At first bite: Feel-good cuisine
Therapy brings a new maturity to the Downtown dining scene, and points the way forward
When it comes to food writing, a particular pet peeve of astute readers is the overuse of the maxim, “It was good for what it was.” That usually signals a covert apology for food that was well-intentioned but poorly executed. What the writer is really saying is, “It was good, you know, for being bad food.”
The progression of Downtown has been dogged by this phrase. Outside of a very few true standout successes, the Fremont-area food scene was mired in laurel-resters basking in such praises as, “Well, they are the only (insert genre)restaurant Downtown …” The newer and smarter investors smelled money in the air, and the savviest among them predicted a change towards finer, more honest dining.
This prediction is in the process of coming true. The first big flare-up of it is right in the neighborhood’s very heart, Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard: Therapy.
In what was once a 99-cent store, the new owners of the space have gutted it and left a very pretty skeleton. Nothing overtly unique or fine, but it brings attention to the charms of the 1950s building: big wood beams and laid brick instead of prefab MDF joists and aluminum studs. Sunken bar, open kitchen, lounge seats.
The menu is the product of Chef Daniel Ontiveros of the tragically late Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan. Some of the all-around best food in the city came out of that kitchen, and you can see that same creativity in this menu. For example, Therapy’s crispy fried pig ears were pulled right from the Comme Ça bar menu, but the technique has improved to the point where these ears melt like butter in the center of the breading, a perfectly satisfying vessel for the balanced truffle honey mustard. The steak tartare is a revived favorite from those days, as well. Another small-bite winner on this menu is the “Gnudi,” a baked ball of ricotta with truffle honey and fig jam, paired with a walnut and cranberry crostini. Don’t miss the oxtail empanadas, either — ultra-savory, especially with the harissa lime crème fraîche.
Farm-aceuticals: Therapy's fried pig ears
Farm-aceuticals: chicken and red-velvet waffle slider
The “handheld” section of the menu offers two sandwiches, one a satisfying brie-topped burger, as well as two flatbreads. The mixed mushrooms flatbread is the pinnacle of good flatbread. Aside from the mix of seasonal mushrooms, it is made of diced bacon, caramelized onion and a poached egg, all on top of a fluffy, crispy, puff pastry. Heaven in 12-by-9-inches.
There is a chicken and red-velvet waffle slider that defies description. The chicken is double-breaded and terrifically juicy, between airy clouds of red waffle, paired up with just a bit of remoulade slaw and kissed with vanilla bean/bourbon maple. This is second only to another chicken dish, the roasted Jidori chicken. An airline breast (boneless, skin on, with a little humerus as a handle) arrives perched atop puréed summer corn, roasted cipollini onion and a mushroom chicken jus. It is deceiving in its simplicity but maddening in how savory and addictive it is.
By now, Therapy’s had an opening, some feedback, even made a couple happy-hour deals (Ears and Beers: either the pig ears or street corn, plus a beer for $10; a good idea from any perspective) — but what is the trajectory? A restaurant doesn’t thrive without change (unless you’re some Beverly Hills executive meme restaurant), and from the caliber of food that Ontiveros is capable of, there is plenty of potential for it.
Overall, the soul of the menu speaks to a kind of opening jitters. Everything has plenty of unique style to it, and a solid foundation of technique, but it speaks to a crowd. You can almost picture a meeting in which maybe three times the number of dishes were pitched, and the ones with the most common denominators were chosen. Luckily, even things simplified from this kitchen are head and shoulders above the rest of Downtown. All Therapy needs now is to steadily up the level of cuisine; change out the prep of this, add a seasonal that, bring back some of the wacky, wild, Willy Wonka-like inventions that made Ontiveros a superstar. Therapy is the opening note for this new chapter in Downtown dining, and with some smart decisions, it can lead the chorus for years to come.