Browsing articles in "Haute Spot"

Lucio Ristorante – Rock Solid for the Regular Guy

Mar 4, 2011   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  No Comments

By Aly Wagonseller

It’s hard to keep up with what’s hot and what’s not on the Las Vegas dining scene. Small plates, molecular gastronomy, ChinaMex fusion and other chic eats can all be more than intoxicating to the star struck foodie. Still, despite the emergence of these latest and greatest trend spots, places a culinary hipster might perceive as the quintessential dinosaur continue to survive. Why? Because the food, while nothing fancy, simply tastes amazing. Dishes like buttery risotto, full bodied lasagna and fresh cioppino; these are the homey, go-to dishes that, when prepared correctly, have diners coming back time and again. This is the stuff of Lucio Ristorante. And, while you may not find tomato foam on your Sous Vide Osso Bucco, what you will find is rock solid food and great service in a setting where old Vegas cheese meets classic fine dining…and I mean that in a good way. 

 

Recently expanding their operation to a second location found at 5900 E. Flamingo (previously Ferraro’s), the décor is classic old school.  As you might expect, beautiful dark wood wainscot, marble flooring and linen tablecloths are all present, along with a large bar and…ba-dump-bump…a stage with backdrop curtains, a grand piano and song stylings reminiscent of many a Vegas lounge show gone by. Kitschy…well maybe, but it’s also oddly comforting and a welcome departure from the drone of clubby music found in many newbie restaurants these days.  An added plus is that the place is quiet, despite being large, and has many nooks and crannies for secluded and romantic dining.    

Like the surroundings, the food is traditional, the menu inspired by classic Italian staples including Veal or Chicken Parmigiano ($17-23), a hearty Lasagna made with béchamel and meat sauces ($15) and Spaghetti con Polpettine ($15) served with flavorful, yet delicate meatballs.  Based on a friend’s suggestion, as well as the recommendation of our charming and, yes, clearly Italian waiter Claudio, we chose the Gnocchi Quattro Formaggi ($16) and the Salsiccia e Spinaci risotto ($20).  There are times when the substitution of massive quantities of butter, cream and cheese to save calories could be considered criminal, and this was definitely one of those occasions, especially in the case of the decadent gnocchi dish. Light, pillow-like dumplings of pasta and potato were generously glazed in a sublime fontina, mascarpone and Parmesan cheese sauce, balanced with just enough gorgonzola and a sprinkling of fresh sage to add a nice bite.  I was impressed by the integrity of the gnocchi themselves, blissfully lacking that lead-like, stuck in your stomach quality that poorly executed gnocchi so often exhibits. These were as melt in your mouth airy as gnocchi gets…delicious.

Lucio’s menu touts their risotto as being the best in town, and they certainly are in contention.  Much like gnocchi, this is a dish that requires expertise and a skilled hand to avoid the pitfalls of rice that’s gooey or mushy as opposed to creamy, yet textured.  The sausage and spinach version we ordered was nothing short of outstanding; the sausage nicely seasoned, the spinach not overly wilted, and the arborio rice perfectly cooked.  The presence of butter was obvious, but it didn’t overpower the other ingredients, adding just enough flavor and creaminess to elevate the dish to comfort food perfection without feeling greasy or over the top. One tiny pet peeve:  I would have liked my risotto to have cooled a bit longer before serving, as the flavors in the piping hot dish hadn’t quite developed yet. No matter though; exhibiting an uncharacteristic five minutes of self control while the food cooled down proved well worth the wait.  

Lucio Ristorante has a modest wine selection, many served by the glass, imported and domestic beers, as well as full bar service. It may not be the newest kid on the block, but sometimes tradition trumps the trends.  For reservations, call them at 207-1008, or their original location on West Sahara at 233-2859.

Giada’s Italian Cucina – A Sunday “Sit Down” Any Day of the Week

Feb 3, 2011   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  1 Comment

By Aly Wagonseller

Most every restaurant has a story.  Many are proudly shared with loyal patrons, lovingly displayed on menus, cocktail napkins, Facebook pages and the like. Whether these legends are factually correct, slightly embellished or a flat out fib is of no consequence; we long to become a part of the tale, especially if flavorful food and family tradition is at the heart of the plot.  Still, a restaurant with a story yet mediocre food isn’t worth the menu it’s written on.  You simply can’t create an epic moment with words alone; you gotta have the grub to back it up.  Giada’s Italian Cucina, located at 2540 Anthem Village Dr. certainly does just that.

 

A tiny gem in a somewhat hidden location, Giada’s houses just 12 tables, something I think is incredibly smart in a day where bigger is not only considered passé, but an unequivocal invitation for going broke. The dark furnishings, brick wall façade, semi open kitchen and glass tiled pizza oven feel modern, yet warm and homey. These are the details that generate credence for the story of Giada, the quintessential Italian grandmother whose recipes from Sunday “sit down” dinners are now lovingly presented to us by her grandson and owner of the establishment. Giada was certainly a great teacher.

