Full disclosure: this article is not objective. I’ve been a fan of Johnny Church since the first time I tried his food in the most obscure of locations a couple of years ago. From bite one, I knew he had the potential to be a breakout chef in Las Vegas, and now that he has his most visible canvas to paint on, I want him to receive all the accolades he deserves.
The thing is, Las Vegas, we should all be supporting Johnny as the next great chef on the Strip. Besides his talent, he is as close to a homegrown talent as we can ask for. In fact, other than working in his mother’s restaurant back in Flint, Michigan and a sabbatical that saw him experience some of California’s best kitchens, his entire culinary career has been right here in the entertainment (and food) capital of the world.
When I first met Church, 39, he had already done some major stops in the Las Vegas restaurant world. Among the chefs he worked for were Bradley Ogden and Charlie Palmer, the latter of which, as you’ll soon find out, is seminal to this story. He worked on the line at Andre’s, a rite of passage for more successful Las Vegas based chefs than I can count. And he was the chef behind the menu at MTO Cafe, the popular breakfast and lunch spot that helped break open the Downtown Las Vegas dining scene.
Johnny Church and Charlie Palmer
But the place I came to know him at was so tucked away, I couldn’t even find it on my first visit. Artisanal Foods was a specialty market that sold high end items like truffles and imported cheeses. It was located in a nondescript office park in Henderson. Unlike other specialty markets, this one had six tables set up and a fully operational kitchen. In that kitchen, Church created some of the most unique and affordable lunches in recent Las Vegas memory.
Where else - especially in the suburbs - could one get dishes like lionfish ceviche, beef and octopus carpaccio, and a grilled cheese that has been etched in my memory since first taste?
After Church, who won a “Best Chef Of The Year Off Strip” award for his work at Artisanal Foods, split from that operation, he focused on catering, but the foodie community wondered where and when he would land his next big gig.
Says Church of his more underground time, “I didn’t want to just pick a job. I didn’t want to look like, ‘Where is the guy now? What is he doing?’ I wanted to go somewhere where I could put my head down for a few years and then either try to be an entrepreneur or move up with them or get my own spot on The Strip.”
As fate would have it, Church’s past and present collided, and now he’s building his future. After losing touch for a few years, Church reached out to his old boss, the celebrity chef Charlie Palmer, to see if he might be a fit for the rebranding of Charlie Palmer Steak. While those puzzle pieces didn’t connect, Palmer, whose brand now includes 17 restaurants in seven different areas of the United States, thought his old employee might be right for something else in his collection.
The way Church puts it, “It was like the perfect storm.” Along with revamping Steak, Palmer thought it was time to take Aureole into today and tomorrow.
Aureole, the meaning of which is “a circle of light or brightness surrounding something, especially as depicted in art around the head or body of a person represented as holy” was as fancy as its meaning. The high-end, French inspired meat first mecca felt a bit aged. The Las Vegas iteration, as much known for its giant wine tower that features wine angels - beautiful women in tight, white leotards - pulling bottles out by scaling the tower on bungee cords, needed some updating. While the wine tower gimmick is ageless, the cuisine and style needed to evolve. As Palmer himself states, “That’s where we are in dining right now. That’s the way I want it to be. People say, ‘I want the restaurant to be less precious. With more laughter.’ The idea we are trying to get across is this - great ingredients, simply prepared, kind of fun and relaxed atmosphere. Hopefully the restaurant is going to be a lot more fun with people sharing things.”
This menu features the best of both Church and Palmer. The masculine yet finessed technique that Palmer built his reputation on has been ingrained in Church’s head since his first stint under the master. It is combined with the strange, whimsical point of view that Church is now known for.
Palmer explains, “(The menu) is really collaborative in the sense that when you know somebody well enough and have a like mind with food, obviously Johnny knows my thoughts and that’s grown over 10+ years, it’s just so easy to work and collaborate with things when we speak the same language. We can spend five minutes on the phone and I could say, ‘Remember this or what we did here’ and it clicks right away.’”
Church backs this up, “Charlie told me I can do my own thing. Great synergy. I emulate my cuisine after the philosophies of Charlie and Bradley (Ogden) and the guys that came up in that generation. I like to cook seasonally. When Charlie coined ‘American progressive cuisine’ it was because when he walked into the kitchen every day he felt like he was progressing. And that’s how I’ve always been. It’s a culture I’m trying to get back into this Aureole here. Keep pushing and progressing.”
A nice shared plate to start with is the fritto misto ($18) that features baby zucchini and artichokes in an impeccable batter spread out over an avocado cream. That batter, as good as any this side of the tempura asparagus found at Raku, features potato flour, corn starch, baking powder, espelette, salt, pepper and sparkling water. The vegetables are flash fried and besides being damn tasty, the whole thing is incredibly light.
The same batter is found on the shiso peppers paired with Chef Church’s lionfish ceviche ($25). Lionfish, an invasive species that is having its way in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, might be disruptive in the saltwater, but its meat is mellow and full of body, perfect for ceviche. Church goes Peruvian meets Asian here with aji amarillo, citrus, lemongrass, ginger, basil, mint, cilantro, and sweet potato. The chef says this is a good example of where the menu is going, seasonal and sustainable.
Another of Church’s hits from the past that make an appearance here is the beef and octopus carpaccio ($23). Octopus is mixed mirepoix - chopped carrots, celery and onion - along with daikon, which breaks down the tough sea creature’s enzymes. It’s marinated with San Marzano tomatoes and cooked low and slow. The Piedmontese beef sirloin is butterflied and enhanced activa meat glue. The beef is then rolled up with the octopus inside and frozen. Once chilled right, it’s spread out and served with gremolata - chopped herbs - and brioche toast. See what I mean about strange and whimsical?
Church compares his stellar vegan dish, root vegetable cassoulet ($11) to a dish many of us make. He says, “It’s like when you make chili at home. You got your way.” His way for this hearty French casserole includes a 12 hour vegetable stock, 11 different root veggies that are sweated in layers and include carrots, celery root, rutabaga, onions, leeks, celery. Garlic, beans, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, basil thyme, parsley, chive an extra virgin olive oil based pistou and more blended vegetables are added with a number of techniques. It’s complex to make and each bite gives the diner different tastes.
Those looking for a modern take on steak are well-advised to try the 4x seared ribeye cap and eye ($49). The tender meat is seared for a minute at a time with a different layer of flavor added each time. Sea salt, mirin, soy, and uni make this a standout meat plate with the quality of the beef matched by the preparation.
Equally as impressive is the charred Chilean sea bass ($42). This is another example of a perfect paring of protein and sauce. The black butter sauce -featuring equal parts black butter, lime juice, and soy sauce is full of contrasting yet complimentary flavors. Chopped up cashews and golden raisins add even more textures and tastes. It all sits on a bed of grits and is accompanied by sea beans. It’s as good a fish as I’ve tasted in the last few years.
To finish the meal, Church and his team have developed a number of memorable desserts. Cheesecake three ways ($21) is already in the running for dessert of the year. Valdeon bleu is topped with maple cream and candied pecans. Age white cheddar is paired with orange marmalade and marigold flowers. French brie is finished off with huckleberry compote and fresh mint. The only problem with this dish is picking a favorite. Cold-pressed coffee panna cotta ($11) is another top-notch item with the thick, espresso steeped sweetened cream complimented by huckleberry compote, sugar glass, brown butter powder, lavender ice cream, purple violets and fresh mint. It is a beauty both visually and taste wise.
It’s been a long road for Johnny Church to find his way back to his former mentor Charlie Palmer. But with results like these, it is a journey well worth it.