Restaurant Review: Kelly’s (Las Vegas) / Dinner With Terrence Chan & Co.
This photo of Kelly’s Restaurant is courtesy of TripAdvisor
It’s rare to get four very busy people who live in different cities together for a festive meal. Fortunately, that was the occasion last night at a new restaurant located on Paradise Road, in Las Vegas.
I joined good friends Rich Korbin (who works for one of the better-known companies in the poker business — I’ll leave it at that), Glen Cadamartori (Marketing Director for Caesars Entertainment), and Terrence Chan (one of the best Limit Hold’em players in the world and currently a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter) for drinks and dinner.
We chose a new steakhouse which just opened up about a week ago, called Kelly’s.
The following narrative will be a combination restaurant review and recount of our dinner conversation, which went three all-too-brief hours.
I’m a carnivore. Morten’s of Chicago, Ruth’s Chris, Del Frisco’s, The Palm, Smith and Wollensky — pick any of these places and you’re guaranteed to enjoy a good meal.
Friday night, we decided to go a different route. Since both Ruth’s Chris steakhouse locations have now closed in Las Vegas (victims of the economy, no doubt), we noted that a new restaurant had opened up at the old Ruth’s Chris location on Paradise Road. This is positioned in a busy strip mall, across the street from Del Frisco’s. In fact, Yoli’s — the excellent Brazilian-style steakhouse — is also located along the same row of businesses.
Kelly’s has only one other location, so their excursion into the highly-competitive Las Vegas restaurant market is a major step for the privately-owned landmark based in Long Beach, CA.
Indeed, “Kelly’s Restaurant” has been an institution in Long Beach for more than 30 years. It’s very much an old-style “power lunch” kind of place. However, given its close proximity to the ocean and fresh seafood, there are many other menu options, as well. One has to wonder if this would be a rubber-stamp of the proven Long Beach venue. Or, would the new owners decide opt for a different flair near the Las Vegas Strip.
Upon first glance, Kelly’s looks very much like what was the former Ruth’s Chris restaurant. Perhaps when the new owners moved in, they realized that redecorating costs would be minimal, since the dark-wood, white-table cloth ambiance would perfectly match the atmosphere Kelly’s would be trying to create.
Some holiday decorations around the bar and dining area added to a festive feel. That cordiality was enhanced by very personal attention from the host (actually series of hosts) which greeted our party warmly as we made our way to the table.
Upon taking a seat — the look, the feel, the atmosphere all are what one would expect at a first-class steakhouse. Add live music in the bar area provided by a piano-playing crooner performing old standards, and you have all the makings of a great night out on the town.
By company, I’m not referring to Kelly’s. Let’s talk about who was there and what was discussed (okay, make that some of what was discussed — a few things aren’t meant for public distribution).
Readers of this blog already know of my pal Glen Cademartori, now with Caesars Entertainment. He used to oversee the Latin American Poker Tour, which is where I first met him. We dined together three weeks ago atop the fancy restaurant called “19” which is on the top floor of Harvey’s Lake Tahoe. SEE LINK HERE Glen was visiting Las Vegas on business and was able to make free time to join the dinner.
People who know me are well-aware that Rich Korbin is one of my best friends. He’s been around the poker scene since the early 1980’s.
So, I’ll focus my attention here on Terrence Chan (of “You’re not Johnny Chan!” fame — that’s an inside joke). I’ve known Terrence for about eight years, dating back to his days when he was one of the creators of PokerStars’ excellent customer service department. Terrence is originally from Vancouver, BC and still lives there. But he used to reside in Costa Rica working for PokerStars. One of the reasons PokerStars had (and continues to have) the best customer service in the poker business is largely due to the tireless efforts of Terrence.
Incredibly, Terrence walked away from it all about six years ago. Not many people in their 20’s making well over six-figures a year would just decide to quit and do something else. But that’s Terrence Chan. Always inquisitive. Always curious. Always wanting to test himself. Always eager to do something new and take on a new challenge.
