Flavor: Steakhouse classics prepared by someone with a sweet tooth
Ambiance: Casual dress code and service paired with ultra luxe setting
Sycamores on the Creek, the newest addition to the roster of restaurants at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel complex, excels in willpower-busting. The menu features titanic portions of old-guard restaurant classics, including six cuts of steak, lamb chops and lobster tail. There’s not a single vegetarian entree on offer, unless you count shrimp fettuccini alfredo (and if you do, you’re a flexitarian with a capital ‘F’). And everything, everything, is sugary sweet.
I wasn’t able to sample all the items on Sycamores’ menu, but I quickly became adept at assessing whether a dish was worth ordering. Dishes that played the sweet card were nearly all hits, while those that had the temerity to appeal to another taste bud fell flat. French onion soup? Yes. Baked potato? No. Baby-back ribs? Sure. Steak? Not so much. Dessert? Yes, yes, yes. Homemade doughnuts are perhaps the most delicious stop on the path paved by Sycamores, but the climactic course is so justly vaunted by the restaurant that, when asked for recommendations at the outset of the meal, servers immediately launch into rhapsodic descriptions of chocolate cakes and cookie pies.
Sycamores opened this spring, supplanting the Seven Sisters Steakhouse, which is slated to reopen as the Seven Sisters Lounge. While most visitors to Harrah’s still limit their feasting to the premade sandwiches sold at the 24-hour deli counter on the edge of the casino floor, or the overcooked all-you-can-eat lasagna and liver at the Fresh Market Square Buffet, gambling palaces around the country have lately realized folks want to celebrate their video-poker winnings with a plateful of something more special. Las Vegas, once synonymous with 25-cent steak breakfasts, is now home to restaurants dreamed up by culinary big shots like Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon. And here in Cherokee, Sycamores is doing its best to up the ante.
Sycamores’ decor is stunning: Its undulating walls are pebbled with thousands of river-smoothed rocks, and the main dining space features a sloping divider of pressed Plexiglass encased in wood, lit by changing colored lights. A cluster of 50 frosted globes suspended from the ceiling casts a muted light on the smartly patterned copper-and-blue chairs and carpeting.
The restaurant actually encourages a relaxed dress code compatible with an all-day gambling session. On its Web site, Sycamores touts its “superior world class meals, in a casual atmosphere.”
The service is similarly low-key, with servers consistently calling guests “you guys” and struggling to recall basic facts about the menu (“All of our beef is prime rib,” one server assured us). But the overall result is rather refreshing: Rather than create the faux-fancy vibe that rules at proms and aboard cruise ships, Sycamores instead frees diners to focus on the food. (There are no alcoholic beverages at Sycamores: In keeping with a reservation-wide ban on alcohol sales, coffee is the strongest drink on offer at the casino.)
Undoubtedly, gamblers will be pleased with Sycamores’ plate-stressing portions. Nothing is small at Sycamores, from the weapons-grade silverware roll to the martini glass that holds the restaurant’s signature appetizer—a deconstructed bruschetta composed of a mound of balsamic-sweetened diced tomatoes and artichokes, surrounded by a ring of pesto-and-parmesan-topped crostinis.
There doesn’t seem to be a single word to convey the bigness of this martini glass, which looks more like a prop for a Truman Capote caricaturist than serious barware. Had I been able to finish the gargantuan serving, I probably could have stuck my head in the glass.
And if I had, I likely would have inhaled an overpowering aroma of sweetness. Sycamores’ kitchen nearly always skews sweet, a strategy that works in a surprising number of dishes. An admirably fresh mixed-green salad featuring thinly sliced pears and chunks of more-than-passable blue cheese had tartness added by an apple-cider vinegar, but hit the requisite sweet notes with dried cranberries and brown-sugared pecans. A slightly sweet Caesar-fusion salad was equally, and improbably, good.
Sugar reigns in the entrée column as well. Saucy baby-back ribs that slipped off the bone easily bested the strip steak, which was cooked at least two degrees past requested temperature and—prime or not—was sadly bereft of the thin streaks of fat that give good beef its flavor. I liked a delicately handled mountain trout grained with finely chopped peanuts, bathed in a light cream sauce and capped with three perfectly cooked shrimp.
The trout is served with a mound of mashed potatoes, one of three available starch selections. Thanks to underseasoning—and most likely working with sub-par taters—the kitchen has helped make the potato, in both its mashed and baked guises, the pariah of almost every plate I saw during my strolls through the dining room. Better to go with the sweet-potato mash, an allspice-heavy concoction that tastes like pie filling.
Of course, Sycamores shines in the dessert category, an overgeneralization I feel comfortable making on the strength of its doughnuts alone. The doughnuts are billed as doughnut holes, but, befitting the restaurant’s penchant for super-sizing, that’s misleading (unless, of course, people somewhere eat doughnuts the size of tricycle tires). The six make-you-weep good doughnuts are served with a dipping sauce of cold chocolate milk, which winnows into the crannies of the cinnamon, powdered sugar and brown sugar coat and cools the hot fry. These dreamy doughnuts are reason enough to indulge your sweet tooth—and to travel to Cherokee to do it.