Major Awards – 2021

Image 1 - 45 Inch Full Size Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story
“It’s a major award!”

It was a weird year to say the least. Many local places came roaring back from Covid, but the Strip remains stuck in neutral. Only the opening of Resorts World breathed some new life into what is rapidly becoming a very stale hospitality industry. But let us not dwell on the pathetic and the plebeian; let us now consider the “Major Awards” of 2021 — kudos conveyed completely at random, without rhyme but with righteousness and reason — the only infallible, incisive, inviolable and (sometimes) inhospitable trophies we can impart off the top of our head:

Image

Pizza of the YearRebellion Pizza’s New York slice (above). Like a taste of lower Manhattan in goddamn Henderson. Go figure.

Image
Get ya Coney Island (pizza?) right here!

Weirdest Pizza – Some oddball concoction called the “Coney Pie” at Guerilla Pizza in the Hard Hat Lounge. Think a Nathan’s chili dog on a Detroit-style pie (see above). Stoner food to be sure, but tons o’ fun when you’re more baked than a brownie factory.

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My HouseMain Street Provisions

Restaurant I’m Glad Is NOT Closer to My House Burgundy French Bakery & Cafe. Otherwise, I’d be here every day.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Did somebody say BURGERS?

Image
Main Street’s chopped champ
Image
Smashed succulence from Nevada Brew Works

Burger(s) of the Year, Las Vegas Division (4-way tie) – Soulbelly BBQ, Oscar’s Steakhouse, Nevada Brew Works (the thinner single cheeseburger above), Main Street Provisions (above, top with sesame seeds). Fat or smashed, double or single, downtown’s burger scene has got you covered.

Image

Burger of the Year, International Division – this green chile champion (above) from Dr. Field Goods at the Sawmill Market in ABQ was so good it stopped me in my tracks.

Worst Burger of the Year – Victory Burger in downtown’s Circa hotel. Let’s take it as a given that if you’re going to call yourself a burger restaurant, you should know how to cook one. Two visits produced a grey, overdone, mealy patty that could’ve come from a cheapo buffet. Both tasted like defeat.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Requiem for a seafood dream….

Image

The Food Gal was happy/sad this last night

Saddest Closing – Costa di Mare. Let us know when a restaurant prettier than the one above opens up. I won’t hold my breath. The Food Gal is still holding back her tears.

Worst Meal of the Year – (toss up) Mint Indian Cafe – terrible service, dirty interior, and food that tasted like it’d been in a steamer tray for a week. On the plus side: at least it was cheap. And then there was Hugo’s Cellar – where the menu, the attitude and the carpet haven’t changed since 1983. It definitely takes the stale cake. On the plus side: at least it’s insanely expensive.

Image
Ocean trout with ponzu at Garlic Yuzu

Pleasant Surprises of the Year Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Wally’s, Milano, Aromi, Mt. Everest India’s Cuisine. Garlic Yuzu (above)

Never Again Award – Delilah

Destined to Fail Award – Superfrico

Gotta to hand it to Delilah and Superfrico — both convinced me that whatever lies ahead on the Las Vegas Strip will hold little of my interest. My glory days ran out around 2015 (about when the Strip’s did), and I don’t see anything compelling on the horizon. Don’t cry for me, Argentina, it was a twenty-year run with the best seat in the house for the greatest restaurant revolution America has ever seen. But watching the old cows get milked, and restaurants become raucous nightclubs (more concerned with distraction than food) holds as much interest for me as waiting in line for Chick-Fil-A. Las Vegas is about to pivot hard into tour bus/cruise ship territory and yours truly plans to be dining in Europe when it does.

Strangest City Visited – Minneapolis. Vibrant, locavore-driven food scene. Great steakhouses. Thriving warehouse district. Desolate downtown. One giant schizoid metropolis that’s so far from the town Mary Tyler Moore made famous it makes Los Angeles’s wasteland feel like Times Square.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

L.A. excellence….

Image
Divine dining in LA
Image
Michael Cirmarusti blew Babs and me away

Fancy-Dancy Dinner of the YearProvidence, Los Angeles. With Barbara “Call Me Babs” Fairchild. ;-)

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

May I introduce you to The Proper Lunch Bunch…?

Image
I’m in the back, drunk again
Image
My usual at Cipriani
Image

Lunch(es) of the YearCiprianigrazie to the Proper Lunch Bunch (above), for making my Fridays the best in the business.

Question from a dozen chefs: “Why do you eat at Cipriani so much?”

Me: “You put out a product this good at lunch, with this atmosphere and level of service, and I’ll eat at your restaurant every week, too.” How do you say “feng shui” in Italian?

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Bagels and other beauties…

Image

Bagels of the YearLife’s a Bagel. Don’t even think of arguing with me (or Kathy Kelly, above) about this.

