Timon Balloo’s Sugarcane
Global tapas has been one of the biggest trends in dining this decade. At this point though, the trend is over. Small plates with different worldly influences are no longer hard to find and have become mainstream. With an influx of so many high-end restaurants in Las Vegas playing within this genre, it’s no longer about discovering the one global tapas joint, but about discovering the best global tapas joint.
An argument can easily be made that the newest kid on this particular block, Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, located smack in the middle of restaurant row at The Venetian, is already atop the Las Vegas food chain. One important thing to know about the “raw bar grill” is that it features all three of those elements, executed excellently: a huge raw section with some really interesting choices, a beverage program as good as any in town, and some fine plates cooked over an open flame.
If ever there was a chef built for the global tapas revolution, it is Chef Timon Balloo, the man behind Sugarcane’s delectable and varied menu. His mother is Chinese in heritage. His father is of Indian descent. And they are both from the West Indies. Balloo himself was trained in the classical European style even though he grew up in San Francisco and has spent plenty of time in Miami, the home city of the original Sugarcane. Basically, he can pull inspiration and ideas from cultures and cuisines ranging from the Far East, Latin America, The Caribbean, France, and different regions of the United States. Who’s to say if he’s a chef who found his niche or if his niche found him? Either way, he seems a perfect fit for Sugarcane and vice versa.
The crudo section is impressive with seven different choices, more than is offered at the Miami location. When Balloo describes these preparations, it’s easy to see just how many traditions he’s able to pull from. Of his love of crudo, he states, “It’s the infatuation of the cuisine and refinement of Japanese food. Pristine raw fish cookery fortified with a little bit of the Latino background of Miami.” But just as it seems he’s trending towards luxurious Japanese nigiri or swanky Miami style ceviche, he adds, “I wanted to highlight raw fish in a very European setting - in the sense of Mediterranean-style techniques, the way you’d have it if you went to Greece or Italy.” Alright, so now he’s added two of the most important cuisines of Western Europe to the mix. He ties it all together like this, “Simple crudos, nice acid, olive oil, citrus, sea salt. Using the composing techniques to veer into Asian flavors when they’d fit.”
That crudo section is not playing with many parameters besides, of course, the proteins being raw. Hokkaido scallop ($16) is cut razor thin and sits atop compressed apple. Black truffle might be the luxury ingredient here, but it stands out no more than the lime and jalapeno that bring the other varying tastes to the dish.
Kinilaw kampachi ($15) was created specifically for the Vegas menu and holds a place near to Balloo’s heart. He states, “I really wanted a kinilaw to highlight my upbringing in San Francisco, living with my best friend who is Filipino and having these Filipino aggressive flavors, a Filipino style ceviche which is beautiful. That’s very different than what I’d do in Miami because the Filipino culture is so foreign to them.” As opposed to most Latin American ceviches, which utilize lime (and sometimes lemon) as their acid component, Filipino ceviche traditionally goes at it hard with vinegar and often mellows it out with coconut milk. At Sugarcane, the kampachi, a high-end yellowtail, gets its acid from both vinegar, here in a lovely pour-over coconut-cane sauce, and from citrus segments like blood orange. The obligatory crunch is added with puffed rice. It is a taste I doubt one could find anywhere else in Las Vegas and it’s damn good.
One last crudo not to be missed is the kombu marinated fluke ($15), a fun, interactive dish that gives the diner some control of the taste. The fish is served on top of kombu, an edible Asian kelp, and the longer the fish rests on the seaweed, the saltier it gets. An incredibly well-balanced trio of red grapes, charred onions and sesame seeds marry the dish together, creating one of my favorite raw fish creations I’ve ever tried.
I often find many cocktail programs trying to overtake the dining experience, but at Sugarcane, every drink served complimented the meal perfectly. A frozen rosé was presented at the beginning of the night, almost like an elegant, adult slushy to open the pallet. A playful rum’n’bramble ($15) proved that rum cocktails, of which there is a full section on the menu, do not have to overpower a meal. The combination of Flor de Caña 7yr Añejo rum, yuzu, dry vermouth, agave, blackberry purée, cardamom bitters, and fresh basil was incredibly light, the type of drink that works in Vegas, Miami or, really, anywhere else. The blackberry was just right, an ideal component that can take on all the other flavors yet still maintain its integrity. Leche de tigre ($14) kicked things up a bit with Kappa pisco, coconut milk, yuzu, simple syrup, and fresh cilantro bringing some Peruvian flare to the evening.
The large grill is easy for diners to see in the semi-open kitchen. It is a showpiece both as scenery and as a method of cooking, but there are also other plates to be aware of. Besides the grill, there is a large and small plates section, and while I’m sure the grand platters are as good as anything else on the menu, it is wise to stick to the small plates and grill to get the most variety. From the small plates, it would be a mistake not to order the goat cheese croquettes ($12) which is a signature dish of the Sugarcane brand. This is an item seen often, but rarely reaches such tasty heights. The breaded and fried cheese balls are served with a mebrillo marmalade, a sweet quince paste that not only elevates this plate, but would be a killer jelly component on any PB&J sandwich.
Brussels sprouts ($11) and bacon wrapped dates ($15) again segues into familiar territory but are just so much better than the versions served at most restaurants. The sprouts are lathered with sweet soy and get an acid counterpunch with orange segments. The dates are definitely bordering on large plate territory, with the two served on the dish plenty for any one person. The utilization of linguica, a smoked Portuguese sausage, and manchego cheese, a favorite from Spain made from sheep’s milk, gives this classic some new swag to it.
The dish that stood out above all others, though, was pig ear Pad Thai ($11), and is one that easily makes my list of best dishes of 2016. The concept is a collaboration between Balloo and his chef de cuisine of the Las Vegas restaurant, Ryan Nuqui. The crunchy pig ear is served with a refreshing papaya salad. It is smart, sophisticated, and downright delicious. Says Balloo of the idea, “I treat the ears like they are noodles. Hit them with the Pad Thai sauce. Add some cleanness, the duality of textures. You have something hot and crispy. You get something cold and crisp to go with it. This embodies it. It’s f-ing crack.” Is that why I’m jonesing for more?
Continuing the around-the-world theme, two of the best grilled items are Spanish octopus ($15) served with aji panca, a Peruvian red pepper sauce that plays against the char of the sea creature nicely, and beef short ribs ($18) done in Korean kalbi style - bet you can’t eat just one.
Desserts ($12) also feature components from different continents. Torrejas brings Sugarcane closer to Cuba, with the sweet, thick toast served with caramelized apples, maple butter and cinnamon ice cream. Sesame bombe leans Asian with a sesame sponge cake beautifully topped with vanilla meringue and sesame sauce. This is definitely a dessert you eat with your eyes first. And the taste holds up to the visual.
Balloo, 39, has the right attitude for Sugarcane. If it’s this good already, what will it be like in six months? Says the chef, “We grow with every meal we cook and every ingredient we use.” He confidently states, “We can cook with limitless boundaries.” Count me in. I’ll trot with these tastes anywhere around the globe.