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 List 2021 – Vegas on the Rebound

Image(A toast to sanity restored!)

These are the times that try men’s appetites.

And by “try men’s appetites” I mean tempt them unmercifully.

After the trying times of 2020, it seems like nothing but sunshine and rainbows in our culinary world these days. With venue after venue opening (or reopening) to eager mouths and hungry souls.

Downtown is exploding (in a good way), the Strip is awakening like a slumbering giant (or an unstuck freighter?), and the ‘burbs are getting better than ever. Even Tivoli Village has become a destination.

Circa has pumped new life into Fremont Street; Oscar’s now serves the best cheeseburger in town, and we’ve even found a brunch we don’t hate. (High praise indeed!)

For grins and giggles we’ve decided this year to officially keep count of every restaurant in which we eat. In years past we never kept a running total, but generally we averaged around 500/year…for 20+ years.

Covid put an end to that streak — turning us into a soporific shell of our former self.  A somnambulant supper slacker, if you will.

But things have turned around in a big way: It took us all of 2020 to make it to 100 restaurants. This year we did it in a little more than three months.

These are thumbnails of where we’ve been, and why we think you should go there. They are mere sketches, pithy positive platitudes of pontification for your palate’s pleasure, and probably as paired down and word-penurious as our prolific personality can parse.

In other words, they’re short and upbeat and we’ve tried to keep the negativity in check.

And like we at #BeingJohnCurtas always say: you get what you pay for on this website.

So, without further ado, here it is….

THE LIST 2021

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Bazaar Meat

Image(Meat me at Bazaar)

It’s been almost a decade since I steaked out the great meat emporiums of the Big Apple, but I’d bet my sweet tenderloin none of them can hold a candle to this pinnacle of prime.

Cipriani

Image(Or as I call it: Friday)

Almost every Friday you’ll find me here at lunch. When someone else puts out a midday repast this elegant, you’ll find me there, too.

Costa di Mare

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As stunning as ever. As expensive as ever. Our splashiest seafood venue is worth a splurge, so don’t complain about the soaking. (You get what you pay for, and ingredients this good, and cooking this precise, are both trés chere. Ivo Angelov, Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos have this place tuned tauter than the mizzenmast on a ship-of-the-line.

CUT

There are two great steakhouses in Las Vegas and this is one of them. The quality of the meat between CUT and Bazaar is a toss-up (although they source their beef from different purveyors with different philosophies), but on any given night I’d give CUT the edge for the restless inventiveness of Matthew Hurley’s cooking.

Edge Steakhouse

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A real sleeper in the Westgate Hotel. Neither the hotel nor the Yelper clientele quite seem aware of just how great Steve Young’s food is, but if I were forced to rate Vegas steakhouses right now, it would be a strong #3.

Estiatorio Milos

The best Greek restaurant in Las Vegas that isn’t Elia Authentic Greek Taverna. Simply incredible seafood in a stunning new location.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Itadakimasu, Kaoru-san and Mayumi-san.)

Japanese food so authentic you’ll want to start acting like Toshiro Mifune.

Oscar’s Steakhouse –

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(Umani bombs away!)

Ben Jenkins has this place on a roll. His double-cheeseburger (above) belongs on a pedestal of prime.

Raku –

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Image(Hokkaido uni)

Still the best izakaya in the West. Fight me.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Ada’s Wine Bar –

Image(Shrimply the toast of the town)

Eclectic list; small menu; fabulous food  by Jackson Stamper; al fresco setting. So good I’ll even brave the depressing empty-ugliness of Tivoli Village to go there.

Big Dan’s Chinese Noodles –

Image(Long noodles = long life)

Inside the SF Market on Spring Mountain Road are Biangbiang noodles so good they’ll scare the Shaanxi into you.

Barry’s Prime Steakhouse –

Barry’s will forever be a war with itself over whether it wants to be a serious steakhouse or a hangout for the rich and beautiful. Celebrities and good food go together like hockey and high tea, but if that’s the way they want to market themselves, who am I to argue?

Burgundy Cafe & Bakery –

Image(Missing: a mime)

Our French bakery scene is starting to resemble the Left Bank. To Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands, and the newly opened Le Cafe Du Vegas, you can add this gem on West Sahara, built from the floor boards to the mille feuille by Chef Florent Cheveau. Straight outta Paris it is, with pastries so Parisian they ought to come with a mime and an organ grinder.

