtle. It was fiery hot and extremely sweet, with a fermented bean flavor not entirely unlike that of, say, hoisin sauce. Those more educated in Korean food could, I'm sure, name the precise chile-bean sauce in an instant, but I'll simply call it really, really intense. A little too much for my tastes, though I still found the dish quite good. Half the portion would have been right for me even on a normal day, and that's as much as I ate.

Fried Chicken WingsDominic Armato

Another great shame is that I'd never had Korean fried chicken. Somehow, as we've crisscrossed the country over the past few years, we've always managed to move out a matter of weeks before a Korean chicken joint moved in. I feel like I'm leaving them in my wake. And since I feared the size of a regular order, I thought the wings might provide a decent approximation. They offer two flavors, spicy and garlic, and when I was asked which I'd prefer, I managed to cajole the staff into splitting them down the middle for me. I wouldn't do it again. I started to get the impression that it was a bigger imposition than they let on (did I mention they were super friendly?). But I'm glad I got to try both. The wings were quite crisp, with a thin breading that stayed crisp even when completely doused in sauce. The spicy wings followed a similar trajectory to the noodles -- rather hot, extremely sweet. I felt, once again, that it was just a little too much. A sauce this potent, applied this thickly felt like overkill. Half the amount and I think they would have been awesome. But I still enjoyed them. Better, I think, were the garlic wings, which had a lighter character, no matter what the two cloves of nearly raw garlic on top might have suggested. They were also quite sweet, and the garlic flavor, though strong, had a mellow rather than sharp character. I could have eaten a lot of these. On another night, I mean.

My stool was six feet from the kitchen door, and midway through I had to stifle a smile when a middle-aged Korean woman staggered out of the kitchen, pounded a Red Bull that she pulled from a cooler behind the bar in ten seconds flat, and made her way back to work. No matter how hip the house may be, one definitely gets the sense that the kitchen is guided by an experienced hand. There's so much on this menu I'd like to try, and I barely scratched the surface. I get the impression it's a good place to educate yourself, and it's a fun one to boot. Soyo's being touted as the new Raku, a late-night joint for food nerds serving authentic Asian cuisine with style. I'm not quite sure I'm willing to go that far. Raku is truly, truly exceptional. What little I tried at Soyo was good. But clearly there's something going on here, and I wish I'd been able to sample more of it. I'm very curious to hear what those who really know their Korean think of the place.

As I drove back to the hotel, I vowed never to eat again. I knew I didn't mean it, but it felt good to say it. This pseudo-vow lasted for all of eight hours. Typical.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

3355 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Fri7:00 AM - 10:30 AM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sat - Sun8:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

Soyo Korean Barstaurant
7775 S. Rainbow Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89139
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 3:00 AM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 4:00 AM
Sun12:00 PM - 2:00 AM

May 25, 2011

Las Vegas - Day III

Onion Bagel and Cream Cheese Dominic Armato

The second full day is usually when I'm consumed by the desire to get off-strip for a bit. Stimulus overload. So after discovering that our first choice, Bouchon Las Vegas, was serving only a handful of cold salads and sandwiches for lunch (bummer), being that we're still searching for a good deli back home, we figured it would be a good time to get a fix while we could, and a little break from the strip while we were at it. Fellow food nerd Pigmon (a fellow whose work I read to put myself in my place whenever I start to think I might know something about food) had talked up The Bagel Cafe a while back, and I made a point to note it. On the western edge of the city, flanked by doctors' offices in a nondescript little commercial development, is a pretty darn good no-frills deli... or so it seems from the tiny little bit I sampled.

French ToastDominic Armato

I love the straightforwardness of the place. There's an extensive carry out counter up front, with bins of bagels and coolers crammed with cured fish, deli meats and a horde of salads. If it's a weekday afternoon (I can't speak for the weekends), you grab yourself a seat and somebody will stop by before long. The menus may be done in kind of a goofy faux-newspaper format, but there aren't 50 sandwiches featuring every combination and permutation of meat and vegetable in the house, all named for New York celebrities, which makes me like these guys immediately. My ladylove's a sucker for French toast, which arrived hot and fluffy and HUGE. I don't think the photo conveys that there's half a loaf of bread on this plate. She only got about halfway through, and the couple of bites I had were pretty tasty. Totally no-frills.

Smoked Fish PlatterDominic Armato

Some manner of brisket is usually my benchmark, but between Pigmon talking up the smoked fish and a carnivorous orgy awaiting us at dinner, I opted for the combination fish platter for one, though if their assessment of the average person's appetite, the combination platter for three must contain enough fish to feed a small township. Chub or whitefish are standard, and the other two fish are your choice. I went with sturgeon and nova. When it arrives, there's nothing fancy on the plate. There's a dense bagel with great chew and cream cheese that's light without crossing into whipped. There are three piles of sliced fish, simply and perfectly smoked. And there's a horde of vegetables, but not a caper to be found. I completely gorged on smoked fish, ordered another bagel, and did it again. Our server remarked that I was "in it to win it." For better or worse, she was right. And I still left enough vegetables to open a stand at the farmers' market. I'm anxious to go back and have a sandwich, but that'll have to wait. Suffice it to say, it's immensely refreshing to hit a deli that doesn’t screw around. Thanks for the heads-up, Rob!

Carnage Dominic Armato

Our dinner reservation gave us plenty of time to process that gargantuan lunch, and after a day filled with movies, Vegas shows and... um... more napping, we strolled into Carnevino for a late meal that I hoped would be half as good as my first.

Grilled Octopus with LimoncelloDominic Armato

I'm a little embarrassed to point out that my second post on Carnevino is going to look pretty much exactly like the first. Thing is, I knew my ladylove would adore this place, and I was simply looking to replicate the experience. Which isn't to say I didn't branch out a touch. The kitchen rescued me from ordering the exact same octopus dish, for example, by altering it slightly. It's the same chilled octopus carpaccio topped by amazingly tender tentacles of charred octopus and piled with greenery and chiles, but it now features the addition of some pickled vegetables, and the citrus has been converted from freshly squeezed to a sweet sauce made with limoncello. It's just as wonderful. Maybe better. It's a little sweet, a little tart, a lot fiery when you happen upon a sliver of fresh chile, and criminy, that octopus... I have a hard time imagining how it could be prepared any more perfectly than this. If you're anywhere in the vicinity, please get this dish.

Beef Carpaccio with Lardo CrostiniDominic Armato

Our server, who didn't exactly endear himself to us by routinely stopping by to ask, "Are we pleasing the palates?" tried to steer me from the beef carpaccio to the steak tartare, but I held firm and I'm glad I did. His claim that the tartare had a little more depth of flavor may or may not have been true, but I was positively delighted to find that Carnevino went the near-traditional route rather than turning their carpaccio into the beef salad it's become just about everywhere outside of Venice. Killer raw beef, dressed with a light drizzle of a mayonnaise-based sauce and a little salt. What more do you need? Some crostini topped with melted lardo isn't a bad addition, as creative takes go. It's certainly more in keeping with

Lobster Anolini with TarragonDominic Armato

The thing I love about Carnevino is that I feel like I'm getting two dinners in one. There are probably other places where you can warm up for an absolutely killer steak with pasta this good, but I'm not sure I've encountered a restaurant that does both this well outside of Italy. My ladylove went with the now ubiquitous lone raviolo, portioned like a hockey puck, stuffed with ricotta and a liquid egg yolk that oozes into a plate full of brown butter when you cut into it. I think it was Michael Carlson over at Schwa who kicked off this particular trend, and I hope we're not quite ready to declare it dead just yet. As for me, lobster and pasta are a combination I always have trouble resisting, and the anolini with lobster and tarragon were just beautiful, light and sweet, and completely focused on the pasta, just as they should be. I could sit down at Carnevino, eat four tasting portions of pasta and leave completely happy without ever touching a steak.