Breakfast of the Year – “The Irish” at 7th and Carson (sorry, no tasty snap)

Image
Take Note: Dylan knows you can Bank on these wines

Wino of the Year – Bank Atcharawan at The Patio Wine Garden. Better wine bars (Garagiste, Ada’s, French Cellar by Partage) have now become part of our culinary landscape, but this Bank takes the bubbly with his terrific Thai menu and prices that can’t be beat.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

WTF?

Washed Up, Recycled, Past-His-Prime, Against All Odds Lazarus Award Todd English. I’d like to meet the business brain who said to himself: “Self, you know what Las Vegas really needs? MORE Todd English!” That said, we are rooting hard for his downtown boutique hotel/restaurant to be a YUGE success. To be perfectly candid, we’d be cheering for him if he served nothing but a rehash of the 1990s food that made him famous…which he will.

Restaurant I Won’t Touch With a Ten-Foot Pole…or a three-foot Czechoslovakian – JING. The year I start paying attention to restaurants crawling with MILFS and middle-managers on the make is the year you can hook my big toe to a shotgun and make me eat the ammunition.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Ya gotta love….

Image
Hot diggity Danish

Hot Dog of the Year – nothing beats the Danish dogs at Saga Pastry + Sandwich.

Image

Chinese Banquet of the YearRainbow Kitchen. The most elemental and sophisticated Cantonese food in being cooked these days in the mini-Chinatown that’s sprung up on South Rainbow Blvd. The above was a special banquet, but the daily dim sum and fresh catch offerings are unbeatable.

Image
Even uber-food blogger So-Chan-san agrees on this Greek

Greek of the YearSaavas Georgiadis

Sticking the Landing Award Steve Young, who jumped from Edge Steakhouse to top toque at Al Solito Posto.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

And now for some negativity….

I’m Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore Award – All MGM properties (Bellagio, MGM, etc.).

Between the parking fees, resort fees, closed restaurants, limited hours, $25 valet charges, corporate bullshit heaped upon more corporate bullshit, etc….we have a hard time getting excited about pulling into any MGM hotel. There’s a reason we mostly hang out at Wynn, Venetian/Palazzo and Resorts World these days, and the reason is the Wall Street ruination of our hotel/casino industry…which explains…

Restaurant(s) I Wish I had Visited More Often…or Even Once – Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bardot Brasserie, Carbone, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku.

To be fair (to myself), the year started under the shroud of limited seating and slogged through months of abbreviated hours from which it still hasn’t rebounded. Monday-Thursday were always my prime eating out/putting in the legwork days, and Covid restrictions pretty much chopped that time in half. (Friday is for three-hour lunches, Saturday is amateur hour, and Sunday is for resting the liver.) Despite Vegas’s somewhat “return to normalcy”, it is still harder to find a good Strip restaurant open on Monday-Tuesday than a T-bone at Tacotarian (sigh).

Yawn of the Year – Casa Playa

Yawning GIFs | Tenor

Hotel No One Ever Talks About Anymore Award – Mandalay Bay. Remember when it had the beautiful Shanghai Lilly? Hubert Keller’s equally gorgeous Fleur de Lys? Burger Bar? The awesome Aureole? TWO Rick Moonen restaurants? Most are gone, some are hanging on, but food-wise, this place is a sad shell of its former self.

Opening Most Ignored By Everyone But “Influencers” Who Still Think It’s A Big Deal To Be Invited (“Hosted”) To A Second-Rate Hotel Being Revamped For the Fourth Time So They Can Sell Their Souls For a Free Crab Cake – Virgin Hotel

Worst Reboot of a Second-Rate Retread – Virgin Hotel. Nothing says, “We’re out of ideas,” like sticking a Todd English joint in your joint.

Dumbest Restaurant Names – Superfrico, Night + Market, Boom Bang

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Image
Delicious doings at Resorts World

Most Funnest Opening – Resorts World

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Shameless Plug No. 1:

Image
Who was that tan man?

Funnest Lunch (other than my usual Cipriani Friday-fest) – Giving a speech to the Las Vegas Rotary Club about Vegas’s food/restaurant history over the past 30 years (see above).

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Miscellaneous Meals of Mixed Emotions…

Image
Compelling Thai in a curious casino corner

Greatest Asian Least Likely to Succeed Night + Market. Part of me wants to applaud the Virgin Hotel for this move, as it was the best Thai food we had this year. But I’ve looked around this sad place and think the Raiders have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than a cutting-edge Southeast Asian restaurant (specializing in “orange” and “natural” wines) has of wooing a bargain-hunting clientele who wouldn’t know an orange wine from Tang.

Image
Risotto Milanese with marrow at Aromi

Ole Sole Mio Unsung Italians AwardAromi, Matteo’s, Brera. Other ristorante get more pub, but this trio can go pappardelle to pappardelle with any of them.

