on the Brain" (2011) by Galina Dargery
IN THIS ISSUE
WHAT'S NEW IN LAS VEGAS, Part One
By John A. Curtas
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE SPIRITS LOCKER
By Mort Hochstein
WHAT'S NEW IN LAS VEGAS, Part One
By John A. Curtas
"Ocean's 11" (1960)
GIADA – THE
3595 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Photos by Erik Krabik
As you contemplate the contrived name, you are tempted to make a joke and think -- Giada – The Manufactured Italian Food Maven. As you walk into this drop-dead gorgeous room, which opens on to and wraps around a main corner of the Strip, you might feel a tinge of skepticism as you wonder what this Food Network star will do with her first restaurant. But all cynicism quickly fades after a couple of bites. What she’s done on the second floor of the newly opened Cromwell (the old Barbary Coast) is bring forth her particular take on Italian food, one that lightens and brightens the cuisine, while keeping it accessible and satisfying for tourists and finicky gastronomes alike.
From the day it opened in early June, this place has been the toughest ticket in town. Love her or hate her, Giada is pretty much the Martha Stewart of the 21st Century to a lot of ladies. And those female fans have appeared in force since the get-go. As soon as you hit the hostess stand, you will see a bevy of 30- and 40-something gals packing the comfy chairs in the lounge and the large, L-shaped bar.
Giada's fame may be getting them in the door, but it's her recipes that are keeping everyone riveted to their plates. Recipes like a pasta e fagioli soup takes this time-worn warhorse and gives it a whole new personality with small, tubular ditalini pasta, cannellini beans and finely diced carrots, all suspended in a first-class broth. Or a black truffle pizzette: so crispy, chewy, so rich and intense you will wonder how so much flavor can be packed into so small a triangle. Vegetable dishes like artichokes two ways (roasted and deep-fried), will have you re-thinking your attitude towards healthful edibles, and her pastas, like farrotto–a risotto-like dish made with farro and morels--will have you wondering how something so sumptuous can leave you feeling so light. The same holds true for the side dishes: the peas with parsley, pancetta, pecorino, crispy polenta and sweet corn with spicy sausage show real attention to detail and are more than worth the $10 price tag.
For a pièce de resistance, you can hardly do better than Giada's whole roasted chicken for two with cacciatore sauce (below, right), consisting of a good bird, properly roasted, with the cacciatore portion served as a separate sauce, rather than the braising liquid in which the clucker was swimming as it cooked. Some might prefer the wetter version, but we found this one just perfect.
In keeping with this "less liquid is more" philosophy, Giada likewise believes that Americans over-sauce their pasta (and she's right),
so, she pretty much goes in the opposite direction with her rigatoni vegetarian Bolognese--something of an oxymoron for a sauce that's supposed to be meat-based--barely flecking her toothsome noodles with bits of vegetables, and making the dish no less delicious for it.
About the only offering we tried of ho-hum quality was a mascarpone and tarragon shrimp dish that looked and tasted like something straight out of a corporate kitchen--having none of the flavor, pop or dazzle of the rest of the menu. Speaking of dazzle, her signature spaghetti with lemon, shrimp and basil bathes good noodles in a creamy sauce that perfectly sets off the shrimp, while making you wonder why more pasta dishes don’t incorporate a citrusy tang like this one.
Much has been made in the local press about Giada's burning through chefs because she couldn’t find a good one. At present, she has settled on corporate toque Kurtess Mortensen to execute her recipes, and he and his crew are bringing their “A” game. Whether this quality control continues over time remains to be seen. Vegas celebrity chefs–at least the non-French ones--have a nasty habit of disappearing after all the opening hype dies down, except for photo ops once a year, but for the time being, you won’t find better Italian food anywhere in town.
Prices start at $8-$15 for appetizers, salads and soups, with pastas running $24-$30 and entrees going for $34-$78 (porterhouse for two). The wine list is typical for Vegas: unfocused, overpriced and all over the map. (Don’t blame the sommeliers, they’re just following orders.)
GUY FIERI’S VEGAS KITCHEN & BAR
In The Quad
3535 Las Vegas Blvd. South
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the frosted-tipped one has ventured out on another gastronomic limb with another partner (this time Caesars Palace) and a management deal that (he promised!) would "bring the awesomeness." And here’s a surprise: it kinda does. In fact it's pretty darn good by upscale, bar food standards.
After the lambasting his Times Square restaurant took from the New York media last year, it appears Fieri (and his management team) have decided to step up to the plate and show the culinary world what they’re capable of. And what they’ve done is deliver good pub grub with libations to match to put right up there against every other gastropub in Las Vegas.
Before we get to the food itself, a word about the menu: much has been made of its contrived breathlessness over ”awesome pretzels,” "righteous" burgers and "head spinning" wings. Tastemakers, language police and fashion mavens love to point to such hyperbolic frippery as further proof of the gullibility of the unwashed masses, which, in turn, has hastened the demise of American literacy, humility in menu writing, and the fall of Western civilization in general.
