Thursday, February 1, 2018

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 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 renovation was 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. They feature

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

It's a shame that I do try to protect my anonymity - staff don't know that I'm an annoyingly thorough and savvy foodietective, 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 and was assured that I could be seated in just a couple of minutes. I took the time to ask 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 was in the Navy and learned to cook there. And after the navy, 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 people eating alone a) want to sit somewhere uncomfortable b) want to sit and eat at a bar and c) if they are willing to shame themselves by eating alone at a table, they must be put at the worst, or very nearly the worst, table in the house. Usually by a servers station, back door, kitchen entrance, or other busy 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 clatter of dirty dishes breaking my eardrums every 30 seconds.

So how did Robert Irvine et al do?

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. They are very sturdy, but they are still high chairs and my feet dangle like a 3 year old 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 one?

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

Well. I guess it was on.
If I had sat at the bar, perhaps someone would have read to me.
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! Single! 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 shit 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 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. I mean service pug. They were director's chairs, and even the staff admitted they 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. Finally, finally, they did. And then they closed for renovations, but that's another review.

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

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 for the single win!

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.)

I felt kind of sorry for the enterprise, about the chairs. Did they not try them out? Perhaps they are designed to be uncomfortable so you'll get out as soon as possible after paying your bill.

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, 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.

It's been interesting to watch the penetration of poutine into American menus over the past decade, and it's represented here in two versions - a traditional fries, curds, and gravy one (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 and stirring the molten cheese with 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 bread into the hot, gooey, mixture. The goal was to get as much cheese as possible, without losing your 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.

So, 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 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 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.

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.

The fondue should definitely be shared. There's plenty for two or three people. 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) and was still good enough to finish. Piping hot, it would be outstanding. Hopefully, my 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 battered cod was perfect, served piping hot. The batter on the deep-fried delight was a gorgeous dark golden teak, light, crispy. Not too oily, not to 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 excellent, the perfect counterpoint to the fish.

A fellow had been sort of hanging around in the area, 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 carbohydrate and oil perfection you associate with proper fish and chips.

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

As a whole, the entire mixture worked. Fries, 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, but the kitchen kept the light touch needed.

So, did I like the fries? I told him that, yes, they were definitely different, but overall, as a savvy foodietective with a penchant for too many commas, I liked them. Yes, I had expected something different. And the problem I had, is that I would have had to eat the entire gigantic serving of fries to get to all 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 refined area, 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 tourist clientele.

I appreciate that there is so many interesting ideas, and yes, twist, in the menu, and it's admirable that the Public House is attempting to steer pub food tastes into a more creative, 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

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