SPAGO Redux

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No matter what it does, it does well. No matter what you order, expect it to be one of the best versions you’ve ever had. Call it Wolfgang Puck magic; call it a great management; call it hiring good chefs at the top of their game. Whatever it is, call it consistency. Because if there’s one thing that sets Spago apart from its competitors, it is an almost military precision to its food. You will rarely have a bad dish in any Puck restaurant. At Spago, you’ll never have a bad bite.

Las Vegas got its first taste of Spago in December. 1992, and for the next twenty-five years it loomed large over the Strip dining scene as the granddaddy of all of our great restaurants. When its lease finally was up at the Forum Shops in 2018, it decamped for the Bellagio. Puck signed a management deal with the hotel (no more operational headaches for him!), and with a wave of the hand (and a “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”), the dreary Olives got a bright, modern makeover into Spago 2.0.

About the only thing not to like about the new location is the front of it (seen above). Instead of signaling you’re in for a big deal meal at one of the most famous restaurants in America, the signage is abstruse to the point of invisibility, and you can be right in front and not know there’s a restaurant there.

Once you’re inside, this aesthetic sin will be quickly forgotten. The bar still hugs the right side of the restaurant, and low-slung table seating allows you to eat or linger near all those top-shelf cocktails. Large windows and glass doors now frame an outdoor patio that provides the best seating in the hotel for the fountain show. (There are lots of tables outdoors, but they go fast at peak times, so reserve ahead if al fresco is how you want to go.)

Whether you sit outdoors or in, the menu will provide the sort of soothing satisfaction Puck has always delivered: a blend of classics (veal wiener schnitzel, steamed cod “Hong Kong style,” smoked salmon pizzas, crispy skin branzino), with the seasonal (sweet corn agnolotti, heirloom tomato salad, Santa Barbara spot prawns, vegetable ragout with asparagus velouté), and the formidable (veal chop, lamb rack, and a côte de bouef for two – each as good as any steakhouse’s). Sometimes there will be big eye tuna crudo, sometimes foie gras ice cream. Whatever specials your waiter recites, rest assured it will be worth the tariff.

(I’m just mad about saffron…risotto)

Mark Andelbradt, a Puck veteran, has been at the helm since the move to the new digs, and his facility with pasta is every bit as nimble as his command of roasted cauliflower. If his proteins are the equal of a beef emporium, his noodles match up nicely against any Italian. More than once I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of Spago’s house-made pastas with some celeb-chef versions around town, and every time Spago’s has come out on top. Andelbradt’s spicy lamb Bolognese cavatelli, squid ink garganelli, and those agnolotti are textbook examples of the genre, and when he’s doing saffron-seafood risotto, don’t miss it.

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When you’re done with the savories, the sweets are there, just waiting to destroy your willpower. The spiked lemon with yuzu cream, chiffon cake and citrus mousse (above) has been on the menu so long, it’s almost iconic as those pizzas. The chocolate chip cookies are worth a trip by themselves, but as memorable as those are, the thing to get is Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren — a showstopping souffléd pancake (for two) that actually feeds four…but which will probably be wolfed down by the first one lucky enough to get to it.

The wine list holds few surprises. (It was pretty boring at the old location, too.) There are plenty of overpriced bottles from the usual MGM-Bellagio offerings. (Yes, they standardize the wine selections throughout the MGM family of hotels these days. Because accountants.) Stick with the by-the-glass selections if you don’t want to feel like you’ve been asked to bend over and grab your ankles.

You don’t go to Spago looking for culinary adventure anymore than you go to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in search of a pork chop. What Spago is selling, what Spago has always sold, is a Cal-Ital blend of Europe technique with American panache — a hybrid cuisine that’s as fresh today as it was 35 years ago; a cuisine as elemental as a pizza and refined as caviar.

All of America owes a debt to Spago for the way we eat nowadays — combining finely-tuned, gutsy food with just the right sophisticated spin without pretense. Open kitchens, upgraded pizzas, casual dining with killer food — all of these started with Spago. In a way, every gastropub from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is an homage to the type of cooking first popularized by Wolfgang Puck. But he did it first, and in many ways, Spago still does it best.

I’ve eaten at Spago so many times I’ve lost count. This new incarnation I’ve been to five times. They never comp me, but a few freebies always show up. Dinner for two will run around $150-$200, including a shared dessert and a couple of drinks each. Service is uniformly excellent whether they know you or not.

