at Restaurant Charlie in the Palazzo.bar charlie, las vegas
Bar Charlie is a restaurant inside a restaurant. Restaurant Charlie is a traditional fine dining spot with its most notable feature being a lofted kitchen table with a 270 degree view down onto the kitchen and the dining room. The restaurant also has a separate menu and separate tasting menus, although I think any dish at Bar Charlie is available at Restaurant Charlie, and vice versa.
Bar Charlie, off to the right as you enter the restaurant, is quite a bit different from Restaurant Charlie. The bar is an 18 seat trapezoid around a minimally-equipped open kitchen, with just two cooks putting together constantly changing tasting menus and creating dishes on the fly.
Chef de Cuisine Hiroo Nagahara, a physics major in college, prides himself on never giving a guest the same dish twice unless they request it. And indeed, a "regular" (visits once every 2-3 months) was sitting next to us for part of our meal and received very different variations on some of the dishes we had, and some that bore no resemblance to anything we were served. Except for one cooked dish and the desserts, everything was prepared by Chef Nagahara and one other cook in the bar.
The normal options when you order include 5 and 8 course prix fixe menus, and a small a la carte menu. But you're strongly steered towards the 14 course kaiseki (well, Trotter and Nagahara's version of kaiseki) menu. Beth was a little worried that she couldn't handle a full-size 14 course menu, so we ended up asking if the chef and restaurant would let us split a single tasting of 20 courses (the 14 courses plus 6 added at the whim of the chef). They were generous enough to accommodate that request, and a request for non-alcoholic beverage pairings, and with that, we were on our way.
note: for the first few courses, the descriptions are from other reviewers, most notably gourmet traveller
. For most of the remaining courses, the description is a quote from the chef who presented the dish to us.
note 2: as always, click the images to view them at a larger size.#1 - tai (snapper)
With white and black grapes, black grape puree, celery confit, celery stock reduction and micro greens.
Pairing: ginger beer with kaffir lime
This was a delicious, light-yet-complex way to start, and I think helped set the tone for the next 19 courses. The mild snapper was a great base for the sweet/sour of the grapes, the herbaceous celery, and the slight bite of the micro greens. The ginger beer with kaffir lime was also outstanding, and the bite of the ginger and acidic and floral lime paired well with the dish.#2 - iwashi (sardine)
With compressed watermelon, sea grapes, yuzu sorbet and celery marinated in miso and yuzu.
Pairing: Watermelon muddled with mint, and tonic
The highlight of this dish, besides the deliciously oily and fishy sardine, were the sweet and sour yuzu sorbet and the salty, slightly bitter sea grapes. Like the snapper, this dish showed a command of salt, sour, sweet, and bitter that few meals I've had have demonstrated. The paired drink featured the same watermelon from the sardine muddled with mint, and the tonic added some bitterness that brought the whole thing together nicely.#3 - tomato
Heirloom Tomatoes with compressed cucumber rind, tomato skin chip, hijiki and dashi, tomato foam, hijiki "dirt" and avocado semifreddo.
Pairing: 7Up with kaffir lime and meyer lemon
Chef Nagahara said he came up with the concept for this dish in June, and then spent two months waiting for the tomatoes to be good enough for him to put it on the menu. It was worth the wait, though, because the richness of dashi and avocado and the bitterness of the hijiki "dirt" perfectly balanced the sweetness of the tomatoes and the acidity of the cucumber rind, while the tomato skin chip provided nice textural contrast. The pairing continued the trend of boosting familiar flavors with aggressive aromas, and reminded me of an upscale version of the temperance punch my grandmother makes... a very good thing.#4 - Bluefin tuna chu-toro
"We're presenting tuna in two different forms: underneath the foam you'll see the roulade, it is filled with an umeboshi spoonbread, it's then lightly poached at about 58 degrees, so that you should get a nice texture of the cooked tuna. we as well have a sashimi of chu-toro coming from close to the collar. It comes over a sauce of Nashi, which is asian pear, and a little bit of umeboshi as well as a Nashi relish dressed with a little bit of chive and olive oil. The foam is seawater… basically a dashi that has been 'amped up'."
