When Kathryn and I make our regular road trips to Las Vegas, we typically leave Phoenix after work Friday, in the middle of the afternoon. If all goes well, we arrive in Las Vegas in the early evening. Usually we arrive without any specific plans, and we just sort of wing it. There’s no shortage of things to do there, but we often feel like we could have used our arrival evening more wisely. So last week, before leaving Phoenix, I decided to make a dinner reservation for 8:30. This would leave us plenty of time to check in at our hotel and freshen up, and it would also give us something to look forward to along the way.
About five years ago, I watched an episode of the Hungry Detective on the Food Network. The show featured off-Strip eateries in Las Vegas. Until that time, I really hadn’t ventured off the Strip at all during my visits to Las Vegas. Armed with a list of suggestions that I printed out and stuck in my wallet, I bravely checked out Ellis Island on my next visit. It’s just a short walk from the center of the Strip, so it seemed natural to try it first. As long-time readers of this blog will recall, I enjoyed it so much I’ve been back there on nearly every visit since. I’ve even introduced it to a few people who live in Las Vegas. I’ve also tried one of the other suggestions, Mermaids on Fremont Street.
Still, there was one Hungry Detective suggestion I’d been wanting to try for five years and for some reason never had: Nora’s Cuisine. It’s an Italian restaurant in a strip mall on Flamingo Road about three miles west of the Strip. That’s where I made our Friday dinner reservation.
We overestimated how long it would take us to get the Nora’s Cuisine from our hotel, so we arrived about 15 minutes before our reservation. The restaurant is small and was crowded. We were told there was no way we could be seated before our 8:30 reservation. No problem. If people are waiting, there’s usually something worth waiting for. We hung out near the host station and waited our turn.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Nora’s Cuisine is the kitchen. I suppose this should have come as no surprise, since the word cuisine is taken from French and means, quite literally, kitchen. Often the kitchen is the least seemly part of a restaurant. It takes some brass to put it on display in such a way that no diner can miss it. The pizza ovens were closest to the door, with the rest of the small kitchen behind it. I’m guessing there was some other cooking space somewhere, but I could be wrong.
The risk of making a reservation later in the dinner service is the earlier diners may not have left yet when you arrive. I get that. Wannabe hipsters who were showing up without reservations were being told the wait would be at least 90 minutes. They got on their iPhones and started bitching to their friends. Rookies. Kathryn and I were patient and were seated around 8:45.
Nora’s Cuisine has the sort of charm you’d expect from a family-run place that’s been around for twenty-something years. The dim lighting and the busy and chaotic evening rush lent the place an ambiance you might more likely find in the heart of New York than in a Las Vegas strip mall. The decor leaves some room for improvement. Recommendation: Don’t look up at the ceiling.
We started our dinner with salads. Kathryn had a caprese salad, and I had a Caesar. They were adequate, but nothing I’d write home about. With the kitchen slow to push out main courses, the salads and some garlic bread were all we’d eat until about 9:30. So we spent the first hour wondering what all the fuss was about.
Then our main courses arrived.
Kathryn ordered fettuccine carbonara. Personally, I’m reluctant to order a pasta dish as a main course at an Italian restaurant. I hate to pay $12 for something I could have made at home for 60 cents. Well, I had a bite of her pasta, and I couldn’t have made it at home at any price. It was the richest carbonara cream sauce I’d ever tasted. I think I could hear my arteries hardening as I ate it. It was excellent.
I ordered veal scallopini. I’ve tried cooking veal at home a couple times. It’s turned out okay, but at some point I decided, if I’m going to ask an adorable little calf to die for my dinner, it should be cooked by an expert. This was cooked by an expert. The veal was tender, and the sauce was delicious. The pasta was served on the side. I’ve seldom had pasta cooked so perfectly.
The main course being a success, we waited for our dessert.
Kathryn and I had the good sense to pre-order a warm chocolate cake for dessert. It was only available as a pre-order, and if we had waited until we’d stuffed ourselves on our main courses, there’s no way we would have tried it. When we stuck our spoons into the cake, warm chocolate goo came pouring out, mixing with the vanilla sauce and crushed pistachios that covered the outside of the cake. It was decadent.
The damage? With tax, tip, and one beer, it came to $71 for the two of us. Not bad.
Anyway, I’d heartily recommend Nora’s Cuisine to my friends. It’s more than worth the three-mile drive from the Strip. Just be sure to make a reservation first.