Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2021

DESERT COMPANION AWARDS 2021

Ed. Note: The Desert Companion Restaurant Awards came out a couple of weeks ago, citing our most worthy eateries for their contributions to our dining out scene in the past year. As there were no awards in 2020, they are slightly expanded this year, with multiple winners in a few categories. Click on this link to read about them in their entirety, or scroll below for the ones yours truly wrote (for the 25th year in a row). Bon appetit and congrats to all the winners!

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR

Gino Ferraro

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You don’t know the truffles Gino has seen

To be a great restaurateur, one must be perpetually in a bad mood, or at least a world class worrywart. Gino Ferraro certainly fits the latter bill, and one suspects he is always seconds away from the former – continually bracing himself against some imminent operatic tragedy about to befall his restaurant, be it a service misstep, or anything he doesn’t think is up to snuff. This is not to say he is never happy. To see him touching every table, decanting an aged Barolo, or advising customers what to order, is to see a professional at the top of his game, albeit one who knows how vigilant he must be to stay there.

Like all Italians, his passion for food and wine runs deep. What began as a wholesale/importing business in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, quickly became a tiny trattoria/retail store on West Sahara, then a full-blown Italian ristorante, replete with wine and piano bars, then to its current digs on Paradise Road, where he and his family have flourished since 2009. Three versions of the same restaurant in thirty-five years, each one bigger and better than the last, is a feat almost unheard of in this industry. Ferraro’s has always been classic without being stuffy and old school without being hidebound, with a formula based upon hospitality first, and a menu of old favorites (a legendary osso buco) and Italian standards (a simply perfect spaghetti alio e olio), along with lighter fare (a gorgeous Caprese salad), guaranteed to satisfy the old guard and adventuresome gastronomes alike.

To pull off this feat for a decade takes the soul of an entrepreneur, the stamina of a bricklayer and the discipline of a drill sergeant. That Gino and his family – aided by wife Rosalba and chef/son Mimmo – have kept Ferraro’s at this level of excellence, never losing a step, and surviving the rigors of Covid, is a feat as impressive as his world-beating wine list. Come any night and you’ll see Gino on the prowl, eagle-eyed, surveying his guests like a paterfamilias looking after his flock. Look a little closer and you’ll see a twinkle in those worried eyes – a sense of satisfaction from knowing he and his staff have done all they can, since 1985, to ensure your happiness.

HIDDEN GEM OF THE YEAR

Saga Pastries + Sandwich

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Scandinavia and Las Vegas have as much in common as pickled herring and high-stakes poker. To be blunt: the words “eat like a Viking,” do not exactly roll tripping-ly off the tongue when it’s 110 degrees outside.  But there are enough Norsemen in town (and lovers of all things Nordic) to keep  this sleek and gleaming breakfast/lunch spot on Eastern Avenue humming with a steady stream of regulars — folks who lust for Swedish waffles, insanely good “Danish Dogs” (Denmark’s unique contribution to the tube steak ouevre), and what may be the most unique sandwiches in Vegas. Those waffles come either flat or folded, stuffed with savory fillings, or dripping with berries and sour cream. One bite and you’ll see why chef/owner Gert Kvalsund proudly displays his “best waffle” accolades, and has pretty much retired the award. He also does classic pancakes, various pastries, and good Lavazza coffee, but what keeps us returning are his Saga Smørbrød: open-faced sandwiches overflowing with your choice of lightly-cured ham, salmon and/or the sweetest Arctic shrimp you’ll ever taste. (First timers should try all three.) No matter the season, they’ll fuel you for whatever conquering and pillaging comes to mind.

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Shrimply delicious

NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

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Like Italy and Mexico, the cuisine of Greece is a victim of its own cliches. If you ask most Americans to define a Greek restaurant, they will describe a sea blue and white room, reeking of garlic and bouzouki music (including “Never on Sunday” played at least four times an hour), along with boring gyros, wet cardboard souvlaki, and baklava so dense it could be used as a doorstop. Elia challenged all those tired tropes when it opened a few years ago, and in doing so, immediately became our best Greek restaurant,  right down to the indecipherable Greek lettering and unpronounceable names on the menu. (Not to worry – translations are provided.)

