Sunday, October 8, 2017

Robert Irvine's Public House - Royal Flusher Restaurant Review

Is the food at Robert Irvine's Public House as good as his arms are big?

For more than a year before it opened, the arrival of Robert Irvine's new restaurant was proudly advertised (featuring proudly massive reproductions of his proudly massive forearms) on the sides of the hotel towers of the Tropicana Las Vegas as a coming attraction. In summer 2017, Robert Irvine's Public House opened.

The renovations to create the new restaurant were extensive, and came at the expense of the Trop's old sports book. Additional space was added in what turned out to be quite a serious undertaking - Public House is huge at 9,000 square feet and 275 seats.

I stopped in for an impromptu dinner to sample what is billed as "comfort food with a celebrity twist".

Robert Irvine's Public House, right off the casino floor at the Tropicana.
It's for reviews like this that I try to protect my anonymity - staff don't know that I'm an annoyingly thorough and savvy foodietective, hell bent on using my finely-honed foodie skills to test, probe, and evaluate every aspect of the restaurant.

They just know that I'm annoying. And that I take a lot of pictures of my food.

I stepped up to the podium, was greeted warmly by a nice young lady, and was assured that I could be seated in just a couple of minutes. I took the time to ask her a few questions.

"Is Robert Irvine a celebrity chef?"

She smiled a little nervously and said, "Umm, yes. Yes he is."

"Why is he famous? What makes him a celebrity?"

She smiled even more nervously, the kind of smile you smile when you are being asked annoying questions by an annoying man. But I have to say, she stepped up to the plate, and knocked it out of the park.

"Well, most people know him from TV shows. Have you ever seen Restaurant: Impossible?"

"No, I have not."

"It's one of his shows. Really interesting. He worked his way up in the business, starting with the Navy, where he learned to cook. And then he kept educating himself, and became very good at what he does."

Good for her.

And with that, I was offered seating. Don't ask me where it is written, but it must be written somewhere that I have yet to uncover that people eating alone a) surely want to sit and eat somewhere uncomfortable b) surely want to sit and eat at a bar and c) barring those choices, if they are willing to shame themselves by eating alone at a table, they must be obliged by being shunted to the worst, or very nearly the worst, table in the house. Usually by a servers station, delivery door, kitchen entrance, or other busy, noisy spot.

This table is what I call the Single Lonely Diner table.

I like eating. I like eating alone! I don't care that nobody is with me! I enjoy eating alone at a great, comfortable table without the eardrum-bursting clatter of dirty dishes being dumped into a bin every 30 seconds.

So how did Robert Irvine et al do when faced with me, the (annoying) Single Lonely Diner?

Well, first I was offered a table at the front, in the bar area, at one of those inexplicably high tables with, well, basically, high chairs at them. The chairs are very sturdy, but they are still high chairs and when I sit in one, my feet dangle like I'm a toddler in a shopping cart.

"No thanks, I don't find those high chairs comfortable. And I don't have a bib."

Then... I was offered a seat at the bar. The bar with high chairs. But rickety high chairs. Surely I would like to sit in a rickety high chair and eat at the bar, while, basically, watching someone work?

"No thanks, I don't really like to eat dinner at the bar. Could I just have a nice table instead?"

If I had sat at the bar, perhaps someone would have read to me in my high chair.
I was led through the high table corral, past the end of the high chair bar (which, by the way, features a broad selection of beers on tap, so it's not all bad), along the length of the high chair bar, which bordered an expansive seating area, mostly empty. This would be fine, I thought.

No, we kept going. And going. And going. Then I saw an inviting windowed section, with huge windows featuring views of the strip. Perhaps I would be seated there?!

No! He's single! He's lonely! He's embarrassed to be seen eating alone at a table! Give him the shit table by the server's access door so he can watch the endless stream of dirty dishes going to and fro. Give him... the Single Lonely Diner table!