Image
The Crown Jewel Box of Vegas restaurants

Jury Is Still Out AwardLe Cirque. Like many, we were totally jazzed about its re-opening…until we learned it was now a $388/pp all-tasting menu format ($288 for the “plant-based” option). Whether they pull it off will say a lot about the future of upscale dining on the Strip, but our first impression is they are turning this Maccioni masterpiece into another Michael’s, i.e., a comp room strictly for rubes and high-rollers. We shall see, but in the meantime, Sirio is rolling over in his grave.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Need a drink?

https://twitter.com/i/status/1440862108619460614

Bartender of the Year – Justine at Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar (above). With or without her mask on, she wowed us with her impromptu cocktail creations.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Make It Stop Power Rangers GIF - Make It Stop Stop Power Rangers - Discover  & Share GIFs
I’m begging you

Make It Stop – Tasting menus, wagyu, octopus, scallops, foam, craft beers, local distilleries, branzino, salmon, “plant-based,” hot chicken, Italian restaurants, kale, weird-ass grains, smoke, “cannabis-infused,” caviar on everything, female chef empowerment, white people making sushi, “woke” restaurant writers, ridiculously long podcasts, in-feasibly large cuts of meat, crudo, chefs with mission statements, knowing way too much (or even anything) about a chef’s sexual identity, gooey food videos, influencers, thinly-disguised promotional events pretending to be about “charity.”

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

In the best of taste…

Image
Nobody beat this meat in ’21

Steak of the Year – Nothing got our heart beating faster than this hunk o’ hunk o’ aged, charbroiled steer muscle from Manny’s Steakhouse’s private herd in Minneapolis. No bull.

That Place Is So Crowded No One Goes There Anymore Award Esther’s Kitchen

Noodlelicious Award – Big Dan Shanxi Taste

Image
Crystal pork-spinach dumplings at Rainbow Kitchen

Humpty Dumpling/Dat Sum Dim Sum Award – these dumplings never get a bad wrap, don’t gyoza too far, bao to no ones, and have a wonton disregard for the competition:

Xiao Long Dumpling

ShangHai Taste

China Poblano

Rainbow KItchen

China Mama

Image
We were Korean tears of joy over this beef

Korean Beef of the YearPark BBQ, Los Angeles (above)

Cholesterolfest of the Year – Totoraku, Los Angeles

Image

Sushi of the YearSushi Hiroyoshi (above)

Image

Desserts of the YearSweets Raku (pictured); SW Steakhouse (not pictured because our lousy, poorly-lighted pics didn’t do them justice).

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Tacos, tacos y mas tacos…and more!

Image
Carnitas tacos at Sin Fronteras

Tacos of the Year, Las Vegas Division: Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Birria El Compa La Cruda, Sin Fronteras Tacos

Image
Ditroit chicken tacos
Image
Taco crawl, LA-style. Eating street tacos the LA way

Tacos of the Year, California Division:

Carnitas El Momo

Ditroit Taqueria

Mariscos Jaliscos

Sonoratown (above, feeding our friend GT off the hood of an SUV)

Image

Best Reason For Going To Henderson: Rebellion Pizza (above)

Best Neighborhood to Eat In – Chinatown

Worst Neighborhood(s) to Eat In – North Las Vegas, where gringos fear to tread. Runner-up: Southern Highlands – filled with folks with more money than taste. At least NLV has an excuse: its residents aren’t 1/100th as wealthy as the corporate bigwigs counting their bitcoins on the SH golf course.

Image

Best Addition to the Vegas Food Scene Featherblade English Craft Butchery. Need proof? Here ya go:

Image
Finally, a veally veally good butcher in my ‘hood

>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

And this little piggy….

Image
We went whole hog in 2021

Low and Slow Award(s):

I love smoked meat like Oscar Goodman loves a martini. This year we traveled back East three times to sample pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) and whole hog in the Carolinas and Georgia, the way it was meant to be. Once pigs cross the Rockies, something seems to happen to them: they all end up tasting like a cross-over country song – the bland leading the bland into Taylor Swift land. Getting that ethereally sweet, moist, tender, finely-grained, fluffy, slightly smokey delicacy on a bun is an art, and like sushi, the gradations are subtle but important. And, as with the best raw fish, once you’ve tasted the real thing, ham-handed attempts hold no currency for aficionados. Many thanks to Brandon and Mary Coleman Smith for giving us the Carolina ‘cue tour of a lifetime.

Skylight Inn BBQ

Smiley’s Lexington BBQ

Soulbelly BBQ

Speaking of pork…

Image

Pork Chop of the Year – the above piece of pulchritudinous porcine perfection at Osteria Fiorella

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Image

Dive Bar of the Year Chez Jay, Santa Monica, CA

Image
We didn’t know what to call them, but boy did we eat a bunch of these this year…

Muffin/Scone/Cookie Award – Whatever this chewy blueberry-infused beauty is at PublicUs (above), we couldn’t get enough them.

