At Niu-Gu, a restless restaurateur and a daring chef team up to bring stellar Asian sophistication to Chinatown
A plate of fried rice is set before me in Las Vegas’ Chinatown. No surprise, of course. There are far more than 100 Asian eateries in this growing gustatory zone that offer such a mainstay. But here at Niu-Gu, my wok-sizzled side dish arrives as a glistening half-dome of grains dyed a deep purplish-black by the introduction of squid ink into the mix. It looks like half of a Fabergé egg and has an exquisite, subtly marine flavor when I break its perfect form and try it. On another astounding plate, a trio of seashells evokes beachside sandcastle memories as my chopsticks grab ginger-hinted bits of mollusk piled about them. It’s my first sea-snail experience, and it is fantastic. More familiar, perhaps, to mainstream American tastes, there’s also a mound of chili-scorched tiger shrimp nearby that nonetheless demands me to man up and devour them shell and all. (Okay, I stop munching at the tails.)
Niu-Gu is no average moo goo gai pan kind of place. Rather, it’s the elevation of Chinese cuisine as envisioned by its restaurateur masterminds: Chef Jimmy Li and his business partner, Joe Muscaglione.
Li hails from Shanghai and has been cooking in the States for nearly two decades, including here in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, before. Muscaglione is a well-known local food and wine professional who arrived in town more than a decade ago, after working for Mario Batali at his famed Babbo in New York City. Considering the competitive marketplace that is Chinatown, what inspired this adventurous pair to join forces? For Muscaglione, who is Sicilian-via-New Jersey, it’s a nearly lifelong obsession with the distinctive cuisines that stretch from Zhejiang to Sichuan provinces.
“What I eat mostly is Chinese or Italian,” says Muscaglione, sitting in a booth in the compact, 50-seat restaurant decorated with traditional ink drawings of stampeding stallions and Confucian scholars, plus a carved-wood Laughing Buddha figurine in a corner for auspicious good measure. More than a mere Chinese cuisine connoisseur, Muscaglione is also an evangelist of the culinary culture that has emerged along West Spring Mountain Road and branched off into cross streets like South Jones Boulevard. “I’m convinced — it’s not even arguable to me anymore — that we have the best food in any Chinatown in all North America, including Vancouver. None of them have a Raku or Kabuto ... Those two alone elevate us.” He adds well-known names such as Chada and District One to his list of gourmet-level Chinatown offerings right here in Southern Nevada.
Care to the bone
But those are Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese establishments, respectively. Something was missing: Muscaglione saw an opportunity for upscale, modern but approachable Chinese cuisine. “I’ve been trying to do this for about four years, but I needed a chef like Jimmy,” he says. “We’re using the best stuff we can possibly source. We’re using Angus beef in everything. We use beef tenderloin and filet mignon in our stir-fries, so they’re tender.”
It’s fitting there would be particular attention on beef, as the restaurant’s name means beef bone in Mandarin. That care extends to its seafood, which is delivered fresh a few times a week straight from Southern California’s piers. Chef Li arrives with icy coolers filled with everything from Maine lobsters and live octopi — sometimes even bundles of jumpy frogs. Li selects only what he will need for the day.
During a later conversation, I sit with Li over a platter of his special Kung Pao chicken made with black rice vinegar and bean sauce. Filled with dried chilis, it’s kapow unlike any version of the standard dish I’ve tried before. This combination of newness and familiarity turns out to be his modus operandi in the kitchen, which he helms nightly.
“I change food a little bit to create a better taste, but everything is based on dishes that are very traditional,” says Li.
One standout dish Li has dreamt up is a lobster and fruit salad. It’s reminiscent of the classic ambrosia that’s been on American tables since the late 19th century, but chunks of lobster meat give it a tropical Cantonese nuance. Like it, a number of other creations in Li’s repertoire seem to exist in their own culinary world. An appetizer of chilled, thin-sliced beef tongue in a vinaigrette-like dressing is both velvety and piquant. A bowl of oxtail soup filled with diced vegetables has an almost Provençal character. For a compact parcel packed with flavor, the steamed oyster with a garlic-wine sauce cup is revelatory: a fat bivalve is perched on a slight nest of rice noodles and drenched in a heavenly, allium-rich consommé. It’s one of the most concentrated spoonfuls of deliciousness in town.
A crowded marquee
Two barbecue entrees are hallmarks of Niu-Gu. First is the cumin-rubbed rack of lamb, which has the Silk Road flavor profile of far Western China. The chops are succulent, and the intrepid Li double-toasts the cumin seeds for added fragrance. And then there’s the marquee menu item: the slow-roasted short rib. Tender slices of beef are assembled on a gleaming leg bone platter. It’s like a feast for a caveman king. To be sure, vegetables don’t get short shrift at Niu-Gu, not by a Chinatown mile at all. Many dishes feature prodigious quality produce from bok choy and forest mushrooms to scallions and lotus leaves. The menu also features a half-dozen varieties of noodle bowls for informal slurping as well as a variety of fried rices.
Niu-Gu also offers an incredible array of nearly three dozen rare, single-origin teas presented in an elegant tableside service complete with gorgeously delicate teacups barely bigger than giant thimbles. Muscaglione and Li have brought in Las Vegas tech entrepreneur Elyse Petersen, the founder of Tealet.com, to develop a beverage program unique to the metropolitan area. Diners will be able to sample and learn about varietals with various flavor profiles from limpid Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) with hints of spice and fresh hay to darker, elixir-like Pu’erh teas, which are brewed from naturally fermented leaves.
This edifying commitment to authentic tea is emblematic of Niu-Gu’s devotion to raising the bar. But beyond that, it reinforces Chinatown’s status as a lively culinary laboratory where some of the city’s most inspiring and innovative dishes are being served — and enthusiastically
Niu-Gu Noodle House
3400 S. Jones Blvd. #16