Pairing: umeboshi, meyer lemon, tonic
This was an exceptional dish, really showing off the amazingly rich and tender bluefin tuna. The umeboshi, nashi, and dashi-seawater foam helped bring the dish into balance. The umeboshi drink was also top-notch, with salty, sour, sweet, and bitter in each sip.#5 - ama-ebi (spot prawn)
"With this course we have ama-ebi santa barbara spot prawn.. we have the prawns presented in two different ways: one, almost as a ceviche, over a shellfish panna cotta, and it's tossed with a little bit of cilantro, tarragon, and raspberry. We remove the heads, take off the head plates, and we fry them, so they're completely edible. The foam is a tarragon emulsion, it's one of Hiro's real pride and joys. Basically completely heat resistant... you can just about put a plate on top of it. A little bit of shellfish oil as well, and a raspberry-shellfish consomme"
Pairing: pomegranate juice with tarragon
A non-traditional take on a very traditional sushi-bar dish. The acidity of the raspberry matched well with the sweetness of the prawn, and the perfectly fried shell coated in and filled with tarragon foam was a playful and delicious blend of textures. The pomegranate drink was tasty, with the tarragon helping tie the sweet-sour of the pomegranate to that of the raspberry.#6 - tuna tartare
"This is our second offering of tuna, a tartare. We take pieces from the akami, the toro, and the chu-toro, and combine them so you get what we think is the best combination of richness, flavor, and fattiness. It comes over a sauce of hijiki, as well as a daikon and greek yogurt flan. Next to it is a relish of hijiki and fermented daikon. We've quickly pickled a cucumber, and the crisp chip you see is a bit of battera kombu. There is a salad of daikon and red shiso, and a little bit of bonito powder."
Pairing: grapefruit juice, tonic, rosewater
Tuna tartare is such a cliche, no? No. Not this tuna tartare, which was more of a mousse in texture and impossibly rich. The hijiki and pickled cucumber added bitterness and acidity, and the battera kombu provided important textural contrast. It was one of the simplest courses, and wasn't as intellectually interesting as the earlier tuna course, but it was incredibly delicious. The pairing was again one of contrast, matching bitter and sour against the rich and fatty tuna.#7 - trout three ways
"One of the tenets of kaiseki is to tell a story.. in this dish the story we try to tell is that of a trout swimming upstream.. what we have is tasmanian ocean trout. At the front we have a ravioli, it's made of house-made ricotta and a little pearl barley. The skin of the ravioli is actually a trout fume that's set with a little bit of vegetable gelatin. Underneath is a trout roe vinaigrette, along with some fried shirasu, and a little pearled barley.
In the center we have a trout roulade, the meat comes from the belly, seasoned with a bit of coriander, lemon zest, and fennel. Served with a raw fennel salad and a little bit of chervil.
Last, we have some cured trout ice cream garnished with a trout skin chip."
Pairing: oolong tea with ginger
Yes, trout ice cream. Well, actually trout sorbet, since it was dairy-free. The trout sorbet is notorious in the Bar Charlie kitchen because it broke their $4000 pacojet... tough to explain to corporate, no? Anyway. The trout ravioli was fine, but not really memorable.. interesting in terms of technique and presentation, but that's it. The trout roulade was beautifully cooked and well balanced with the brightness of the fennel and lemon. The ice cream was really impressive.. the fat of the trout gave it an incredible creamy texture, and it had just enough sweetness to balance the fishiness. This is a trout ice cream that would win Iron Chef America. The pairing wasn't particularly memorable here, just a gingery chilled tea.. but there was so much going on on the plate that I think they deserve a pass.#8 - halibut
"Halibut with english peas; a puree of english peas with shallot and mint; a ragout of sous vide english peas and roasted shallots, seasoned with mint, chervil, and chives. On top, sweet pea shoots and baby cabbage."
Pairing: plum juice with rose essence and tonic
One of the few courses that had very few obvious Asian influences.. it was really a version of a classic English halibut with mushy peas. The halibut was as perfectly cooked as halibut can get, and the herbed peas matched well with it. Not much to say about this dish except that we loved it. It was comfort food, really. The pairing again wasn't amazing, but the bitterness of the tonic and slight acidity of the plums balanced the rich and sweet halibut and peas.#9 - langoustine
"For your next offering we're doing a tempura of Icelandic langoustine with Kanzuri carrot and lemon. Like the rest of the dishes, we express the ingredients in more than one way. So, in the middle we have a langoustine dumpling which we've filled with lemon custard, like a soup dumpling.