Image
So-Chan-san’s English is far better than my Japanese

Food Vlogger of the Year – So-Chan-san, whose So-Channel on YouTube and Instagram covers our Asian food scene in more depth than I ever thought possible. Looking for insights on the inscrutable? He’s your man. Is it all in Japanese? You bet your sweet yen it is! But it comes with subtitles, of course. That’s why it’s so interesting! If you don’t get hungry after watching one of his videos, you need to check your pulse.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Fabulous Faces of 2021:

Image

Spaniard of the YearRafael Salines-Catala (above), whose Jamon Jamon is a hidden gem so good it reminds us why god gave us taste buds.

Image

Celebrity Chef of the Year (coincidentally, also a Spaniard) – Jose Andres, because he still shows up and talks to everyone like an old friend when he does.

Image
One busy gal in 2021

Hit the Ground Running Award Nicole Brisson. Opening one Brezza or Bar Zazu at Resorts World would be extraordinary. Two is practically unthinkable. Along with Caviar Bar, Wally’s, and Carversteak, her two new venues have given this hotel a murderer’s row lineup not seen since the Cosmo came online over a decade ago.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

The best, Jerry, the BEST!

Best New Restaurants of 2021 –

Image

Brezza

Caviar Bar

Wally’s Las Vegas

Jamon Jamon

Le Cafe Du Val

Aromi

Milano

Image
Mapo dofu at Chinglish

Chinglish Cantonese Wine Bar

Soulbelly BBQ

Ada’s

Al Solito Posto

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Rainbow Kitchen

Win Kee HK BBQ & Noodle

Image
Legendary jambalaya

States visited – 8 -Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, California

Foreign countries visited -0- for the first time in 10 years. ;-(

Restaurants visited – 380

Cheapest sit-down meal (not including fast food burgers and tacos eaten off the hood of a car) – Waffle House (somewhere in Georgia), where twenty bucks smothered and covered us in southern-fried goodness.

Most expensive mealn/naka, Los Angeles, where we dropped a cool $1,100 for two on a Japanese kaiseki dinner.

Image
Image
Image
New York’s loss was Minnesota’s gain

Meal of the Year Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis. Sorry Las Vegas, despite all the self-aggrandizing, mutual back-slapping going on around here, none of you put out a product as jaw-dropping as Gavin Kaysen in the great white north. Even his simple squash soup (above) gave us a woody. Note to chefs: When’s the last time you took the time to put out a superior soup? Kaysen is a chef’s chef who is in his restaurant every night, content to live where he works, and leave the empire-building to glory-seekers. His was also the best wine list I saw this year — hefty (but not too), eclectic, fascinating, and fairly-priced. Our dinner there reminded me of one we had in Toronto a few years back at a tiny, unassuming place called Edulis. The food was simple and stunning, riven with technique and flavors that penetrated your rib cage. And it was casual and a la carte, and half the price of the equally spectacular (if much more formal) Providence. Not fer nuthin’, but all of my exceptional meals in 2021 took place out of town. Las Vegas still has a lot of growing up to do.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<

And finally, let’s get to the really important stuff…..

Shameless Plug #2:

Image
After 27 years of writing about food, I’m officially something

Podcast (shameless plug) of the YearWhat’s Right Sam with Sam & Ash – Perhaps I’m slightly biased, but this is the only podcast in Vegas that actually gives you good info on where to eat (every Friday when a certain aging boomer grabs the microphone).

Image

Eat at the restaurants featured above and you will eat very well, indeed. So tune in every Friday, and have a happy holiday from all of us in the #BeingJohnCurtas orbit!

Image

Lunching Las Vegas

Image

Yours truly is a world-class luncher. Dejeuner makes my day. I revel in my midday repasts like Andrew Cuomo hovering over a female cheek.

Lunch is when my appetite shines — senses are keenest, taste buds sharpest, and my bonhomie in its fullest flower. If breakfast is only good for thinking about lunch, then lunch does its best work by making you forget about dinner. And couldn’t we all do with a little less of the latter?

I didn’t always think this way. Back in the day I indulged in fabulous feasts lasting deep into the night. My first Michelin 3-star meal (at Le Grand Vefour in the early 90s) started before 8 pm and didn’t finish until after midnight. My early excursions to Paris, New York, ‘Frisco, Lyon, Rome and Milan were filled with 8 o’clock dinner reservations at nothing but the toniest supper spots.

But time passes and what once seemed exotic now feels tedious. My upcoming trips to Europe will concentrate on where to get the best midday meal, mostly with locals, not a bunch of tourists with more money than manners, whooping it up after dark.

But I digress.

We are here to discuss midday meal suggestions…but permit me another small digression before getting to those.

Lunch is an urban invention. Back in the day (way back in the day), the midday meal was the biggest – when you ate the most (after a hard morning’s labor), and giving you sustenance for an afternoon of grueling work.

