BY KATE BENNETT | April 1, 2010 | Food & Drink
FROM LEFT: Michael Mina preparing a dish; light woods and birch give the dining area a warm touch; yellowtail sashimi
Every few days, a shipment arrives at American Fish, Michael Mina’s new restaurant at Aria Resort & Casino. The package, typically from the California coast but sometimes from as far away as Hawaii, is delivered to the restaurant in several one-gallon containers. It’s treated, handled with care and works in concert with other items as an integral part of the overall collective. Before you guess fish, think again.
This is a far more esoteric restaurant concept. Chef Mina is ordering water—ocean water, to be exact. He uses it in an elaborate poaching process, one of four cooking methods that serve as the foundation of the menu at this, his fifth restaurant in Las Vegas. “I wanted to pay homage to rustic cooking methods from across the country—lobster boils, clambakes and campfire cookouts—but apply them with modern finesse for a truly refined dining experience,” says Mina.
Done up in contemporary light woods, touches of birch and cozy comfort, American Fish is an open, experimental haven, albeit with two extremely experienced guides at the helm. “People are interested in the different techniques,” says executive chef Sven Mede of the four main entrée categories: poached, griddled over cast iron, baked in sea salt, and wood-grilled and smoked. “They see the different grills, they become curious.”
This is the perfect restaurant for curiosity-seekers with a palate. At the far end of the dining room, large windows look into the kitchen, where cooks busily prepare perfection, raising and lowering the grill to the flame, dunking sous vide pouches of fish into poaching water, checking on salt-bakes and flipping seafood on the grill. It’s fascinating to watch, and it adds a whole other component to the restaurant experience. Chef Mede will often give kitchen tours to fully explain the various almost scientific approaches to the food. “It sounds simple, but it’s a lot more interesting,” says the German-born, European-trained Mede, who’s been in Las Vegas for seven years (the last four spent as executive chef at Mina’s Nobhill Tavern). “It’s challenging [here]. It keeps you moving, keeps you focusing.”
The food that results is a study in refinement, with nuances of flavor and influences that range from Asian to modern-day campfire. As an appetizer, geoduck clam sashimi comes served on a block of ice and is so fresh it tastes divine with little more than a drizzle of lemon crème fraîche. Try shabu shabu with Kobe beef and abalone, dipping the meat and accompaniments in a simple but flavorful broth to cook. Pine nuts and wild arugula bring out a woodsy flavor in a generous tuna tartare topped with a poached quail egg, and the diver scallops with seared foie gras over caramelized pear with endive “feathers” are a triumph.
Inside American Fish
Classics like shrimp and grits and traditional New England lobster roll or New Bedford mussels and chorizo in a saffron broth also shine with unique additions and beautiful presentation. Another must on the appetizer list is the grilled Spanish mackerel, from the finfish section. A sea bean and ginger broth with a hint of lemongrass perfectly complements the mackerel, a fish that can sometimes come across as too strong; here it’s comfort food.
Entrées move into the heart of the four-method process, where the fish are the stars, although there are a handful of meat and poultry items, including a delectable Japanese A5 Wagyu beef that has been triple seared on the wood grill. However, let’s remember that the name of this place is, after all, American Fish, and the fish are sourced primarily from American rivers, streams, lakes and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. “We’re currently moving into lake season,” chef Mede explains. “The menu will reflect that. Wherever there is seasonal product, we have purveyors there. We get our seafood from everywhere.”
Fresh from the Columbia River in Oregon, the sturgeon is wrapped in bacon and griddled over cast iron and comes served on a bed of baby beets and butternut squash puree. The cast-iron category also produces a tender duet of Kurobuta pork from Iowa and a cornmeal-crusted rainbow trout. Currently chef Mina’s favorite category is the salt-baked selection. “I especially enjoy the salt-baked prime rib,” he says. “But I’m also loving the lobster Wellington. To be honest, I have too many favorites on the menu to name.”
The Tasmanian Ocean trout (yes, it’s from Australia, but it’s worthy of the American company) works well with the salt-bake and the Mediterranean influence; blood oranges are shipped from Sicily. The salt-baking process keeps the fish tender and moist. And don’t forget the sides, of which Mina has produced a variety, from malt-vinegar French fries to caramelized cauliflower and truffle gratin, and Hoppin’ John black-eyed peas and brown rice, topped with finely chopped bacon.
Dishes in the poached section have included a shellfish mélange, with tender pieces of lobster, diver scallop, shrimp and mushrooms for accent. The wood-grilled and smoked category delivers mustardmarinated black cod, big-eye tuna and a mixed grill of fish and shellfish, each with intense flavor, which Mede says is amplified by the use of apricot wood for the grill.
It’s clear to see that the chef is having a culinary epiphany each night with this menu. “I have a great relationship with Michael [Mina],” says Mede. “He’s the one who comes up with these concepts, and I’m the one expediting that concept for him; we go back and forth and talk about many ideas, and we change it up to make it fit.”
For his part, Mina, an award-winning culinary wunderkind with a reputation for delivering some of the finest seafood in the world, has definitely clicked with Mede. “He is extremely enthusiastic about American Fish. He executes the menu and cooking methods flawlessly and really leads the cohesive team in the kitchen; he’s a perfect fit.”
SAVE ROOM FOR DESSERT
Butternut Spice Cake— Who knew hazelnuts from Oregon were better tasting than any you find in Italy?
Valrhona Chocolate Custard—The red velvet cake that comes with this rich, chocolaty slice of sweet heaven is perfection.
Banana Fritters—A hint of rum and lime and a side of banana mousse… It doesn’t get much better.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEVERLY POPPE (INTERIOR, MEDE); POWERS AND CREWE PHOTOGRAPHY (MINA)