ELV note: It’s that time of the year, food fans. The time when every half-baked web site offers up “best of” lists of places they’ve never visited, and hardly know anything about. Some will no doubt regurgitate whatever they’re being paid to advertise….er…uh….I mean post, but for the serious connoisseur, this is the place to find the good stuff — the worthwhile places that rang our chimes in the past year. A few of these opened in late 2016, but we didn’t get to them until the past 12 months, and since we’re the only critic that counts (ARROGANT? YOU BET!), that’s good enough for us. Of all the eateries that showed up in 2017, these are the ones that matter.
Final note: Only time will tell if ’17 was the watershed year in local restaurants we hope it was. But there’s no denying a lot of serious cooking made it to the neighborhoods, and if this portends a trend, it bodes well for the future of good eating in Las Vegas.
Without further ado, and in no particular order (except the last one) here are the Best New Restaurants of 2017 (click on the name to link with the restaurant’s web site or Facebook page):
I know PPP is not new, but it might as well be. It’s fresh digs in the Gold Coast Hotel (at top of page) make it seem like a whole new restaurant. Actually, it is a whole new joint when you consider the upgraded surroundings, the expanded (and easier-to-navigate) menu, and the alacrity with which classic Mandarin and Cantonese dishes are brought to your table, only seconds after being wok-tossed, steamed or deep-fried. Our best, classic Chinese restaurant (and dim sum) got a whole lot better in 2017, and for that it rates a wave.
Another Tony Xu (the chef behind Chengdu Taste), quietly opened this Chongqing-style noodle house on Spring Mountain Road a few months ago, and seemingly like magic, every Szechuan-loving fellow traveler for 250 miles knew it was there. Tongue-numbing soups and chewy noodles (above) that take no prisoners, but you won’t find any better soups this side of the San Gabriel Valley. Since it’s the only restaurant on this list without a web page, a Facebook page, or a listing (beyond an Instagram page, for its namesake restaurant in California), we will tell you it’s located at 4355 Spring Mountain Road, #107.
(Why is this woman smiling? Because she’s never in the kitchen.)
Within months of opening in the Spring, Chica lost its executive chef (Mike Minor), who returned to his former gig at Border Grill. Vagabond chefs drive our staff crazy, but all we can hope for is that Lorena Garcia’s operation is tight enough to keep up the quality cooking. (She, of course, will show up once or twice a year to get her picture taken and pick up the cash.) Regardless of those concerns, the food here is a refreshing blend of the familiar (guacamole, classic ceviche) with the fascinating (asado negro arepas, porchetta with crispy yuca hash). Sara Steele’s desserts are not to missed, so get all of them.
As with Boteco and The Black Sheep, we’re sometimes tempted to call out Brian Howard on how over-complicated his food can be. But there’s no denying how tasty his udon Bolognese or Campfire Duck is, so we bite our tongue. When, like his colleagues, he hits his marks, the results are thrilling. If you’re over 40, you’ll be the oldest person in the joint. No matter what your age, if you love belt-and-suspenders cooking, you’ll be in hog heaven.
Several new Korean steakhouse chains landed(?) on our shores in 2016. This one arrived three months ago and is locally-owned, not a franchise, and the best of the bunch. Superb sides (called banchan), and beef that’s a cut above. Nice bar, too.
Ramen excites me about as much as Vietnamese pho, which is to say not at all. But the Food Gal® swears Ramen Hashi could finally unseat Monta for tonkotsu hegemony, and we’ll take her word for it.
The only thing I hate about Boteco is how far it is from my house. Located on the loathsome south Eastern corridor, it is small, personal, wine-focused, and everything a locally-owned joint should be. At dinner, there are only twelve things on the menu, but the sliders, avocado crunch salad and Singapore Chilli Crab dip are a delight, and the kind of food that’s usually unknown this far from the Strip. There’s even a poutine on the menu for the calorie-challenged. Fabulous Spanish ham, good oysters, and escargot croquetas, and braised beef with Piedmontese rice are also there for ectomorphs in need of a good rib-sticking. This is a mix and match menu that’s made for fun. Boteco means “meeting place” for friends and family, and if you and yours are looking for a place to congregate, you won’t find any better in this neck of the culinary desert.
Gregg Fortunato is one of the few chefs in town confident enough to serve us a plate of simple, perfect tomatoes seasoned only with a little salt. His menu is full of the same confidence, and doesn’t have a clinker on it. His chicken wings deserve to be in the poultry hall of fame.
People keep calling Jamie Tran’s new joint “Vietnamese-American” because that’s how it describes itself, but there’s nothing remotely Vietnamese about braised short ribs, tuna tartare (above), and smoky beet salad. Hers is a unique, personal cuisine with influences befitting a classically trained chef who wants to infuse European techniques with Asian sensibilities. (Or is it the other way around?) Unlike any other place in town, and a foodie favorite because of it.
Our best French pastries, period. With coffee, crepes, and a few, house-baked breads to match. Lots of people extol the virtues of other pastry shops, but this is the real, artisanal deal. We’d walk five miles for a bite of that crepe (pictured above), and have! Merci beaucoup, Pierre Gatel!
(About as intimate as Wal-Mart)
Big box Japanese restaurants are sooo 2oo7, but if you insist, this is the one to go to.
