The maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” evidently didn’t apply to AJ’s, the Hard Rock Hotel’s original steak house. Management felt it was time for change, and the space is now home to a new concept called Rare 120, a name referring to the temperature when steak is cooked rare.
The original venue was sedate, cast in the classic Vegas mold. This place fairly throbs with ’80s bands such as U2 and Depeche Mode blasting away over the sound system, and soundless ’80s movies such as Top Gun, screened on clever plasma TVs mounted on the wall. I have to wonder if this crowd, mostly Gen X and Yers, is old enough to remember them.
The Dolce Group from Los Angeles was hired to give the room a fresh ultra lounge look. Seating in the stylish room is on white cloth chairs emblazoned with black scribbles. A well-endowed team of female servers look very resplendent in their black skirts and tights, and tighter white blouses.
Chef Jonathan Snyder has lots of original ideas, so the menu is progressive. Six skewered orbs called Kobe Meatball Lollipops, for instance, are presented with three dipping sauces—basil aioli, honey mustard and spicy ketchup. And the baked oysters are nice, too, with truffled creamed spinach topping.
(I was grateful, by the way, not to taste any truffle oil in the topping. I’d like to see this horrible chemical waste product put to permanent rest. It’s artificially produced, in a lab, not made from actual truffles.)
Other starters from the menu worth a try include steamed clams with ginger, Thai chili, cilantro and lime, and spicy ahi tartare. One that did not impress me was the house Caesar. The dressing was limp, and the so-called pizza croutons even more limp.
Steaks here are USDA Prime, 28-day dry-aged, but my 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye, while nicely flavorful and tender, didn’t have the gamy flavor of the dry-aged meat you’d get at, say, Delmonico or Carnevino.
The dish that impressed me most, for that matter, wasn’t even beef. It was organic chicken, cooked two ways—one roasted, the other a confit. This is not only the best chicken dish in the city, it’s one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever had in my life. The bird was so crisp and flavorful I wanted to lick the plate. Confit is meat preserved in its own salt and fat, but pan-roasting rendered most of the fat out, so the meat was sheer perfection.
As to the side dishes, the mushroom pot pie—crimini, shiitake, oyster and button mushrooms in a rich cream sauce with a pastry hat—leads the parade. I was envious of the Rare 120 herbed fries at an adjacent table. I got stuck with some grilled corn that didn’t taste grilled.
Lastly, pastry chef Nicole Jones is a talent. Ice cream sandwiches, assorted cookies that manage to stay warm in spite of thick ice cream fillings, are terrific, and the house dessert plate, Indulgence, is almost as over the top as Tom Cruise playing Maverick on the small screen.
Open 6-11 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday. Dinner for two, $89-$145. Call 603-5000 for reservations.