Chinois – Las Vegas, Nevada (CLOSED)

It’s been well established that world-famous chef and restaurant impresario Wolfgang Puck can talk the talk. Chinois, a critically acclaimed fine-dining fusion restaurant located in Santa Monica, California is, in the estimation of many, proof that he can also “walk the wok.” So successful was his original Asian and French influenced fusion restaurant that he launched a branch within the confines of the people watching Mecca of the Forum shops at Caesar’s.

Prior to visiting Chinois, I read several reviews in which fulsome praise was lavished on the über celebrity chef’s Asian masterpiece. I’ve been accused of hyperbole, but compared to what I read about Chinois, my favorable reviews are understated. One reviewer proclaimed Chinois as “quite possibly the best restaurant in Vegas” while another described the menu as “a banquet of creative and flavorful tastes from beginning to end.” Some reviewers were even more profuse in their praise.

After reading several diatribes of effusive burble, my expectations were sky-high. Those expectations were hardly dashed when I arrived too early for a sushi bar one critic described as “super fresh.” Studying the lunch menu delivered the promise of an exciting meal even sans sushi–even though the menu listed fewer than ten appetizers and a like number of entrees.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of the entrees are fairly commonplace in Chinese restaurants: General Tso’s Chicken, Kung Pao Chicken, Pepper Beef and others. Surely these pedestrian entrees had to be prepared spectacularly well to earn the applause of seemingly every critic in Vegas.

A spectacular strawberry salad helped me understand why Puck is considered one of the pioneers of contemporary California cuisine which emphasizes the freshest locally grown ingredients. The salad greens had a crisp, garden-fresh taste while the strawberries were of equal parts sweet and tart. Crisp won tons and a tangy (but not overpowering) ginger vinaigrette adorned the salad.

Alas, my entree of firecracker shrimp (shrimp, bok choy, water chestnuts, basil and a “spicy” sauce was as much a disappointment as the salad was a treat. Despite its nomenclature, the entree had the explosiveness of the most banal of fireworks–the snake (pellets which coil out like a black, ashen snake when lit). The shrimp was fresh and delicious, but the sauce was lacking.

Although my meal met with mixed results, the esthetics at Chinois are worth the price of admission to a museum. Several rare artifacts from around the world, a jewel-toned decor and an exhibition style kitchen combine to make the restaurant one of the most attractive in Las Vegas where most restaurants decorate to impress.

3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 737-9700

LATEST VISIT: 29 March 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Strawberry Chicken Salad

Mesa Grill – Las Vegas, Nevada

Mesa Grill, Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay's Restaurant at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

With an upset rematch victory over über Japanese iron chef Masaharu Morimoto in a 2003 Iron Chef competition, (arguably) America’s preeminent grill master and New York City restaurant impresario, Bobby Flay became more than a pretty face on several Food Network television shows and the CBS morning news. He cemented his credibility as a legitimate force with which to be reckoned in the world of fine dining where chefs have become larger than life glitterati.

On October 7, 2004, he launched his first restaurant outside New York City within the confines of Caesar’s Palace which has become a Mecca for some of America’s premier celebrity chefs. A flame themed ambiance features a flamed patterned carpet, copper flames on the wall and even flaming ceilings. Also impressive were the teak wood and flagstone floors, but the star of the show is the 20-foot rotisserie with a grill and quesadilla oven.

As frequently as Flay visits New Mexico, it was refreshing to see his menu peppered (no pun intended) with ingredients indigenous to the foods of the Land of Enchantment. Those menus use the correct spelling of the word “chile” which showed just how much Flay pays attention during his dining forays into the Land of Enchantment.

As you peruse the menu, a basket of ho hum breads and muffins is brought to your table. The boring bread is certainly not a precursor of things to come. What is more indicative of your meal is when your waitress asks how hungry you are then proceeds to explain the relative diminution of some menu items. Not all portions are Lilliputian, but if Murphy is dining with you, the entrees most appealing to you will be.

