3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Web: China Poblano
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"When Buffalo has a restaurant that produces a dessert as daring as the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warrior, or for that matter succeeds at something as bold as a Mexican-Chinese hybrid, or even as straightforward as authentic Spanish tapas, we'll have a fighting chance at reclaiming some of this area's lost glory."
We've eaten at seven of Chef José Andrés's restaurants over the years, so it wasn't a huge surprise to learn that he won the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of the Year Award last night. If you've been following this site, you've probably read about a couple of our experiences at his restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, but there were a bunch during our hiatus that we discussed only on our Facebook pages. Here are a collection of photos and details from our visits to the Las Vegas locations of China Poblano and Jaleo, so you can enjoy a little insight into what sort of food (and dining experiences) the country's top chef is serving.
Jaleo. Had the woman's eyes been open, she would have been overlooking one of the nicest dining rooms in Las Vegas, a smart and airy space that had opened to the public only two weeks before our visits. Flanked by huge folding metal doors on one side, a kitchen on its opposite, and a bright, glass-enclosed semi-private room on the third, the woman was a sleeping, oversized drawing on the leftmost wall of Jaleo - a reflection, explained a server, of the new spirit of the Strip's latest Spanish tapas restaurant. Paintings of the woman enjoying life were found in Jose Andres' previous three Washington, D.C. Jaleos, said the server, and this version represented the chef's dream of a next-generation Jaleo: modernized but still accessible, geographically distant from the others but similar in spirit.
The Las Vegas version of Jaleo is a success on its own terms, stepping beyond even Andres' D.C. locations in scope and ambition. In what feels like the alternate universe version of his Washington empire, it's here in Jaleo that Andres has set up the exclusive é - a similarly-staffed parallel to the single digit-seated Minibar he created within D.C.'s Cafe Atlantico years ago to great acclaim. é is not within the aforementioned glass semi-private room, which our server explains has already hosted the likes of Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, but rather in a dark, secret space off to the far right of the bar. (Click here for details on our visit to é.)
It bears mention that even the bar, cramped on each of our visits by throngs of waiting customers, dispenses beauty by the portion: Jose's Gin and Tonics are handed off unfinished, highlighting the single spherical ice ball that chills each glass even after the tonic's poured in, and the recently renamed Quick and Dirty Martinis are gray, olive foam-topped versions featuring one of Ferran Adria's famed liquid olives at the bottom of each glass. The drinks are each expensive. And great. All that was missing is Jaleo's famously wonderful white Cava sangria, its absence accentuated by the plainness of the red version served at all of the locations. But then, the menu was in flux, and may well have improved even before these words were printed.
There were few surprises on the menu for those familiar with the small tapas dishes served at other Jaleos. Chorizo wrapped in homemade potato chips, the classic shrimp tapa Gambas, and deep-fried, bacon-wrapped dates are amongst the essentials, only modestly different here - the dates are amusingly served inside a Spanish sneaker, instantly creating chatter at adjacent tables, though other plating tricks are kept to a minimum.
Eggplant with honey is served here with a dark balsamic-like drizzle rather than the gold miel from D.C., on one of our visits far more sparingly than the other. Both, and all of the other dishes, were good enough to wow our dining companions and satisfy us.
Seafood dishes were where we really fell in love with the new Jaleo. Raw sea urchin served with a pomegranate foam was amazingly fresh, as clean as the best sushi we've had here or in Japan, and the flavors came together brilliantly atop a pool of finely chopped vegetables.
Two large broiled scallops were similarly as good as any we've ever tasted, served in a mild red sauce, while chili peppered octopus tentacles with fingerling potatoes were cooked to the point of true tenderness, eliminating the rubbery chew that sometimes puts diners off. It's hard to go wrong with anything here, and in the event that the small dishes seem inadequate, Lobster Paella is constantly being made in an open preparation area in front of the main kitchen.
Jaleo's desserts are as daring as its drinks - familiar but bold enough to challenge the palette. If a thin caramelized cookie served atop homemade praline ice cream drizzled with olive oil isn't enough to challenge you, a second dessert uses olive oil ice cream atop shaved grapefruit ice and sliced grapefruit to test your interest in bitter and sour sweets; we found the former dessert addictive and the latter less so, but intriguing. A flan with caceta cream was, however, superb. On each of our two visits during the trip, the service was crisp and friendly, while the food varied between whimsically charming and solid. Even those who are familiar with the D.C. Jaleo locations owe the Las Vegas version a visit.
China Poblano. Vision is arguably more important in opening a marquee-quality new restaurant than anything else, and China Poblano has that much in spades. The face of the place is inspired, blending a dead serious and obviously expensive metal Buddha made from Chinese characters with two amusing neon signs - one pointing to a purported Chinese take-out window, the other the same for Mexican. Peek your head into either and you can see fresh dumplings or tacos being made by hand, the sort of sight that's impossible for the typical fast food joint to show at all, or at least, without making one sick; here, the individual assembly of delicate dumplings is almost as interesting as at the famous locations of the internationally famous Din Tai Fung chain, perhaps the only name brand chain from which it could learn lessons.
On most counts, China Poblano could teach other restaurants a thing or two about design, service, and menu offerings. The gorgeous interior sees bicycle wheels and lanterns hung above patrons who sit at benches in front of largely beige wooden tables, each with a red napkin dispenser that - like much of the place - is deliberately a little funny. Photo projectors rotate three wall portraits through images of Chinese icons such as the Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao, astride pictures of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and an ethnically ambiguous boy.
