A Colorful Culinary Canvas

At the heart of the Arts District, Bar + Bistro feeds downtown—and well!

Downtown Las Vegas may come up short in the funk department when compared with Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams, San Francisco’s North Beach or SoHo in New York City, but thanks to places like husband-and-wife duo Wes Isbutt and Debra Heiser’s Bar + Bistro, we’re slowly, inexorably, catching up.

Occupying a large swath of the Arts Factory’s ground floor, this eccentric restaurant has become a de facto food court for downtown poets, painters and grunge musicians. The Beat may be where they congregate for coffee klatch, but for serious food that includes a killer weekend brunch, a monthly pig roast on the giant outdoor patio, and a terminally hip menu of small plates, I have to say Bar + Bistro has carved a niche totally unto itself.

The patio is the first thing you spot when you ease onto Art Way from Charleston Boulevard. At night, this large space is strung with lights, surrounded by cactus-filled barrels Isbutt purchased en masse. Inside the dark, spacious bar an indifferently hip crowd is knocking back beer and cocktails.

The bar will probably be busier than the dining room at almost any time. And that’s a pity. The trashy-chic art-filled dining area has personality. An unfinished floor, deconstructed ceiling and copper menu covers are just a few aspects that furnish ambience found in neighborhoods coast to coast, but rarely around here.

The menu was designed by chef Beni Velazquez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, and it has so much variety one might get the notion he is showing off. This chef has cooked in places including Spain, Los Angeles and France, so expect eclectic surprises.

Even when he isn’t preparing an enormous Paella on the patio to serve to those who come for the occasional outdoor music, the dish is still one of the entrée stars. And there are tapas galore, some a tad too large in portion size to actually qualify as part of the genre. Omelet Espanola, for instance, known as a tortilla on the Iberian side, is a firm frittata of potato and egg cut into hulking wedges and sauced with a delicious, authentic Romesco chock-full of almond slivers.

Wild hongos, seasonal mushrooms in a buttery Manzanilla sherry sauce, is sizeable as well, although you’re unlikely to hear any complaints. Just steer clear of anything deep-fried. The two dishes I tried, Little Pollo and tempura alcachofa (artichoke), were greasy train wrecks.

But when Velazquez nails it, his food is good enough to quiet the naysayers who diss downtown dining. I’m already Jonesin’ for more Cubanitos—crisp, bite-size Cuban sandwiches with the perfect blend of ham, cheese, pickles and roast pork. One of the best dishes on the menu is mofongo—spiced, mashed plantains and garlic with any of a number of toppings such as spiced shrimp, garlic chicken or carnitas.

I was actually blown away by the Hangover Brunch, although at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, my wife and I were the only two people in the joint. The black currant scones, made from scratch, are merely the best of many excellent items on the menu, which brioche flan French toast, a four-cheese quiche and a mofongo crab Benedict!

My watermelon sangria was a perfect accompaniment, and dessert—a pile of donut churros paired with a cup of thick Spanish chocolate—did the kitchen proud. I’d almost move downtown just to be a regular here, if I could get someone to buy my house.

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