Get this: Artisanal salumi pizza; smoked salmon pizza; spicy shrimp pizza; spicy tuna tartare; foie gras ice cream; Gulf shrimp cocktail; prime beef burger; field mushroom soup; roasted cauliflower; Anson Mills grits; veal wiener schnitzel; steamed cod “Hong Kong” style; branzino; all pastas; seafood-saffron risotto; Santa Barbara spot prawns; vegetable ragout; veal chop; lamb rack; côte de boeuf rib eye steak for two; cookie platter; spiked lemon with yuzu cream; Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren.

SPAGO

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.693.8181

Father’s Day…is for Feasting!

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A maudlin, insincere printed card…means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman [or man] who has done more for you than anyone else in the world. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card. – Anna Jarvis on Mother’s Day

Even when my dad was alive, neither of us was into the whole “Father’s Day” thing.

I have two sons, neither of whom is much into the whole “Father’s Day” thing, either.

My family has always considered the whole Mother’s Day thing fairly ridiculous, too.

Face it: If you need a special day of the year to appreciate your parents, then I feel sorry for you…and your parents.

Unlike Mother’s Day, which is wholly a 20th century American invention (completely disavowed by its inventor, Anna Jarvis, btw), Father’s Day goes back to the Middle Ages. (Perhaps in those less scientific times, men needed a day of the year to take stock of all the seed they had sown. Or maybe, it was just one more acknowledgment of society’s patriarchal dominance, as if anyone needed reminding that cocks and balls controlled things in 1557.)

Mother’s Day got corrupted by the floral industry, greeting card manufacturers, and later, restaurants. It remains an absurdity of our culture fueled by guilt and dime store sentimentality.

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Father’s Day, thankfully, doesn’t keep Hallmark in business. Ugly ties, golf gear, and preserved horse turds are more its thing.

Dad’s Day has something else going for it, too: it’s a fine day to go out to eat.

On Mom’s special day, everyone and their brother is falling all over themselves to take “Mom” out to eat. This tradition started presumably because “Mom” was slaving away at the stove the other 364 days of the year. (How many moms slave away at a stove these days?)

Giving mom a day off from kitchen duty was the whole point behind taking her out to eat one day a year; now it’s as obsolete as June Cleaver baking cookies in her pearls.

It’s precisely because everyone goes out to eat on Mother’s Day, that it’s the worst day of the year to do so. Kitchens are stressed to the max, menus are dumbed-down, and service is invariably atrocious. Anyone who goes out to eat on Mother’s Day is a fool. If your mom (or your family) insists, do yourselves a favor: take her out to eat some other day. Problem solved.

Father’s Day is just the opposite. It’s business as usual for restaurants, because, presumably, no one is trying to give every friggin’ dad in American a day off from their (non-existent) kitchen chores. Father’s Day is all about bonhomie and thanking pops for having sex with mom and sticking around after having done so.

So do dad a favor this Sunday: take him out to eat at a real, manly man restaurant where he can indulge all his dad impulses and appetites, and all of you will feel better, not worse, for the experience.

To help you with this pleasant chore, I’ll make some suggestions, as I did last week on News 3 Las Vegas. Here I am in all my book-shilling, pants-bulging glory:

And here is a longer list of ideas where you should take dear old dad, if you want to show him how much you love him. If you don’t love him, take him to a buffet.

(Rum-brined pork chop at Kitchen at Atomic)

Foodie Dad: The Kitchen at Atomic

Pizza Dad: Pizzeria Monzú

Dad’s Day Brunch: HEXX Las Vegas

Vegetarian Dad: Shiraz Las Vegas

Burger Lovin’/Beer Swillin’ Dad: BBD’s Las Vegas – Beers Burgers Desserts

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (that didn’t make it into the TV segment, obviously, due to time constraints):

Barbecue Dad: SIN CITY SMOKERS or Mabel’s BBQ LV

Taco Dad: Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer or Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

Pasta Dad: The Factory Kitchen or Esther’s Kitchen

(Nordic waffles? Ja! At Saga Pastry.)