D’Agostino’s –

Donny Thompson’s makeover of Cafe Chloe is still in mid-stream — waiting for the old regulars to either die off or seek their pre-chewed pasta at some other insipid Italian. There’s lots to love here (Tablecloths! Better wines! True Bolognese!), but also some red sauce holdovers on the menu which are best forgotten. Let Brandi guide you and you’ll eat damn well…especially if you start with the antipasto salad.

8East –

Image(We’re very picanha about our steaks)

Fremont Street’s most fascinating food. Asian-fusion filtered through Dan Coughlin’s American-Thai sensibilities. Open for lunch and dinner. So good it ought to be featured on the Circa Hotel marquee. Get the appetizers — all of them — and that picanha steak (above). On second thought, get the whole menu…except the lobster fried rice. It’s good but not worth the tariff.

Good Pie –

Too many pizzas! That’s what I complain to Vincent Rotolo about: his menu is too damn big. Too many toppings. Too many crusts. Too many options. On the other hand, we have yet to have a bad bite here so I should probably just keep my (pizza) pie hole shut.

Johnny C’s Diner –

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A real, old-fashioned diner, tweaked with just enough cheffy accents to keep the snobs satisfied. Avocado toast may be to savories what cupcakes are to sweets, but Johnny Church’s version is to others what a symphony is to a square dance.

Letty’s –

Image(Toasted Oaxacan cheese-wrapped quesataco at Letty’s)

The best tacos downtown. Don’t even think of arguing with me about this.

Main Street Provisions –

Image(Wagyu eating anywhere but Main Street Provisions?)

They took the ham steak off the menu, and for this I can never forgive them. But they kept the polenta hummus, gonzo babaganoush, the fry bread and the best veggies this side of Sparrow + Wolf, so all is forgiven. P.S. We love the short wine list and the cocktails too.

Osteria Fiorella –

Three previous Italians in this space have all fallen flatter than stale focaccia. Marc Vetri’s troops made it a raging success right out of the chute. I actually enjoyed my brunch there, even if the whole time I was dreaming about dinner.

Pizza Forte –

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Mimmo Ferraro is casting pearls before swine by bringing legitimate, big city pizza to unworthy college kids at UNLV who probably think Little Caesars is an upgrade from Domino’s. They won’t appreciate his cheesy, crusty, New York-inspired pies. But we do, Mimmo, we do.

Rainbow Kitchen –

Image(Dungeness love crab?)

Holy har gow, Batman! The dim sum here is spectacular! And a dumpling or three above its competition. This place had the misfortune to open one month before Covid hit (late January last year), and had been limping along since last summer. Now that restrictions have loosened, it has become Number 1 on every shu mai researcher’s list. A well-heeled Chinese clientele has taken to it like hoisin to spare ribs. Killer deals on Dungeness crabs (above) and lobsters, too. Very Cantonese, but also quite welcoming to gwailo. No carts, you order off a menu, much as you do in the nicer dim sum palaces of Hong Kong. “All of our food stays fresher that way,” says owner Bill Chiang, and he’s right.

Robata En –

Ramir de Castro returns! Bringing his unique brand of Japanese fusion to Spring Mountain Road. Like many of the newbies on this list, he’s had a brutal go of it for the past year, waiting to open, then opening with all kinds of restrictions. If you liked him at Yonaka (where he first made his mark), you’ll love his updated takes on tsukune, kaarage and such. I was always puzzled about why Yonaka threw in the towel after an awesome start, loyal fan base, and plenty of publicity, but whatever the reason, he’s back and Chinatown is richer for it.

Saginaw’s –

Image(Better than…?)

Sex is great, but have you tried “Derek’s Favorite” roast beef and salami sandwich?

YUGA KOREAN –

A pleasant surprise right next door to the Village Theaters on West Sahara. Friendly service. Easy to love Korean ‘cue.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi –

Is it top-drawer, drop-your-chopsticks sushi of the Kame, YUI, or Kabuto persuasion? No, but it’s a damn site better than most neighborhood spots, with some interesting sakes and Japanese beers.

OLD RELIABLES

China Mama –

Image(The Mamas of China Mama)

Our best Chinese restaurant. Period.

DE Thai Kitchen –

Small but mighty. Small but incendiary menu. The Kua Gling (spicy southern Thai dry curry) separates the men from the boys in the Thai spice brigade.

E-jo Korean –

Image(E-jo banchan, I say, before I do.)