I have a serious pet peeve regarding heavy handed Italian food, and thankfully, Giada’s was a testament to the lighter, yet far more flavorful side of Italian cuisine.  With the exception of desserts that clearly weren’t from the same kitchen as the rest of our meal, it was gleefully apparent there were no dark secrets (a.k.a. frozen or substandard, canned ingredients) hiding under too much mozzarella, salt and olive oil. This was obviously apparent with our starter selection, The Calamari Fritti (10.95). A heaping plate of delicately crisp, melt in your mouth morsels, it was as far away from the bricklike and breaded frozen version as you can get. Served with a balanced marinara sauce made with just enough olive oil and herbs to give it substance without overpowering the tomatoes, it was clear that my taste buds wanted more.

The menu is fairly small, but what is offered is in keeping with the philosophy that a few quality ingredients, perfectly executed, make food that’s extraordinary.  Case in point, their Eggplant Parmigiana (13.95).   Thinly sliced eggplant (no breading), fried as to not take on too much oil, yet render it fork tender, was stacked with a light and flavorful tomato sauce and just the right amount of mozzarella.  It is truly an art to make a dish this flavorful while dodging the dreaded, greasy stomach grenade so often associated with a Parmigiana of any kind. Pollo Giada (14.95) also fared well, a roulade of thin chicken breast rolled with prosciutto, spinach and cheese that skillfully remained moist, despite a tendency for this kind of dish to get rubbery from over handling.  The chicken was wonderfully complimented with traditional escarole greens (a nice balance of pungent outer leaves tempered with the more mild, inner stock), flawlessly sautéed in olive oil and razor thin garlic slices and dressed with a sprinkling of sundried tomato. Rustic pizza (8.95-17.95) is another dining option, prepared with a homemade crust that’s thin and crisp; the perfect canvas for showcasing fresh toppings.  I especially enjoyed the Arugula Lou, the peppery greens barely wilted over a tomato, cheese and prosciutto pie, and expertly prepared with the kind of restraint you’d expect from a celebrity chef. Pizza heaven, especially when washed down with a Peroni or a glass of wine from their limited wine list.   

Giada’s would  appreciate a phone call letting them know you’re coming for supper, a practice akin to finding a seat at grandma Giada’s Sunday night dinner table. With recipes like these, this is one restaurant story that deserves the happiest of endings. For reservations, take out and catering, call   462-9830.

Side Dish

Wine and art in the neighborhood…what could be better? Starting Thursday, March 24th and continuing each Thursday through June 9th, Rachel’s Kitchen at the District at Green Valley Ranch will host an evening of culture, libation and seasonal fun.  Each event takes place on the patio from 6-9 p.m.  Enjoy a complimentary wine tasting, live painting exhibitions by local artists, and the acoustic guitar styling’s of Sean Hayle. Don’t miss their first event featuring wine from the Chateau St. Michelle portfolio. For more information, call 522-7887.

Not Your Average Take Out – China MaMa Restaurant

Jan 19, 2011   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  No Comments

By Lisha Ross

Given the sheer number of Chinese take-out kitchens in Vegas, one needn’t travel far, if at all, for a helping of Mongolian Beef over steamed rice. Unfortunately, Chinese choices are more often based on convenience rather than authenticity. Take it from someone who lived in China long enough to experience the true, honest flavors of the country’s cuisine, if you’ve never branched away from your nearest China Hut, you’ve been missing out on a world of flavor. What’s absent are the regional spices and preparations that make each type of Eastern cuisine so unique–pungent peppercorns and dried red chilis of the Szechwan province; noodles and steamed buns from the Northeast region; mutton seasoned with cumin and five spice from the western province of Xinjiang. These bold flavors are scarcely found outside of the mom and pop joints of China Town, so if you want it, you’ll have to go out and get it, but when it’s from a friendly, casual restaurant like China MaMa, you’ll be glad you did.

Located at 3420 S. Jones Blvd. just north of Spring Mountain, China MaMa is, like most of its kin, unassuming. Weathered façade notwithstanding, inside is a delicious treasure trove of both well-known and unusual dishes prepared in the tradition of two separate regions of China. You’ll know the difference from the menus: green for DongBei (Northeast) and red for Szechwan offerings. Yes, for a rookie it can be intimidating to navigate through vague descriptions; you may even be frightened by some of the more unusual dishes like Flambeed Chitins. Not to worry. Their friendly staff is happy to help, and those not feeling adventurous can stick to familiar options like their outstanding Kung Pao Chicken (9.95), coated modestly in a light sauce and tossed with peanuts, green onion and red peppers.

