Simon Says Eat!

Chef Kerry Simon Presides over his stylish supper club with the concentration of a Zen master.

Max Jacobsen

 

The fortysomething chef looks younger than his years. With his wavy mane of hair, deeply bronzed skin and gym-rat physique, Kerry Simon has the diffident look of a GQ model at the end of a long day's shoot. Perhaps thats why Playgirl chose to feature him(fully clothed-sorry, ladies) in it's April issue. Or maybe it was his résumé—Simon has Paris, New York and other world food capitals on his curriculum vitae, plus a collaboration with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Prime that launched him into stardom. We think it has more to do with his latest venture, Simon Kitchen and Bar, which since opening at the Hard Rock in October, has fed most of the cities elite, as well as the roster of rock stars who play the Joint.

     

Simon left Prime to work in tandem with restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, former restaurant exec at MGM Mirage. Together, they make an unbeatable team. Simon Kitchen and Bar is a casual, stylish room with equally stylish placement. It's directly across the hall from another defining Vegas restaurant, Nobu. The two restaurants give the Hard Rock and the casino's risk-taking owner, Peter Morton, a reaal one-two punch. Now the question is, do X'ers and Y'ers know good food when they see it? the early returns say yes.

The concept fits the Hard Rock like a glove. The noise level is high, but who comes to the Hard Rock for quiet anyway? Instead of table cloths and similarly conventional appointments, the restaurant uses wooden tables, designer chairs and a clever juxtaposition of light and space complemented by an open kitchen and a safari themed Peter Beard photo collage on a rear wall.

The restaurant was conceived as a high-octane supper club for the young and hip, the type of room where, in the chef's words, "I would want to invite my friends." This sounds suspiciously like PR, until you experience an evening here. Simon patrols the dining room while eyeballing the chefs, but just as often, is seen schmoozing relentlessly, eliciting rock star adoration, on occasion from actual rock stars(the Rolling Stones enjoyed Thankgiving dinner here).

He can do this because he has an ace in the hole, former MGM Grand Executive Chef Kim Canteenwalla. K.C. is usually seen stationed front of the kitchen, watching each dish as it comes up to be served. This is the equivalent of having a virtuoso violinists playing the role of concertmaster in a symphony orchestra. It makes everyone perform better and Simon knows it.

Simon conceived this food, but talented chef de cuisine Josh Thompson is the man actually cooking. They like to call their food "classic American," but there are touches of Europe, Asia and your local county fair in these dishes—a group of crowd pleasers that touches almost evry sensibility.

First courses, for instance, are daring, such as the dish Simon has dubbed colossal crab cake. This fat orb of back-fin crab meat, egg and a dusting of flour and spice stands on it's own as the best crab cake this side of the Chesapeake Bay. But the chef has paired it with winsome young papaya Asian slaw, which adds a mysterious dimension of Vietnamese cuisine to an already killer dish.

Faultless bluefin tuna tartare is dressed with lemongrass and chive, more influence of Southeast Asia. Seared carpaccio and tartare comes with a dollop of horseradish crème and organic watercress, intensifiers for the sashimi-grade beef that Simon favors.

There is no letdown in the salad section. Tuscan salad resonates more as a Greek salad, dominated by arugula, Kalamata olives, tomatoes and garlic. But a sprinkle of mozzarella cheese and a handful of fat, rich, polenta croutons acheive a richness that almost seems like sacrilege in a salad. Proscuitto and a seasonal melon, a heavenly pairing, is ramped up by the saltiness of Point Reyes blue, a boutique cheese from northern California. Classic Caesar has a muscular dressing and a crisp disc of cooked Parmesan cheese big enough to play Frisbee with.

From there it's clear sailing into the entrées, prime meats and impossibly rich side dishes, from a quoit-like stack of buttermilk onion rings to a mac-n-cheese that is completely delicious.

My favorite dish is the pound and a half Maine lobster split-grilled, and then jammed with a stuffing of lobster meat, bread crumbs and butter, a New England treat that rarely appears west of the Mississippi. The best fish is probably salmon cooked tandoori style, rubbed with spice and charred at high heat.

 

The "meatloaf" is finely grained like good country sausage, and deeply flavorful, blackened on the sides, with a pile of garlic mashed potatoes alongside. Steak lovers can cut their teeth on Simon's 20-ounce bone in rib-eye with roasted root vegetables, a strangely comforting turn. The double cut Colorado lamb chops are wondrously tender cuts served simply with slices of roasted pear.

Desserts, prepared by a Connecticut transplant named Justin Nilson, are a child-like extravaganza, and include flavored wads of made-to-order cotton candy, caramel corn and peanut brittle, all of which arrive at the table gratis.

But desserts from the menu are really special, and the concepts remind me of the toys invented by Tom Hanks in Big(only a child could have thought of them, but they're still appealing to adults).

Examples?How about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, two rich, chunky peanut butter cookies smeared with Concorde grape jelly and hot fudge, with vanilla bean ice cream hiding in the middle? Or how about cookies and milk, warm chocolate chunk cookies with a short glass of cold milk on the side?(There are also, for the record, such grown-up desserts as twice-baked bananna bread with tempura banannas and brown sugar ice cream and warm chocolate pudding cake.)

The restaurant isn't open for lunch, but Simon will be adding a weekend brunch menu soon, and there are plans afoot to open the outdoor patio for late-supper dining. All this should go over big at the Hard Rock, where the action doesn't pick up until it's over most everywhere else.

 

Location: Inside the Hard Rock Hotel, 693-5000.
Hours: Dining nightly from 6 until...
Price: Entrées $18-$36.
Credit Cards: All Major.
Reservations: Essential.

Close Window Photos: Joseph Pickett III