Perhaps it’s as simple as knowing it is a job well done. Maybe it’s a self pat on the back. But there is something fulfilling about finding the perfect meal for an out-of-town guest.
My brother Max, whose job requires him to travel throughout the United States and allows him to eat at many of the most unique and interesting restaurants in the country, just visited me. As a former resident and good brother, he already has a cadre of local Vegas favorites. My plan was to hit him with a few off-the-beaten-path choices. But besides an array of holes-in-the-wall, I wanted to at least impress him with one blowout dinner. I decided to take a calculated risk as I knew the food would be excellent, but I wasn’t sure what to expect with a Southern bourbon pairing supper at Yardbird. Max, a whiskey aficionado, takes his bourbon pretty seriously so the stakes were high.
Yardbird is swank. The Miami import is part of a Southern Florida restaurant revolution in The Venetian that also includes the newly opened Sugarcane and the soon to debut Chica, from celebrity chef Lorena Garcia. There is a definite mood it is trying to set – with its low lighting, casual couch lounge, and showpiece black bar. It achieves this cool vibe.
This dinner was put together for us by the staff, our main conduit being General Manager Steven Stolz, an attentive and knowledgeable import from the Miami location. Besides Miami and Las Vegas, Yardbird will soon open locations in Beverly Hills and Singapore.
Course one features a dish not to be missed — and one with a playful spin. The fried green tomato BLT loses the bread altogether and uses the normally-on-the-side fried green tomato as the vessel for the rest of the plate: House-smoked pork belly is pull apart good. Pimento cheese transports the diner below the Mason Dixon line. And the smoky, tomato jam frisee is topped with a lovely pickled lemon vinaigrette. A good bite has everything - sweet, salty, smooth, crunchy, fresh, cheesy. Any one of these components works well on its own, but together they are a team far greater than the individual parts.
Accompanying the open-faced BLT are two devilled eggs. They are perfectly velvety with smoked trout row elevating the whole bite, but while other interpretations of Southern classics at Yardbird are homeruns, this one is a single at best. They are good, but adding some crunch, even some of the run-off exterior from the fried green tomato, would do this plate a great service.
The first whiskey of the night comes in the form of a bacon infused Wild Turkey ‘81. It’s a nice way to loosen things up as the made-in-house bacon renderings really do add to the drink. But don’t take my word for it. Says Max:
This is a great introduction to the whiskey adventure we’ll be embarking on throughout the evening. So often, infused drinks are taken over by the flavor infusion. Not here. The low-proof Wild Turkey is mixed subtly with the bacon for an introductory drink that is full of flavor, but not at all overpowering.
The second course is Yardbird’s piece de resistance. Chicken ’n’ watermelon ’n’ waffles. This is a plate that takes a restaurant from local favorite to international brand. It’s That Damn Good. $36 is no small price to pay for fried chicken, but here, you will gladly hand them enough money for two.
This fowl is so good it has rumors swirling around it. Some say the bird is dredged for a full 27 hours before being put in the fryer, giving it ample time to soak up flavors. Some say the perfect skin and juicy interior is due to the chicken being fried in bacon grease. Whatever is truth and whatever is rumor isn’t important. What is important is that the truth surpasses the legend in this instance.
The waffle is bobbed and weaved with Vermont cheddar cheese, taking the normally sweet component and making it a worthy savory compliment to the bird. It is strong enough to support the fowl texturally, but also soft in the middle, just as desired. It’s a perfect vehicle to soak up the extra honey hot sauce and bacon maple syrup that come with it.
The chilled watermelon is a perfect pallet cleanser, resetting one’s taste buds but still being a heat-forward item.
For sides, charred okra will make you rethink -- it certainly did me -- that okra should only be served fried. The char give the legume a worthy texture to play against the cotija cheese, brown butter and lemon juice that create its invisible coating and the whole thing works in a way that will have you going back for more than you expected.
Collard greens are given a nice changeup, with pulled chicken replacing the normal ham hock or turkey component. The stewed greens are smoky and flat-out delicious.
As for cocktail number two, it’s a smoky Forester, aided in heat by Serrano peppers. I like the heat. So does Max. He states, “This is a unique take on America’s oldest bottled bourbon. The natural sweetness of Old Forester is contrasted nicely with a healthy dose of heat that only gets spicier the longer it sits in the glass.”
While Yardbird might be most famous for the chicken, the desserts are equal to the quality set forth in the savory portion of the meal. In this instance, we were served the most decadent banana pudding imaginable. House-made banana bread acts as a spongy base along Nilla wafers. They sponge up all of that delicious, homemade banana pudding. It’s already decadent and we haven’t even mentioned the fresh sliced bananas, homemade Chantilly crème, and dehydrated banana that finish the dish off.
The accompanying drink was the least successful pairing. A play on an Old Fashioned featured an in-house banana macerated liquor, two types of rum, bacardi e rum and atlantico reserve, and two types of bitters. Whether it needs more refinement or it should be scrapped altogether remains to be seen, but the drink felt efforted, and overpowered more than complimented the excellent dessert. Max seemed to like it more than I did:
This is a unique play on a tried and true cocktail bar stalwart. The normal, citrus flavors of an Old Fashioned are replaced here by banana, which paired well with the dessert, but didn’t necessarily stand out from it. This is definitely a dessert drink, but these flavors may jump out a bit more with a nod back to the traditional--a single, large ice cube, as opposed to the drink being served on the rocks.
Luckily, the best bourbon was saved for last in the form of an apple smoked Woodford. The spirit is cold smoked and that smokiness is prevalent throughout, giving the drink something both smooth and discernible. Max explains:
I’ve never tasted anything quite like this. Woodford is already one of my favorite, everyday bourbons. The smoke is the first, middle, and last thing you taste in this drink, but it doesn’t blow away the taste of the bourbon, it enhances Woodford’s already vanilla, spice, and smoke-forward flavor. This is the kind of drink I’d like to have three or four of sitting at a campfire.
I have no idea when Max will be at his next campfire. My guess is not any time soon. But that’s what Vegas does best, transports us to places we aren’t expecting. Of course, that could just be all the bourbon talking.