Carson Kitchen, the year-old restaurant from "rock 'n' roll chef" Kerry Simon, anchors an exploding downtown dining scene.
Rainbow cauliflower, from Carson Kitchen’s farm-fresh menu.
If someone had told me a year ago that Kerry Simon’s Carson Kitchen would be both a raging success and the spark of a restaurant renaissance, I would have looked at them with the same bemusement I usually reserve for conspiracy theorists and Chicago Cubs fans. A year ago (or three, 10, or 20 years ago), Downtown Las Vegas was a restaurant wasteland. The idea that young couples, suburbanites, professionals, and entire families would come here to eat seemed as far-fetched as having a mob lawyer for a mayor.
But here they come now, not only to Carson Kitchen but to a dozen upscale bars and restaurants that have followed in its wake. Every month, Downtown (yes, we capitalize it now) Las Vegas seems to celebrate the opening of a chef-driven restaurant or cozy new bar, and in many ways each of them owes a debt of gratitude to this miniscule kitchen in a renovated flophouse.
Simon’s butter burger with cheddar, served with tater tots.
It’s a small place (only 60 or so seats, with room for 30 more on the upstairs patio) resembling a rough-cut, no-nonsense urban watering hole or gastropub, with an intimate connection between patron and staff. The open kitchen is framed by an L-shaped chef’s table, and if you score one of the 25 counter seats, you’ll be so close to the action that you can quiz the chefs on what they’re making as you wait for your plate. There are four tables at the front and an oversize bar in the dining room, which doubles as a cocktail venue, offering communal seating and an array of dishes that will shock you with their intensity and perfection.
When Carson Kitchen opened last year, Simon told me he wanted his menu to focus on accessible, farmfresh food that tastes like something a great chef would serve you in his own home. Not that you’ve ever tasted veal meatballs as caramelized, crispy, meaty, and silky as the ones served here in any chef’s home— or any restaurant, for that matter. Equally forkdropping is the homage to the butter burgers of Minnesota and Wisconsin, this one bathed in the stuff rather than stuffed with it. It’s a hand-formed patty of good, coarsely ground meat, seasoned to a T, and sprinkled with crumbly Boursin atop melted cheddar on a mush-ready brioche bun. It’s a belly bomb to be sure, but a beautiful one.
The open kitchen and swear jar.
Plenty of chefs have tried doing deviled eggs, but Simon’s Devil’s Eggs— topped with pancetta and caviar—are such a creamy, crispy, sweet, and salty delight, they’ll have you nodding your head in appreciation. Other must-have starters include the crispy chicken skins with smoked honey, tempura green beans, and “killer” shrimp (deep fried, with rocoto pepper cream)—all of them singular appetizers begging to be shared. And speaking of social plates, atop the bacon jam is a melted slab of Brie. It’s chock-full of the sweet and savory combinations that Simon is so fond of. It’s so good, you will no doubt find yourself reflexively dipping piece after piece of your baguette into it, blithely ignoring whoever entreats you not to fill up on bread. One order won’t be enough, even if only two are sharing it. This is happy, crowdpleasing food, designed to appeal to the party-as-averb folks as well as fussy gastronauts, and no one gets up from the table without leaving behind a stack of licked-clean plates.
Simon, along with partner Cory Harwell and Executive Chef Eugene Santiago, has come up with more interesting ideas and palate-popping flavor combinations for the simple one-page menu than you’ll find anywhere in the ’burbs. Unfortunately, as his restaurant has gained national acclaim (and a huge local following), Simon hasn’t been on the premises to accept the accolades, due to a particularly virulent neurodegenerative disorder known as multiple system atrophy. This restaurant may be his swan song, but he can take solace in knowing that by going small, he went very, very big: serving the best food that Downtown Las Vegas has ever seen and starting a revolution in the process. 124 S. Sixth St., 702-473-9523