The Mind of a Restaurant Critic

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When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk. For that, the user reviews on Yelp are beyond useless….So there in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to. – Josh Ozersky

The two questions I get asked most frequently are, 1) How did you become a restaurant critic? and 2) How do you decide where to go…. and how do you critique a restaurant once you’re there?

That’s actually three questions, but for the purpose of this piece we’ll treat the last two as a single inquiry into the my machinations and methodology used when reviewing restaurants.

Regarding question #1: I’ve gone through the story of how I became a critic so many times even I am tired of telling it. The fastest explanation is best summarized by the axiom “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Vegas in 1994 was extremely near-sighted when it came to food, and yours truly was the only one urging our local press to wake up and smell the celebrity chefs. Thankfully, KNPR- Nevada Public Radio was hep to the idea of commentary on our burgeoning restaurant scene, and a (second) career was launched. Click here if you’re interested in some of my (now ancient) reviews.

If you’re interested in spending a few minutes inside the mind of a critic, read on.

Many ask if there is some sort of master plan in how I go about my reviewing business? A highly detailed outline of restaurants charted days, weeks, months in advance for possible exploration, delectation, and possible evisceration. In a macro sense, the first half of the year is spent scouting new territory; the middle three months (summer) is spent writing/updating EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants. Once the final copy is in around September/October, and once I weigh in on Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards issue, I then spend a couple of months (November-December) trying to lose a few pounds (good luck with that).

On a micro-level, it’s much more ad hoc than you think — a mixture of ear-to-the-ground interest in what’s new, blended with a need to revisit old haunts to see if they’re still up to snuff.

These days my attention centers upon all the action downtown and in Chinatown. Kaiseki Yuzu just opened in its new digs on Spring Mountain Road, and another kaiseki joint is coming hot on its heels, soon to pop its doors on Decatur and SMR in the next month. Apparently there’s an udon noodle bar on West Flamingo that slipped through my attention cracks, and the just-opened ShangHai Taste needs a return since my initial visit only a few days into its run.

Such are the thoughts running through my brain at any moment.

Competing in this crowded space are sugar plums awaiting at the soon-to-open Main Street Provisions and the new Good Pie — two highly-anticipated, chef-driven joints just days away from boosting the Main Street dining scene.

And oh, by the way, someone told me to check out the food at Able + Baker brewpub, and Sheridan Su’s new concept…and isn’t it high time I gave vegetarian tacos a try at Tacotarian?

(Side joke that practically wrote itself: Me, walking past the almost-empty Tacotarian last night: “Why are there no customers in the vegetarian taco joint?” Friend of Me: “Because it’s a vegetarian taco joint.”)

Also swimming through these synapses are yearnings for return visits to tried and true favorites. I really don’t need to go back to Sage, Bardot Brasserie, Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Guy Savoy to remind myself how tasty they are, but their menus beckon me like the seductive song of a siren. Odysseus may have strapped himself to a mast to resist his temptations, but my only restraints are time and my waistline.

The older I get, the more I realize how my appetite for restaurants usually splinters into one of three shards when the stomach growls: there’s the curious (“I need to try check out _____)”), the complacent (“Let’s go to an old favorite”), and the conscientious (“Duty demands I revisit ______, even though I have -0- interest in doing so.”) Thus am I compelled, sometimes, to haul my ass to some far corner of the Vegas valley to check out a chef, or recheck that I either still like or loathe someplace. (It was this motivation that led me to embark on a cook’s tour of classic Las Vegas restaurants a few years ago….a trek for which my stomach still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Having decided on where, the next issue is how. As in: How do I size up the places I write about?

Before I go any further, let’s start by stating I am well aware of the subjectivity involved in judging anything that involves personal taste — be it food, fashion, music, or movies. If you like your burgers well done I feel sorry for you, but you are not wrong.

