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

1 2