Strip Restaurant of the Year – MICHAEL MINA

Ed. note: This year’s Desert Companion award for Strip Restaurant of the Year goes to an old reliable with a new format.  No matter how it’s presented, the seafood is always impeccably fresh, while the 20 year old restaurant itself has aged like a fine wine. As usual, click here to read about this award in its original format. Bon appetit!

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras.

These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with. Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways.

(Smoked trout with caviar cream)

In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream (above). If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

(Caviar parfait)

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait (pictured above), that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly re-imagined restaurant, they will never go out of style.

Restaurant(s) of the Year 2018

Ed. note: It’s that time of the year, food fans: time for the Desert Companion magazine’s restaurant awards, a.k.a. the only restaurant awards that count. For almost 20 years we’ve been handing these out, and unlike others in our humble burg, these are the result of meticulous eating, research and writing, not plagiarized listicles (Eater, Thrillist), ballot stuffing (the Review-Journal), or crowd-sourced nonsense (Yelp). Since I started to whole shebang back in the late 90s (at KNPR – Nevada Public Radio), I usually get the honor of writing the Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year entries. Back in the day, I was a committee of one, now, the candidates get thoroughly picked over, re-hashed, strained, refined and clarified (by me, Editor Andrew Kiraly, Jim Begley, Greg Thilmont, and Mitchell Wilburn) before the final selections are agreed upon. This was a watershed year for local restaurants and our winners reflect that. As usual, click here to read about all the awards in their original format. Buon gusto!

DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT(S) OF THE YEAR 2018

There couldn’t be just one. Not this year. Not in a year that was a watershed for great kitchen talent emerging in the suburbs. For the first time since I can remember (which goes all the way back to 1981) more great restaurants opened off the Strip than on it. And for the first time since our restaurant revolution began in earnest — twenty years ago with the opening of the Bellagio — all the serious foodies in town were not heading to a big hotel, but to Chinatown or downtown — places hitherto dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration by galloping gastronomes.

It was ten years in the making, this restaurant renaissance — the roots of which can be traced to the great recession of 2008, when real estate values nosedived, and chefs everywhere were thrown on the streets. As that recession hung on, two things happened in Las Vegas: the hotels lost their nerve, and young chefs started getting some. The mojo that enticed everyone from Sirio Maccioni to Pierre Gagnaire to come here gave way to a Strip scene reduced to celebrating warmed-over celebrities and licensing deals. Into this void stepped a few brave souls who wondered why Strip-quality cooking couldn’t succeed with locals. In a town of over two million people, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a thriving local restaurant scene, they thought, and with lots of diners coming of age who wanted the good stuff without all the tourist trappings, it was time for our neighborhood food scene to explode, and explode it has.

In terms of progress, downtown made the biggest jump with Esther’s Kitchen leading the pack. James Trees’ ode to Italy has become ground zero for a neighborhood (the arts district) that went from being little more than a collection of junk shops to a stroll-able, eatable and drinkable area all within the past year. Esther’s doesn’t sound very Italian but that’s exactly what it is–  bombarding you with antipasti, verduras (veggies), handmade pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and a thick, porky porchetta for mavens of meat. As good as they are, it’s those pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines.

Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant scene and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are the pinnacle of pasta porn. All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: satisfy its customers in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(The Three Musketeers)

If downtown came of age in 2018, Chinatown took a European turn. If someone had told me three years ago that this three mile stretch of pan-Pacific eats would be anchored by a French restaurant at one end, and a Spanish one at the other (with an excellent American gastropub – Sparrow + Wolf – in the middle) I would’ve told them to get their head examined. What Executive Chef Yuri Szarzewski, Pastry Chef Vincent Pellerin, and General Manager Nicolas Kalpokdjian (above) have done at Partage is nothing short of phenomenal: transplant a bit of sophisticated France to an all-Asian plaza with a beautiful dining room and drop-your-fork gorgeous food.

Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. Twenty small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit), or a perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow, served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious fried bread. The menu toggles back and forth between small bites and big proteins, with a significant nod given to vegetarians as well. A walk through this door transports you to a place I didn’t think could exist in Las Vegas: elevated French dining in a stunning, casual atmosphere, with a great bar and wine list, all served with flair at a fair price. Bon appetit, indeed.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Our milestone year ended with an olé! From its forty cozy seats to the giant mural dominating one wall to the rolling gin and tonic cart, Edo Tapas & Wine is a jewel box designed to make you fall in love with it from the moment you enter. It arrived at the western end of the Spring Mountain in mid-summer, and announced its serious tapas intentions from the get-go. Things may look unassuming from the front but there’s quite a pedigree behind that door. Chef/owner Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran, as is partner Roberto Liendo. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demands the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas thing may seem like old hat, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.