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I could argue with you that you’re not experiencing your burger’s inherent juicy, tangy, deep-roasted wonderfulness by eating it one step removed from a piece of desiccated charcoal, but if that’s how you like it, so be it. What I will do is explain that the full flavor of the meat is being shortchanged by a chef who either doesn’t know or care to lift the patty off the grill at the “right” time. In this sense, I am merely reflecting popular wisdom (and perhaps my own prejudices) about when beef tastes best.

But there are standards in cooking and restaurant operation (just as there are in music performance and movie production). All a food critic does is try to hold a restaurant to them.

All a restaurant review does is filter a consumer product through his own prism. A writer should never lose sight his own prejudices, lest the focus of the review become more about him than what is on the plate. I strive to remember this unless, of course, you are dead wrong about liking some shitty Italian restaurant, or gluten-free anything.

As for the standards I try to uphold, the criteria is much different for new v. old.

At an old favorite, I let my guard down and take a lot for granted. All I’m there for is to confirm that the place hasn’t lost its fastball.

A new joint gets the full once-over: from the lighting to the silverware to the taste of the water they pour.

How’s the greeting? Where is the greeting? Is it awkward? Polished? Sure, they might know me, but how are those three ladies right behind me addressed? Does it feel good in there? Do you get a feeling of comfort and warmth when you enter, or something more cool and aloof?

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What about the chairs? The booths? The depth of the seats? Their width? Do you stick to them? Slide off? Does the table wobble? (Iconic old eateries get a pass here; brand new ones, not so much.)

Is the design unique? (Hatsumi) DIY? (Elia Authentic Greek Taverna) Beautiful? (Lamaii, Weera Thai Kitchen) Hackneyed? ( Majordomo) Or does it fit the food? (Rao’s) (BTW: nothing gets graded on steeper curve than decor. Local joints hanging on by a thread get a lot more leeway than Strip hotels who pay millions to come up with the hideous cruise ship look (Lago), or a coffee shop/bus station (the otherwise excellent StripSteak).

Is the place too big? (Usually, yes, e.g. Mott 32) Or too small? Or poorly laid out?

Can you hear yourself think? Does the music intrude? How energized is the staff? Are they working in silent, satisfied synchronicity? (They should be.) There is a hum that great restaurants exude — it can be almost silent as in the case of a haute cuisine frog pond, or close to a cacophonous roar in some over-amplified gastropub — but you know it when you hear it, and it means the place is firing on all cylinders. (If you want to hear what I’m talking about, go to Cipriani sometime.)

What about the napkins? (Polyester? Paper? Real cotton?) The plates? How close are the tables? Does the bar serve food? Does it look comfortable doing so? Would a single diner be happy eating there? Did they spend money on the glassware, or do it on the cheap?

How uncomfortable are the bare tables? Are they naked as a design statement? Or because of an impecunious proprietor?

And while we’re at the table, how clean was it when you sat down? Still wet from a wiping? And how long has it been since those place-mats were steam-cleaned?

Does it smell like a restaurant? Or is the ventilation so good you could be in a library?

Is the staff alert? Young? Old? Happy to be there or biding their time until the Culinary Union calls? Snappily dressed or slovenly? (A staff in t-shirts can look sharp; frayed-around-the-edges formal wear is fooling no one.)

Is there an adult in charge? Or are a bunch of 20-somethings aimlessly looking for direction?

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Does that adult help with service? Busing of tables? If a table is in distress, does the manager, or another waiter offer to help, or give you that “it’s not my station, I’ll go find your waiter” look? How fast do the menus arrive? How chatty (too much or not enough) is the waiter?

Can they handle a corkscrew? (You’d be surprised how clueless some waitrons are. This is not their fault. It shows a lack of training, which shows a lack of caring….by management.)

While we’re on the subject: How seamless is the transition from water to cocktails to wine?

Then check out the least sophisticated table in the place. Are they happy? Being treated with respect? Frustrated? Acting intimidated? If the latter, how patient is the staff (or the harried bartender) being with them?