An appetizer of goat cheese queso (as redundant as Rio Grande River) fundido is redolent with olfactory arousing ingredients (roasted green chile sauce and blue corn tortilla strips) that taste as great as they smell. More and more restaurants are starting to use something other than Cheddar cheese on their fundido and it’s paying of with a more exciting appetizer.

Flay’s signature appetizer, the Tiger Shrimp and Roasted Garlic Corn Tamale with Corn-Cilantro Sauce is vibrant and flavorful, albeit a miniscule appetizer at an entree price. Flay’s version of a tamale is considerably different than the more traditional version served in New Mexico, but your taste buds will certainly be rhapsodizing “viva la differencia.”

The most filling appetizer on the menu, even if shared by two, might be the smoked chicken and black bean quesadilla with avocado and toasted garlic crème fraiche. It’s an appetizer in which several ingredients compete for taste primacy and none quit establishes itself as the prominent taste. The avocado was probably the most innocuous part of a quesadilla that does meld disparate and complementary tastes as well as Flay uses the secret ingredient on Iron Chef America.

The coffee spice rubbed rotisserie filet mignon epitomizes the best in grilled meat preparation and had it been more than ten ounces (a lunch portion is five ounces), I would write a song about it. Size not withstanding, it was an outstanding filet–perfectly seasoned, as tender as my wife’s heart and as perfectly grilled as any piece of prime steak I’ve ever had. Flay’s Mesa steak sauce with its strong chipotle influence was the best steak house sauce I’ve ever had, so good I dipped my chile rubbed Southwestern fries in it and asked for more.

Chowhound posters rant and rave about the Mesa Burger while simultaneously whining about its high price ($15). I’m not sure it was worth the price, but there’s no doubt it’s an excellent burger. Crafted with double Cheddar cheese, grilled Vidalia onion and an eye-opening horseradish mustard, it is a handful. The meat is succulent and juicy, perfectly prepared at medium with a nice hint of pink.

If you don’t want a grilled entree for lunch, the New Mexican spiced pork tenderloin sandwich with grilled red onion, arugula and ancho-chile mayonnaise is an excellent alternative.

The only thing that may keep Flay from succeeding in this restaurant venture is the smallish portions. Las Vegas diners have been weaned on enough food at every meal to feed a bull elephant and may stay away in droves.

The two restaurants against which I compare and rate the Mesa Grill are the incomparable Topolobampo in Chicago ( I still can’t believe Flay’s cuisine reigned supreme over Rick Bayless’s Mexican masterpieces in an Iron Chef America showdown) and Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe, both of which are superior to the much-heralded Mesa Grill.

Mesa Grill
3570 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV
702- 731-7731

LATEST VISIT: 28 March 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Goat Cheese Queso Fundido, Tiger Shrimp and Roasted Garlic Corn Tamale; Mesa Burger

Carnegie Deli

Father Mark Schultz, the charismatic priest at the San Antonio De Padua church in Penasco, jokes that the reason Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays is not because there’s a shortage of cows. That’s certainly true. There is more beef on the hoof in America than there are tax-paying citizens.

That’s why it’s always puzzled me that sandwich restaurants in New Mexico are so chintzy with their meat portions. You’d think there really was a beef shortage (and an excess of bread and lettuce) considering the the typical Albuquerque restaurant sandwich is comprised of thin shards of beef buried under half a head of lettuce and enough bread to choke a mule.

In the American megalopolises of Chicago and New York, sandwiches are piled skyscraper high with beef and it’s not a figment of your imagination when you actually experience the flavor of bovine amidst the constituent parts of a sandwich. You’d think Chicago and New York were closer to cattle ranches than New Mexico is, but I digress. This is a review on a Las Vegas deli from which restaurants in my beloved Land of Enchantment could learn much.

In recent years, Las Vegas has graduated from a city renown for buffets serving profligate portions of mediocre and inexpensive food to a city in which restaurant impresarios and some of the best chefs in the world launch outposts of their famous restaurants. Many of those restaurants approximate or even exceed the caliber of quality of the originals on which they were based.

