One of Tony Bourdain's cardinal rules of restaurant dining is to avoid eating seafood in restaurants on Mondays. He must not have dined at Bartolotta – Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. I showed up at the restaurant at 6PM to meet John Curtas, the foremost restaurant critic in Las Vegas, per his suggestion. I had previously heard some very good things about the restaurant from friends who had dined there and Chef Paul Bartolotta himself has an impeccable reputation dating back to his days at San Domenico in NYC and Spiaggia in Chicago, but I was still skeptical. After all, it has so far been snubbed by Michelin and how good could seafood shipped all the way from the Mediterranean be in Las Vegas?
I sat down at the table before Mr. Curtas arrived and ordered a Negroni cocktail. He arrived shortly thereafter and joined me with a cocktail of his own. In my line of work, I prefer to avoid lawyers on a professional basis, but when it comes to dining and socializing, I have found them to generally be well met indeed. John Curtas, an attorney originally from Connecticut, is no exception to that as he proved to be a wonderful dining partner – witty, knowledgeable and a great conversationalist. It would be a pleasure to dine with him any time. It so happened, however, that for this evening, we also had an additional table mate, Chef Bartolotta himself, who joined us initially to explain his food, and then to
engage in what became a fascinating conversation that covered a range from Italian to Mediterranean seafood to the economy to Las Vegas dining and dining and cooking in general. As wonderful as the food was, and believe me, it was truly wonderful, the company and conversation was even more outstanding resulting in an evening extraordinary on every level.
Chef Bartolotta generously led us on a tour of his ouvre starting with his frittura di paranza, which
consisted of small plates of fried acquadelle di Chioggia, flavorful small silver fish from the Adriatic, totani or flying squid, gamberi rossi imperiali, large red prawns from Morocco, and gamberoni, whitish prawns from Sicily. All were immaculate, unique and delicious. The totani, in particular, had a depth of flavor one does not typically find in basic calamari. It was also a pleasure to receive the prawns with the heads still attached. It is all too unusual in American restaurants to be able to undertake the vastly pleasurable European tradition of sucking the juices and flavor from the heads. I could have eaten any of these all evening, but chef warned us to take it easy.
That proved fine advice, as a parade of amazing dishes continued starting with the small Venetian softshell crabs known as moleche, a dish I had only previously experienced in Venice itself. This was followed by lightly boiled Sicilian prawns served with wonderful olive oil, grilled cuttlefish strips, umami-rich Sicilian amberjack with an anchovy sauce, sweet Sicilian grilled langoustines, Ligurian octopus salad and perhaps the best pan-sauteed clams I have ever had, small, meaty Manilas from the pacific Northwest. Each dish was remarkable and delicious, requiring much self-control to keep from over-eating this delectable bounty.
It was just as difficult to maintain that self-control when the pasta and the risotto were brought to the table. Risotto ai frutti di mare and spaghetti con ragu di crostacei both provided exquisite tastes of the sea combined with the textural sensations only well cooked pasta and rice can provide.
Each of the dishes was washed down with lovely Italian wines as well, all of which had enough acid structure to marry well with their respective courses. Each was also distinctive and delicious in its own right. For the earlier courses we drank NV Gosset, Grand Rose Brut, Ay, Pinot Noir. For the seafood pasta and risotto we had two different wines. For the pasta, we enjoyed the wonderfully earthy and sauvignon-like 2006 Cave di Vin Blanc, Blanc de Morgex, Valle d’Aosta, Prie Blanc and the mineral-rich 2006 Schciopetto, Collio Tocai Friulano, Friuli, Tocai with the risotto. The sommelier, Luca, did an excellent job matching the different dishes with wines that had character and paired well.
After the seafood pastas, we were served more pasta, but for the first and only time of the evening outside of dessert, there was no seafood associated with the dishes. Two different ravioli were brought to the table. The first was ravioli di ricotta con tartufi bianchi and the second was a Bartolotta classic, Uovo in Raviolo "Maestro Valentino" that Bartolotta learned from his mentor Chef Valentino Marcattilii at the Restaurant San Domenico in Imola, Italy, who in turn learned it from Italian inventor, Nino Bergese, who had been the chef to the king of Italy prior to being the first chef at San Domenico. Michael Carlson, who does a variation of this dish so well at Chicago's Schwa learned it from Bartolotta at Spiaggia. These dishes define flavor and gustatory pleasure. The classic combination of cheese and truffles may not be novel but it is extraordinary and something that I expect and hope that I will never tire of. These were paired with the beautiful 2006 Bruno Giacosa, Dolcetto d’Alba, Piemonte, Dolcetto.
