Sugarcane is a tremendous multicultural triumph, an effortlessly cool spot that has energized Midtown Miami with a mix of Asian, European and Latin flavors. It’s like an inverted version of Nobu or Katsuya. Sugarcane is South Florida to its core, with its festive vibe, potent rum drinks, tropical trees and Gloria Estefan showing up for a late-night dinner. But it’s also a destination for good sushi and a scorching robata grill that reminds you the Japanese were way ahead of the current open-fire cooking trend. How many sushi-and-robata joints, though, have a duck and waffle dish with mustard maple syrup that’s so revelatory it led to a spin-off restaurant in London?
Now chef Timon Balloo, a Chinese/Indian/Trinidadian fella who grew up in San Francisco eating his mom’s Asian-Caribbean mashups like stir-fry with pepper sauce, is bringing Sugarcane to Vegas. It has the makings of a blockbuster spring opening at the Venetian. This Sugarcane will be a 6,500-square-foot colossus that should immediately add heat to what was the long overlooked V Bar space.
Just like in Miami, “we’ll have a raw bar and a hot kitchen,” Balloo says. “It’s an open kitchen with a robata and a wood-fire section. You’ll see the flames and soak up the smells. It’s just like that energy you get when you walk into Sugarcane Miami.”
In Miami, the energy of Sugarcane pulsates through the room like you’re in a hot club. But unlike at lots of restaurants that blend in nightlife, the food is the star here. Expect lots of pretty people in Vegas eating Brussels sprouts with orange and sweet soy. Don’t be surprised to see adventurous steakhouse regulars trying kimchee beef tartare and Korean BBQ short ribs or oxtail and sweetbreads before balling out with large-format meats. Maybe there will be lamb with harissa or za’atar, because Balloo is into Middle Eastern flavors at the moment. And why not try something a little unexpected when you’re in Vegas?
“I think Vegas and Miami share a bit of that recreational vibe,” Balloo says. “Vegas is to the West Coast what Miami is to New York.”
They’re getaways where people go to indulge, be naughty, do things they tend to avoid at home. But here’s the thing about Sugarcane: It’s a place for what Balloo calls a “free-spirit” vibe, but it’s also a damn good neighborhood restaurant where locals like South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder Lee Brian Schrager go again and again. One thing that makes Balloo proud is how chefs from other restaurants visit Sugarcane. It probably doesn’t hurt that they can mingle with beautiful people while feasting on nose-to-tail cuisine.
Even though Sugarcane’s Vegas outpost will be in a luxury casino, it “will look a little neighborhood-y,” Balloo says. The chef mentions Wynwood, an artsy on-the-rise area near his Miami restaurant, as inspiration, but also talks about embracing what’s in Williamsburg and Portland and Austin and Haight-Ashbury.
Balloo recognizes that “so many great chefs have restaurants in Vegas,” and the idea of cooking here makes him both excited and nervous. He knows he has to bring his A-game, but he mentions all those cool, relaxed neighborhoods around the country because he believes the key to his success is cooking unpretentious food, dishes that “capture the soul of your food memories.”
This is a chef who likes to talk to diners about what they ate at their grandma’s house over the holidays and then thinks about those conversations when he evolves his menus. Good thing for Vegas, he can out-cook most grandmas. Miami’s Sugarcane was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2011.
“Ultimately, I just want to cook kickass food for kickass people and have a good time doing it,” says Balloo, sounding like a man who’s amped to start a fire.