One of the most popular restaurant concepts in Las Vegas has been the New York style deli. Caesar’s Palace has the Stage Deli of New York; the Hilton has Las Vegas Subs, an off-shoot of Atlantic City’s White House Subs and now the Mirage hotel has the Carnegie Deli, a 7th Avenue institution in New York City.

The ambience at the Carnegie Deli is very much like its sibling in New York–right down to the hall of fame portraits of 62 New York celebrities on the wall. Attitudinally, it’s very much like the quintessential New York deli, too. The atmosphere is boisterous and busy, but with a sense of fun. It’s as close to New York City as you’ll find west of the Hudson. All the meat used in the deli is even shipped in from Carnegie Deli’s plant in New York.

The sandwiches are gargantuan, most topping the scales at one and a half pounds–and they don’t look like a salad burying a measly piece of meat. These sandwiches are meaty in every sense of the word. During my inaugural visit, I had a pastrami sandwich that dwarfed my favorite pastrami sandwich in the world, the artfully crafted masterpiece found only at Siegleman’s Deli in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. That bulging behemoth weighs a paltry 8.5 ounces and is considered “farshtopt,” a Yiddish word which means “stuffed.” Carnegie Deli’s version is easily three times as large.

Alas, size isn’t everything. Siegleman’s pastrami was much better with the perfect amount of marbling for flavor and a far superior rye bread foundation. I couldn’t wrap my mouth around the pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli and had to eat about half the pastrami sans rye bread. Worse, despite sitting under a heat lamp until the hurried server could bring it to my table, the sandwich was lukewarm when I got it. It wasn’t a bad sandwich; it just wasn’t as wonderful as I’ve had in Chicago (or even Boston for that matter).

Like the delis in Chicago and new York, Carnegie Deli brings a complementary plate of homemade pickles to your table. The menu reads like a Jewish wish list with Kosher items you don’t find in many restaurants. I had a potato knish that I swear was as big as a small loaf of bread. It was also delicious.

The hearty portions might prevent you from trying dessert which is too bad because no one in the universe makes cheesecake like it’s made in New York. Carnegie Deli offers several sinfully rich cheesecakes, humongous slabs of creamy perfection. The strawberry cheesecake is absolutely decadent, among the best I’ve had.

Carnegie Deli
3400 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV

LATEST VISIT: 27 March 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Strawberry Cheesecake, Potato Knish, Pickles

Spiedini – Las Vegas, Nevada

Spiedini is a magnificent sensory feast that begins when your olfactory senses first catch a whiff of the intoxicating emanations wafting from the kitchen as you drop your car off at the valet parking station. It continues as you step into the marble tiled floors of an ultra modern, visually appealing restaurant extravagance. Your tactile senses are aroused as you dip the fabulous focaccia bread into a marvelous mixture of virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. Finally, your taste buds culminate the exhilarating experience as you savor each and every bite of a very memorable Italian culinary event.

Just like the now defunct Las Vegas legend, the Venetian restaurant, Spiedini exemplifies the huge delta in quality between Italian restaurants in large metropolitan cities and those in my beloved New Mexico where the dearth in truly outstanding Italian establishments is lamentable. The brainchild of Viennese born Gustav Mauler, one of only 54 certified master chefs in the United States, Spiedini may be the very best Italian restaurant we’ve experienced west of the Mississippi. Attention to detail is one of the reasons.

While the oily and unappealing travesty other restaurants call antipasto is enough to make any pasta proponent anti antipasto, once you experience antipasto at Spiedini, any other version just won’t do. A large plate adorned with some of the most delicious cured meats (mortadella, salami, prosciutto, ham), cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar) and grilled vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, lettuce) ever to grace an antipasto is drizzled with a delicious dressing that brings out the best in each. It’s the type of antipasto that you might dream about…and it might not even be the best appetizer on the menu.

