The Bistro Has Landed

How one chef helped a down-on-its-luck downtown restaurant get its groove back—almost overnight

Beni Velázquez thinks of himself as a rebel. But that bit of navel-gazing is off. It’s not so much that the co-owner and chef of Bar + Bistro wants to break the rules; he wants to make them. All of them.

He talks, practically in the same breath, about wanting his chefs to use their talents but insisting they follow his recipes exactly. Every dish is Velázquez’s creation. Everything except for the Hellmann’s mayonnaise is made from scratch with seasonal ingredients: the ricotta for the cheesecake, the blueberry-fig jam for the scones, even the marshmallows for his take on s’mores.

“Yeah. I guess I’m a control freak,” he admits before adding: “It’s just I don’t want my rules broken. My rules are the best.” That relentlessness seems to finally be working for the Arts Factory’s restaurant. The space, on the corner of Art Way and Charleston Boulevard, has seen a few restaurants shuffle through, including Tinoco’s Bistro and an outlet for Paymon’s Mediterranean. When leasing didn’t work out, the Arts Factory’s owners—photographer Wes Myles and graphic designer Debra Heiser—opened their own. The couple infused Bar + Bistro (pronounced Bar Bistro; the “and” is silent) with an aesthetic that fit their funky neighborhood, but the Italian eatery wilted under faint praise. Critics sighed with disappointment that the food didn’t have the heart of the city’s arts district.

The place attracted only an anemic lunch crowd of downtown workers. Then Myles met Velázquez through one of his distributors. He’d finally found a culinary artist who could make the food worth a trip across the Strip and bring back downtown lawyers after hours. “I was weak from losing so much blood. Beni turned it around instantly. He was the first one to really embrace the Arts Factory for what it is. He gets that it’s about contemporary art.”

Just nine months after Velázquez bought into the restaurant, sales have doubled and its hours and staff have expanded. The special tasting nights have sold out, and it will soon introduce a grab-and-go menu for neighborhood outlets.

Velázquez has rocketed Bar + Bistro to the top of food critics’ lists with his seasonally rotating menus. The venue has earned a place in the 2012 edition of Eating Las Vegas: 50 Essential Restaurants (published by Huntington Press and co-authored by Vegas Seven food critic Max Jacobson). Travel + Leisure listed the Hangover Brunch as one of the city’s best new attractions in its November issue.

The chef bristles when someone tries to categorize his food. “Everyone wants to label you,” he says. “But you can’t put yourself in a category when you’re just making it up in your head.”

His food is a blend of his experiences. Take his tomato soup, for example. The American classic is infused with ginger and lemongrass, and is built on the two key ingredients that pull together all Velázquez’s divergent dishes: his roasted tomato sauce and his sofrito, a mixture of peppers, garlic and herbs. His Puerto Rican mother taught him how to prepare the latter, but his version has evolved over the years just as he has.

Velázquez sang in a Boston salsa band for 15 years and started cooking to help pay the bills. He landed those early jobs with sheer bravado. “They’d ask me if I knew how to make something, and I’d always say yes. Then I’d have to go borrow a cookbook to figure it out. As a young cook, I was a total pain in the ass because I’d ask so many questions. I always wanted to know why—why was it done that way?”

He worked his way up the ranks at Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels and traveled to Spain to learn how to make the paella that’s popular on his menu now. He credits Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill fame for teaching him the difference between cooking well for people and giving them an experience.

He co-owned a restaurant once before. Steeles in Las Vegas opened with ambition in 2008 and soon closed as the economy crashed and rent proved too high for the aged beef and tapas. His next step was Stanford Hospital & Clinics, to develop its organic, farm-fresh foods program. At Bar + Bistro, Velázquez and Myles support local suppliers, such as Davalos Tequila, Primo Coffee & Teas, and Larry’s Great Western Meats.

“With Wes there’s a real chemistry,” Velázquez says. “We believe in the same values, in our vision for where we want to go. The bar is his baby, and he leaves me to be creative in the kitchen.

“All my 20 years of experience are combining perfectly now. If I leave, this will all falter. Not because I’m the best, but because this is me. This is my food.”