Photo by Bryan Hainer From left: San Daniele prosciutto from Italy, Molinari finocchiona and French saucisson sec from the Basque country.
When Sal Casola and Chipper Pastron opened the first Morels in the Grove, a nouveau-swank Los Angeles mall and cinema complex, what everyone talked about was the cheese program, arguably the best that anyone had seen in L.A.
Morels Las Vegas, which opened in 2008 in the Palazzo, treads a similar path. Some refer to it as a steak house, but that is a shortsighted description. This restaurant has one of the city’s most creative and diverse menus. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for instance. There is a mussels and craft-beer menu during happy hour and great meat loaf and French-dip sandwiches for lunch.
Pass a podium and a long hallway to enter Morels, through an art-deco bar, and your eyes are drawn to a display of amazing cheeses shielded by a glass wall, each labeled and properly ripe.
Once seated in the plush, mirrored dining room, you’ll be handed a fromage menu, with the cheeses divided into categories: cow, goat, sheep and blended. The categories are then subdivided by texture: bloomy, wash, semi-soft, semi-firm and firm, leaving little to chance.
At the bottom, there is a small menu of charcuterie, plus a pair of house-made rillettes (pork and salmon), and a few trifles such as olives, Marcona almonds and walnuts. I’m so enamored of this concept that I sometimes forget that Morels has an extensive dinner and lunch menu. In fact, both cheeses and cooked dishes are good reasons to dine here.
It’s possible to order cheese or charcuterie by selections of one, three or five. A friend and I settled on three of each, using a paper checklist that the server supplied. We had an exquisitely pungent Red Hawk, a washed rind cow’s milk cheese from California’s Cowgirl Creamery, and Garrotxa, a semi-firm Spanish goat’s milk cheese that has a finish so long I could still taste it in the Palazzo garage.
Only a Reblochon from France, the legendary Alpine cheese, was not properly cared for. Still, the affineur at Morels—that is the person who ages and coddles these cheeses into shape—has nothing for which to apologize. The cheeses here rival those at Guy Savoy or Joël Robuchon.
I can’t say the same for charcuterie. Blame the FDA. Only a few of Europe’s top cold cuts are allowed into this country. What I tasted—an acceptable San Daniele prosciutto from Italy, a French saucisson sec from the Basque country and a ho-hum Molinari finocchiona, or fennel sausage, from San Francisco—were not as good as the porchetta I buy at Valley Cheese & Wine in Henderson.
After that course, though, everything went swimmingly. We started with a classic, beefy, French onion soup, topped with a bubbly crouton redolent of Gruyère, and crisp hearts of romaine with dreamy roasted garlic Caesar dressing.
The main courses were chicken cooked under a brick, perfectly moist, with crisp skin and a terrific Tall Grass Farms 14-ounce New York sirloin from the state of Kansas. Sides were artful as well: artichoke bottoms cloaked in lemony bread crumbs and green beans tossed around with foie gras.
Only dessert left me wanting. Their vaunted pistachio soufflé, served with a scoop of cherry sorbet, is gluey. Guess Morels isn’t ready for a duel with Savoy or Robuchon on every level. So smile and say, “Cheese!”