Notes from the
NEW IN VEGAS?
In Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino
3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Nobu Matsuhisa’s new Nobu
in Caesars Palace is the perfect example of
what happens when a celebrity chef sells out and
uses Las Vegas to cash in.
You will eat well here, if you keep things simple, but you will also feel like you were backed over by a Brink’s truck when you get your bill.
This Nobu is 325 seats small, with a menu longer than my last divorce decree. The 166-item (yes, I counted), 4-page menu is all over the map, running the gamut from a tiny cylinder of underseasoned yellowtail mush topped with good caviar ($28) to "Inaniwa Pasta with Lobster" that will set you back a cool $34 for four chunks of lobster atop thin udon noodles. Almost last and definitely least are the "Nobu Style Taco(s)," priced at ten bucks per for teeny tiny tacos containing just enough fish to satisfy the tariff.
None of this would matter if they tasted like anything other than the flaky shell that surrounds them, but they don't and you will feel hosed. There are usually no less than ten sushi chefs on duty, a half dozen hostesses, and so many waiters they need a traffic cop at the delivery stations to keep collisions from happening. Of course, this is nothing new for a celeb chef opening in Vegas. In their first month of operation, casino restaurants typically load up with roughly double the staff they will need once the shakedown cruise is over.
The amazing thing is that some of the food, like the sushi, is a lot better than it has to be. It is top drawer, expertly cut and served on beautiful, barely warm and barely held-together perfumed rice. There's no slack in the sashimi, either. Whether this level of quality holds true once the opening hubbub dies down (and once there aren't ten sushi chefs manning the counter) remains to be seen. But in the meantime, you will eat some of the most pristine fish you will ever find 250 miles from the nearest ocean.
Tempura fans may swoon over the crispy, barely-there batter that envelops the "King Crab with Amazu Ponzu," and it’s hard to fault. If you seek a flavor depth charge, the mixed toban-yaki (ceramic-grilled) seafood ($32) fills the bill with grilled fish and lots of big vegetables sharing a bowl with a sauce so good you will ask for a spoon. Once you get past those, your tariff and disappointment will mount quickly. Order the spicy scallop hand cut roll ($12) and you will get a panatella-sized roll of rice containing an itty-bitty piece of scallop and zero spice. The same holds true for the Big Eye tuna with asparagus roll ($12), both indistinguishable from something you'd pick up at a supermarket. What you might call yakitori, this menu calls kushiyaki. Either way, it's simply grilling something-on-a-stick, and either way, there isn't enough protein offered on the chewy-but-tasty squid ($13) or the dice-sized pork belly ($14) to satisfy even the most modest appetites.
Portion sizes at least venture into big boy land with the brick oven dishes, even if menu descriptions leave you scratching your head. Tearing into the roasted poussin (baby chicken, $38), you will be impressed with the tastiness of the bird and the perfection of the roasting, but might find yourself searching for a hint of the "spicy lemon" promised by the menu. Equally misleading is the "Umami Seabass" ($42) -- a gorgeous chunk of lip-smacking fish that, once again, promised much more than it delivered. (Note to Nobu: If you're going to stick the "umami" label on anything, you'd better deliver the goods.)
Finally, there is the sake list -- nine of them, all from the same producer in the Niigata prefecture. Only one of the nine offerings is priced at $75 for a 500 ml bottle, and things get stratospheric very quickly after that. Suffice it to say that reducing your list to a few offerings from a single, expensive producer is the equivalent of Joël Robuchon stating he will only serve classified growth Bordeaux with his food. But I guess when the time comes to cash in, you can do these things with a clear conscience.
Nobu is open for dinner only seven days a week, from 5pm-11pm. Prices start at $5-$12 per piece for sushi/sashimi and average $40+ for entrees.
1031 South Rampart Blvd.
For all the noise that Nobu is making on the Strip, it is in the neighborhoods where most local palates are turning these days. After decades of starving for anything other than franchises and mediocrity, Summerlin (Las Vegas’ most affluent neighborhood) has had two new arrivals within a few months and a half mile of each other. both have been packed since opening day.
Honey Salt is the brainchild of über-restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau (below) and chef-husband Kim Canteenwalla, with exec chef Joseph Zanelli (below). Everything from its shabby-chic décor to its farm-to-table menu is designed to appeal to the downward mobility of most diners in this second decade of the 21st Century.
Honey Salt's menu does try too hard to be something for everyone (scallops, salmon, chicken and beef, etc.), but if you know where to look, there are gems to be found. A shot of "Green Goddess Juice" may be expensive at seven bucks, but seems to possess mystical, health-giving properties. You'll swear you feel better after the first swig. The New England Fry -- basically clams and calamari -- suffers from not enough lemon in the aïoli, but otherwise it’s a crispy evocation of everything fried seafood can be. But the real winners on the apps list are the turkey meatballs topped with fresh, grated horseradish, and the aggressively-spiced Tuscan cannellini bean soup -- both as deeply flavored and well-constructed as any starters in town.