If you prefer to venture into new gastronomic territory, let China MaMa lead you down the road less traveled. Craving some of my all-time favorite staples from the East, we started off with China MaMa’s renowned Xiao Long Bao, or steamed juicy pork buns (7.95), and Green Onion Pancake (4.95). More like a dumpling than a bun, Xiao Long Bao is essentially a gingered pork meatball and a spoonful of garlicky broth contained in a thin pastry sheet and served with soy and chili garlic sauces for dipping along with fresh ginger strips. Green Onion Pancake was just as it should be–crisp and flakey on the outside, soft in the middle. Delicately fried without being greasy, it’s perfect all by itself, but dipped in soy or vinegar and chili sauce it’s immaculate.

You’d be remiss not to try the hand-pulled noodles, made in-house. Slightly softer than al dente, yet full of body, these supple noodles are served both in broth and dry. For a tepid foray outside the box, try them with Sesame Sauce (7.25), a creamy paste reminiscent of peanut butter, or as a chow mein with your choice of meat.

Crispy Chicken w/Szechwan Hot Sauce (12.50) is a novel alternative to orange chicken–tender white meat coated lightly in bread crumbs, deep fried and topped with a savory gravy, it’s subtle sweetness offset by a hint of tangy vinegar. Vegetable dishes abound, Spicy Stir Fried Eggplant (9.95) and String Beans w/Chef’s Special Sauce (9.95) topping the flavor charts. We all but inhaled the Cumin Spiced Lamb on Sizzling Plate (16.95). Unlike some cuts of lamb that can be fatty and difficult to chew, these thinly sliced bits were melt-in-your-mouth tender and seasoned to the extreme with zesty peppercorns, red chili and cumin. Beware! This dish is hot enough to make you sweat; cool the palate with a sweet and savory plate of Pineapple, Shrimp & Sausage Fried Rice (8.25)–delicately wok fried rice laden with chunks of juicy pineapple, small shrimp and sweet sausage akin to soft jerky–in a really great way.

 Ending with a sweet Red Bean Pancake (4.50) for dessert, you’ll never look at take-out the same. China MaMa is open 7 days a week from 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. For more information, call 873-1977.

Give a Little Love to the Locals – Neighborhood Restaurant Favorites

Dec 2, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  No Comments

By Aly Wagonseller

This has been a tremendously tough year for restaurants, with no one feeling it more than the local mom and pop establishments off the Strip.  Having been a local foodie for more years than I’d like to admit, I started looking back on some of the best eateries in town  and sadly discovered that more than a few had succumb to the chokehold of our stifling economy.  Now, more than ever, we need to frequent the “little guys”; restaurants that offer real food while serving to provide jobs and a sense of community in our neighborhoods.  Here’s a few of my surviving favorites and the specialties that have helped not only put them on the map, but overcome our media fueled climate of continual gloom and doom.

 

 

Mantra Masala, located at 8530 W. Warm Springs, #101, operates on the belief that Indian food should be healthy, yet satisfying. Breaded appetizer items like the Onion Bhajo or Chicken Pakora are coated in high protein lentil flour then flash fried in vegetable oil, wok style, as a fit alternative to deep fat frying. Staple entrée dishes boast the earthy flavors of Indian spice, something they import, roast and freshly grind daily. The  Chicken Tikka Masala–melt in your mouth tender morsels served in a creamy tomato curry that’s spiked with ginger and green chilies for heat, then tamed with just the right amount of tangy yogurt–is one of many standouts.  

 

Todd’s Unique Dining, located at 4350 E. Sunset Rd., is the epitome of David in a Goliath world, thankfully offering amazing cuisine that rivals much of what you’ll find anywhere else in town.  Creative, thoughtful and just plain talented, Chef Clore uses the finest of seasonal cuisine, a philosophy that has the menu (especially the fish selections) constantly changing based on ingredient availability.  Ahi Tuna with Wasabi Potatoes and the Short Ribs with Jalapeño spuds have long been favorites, but regardless of what you order, it’s never ordinary. 

UNLV Basketball fans, or just plain lovers of a juicy burger and hearty sweet potato fries should pay a visit to Grind Burger Bar and Lounge, located at 360 E. Tropicana. Racy Juicy Lucy mascot aside, the burgers, whether beef or turkey, are delicate, yet substantially legit, especially when topped with any combination of specialty cheeses, sauces and condiments offered for a “build it as you like it” experience.  Aged cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, mushrooms, ajvar mayo and an over easy egg all served on an impeccable ciabatta bun is a favorite, but how you dress your patty is up to you…and that’s true beauty on a bun.

When La Madonna Avante Garde Mexican Cuisine closed late last year it truly was a sad day in the Vegas local dining scene.  Luckily, the same wonderfully different Mexican cuisine comes to us at its successor, Mundo, located at 495 So. Grand Central Pkwy.  More sophisticated than most restaurants lacking a Las Vegas Blvd. address, Chef Robert Solano transforms the typical into something wildly delicious and different, but it’s his tamales that keep me traveling to this somewhat distant location. Faves include the earthy, Short Rib with Pasilla Chili sauce and giant Chipotle Glazed Shrimp versions…simply sublime.

