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.

Les Halles – Lyon, France

Lyon

Lyon

The next stop after Burgundy on my recent Europe trip was Lyon, known as the French capital of gastronomy.  Our culinary partner-in-crime Gregory gave us a quick introductory tour of Lyon, through the cobblestone streets of old town vieux Lyon and across the bridges over the Rhône and Saône rivers.  With the beautiful Notre Dame de Fourvière standing magestically above the mountains, and cafes and bouchons lining the riverside, Lyon was quite a sight to take in.

IMG_6970All that walking got us hungry- when can we start eating some food?  After all, we were in Lyon.  With only 2 hours to go until our dinner reservations, we couldn’t help but indulge in some quick but good eats.  Gregory knew just the place to satiate our needs, and took us straight to the marketplace Les Halles.

Les Halles is an amazing place stocked full of the best foods in the world.  Row after row of food stalls, seafood bars and restaurants throw temptation in your face from all angles.  The vegetables stalls have the freshest vegetables bursting with flavor and juice, and the charcuterie stalls with infinite selections of hanging saucissons and hams.  The fromageries boasted an assortment of cheeses that I’ve never encountered before in my life, and a macaroon shop offered about 30 different flavors (even white truffle, olive oil and foie gras flavors! ).  There was a pastry shop dedicated solely to pralines, and about 4 different oyster bars. In fact, this Les Halles in Lyon is named after famed French chef Paul Bocuse.  I wish we had a marketplace like this in Los Angeles.  If such a place existed, I would probably be there every day.

Seafood stall

Seafood stall

Macaroon stall

Macaroon stall

Praline store

Praline store

Patisserie

Patisserie

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

Fromagerie

Fromagerie

Charcuterie

Charcuterie

We decided to eat some oysters, and sat down at a table by the oyster bar at the Ecailler Cellerier.  Gregory had just been there earlier that day for oysters, so the patron recognized him right away.  The kind patron gave us a warm welcome, and joined us for some conversation and a white wine toast.

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler Cellerier

We tried 4 types of oysters: Marennes Fine de Claire, Isigny de Normandie, Speciales Gillardeau Number 3 and Speciales Gillardeau Number 4.  My favorite was the Gillardeau Number 3, a 3rd grade oyster harboured in the Marennes region of France from the legendary family-run oyster farm Gillardeau.  They were plump, rich, luxurious and divine, and truly some of the best oysters that I’ve ever tasted in my life.  So this is the famous Gillardeau oyster…now I see what all the fuss is about!  Some claim that these oysters are the best in the world, and many 3 Michelin star restaurants in France serve them.

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Master oyster shucker

Master oyster shucker

Plate of oysters....so yummy

The most delicious and precious plate of oysters

Within the first 2 hours of arriving in Lyon, we were already at Les Halles having some of the best oysters in the world.  Les Halles here in Lyon is not a place to be missed.

Ah, Lyon, I love you already.  More exciting gastronomic adventures to come!

Random trivia:  Did you know that a baby oyster (larvae) is called a ‘spat’?

Spago

The one and only Spago in Beverly Hills by Wolfgang Puck, his flagship restaurant that put him on the map. It’s still standing strong after all these years.  It had been at least 5 years since the last time that I ate there, but it was still as crowded as ever and as delicious as ever. Spago is 1 of only 3 restaurants in Los Angeles to win a 2 Michelin star rating in 2008.  I had a wonderful meal in their outdoor terrace by the water fountain on a sunny Los Angeles day.

Beautiful dainty canapés with a glass of bubblies for starters:

Tuna tartare with bubblies

Tuna tartare with bubblies

The first canapé we had was spicy tuna tartare in a sweet sesame tuille with daikon radish sprouts and bonito flakes.  The tuille was a little too sweet for my liking, but it was nice to experience the different textures of crunchy, moist, flaky and crisp in one bite.

