August 2016

Let’s Party at Kyle’s Place

Libertine Social, A Reimagined Gastropub By Award-Winning Chef Shawn McClain & Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim

By Jason Harris


This is a story about a dude named Kyle. While you’re slaving away at your day job, Kyle is off on another adventure. While you are wondering how you are going to pay your bills on time this month, Kyle is buying whatever piece of art strikes his fancy at the moment. While you are deciding if you have enough energy to go out this weekend, Kyle is having a one-of-a-kind experience that, when he recounts it the next time you see him at a party, will make him the center of attention ... again. Yes, we all know a guy like Kyle. There’s just one thing about this particular Kyle we’re talking about.

He’s not real.

But while he may be fictitious, Kyle is having a major impact on the Las Vegas dining scene. Kyle is the concoction of chef Shawn McClain, modern mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim and designer extraordinaire Alessandro Munge.

These three men are responsible for the tastes, drinks, looks and feel of The Libertine Social, the newest hot spot on the Mandalay Bay dining bloc. The three gentlemen had a two-day powwow in Los Angeles, dipping their heads into every dive bar and art gallery they could find in the hip Abbot Kinney neighborhood of West L.A. As they talked more about what they liked and what they wanted, Kyle became more real in all of their minds. As McClain puts it, “Kyle is a freewheeling, Venice Beach most interesting man in the world type.”

This was the driving force, first, for the look of Libertine Social, then for the vibe. Munge explains, “We came up with this concept that Kyle would have taken over this space and made it his pad. Anything that was part of his lifestyle will live and breathe in this space.”

Perhaps that is why there are six distinct areas for customers to inhabit in Libertine. It’s a giant space that used to house Shanghai Lilly, a long-ago shuttered Chinese restaurant. Right when you walk in you enter the “Voyeur Lounge.” It’s a raised and comfortable open space, perfect for happy hours and casual meetings. Shake hands, flirt, get business done as you watch all the people file through the restaurant row. The jukebox is live and there’s plenty of good music to choose from. It’s the beginning of Kyle’s party.

On one side of the lounge is “Social Bar”. The name says it all. Giant light installations with the words “libertine” and “stay wild” are eye-catching pieces (though if someone tells you to stay wild, especially in a designed fashion, how wild are you really? ... I digress.)

On the other side of Voyeur is the “Chef’s Table,” a diner-like counter that gives you an up close and personal look at the action of the two fire stations. The wood-fired grill is stoked with apple mesquite chips that make themselves known in many of the dishes. The wood-fired oven is home to the excellent flatbreads that seem to get ordered and sent out by the second. 

In front of the pizza oven sit six chairs that will be used for even more specific dinner services. McClain and executive chef Jamaal Taherzadeh, formerly of Border Grill (just down the hall in the same hotel), hope to use this intimate corner in a similar fashion to what Jose Andres does with inside Jaleo. Two seatings per night, six people per seating, chefs get to show off on the menu and the off-menu items.

Moving back to the next wave of rooms, Arcade Bar is tucked away, almost private. Here, the bar-within-a-bar focuses on handcrafted cocktails from bygone eras. Abou-Ganim says of Arcade, “We wanted it to be fun and social but to really pay respect to those bartenders who have come before us, cocktails that have set us on our course.” Or, as he puts in more thematic terms, “This is where Kyle would go and escape that pre-prohibition time.”

Parallel to Arcade, but in a lower section, is the main dining room, which seats 90 and features much of Kyle’s curated wall art. Painted prints of punk icons like Debbie Harry commingle with a row of guitars and even a cut out of a car. Damn, Kyle: where’d you get all the money to buy all this stuff?

Finally, there’s the patio, a quieter locale with a wonderful view of the old swan canal that separates the casino from the pool. It’ll be perfect for long, casual nights when the weather dips about 20 degrees from the summer heat. The patio wouldn’t be complete without one of Kyle’s discussion-worthy art pieces. Multiple murals adorn the walls, courtesy of famed street artist Alex Diaz. These pieces, including the one in the hallway of Mandalay Bay that announces Libertine Social, are edgier than the interior art. These are sea creatures or serpents popped on brightly colored walls, staring at you while you eat, perhaps ready to eat your food, perhaps ready to eat you. (The piece in the hallway is a jackalope, the restaurant’s mascot, with wings and antlers. It is stunning if a bit disturbing.)

Of course, the spacious layout, the thoughtful backstory, the kitschy, yet extravagant design, all mean nothing if the food doesn’t deliver. However, if you expected half-assed bar food from a chef with the accolades of McClain, then Kyle takes you to the learning tree. McClain, a James Beard Award-winning chef, seems to crush whatever culinary challenge he takes on. With his first Las Vegas restaurant Sage at Aria, and its vegetable-centric plates, even pizza, he received rave reviews. So why should a postmodern gastropub be any different?