La FiorentinaDominic Armato

But what's the sense in that, really? I tried to go with a different steak. I really did. But I just couldn't get away from the Fiorentina. So I had it again, and loved it just as much as the first time. It's a stunning porterhouse, aged for nearly three months, rubbed with salt and pepper and a little rosemary, charred, sliced and served with a drizzle of killer olive oil and a little Maldon salt. I've waxed poetic about this steak once before, but I'll do it again. I love that it's a little messy, not trimmed too carefully. I love that those hints of fig and gorgonzola come through, though none were used to cook it. And I love that it's sliced tableside, but they still leave you with the bone and... natch... a Berti knife to get every last little bit of edible flesh off of it. I stopped shy of picking up the bone to gnaw on it. I wish I hadn't exercised such restraint.

SorbettiDominic Armato

I didn't even remember at the time that I'd finished with sorbetti the first time, but my brain was obviously in the same place. I can't think of a better finish to such a decadent meal than a few quenelles of light, sweet, impossibly smooth fruit sorbet. This time around it was blueberry, strawberry and rhubarb, and all three were perfect. The only thing that could have made the meal more perfect would have been a bit of amaro before heading out the door, but it was exceedingly late and my legs were already weak with wine. I don't care if Mario Batali has become a caricature of himself. I don't care if this place costs more than it probably should. I've now had two killer meals there. Well... I suppose I've had the same killer meal twice. But it's a really, really good one, and the struggle to try out a new steakhouse on our next visit isn't getting any easier.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

The Bagel Cafe
301 N. Buffalo Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89145
Sat - Sun7:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Mon6:30 AM - 5:00 PM
Tue - Fri6:30 AM - 8:00 PM

3325 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sun12:00 PM - 11:00 PM

A Moment of Silence...

Italian Beef, Sweet, Hot and Dipped  

I'd like to interrupt this Vegas report to have a moment of silence for a dearly departed friend. The original Chickie's, a Chicago institution and my favorite Italian Beef anywhere, has closed.



May 24, 2011

Las Vegas - Day II

The View Dominic Armato

First full day of vacation, and sleep is almost more compelling than food. Almost. But it would still get us into trouble later.

After dragging myself out of bed and editing a few photos from the night before, lunch seemed like a pretty good idea. And one place we'd specifically targeted for a couple of reasons was Emeril's New Orleans Fish House.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, and probably requires a little explanation. The thing is, on TV, Emeril is a total clown. A seemingly good-hearted, enthusiastic clown, but a clown nonetheless. But I've long been of the opinion that FoodTV brass' big mistake (for my sake, not theirs... his ratings seem to have done just fine) was giving the guy a studio audience. His first show, The Essence of Emeril, was a helluva traditional stand and stir. No Molto Mario, but it was one of the truly great classics of FoodTV back in the day when there really was some great programming on the channel. It was about the food, about demystifying the process of cooking and making people feel comfortable in the kitchen, and his personality, while ebullient, hadn't yet been turned to eleven. Then in 1997 they gave him a crowd to react to, the Bam Man took over, and the food took a backseat.

This was never, however, the case at his restaurants. Say what you will about Emeril Lagasse, the dude can cook, and he's operated some pretty stellar dining establishments in his day. One of them was located at the MGM Grand, back when the emerald green carpeting and rainbow neon would cause you to go blind before you got halfway across the casino floor. Seriously, if you never visited the MGM back in the day, count yourself lucky. It was one of the most eye-gouging spectacles I've ever had the misfortune to encounter. While it was torture on your vision, however, the MGM was an oasis for your taste buds. The one thing it had was good restaurants, and this was waaaaay before Vegas casinos came with good restaurants. Think the recently closed Restaurant Charlie was Charlie Trotter's first foray into Sin City? Nope. He had a restaurant at the MGM Grand back in 1994, when his local contemporaries were serving 99 cent shrimp cocktail and all-you-can-eat prime rib (he clashed with casino management and closed the restaurant shortly thereafter). By 1995, the MGM Grand boasted restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller and... Emeril Lagasse, years before Emeril Live had turned him into a superstar. Why is any of this relevant? Because 1995 is when I first ate at what may now be the oldest celebrity chef restaurant in Las Vegas, and I'm still chasing those memories.

Barbecue ShrimpDominic Armato

Sadly, we arrived to discover that Emeril's isn't the restaurant I remember in a lot of ways. Once upon a time, it was an intimate, bustling, brightly lit room that had warmth and energy. A few years after opening, they added a raw bar that was open to the casino floor, where you could walk up, plunk down, slurp a few oysters, have a beer and move on. Now, all of that's gone and the usual Vegas ostentation has taken over. It's been completely gutted and remodeled, now dark and cavernous and kind of smarmy, and the raw bar is gone, meaning that I'd be denied the chilled seafood I'd been anxiously awaiting for the past two months (this would become a theme). But some other notable favorites were still on the menu, so we charged ahead, hoping for the best. One of the old hallmarks of Emeril's Las Vegas restaurants (along with Delmonico) was friendly yet impeccable service, but what followed was a bit of a Keystone Kops affair, multiple servers rushing by and checking in but never seeming to provide anything we were looking for. It was lunch. Perhaps we caught them a little discombobulated.

Chicken, Shrimp and Andouille GumboDominic Armato

What mattered, though, was that those old favorites arrived, one by one, and for the most part they were pretty darn good. The barbecued shrimp were always an old favorite (originally credited to his sous chef, André Begnaud, in Lagasse's first cookbook, though listed simply as "Emeril's Barbecued Shrimp" here), sautéed hot until a little crisped and blackened around the edges, and then doused in a seductively intense sauce of creole seasoning, house-made Worcestershire sauce, and an obscene amount of butter and cream. It's a bit of a departure from typical New Orleans barbecued shrimp, the cream being the most notable refinement, but it's a doozy of a dish and it's still as lusciously dark as I remember. Chicken, shrimp and Andouille gumbo was also formidable, thick and spicy with just enough okra to keep the purists from getting pedantic about what does and does not constitute gumbo. I've discovered in the intervening years that I tend to like mine a little darker and dirtier, but this is still a fine specimen.

Fried Oyster Po-BoyDominic Armato

I'd never tried it before, but I spied the fried oyster po' boy on the menu when perusing the website a couple of months prior, and had been dreaming of it ever since. I'm two and a half years removed from my last trip down to New Orleans, just as far removed from the last good fried seafood po' boy I've had, and man, was I jonesing for this. If nothing else, it's gargantuan, a huge loaf of bread piled high with no fewer than a dozen (and probably more) formidably-sized oysters, the requisite veg, creole mayonnaise and a side of bread and butter pickle spears. The problem was the oysters. Plump, juicy and generous, I can't complain about their size or abundance. But there was barely any crisp to them at all, and the contrast between fried coating and slippery interior is what makes this sandwich for me. There were some other minor shortcomings to nitpick, but none that couldn't have been easily overlooked had the oysters been on. As it was, I just found myself dreaming about Domilise's. Two and a half years and counting. *sigh*

Banana Cream PieDominic Armato

The object of my ladylove's desire (and, to be fair, mine as well) was thankfully still on, however. The banana cream pie isn't exactly elegant, but it's an old favorite that I hadn't had in years. Graham cracker crust, piled with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and drizzled with caramel, the joy of this slice is in the filling. While I can't say I've sampled enough banana cream pie to say whether this is a revolutionary or simply a rarer approach, the filing is 90% fresh, sweet, cold bananas rather than a custardy mess. There's a little bit of light banana mousse to bind them, but it's mostly huge chunks of unadulterated fruit, which makes it play light and refreshing... a feat considering the amount of sugar involved in its production. I may not be approaching this from a place of objectivity, but I say this pie still rocks, even if the surrounding restaurant has completely changed around it.