Although there are quite a few Thai restaurants in town, for dining in an upscale, yet casual setting you really can’t do better than Archi’s Thai Bistro, located at 6345 S. Rainbow Blvd., Ste. 100.  Great for power lunching or a date night dinner, the décor is well above most, but seriously tasty dishes including Pad Kapow, a simple concoction of expertly spiced hamburger and rice and any of their Pad Thai selections make this spot more than just a pretty face. 

On the casual side, Crazy Pita and Rachel’s Kitchen, both located in the District Shops, are fine examples of small businesses dishing out excellent food, and making friends while they’re doing it.  The Favorite–scrambled eggs with goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes, avocado, mushrooms and basil–is a delicious choice to people watch with at the bistro-like setting at Rachel’s, especially when accompanied by one of their Sunday mimosas!  The Kefta Pita, a flavorful ground beef and hummus sandwich, has paved the way for Crazy Pita to give back to the community via The Josh Steven’s Foundation, an organization whose main purpose is to promote and reward acts of kindness in our schools. Their rotisserie chicken and variety of grilled skewers, along with notable side dishes also keep this place hopping most any time of the day.

Of course there are many more wonderful establishments sprinkled around our neighborhoods; places where pride and love of homemade recipes replace Weight Watcher menu endorsements or microwaved, prepackaged pasta sauces…blah!  The thing is, you must support them, or we’ll all run the risk of a Walmart world in the restaurant industry.

A Casual Catch – Caribbean Cooker

Oct 14, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  No Comments

By Aly Wagonseller

It’s hard to miss the building.  An unabashedly schizophrenic structure where lime green siding and colorful neon fish collide with a brick, brownstone pub you’d be more apt to see adjacent to Wrigley Field than on the corner of Stephanie and Paseo Verde. I’d heard from credible sources that some righteous paella, delicious alligator on a stick and legit key lime pie could be found at this locale, but one had to wonder when pulling into the parking lot – did they run out of masonry during construction? Are there building restrictions on the usage of car crash inducing, dayglow hued paint colors on main thoroughfare store frontages?  Did I take a wrong turn and end up in the downtown Arts District?  A head scratcher…to say the least.

 

Have no fear… it turns out this perplexing segregation of architectural styles is really three places in one; a shrewd concept in dining and gaming entertainment brought to us by the proprietors of Henry’s American Grill. The complex includes a Hemingway themed bar, Boar Head toting deli and Caribbean restaurant all under one roof, albeit with separate entrances, menus and decors. And, while the bar and deli certainly bring something to the table with quick sandwiches, signature Sloppy Joe’s, and the opportunity to try your luck while watching the big game, it’s the Caribbean Cooker, located on the flashier side of 65 So. Stephanie, that’s a casual catch in neighborhood dining.   

More boat house cozy than island chic, the décor inside the Caribbean Cooker is simple and subdued, yet comfortable and casual. This is quite the contrast from a vibrant menu that calls upon Spanish, African and French influences so indicative of Caribbean cuisine. We started with a complementary mushroom sour cream dip and homemade plantain chips.  The dip was likened to pate in consistency–quite thick due to a nice, earthy mushroom ratio–yet spiced up enough to fare well with the sweet and salty plantains. Tapas selections ran from traditional Batatas Bravas (3.29) to Almond Crusted Goat Cheese with Pineapple Chutney (5.49), Coconut Shrimp (9.29) and Conch Fritters (7.29).  The Molasses Grilled Lamb Chops (10.79) and Alligator on a Skewer (7.) were both winners.   The chops are caramelized nicely; the bitterness of the char a perfect balance for the creamy goat cheese, baby greens and molasses drizzle that accompanied them. Alligator…as the cliché will attest…tastes like chicken, with this version reminiscent of tandoori in texture and taste.  Grilled mango and an aggressive habanero lime tarter sauce added the right amount of sweet and fire to round out the dish.

While you could easily just graze on Tapas and Tapatizers, you’d be missing out on the Caribbean Cooker’s version of Callaloo soup, Cuban sandwiches and burgers, seafood, steak and pasta dishes and a hidden gem on the menu–paella. It may not be the most authentic adaptation of one of my all time favorite Spanish dishes, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of flavor they were able to achieve in the Classic Spanish Valencia version (12.49). A huge portion that’s big enough for two people, the Arborio rice was expertly prepared, not soggy in the slightest, and wonderfully permeated by the smoky flavors of chorizo, fresh seafood and a subtle white wine broth.  The portion of succulent clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and crab was more than generous, making this truly a bargain for the price.  As sumptuous as this dish was though, I honestly could have done without the grilled and fanned chicken breast presented on the top. Besides appearing as a clunky afterthought in presentation, the moister, more satisfying slivers of chicken thigh found within the rice mixture were much more tasty.  But who am I to complain about too much food?  Especially when a neighborhood restaurant makes paella this outstanding.

