Rapture of the Beef - A Restaurant Review
Writer's Note: I wrote this review many years ago for a now defunct magazine and, sadly, restaurant. On the upside, since Las Vegas is the city of culinary reinvention, something equally satisfying will no doubt emerge. -sc
Many years ago, a curious journalist asked Italian movie goddess Sophia Loren how she managed to get such generous female curves. She pluckily replied, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” So it was with this quote in mind, that I entered CARNEVINO, an Italian-inspired steakhouse at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. While I may not have the assets of Loren, I do share one thing: my curves were largely due to spaghetti as well as my carnivorous passion for beef.
CARNEVINO is the enterprise of culinary and business titans Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich; one a celeb chef whose scorpacciata manifesto ensures gastronomic ecstasy and the other a celebrated restaurateur and son of culinary royalty Lidia Bastianich. Together, Batali and Bastianich, known as B&B Hospitality Group, have established some of the country’s most lauded restaurants including New York’s Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca and Las Vegas’ CARNEVINO Italian Steakhouse.
CARNEVINO is tucked down a hallway in the Italian themed hotel Palazzo so there is no glaring design departure between the hotel and restaurant. The hostess area is understated elegance, filled with rich wood juxtaposed against gold-toned Venetian plastered walls. Imposing archways complete the look of an Italian manor. Guests are greeted promptly and warmly by the hostess and often, too, by the general manager.
CARNEVINO patrons pass by the bar on their way to one of the many dining rooms where vaulted coffered ceilings extend 20' high. The bar features beautifully lit glass spirit shelves, a fine wood bar, and welcoming cocktail tables. In classic form, there is a flat-screened TV facing the three stone archways that open a portion of the bar to the casino floor and separates itself by wood balustrades. The TV allows the lunch crowd to rest or catch up on the Arsenal vs. Manchester game.
Our dinner destination is in the main dining room, but we can't help but notice the imposing statue at the entry. It features a life-sized bronze of the venerated Bodacious, a bull so fierce on the rodeo circuit that he was actually retired and put to stud (kept for breeding purposes) at an early age. In retrospect, we realized that Bodacious set the metaphorical tone for the helluva thrilling ride we were about to embark upon at CARNEVINO.
Beyond the classically outfitted wait staff with starched white aprons, the main dining area featured rich wood flooring, stone medallions, mammothly ornate wood doors and oversized antique European sideboards topped with glass domed cheese trays. CARNEVINO's warm tone is further set by luminous lighting and oversized tapestries draping windows that allow patrons beautiful views of Las Vegas' cascading afternoon sun.
Our table is dressed in crisp white linen and welcoming leather chairs affording us a spacious vantage of the villa. We are met with congenial staff offering us both a wine list and our preference of water. CARNEVINO is one of the few restaurants on the Strip that owns a Natura machine, an eco-friendly purification system that provides chilled sparkling and still water. CARNEVINO as well as all of the B&B restaurants, is very much into sustainability. They put their money where their mouth is and invest in everything from energy efficient lighting to refining the kitchen machine oils that are made into the soaps for the guest restrooms. In addition, their locally sourced agriculture inspired them to establish a companion farmer's market in the city to benefit both farmers and locals.
With sufficient time to settle in, our waiter approaches our table welcoming us to CARNEVINO. As he presents the menu, he acknowledges the many features of the day that change based on availability. Even though CARNEVINO's menus are oversized, three-quarters of it feature an impressive global wine and champagne list. The list is an oenologist’s playground but since I'm not one, I turn to one of CARNEVINO's three sommeliers to help me find a wine that pairs well with my dining selections. She deftly makes recommendations and start our journey with Bastianich's own 2008 Vespa Bianco Fruili to accompany the grilled octopus antipasti.
CARNEVINO’s grilled octopus is befitting of King Triton. The thick tentacle was slowly braised in a cork-strewn white wine and chili flake fluid, It imparts a delicate crispness while allowing the meat to soften before the octopus is grilled then simply dressed with pickled vegetables, homemade limoncello vinaigrette and presented with gorgeous fresh radish greens. From what we’ve read, many patrons come to CARNEVINO solely for the grilled octopus.
Under the direction of Executive Chef Nicole Brisson, a self-proclaimed “do it myself” kind of girl, she has taken the lead that former Executive Chef Zack Allen established before his recent departure to open CARNEVINO in Singapore. Brisson’s style coupled with Batali's demanding directives results in taking magnificent seasonal products and showcasing them with only minimal preparation. Brisson and her team deliver this on this challenge consistently.
To whet our appetite, Chef Brisson sends small Parmesan crusted orbs along with warm, rosemary topped ciabbata rolls along with CARNEVINO's handcrafted salt-free butter and lardo. Lardo is the establishment's recommended spread and is actually lower in fat and cholesterol than butter. It’s a decadent and slightly salty topping made from pork fatback. Very smooth and white, the spread is peppered with tiny beads of fat that impart a robust taste that couples with the bread like Romeo to Juliet.
