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Desert Companion

At first bite: More than a pretty name

Daytime cooking show queen Giada De Laurentiis has a lot to prove with her first restaurant. She does just that — with surprising flair and flavor 

Unless you’re a diehard fan of Food Network personality Giada De Laurentiis, it would be difficult to visit GIADA — her new namesake restaurant — without a critical eye. De Laurentiis, 43, has never actually been a chef or restaurateur. Rather, her status in the food world was earned through television shows and cookbooks aimed at suburban moms.

So when it was announced that she would unveil her first major hospitality endeavor on the Las Vegas Strip, I had to wonder: Could the queen of daytime cooking shows satisfy jet-setting foodies in Vegas? Should you take it upon yourself to find out, your first job would be to score a reservation. Otherwise you may be snubbed by a pretty hostess and relegated to the lounge, which was my experience on a recent early weekday evening.

The seating assignment was no grave matter. In fact, it provided a 360-degree view of the dining room and open kitchen. Stark white décor, gilded service carts and loud modern artwork (including a Warholian portrait of De Laurentiis) cried for a “the 1980s called …” joke. I couldn’t help but imagine that I was dining at Dorsia, the fictional, pretentious high-end restaurant in the novel American Psycho.

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Fortunately, the food is far more approachable than you’d expect for its surroundings. In keeping with the light and simple fare that De Laurentiis prepares on screen, GIADA offers guests Italian flavors seen through the prism of California cuisine. Think of it as red sauce lite. Clams casino, that New England invention of bacon and breadcrumb-coated bellies on the half-shell, is made dainty with quarter-sized littlenecks and whisper-thin shavings of crispy prosciutto. And of the five types of crostini on offer, a marriage of feta cheese and tomato-strawberry jam was a spectacular combination of sweet, salty and summery.

3 Bean Salad

Antipasti is best ordered in platters — various configurations of small plates are available depending on the tastes and size of your group. But if I had to choose just one, my personal favorite was a three-bean salad with luscious burrata cheese. Unlike the limp, stewed-to-death greens served in your usual Italian restaurant, vegetables here are prepared in a way that maintains their integrity. Yellow wax beans were the perfect balance of cooked and crunchy, and the addition of edamame was unconventional but clever.

Other dishes were too minimal to be impressive. Medallions of crispy polenta outshined the shrimp in a bland scampi dish, and the mortadella pizette — essentially an open-faced bologna sandwich — was a delicious but potentially misleading choice for a true pizza-lover. GIADA, however, wins points for its presentation on a heated marble slab.

MeatballsI also remain undecided on the meatballs, made with pork, beef, veal, and orzo. On one hand, it’s a clever one-bite take on spaghetti and meatballs; on the other, the pasta feels like cheap filler. It calls to mind an old housewife tip of using oatmeal in meatloaf to stretch your dollar.

To drink, there is a signature cocktail menu inspired by classic Hollywood films — a nod to the film producer and De Laurentiis’ late grandfather Dino. Despite its name, The Destroyer (Clase Azul tequila reposado, tangerine, orange, basil) is a refreshing start before indulging in some classic Old World Chianti.

Dessert was an encore performance of the earlier tomato and strawberry jam, served in the form of a tart. The sweet and sticky filling was so delicious that I didn’t mind the recycling of ingredients.

I was surprised to see Ms. De Laurentiis greeting guests in her chef’s jacket one month into the opening. It’s an open secret that celebrities are often involved in these projects strictly in name; her presence suggested that she knows just how much she has to prove to discerning diners.

My only concern for the restaurant is its location. It’s unfortunate that GIADA occupies The Cromwell, or what was previously Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall. The casino’s remodel seems like it has done little to change the former atmosphere and clientele. Hopefully the restaurant’s success will expedite the exorcism of Bill’s ghost. But until then, I can always recreate my meal with the help of De Laurentiis’ cookbooks. 

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