The Caribbean Cooker is also one of few restaurants that actually make desserts from scratch, their velvety rich Key Lime and Coconut Cream pies (5.29), a decadent must have at the end of your meal.  It’s just one more reason to never judge a book….well you know.   For information or reservations on banquet facilities, call 888-6565.

DW Bistro – Better Late than Never

Sep 17, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  No Comments

By Aly Wagonseller

As a general rule, I like to wait until a restaurant has had a chance to “settle in” before   dining there.  I guess in part because of the impending crowd factor, especially if it’s the newest, grooviest “it” place on the block, but more likely because even the most experienced restaurateur struggles with menu, kitchen and staffing issues when yielding the proverbial newbie knife fresh off the chopping block.  So, even though I’d heard the buzz about DW Bistro, located at 6115 S. Ft. Apache Rd., #112, it wasn’t until Three Square’s Restaurant Week, and the prospect of sampling a three-course prix fixe dinner with partial proceeds going to this worthy cause, that I decided to give them a shot. 

 

Located in an average strip mall along the empty banks of an area hit especially hard in the foreclosure department, DW is anything but downtrodden. Bright, modern décor with splashes of lively orange and green hues and vibrant artwork create an exciting vibe, with mesmerizing, chill music, eclectic touches of rustic wooden accessories, and exposed white brick wall coverings lending a yin and yang sensibility to the place.  Interestingly enough, this same balance of electricity married with an innate hominess is mimicked in the food, a testament to purveyors with style and attention to detail, both front of the house and back.

Executive Chef Dalton Wilson has created a menu filled with bold flavors developed in the Caribbean and New Mexico Southwest, yet wisely keeps them on separate plates; a decision that prevents fusion from becoming a fussy Frankenstein of mismatched cuisine.  Case in point, the Oven-Roasted Jerk Pork Shoulder ($12) is as true to its unique island culture as the New Mexican-style Slow-Cooked Pork with red chilies and an over easy egg ($12) is to its own, and they’re both simply delish.  For Restaurant Week, DW offered some of their most popular selections, and it wasn’t difficult to see why.  Starters included the DW Signature Salad ($9), a flavorful combination of peppery greens and creamy goat cheese brightened with citrus infused balsamic vinaigrette and sugary roasted pecans, as well as Oven Roasted Baby Back Ribs ($11), tender sticks of meaty dynamite generously rubbed with jerk seasoning made spicy with traditional Scotch Bonnet chilies and allspice. A nice slice of grilled pineapple is included to cool the heat, but maybe because of the smaller prix fixe helping, the homemade ranch listed in the menu description was omitted.  A pity as it would have been a nice addition to the dish.

Sublime Braised Oxtail ($16) literally fell off the…well…cartilage…aptly accompanied by a delish Bordelaise sauce that balanced the richness of the meat quite nicely, although I would have loved to have more of it. Chunky mashed potatoes added a substantial base for the oxen, as well as for the Jerk Lamb Chops ($24), tender, full flavored chops that exhibited a pleasant, spicy finish without going overboard.  One thing not on the prix fixe menu was DW’s Mac and Cheese ($8), and it’s a must.  This is the stovetop version, super creamy, made with tiny shells that hold the sauce like little bowls of cheesy goodness.  Add to this a helping of woodsy truffle oil (if you’re really jonesin’ for some serious mama love, bacon and mushrooms can be added for a small fee) and you’ve got a dish that’s just plain off the charts.

Our meal with a conscience ended with the perfect sampling of both carrot and red velvet cakes and a refreshing lemon lime pudding. The cakes were moist and flavorful, accompanied by a kind of homemade Rice Krispy dipped in white chocolate that added an unexpected crunch to the confection; another little detail that elevates this restaurant above the crowd.  I love that DW Bistro participates in several charitable endeavors during the year too, serving their unique brand of home-style, eclectic cuisine to help people in our community. I’m just kicking myself for being tardy to the ball. For directions or hours, call them at 527-5200.

Mundo….A Latin Chic Restaurant

Jul 13, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  Comments Off on Mundo….A Latin Chic Restaurant

By Aly Wagonseller

The old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” doesn’t always apply to matters of romantic encounter.  Anyone that’s recently frequented a favorite restaurant in anticipation of imbibing that one dish that floats your culinary boat, only to discover the “gone fishing for good” sign in the window knows just what I mean. This brand of gastronomic sorrow recently reared its ugly head when La Madonna Mexican Avante-Garde Cuisine closed its doors late last year.  No more gourmet tamales and freshly squeezed margaritas?  Seafood and steak specialties with sophisticated, Latin flair (and not a pinto bean in sight) gone by the wayside?  For those of us who revel in locally owned hole-in-the-walls that offer amazing food and atmosphere, this was a bit of a calamity. Thankfully, good things have a way of resurrecting themselves, with the original crew of La Madonna offering a moved and improved version–Mundo, A Culinary Haute Spot–as a more than impressive substitute.