By this time I was getting rather sated, but not so much that I couldn't appreciate the beauty both visual and gustatory of the Orata al Sale that next appeared. A whole Mediterranean gilthead sea bream was roasted in a salt crust aromatized with wild fennel and other intoxicating herbs. The fish was exquisitely moist and flavorful incorporating the scents from the herbal crust into its juicy flesh.
With the savory portion of the meal brought to a triumphant conclusion, it was on to the desserts. Our table was arrayed with a "Sinfonia di Dolci" that included three each of gelati (vanilla, coconut, pistachio), sorbetti (mango, lemon, raspberry) and granite (pineapple, grapefruit, latte di mandorla) as well as a chocolate almond cake with white chocolate gelato and chocolate sauce; Tahitian vanilla bean semifreddo with dried figs in red wine syrup and bitter chocolate sauce and Ligurian lemon cake with rosemary gelato and sweet balsamic syrup. The frozen items were all lovely examples of their forms with clean, true flavors. The non-frozen items were also fine examples of their classic forms. While there was nothing groundbreaking about the desserts they were all well executed and fine finishes to this amazing meal. After the desserts we retired to the bar for a digestivo, which for me was an amaro nonino.
While we were enjoying such wonderful food, I had mentioned that the conversation was scintillating as well and covered a number of topics. While business has remained robust at Bartolotta and the Wynn in general, that does not appear to be the case for Las Vegas as a whole. Like the rest of the world, the recession seems to be having effects here as well, as one might expect, with volume off at many of the top restaurants and hotels on the strip. Even those who are still busy are anticipating more difficult times and making adjustments accordingly. Despite the universally troubled economic times, Las Vegas and the Wynn Hotel in particular have provided Chef Bartolotta with the freedom to run a restaurant that does not cater to the lowest common denominator. It is not that he is not cognizant that the style of his restaurant runs counter to the prevailing attitudes of most Americans and indeed many of the people who visit Las Vegas. He is. There is a reason that few restaurants in the United States serve shrimp and prawns with the heads still attached. Yet, at the Wynn, he has found a sufficient clientele, American and international, that is appreciative of what he is able to provide. He manages to make them as well as himself and the hotel happy.
Another avenue of discussion centered around the concepts of traditional cooking methods versus some of the more contemporary techniques in play in many restaurants. Chef Bartolotta is a traditionalist when it comes to technique and eschews contemporary ingredients such as hydrocolloids and even cooking methods like sous vide. He said that it is not that he does not respect those chefs who utilize those techniques well. He simply gets more pleasure out of using classic cooking methods and reserves his greatest admiration for those who cook well in that style. His personal preference is to eschew the more esoteric stylings of the technoemotional school of cooking in favor of being creative within the confines what he considers solid technique. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am an ardent fan of technoemotional cooking done well as well as a supporter of traditional cooking methods. As a result, the discussion was lively, but consensus was reached as we all agreed that there is plenty of room for different styles and approaches to cooking and that it is important that though cooking needs to continue to evolve, traditional methods and dishes need to be preserved and maintained.
Clearly I received special treatment and enjoyed a truly extraordinary meal. Though my experience would not have been exactly the same had I walked in off the street under different circumstances, I am still able to draw a number of conclusions about Chef Bartolotta and his eponymous restaurant. He is clearly a passionate chef, who cares deeply about his food, cooking and putting a great and unique product on the table, making the kind of food that he loves to eat as well as cook. He clearly provides his restaurant with "soul." Secondly, though we were extremely well provided for, the cooking is such that inferior product can not hide. Supporting ingredients are used to enhance the natural elements of the product, not to bury them. Clearly despite the difficulties of importing seafood as they do, my initial skepticism was not borne out in the least. Chef Bartolotta proved to me, that it is in fact quite possible to put outstanding plates on his Las Vegas table even if the product is highly perishable and has come from from nearly half way around the world. How long he will be able to do that from both economic and environmental bases is another question and remains to be seen. In the meantime, unlike Michelin, I have become a fan of Chef Bartolotta and admire his skill, personality and restaurant. To think, this all happened at a seafood restaurant on a Monday night!
For all the photos please see the album.