Waddling away from Emeril's, we had all kinds of grandiose plans that were waylaid when we decided to stop back at the hotel room and got within ten paces of a pillow. We crashed. Hard. And awoke to an awful realization. When you're a food nerd, there are few things more terrifying than waking up from a five hour nap only to roll over, glance at the clock, and realize that the reservation for the kaiseki dinner at Raku you booked over two months ago is... right now. Well, okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Our reservation was for 8:00. The clock actually said 7:59. But once I'd regained my breath enough to wake my ladylove, it was, in fact, 8:00 and we were not only not sitting down for our dinner, but we were not dressed, half-asleep in a hotel room 15-20 minutes away.

On this particular evening, we were those guys, and it felt awful. But after calling to let them know we were en route, we somehow managed to scramble out the door and arrive at Raku at 8:25... completely, horribly, unacceptably late, but I suppose it could have been worse. They couldn't have been more gracious, particularly when they asked if traffic was bad and I, finding myself unable to lie, blurted out that we'd overslept. I hope that laugh was genuine and not to mask seething anger. I offered as many apologies as I thought reasonable, then threw in a few more for good measure.

FIRE! Dominic Armato

Raku, you see, is the reigning food nerd hotspot in Vegas, a tiny aburiya fifteen minutes off strip with a huge sake list, a robata grill and a chef who turns out beautifully detailed and delicious Japanese food. I first tried Raku early last year, and was waffling over whether to return or try some new spots, when a friend informed me that they'd started to offer a kaiseki menu on a very limited basis with advance notice. That was all the excuse I needed. The kaiseki dinner at Raku was the first dinner I booked once we'd settled on Vegas.

Tofu with Uni and DashiDominic Armato

Raku's grown since my last visit, having taken over an adjacent storefront to add more seating, including a couple of semi-private rooms like the one in which we were seated, atop velvety cushions and surrounded by dark stained wood. The kaiseki is now officially offered on the menu, though only with three days' notice. Offered in two sizes, ten courses for $100 or 15 for $150, we went full boat. I'm unsure whether what followed was a true kaiseki menu in the strictest sense of the term. But whatever you call it, kaiseki, tasting, omakase, whatever, it went on for four hours and was brilliant. Our first taste was simple and beautiful, a piece of fresh uni atop tofu, with dashi and a touch of freshly grated wasabi root. The knife work on the tofu was impressive, the block cut into tiny ribbons the cross section of which couldn't have been more than a few millimeters square. They fell apart as I ate to create a pile of tofu noodles, mixing with the absolutely stunning dashi, intense and lightly sweet and thick with umami.

Hassun Dominic Armato

The next dish arrived in a cubic serving piece, uncovered and unstacked to create the side-by-side presentation you see here. I suppose this would be most accurately identified as the hassun course, a number of small bites meant to set the seasonal tone. On the left, we started with a tiny dish of yuba, the curdled skin that forms atop soy milk when tofu is made, with a dash of soy and more grated wasabi. It was creamy but firmly set, with the faintest sour notes and a kind of luscious, milky body. And it was about the size of the tip of my thumb. To the right of the yuba was a stalk of asparagus, halved and coated in crushed rice before being deep fried. The asparagus was crisp tender and vegetal, while the coating was exceptionally crunchy, almost like a rice cracker, unevenly textured and very flavorful. On the bottom was a slice of duck breast that had been treated to the robata, picking up a clean smoky flavor and a little bit of scallion for brightness. Moving on to the right, the item on the bottom was a piece of eggplant roasted so soft that it was incredibly creamy, almost dissolving into liquid in your mouth. Topped with a bit of shaved bonito and stuffed with ginger and, I believe, a bit of shrimp paste, it was a fabulous bite. On the top right was a tiny, vinegared baby squid with a dollop of yellow sauce described as a mix of egg yolk and "bonito guts." The squid was very cleanly marinated, tasting simply of squid and vinegar, and the sauce was a sultry little combination, taking richness from the egg yolk and a briny saltiness from the bonito. The final item was a ball composed of the same egg yolk and bonito guts combination, topped with a thin slice of salmon sashimi. It had the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk and was of similar size, but the bonito guts and salmon made it into a briny, slightly funky version thereof. It was a little intense. Though very small, I ate it in four or five bites. To eat it all at once would have been a little much.

Tofu with Cured IkuraDominic Armato

Next, we were treated to the house tofu, which was a delight of texture as much as flavor. It was served with house-cured ikura (salmon roe), and a pinch of green tea salt for dipping. The tofu itself had an unusually deep and developed flavor, and the texture was rich and creamy, almost like fresh ricotta. In fact, the flavor, though distinctively that of soy, was very much like a fresh cheese. The contrasting flavors were perfect. It got a touch of acidity, brininess from the ikura, which were exceedingly fresh and clean tasting and provided that satisfying *piff* as they burst. The green tea salt was notable for the very strong green tea flavor -- this was not a subtle flavor -- lending a distinctly herbaceous quality as well as some needed salinity. A fabulous in-house product, perfectly accented.

Soup with Ground ChickenDominic Armato

A small bowl of soup followed, a very clean and delicate chicken broth that was crystal clear and subtly flavored. Floating in the center was what can only be described as a chicken meatball, made of finely minced chicken and tiny bits of cartilage, and just the faintest hint of curry, but I can't overemphasize the subtlety of the latter. The meatball was coated in -- well, I'm not certain. It was like some manner of gelée that had been very, very finely minced and then somehow made to adhere to the outer surface of the meatball. I didn't get much from it in the way of flavor, but it did provide a very unusual texture, particularly because of the finely minced texture, that I found enjoyable if somewhat unconventional. But the dish's anchor was the broth, which achieved beautiful balance in such a light package.

Bluefin Tuna and Eel with Plum SauceDominic Armato

One of the highlights of my previous trip was the sashimi, and while this course didn't quite live up to what I remember of that amazing yellowtail, it still featured some excellent fish, nicely accompanied. On the left, small cubes of bluefin tuna (fairly lean - no toro here) were topped with what I believe was some manner of seaweed that had been saturated with a very deep, thick, caramel-flavored soy sauce. There was just a touch, but that was plenty to accentuate the lovely fish. On top there were three tufts of eel, cooked and chilled, and served with a salty plum dipping sauce. I'm quite certain I've never had eel presented so plainly like this. How quickly we become accustomed to always having it lacquered with that thick, sweet soy sauce. But having it in this manner accentuated the texture, which was almost feathery, moist without being at all fatty (in fact, it was quite lean), and cut in such a fashion that it accentuated these qualities.

Foie Gras ChawanmushiDominic Armato

The foie gras chawanmushi probably would have been astounding if I hadn't had a fabulous version of the same last fall. Chawanmushi is an custard, prepared with dashi and steamed to a creamy and fluffy consistency, here made with foie gras and truffle, both of which adorned the top as well. It's a killer combination, and I can't help but compare it to the one I had at Nobuo at Teeter House in Phoenix, which was torched like a crème brûlée. The black truffle was a perfect touch here, but the little bit of added sweetness made Nobuo's something truly special, and while I hate to play favorites with two fabulous dishes, let me simply say that if you enjoy Raku's take, be sure to get a hold of Nobuo's if you cruise through Phoenix. In both cases, however, it's an inspired dish.