 

Never mind the out-of-the-way location in the World Market Center downtown, or that you have to use the public restroom located in the outer hallway of the mall as opposed to having a private lavatory adjacent to the bar; at Mundo, the good far outweighs these minor inconveniences.  Irma Aguirre has again exhibited her flair for creating a beautiful space that’s sophisticated, yet simple. Weathered wood, stamped tin, crushed brown velvet curtains and artistically arranged lanterns, mirrors and candles, provide a vibe that’s comfortable, yet brilliantly stylish. A welcoming bar exhibits a large glass vat of homemade sangria waiting to be poured, while serious mood music offers lively ambiance, without being obnoxiously obtrusive. It’s a cool place to just hang.

La Madonna’s talented Chef Robert Solano also returns, plating up his unique brand of flavorful cuisine and creating a refined Mexican dining experience that clearly steers its way clear of the rice and bean box.   Appetizers range from Chimichurri Glazed  Skirt Steak Skewers ($12) and achiote rubbed Grilled Chicken Satay with tamarind chile glaze ($12), to traditional Guacamole ($9) and three styles of salsa.  We tried the Queso Flameado ($14), a twist on the traditional melted cheese and chorizo fundido, spruced up with the addition of tangy goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, earthy mushrooms and a serrano chile sauce that added just the right amount of kick. Conversely, the Ahi Tuna Tostada ($14.), while creative, suffered from some execution issues. The thinly sliced ahi was seemingly damaged by the knife, creating a mushy texture that was overpowered by the flatbread style chip that accompanied it. It’s one of few dishes on the menu that could use a little tweaking.

While Mundo offers an array of very interesting street taco and quesadilla selections, as well as upscale entrees that include Wagyu skirt steak, Chilean sea bass and prime filet mignon, for me, it’s their tamales ($12-18) that foodie dreams are made of. Unlike most steamed versions that resemble a kind of maize torpedo, constructed with compacted corn mush and a smidge of filling, Mundo makes the filling the star.  Ample portions of toppings that include slow roasted short ribs in an earthy pasilla chile sauce or pulled chicken infused with a tart asada tomatillo sauce are piled over a velvety, loose style polenta flavored with sweet corn kernels and beautifully plated within a corn husk that acts more as a bowl than a mold.  The Chipotle Glazed Shrimp ($18) variety is particularly delicious, the sweet corn mush and lightly charred jumbo shrimp (surprisingly tender despite their gigantic size) married with a creamy red chile brandy sauce that’s just sublime.  

La Madonna was certainly a great restaurant; one that I was truly sorry to see leave the neighborhood.  But its second born sister known as Mundo is definitely the Cinderella of the two, even if you do have to venture to Grand Central Parkway to try it.  For hours and directions, call 270-4400.

A Bargain for the Carnivore – Brazilian Grill

Jun 16, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  Comments Off on A Bargain for the Carnivore – Brazilian Grill

By Aly Wagonseller

The concept of a traditional Brazilian Steakhouse, also known as a churrascaria, is a straightforward one. Here, tasty cuts of filet mignon, turkey blanketed in bacon, various types of sausage, leg of lamb, pork loin, chicken thighs, top sirloin, tri tip…the list goes on and on…are carved off their roasting spit right at the table, then served in endless quantities to happy go lucky diners willing to throw heart health and calorie consumption to the proverbial wind, at least for one succulent, meatfest of an evening.  Sure, they may offer vegetarian entrees and side dishes. Of course they’ll have a fish dish or two. But if meat is your meal made in heaven, the churrascaria is paradise here on earth.

 

Located at 9460 So. Eastern, Brazilian Grill, formerly Steele’s Restaurant, is the newest churrascaria to open in the neighborhood, offering comfy décor and lively atmosphere that’s perfect for a night out with friends or family. The thoughtfully upscale dark wood and earthy color palette of the previous establishment remains, yet the new owners have added South American flair via colorful, Leroy Neiman-esque paintings depicting Carmen Miranda period dancehall girls and carnival scenes you’d expect to see in Rio de Janeiro.  In another shrewd move, the restaurant offers perhaps the best deal in town for this carnivorous feast of Brazilian persuasion, charging just $29.95 for 12 varieties of all-you-can eat meat, soup or salad, several side dishes and Brazilian cheese bread. Ala carte selections that include a vegetarian spread, a fabulous Chilean sea bass in a roasted red pepper sauce and other meat and fish selections, as well as cocktails de Brazil and several affordable wines and beers round out the menu. While not the most authentic Brazilian food I’ve ever eaten, it’s still quite tasty for the price.

