When Atomic Liquors, the hipster friendly Fremont East bar, announced it would be unveiling an adjoining restaurant, it quickly became one of the most anticipated openings of 2017. Unfortunately, the proverbial steak didn’t live up to the sizzle. Within two visits, I thought my future stops at Atomic would be relegated to vodka sodas and chats on the outside benches underneath the heat lamps. The food just didn’t hit, and equally as disappointing, it didn’t fit. This was a sentiment echoed by many. Enter Justin Kingsley Hall.
The 36-year-old, who was last the sous chef for the opening of trendy Chinatown eatery Sparrow + Wolf, had been yearning to do something Downtown. The changes to The Kitchen at Atomic came fast and furious under Kingsley Hall’s watch. Says Kingsley Hall, “I came in and within four days wiped out a whole menu that was there.”
This was not a moved based on ego or remaking the kitchen in the image of its new chef, but rather something the space necessitated. He presented his take to the operators of Atomic, why he thought The Kitchen, while still new, needed a page one rewrite. Kingsley Hall explains, “I told them, ‘You guys built a reputation of having an amazing craft beer list, craft cocktails and amazing bartenders. You have all this reputation behind the alcohol and stuff that people are sitting and enjoying for a while. We need more food downtown that makes you sit and enjoy it for a while. Sit around and chat. That goes with your alcohol. I thought of this neighborhood restaurant where you can come in and get a burger and fries and all that or you can come in and get a couple of courses and hang out for 2 or 3 hours and enjoy some cocktails with it.”
While those may be the facts, the truth is his take on the food at Atomic is the most accurate representation of Kingsley Hall’s cuisine since SLO-Boy, his tiny food hut outside of Dino’s Lounge.
SLO-Boy was the chef’s love letter to growing up in California, mostly on the Central Coast. He spent time in Oakland, Alameda, San Diego, Fresno, and San Luis Obispo (SLO). The tastes of the West Coast were prevalent at the small shack outside the famed dive bar. Slow and low cooked tri-tip, harissa-laden carrots, and dandelion greens with a fried egg on top were standouts of that menu.
Before that, the culinary champ did stints as a caterer, as a cook in high-end coastal restaurants in both California and Florida, as the executive sous-chef of Comme Ça in Las Vegas, and after a debilitating medical condition, a long run as a chef-instructor at the Art Institute of Las Vegas.
He is also the cofounder of Whiskey in the Wilderness, an annual event that takes place each winter somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas, out in nature. Chefs from top restaurants throughout the city cook over open flames and serve their dishes paired with drinks from some of the best mixologists in town. Year one saw WitW take place at Mount Charleston. This past winter’s party was located at Spring Mountain Ranch.
The idea came about because Kingsley Hall had been to enough food events and he saw what was missing. He states, “They are the same thing. For the food and beverage people, it’s more of a heartache than anything. But also for the guests. I don’t think they have the best experience.” Chefs are rushing to get food out. Patrons don’t get to mingle with the culinary pros whose food they came to taste. And they usually take place in hotels.
With Whiskey in the Wilderness, it was a chance to reset what was expected out of a food event in Las Vegas. “I found out more and more people who lived here had never been to Mount Charleston,” he explains. “I wanted to create an event that took people outside of the restaurants and hotels and all that and saw some part of the Valley that was great and why it’s such a special place. We limited the number of people because I didn’t want it to be overcrowded. I wanted to socialize a little more and I wanted the chefs and bartenders to have more time to talk to the guests and each other. They can cook whatever they want. This is a really cool way for people to eat all this food from really amazing chefs that could cost them thousands of dollars.” He concludes, saying of the event, which donates to a different local charity with each edition, “I wanted something that I think is very much Las Vegas. It’s something for us.”
The seasoned chef, accustomed to taking risks with events like WitW, knew there would be blowback from his full-court makeover of The Kitchen at Atomic. “You’re going to have to rebuild. Some people aren’t going to love what you do. And that’s fine. It’s a growing experience. It’s about teaching people new techniques about a restaurant,” he explains. “People will get upset because we don’t have mozzarella sticks or sampler platters. I try to explain to them we already have a lot of that. We have a lot of different restaurants on Fremont West that offer you sampler platters and all that. Why can’t we be different and just offer you something else? If you trust us and sit down, we’re going to find something that you’re going to enjoy.”
Both the brunch and dinner menus are plentiful and offer unique, enjoyable options.
Starting with the brunch; the hot smoked trout and the breakfast burritos are must orders. The inspiration for the fish dish, says the chef, is, “How could we do bagels and lox but not?” The trout is seasoned with extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper, then smoked for a few hours over mesquite wood. It’s served with lemon, coriander cream, pickled gooseberries and chives. The flavors hit you from all over and all work to bring out the best in this Pacific Northwest fish. Put it all on top of grilled bread and it’s a dish you’ll want every Saturday or Sunday morning. Meanwhile, Kingsley Hall again shows love to San Luis Obispo with his breakfast burrito. Tri-tip ends, salsa, sour cream, fried potatoes, and cheese make up the interior. Harissa cream sits on top of the tortilla.
Night time brings dishes like ballerina pasta, which is the balding culinarian’s - think a young, modern day “Mean” Gene Okerlund - take on a dish he was served by two Italian brothers while living in Tampa. He recalls, “It was black pasta with olive oil, herbs, and clams and chile. It was really simple but super flavorful.” At Atomic, Kingsley Hall first made it for his kitchen crew during family meal - the pre-shift meal the team shares together before service. Then he made it for the owners. Then he put it on the menu one night as a special. Then everyone kept requesting it. He says his take on the dish, featuring black squid ink pasta, is as simple as the original, “it’s good olive oil, shaved garlic, arbol chile, and sea beans. You get this whole smell of ocean when you get that squid ink in there, but you’re not ending up with all this shellfish in there. You’re getting a great perfume of it.”
The first thing that impressed me with the Coastal California chef’s cooking some years ago was what he was doing with vegetables. The way he was able to maximize flavors out of veggies has been a staple of his since the SLO-Boy days. Starting a meal at The Kitchen at Atomic with an Urban Seed salad showcases both locally grown vegetables from the aforementioned Urban Seed and the elevation of the dish by the chef’s basic but correct preparation of roasted turnips, which brings the whole dish a different spin.
Those harissa-laden carrots from SLO-Boy have also made their way downtown. They have added sweetness due to leaving the peels on.
Ironically, vegetables were not a part of the chef’s youth. “I hated vegetables growing up. Vegetables were overcooked carrots and steamed broccoli. I couldn’t do it. In my mid-20s, I started eating a lot of Asian style vegetables. The biggest thing I learned was the more I ate vegetables, the less I messed with them, the more I loved it. It’s the right fats and perfect cooking.”
One plate with no vegetables that makes an appearance at all hours of the day is The Kitchen’s signature dessert, whiskey bread pudding. The chef describes the popular meal-ender this way, “I was trying to make a bread pudding that was unlike the ones I’ve had before. Not mushy, and finding a perfect balance. Custard, and keeping the bourbon uncooked in it, pressing the bread pudding for the right amount of time. Finish it with cardamom creme and honey. I love floral notes for dessert. It’s a perfect balance of almost savory with that butter and bread and the right amount of caramel and salt and cardamom.”
Balance and simplicity in an elevated fashion. In the end, that’s all The Kitchen at Atomic needed to take its rightful place as an essential downtown dining destination. It just so happens they found the chef who was willing to take enough risks to get them there.