Smoke hampers otherwise tasty dining experience at Santora's

We really liked the food at Santora's.

The atmosphere and service, not so much.

Walking into the place actually took me back to my earliest days in Las Vegas. Moving here from a Clean Indoor Air state, I was kind of dismayed to encounter cigarette smoke when I walked into restaurants. Much has changed since then, and now that's an unusual experience in Las Vegas as well - or was until we walked into Santora's Sunset Bar, an old-school poker bar, and encountered stale smoke that drifted from the bar area into the dining room.

I'd heard about Santora's mostly from readers who celebrate the fact that it recognizes its roots in Buffalo, N.Y., with wings and weck and Friday fish fries, so that was the draw for me. The wings were right up there ($9.50 for 10), crisp outside, moist inside, with the requisite blue-cheese dressing and celery, plus some carrot sticks to boot. They come in mild, medium, hot, barbecue or suicide; in somewhat of a tame mood we went with mild, but there was no shortage of flavor there.

We'd missed the all-day-Friday haddock fish fries (because it wasn't Friday) but the lemon caper haddock ($14.99; chicken is another option) sounded like a good substitute, and it was. The large portion of fish was appropriately firm and meaty, but what had been done to it and served with it really made it special. What was done was a buttery sauce with just enough lemon and lots and lots of capers (that's a good thing), their tang giving a punch of flavor to the fish. And with it was a pile of really, really good garlic mashed potatoes, skin on and chunky (that's a good thing too) and enlivened with whole cumin seed for an offbeat touch that worked. And while I looked askance at the pile of sauteed asparagus, carrots and red-pepper strips (it brought to mind a clean-out-the-fridge combination), I learned something that evening in that the combination was very complementary. The crisp-tender state of the vegetables was one testament to their freshness, but so was the fact that we couldn't imagine any purveyor of frozen foods selling such a cockeyed combination.

Beef on weck ($7.99) was a nice rendition, the meat tender and flavorful, the roll appropriately crusted with salt and caraway seeds. The fries on the side were pretty standard, but they'd been cooked in oil that was hot and clean.

And finally the crispy pomegranate chicken ($15.99), which had wonderful contrasts of texture (crisp and moist) and a pomegranate vinaigrette nicely balanced between sweet and acidic. The sauteed spinach-and-vegetable mixture on the side was another offbeat touch that we liked.

The service wasn't up to the level of the food, however. Our server asked whether we wanted our wings as an appetizer and we told him we did, but when he brought our entrees without them, it appeared he had forgotten them, though he said the kitchen had made everything at once. He also wasn't real diligent about refilling beverages for us or the other party in the restaurant, which was nearly empty.

And then there was not only the smoky factor but also a sticky one, because the floor under our table was stickier than an old-time movie theater. I get that retrofitting a place to solve the smoke problem would be very expensive in these recessionary times, but cleaning the floor doesn't cost so much.

But maybe Santora's is trying to evoke the atmosphere of a Buffalo bar. The thing is, while I haven't been to Buffalo lately, I'm pretty sure times have changed there too.

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@