Grilled Nodoguro with Corn and TomatoDominic Armato

A little sea perch called nodoguro would make a couple of appearances through the meal, first served here. A small filet of the fish was folded over, skewered and grilled over the robata, leaving it moist and smoky. To pair, a little knob of grated daikon radish that we accented with soy sauce, and a tiny wedge of fresh lime. The perfect little piece of fish didn't need anything more, and could have even done with less (though the additions were entirely welcome). It was served with a couple of grilled grape tomatoes, as well as the potato with corn that had so mystified me on the first visit. Friends and I have, quite literally, sat around theorizing about how the cob could be replaced with mashed potatoes without disturbing the perfect placement of the kernels. So I asked. The simple answer? It's a matter of careful knife work. Our server explained that the chef carefully cuts away the kernels, leaving just enough cob so that they can be unrolled into a flat sheet, which is subsequently rolled around a cylinder of the mashed potatoes before being sliced and grilled. I'd still like to see this in action, but the explanation makes sense. Mystery solved!

Ankimo with Spinach and MushroomsDominic Armato

I couldn't have been more delighted when the next course hit the table. One of my great shames is that I'd never had monkfish liver, also known as ankimo. Oft referred to as the Japanese equivalent of foie gras, it's a delicacy that I'd missed early on, and then was reluctant to pursue aggressively since I wanted my first taste to be someplace I knew would do an excellent job of preparing it. I'm not sure my faith could be better placed than with Raku, and the few seconds it took our server to describe the dish were a few seconds too many. First impressions? The foie gras parallel is a little misleading. There's some richness here, but it's far, far more subtle, as delicate a liver as I've ever tasted, with a firm and pleasing texture. Equally wonderful were the accompaniments, steamed spinach and an assortment of mushrooms, in a thickened dashi-based sauce that was lightly sweetened and impossibly rich. I'm trying to curtail my use of the term "umami bomb," but man, it's possible that I've never encountered a dish for which it was more appropriate. It was so satisfying, almost meaty despite its total lack of meat, and the mix of mushrooms was delightful. This was an absolutely killer dish.

Beef TatakiDominic Armato

Next up, a little Wagyu tataki (I'm going to gloss over my annoyance that it was billed as Kobe). There were actually three of these little bundles, but... uh... I snarfed one of them before remembering to take a photo. The other two looked almost exactly the same, a thin slice of briefly seared beef wrapped around some manner of thinly slivered vegetable with various accompaniments. In Japanese style, we were directed to eat from right to left, starting with a simple roll accompanied by a bit of green tea salt. The second added crispy fried slices of garlic and a single sansho berry (the sharp and uniquely astringent Japanese pepper). The third, pictured here, was topped with some chili daikon, more sansho, minced green onion and ponzu jelly. All three featured some beautiful, mostly raw beef and perfectly crisp vegetable filling, and the flavors followed a satisfying progression, from salty and herbaceous to garlicky and peppery to spicy, sweet and tart.

Crab, Wakame and Cucumber SunomonoDominic Armato

Our next dish featured another delicacy, understandably in small volume. Hairy crabs are exceedingly difficult to come by, their importation mostly banned and a scant few to be found off th coast of California. Here, it arrived as a hairy crab sunomono -- a pickled dish -- with shaved cucumbers and wakame, a slippery, deep green breed of seaweed. This sunomono was of the vinegary and sweet variety, exceedingly light and refreshing, the thin ribbons of seaweed and cucumber providing a slippery and yet almost crisp texture. I'm not sure this was the best format to fully appreciate the sweetness of hairy crab, but it was a delicious dish nonetheless, and a rare treat to have hairy crab at all.

Fried NodoguroDominic Armato

We were delighted to discover that the nogoduro would make an encore appearance, here fried and served with chili daikon and scallions in a dashi broth. Simple as it was, this was in the running for my favorite of the evening. The fish was beautiful, cut to increase the surface area which was fried to a golden, lightly crisp and tasty crust. Just as wonderful was the dashi, this time a little sweet and sour, but bursting with flavor and perfectly matched to the fish. Here's where I feel compelled to point out the incredible variety of dashi-based sauces we consumed. I realize I'm writing dashi, dashi, dashi, and that seems to be the primary component every time I mention it, but that doesn't begin to express the range of flavors covered by these dashi-based broths and sauces. The truth is, I lack the knowledge to articulate the procedural differences between them. But know that this dashi is not the ankimo dashi, which is not the tofu dashi, etc. They're so remarkably distinct, I'd love to sample them all side-by-side to fully appreciate the differences, both subtle and not so, between them. In any case, as mentioned, this dish may have been my favorite.

Uni ShooterDominic Armato

Oh, who am I kidding. The uni shooter was my favorite. I think. I've had plenty of uni and oyster shooters in my day, but never one as brilliant as this. Umami was once again in full force, and the dashi base was adorned by a pristine slab of uni, a whole quail egg, tiny pickled mushrooms, finely yet precisely minced mountain yam, and three paper-thin slices of okra. This was one heck of a generous shooter, served in a martini glass, and taking it in one shot, I was barely able to contain it. But, oh, the flavor, an all-encompassing briny richness with subtly balanced sweet and sour notes, the textural interplay of crisp okra, squishy mushrooms and finely minced yam, all of it anchored by some beautiful uni. I absolutely adored this dish. And then I got to adore it again, when my ladylove wasn't quite feeling it and passed hers across the table. I always want her to experience these fabulous flavors with me but, well... this was one instance where whatever pangs of guilt I felt were quickly forgotten. Brilliant dish.

Beef Ishiyaki with HennessyDominic Armato

Our next dish involved some fun theatrics, and so it's pictured twice, both in the wide image above and here on the left. I had something similar on my first trip to Raku, skewered Wagyu skirt grilled on the robata and topped with crisp fried garlic chips. This was essentially the kicked-up version of that dish, tenderloin (I think?) substituted for the skirt (too bad), served ishiyaki-style atop caramelized onions on a searing hot rock, and flambéed before our eyes with... wait for it... Hennessy. It's a heck of a presentation, which wouldn't mean anything if it didn't taste great, which it does. I'm on record as almost universally preferring any cut to tenderloin, and this is no exception. But with that as a given, the beef was of excellent quality, this was a really delicious dish, and the cognac wasn't the least bit superfluous. It absolutely lent a distinctive flavor and aroma that completely changed the dish from the one I tried on my previous visit.

Rice with Chicken, Egg, Takana PickleDominic Armato

I absolutely loved our final savory dish, not just for what it was, but also for where it was placed. We were served a bowl of perfectly steamed rice, topped with chicken that had been grilled and then minced, tamago (egg omelet) that had been finely shredded, a briny, pungent pickled mustard leaf called takana pickle, a little reminiscent of brined capers, and a touch of slivered fresh shiso. After all of the ceremony, the parade of upscale ingredients, the intricate presentations, for the last dish they chose something completely homey and comforting. We stirred up the toppings and ate them with the rice, the chicken braced by a sort of peppery freshness provided by the takana pickles and shiso. There was a touch of natural sweetness in the egg, but otherwise nothing to detract from the perfect rice. It was warm and simple and soulful and a surprisingly perfect finish to an upscale meal.

Cheesecake with RaspberryDominic Armato

Dessert was no slouch, but I was more entranced by what was served alongside it. We received the chef's "cheesecake," a somewhat liberal riff on convention as I don't think I've ever had one so soft and loose. It was, however, unusually delicious, and simply paired with a couple of fresh raspberries and a sweet raspberry puree. What knocked me over, however, was the sake it was served with. Though not pictured, an elegant piece of stemware was filled with an almost opaque, dark amber liquid, topped with a dollop of fresh cream. The amber liquid was aged mirin -- a sweet sake -- and we were told to swirl in the cream before drinking. It was ice cold, and tasted shockingly of coffee, though I understand none was used in its production. But of course, this was no stand-in for toddy. It had the kind of punch you'd expect from something that was 14% alcohol by volume, and it had legs, its sweetness lingering on the tongue for a while after taking a sip. And what was completely unmistakable was the fermented rice, front and center, alongside that mysterious coffee flavor. It was truly unlike anything I've tasted before, and I fully intend to taste it again. A Google search for "Fukuraijyun Hon Mirin" as listed on the label (I asked to see the bottle) pulls up a few publicly posted licensing documents and nothing more. I definitely need to figure out where to obtain this stuff, because it's really wonderful.

