April 7, 2011

todd's unique dining (vegas)

I'm always on the search for remarkable dining off the Las Vegas Strip. It's not that there aren't good eats on the Strip - far from it, but the expectations versus the costs of the experience I've thus far found to be lacking. I've definitely learned "have car, will travel" is a solid motto to go by, and it's pretty ridiculously cheap to rent a car in Vegas. My spacious V6 Toyota Camry was only $15 a day - how can you go wrong with that? It cost more to rent the GPS! Parking is never an issue with every hotel offering valet service, and tipping $3 is about right (more if staying at that hotel).

Outside of Vegas-proper, the suburbs of Henderson and Summerlin hold a treasure trove of good eats waiting to be discovered. You've already read my escapades in Chinatown (Raku, füküburger...), and Lotus of Siam - there are definitely more coming (Rosemary's, M Resort...)

On this trip, I needed someplace offering a good value, with a variety of solid eats for my motley crew. I chose Todd's Unique Dining based on Las Vegas dining guru, John Kurtas' review. Located, surprise surprise, in a sea of non-descript stripmalls (oh middle America...) - it's an easy 20 minute ride, southeast of the Strip. Amusingly, there's no entrance from the front and you have to navigate a mind-boggling series of U-turns and back-streets WITHIN the stripmall to get there.

The restaurant is divided into 2 sections. The right section has 2 and 4 tops, and is more conducive for romantic engagements; the left section has a series of unnecessarily tight banquettes, and larger group tables.

The menu is updated regularly as fresh ingredients come in with a mish-mash of cooking styles, from classic French to southwest to just plain eclectic. Service was prompt, attentive, knowledgeable and kind - even the busboy was a fountain of information! They know the way to this service-whore's heart. A selection of warm breads was brought to us. To the right was a focaccia that I found bland and far too greasy. Conversely, it's partner was a cranberry-pecan bread that I couldn't get enough of. I hoovered a few slices. The ever-attentive busboy replenished it within minutes, and the cycle began anew.

The group was quite hungry so we ordered a deep-fried kalamari and popcorn shrimp platter to start. Great crunch, and perfect batter-meat ratio on this dish. They were tossed with a light spice mix which gave them a dry-heat, which matched nicely with the chipotle-tzatziki dip. At $12, the portion size was more akin to a suburban TGIF than to a Strip seafood joint. Good start.

I'd been missing the sweet earthiness of beets, so I went with the "2-colour beet salad with fennel, edamame, goat cheese and a horeseradish dressing." The steamed golden and red beets could've used more cooking time - they weren't as sweet as they could've been. I counted maybe 2 miniscule slices of fennel in the dish and the horseradish dressing was persona non grata. The edamame were shelled, steamed and placed on the bottom - they were fine, but weren't enough to save this dish. At $9, this dish was a disappointment, both in taste and portion. Beet are packed with a ton of flavour which is easy to coax out, and all it needs then is a hit of salt and olive oil - and voila, instant classic. Not so here.

There was a bit of a toss around with our mains. All of us wanted the short ribs so I tried to Jedi-mind-trick Ray to order something else to no avail (my Silent-Bob-powers weren't strong... but I got him back later that night). The short rib was braised for 3 days, deboned and served as a HUGE chunk. The texture was... tender, yet stringy. This preparation was closer to the Chinese "naw laam" stewed brisket than what I'm used to seeing in Western restaurants. A bit surprising, and not in a good way. The caramelized onion sauce was closer to a beefy French Onion soup - I tasted more unctuousness of beef than sweetness of onions. The dish, as a whole, was an unexpected flavour and texture combination - and I didn't have enough of it to decide if I liked it or not.

The onion strings were amazing though. But then again - I'm both a crunch AND fried-onion whore so I'm biased ;-) I'll get to the enokis later. At $27, this was a significantly better value than anywhere on the Strip.

So I had to choose another main, and though my brain was screaming "NO NO NO" - I went with the swordfish. If you've never prepared swordfish, it is notoriously difficult to cook. Imagine cooking a steak where the difference between medium-rare and well-done-rubber is within a 20 second window, except you can't do the "bounce test." Also. I'm in a suburban restaurant in Las Vegas. Not necessarily ground-zero for swordfish cookery. Yet my faith went with the kitchen.

And I was not disappointed. The fillet was perfectly cooked, still moist and flaky in the middle, but with a beautiful whif of grilled-char on the outside. The passionfruit beurre blanc was an epiphany. The sweet floral scent was subtle, yet assertive against the meatiness of the fish. A great combination that I would normally hate, but it worked here! The sides of steamed greens and baked stuffed tomato were par for the course... of an 80's hotel restaurant.

Okay so here's the rant portion of our evening.

Garnishes. Rule number 1: they must be edible. Check. Rule number 2: they must add something to the dish. In Todd's case, adding raw enoki mushrooms to every plate added a pale, flacid, tasteless, phallic symbol to every plate. If it doesn't add anything to the flavour of the plate - it doesn't need to be there. A good garnish? Fried onion strings on the short ribs. The crunch brought a much needed texture counterpart to the beef, while still very much keeping it French. Enoki mushrooms? Not so much. Fried zucchini sticks would've been a better alternative - colour AND texture contrast in 1-shot. Plus adding a vegetable to any meat dish (albeit fried) is always a good thing.

In the swordfish dish, there was a lone orchid bloom sitting on the plate. Was it edible? Possibly. Was I about to eat it? Hell no. If it was edible, I understand why it was there - it's a bridge to the tropical roots of the dish, as well as adding a bright colour to pair with the bright flavours of the beurre blanc. Unfortunately people just aren't up to eating flowers - it's distressing. Perhaps if the server had mentioned "BTW, the orchid is edible" - it would've helped - but she didn't. It didn't need to be there as certainly there was enough colour on the plate as-is.

Rant done.

We took a peek at the dessert menu, but just like the sides, there wasn't anything exciting enough to want to try.

And speaking of stuff stuck in the 80's - Chef Todd - if you read this? Any music on websites, ESPECIALLY movies automatically running upon-load are the equivalent of crimes against humanity on the web. Kill it. Now.

*Ahem* There certainly were some highs and lows with our meal at Todd's Unique Dining, and not enough good for me to recommend going out of your way for. Not while Rosemary's is an equal distance away, and will provide an unforgettable meal for the same price. If you're already in this part of town looking for a solid meal, I'd recommend Todd's. Todd's Unique Dining is located on 4350 East Sunset Road in Henderson. Reservations are available on Opentable.

Todd's Unique Dining on Urbanspoon

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