Let’s get this out of the way right now: No, P.J. Clarke’s at The Forum Shops at Caesars does not have the atmosphere of the New York original.
That’s the most common complaint I’ve heard about the place, and frankly, I think it’s a "duh" statement. The opening date of the original location is somewhat vague, as these things tend to be, but it was in the late 1800s. Take the date used by the current owners — 1884 — and that puts it in the post-Civil War era. And I can tell that, with the exception of the Mormon Fort, some rocks and a few craps players here and there, there isn’t much in Las Vegas that dates to the post-Civil War era.
The P.J. Clarke’s in Las Vegas dates to 2011, and it’s in a building (the expanded part of the Forum Shops) that dates way back to 2004, so no, we’re not talking a lot of history — no intricate woodwork, no penny tiles, no years of contact by feet and hands that all left a little something behind to contribute to a whole bunch of character.
Not that the Las Vegas P.J. Clarke’s isn’t attractive and doesn’t at least try to evoke the original. It’s hard to believe that not long ago this was a sprawling upscale home-furnishings store (on the ground floor, near the spiral escalators). Today, it’s fronted with dark wood-framed windows, lined with dark-wood paneling and furnished with dark-wood tables and chairs. Panels with inspiring quotes that, surprisingly, are not of the platitude persuasion stretch along wide expanses of wall. And there’s a raw bar near the front where guys dressed like Henry Ford’s mechanics shell and shuck.
As for the menu, I was heartened by the fact that it nods at current sensibilities while still upholding tradition. There’s too much tradition here to ignore, but everything needs to be at least partially updated at one time or another.
For example, the current locavore movement, which can present a frustrating goal for chefs who toil in the desert, was represented on the menu by the bacon-wrapped local dates ($12.40). Bacon-wrapped dates are far from a rarity in these parts; you can find them on the menu at most local tapas bars and a few other restaurants. But no others that I’ve seen claim to use local dates, and I haven’t encountered any others where the bacon is sufficiently cooked but still soft and where the dates are served with each perched atop a croustade spread with goat cheese. The flavors melded wonderfully, and the textures contrasted equally well.
One of P.J. Clarke’s biggest claims to fame is its burger, and as I love a good burger, I was more than ready to jump at that, so The Cadillac ($12.90) it would be. I happen to like my burgers medium-rare, and since our waiter said the restaurant’s burgers are made with freshly ground organic steak, I didn’t feel as daring (or foolhardy) as I sometimes do. And my confidence, it turned out, was well placed. The burger was indeed medium rare, served atop a thick slice of raw onion, which is a nice way to keep the bun of a particularly juicy burger from sitting in its juices, and topped with two just-crisp-enough pieces of bacon and a cheese that was billed as American but that had far more character than any American I’ve ever encountered. The cheese, not the people.
I’d added smothered onions ($1.20), which were served on the side and which were far from wilted. As the dill-pickle spear was the only other thing served on the side, I opted for sweet-potato fries ($5.70), which were laudable in the extent to which they reflected the texture and flavor of the spud.
Regular fries did, of course, come with the steak frites ($24.70), but the white-potato version was much more mundane, so go figure. The 10-ounce skirt steak, however, was not only unexpectedly tender and flavorful but got a substantial flavor (and aroma) boost from the Roquefort that was our topping choice, the aroma of which announced its pungent presence as soon as it was brought to the table.
We must have been in need of a lift, because it was a bacon night (mmm … bacon). Brussels sprouts with bacon ($6.60) was a familiar mix of flavors with a not-so-familiar treatment, in that the sprouts were shaved and crisp-tender.
And actually, they were kind of a metaphor for the Las Vegas outpost of P.J. Clarke’s. It, too, is a familiar mix, with a not-so-familiar treatment.
No, it’s not the original. Then again, you don’t have to go to New York to get there.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.Review
P.J. Clarke’s, Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 434-7900 or PJClarkes.com
Overall — A-
Food — A-
Atmosphere — A
Service — A
Pluses: Great team service; a manager even cleared at one point.
Minuses: It’s a little noisy.