The State of Sin City: Las Vegas, Part 1
We’re officially halfway through our tastings and scouting for our 2008 Las Vegas Rising Stars, and we’re happy to report that the culinary state of Sin City is strong. Restaurants and hotels are still popping up everywhere, on- and off-Strip, tourists are crowding the sidewalks, casino floors, and dining rooms, and revenues are well in the black. During the course of our one week trip to Vegas, we met a solid group of talented chefs, pastry chefs, and sommeliers, but we walked away with the sense that the cuisine in this ever-growing desert oasis – as successful and revenue-generating as it is – still has its limits of big volume, big casinos, and customers with middle-of-the-road tastes (see our 2006 Las Vegas Travel feature.
Las Vegas chefs are no doubt serious about food and focused on perfect execution, but they still have to cater to a wide variety of diners who come from all over the country and the world. This mass-appeal factor tends to subdue the wilder desires and inclinations of chefs. Simply put, the average Vegas tourist/diner just isn’t going to be into that dish of agar-gelled foie gras noodles with spruce paper and mashed potato powder. However, they will take that 18-ounce Bone-In Rib Eye with Sweet Onion Jus for $52 at Charlie Palmer Steak, or the 50 grams of Caspian Osetra with blini for $460 at Daniel Boulud Brasserie.
It’s certainly not a lack of skills on the chefs’ part, or a lack of cash on the consumers’ side, rather a lack of demand for envelop-pushing cuisine that we noticed. Although we didn’t find hyper-modern cuisine, Las Vegas continues to be a focal point for food if only for the enormous amount of resources poured into the city, and despite its shockingly high turnover rate in the kitchens, the city’s restaurants still attract talent.
To call it a meat and potatoes town doesn’t do it justice – it’s a meat and wine town. Vegas, the Bellagio Resort specifically, is home to the country’s largest number of Master Sommeliers. And let me say it’s not often that we have such a wealth of young, driven, and smart sommeliers to consider for Rising Stars.
“Chef and B” Joe Isidori and his eager team at the brand spanking new Trump International Hotel, with Chef de Cuisine David Varley and Beverage Director Michael Shearin at the namesake restaurant DJT, are certainly pushing the envelope. At a special sneak-preview tasting, we had several dish elements akin to molecular gastronomy, including a C-VAP’d live sea scallop chowanmushi, vanilla infused salmon roe, compressed pineapple, and peanut powder. (The number of these items that will remain on the restaurant menu of DJT is, well, TBD.)
Meanwhile, seasoned seafood chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood is pushing the sustainable seafood cart along with his gifted Chef de Cuisine Brian Rae and Sommelier Jeff Eichelberger. Like many other major U.S. food cities, with the exception of New York and San Francisco, sustainability is still catching on in Vegas – and for a city smack dab in the middle of a desert the feasibility of being sustainable is questionable in and of itself. Moonen’s passion for thinking on a global eco-friendly scale is a breath of fresh air. The chef served us Cobia, considered largely a throw-away by-catch and often mistaken for a type of shark, that was completely delicious. Eichelberger, on the beverage side, is developing a wine list based on organic and sustainable wines from across the globe.
Executive Chef Anthony Amoroso at Michael Mina impressed us with his sophisticated and expertly executed dishes. His sense of presentation was beautiful and understated, the latter unusual for this razzle-dazzle town. Master Sommelier Jason Smith – still retaining the title of the country’s youngest Master Sommelier – guided us from micro-Champagne to a sumptuous Australian Shiraz with an engaging and amicable demeanor that kept us talking about the pairings throughout the tasting.
With the absence of avant-garde trendsetters, young chefs are looking to classical French cuisine for inspiration. Greg Engelhardt at André’s in downtown and Wesley Holton at Daniel Boulud Brasserie make the case. Chef de Cuisine Engelhardt, under the masterful hand of Chef André Rochat impressed us with his updated but deeply classical French fare, and a reverence for his French mentor usually reserved for chefs from bygone eras, like Escoffier. But Engelhardt’s food was by no means stodgy.
Executive Chef Wesley Holton’s connection to classic French food is one rooted in a more mainstream terrain with celebrity overtones a la Mega-Chef Daniel Boulud. Holton’s dishes showed a dedication to the traditions of French technique, but with bolder flavors and more modern presentation. What makes both of these young American chefs stand out is not the fact that they are devoted to classical French cuisine but that they are not stuck in it.
Asian cuisine is also second nature to many U.S. and Vegas chefs, whether by training, cultural-adoption, or ethnic heritage, and in Vegas Nobu Matsuhisa’s influence runs deep. Two Nobu offspring are helping to develop a pan-Asian cuisine culture in Sin City: Executive Chefs Joe Elevado at Social House and Linda Rodriguez at Hachi. Elevado has been infusing his largely Japanese-influenced dishes with flavor accents from Chinese, Phillipino, and continental Southeast Asian cookery. Rodriguez’s emphasis on appealing presentation for her modern Asian comfort food was self-evident: she used different plates and rustic accent pieces, like dried leaves, to give each dish an individual character.
Executive Chef Carlos Guía at Louis’s and Fish Camp in the new Town Square is bringing a regional southern American flare to the scene. Think decadent but still stick-to-your-ribs Foie Gras Gumbo and Bourbon Cured and Smoked Duck Ham. Sommelier Robert Cross teased our tastebuds with off-the-wall wine pairings featuring obscure grapes like pinot auxerrois.
The state of pastry in Vegas is, if anything, short staffed – we encountered four chefs in search of pastry chefs, most making do with training their line cooks to make specific sweet dishes inherited from pastry chefs past. Otherwise, the majority of sweets satisfy with big portions of homey comfort rather than sophisticated elegance. The clear exceptions to this Vegas pastry standard are Executive Pastry Chef Gregory Gorreau of Payard Patisserie and Pastry Chef Uyen Nguyen of Guy Savoy. Gorreau’s blurring the line between sweet and savory was fun and exciting – the Black Olive Savory Macaroon with Black Olive Cream Cheese was his piece d’resistance. Nguyen’s artistry on the plate is best described as exotic Zen. Her layering of textures, balance of flavors, and flawless execution is ethereal, inspirational, and very modern.
It goes without saying that we’re really looking forward to our next trip to Las Vegas in June! There is certainly more talent to unearth in this city of high volume, high revenue, high turnover and, let’s not forget, sin.
Are you (or do you know) a chef, pastry chef, mixologist or sommelier we should be sure to check out? Tell us who, and why, here.