Vegas Food, or Where the F*&k Are the Sweetbreads?

Greetings fellow foodies, visitors, and Las Vegas locals.  Thanks to the great work of my partner in culinary crime Mike Dobranski, we now have this awesome vehicle for our shared passion—exploring and celebrating the Las Vegas food scene.

I’m working on a piece about City Center, and my last meal of 2009 (at Sage) which I’ll be posting soon.  But as my first post, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what is unique to the Las Vegas dining scene.  In four words: What is Vegas Food?

Some background:  I’ve been coming to Las Vegas on and off for about 9 years, and relocated here (from New York City) in April of 2009.  In that time, Las Vegas’ aspirations to be a serious food city on the order of a London or New York have begun to be realized.

Early efforts toward culinary seriousness were Las Vegas outposts of the Famous New York/San Francisco/Your City Here restaurant (paging Bobby Flay…) Examples such as Mesa Grill, Spago and Fiamma serve decent, reliable signature dishes, usually at 150% or more of what you’d pay at the flagship restaurant.  Perhaps driven by a savvy customer base that could see the particle board behind the mahogany veneer of this particular business model, smart resort owners began rounding up the Michael Mina’s, Guy Savoy’s and (perhaps most significantly) Joel Robuchon’s of culinary Valhalla and got them to actually move here to cook full time.  The franchises, then, became flagships. Well, Luxury liners, really.  So take that New York and London: you may have the Metropolitan Museum, Big Ben, Lincoln Center, The Tate Modern and…well history,  but we have fucking Joel Robuchon.

Perfection ensued, all was right in the foodie universe, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except: Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Michael Mina and their peers here are not the first reason why Las Vegas is an important food city.  They are not even the second.  It’s great that they’re here, and you can have an amazing experience at any of the high-end restaurants in town.  But let’s be honest—if you’ve had Michael Mina’s signature “Lobster Pot Pie” once (I recall when it was a mere $59, way back in 02 I think…), are you really going to spend half a car payment to eat it again?  And if, like me, you had a perfectly fine prix fix at Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys in the summer, would you go back again for it in the winter, seeing that the menu has not changed one bit? (I know the only seasonal produce we have is cactus, but still…)  And what, really, is Alain Ducasse’s MIX doing here, since the (original) New York MIX was universally reviled by critics, and famously flamed out after barely a year? (I ate at the original MIX, and the reviews were not wrong–I mean my God, he serves elbow macaroni.  That it’s dressed up by french butter and truffle doesn’t quite hide the wheels on that trailer, if you know what I’m saying).

True enough, not everyone has had the Mina “Lobster Pot Pie,” or had the chance to sample French cuisine at a bargain price, as offered by the prix fixe at Fleur de Lys.  And I’m glad both are available.  But it all becomes the edible equivalent of “Legends in Concert;” reliable greatest hits executed reliably well (hmm, I’m not sure that last part is true of “LIK” and I’m not paying one dime to find out).  And the menus, designed to appeal to the middle of the demographic bell curve, tend to be WAY conservative.  I mean for God’s sake people, where the fuck are the sweetbreads?

Let me explain that a bit.  We all have a niche interest; there are the steak nerds, the French fetishists, the wine snobs, the sushi nuts.  And then there’s the freak-show foodies, the fork-wielding Johnny Knoxville’s–epicurean Jackasses if you will—who want something exciting, strange, exotic, impossible to reproduce (if I can cook it myself, the chef hasn’t tried hard enough), possibly borderline disgusting, and conceptually mind blowing.  Me, I’m a foodie Jackass, and molecular gastronomy is my drug of choice. And for the moment the mainstream high-end dining scene in Las Vegas sucks for the foodie Jackass.

A sample of dishes/components I ate last year in NYC:  Duck tongues, saltine cracker ice cream, lamb testicles, kale chips, ham foam, coxcombs (yeah, that would be the red comb from the rooster…), crispy fried tiny sand eels (highly addictive, those briny little French fries of the sea), lardo (or, as I like to call it ‘pig butter’), scrapple (thank you chef Bill Telepan—a fellow scrapple nut), beet risotto, white-chocolate dipped pork rinds, and of course veal sweetbreads—the delectable gray matter of cute dead baby cows.

Maybe two of the meals at which I ate the above dishes cost more than $75 with wine and tip.  Try finding anything close to that on the strip.  It’s true that Mario Batali’s outposts offer the now-ubiquitous lardo, and you can find sweetbreads at a few spots, if you squint hard at the menu.  And I’m sure Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire (in his new digs at City Center) offer more adventurous fare on occasion (when I can spare the $400 it will take to find out I’ll let you know).  The point is that a truly great culinary culture can’t be built on institutional monoliths and star chefs alone; a spirit of risk and real diversity (in both food and price) are needed as well.

Where is the real Vegas Food?  It’s at Ichiza in Chinatown, or my favorite hole-in-the-wall Victor’s Taqueria (you know, next to Fun Hog Ranch…and if you don’t know about the Hog, well I ain’t sayin’ here).  It flows from the wealth of great and affordable ethnic food, which is the first true mark of a real city.  And Las Vegas has its home-grown gourmet spots too, though I mourn the loss of the wonderful Mayflower Cusinier, which was shuttered so the talented Woo family could open their namesake restaurant at the Palazzo (memo to Chef Woo: please bring back the Miso Butterfish entrée from Mayflower!).  But you probably won’t find many of these in the Zagat guide, which in its last issue devoted as many pages to shopping and nightclubs as it did food.

The real impact of the star chefs is likely not the food they are currently cooking, but in the younger chefs apprenticing under them.  The Ham Foam mentioned above?  That came from the perverse but brilliant David Chang, currently tossing all the received wisdom about dining out the window at his various Momofuku iterations in New York City.  Somewhere in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Hubert Keller are a few twenty-something chefs who have the talent and vision to be the next David Chang, Homaru Cantu, or Wylie Dufresne.  They’ll do something that will blow our collective mind and put Las Vegas on the map—this time as an exporter, rather than an importer, of culinary talent.  The question is, when these young stars are ready to roll the dice with their radical talent, will Las Vegas gamble on them?


Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

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