The actual word “lunch” stands for a small something you can hold in one hand, kind of like half a sandwich, or David Chang’s brain.

As people became less agrarian, the middle meal kept moving to later in the day. By the nineteenth century, according to this historian, after the invention of electricity, all the proper English were “dining” after 5:00, so copycat Americans followed suit. Thus, with such hoity-toity pretensions (along with the rise of the industrial working classes) eating at noon moved from being our main fuel to being merely a pit stop in the daily rat race. Pity.

‘Tis sad because lunch – and by “lunch” we mean a proper, sit-down lunch – is the best time of the day to gather yourself, reflect on a morning’s hard work, and gird your loins for whatever action lies ahead. Not to be crude (okay, to be crude), but sex on a full stomach is as much fun as running the high hurdles with hemorrhoids.

Gluttony and fucking are as incompatible as chocolate and cheese. Exhibit A: Have you ever heard of anyone getting laid after a huge Thanksgiving dinner? (I REST MY CASE.)

I mean who even thinks about bumping uglies after taking down six jumbo shrimp, three dinner rolls, a bleu cheese wedge, a giant rib eye, potatoes au gratin, two bottles of wine and three desserts at a late supper? (PROVE ME WRONG!)

Stuffing yourself after dark is sheer lunacy. It also makes you fat. Something the good ole Romans understood two thousand years ago:

“[Romans]….believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day…They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”Caroline Yeldham

Maybe that’s why I’m at Cipriani every Friday, chowing down on one simple, spectacular lunch after another:

Image

End of history lesson.

Las Vegas isn’t a lunch town. Few towns are these days. Bureaucrats eat at their desks, real estate types are driving around all day, lawyers are nailed to their computers, and casino execs do nothing but fret into their phones. With no white collar infrastructure to sustain a proper lunch environment, the pickins are slim when it comes to eating well at noon.

But do not despair mon ami, lunch is not a total loss. There are dining gems buried amongst the fast food zircons. You just need to know where to look.

And not to brag (okay to brag) but I probably eat better lunches than anyone in town.

So here they are, my highly vetted, very personal list of the best place for a midday meal in Las Vegas, with commentary, of course.

Crème de la Crème

Image(Friday vibes)

Note: Many, many places that used to open for lunch on the Strip are now closed. (This includes some former favorites like Spago, Jaleo, Delmonico, Bouchon, et al.) Good luck finding a decent sit-down midday meal in any big hotel…which is one of the reasons for this post.

Brera/Matteo’s – these sister spots have some of the best pizzas and pastas in town. Matteo’s downstairs at the Venetian is the quieter alternative, without music so loud you can’t hear yourself eat. Some of the pies upstairs at Brera will take your breath away, but fuggidabat any conversation until the stupid cruise ship music takes a break.

Brezza – for the time being, Nicole Brisson’s showplace is a 7 day lunch and dinner affair. Her extraordinary pastas need no introduction, and she even does an outstanding burger:

Image(BREZZA’s boffo burger)

(Update: As we predicted two weeks ago, BREZZA has now“postponed lunch” after serving it for less than a month. We knew it was too good to be true)

Cipriani – I eat here every week for a reason.

Capital Grille – the best chain steakhouse. Good steaks, great service, fabulous view. Some of the meat is standard issue, and the menu never changes, but it is huge and cozy at the same time (no mean feat that), and gals love it. Also good for business meals.

Milos – love it or hate it, but the Venetian has more decent midday meal options than any Strip hotel. It also now has our premier Greek seafood restaurant. Not quite the lunch bargain it used to be, but still a deal. Fabulous fish.

Marche Bacchus – still soothing after all these years. Still a wonder of wine and the best al fresco in the ‘burbs.

Wally’s – our newest fine wine/destination dining spot might have the best prices in town for expensive fermented grape juice. The store is a bargain hunter’s dream — if your idea of a bargain is getting a (normally) $400 bottle for two bills. Chef Eric L’Huillier is in charge of the kitchen, and is in imminent danger of turning this place into Las Vegas’s greatest French steakhouse.

Downtown’s Fabulous Food Faves

Image

Note: I work in downtown Las Vegas, and live two miles from my office, so you could say I eat out here All. The. Time. I eat out so much in DTLV I get bored with most of these — not because they’re not good, but because I’ve memorized the menus.

Carson Kitchen – still humming after seven years. Small menu; superb service.

DE Thai Kitchen – anything off the secret menu (which ain’t so secret) is great. So is the stuff not on the secret menu, like this incendiary green papaya salad:

Image

EAT. – get there early for one of Nat Young’s soul-satisfying breakfasts, serious sandwiches, and huevos motulenos.

8East – not so convenient unless you’re staying in the Circa hotel, but Dan Coughlin’s food is worth searching out.

Esther’s Kitchenwait for it…wait for it…this place is so crowded no one goes here anymore.

