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At first bite: It's the bomb

Sea Scallops
Photography by Sabin Orr

Atomic's broiled sea scallops on Japanese eggplant.

The Kitchen at Atomic is now ground zero for tasty and often daring bar food

From 1952 to 1962, crowds of tourists and locals would gather on famous Fremont Street, gazing northwest at mushroom clouds rising from nuclear weapons tests deep in the desert. That explosive hullabaloo gave rise to Atomic Liquors, the oldest freestanding bar in town. Fast forward to the past year or so, leading up to early April, as hip Downtown denizens and suburban foodies in the know were fixated on a more culinary boom: the opening of the Kitchen at Atomic. Finally, the beloved watering hole would serve grub.

If you judge by fervent crowds, there was a pent-up demand for more quality dining off the Strip. As for the menu, it’s almost a perfect metaphor for the revived establishment itself — a time-tested foundation fused with a new wave of experimentation.

Not surprisingly, informal, bar-centric offerings dominate, beginning with impressive snacks such as Fat Man Fries, piled high with chili, hot dogs, beer cheese, bacon, onion, peppers, and a literally bomb moniker. More elevated are Mama John’s Mac Bites, rich mouth-poppers studded with poached lobster and roasted peppers in a blanket of Gruyère béchamel sauce.

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The house burger is nicely composed in the classic mode, with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a bump of zesty aïoli. The BBBLT beckons triply with the promise of pork, turkey, and duck bacons. Duck bacon! Served on toasted focaccia, it’s a notably vertical sandwich, and it gets slippery and wobbly from a bit too much avocado and other veggies. I wound up picking it apart with a fork and using the bread to mop up the last drops of soup — but I finished everything.

Mama John's Mac Bites, studded with lobster and roasted potatoes.

The Kitchen at Atomic is now ground zero for tasty and often daring bar food.

The soups are perhaps the menu’s most surprising offerings. I sampled bowls from both sides of the meat/no-meat spectrum and was impressed each time. For instance, a beef-barley pottage was filled with rich bovine flavor. It’s filling, yet light enough to be warm-weather friendly. On the vegan side, a duo of zucchini-curry and squash-coconut purées were artfully poured into a single container to form a whimsical yin-yang pattern. Again, it was invitingly savory and fulfilling without being heavy.

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Enter salads, especially the Caesarette, which, the staff joked, some call the “Caesaresque.” I agree. This is no variation on a puritanically proper Tijuana-born Caesar. It’s more like a rogue cousin. Shredded Romaine lettuce is tossed with carrot escabeche, slivers of cactus pads, and crispy hominy bits (yes, think craft-made Corn Nuts) in a chile-laden vinaigrette with a subtle touch of anchovy. It’s a mysterious, almost uncanny umami experience, one that’s definitely not for newbies or those with sensitive palates. It is a must-do for me, though. The Wedges + Blue is a more trad steakhouse blue cheese job, with prosciutto for a bacon upgrade.

It’s with the entrées that the creativity really kicks in. A plate of broiled sea scallops takes an avant-garde direction with a topping of salt plum chutney, puffy miso barley crunch bits, and drizzled ponzu sauce atop discs of Japanese eggplant. Here, the base is the weakest link, with its overly seedy texture — eggplant sometimes takes true commitment. But it’s worth it, with the puckery chutney cutting the sweetness of the scallop nicely. Another fragrant offering is a chicken thigh with vermouth (hello, hints of martini!), turnips, and fried hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.

Lemon-ricotta donuts with blueberry coulis

The dish that’s been making the rounds as a local fave is the ribeye crown with smashed potato, carrots, and pink peppercorn-shallot relish. With its robust, mineral-laden beefiness punched up by the piquant topping, I’m looking forward to ordering it again — except that I also have my eye on the house’s deluxe option, a succulent–looking surf & turf: beef tenderloin and lobster with truffled asparagus and foie gras butter. In a casino resort, either of these choices would run a good $20 more, so there’s a definite value proposition in the Kitchen’s prices.

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The dessert menu is sparse but has highlights such as lemon-ricotta donuts with blueberry coulis and locally made lavender-honey gelato. The bar program is advanced and comprehensive, right down to an impressive collection of fine Madeira wines with their nutty, caramel-like profiles.

Housed in a former auto garage, Kitchen at Atomic has plenty of retro industrial-chic bona fides. In a town once tied to nuclear explosions, the giant radioactivity logo out front is tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic fun, while the interior is firmly in the brick-walled, gastropub genre, with a handsome dark-wood bar and black-and-white photographic Vegas shout-outs. While restaurant service is not available on the wide and extremely popular Atomic Lounge patio along Fremont Street, the Kitchen does have its own open-air space, with glowing lights strung above. It’ll surely be a better setting for dining during the sweltering, gusty summer evenings to come. Here’s hoping that the Kitchen at Atomic has a long and radiant half-life. 


The Kitchen at Atomic

927 Fremont St.

HOURS Wed, Sun, 4-10p; Thu-Sat, 4p-midnight, closed Mon-Tue