Things get dicier when you venture to the main parts of the menu. My burger has been overcooked and under-seasoned both times I've tried it, and the same dullness permeates some of the cooking. It almost seems like Canteenwalla (a chef with major chops) has decided to dial back the seasonings on everything for fear of offending someone. I'd wager even his Nana-- after whom the excellent (if somewhat mild) chicken curry is named -- would implore her grandson to turn up the heat. As for the vaunted Biloxi Buttermilk Fried Chicken, it operates under the same handicap. In this back-to-basics time, things like burgers and fried chicken need to be either over-the-top or life-changing to be considered anything but an also-ran. This one is merely good, and therefore suffers for it.
In a similar vein, the Farmer's Toast(s), both heaped with fresh veggies and cheese but are so bland and boring you'll forget you ordered them even before the check arrives. In the chef's defense, he deserves kudos for at least trying to jazz up vegetarian food, à la ABC Kitchen in NYC, and the healthful items on this menu are as ambitious as any in town.
A few good beers are on hand, the wine list is small and reasonably-priced, and of course, there's the ubiquitous "house-made,” “hand-crafted,” “artisanal,” blah blah blah cocktail list that makes one yearn for a well-made Harvey Wallbanger.
Honey Salt isn't just a restaurant; it's a "concept." Which means it is a template for what the investors hope will be a chain or franchise down the road. For this reason, everything on the menu is geared towards pleasing everybody. That's why all the buzz words are there -- "comfort foods!" "grain power!" "farm-to-table!" and why the swells and Summerlin's ladies-who-lunch love it just fine. But as Moliére observed, "The friend of all mankind is no friend of mine," and I'd be a lot friendlier towards Honey Salt if Kim and Elizabeth let 'er rip and tried to make a statement with their food instead of trying to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, or offending anyone's palate.
Honey Salt is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Lunch entrees run from $9-$22 with dinner prices ranging from $8-$15 for starters and $18-$32 for main courses.
Inside Tivoli Village
440 South Rampart Boulevard
Poppy Den is also on a quest for a successful brand (a New York offshoot is in the works) -- but chefs know where the spice cabinet is.
Top Chef contestant Angelo Sosa proudly struts his stuff as a Jean-Georges Vongerichten acolyte and demonstrates his fusion training with all sorts of familiar goods tweaked with the spicing and techniques of Southeast Asia. The best damn soup in town might be his tomato bisque with curry foam, and it's hard to fault his ultra-crispy "General's Chicken Wing" -- lacquered with sweet, viscous soy sauce -- and finishing on the palate with the subtle-yet-strong heat of this Korean bar food mainstay.
Less successful among the small plates are the seared pork dumplings, which resemble frozen, fried egg rolls and not the potstickers they're described as. And Aunt Carmen's Fish Fritters (what's with all this homey menu nomenclature?) that no one will ever mistake for a Thai fish cake, these being tiny balls of deep fried mush, i.e., all filler and little fish. Sosa's meatballs are miniscule but his tuna deviled eggs are are a nice way to jazz up the overplayed "tartare," in this case mixing raw fish chunks with a separate salad of hard-cooked whites tossed in a "deviled" dressing.
His sweet and savory "fried rice" quinoa with dried pineapple is also a winner, as is his roast duck with bok choy, but the ballyhooed "poppy fries with kim cheese sauce" are so tepid in taste and texture they could pass muster at an old folks home serving pre-chewed food.
Things improve immeasurably once you get to Sosa’s
meat and fish offerings. Pork belly may be the
cupcake of the savory world, but he crisps his to a
fare thee well, and his miso salmon is a worthy
homage to Nobu’s iconic dish.
But this is but picayune complaint from a persnickety critic. Both Poppy Den and Honey Salt are probably perfect for this era and the clientele they wish to serve. Both are products of "name" chefs who have decided to bring their talents to the 'burbs rather than fight the corporate bureaucracies of the Strip. (In a similar vein, Bradley Ogden will be opening his own casual joint next door to Poppy Den in the near future.)
Many, like yours truly, long for a time when restaurants were started by owners and/or chefs simply looking for a place to cook and serve their food. A time when sugarplum thoughts of “brand expansion” and “franchised success” weren't the watchwords of this industry. But this is the world we live in, and corporate calculations or not, both Honey Salt and Poppy Den are miles better than anything Las Vegas neighborhoods have seen before.