It had been ages since we ate here. One of the first Korean restaurant locations in town that’s still going strong. (Back in the day, there were several in Commercial Center, but all have gone to that great banchan in the sky.) Modest but satisfying, and filled with fellow Korean travelers chattering away in their native tongue the day we visited.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna –

Jammed every night it’s open, with good reason. Beautiful Greek food even my yia yia would approve of.

Ferraro’s –

Former Chef of the Year Francesco di Caudo was a Covid casualty — which tells me means they’re going back to basics at our oldest and best Italian. But the basics here have always been solid, and the wine list remains an Ital oenophile’s dream come true — now with some beautiful discounts on some of its best bottles.

Kung Fu Thai-Chinese –

There is something delightfully old school about this institution on Valley View at Spring Mountain Road. Most of it is standard issue, but sometimes a body just wants to getta big dish of beef chow mein.

Los Antojos –

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Image(Tacos, tacos, y mas tacos!)

Hadn’t been in almost a decade, even though it was in the early editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurant (Max Jacobson was a huge fan). I was alone. Ordered a couple of things. Sat down. Removed the mask; fiddled with the phone. Within minutes the manager came over, dropped his mask to reveal and ear-to-ear grin and shook my hand. Then he pointed to various notices, articles, and awards on the wall (from Saveur magazine to Food Network) and thanked me for all the national recognition they received after our first book came out in 2010. Made my fucking day. P.S. The food is still great (as it has been since 1995), at this ultimate Mexican hole-in-the-wall.

Nakamura-Ya –

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni linguine)

Japan goes Italian with some creamy, seafood-packed pastas. The real deal that’s also a real deal.

Ohlala French Bistro –

French resilience should never be underestimated. Another mainstay that came through Covid smelling like a rosé.

Orchid’s Garden –

Not the best dim sum by a long shot, but a lot better than it used to be.

Partage –

The Three Musketeers — Vincent, Yuri and Nicolas — have created a following for all things French….in the middle of Chinatown. Their new wine store venture — French Cellar by Partage — has quickly become the in-spot for Burgundian imbibing.  Incroyable!

PublicUs –

This place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

The Black Sheep –

Jamie Tran is on this season’s Top Chef. Go Jamie Go! And go you should to hear neighborhood powerhouse that’s soon to be one tough ticket, until she expands, which we hope happens soon.

7th & Carson –

The Irish breakfast is worth a trip all by itself.

Sparrow + Wolf –

Image(Endless pastabilities)

Brian Howard’s seasonal menus are things of beauty. Blink and you’ll miss them. Therefore, we suggest you hit S+W seasonally, if not more often, if you want to thoroughly examine what our most restless chef is rustling up.

Windy City Dogs –

A thing of beauty.

The Italian beef didn’t wow us; the Chicago dogs did.

Yi Mei Champion Deli –

Weird Taiwanese spot tucked deep into a Spring Mountain strip mall. No one speaks much English, service is spotty, decor is mid-century-someone’s-warehouse, but some of the soups will save you a ticket to Taipei.

JURY STILL OUT

Flock & Fowl –

Will be changing its name and concept soon. Good bar food is tough to find, and better-than-average bar vittles is what they’ll be shooting for here. We’re rooting for it.

Milpa

Image(Everything but the location bowls me over)

Beautiful, fresh-ground tortillas, nice tacos, local sourcing, and hard-working chefs with a great idea in the wrong place.

Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ –

Good ‘cue. Terrible location. We shall see.

NEVER AGAIN

Hugo’s Cellar –

Read this and weep.

Mint Indian Bistro –

Vegas once boasted a host of outstanding Indian eats….or at least a half-dozen addresses of acceptable sub-continent alimentation. What the hell happened?


That’ll do it for the first quarter of the year. As bullish as we are about Vegas’s restaurant future, it won’t truly be “back” until the great Strip dining palaces are open more than 3 nights a week. Fingers are crossed; breath is being held.

In the meantime, find someone who covers more territory than I do, and I’ll buy them dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy.