Letty’s – tacos, tacos y mas tacos!

Saginaw’s Deli – I love Paul Saginaw’s food, but there’s only so much deli my waistline can take.

7th & Carson – There is nothing surprising on the menu (except the stellar “Irish Breakfast”), but every time I eat here I walk away impressed by the execution.

Soulbelly BBQ – the No.1 barbecue in town and it isn’t even close. Excellent, out-of-the-ordinary sauces and one of our best burgers, too.

Chinatown

Image(Wai and Connie, still going strong at Big Wong)

Note: Chinatown (both the original on Spring Mountain Road and the new one popping up on South Rainbow) are their own thing. Most joints are open for lunch and dinner and everything in-between. Here are a few favorites, but there are dozens more where you can’t go wrong.

Big Wong – if bang for the buck was the only criteria, this Chinatown mainstay would be the best restaurant in town.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya – swish swish your way to above average izakaya fare in a dark, clubby setting.

China MaMa – our best Chinese restaurant. That’s all there is to say.

Curry Zen – The Food Gal’s® fave, for good reason. Simple rice, Japanese curry, and a few gyoza are just the thing when you need to munch and run.

Image

District One – Let’s go get the oxtail soup (above), she says, and we willingly comply, even if we’re there for the Vietnamese carpaccio.

Lamaii – open for lunch, even on weekends. Top flight Thai. Incredible wine list priced to sell.

New Asian BBQ & Noodle – the second best dim sum in town (after Rainbow Kitchen).

Shanghai Taste – the best xiao long bao until someone proves to me otherwise:

Image

Shang Artisan Noodlenot actually in Chinatown, but that’s how we’re listing it. Extraordinary soups.

Rainbow Kitchen – giving China MaMa a run for its dumplings in the Chinese food supremacy department.

Rincon Buenos Aireswe forgot about RBA until we popped in for lunch a month ago. We had also forgotten about how piquant their chimichurri sauce is, and how the “lomo completo” sandwich (below) is one of the best meat and carbo loads ever:

Image(Complete with meat that’s tough to beat)

Weera Thai Kitchen – speaking of piquant: it’s tough to beat this en fuego menu of Thai street classics. Not for gringos and that’s the way we like it.

Outliers of Excellence

Image

Note: These are not exactly convenient unless you live near their ‘hood, but if you do, you should be ducking in to one for a midday bite on a regular basis.

Jamon JamonI don’t know what behooves Rafael Salines Catalá to stay open weekdays for lunch but I’m damn glad he does.

Image(Hot diggity Danish!)

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – is finally unshackled by Covid restrictions, and is hitting its stride with Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches and a Danish hot dog to beat the band. Those tiny shrimp alone are worth the trip to Henderson.

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill – opened in the midst of the pandemic, in a weird-ass location with failure written all over it. Hopes are higher for this incarnation — the seafood is just too damn good. Classy/funky little build-out, too (sea above).

Win Kee Hong Kong Noodle & BBQ – Chinese ‘cue, soups and seats that make you think you’re in a Hong Kong alleyway. Criminally cheap, too.

>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<

So why am I such a lunch lush these days? Some of it has to do with age and digestion — I find big evening meals simply don’t sit that well with my iron stomach, and can impinge on a good night’s sleep, even without wine.

Secondly, when I travel, I’ve found the great dining destinations of Europe to be friendlier, cheaper, and easier to access for the midday meal. Even a three hour repast at some destination dining palace leaves you plenty of time to walk it off and see the sights.

In Vegas, quite frankly, dinner on the Strip bores me. Have you tried parking there recently? MGM properties are the worst and Caesars isn’t far behind. Valet now costs $25+ at most hotels, and even on weeknights, getting in and out of the garages on the south Strip is a pain in the ass. (It was a pain in the ass even in the best of times, but at least it was free.)

Since 1998, I probably haven’t gone 4 weeks without stopping into the Bellagio. Now, I haven’t been in 6 months and still don’t see any reason to return.  What’s the point? To watch drunk day-clubbers stagger around?

The only reason to hit Caesars is Restaurant Guy Savoy. (Who exactly gets a boner over Bobby Flay doing Italian these days? No gastronome I know.) The shitshow that is Mandalay Bay? Are you kidding me? All the good places in these former dining destinations are either closed, on the rocks, or open for dinner, “Thurs-Sun 5 pm-10 pm.” Yeesh.

There’s a reason you find me these days hanging out at the Venetian/Palazzo, Wynn/Encore, and Resorts World and those reasons are: welcoming environment(s), ease of access, and most of all, good food…available at noon.

See you at lunch.

Image(See what you’re missing by eating at your desk?)

Las Vegas Italians Up the Ante

Menu - La Strega - Italian Restaurant Las Vegas(Our Italians are finally putting on some mussels. Sorry.)

