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Desert Companion

Temple of Carb

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Esther's Kitchen
Photography by Sabin Orr

Cacio e pepe.

The bread at Esther’s Kitchen is incredible, but save room: The rest of the menu is just as flavorful and fun

Butterscotch BundinoThe Las Vegas Arts District has made its transition from arts district to Arts District. So went SoHo, so went DTLA and now goes 18b. Once a place of large spaces and low rents suitable for studios, galleries, and, well, artists, it’s finally turning into what most cities recognize as an arts district: an area with atmospheric bars, unique boutiques, and hip restaurants.

(Pictured right: Butterscotch Bundino)

So far, the area’s been well-served in the first two categories, but is trying to catch up with the third. Thus, Esther’s Kitchen and its merging of small plates with comfort food has been welcomed to the neighborhood with open arms and full tables. It’s a sign of the changes in the neighborhood, and also in our city.

Pizza

Pizza topped with egg and bacon.  Photography by Sabin Orr

The space itself is stripped down, with a reclaimed-wood wall and black-and-white photo mural, leaving the spotlight on the food. That focus takes the form of chef James Trees adding a last flourish of pecorino to a bowl of pasta or a dab of oil onto a plate of crudo. The diners themselves add to the flair — old friends catching up over Chianti and a cheese board, multigenerational families, third-date couples negotiating menu choices. It’s bustling and noisy, but relaxed. As waiters in plaid shirts zip between tables, Robert Smith croons in the background about some pictures he’s been looking at.

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Like most Italian restaurants, Esther’s Kitchen is a temple of carbs, with pasta, pizza, and bread. And that bread is to die for. The sourdough has a slightly charred, slightly crunchy crust with an interior that manages to have ethereal fluffiness and grain. It comes as a first course with butter, anchovy butter, or burrata. A toasted hunk is also served with their polpette, golfball-sized meatballs that come with a smear of basil-oiled ricotta and tomato sugo. You can blend the tastes and textures— piquant meatballs, rustic bread, sweet ricotta, acidic tomato.

Polpette with basil-oiled ricotta

Polpette with basil-oiled ricotta.  Photography by Sabin Orr

The bread is also the basis for the house pizza crust, which is applied to a small, creative selection of pies. While the white pizza has its fans, my fave is the one topped with egg and bacon, another carefully balanced and blended dish. The slightly charred sourdough crust with creamy-sharp Fontina cheese, savory-sweet caramelized onions and a quail egg sunny sided-up onto each quarter — all the components harmonize like the Temptations. And, of course, the house-made pasta — cavatelli, agnolotti, fettuccine, and the whole voluptuous bunch. Cacio e pepe is a simple dish, but that simplicity elevates it: The pecorino melts into the al dente pasta, the pepper gooses things a bit. Cavatelli with sausage, rabe, and tomato has a bit more heft and a flavorful layering of green and meat and pasta.

Beyond bread and pasta, there are a number of vegetable dishes that change seasonally, such as Zucca flowers stuffed with ricotta — kind of like a stuffed pepper or squash blossom, lightly breaded, filled with warm cheese that oozes out with each bite. The lemon and pickled garlic that brighten up the parsnip risotto are intriguing but don’t quite mingle and, ultimately, it doesn’t have the plate-cleaning appeal of other items on the menu.

There are a few desserts, but don’t screw around: Go straight for the Budino. It’s best explained as Italian butterscotch pudding, but that truly does not do it justice. The butterscotch is part pudding-part mousse-part crema, rich and light at the same time, and is topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, a drizzle of caramel, and crunchy honeycomb. Do not share this. Get your own.

The cocktail program has a selection of classics like Manhattans and Negronis, as well a changing list of market cocktails like the vodka-Amaro Bubbly Pino; plus, it’s always nice to have a puff of smoked rosemary from the bar adding another layer to the many scents of the room. An extensive wine list gives each variety a three-word descriptor that’s poetically evocative and prosaically helpful at the same time — a Pinot Noir is “rose petal, walnut, pomegranate,” while a Sauvignon Blanc is “kiwi, coastal, tomato leaf.”

Esther’s Kitchen is a sign of how the Arts District has evolved, but also how dining in Las Vegas has evolved as well. Once upon a time, restaurants were swathed in wallpaper and draperies, filled with two- and four-tops of couples on a date night or conventioneers on an expense account, tucking into each of their three designated courses. Today, most restaurants are designed along industrial-chic lines of painted walls, bare windows and tables that can seat a dozen, as well as menus that blur the distinction between appetizer, side, and entrée. With fewer Americans married than ever before, we’re as likely to dine in packs as pairs; now that we’re all foodies, we want to try more than the traditional meat and two veg — and let our companions try it, too. Esther’s Kitchen may specialize in traditional dishes, but its new style isn’t limited to what’s on the plate.

 

Esther’s Kitchen

1130 S Casino Center Blvd., 702-570-7864, estherslv.com

HOURS Tue-Sun, 5-11p