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Vegas Test Kitchen brings 5 new restaurant concepts to downtown

It’s not their first day of operation. (That was last Friday.) It’s not even operating at full occupancy yet. But after getting five disparate dining concepts up and running in the midst of a pandemic, Jolene Mannina is ready to celebrate.

“Everyone should come down Friday,” says Mannina, creator of Fremont Street’s new Vegas Test Kitchen. “We will have five different concepts live, and it’s our grand opening.”

Those concepts are, in no particular order: a bagel shop; a ramen and noodle spot; a pizzeria; a bakery specializing in pies; and a concept dedicated exclusively to a Bulgarian street food known as baniza. Sushi and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) are expected to join the lineup over the next month.

The chefs behind each of the eateries are as varied as the cuisines they’ll be serving. They include veterans of high-profile casino restaurants and hidden off-Strip gems, as well as one first-time restaurateur. Most have seen their careers take a stark detour this year, with COVID-19 forcing them to get creative with what kind of food they make, and how they sell it.

“Through the pandemic, we just kept seeing more chefs and local cooks that have been testing out ideas on their own,” Mannina explains.

Two of the chefs she’s recruited for Vegas Test Kitchen, Pop ’N Pies’ Andrea McLean and sushi chef Sung Park, are Strip veterans who had turned to private catering to make ends meet after their restaurants closed in the initial COVID shutdown. Yukon Pizza’s Alex White is a veteran TV and film cameraman and longtime pizza hobbyist, who began selling his pizzas to friends when his industry shut down. As their home businesses grew, they found themselves in need of a professional kitchen.

Mannina, the former culinary director for Life Is Beautiful, whose company Secret Burger promotes dining pop-ups, saw an opportunity in a vacant restaurant space next door to Fergusons Downtown.

“I really just wanted to give them an opportunity, and a home for a commissary kitchen. And in my mind, if you have a commissary kitchen, and you’re already there cooking, why not also sell to the public and create a following for yourself?”

She designed Vegas Test Kitchen to allow multiple chefs to rent small spaces for shorter periods of time. Open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays, the other two days of the week are reserved for the chefs to do prep work and cooking for other projects. By closing at 4 p.m., the space is available for nigthtime pop-ups and special events. And the retail format is meant to be adaptable to any COVID restrictions the governor might impose.

While there’s limited seating, both inside the building and in the alley between it and Fergusons, the operation is geared toward takeout. Guests order from their phones, with a single website taking orders and payments for whatever concepts are operating at that time, with a single transaction. Dine-in orders are delivered to the table. To-go orders can be picked up at the door.

Pop ’N Pies’ Andrea McLean, who was furloughed in March from MGM Grand’s Joel Robuchon, says the group setup will allow her to experiment with ideas without a major financial commitment.

“I’ll be able to try things that I’ve always wanted to try. There’s no risk, because I won’t be making so much. And I’ll get the feedback.”

Sonia El-Nawal, who operates Rooster Boy Café in the Desert Shores community, had been looking for a new space to develop her Bodega Bagels concept before COVID struck. In fact, she says, she’d been considering this very building.

“Then the shutdown happened and I didn’t do it,” she explains. “So thank God Jolene took over the space, and now I still get to be in there. Same exact space — just a smaller portion. And way things are going, I’m totally cool with that.”

White, whose small crew cooks its pizzas in an outdoor oven in the alley, says Vegas Test Kitchen is all about “opportunity.”

“They’re really putting out a hand, and the resources and the support, to say ‘Go, and do, and create.’ And that’s massive.”

For foodies, Vegas Test Kitchen is an opportunity to get a first look at some concepts that may soon be coming soon to a dedicated brick-and-mortar restaurant.

What’s cooking at Vegas Test Kitchen

Vegas Test Kitchen celebrates its grand opening on Friday, with five of its seven concepts currently operational. So what’s available? Here’s a quick rundown of the restaurants, the chefs and the concepts:

Slurp Society

Chef Lanny Chin had just opened the Las Vegas outpost of San Francisco’s Slanted Door in The Forum Shops at Caesars when Las Vegas shut down. He’s also a veteran of the Test Kitchen building, having helped open Natalie Young’s restaurant Chow, in the same space. At Test Kitchen however, he’s drawing on his experience making ramen at the former Henderson restaurant Lucky Foos. The broths and noodle dishes he’s developing here will likely give some indication of what he has planned for an upcoming food hall he’s expected to be involved with in 2022.

Bodega Bagel

Chef Sonia El-Nawal is no stranger to Fremont Street. As a corporate chef for the former Downtown Project, she opened The Perch in Downtown Container Park as well as the nearby Market. More recently, she’s been operating Rooster Boy Café in Desert Shores, where she’s been developing her bagel recipes.

Bodega bagel

While all of the other concepts in Vegas Test Kitchen begin service at 11 a.m., chef Sonia El-Nawal is the building’s early riser. She opens at 8.

Banichka

At Forte Tapas, Nina Manchev introduced Las Vegas foodies to a variety of Eastern European cuisine. At Banichka, she’ll be concentrating on a single dish, called Baniza. In Bulgaria, she says, it’s a street food and a household staple, with numerous varieties available.

“Baniza is like a pastry, but it can be sweet or savory,” Manchev explains. “It’s a flaky type of pastry, but there’s hundreds of different variations.”

Pop ’N Pies

Pastry chef Andrea McLean is a Las Vegas native who attended culinary school at CSN before working on the kitchens of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Joel Robuchon’s MGM Grand restaurants. As the name indicates, her section of the Test Kitchen will be dedicated to one thing: pies. She’s promising a wide variety, available by the slice.

“I’ll be doing individual slices, ranging from classic pies to things I want to try. Like if I want to do something funky, I’ll give it a shot.”

While Pop ’N Pies is currently only offering sweet dishes, McLean says savory options such as quiche, chicken pot pie and shepherd’s pie are all possibilities for the future.

Yukon Pizza

While cameraman and cinematographer Alex White is new to the restaurant business, the sourdough starter he uses for his dough is 123 years old. He refers to it as a “family heirloom” that was given to him in a mason jar by his father when he left home for college.

Yukon Pizza

“I started throwing pizza parties in my apartment to meet people and make friends,” he explains. “At the time, it was just a vehicle to throw parties. Over the years it became something I became more and more obsessed with.”

He’s now making those pizzas in the renovated alley area between Vegas Test Kitchen and Fergusons Downtown.

Sliced Sushi (coming soon)

Chef Sung Park oversaw the sushi programs at SushiSamba at Palazzo and Kumi at Mandalay Bay before taking over at Sake Rok in The Park near T-Mobile Arena. Since it closed, he and his team have been offering sushi delivery through their catering company, also called Sliced Sushi.

This Mama’s House (coming in January)

This bahn mi concept will be from Crystina Nguyen, longtime general manager of the popular Asian fusion restaruant District One, which has been closed for renovations for much of the year. She’s aiming to open it during the first week of January.

Vegas Test Kitchen is open Wednesdays through Sundays at 1020 Fremont St.; vegastestkitchen.com

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates Palazzo.

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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