A revered destination for gourmet ingredients, Artisanal Foods brings its inventory to life in a new café
In a commercial complex southeast of McCarran International Airport, Brett Ottolenghi drops tiny, translucent crustaceans into a shallow fish tank. As they sink into the swirling water with appendages flailing, an aquatic beast bearing long, needle-sharp spindles on its fins rushes in and sucks them into its maw. “We’re feeding our lionfish some ghost shrimp,” says Ottolenghi. “We have them on display to start a conversation with our guests.”
Is this an aquarium shop? No, it’s Artisanal Foods, Las Vegas’ most interesting gourmet food emporium. But what conversation needs to be started over lionfish? Menacingly beautiful with brown- and white-striped bodies and venomous outriggers, lionfish look spectacular behind glass. Unfortunately, the Southeast Asian native has been released along the Atlantic Ocean seaboard by careless fish enthusiasts. The invasive species is now destroying vast swaths of ocean life. “Without any natural predators on the East Coast, they’ve become over-abundant,” explains Ottolenghi, the owner of Artisanal Foods. “They’ll consume about 80 percent of the biodiversity on a reef. They’ve been found in waters as cold as in Maine, and as far south as Venezuela.” The Carolinas, Florida and the Caribbean have been particularly hard hit by the rapacious hunters.
Luckily, however, lionfish are quite edible for humans, despite their ferocious appearances. Agencies including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are trying to fight the lionfish infestation by getting them served in restaurants and fried up in home galleys.
Next to the Artisanal Foods lionfish pen is a tank with an altogether different kind of water denizen — baby sturgeon. Looking like squiggly, long arrowheads, they periodically poke their snouts above water, almost seeming to look at Ottolenghi. These cute dinosaur fish — they are creatures with ancient fossil records — produce the best caviar when they grow up, often reaching lengths more than 10 feet. Fittingly, Ottolenghi sells the best-tasting bits of each demonstration swimmer: harvested lionfish fillets and a rotating list of tinned sturgeon roes from locales stretching from Italy to Idaho.
Many Southern Nevada gourmands are familiar with Artisanal Foods from its prior location near the corner of Sunset and Eastern. From there, Ottolenghi sold upscale food items like Croatian truffles, acacia honey, Tahitian vanilla and olive oil “pearls” for five years. This summer, Ottolenghi moved Artisanal Foods to a new, much larger location back on Pama Lane, a bit south of his old storefront. The company is also a leading wholesale provider to many of the finest restaurants on the Strip and beyond.
For Ottolenghi’s retail customers, the migration is important, for now they can sit down in-store and experience a dish of coconut-infused lionfish ceviche or savor osetra caviar with crème fraîche and blini. In September, Artisanal Foods added a café, which serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday. The food program is being helmed by Executive Chef Johnny Church, who previously thrilled local diners at Downtown’s MTO Café. In partnering with Ottolenghi, Church is whipping up an inventive but accessible menu fueled with the store’s larder of exquisite ingredients.
Standout items include revamped classics such as silver dollar pancakes. Here, they’re topped with seared Sonoma foie gras in a sweet-but-tart three-grape gastrique sauce. It takes breakfast to a whole new luscious, ethereal level. With crispy chicken thighs, organic dark meat from Mary’s Free Range Chickens is nestled above a hearty hunk of mushroom-laden bread pudding. It’s an umami mother lode.
The Caesar salad is fantastic. Church reclaims the leafy standard from the dregs of pre-made inertia by individually assembling each order with a fresh-crafted dressing of olive oil, lemon, Bourbon Barrel Worcestershire sauce, Katz vinegar, Tellicherry peppercorns and sea salt. Significant planks of top-notch Ortiz anchovy and a soft-poached chicken egg bring more flavor amid a judicious riddling of crumbled crouton.
Want a burger à la Chef Church? He has two. One is extraordinary with foie gras, truffled egg and Melkus truffled Gouda cheese from The Netherlands. Even his seemingly everyday Americana-mode lettuce-tomato-onion junior job has a patty of imported Italian beef from the fertile Piedmont region, just like its big brother. Similarly, a deli-style sandwich comes as brioche bread stuffed with savory sliced cold cuts from Portland, Oregon’s cult hit Olympic Provisions and Mario Batali’s dad’s famous Seattle meatery, Salumi. Beyond these tentpoles, Church’s roster is set to be highly seasonal. Soups to entrées will follow the natural abundance available from modern Las Vegas’ produce vendors.
This all sounds quite expensive, doesn’t it? Actually, with so much exotic and upscale inventory already at hand, Ottolenghi and Church have largely cut the middleman out of the equation in sourcing the cafe’s menu. This is playing out nicely for diners in terms of dollars. That Caesar salad? Seven dollars. Respectable but manageable slabs of foie gras on flapjacks? Twelve dollars. And that crazy-good burger’s $17 line item would easily be upward of thirty bucks in the Tourist Corridor. It tops the establishment’s day-to-day prices.
“I think we can do something special at the price points we’re trying to hit,” says Church, prepping for the 11 a.m. lunch starting bell. “With the products we’re using, we’re not sacrificing quality at all.”
Beyond introducing lunch, Ottolenghi and Church have eyes on making Artisanal Foods a frequent destination for Sin City’s gastronomists. They’ve started hands-on classes where the curious can learn skills such as making mozzarella cheese. Also in the plans are B.Y.O.B. brunch events, where diners can call ahead with their wine selections. (The establishment doesn’t have a liquor license.) Church will mine his culinary expertise and raid the shop’s well-stocked shelves to create tastings perfectly matched to the vintages customers uncork.
Artisanal Food’s new home definitely has an informal setting. Be prepared. A few tables are located in a lofty atrium next to the retail space. But they are also right by those two interesting fish tanks and the kitchen door. Take a seat and let the culinary conversation start.
2053 Pama Lane