I really liked First Food & Bar but I struggled, much more than usual, with how to approach this review.
In terms of sensibility, the genre to which First loosely belongs reminds me of an '80s fern bar in that it is clearly designed to appeal to a broad demographic range. But while the fern bars were all about being trendy, First and its brethren blend the trendy and the traditional, and do it with panache.
Founding chef Sammy D. opened his first First in the East Village of New York and since the D. stands for DeMarco you might expect some of the traditional dishes to be Italian in origin, and you'd be right. Rigatoni a la Joey D. ($19) had a foundation of the ribbed tubular pasta that tasted pretty darn near fresh-made, and if it wasn't, my hat is truly off. It was graced with a San Marzano tomato sauce that has all of the depth of flavor that implies, plus chunks of mozzarella that melted throughout and a little mound of ricotta for some creamy contrast. Very traditional, but very nice.
Magic Mushroom Pappardelle ($21) has been removed from the menu since we were in a couple of weeks ago but we're told you can still order it and we'd advise you do. I'm particularly fond of pappardelle, the broad, silken ribbons of pasta to which sauces cling so beautifully, but they can't carry a dish alone and in this case didn't have to. The magic mushrooms were, as you might imagine, woodland/forest mushrooms, the beefy texture and deep flavor of which overwhelmed any sense of the truffle that was reportedly used to flavor the accompanying butter sauce, but we certainly weren't complaining because it was a very successful dish.
Butcher-Cut Steak Frites ($27) was another traditional dish, though of French origin instead of Italian. The thinnish sirloin was tender and had great flavor, even more so because of the compound butter that topped it. We also liked the big tangle of crisp, golden shoestring fries and the aioli that was mounded atop them, although we were dismayed to find that we ran out of aioli before we ran out of fries.
And then there was the nontraditional part of the menu. Sammy D.'s Greatest Hits ($30) was an opportunity to try three of the chef's specialties. The Lollipop Buffalo Wings were succulent and not overly spicy, the Maytag "fondue" and pickled cucumber on the side nice riffs on the familiar. The walnut shrimp were a riff as well, on a Chinese-American favorite, and the shrimp were crisply coated, the honey mayo balanced, the walnuts in abundance.
Most offbeat were the Philly Cheesesteak Dumplings, filled with a blend of beef and cheese, topped with caramelized onions and surrounded with drizzles of a ketchup enlivened by sriracha. Our only quibble about this one was that, while it's sized to serve two and in our case served three, the price was a little out of whack compared to the entrees.
And dessert. We weren't actually planning on dessert, but a manager came by and said that since our entrees were taking so long, dessert would be on the house. We hadn't complained, so the vigilance shown by he and/or our server was laudable and made us a little more forgiving when the frites came out too long after the other entrees. The freshly made cinnamon and sugar doughnuts (normally $8) were not only numerous but light inside, crisp outside, and cinnamon-and-sugary everywhere.
Service was, for the most part, fine, our server affable and efficient, and that fact that the entree lapse was noticed without a word from us earns them major props. The interior is as varied as the menu, mostly streamlined and slightly industrial, with some cool booths reminiscent of oversized wine barrels.
And - maybe best of all - not a fern in sight.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.