Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

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Big deal dining is back! Big box Chinese makes a splash, Asian eats remain awesome, and some classics never go out of style.

That’s how we’d characterize the DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT AWARDS 2019.

Or as we like to refer to them: “the only restaurant awards that count.”

They’re small in number, but they also mean something — representing sustained excellence that enhances not just their customer’s palates, but the Vegas food/restaurant scene as a whole.

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The text below represents the awards written by yours truly (as I’ve been doing for over 20 years). In the beginning, I was a committee of one (see the ancient artifact above). Now, they are orchestrated by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kiraly and my fellow writers, and year in and year out, they stand for the best Las Vegas has to offer.

(Ed. note: We’d like to take credit for all of the stunning photography below, but most of it has been brazenly lifted/plagiarized/stolen from the brilliant photographer Sabin Orr and Desert Companion magazine.)

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

Veal Chop(Look no further for the world’s best veal chop)

There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining.

Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates.

Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere.

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

Great service should be not too fast, not too friendly and almost invisible. Think of it as the inverse of pornography – you know it when you don’t see it.

A great restaurant operates with the concealed efficiency of a fine-tuned watch, every joint, mechanism and movement dependent upon the other, coiling and uncoiling every second, seamlessly sweeping you through the time spent enjoying your meal. Time spent at Michael Mina has always been a good investment, and one of the reasons is unfailingly great service.

Since 1998 it has held down its corner of the Bellagio as a bastion of seafood and San Francisco-inspired elegance. The food and the decor have always been stars in their own right, but the unsung heroes at work every night are the management and staff, who seat the customers, mix drinks, pour the wines and toss the tartares. Holding them all together is General Manager Jorge Pagani (pictured above with Executive Chef Nick Dugan and Sommelier Kayla Krause), a maestro who performs in the lowest key, quietly charming a steady stream of customers while keeping his troops in shape.

Chefs and sommeliers have come and gone over the years, but Pagani, has been a constant. From the moment you approach the hostess stand until you pay your bill, you sense the quiet hum of a restaurant that is doing everything right. Watching the staff shift from table to table, filleting fish, unveiling pot pies, and carving and mixing is a symphony without music. Michael Mina makes you feel as cosseted and cared for as any restaurant in Las Vegas, and like all real pros, they make it look easy. In fact, you almost don’t see it at all.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

You might be excused for wondering what all the shouting is about when you roll up on Café Breizh for the first time. It sits towards the far end of one of those generic strip malls that are as Las Vegas as slot machines in a grocery store.

But do not be deterred by the surroundings, for once inside you will find the best French pastries in town. The selection is small but the craftsmanship, artistry and intense flavors will grab you from the first bite. There is no better croissant in Vegas, on or off the Strip; the chocolate éclair is so packed with custard it threatens to burst its pastry case, and the picture-perfect tarts do that tri-level taste thing (crusty, creamy, and fruity) that the French perfected around the time the musketeers were buckling their swashes.

Pierre Gatel is the chef, owner and hand-maker of each of these, and from the day he opened three years ago (after a stint at the Wynn), Francophiles, Napoleon nabobs and Danish devotees have made a beeline here for his creations. He also does a limited number of baguettes every day which sell like hotcakes, so go early if you want to grab a loaf and feel like les Français on your way home.

Las Vegas is blessed with a wealth of pastry talent, but most of it stays in the hotels. Now we have one of them staging his magic right on south Fort Apache, in a spot that feels like a slice of Paris, and the alchemy he performs daily with butter, flour, cream and sugar is something to behold.

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

Vetri, if you let it, will take your breath away. The qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizzas and chicken parm are nowhere to be found. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat.  All of it served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian restaurant in America. With this offshoot he has bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems foreign to most people’s Italian vocabulary — casoncelli, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique to Las Vegas and every bite a revelation.

No restaurant enhanced Vegas’s foodie cred more than it did in the past year, and at a time when everyone is announcing the death knell of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big city sass to our scene. You don’t have to dress to the nines to go there, but the food on your plate (and that view) will make you feel like a million bucks. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky.