Hamachi and smoked sturgeon

Hamachi and smoked sturgeon

Next we had Japanese hamachi (yellow tail) marinated in a soy-yuzu dressing with pumpkin seed oil, with shiso leaf and marinated mountain burdock root garnish.  A very tangy spoonful with a strong citrus kick.  Personally, I wasn’t too crazy about this.  The soy yuzu dressing overpowered the hamachi, and I couldn’t taste that wonderful fattiness that I love about hamachi.  I think the dish would have gone better with a less fatty white fish like halibut.

My favorite canapé was the house smoked sturgeon on lemon herb blini with sweet onions, chives, dill crème fraiche and salmon caviar.  I love anything that is smoked, but this sturgeon was absolutely delicious.  A perfect smokiness that was subtle enough to still allow the sturgeon flavors to shine through.  The lemon herb blini added the perfect amount of citrus acidity paired with the rich crème fraiche to bring everything together.  I would go back to Spago just to have another bite of that.

Anchovy and quail canapé

Anchovy and quail canapé

Our last canapé was a dried baby anchovy ring with soft boiled quail egg, microgreens, dill, anchovies and olives.  A wonderful fusion of different textures, saltiness and flavors in one bite.  Canapés are such a delight, aren’t they?

I had to order the oysters, since they are one of my favorite foods.  We had Fanny Bay and Kumamoto oysters on a beautifully decorated and garnished cold plate.  I loved the vibrant colors on this dish- a feast for the eyes.  Spring is here!

Oysters, oysters, oysters!

Oysters, oysters, oysters!

One of Wolfgang Puck’s favorite childhood recipes, the Austrian chicken bouillon with julienned vegetables.  Chicken buillon seems like a boring dish, but it’s one of the most difficult to execute well.  Because of its simplicity, it’s very easy to tell how good or bad the chef’s techniques are.   This one was comforting, the kind that makes you sigh with relief.

Chicken bouillon

Chicken bouillon

Bouillon

Bouillon

Next was a small tasting of a seasonal pasta dish.  Fresh spring green pea ravioli with parmesan cheese. I love seasonal dishes where you can taste the full potential of the ingredient.  I loved the combination of the sweet pea purée inside the raviolis and the fresh firm peas that burst inside my mouth.

Pea ravioli

Pea ravioli

Finally for the main courses.

Flounder

Flounder

Steamed ‘Hong Kong style’ flounder with baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, snap peas and green onions in a Hoisin sauce.  The flounder was perfectly moist and sweet, and the dish was as good as anything you could get in a top rated Hong Kong restaurant.

I had the Snake River Farm’s Kobe ‘Szechuan’ Steak with stir fried bok choy, choy sum and shiitake mushrooms.

Snake River Farm's steak

Snake River Farm's steak

The wagyu beef from Snake River Farm is one of the best that you can get domestically, and is very close to the Japanese wagyu beef.  The steak that I had was wonderfully marbled and dripping with flavor.  I could have easily mistaked it for Japanese beef in a blind taste test.  Absolutely tender, perfectly smokey, and marvelously fatty.  Every bite of meat melted in my mouth with ease.  Delicious!

http://www.snakeriverfarms.com/

Finally, for dessert, we had blackberry granita with lemon cake.

blackberry granita with lemon cake

blackberry granita with lemon cake

and 12 layer chocolate cake with Tahitian vanilla gelato….

chocolate cake

chocolate cake

We were way too full to finish either dessert.  The blackberry granita with lemon cake was too sweet for me, as well as the chocolate cake, but the Tahitian vanilla gelato was wonderful.

After all these years, I can see why Spago is still immensely popular and manages to fill their tables.  The ambience and service are top notch, and the food really pleases all 5 senses.  Spago is a classic establishment that can always be counted on for fine dining and an excellent experience.

http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that the swimbladder of Beluga sturgeon is used to clarify certain wines and beers?  Therefore, many vegetarians don’t consider these particular brands of alcoholic beverages to be truly vegetarian.

