Well, I may as well start with the elephant in the room, which in this case is more of a whale and not of the gambling variety: The Chart House in the newish Rush Tower at the Golden Nugget is centered by a cylindrical, floor-to-ceiling, 75,000-gallon aquarium in which somewhere around 1,000 tropical creatures dwell.
In keeping with the restaurant chain's tradition of locating its outlets on or near water whenever possible, the one at the Nugget was designed so that every seat has a stellar view of the aquarium and its vibrantly colored saltwater fish, whose gentle bobbing and drifting create such an air of serenity that my hunch is the restaurant has one of the slower table-turning rates in town.
In such an environment, it might seem easy for both cooks and customers to be lulled into a feeling of complacency, less concerned than usual if some of the food is less than it could be. Ah, but that's what restaurant critics are for. We're never lulled, no matter how many gently moving fish you throw at us, but in this case, that didn't matter much, because the aquarium clearly isn't the only thing that gets a lot of attention from management.
You probably would expect the Chart House to have a way with seafood, and that did indeed show in the crab, avocado and mango stack ($16), a gravity-defying tower that bore a resemblance to the restaurant's showpiece, only slightly smaller and less colorful. An abundance of crabmeat had been tossed in just enough remoulade to kind of hold it together (and not to camouflage the flavor, which wasn't necessary in this case), and then it was layered, and kind of tightly packed, atop mango and a base of creamy avocado. Taken separately, the layers were delicious showcases of the bounty of land and sea, but together, they were even better, the sweetness of the mango and crab playing off the nutty foundation of the avocado. This also was quite a large appetizer, which could easily be split by two.
Our other appetizer didn't involve seafood but was no less of a triumph for the kitchen. Fat spears of asparagus ($8) had been coated and fried until both they and their coating were crisp, and then they were topped with chopped fresh tomato and crumbles of blue cheese, which started to melt just slightly, so there was a whole bunch of stuff going on there on the plate as far as flavor and texture, all of it positive.
Macadamia-crusted mahi mahi ($28) was fairly classic, the flavor of the nuts intensified by toasting, which made them stand out strongly against the neutral background of the mild fish. It was drizzled lightly with a soy reduction and served with a little mound of mango relish (mangoes being not only trendy these days but possessed of a particular affinity for fish), and some green beans on the side that were supposed to be Asian but just seemed like crispy green beans to us.
And then there was the shrimp scampi ($24). You might think scampi isn't all that interesting in the post-Rat Pack era, but in this case, you'd be mistaken. The menu had noted that the dish would contain not only shrimp but crab, which gave me pause because it sounded a little like wretched excess. It was indeed a rich, buttery dish, but the textures of the firm shrimp and the softer crab played off each other in a very pleasing manner. Saffron risotto on the side was OK but probably would've been better without the butter overrun.
We decided on a signature chocolate lava cake for dessert ($11), which was about the only thing that reminded us of the Chart House of old, the salad bar with caviar and hearts of palm having gone the way of the Hawaiian shirts and squaw bread. Our server warned us that it would be a while, but we were in no hurry, gazing at the aquarium and lingering over our 2008 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc ($36), a good crisp choice for a summer evening. And the lava cake was just as we'd remembered when it was the first lava cake we'd ever tasted -- lo, those many years ago -- the warm liquid center oozing out to mix with the melting ice cream.
There may not be an ocean outside the Golden Nugget's Chart House, but it's clearly fishing in the right waters.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.