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

Matthew Hurley(You can’t beat this man’s meat)

In the past few years, it’s become deliciously obvious to us that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding of course, because it is Puck’s gastronomic gravitas that enables Las Vegas to have one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in our backyard.

But calling CUT just another celebrity beef boutique would be a grave injustice, because by flexing his own culinary muscles, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few meat emporiums could ever dream of.  No doubt his creations are highly vetted by his corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he has done with his freedom, and all the top shelf ingredients at his disposal, is stunning.

Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette — toggling back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to pull off a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-beating steaks, and gorgeous pasta, and never miss a beat. The elegant fish cookery alone would be right at home in some hoity-toity French joint, and he and his minions are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi and various Italian carpaccios.

If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a hankering for Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a  CIA graduate like Hurley  (who has been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to sit back, go through the motions, and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into one of the best restaurants in America.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago (after a deluge), many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’s most famous restaurant.

The previous seventeen years had seen the Chutima family (Saipin, Penny, and Sabrina above) build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been called “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for over a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran.

Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s nam prik noom. Instead of being a set-back, the move created a boom. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers and the new digs provided a more fitting backdrop for this award-wining cuisine.

What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please the American palate. Be it khao soi or koi soi these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) Siamese food is known for. (It is a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) This grander stage seems to have caused the whole operation to snap to attention and also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists.

Maybe it was the flood, or the inspiration from a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing seems crisper and more consistent these days. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam, and now, finally, it looks the part.

Click on this link to read about the rest of these worthy recipients from Jim Begley, Mitchell Wilburn, Lissa Townsend Rogers and Greg Thilmont:

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEARDan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá)

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New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

Image(Boffo beef at a bargain)

So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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SUSHI KAME Arrives on Scene

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There are two cuisines we crave after one of our forays to France: Mexican and sushi. So it’s no coincidence we’ve been stuffing our pie hole with tacos and raw fish for the last week.

Good tacos are easier to find (especially downtown), but when it comes to Japanese, the pickings are slimmer. We’re always on the prowl for a place to add to our rotation. (Keep in mind we’re super-picky about the quality of sushi/sashimi we eat, as you should be. If you’re one of those AYCE bargain hunters, stop reading right now, and go check yourself for tapeworms.)

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So imagine our delight when  Sushi Kame (officially called Sushi Kame Omakase & Kaiseki) opened a few months ago at a location that’s not way up near Summerlin (its old home where great food is as rare as good taste).

The new Kame is right on the cusp of Chinatown, on the ground floor of a new condo complex near Valley View. And since it’s now in a neighborhood we like rather than loathe, we stopped in for a few exploratory bites.

What we found was impressive, accessible, and eye-popping — a welcome addition to the Japanese offerings along this increasingly crowded avenue, especially when the seats at Yui and Kabuto are full.

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This Kame is quite an operation. A hostess stand greets you right inside the door, a large, well-stocked bar hugs the left side of the space, while an even larger sushi bar beckons ahead. Plenty of tables line the bifurcated room, and to the far right (behind a dramatic window) lies the kaiseki room (above), where reservation-only omakase meals (starting at $200/pp) are served.

We’re not ready to take that plunge (the size of my restaurant bills from Paris has the Food Gal® contemplating some sort of 12-step gastronomy withdrawal program for me), but what we found at the sushi bar when we let the chefs strut their stuff was most impressive.

Just say omakase, and what you get for $100/pp will blow right past 95% of the neighborhood joints in town.

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Sushi is as much about the rice as it is about the fish, and this was the real deal — soft-yet-firm, perfumed, kernels (possessing both a whiff of vinegar and umami). so perfectly cooked you can count them in your mouth.

I’m not ready to pronounce the knife work the equal of its two rivals, but having a quality alternative to these edomae sushi icons, a mile closer to the Strip (and our house), is a nice problem to have.

SUSHI KAME

3616 W. Spring Mountain Road #103

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.665.5731

For Kaiseki reservations call:

702.771.0122