Todd English P.U.B. – Las Vegas

Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy proposes with a 6-carat diamond ring.  Boy whisks girl away to Croatia, where he surprises her with a private (but not legal) wedding ceremony on a yacht. Boy presents girl with a prenup saying that girl will get nothing upon divorce.  Girl allegedly attacks boy with his Chopard watch and tears up the prenup agreement.  Boy goes to the hospital to get 7 stitches next to his eye.

Boy disappears a week before the $150,000 wedding.  Girl goes crazy.  Boy phones girl a few hours before the wedding to call it off.  Girl later learns that boy had called his friends and family days before the wedding to tell them that it wasn’t happening.  Girl gets slapped with the outstanding bill for the lavish wedding.  Girl goes public and does a tell-all interview, calling boy an animal.  Girl gets charged for assault in the Chopard incident.  Girl is ordered by the court to do community service and attend anger management classes.

This is not a script for Eva Longoria’s character in Desperate Housewives- it’s the true life story of her Beso business partner, Chef Todd English, and the romance-gone-wrong fiasco that unfolded last year.  If you thought that soap opera plots only happened to Hollywood celebrities, then you’re in for a surprise.  The culinary world is packed with jaw dropping drama, from the recent murder charges against Food Network TV Chef Juan-Carlos Cruz for soliciting homeless men in a plot to murder his wife, to Paula Deen being sued for trademark infringements.  We still don’t know who fathered Padma Lakshmi’s baby, and let us not forget the ordeal with America’s criminal sweetheart, Martha Stewart.

Despite headline news of chefs gone bad, it’s hard to resist patronizing their restaurants when their food is good.  I felt intense moral guilt about dining at Todd English’s recent venture in Las Vegas, knowing that I was financially supporting his bad boy behavior, but on that particular late afternoon in Vegas, it sounded like the best option to satiate my appetite.  For a city that never sleeps, there are surprisingly very few options for all-day celebrity chef dining.  Las Vegas has become the new culinary mecca for internationally acclaimed chefs like Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse, but these places are usually only open for dinner.  Some places are open for lunch between 12-2:30pm, but honestly, if you’re up in time for lunch at noon, then you ain’t doing it right in Sin City.

When I stumbled out of bed at 3pm with ringing ears and a voracious appetite, still trying to make sense of the wine stains on my shirt (where did I go and what did I do last night?!), I reviewed my dining options.  Where can we find a decent brewski to numb that pounding headache?  Throwing back oysters at the raw bar at Bouchon in the Venetian seemed like an enticing option, but with a Bouchon back home in Los Angeles now, it wasn’t exciting.  Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay seemed painfully far from the center of the strip.  I wanted much more than dainty charcuterie at Batali’s Enoteca San Marco in the Venetian.  Gastropub fare at Crystals in the new CityCenter complex was the perfect solution.

James Beard Award-winning chef Todd English already had an Olives outpost in the Bellagio, but it was the back to back opening of Beso and adjacent PUB that marked his dynamic success in Vegas.  PUB, which stands for Public Urban Bar, opened 3 months ago with a wild opening party filled with juggling dwarf leprechauns and Vegas celebrities.

I remember seeing his original restaurant Olives, packed every night with enthusiastic patrons, back in the days when I spent my college years in Boston.  Little did I know that he would eventually become a national celebrity, opening numerous restaurants from Seattle to Orlando and even Los Angeles in his joint venture Beso with actress Eva Longoria.  With nearly 20 food establishments in the nation now, it’s an understatement to say that he’s spreading himself a little too thin, making me doubt whether dining at any one of his restaurants actually qualifies for eating Todd English’s cuisine.

Still, this new gastropub offering scrumptious comfort food and beers on tap at an affordable price is a welcome addition to the Vegas strip where the previous dining options meant a cheap bad meal or double down and bust.  The tiny door at the entrance is deceiving- I expected a small dark room crammed with patrons noshing on burgers, but instead I stepped into a surprisingly large and brightly lit industrial space that was split into several sections.  Dart boards decorated the walls of the banquette section on the right, leading to the back section filled with more tables that looked onto the semi-open kitchen.  A communal table accommodated a party of 10 by the raw bar at the edge of the circumferential bar, while smoking patrons basked in the afternoon Vegas sun outside on the patio.  I loved the tall ceilings in this English-pub-meets-Balthazar restaurant where we chose a barside table that looked out onto Julian Serrano’s restaurant next door at Aria.

