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Desert Companion

At first bite: CRUSH eat, drink, love

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Confession: Ordering entrées gives me the jitters. Chalk it up to a fear of commitment. Like the young groom at a shotgun wedding, I balk at the very thought of being tied down to one dish. Am I sure I want this? What if I’m stuck with a total dud? And why am I suddenly coveting my neighbor’s chicken? I often opt for a more polyamorous arrangement, constructing meals out of appetizers and bartering for bites from my tablemates. It’s a style that should have been well-suited for dinner at CRUSH eat, drink, love, the new “cosmopolitan shared plates restaurant” at MGM Grand. Previously dubbed “Project Lion” by husband-and-wife restaurateurs Michael and Jenna Morton, the space formerly occupied by Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern has re-emerged as a stylish, wine-centric respite from the casino floor. It’s a shame that the rumored $3 million budget couldn’t buy a more sensible restaurant name, because much of the food is lovely. Chef William DeMarco, who also oversees the kitchens of La Cave and La Comida, provides an eclectic selection of small plates for every palate.

Ricotta Gnocci

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ScallopsIn the spirit of sharing, skip the soups and salads. Flatbread, baked in a 700-degree wood-fired oven, is the perfect communal fare. As for toppings, you can choose from the familiar (sausage) or unorthodox (dates, artichokes and jalapeños). They bear a striking resemblance to those served at La Cave, but that’s not a bad thing by any means. From the small plates menu, there is an excellent ricotta gnocchi served with short ribs and pea purée. It’s a restrained and well-executed twist on meat and potatoes. For breakfast-lovers, the smoky flavor of chorizo and chipotle in DeMarco’s sea scallops “Benny” will have you licking your plate clean (although one might also attribute this unbecoming behavior to its minuscule portion). Unfortunately, other seafood preparations are too flawed to ignore. Hamachi crudo with cucumber, yuzu and chili sounded promising but was offensively fishy on two separate visits. On another evening, the octopus in a grapefruit and jalapeño-spiked ceviche tasted tough and old. Not exactly the best catch.

The kitchen staff is far more adept with red meat. Highlights from a limited entrée selection include a perfectly cooked filet mignon, as well as tender lamb sirloin with an earthy celery root purée. Still, there were sparks missing. Each taste had me longing for another bite of those scallops. Finish the meal with a Nutella-flavored frozen dessert and any earlier transgressions are easily forgiven (but not necessarily forgotten).

Despite a couple of missteps, DeMarco is an underrated talent. I’ve enjoyed his safe but solid approach at La Cave, and his ribs at La Comida are some of the best (and unexpected) in the city. At CRUSH, he also deserves credit for accommodating all kinds of finicky eaters. (Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and shellfish-free menus are available upon request.) But by the same token, a “something for everyone” approach is why I remain ambivalent about CRUSH. The shared plates concept is muddled by the addition of entrées; exciting flavor combinations are tempered with tourist-friendly (read: boring) picks; and vegetarian dishes sometimes outshine items on the main menu. With so many risky options, I’d sooner settle for a single plate of that ricotta gnocchi. And for once in my life, I’m not willing to share.

CRUSH eat, drink, love inside the MGM Grand, 702-891-3222, crushmgm.com. Open daily 5p

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