Walk around the El Cortez hotel these days, and you will witness the changing face of Downtown Las Vegas. This old-timer has spent real money upgrading its facilities to appeal to the party-as-a-verb crowd. At the same time, it maintains an old-Vegas (in a good way) vibe that keeps the coupon-clippers happy. Through it all, its main restaurant (now the Flame, formerly Roberta's) keeps a foot in both worlds and hardly ever stumbles — at least when it comes to what's on the plate.
Before you confront your meal, you will first have to deal with the room. Dull beyond words, it is well-lit (some would say too well), and comfortable in a generic, franchised-coffee-shop sort of way. The sole design elements are provided by hi-def flatscreens showing fabulous, color-saturated travel videos of Italy. We're not sure management intended this effect, but the views are so sparkling and seductive, they have the effect of making you wish you were anywhere but the El Cortez when you're watching them.
Even if you're not on the Amalfi Coast, the food is good enough to draw some of your attention. When they're in season, which doesn't begin again until October 15, Florida stone crabs are the appetizer to get. They are only flown in for Friday and Saturday nights, are run as a special and are always fresh.
For the next four and a half months, though, you will have to settle for fresh, sparkling Kumamoto oysters with a textbook mignonette, blue-crab cakes nicely studded with chunky lump meat accompanied by a decent remoulade, and littleneck clams steamed in chardonnay. Skip the baby-backs unless you like pork ribs for dessert.
They serve mealy tomatoes out of season here (about the only hangover from the El Cortez's cheap eats days), but otherwise the salads are acceptable, though not exceptional. The "garbage salad" comes nicely dressed with a light lemon vinaigrette, and the iceberg wedge is a blue-cheese-lover's delight.
The issue with restaurants in small hotels is they have to be all things to all people. Dinner-only places (when you're the only dinner-only joint in the joint) don't have the luxury of niche marketing to seafood faddists, local locavores or meat fetishists. Instead, expect to see chicken, meat and fish in all their familiar guises. What distinguishes the Flame is its careful cooking of these primary tourist staples, the aforementioned stone crabs and, drum roll please ... the wall-eyed pike. As any upper-Midwesterner will tell you, this is pretty much the king of freshwater fish. Its dense, sweet flesh makes it perfect for grilling or deep-frying, both of which are done to a turn here. At $18, it is the biggest bargain on the menu, and also the best.
Not as successful is the untrussed roasted chicken — served with legs splayed and slightly dry for that reason — but the lamb chops, double-cut pork chops and steaks will more than satisfy a carnivore's craving — at prices $14-$20 less than you'll pay three miles south. If gussied-up beef is what befits you, the steak Diane — sliced tenderloin in a cognac mustard-cream sauce — is steak sauced the old-school way, and again, a steal at $24. Speaking of sauces, another indication this place has upgraded itself are the six house-made sauces, ranging from green peppercorn to Marsala to a quite respectable béarnaise.
Desserts are unmemorable, but you won't forget the wine list — mainly because it's short and priced to sell. A William Fevre Chablis ($35) fits nicely with the fish, and the most expensive red, Clos du Bois Marlstone, tops out at $55.
Priced-to-sell pretty much sums up the Flame. The only surprises on the menu are pleasant ones, and in this price range, it pretty much sets the standard for quality comestibles. All the restaurant needs now is a décor to complement the food and give it some personality, something the hotel has had since 1941, and seems to be getting more of daily.