by mitchell wilburn | September 27, 2013 | Food & Drink
David Robins watches Matt Dickerson try the queso fundido.
The décor mixes the tradition and modernism of Mexico City with Vegas panache.
Michael Frey (left), who runs a growing hospitality and nightlife empire in Vegas, chats with David Robins.
The main dining room.
In the dark ages of Las Vegas dining, marked by discount buffets and frozen shrimp cocktails, Spago was a crucial spark that helped ignite our now-vibrant food culture. Opened by Executive Chef David Robins, who eventually became managing partner and corporate chef of Spago’s parent company, the restaurant was a runaway success, and it remains as relevant and creative as the day it was unveiled two decades ago. When he needs to let loose with like-minded pals, Robins heads to friend Michael Frey’s Tacos & Tequila, where he recently dined with longtime colleague and friend Matt Dickerson, Wolfgang Puck’s Las Vegas director of operations, to spend a rare night off talking Mexican treats, restaurant design, and the modern plating of food.
Would you characterize, in the context of a restaurant, the food as the body and the design as the soul?
David Robins: Design is always the soul of a restaurant. In our company, design comes first, even before the chefs start putting together a menu. It’s about the space, the identity; it’s what we use as the building blocks. With food, design, and hospitality, all of that needs to have synergy to be successful. At the end of the day, the food is an accompaniment to the whole process, although a key component. Longevity is what we’re all about, and the most important thing is that the customer gets a great experience. This restaurant speaks to what it’s all about: fun. It’s really open, there’s always great energy, you feel comfortable.
Matt Dickerson: You can sit here, and even though you’re in a big hotel, you still feel like you’re only in this restaurant. That’s a tough thing to capture.
DR: We have a freestanding restaurant in MGM Grand, right across from KÀ, designed by Tony Chi to kind of float in the middle of the casino. You feel separate but part of the crowd, and Tacos & Tequila has the same style.
Michael Frey: The reason we took this massive sombrero [sculpture] is that even though it covers only a small fraction of the restaurant, you always see it. Your eye never goes to the top of the pyramid.
DR: Everyone wants to create an illusion of being somewhere other than the hotel, and that’s exactly what it does. [He is served a selection of appetizers.] All the food here is presented really well, really modern. If you want to tie design to food, it’s about color scheme;; it needs good color. The day of the extreme architectural plating in the late ’80s is kind of past us. Food these days is much more to the point, much more about technique. [Trying some queso fundido, guacamole, and carnitas] Simple presentation, a cool pan. That guacamole looks pretty tasty to me! And these carnitas, they just fall apart.
MD: This is a good cut of meat. Usually people use the pork butt, but here they use the shoulder, so there’s not too much fat.
DR: Condensed milk is their secret, because it caramelizes. But milk in general is the secret: If you soak meat in milk, it tenderizes. It’s like their ceviche. Just the direct lemon or lime cures the fish, and it cooks it by breaking down the protein. It’s like Mexican sushi, to give you an analogy.
MF: Our chef here is one of the most passionate human beings you’ll ever meet, but he’s an “angry chef.” He’s the closest in town to David here.
DR: I was the original angry chef. I don’t know how Gordon Ramsay got my title. But from what I know, he was a madman line cook. Say what you want about him as a celebrity, but in his day he was one of the badass line cooks. I’m glad he’s made it. I really enjoy his personality.
His British shows versus his American shows are a total 180. On British TV, he’s funny and quirky, chatting up unattractive British celebrities. American audiences must like watching punishment.
MD: It’s impressive just how many people watch food shows—even kids! David’s kids watch that stuff all the time.
DR: My kids cook with me, and they’re 7 and 4. They find it fascinating, but I don’t want them to know a thing about cooking. “Dad, I want to cook like you!” No, you don’t. You want to be a rock star. Practice the guitar!
photography by ronda churchill