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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
Black grapes, pickled celery stalk and black grape emulsion.
Watermelon, Kitagowa yuzu.
Australian Blue Fin Tuna
Umeboshi & Seawater.
Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Tarragon-macha bubbles, raspberries,
raspberry consomme, and raspberry powder.
Australian Blue Fin Tuna Tartare
Hijiki seaweed & daikon.
Tasmanian Ocean Trout
Fennel & pearled barley.
Japanese Big Fin Squid
Kanzuri carrots & lemon.
Diver Sea Scallop
Bloomsdale spinach & Japanese turnip.
Black Bean Tofu
Kurobuta Pork Belly
Green curry & red cabbage.
Miyazaki-gyu Strip Loin
Greek yogurt granite, Serrano ham chip.
Japanese Green Tea Sponge
Caramelized peaches & plum sorbet.
Strawberry and Basil
Strawberry sorbet, basil semifreddo, and olive oil ice cream.
Dark Chocolate, Banana
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3325 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, Nevada 89109
* I had not a grain of rice the whole night.