Esther’s Kitchen honors chef’s great aunt with indulgent fare

The namesake of one of downtown’s hottest new restaurants was the great aunt of Las Vegas native James Trees. She made it possible for Trees to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and it’s her legacy that enabled him to honor her with Esther’s Kitchen. The potential Esther saw has manifested as a blessing for Las Vegas.

Tangible proof of Trees’ culinary prowess — gained toiling in the kitchens of celebrated names such as Michael Mina, Eric Ripert and Gordon Ramsay — is in his house-made levain bread. Levain’s sourdough flavor is mild with just a hint of fermentation. The crust is exceptional. The bread is hand-formed, its formidable surface is rough and craggy and a pleasure to sink your teeth into. Served with butter ($4) it’s a treat, but it becomes positively indulgent with burrata and basil oil (plus $5), the cream-infused mild cheese at its best with the brightly colored, flavored oil.

Knowing the pasta is made in-house, it was a little surprising to see the Abruzzo-region specialty chitarra on the menu. The labor-intensive chitarra isn’t rolled or extruded but pressed onto a multi-stringed device (the origin of the name, which means “guitar”), the freshly cut, squarish strands dropping to a platform below. It’s a particularly chewy cut that deserves a starring role, which made it perfect for Roman-style cacio e pepe ($16), in which the pasta is simply tossed with pecorino Romano cheese and ground black pepper (in this case tellicherry, which has larger grains that pack extra punch) with just some pasta water and a little olive oil. It’s the essence of Italian food, simple but high-quality elements that add up to a feast.

Carbonara ($17) is commonplace but seldom paired with the undervalued rigatoni, squat, sturdy tubes that define the term “al dente.” Simplicity again triumphed, the pasta simply graced with guanciale (cured pork jowl that’s more luxurious and less smoky than bacon) with egg yolk for richness and Grana Padana for earthy depth.

A pizza with lamb sausage and chopped clams ($15) stood out for its unusual combination that worked beautifully, the spicy sausage and chilis countering the shellfish’s pronounced flavor. This dough is made in-house as well, and the crust had an appealing stretchiness between its thickly rolled edges.

In a dessert of panna cotta ($8), the seldom seen and underrated rhubarb was a refreshing choice, though somewhat underplayed. The cool, creamy dish was an effectively neutral foil for a scattering of roasted strawberries and pistachio-cake cubes, but the few blobs of pureed rhubarb could have contributed much more.

One other small quibble was in the starter of polpette with tomato sugo, or meatball with tomato sauce ($12). Good flavor here, particularly from the basil ricotta, but the meatball was too dry.

Service was pleasant and efficient. Esther’s Kitchen, which opened in early January, has a funky vibe that’s appropriate for its location on the edge of the Arts District. An oversized photo mural of a pier dominates the dining room, and there are wooden tables, a mix of upholstered and metal chairs, artfully glazed floor pavers and al fresco seating overlooking either street or alley. Trees’ pride in his hometown and the artists around him shows in the use of pottery dishes by Clay Arts Las Vegas and retro silverware embossed with “Dunes Hotel.”

Considering the period, the silverware could have been Esther’s, and her spirit does indeed linger here. She made Trees’ career possible, and for that we can be grateful.

If you go:

Esther’s Kitchen, 1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.; 702-570-7864 or estherslv.com

The essence: Tradition meets innovation, with disparate elements that meet in harmony.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella onTwitter.