What can I say? In case it wasn't already plainly evident, I was totally blown away. I fully enjoyed my first pass at Raku, but this second trip just floored me. Everything was so fresh, so precise, so carefully balanced and lovingly prepared, and it's food of a genre that's so, so hard to find done well. Raku is an absolute gem, and it just hurts that I have to travel to Vegas to eat there. While lingering over aged mirin, I briefly found myself thinking, "Well, the kids go to bed around 8:30, it's five hours to Vegas, they're open until 3:00, and my wife leaves for work around quarter to eight in the morning. It's doable."

I need a wingman. Or an intervention. I'm not sure which.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

Emeril's New Orleans Fish House
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sun - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 10:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:30 PM

5030 W. Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89146
Mon - Sat6:00 PM - 3:00 AM

May 23, 2011

Las Vegas - Day I

The Desert Highway Dominic Armato

This isn't where I expected to spend my vacation, but you won't hear me complaining.

My ladylove, you see, is a find a quiet retreat and lie down on the beach or next to the pool kind of girl. It's with good reason. She works hard. And kids, no matter how lovable, are loud. So on those rare, rare occasions when we have a couple of days to ourselves, the most pressing desire by far is to do nothing, and do it quietly. Which is why, when I suggested we not venture too far so as to avoid spending half our vacation traveling, her reply of, "How about Vegas?" left me momentarily dumbfounded. But just for a moment. And thus, the decision was made. A restaurant town like that? Done and done. I started making plans that evening.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and we're flying down US 93, cruising past Nothing, Arizona (really!), en route to a destination not typically found on anybody's "quiet and relaxing" list, a horde of restaurant reservations in hand. I love road trips, and I always have dreams of really taking our time with one, stopping in all of the tiny burgs along the way, checking out a diner here, a beef jerky stand there. It wasn't to be on this trip. The fact that we can go door to door on a single tank means that we didn't need to stop to refuel anything other than ourselves, which we opted to do in Kingman, about two-thirds of the way there.

Pulled Pork with Cole SlawDominic Armato

I'd seen some positive mention of a joint called Redneck's Southern Pit BBQ, which as road trip lunch stops go, had both the genre and the name going for it. Turns out it's a pretty big operation, cafeteria-style service in a big room with a bunch of diner-style four tops up front, a phalanx of huge wooden picnic tables in back, and the requisite paper towel rolls on every table. Redneck's covers the standards, both meats and sides, so we picked out an assortment and sat down to dig in. Getting condiments sorted out, the house sauce is sweet for my tastes, a spicy yet thick and ketchupy sweet concoction that I think's a little overwhelming for good meat, but I suppose it's good enough for what it is. There's also a thin, spicy vinegar and a sort of Buffalo-style hot sauce, both nice as accents but nothing that seemed appropriate as a standalone sauce, so the house sauce it would be.

BBQ RibsDominic Armato

I snuck a bite of my ladylove's pulled pork, which was respectable, moist and tender and fairly smoky. I'm in the camp that prefers a little bark and texture here, but the flavor was nice (even if the bun was stone cold). The ribs weren't half-bad, and if they hadn't obviously been held for a while before I got to them, they might've been really nice. Timing is a tricky thing with BBQ and we arrived a little while after the lunch rush, so I'm not inclined to hold the fact that they'd dried out a bit against them. I'll give them credit for a nice smoky product, though, pink almost all the way through with a nice balance of tenderness and chew. They were much better near the fatty end where they hadn't dried out so much, but I enjoyed every part. My hunch is that if we'd gotten there a couple of hours earlier, they would have been spot-on. But they're real, honest-to-goodness smoked ribs, which right there is (sadly) more than I can say for most of the ones I've tried lately.

Sides were serviceable but entirely forgettable. Coleslaw was light and creamy and obviously made fresh, but the potato salad was flat with no texture and the mac and cheese was bland. "Tennessee Toothpicks" were simply battered and fried onion straws and jalapeno slices with ranch to dip, and though the use of the name struck me as questionable (I'm pretty sure the term has some significantly less savory alternate meanings), the little fried strips were as advertised, hot and crispy, though the name was the most distinctive thing about them. We definitely should have taken a pass on the peach cobbler. "Homemade" or no, it was completely textureless and not particularly flavorful. Suffice it to say that Redneck's is definitely about the meat, and on that point they hit the mark.

The Kitchen at L'Atelier Dominic Armato

And so, after a pretty decent BBQ pit stop, we rolled into Vegas for the main event. Picking fine dining restaurants in Vegas these days is a daunting task. The options are dizzying, the marketing BS is thick as tar, and public feedback features a lot more noise and platitudes than actual info. Want to choose based on the name recognition of the attached celebrity chef? Good luck. Some are frequent visitors to the city, very hands-on in ensuring their name is well-represented. Others seem like they're happy to accept the check and never even lay eyes on the line. But the one absolute certainty is that we'd be trying one of the restaurants headlined by Joël Robuchon.

BreadDominic Armato

Robuchon should need no introduction, arguably the most celebrated living French chef, owner of the most Michelin stars as a matter of simple math (for what that's worth), and generally speaking, one of those culinary masters you should probably know about if you're into food. Which is why I was tickled to finally have the opportunity to try one of his restaurants, even a Las Vegas outpost. We briefly flirted with the idea of the three-starred flagship, Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, but when your degustation makes the French Laundry and Alinea look like a bargain, adjectives begin with "heartstopping" and go from there. And so, my first crack at Robuchon would be at L'Atelier, widely replicated around the world and generally acknowledged as an excellent, if not quite full-fledged, representation of the man's cuisine.

Vegetable Fondant with Avocado CreamDominic Armato

With the exception of a few four-tops off to the side, L'Atelier is primarily a counter experience, sleek red and black stools surrounding a hyper-stylish and fully-appointed open kitchen with a pair of cold stations front and center and the heat-producing equipment under the hooded area in back. An enormous U-shaped counter, looking like a converted sushi bar redone in ebony, surrounds the kitchen on three sides and is tended by two servers who move efficiently from station to station (this must be a pleasantly simple setup for them). The menu at this particular outpost features a couple of different tasting options, as well as a full complement of a la carte selections, all of which seem like a deal only when compared to truly shocking prices next door (Robuchon-lite would still be our most expensive meal of the trip). At $155 for nine courses, the "Seasonal Discovery Menu" seemed the way to go, but a couple of things gave me pause. For starters, it didn't include the langoustine which has become something of a L'Atelier signature dish. More notably, it featured tomatoes with basil oil and balsamic for one of the courses. Not that I have anything against tomatoes, basil and balsamic. But on a $155 Robuchon menu? I hoped it would be a wildly creative concoction masquerading as a menu standard. I feared it would be a phoned-in crowd pleaser to make the menu less intimidating for those who might not be accustomed to fine dining. The total absence of foie or any variety meats further suggested the latter. But with our server's insistence that these were considered the house's signature dishes, we decided to roll with it, requesting that they add the langoustine wherever they deemed appropriate.

Tomatoes with Basil and BalsamicDominic Armato

We started with an amuse -- named on the menu as such (a practice I find irritating) -- vegetable fondant topped with an avocado cream, and slices of radish and cucumber. Though I didn't realize it at the time, this not only set the stage for the meal, but embodied it as well. It was truly delicious, an explosive combination of tomato, cucumber, pepper and more that played a little like a gazpacho with unusual smoothness and intensity. The flavors had the strength of something reduced with heat, but with the kind of raw, fresh flavor that would result if they'd simply been tossed in a blender. Perfectly seasoned, I thought it a delightful start. Which only made it more disappointing when my tomato fears were realized. Heirloom tomatoes, basil oil, balsamic vinegar and a couple of token cucumber blossoms made for a stunning presentation of the simplest possible dish. Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm fully in support of simple, traditional flavors and dishes. But why this? Why here? And if you're going to go this route, it should at least use absolutely stellar tomatoes (it didn't) that are salted properly (they weren't). I wish I knew what the line of thinking was behind this dish, because they only explanations I can come up with aren't terribly flattering. I started to worry that we'd made a terrible mistake.