That distinction might to go the clams and spicy Italian sausage which features pearlescent clams, a spicy homemade sausage, garlic, herbs, fresh tomatoes and a ciabatta crostini in an obscenely rich and savory broth with discernibly contrasting and complementary flavors. All at once it’s slightly briny and saucy with a hauntingly faint taste of licorice (from the fennel rich sausage). The lightly toasted crostini is perfect for dredging up the broth so you don’t miss a drop.

Spiedini also prepares the best seared beef carpaccio I’ve ever had outside a Vietnamese restaurant. Calista Flockhart thin, each beef slice is crusted with pepper, crispy capers and a mustard aioli. Baby greens and parmesan crown this appetizer.

Risotto became a part of pop culture when a Seinfeld episode lampooned the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom.

The risotto at Spiedini might elicit such a passion, especially if it’s the honey roasted duck risotto entree starring (the word “featuring” just didn’t cut it) amborio rice, duck breasts, caramelized sweet onions, gorgonzola, truffle oil and porto glaze. The rich melding of ingredients made it easily the very best, most rich and delicious risotto dish we’ve ever had.

Spiedini is an Italian word meaning skewered meats and this restaurant lends tremendous credit to the word. Spiedini specializes in meat and poultry prepared on the open kitchen’s spiedo (kitchen spit). The restaurant is spacious with high ceilings from which hang colorful, hand-blown lamps. An outdoor patio is shaded by a European-style canopy. Spiedini’s portions are formidable, so unlike the miniscule stacked portions offered at other fine restaurants.

One of the restaurant’s specialties, the Spiedini combination features a peppercorn encrusted pork loin coupled with a herb seasoned chicken and served with Tuscan peperonata (roasted peppers) and garlic mashed potatoes, all of which were wonderful.

There’s a reason Chef Mauler is a certified master chef and we’ve now experienced that reason. This is a fantastic restaurant!

JW Marriot
221 North Rampart
Las Vegas, NV
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 25 March 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Spiedini Combination, Honey Roasted Duck Risotto, Antipasto

Copeland’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Copeland's, offering a taste of New Orleans

Copeland's, offering a taste of New Orleans

Having lived 90 miles outside of “The Big Easy” for almost eight years, we were naturally filled with the spirit of laissez les bon temps roulette (let the good times roll) when we found out the 48th Copeland’s restaurant in America was launching on our backyard in Albuquerque’s West side in November, 2001.

We had been back in Albuquerque for six years and were experiencing withdrawal symptoms that only a fix of heartily spiced Cajun cuisine could quell. Copeland’s we thought would be a welcome breath of fresh air for the Duke City, albeit not the steamy, salt-kissed air of the Louisiana coast.

Copeland’s is a restaurant with which we were quite familiar when it wasn’t the national presence it is today, but a regional chain founded in 1983 and firmly ensconced in a tough Cajun market. Brainchild of restaurant impresario Al Copeland (who also founded Popeye’s and Zea’s), Copeland’s was a relatively inexpensive alternative to more costly Cajun restaurants in the Crescent City area.

Cajun appetizer sampler

Cajun appetizer sampler

In terms of ambience and attitude, Copeland’s doesn’t really provide the type of sensory bombardment reminiscent of Mardi Gras in which excess is celebrated. In fact, it is relatively low-key compared to some New Orleans restaurants we frequented.

A soundtrack of blues, jazz and boogie-woogie plays continuously but not loud enough to drown out the hushed volume conversations inspired by mood lighting.

The restaurant is thankfully not festooned in the cliché and overdone Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power) but in the colors of purple, black and red which are traditionally Lenten colors.

The wait staff, often adorned with traditional Mardi Gras beads and thematic ties is at your beck and call without being disruptive. We’ve rarely visited Copeland’s when a manager hasn’t dropped by our table to ensure our satisfaction.