Oaxacan sculptures and masks line some walls, while miniature terra cotta soldiers are found stacked on another. The attentive servers are dressed in sharp black uniforms, working in teams to separately address patrons' ordering, drink refill, plate delivery, and clearing needs. From an infrastructure standpoint, the place almost seems to run itself, though there's actually a lot of manual effort needed to pull everything off correctly; in our two visits, there were literally no mistakes.
But as soon as we tried to dive into the menu, we realized that China Poblano was as much of a moving target as the shifting faces on the wall. The menu initially posted online has since changed multiple times, reflecting experimentation in the kitchen, and printed copies sometimes have telltale signs - screwed up fonts - of being rushed into brief production runs. A section of the menu touting east meets west fusion dishes has disappeared entirely, with some of its offerings folded inconspicuously into either the Chinese or Mexican halves of the menu. There we found sort-of Chinese-inspired tacos such as a Kumamoto oyster with beef (Viva China, $11) mixed alongside rethought Cochinita pork or mole sauced chicken ($9 each) variations, the latter two previously polished at Andres' earlier Washington, D.C. restaurant Oyamel and frankly more compelling. Some of the experiments just didn't seem to work, and knowing this, China Poblano was moving on.
Experimentation has its virtues, particularly at a restaurant that serves small dishes and signature drinks. While two $12 versions of Andres' famous Salt Foam Margarita - one lime, one pomegranate - are must-tries on account of their perfect use of light foam to top each drink with just enough salt, sans grit, to heighten the sweetness of the drinks, it's something new that steals the show. A brilliant Lemon Drop Soup turns out to be a custom variation on the classic lemon drop martini, using Ferran Adria's famous agar agar noodle technique to place gelatinous, lightly sweetened lemon noodles into a cup of stronger lemon-flavored alcohol, served with a fresh pair of chopsticks so you can fish out the cold, flat treat before enjoying the drink.
It's a spectacle and, at $12, a luxury of a drink, but so smart that it alone justifies the visit to China Poblano - moreso than the Don't Be Jealous Hot & Sour Soup ($8.88), which teases by name but winds up being little more than an oversized bowl of fresh soup with particularly impressive mushrooms alongside the expected sliced pork and tofu. The flavors of the Chinese food never rise to the pungeant levels of, say, the Imperial Hot & Sour Soup served at the Shanghai Ritz-Carlton, but they sometimes try: unlike the weak and inaccurately named shrimp and pork Har Gow dumplings, a set of six Lamb Pot Stickers Stuck On You ($12.88) arrives on the undercarriage of a thin and perfectly crispy scallion pancake for a surprisingly potent combination of mild tastes. It hasn't left our minds for more than a week in the five months since we visited.
That mildness can win out at all in a place with such daring decor and powerful inspirations is a surprise, perhaps more pleasant for some visitors than others. A bowl of Dan Dan Mien, served at room temperature as an assembly of just handmade noodles topped with shredded scallions, a chili and pork paste, and peanut halves is more noteworthy for the fresh and chewy texture than the savory flavors, which disappear as quickly as you swallow them.
A plate of moving bonito flake-topped Dancing Eggplant seems more Japanese than Chinese, served warm in a dark brown miso-ish sauce that wouldn't wow most fans of the former cuisine but works well enough here.
But in a Tuna Ceviche, uncommonly large and beautifully plated with amaranth seed-encrusted ahi bits alongside perfectly sliced avocado, and a comically take out-like Rou Jia Mo street sandwich made from a buttered biscuit stuffed with powerfully sauced, shredded pork, China Poblano shows precisely why it could be great in the future. The $8.88 Rou Jia Mo is so amazing that, on our third visit, we order two to take with us to the airport. It's at its least appealing when sticking to recipes we know and love at lower prices elsewhere, and at its best when offering spins worthy of a master chef and restauranteur.
The desserts almost uniformly bear this out. Most expensive is the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warrior ($15.88), a milk chocolate molded soldier filled with a lighter mousse and laid to rest atop a bed of dark chocolate dirt, ice cream, fruit, and leaves. It's beautiful, fun to crack open, and delicious in every single bite. A tiny but perfect portion of Caheta Flan ($9) is served with a matching homemade ice cream, one of the best we've ever had, while Mango Sticky Rice ($9) deliberately subs in crisped rice to great effect, and a dish called Tres Lychees ($9) plays on the Mexican theme with lychee-syruped sponge cake, lychee ice cream, and an oversized piece of the fruit, each delicious.
Only the Happy Buddha Giggling Taking A Bath ($11.88), a glorified red strawberry Jello mold surrounded by foam, comes across as an overpriced joke, funny for its jiggling belly but not particularly tasty. Spiked with alcohol or laid in more potent bathwater, it might have worked, but in its current form, only kids would find it appealing.
Chef Andrés's James Beard Foundation Award was particularly for Minibar, a restaurant more like é than either China Poblano or Jaleo, but there are common themes that run through all of his places: charming decor, outstanding service, and of course memorably wonderful, creative food and drinks. The emphasis should be on the word "creative." A visit to one of Andrés's bars is unlike anything you'll encounter in Western New York - drink recipes that dazzle the tongue and the eye - and the dishes are equally compelling, justifying premium prices. When Buffalo has a restaurant that produces a dessert as daring as the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warrior, or for that matter succeeds at something as bold as a Mexican-Chinese hybrid, or even as straightforward as authentic Spanish tapas, we'll have a fighting chance at reclaiming some of this area's lost glory. Until then, the only way to experience dishes like these will be to hop on a plane. Our advice would be to start booking your tickets (and reservations) now.