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EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – Number Four

July 30, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews, Spring Mountain Road 3 Comments →


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We call this the best restaurant in town that everyone can afford.

It’s really two restaurants — the original Raku tucked in a corner of a small, Spring Mountain Road strip mall, and its sweet sister parked a few doors away in the same center — but conflating the two just makes delicious sense.

Raku and Sweets Raku aren’t simply places to eat; they are states of mind…and statements of quality and passion — qualities that can no longer be faked or phoned in in our humble burg. You can thank a Japanese émigré for this taste revolution (not some absentee celebrity chef who views Vegas like an easy access ATM machine), and the next great meal you have off the Strip — whether in a humble noodle parlor or a high-end “concept” joint, owes more than a nod to Endo-san’s continuting quest for perfection.

In a little more than six years, this unassuming place has become one of the toughest tickets in town—the little restaurant that could, as we like to call it—and internationally famous to boot.

What chef/owner Mitsuo Endo (pictured above at the launch party for the last printed edition of the book) has done with this tiny space is nothing short of create a revolution in Las Vegas dining. That he did it on a shoestring budget in a dumpy strip mall is all the more remarkable.

Japanese izakaya, oden, and robata cooking was virtually unheard of when Raku opened in early 2008, but with only his intense and authentic sensibilities to guide him, Endo has taught Las Vegas just how great Japanese cooking can be.

Highlights include the ayu nanbantsuke (a sweet marinated smelt) to true Japanese Kobe beef (when available) flamed on a hot stone with cognac. In between, you will encounter a whole sawagani crab and foie gras egg custard, cooked and served inside the egg, along with such stunners as the best sashimi we’ve had outside of BARMASA, and an ebishinjo (shrimp) soufflé enclosing a piece of uni (sea urchin) with an umami depth charge that could move the Richter scale.

Once you get done with those umami bombs, it’s a simple stroll across the parking lot to Sweets Raku to finish your meal on an high note, and we can’t think of a higher one — dessert wise — than this bright-white, pristine purveyor of French pastries made with a Tokyo twist.

After being seated at the white marble bar, you will be given an (edible – no kidding) menu to be dipped in the fresh berry sauce of the day. This should be done only after choosing your three, prix fixe courses from that night’s offerings. (No need to panic, the technique may be resolutely French, but the sensibilities are very, very Nipponese meaning: portions, fats and sugar content are judiciously used and designed to make you appreciate quality over quantity.

The menu changes seasonally (sometimes even more often), so if you wait too long after hearing about someone’s fork-dropping “Apollo” (chocolate and framboise mousse) or “Veil” (stuffed custard pie – a description that doesn’t tell the half of it):

…you may be disappointed that it’s been replaced on the menu. But don’t fret, because you have the ELV guarantee that its substitute will be equally jaw-dropping.

So keep an open mind, and be prepared to be dazzled by the best desserts in town, on or off the Strip. (If you have any doubt, check out the cheese course – an artistic presentation that should make every pastry chef (and every cheese-monger), at every food factory green with envy.)

Raku/Sweets Raku aren’t just two of the best restaurants off the Strip, they’re two (in one) of the best restaurants in town, period.

Favorite Dishes: Beef Liver Sashimi; Agedashi Tofu; Poached Egg With Sea Urchin And Salmon Roe; Tsukune Ball; Kurobuta Pork Cheek; Butter-Sautéed Scallop With Soy Sauce; Kaiseki Dinner; Les Fromages Japonaise; Basically, everything on the friggin’ menu at both venues.


5030 West Spring Mountain Road



5030 West Spring Mountain Road


EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – Number Three

July 29, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews No Comments →


Whenever yours truly gets discouraged at the state of the Las Vegas dining scene—with its surfeit of steakhouses, cynical, celebrity chef food factories, and bad Italian—it gruntles him to know that a seat at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is still a tough ticket. If you score a table at one of the 32 seats at the sleek and sexy bar, prepare to be dazzled by food as interesting and intense as anything in America or France.

For this you can say merci beaucoup to Executive Chef Steve Benjamin—who opened the joint in 2004 and oversees the kitchen crew dedicated to carrying out M. Robuchon’s obsessive perfectionist brilliance.

Be advised, the tariff can mount quickly if you order off the small tasting menu and gets stratospheric if you are tempted by l’entrecôte (Wagyu rib eye—$72 and worth every penny), but Joël and Steve take pity on mere mortals by offering $78 and $105 menus.

