On a beautiful Saturday night in May, The Strip was packed with thousands of foodies from around the world, here to attend dozens of events that comprised the 12th annual Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit food festival.
Mere miles away, a few hundred people waited up to 30 minutes in an Arts District alleyway for entry into a piece of culinary counter-programming. Vegas Unstripped featured more than a dozen of the valley’s best off-Strip chefs cooking on the patio behind downtown’s hottest new restaurant, Esther’s Kitchen. The dishes they prepared demonstrated a level of talent and sophistication worthy of any top casino’s gourmet room.
Among those who attended Vegas Unstripped was the president of a Strip casino, which is home to celebrity chefs and Michelin stars, who’d taken time away from the star-studded action in his own resort to see what the neighborhood chefs were up to. Asked if it was his first visit to this less-than-glamorous locale, he and his wife laughed aloud.
“I’ve been to Esther’s six or seven times,” he said of the restaurant, which opened in January.
LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL
Such is the state of neighborhood dining in Las Vegas in 2018. Talented chefs, many of them refugees from high-end casino restaurants, have set out to offer the highest-quality cuisine possible, without all of the hoopla attached to their Strip counterparts. Local fine-dining connoisseurs have taken notice.
In just the past year and a half, a string of success stories seems to have marked critical mass for a movement that’s been growing for awhile. Sparrow + Wolf, by former Comme Ça chef Brian Howard, has wowed foodies and critics by bringing a new level of sophistication and more diverse influences into Spring Mountain Road’s already excellent pan-Asian dining corridor. In the southwest valley, Former Aureole and DB Brasserie chef Jamie Tran added refined French touches to her family’s Vietnamese recipes at The Black Sheep, and Andre Rochat’s organization brought his fine-dining sensibility to casual bistro fare at Andre’s Bistro & Bar. Downtown also experienced the meteoric rise of Esther’s Kitchen, the transformation of The Kitchen at Atomic from barfly grub to destination dining, and James Beard Award consideration for The Ogden’s new Flock & Fowl.
Among chefs showing off their chops at Vegas Unstripped were Gina Marinelli and Khai Vu. Marinelli, a protégé of Michael Mina, Shawn McClain and Scott Conant, is preparing to open Italian restaurant La Strega in Summerlin later this summer. Vu, who already has captured the hearts of the industry crowd with Chinatown’s District One and downtown hipsters at Le Pho in the Juhl, is now stepping out of his Asian comfort zone with Spanish and Latin small plates at the Chinatown wine bar Mordeo, expected to be open in early June.
Also new in Chinatown, the team of chefs that brought healthy, casual French food to West Sahara Avenue’s Eatt, has opened a new spot called Partage. Chef Yuri Szarzewski and pastry chef Vincent Pellerin, both veterans of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, are offering three different multi-course tasting menus, and delicacies such as sweetbreads, quail and the so-called “secret cut” of Iberico pork.
A NEW LOOK AT LUXURY
On the surface, these restaurants and the other neighborhood spots that have grabbed the attention of the culinary community have little in common. Their menus are as diverse as a United Nations cafeteria. Some are geared toward festive group feasts, while others are better suited for quiet, romantic moments. Price points vary from budget dining to special-occasion splurges (though the absence of Las Vegas Boulevard overhead keeps them out of the stratospheric realm of the top Strip spots). What they all have in common, however, is a new outlook on luxury and sophistication.
“The thing that we’re offering is quality without all the pomp and circumstance that usually goes with it,” said James Trees, owner and head chef of Esther’s Kitchen. That starts with making almost everything possible from scratch, he said, which the high volume of many Strip restaurants makes impossible. “We hand-roll every piece of cavatelli. We hand-make every agnolotti. Sometimes we’ll look at an agnolotti and say, ‘That one’s not good enough!’ We even make sure that the tips on the beets are good.”
When it comes to the products they can’t make themselves, every chef of this new wave of stars agrees that cultivating a network of quality suppliers is key. And that’s another area in which neighborhoods restaurants can have an advantage.
“There’s such buying power on The Strip when it comes to the products, that everybody is using the same product in the hotel, because they get a good deal on it,” explains Howard. “(At Sparrow + Wolf), I don’t have to do that. I don’t get the same deal. But I can change my menu tomorrow if I don’t like something or If I come up with something new or if I’m inspired a certain way.”
Vu’s partner in Mordeo, Master Sommelier Luis De Santos, says there’s one more thing neighborhood restaurants offer their customers that used to be a hallmark of The Strip, but is quickly disappearing.
“For me it’s always that recognition of locals — treating locals the right way. I learned that from my experience with Wolfgang Puck and even when I was with Charlie Trotter. It’s the old-school way of welcoming (regulars). To me, it’s Old Vegas.”
Trees says it’s no single thing that defines this new approach to neighborhood dining. It’s an understanding of a well-established philosophy.
“Thomas Keller always says that great cooking is a lot of very, very simple steps done really well.”