Terrence played poker full time for awhile. He did very well. He gradually developed a reputation as one of the best Limit Hold’em players (both cash games and tournaments) around. You never hear Terrence bragging, but his decision to leave PokerStars was actually a wise financial move, as he was able to make more money playing poker than he would have earned on salary. Not many people can make such a claim.
Imagine then, about 18 months ago, the shock of hearing Terrence was going to cut back on poker playing and (again) try something completely new.
What would Terrence do in the next stage of his life?
Become a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. We’ll get back to this story in a moment.
DINNER AT KELLY’S:
A varied menu suits just about any taste. I was particularly pleased to see a type of fish one does not see often in Las Vegas. The fish is sand dab.
Sand dab is a small delicate white fish, popular in the Monterey Bay area. It swims in the cold rocky waters of the Pacific along the central to northern California coastline. It’s an excellent departure from enough red-meat menu options to open up a butcher shop.
(Side Note: I ate steak the previous two nights at Santa Fe Station and a dinner at home, which is why I opted for fish at a steakhouse on this night).
Priced at only $23, this was a bargain. The fish was served in a lemon butter sauce with capers. My only gripe was there was not enough of it. Then again, that’s probably a complaint every chef wants to hear.
Glen enjoyed the sand dab as well, and had a similar reaction.
Terrence, in training for his next MMA fight, wolfed down an entire 22-ounce prime rib. I think if we were not in public, he would have chewed the bone. I never got a taste, but if Terrence didn’t like the dinner, he sure had us fooled.
Rich is always different. He’s a worse culinary snob than Glen and I — which is really saying something.
Rich ordered his standard french onion soup (served to perfection), macaroni and cheese with bacon, and escargot. I think Rich must be on a diet.
All good, except for the escargot. Presentation was substandard. Let me be more specific.
I won’t project my biases onto Rich’s dinner (okay — maybe I will). But the guest should not have to work at getting a bite. The meat from the escargots were buried deep inside the shells. Rich looked like a starving badger trying to dig out a scrap of meat. As the rest of us were devouring our dinners, the site of Rich fingering snails was quite a site.
It didn’t help that the waitstaff failed to bring a mini-fork. This is standard practice when serving items like escargot, shrimp cocktail, etc. You must have the right fork, or nothing works. Poor Rich was digging meat out of the shell with a butter knife. Picture a grizzly bear pawing a salmon.
In short — my sand dab entree and insalata caprese were excellent. Glen enjoyed his fish and french onion soup. Terrence had an appetizer and prime rib, which were excellent. Rich had french onion soup, macaroni, and escargot. Only disappointment were the escargots.
Beverage service was consistent, although the bartender only gets a “C” for the margarita. Readers know of my obsession with bartender procedure. SEE THIS LINK The house uses a shitty sweet an sour mix. It’s as simple as that.
TERRENCE CHAN — MMA FIGHTER
Since Terrence began a rigorous full-time training schedule about a year ago, he’s had (I think) four professional fights. For those who think MMA is just some brute-force alternative to boxing, think again.
What most impressed me from our conversation was hearing of Terrence’s reasons for suddenly deciding to become an MMA fighter at the age of 30, at time when most participants in the sport would be contemplating retirement.
Terrence very much impresses me as a “mind over matter” kind of person. He simply wills his way to achievement. No doubt, Terrence is smart and gifted, but his real strength comes from within — boasted by intangibles called dedication and commitment. It’s the same discipline that made him so successful in business and poker, and is now his guiding light as a fighter.
Terrence relayed a few things that were enlightening. I was surprised to learn that most MMA fighters develop a close sense of camaraderie. Unlike boxers, who often engage in open hostility towards each other, MMA fighters are more of a kindred spirit. I’m not explaining this well. But Terrence noted that he felt connected to those he trains with, as well as those he fights.
