“Unique” is one of those words often reserved to explain something that’s, oh, how do you put it? Not quite your thing.
“That was ... unique,” we say, as we choke down a questionable-tasting concoction, desperate not to offend. “I… wouldn’t have thought to put those flavors together.”
At Todd’s Unique Dining, however, unique is definitely a good thing. While the flavor combinations are oftentimes unfamiliar, they are different in a good way.
The eatery doesn’t look out of the ordinary, tucked into a modest strip mall off Sunset Road, but the restaurant’s unique qualities are evident behind the scenes.
From the moment you enter the small kitchen, it’s obvious: A typical commercial kitchen this is not. The mashed potatoes are green and the rutabagas are bright red. Sure, the standard veggies are all there, but the vast majority of them have been given some sort of special twist. (The potatoes are mixed with wasabi and the rutabagas were cooked with beet-infused water to give them their crimson color, for example.)
While many commercial restaurants loosely resemble Subway sandwich lines, with bowls of pre-chopped onions and sliced tomatoes on the counter, there’s none of that here. The closest thing to coleslaw is shredded red cabbage mixed with red wine, cumin and fennel.
It’s all an impressive sight for sore, foodie eyes -- before anything hits the pan or finds its way to a plate.
Owner-chef Todd Clore admits some of his clients are apprehensive of his atypical offerings, but he says the hesitation is usually short lived.
“I say trust me a little bit and you’re going to like it,” he explains.
Regulars quickly learn to trust Clore’s creativity and open their mouths with an open mind.
The Denver native opened the restaurant after serving nearly a decade at Bally’s as chef de cuisine. At the time, Clore said he had “had enough of corporate America” and yearned for flexibility and the ability to play by his own rules.
As his own boss, he can change the menu as often as he wants – which he does regularly – and try things previously deemed too risky or obscure.
The “completely food-driven, completely chef-driven” menu is inspired by both the season and the chef’s mood.
“I’m kind of spontaneous when it comes to food,” Clore, 45, says. “I love ingredients. I’ve got thousands and thousands of ingredients.”
Like a painter with a 1000-color palate, he creates culinary masterpieces using the flavor palate of the world.
The Culinary Institute of America-trained chef handpicks his fare and has the stars of his show – most notably fresh fish and seafood – flown in on a daily basis.
“Because we’re such an island here, we have to import everything,” Clore says of the Las Vegas market.
Thanks to a well-developed Rolodex of contacts, however, importing quality meat, fish and produce is rarely a problem.
“You can pretty much get something from either end of this country by 2 p.m. the next day,” he says.
Everything in Clore’s kitchen is fresh – nothing is ever frozen, aside from the ice cream – and all the fish is wild-caught, not farm-raised. The chef also refuses to use things out of season, which means he takes salmon off the menu in November when the season comes to a close.
Still, there are staples, including the restaurant’s award-winning Colorado rack of lamb, which is marinated for three days with pomegranate and black pepper, and the Todd’s signature wontons, which Clore fills with fennel, coriander and black cardamom-infused goat cheese and serves with a luscious raspberry-basil sauce.
While savory-spiced chevre-filled wontons and raspberry-basil sauce might sound bizarre and not too appetizing, the plate is one of Clore’s most popular dishes.
I fact, the staff serve up between 200 and 300 of the little East-meets-West wonders every week.
The wine list, meanwhile, is a nearly All-American collection of grapes.
Clore defends the Old World deficit by explaining how, when he opened Todd’s Unique five years ago, he did so amidst a fury of harsh anti-French sentiment. At the time, people were patriotic and hungry for Freedom Fries, not Anti-American grapes.
While Core’s policy softened as popular opinion of the French improved, the list remains focused on New World wines.
“We have a couple of chiantis (but) no burgundy or Bordeaux,” Clore says.
The staff hosts special wine dinners once a month. These special events involve a prix-fixe five-course menu that is custom-designed to compliment a different wine at every stage.
The evenings are part explorations, part experimentation, and cost $90 a person – a fraction of what one would pay for a similar experience on the Strip.
While the 20-table, 85-seat restaurant’s simple furnishings and straight-forward décor don’t generate the wow factor offered by the big name restaurants, Clore shrugs off the criticism.
“You don’t eat décor,” he says. “Here, we’re all about the food.”