review: l’art pour l’art…

9th Course: Black Bean Tofu
Black Bean Tofu
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

Charlie Trotter may have been one of the first big named chefs to arrive on the Las Vegas scene.  He had a restaurant in the MGM Grand years ago.

Supposedly, the food was great.  So great, in fact, that it kept the big whales away from the casino floor a little too much for the hotel’s liking. So it was closed.

But Charlie’s back.  He now has a bifurcated outpost at The Palazzo.

To one side: Restaurant Charlie – the familiar linen-lined tables, booths, candlelight, lofty room, and Western-style service. A quick review of the menu excited me about as much as my meal at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago about five years — that is to say, very little.

Bar Charlie
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

Without being too exact or accurate, the menu at Restaurant Charlie is á la carte, though there is a “Grand Tasting Menu,” which, I believe, is 8 courses and runs $175. There’s also a 14-course tasting, which is $250. This longer menu is comprised of dishes from both Restaurant Charlie’s kitchen as well as the Bar Charlie menu.

To the other side: Bar Charlie – a dog-legged counter with upholstered highchairs. You can get sushi here – they have a list of about eight nigiri and half as many rolls. They also have Asian-style “small plates” – ten of them.

In addition to these á la carte “small plates,” Bar Charlie offers a 5-course “Kaiseki” ($100), an 8-course “Kaiseki” ($175), and a 14-course “Kaiseki” ($250). The only difference between the Restaurant Charlie 14-course and the Bar Charlie 14-course is that the Bar Charlie 14-course is comprised solely of dishes made by Chef Hiro Nagahara of Bar Charlie, mostly assembled from the Bar Charlie á la carte small plates.

1st Course: Japanese Snapper
Japanese Snapper
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

I was rather skeptical about Bar Charlie given that I haven’t been convinced – by the food I had at Charlie Trotter or the way his menus have read – that Trotter “gets” Asian cuisine.

His food strikes me as an outside-looking-in, rather than inside-looking-out cultural experience.

But, with a Japanese chef in charge of Bar Charlie (I may be wrong, but I think that Hiro Nagahara was born in Japan but ended up in Florida, whence he was recruited by Trotter), I hoped that this “kaiseki” might be a touch more authentic.

Isojiman Seashore Pride Tokubetsu Junmai-shu, Isojiman Shuzo
Isojiman “Seashore Pride”
Tokubetsu Junmai-shu
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

I wasn’t expecting a traditional “kaiseki” experience – the restaurant’s website flatly put that possibility to rest:

“The counter only dining area seats 18 guests and offers a Trotter version of ‘kaiseki‘ in that the primary menu offerings are small plates of varied ingredients which are prepared right before your eyes! Imagine everything known about traditional sushi, then add in Chef Trotter’s twists and surprises and there you have it!”

(“And there you have it!”?)

What I did expecting was an interpretive take on “kaiseki.” And that, I got.

Chef Nagahara had no trouble admitting that the meal was entirely Western – from the service, to the presentation, to the progression.

But, the general form of a kaiseki was vaguely recognizable.

10th Course: Kurobuta Pork Belly
Kurobuta Pork Belly
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

The meal placed an emphasis on visual artistry, though it didn’t necessarily adhere to the Japanese aesthetic.

Nagahara follows that modern, linear, and landscaped approached to plating.  Although his compositions were not as precise or precious as they could have been (not necessarily a bad thing), they were stunningly beautiful flights of colors.  I’m fairly certain I met every tint in the rainbow during my three-hour meal, if not on individual plates like the “Japanese Big Fin Squid.”

2nd Course: Konoshiro
Konoshiro
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

The chef was also mindful of texture, as best demonstrated by “Santa Barbara Spot Prawns,” which found crunchy flash-fried prawn heads full of warm, creamy noggin’ leaning on silky dices of raw prawn meat and a rich lobster-creme friache panna cotta beneath an avalanche of tarragon “bubbles.”

The meal also highlighted the best ingredients of the season (summer), a concern of traditional kaiseki.  The quality and freshness of the ingredients were my biggest joy.  All of the produce was in top form – the fruits were particularly ripe. The peaches were unbruised and gushed with nectar, the strawberries were scarlet and sweet, and the watermelon – compressed – was crisp and intense.

7th Course: Japanese Big Fin Squid
Japanese Big Fin Squid
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

And Nagahara’s cooking tried to moor itself around Japan with the use of raw fish (and the prolific use of their Japanese names), some Japanese seasonings (and the prolific use of their Japanese names), and some Japanese cooking techniques.

But too many aspects of the meal seemed unfocused and confusing to me.