I was seated at the table nearest the server's access, the Single Lonely Diner table. Photo taken from the Penultimate Single Lonely Diner Table, which was next to the Single Lonely Diner table, and marginally better.
And she sat me at the far end of a mostly empty dining room. OK, well, we'll just see where it goes, I thought.
Sea of happy diners sitting at their tables near the front of the house, then a sea of empty tables devoid of diners... and then my table, the penultimate Single Lonely Diner table.

Now, we need to flash back to the Beach Cafe at the Tropicana which, for years, featured the most uncomfortable chairs known to man, woman, or beast - or, perhaps to service pug. Even the staff admitted that the director's chairs (which could snap at your scrotum if you so much as looked at them sidewise) were pretty bad. Each time I took a trip to Las Vegas and stayed at the Tropicana, I'd go to the Beach Cafe and they'd tell me they were 'just about' to replace them all. Many snapped at scrotums later, they finally, finally, they did. (And then they closed for renovations, but that's another future review, after I've healed.)

I sat down in the very sturdy and, gosh darn it, sleek-looking chair - and I have to say, there is a new winner in the 'most uncomfortable chair' category. These chairs have metal bars that go across your back, and with not much other support back there, they dig in, quite painfully in my case. Sitting in one is like wearing an underwire bra without the wire, if you could wear one on your back, the point of which is, I am not sure.

I lasted about a minute in The Iron Maiden Chair and stood up. Fortunately, someone wandered by and I asked if I could change tables, to the next one over. My goal was a padded bench. (And, I'd be one table removed from the Single Lonely Diner table.)

Robert Irvine's Public House Single Lonely Diner table featuring the Iron Maiden Chairs. Just to the left is the Server's Door to Hell through which All Servers must pass 500 times an hour. I foiled 'em, though. I foiled 'em good, and moved one table away to the Penultimate Single Lonely Diner for the single win!
I felt kind of sorry for the new enterprise, about the chairs. Did they not try them out? Perhaps they are designed to be uncomfortable so you'll get out as quickly as possible after paying your bill. It's all about turning over the tables, when you are looking at cash flow.

My server was named Julie. Let's be clear. She was excellent. Julie has a lovely personality, fielded all my annoying questions with grace, patience and a good sense of humor. She was prompt and attentive - I couldn't give her a higher recommendation.

I enjoyed really solid, pleasant service at Robert Irvine's Public House
On to the food itself. The menu has its roots planted firmly in pub comfort food - pedestrian staples like fish and chips, chicken wings, burgers, pizza, and shepherd's pie are all represented - but a creative twist has been applied to most everything, to hopefully transform these favorites into something more notable (and pricey, or, since this is a food review, spendy).

It's been interesting to watch the penetration of that wonderful Canadian hangover cure poutine (home cut potato fries, cheese curds, all slathered with hot, light gravy) into American menus over the past decade. Poutine has been taking ground state by state, coronary by coronary, and it's represented here in two versions. There's a traditional fries, curds, and gravy poutine (where's the twist?), and the Public House version, based on tater tots, with pulled pork, onion gravy, peppered goat cheese, and sorrel, which is definitely way out en le champ gauche ($14 and $15 respectively).

The prices are not super sky high, but definitely carry the standard Vegas Strip markup, being perhaps double what they might be in suburbia. In other words, the menu carries a $23 Public House Burger (black angus patty, ham, egg, letuce, tomato, miso mayo, Parker House roll).

I love fondue. I have very fond (heh) memories of stirring the molten cheese on the stove, adding just the right amount of imported beer to get the consistency perfect. We'd transfer it into a heated fondue pot, and then fight for space, dipping fresh crusty chunks of baguette into the hot, gooey, mixture. The goal was to get as much cheese as possible, without losing the loaded bread off of your little two-pronged fork. If you did, you had to kiss the person next to you. As a 10-year-old, I made sure to sit next to Mom, the safe choice for a peck on the cheek.

I started with the French Onion Fondue ($13) - gruyère, caramelized onion, with toasted ciabatta as the cheese transportation medium. Julie told me that it was a favorite - not a typical fondue, but very popular.

The fondue is served in a small, oval, cast iron dish, and I was warned that it was hot.

Gruyère and caramelized onion fondue with ciabatta ($13)
The cheesey, onion mixture was indeed very tasty, but it wasn't super hot, as I'd been warned. The first few tastes were only just warm enough, and as it cooled, it wasn't as enjoyable as it should have been. (I didn't mention it, I'd already caused enough trouble.)

I found it tricky to work with the ciabatta, but practically, you have to toast the bread for the dish to work in this setting. My issue was that I couldn't get enough of the delicious fondue onto the bread - the onions keep the mixture flowing too freely, and it had a tendency to glop off.

Robert Irvine's Public House fondue requires a balancing act to transport the good stuff mouthward.
I also found it to be underseasoned. I rarely add any salt to my food, but a very light sprinkling of salt and pepper made a huge difference to the experience.

The fondue should definitely be shared. There's plenty for two or three people (who are probably sitting at a decent table). It was good enough that I gave up on the bread half-way through, and just ate it with a spoon, risking the wrath of Mr. Irvine's forearms.

Would I still recommend the fondue? Yes. It had two strikes against it (temperature, seasoning) but was still good enough to finish. Piping hot, it would be outstanding. Hopefully, the shortcomings in sample was just one of those things.

For the main course, I went with the 'signature' Fish and Chips ($24). What could anchor a pub food menu more perfectly than this classic?

The fish part of the fish and chips was perfect, served piping hot. The batter on the deep-fried delight was a gorgeous dark golden teak, light, crispy. Not too oily, not too heavy. And the generous portion of cod inside was just right - steaming hot, flakey and delicious. Full marks on the fish, it could not have been better, and the tangy green cabbage slaw was excellent, the perfect counterpoint to the fish.

A fellow had been sitting nearby at an empty table, waiting for his party to arrive, and when I was almost through, he came over and asked me what I thought of the fries.

Why? The 'chips' served with this dish are not the chunky, hand cut deep fried sticks of hotbohydrate and hot oil perfection you associate with traditional fish and chips.

These are shoestrings, tossed with a mixture of curry aioli, green onion, feta cheese, and bacon bits.

As a whole, the entire mixture worked. There were fries. And bacon. And I happen to love feta. The aioli was nice, too, pulling everything together. It would be easy to overdo this treatment into a soggy, sludgy mess, a poutine, if you will, but the kitchen kept the light touch needed.

So, did I like the fries? I told the fellow that, yes, they were definitely different, but overall, as a savvy foodietective with a penchant for too many commas, I liked them. The problem I had, was that I would have had to eat the entire gigantic serving to get to all of the bacon.

His opinion? He wasn't so sure. It was clear that he just wanted fries that he could put ketchup on. (They are available as a side - Kennebec Fries, $7. For that matter, so are the Tater Tots, $8)

Yes we have a fine selection of beer on tap. And giant plastic jars of red... stuff. It's okay, it's bartending supplies.
And there's the thing. There are no shakers on the tables - I asked for salt and pepper, and was brought fussy, tiny bowls of the seasonings, complete with fussy, tiny spoons. There are no pub-standard refilled bottles of Heinz ketchup, either - or any other condiments for that matter. Robert Irvine's Public House elevates pub comfort to a creative, more adventurous place, but having one foot in down-and-greasy Quebecois poutine, and the other foot in the rabbit pie, as it were ($28), is a tough act to pull off, given your typical Las Vegas plastic football drink toting tourist clientele. (It's okay, they are having a better time than I am.)

I appreciate that there are so many interesting ideas, and yes, twists, in the menu, and it's admirable that the Public House is attempting to steer pub food tastes into a more unique, explorative area. But will America's taste buds hang on for the ride?

Robert Irvine's Public House
At the Tropicana Las Vegas
3801 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV

A special thank-you goes out to the Tropicana Las Vegas for their compassionate service to the many victims of the tragic mass shooting of Oct 2, 2017 that sheltered there.

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