Viking Dad: Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Greek God Dad: Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Frito Bandito Dad: Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant

D-Day Dad: Ohlala French Bistro or Eatt Gourmet Bistro or Partage

Fit to be Thai’d Dad: Lamaii or Weera Thai Kitchen

Price is No Object Dad: Vetri Cucina LV

José Andrés Fan Dad: Jaleo or Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres at SLS Las Vegas

Wino Dad: MordeoLV or Marche’ Bacchus French Bistro & Wine Shop

(Jon BonJovi totally approves of taking your dad to Mr. Coco for a cocktail)

Cocktail Dad: Mr.Coco LV

Cocktail Dad (Reggae/Dreadlocks/Rum Swillin’ Version): Jammyland

(Café Berlin is the wurst place you can take your father)

Wurst Dad: Café Berlin

Steak Lovin’ Dad: Manzo At Eataly Las Vegas

Sushi Dad (Purist): Yui EdomaeSushi or Kabuto

Sushi Roll Dad: Soho Japanese Restaurant or Sushi Hiroyoshi

(Salmon skin tacos at The Black Sheep)

Fusion Food Dad: Japañeiro or The Black Sheep

Dim Sum Dad: New Asian Bbq or Ping Pang Pong The Chinese Kitchen

Dessert Dad: Sweets Raku

Yarmulke Dad: New York Bagel and Bakery

Happy Father’s Day to all you motherf*ckers out there!

The List

(Lamaii)

Every few months we publish “The List” for two reasons: 1) to keep a constant update of our research for the next EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants edition; and 2) to brag to you, our loyal readers, about how we eat in more restaurants, more often, than anyone in Las Vegas — now or in the history of our humble burg.

This list is a bit incredible, even by our trencherman standards — over 50 places in a little more than two months, many of which we’ve been to more than once. It is one of our biggest blitzes ever, all brought about by an invasion of good taste the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in thirteen years.

I thought 2018 was a watershed year of good restaurants arriving on our shores(?), but from the looks of things, 2019 could top it.

All of it makes for a lot of mastication…all in the service of determining who will be new to our top 52 come this fall…

As usual, all restaurants are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted (an asterisk means I’ve been there more than once recently):

THE LIST

ManzoDon’t call it Carnevino-lite. It’s its own thing (above) and that thing is a world-class Italian steakhouse.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos – When you need to inhale a little Ensendada.

Soho Japanese Restaurant – Serious south side sushi + amazing omakase.

NoMad*I shall return to NoMad one of these days to see if the service has improved…after I figure out a way to sneak in.

NoMad Bar*That hamburger and that hot dog.

Andiron Steak and SeafoodFun brunch, fun making fun of all those self-impressed Summerlin-ers. “Oh look, honey! They have FRENCH champagne here! I hear it’s good!”

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Other Mama – Can it get any better? (see sashimi above)

Honey SaltHolding its own against an ersatz Italian (North), that’s packed with SUV-driving, vapid Summerlin saps (but I repeat myself) all day long. P.S. I’ve eaten at North too, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about it.

Mabel’s BBQ*I find myself craving Mabel’s ‘cue…and I haven’t craved Vegas ‘cue in a coon’s age.

Mott 32*So much cleavage is on display I’ve taken to calling it Mott 32D. (This is not a bad thing.) Right now, might be the best Chinese in town. Correction: right now it IS the best Chinese restaurant in town.

Lamaii* – Two pre-opening visits have me hungering for more.

The Factory Kitchen* – Been twice, need to get back, love everything about it except the industrial decor. Superb pastas and a winning wine list.

Saga Sandwiches + Pastry – Scandinavian sandwiches in Henderson? Yep, and they’re great. Chef Gert has a tough road to hoe, competing with 3,000 other places to eat on Eastern Ave., but this natty little Norwegian is very very nice.

China Mama* – Praise the lord and pass the xiao long bao! This place has returned to its former glory.

Scotch 80 Prime* Barry Dakake puts out a menu of classics backed up by a whiskey bar par excellence. The decor is also a vast improvement over the previous steakhouse-which-shall-not-be-named.

(Spicy sesame noodles at Fat Choy)

Fat Choy – Congrats to Sheridan Su on his James Beard nomination!

Lawry’s The Prime Rib – The name says it all. Old school in all the best ways. With service that never misses a beat.

BBD’s – Burgers, Beer and Desserts*Best. Burgers. In. Vegas.

Forte Tapas Is back on my radar. Where it hasn’t been in a long time. Maybe it’s the caviar. Maybe it’s because I’m secretly in love with Nina Manchev. ;-)

Spago*It may sound like heresy, but Spago might be a better restaurant now than it was at Caesars Palace. The people watching isn’t as good, but the view is better and the menu is tighter.

Sparrow + WolfBetter than ever.

EATTNew decor now fits the consistently excellent  French food. A neighborhood gem from top to bottom with nicely priced wine, and oh those desserts!

John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill – Never again. You have been warned…even though it doesn’t do any good to warn you because you (the slack-jawed hordes) will still flock here (because Guy Fieri), but the place is terrible.

(Mordeo)
MordeoMay have the best steak off the Strip. They’re aging them right before your eyes and they’re something to behold. The wine list is on its way to becoming a local treasure.