The aim is to make you feel like you’re on a side street in Athens, sipping Retsina and eating at a local taverna, and boy did it hit its mark. Right from the jump, customers responded to the straightforward cooking, even as it was served in a modest, tiny space on south Durango. Then, when everyone else was simply trying to survive 2020, owners Savvas Georgiadis, Alexadros Gkikas, and Keti Haliasos made a bold move to a larger location, tucked into a corner of west Sahara, and never missed a beat. If anything, the new digs, complete with bar and outdoor patio, have given their cooking a larger stage — serving fresh roasted lamb, salt-baked fish, fried zucchini chips, and spicy tyrokafteri (cheese dip) to fellow Greek-Americans, and others eager to learn what a proper mezze platter and galatoboureko taste like.

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Go Greek and go fish

Thus has Elia become a taverna to call our own (and practically a club for the local Greek-American community), but also an education in how real Greeks eat (more fish and veggies, less pita bread and chickpeas). Las Vegas has taken to these lessons like an octopus to sea water. There is nothing by-the-numbers here; it is cooking from the heart, by Greeks eager to share their country’s food and wine. “Authentic” may be an overused (or frowned upon) word in some food circles these days, but this is the real Greek deal, and Elia wears its name like a point of Hellenic pride.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR

Florent Cheveau, Burgundy French Bakery Café 

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A chef you knead to know

You might be sensing a theme with many of these awards: people who have survived and thrived through the worst economy for restaurants in over a decade. If necessity is the mother of invention, then this pandemic has surely been the genesis of revolution — specifically a gastronomic uprising — affording major kitchen talent a chance to strut their stuff in the suburbs. Lovers of French pastries could not have been happier when seemingly out of nowhere,  Florent Cheveau (former MGM executive pastry chef and World Chocolate Master), opened the Burgundy French Bakery Cafe on West Sahara early this year, at a time when the prospects for success looked as sunken as a fallen souffle.

Taking over a fast food smoothie space across from the Village Theaters, his timing turned out to be as perfect as his croissants. People were hungry for handmade food, and anyone who bit into one of his macarons or cinnamon roll knew they were in the presence of something special. These were baked goods on par with the best restaurants in the toniest hotels, and here they were, for taking home or eating in, seven days a week. His savory quiches, croque Monsieur, and sandwiches are just as compelling as his sweets, but what keeps us coming back is a mille-feuille (“thousand layers”) of incomparable buttery-lightness, woven into breakfast pastries that take us straight back to Paris


STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

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You can’t beat this meat

When he isn’t out saving the world, José Andrés oversees a galaxy of restaurants that are the envy of every chef in America. He is more of a philanthropist than a working chef these days, but his ThinkFood Group has been running four gorgeous eateries in Las Vegas for over a decade, and their excellence continues to impress, from the molecular (‘e’ by Jose Andres), to tapas (Jaleo), to the Mexican-Chinese mashup that is China Poblano.

As good as each of these are, the one restaurant that is sui generis and without peer is Bazaar Meat. It is all about meat, of course, but also a tour de force of Iberian cuisine — from the wacky (foie gras cotton candy) to the sassy (chicken croquetas served in a shoe) to the substantial (haunches of some of the best beef on the planet). Calling it a steak house doesn’t do it justice, since you can compose a meal here any number of ways — from completely vegetarian to nothing but raw fish — and it is the go-to place in Vegas for all those iterations of Spanish pork.

Spaniards know ham like a Korean knows cabbage, and here you can indulge all your cured meat fantasies like nowhere else. Covid put a crimp in this restaurant’s style as it did all up and down the Strip, but Bazaar’s bounce-back has been impressive. Even when lay-offs were everywhere and everyone was struggling with seating restrictions, José’s showplace soldiered on and thrived in its back corner of the Sahara hotel, enduring more hardship than any gastronomic restaurant deserves, much less one that is easily one of the top ten steakhouses in the country. (Who knows what records it could set if its constantly-in-flux hotel ever gets its act together.)

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Candace Ochoa is en fuego

But Bazaar Meat is more than a steakhouse: it is also a wine bar, a ham bar, and a raw bar all under one roof. It announces its brilliance from your first look at the meat locker (behind a wood-fired grill the size of a small truck), and keeps the magnificence going from one course after the next The menu is shorter than it was two years ago, and the wine list is now two pages long, not twenty, but the precise cooking (now headed by veteran executive chef Candace Ochoa), impeccable service and super-sharp management remain intact. Like the entire Strip, Bazaar Meat has weathered quite a storm, and still operates in choppy seas, but through it all, José has kept his Spanish flag flying high.

