Looking to up the ante in Chinatown with a spotless dining space plus a tea collection set to leave even The Strip’s formal fine dining spaces in the dust, Niu Gu from Chef Jimmy Li has been quietly making noise amongst Las Vegas most in-the-know diners, a Saturday evening visit showing signs of something special happening even though there remains some room to grow.
Actually open since the late 3rd quarter of 2015, but undergoing upgrades since the start of March through consultation with local beer and wine aficionado Joe Muscaglione, Niu Gu has recently dropped “Noodle House” from its name in favor of becoming a full-fledged Asian Kitchen, the menu not one of those hundred-item hodgepodges intended to please universally but instead focused on freshly made plates comprised of only the finest components, even the wok-fried items taking the time to individually cook ingredients one-by-one.
[supsystic-gallery id=’5′ position=’center’]
Taking service far more seriously than the rest of the restaurants on Jones, an important thing to note considering the fact that the same plaza contains China Mama, Chada Thai and Hachi Japanese Yakatori plus several more, those arriving at Niu Gu are greeted professionally at the podium before being led to seats, the space itself literally gleaming from the recently decorated walls right down to the bathroom floor.
Admitting a friendship with Mr. Muscaglione that includes several meals across The Valley, it was with menu deferred to he and the chef that the evening soon got started, an impassioned discussion of the teas followed by Organic Housemade Tofu topped tableside with Scallion Oil plus Crab and Tofu Soup that ate something like Egg-Drop with far more flavor, each bite smooth yet complex and compelling enough to want just another spoonful…and then “just” one more.
Presenting plates slowly, partially due to the presence of other tables but also so that our four-top could focus on flavors individually as well as when paired with tea, course two offered thinly sliced Beef Tongue marinated in soy, onions and peppers, the texture like velvet beneath poignant heat while “Fresh Seafood Salad” was unfortunately a bit sweeter than necessary, the plethora of berries unfortunately overwhelming the cream-coated Lobster meat.
Shocking me with the quality of a plump Oyster, the lightly steamed Bivalve bursting with brine atop a bed of shredded Daikon as Garlicky broth stewed beneath, a plate of spicy Asian Cucumber proved a refreshing bridge to bolder flavors, the Double Chili Shrimp deveined and delegged with shell split for peeling, though the better choice was eating them crispy with the carapace still in place.
Taking a Sichuan Spin on Lamb, the meaty Rack divided tableside by Joe with just enough time on the fire to render fat clear without turning the meat from pink, Niu Gu’s namesake Slow Roasted Short Rib was served up simultaneously, those opting for only one left to a tough choice as to which is better since each would undoubtedly top my list of “Must Haves.”
Seeing it unfit to leave without trying Li’s Noodles, in this case a classic Beef broth served chock-full of tender meat and baby Bok Choy with just enough spice to tingle without burning up the mouth, Chinese Yam Stir-Fry with Black Fungus was an elegant vegetarian dish for those opting for milder flavors, the deep fried Bao served as a side dish apparently common in some parts of China and delicious with a sidecar of lightly sweetened mayo.
Still; a work in progress as relates to dessert, the Taro Milk and Fruit certainly pleasant but actually less sweet than the Seafood Salad or the Bao, dinner ended with long discussion as ambient Asian music mixed with 80’s Pop-Standards, “More Than Words” by Extreme playing its third spin of the evening but mostly ignorable in the face of “Monkey Picked” Oolong with dramatic floral notes an almost buttery feel on the tongue.
FOUR STARS: Still a work in progress, the lack of liquor license notable while the dessert menu is perhaps a larger concern for me than others in town, Niu Gu represents a wholesale shift in culture for the restaurants on South Jones and Spring Mountain, Li’s cooking and Muscaglione’s guidance seemingly ready to go ‘all-in’ with an Strip-rivaling yet accessible Chinese Fine Dining approach.
RECOMMENDED: Rack of Lamb with Cumin, Lightly Steamed Garlic Oysters, Crab and Tofu Soup, Slow Roasted Angus Beef Short Rib.
AVOID: Fresh Seafood Salad was a touch too sweet while dessert was forgettable.
TIP: The full tea list is available in store with details on individual farms, tasting notes and leaves-to-cup concepts – service on average ranging $9-$12 with tableside steeping and service.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN: 5 World Class, 4 Excellent, 3 Good, 2 Fair, 1 Poor.