Leave it to Kerry Simon to give Downtown Las Vegas its first true dining destination—a restaurant that justifies a trip Downtown just to sample its cuisine. Despite a few problems during its soft opening, his newest restaurant, Carson Kitchen, already has local foodies buzzing, and rightfully so.
Simon became a trendsetter by abandoning fine dining for more casual fare more than a decade ago. Long before every celebrity chef in the land was clamoring to open a casual restaurant, Simon was applying his gourmet skills to approachable dishes, such as his signature meatloaf. Now, even as he battles an aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease known as multiple systems atrophy, he’s shaking up the dining world once again by peppering otherwise familiar dishes with gourmet touches and exotic details. The result is the most exciting menu we’ve seen from the chef in years.
Take, for example, his veal meatballs, liberally coated with a rich and earthy sherry foie gras cream worthy of any Michelin-starred restaurant. And by serving his wonderfully spiced rabbit ragu not over pasta but spaghetti squash, diners get the feel of al dente pasta, but with a lighter, healthier snap.
Don’t be fooled by the description of the gyro tacos. These grilled flatbreads aren’t filled with the densely packed meat you’ll find roasting on a spit in your typical Greek restaurant. Instead, the chef uses fresh, mildly spiced ground lamb, complemented by tzatziki sauce, cucumber and tomatoes.
The beef Wellington offered in a moist flaky empanada crust just might give Gordon Ramsay’s famed Wellington a run for its money (at a drastically lower price point). And even a humble turkey burger is elevated with Jamaican jerk spice and mango-chutney slaw.
What may become the restaurant’s signature dishes are at once the simplest and most complex items on the menu. Fried chicken skins may not seem like a delicacy. But by brining the skin overnight, then lightly seasoning and frying them to crispy perfection, Simon has created an overnight sensation. While they’re accompanied by smoked honey, they stand up just fine on their own and sell out almost nightly.
Then there’s the warm bacon jam, topped with melted brie cheese and served with toasted baguette. This is a dish that presents itself gradually, hitting you first with its sugary sweetness. Then, one by one, other flavors emerge: garlic, vinegar, salty bacon and finally hot chili peppers that provide a nice spicy bite that stops just short of overpowering the palate.
Given its newness, it’s not surprising Carson Kitchen still has some bugs to work out. On my first visit, the filling of the popular Devil’s Eggs (topped with tobiko caviar and crispy pancetta) was watery. Simon’s partner, Cory Harwell, who had been chatting with me while I ate, acknowledged it was poorly executed, and when I returned a few days later the problem had been corrected. Unfortunately, that evening an order of black rice and oxtail risotto was so incredibly bland nobody in my party would eat it—much to Harwell’s horror. Perhaps because of hiccups like these, the menu was recently streamlined, although both of those dishes remain.
While Simon has long been known for his whimsical takes on our favorite childhood sweets, I would avoid the Not Your Father’s Twinkies, which were a soggy mess when I sampled them. Opt instead for the wonderful union of salty and sweet in a bourbon fudge brownie with brown-butter bacon ice cream or the glazed-donut bread pudding made with leftovers from the neighboring O Face Donuts, which, like Carson Kitchen, opens onto Carson Street—a much grittier locale than the tourist and hipster-packed stretch of Fremont Street a block to the north.
Carson Kitchen is currently only taking reservations for parties of six or more, so you might have to put your name on the wait list. (Note that they don’t call you; you call them to find out if your table is ready.) The bar and communal dining tables in the 60-seat space can feel a little cramped, but that just gives it a legit urban vibe, as does the rooftop dining patio and bar, which are now open, adding 40 more seats. With Carson Kitchen, Kerry Simon is once again changing the local dining landscape. Let’s hope it inspires more top chefs to get creative Downtown.
Al’s Menu Picks
- crispy chicken skins ($6)
- bacon jam ($12)
- gyro tacos ($10)
- rabbit ragu ($12)
124 S. Sixth St., 702-473-9523. Open daily for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily. Dinner for two, $50-$125.