Comme ça

There’s nothing I love more than dining out with fellow foodies.   I love sharing meals with foodie friends, especially when we have the same taste in food and have perfect culinary chemistry.  I love exchanging information and opinions about restaurant history and culture, about which dish we love at what restaurant, which chef left which restaurant to open up his/her own place, who trained with which culinary master, etc.  And that is how I heard of the shocking news yesterday as I dined at Comme ça with one such friend.

Comme ça

Comme ça

Comme ça is a cute and lovely French bistro that chef David Myers opened up a year and a half ago in West Hollywood.  He is most recently famous for the success of his restaurant Sona that he opened up in Los Angeles a few years ago.  Sona was well known for its desserts that were created by his wife and pastry chef Michelle Myers.  Her success led her to open Boule patisserie across the street where I used to buy macaroons and artisanal chocolates.

I drove by Boule the other day and noticed that it was vacant and closed down.  What happened?  Divorce, my friend Shirley told me yesterday, as we nibbled on French bistro-style comfort food in the spacious and beautiful dining room of Comme ça.

Entrance to Comme ça

Entrance to Comme ça

Comme ça bar

Comme ça bar

Gulp….gasp.  Divorce.  Yes, the restaurant world has just as much gossip worthy of being featured in Us magazine as Hollywood does.  I’m sad to see Boule close down.  It was such a charming patisserie and I loved their signature robin’s egg blue and chocolate brown color swatches.    Their chocolate and sweets gift boxes made for wonderful presents.

But no time for lamenting, we must get back to the food.

For starters, Chef Creek oysters and Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia.

Oysters

Oysters

The Chef Creek oysters were big and plump, and had a crisp lettuce taste with a briny finish.  The Fanny Bays were smaller and flatter, with a light crisp cucumber finish.  I really liked the Fanny Bays.  They were so fresh, light and pleasant to eat.  I could easily eat a few dozen of them in one sitting.

We ordered very classic French bistro comfort food- moules frites and steak frites.

Moules frites

Moules frites

The moules frites were cooked in a lovely pernod sauce with celery, onions, shallots, thyme and tarragon.  I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, and kept lapping it up with their freshly baked piping hot baguettes.  Pernod is a type of liqueur called pastis, which is produced from licorice plant or anise.  It clouds up with the addition of water, which is what probably gave the sauce a white/yellow opaque color.  Ricard is one of the most famous French brands of pastis.  I had it for the first time, ironically, in the middle of the African bush in Liberia.  When I was doing medical humanitarian work  in 2006 in West Africa, one of the French ex-pats Guillaume brought a bottle of Ricard with him.  He cradled it very carefully in his arms as if holding a baby, and brought it all the way from Paris.  We all have those few comfort items that we just cannot live without.  For him, Ricard was one of them.  The night he arrived, we stayed up all night long talking and laughing while smoking Guinean cigarettes and drinking straight Ricard, in the middle of the West African jungle.  I have such fond memories of those days!

Steak frites

Steak frites

The steak was a prime flat iron center cut, grilled perfectly medium (though I ordered it medium rare) topped with tarragon butter and accompanied by one of my all time favorite foods in the world- pommes frites with aioli.  The pommes frites were done just how I like them- long, thin, and crispy.

Brioche chocolate bread pudding

Brioche chocolate bread pudding

Shirley, being a huge dessert buff, took a really long time deciding which dessert to have.  Strawberry clafoutis?  Chocolate pot de creme?  We followed our waiter’s recommendation and ordered the chocolate brioche bread pudding.  It was really rich, thick and sweet.  I felt like I was biting into a bar of chocolate (but that’s just me, I don’t have a sweet tooth).  The vanilla ice cream was delicious.  Shirley didn’t seem too happy with the waiter’s choice, and was regretting not following her heart and ordering the pot de creme.  There’s always a next time.