Lastly, and most importantly, is it a passion restaurant or a money restaurant? (Esther’s Kitchen is a passion restaurant; Ada’s – its offshoot – is a money restaurant.)

Then there’s the menu. Easy to read? All over the map? Too descriptive? Minimalist? Too cute? Full of cliches? Tourist friendly or gastronomically challenging? Or a little of both? Can you parse the  the food from the card before you, or will you require the assistance of a soothsayer, shaman, and a polymath’s transliteration to figure it out?

Automatic deductions for roasted beets, salmon, scallops, and chicken breasts. Bonus points for offal, strange birds, good soups and singular focus.

Believe it or not, I process most of this information in about 90 seconds.

I’ve usually filed away the answers in the Rolodex of my mind before the food even arrives.

And then it does and then it’s a whole new ballgame. But you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that process.

This is the first of a two-part article.

 

Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

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

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

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

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

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

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

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

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

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

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

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

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

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

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

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

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

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

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

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

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

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

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

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

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

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

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

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MOTT 32

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Chinese food used to be everywhere and nowhere. Every town had one; no one paid much attention to them.

Those of us of a certain age remember Chinese food as it used to be — slightly mysterious, slightly boring, and ubiquitous.

Today, if TED talks are to be believed, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King combined.

There isn’t a backwater anywhere in America that doesn’t sport at least one Chinese restaurant. In places as far flung as rural Texas, godforsaken South Dakota,  or suburban New Jersey  — there would always be a “Jade Palace” or “Chang’s Garden” holding down the corner of a building, slinging their stir-frys and satisfying customers with gloppy sauces and kung pao predictability.

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In many of these places, the family running the joint (and make no mistake, the entire family worked there) would be the only Chinese-Americans in town. Like many poor immigrants, they were shunned at first and had to find work where they could. And feeding people (themselves included) was one business readily available. So the Chinese spread throughout America in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing their tasty-if-predictable food with them. And for about 150 years, things stayed pretty much the same.

Like many Americans, I didn’t discover Chinese food until I left home as a young adult. (I don’t think the idea of going to a Chinese restaurant ever occurred to my parents.) I remember thinking how strange moo goo gai pan was the first time I tasted it. Ditto, shiny roast Chinese turkey, won ton soup and a host of other standards. What was chop suey? And what were these strange, slick, shiny sauces on everything? Who was this Foo Young character, and why was he deep-frying my eggs and bathing them in brown gravy? Confused I was, but intrigued as well.

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Making things worse (and almost blunting my enthusiasm entirely) was a concoction put out by La Choy called Chicken Chow Mein— which was probably many American’s introduction to non-restaurant Chinese food. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that La Choy did for China’s gastronomic reputation what Mao Tse-Tung did for high fashion. Amazingly, even though one of the founders of La Choy was killed by lighting (a sign from the heavens, no doubt, concerning his product), it perseveres.

Thus did generations of Americans learn about this cuisine through a cultural prism refracting decades of tribulation, compromise and synthesis, until the red-gold, banquet hall Chinese-American restaurant became as familiar as an old shoe…and just about as interesting.

(Hot and sour Shanghainese xiao long bao)

All of that started to change in this century, as almost by sheer weight of China’s cultural muscle did its various cuisines start to assert themselves on the American palate. In place of egg rolls came xiao long bao. Candied spare ribs suddenly took a back seat to cumin lamb skewers, and dry-fried this and boiled that became the order of the day, with luminous, supercharged Sichuan fish opening up our sensibilities as well as our sinuses.

If the 19th and 20th centuries represents American-Chinese food’s birth and growing pains, then the 21st century is truly version 3.0 — with a blossoming of taste awareness and appreciation that this cuisine’s great great grandparents could only dream off. The textural subtleties of Canton province have been replaced by the noodles of the north, the dumplings of the east, and spices of the western plains. Regional differences are now celebrated, not glossed over in a sea of cornstarch, and intrepid fellow travelers scour the internet for the best bao, or the most luscious lamian. Knowing your chop suey from your chow mein is no longer enough, now one must be able to parse the fine points of jelly fish salad and fried pig intestines.

