Aye, Iberian

Superb Spanish at the newest tapas spot in town

I’ve read several tomes mourning the closure of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House on Flamingo Road, and indeed, I can add that the owner, Marcel Taylor, was a classic Vegas restaurateur who will be missed. But the fact that it’s been replaced by a tapas restaurant called Marbella—and an excellent one, to boot—speaks volumes. The market is changing: Steak and huge bills are giving way to ethnic cuisine on small plates.

Now open in the former Ruth’s Chris space is Marbella Tapas Bar & Music of Spain, which is, by my lights, the best off-Strip Spanish food Las Vegas has yet seen. Owner Sia Amiri has enlisted two chefs, David Pena, who worked with both Julian Serrano at Aria and Marco Beltran, a former exec at MGM’s Diego, to get the message across. Hombres, we’re hearing you loud and clear.

Amiri changed the look of this place, but not the floor plan, save splitting the bar into smoking and nonsmoking areas and adding an outdoor patio. There is also a cool DJ booth that was formerly a cigar bar. After 10 p.m., the flamenco music on the sound system gives way to more lively pop.

I love the look in here. Silk boughs are strung along the white walls, and votive candles top an overhead sconce alongside a ceiling fresco depicting Spanish themes. One of the small, private rooms has lurid red walls decorated with prints by Dali and Frida Kahlo. Tables are covered with white butcher paper.

In a tapas restaurant, product is king, so it’s worth noting that the chefs get much of what you’ll eat from locally based procurer Artisanal Foods, including the white anchovies, cheeses and Ibérico ham. This menu is quite large, but that’s the idea, it seems.

The first thing I tasted was a dish of small cubed eggplant with buckwheat honey—one of the most creative uses of this underused honey—which imparts a complex, nutty flavor to the vegetable.

Perfect chicken croquetas had the proper amount of crunch on the surface, a simple preparation that requires only chicken meat, oil and Béchamel sauce. A first-rate Serrano ham platter, priced at only $10, came with pa amb tomàquet, the Catalan tomato-rubbed bread that seems to be everywhere these days. Duck confit, cooked for seven hours, is great.

An excellent cheese plate is stocked with slivers of Manchego and an exquisite Cabrales, as well as the rare cheese, La Serena, a small honeycomb, and fig confiture to eat with them. I have to complain about the house bread, though; it’s just plain boring.

If you’ve come for something more substantial, a main dish, or better yet, paella, you’re bound to be impressed. There is the superb chicken chilindron (a half chicken with cipollini onions and Padrón peppers in a rich, reduced sauce) and Moroccan-style lamb tajine with couscous. Paellas feed two, and are served in the iron pan in which they are cooked. I had the traditional paella Valenciana, with chicken, chorizo, bell peppers and green beans, and it was excellent, though lacking the soccarat, or crusty bottom, that you get if you cook the dish on a live flame.

Don’t miss torta de chocolate or the coconut flan at dessert. Wash it all down with a glass of sangria, and eat your steaks tomorrow.

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