HALL OF FAME AWARD

Restaurant Guy Savoy

Guy Savoy Fine Dining Las Vegas
Haute dining on a whole different level

Since opening in May, 2006, Guy Savoy’s straight-from-Paris masterpiece, has loomed like a chapel of fine dining over the Las Vegas Strip. Its splendor announces itself from the huge double doors that greet you at the entrance, leading to a dining room with a ceiling reaching even higher, resulting in muted conversations and hushed tones meant to show proper respect to the surroundings and not give offense to the food. The cathedral metaphor is apt since the French treat their cuisine as a religion, and their greatest restaurants (even in offshoot form) are temples of the culinary arts. There are only a handful of restaurants in America where reverential attention is paid to what’s on the plate, and Restaurant Guy Savoy, in Caesars Palace, is one of them.

What Guy Savoy meant to our dining scene cannot be overstated: When he arrived with his brigade de cuisine fifteen years ago, it confirmed Las Vegas stature as a world-class dining destination, one that even the supercilious French had brought to their bosom. In planting his flag here, he, along with compatriots Joël Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire (two other titans of gastronomy), recognized our tourist industry as an eager market for their impeccable cooking, with a restaurant scene (and talent) on par with much larger cities with much deeper culinary traditions. Even if you have never eaten here or can’t imagine doing so, having the world’s best in our own backyard created a climate of excellence that raised everyone’s eyebrows and standards.

The significance of their arrival was felt for over a decade. International acclaim, national media, food festivals, awards, and other world-renowned chefs followed. Suddenly, people from all over the world were coming here just to eat, and our very own French Revolution from 2005-2009 was the reason for it. Savoy’s influence has been unmistakable, but what garners him Hall of Fame status is doing it so well for so long. Through the Great Recession and now a pandemic, this dining room has never faltered, turning out food very close to what you will find in France, albeit without the cost of a round-trip plane ticket. When everyone was still on their heels from shutdowns in mid-2020, Caesars Palace made the bold move to reopen this dining room, and was rewarded with an avalanche of reservations — pent-up demand for one of Las Vegas’s most expensive meals — cooking that sets a world standard, the ultimate haute cuisine experience, from one of the world’s greatest chefs — proving how important this restaurant has been, and will continue to be, to Las Vegas’s culinary reputation.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Cipriani

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Cipriani is neither new nor cutting edge nor unique to Las Vegas. Nevertheless, it represents something very special to our restaurant scene: an outpost of a luxury brand displaying a style of dining that seemed in danger of extinction just a few years ago. In an era overrun with casual gastropubs, a retro-chic restaurant trading in classic Venetian recipes might have seemed as out of place as Dolce & Gabbana at a beer bash. But open it did, in late 2018, appealing to locals and tourists alike looking for something more refined than formulaic Italian. Then Covid hit, and Cipriani (pronuounced CHEEP-ree-ah-nee), became more than just a restaurant — it was a lifeboat and a beacon to all seeking a good meal on the Strip —  a lunch and dinner stalwart, open every day, keeping hopes alive that Las Vegas might yet return to its former glory.

For a restaurant tracing its origins to 1931, the cuisine is remarkably timeless: simple, sophisticated northern fare with nary a garlic clove in sight. In place of tomato sauce and cheese you get refinement: top-shelf salumi, carpaccio (invented by founder Giuseppe Cipriani in 1933), spoon-tender baby artichokes, baked tagliolini with ham, and pastas in celebration of rich noodles, not in disguise of them. The unsung heroes of the menu are the meats (including the elusive fegato alla Veneziana – a liver dish so coveted by organ eaters it is almost mythical), pizzas (expensive but worth it), and vanilla gelato so good it ought to come with a warning label: “in case of addiction, don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

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Tiramisu

And then there is the service: snappy barkeeps (always ready with a Bellini), crackerjack waiters, and sharply-dressed managers, all at the top of their game. The staff does everything from cosseting celebrities (yes, that was Jay-Z and Beyoncé making an entrance) to boning fish, dividing up desserts, and speaking multiple languages (the Cipriani brand is huge with international gastronomes).  Here it all flows effortlessly — old school attentiveness, done with understated flair in synchronicity with the posh surroundings.