Next we have the tempura langoustine with tempura bits on the bottom. We do a sauce of carrots stewed down with thai chiles and kanzuri. And then the ribbon is carrot pickled in kanzuri and orange. Then we've taken some roasted carrots and made a salad, with a little cilantro and soy. We've finished that with a vinaigrette with nasturtium leaves and seacress"
Pairing: Orange juice with meyer lemon
A beautifully fried langoustine was the highlight here, but the langoustine soup dumpling was delicious in its own right. In many of the earlier accounts of this dish that I've read online, the langoustine was replaced with Big Fin squid. I'd like to try that version, but I suspect that this combination works better, since the richness and sweetness of the langoustine perfectly played off the pickled carrot and lemon custard.#10 - scallop
"This is our diver sea scallop, which comes with the flavors of spinach, coffee, and turnip. Underneath there's a sauce of Bloomsdale spinach, a saute of Bloomsdale and Red Orach spinach. The cube you see in the back is a piece of kabu, which is Japanese turnip. We braise it in ponzu and coffee gastrique, the same gastrique we use to make the vinaigrette with the Rishiri-kombu and diced kabu. We wrap the braised kabu in its own leaf and steam it. The curl is flexible chocolate, with a little bit of cinnamon and cayenne. The vinaigrette is coffee gastrique, coffee oil, and vanilla. The Rishiri-kombu and kabu is scattered over the top."
Pairing: orange juice with clover honey
This was an eye-opening dish for us: a combination that makes almost no sense on its face (scallop, turnip, coffee, and chocolate) but that works incredibly well in reality. Chef Nagahara told us he came up for this dish when he was prepping turnips early in the morning and eating bites in between sips of coffee. The bitter coffee, spinach, and chocolate, the sweet scallop, the sour ponzu and coffee gastrique, and the spice from the cinnamon and cayenne all come together into one of the best dishes of the night. I'd have loved for it to be paired with a coffee or chocolate based drink, though, instead of the orange juice with honey.#11 - saba / mackerel
"Another spontaneous course: saba, Japanese mackerel, yakitori-grilled. We did this with roasted eggplant and cumin, and genmai miso. We yakitori grill the mackerel, and then we have baby eggplant in different ways: one, as like a salad, and another one as a puree, and also a sheet, grilled, underneath the mackerel."
Pairing: plum and cranberry juice with bitters
We watched Chef Nagahara grab a beautiful, glassy-eyed whole mackerel from the walk-in, clean it, scale it, fillet it, and then grill it for us. This was another comfort-food type dish, and very traditionally Japanese. It was gorgeously cooked, a little smoky from the grill, and balanced well with the eggplant. The pairing went very well in this case, adding acidity, bitterness, and sweetness to a dish that didn't have too much in those departments.#12 - "agedashi" Tamba tofu with beets
"Tamba tofu. Tamba is the original black soybean. One of the reasons we don't see it often is that it's very difficult to scald the milk to make the tofu. We also have some black beans in the bottom of the bowl, sauteed with some pickled asian mushrooms (honshimeji) and tokyo scallion. Inside the "present" is the tofu and tokyo scallions, seasoned with togarashi. We have some roasted beets, both candy striped and yellow beets, as well as a vinaigrette of a brunoise of red beets.
It's supposed to be a very similar dish to agedashi tofu, so what we have to finish is a little bit of beet consomme."
Pairing: grapefruit tea with rosemary and lavender
Another non-traditional take on a traditional Japanese dish. The tofu was the star of the show here, with a complexity and richness that most tofu would kill for. The pickled mushrooms helped balance the tofu and the sweet beets, but the pairing really did an amazing job bringing the dish together, with the bitter tea helping bring the rest of the dish into focus.#13 - kurobuta pork belly with green curry
"Here we have our 36-hour braised kurobuta pork belly. It's braised in a hibiscus gastrique, and we have a sauce of cabbage, tomatillo and jalapeno. It's dotted with a little bit of coconut green curry. We take that same flavor of coconut green curry and represent it in the salad that comes on top. So we have a julienne of tomatillo, young coconut meat and jalapeno, as well as an herb salad of lavender, mint, shiso, thai basil, and cilantro. We have one red-wine braised pearl onion, as well as a little bit of braising liquid and the natural jus."