The menu is replete with the confusingly intertwined cuisines characterized as Cajun and Creole. Cajun cuisine is said to have its genesis in the cooking of peasant Acadian populations who lived in Southern Louisiana’s swamps. It is more heavily spiced and pungent. Creole food is said to be more refined and subtle with its basis being French traditions but with influences from Spain, the West Indies, Africa and more. Native Louisianans might tell you that Cajun is country while Creole is city, that Cajun is cooking while Creole is cuisine. The truth is, any meaningful distinction between the two has been lost over time and the two terms seem to be used interchangeably.

Many of the entrees at Copeland’s are well-seasoned and redolent with the olfactory arousing aromas of complementary ingredients (onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery, parsley and green onions chief among them) and dark brown (Cajun) or tomato-based (Creole) roux. You’ll also find several heavily spiced and piquant blackened fish entrees as well as rich, voluptuous desserts. It’s no wonder Mark Twain said in 1884 that “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”

Gumbo ya ya

Gumbo ya ya

That being said, Copeland’s just doesn’t do Cajun or Creole quite as well as many of the restaurants we frequented in New Orleans’ French Quarter or Garden District. We have occasionally been disappointed in the absence of addictive flavors we knew so well. That’s especially true when we order seafood entrees such as the prodigious seafood platter, an assemblage of fried and heavily battered catfish, oysters, shrimp and crawfish tails served with a mountain of fries and a tangle of fried onion strings. Perhaps as a consequence to being in land-locked New Mexico, the seafood just doesn’t have that “just off the boat” taste you can get in Louisiana.

Likewise, several of the seafood-based sandwiches we’ve tried have been mundane at best. Served on a toasted bun the size of the tires on my car, the dwarfish crab cake sandwich just doesn’t captivate our taste buds as might the same sandwich in Opaloosa, Louisiana. Made with lump crabmeat mixed with onions, bell pepper, celery and seasonings, this crab meat creation is almost as boring as fish sticks out of a box. Even worse is the oyster po’boy on New Orleans French bread, inferior by far than its New Orleans counterpart. Perhaps masked by breading, the fried oysters don’t have that flavor burst that typifies oysters on the best po’boys.

Among the appetizers, we have been ensnared by Cajun pot stickers, spicy, pan-fried then steamed pork filled dumplings covered in a creamy tasso (a flavoring agent made from lean, highly-seasoned pork) sauce. Tragically, this appetizer gem isn’t always on the menu. Better than any of the appetizers is an apple, pear and candied pecan salad with Maytag blue cheese and drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette. The sharpness of the blue cheese contrasts nicely with the candied pecans.

Where Copeland’s does succeed is in the preparation of traditional sauce-based entrees such as the crawfish etouffee (a French word for “smother”), a tangy Cajun stew made with garlic, green onions, spices and a dark roux (a mixture of flour and fat that’s slowly cooked until brown) served over rice. This stupendous stew is one of the most flavorable entrees on Copeland’s menu.

Copeland’s also holds fast to New Orleans traditions with the quintessential Big Easy dish of red beans and rice with andouille sausage. Traditionally served on Mondays, it’s good any day of the week (albeit somewhat salty at times).

Also quite good is Copeland’s gumbo (a corruption of the African name for okra, one of the vegetables used as a thickening agent) which is also served over rice. Unlike etouffee, gumbo is considered a soup, but it’s a thick, hearty soup which explodes with flavor. The gumbo featuring chicken and andouille sausage is classic.

Hearty portions may mean foregoing dessert and that would be too bad because Copeland’s serves a wonderful white chocolate bread pudding. A thick layer of decadent white chocolate covers a thick slice of spongy bread while a strawberry-based sauce decorates the plate. You couldn’t call yourself a true Cajun restaurant without a good bread pudding and Copeland’s passes muster here.

Lastly, you can’t have Cajun and Creole food without the original Barq’s Root Beer, the root beer with bite. Barq’s was first brewed in my old stomping grounds of Biloxi, Mississippi in 1898. It’s a “different” kind of root beer with a higher level of carbonation and without the cloying sweetness of other root beers. Not especially foamy, it’s the official root beer of the Deep South and a long-time favorite of mine.

10051 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NN
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Cajun Pot stickers, Crawfish Etouffe