Still, we didn't find the hyperbolic huckstering any worse than what you get at Applebee's, and unlike T.G.I. Fridays, or Chili's.
Before you get to the food, however, you will first notice two things about the restaurant: one, it's packed; and, two, it has an inside-outside vibe that will make you want to pass the afternoon tossing back cold ones from a good beer list, and engaging in some people watching. While you are watching the human parade going by, you will may find yourself coming under the spell of Fieri's faithful rendition of chicken street tacos--lip-smacking versions of Mexican street food as interpreted and upgraded by a professional chef. They tasted of grilled chicken, rather than white, shredded nothingness, and with a topping of house-pickled onions, were as fresh and balanced as one of these little pockets can be. Likewise, the Asian chicken wraps contain deeply flavored minced chicken along with moist, peppery Thai skewers and several sauces that made no apologies for being made by a bunch of white guys. The only clinker in our first lunch here was a 'Triple B' burger so smothered and infused with blue cheese that the meat could've been armadillo for all we could taste. As overwhelming as the construct of that cheese-fest was, one of its brethren–the bacon mac-n-cheese burger–was a thing of beauty. A good, hand-formed burger gets topped with applewood smoked bacon and a compressed mound of mac-n-cheese that could easily stand on its own as a great side dish. For the record, we’re no fans of mile-high, over-stacked, ground beef sandwiches, but this one–packed on a gorgeous brioche bun–is a vertical ode to excess.
Speaking of respect, no self-respecting, celebrity-chef-exploitation restaurant would ever think of not bragging about its chicken wings, and the ones here actually taste like Fieri learned a thing or two in cooking school at UNLV (or from delving into diners and dives all over America for the past few years). Lovers of the little flappers will love to hear that the four offerings here are stellar variations on a theme, with the Fireball Whiskey Wings not being quite as incendiary as the name would imply, but the brining and roasting comes through with every bite The blue cheese sauce, called (ouch!) blue-sabi on the menu, is a nod to Buffalo, NY. Equally good are the "Parmagedden Wings," looking like little popsicles of chicken parm, which come with a very decent, house-marinara sauce.
The fressers in your crowd will no doubt swoon over the Big Dipper--a behemoth of shaved, smoked prime rib served with crispy onions on a huge garlic torpedo roll. It's about as subtle as a Game of Thrones plot point, but no less excellent for it. There's even a nod to healthier eating among all these heart-stoppers, with four large salads--the "Guy-Talian Deli" version full of plenty of cheesy, meaty and tangy, with decent (albeit domestic) prosciutto and provolone used to good effect.
Desserts are what you would expect: large and in charge. Fried ice cream the size of a softball or a slab of cheesecake the size of a dictionary comes to your table and seems perfect for the room, the clientele, and a palate by then overwhelmed by the take-no-prisoners spicing of the menu. None of these concoctions will win any culinary awards, but they echo the homey, rib-sticking sensibilities of Fieri's show. One would
have to be the ultimate humbug to not enjoy them on their own level.
And pretty much, that's what Fieri and his investors are asking of you: Take our restaurant on its own terms, as an homage to all the diners and dives that made the Big Guy famous, and we will show you a good time with some good food. That's all this restaurant is supposed to be and that's all it is. Maybe Pete Wells should give it a try.
The sandwiches are huge; the platters, salads and desserts are meant to be shared; and everything on the menu is priced between $13-$20. Open daily for brunch, lunch and dinner.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
15 West 44th Street (off Fifth Avenue)
The look of American
steakhouses has changed measurably from the
time when they all looked exactly the
same--scuffed wood floors, scuffed yellow
walls, scuffed leather booths, and really
NOTES FROM THE SPIRITS LOCKER
HILLROCK ESTATE WHISKEYS AND JACK DANIELS
was a perfect summer day, not a cloud in
comes rapidly these days, particularly among the
“big boys” Pickerell cites. Jack Daniel's, the
Tennessee whiskey that cannot legally be called
bourbon--and vice versa--because of its unique
mellowing procedures, lists nearly three dozen line
extensions, and continues to experiment, a recent
innovation being honey-flavored bourbon.
SLIP SLIDIN' AWAY
highway in North Yorkshire, England, was blocked
in both directions when a truck accidentally
overturned and dumped its load of instant mashed
potato mix all over the pavement, causing unsafe driving
conditions when the instant potato mix started expanding
into mashed potatoes (right).
Police initially treated the potatoes with chemicals to
attempt to freeze them, which did not work. The fire
department was then called out to try to blast the
mashed potatoes off the road with high-powered hoses.
Any of John Mariani's
books below may be ordered from amazon.com.
❖❖❖FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linked to four excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK: PATAGONIA
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).
An engaging, interactive
wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four
Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist, BusinessWeek.com;
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John
Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
Robert Mariani, John A.
Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,
and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,
Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.
© copyright John Mariani 2014