I also must comment on the courage it takes to do something like becoming an MMA fighter. It’s not like any other exercise program, or sport. After all, one can always fail in other activities, and no one will notice. But fail as an MMA fighter, it usually means getting your ass kicked. Not only is there is a serious risk of injury, but the entire world witnesses your failure. Like I said, doing what Terrence is doing is an act of courage.
Part of our conversation included how improved our lives are through vigorous physical activity. Although I do nothing like Terrence in terms of training, my regular running routine has clearly made me feel much better, not just physically but mentally.
Terrence also made some interesting comments about how his emotional equilibrium as a professional poker player has served him well as a tactical fighter.
I encourage readers to check out TERRENCE CHAN’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE AND BLOG
Service was attentive. It was also a little rough in spots.
One of our waiters was from South America. He seemed to possess extensive menu knowledge for someone who worked in restaurant that had only been open for a week. He had just the right attention and tone.
Another server, a waitress gave us the rundown of Kelly’s, including its history in Long Beach. This was a welcome bit of background information that gave me a better perspective on what the owners are trying to accomplish in Las Vegas.
Other than forgetting the escargot fork, and not bringing it the first time when asked (it took two requests to get the bear-clawed Rich his escargot fork), and a mediocre margarita, there was only one other shortcoming.
Glen and I both ordered double espressos. It’s a Cademartori-Dalla thing. It’s an Italian thing. You wouldn’t understand.
When I order this treat, I ALWAYS ask for a twist. Most servers bring this as standard practice. Moreover, most espressos in fancy restaurants are served with a swizzle stick (crystalized sugar on a toothpick, as a sweetener).
When both double espressos arrived, there was no twist. There was no swizzle stick. One oversight I can forgive. But when one ASKS for the twist and it fails to materialize, that’s a negative — particularly after the escargot incident.
We enjoyed the end course nonetheless.
To the restaurant’s credit, when the bill came there were two very pleasant surprises. First, the escargot was removed from the bill. We did not ask for this, so having the restaurant remove this at their own doing shows an extraordinary level of management commitment to customer satisfaction. Second (and here’s the real bonus), we discovered that the first week of opening included a special where all entrees were HALF PRICE. Wow! Pretty cool promotion. Even though the special ended last night (November 30th), you have to like a new restaurant willing to sacrifice on the front end hoping to establish a loyal clientele.
Hence, whatever criticisms I point out above are most certainly erased by a meal that was a terrific value. Nonetheless, I will include them here in the event management wishes to hear some constructive criticism.
When we departed the restaurant, I think there were 14 staff who said goodbye to us. Maybe they all recognized Terrence or bet on his last fight. While walking out past the row of service personnel lined up like a parade, Glen said he felt like the President. Seriously — 14 people standing and saying goodbye.
Then again, maybe the staff were thrilled to see the loud and demanding “campers” finally leave the dining room. But I didn’t hear any snide comments like, “It’s about time those motherfuckers left,” so I guess the farewells were sincere.
In short, this is restaurant which shows promise. However, there are obvious challenges including a soft restaurant market for high-end dining, particularly at non-casino locations. Kelly’s is also burdened with the difficultly of carving out its own niche in an area heavily populated with proven steakhouses. After all, if Ruth’s Chris could not make it at this location, then how will Kelly’s manage to bring more patrons in the door?
A good start is a management’s obvious commitment to customer satisfaction. Furthermore, a successful family-owned restaurant as the model will go a long way towards differentiating this venue from larger chain-style steakhouses.
Some details with service still need to be worked out. But that should come with time.
As for the dining experience and the company, that was five-star. Thanks Terrence, Rich, and Glen for a great evening.
Note: I forgot to take a photograph of the group. So, I borrowed a stock photo from Trip Advisor. Also, I used Terrence Chan’s name in the title since I do not get a chance to dine with him as often as the other guests. No disrespect to either Glen and Rich.