UNLV Epicurean Society
Photos by Hanna Min
A restaurant concept then, and a dining attraction now. It all began with Chef James Trees, a chef who loves pasta: a passion driven by the nostalgia of eating lasagna at his childhood best friend’s house. Chef Trees was once a culinary high school student at Las Vegas High School. His lack of self-pride and his unwavering diligence earned him respect from the chefs that took him under their wing. His experience roots as far back as interning at The Mirage as a high school student and ultimately attending The Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Before graduating from the culinary program, the aspiring chef worked under many well-known chefs such as Michael Mina, Alex Stratta, Jacques Van Statten, Eric Ripert and Gordon Ramsay. Just after he completed his studies, Chef Trees had an extensive career, achieving promotions and recognition all around. He had trained hundreds of young, aspiring culinary experts while he simultaneously opened five restaurants for Chef Mina.
His journey led him to become the Chef de Cuisine at FIG in Santa Monica. He then shifted gears to lead the crop production company, Hutchinsons, and a restaurant group, Superba Food + Bread. Following which, the chef’s eyes landed on his hometown, Las Vegas, where he desired to begin his own restaurant business. He currently stands as the executive chef of his own eatery, Esther’s Kitchen.
Enriched and founded upon the vast culinary experience of Chef Trees, Esther’s Kitchen is now attracting many eyes and taste buds of southern Nevada. Located on 1130 South Casino Center Blvd, Las Vegas NV 89104, just near the heart of the Arts District, Esther’s Kitchen provides Italian cuisine in a modern-style establishment with vibrant décor and warm hospitality. The Italian restaurant has a unique origin–named after the chef’s great-aunt Esther and inspired by the pasta dishes the chef ate while he was growing up. However, the new Italian eatery has adopted a twist to their pasta experience: A Roman Trattoria approach.
This was not left unnoticed by Epicurean Society members. For their last social dinner of the semester, our team found a new restaurant for comfort food: a new place to experience Italian food in Las Vegas. “It’s cozy and eclectic,” a club member said.
Our team started off with two appetizers, or ‘Antipasti’ as the menu refers to it. Our first appetizer was the house-made Sourdough Levain Bread. There were two choices of spread we ordered with the bread: butter and burrata alla panna, and basil oil and anchovy garlic butter. The second choice of antipasti we ordered was the Fried Cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and caper. A very light dish in terms of taste and the perfect introduction to our pasta journey.
Epicurean Society members decided on a dish from the vegetables, also known as the ‘Verduras’ section of the menu. We found ourselves a very rich, savory and creamy vegetarian choice: ground polenta with mushrooms, truffle butter and sherry. Polenta essentially is paste or dough made from cornmeal, which can be served as porridge. In order to create authenticity in the Italian dish, Chef Trees infused truffle butter to make the polenta creamier and smoother. Adding sherry to the dish augments the flavor of the ground polenta as the sweetness of the wine complements the savory taste. Combined with the chewy and crunchy texture of the mushrooms, the dish transforms from plain porridge into a creamy and flavorful vegetarian cuisine.
From the ‘Pasta Mercato’ section, we made our nexhant two choices: The Ricotta Gnudi with McGrath farm beets and pistachio pesto, and the Cavatelli Pasta with crispy sausage, smoked tomato, and rabe.
Epicurean Society members had curiosity for the pizza. We had to try the Margherita Pizza which includes tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella. Our second pizza was topped with bacon, fontina, caramelized onion, egg and saba.
To finish the night, club members ordered the Dark Chocolate Tart and the Butterscotch Budino, the latter being an Italian sweet dish closely resembling custard or pudding. Both options were exquisite and cleaned our taste palates. The Dark Chocolate Tart is certainly enjoyable for those who like dark chocolate filling and a nice crust. As for the Budino, Epicurean Society was expecting the dish to be on the sweeter side. However, we were shocked to taste a balance in creaminess and sweetness levels.
Epicurean Society members were able to enjoy one last dinner social in the heart of the Arts District. Filled with Italian influence of Chef Trees’ dishes and the sociable atmosphere of the business, members of the club were pleased with their last meeting of the semester. Our family of members carried the fond journeys of spring semester behind them knowing that a new set of experiences await in the coming months.