Poppy Den is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, with small plates running $7-$14, and large plates ranging between $14-$23.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
photos by Melissa Hom
795 Fifth Avenue (at 60th Street)
The Maccioni family--father Sirio, sons
Mario, Marco, and Mauro--have for four decades
given New York and, now, other parts of the
world high standards fro French and Italian
cuisine in various forms.
Born and raised in Cremona, Italy, Gozzoli has
an extraordinary résumé that
includes Rome's La Terrazza dell’Eden and the
Hotel de Russie, The Bauer Hotel in Venice, the
Park Hyatt Milan, and other restaurants of
renown. So he comes to Le Cirque with a
reputation for high excellence in classic
cuisine, and for the first few weeks, Gozzoli
was treading carefully with the Maccionis'
clientele, turning out textbook examples of
dishes like eggplant alla parmigiana in puff
pastry, veal cutlet alla milanese (perhaps the
finest in NYC), and bistecca alla fiorentina, all
of which I thoroughly enjoyed upon my first
The desserts, with which maître d' Massimo
Schiavon poured a Moscato Rosa 2010 by
Piedmont's Franz Haas, have all the sumptuous
spirit of what precedes them--a coffee semifreddo
with fudge and terrific mascarpone
sorbetto; a crisp apple tart with
grappa caramel and vanilla gelato; and
a chocolate mousse with olive oil gelato and
lemon honey gel (right).
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
St.-Julien Deserves the Respect of Its Siblings
St.-Julien has always reminded me of a particularly talented middle child, overshadowed at first glance by its siblings, yet easily as accomplished in reality. Pauillac, its more glamorous neighbor to the north, is home to three of the most lusted over wines on the planet--Latour, Lafite, and Mouton-Rothschild. And to the south, the appellation of Margaux, with its own eponymous First Growth and totemic château, is recognized the world over.
For all of that, however, and despite its own lack of First Growths, St.-Julien has, over the years, earned droves of dedicated and passionate adherents, myself among them.
And no wonder: The wines of St.-Julien, considered as a whole, tend to express the sort of elegance, finesse, and length that Bordeaux lovers look for, according to respected wine writer Marc Golodetz. This past January, he was the member sponsor of a remarkable Wine Media Guild tasting and lunch featuring three of the appellation’s top producers: Châteaux Léoville-Barton, Langoa-Barton, and Beychevelle, as well as their respective proprietors, Lilian Barton Sartorius and Phillipe Blanc.
Tastings like this one offer the unique opportunity to not only begin to understand what sets each individual producer apart from its neighbors, but also to see the overarching stylistic and expressive quirks that differentiate one appellation from another within the Bordeaux region as a whole. As expected, these three excellent châteaux embodied everything that Mr. Golodetz asserted should be expressed in St.-Julien, and that, in the real world of retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, make them so appealing to such a broad and passionate cross-section of the market.
In a world where Bordeaux prices are frequently the cause of keening and lamentation among wine lovers, Léoville-Barton has historically stood as a beacon of hope, proof that great, age-worthy wine can be produced here and still remain relatively affordable, at least given the stratospheric price context for Bordeaux these days.
Even with a great vintage like 2005, for example, Léoville-Barton can still be purchased for well under $150 a bottle. The same goes for the 2009. Compare that to Lafite 2005 at more than $1,000, and Margaux for around the same. Even fellow Second Growths like Cos d’Estournel (St.-Estèphe) and Ducru-Beaucaillou (St.-Julien) are nearly double Léoville-Barton’s general price tag in those vintages. And while of course First Growths serve a different purpose for many people than their counterparts further down the classification ladder--even among the so-called Super Seconds--the point is that, from the perspective of pure enjoyment, Léoville-Barton regularly ranks among the top in the region, and all for a price that remains attainable for most people.
The 2011, as expected, is still a baby, will gobs of cranberry, blackberry, spiced plum, and a vanilla note from oak that still needs time to be absorbed. There’s plenty of potential here, but I’d let it rest in the cellar until 2016 or so. The 2008, on the other hand, was more linear, with pomegranate, eucalyptus, and mineral, and a tannic structure to last through 2022+. More perfumed than that was the 2007, whose cherry, sandalwood, and pipe tobacco aromas led to flavors of menthol, cherry skin, and mineral. Our last 21st-century bottling of Leoville Barton was the 2004, a wine I have loved since it was released. At this stage of its evolution, it’s every bit as marvelous as it’s always been despite the vintage’s lack of perceived prestige, with a nose perfectly mingling currants, spice, and scorched earth, and a velvet-textured palate, still quite grippy, speaking of cherry pipe tobacco, cedar, and a transfixing sense of spice. Drink now - 2024. Finally, the 1999 boasted aromatically complex black cherry, licorice root, sweet black currant, and scorched earth. It’s drinking well now, and promises to continue to do so until 2022.
