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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:20 AM

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.

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