Particularly absurd was the extent to which the kaiseki conceit was carried in a few respects, whilst in others – to me essential ones – they were completely abandoned.  I was annoyed, for example, that the only utensil provided was chopsticks, occasionally accompanied by a spoon for broths. Slabs, roulades, and strips of fish and other ingredients (some, like a shaved ribbon of cucumber running nearly half a foot in length) came in dimension that were completely  inappropriate for chopstick eating.  Cutting was required.  How does one eat ice cream with chopsticks?

11th Course: Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin
Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

As for the food, Nagahara seemed consistently inspired by five too many ideas and couldn’t resist crowding them all on one plate.  With the exception of two dishes – the “Japanese Big Fin Squid” and the “Black Bean Tofu,” both of which were brilliant – his compositions were much more challenging than satisfying.  Scallops and chocolate (as in Willy Wonka, not Mexican mole), for example, required a bit of an adjustment.  I’m not sure that the addition of garlicky sauteed spinach helped stabilize the pairing.

CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from the meal, or click on the hyperlinked courses for the individual course photo.

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First Course
Japanese Snapper
Black grapes, pickled celery stalk and black grape emulsion.

Second Course
Konoshiro
Watermelon, Kitagowa yuzu.

Third Course
Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Umeboshi & Seawater.

Fourth Course
Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Tarragon-macha bubbles, raspberries,
raspberry consomme, and raspberry powder.

Fifth Course
Australian Blue Fin Tuna Tartare
Hijiki seaweed & daikon.

Sixth Course
Tasmanian Ocean Trout
Fennel & pearled barley.

Seventh Course
Japanese Big Fin Squid
Kanzuri carrots & lemon.

Eigth Course
Diver Sea Scallop
Bloomsdale spinach & Japanese turnip.

Ninth Course
Black Bean Tofu
Beets.

Tenth Course
Kurobuta Pork Belly
Green curry & red cabbage.

Eleventh Course
Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin
Chanterelle.

Pre-Dessert

Canteloupe Sorbet
Greek yogurt granite, Serrano ham chip.

Twelfth Course
Japanese Green Tea Sponge
Caramelized peaches & plum sorbet.

Thirteenth Course
Strawberry and Basil
Strawberry sorbet, basil semifreddo, and olive oil ice cream.

Fourteenth Course
Dark Chocolate, Banana
Roasted Hazelnut

Petits Fours

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8th Course: Diver Sea Scallop
Diver Sea Scallop
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

If you’re a raw fish purist you’ll be troubled here.  Almost every plate was so traffic-jammed with strong, competing flavors that the fish (or meat) was back-seated, almost making its appearance superfluous.

Take, for example, a roulade of “Australian Blue Fin Tuna.”  The consistency of a thick paste, the umeboshi “spoonbread” that filled the round was so tart and savory (but extremely tasty) that it completely blotted out the flavor of the fish rolled around it. An equally potent umeboshi sauce wiped out any chance of tasting the rest of that dish, including slices of blue fin tuna sashimi.

3rd Course: Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

Raw slices of Japanese Snapper, which initiated the meal, were drowned out by a syrupy, sweet grape emulsion.  A cut of A5-10 “Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin” was overwhelmed by a coated crust of soy sauce and sake, both of which were brushed on in a double-searing process.  And sesame oil, not a mild-tasting lubricant, ran roughshod through an otherwise beautiful “Australian Blue Fin Tuna Tartare” so finely tamis‘ed that it could have been spread on sturdy flatbread or toast like butter (it’s a shame that option wasn’t available).

4th Course: Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

I’m not willing to condemn Nagahara’s food as bad.  From the ardent and enthusiastic following he seems to have developed (including Chef Guy Savoy, who apparently frequents his counter), his brand of creativity is clearly appreciated by many.  But for me, it didn’t work, leaving me cold and confused.  It struck me as gawkish, and at moments, mawkish.

Save a rather large bone in my snapper that I had to pull out, and that slightly over-crusted Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin (the double-searing made the otherwise heavily-marbled cut slightly tough), technically speaking, the food was quite flawless.  If Nagahara has one talent, it is his technique of cooking seafood.  Every semi-cooked and cooked piece of fish or seafood I had was brilliantly done.  That roulade of blue fin tuna – wrapped in plastic and gently poached – was so soft and silky, I could hardly make out the border between the fish and the filling.

12th Course: Pre-Dessert
Canteloupe Sorbet
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

Likewise, a patty of steamed big fin squid was shockingly tender, as were the plank of tempura squid and strips of cooked squid served with it (“Japanese Big Fin Squid“).

Desserts were uniformly good (okay, maybe the basil semifreddo and olive oil ice cream on the  “Strawberry and Basil” dessert were bland).  Collectively, they were a fitting end to the meal – a progression from fruity and light  (“Canteloupe Sorbet“) to dark and rich (“Dark Chocolate, Banana“).  The “Japanese Green Tea Sponge” was particularly great.  The sponge was was so light, it practically didn’t exist next to those unbruised peaches saturated with juices that I mentioned above.