A girl that loves beef as much as I do requires consuming it as simply as possible so I choose Carne Cruda Alla Piemontese. This steak tartare uses chopped filet with shallots, capers, chives, lemon and a little mustard. The mixture is gently mixed then wrapped with a shaved trumpet mushroom and topped with smaller criminis. Served with a crusty crostini, the tartare delivers a bold punch of beef followed by a citrus finish.
Two pasta dishes served as the bridge between antipasti and entrée: Spaghetti al Frutti di Mare and Beef Cheek Ravioli in a butter sauce. The frutti di mare contained briny shrimp, lobster, clam and calamari atop a hearty but manageable portion of freshly made spaghetti and dusted with a sparkle of spice. The ravioli is presented in four, staggered meat-filled envelopes. They rest in a little bath of delicate butter sauce and just before serving, are drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The contrast between the rich butter and the acidic vinegar enhances the ravioli's finely textured cheek.
During intermission, our waiter offers us warm and dampened lemon-scented towel with an artfully tucked lemon slice to cleanse our fingers before our entree. The wait staff pace themselves to be attentive but not intrusive. The table team is congenial and clearly enjoy their careers as they helpfully answer an array of culinary questions without making guests feel inadequate.
Before getting to the main entree, which is the “La Fiorentina” (classic Florentine porterhouse for two), our decanted Barbaresco is served. Our sommelier made several recommendations and we opted for the 1998 Ada Nada “Valeirano.” Its history includes the first fermentation in stainless steel before being finished in oak casts. That's also why it benefits from decanting. The wine is beautifully full-bodied wine with rich accents of plum and pear.
When the piéce de résistance arrives at our table, it’s accompanied with a fair amount of pageantry and we lean forward to enjoy the theatre before us. Two attendants push out a butcher’s table to us before our waiter artfully presents the huge hunk of flesh before carving it to our delight. The accompaniments include mascarpone and guanciale mashed potatoes topped with quail egg and seared foie gras with Barolo. The potatoes are silken creaminess. The foie gras is mouthgasmic, offering slight resistance at first bite followed by that melt-in-your-mouth cascade of unctuousness.
And the beef? Oh the beef... exquisite. The crust is the result of being brushed with butter then “washed” with bouquet garni and salt and then seared at 1900°F and kissed with a little grape oil. Every morsel is tender, possessing the robust, mineral flavor that clearly speaks to the meat's pedigree.
CARNEVINO has perfected the art of extended dry aging. While the industry standard for dry aging is 30 to 40 days, CARNEVINO dry ages its beef for a year or more as is the case with their Riserva. The Riserva is for true beef connoisseurs who relish its dense mineral taste with musky notes of blue cheese.
Few restaurants give as much care to sourcing their stock as CARNEVINO. Creating collaboration between ranchers and the restaurant also help to ensure the livestock is treated humanely and their feed is conducive to creating the prime meat CARNEVINO serves to its guests. Chef Brisson works with Adam Perry Lang, a meat consultant who can tell with great accuracy the flavor profile of a steer while still in adolescence. Consequently, CARNEVINO works with smaller ranchers in Utah and Nebraska for the 5,000 to 10,000 lbs of beef they receive weekly. Of that yield, every loin is inspected by Brisson, who then selects those for dry aging. It's expensive and time-consuming but worth it. This is one the reasons CARNEVINO was named as one of the world's top steakhouses by the arbiters of all things lux, Goyot.
CARNEVINO isn't just a steakhouse; they're a culinary good neighbors who support the efforts of local agriculture. Pastry Chef Doug Taylor, who is also an agriculture instructor with Nevada's Cooperative Extension, is known for jumping in his car and embarking on a treasure hunt to find local farmers that care as much for their crops as CARNEVINO cares for their patrons and planet. Taylor's found so many local resources and provided farmers growing guidance that the excess is sold at the local Farmer's Market.
There is so much to say about CARENEVINO and we haven't got to the desserts—a true gelati trio of pistachio, chocolate and espresso along with an espresso panna cotta topped with butterscotch sauce and roasted almonds and bolstered by a 1995 Niepoort “Colheita” Porto. But that still wasn't the sweetest part of our visit.
Chef Brisson takes us on an impromptu tour of the immaculate kitchen that ran like a Grand Prix Ferrari. Everything about CARNEVINO is impressive, orderly and immaculate--especially the coolers containing the house-made charcuterie of sopressata, pancetta and salumi.
CARNEVINO may be a contraction of the Italian words for meat and wine but calling CARNEVINO a steakhouse is akin to referring to Bodacious as just a bull or a Stradivarius as just a violin. The restaurant and its expert staff deserve every accolade they've earned. And I'm pretty certain that if Sophia Loren had decided for CARNEVINO over her pasta, she'd have single-handedly resurrected the Roman Empire much like B&B have done with CARNEVINO.