The modern fried egg ($12) from the Small Plates section is the best example of where the food at Libertine Social is going, Taherzadeh says. It’s a melding of technique, creativity, food history and taste. Sweet corn is juiced, then cooked down to a pudding-like consistency. That makes for the base of the dish, which is presented inside the egg shell. The middle is composed of sous vide egg yolks that have been whipped with sea salt. Fried egg white foam tops that, and on top of the foam rests American sturgeon caviar. It packs a wallop of taste on a little spoon. Salty, creamy, rich, sweet. It’s all there.

Another Small Plate gem is the strawberry gazpacho ($15). Harry’s Berries strawberries are liquefied to a thin, red, almost transparent consistency. The strawberry shooter is poured over luxurious king crab, avocado puree, hearts of palm and tiny segments of cucumbers and piquillo peppers that are tossed in a sherry vinaigrette. It is a memorable bite with multiple layers of flavor and texture, unlike any gazpacho I’ve ever tried before.

Duck pastrami ($17)from the Toasts & Dips section has a unique taste and is flat-out awesome. The duck is cured in-house for about a day and a half and looks just like pastrami you’d get at your favorite deli. It’s served on rye crackers that resemble little tortillas and is accompanied by sauerkraut aioli, pickled radicchio and mustard seed. This might be the first great Jewish taco, but hopefully not the last.

One of the most impressive dishes is grilled kale salad ($15). Kale salad is well-worn territory at this point, so creating excitement around this dish is impressive. The smoke of the fire pit brings out new flavors and accentuates the kale’s bitterness. Radicchio reinforces that bitterness. Sweetness from grapes and dried cherries gives the salad a counterpunch. Pine nuts act as crunchy croutons, and it’s all tied together with a creamy dill dressing. I would eat this salad every day.

Flatbreads are another familiar offering that gets the royal treatment at Libertine Social. This is not a shock considering McClain is a partner in Five50, Aria’s high-end pizza joint. Caramelized fennel and sausage ($15) is a perfect match with the other components on the dough: creamy camembert cheese, desert honey and rosemary.  Shaved country ham ($17) balances the salt with smoky barbecue sauce and pineapple. The oven gives the dough a lovely char, providing the customer both crunch and chew.

It’s clear the kitchen team takes great pride in the dishes as evidenced by the sausage board ($18) and other plates. The meats shown off here are house-made merguez, hot links and bratwurst. Each one is a top-notch rendition of its form, with the aggressively spicy hot link the most memorable.

McClain is known for putting vegetables at the forefront of his plates. The options at Libertine Social might be some of his best, all of which benefit from the open fire. Coal-charred corn ($11) is cooked on top of hot coals in their husks. Onions are cooked by the same method. The two are put together to make something magical. Wood-grilled broccoli ($9) soaks up the luscious Taleggio cream and carrot sofrito it rests on. Barbecued carrots ($10) are slathered with the smoky sauce, and I wouldn’t blame you if you ate an entire plate.

On the drink side of things, Abou-Ganim is having just as much fun with his cocktails. While the options are plentiful, the fizzes and social swizzles are must-haves. The Nostro Rosa fizz ($16) combines Campari, Bulldog Gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, blood orange puree, agave nectar, chilled seltzer water and egg white. Sounds too crowded, doesn’t it? There’s a reason Abou-Ganim is the world’s best-known mixologist. He makes all of this into a uniform drink that has a stellar taste throughout.

The swizzles ($58 a pitcher)  are prepared tableside and do their best to transport you to their birthplace in the Caribbean. Queen’s Park Swizzle comprises El Dorado 15 Year Old Rum, Demerara syrup, lime juice, spearmint and angostura bitters. The longer it sits, the more the mint shines through, and the more ready you are to sit on a beach.

Desserts ($12) bridge the world the restaurant’s food and drink create. These are all cocktail-themed sweet dishes and Taherzadeh believes this is what makes them special. “If you’re looking for evolution of our menu,” he says, “the place where you’ll see the most evolution is in the desserts, just because when you set those parameters ... you end up having to used a lot more creativity within parameters.” No dessert better exemplifies this than the hot chocolate martini that layers one bite of scrumptiousness on top of the next. Torn dark chocolate ganache cake, white chocolate ice cream, marshmallow dollops, a tableside poured chocolate mocha sauce and assertive cocoa nib elevate the entire dish. And with their texture they create one of the great desserts in Sin City.

Hats off to you, made-up Kyle. Real or not, you throw one heck of a delicious party at your new restaurant.


Ahi Tuna Cones

Duck Pastrami

Queen's Park Swizzle Pitcher

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