Hugo’s Cellar has long been one of the best things downtown Las Vegas had to offer — an old-Vegas-style "gourmet room" in the best sense of the word, a reminder that although we’ve moved on to newer things, it’s nice to hang on to the best of the past.
The last time I visited more than four years ago, its Four Queens home had changed hands and things were not as they should have been. A change of ownership had, it seemed, not had a positive effect, and service had slipped to the point that I wasn’t eager to return.
And here I’m afraid I’ll launch into hearsay, which we in the business also call "sources." A co-worker reported that a sommelier who was among the restaurant’s fleet of long-term employees told him the veterans had gotten together and begged management to let them fix things. That sort of thing never works, though, does it? Especially not in an economy where pennies are being pinched by necessity.
Actually, yes it can, and in this case (if it did indeed happen), it did: I’m here to report that Hugo’s Cellar is back. Quite simply, our visit there was seamless, from the point when we made our reservation until we walked out the door after dinner.
What was so special about it? Service the way it should be, and the continuance of fine traditions. Our hostess handed me a long-stemmed red rose before we were seated, to be placed in a vase on our table (smart, that; they make women feel extra-special and provide table decoration at the same time), and she promptly led us to our table, where we immediately were greeted by a waiter who explained the team who would be serving us. While our wine order was taken by a waiter it was served by the sommelier, who, with a flourish and refreshing lack of pretense, presented our half-bottle as though it were the restaurant’s top wine. And on and on — courses well-timed, our every need anticipated.
Hugo’s itself is comfortable, but just formal enough that it seems worthwhile to dress up, and most of our fellow diners did. The rose theme was carried out in the molded shape of the butter on the table and the lighted sconces on the wall, and more subtly in a profusion of dark green and rosewood.
And the food? Well, I never felt that had suffered, but it’s doing just fine as well. In yet another nod to tradition, we opened with Hugo’s Hot Rock Specialty ($14 per person, minimum two), which was better than we remembered. The captain started it with a pile of chopped shallots that caramelized on the hot stone, then added fish and beef and chicken and shrimp. It was mostly ready by the time he put it on our table, but he told us to cook the chicken a little longer, and all of it was great, both alone and in the dipping-sauce trio that included a Hollandaise, a spicy mustard and one that was Asian in nature.
Then the salad cart arrived. A waiter put torn romaine into a large bowl for each of us and then asked which of the cart’s toppings — nine of them, including mushrooms, a mix of artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, tomatoes, big chunks of blue cheese, croutons, pine nuts and bay shrimp — we’d like, then added our choice of dressings, tossed and served it on chilled plates. Labor-intensive, but such a nice touch.
There was a labor-intensive aspect to one of our entrees, too. The Duckling Anise Flambe ($34) was roasted with anise (or, as the menu says, "licorice-flavored spices and herbs"), and then a waiter flamed it tableside before adding a sauce of mandarin oranges, which was not as sweet as it sounds and complemented the duck nicely. (The apparently histrionics-prone woman at the next table clearly thought she was going to do a Richard Pryor, but the waiter at all times had things under control.)
No less successful was a classic Veal Oscar ($46), gently sauteed tender little scallops of veal topped with white asparagus, king crab leg meat and Hollandaise sauce.
With our entrees, we chose red parslied potatoes with no actual parsley, but that was fine because they were great the way they were, and a seasoned mix of white and wild rice. Both were accompanied by a mix of fresh crisp-tender vegetables that were primarily green beans and carrots.
And here I’d like to note that Hugo’s is more of a value than it might appear. That started out with no-charge bottled water in an era when some places still are charging $7.50 or more a bottle. The salad was included with dinner, as was potato and vegetable and really nice sourdough rolls. There even was a palate cleanser — a tart little bit of lemon sorbet in a tiny ice-cream cone.
Even dessert. The old-school tableside-prepared Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster were tough to resist, but we knew (and the menu reminded us) that chocolate-dipped fruit — a strawberry and a dried apricot dipped in dark chocolate and a dried fig dipped in white for each of us — and a bowl of whipped cream are included with dinner, and that was a sweet enough ending.
As was the realization that, yes, Hugo’s Cellar is back. That’s good for downtown, and for anyone who still honors old Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Review
Hugo’s Cellar, Four Queens, 202 Fremont St.; 385-4011
Pluses: Old-school elegant food, atmosphere and service.
Minuses: It can get a little crowded.