Monday, May 5, 2014 | 11:57 p.m.
It’s a well-known fact that foodies in New York look down on Las Vegas culinary stars. As Rodney Dangerfield always said, “I can’t get no respect.” Valley-wide on and off the Strip, our kitchen kings and queens and their restaurants are regularly left off “the best of” lists.
Admired and opinionated food critics here regularly point out that there’s snobbery on the East Coast when it comes to our desert star chefs. There’s little reverence, respect or recognition. The big-name, five-star celebrities who win praise receive it for their venues elsewhere in the world but rarely on the Strip.
That’s why I give big applause to three Las Vegas F&B stars who teamed up to take on Manhattan with a special night at the prestigious James Beard House, America’s culinary shrine. Before chefs Brian Massie and Megan Romano and Herbs & Rye mixologist and owner Nectaly Mendoza left for the Big Apple, they showcased a six-course dinner they planned to dazzle the East Coast critics.
I was privileged to work my way through the advance meal at Brian’s Light Group restaurant Fix at Bellagio. Brian also oversees Stack at the Mirage, Red Square and Citizens Kitchen at Mandalay Bay, Diablo’s Cantina at Monte Carlo, Bianca in Miami and the about-to-open Heart Stone at Red Rock Resort. Nectaly began his career polishing glasses as a 17-year-old in Bellagio’s kitchens!
Brian is a firm believer in approachable American cuisine. A native New Yorker, he decided at an early age that he wanted a career as a chef. While studying at Culinary Institute of America at New York’s Hyde Park, he worked weekends for Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe, who is a business partner with Mario Batali.
Charlie Palmer hired Brian as a line cook at Aureole in Manhattan and then moved him out here in 1999 when he opened Aureole in Mandalay Bay. Brian also opened Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons here before joining N9NE Group at the Palms for two years before launching Fix.
In January 2012, he premiered his first Italian-inspired menu at Bianca in the Delano Hotel in South Beach, which prompted rumors last week that the new Delano at Mandalay Bay will eventually transform its lobby cafe into a Bianca.
Brian started his Beard House showcase dinner with hors d’oeuvres of foie gras-stuffed dates, oxtail grilled cheese and spring fava beans with Nectaly’s Gin Genepy lime cocktail with mint basil bitter ice cube. Brian’s first course was burrata and peach with Nectaly’s Peach Fizz of rye whisky, peach, honey, lemon and mint. The second course was charred octopus served with bloody beer of American lager with blood orange and tomato puree.
Nectaly concocted a bourbon moonshine with tobacco maple syrup, citrus and apple to accompany Brian’s duck and waffles with a soft poached egg and bourbon maple syrup. To say this was beyond delicious doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Pure brilliance!
Megan served a strawberry rhubarb sorbet with hibiscus tea to cleanse the palate before Brian’s fourth course of crispy pork belly low country BBQ style with jalapeno corn bread. The bacon bourbon drink was a natural accompaniment. The entrees ended with a milk braised veal short rib and potato mousseline and spring vegetables with a champagne fruit seasoned punch.
The meal ended with Megan’s dark chocolate Valencia orange bar and roasted hazelnut kumquat confit from her Chocolate & Spice Bakery. It came with a milk punch of bourbon, honey and a drop of Benedictine. I have newfound admiration for this triple threat of gourmet geniuses.
I asked Brian what it meant to face the Beard House critics for the first time. He told me: “I’m going back home to New York. Being a culinary student in New York, you always want to do a dinner there. It’s exciting, and it’s prestigious. There are tons of people going, so it’s an important night for me.”
Do you go there with a little trepidation?
You think? It’s a great event but a little nerve-wracking — 80 of the toughest critics in the world. I’m open to the criticism, I welcome it, and at the end of the day, if you’re doing what you love to do and you’re proud of what you’re doing, then anybody can say what they want. I feel that we’re doing great food, and I just want to make people happy.
Why did you pick these six dishes?
It’s a massive diversion from what we currently do at the Light Group. Another reason is we’ve been traveling a lot, eating a lot; I want to create a new style and personality of food that I like to do and showcase myself. There are bits and pieces of my travels in here, but more importantly it’s showcasing myself and getting out of the genre of the kitchen food that we’ve been doing here for so long.
What does this say about what’s happening in Las Vegas?
One of the other reasons why I chose this menu is because it’s one of the trends that’s not here that we’re trying to incorporate. It’s getting away from what Las Vegas expects the clientele to be. I think we’ve achieved that here, and I think that Las Vegas is opening up more and we are now more ingredient forward and more experimental, but the reins are kept on a little.
Las Vegas is a different animal altogether from anywhere else, especially New York. Dining isn’t the main focus of an evening here like in New York. It’s going to a show, a nightclub, a lounge, a bar, whatever you’re going to do afterward. If it was lower music and more fine dining as opposed to fun dining, I think you’d lose the audience a little bit. Plus it’s a young clientele. Everyone who comes to Las Vegas wants to either go big or go home, right? You kind of have to act like that, and I think our restaurants are geared that way.
For 10 years now, we’ve had fun dining restaurants in Las Vegas. We’ve kept on reinventing it. Every hotel now has a fun dining restaurant, if not two or three. For me personally, I couldn’t sit through a three-hour fine dining meal anymore, so our dinner is to show New York we’re all about fun.
I asked Megan, who has been to the James Beard House four times, if she was ready for the high-pressure microscope again: “Yes, I’m familiar with the event, so I want it to be fun.”
Why did you choose these dessert items to go with Brian’s food?
Brian had a lot of great, interesting, different types of flavors. We both liked the idea of a chocolate bar, and I always like inducing citrus, compotes and oranges to kind of cleanse your palate and cut through that rich flavor.
Are people beginning to understand desserts now more today than ever before?
I think so. I think they’re more knowledgeable about the ingredients, so I think it’s worth your while to put more into it and be a bit playful because I think it’s appreciated.
You have a secret weapon for your assault on the Beard House?
In New York, I’ll have my 10-year-old daughter, Nina Romano. She’s got a pretty sharp palate. She’ll tell me things that are in the ingredients. She would pick out the fact that I had orange in the chocolate or that I had some tea leaves in the amaretto cookie. She’s very capable; we call her “street smarts” because she just knows what’s going on. I don’t know if she wants to follow in Mom’s footsteps yet, but she’s certainly up for just having a good time and getting to New York. She loves chocolate, she loves sorbet, she may love our blood orange sorbet the best. That may be the house favorite.
What does Brian Massie bring to New York? What do you admire about his style of cooking?
I enjoy working with Brian because we have quite a bit of history, and he always is interested in exploring different flavor profiles. He’s always onto something different and new, so it’s fun seeing what he’s up to next. I think there’s a lot more people caring about what they put into their bodies and are more aware and really interested about food and the chef who cooks it today. I think everybody secretly wants to be a chef and in the kitchen.
Should everybody have dessert after dinner?
Absolutely. I try to make our desserts not too sweet and have some savory components so that there is separation from dinner.
And just how did the tasty trio survive the grilling in the James Beard House? I’m happy to report that their nearly weeklong trip for the one-night showcase last week was a huge success. They won rave reviews and platinum praise.
Now maybe Las Vegas will get a little more of the respect that it deserves.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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