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The biggest draw at Vegas oyster bars? It’s not the oysters. It’s the pan roasts

Pan roast at the Oyster Bar at Harrah’s Las Vegas
Jacqueline McMillion has been cooking pan roasts at the Oyster Bar at Harrah’s Las Vegas since the restaurant opened 13 years ago.
(Michael Hiller)

The best thing to eat at the Oyster Bar at Harrah’s Las Vegas, in the heart of the Strip, isn’t the oysters, although they are indeed beauties.

The bestselling item at the Oyster Bar at Palace Station Resort and Casino isn’t the oysters, although the restaurant sells more than 300,000 of the bivalves each year.

Even at the Oyster Bar at Hard Rock Hotel, whose selection of East and West Coast oysters is among the best in town, the big draw isn’t oysters.

It’s the pan roasts.

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“The oysters sell fast, but people come here for the pan roasts,” said Chad Castanino, the chef behind the Hard Rock’s oyster bar.

An alchemy of seafood, roasted tomatoes, clam juice and a kick of spice, all bubbled in cream, “the pan roast seems impossibly simple to make, yet few get it right,” said John Tesar, a James Beard Award-nominated chef whose Outer Reef seafood restaurant is to open this fall in Dana Point.

“It’s a riff on classic French cooking that relies on quality ingredients and proper technique. When you see a pan roast... on the menu and you know the seafood is fresh, you should order it.

“Even when I was cooking at RM Seafood in Las Vegas, a pan roast was one of my guilty pleasures — and secretly, it still is.”

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At Palace Station, the queue for one of the oyster bar’s 20 seats can stretch beyond two hours. “People stand in line 24 hours a day for the pan roasts,” said Steve Ely, Palace Station’s assistant food and beverage director. “They outsell everything else on the menu three-to-one.”

The sentiment is the same at Harrah’s. “You can’t come here and not have a pan roast,” said Francis Lubas, the resort’s chef de cuisine.

A proper seafood pan roast can contain any combination of proteins, including shrimp, clams, mussels, blue crab, lobster, even oysters. A well-made pan roast transports you to the ocean every time. It’s been compared with lobster bisque, “but even a good pan roast is better than a great lobster bisque,” said Steve Hayworth, a server for nearly a decade at Palace Station’s oyster bar.

Cooked in a steam-powered, steel-jacketed kettle rather than in a sauté pan, as the name suggests, a pan roast comes together in minutes and tastes both simple and complex.

The kettles are bolted to the counter top and pivot forward to pour their contents directly into serving bowls. A good chef can run eight or more kettles at once, working his or her way down the line from one end to the other.

The technique is a throwback to the seafood shacks that popped up a century ago along the East Coast, when steam provided heat for the living quarters and the cooking equipment. Steam kettles are still the gold standard.

“You can’t make a great pan roast without a steam kettle,” said Jacqueline McMillion, a cook who’s been shucking oysters and building pan roasts at Harrah’s Oyster Bar since the restaurant opened 13 years ago. “And I’ve made a lot of pan roasts.”

Here are three fine pan roasts worth seeking out on your next trip to Vegas.

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Oyster Bar at Harrah’s Las Vegas

Pan Roast at Harrah’s Las Vegas
The pan roast at Harrah's Las Vegas is superb and, at $18, a bargain.
(Michael Hiller)

The Oyster Bar at Harrah’s Las Vegas is everything you’d hope for in an oyster bar. Mounds of ice-cold blue points and six other varieties of oysters sit stacked up front, calling your name. Why resist?

The smart move here is to sit at the counter and order half-a-dozen grilled, then march your eyes down the menu to the $18 pan roast. Order it. There’s a good chance it will be cooked by someone who’s worked the steam kettles here since the oyster bar opened 13 years ago.

The cook (who may also double as your server) will lean over and ask you how spicy you want your pan roast, from 1 (mild) to inferno (10). Unless you drink Tabasco straight, go with 4. (You can double down later.)

Handfuls of shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws, sweet bay oysters and half of a Maine lobster go into the kettle. Roasted tomatoes, bell peppers and a ladle of chicken stock go in next, followed by a big glug of cream. After a quick boil, everything is poured into a cast-iron bowl. Your server will bring you a scoop of rice on the side to sop all the goodness, then advise you not to quit slurping until you reach the bottom, because that’s where all the good stuff settles like buried treasure. Harrah’s pan roasts are second to none.

Info: Harrah’s Las Vegas

Oyster Bar at Palace Station

Oyster Bar at Palace Station Las Vegas
Like all proper pan roasts, the ones at the Oyster Bar at Palace Station are cooked in steel-jacketed kettles.
(Michael Hiller)

Diners adore the Oyster Bar at Palace Station, a 24-hour counter service restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that the line for one of its 20 seats sometimes snakes between slot machines on the casino floor.

Nobody skips the line, not even the casino’s owners or its top players. Your best bet? Plan to visit between 6 and 11 a.m., when the wait tends be shortest.

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“The crab, the oysters and the clam chowder are all good, but people wait in line for hours just for the pan roasts,” said Hayworth, the veteran Oyster Bar server, which means you’re here for the pan roasts too.

You can choose a pan roast loaded with shrimp, crab, lobster or a combo of all three, but insiders know that the $26 “bouill-roast,” which marries a saffron-enriched bouillabaisse broth with a combo pan roast, is the way to go.

Eight kettles and one chef, so everything moves at a snail’s pace, yet the oyster bar maintains a steady 4½-star Yelp review. The praise is deserved. The Oyster Bar at Palace Station didn’t invent the pan roast, but it has set the local standard for all of its 24 years.

Info: Oyster Bar at Palace Station Resort and Casino

Oyster Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel

Oyster Bar Hard Rock Las Vegas
The Oyster Bar at Hard Rock Las Vegas serves an excellent combo pan roast plumped with shrimp, crab and lobster.
(Michael Hiller)

Despite the draw of Prince’s cloud guitar, Elton John’s platinum record and Steven Tyler’s scarf at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, you’ll have no trouble spotting the Oyster Bar, which commands your attention with a bright marquee rather than a line of waiting customers.

“Our goal is to never have a line, so even though we only have 16 seats, we also have two chefs and seven kettles going to keep things moving,” said chef Castanino, whose team approaches seafood with a chef’s eye to detail.

The fried oysters and calamari may call to you, but then you may not have the fortitude to eat an entire “all-in” pan roast, a $28 party bowl of shrimp, crab and lobster whose cream has been spiked with brandy and Creole spices. Missing it would be a mistake.

Cooks at other oyster bars take their pan roasts to a rapid boil. Not here. Although the core recipe is the same, the shrimp, crab, lobster and cream barely bubble before they’re poured into serving bowls. That gentle heat preserves their supple textures and sweet, briny flavors.

“The kettles aren’t cauldrons,” said Chris Dunn, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. “The secret is to cook everything from scratch and pay attention.”

Info: Oyster Bar at Hard Rock Hotel


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