Pairing: green apple juice with cinnamon and clove
This was the most assertive of the dishes, with impossibly rich and smoky pork belly and bright, genuinely spicy curry-like salad. It was in perfect balance for me, and did a better job of balancing rich pork belly than any I've had. Another hit. The bright and slightly sour apple juice also helped calm the fattiness of the pork.#14 - wagyu filet
"Wagyu filet with black fermented garlic puree, black garlic emulsion, a little crispy wagyu, grilled tokyo scallions, and fresh tokyo scallions on top."
Pairing: St. Pauli Girl non-alcoholic beer
The pairing entertained me a lot. It actually wasn't a particularly awful beer (although it wasn't very good), but it was a real "one of these things is not like the others" situation. Anyway, the wagyu was the star here, fatty and beefy and meltingly tender, with the tang of the black garlic and the bite of the scallions balancing well. The crispy wagyu bits were a real highlight, too.. they reminded us of the crispy bits on a good griddled hamburger. Anyway, this was a very good dish, but as soon as we finished it, Chef Nagahara started telling us about...#15 - Wagyu beef, grade 12, from Saga prefecture
Pairing: Coca Cola with bing cherry juice
Yep, grade 12 wagyu from Japan. It doesn't grade any higher, and Saga prefecture wagyu is spoken of in the same breath as Kobe and Ohmi. We never actually got a description of the other components in this dish, which is just as well... the star of the show was the beef, and it was the type of beef dreams are made of. Incredibly rich, fatty, and tender, but still maintaining the essential beefiness that you want from a slice of dead cow. Oh, and the bing-cherry-coke was pretty awesome, too.#16 - lychee sorbet with ginger and pineapple
More of a palate cleanser than a course, but this was a very tasty sorbet, and the pineapple ribbons underneath were especially delicious.#17 - strawberry, basil, olive oil
"For our first fruit course we have macerated strawberries with a basil syrup. It has a strawberry sorbet, basil semifreddo, and an olive oil ice cream, with a little olive oil powder on the side."
Pairing: grapefruit juice with kaffir lime.
All three frozen concoctions were very good, but the basil semifreddo was especially impressive, since it tasted of basil without tasting of grass. The tartness of the grapefruit juice played well against the rich basil and olive oil bites, also.#18 - green tea cake
"Green tea cake with sliced peaches, a bruleed honey zabaglione, with a plum sorbet, and a little bit of a peach tapioca as well."
Pairing: peach and pineapple juice with cardamom
They do sorbets really well here, you know? The plum sorbet was the highlight of this plate, too, but I really enjoyed the lightness of the green tea cake and the crunchy-creamy honey zabaglione The peach/pineapple/cardamom drink was pleasant.#19 - marshmallow and chocolate
"For the first chocolate course we have a tahitian marshmallow, bruleed, with a white chocolate custard and a marshmallow foam, and a little bit of milk chocolate rocks."
Pairing: soy milk with chocolate and vanilla
This was my favorite of the desserts. I love bruleed marshmallow, and the milk chocolate rocks added to the playfulness of the dish. The soy milk pairing was great, actually, since the flavors blended well, but it wasn't nearly as sweet.#20 - Chocolate cake
Dark chocolate cake, banana sorbet, chai foam, and banana tuile.
Pairing: chocolate milk with frozen banana.
Another course, another beautiful sorbet. The chocolate cake was wonderful, too, but the banana-chai combination worked amazingly well.mignardises
lychee-raspberry gelee, cinnamon almond dragees, and two I can't remember. Beth thinks one was a salt caramel fudge and the other was an espresso truffle.
I really loved the gelee, because I really love gelees.
So that's 20 courses at Bar Charlie. Not one clunker, not one miss, not one near-miss, not one that we'd grade lower than an A-. It was the meal of our lifetime, and the effortless calm with which the two chefs at the bar pulled it off was nothing less than astounding. It's not a cheap meal, but you'd have a hard time convincing me my Vegas high-end-dining dollars would be better spent at Alex or Picasso or Robuchon at the Mansion. It was worth every dollar and every minute we spent on it.
If you're in Las Vegas for a special occasion, I can't recommend Bar Charlie highly enough.
3325 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV