Most Sunday nights, Todd’s Unique Dining in the eastern Las Vegas suburb of Henderson is dark and the only dining options nearby are even dimmer with the likes of Joe’s Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays, and The Olive Garden all within a few feet of the restaurant. That’s more than enough to chase you the fifteen minutes back to the Strip.
However, for several years now, chef/owner Todd Clore and his wife Terry who runs the front of the house, have kept the kitchen going one Sunday a month. The restaurant partners with wineries from regions around the world to create pairing dinners that have become one of Las Vegas’ most iconic food and drink events.
And it’s free of celebrity chefs, not in a casino, nor on the Strip; all a big breath of fresh air in this city of constant flash. For this San Francisco-based writer who is on (non-food and wine related) assignment for three months living in Sin City and being hundreds of miles from the nearest vineyard, a Todd’s Unique wine dinner was both a rite of passage as a Las Vegas “semi-local” and almost a necessity in a town where notable wine is hardly as easy to find as daiquiris in yard sticks.
De Tierra Vineyards of Monterey County was the guest for this February edition (I’m told a winery from Argentina is on tap for March. Some in the past include McClaren Vale of Australia). Coming from prime Pinot Noir and Chardonnay territory, De Tierra is actually best known for its Syrah. After sampling five of the winery’s offerings paired with five courses from Clore, the Syrah also was the runaway favorite.
Based in the Monterey appellation at the northern end of California’s Central Coast, just south of Monterey Bay and between Carmel Valley to the west and the area’s most sought-after appellation, Santa Lucia Highlands inland, De Tierra resides in a tiny canyon providing abundant shade and periods of intense direct sun for the south-facing vines. The high organic matter content in the soil and near constant temperate conditions with frequent coastal fog led the winery to use non-aggressive root stock in the vine plantings that’s reflected in the more subdued, less high octane style of the wines.
Tom Russell started the winery in 1997 after a career in the produce industry, with the 2001 Merlot being the debut vintage. Now his winery grows Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, along with the Merlot. Cabernet Franc is also grown in the Russell Estate Vineyard for blending. Chardonnay often comes from the Sargenti Estate Vineyard at the northern tip of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Russell also brings in grapes from four other vineyard sources around the County.
Over in Nevada, Clore ran the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Orange County then one of Las Vegas’ most important buffets, Bally’s Sterling Brunch, for a decade before opening Todd’s Unique in this fine dining Siberia. Many of Todd’s Unique’s signature dishes show his eclectic cooking background, from goat cheese won tons with a raspberry basil sauce and togarashi dusted ahi tuna to the grilled skirtsteak “on fire” with chili cheese fries and a black bean chili sauce that certainly shows more of a local Southwest direction.
None of the signature dishes appeared on the tasting menu (quite the bargain at $80 for food and wine). The dishes veered up and down. Towards the end fortunately, I saw how the kitchen has a special touch with beef, leading me to understand why the aforementioned skirtsteak has become a restaurant staple.
The issues that arose from the dinner were the typical pitfalls of a pairing dinner with 50-60 covers being served all at the same. In other words, there will almost always inevitably be inconsistent pacing and cooking. This dinner suffered that fate unfortunately too often, especially for the more intimate setting of around 50 covers.
Chardonnay came first paired with a cold water lobster risotto, zucchini, and a too subtle truffle shaving. The risotto itself was a uniform success with the right creaminess, the risotto pleasantly soft, and plenty of plump lobster morsels. On the other hand, the 2011 vintage of the primary “Russell Estate” Chardonnay veered too far of course with a distracting strong buttery focus that covered the lobster more than it should. There was no oak or brightness apparent.
Next was the most underwhelming dish, wine, and pairing. A salmon cake clearly inspired from Pinot Noir’s affiliation with Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, was virtually all neutral breading with only vague notes of salmon or any seasoning. The lemon dressed baby greens with capers on the side only made the dish seem even more like a blip on the imagination radar before the meats. I know the kitchen could do better. Every plain seafood cake stereotype was proven correct. Pinot Noir can work with salmon. This pairing didn’t benefit from the lack of salmon flavor. The De Tierra Pinot Noir with the salmon cake had a strong blueberry profile and none of the earthy, forest elements a compliment to salmon needs. Then again, the salmon cake can’t be fully compared to salmon.
Perplexed by the Pinot Noir, I didn’t fall either for the too subdued, slightly sweet 2011 Syrah-Merlot blend called “The Puzzler” that seemed way more on the Merlot side of the spectrum. It was a winning match with the “pork and beans” since the white beans’ broth was much more savory in the cassoulet style than what you’d imagine with sugary barbequed beans. The pork itself needed to be coated in the beans and contrasting slaw since the meat was over cooked to dryness.
The overcooked meat theme continued to the garlic crusted filet of beef. Having not asked for meat preferences, the restaurant had no way to know who prefers rare or medium steaks. Well, very few diners would request for medium well like this steak was. After being sent back, everything with the dinner all of a sudden took a 180 degree turn for excellence.
The rare beef was perfect and really thrived from the generous coating of chopped garlic on top. Here was top tier steak. I felt bad being one of the only few diners to be able to say that, but hey, this was such an incredible upgrade to the front row from the upper deck. The additional elements elevated the beef further with a knockout soft heirloom carrot and the unique adaptation of both using sweet potato to make tiny gnocchi and serving them with brown butter.
Not only was the beef an all-around hit but so too was the 2010 Syrah, the one wine of the evening that readers must be aware of. It’s a powerful, leathery specimen that shows a vibrant dark body, with exciting hints of licorice, dates, and sage. This is a heavier, stronger Syrah than many Central Coast bottlings. In other words, the perfect mate for the beef instead of lamb. It also got me scratching my head why all the other wines were so hesitant.
Dessert closed with a new Late Harvest Riesling that doesn’t even have a label yet. I’d never pair it with pecan pie. You’re talking about two of the most sugary items in all of food and wine. The Riesling did fall into the sweet trap, showing way too much upfront residual sugar and no backbone. Meanwhile the pecan pie was superb, with a delightful calm sweetness that was much more restrained and less cloying than most versions. With the hazelnut ice cream and clearly fresh whipped cream along side, I’d happily just have the steak and then this for my dinner. With the Syrah.
This experience brought up numerous recurring questions about pairing dinners. On the food front, how do you keep the steaks not overcooked? Do you pair the food to the wine or the wine to the food? Do pairings really even matter? No Pinot Noir or dry Riesling can change salmon cakes that taste too much of bread.
On the service front, the lobster risotto came out promptly showing speed, then other waits became long lulls. Again, it’s never easy serving all diners at the same time under any circumstances. When the steak was sent back, the service staff dealt with the issue wonderfully. Later though, the explanation for not having a spoon to scoop up pecan pie and ice cream was: “That’s what we were told.” Melted ice cream and a fork? Not fully thought out. Nor is handing diners the check as the dessert arrives. Wine dinners should be celebratory, special events. That definitely doesn’t give a warm final farewell like the check with some petit fours would.
And then there is the interactive nature of events like these. My group never even met the chef or the winery representative. That wouldn’t make me buy the wines. Of course you can buy the wines here—at a steep 50% mark-up. The Syrah is $24 (not including shipping) on the website and was $43 at the dinner. Just like at tasting rooms, wine dinners are not your bargain spot when they seem like they should be.
Miscues and overcooked meats aside, we need more wine dinners like these between talented chefs and wineries. The beef and Syrah showed why Todd’s is so unique and despite glaring challenges, pairing dinners can be uniquely special, too.
Todd’s Unique Dining
4350 E. Sunset Rd., Henderson, NV
Open for Dinner Monday-Saturday