I wouldn’t normally seek a great dining experience at the Four Queens, but Hugo’s Cellar was on my bucket list of old-school Vegas restaurants to check out, so ... off to the Batcave!
Arriving at Hugo’s feels like finding a secret hideaway after sliding through this aging casino that might make you think you Super Mario-warped to Atlantic City. Walk down the stairs and prepare to be pampered properly in old-world charm. My wife and I met our dinner guests in the quaint bar and lounge and then, at the hostess podium, the ladies were each handed a rose from an arsenal of long-stem beauties in what appeared to be an umbrella stand. The girls were enamored, and I winked to my friend because we knew we were off to a terrific start.
The atmosphere is vintage 1976 with brick walls, old paintings, dim lighting, antique chandeliers and rose-shaped decorative lamps. We were escorted to a nice booth near the kitchen and settled in. A vase with water was immediately presented to temporarily house the flowers of love while we dined. Little touches make a huge difference.
Time for cocktails! Hugo’s does not skimp on the pre-dinner libation with drinks poured tableside and the remainder stored in small buckets of ice for you to refresh at your leisure—love it! There’s a team of seasoned professionals watching over your every need. Per the suggestion of Jaime, our captain, we started with Hugo’s Hot Rock Specialty for the entire table. Imagine a pu-pu platter, except instead of a hibachi with sternos, you get a 500-degree hunk of granite where marinated tuna, tiger prawns, filet of beef and chicken breast are cooked before your eyes. The steam rises up and the drama begins! You get a trio of sauces to play with, too: béarnaise, plum and mustard ... knock yourself out. We received two more appetizers to share (after all, we are professionals), escargot en croute, a rich dish of Burgundy snails basking in garlic-herb butter, and the sneaky winner, grilled stuffed portobello mushrooms. Filled with great-quality Gorgonzola cheese and drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar, these rocked the table.
Cocktails low? Time for wine. At your service is master sommelier John Simmons, a great pro who caters to your palate and budget. I ordered the 2012 Shafer Merlot, because I think merlot haters are just sheep who watched Sideways too much. Then it was show time as the salad cart arrived, complete with 15 fresh garnishes and three dressings to customize. The confident waiter, dressed in a tuxedo and bowtie, hooked us up big time. As the crunching sound subsided and the plates were cleared, something cool happened. Tiny cones filled with raspberry sorbet were handed out to cleanse palates in preparation for the main course. Bravo!
Entrées arrived on hot plates (thank you). My 16-ounce ribeye was spot-on and garnished with tomato gratin, green and white asparagus, mushrooms and smashed potatoes. I plowed through it with gusto. My friend had the rack of lamb, cooked perfectly but slightly under-seasoned. Duckling anise flambé was finished tableside on a rolling cart, sautéed in a pan and lit on fire with anise liquor. Another guest had the veal Oscar, and she felt it was one-dimensional ... what are you gonna do? Have a sip of merlot and go with the steak! (While I’m at it, I have to call Hugo’s out for having Chilean sea bass on the menu. It is most likely pirated and over-fished. Time for a change.)
The grand finale included two must-haves, cherries jubilee and bananas foster. A table-side crescendo of sweet decadence that perfectly punctuated a great dining experience. As if those weren’t enough, out marched the petit four plate complete with dark chocolate-dipped fresh strawberries, apricots, figs on white chocolate, whipped cream and chocolate tuiles. Talk about over-delivery! Hugo’s Cellar is easily one of the best-value dining experiences in Las Vegas. The roses were packed up for the ladies to take home, another reminder that you are appreciated. This well-oiled experience is worthy of a very high rating on the Moonen old-school bucket list.
Hugo's Cellar Four Queens, 702-385-4011. Daily, 5-10 p.m.
When he’s not dining at classic Vegas restaurants, Rick Moonen is chef and owner at RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place.