When it comes to those tapas, just pick and point. Chunky Maine lobster comes “salpicón-style — dressed with “tiger’s milk” — which lightens the richness of the crustacean, while croquetas get that Asian spin with kimchi pisto. After those, the hits just keep on coming: pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime), and something called “Bikini” — wafer-thin, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast. You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here — some are just more spectacular than others. One of the more eye-popping ones is huevos estrellados – a toothsome riff on this Spanish staple — assembling olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers and a melange of mushrooms atop fried potatoes. The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, and the paella is worth a trip all by itself.

By Las Vegas Strip standards, these are small fry, but what they represent for the future of our neighborhoods is a very big deal. Cooking this good — with serious cocktail and wine intentions — was unheard of five years ago outside of the hotels. By opening their doors, these operators announced that Italy, France and Spain (the gastronomic capitals of the western world) have arrived in our backyard. Eating out locally in Las Vegas will never be the same, and we have these three to thank for this tasty state of affairs.

 

 

2017 – My Year of Dining Deliciously

The end of 2017 is nigh, and all kidding aside, it’s been one of the best years of my life — personally, professionally, and gastronomically.

All those troubles of the past 20 years: the relationship troubles, the career problems, the financial difficulties and the overindulgence in various vices seemed to fade away this year — and many, many positive things came into focus for me.

Marriage and maturity will do that to you. (For the record: yours truly is proof positive that you’re never too old to grow up.)

With so many “issues”  disappearing in my rear-view mirror in 2017, it’s time to look ahead. More to the point, now that we’ve grown up, what do we want to do with the rest of our life.

Before we get to that, let’s review some of the highlights of the past 365 days:

We went to Rome for a Roman wine tour. (All that one week in Rome did was whet our appetite for more Italian travel.)

We went to France, twice, which only whetted our appetite for more France.

Amongst all this travel, there were side trips to Canada, Chicago, Atlanta, Arizona, Germany and Switzerland.

In between all that, we even had time to carve out a North Carolina ‘cue quest.

For the 23rd year in a row, we ate in more Las Vegas restaurants than we could count, and distilled them down into the 6th edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants.

(This edition, unlike previous ones, contains a number of essays about my life as a galloping gastronome, as well as some overall observations about the Las Vegas restaurant scene, past, present, and future. If you still haven’t ordered your copy – and you know you want to – you can do so by clicking here.)

For the umpteenth time we wrote the Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year articles (among others) for Desert Companion magazine.

For about the 100th time, we went out of our way to remind the world what a piece of shit the Eater Las Vegas web site is.

But enough ax-grinding, let’s get to our year in food. Sadly, most of the highlights took place out of this country, or out of the state of Nevada.

Memorable Meals of the Year (in no particular order):

La Bouitte

Allen & Son

Le Grand Vêfour

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Image may contain: food

Edulis

La Mère Brazier

Restaurant Eugene

Topolobampo

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, food and indoor

Lameloise

Image may contain: night and outdoor

Kaiseki Yuzu

Specific standout dishes/meals of 2017:

Oysters of the YearLe Dôme:

Image may contain: food

Photogenic Dish of the Year – Summer fruits salad at Jean-Georges Steakhouse:

Image may contain: food

Steak of the Year – the aged-on-the-hoof beauty from TXOGITXU – Basque beef:

Runner up: the Charolais côte de boeuf at Le Sauvage in Dijon, France:

Image may contain: food

Japanese Meal of the Year – Kaiseki Yuzu (see above)

Sushi of the YearYui Edomae Sushi:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cr1ripOUsAAu3-u.jpg

Pizza of the YearContento Pizzeria and Bar:

Image may contain: food and indoor

Vegetarian Meal of the Year – Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (see above)

Deer of the YearWaldhotel Sonnora, Dreis, Germany:

https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/0/06/Bambi_-_Render.png/revision/latest?cb=20160614120622(Sorry, Bambi)

Beef Bourguignon of the YearRestaurant Caveau des Arches, Beaune, France:

Image may contain: food

View of the YearCanoe, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (see pic at top of page)

Decor of the YearLe Clarence:

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, table, living room and indoor(Minimalist and understated, just like ELV!)

Gamiest, Rankest, Earthiest, Dirtiest Dish of the Year – AAAA Andouillette a la Chablisienne:

(It tastes exactly like what it is: the insides of a barely-cleaned intestine.)

Italian Meal of the YearFerraro’s:

(Gino Ferraro: the consummate restaurateur)

Cheese of the Year – a mimolette so old Louis XIV probably sampled a slice:

Barbecue of the Year – Toss up: Picnic/Allen & Son (see above)

Beer of the YearThe Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:

Eclair of the YearBreizh Café:

Cheese Cart of the Year – a turophiles dream at Hostellerie Des Clos in Chablis, France.

