Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 | 7:29 p.m.
Two years after starting his work on Michael Mina's new American Fish restaurant at Aria, Chris Sheffield ate fish last week.
The designer — one-third of the team at tiny Philadelphia-based design group SLDesign, which created Mina's new digs — broke his vegetarian diet to dine inside the space he worked on.
"I had to try every preparation," he said quietly while sitting at a table towards the front of the airy CityCenter eatery.
Mina's newest restaurant, his fifth in Las Vegas, focuses on four preparations of fish sourced from American rivers and streams, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Spaced behind a glass window looking into the kitchen sits the equipment necessary for each cooking method — water circulators for poaching fish in ocean water imported from Hawaii or Fiji; a wood-burning campfire-inspired pit with cast-iron pans for searing cornmeal-crusted trout; a grill and rotisserie also set on wood pits; and finally, the one that Mina claims as his favorite: the salt bake and salt grill.
"We keep the salt on the grill all day long so it picks up all of the flavor and the smokiness of the wood," Mina said. "You'll put just olive oil on shrimp and sear them right on the salt and put peppercorns on it. It'll pick up all of those flavors."
Mina calls the concept of the restaurant "elegant comfort." For the menu, that means the food is presented simplistically, with an eye towards spotlighting great fish and seafood and preparing them in a way that maximizes their natural potential.
"You want the "wow" factor. Here's it's like, 'Wow, I've never had a piece of fish poached in ocean water. I forgot how great a trout cooked in a cast-iron pan over an open fire tastes.'" Mina added, "Poaching is poaching, but it's that ocean water that makes it great."
That preparation is also new to Mina, who thought of doing it while in Hawaii.
"I was in the ocean and I was like, 'Why don't we ever poach in this?'"
American Fish's water circulators — poachers, if you will — were custom-built so Mina's cooks can maintain the water at perfect temperature, between 150-180 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Elegant comfort" has found its way into the interior at American Fish, as well. Long before sitting down to his fish dinner, Sheffield describes his first meeting with Mina and his team like "a blind date."
"I think we were just trying to see if there was a connection," Sheffield said with a laugh. "Personality-wise, it was about spending time together. That first dinner where I break the news... It's hard for me to work with chefs because I'm a vegetarian. They don't like me very much."
Mina and Sheffield flew over that hurdle, working together on the restaurant now serving diners on Aria's upper level.
"From day one they wanted something that had the warmth of a lodge, but then they wanted to modernize it," Sheffield explains. "I don't think there's anything here literally that says, 'lodge,' but I think there's a campfire warmth to it that speaks to that experience."
The restaurant is filled with woodsy elements that, like the kitchen's preparations, seem to dance between rustic and chic. Hanging from the ceiling is a steel sculpture steel that is the design equivalent of a Rorschach test.
"It's whatever you want it to be," said Sheffield, who, for his part, sees it as "leaves falling in space."
Both lighting fixture and art, the piece could also be a great first date experiment. Imagine couples looking up, reading deeply into what each person says they see.
In other places, the references are more overt. One wall displays an amber-colored collage of tree rings. Around the restaurant, pillars made of birch veneer have been laser-cut so light escapes their slits. The thesis project of British design-school student Michael Radford, they immediately evoke the tree's recognizable bark. Sheffield found the fixtures on a design blog from the UK.
"I said, 'One day I want to use that somewhere,'" Sheffield recalled. "This just seemed like the appropriate place."
American Fish has become the site for experiments for both Mina and SLDesign. Behind the bar, an infinity feature using mirrors makes you feel like you're drinking in a stand of birch trees.
"We wanted to make it realistic, but also have an element of fantasy about it," Sheffield said. "You feel like you can step into it in spaces, and in other places, you don't realize that it's there."
When asked how the effect is created, he momentarily played coy. "I can't give away all the secrets," he smiled. "Would you ask Lance Burton?"
The answer is yes, of course.
While American Fish is the newest addition to Mina's growing collection of local restaurants, for SLDesign the project was their true Las Vegas debut. Three years ago the firm helped renovate Tao's Opium Room, but American Fish is the first space in the Valley they've seen through, as Sheffield puts it, "from concept to completion."
"For us — for a three-person firm — working on a project like this where everyone else is like a who's who of interior design, there's a little added pressure. Hopefully we rose to the occasion," Sheffield said, pausing to look around the restaurant that is both his and Mina's new baby. "I hope the space here speaks for itself."