Unlike most Brazilian steakhouses, Brazilian Grill doesn’t send you to a gargantuan salad bar filled with tempting morsels designed to fill you up before the meat arrives.  In fact, they don’t even have a salad bar.  You do get a small salad of your choice or soup of the day, mine being a creamy carrot and ginger version that, while certainly not traditional, was truly outstanding. Customary cheese bread was different than most as well; the buttons of dough were stuffed with melted Parmesan cheese in the center, as opposed to grated cheese dispersed throughout the entire little biscuit.  No matter. They were equally addictive. Still, like most traditional churrascarias, a number of side dishes and garnishes were placed at the table prior to the arrival of the meat. Some, like jasmine rice, black beans, outstanding fried bananas, garlic mashed potatoes and the time honored condiment farofa, were quite predictable, while others–carrots layered in a tart, passion fruit sauce, and a diddy they called beef casserole that suspiciously resembled beef stroganoff–were an unusual, yet tasty departure from the norm.

The meat, of course, is what you should be saving your appetite for. It is, after all, the main draw here.  As is traditional, most was of excellent quality (with the exception of the sausage, which seemed underdone and somewhat bland), seasoned simply with sea salt, skewered on a spit and slowly roasted over an open flame. This allowed for a somewhat crunchy and caramelized crust, with varying degrees of doneness throughout each piece.  We simply told our carver (also known as a gaucho) how rare we wanted our slices to be, and it was cut to our liking. They didn’t skimp on portion sizes either. The gaucho circled the restaurant in a timely fashion, changed varieties of meat with each passing and offered a little or a lot, depending on when we said “when”–certainly a license for gluttonous behavior.

The Brazilian Grill has an area suitable for larger groups and presents live Brazilian guitar music on Friday and Saturday after 6:30 p.m.  Priced right and close to home, it’s a meat lover’s dream.   For reservations, call them at 888-6888.

Old School is Back…Sen of Japan

May 17, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  Comments Off on Old School is Back…Sen of Japan

By Aly Wagonseller

Not long ago, there seemed to be a sushi restaurant in every strip mall, on every corner, in just about every nook and cranny of the city. Some, quite frankly, behaving like cheap floozies in the red light district, luring in diners with discounted, all-you-can eat offers, X-rated specialty rolls, and fish so poorly sliced, it literally didn’t cut it. Not that there aren’t decent sushi places that might employ a few of these marketing tactics to stay afloat; I’ll avoid that backlash here and now. I’m just saying that too many neighborhood sushi restaurants have me questioning why I fell in love with this cuisine nearly 30 years ago. Where did the clean flavors and fresh fish, accompanied by sauces that complemented, rather than held their seafood counterpart captive, vanish to?  Have all the sushi chefs that actually know how to purvey quality yellowtail and skillfully slice it, all the while being playfully arrogant of the fact that they do, high tail it to the Strip or beyond? Sen of Japan, located at 8480 W. Desert Inn, has given back hope that old school sushi has not only survived, but is flourishing in a sea of make believe maki.

From all appearances, Sen of Japan might seem like many other local establishments. The requisite red and black contemporary décor, laminate wood plank flooring and glass tile backed sushi bar presenting a modest, yet comfy space to dine within. But, with the help of owner Hiro Nakano, former head chef of sushi heaven on earth, a.k.a. Nobu, and knowledgeable staff like our waitress Tiffany, a sweet girl, expertly adept at explaining everything from the nuances of their particular brand of ponzu to the texture of Mochi ice cream…no easy task I might add…and you’ve got something truly special.

Like Nobu, Sen offers a full range of Japanese cuisine that includes a wide selection of tempura, sumibiyaki (charcoaled skewers, the scallop version being quite tasty), hot fish and meat dishes, as well as specialty rolls and the like. We tried the Black Cod Soy (13.75) opting out of the optional foie gras accompaniment (an extra $9). I mean really, isn’t black cod butter enough? Regardless, the fish was perfectly prepared and artfully plated, treating the eyes as well as the taste buds. I did long for the caramelized characteristics of its miso cousin, as I like a little sweet crunch to contrast with the velvety texture of the fish, but that’s just me.

Hot fish is great but sushi is my game, usually indulging in a roll or two but never passing on the simplistic grandeur sashimi brings to the table.  A version they call Garlic Yellowtail (13.95) was as good as it gets; the thinly shaved fish expertly trimmed for maximum melt-in-your-mouth preeminence. Flavor and textural contrast were brought to the dish via an impossibly crisp garlic chip, spicy Serrano chili slivers and a citrusy yuzu soy sauce that was simple, bright…just plain perfection.  Spider Roll #23 (13.95) is a must, chock full of soft shell crab, cucumber and yamagobo, a pickled root vegetable that added a nice bite, but be sure to treat yourself to the Real Crab Roll with mango, cucumber, tuna and curry sauce (13.75). Unlike sushi rolls that are becoming as weighty and overindulgent as the American waistline, this delicacy is light, perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the mango and feathery texture of the crab, and elevated by the exotic flavors of a wonderful curry mayo sauce; an addition that surprisingly didn’t overpower any of the other ingredients.