In classic pub style, Executive Chef Isaac Carter enhances every dish with a generous serving of oil and butter to please all lagerphiles.  He started off  in the original Olives kitchen with Chef English, and continued on in numerous other English adventures like Kingfish Hall, Olives at the Bellagio and Beso at CityCenter.  The menu is upscale pub food, offering classics like fish and chips and sheperd’s pie, and satisfying simple cravings for good meat with tableside sandwich carvings of prime beef and roasted lamb while appealing to finicky gourmands with finger licking selections of duck buns and moules frites.  In addition to the bivalves and crustaceans from the raw bar, the items to get are the sliders, which range from traditional beef burger sliders to chicken parmesan to pastrami with kraut and swiss cheese.  Of course, PUB’s the name, and the entire flip side of the one sheet food menu lists a wealthy selection of malts and hops.

We started, naturally, with a plate of fish and chips to accompany our Stella Artois Pilsner and Pyramid Audacious Apricot Ale.  A half-inch thick layer of crunchy batter encased moist cuts of cod which we happily chased down with the refreshing bell pepper and cabbage cole slaw.  The thick cut fries were divine, and I couldn’t stop eating them, especially when dipped in the tart and wonderful malt vinegar aioli.

Freshly shucked Hama Hama oysters were the perfect hangover cure with a squeeze of lemon and a drop of shallot vinaigrette.

Chicken liver pâté with balsamic, garlic and onions served hot in a small cast iron pot was a gooey mound of intense gameyness.  The chopped egg and sliced scallion garnish did nothing to temper the overwhelming heartiness of the pâté, but the toasted challah bread triangles that it came with were a crunchy and heavenly delight.

The sensational winner at PUB was the brown butter lobster roll dish, made with freshly shucked Maine lobster tossed in a warm brown butter aioli and served with a side of kettle chips and creamy cole slaw.  The buttery and tasty lobster meat was tucked into an even more buttery soft bread, which was then lightly grilled with even more butter.  It was a lobster and butter marriage made in heaven, a sinful crustacean pleasure, and I still dream of going back to Vegas just to have another one of these rolls.

PUB at CityCenter is the perfect answer to those odd hour cravings.  Whether you’re looking for quick eats after emerging from an after hours club, rolling out of bed in your sweats in the late afternoon, or seeking a casual joint for late night cravings, this is a wonderful gastropub that will satisfy your belly without breaking your wallet.  If you’re a star struck fan of Chef Todd English, previously named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, then don’t get your hopes up.  You’ll probably never see him at PUB, or any of his other restaurants for that matter.  If you’re hesitant about feeding his business because you’re morally conflicted about chefs gone wild (was it a case of psycho bride-to-be or boy behaving badly?), then take a cab over to Hubert Keller‘s Burger Bar and support the ‘nice chefs’.

Todd English PUB

Crystals, City Center

3720 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 489-8080

Random trivia:  Did you know that the quintessential British dish of ‘fish and chips‘ originated in the 1860′s?  Deep fried fish and crispy potato wedges developed separately- fried potatoes spread south from Scotland while the popularity of fried fish moved north from Southern England, eventually merging in the first official fish and chip shop opened by a Jewish proprietor in London in 1860.

The Lazy Ox Canteen

I still remember quite vividly the excitement that I felt in my tiny little chest when my parents would take me to Little Tokyo back in the 70′s and 80′s.  As a Japanese girl growing up in Los Angeles, weekend excursions to this area of downtown LA were precious.  I have fond memories of slurping ramen noodles, buying Doraemon stickers, perusing through Japanese manga and stuffing myself silly with freshly baked imagawa yaki.  I used to scream at the top of my lungs as my brother terrorized me in a frantic chase around the fountain in the center of the Japanese Village Plaza until my dad’s stern look would put an abrupt end to the rampage.  Elderly store owners used to greet me with a pat on the head and ask me how I was doing in school.  The iconic red Yagura tower, the symbol of Little Tokyo, seemed majestic and grand.  I cherished this magical town full of interesting people who spoke my language and breathed my culture.  Now, decades later, something has happened and the lively spirit of Little Tokyo has vanished.  My beloved childhood playground is now a deserted ghost town.  What happened?  My sad and heavy heart weeps at this tragic transformation.