Ed. note: The following article appeared last week in John Mariani’s The Virtual Gourmet. Click here to read it in its original form.

Italian cuisine never goes out of style, and Las Vegas boasts its share of forgettable pasta palaces. But new entries – aiming for authenticity over the ersatz — have re-set the paradigm of quality when it comes to this much-abused food. While the tourist corridor has seen two famous, big city off-shoots plant their flags in the last year, off-Strip neighborhoods have been enriched by chef-driven (rather than red sauce-drenched) ristorante, and food all of them deliver is as stunning as a Ligurian sunset.

La Strega Archives — Being John Curtas

LA STREGA 

3555 S. Town Center Drive Ste 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702-722-2099

 Mediocre Italian restaurants are as common in Las Vegas as slot machines. So it’s big news when an off-Strip restaurant opens with ambitions of doing Amalfi Coast tasting menus, Roman-style artichokes, and pitch-perfect Neapolitan pastas. Throw some superior seafood into the mix, and you have a recipe for being packed every five nights a week and impossible to get into for Sunday brunch.

Gina Marinelli is the talent behind these menus and she’s serving them for over a year from an open kitchen in one of the sleekest rooms in town. Her knack with noodles has made her a celebrity among local pasta hounds, and her facility with fish is not far behind. She travels all over the Italian map, keeping her food seasonal and her customers intrigued, unlike few, if any, local Italians ever have.

Showing her range, Marinelli offers a first rate fritto misto (with calamari and rock shrimp) alongside rigatoni Bolognese, Lombardian scarpniocc, and Tuscan short ribs. Octopus is sparked by Calabrian peperoncino, while her tricolor salad (salami, mortadella, pesto, tomatoes) somehow manages to makes a kitchen sink of ingredients sing in harmony.

La Strega — Gaby J Photography

Everyone sources Nigerian prawns these days, but Marinelli dresses hers up without overdoing it – by floating them in a lobster broth of just enough intensity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Dressings on the salads are equally demure — whether they be a sweet-sour accent to crunchy pazanella, or bitter frisée greens enhanced with a subtly tart vinaigrette and an unctuous poached egg. The Witch’s Garden of fresh veggies, to be dipped in whipped chickpeas, is at its peak in summer, and looks almost too good to eat.

Pastas change with the seasons, as does most of the menu, but that rigatoni is gut-busting (in all the right ways) no matter what time of year. It hews close to a classic Bolognese, while some of the lighter offerings (spaghetti pomodoro with blistered tomatoes, linguine vongole with Manila clams, preserved lemon and chives) tweak the recipes just enough to peak your interest without losing the soul of what made them famous. When available, the bucatini Genovese – a tangle of dandelion pesto, potatoes and green beans – is a lip-smacking example of how Marinelli innovates without losing the subtle rhythms of Italian cooking.

LA STREGA, Las Vegas - Menu, Prices, Restaurant Reviews ...

Big proteins are well represented – roast chicken with rapini, whole fish (usually branzino) stuffed with herbs, the obligatory sirloin – but it’s in the appetizers, pastas and salads where this kitchen really shines. Pizzas subscribe to the more is more philosophy of toppings, but there’s no denying the quality of the crust or cornicione.

Back when bars were allowed to act like bars, this was one of the liveliest in the ‘burbs. The craft cocktails are just as good these days, only now you have to take them at your table. You won’t find much to complain about on the wine list, either – it being manageable with prices well-underneath what you pay for the same bottles twelve miles to the east.

The cannolis filled with house-made ricotta are worth a trip all by themselves.

La Strega is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. and for weekend brunch. Appetizers and salads are priced from $7- $20, pizzas and pastas are in the $15-$25 range, big proteins run from $26 (chicken) to $72 (sirloin), and $8 for dessert.

Image

MATTEO’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

Matteo’s aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined fashion. Without the pedigree of Cipriani, what it does it does well, at a friendly price point with lots of options. It began its run in Las Vegas as an offshoot of The Factory Kitchen, a popular Los Angeles Italian once located in an actual abandoned factory. What was groovy and hip in LA made no sense in Vegas, so, less than a year after opening, the name was changed to give more of a clue to the Italian cuisine served.  Thankfully, they didn’t change a thing about the food, which includes some of the best pasta in town.

The wine list is of manageable size and almost entirely Italian, with  well-chosen bottles, priced to drink, rather than to soak the high rollers. There are plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil, the real deal from Liguria, with herbaceousness to burn and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next week. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just as in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those earthy notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up that awesome olive oil, you’ll confront a menu with dishes you may never have heard of— ortolana; peperú; sorrentina,  and mandilli di seta sit beside those you have— carpacciofritturapappardelle, branzino.,  all of them eye-popping and mouth-dropping; all are translated into English.