Esther’s Kitchen*I’ve lost count of my meals here, and it’s only been open a little more than a year. The bar, those amaros, Sonia, the pizzas, the sandwiches, Paul, James….it’s pretty much become a semi-private club for me and a few hundred downtown foodies.

Ohlala French BistroAnother place too far from my palatial manse that I wish I visited more often.

Siam Square – New Thai downtown; the food was good, but not good enough to lure me away from Ocha Thai or D E Thai Kitchen.

Aloha Specialties Hawaiians eat so much white food it’s a wonder their bowels ever move. Belly bombs like Kahlua pig and Loco Moco won’t help, either, but they’re damn tasty…as are the bento boxes.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – There’s not a better off-Strip Italian in town, and very few on-Strip that measure up.

Yui Edomae Sushi1-2 with Kabuto for local sushi superiority.

Wing Lei* I’ve had two meals here recently and three at Mott 32. There’s no denying the beauty of Wing Lei, but the Beijing duck is better at Mott.

Vetri* – Philly’s best is now our best. And oh that view. (Look closely at the pic above – it’s a reflection of me taking a snap out the window.)

Jammyland – Come for the rum, stay for the Jamaican food.

Carson KitchenMay have lost its edge, but can still stun you with an occasional special.

Pop Up PizzaA great, simple pizzeria (serving nothing but slices and garlic knots) in search of a hotel that appreciates it.

PublicUs*Great coffee, wonderful bread, so so food (there, I said it). Those cream cheese scones, though.

Vesta Coffee*My coffee hangout.

Desert Wind Coffee Roasters – My coffee hangout outside my ‘hood.

Them’s a lot to chew on…but does that mean we’re done?

Gird your loins, pilgrim, we’re just getting started:

(Today’s thing that looks like a face)

Delices Gourmands*My go-to for croissants, baguettes, pistachio rolls, and canelés de Bordeaux. (above) There ought to be a line out the door for these baked goods.

DelmonicoStill humming after all these years (20 to be exact). Hasn’t lost a beat, or the best Caesar in the business.

Strip SteakI’d eat at SS once a week if it was easier to get to and didn’t feel like a bus station.

Charlie Palmer Steak Just nibbles at the bar, but they were a cut above.

Le PhoLe ginormous bowls of beef noodle soups are boring to me. But the rest of the menu, and the bánh mí, are not.

(Kanomjeen Namya Pu – yellow curry crab)

D E Thai Kitchen* – Street Thai in a teeny tiny space that I’ve now been to five times in three months. Yes, it’s that good, as you can see above.

Cipriani* – Another place I consistently crave.

New Asian BBQ*Good not great dim sum, a nice additional option when you’re craving a quick lunch on Spring Mountain Road. So full of fellow travelers (Asians) gwailo (you) will feel like a rabbi at an Arkansas pig roast. Which is as it should be.

Ocha Thai – Old-style Thai the polar opposite of teeny tiny DE down the street (large, big menu, booze) but always satisfying, and the house-made sausages alone are worth the trip.

The Goodwich* – I love the sandwiches here but I wish they were on better bread.

La Comida – Doesn’t have the verve or the consistency it once did. Feels like it’s just going through the motions. I fear I have had my last meal here.

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Raku If Raku were located anywhere but Las Vegas, it would be considered the best izakaya in the country.

White Castle – Because even snooty food critics go slumming once in a while.

Shake Shack – Because it’s better than In-N-Out. Don’t argue with me about this.

In-N-Out Burger – I still love my double-double, but the fries do suck.

Del Taco – The Double Del is one of the great, unsung fast food burgers in America. A guilty pleasure.

POTsEgypt goes vegan, and it’s good….if a bit limited. Have owner Iman explain the name. A charming little addition to our food scene.

Nuro Bistro – The Hainanese rice is even better than the chicken, and the chicken is spectacular. You’d better like chicken, though.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled awesomesauce.

La Cantine – Serious sandwiches in the northwest.

(New York Bagel N Bakery)

New York Bagel N Bakery – Some of you may remember the Montesano family who operated a quality Italian deli on Sahara back in the 90s. I don’t know where they went, but they’re back and they’ve given this sad little bakery a serious upgrade. Everything is baked on premises and the bagels kick the ass of whatever you think is good.

I know what you’re thinking: Did he go to 48 restaurants or 54? Well to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I sorta lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 caliber palate, the most powerful mandibles ever made, and could blow your mealy mouth clean off, you have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Well, do you, punk?