The House Specialty


Who would remember Alexandre Etienne Choron without Choron sauce? Caesar Cardini without the Caesar salad? And even Ettore Boiardi, without all of that Chef Boyardee stuff?

Most chefs no longer name their signature dishes after themselves, but it seems that most -- if not all -- have them. They're the dishes that are inexorably linked to their creators, and they come about via many routes.

"I think in some ways it's the stars lining up the right way at that moment in time," said Todd Clore, chef/owner of Todd's Unique Dining in Henderson. "Some of the things you don't think will become signatures actually become signatures. I think it depends on how the back of the house embraces it, how the front of the house embraces it. The clientele kind of associates with that."

Theo Schoenegger, executive chef of Sinatra at Encore, said he thinks what becomes a signature dish is "the customer's idea."

"Of course you have your favorites," Schoenegger said. "I'm a seasonal chef; every time the season comes around, you look forward to something. Tomatoes are in season, that's your favorite. Mushrooms are in season, that's your favorite.

"Customers are a little bit different. They zero in on something and they don't let go."

Alex Stratta, executive chef of Alex and Stratta at Wynn Las Vegas, thinks the elevation of a dish to signature status is a joint proposition between chef and customer.

"I think it's 50-50," Stratta said. "It starts with the chef coming up with something that really speaks stylistically to what we want to do, and then it becomes your signature when it's all of a sudden 30 percent of your sales.

"It's a two-edged sword. You want to do more exciting ingredients and do something more creative and modern, but people come in, 'Where's the short rib?' "

But the recognition of a signature dish does confer a certain amount of satisfaction.

"That's actually what I'd call a winner," Schoenegger said. "When somebody comes back for a dish more than once -- and, on occasion, many times, for the same dish, year after year -- you have hit the nail on the head."

"That's what's kind of cool," Clore said. "You actually put yourself on the map."

We asked 10 Las Vegas Valley chefs to name their signature dishes and how they came about.

Clore: Short ribs, which he developed about five years ago. "New American cuisine was kind of embracing down-home comfort food," he said. "I didn't have to compete with every casino that had a 12-ounce filet. Not that many people had short ribs back then. We could showcase our ability to showcase something lesser known and really turn it into a fine-dining dish."

Carlos Guia, executive chef, The Country Club, Wynn Las Vegas: Brown-sugar-brined pork chop with fire-roasted corn succotash and black mission fig-bourbon barbecue sauce. "The popularity is pretty big on it. People love the flavors -- the smokiness of the succotash, with the apple-smoked bacon and the fire-roasted corn. For a steakhouse to have a signature dish that's pork is a little different," but sales have been strong. Guia also pointed out that if you go to a restaurant and a favorite signature dish is no longer on the menu, ask. They may be able to prepare it. But a little notice helps. In the pork dish, for example, the pork is brined for 72 hours. "Some things we can do immediately, some things take a little longer to do," he said.

Michael Jordan, chef/owner, Rosemary's Restaurant: Hugo's Texas BBQ Shrimp with Maytag Blue Cheese Slaw. "Our food is very much about our lives," he said of himself and wife and partner Wendy, also a chef. The sauce, he said, was developed by Wendy's stepfather. "That was a very important part of Wendy's" life, he said. "The first time I tasted it, Maytag blue cheese just popped into my head." It's no coincidence that he hails from Iowa, home of Maytag blue. "That dish is very much about me and Wendy coming together," he said. "It all just fell into place after that."

Mark LoRusso, executive chef, Botero at Encore: Dungeness crab agnolotti with artichokes and lemon emulsion. LoRusso said the dish has evolved. It originally had a butter sauce, but he later substituted the lemon emulsion and added artichokes and oven-dried tomatoes. "I wanted to lighten up the sauce. It sells really well; 'I've got to have the agnolotti.' The waiters like it, so that's a plus."

Gustav Mauler, chef/owner, Spiedini at JW Marriott: Chopped salad, prepared in a ring mold of layers of slivered romaine with "old-fashioned" Russian dressing, tiny dice of zucchini and carrots, roasted corn, tomatoes, crispy bacon and a halved avocado smoothed on top. "I get so many compliments because it's a unique thing," Mauler said. "It stuck with us. That's a neat thing, when you're addressed with that when you go somewhere. People remember it."

Rick Moonen, executive chef, RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay: Moonen said he has several signature dishes, which sort of trace the trajectory of his career. He has been serving his crab cakes and clam chowder since 1994; introduced Everything-Crusted Tuna (think of an everything bagel) slightly more recently than that; newer signature dishes include Moondoggies (shrimp mousse with chilies, cilantro and ginger, dipped in a corndog batter and fried, then served on a stick), and Catfish Sloppy Joes, which were featured on "Oprah" following an Esquire piece. "It's a tapestry," Moonen said. "You're constantly evolving, but there are certain things that are always going to characterize who you are and what we do."

Vincent Pouessel, executive chef, Aureole at Mandalay Bay: The sea-scallop sandwich on the small-plates menu, an evolution of the scallop sandwich Chef Charlie Palmer has been serving since the early '90s. It's shredded potatoes with day-boat scallop in the middle and a citrus beurre blanc with caviar. "Every one of Charlie's chefs has their own little twist," Pouessel said.

Schoenegger: Pasta e fagioli. "It's a family tradition," he said. "I grew up with it," in Northern Italy, although Schoenegger said he prepares it Southern Italian-style.

Julian Serrano, executive chef, Picasso at Bellagio: Roasted U-10 day boat scallops with potatoes mousseline and jus de veau, which he has been making for seven or eight years. He likes the dish because he can consistently get high-quality products for it, no matter the season, and the kitchen can make it consistently. "At the end of the day," Serrano said, a signature dish is dictated by the customers, who "100 percent have the final say."

Stratta: Short ribs of beef, prepared various ways at Alex and at Stratta. Stratta's history with the dish dates to 1989, "when I don't think there were too many chefs doing short ribs, especially in fancy restaurants. It has been on my menu ever since." At Stratta, the ribs are "more old-school," braised with vinegar, honey and wine. At Alex, they're cooked in a vacuum-sealed pouch for 72 hours at 140 degrees. "When you cut into them they look like they're medium-rare, but they're pink inside and completely cooked and they melt in your mouth," he said.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

 

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