So, how does the novice reconcile all of these regional specialties into an easily digestible format? The hard way is to seek out little warrens of authenticity –the holes-in-the-wall in Chinatown (wherever you find a Chinatown) –where unique dishes are celebrated and compromises few.

Or, you can make it simple on yourself and go big box — in this case, with a trip to Mott 32 — the pan-Chinese restaurant that does to Chinese food what Morimoto did to Japanese cuisine a decade ago: present a modern menu in a hip, funky-cool space having more in common with a nightclub than any Chinese restaurant you’ve ever seen.

(Dinner and a show – this kitchen provides both)

Mott 32 seemed to pop up out of nowhere in 2014 in Hong Kong, and immediately asserted itself as a major player on the upscale Chinese restaurant scene. Its website is deliberately opaque about its origins, stating only that it is named after an address in New York City(?). It opened here around New Years and plans are underway for global, big-box Chinese restaurant domination. Singapore and Bangkok are next on the horizon. Vancouver and Dubai have already been conquered.

The glamour you’ll see from the get-go; the money behind these digs drips from every opulent detail. It takes about 10 seconds of checking out the fabrics and comfy booths to figure out that you’re no longer in “Wok This Way” territory. Giant doors off the casino floor lead to a broad and deep bar area, with an ocean of top-shelf alcohol on the shelves, ready to bathe the long bar with their magnificence alchemy into complicated cocktails. (I don’t much bother commenting on great cocktails anymore, because interesting libations are everywhere in Vegas these days. For the record, this bar’s A-game is better than most.)

The lighting is diffuse and muted, but not too much, and the young women dotting the place (at the hostess stand, behind the bar) are as sexy and shiny as a lacquered Chinese box. Dresses are short, black and tight, and the cleavage is so profound, this joint’s nickname ought to be Mott 32D.

Don’t let all the comeliness fool you, though, because the food is the tits as well.

With a bases-covering menu of everything from Cantonese dim sum to hand-pulled noodles to Peking duck ($108), the whole point of M32 is to present upscale Asian with fashion-forward cocktails, in a glamorous setting in hopes of enticing a stylish crowd to descend. The website touts its Cantonese roots, “with some Beijing and Szechuan influences in our signature dishes” — which explains the nightly dim sum (limited if great), and perhaps the best roasted duck you’ve ever eaten.

(Just ducky)

The duck ($108, above) is the centerpiece of every meal here and it deserves to be. The two-day process it takes to bring one to table produces a bronzed, brittle, gleaming skin having bite-resistance of a thin potato chip. There are decent Peking ducks all over town (Wing Lei, Jasmine, Blossom, New Asia BBQ and Mr. Chow spring to mind), but the effect here is an otherworldly contrast of moist, rich meat topped with a duck fat-slicked crisp. Duck doesn’t get any duckier — its only drawback is you should have at least four people at your table before you order it. When you’re asked how you want your second course — as a deep-fried duck “rack,” or minced meat in lettuce cups — insist upon the latter, as the former (above bottom right), is a waste of time and bones.

It’s a shame they aren’t open for lunch, because dim sum at dinner feels as strange as dried fish maw ($498/pp(!)) for breakfast. Those dried fish bladders are for Chinese high rollers who love their squishy, gelatinous texture. (Their appeal to the western palate is, shall we say, a bit elusive.)

The dim sum are more approachable, and you’ll find no better xiao long bao (here called Shanghainese soup dumplings) in Las Vegas. They come four to an order ($14), and you’ll want to try both the traditional pork and hot and sour versions — the latter providing plenty of punch.