Wine List(s) of the YearLe Pot d’Etain:

Runners up: Les Climats:

…and La Bouitte:

Image may contain: 1 person(Wine lists are a two-fisted handful at La Bouitte)

Vegetable Dish of the Year – Winter vegetable melange at La Bouitte:

Image may contain: food

Fish of the Year – no fish dish haunted my dreams more than this omble chevalier at a little roadside restaurant outside of Annecy, France called Auberge du Roselet:

Image may contain: food

Cold Cuts of the YearCesare Casella’s artisanal prosciutto at Carnevino:

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, food

Most Intense Dessert of the YearSebastien Polycarpe’s clay-baked pineapple at Restaurant Guy Savoy:

Image may contain: 1 person, food

Bistro of the Year – Le Comptoir du Relais, Paris, France:

Coffee and Doughnuts of the YearTim Hortons:

Image may contain: coffee cup and food

Yes, it was a helluva year for sheer travelocity and intrepid epicureanism. But amidst all the gourmet jewels, there were some zircons that stood out. and managed to pee in our cornflakes

Lowlights of the Year:

Alinea – To put it as succinctly as possible: Anyone who appreciates the gastronomic temples of Europe can see what a joke this restaurant is. Strictly for Midwestern rubes and impressionable Instagrammers,  and the writers who speak to them.

Momofuku – I love what David Chang has done for Asian food in America. But his restaurants are not nearly as good as they think they are.

Terrible Italian – Bad Italian food continues to pull ’em in in Las Vegas. If I had a dollar for every yokel who tells me how much they “love” Piero’s, Cafe Chloe, Battista’s, Chicago Joe’s, et al, I’d have a wine cellar full of grand cru Burgundies. It pains me to say it but Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo are better than most of our locally-owned Italians.

Food writing in Las Vegas – Can the Review-Journal get any worse? Oh, yes it can. It can cover chain restaurants and “cocktails of the week” while continuing to aim its appeal at the Sun City crowd. Someone needs to put this dead horse out of its misery.

Our Moribund Corporate Hotel Culture – This is the thing that depresses me the most. The heyday of the Vegas restaurant revolution ended for good around 2010. What the great celebrity chefs wrought (Spago, Emeril’s, Le Cirque, Picasso, et al) the big hotels are now either running into the ground or milking for all they’re worth. There hasn’t been an original thought in a Vegas F&B office in ten years. There hasn’t been a new, food-forward/chef-driven place since Bazaar Meat opened in 2014. Instead of cuisine, we get whatever re-packaged crap they can slap Gordon Ramsay’s or Giada’s name on. There are still restaurants on the Strip that I adore (and buy my book and you can read about them ;-) ) but I’ve been falling out of love with the Strip for years now, and nothing I see is going to re-kindle the flame of passion I once had anytime soon.

Summer Truffles – If one more chef puts one more tasteless summer truffle on my plate (always with a BIG smile like they’re doing me a favor) I’m going to get a concealed carry permit, strap a .38 to my thigh, and put a bullet through the plate. There is no excuse for these dreaded, bill-padding fungi, and you insult my intelligence (and taste buds) by expecting me to be impressed.

Truffle Oil – See above.

Octopus – If I never see a piece of cephalopod again it will be too soon.

Scallops – Ditto.

Drinking Wine/Drinking in General – I took Carnevino to task this year for its obscenely-priced wine list. It is the most egregious offender, but is by no means alone in playing the rape-the-tourist/price-gouging game — e.g. the Wynncore – an entire hotel whose F&B price structure would make P.T. Barnum blush, and the $30 gin and tonics at Jaleo. In the past 20 years (ever since they learned they could “sell” Vegas and a world-class eating and drinking experience, our hotels have turned the town into one, gigantic edible tourist trap. We should be ashamed of ourselves. I can barely bring myself to order anything but a glass of wine these days….or some cheap vermouth…in any of our Strip hotels. Spend a couple of days in any wine region, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see how fucked up drinking is in Las Vegas.

Which brings me to my conclusion…at the conclusion of this most significant year.

As you know, we’ve been struggling with what to do with this web site for the past year or so. It’s becoming harder and harder for us to get enthused about restaurants I have visited dozens of times, and, as I just mentioned, there isn’t a lot of excitement on the horizon. I try to gear what I write to people like me, or those who may have been like me 30 years ago when I was hungry to learn all I could about food, dining out, travel, and the world of restaurants. I like to think of my readers as a black belt foodie audience, but within the realm of Las Vegas restaurants, there is less and less that I can teach them.

Right now I’m pondering whether to write more about my travels (next up: Spain, Italy, Normandy and Scandinavia), or maybe even expand into home cooking. Unbeknownst to many, I used to be an avid home cook, and people love recipe websites more than they do restaurant reviews. There will definitely be a change in graphics sometime in the new year. (I’m quite aware that the look of this site is cluttered and dated and it’s all my fault.) The new look will be simpler — more Drudge Report than Bon Appetit — as soon as I can find a graphic designer.

Until then….

Happy New Year from the Curtas BBQ Boyz!

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting and sunglasses(Real men toast with white wine.)