Fortunately there’s 1 new reason to put Little Tokyo back on the map.   Michael Cardenas, a Japanese-Mexican chef who has revolutionized the LA movement of hip rock ‘n’ roll fine dining by opening Sushi Roku, Katana and Boa, has teamed up with Chef Josef Centeno to bring a new type of restaurant to the heart of Little Tokyo.  It’s a tapas bar, gastropub and izakaya all blended together in a small space on the ground floor of a condominium complex.  I was skeptical when I first approached the restaurant.  There was no restaurant sign, and although the patio seats were all full, it was quiet and dark.   Once I stepped inside though, the intense energy and power of the restaurant almost blew the hair right off my scalp.  The bar to the left, the communal table in the center, tables in every corner and banquettes against the wall were all filled with laughing and smiling diners who were undoubtedly having the time of their lives.  I loved the large bare filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling that lit up the faces of the eclectic and mixed crowd.  The vibe was hip and cool, but the friendly demeanor of the incredible staff also made it cozy and warm.

There was a regular menu, but the daily specials written on the blackboard were more diverse.  Pork parts and offals stood out in the colorful menu, while family style specials for 2 were listed for every day of the week.  The day I visited was a Sunday, and the big plate special was a brick roasted 1/2 duck.  Everything on the menu sounded enticing, but alas there were only 4 of us and our gastric walls were not able to accommodate all of the dishes.  I marveled at the fact that the tiny kitchen, which was smaller than my own kitchen, was turning out this extensive menu at an efficient speed with precision and grace.  Such is the power of a talented and capable chef like Centeno who has worked at numerous places including Meson G, Opus, Lot 1, Aubergine and Bar Celona.  For years I held a bit of a grudge against Centeno who served an appalling dish of sea urchin and moyashi soybean sprouts at Meson G back in 2005, but I was ready to let go of those bad memories and call a truce.  Go figure that the one evening that I chose to visit The Lazy Ox Canteen was the first day off for Centeno since the restaurant opened in December 2009.

We started our fantastic meal with a refreshing salad of pickled beets and wild arugula.  The cubes of tender beets were marinated to a perfect tartness and paired elegantly with the sweetness of the succulent mandarin orange wedges.  The mellow flavors of the yogurt dressing tempered the acidity of the vegetables, while crunchy purple radicchio leaves in the bottom layer peered through the green arugula trellis to impart more vibrant colors to this lively dish.

Pig’s ear chicharrones…*gulp*. With the explosion of pig’s ear dishes in restaurants all over town this year, I’ve been conditioned to excessively salivate at the mere sight of the words “pig’s ear” on a menu like a naive Pavlovian dog.  The one here at Lazy Ox Canteen was super crispy bordering on chewy, cooked in such a way as to transform the fatty dermis into a light biscuit while maintaining the inherent crunchy toughness of the thin cartilage layer.  With a squeeze of fresh lime, a dip in luscious aioli and a chaser of piquant pickled radishes, I’m now dreaming of a utopia where large bowls of fried pig’s ears may someday replace chips & salsa at Super Bowl parties.

Deep fried anchovies delighted all gourmands at the table with their crisp and puffy shells.  The delicate fish were so incredibly fresh and tender that they practically evaporated into a savory breeze of aquatic essence in the mouth.  This dish rivaled some of the best boquerones that I’ve had in Barcelona tapas bars.

Braised lamb cheeks nestled on a bed of creamy semolina and collard greens were rich and tender, and the acidity of the pickled red onions imparted a perfect degree of tart and zing that kept the forks moving and the glasses flowing.  Our bottle of 2008 Chilean Leyda Pinot Noir kept us very happy that night.

No matter how good a restaurant is, there is bound to be at least 1 dish that doesn’t quite make the cut.  Charred octopus tossed with pickled shallots, fava beans, pomelo grapefruit and escarole was that dish for me.  It’s wasn’t bad by any means, but compared to the rest of the spectacular dishes that knocked my socks off, the combination of ingredients seemed discordant.  As the title implied, I was hoping for a robust and masculine piece of charred octopus with crisp and smoky skin, rather than the spongy mass that had been allowed to soak up too much of the vinegar sauce.

