The dish: Friend request
A chef and a cocktail artist team up to launch Libertine Social, a high-concept gastropub with a focus on down-to-earth fun
Whelk toast paired with pineapple-infused frozen vodka may sound like an unlikely appetizer, but without this dish, there might have been no Libertine Social, the nouveau gastropub that opened at Mandalay Bay in August. (For those not acquainted with the wide world of edible mollusks, a whelk is a giant predatory sea snail, which sounds slightly terrifying.) That light bite was the product of the first collaboration, five years ago, between Chef Shawn McClain and mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, the duo behind the new venture. Rewind to 2011, when the two had teamed up on Iron Chef to compete against Chef Marc Forgione and mixologist Charlotte Voisey. They prevailed with lively, unusual pairings such as, you guessed it, whelk toast and frozen vodka. “I always say it was definitely a kindred spirit that was recognized early on,” McClain says.
Fast-forward from that fateful snail to 18 months ago, when McClain approached MGM about creating another dining destination. After he settled on Mandalay Bay as its future home, what began as a restaurant concept evolved to something that embraced a bar program as ambitious as the food menu. “That is when Tony and I first had a conversation,” McClain says. Abou-Ganim’s reply to the pitch: “Heck yes.”
“After Iron Chef, we had an opportunity to do some festivals together and a couple of charity events,” Abou-Ganim recalls. “It seemed to be a pretty nice marriage, and I think something like this has been needed in Las Vegas for a long time.”
Crowd pleaser: Libertine Social's grilled and chilled prawns. Photography Sabin Orr
The result of the partnership is a food and drink experience geared decidedly toward social butterflies. If you want a quiet dinner for two or a drink in solitude, Libertine Social might not be your place. Instead, from the restaurant layout to the menus, Libertine Social is designed to encourage interaction and indulgence in equal measure. The lounge area’s communal tables and curvy bar invite you to say hello to your neighbors —
and perhaps even play a friendly match of the restaurant’s custom “Liberate” card game, in which players complete truth-or-dare challenges to earn cards. (McClain admits he’s way too shy to ever do well at this game.) Sure, there’s a more traditional dining area in the back, but when seated there, you get the sense that the hostess just put you in time-out.
“If there is something I am really proud of in Vegas, it is creating one-off concepts,” McClain says. “They are not carbon copies of anything we’ve done before.”
The menus focus on shareable items such as high-concept dips and cocktails by the pitcher. For the cuisine, McClain wanted to reimagine American bar food — think earthy, but elevated. (Many of the ingredients are sourced by famed forager Kerry Clasby.) So, say, if you’re a fan of neighborhood watering-hole staples such as chicken wings, Libertine Social offers as an alternative the Petaluma chicken, or even grilled and chilled prawns — indeed, both require a game willingness to get a little messy. Love nachos? McClain suggests the melted farmhouse cheese served with a warm pretzel to match the gooey, shareable appeal of the bar favorite. If sliders are your go-to, he endorses the burger (“Our burger is phenomenal. Why go small?”), but you could also try the braised oxtail crostini for a more adventurous twist.
Petaluma chicken. Photography Sabin Orr
Swizzle and fizz
Of course, Libertine Social aims to be as much about the drinks. Abou-Ganim recommends pairing a country ham flatbread with a Queen’s Park Swizzle or ordering the baked goat cheese with a Libertine Fizz, which features vodka, Campari, limoncello and orange juice. The main bar’s cocktail menu features “swizzles” (pitchers for four), fruit-forward fizzes and 12 retro cocktails, including the Slow, Comfortable Screw and other memorable ’80s hits such as Sex on the Beach and the Fuzzy Navel.
“I started behind the bar in 1980, so I remember Kamikazes and how much fun people would have,” Abou-Ganim says. “Anyone who says they do not like a well-made, well-balanced Cosmopolitan is just being a little pretentious, I think.”
For those who insist on the true classics, there’s Libertine Social’s separate Arcade Bar. The menu that features an illustration of a tattooed Charlie Chaplin hints at the playful spirit within. The space was originally intended to be a private dining room, but Abou-Ganim saw an opportunity for more parlor tricks with classic cocktails as well as daisies, cobblers, cups and juleps.
“I am all about the classics,” he says. “It was an opportunity to have a separate menu and to really celebrate those drinks that were created before Prohibition and pay respect to those who have paved the way for our profession.”
Starting the evening with a Freddy Fudpucker and ending with a Claret Cup might seem like cocktail whiplash, but the reserved chef and easygoing mixologist hope Libertine Social’s attention to craft and sourcing make it a kind of sophisticated switch-up — or, simply, the ingredients for a great night out with friends old and new.
“It’s kind of like Cheers,” says Abou-Ganim. “You want to be at a place where people know your name, and we’re going to work very hard at that.”
In Mandalay Bay