This is the neighborhood Italian restaurant Las Vegas has been waiting for.
BY CLAIRE WHITE
Walking into Esther’s Kitchen right before dinner service begins in the 18b Arts District of Las Vegas, one is struck immediately with a sense of community. The staff is finishing a wine tasting. They are sampling the latest additions to the ever-changing menu in an affable, almost familial scene. But it’s more than that. Even the walk up to the restaurant along Casino Center Boulevard has a community feel that differs from three years ago when Esther’s Kitchen first opened.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The 18b area was set aside in 1998 as a creative zone, right in between the north Strip and historic Downtown Las Vegas. As First Friday introduced artistic Las Vegans to the nascent neighborhood in the early 2000s and urban revitalization began to shift the surrounding area, 18b became a hip place for arts, antiques, and coffee shops. But as Esther’s Kitchen’s Executive Chef James Trees recalls, when he drove around the area for the first time in 2016, he felt that it was still missing a vital component—a neighborhood restaurant that served brunch, lunch, and dinner.
“One of the hardest things to find when I was looking for a place to build a restaurant was a neighborhood,” James explains. He and his sister drove all around town looking for a place that felt right. The feel of 18b as well as its central location between a number of beautiful historical neighborhoods and the growing commercial corridor of Downtown seemed perfect.
His vision was a soulful, homey neighborhood Italian spot.
“When I came back from L.A.,” he says, “Las Vegas was a town of two and a half million people without any real neighborhood restaurants.”
Esther’s Kitchen was a homecoming for James, a Las Vegas native who attended Las Vegas High School before entering the kitchen at the Mirage. James’ Great Aunt Esther, his restaurant’s namesake, helped pay for his tuition to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After finishing his culinary coursework, he came back to Las Vegas where he worked as a sous chef at Michel Mina’s Aqua. He went on to work at a series of Mina’s restaurants in Las Vegas before relocating to Southern California, settling in Los Angeles for a decade. James moved back to Las Vegas to create Esther’s Kitchen, which opened its doors in January 2018.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE…
In 2019, James was recognized by “Vegas Inc” in its 40 Under 40. Last year he was one of two Las Vegas chefs selected as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious Best Chef Southwest award. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the James Beard Foundation later decided not to announce winners at that year’s awards program, but even a nomination is an incredible honor for any chef or restaurant.
These accolades, as well as the long list of celebrity chefs who James has worked with makes some aspects of the dining experience at Esther’s Kitchen all the more remarkable. The first surprising thing is the price point. There are plates of pasta starting at $16 and bottles of wine at $40. The other revelation is how well the staff takes the idea of a neighborhood restaurant to heart. James said that in his first round of hiring, he selected “the nicest people who showed up,” and that is exactly how one would describe his warm, attentive wait staff and bartenders.
…AND THE FOOD
The menu features comforting classics such as cacio e pepe, spaghetti pomodoro, and margherita pizza. But the real stars are the seasonal offerings. The section of the menu titled “Dishes of the Moment” features fresh, seasonal ingredients crafted into inventive small plates and appetizers. The entrees also change seasonally, and James and his team care deeply about the quality of ingredients.
Any proper dinner at Esther’s begins with house-made sourdough bread. Besides the obligatory butter, olive oil, and sea salt, Esther’s bread can be paired with a variety of spreads and accompaniments. The fegatini with balsamic and strawberry is a delightful surprise to those uninitiated in the joys of pâté—smoky, sweet, and decadent. The burrata with chives and sea salt is possibly a bit more basic but is just as satisfying on the warm, fresh bread.
Another recommended starter is the ricotta gnudi, a perennial menu item. The gnudi, which are gnocchi-like dumplings filled with luscious ricotta, are balanced perfectly by beets and sorrel in a bright, herbaceous sauce. Each of the individual ingredients seem to come together in an almost perfect demonstration of Chef Trees’ fresh, farm-to-table style.
Although the brunch and lunch menus rightfully differ from the dinner service, patrons will find the aforementioned classic pastas and pizzas are offered at all hours. Each season introduces a revamped menu. Chef Trees is not worried that people will fret over the loss of a favorite menu item. He wants to buy what is in season, and he wants to make the freshest dishes he can.
“A lot of the menu rotates,” he says, “And everyone who is pushing tomatoes when they are out of season is missing the point of Italian food. It’s all about eating what’s good when it’s good.”
With all of his success, and the numerous kitchens and communities Chef Trees has called home, it might seem surprising that he still talks and acts like a Las Vegas native. He prides himself on treating everyone with respect and hospitality, from his chefs to his customers. The beverage team works together to craft a collaborative seasonal cocktail menu, and the kitchen staff is empowered to participate in the creative process for developing the perfect noodle for each new pasta dish. The reliance on local talent does not stop in the kitchen; the restaurant uses pottery serving dishes made by Clay Art Las Vegas.
Because of the success of Esther’s Kitchen, Chef Trees has been able to expand his vision of hospitality and fresh, seasonal ingredients to other parts of the Las Vegas Valley. He is in the process of modifying Ada’s at Tivoli Village into Ada’s Wine Bar, a casual Spanish-inspired spot with tapas and wine by the glass. But he hasn’t forgotten the neighborhood that made his first vision possible. Next door to Esther’s, he will soon open a pasta shop and specialty grocery that will allow them to expand their bread-making operation as well as offer meal kits and other fun surprises.
Speaking of meal kits, they were a big part of the Esther’s Kitchen workflow during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. When restaurants were ordered to close in March 2020, Chef Trees knew he wanted to keep as many employees on the payroll for as long as possible. At first he put the team to work with cleaning and a few upgrades to the facility. Then he partnered with the Secret Burger team to offer make-at-home meal kits that could be reserved online and picked up at the restaurant.
“We had so many people who wanted to come to the restaurant, and they just couldn’t because we were closed,” James explains, “So I decided I want somebody to be able to come, pick up a bag of food, take it to their house, not have to pick up a knife, and cook—start to finish—a four-course meal.”
The first week the restaurant made 170 meal kits, 20 of which were available at no cost for first responders and out-of-work hospitality workers. They sold out in less than two hours, so the following week they tried for 220 kits and had the same response. This allowed James to reinstate more and more of his employees, and it also served as a fun way to research and develop new recipes for the main dining menu.
With the temporary closure behind them and the dining room open again for business, the menu is as inventive and as fresh as ever. When asked about his success, James first gave a nod to his wonderful team before expressing gratitude to the whole community for embracing his vision. And his final words imparted exactly the type of wisdom one would expect from their neighborhood Italian chef:
“One thing we never do here is take things for granted. We don’t take a guest for granted. We don’t take a tomato for granted. We don’t do that.”