In addition to the Mochi ice cream and some homemade sorbets, you’d do well in the dessert department with their amazing Almond Yuzu Franijpan served with Pineapple Sorbet. Be sure to order it early as it takes about 15 minutes to bake onsite.  It’s a worthy ending to a meal filled with old school, clean and honest flavors that Sen of Japan has obviously perfected.  The place fills up fast; to make reservations, call 871-7781.

Sen of Japan on Urbanspoon

The BYO Burger…Grind Burger Bar and Lounge

Mar 15, 2010   //   by wagona   //   Haute Spot  //  Comments Off on The BYO Burger…Grind Burger Bar and Lounge

By Aly Wagonseller

When questioning the originality of the newest build-your-own burger craze, I found myself reminiscing of a place I used to frequent in the mid 1980s called Flakey Jake’s. A casual little burger and beer joint, Flakey’s was famous for their juicy burgers and a big ol’ do it yourself salad bar of fixins. Toppings consisted of garden variety chili, processed cheese slices, tin flavored olives and jalapeños, and pretty much anything else that was thrifty, yet managed to compliment a hamburger patty. There was nary an inkling of impending gourmet flair, yet even back then, the place was packed with diners that craved something a little more “their way” than the clown or king could offer.

Fast forward to now, a time when even a simple hamburger is expected to delight, ala five star status, and it’s really no wonder that the craze for building your own burger has suddenly reemerged, albeit with a serious price tag. Enter Grind Burger Bar and Lounge, a polished little place that brings back the casual, good time memories of Flakey Jake’s, but with a burger that’s anything but tin can average.

Brought to us by restaurateur Mark DiMartino, Grind has been creating quite a stir for not only their food, but their playfully inventive mascot, Juicy Lucy.  Apparently, a naked cartoon woman that’s labeled for butchering like a steer (think rump, round, loin…you get the picture) and donned on everything from skimpy tees to key chains is offending people. Really?  Hooters is kicking themselves that they didn’t think of the idea first, driving home the point that shock sells and can’t be taken too seriously, especially in this hell bent economy.

The menu is an offering of appetizers, potatoes and burgers with accompaniments that run the gamut from typical to not so norm.  Armed with a clipboard, menu and pencil, we chose Thai Calamari (9.50) and Onion Strings (5.00) as appies.  I liked the calamari; it wasn’t overcooked and the sauce had a sweet little tang, but beware of the tempura lime garnish–it packs an unexpected pucker punch.  Fried onions were crispy, not greasy and served with a mild cayenne pepper ranch dressing that could have used a little more kick.  They also have three styles of fries (4-5.00), including a delicious sweet potato version that I would highly recommend, as well as a chopped salad (8.50) that could serve as a meal in itself. Portion sizes were more than ample for splitting.

Next on the list are burger choices.  You have four to choose from, a juicy ground chuck version, nicely seasoned turkey or chicken burgers, or a house made meatless variety.  They all start at nine bucks…a bit pricey, especially since the fries aren’t included, but hey, this is gourmet, right?  You also have options for choosing buns (the ciabatta was outstanding); cheese that included bleu and pepper jack (+.75); typical toppings like lettuce, tomato and marinated mushrooms (two are included, +.75 for extras); condiments that included several innovative mayonnaise concoctions with the likes of basil and sun dried tomato or ajvar, a roasted red bell pepper and eggplant spread (two included, +.75 for extras); and some heavy hitting premium toppings like fried eggs, applewood smoked bacon, and Napa cabbage 3 pepper slaw (+1.50).

It’s easy to go overboard, but in reality, you can create a very she-she burger for around 12 bucks; still a bit golden for some, but for those that take their specialty burger seriously, cheaper than comparables located on the Strip.  I chose the regular beef version; it had a delicate texture and was quite juicy and flavorful, perfect for the ciabatta bun which soaked in the savory flavors.  Aged cheddar, the wonderfully smokey bacon, mushrooms and the ajvar mayo took this baby over the top.  Sure, I could have added the egg, which would have been sublime, but too much of a good thing can be bad, so I’ll have to save it for next trip.

Grind really is a very nice place to have a superb burger, a beer or glass of wine, or a specialty drink that’s offered in both the restaurant as well as the separate bar area that’s fitted with requisite gaming and flat screen TVs.  And although Flakey Jake’s may have been the father of the BYO burger concept, Grind has certainly added some serious gourmet flair. Grind is located at 360 E. Tropicana.

Grind Burger Bar and Lounge on Urbanspoon

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