12th Course: Japanese Green Tea Sponge
Japanese Green Tea Sponge
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

You certainly can’t accuse Bar Charlie of being stingy with portions. If anything, I found the portions quite large – some, too large – for such a lengthy tasting menu.

But you certainly can’t cite this restaurant for spoiling you with uber-luxe ingredients either. All of the proteins and ingredients were of top-notch quality – that was apparent. The fish, especially, was very fresh. But besides o-toro (two courses) and a rather expensive cut of Miyazaki-gyu beef, none of the ingredients – from what I could tell – suggested that this meal should have been priced at $250, or anywhere near that figure.  But it’s The Strip.  And it’s Charlie Trotter.

3rd Course: Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

Would I go back? Doubtful – not unless I heard that Nagahara was doing something very different.

But I should disclose that I typically (strongly?) prefer traditional Asian food and flavors to “nouveau” Asian food or “creative” Asian food and flavors. So, in this aspect, I suppose I was setting myself up for a disappointment with Bar Charlie.

There are very (very) few Western chefs that I’ve encountered who “get” Asian flavors. This doesn’t mean that they are able to reproduce Asian dishes with blindfold-convincing exactness. I don’t expect or demand that.  And, actually, rote replication is the lowest form of creativity. I’m talking about chefs who understand Asian flavors enough to seamlessly weave them into whatever cuisine they want – combining things in a way that make sense and taste good.  I’m now one step closer to being convinced that Trotter isn’t one of them.

Petits Fours
Petits Fours
Bar Charlie, Las Vegas, Nevada

From the looks of it, Trotter is hurting in Las Vegas. Though it was a Sunday night, I expected more than two tables to be filled in Restaurant Charlie. There was a private party – but that was only 8 covers more.

On the Bar Charlie side, I had Chef Nagahara, his assistant, a dedicated server, and the entire space to myself the entire evening.

Bar Charlie
The Palazzo
3325 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Space 1560
Las Vegas, Nevada 89109
702-607-6336

* Michelin
* I had not a grain of rice the whole night.

~ by ulterior epicure on September 4, 2009.

7 Responses to “review: l’art pour l’art…”

  1. Thank you once again for an awesome restaurant review. Not that I would have likely dropped my cash here, but now there is now doubt that will not be happening.

  2. i had a similar impression when i dined at charlie trotter’s chicago temple this summer. i felt that although he started the whole contemporary american movement 20 years ago, his own repertoire has become outdated and irrelevant – evident by his awkward use of asian ingredients and excessive and indiscriminate use of emulsion.

  3. Thanks for the review, some great insight. I’ve never been drawn to Chef Trotter’s empire, except this outpost…I’d likely still give it a try if given the opportunity, but my excitement is significantly lessened.

    “How does one eat ice cream with chopsticks?”

    I would not expect to be asked to do so at such an establishment, but it can be done. It requires a lifting motion, as opposed to grasping (or heaven forbid, piercing) motion. I’ve been complimented by staff on more than one occasion for my ability to consume ice creams and silken tofu based desserts with chopsticks, so perhaps I’m oddly talented.

  4. @ KD: That questions wasn’t intended to be taken so literally. I ate the ice cream with my chopsticks without a problem. My point, rather, was that it is an awkward thing to do and only exacerbates Trotter’s diseased concept of Asian culture and cuisine.

    By the way, why does Bar Charlie interest you, particularly?

  5. I imagined it might have been tongue-in-cheek, but wasn’t sure.

    Fine, ‘nouveau’ Asian cuisine with a healthy dose of raw fish appeals to me greatly. I think my particular interest in Bar Charlie is at least somewhat related to my less than adequate meal at L2O. (Of course, L2O is not ‘Asian’, but many of the dishes are Asian inspired.) There were major execution, service and structural issues with my meal there that got in the way of my enjoyment of the cuisine. I thought perhaps Bar Charlie would avoid those problems due to its very nature.

    I’m curious, do you believe Laurent Gras “gets” Asian flavor better than Nagahara/Trotter?

  6. @ KD: I’ve only had one meal at L.20 (CLICK). So, I am no expert. But from that one meal, I would say that, like Robuchon, Gras has a talent for making food seem Asian, though it is not in flavor, content, or concept. Now, I have not had Gras’s kaiseki, which seem like it might be closer to the Motherland.

  7. UE, sometimes I swear we share the same brain and it kind of freaks me out. I just re-read your L20 post and I was surprised to see how many of my thoughts were echoed. I’d say the kaiseki menu takes the most Asian of the courses you had and builds off them in a similar style. Many of the kaiseki dishes walked that fine line between simplistic and complex. On my drive home from dinner, I was contemplating the meal and the one word I think the whole meal anchored on was restraint. I think Gras “gets” Asian mentality, but doesn’t necessarily try to mimic Asian flavors or dishes. It seemed more that he just uses some of the foundations.

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