Next to the dim sum and the duck, the Pluma Iberico pork (above, $42) gets pushed the most by the staff. It is dense with flavor, a bit too sweet, and juicy  — with as much in common with basic Chinese BBQ as that duck has with a McNugget. Before it arrives, you might want a few smaller plates, like the crispy dried Angus beef (below, $16), which comes out like a tangle of wispy, deep purple folds that shatter in the mouth with barely a bite. It is the barest gossamer beef, the antithesis of jerky. In another type of restaurant you might even call it molecular.

(We’re not in Panda Express anymore, Toto)

For those wishing something meatier, the Triple Cooked Wagyu Short Rib ($88) provides enough beef for four hungry souls to gnaw on…although its inclusion on the menu feels like the restaurant is (literally) throwing a bone to its conspicuous carnivorous customers.

Those not wanting to spring for a whole duck can get some shredded quacker in a Peking duck salad ($18) with black truffle dressing. Lighter appetites will appreciate the wild mushrooms in lettuce cups ($20), or thick slabs of deep-fried Sesame Prawn Toast ($18) — which, in bulk and pure shrimp-ness, redefines this usually bland standard.

Not many non-Chinese are going to drop two Benjamins on the kitchen sink soup known as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall  ($198), but hot and sour ($14) and won ton ($11) give plenty of soupy satisfaction for the price. If you’re dying to try fish maw, $68 gets you a cup of spongy, tasteless collagen. Yum!

In keeping with its Cantonese roots, there are plenty of expensive seafood options, none of which (abalone, sea cucumber, etc.) make much sense for Occidentals. But there’s plenty to love about the lobster “Ma Po Tofu” (above, $68) with its chunks of shellfish swimming with spicy/silky bean curd, as well as the smoked black cod ($42), and the poached fish (usually sea bass, $42) — floating in a Szechuan pepper broth —  makes up in refinement what it lacks in kick.

Just for grins and giggles, we ordered two old reliables — Kung Po Prawns ($38) and General Tso’s Chicken ($28) — on one of our four trips here, and they each were flawless, properly spicy and not too sweet. You’ll have no complaints about the nutty shrimp fried rice, either.

(The Cantonese love their custards)

Desserts got my attention as well. (When’s the last time that happened in a Chinese restaurant?) They feature the au courant (Bamboo Green Forest (top right, $16)) alongside the classical (Mango with Coconut (sticky) Rice Roll ($12) on the split (Modern/Classic) dessert menu. Even an old bean paste hater like me found myself slurping the pure white custard-like Double Boiled Egg White (bottom left, $12) , on top of some grainy/pasty Black Sesame something-or-other. The pastry chefs at Guy Savoy have nothing to worry about, but for a restaurant working within the Chinese vernacular, these are damn tasty.

Mott 32 is as slick as that duck skin, but no less satisfying.  The eclectic menu signifies that Chinese food has now taken a great leap forward into the promised land of high-end, gwailo dining dollars (something Japanese food did twenty years ago). Just because it’s a huge, expensive, well-financed chain doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed. The casual, luxurious vibe and ingredient-forward cooking are calculated to appeal to purists and tourists alike, and by and large, they pull it off.

More than anything else, though, Mott 32 represents a modern Chinese invasion. A China no longer burdened by its past; a cuisine no longer defined by egg rolls, fortune cookies and orange chicken. Whether you’re impressing a date or hanging with a crowd of conventioneers, you won’t find any better Chinese food in Las Vegas.

Like I said, this place is expensive. Expect to pay at least $100 for two (for food) unless you go crazy with the high-end, Chinese gourmet stuff, which you won’t. The wine list is Strip-typical, meaning: aimed at people with more money than brains. The somms are very helpful, and eager to point you to the (relative) bargains on the list, most of which go much better with the food than overpriced Cali cabs or chichi chardonnays. One of our four meals here was comped; another (for three) set us back 460 samolians, with a $100 bottle of wine.

MOTT 32

The Palazzo Hotel and Casino

3325 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.607.3232