Richard Melman, the principal of the mega-successful restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You, has a unique business model. He’s constantly creating new concepts, but when one of them doesn’t work, he simply rips it out and opens another one in the same location.
Melman, based in Chicago, is well represented in Las Vegas, in such places as Joe’s Stone Crab, Mon Ami Gabi and Café Ba Ba Reeba, to name just a few. So perhaps Chef Beni Velazquez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican ancestry, has taken a page from Melman’s handbook at his new restaurant, Steeles, where steak, fish and tapas are the specialty.
Velazquez, a bundle of energy who cut his cooking teeth in Spain, among other places, was involved with this location during its last incarnation, the short-lived Sweet Water Prime, a seafood grill. The room has been completely redone in clubby brown suede and the kind of dark wood you see on the outside of a Finnish sauna.
Some of the booths have tables draped in light-brown butcher paper. A few have brown tablecloths, if that sort of thing is important to you. The one contrast in color is provided by red lanterns, which hover above some of the booths. I’d say that it was appropriately masculine for a steakhouse, were it not for the fact that tapas, or small dishes eaten in Spanish bars, dominate the menu here.
Because the selection is so eclectic, and makes use of ingredients that are unfamiliar to many non-foodies, Velazquez has provided a glossary of items on one of the menu’s pages, stocked with definitions for jidori (a breed of Japanese chicken), Cabrales (which is a type of cheese from Spain) and pepitas (pumpkin seeds—hey, why not just call them pumpkin seeds?), among many others.
These and many others are put to good use on a giant tapas list, which rivals any in the city. All in all, there are nearly 49, 33 hot and 16 cold, almost every one I tried delicious.
Steeles’ excellent olive mix and spicy roasted almonds, two tapas often complimentary if you are in Spain, are a good way to start, if you don’t mind paying for them.
One tapa you must try, and also one you’ll find on virtually every table in Spain, is the Spanish tortilla. In Spain, a tortilla isn’t a flour or corn crepe, but rather a hearty potato omelet, cut into wedges and served cold. This version is as true to form as you’ll find in these parts. Crossing the globe, spiced salmon hand rolls may not sound terribly Spanish, but these are also a credible version, with capers and a curry aioli to dunk them in. And don’t miss octopus salad, tender meat marinated with piquillo peppers, olives, shallots and herbs, or spiced sea bass, served in a roasted tomato basil sauce.
But try not to go overboard with the cold tapas, since there are so many hot ones you’ll want to sample. I’m hooked on the sea salt chive potato chips, thin, crispy and a perfect match for the roasted tomato mayo Velazquez serves with them. Crispy calamari is fine, but you can get it anywhere, so I’d pass. Char-grilled fish tacos use mahi mahi and cabbage slaw to fill them, and at eight dollars are more of a meal than a snack.
The beat goes on. Seafood paella Velazquez is surprisingly good, even if it does take a full 20 minutes to arrive. The rice is moist and chock-full of shellfish and chorizo. It’s an excellent light meal that is also available as an entrée portion from the main menu. Cuban bites are like sliders in the form of three pint-sized Cuban sandwiches. Steeles’ crab cakes, with pineapple slaw and a chipotle Romesco dressing (consult glossary), are splendid.
Steeles does have a full-on à la carte menu, though, and many of the dishes on it have an equally compelling pedigree as well as a more than reasonable price point. I’m fond of two entrée salads, a chimichurri steak Cobb and a Latin chicken salad with pepitas, crisp pancetta, egg, avocado and chimichurri grilled chicken. Chimichurri, by the way, isn’t the name of a song from Mary Poppins, but rather an Argentine herb, garlic and oil creation.
Main dishes include a raft of grilled seafoods, such as opakapaka, a Hawaiian fish, salmon, swordfish, halibut or ahi on the grilled side. If you want to go crispy, panko-breaded shrimp or a nice beer-battered halibut are just two of the choices.
Velazquez does a disarmingly sweet, oven-roasted jidori rosemary tamarind chicken, and I’d like it better with less of the cloying red sauce, which smothers the natural taste of the chicken somewhat. One of the best deals is at lunch, when you can have a petite filet of beef, lamb or veal, served with crunchy rosemary fries and refreshing watercress salad, for only $17. There is also the option to create your own burger, a Kobe-style wagyu beef patty, with up to five toppings from a huge list.