‘Eggs and ham‘ Lazy ox style… am I a fan of eggs and ham?  Why yes I am, of eggs and ham a fan I am.  Heck, damn I am!  The women at the table all cooed over this adorable plate of fried quail eggs and deep fried pork belly with harissa.  The pork was pleasantly fatty and crispy, and the fiery bite of the harissa sauce added character and flair.

Hand-torn egg pasta with sunny-side egg, brown butter and fines herbs was excellent.  A fresh spring herb bouquet of dill, tarragon and parsley brought a perfect level of snap to the otherwise rich dish oozing with runny egg yolk and brown butter.  All of the simple yet delicious ingredients came together harmoniously to accentuate the marvelous texture of the flat pasta.

Chicken livers…*gulp*.  Another Pavlovian response.  Chicken liver crostini with whole grain mustard was almost too good to share.  The creamy chunks of liver featured in this dish were a little on the gamey side but the saltiness of the pancetta crisps balanced it out well.

We had a splendid dish of dashi marinated yellowtail cubes mixed with thin radish slices, avocado, crème fraîche, tobiko caviar and puffed rice that went surprisingly well with triangles of freshly cooked potato hash browns.  It was an unlikely combination of ‘East meets West’, but the flavors melded perfectly and stirred much excitement from the gallery.

A deep fried butterflied fillet of baby pompano almost looked amphibious with its flattened back and deep eye sockets, ready to leap off the bed of leafy greens onto my lap, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable dishes for me.  The crispy skin and crunchy bones made for some of the best otsumami beer snacks that I’ve had in a long time, but the showstopper was the smoked pepper aioli with its amazing rich flavor and silky cream consistency.

Pig trotters….yum….Pavlovian response revisited.  Pig trotters, along with various other pig parts, have been one of the most welcome food trends for me in Los Angeles this past year.  Los Angeles cuisine is finally catching up to the rest of the world.  These braised trotters were served burger style as minced meat patties on a bed of lentil purée with a dash of pickled onion slices and a drizzle of rich jus.  The trotter dish was incredibly succulent, perfectly fatty and just a perfect serving of heaven.

The tapioca pudding brûlée had that characteristic enjoyable squishy texture of bouncy tapioca with a nice smokey caramelized layer of burnt sugar on top.  It was served with a sweet pineapple sauce that had a faint hint of szechuan peppercorn that fortunately didn’t overpower the fruit flavor.

I had a genuinely fun and delicious experience at The Lazy Ox Canteen, and even though Centeno wasn’t there that night the crew did an amazing job.  I peered over to the tiny kitchen and recognized the handsome face of sous chef Mario from Mo-Chica who never lost his cool.  Hats off to the rest of the floor staff who made our experience pleasurable with their positive energy and generosity.  The service was beyond excellent, and for a packed house and a miniature kitchen, I couldn’t believe the perfect flow of service and the absence of delay in time from order to table.  If I had more stomach space, I would have loved to try the lengua ravioli, Lazy Ox burger, Merguez sausage and crispy quail.  But alas, we were at full capacity and any more food would have caused reflux.  I would love to revisit the restaurant to try their daily big plate specials too- pan seared 19 oz pork porterhouse on Friday and a 24 oz black pepper crusted cote de boeuf on Saturday are beckoning me.   The alcohol menu is also an eclectic mix of global drinks, from Okinawan awamori to Belgian ales, and South African Shiraz to Hungarian Furmint.  At stunningly affordable prices, there’s no longer an excuse not to go to Little Tokyo.

Call The Lazy Ox Canteen and a sweet and bubbly voice on the other side will greet you with a “How can I make your day better?”  Your day will unquestionably be made better with a visit to this outstanding restaurant.

The Lazy Ox Canteen

241 S San Pedro St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-5299

Random trivia:  Did you know that various pig parts can be found in common household items that we all have?  Bones, cartilage, fat, skin and hair are used in manufacturing items like photographic film, corks, shampoo, medicine capsules and crayons.