I recently dined at the Chef's Table at Restaurant Charlie. While I've been a long time Chowhound lurker, this meal made me finally sign up to post.
Located at the Palazzo, off the main casino floor, the restaurant is unassuming from the outside. The design of the signage, which is a bevy of colorful fish swimming above the name, looks more like a casino coffee shop or theme seafood restaurant. Don't let it fool you- inside is a completely different world.
The restaurant is modern, but warm and comfortable, with soothing lighting and a quiet ambiance. Entering the kitchen from the dining room takes you into yet another world.
The kitchen is mostly business- white tiled walls with large colorful images of food set in tile going up to the ceiling. As you'd expect, it's gleaming. You might not expect how organized, calm, and well-oiled it appeared. Compared with other kitchens where I've done tastings there was very little of the kitchen buzz I've come to expect. It was a slower night, so that may have had something to do with it as well.
As we were led through the kitchen walkway to the loft all of the chefs greeted us warmly. We truly felt like honored guests and that they were glad we were there rather than just interrupting their work.
We went up a staircase to the loft, which over looks the kitchen from one corner and has a glass pony wall to make it easier to see what's going on below.
Our table was set for four, but they will seat up to 10 in the loft.
There's a single, nice but simple modern lighting fixture over the table, and a speaker delivered ambient music that was a cross between new age and techno- not too loud, I felt it fit the space well.
The loft is a nice balance between feeling like you're in the kitchen and able to observe, yet still being able carry on a normal conversation and enjoy your experience.
Desmond, the restaurant's sommelier, took the role of both sommelier and host, and explained the 8 course and 14 course tasting offerings, mentioning that each would come with an additional 2 courses or so. The 8 course is $250 per person and the 14 course is $350.
We opted to start with cocktails and move into wine later rather than do a set pairing.
The meal started when four men in black suits appeared at our table carrying matching wooden boxes, each set in front of us at the same time. With a flourish, they each removed the lid of the box to their right, creating a very memorable way to start off the dinner.
The chef who created the course then appeared and told us what we were eating, a nice touch that was repeated for each dish. By the end of the evening we'd met all of the chefs (or nearly all).
The dish, called a "bento box" on our menu (which I'm using as a cheat sheet to write this) featured three small bites. I didn't take notes, I can only recall one specifically, a small oyster topped with caviar. The bites were tasty and a nice way to wake up the palette even if I can't remember them.
Next came a dungeness crab salad with Sake and Rice Milk. The salad was flavorful with a clean crab taste, but what really made is special was little "drops" of frozen sake throughout. The play of the icy cold sake against the crab and the rice milk really worked, and it was another nice starter dish.
Next up was a sashimi style japanese snapper with braised Rishiri Kombu (deep water kelp from off the coast of northern Japan) and a lime sauce. Delicious and extremely fresh. The lime worked very well with the fish and intensity of the kombu balanced the plate nicely.
Still sticking with seafood, the next course was a spanish blue fin tuna tartare with a battered, very thinly sliced and crispy kombu, just a little thicker than hairwidth. The tuna was wonderful, diced small and with beautiful knife work. One of my pet peeves is tartare in large ragged chunks- unfortunately a sight seen far too often now that the dish has become so ubiquitous. The kombu provided a much appreciated different take than the typical crispy tartare accompaniments. Next to Aqua in SF, one of the best tartares I've had.
The final seafood course was Japanese fresh water ayu with pickled bamboo shoots and hearts of palm. Another beautifully presented dish served with the delicate, thin, crispy tail on top. The cooked fish had a nice richness to it and worked really well with the pickled bamboo, which was almost like a bamboo version of kimchee.
We moved into fowl with a roasted Bobwhite Quail with pickled carrot, sesame seed and a saiko miso. Wow...they lollipopped a small piece of quail, wrapped it in saran wrap and put in in boiling water to cook it. Somehow they still managed to get a nice, brown skin. Absolutely delicious and extremely most and well cooked. Quail is tough to get right and they just nailed it. The pickled carrot was a wonderful contrast to the richness and complex gaminess of the bird.
One of our favorite dishes was the Four Story Hill Poularde with Venezuelan Chocolate, pearl onion, and hazelnut. I hate to keep saying "Wow" but that's what we kept saying at each dish. This one was really special- the poularde was cooked to perfection- tender, moist, and a hint of fat- just enough to keep it rich and flavorful. The sauce was great and the dish reminded me a little of a deconstructed mole, without the spiciness.
The final entree style dish, and ultimately our overall favorite, was an Elysian Field lamb rack with a sauce of Bing Cherries, capers and marcona almonds (all of which were blended into the sauce-- there were no caper or almond chunks visible). The lamb was just amazing... If you're used to Colorado or New Zealand lamb this had an intensity of flavor that made you think, "Wow (yes, wow again), this is what lamb tastes like!" I love lamb, and this was quite possibly the best lamb dish I have ever eaten. The sauce was perfect- you got the acidity of the cherry as the predominant flavor, but the capers and almonds gave it a much more complex profile without ever coming to the forefront. I'm pretty creative but I don't think I would have ever matched cherries, capers and marcona almonds. I'm grateful that there are people in this world who both can, and do.
One interesting note about the meal so far- At no point did a starch or even a real vegetable side to speak of make it to any of our plates, and it was not missed in the least.
The desert courses began with with a nice nectarine sorbet with a few small pieces of thinly sliced fruit. The flavor was pure and it worked well as a palette cleanser.
The next dish was mint infused strawberries with lime. The berries were from Harry's Berrie's - sold at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market (get there early, we were told by the chef). The berries were good but the star of the dish was a hempseed ice cream and hempseed tule. The richness and mouthfeel of the hempseed was a great play off the lime and berry flavors.
The final desert course was a dish that looked a little like deconstructed smores: Milk chocolate cheesecake with roasted homemade marshmallow and milk chocolate graham "mud". I'm not a huge s'mores fan but this dish elevated all of the flavors and the ingredients were what all s'mores should be made from here on out. The marshmallow's only resemblance to it's sickly packaged cousins was that it was white. It was chewy but light and the carmelization on top added a nice dimension. The milk chocolate cheesecake was decadent but not overpowering, and the mud added a little graham flavor without the cloying sweetness that makes s'mores such a bad idea in the first place.
It was a toss up at our table which desert was better between this one and the berry dish, but all of us would have taken seconds on either.
The winner on a small plate with just a few candies and confections was a single deep roasted almond covered with, as the chef told us, 32 layers of chocolate. The chocolate flavor combined with the just slightly bitter bite of the roasted almond was wonderful.
A word about portions: The tasting portions were, I felt, perfectly sized. What was supposed to be 8 courses turned into 12, and we still didn't feel stuffed- though we definitely were not hungry. It was really the perfect amount of food and was best summed up by one of us who said, "I could eat like this every night" and meant it.
I have eaten many tasting meals, but this was one of the most enjoyable I've had. The service was flawless- friendly, warm, but never intrusive. The food was outstanding, innovative, and completely enjoyable. The room was fun and a great balance between the kitchen experience and a private dining experience. All around a great meal, and a place I'm already looking forward to visiting again.