More than anything else, this ristorante signifies a return to a time when atmosphere and elegance went knife and fork with good food. When classic cooking was the rule, and meals were something to be celebrated with family and friends in high style. Everything old is new again, the saying goes, and Cipriani is taking us back to the future with the most stylish Italian in town.

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Vincenzo il Grande

The Final List – 2020

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A man cannot be too serious about what he eats. – Confucius

I can’t stand people who aren’t serious about their meals. – Oscar Wilde

We’ve spent the past week quizzing friends (many of whom we’ve dined with over the past year) about how many restaurants they thought we had been to during the pandemic. Some guessed as few as 5; most hovered in the 20-30 range; while a few put the number at around 50.

It was amusing to point out to them how wrong they were.

Care to guess?

Consider this before you do: A popular notion now holds that you have to do something 10,000 times before you get really good at it — be it hitting a baseball, knitting, or playing chess. When it comes to eating out, I eclipsed that number twenty years ago. Now, it’s too many to count. Even in an off year, I accumulated restaurants like some people do bad habits.

Image(Tempura lunch at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Yes, even in this down year (the understatement of the century), the number — according to my records (receipts, social media postings and such) — was almost 100 (96 to be precise), and I’m probably missing a few.

Many of them were visited more than once. Cipriani I probably went to 25 times; Esther’s Kitchen a dozen; Guy Savoy twice; and Kaiseki Yuzu at least 5. We finally got back to an old Mexican friend in the northeast (Los Molecajetes), discovered a great wine program in an old haunt (Grape Vine), and gained new-found respect for some superior Italian seafood (Costa di Mare).

We have mourned the death of our great frog ponds (Robuchon, Gagnaire), swelled with pride at the resilience of Chinatown, and marveled at the resurgence of downtown.

Through it all we’ve been battling the soul-crushing weight of America’s obsession with Covid. With that obsession has come wave after wave of regulations, each a cruel blow to small business owners, none more ravaged than the hospitality industry.

The irony of Covid hitting right when America’s participation in eating out was at an all time high is not lost on us — a “market correction” which was neither inevitable nor necessary. Restaurant-going was not a stock market/real estate bubble. It was an enjoyable human activity from which everyone profited.

And then we killed it, or at least let it be killed — ruining the lives of many in service of the few.

But the Curtas household couldn’t/wouldn’t let groupthink take over our lives. We certainly didn’t let it prevent us from supporting the restaurants of Las Vegas which we hold so dear.

I don’t bother with mediocrity anymore. I’ll leave exploration of the obscure to the intrepid, and of the absurd to Instagram influencers. What goes into my pie hole is the best food Las Vegas has to offer. So it has been for thirty years, and so it was over the past 12 months.

As usual, all places are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted. Our restaurant bills this year would choke a horse, but was money well spent and I’m proud to have spent it. You should consider parting with some of yours at one of these as soon as possible:

Image(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)

THE LIST 2020

  1. Barry’s Downtown Prime – 2 visits down, 1 to go before we take the measure of this new entry in Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks.
  2. Yui Edomae Sushi – still gets our nod over Kabuto by the thickness of a piece of gari.
  3. Kaiseki Yuzu – a little slice of Tokyo for those who appreciate the real deal.
  4. Letty’s – best tacos downtown. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.
  5. Good Pie – new digs are impressive…now all they need is the right to use them.
  6. The Black Sheep – another joint we don’t get to enough…because there’s only one of us to go around.
  7. Kabuto – exquisite sushi. Some prefer it to Yui; we think it’s a toss-up.
  8. 7th & Carson – haven’t been in a while but thankful for them feeding us for months during the shutdown.
  9. Carson Kitchen – new menu = renewed vigor for a downtown pioneer.Image(Esther’s is re-intenting itself)
  10. Esther’s Kitchen – we go for the pasta, head for a tent (above), and stay for the wine.
  11. Grape Vine – improved food – better than it was under the old ownership (Grape Street) – the wine program worth a trip all by itself.
  12. PublicUs – saved our bacon during the darkest days of the Covid shutdown.
  13. Los Molecajetes – so good, so far from where most gringos prefer to tread.Image(Chip chip hooray! For Sin Fronteras salsas!)
  14. Sin Fronteras Tacos – northwest Mexican worth a trip from any part of town.
  15. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna – new digs (and an expanded menu) have us more excited than Zorba at a lamb roast.Pin en Other Oldish Films
  16. Yummy Rice – The Food Gal’s® says the unagi rice bowl here is eely, eely good.
  17. Pop Up Pizza – still fave; still under-appreciated.Image(“Blueberries” at Guy Savoy)
  18. Restaurant Guy Savoy – I go here as often as my wallet and waistline will let me.
  19. Rao’s – surprisingly delicious no matter how depressing the Strip gets.
  20. Elio – remarkable, inventive, elevated Mexican, but will it make it?

