A new Fleur blooms, a good deal at Lupo and a little Cuban treat

It’s easy to get lost in all the excitement surrounding the opening of the Cosmopolitan, but many things, new and old, are swirling on the local dining scene.

Mid-December also heralded the opening of Fleur, Hubert Keller’s newest concept, at Mandalay Bay. You all know Keller, who has been on Top Chef Masters and has his own cooking show on PBS. He owns Burger Bar, which is also at Mandalay Bay and launched the wave of upscale burger joints around town.

Fleur has replaced Fleur de Lys, his rather formal French restaurant, and is serving tapas, frozen cocktails mixed tableside by means of liquid nitrogen, and cool desserts such as almond panna cotta in a mason jar. The chicken croquettes, skirt steak with chimichurri and fried chickpeas are not to be missed.

Across the hall, meanwhile, chef Eduardo Perez is doing special foods of Tuscany on a prix fixe menu, for $55, at Wolfgang Puck’s Trattoria del Lupo. He’s an inventive chef, and his menu includes stuffed calamari, duck breast confit, and a chocolate chestnut torte with pine nuts and espresso ice cream. It’s an excellent deal, and you probably won’t finish everything.

I recently ate a magnificent Viennese dinner at Switch Steak in Encore. It was prepared by the restaurant’s chef, Réne Lenger, a native of Vienna. His trout-and-potato-leek salad is amazing. If you want wines from Austria, they are available, too, such as a Jamek ’07 Riesling, but for stuffed cabbage rolls or boiled beef, call to order in advance. If you want a great steak or Caesar salad, that’s on the menu, of course.

Finally, I trekked to up to the north side of town after reading a rave by blogger The Frugal Foodie on Varadero (5081 N. Rainbow Blvd., 463-3609), a mom-and-pop Cuban joint. Everything I tasted was excellent, and the prices are bargain basement. Varadero is named for a famous beach in Cuba. I felt like a beached whale after I ate there.

By all means have the medianoche, or “midnight” sandwich ($6.75), sort of a Cuban sandwich on pressed egg bread. It’s stuffed with roast pork that tastes of garlic and orange peel, plus ham, Swiss cheese and pickles with a touch of mustard and mayo. It’s just about the world’s best sandwich.

I was also impressed by the arroz con pollo, the classic chicken-and-rice dish, here served in a cazuela, or round earthenware pot. Why is it so good? When I called to ask if the chicken was cooked with the rice, the woman who answered said it was. She didn’t lie. The half chicken was beautifully braised and tender, the rice fluffy and chicken intense.

Hungry, yet?

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Giovanni Mauro

Giovanni Mauro

By Max Jacobson

For those of us who maintain a connection between fine dining and music, I offer, as an example, Giovanni Mauro. He’s the son of Italian parents who run the locals’ favorite Nora’s Cuisine, 6020 W. Flamingo Road, and he’s one of the most passionate Italian chefs in the city. Gio, as everyone calls him, studied opera at Long Beach State University and later in Milan with famed tenor Carlo Bergonzi. He’s fluent in both Italian and Italian cooking. Today, he expends most of his energy at Nora’s Wine Bar & Osteria in Boca Park.