California Dreamin’…my first taste of Todd’s Unique Dining

The Neighborhood Restaurant, sans Neighborhood

It would be ideal if Las Vegas contained an actual city instead of CityCenter; a real town, instead of Town Square; perhaps even—dare we dream?—an authentic district other than The District. But aside from some modestly successful efforts downtown, Las Vegas remains a string of rhinestones jammed into sand, whose sense of place remains a mirage.  So we’re grateful to those chefs and restaurants that reach out to locals, that enrich our sense of community, our sense that there is some there there, to mangle Gertrude Stein.

Todd’s Unique Dining is, in the best possible way, the ‘anti-strip’ restaurant.  It’s friendly, intimate, and laid back.  With Chef Todd Clore in the kitchen and his wife Terry overseeing the front of house, Todd’s is literally a mom and pop operation (Todd’s also is the rare Las Vegas restaurant with a nifty, fun and informative dedicated website).  The food is honestly and seriously good, and free of the tired gimmicks and star-chef clichés that so infect the strip (memo to Lavo: yes, you can sell a $20 one-pound Kobe meatball, but why?  I mean only an idiotic drunk yahoo on an expense account would order…oh wait, that’s your business plan…).  If Las Vegas had neighborhoods, Todd’s would be the favorite neighborhood gourmet spot for local foodies—no surprise then, that it was both the readers’ and editors’ pick for best gourmet restaurant in the Las Vegas Review Journal’s “Best of” poll this year.

Unique, ‘California,’ or Simply Delicious?

Whatever happened to California Cuisine?  And what does the term even mean, anyway?

This question stared me in the face on my first visit to Todd’s Unique Dining, in the form of a raspberry coulis artfully carpeting my plate.  When was the last time I had seen a raspberry sauce?  It was like greeting an old friend—and it was completely delicious.  The sauce sat under goat cheese wontons, and this signature appetizer nicely summed up the playful, relaxed California vibe that Todd’s Unique Dining left me with; the marriage of fresh ingredients, clean flavor profiles and Asian accents that are for me hallmarks of “California Cuisine.”

Some trends deserve to be passing fads–I recall an unfortunate rice pudding chain in NYC that met a mercifully quick death; and can we all agree that the 15 minutes on cute cupcake joints cannot expire quickly enough?–but most leave some worthy legacy.  We hardly hear the terms  “California Cuisine” or “fusion” anymore, and the champagne bottle’s of time have since christened dozens of other food trends or ‘movements’: the ‘nose to tail/everything’s better with pig’ craze; the Belgian ‘moules’ obsession (where every new restaurant seemed to offer 100 varieties of steamed mussels); the Kraut moment (a brief, Austro-German outbreak of designer spaetzle, sausages and strudel); the ongoing caipirinha and yucca-fueled Latin romance; the British Gastro-pub and chip-shop revolution, the ‘raw fish ain’t just for the Japanese’ crudo event; the overpriced-Mexican-street-food pandemic (currently rampant on the Las Vegas Strip); and of course the perennial favorite, ‘tapas in every cuisine imaginable’ syndrome.

Yet California Cuisine has left its mark—we largely have it to thank for the sun-dried tomatoes, fish on mashed potatoes, seared ahi on anything, and various ponzus and pestos we now take for granted as part of our dining and cooking glossary.  While one can argue that California Cuisine has devolved into airport concourse mainstays such as Wolfgang Puck Express and California Pizza Kitchen, it’s also true that these chains offer products which are about a thousand times better than the willfully boring Chili’s or inexcusably vile Applebee’s two gates down.  The best culinary movements eventually trickle down and inform our home cooking and casual dining—and yes, even what we eat when trapped at the airport.

I’m not sure Chef Clore would accept the ‘California Cuisine’ label; he prefers ‘unique’ to describe his fare.  But in my admittedly limited first sampling of his dishes, California Cuisine was the immediate reference point that came to mind.  So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Chef Clore spent much of his early career in California kitchens before settling in Las Vegas.

So back to the food.  As mentioned, I began my meal with Todd’s signature goat cheese wontons with raspberry basil sauce.  I read this as a witty take on the fruit-and-cheese plate, literally wrapped with an Asian twist.  It was a tasty balance of creamy/crunchy, fruity/herbal, sweet/salty.  Definitely one to order from the insanely cheap Happy Hour menu (offered from 4:30 to 6:00pm, and 8:30 to 10:00pm).

For my main course I tried another signature dish, the ‘Skirt Steak on Fire.’  This was an incredibly flavorful mash-up of ‘steak frites,’ chili-cheese fries, and peppery Asian heat and flavors.  The words ‘on fire’ did not inspire confidence in me—I am skeptical of overly hot dishes, as I have been punished too often by sadistic amounts of palate-killing capsicum in the past.  This is the main reason you will never see me follow the word ‘Southwestern’ with ‘Cuisine’.  Yet the heat in Todd’s ‘Skirt Steak on Fire’ was expertly balanced, deepening rather than overpowering the steak’s meaty flavor.  It was one of those humble-appearing dishes whose complexity takes you by surprise (the steak sits for three days in a marinade combining something like 7 kinds of peppers).  And the chili cheese fries—what to say?  It is not everyday that one encounters fermented Asian black beans atop cheddar and jack cheese, all sitting on hand-cut french fries, but it worked in its own funky-magical, crazy-brilliant way.  Sorry Skyline, these were the best damn chili cheese fries I’ve ever had; if I could order them by the bucket, I would.  I ended my meal with an elegantly simple and delicious fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

It occurs to me now that my first meal at Todd’s Unique Dining was a mini-tour of California—the wontons and raspberry sauce of the starter recalling, respectively, San Francisco’s Chinatown and the many orchards and farms which dot the state; the “Skirt Steak on Fire,” chili-cheese fries and cobbler seemed a riff on something Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega would order (along with a $5 shake, of course) at an iconic mid-century LA diner.

So I hope Chef Clore forgives my California (Cuisine) Dreamin.’  Whatever adjective he prefers, I call it delicious.  I want to thank Todd, his wife Terry, and the friendly bar staff (where I enjoyed my meal) for being such gracious hosts, and making Las Vegas feel more, well, place-ish for a few hours.  I look forward to trying more of Todd’s cuisine soon, possibly even at happy hour (hmmm, a mere 1.5 hours away…)  Heck, maybe I can persuade the Chef to offer the chili-cheese fries a la carte on the Happy Hour menu…

Todd’s Unique Dining

4350 East Sunset Road; Henderson, NV  89014


Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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