If you’re interested, here are the restaurant meals I’ve had since January 1st of this year, in order:

  1. Jack Pots – Circa
  2. Cipriani
  3. Saginaw’s
  4. D’Agostino’s
  5. PublicUs
  6. Vegas Test Kitchen
  7. Cipriani
  8. The Tap House
  9. DE Thai Kitchen
  10. PublicUs
  11. Hugo’s Cellar
  12. Cornish Pasty
  13. Goodwich
  14. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  15. Cipriani
  16. Orchid’s Garden
  17. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  18. Hamilton’s – Winter Park, Florida
  19. Boca – Winter Park, Florida
  20. Croissant Gourmet – Winter Park, Florida
  21. Bosphorous Turkish – Winter Park, Florida
  22. Rocco’s – Winter Park, Florida
  23. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  24. FARM – Bluffton, South Carolina
  25. Skylight Inn – Ayden, South Carolina
  26. Sam Jones BBQ – Ayden, South Carolina
  27. Rodney Scott BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  28. Lewis BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  29. Waffle House – Somewhere in Georgia (Birthday Breakfast!) Image
  30. China Mama
  31. Main Street Provisions
  32. Cipriani
  33. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  34. Yi Mei Champion Deli
  35. Kaiseki Yuzu
  36. E-jo Korean
  37. Ferraro’s
  38. Robata En
  39. Cipriani
  40. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  41. Barry’s Prime
  42. Cipriani
  43. Johnny C’s Diner
  44. Good Pie
  45. Good Pie
  46. Cipriani
  47. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  48. YUGA Korean BBQ
  49. Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ
  50. 8East
  51. 7th & Carson
  52. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
  53. Saginaw’s
  54. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  55. Milpas
  56. Cipriani
  57. Burgundy Bakery & Cafe
  58. Bazaar Meat
  59. Windy City Dogs
  60. 7th & Carson
  61. Kung Fu Thai-Chinese
  62. Raku
  63. Main Street Provisions
  64. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  65. Esther’s Kitchen
  66. Cipriani
  67. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  68. Ohlala French Bistro
  69. Saginaw’s
  70. Osteria Fiorella
  71. 8East
  72. Saginaw’s
  73. Edge Steakhouse
  74. Cipriani
  75. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  76. Estiatorio Milos
  77. Letty’s
  78. Partage
  79. Los Antojos
  80. Del Taco (Yes, Del Taco.)
  81. Yum Cha Dim Sum
  82. Mint Indian Bistro
  83. Osteria Fiorella (Brunch!)
  84. Milos
  85. Nakamura-Ya
  86. Papa Noodle
  87. Los Antojos
  88. Saginaw’s
  89. Cipriani
  90. Costa di Mare
  91. Flock & Fowl
  92. Good Pie
  93. Sparrow+Wolf
  94. The Black Sheep
  95. Main Street Provisions
  96. Cipriani
  97. Pizza Forte
  98. Ada’s Wine Bar
  99. CUT
  100. Cipriani
  101. Rainbow Kitchen
  102. Letty’s
  103. Milos
  104. Main Street Provisions
  105. Cipriani

Image(Big Dan Shaanxi Noodle Shop)

Gone With The Wind

Joël Robuchon Restaurant Las Vegas | Centurion Magazine

“Actually, the true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection.” – Ludwig Bemelmans

I think I’m going to miss the butter most of all.

Because this was no ordinary butter. No, this was a smooth, oblong, silky obelisk the size of a football, stood on end on its own trolley, waiting to be shaved and savored to your heart’s content throughout the meal.

Bordier butter it was, and we shall not see its like again. Not in a Vegas restaurant; not in my lifetime anyway.

Bordier Butter - - Picture of L'Avant Comptoir, Paris - Tripadvisor

The irony of me missing the butter most of all should not be lost on you, since the chefs did precious little to prepare the soft, spreadable, sunshine yellow sculpture for your table. It probably represented the least amount of work, skill, and creativity of anything on the menu at Joël Robuchon. But it also represented a level of sublime decadence and luxury unseen in these parts before Robuchon planted his very very French flag here in 2005.

And now it is gone. No one has announced its permanent exit from Vegas — the suits running the show are too crafty for that. They will keep everyone in suspense, hoping against hope that Las Vegas will return to its former glory and slabs of sunshine yellow, smooth as silk, milk fat will once again magically appear at your table .

But our best guess is the butter, like the Robuchon restaurants, have departed, never to return.

Have I been told this by someone? Yes and no. Some employees of the restaurants were given their walking papers back in September, and asked not to make a big deal about it. Will the MGM announce that JR is gone for good? Not anytime soon, even if the decision has already been made.  Good luck with that, MGM!

Is there a scenario whereby, a year or two from now, a set of circumstances will come together to re-open one of the best restaurants in the world because Vegas has rebounded so much that gastro-tourists and high-rollers are (once again) clamoring to eat at the mega-expensive, namesake restaurant of a chef who died two years ago? Yeah….but don’t bet on it.

