One minute, Brett Ottolenghi is waxing poetic about the production methods of an obscure balsamic vinegar maker from New Mexico. The next, he's rifling through his stockroom, searching for a hidden stash of dried abalone. (It's a special find that required favors from friends to track down.) A moment later, he's passing through his kitchen to grab a three-pack of Jack's Hard Cider. That it's made with apples from his grandfather's Pennsylvania orchard is a point of pride, but this doesn't mean he is any less informed or enthusiastic about the other dozen or so items he mentions throughout the course of our chat.
Ottoloenghi, 29, is the owner of Artisanal Foods, a Las Vegas-based specialty food purveyor that supplies fine dining restaurants and in-the-know-gourmands their fix of foie gras, salumi, and other fancy-schmancy provisions. Once headquartered out of his UNLV dorm room (a tale that earned him a prestigious and engaging profile in The New Yorker), the business is now located in a 7,500-square-foot warehouse next to McCarran Airport.
Legit digs for a professional business, but the last place anyone would expect to find a great meal.Last fall, Artisanal Foods quietly unveiled The Cafe: a six-seat, lunch-only spot within the massive (but sparsely stocked) retail shop. With three tiny glass-topped tables and plastic chairs staggered near the front door, the atmosphere suggests a pop-up restaurant in a dentist office waiting room (on a cubicle mate's birthday)."These are our fancy napkins," says Ottolenghi, pointing to a couple of neon paper squares beneath our tiny paper menus.While Masa Takayama and Joël Robuchon call upon Artisanal Foods to supply their kitchens with hard-to-find products, perhaps The Café could afford to call Martha Stewart for tips on decor. But in some ways the unrefined vibe provides respite from the formality of Strip dining. My ass can do without an upholstered seat if the reward is one of the best and affordable meals in Las Vegas.The Café is a resourceful extension of Artisanal Foods' catering business—a partnership between Ottolenghi and chef Johnny Church. The formula is simple: one provides the food, the other cooks it (and whoever happens to be hanging around in the shop drops it off at your table). All of the middlemen—that hostess with the perpetual shit-eating grin, a high-strung general manager who hovers over the guests, the guy who folds your napkin into a swan while you take a leak in the john—are out of the picture. Nowhere else in the city can some schmoe stop by in flip-flops to stuff his maw with $12 seared foie gras.
But now that it's built, will they come?"We're pretty hidden so we really don't know how busy we'll be," says Ottolenghi. "But this collaboration was never meant to be a freestanding business. It's just that I have all of these really interesting items that come through the store every day that people send from all over the world. Since the test kitchen is already here, I know I can trust Johnny to make amazing things with them."In no truer sense is it really all about the food. If this is Church's atelier, Ottolenghi is his resource for extraordinary materials—not only the same stuff you'll find in the city's high-end restaurants, but also products you may not otherwise ever taste in this town. He reaches into his cooler to show me wasabi greens. The striking leaves, which resemble large, fan-shaped collards, have far less heat than the more familiar root. Ottolenghi admits he's had a tough time convincing chefs to embrace the leaves, so he had Church experiment with them. The end result was an oversized tempura chip used to garnish a lionfish ceviche.
Peer into the giant fish tanks that stand in the middle of the store. Ottolenghi keeps miniature version of the gnarly striped fish to show guests what they're eating. An advocate of sustainability, he made a carefully considered decision to serve the invasive species in spite of their health risks. Lionfish, found more often in aquariums than on dinner plates, must be fileted properly to avoid the risk of ciguatera food poisoning.Ever eat fugu? The element of danger is more exciting than the flavor. Sadly, it turns out the same applies to lionfish. However, should you too escape death after consumption, you might agree that at least the preparation is inspired. Coconut, citrus, and mint give it a Southeast Asian slant that keeps the dish interesting.Church, a Strip veteran whose resume includes positions with Bradley Ogden, Michael Mina, and Charlie Palmer, is exactly the kind of chef Las Vegas needs: professionally trained but unbound by convention. Because while this city has no shortage of celebrity chefs ready to whore themselves for a quick buck, there is a noticeable dearth of talent and innovation. At the end of the day it's a chicken-and-molten-chocolate cake kind of city.
The Café at Artisanal Foods may require a trek off the beaten path, but one could apply the locals' philosophy of gambling to his or her quest for a great meal. Here, six miles from the Strip, the odds are way better.