I recommend this restaurant not only for the food, but for the ambiance.  The dining room is absolutely beautiful and has such character.  White leather benches with bright red cushions, antique mirrors on one side of the wall, and cookbooks on the other side which is flanked by the liquor bar and the cheese bar.  If you want French comfort food, you will find it here at Comme ça.

http://www.commecarestaurant.com/

Random trivia:  Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a 40 year old, petite 105 pound Korean-American female competitive eater (that is her actual occupation) holds the current world record for oyster eating.  She ate 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.  Her most famous win is for 37 hotdogs in 12 minutes.  She is ranked 5th in the world for competitive eating. She is single.

Crawfish

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Boiling Crab in Little Saigon for a crawfish fix.  I’m not that into crawfish, but I thought why not?  It seems to be a popular joint down there.  And I love crustaceans.

The restaurant is a typical crawfish-ish joint, if that makes any sense.  Hay and sawdust on the floor, loud rock music, big screen TV’s playing football, predictable “Gone Fishing” type wooden painted signs on the walls, big barrels posing as bar tables, customers wearing plastic bibs, petite waitresses wearing tight logo T-shirts.  You get the picture?  The only weird thing was that this was in a small stripmall in Little Saigon tucked between a Vietnamese DVD store and a banh cuon joint; oh, and all the customers were Asian.

Well, I got my bib on, toasted with a bottle of Corona, and ordered the house specialty.  Crawfish here is ordered by the pound, and you can choose between several seasonings (garlic butter, ragin’ cajun, lemon pepper, or the whole sha-bang, which is a combo of the 3 flavors).  You can also order shrimp, catfish, crab legs, and hot wings by the pound with these seasonings.  You also order sides (we ordered corn and smoked sausage) which they put all together inside a plastic bag and steam.  This place is not fancy and not the kind  of place you go for a first date.  Unless you want to see how well your date can suck.  On a crawfish head, that is.  Actually, may make for an interesting first date.  Ahhh…takes me back to college when some guy took me out on a first date to a rib joint.  I was more interested in gnawing and tearing every last bit of meat and connective tissue off each luscious piece of baby back rib on my plate than in my date.  There was no second date.

Our spread:

Oysters and crawfish with Corona

Oysters and crawfish with Corona

The oysters were pretty good.  My tastebuds have been spoiled on Hama Hama’s and Malpeques, so these weren’t mind blowing for me.  We quickly dove into the whole sha-bang seasoned crawfish.  You hold the abdomen (what people generally refer to as the tail of the shrimp or crawfish, is actually the abdomen), then gently and carefully twist the head off.  Then the most crucial part of the process- you suck on the head to get all the good parts out- the ‘tamale’, the guts, the liver, the innards, the organs.  Yes, this is truly the best part of all crustaceans, don’t you think?  Or is it just me?  I could care less about the meat.  And you suck and you suck until you have extracted every little last tasty particle of innards, and the head exoskeleton is collapsing inward.  Then you peel the abdomen, eat the white meat, chase it with some beer, and repeat the process.

The crawfish were delightful, and it was actually really fun to get my hands dirty.  There’s something carnal and sexy about eating with your hands and slurping away. And feeding each other with crawfish juice dripping down your fingers and mouth.  Mmmmmmm……check please!

Crawfish aftermath

Crawfish aftermath

The whole process was fun, and the crawfish were good, but honestly, after my 10th one, I started having heartburn.  Too much heavy seasoning.  I was starting to feel so ill that I began losing suction.  But we still managed to finish everything, and it called for a group hug:

Group hug

Group hug

So many good crawfish, but the finalists for Best in Show are….

Take a bow

Take a bow

This is a good place to go with a bunch of friends, so you can sample a little bit of everything without getting too much heartburn.  A couple of doors down they have a Boiling Crab take out restaurant for those who want to eat at home.  I think I’m good with crawfish for a while.  It was good, but for crustaceans I prefer Japanese sweet shrimp sashimi or soft shell crab tempura.

http://theboilingcrab.com/

Random trivia:  Did you know that the longest word with the 5 vowels in reverse alphabetical order is PUNCTOSCHMIDTELLA, which is a crustacean?