L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon - Best Restaurants in Las Vegas

If a Robuchon restaurant is resuscitated, it will most likely be L’Atelier (above) — a more modest link in the JR chain, and certainly an easier one to re-attach. So many more of our temples of gastronomy will soon suffer the same fate. But more on them in a moment.

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I was once married to a gal who had once (in the 1970s) been married to a Vegas casino executive. She told me tales laced with incredulity about how hotels would decide their restaurant lineups back in those leisurely leisure suit days. Everything was fungible; nothing but the coffee shop was sacred. In the blink of an eye and snap of the fingers, an under-performing Italian might be plowed under for a tiki lounge; or some bigwig’s wife would get a craving for kung pao chicken and pow! — in a matter of weeks, in would come a Chinese eatery.

Casino money back then was spent fast and loose; restaurants were amenities; they had to be good, but they didn’t have to be important.

Sometime in the early 21st Century, the restaurants here started to be important. Important to tourists, high-rollers, the reputation of Las Vegas and the bottom line. With importance came quality (Robuchon, Savoy, Gagnaire, Boulud, Andrés, Batali…), with quality came pressure to succeed, and maintain that success. In retrospect, it is a wonder we sustained it for so long.

Back in the day, this storm would’ve been weathered much more easily. International reputations and 30 page licensing/profit-sharing deals weren’t part of the equation. There were no public relations minefields to navigate, nor the gaze of the food world to deflect. Eating out wasn’t entertainment, it was something you did when you weren’t home to stay alive.

Opening and closing casino restaurants was no big deal in 1980. There were no prying eyes or oversized egos to contend with. All you had to do was keep the gamblers happy.

Closing restaurants in the early months of 2021 is going to be a very big deal for Las Vegas. It will signify a sea change in how we eat and how the world perceives us. Like old rock stars, some of the “name brands” will hang around, cycling through their old hits, but one by one, they will slowly be put out to pasture.

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 This is how you do it. (Mon. Bordier with his beauteous beurre)

Back to the butter. It was glorious: rich, fresh, deeply creamy, sweet — like no butter Vegas had ever tasted. In summer it had a savory lilt; in winter, a sweeter one.

Waiters in fine French restaurants talk about such things: such things as butter that takes days to make and is delivered in 50 kilo sizes to the most expensive restaurants in the world so people can swoon over ivory-yellow towers of football-sized thickened, cultured cream to slathered on the best baked goods in the business….or just eaten with a spoon, which is what I did.

The butter was only the beginning at Joël Robuchon. After it, the courses cascaded down, one after one, until the the food and wine and service converged into a single gestalt of gustatory perfection. Food so perfect it would take your breath away. A meal so special only a handful in the world could compete with it.

Las Vegas did not get these restaurants and their fancy butters because we were a town of appreciative gourmets. We got them because for thirty years the world treated us as its playground, servicing all of its seven sins, ready to serve a clientele flush with cash and eager to part with it.

They stood like beacons to the  hungry and starstruck once —  these outposts of Puck, Lagasse, Flay, Trotter, Maccioni, Mina, Ramsay, the Michelin stars, the gastronomic gods — like nowhere else on earth, crammed together, right in our own backyard.

But no more. Those days are gone with the wind. The winds of change, of Covid, of a recovery that will take years. This will not be like the Great Recession of 2008-2012. Then, people retained their hunger for Vegas, their yearning for sin, their eagerness to unleash their ids in defeat of all superegos.  All they lacked back then was equity, or corporate expense accounts — the two things our economy relied on to keep the hotels full. But all of those were in reserve waiting to be unleashed when the economy loosened up. And loosen up it did. And Vegas came roaring back stronger than ever. Until 2020 hit.

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Somehow the butter — from French cows that traveled 6,000 miles to be here — represents all that we have lost. Of course, neither it nor the meals it preceded were for everyone: How many people don’t blink at spending $500/pp on dinner? We’re talking rarefied air here, something even the most dedicated, well-heeled fresser might only indulge in occasionally. (No one appreciates fine French more than yours truly, but even in my haughtiest, haute cuisine heyday, too many supercilious meals in a row would have me craving a burger or pizza.)

But the Robuchons, Savoys, Minas, Ducasses and Maccionis represented something that transcended their super swanky settings: they meant Las Vegas had arrived on the big kitchen stage and deserved to be there.

