Add a Bulgarian/Spanish tapas bar to the “Only in Vegas” file. Forte European Tapas Bar & Bistro belongs to European-born, Vegas-reared Nina Manchev, a tall, twentysomething blonde who once worked the front desk at the Hard Rock.
When I first stumbled onto Forte, I wasn’t sure how to even get in. The gate is the entrance to the patio; the restaurant’s entrance door is painted over. With its funky décor, thrift-store art and infused libations such as Gypsy Juice (a creation based on vodka, cassis and a number of secret ingredients) this place is eccentric in the extreme. And then some.
When I first looked at the menu I thought I was being punk’d, because I saw adjarski khachapuri, a boat-shaped bread from the Republic of Georgia, served piping-hot from the oven next to Hungarian goulash, and assorted smoked sausages from Bulgaria sharing space with Spanish fare such as Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and patatas bravas—hand-cut potatoes served with aioli. The bread, incidentally, is filled with farmer’s cheese and a bubbling whole egg, and it is amazing.
Dinner got serious when I had my first spoonful of soup, a meaty borsht, accompanied by chebureki, fried pastry from the Caucasus stuffed with spicy ground meat. It turns out Manchev is a foodie who “has been around ethnic foods all my life.” But it’s still a shock to see this kind of range on a neighborhood menu.
She herself doesn’t really cook, but she “occasionally assists” her chefs, who come from Russia, Bulgaria and Mexico, not to mention a few ladies around town who make her empanadas, pirojki and banitza, a flaky turnover that here fairly drools feta cheese. It’s a specialty of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and totally great.
The beginning of the menu is devoted to rustic soups such as solyanka, Russian or Ukrainian broth with cabbage, onions and various sausages in strips, or the famous (in the Balkans) Shopska salad, really a Greek salad without lettuce, but with roasted red peppers. (Bulgarians love red peppers.)
Then there are Spanish dishes surprisingly similar to those at Jaleo or Julian Serrano. A mixed grill of three different chorizos tasted like, well, chorizos, all with a nice char, and only their shapes to separate them.
The chicken wings are sensational, with little nibs of fried garlic underneath them. Gambas al ajillo, shrimp sautéed in white wine and more garlic, come with thick slices of grilled country white bread. “Is the chef who made this from Bulgaria?” I asked Manchev. “He’s from the Mexican part of Bulgaria,” she quipped.
It might take you the better part of a week to eat your way through this menu, but pay special attention to tochitura Moldoveneasca (beef stew with polenta and the only Moldovan dish in Vegas) and pirojki, homemade turnovers sold individually with fillings of either cabbage, meat, potato or mushroom.
If you aren’t into infusions, there are wines and spirits you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere else in the city. Of particular interest are a grappa-like spirit called Peshterska, and a spicy-sweet red wine from Georgia, Tamada Khvanchkara, reputedly a favorite of Stalin or so writes a scribe named Simon Montefiore in Court of the Red Czar (Vintage, 2005).
The historical record knows little about Stalin’s favorite tapas.