Less widely lauded than Léoville-Barton, Third Growth Langoa-Barton is nonetheless worthy of far more attention than it often receives. Langoa is also owned by Anthony Barton (left), and these wines, too, represent tremendous value. By way of comparison, the 2005 Langoa is available for $75 or so, and the wonderful 2009, a wine that promises to evolve for another two decades, for around the same price.
That 2009, in particular, was marvelous, with ripe, sappy cherry, cassis, and classic aromas of pencil lead, and a palate defined by impeccably balanced tannins and acid, nuts, cedar, pencil lead again, and cherry. Drink 2018 - 2033. The 2006 showed well but wasn’t nearly as impressive, with darker notes of blueberry, fig, and balsamic on the nose, though the palate could have used more a center. 2005, on the other hand, was an unabashed winner, with evolved aromas of leather and grilled cherry and an exotic palate singing with Indian spice, red currant, minerals, and a savory finish. Drink 2017 - 2030. Langoa’s 2003 effort--and it’s a vintage that I’ve never been a great fan of, across the spectrum in Bordeaux--seemed typical for that notably hot year, with roasted aromas of cherry, dried cranberries, scorched earth, and charred meat and flavors of fig paste, grilled sage, and a dark, rich, savory finish. Fans of the style will like this a lot. The 2000 also expertly expressed the character of its vintage: It’s a perfumed wine, with blueberry, kirsch, mineral and clay notes joined by black raspberry, fennel seed, tobacco, and cedar. Still remarkably youthful, it promises to continue to impress for another 15 or more years.
Located further south in St.-Julien, this Fourth Growth out-performs that ranking year after year. Its showing at this particular tasting was no exception: A selection of wines, ranging from 2010 all the way back to 1959, was exquisite, an in situ argument for not always allowing the relative prestige of a chateau’s classification to serve as a yard stick by which it should be judged.
From a pricing standpoint, Beychevelle (below) also represents solid value: The 2005 is available anywhere from just under $100 to around $175, depending on where you purchase it, and the 2009, in general, a bit less. Not inexpensive, of course, but compared to some of the prices that so many Bordeaux command, it is a very good relative bargain.
the three châteaux at this tasting, the word
“perfumed” appears in my notes more for the wines of
Beychevelle than for either of the Bartons.
The 2010, for
example, is showing beautifully even this early in its
evolution, with beef carpaccio, perfumed cherry,
cassis, and cafe mocha. It’s readily available for
under $100, and, for a bottling that will continue to
improve for another two decades, represents a solid
value. The ripe 2009 showed fig paste, pomegranate
syrup, cherry, dark vanilla, charred orange peel, and
a hint of sage: It’s beguiling in its complexity, and
should continue to be so until the late-2020’s. The
2008, as expected, was less of a blockbuster than the
first two. And while its huckleberry, cherry, and star
anise notes were impressive, this vintage will not
likely last as long as some others. 2005, however, was
an unmitigated winner, an exotic wine singing with
Indian spice, eucalyptus, sandalwood, red currant, and
fenugreek. In my notes from the tasting, I noted that
it “reminds me of a beautiful woman - elegant and
sweet and transfixing.” Hyperbole, perhaps, and
terrible writing, but it’s a seriously accomplished
More universally admired is the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux, a legendary year that, here, resulted in a wine of perfumed graphite, currants, black licorice, menthol, blueberry, and cherry. It’s wonderful now, and will continue to be so until 2030. The 1999 started off unexpectedly, with aromas of paprika and beef carpaccio that turned to appealing flavors of charred herbs, mint, and high-toned cherry. The 1996 is starting to hit its peak: Eucalyptus, cranberry, pomegranate, wild strawberry, truffle, leather, and perfumed drying cherry are hard to resist right now. I’d drink it soon, but you can certainly hold onto it for another eight or nine years if that’ the style you prefer. Jumping back 10 years, the 1986, orange-toned at the edges, was mature and gorgeous, humming a tune of fenugreek, red currants, fennel, flowers, and meat, all of it carried on a texture both silky and still well-structured.
Finally, the 1959 was, in hind-sight, the perfect way to end the afternoon: Fresh with mint, vivacious with cranberry, serious with leather, this was a fully evolved, remarkable testament to the complexity and potential longevity of the wines of St.-Julien, a part of Bordeaux that is as deliciously appealing now as it ever has been, and that provides some of the best proverbial bang for the buck in a region that too often is solely associated with its most expensive wines. This tasting was delicious proof that there’s something in Bordeaux for everyone, no matter how much you want to spend, no mater what style you tend to gravitate toward. St.-Julien is a very good place to start.
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