Now the stage will shrink and with it, our reputation. This isn’t the 80s: we can’t just throw up another in-house concept and keep the customers satisfied.

Chefboyardeepic.jpg
Fifty years ago, a gambler didn’t care who the cook was; neither he nor his wife gave a hoot who was tossing the pasta at the Desert Inn. The only chef any of them could name was probably Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

And then we became known for such things: for outposts of celebrities we had seen cooking on TV; for the stars who were then gracing the covers of food magazines, appearing on cooking contests, hobnobbing with the cool kids. From anonymity to superstardom in 30 years — it happened to chefs, and it happened to Las Vegas’s food scene, almost on parallel tracks. And it all culminated with that tower of butter in a 40-seat jewel box tucked into a corner of a mega-casino: ruining us forever for other luxury meals — because everything looks like a valley once you’ve been to the mountaintop.

There will always be a place for super-posh ultra-refined dining. The best-of-everything crowd will demand it, and world capitals like Paris, London, New York and Tokyo will provide it. And for a glorious quarter-century, so did a tacky tourist town in the middle of the High Mojave Desert.

Culinary reputations aren’t built solely upon ethereal ingredients, intensive care service, and wallet-bending meals fit for a king. But remove that level of excellence and what continues will be barely an echo of a time when the world took us seriously, we seemed to have it all, and we could boast of being among the best.

Gone with the Wind Movie Review —

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The following represented our gastronomic scene at its peak. These were the important ones; the ones that put Las Vegas on the map. A few will make it; most won’t. (My crystal ball tells me the Vegas of 2030 will resemble Branson, Missouri more than an ersatz Paris.)

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Against all odds, has reopened and is thriving; I’d eat here weekly if my bank account and waistline would let me.)

Le Cirque (If you think I’m sad about Joël Robuchon….)

Michael Mina (Has always been an underrated gem.)

Jaleo (Still sets the Spanish standard.)

‘e’ by José Andrés (Amazingly, has also re-opened. Having only 8 seats helps.)

CUT (Packed five nights a week.)

Emeril’s (Still busy; still good; still a bitch to get to.)

Bazaar Meat (Steakhouses will be the only survivors of the coming gastronomic genocide.)

Spago ( Spago 2.0 has scaled back its ambitions and is still solid, if unspectacular.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (“Temporarily Closed,” but they’re not fooling anyone. I was told it was on the chopping block two years ago.)

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (see above)

Joël Robuchon (see above)

Picasso (For its first decade, as pitch-perfect as a restaurant can be. For its second, a little stale. Those paintings though.)

Hall of Fame

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (Still doesn’t get enough credit for the excellence it brought to our burg.)

ALEX (Spectacular, but in so many ways, destined for failure.)

Aureole (Lost its fastball after five years and never recovered its form.)

Bradley Ogden (Was like one of those ensemble movies where the young cast all go on to be big stars. Amazing talent; incredible food. A shooting star.)

Carnevino (If only Mario could’ve kept his dick in his pants. I know Mario, it’s hard when you’re a sex symbol.)

Circo (I treated it like a private club in its early years; Vegas will never again taste Tuscan this good.)

Boulud Brasserie (The original in the Wynn was something special….for about 3 years.)

miX (Ditto, just substitute Mandalay Bay for Wynn in the above sentence.)

B & B Ristorante (Best. Pastas. Ever.)

Valentino (Terrible layout; wonderful wine; never got the traction it deserved, despite awards and accolades.)

Spago (The original; the granddaddy; the restaurant that started our revolution. )

Fleur de Lys (One of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere….until Mandalay Bay ruined it.)

Mesa Grill (Yes, Mesa Grill. You’re welcome, Bobby.)

RM Seafood (Along with Bartolotta, Rick Moonen brought heavyweight chops to our shores, and made us take seafood seriously.)

Charlie Trotter (Charlie was too early (’94) and too late (‘o9) to the Las Vegas restaurant party.)

Coyote Cafe (Was too good for Vegas’s knuckle-dragging hordes. Too authentically southwestern; too spicy; too excellent. The Food Gal® and I had our first kiss at this bar. Sigh.)

Sage (Like Fleur de Lys, an eye-popping design with food to match.)

Napa (Jean-Louis Palladin’s last stand)

Renoir (Alex Stratta’s first Vegas foray)

Vetri (Gone for good, but its progeny – Osteria Fiorella – is packing them in at Red Rock, for good reason.)

…and a few I’ve probably missed.

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