Scallop with ChivesDominic Armato

But the menu started winning me back in short order, the next dish being a single scallop topped with chives, coarse salt and pepper, and dressed with a very light ginger olive oil. I was first struck by the scallop, billed as seared though with no visual clue thereof. What was striking was an extremely dense and firm texture that some have dismissed as overcooked, but I reject that. The flavor was just as that of a lightly cooked scallop should be, and though I'm unsure whether that disconnect between texture and flavor was the product of some unusual technique or a truly exceptional scallop, I'm not sure that I care. I found it immensely pleasurable, and that's all that matters. What truly won me over, however, was the use of chives. When's the last time you had a dish where minced chives were anything more than a pretty garnish or a light accent? The dish wasn't a scallop with a little chive. The dish was scallop and chives, and I'm not certain I could say either was more pronounced than the other. The light ginger accent, flecks of salt and pepper -- so simple, and it came together so beautifully. What's more, it was perfect as a small plate. Any more, and I think that subtlety would have been lost. It's no accident, I'm sure, that this wasn't available on the a la carte menu.

King Crab with Pepper ConfitDominic Armato

The next dish arrived, and once again I was struck by the focus and simplicity. A small portion of king crab leg was seared on the plancha, topped with bell pepper confit, a splash of lemongrass oil and piment d'espelette. There's absolutely nothing hidden here. A mélange of bell peppers, meticulously slivered and poached just enough to soften tasted like... bell peppers. The crab received a touch of color from the plancha, but certainly wasn't aggressively cooked. The oil added some fragrant notes, the piment a touch of spice, and there's the dish, each component tasting simply and wholly of itself, as honest and straightforward as can be. That they were delicious together was a function of the impeccable ingredients, precise execution and thoughtful combinations.

Langoustine with Basil PestoDominic Armato

Would Robuchon suddenly bust out something more complex with one of his signature dishes? Hardly. A single shelled langoustine was wrapped in bric dough with a basil leaf, deep fried, and served with a basil pesto and tuft of lightly dressed greens. The crispy pastry acted almost like a refined substitute for the crisp shells you get when shrimp are fried whole. The basil pesto was... basil. Almost completely unadulterated. There was a little oil, and I believe the basil had been blanched, and that may have been it. Where was the counterpoint and acid? In the salad, dressed with just enough lemon vinaigrette to punch up the pesto and cut through the langoustine's fried armor. Though it wasn't as strong a dish as the previous two (I'm a little surprised this has emerged as a signature dish), it possessed the same qualities -- simple, balanced, impeccable ingredients.

Asparagus with Morels and Veal JusDominic Armato

Asparagus also got the plancha treatment, lightly seared for just a touch of the griddle (having obviously been blanched first). And what could be more obvious accompaniments than morels, parmesan and egg? The morels had been softened, in butter I believe, and were topped with a foam made from the same, the parmesan arrived shaved, a single fried and trimmed quail egg sat on top, and it was crowned with three miniscule slivers of jamon iberico (the real deal, though... um... sparingly applied). To give the dish some more muscular underpinnings, a touch of veal jus was drizzled about, and the result was very classic-tasting dish, done with the kind of panache I was hoping would be applied to the tomatoes. It was still a very, very simple dish and nothing about the combination of flavors was the least bit unusual. But this felt like a fine dining dish rather than a pretty presentation of every tomato salad you've ever had, and I enjoyed it.

Steamed Sole with Spring VegetablesDominic Armato

After the asparagus, the menu kicked it into high gear again with one of my favorite dishes of the evening. A portion of sole was steamed, topped with an assortment of spring vegetables, and lightly smothered in a butter sauce fortified with shellfish, ginger and lime. This dish was simply wonderful. The sole was everything steamed fish should be, light and moist, almost ethereal, and it was topped by a beautiful little assortment of vegetables, softened asparagus, tomatoes and spring onions with slivers of heart of palm for texture. Of course, you slather anything in butter and that's going to make it better, but this added both brightness via the aromatics, and depth via the shellfish essence, giving the fish a little added complexity and strength while still keeping the dish firmly planted in the seafood realm. Again, most notably, every ingredient, even the individual components of the vegetable mix, were clean and distinct and spoke their own names. This dish was delicate and sensitive, but with enough body to be viscerally pleasing. Wonderfully done.

Hanger Steak with Shallots and ShishitosDominic Armato

After so much seafood and vegetables (zero complaints), the sudden arrival of meat was almost a bracing jolt. But though more fully-flavored, these dishes followed the same formula as their predecessors. My ladylove's hanger steak was downright succulent, tender, intensely flavored and slathered in butter and jus. Caramelized shallots were a natural accompaniment, and slightly less conventional though absolutely perfect were a pair of charred shishito peppers, an unabashedly bright green (and spicy) counterpoint to the deep, rich meat. The plate also featured a lightly truffled version of Robuchon's famed pommes purée, notable not for their ingredient list (potatoes, milk, butter, salt), but simply for their fine texture (achieved by shoving them through a tamis) and the pure volume of butter that's whipped into them. It isn't rocket science, but it works. They're atypically rich and silky.

Lamb ShoulderDominic Armato

Sadly, the foie-stuffed quail that has developed into another L'Atelier signature dish was unavailable that evening, so I chose what my ladylove did not, the braised lamb shoulder. Which, in truth, is what I would have chosen anyway. Notable, again, not for its composition but for its intensity and succulence, a molded portion of shredded lamb shoulder was given a quick bit of char on the plancha and plated with more of the pommes purée and a tiny herb salad. The lamb was heavily treated with reduced tomato, not quite to the level of an intense tomato paste, but with a very thick, deep and developed flavor. Other than basic mirepoix, it spoke mostly of lamb, moist and fatty and with just enough char for character. The salad, comprised mostly of dill, was a beautiful counterpoint, and the dill was unafraid to be bright, fresh, frilly dill. And it worked. Great dish.

Strawberries and BalsamicDominic Armato

I'm trying to think of some way to express that our desserts were simple and delicious without being redundant, and failing miserably. The first hit a classic combination, strawberries and balsamic, but added a good deal of textural interest. The strawberries were macerated as well as transmogrified into a brittle crisp. The balsamic was drizzled about and also presented as a balsamic ice cream, very subtly flavored with the sweet vinegar. The whole of the dish was atop vanilla panna cotta strewn with shortbread crumbles, and made a simple combination atypically appealing. The second dessert, however, was truly exceptional, working rhubarb, black cherry and pistachio into a number of formats. On the right, a trio of huge blackberries topped with rhubarb sorbet and a rhubarb crisp. On the left, spiced cake, pistachio crisps, a creamy but dense black cherry mousse and braised rhubarb made for an absolutely brilliant napoleon of sorts, bold and clean flavors presented with fabulous textures. Both were winners.