  21. Ferraro’s – closed until February at the earliest (sigh).Image(Prosciutto & figs at Osteria Fiorella)
  22. Osteria Fiorella – started as a pop-up, now firmly ensconced at Red Rock; a hit from day one.
  23. Saga Pastry + Sandwich – the only thing wrong with this place is it’s too far from my house.Image(Pithivier at Partage)
  24. Partage – only went once this year and it was spectacular.
  25. Jaleo – no one does Spain better than a man named José.
  26. Capital Grille – our old reliable; also our best chain steakhouse.
  27. Pizzeria Monzu – there ought to be a line out the door for this food.Image(Dat sum dim sum)
  28. New Asian BBQ – best dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.
  29. Aloha Specialties – I like this place for a white-on-white bite (like Kahlua pig with rice and mac); The Food Gal® loathes it.
  30. Costa di Mare – so good, still stunningly beautiful. The pastas are as great as the fish, which is really saying something.
  31. Weera Thai Kitchen – one of many superb Thai restaurants in Vegas now. We’re really spoiled when it comes to our Asian alimentation. Only LA sports a better array. Image
  32. Toridokoro Raku – stunningly good chicken parts, as only the Japanese can do them.
  33. Raku – Japanese food doesn’t get any better, anywhere but Japan.
  34. Hiroyoshi – it’s so small that capacity restrictions are laughable. Beautiful, finely-wrought Japanese food, less expensive than the sushi heavyweights on Spring Mountain Road.
  35. Bazaar Meat – haven’t been in a while; always drop a bundle when I do.
  36. 8oz Korean Steakhouse – for the Korean steak lover in you. The best of the bunch.
  37. Lamaii – holding on, like a lot of its brethren. Fabulous wine list; inflammatory Thai.
  38. The Real Crepe – galettes, crepes, and a slice of Brittany on the cusp of Summerlin.
  39. La Maison de Maggie – essential when you need a French fix.
  40. Delices Gourmands – they do the most with the yeast here. Bread so fine it will have you Loave-ing Las Vegas.
  41. Rosallie Cafe – as crumby as they come when it comes to baking your day. Don’t get me tarted.
  42. Cafe Breizh – always gets a rise out of us, especially when we’re leaven beyond our means. With Pierre Gatel’s creations, we’re never bun and done. He’s always up to his baguette of tricks, and it’s usually a give and cake proposition, guaranteed to have us leaving in a glaze of glory. Think of it as cream and punishment.
  43. Japaneiro – Kevin Chong was our first post-shutdown dinner. Still the best steak in the ‘burbs.
  44. Khoury’s Mediterranean – every time we eat here I kick myself for not eating here more often.
  45. Weiss Restaurant Deli – good, but not as good as….
  46. Saginaw’s – the best deli sandwiches in town, which, sadly, isn’t saying much…about our town, not the sandwiches.Image
  47. Cipriani – I’ll see you there for lunch this Friday…and almost every Friday.
  48. Ocha Thai – downtown’s most reliable Thai.
  49. DE Thai – downtown’s most convenient Thai, now with a second location!
  50. China Mama – noodles, dumplings, cumin lamb and crispy beef to die for.
  51. Edo Tapas & Wine – now open every weeknight and killing it.
  52. Ohlala French Bistro – if it were in my ‘hood, I’d be here once a week.
  53. Rooster Boy Cafe – ditto.
  54. CUT by Wolfgang Puck –  1-2 with Bazaar Meat when it comes to beef emporium hegemony.
  55. ‘e’ by José Andrés – amazingly, re-opened this fall and is still a tough ticket.Image(2020 drove us to drink…a lot)
  56. Delmonico Steakhouse – now a senior sirloin statesman, still a superb one.
  57. Matteo’s Ristorante – superb pasta, perhaps the best on the Strip. Right now I can’t think of any better.
  58. Yum CHA – our go-to for dim sum in the southwest.
  59. Soyo Korean Restaurant – we go with our Korean friends so they can explain everything to us — one umami bomb after another.
  60. Majordomo Steakhouse – Vegas’s most interesting steakhouse; see, I said something nice about David Chang.
