Postcard from Tom: A pair of Vegas restaurants from a Washington chef

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 6, 2011; F03

As much as anyone else, I dig a great bed, a bath with a view and in-room technology that lets me lower the curtains, the temperature and the lights all at once. But the December debut of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas , built at a cost of nearly $4 billion, whetted my appetite for what it would be feeding us. Among the splashy hotel's 13 restaurants are two concepts from Jose Andres, the restless chef and co-owner of ThinkFoodGroup (including a small world of eateries) in Washington.

One newcomer bridges the cooking of China and Mexico. The other gilds a tried-and-true Spanish formula. In a city brimming with opportunities to gamble, both are sure bets.

Dim sum or tacos? China Poblano lets you graze on both, although it takes a few moments for a patron to get his head around the idea when he's sipping a margarita in the shadow of barbecued pork buns.

In another chef's hands, the notion might sound alarms. But Andres has more or less proved - first with the Spanish-themed Jaleo and later with the Mexican-accented Oyamel and the Greek-leaning Zaytinya, all in Washington - that given some time and help, he can find his way around the world.

The celebrity chef is quick to defend a menu that finds room for both congee and ceviche. For starters, there's a long history between China and Mexico; centuries ago, the two exchanged spices and peppers, he says. Second, some of Las Vegas's most important gamblers come from those countries (and what hotel doesn't want to accommodate its VIPs?). Ever up for a challenge, Andres adds, "I've always wanted to open a Chinese restaurant."

And so he has, in a fashion. The noodle makers on one side of his restaurant on the second floor of the Cosmopolitan share the stage with tortilla patters on the other. Bold in oranges and reds, the dining room is dressed with Wizard of Oz-like projections of Chinese and Mexican faces on mesh heads or panels, and masks that Andres brought back from his last trip to China.

With any cuisine other than his own, Andres says he prefers to be "cautious." For China Poblano he hired Las Vegas resident Shirley Chung to watch over the Asian half of the menu and enlisted Aifeng Zheng, a master noodle chef from Beijing, as an adviser.

Among the intriguing snacks: steamed oat noodles, tightly coiled ridged strands gathered in a basket and enhanced with a sweet dipping sauce, and lamb potstickers. The dumplings show up beneath a paper-thin disk of nothing more than flour, water, cumin and a touch of salt fried to a golden crackle. ("Stuck on you," they're promoted on the menu.) China Poblano's colorful "Twenty-Vegetable" fried rice appears to live up to the hype; tossed with lightly dressed baby carrots and radishes, it's also one of the lightest versions I've come across. A salad of crisp snow pea leaves and white lily bulb petals is brighter for its citrus-pomegranate dressing. Further into the menu, something as basic as mashed-right-there guacamole eaten with warm, corn-fragrant tortillas is just as likely to send you to Mexico.

Fusion is kept to a minimum. Tacos stuffed with herbed sauteed duck tongues have, however, emerged as one of China Poblano's strongest sellers. (Try to stop at one.)

The menu includes some head-scratchers. A dessert called Happy Buddha Giggling Taking a Bath, is more amusing than satisfying - unless you dig strawberry gelatin (the Buddha's head and belly) poking out from a frothy sea of lychee foam.

China Poblano's cocktails reflect the restaurant's hybrid nature. Extensive research (guilty!) has found that the Singapore Sling, oh so smooth, and the Ron Cooper Margarita, served with a terra cotta thimble of smoky mezcal on the side, both make lunch, dinner or even a midnight snack a little more potent and a lot more fun.

3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S., second floor. 702-698-7900. Dim sum $9.88 to $12.88, noodles and soups $8 to $22, tacos $7 to $16.

To understand the difference between the original Jaleo and its spinoff in Las Vegas, a diner should order the chicken or ham croquettes at the new place. In Washington, the golden fritters with molten centers show up on a plate. In Sin City, they arrive in a paper-lined . . . sneaker.

"Why not?" asks Jose Andres. "Plates are becoming boring."

Food served in (Camper design) shoes is one of multiple ways in which the Spanish impresario is distinguishing his fourth tapas bar, which he refers to as "Jaleo 2.0," from the others.

Another star turn is a paella station, a dramatic fire pit fueled by olive and orange wood. Its leaping flames tickle rice-filled stainless-steel pans as big around as tractor tires. (Making certain the heat doesn't get out of control overhead is a shiny million-dollar hood.)

Coffee, anyone? Every order of Jaleo's "Spanish-press" java is accompanied by a sand timer that stops at just the optimal brewing moment, four minutes.

The flavors on the third floor of the Cosmopolitan are true to what a diner finds in Washington, thanks in no small part to head chef Rodolfo Guzman, who transferred to the latest - and so far the greatest - Jaleo after cooking for Andres, whom he calls "my first and only boss," for 18 years.

Close your eyes when you're eating mussels spiked with sherry vinegar and you could be at the restaurant that helped launch a national appetite for small plates. Open your eyes, though, and you find something showier: The seafood is staged in a tiny sardine tin. Garlic soup is poured over a soft-poached egg protected by a shell of bread that collapses, dissolving into the puree and adding more texture along the way. The dinner-only Jaleo Las Vegas doesn't put out bread baskets, which helps explain why toasted bread slathered with fresh tomato is one of the restaurant's bestsellers.

While much of the Washington menu (preserved tuna salad, squid stew, fabled Iberico ham) has made its way to the desert, Jaleo Las Vegas features a handful of dishes that diners who have supped at Andres's whimsical, six-stool Minibar back East will recognize. Witness the delicate, two-bite pastry cones filled with minced cured salmon, egg, shallots, chives and a sparkling sprinkle of roe.

Small and large, the fillips at Jaleo Las Vegas are meant to extract a "wow!" from the audience, says Guzman, who oversees a kitchen staff of 38 (vs. 35 for both lunch and dinner crowds in Washington). "Jaleo is becoming playful," agrees his boss, who had a role in hiring Spanish designers and artists to dress the chic dining room, including the intimate restaurant-within-a-restaurant dubbed "e" to the side. That glass-topped foosball table on the terrace of the restaurant? Vindication for Andres, who says that as a kid he was not allowed to eat and play at the same time.

The party-like scene and edible novelties appear to be good for the newcomer's bottom line: The check average for a meal in Las Vegas is 20 to 25 percent more than in Washington, says Andres.

About those signature shoes, made in Majorca: Tempted though they may be to, ahem, keep them as mementos, customers are discouraged from doing so. The kitchen sends out multiple orders of croquettes in sneakers in different sizes and colors.

3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S., third floor. 702-698-7950. Small plates, $5 to $34; paella $18 to $34.

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