Rhubarb, Black Cherry, PistachioDominic Armato

I'm not sure what I expected walking into L'Atelier, but it wasn't this. Had I really done my homework I probably would have been more prepared, but more and more I find myself wanting to know less and less when I dine someplace for the first time. I like knowing that my thoughts are my own. And the bit of surprise that I experienced initially developed into a great respect for this style by the end of the meal. I've not dined at any of Robuchon's other restaurants, and I can't say whether or not this is characteristic of his food. But the dishes presented at L'Atelier had a remarkable sensitivity, and enormous respect for the ingredients from which they were produced. These dishes are exceptionally delicate, and are highly expressive despite their subtlety. And the subtlety is key. As I recall the meal, the thing I keep coming back to is how pure the flavors were, how every ingredient tasted precisely of itself, and though some ingredients spoke more loudly than others they all spoke with their own voices. I don't want to start gushing, of course. Some worked better than others, I'm still not sure what that tomato dish was doing there, and at $155 this is an expensive proposition (and small, to boot... anybody who's ever been frustrated the least bit by portion sizes will surely leave hungry). But this is a very minimal, natural approach to fine dining -- almost Japanese in French clothing -- to a degree that is rarely seen, pulled off only because of razor-sharp precision on the part of the kitchen. To go in expecting wild creativity, complex flavors and culinary pyrotechnics is to court disappointment. But there's a very soulful simplicity here that had won me over by the time we walked away.

Four days to go...

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

Redneck's Southern Pit BBQ
420 E. Beale Street
Kingman, AZ 86401
Tue - Thu11:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 8:00 PM

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sun5:30 PM - 10:30 PM

May 17, 2011

Back To Reality

The Girl Who Ate Everything  

Well, that's a relief.

Not that Skillet Doux didn't win. Not gonna lie. That would have been pretty cool. But I'm not sure what I was doing in this crowd in the first place, and now I can get back to blogging in obscurity as usual :-)

To be abundantly clear, however, I am and continue to be completely shocked and flattered by the past couple of weeks. It means a lot. It really, really does. And if I didn't feel that I'd already long overstayed my welcome when it comes to talking about this subject, I'd go on gushing about it for another thousand words or so.

But nobody wants that, so let me simply say huge congrats to The Girl Who Ate Everything, a kickass blog that completely deserves the win despite its author's highly amusing protestations.

Sick young'uns have kept me from getting up some of the stuff I'd meant to this past week, but I'm almost sprung. My ladylove and I are shortly off to Vegas! (No, no, the kids are staying here with Grandma and Grandpa.) So some ridiculously good eating should be on the immediate horizon. More soon.

Thanks all!

May 12, 2011

The Home Stretch

Saveur's 2011 Best Food Blog Awards  

The upside, both for your reading pleasure and my amount of self-loathing, is that today's the last day I can shamelessly campaign.

The downside is that time runs short. If you're so inclined, vote today!

(Winners announced on Tuesday... which will be the actual, real, honest-to-god last time you hear about this......... I'm going to go take a shower now.)

May 09, 2011


Sweet Soya Chicken Yakiniku Dominic Armato

I hope I don't regret this.

Not the photos (extremely dim, multicolored light... ack). Rather, the content of this post. I have no compunction about writing something less than complimentary. Praise means nothing if it's given by default, and I feel compelled to be straightforward. But at the same time, I try to point out the good and be constructive - or at least intelligent and/or informed -- with my criticism. I don't ever want to go down the road of those who take pleasure in tearing a place down. But after hitting Johnny Chu's Sens twice over the past couple of weeks, I find myself in the rare position of having almost nothing positive to say about a place that's been very well-received, and I'm having a hard time deciding how to approach this post. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's an important discussion to be had here, and if somebody has to be a big jerk to kick it off... well, I don't enjoy it, but I guess that big jerk might as well be me.

Johnny Chu is a big name on the Phoenix food scene, having opened (and closed) a number of Asian restaurants in recent years, most recently Tien Wong, which I mostly liked except for a frustrating, fatal flaw. But I saw enough good in Tien Wong that I was genuinely looking forward to sampling the offerings at Sens, Chu's late-night sake bar and Asian small plates joint, which has received an awful lot of love from the press. But now I find myself wondering if there's been some recent, drastic change, or if I'm somehow walking into Sens' sister restaurant, Bizarro Sens, just around the corner, because Sens is the kind of schlocky, poorly-executed, clumsy Asian fusion joint that as a nation I thought we'd gotten over a decade ago. In the early '90s, it wouldn't have been good, but at least it would have been novel. Now, it's just... well... enough of this. Forget the history, forget the decor, forget the lighting and service and the seating and the drinks and the hours and let's just focus on what's important... the food. I'll elaborate later.

Soup GyozaDominic Armato

The runaway best dish of the eight I tried was the soup gyoza, and given that this was far and away the best, you'll quickly see why I'm so frustrated by this place. Chu's soup gyoza, which have gotten a ton of love, are basically a play on xiao long bao, a Shanghaiese specialty for which I have an awful lot of love. First off, they aren't gyoza. Not by any definition I've ever seen. Gyoza are a specific type of dumpling with a specific shape. So why call them gyoza? Because the word looks cool on a menu? I can't think of any other reason. They're xiao long bao. Sort of. I'm not the least bit anti-fusion when it's done well, but even taken for what they are, these are okay at best. The wrapper's too thick and gummy, which actually isn't unusual for XLB in the States (good ones are terribly difficult to come by except in a few geographical pockets). But then the fact that half of them stuck to the plate, spilling their juice before I could even get them to my mouth, is doubly frustrating. They're usually served atop a slice of some vegetable for a reason. Here, they're swimming in sauce. Which is (I'm fairly certain) a rice vinegar, soy and sesame oil mix rather than the traditional black vinegar. Need it be traditional? No. But this sauce was too aggressive, too acrid, too abundant. The one touch I really liked was that rather than having slivered ginger in the sauce, he had slices inside the dumpling itself, and they took on a really pleasing texture, steamed enough to blunt their sharper nature, and possessed of the faintest vegetal crunch, almost like lotus root. That was a great idea, and if he'd simply done that and left the rest alone, this would have been a great dumpling. As it was, it was poorly executed and way too busy.

Wasabi TofuDominic Armato

Another dish that was marginally successful was the wasabi tofu, cut into thick wedges, deep fried and served with a wasabi dipping sauce. What worked was the tofu itself, dipped in batter before being deftly fried, leaving a light, crispy exterior and a soft and supple core. But the good ended there. It was topped with a bit of fried minced garlic, which was welcome, but it was just dying for salt. And the dipping sauce was messy, a thick and cloying soy concoction of some nature with a drizzle of wasabi on top. There was no balance, nothing distinct about it... it was a nondescript vehicle for sweet with a little wasabi on top. This would become a theme. As with a special one night, a fried pork and shrimp dumpling with two dipping sauces. Why there needs to be two dipping sauces for six dumplings, I'm not sure, especially when each is enough for a dozen. But setting that aside, again, there's a little positive here. Though I wasn't getting any shrimp flavor in the filling, the pork was nicely seasoned... perhaps a little delicately so for a deep fried wonton. But that didn't matter because the dipping sauces were clumsy and overpowering. The first was the same as with the tofu, above. The second was described as a pineapple dipping sauce, and there was certainly some in it, but it had been reduced to a sickly, cloying goo with a muddy flavor, topped with ground peanuts and a spoonful of sambal. It was the kind of stuff that results from a "just add more" mentality... more sweetness, more fruit, more spice, more soy, until it's just a mess of poorly balanced, indistinct flavors.

Pork and Shrimp DumplingsDominic Armato

Balance was the biggest problem, though not the only one, with the green papaya salad. Balance is the very cornerstone of the Southeast Asian traditions from which this dish derives. Spicy, salty, sour, sweet... one may shuffle to the fore, but the key is for all four of them to be present, recognizable and work harmoniously with the others. But this was as though dumbed down for the stereotypically American palate, lots of sweet and spicy with a lot less sour and not a whiff of salty - fish sauce or otherwise - to be found. When you take an ethnic dish and yank out its soul, what you're left with is flat and lifeless, which is what this salad was. And the problems didn't end there. Rather than being pounded with the seasonings (often done with a big mortar and pestle), it's as though the salad was quickly tossed with a far too thin dressing, resulting in almost naked vegetables and a big pool of off-balance liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Unceremoniously toss a few grilled shrimp on top that didn't appear to have gotten anywhere near the other seasonings, and the flavor is not only off, but it's lazily assembled to boot. Other technical problems abounded. Five spice quail could have been such a nice, simple respite from the messy flavor onslaught of the rest of the menu. Ignore the naked shredded cabbage with drizzle of mystery ultrasweet dressing on one end of the plate, and what you have is quail dusted with five spice and salt and fried. It could be so simple and delicious! Except that it was badly overdone. Admittedly, there's a high degree of difficulty here. Quail are small and lean. But I've had plenty of juicy, succulent quail in my day, and this wasn't just a little overdone. It was really, really unpleasantly dry.