  61. Estiatorio Milos – closed at Cosmo, set to re-open in February in the Venetian. We wish them luck. They’ll need it.Image(Kinnara Thai)
  62. Serrano’s Mexican – nice neighborhood standby.
  63. Marché Bacchus – still the most romantic spot in town. Rosé all day? Better off red? Experiencing growing champagnes? Drawing a blanc? Wine not dine here?
  64. New York Bagel N Bakery – best bagels in town.
  65. Every Grain Sheridan Su can still score.
  66. La Strega – too far from Chez Curtas but mighty tasty.
  67. Trés Cazuelas – difficult location, great food.
  68. Players Locker by Wolfgang Puck – an under-the-radar gem.
  69. Locale – also too far from civilization, but we wish them luck.
  70. Kinnara Thai – eye-popping Thai in an unlikely location.Image(Roll with it)
  71. Cafe Mong – I didn’t think I’d love a rolled crepe (above). Boy how wrong I was.
  72. Bajamar Fish Tacos – good tacos but the bums at the front door drove us away, for good.
  73. Sin City Smokers – love their pulled pork…and the ribs.
  74. Big B’s Texas BBQ – love their brisket…and the sides
  75. The Goodwich – under new ownership. Not a good sign, especially in this climate.
  76. L&L Hawaiian BBQ – strictly for the loco moco lover in you.
  77. Magal Korean BBQ – open for lunch, so we go for the bibimbap at lunch. 
  78. 8East – remarkable Asian fusion, tucked in an obscure corner of an empty hotel (for now).
  79. Victory Burger – big burgers, good beef, slightly overdone.Image(A happy Chutima clan means a well-fed Las Vegas)
  80. Lotus of Siam – both locations now reopened (see smiling Chutimas above)!
  81. Spago – not the superstar it once was, but still in the game.
  82. ShangHai Taste – superb dumplings and other things to numb your tongue.
  83. Pho So 1 – our old Vietnamese reliable.
  84. Shang Artisan Noodle – with Covid restrictions, can only seat a comically small # of people. Image
  85. Oscar’s Steakhouse – sometime this year, we’ll do an Oscar’s v. Barry’s downtown throwdown. You’ll be able to read about it here.
  86. Oodle Noodle – Udon’t need to look any further for your wheat starch noodle fix.
  87. Kung Fu Thai & Chinese – I had a Covid fever dream that when every other restaurant in Las Vegas has closed, Kung Fu (since 1973) will still be slinging yen ta fo and cashew chicken to its loyal customers. God bless them, every one.
  88.  Mg Patisserie – Crust in case, dough yourself a favor, and don’t be a hothouse flour. You’ll only make batters worse by not rolling in here when you knead to.
  89. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – What’s going on in the Arts District right now is like a little foodie X-mas present for all of Las Vegas: three new restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, have opened in the last three weeks. This gorgeous little bento box is the hidden gem of the bunch.

Image(Oysters w/ ponzu and chives)

Also Visited This Year but Closed for Good

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Santos Guisdados Tacos

Mordeo Wine Bar

Flock & Fowl

Hall of Shame

Eiffel Tower – went here on my birthday. Two bites in I regretted it. Never again, even if it reopens.

Mon Ami Gabi – when management will treat yours truly as a pigeon to be plucked, you know they have no shame. “Keep your hand on your wallet,” as my dad used to say. You have been warned.

Final one to visit before the end of 2020…

97. Main Street Provisions – looking forward to trying it as soon as their shakedown cruise ends.

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Someone recently asked me why I go to so many restaurants. I answered by saying I’ve become the (un)official, upaid publicist for about 60 of them.

It is a role I will gladly embrace until we retire all this restricted dining nonsense…and I can get back to the role I’m best know for: being a lovable curmudgeon.

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The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)