Image(They had us at “brown butter sage ravioli”)

Over a dozen starters are offered, covering the Italian map from north to south. Surprises abound, such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), and the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto fanned out in slices sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics that Italian food achieves effortlessly when the ingredients are right. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

The other starter is the “sorrentina” — Chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy. Grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans are enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing.

Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they are, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha-roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good ingredients, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate.

Image

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-thin noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above) will be a revelation to those who’ve spent any time in the Cinque Terre. Likewise, the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples.  Pastas are all fairly-priced between $21-$31) and meant to be shared. Executive Chef Eduardo Perez (who held the fort down for years at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo), executes this menu to a degree of faithfulness far beyond what you find at most of the other Italians in the Venetian/Palazzo complex, most of which are skewed to the Cedar Rapids crowd.

You may probably stuff yourself on those pastas but if self-control takes hold, save room for the lamb chops, which are superb, as is the branzino, the veal, and the 16 oz. ribeye steak.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re made in-house and fantastic.

Open for lunch and dinner, with starters ranging from $10-$25; pastas from $21-$36; main courses $32-$54. The wine list is heavily Italian, organized by regions, and marked up far less than its competition.

Image

 CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702-770-7390

You don’t go to Cipriani because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy.

The restaurant is there to serve you but has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows an aria from Madame Butterfly. In its original incarnation Cipriani has been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully for decades. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like most Americans probably have never tasted before.

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that traces its lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice, founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani—the grandfather of the family—and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. Giuseppe was fond of saying he deliberately made Harry’s Bar hard to find, because he wanted people to go there “on purpose.”

Cipriani Restaurant | Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Resort

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani-run restaurant in the world, stretching from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. Las Vegas’s Cipriani references the look of the original but spruces it up more than a bit to give the premises a flashy sense of urbanity the original has only by way of reputation. (First timers to Harry’s Bar in Venice often walk through the almost-hidden side door, look around and say “This is it?”) Where the original boasts only ten low-slung tables in its main room and a modest eight-seat bar, with faded furniture, pale yellow walls and a few windows you can barely see out of, the “copies” around the world polish things to a fare thee well. The tables are still low, but the bold tan, white, and dark blue color scheme bespeaks a nautical, unpretentious elegance that you will slip into like a pair of well-worn Ferragamos.

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will. Arrigo Cipriani, Giuseppe’s son, in his written history of Harry’s Bar, explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-nine years on, the details still matter. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy décor—all polished woods and gleaming brass—makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Before you get to the menu, you will first have a Bellini—a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” He then named it after the 15th Century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.  They cost $17 in Vegas, more in Venice, and they’re pretty small, but an essential part of the experience.

After your Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio, the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, this one from 1950, stemming from some  “ravishing countess” whose doctor said she couldn’t eat cooked meat. Cipriani simply pounded a raw filet paper thin and dressed it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce, naming it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, whose works happened to be on exhibition in Venice at the time.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.) The list is of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these is what springs to mind when most Americans think “Italian food.”

Of things not to be missed are the baby artichokes “alla Romana” and the Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta). Americans usually resist the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich, but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

Image

Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold Vitello tonnato, an umami-rich, meat-meets-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer. Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by beautiful shrimp (above), plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia—a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two to four and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure could become habit forming. It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragù as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or been baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle, another signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like a Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver alla Veneziana, a dish the  Venetians claim to have invented, but, as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin.”

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease Americans, no doubt),  and they are quite good, but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Image(You gelato be kidding!)

Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-y gelato you have ever tasted.

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor elitist. It is Italian style made accessible; simple, sophisticated food served with panache. There is a seductive, reassuring quality to its flavors and atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. But Cipriani is not for everyone. You have to go there on purpose.

 Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers and pastas running $14-$34, main course  $30-$64.  The $29 prix fixe lunch is a steal.

BONUS FEATURE!!

As an added bonus for those who are craving Italian these days, here is a complete list of my favorite ristorante in Las Vegas. These are the best of the best; they are also the only places I will go to when I crave a fix of Italy (in no particular order):

Monzù (go for the pizzas; stay for the Sicilian specialties)

Allegro (a gem of Neapolitan cooking in the Wynn)

Esther’s Kitchen (the bread, the wine, the pastas, that steak)

Osteria Fiorella (just opened last month at Red Rock Hotel and Casino, destined for greatness)

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (the granddaddy of them all still has its fastball)

Casanova (in The Venetian – get the cioppino)

Spago (gorgeous, hand-made pastas)

Costa di Mare (go fish….for more than just seafood)

Carbone (take a crowd, and a second mortgage)

These also happen to be the only Italians open right now. A few others out there are either closed, in flux, or have futures which are in doubt (e.g. Eataly, Rao’s et al). Sorry if I offend your favorite pasta palace, but most of them are cheap and lousy and you know it. Others, like Sinatra in the Wynncore, and a few others on this list, are just plain boring and you know that, too.