The Black Sheep
Photographs by Madison Freedle
Las Vegas has played host to a bevy of high profile restaurant openings this year - many of which have been written about in this magazine. And while these restaurants have often been high quality, none of them touch The Black Sheep. The little joint tucked away in a complex with at least three other eating options on Durango and Warm Springs might not have burst onto the scene with as much noise, but based solely on the quality of the food and drink, this is the winner for best new restaurant this year.
It would be tough for anything opening during the latter half of 2017 to compete with what Chef Jamie Tran is putting out in her quaint eatery. Tran is 34-years-old, but she looks young enough to still get carded. The chef might come off as demure and docile, but in the kitchen, she’s a beast.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Tran, the fifth of nine children in her family, has ended up with her own restaurant. The writing began etching itself on the wall when she was just a toddler. Says Tran, “I knew I loved cooking when I was 3. In California we had rolling blackouts and my mom would makeshift some stoves out of cookie tins, she’d cut them open and make pork belly. My dish is inspired by it. Braised pork belly, rice, and sautéed veggies. My mom finally let me cook when I was four - fried rice.”
We’ll talk Tran’s play on pork later. As for Tran’s parental influence on her cooking, it wasn’t just from her mother. Tran’s father was a chef at a Chinese restaurant for years and even had his daughter train under him. While he was prepping Tran for her future, she saw things a different way. Tran recalls, “I didn’t want to be a chef because I didn’t want to be like my dad. My friends, my family, even my dad said I was gonna be like him. ‘You’re gonna be a chef, why keep fighting it?’”
Tran studied business at San Francisco State University while also attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. She moved to Las Vegas to gain experience at the remarkable burger chain, Bachi Burger. From there she staged a few shifts at Charlie Palmer’s high end wine and steak Mandalay Bay outpost, Aureole. She was offered a job, at that time under Executive Chef Vincent Pouessel, and stayed for five years.
For those who don’t know who Pouessel is, he has all the talent of the celebrity chefs he’s worked for. He is currently overseeing the upscale menu movement at the incredibly busy Paris Hotel branch of Mon Ami Gabi. After Aureole, he moved onto db Brasserie (under Daniel Boulud) where he was putting out some of the most stunning French food in the city. Tran followed Pouessel to db and her technique only got stronger under the maestro.
This intermingling of French and Vietnamese cuisine isn’t just a happy coincidence. France colonized Vietnam in the mid 1800s and from a purely culinary level, French technique mixed with Vietnamese ingredients produced, both then and now, some of the best food in the world.
This is the basis for what Jamie Tran is doing at The Black Sheep. Call it Modern Vietnamese comfort food. The foundation of traditional French technique with Vietnamese home style dishes is proving to be a stroke of genius for the team behind the restaurant. Tran attributes the concept to missing her family. She explains, “I’m homesick and I can’t go home so I’m gonna make home.”
That’s the beauty of Jamie Tran. Her vision is so clear and it comes through in her cuisine. The menu isn’t large, around ten appetizers and ten entrees, but it’s executed at such a distinguished level, it would be foolish of the chef to add more and stretch her focus.
From the appetizer section, you can’t go wrong with the ahi tuna tartare ($12). We know, everybody is doing it. But is everybody doing it like a Vietnamese poke? Tran utilizes sriracha, chili oil, and lime zest to make the raw fish pop with flavor. She dehydrates rice with sesame seeds and cooks it over a flame to make a rice puff known as banh trang that adds the crunchy component.
As a diner, you’ll notice Tran’s obsession with textural contrasts. Take the hamachi crudo ($16) for instance. The delicate raw fish is balanced by a young coconut and kaffir lime chilled consommé - there’s that French influence making itself known - and pickled daikon. It is finished with a neon green jalapeno tapioca crisp. It’s an of-the-moment riff on known parts and it is very successful.
There is an element of crunch by way of frying in many of the appetizers. It would be easy to assume this could become overbearing, but the fry on most items is done so expertly, it’s often difficult to remember you are eating another fried thing.
Fried beef crisps ($6) are so addictive, they should have their own anonymous meetings to get people unhooked off these things. Think beef tendon chicharon with togarashi dust and chili lime sauce. The chef explains her inspiration as such, “Some people can’t take the soft texture of beef tendon so I thought, ‘How can I make it the way people will love it the way I like it?’ I dehydrated the beef tendon and made it into a chip, then I got it to the point of almost like popcorn. I love the Mexican chili (chamoy) you put on fruits so I just did that. With the lime, I thought about beer and this is very approachable for anybody to eat.” Eat it. Trust me.
