The name SUGARCANE may sound familiar to longtime patrons of the Las Vegas food, beverage and nightlife scenes. Once upon a time, in the early days of The Palazzo, it was a nightlife venue operating in the back room of the resort’s Latin/Japanese hybrid restaurant, SushiSamba. But the new SUGARCANE raw bar grill, located just a short walk from SushiSamba and sharing managing partners, is a long way from that short-lived endeavor.
The Miami import stands at the heart of The Venetian’s restaurant row—the corridor that connects it to sister resort The Palazzo—and around the corner from showrooms and the convention center. Sandwiched between the open kitchen areas and the dramatic wraparound windows, nearly everyone in the relatively narrow space has a prime view of gamblers, conventioneers, diners and other tourists rushing to their next destination. Just a few feet from this action, SUGARCANE raw bar grill offers a respite from the purposeful hustle and bustle of the surrounding “neighborhood.”
The decor is Old Havana by way of modern Miami. The color scheme is light and airy. Simple tiles adorn the walls and floors. The wicker weaves of floral ceiling fans and casual chairs conjure subtropical vacation memories. And a modern painting of Hemingway, wearing his trademark Panama hat, adorns the wall of the private dining room. But as executive chef and partner Timon Balloo is quick to note, the association with Cuba in this and the Miami original is tentative at best.
“The Cuban [association] comes into play because of the design,” he says, “and because my partner [Shimon Bokovza, managing partner of Samba Brands Management] really wanted to have the feel that you stepped into Cuba. But it’s a trip, because I’m not necessarily cooking Cuban food.”
The chef learned Chinese cooking from his Chinese-Trinidadian mother while growing up near San Francisco’s famed Chinatown. After dropping out of college to pursue cooking, and climbing the ladder from prep cook at a chicken wing joint to restaurant positions across the United States and Europe, he’s endeavored to absorb as many world cuisines as possible. The food offered at SUGARCANE raw bar grill reflects these influences.
The raw bar menu features American seafood tower standards and a rotating selection of oysters and raw fish preparations from Italy, Mexico and Asia. The latter include Hokkaido scallop slices on compressed tart apples seasoned with truffle, lime and jalapeño, as well as slices of marinated fluke served with red grapes, charred onions, sesame seeds and the almost peaty-tasting strain of kelp called kombu. Small plates include house-made ricotta with a wild legume salad; duck leg confit with duck egg on made-to-order waffles with a side of mustard maple syrup; and bone marrow veal cheek marmalade. And the chef indulges his love of Japanese cuisine with an extensive selection from an open-fire grill.
That’s not to say there’s nothing Cuban coming out of the kitchen. Sofrito is a base for many of the dishes. Traditional croquettes are given a novel twist in a goat cheese version served with membrillo (quince paste) and guava. And there’s a selection of more than 100 rums.
“It’s kind of a hybrid of what modern Cuba looks like, or what a modern, young Miamian voice would be,” Balloo says, trying to sum up the experience, emphasizing that the restaurant’s South Florida roots may be the glue that holds everything together. Like those places, Balloo is himself very multicultural. “You have this [chef with a] West Indian/Indian roti and curry background, French fundamentals and Spanish refinement cooking in [South Florida] using the vegetables that are growing in [the neighboring farm community] Redland and fish coming out of the [local] waters. All of that kind of lent itself to what new Miami felt like and what the food scene was emerging and growing into [when we opened there.]”
The longer the chef speaks, the more influences spring to his mind. Korean kalbi ribs from New York. His half-Thai wife’s papaya salad. The list goes on.
While it’s clear that SUGARCANE raw bar grill is Balloo’s baby, he won’t be running the local kitchen day to day. For that, he’s tapped Ryan Primo Nuqui, who has served as chef de cuisine at both Yellowtail in Bellagio and the Bacchanal Buffet in Caesars Palace. Together, the two have created some items they feel will give the new location a touch of Las Vegas eccentricity, including a sea urchin tostada. Between those dishes and the center-Strip location, our city may soon become as much of a part of the SUGARCANE raw bar grill brand as Miami and Havana.