Good restaurants in the southwest part of town are harder to find than a sous chef without tattoos. Daniele Dotto’s menu is full of pleasant surprises, not the least of which are his seafood offerings – like the shrimp and squid ink pasta seen above — as tasty as you’ll find five miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, at much gentler prices.
Another noodle joint? Yep, and just the ticket for lovers of those thick chewy Japanese udon noodles (and killer chicken karrage) that taste just like they do in Shibuya.
Darker than Kevin Spacey’s sex life, and not for the faint of wallet or dim of eyesight. But if you can find your food (on the menu or on the plate) you’ll enjoy some magnificent meat at some magnificent prices. The $73 dry-aged strip announces itself as a major player in our rootin’ tootin’ high steaks rodeo.
(Here, at least, you can see your food)
More modern, more inventive, and better lit than Bavette’s…and in the Hard Rock Hotel. Well, three out of four ain’t bad. The steaks are top shelf, but it’s the burger, the appetizers, and the veal chop that will get your attention.
Pulchritudinous pies, excellent pastas, and a reasonable wine list (that can be purchased retail) have suddenly made Jerry’s Nugget (in North Las Vegas!), a must go for intrepid seekers of great pizzas and Strip-worthy Italian food.
Korean isn’t the only Asian country to see a marked improvement in its Vegas restaurants. No longer is Thai food consigned to the sloppy, sweet-sour appeasement of American palates. Southern Thai specialties are what to get here, and the brothers and sister who run the place will joyfully guide you through their artistic interpretations of classic Siamese dishes.
Another vastly improved re-boot — substantially different and so much better than its forerunner. The Bromberg Brothers got back to basics, and in doing so, brought the best of their Big Apple icon to our humble burg. There is no better American food anywhere in Las Vegas. This new BR reminds us of the old BR in lower Manhattan — the one that put the BB boys on the map.
One word: galaktoboureko (pictured below). The world’s greatest dessert. (TRUE!) Every lunch and dinner. Made on premises, just like everything here — unlike many a Greek joint that couldn’t exist without cheap, nasty Sysco gyro meat. This is Greek food like it tastes in Greece. Very little pita bread, a mountain of mezze (dips and such) and seafood done right. (The owners are Estiatorio Milos veterans.) One of the many reasons we consider 2017 to be a watershed year for fabulous new food in the ‘burbs.
ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.
In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.
Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung. Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement. In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?
Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.
Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.
It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.
A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?
Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.
Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.
There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)
To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.
Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)
Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters. Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo? Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.
Life is too short to be confused by your food.
(Oohs and aahs not included)
So me an da paesans wuz gettin’ pretty messed up da udder nite. Ya know whad I’m talkin’ about?
Let’s just say we wuz so umbriag our capicolas felt more like muzzarell.
Der wuz tree of us, and boy were we were sesenta fame and needed sum beef and we needed it pronto.
One of my jamokes, Vinnie Boombahts sez: “Hey, Jabrone! Why donts we head to Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads?”
I sez, “Fuggedabadit….that’s not a good idear.”
He sez, “Ahright ahready….then where do youse wants to go?”
I sez, “I ain’t never had no buona fortuna there…and I’m sorta kinda persona non grata, gabish?”
Now, this goombah of mine, he’s a gavone, a real chooch, always with the agita, so I told him to go “ah ffangul,” and he “iamo,” and I said, “haicapid?” and he called me a mamaluke, and I called him a scorchamend, and somehow we ended up at Oscar’s.
And you know what? We had a whale of a time.
We started at the bar at happy hour, and were pleasantly surprised (blown away really) by how great everything was. It was just the three, chopped prime rib sliders that grabbed our attention, but also a remarkably fresh, and a no-filler-allowed crab cake:
…that was the definition of this steakhouse mainstay.
Almost as good (if a tad tough) were the Mob (chicken) Meatballs:
…and a series of side dishes — creamed, but not-too creamy spinach, fresh roasted corn brûlée, asparagus cooked right — all served with classic cocktails containing just the right amount of kick-your-ass.
The main courses in the dining room measured up far better than I remembered from four years ago, when I wrote a none-too-flattering review of the place. Back then, the dishes seemed as flaccid as Fredo Corleone. Now, the filet was as perfect as a filet mignon can get — and seasoned just right by the kitchen:
…..and the strip sirloin smothered in crab, asparagus and Bearnaise was the kind of throwback indulgence that made you long for the 70s. A couple of the sides (Brussels sprouts, mushrooms) were by-the-numbers, but the “extraordinary” mac & cheese was cheesier than a Wayne Newton love song.
I’m not sure when Oscar’s got its act together, but obviously, sometime in the past few years it has. Executive chef Jeffery Martell oversees a big menu (too big, really), but he’s pulling it off and people have obviously responded. (The joint was jumping even on a Tuesday night.)
So, whether you’re with intelligent, discriminating friends, or the stunads and scustumads that yours truly drinks with, whether you’re mortadafam or just want a quick bite, Oscar’s has you covered. It may not be ready to muscle into Strip steakhouse territory, but the throwback food and booze is tutto bene! Gabish?
OSCAR’S BEEF, BOOZE & BROADS
Plaza Hotel and Casino
1 Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101