Few women in history have been portrayed as being quite so exotic, intriguing and glamorous as Cleopatra. So if you’re going to name your restaurant after the Egyptian pharaoh-queen and lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, you’d better bring something special to the table. I’m happy to report that Cleo at SLS, a sister restaurant to the L.A. original, does just that.
If you’re worried about what Egyptian cuisine might entail, have no fear. The menu at Cleo is broad Mediterranean fare, with plenty of items you’ve seen at your neighborhood Mediterranean joint. What sets it apart is the combination of sophistication and simplicity in both food and décor.
As you enter, you’ll find a handful of tables and booths in front of a large open kitchen in the center of the room. White Lebanese crystal-style chandeliers hang from the ceiling, while books, photos and other antiquities line shelves along the walls. For a casual, more visceral experience, take a seat at the counter lined with herbs and spices that surrounds the cooking space. From there, you can watch the chefs at work before an open oven while taking in the aromas. Or, if you’re looking for something more formal, request a table or plush booth in the back of the restaurant.
The menu begins with a selection of mezzes (appetizers) that includes numerous dips, kebabs, sausages, vegetables and specialties such as dolmades and kibbeh. They’re followed by several soups, salads, vegetables, flatbreads and a handful of raw dishes—all meant for sharing. But there’s also a healthy assortment of larger meat and seafood entrées. While the meat offerings should satisfy the most carnivorous of diners, there are enough delicious meat-free dishes to provide a wonderful vegetarian feast. (On my first visit, we went about 90 percent vegetarian and had a great meal.)
All three of the dips I’ve sampled have been exceptional. The hummus with whole chickpeas and the cucumber yogurt were both extremely traditional and perfectly executed. But the most interesting was the chicken liver mousse with glazed onions, butter-roasted walnuts and a wine reduction. All of the dips are accompanied by either house-made laffa bread or vegetable sticks. Other mezzes you should try are the sweet venison sausages with pickled cauliflower and the dolmades, the latter being among the best I’ve ever had. The grape leaves are fresh and crisp (not stringy like you sometimes encounter), and the rice is nicely seasoned without going overboard on the citrus.
Other highlights include kushi oysters with a chili-lime mignonette; a mixture of eggplant, fennel and chili cooked in the wood-burning oven; and a mushroom flatbread with Gruyère. But my absolute favorite dish so far has been the lamb tagine. The tender meat is accented with silan (date honey syrup) and saffron, and falls apart at the mere touch of a fork. And the perfectly cooked couscous that accompanies it comes dotted with tiny, sweet, dried apricots.
My visits to Cleo haven’t been without misses, however. The duck bastilla is a rich glazed duck wrapped in phyllo, then dusted with powdered sugar, a clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to blend savory with sweet. The exterior of my falafel was a bit too hard and crunchy. And the spinach-and-ricotta dumplings in a pesto Parmesan sauce were too mushy for my taste. (As for the much-hyped fried Brussels sprout leaves, I can take them or leave them.)
Service on my first visit was exemplary—no surprise since the managers knew I am a critic. The staff was just as attentive on my second visit, however, when my wife and I snuck in unnoticed and sat at the counter (although two of our three dishes did arrive lukewarm).
That said, Cleo is re-igniting Las Vegas’ interest in Mediterranean cuisine and one-upping the typical neighborhood fare. Plus, it’s nice to see the pharaoh-queen triumphant in the former Sahara.
Al’s Menu Picks
- cucumber yogurt ($7)
- dolmades ($7)
- venison sausage ($7)
- and lamb tagine ($16)
Cleo In SLS
702-761-7612. Open for dinner 6-10:30 p.m. Sun-Thu, 6-11:30 p.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two $40-$80.