Vietnamese Imperial Rolls ($9) are fit for royalty and are yet another stunner from the left side of the menu. Here, Tran expertly utilizes her personal and professional backgrounds and combines them to make something special. Duroc pork and shrimp are prepared in the French country pâté style, with fennel, black trumpet mushrooms, and spices filling out the bill. This mixture is stuffed into spring roll wrappers as a nod to the way Tran’s mother used to prepare rolls. They are then - you guessed it - fried to perfection and sit against a yellow frisee salad, ninja daikon, and pickled heirloom carrots. When football season comes around, I could eat a plate of these every Sunday, thereby combining the greatness of French, Vietnamese and American cultures.
Pork is often a centerpiece ingredient as it is with bao sliders ($9). This is a play on Vietnamese bao dumplings that sees Tran make her own petite bao buns - delicious, airy, doughy pockets of goodness - and fill them with lap cheang, which is Chinese pork sausage, a viscous fried quail egg, crispy shallots, fresh herbs, and jalapeno aioli. It’s the best bao in Las Vegas this side of Fat Choy. They are served with fried lotus root chips, giving one a current Asian riff on the burger and fries play.
Moving onto main courses, let’s get back to the aforementioned pork belly. Mom’s version of the dish was more than just a meal to the young would-be chef. Tran recalls, “Mom is not very expressive. Food is love. I knew she loved us through that.”
Tran’s interpretation of this love is her braised Duroc pork belly ($18) which brings joy with many different components, not just the hog itself. There’s multi-colored sticky rice presented inside of the deep green banana leaf it was cooked in. There’s assertive mustard greens, even darker than the banana leaf. There’s a deep red cherry sauce. As for the pork, Chef Tran removes the skin and gives it the crunchy chicharon treatment. What’s left in the middle is the juicy pig flanked by seasonal mushrooms.
For the beef eaters, look no further than slow-cooked short rib ($22). The concept here is reminiscent of Vietnamese beef stew. It’s one of the world’s best comfort foods. At The Black Sheep, the vegetables normally associated with cold weather -carrots, onions, etc - have been freshened up as a summer squash ratatouille instead. It’s a side dish worthy of being a main dish. It’s tossed in with house-made yucca gnocchi, which the chef made on a whim and it stuck. The meat is tender and pull-apart good. This one gets ordered on repeat.
The lighter proteins are equally as impressive. Scottish King Salmon Clay Pot ($23) swipes out catfish for salmon and rice for the trendiest of grains, farro. It’s all steamed together with plums, plum sauce and sautéed eggplant for something that feels at once both decadent and health conscious.
The other not-to-be-missed option for practitioners of pescetarianism is fried whole rainbow trout ($19). The fish is coated with a sauce comprised of soy, rice wine vinegar, Thai chili, and ginger. This viscous wonder sauce not only seeps into the perfectly cooked fish, but downwards onto the bed of greens beneath it. Tran remembered her mother’s fondness for cooking Chinese spinach but wanted something a little more sumptuous, so she went with rainbow Swiss chard. The greens are sautéed with garlic chips and the creeping sweetness from the rice wine vinegar sauce creates a taste unlike any other in the city.
Cocktails reach the standard set by the food with plays on mules and even adult egg cremes. Nothing, however, tops La Flama Blanca ($9) which features Kai Lemongrass Vodka, spicy Thai chili syrup, lemon simple and egg white. It’s frothy, it’s light, and it’s got a real kick to it. It’s a perfect summer cocktail, though I hope it stays on the menu all year.
Finish things off with an Asian take on tres leches cake. A steamed chocolate cake is doused with condensed milk tableside and the diner’s spoon is able to also pick up cacao nibs for a harder texture and smooth dollops of white chocolate and coffee crème. Seriously, what’s not to like?
Chef Tran reminisces about working in various kitchens. Besides being a woman, she looks so young. She is the opposite of the intimidating French chefs she reveres so much. Coworkers thought her capabilities were limited, perhaps because of her lack of bravado. She was, in fact, The Black Sheep.
As is often the case, the one no one paid attention to was the one with the most to offer. She came in with a clear yet different point of view. She has a skill set honed in kitchens full of all-stars. Sometimes when you sit back and give those outcasts space to create, what you get is something as brilliant as The Black Sheep.
Clockwise from Top: Ahi Tuna Tartare, Scottish King Salmon ‘Clay Pot’ and The Black Sheep.