Food and Food: Las Vegas and Travels03 Mar 2009 08:01 am

bar charlie

We ate other things on day two of our trip, but only one meal bears mentioning.

After buying some tickets to Penn & Teller’s show at 9pm (I highly recommend using Tix4Tonight for discounted tickets), we were on a bit of a time budget for the night. I called Restaurant Charlie at the Palazzo cautiously. As I booked dinner for 5:30 pm, I asked if that was enough time to experience their 14-course kaiseki menu. “Well, it is a bit closer to 3 hours,” said the hostess, “but I will tell Chef you have time constraints.”

Three hours may be cutting it close for a meal? What.

Bar Charlie is a restaurant within a restaurant, in this case, Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant Charlie which is inside the Palazzo. Bar Charlie is a kaiseki restaurant, a sort of cuisine normally confined to Japan. One of my true regrets about our trip to Tokyo was missing the opportunity to stay in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Sort of like a bed and breakfast. Kaiseki meals are very common in them.

With five, eight and fourteen course menus, Trotter has allowed his executive chef Hiroo Nagahara to really have fun and exercise his knife. Sometimes dishes are served in the Restaurant Charlie side, but mostly the chefs are working for you.

It’s extremely intimate to be the only two patrons at a restaurant. Even if it was filled there would only be room for fifteen to eighteen people. Later, as we were leaving, a couple came in and were seated, but for the most part it was one-on-one service. When I got my camera out to take some photos, Mike referred to it as the fifth person in the room. The normally super quiet lens opening became nails on a chalkboard. As such, I did not interrupt our dining pleasure with taking too many photos. But let it be known we were eating art that night.

Chef Nagahara was amazing. As the meal ended, we talked with him for some time. He told us he spontaneously comes up with many of his dishes, and the menu is never the same, which is a shock when you find out what they are and the complexities involved. His hope is that no one will ever experience the same meal twice at his restaurant. His meticulous care and preparation show in every step of the meal. He recognizes Japanese traditions in food (especially in kaiseki, where care is taken to present food as nature) and takes time to source seasonal ingredients straight from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The glee in his voice as he described a still-in-rigour tuna he got in for Valentines Day was palpable. He implored us to come back and make special requests for next time. We also found out one of Chef Nagahara’s favourite cuisines was Ethiopian!

I’m not sure how long Bar/Restaurant Charlie will be around as it is definitely among the more dear restaurants in Vegas (and that is saying something) and it is pretty quiet. But it is definitely an amazing place. I am no critic, so just some photos and what I recall from our meal, below:

“Buttery Potato” cocktail. I have to say that savoury cocktails blow my mind. At $19, they should. The cocktail list at Restaurant Charlie is worth a visit on its own. They serve modern and vintage “pre-Prohibition” cocktails.

One of the two chefs working for us that evening. He never introduced himself!

“Cherry Blossoms in Snow”

Blue fin tuna tartare, with greek yogurt disc, seaweed tuile and pickled cucumbers

A new dish: cuttlefish, deconstructed.

The body, in the center there, made into a dumpling that was meant to have the texture of an egg. The wings, the lightest tempura you’ve ever had. The tentacles, grilled.

From pastry chef Vanessa Garcia, a series of desserts including:

Basil-infused blueberries with semolina pudding, tarragon semi freddo and lime-basil sorbet

Dark chocolate cocoa sponge cake with citrus salad, candied oro blanco (a variety of pomelo) peel tuile and oro blanco sorbet

Petits fours: Cookies and cream, fresh marshmallow, candied ginger and a gorgeous iridescent green truffle

Each dish was prepared fresh, right in front of us. When presented on the bar, the chef would explain every single component of the dish. The ones I recall, some better than others:

  • Japanese tai (red snapper) with black grape reduction, black grapes and kalamata olive gelee
  • An aji, or Spanish mackerel dish
  • Trout three ways: ice cream, roulade and ravioli filled with trout head (the ‘pasta’ was made of trout stock) with crispy trout roe and skin (this was my personal favourite dish, if only because it was so bizarre to eat fish flavoured ice cream)
  • Two different tuna courses, including bluefin tuna tartare, the other as “Cherry Blossoms in the Snow”, above
  • Carbonated carrots and scallops. The carrots were in a liquid and carbonated, so that it danced on your tongue.
  • “Oysters on the Beach”: Razor clams and oysters with horseradish granules (representing sand) and a sea water foam to represent the ocean.
  • Sushi rice risotto with wild mushrooms
  • A piece of two-day braised Kurobuta pork belly on a confit of quinoa and Fuji apples.
  • Finally, a sorbet, two desserts and a sampling of petits fours.

Every dish was unbelievable and had several mouth feels, tastes and flavours going on. Everything ranging from bubbly, soft, firm, crunchy, chewy, sour, bitter, sweet, cold, gelatinous, umami… a true experience.

I regret not taking notes, but it really was nice to just sit back, relax and take the entire experience in. For such a complex – at times esoteric – meal that may never be replicated this may have been a mistake, but I am certain I will remember it for a long time.

PS: We made it to the show on time after our two and a half hour dinner: Penn & Teller were great.

UPDATE: You can read about my fantastic return trip to Bar Charlie in July here.

4 Responses to “Vegas Eats, Day 2: Bar Charlie”

  1. on 04 Mar 2009 at 8:43 am H.Peter

    Great pitures.

    I miss Vegas.

  2. on 04 Mar 2009 at 11:35 pm Roz

    wow! The presentation is by far the most exotic and creative I’ve ever seen! YuM! thanks for sharing!!!!

  3. on 05 Mar 2009 at 3:01 am kelly

    Me too, H. Peter. 🙁

  4. on 28 May 2011 at 4:43 pm Oki

    If you guys are wondering where Hiroo is these days; he’s living in San Francisco right now. He is in the process of opening up his own place in 2014 :). So no tears, he’ll be sharing his love of food with the world very soon.