Green Papaya SaladDominic Armato

A large section of the menu is devoted to yakiniku, most simply described, a Japanese style of grilled meats over charcoal. And a couple of the worst offenders came from that grill. Korean short rib is billed as "marinated rib grilled with aromatic wood charcoal," and it's short rib, all right - flanken-cut, very thin - but it's difficult to identify as Korean and even more difficult to identify as having been grilled. Think about meat grilled over wood or charcoal. What makes it great? The char, the oozing juiciness, caramelized sauce, smoky flavor - all things that are imparted by high heat and the accompanying smoke. This had none of those. These were sad, spongy, flaccid little strips of meat with no texture or char flavor of any kind. If there was any smoke, it was completely obliterated by the sticky sweet sauce in which the meat had been doused, seemingly after it was grilled since it hadn't tightened up or caramelized at all and was served borderline cold. The only clue that the meat had gotten anywhere near a grill was some visible marks, but man, you sure couldn't taste them. And even if the meat had those smoky qualities when it left the grill, it sure didn't once it hit the table. To me, this is just a fundamental lack of respect for what you're doing. Japanese yakiniku looks nice on a menu. Great. But what's the point of grilling meat over charcoal if you're going to slather it in so much sauce that you can't even tell?

Five Spice QuailDominic Armato

Similarly grilled sweet soy chicken was even worse. Look at the photo. But for a couple tiny specks of black, would you ever have guessed that it was cooked over an open flame? I know it was. I watched them cook it. Yet it tasted like it had been baked in the oven for an hour, and I say an hour because while I probably have, I can't recall ever having had a piece of chicken that dry and rubbery. Really, just awful. I don't even know how you do that! How do you cook chicken over an open flame so that it completely loses all of its moisture yet doesn't pick up the slightest bit of char? The only explanation I can come up with is that it's completely parcooked and then tossed on the grill for a little symbolic smoke. And if true, again, what's the point other than to look good on a menu? Moreover, the glaze had no character, and the basil dipping sauce was a mess. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was the same as one of the other dipping sauces above, just with some chopped fresh basil on top. Another overly sweet, muddy mess. Plus fresh basil.

Korean Short RibDominic Armato

All of these issues - technical problems, muddy flavors, sweet upon sweet upon sweet, lack of balance - conspired together to make the fried white fish with spicy basil sauce the hardest to eat. It was a sizeable piece of fish, battered and fried, slathered in sauce and topped with chopped basil and peanuts. Where to start? 'Round these parts we tend to keep our fried fish dry so that we can maximize its crunch, but there's plenty of precedent for frying and then saucing in a number of Asian traditions, particularly with fish. It's not meant to add crunch, but rather a kind of body, some additional muscular texture. But you still have to start with a good coating, and this assuredly wasn't. It was just mushy and slimy, and the fish within was overcooked and dry. The bigger issue, however, was the sauce, which was a remarkably unpleasant slap in the face, flavor turned up to eleven with half a cup of sugar, except without the slightest bit of balance of subtlety. I like big flavors. No, I love big flavors. But when Asia goes big, it does so either by keeping flavors clean and pure (think teriyaki), or by balancing them very, very carefully (think curry). This was neither. It was a mess of flavors that were all out of whack, no balance, no composition... just volume. And a pile of herbs and peanuts (another crutch the restaurant seems to employ... just throw peanuts on everything).

Fried White Fish with Basil SauceDominic Armato

This is a rant. I know it's a rant. It's a terrible rant in which I take no pleasure, but it's one I feel compelled to let out because there's an important point here and I can't think of a better example with which to make it. Sens is Exhibit A for contemporary ethnic cuisine gone wrong, a failure of both conception and execution. These dishes utilize the ingredients and some of the techniques, but they've been stripped of the wisdom and spirit of the cuisines from which they're derived. It isn't enough just to put soy, ginger, sesame and pork on the same plate. You have to do so in a way that makes them sing rather than scream, and countless chefs with eons of experience between them have already done most of the legwork for you. This is why I so often place such value on straight-up traditional ethnic foods. To understand why the dishes at places like Sens don't work, you have to understand why the traditional ones do and have for centuries. Admittedly, this can be tricky business. Phoenix doesn't have the kind of Asian neighborhoods that many other cities are blessed with, and that puts us at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to finding great Asian cuisine. Yet while the experience at some of these places is a little uneven, I've already had great Asian dishes from Pho Thanh, Nee House, Phoenix Palace, Szechwan Palace, Hue Gourmet, Chuhgajib, Taiwan Food Express, and Sekong By Night, more creative places like Nobuo at Teeter House and Posh, and even more places that I'm forgetting at the moment. Heck, even the misses at most of these places are head and shoulders above anything I tasted at Sens. And there's so much more out there that I haven't even gotten close to yet.

So the big, uncomfortable question is why is Sens so highly regarded? For those of us who want Phoenix to be taken seriously as a food town, as it deserves to be more and more with each passing month, a place like Sens can't represent us. More importantly, we can't let it represent us. If visitors from other cities read about Sens in the Phoenix press, I shudder to think of what it says to them when they actually eat there. This food won't and shouldn't be taken seriously because it isn't serious food. It isn't even good food. And we have to both expect more and find and support those who will do these traditions justice, both upscale and down, old school and new. Despite my experience at Sens, I'm even open to the possibility that Johnny Chu could be one of those people. He came perilously close to doing something really great with Tien Wong. If he could focus less on being cool and more on simply being good, maybe he'll get there. But whether it's at the hands of Chu or somebody else, we're going to get the restaurants we deserve, by which I mean the scene isn't going to be shaped by us passively sitting back and accepting any mediocre pseudo-Asian joint that rolls along, no matter how pretty it is. And I won't absolve myself of responsibility. This is my failing as well. My fellow food nerds and I need to do more. We need to dig, find those gems, comb those menus, get the word out and show folks the beauty of these foods when they're done right, and not simply pillaged for their flavor palette. And the flipside of this is that we have to be willing to call out mediocrity when we see it, which is why I'm posting about Sens rather than sticking this one in my pocket, which would be the easy thing to do.

There's an epilogue here that's yet to be written. Chu is the chef for Scottsdale's forthcoming behemoth ultra lounge, The Mint. Three bars, a 4,000 square foot patio, cabanas, and a huge bank vault door as a decorative centerpiece suggest that it's more meet market than meat market. And yet, that's a Johnny Chu menu, which means the food is sure to attract a significant amount of press. The question is, will that food be any good, and if it isn't, what will the reaction be? The answers, as well as the other names that surface in the ensuing discussion, will still say a lot about both the present and future of the food scene in Phoenix. I hope and expect to be a part of that conversation. As long as Johnny Chu doesn't kill me first.

705 N. 1st Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
Fri11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 2:00 AM
Sat 5:00 PM - 2:00 AM
Sun 5:00 PM - ?

May 06, 2011

An Announcement...

Agua Fresca de Sandia @ Gallo Blanco... Made With No Cupcakes Dominic Armato

Your attention please. Skillet Doux will not be posting about cupcakes today.

That is all.

cc: Chow Bella