From your first bite of melting beef cheek with onion mustard sauce, or (believe it or not) L’Atelier-style spaghetti, your eyes will be rolling back in your head. To top it all off, you won’t find more impressive desserts anywhere in the world.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: L’Atelier is the best restaurant in town that mere mortals can afford.

Max Jacobson: “Les anchois (Spanish anchovies), artistically plated with sliced eggplant confit, has to be the best anchovy dish in the world.”

Favorite Dishes: Free-Range Quail With Foie Gras; Steak Tartare With Old-Fashioned French Fries; Truffled langoustine ravioli; Italian-Style Spaghetti; Seasonal French-Vegetable Salad. Hangar steak with frites; Mini-burgers with foie gras; Les anchois; Basically the whole friggin’ menu.


MGM Grand Hotel and Casino


EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – Number Two

July 29, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews No Comments →


In an Atlantic Monthly article entitled “Six Rules for Dining Out,” economist Tyler Cowen counseled avoiding any restaurant where “groups of people (especially beautiful women) are laughing loudly and having a good time.” Such an atmosphere indicates people are there for anything but the food.

Take solace in knowing that you will never encounter this at Guy Savoy. What you will find are gourmands and oenophiles taking their meal very seriously. Top toque Mathieu Chartron oversees all of the classics that made Guy famous—“Peas All Around,” artichoke truffle soup, and Guinea hen au cocotte—but also exotica like “Santa Barbara spot prawns caught in a sweet-and-sour fishnet” (a blanket of mesh-cut daikons), or wild salmon being “cooked” on a slab of dry ice—a conceit brought tableside that turns the fish into a density heretofore unknown by most fish lovers.

French chefs know foie gras like Koreans know cabbage and Chartron is no slouch in this arena either, offering small cubes of horseradish-topped foie over poached celery stalks dressed with “potato chip bouillon” that tastes exactly like it sounds. Put it all together with jaw-dropping bread-and-cheese carts, and you have food so impeccable that no one ever smiles—they’re too busy enjoying themselves.

Max Jacobson: “If pressed, I’d have to say I’d choose the intimate, art-filled Paris restaurant over this one for atmosphere, but what is on the plate is equal to Paris.”

Favorite Dishes: Marinated Grilled Hamachi With Egg-Sherry Vinegar; Eggplant Sherry And Radish Gelée; Oysters En Gelée. Pintade (guinea fowl); Peas All Around, Truffle-Artichoke soup; Colors of Caviar; Basically the whole friggin’ menu.


Caesars Palace


The 50 Essential Restaurants – Number One

July 28, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews No Comments →


Here it is food fans: The unbridled, unvarnished, unimpeachable list of the top 50 restaurants in Las Vegas. The essentials. In order of excellence. Unfettered by Max Jacobson’s loathing of all things Japanese, or Al Mancini’s insistence that a hamburger deserves the same respect as haute cuisine.

Yes, we have gone from a oligarchy to autocracy, but we at ELV prefer to think about it as a benign dictatorship — one that applauds substance, talent, and hard work over hype.

As owners of the book EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants will note, much of the text is taken from our portion of the book. But we have made cuts and edits where appropriate (e.g. Valentino has closed and Marche Bacchus lost its chef and the food there no longer warrants top ten status), and will roll out our current top 10, one at a time, over the next week or so.



I hate Joël Robuchon and his dastardly henchmen. Especially Claude Le Tohic and Steve Benjamin – I really hate those guys. They are evil wicked men who deserve to die, smothered in a glistening vat of torchon de foie gras of their own making.*

Night after night, they lay in wait. Beseeching me. Haunting my thoughts, tempting every fiber of my body. It starts with the Bordier butter. Then they hook me with the incomparable bread basket. “The first one’s free,” is what they whisper. From that point on, all resistance is futile. How can truffled langoustine taste any more of either? What devil worshipper concocted beef cheeks braised with red miso in cocotte?

Dishes like risotto of soybean sprouts or roasted duck and seared foie gras with cherries-and-kumquat compote lead me to the flame like a helpless hungry moth. This food is so intense and so faultless, it will destroy your capacity to appreciate anything less.

Someone needs to do something about how fat I am, and getting rid of this place would be a good place to start.

Favorite Dishes: Roasted Farm Chicken With Château Chalon Cooked In Cocotte; Delicate Green-Pea Cream With Fresh Mint And Bacon; Chocolate Ganache Topped With Carrot Coulis And Almond Ice Cream; Caramel Crème And Toasted Waffles Mixed With Fresh Berries And Swirled Vanilla Blackberry Ice Cream. Basically the whole friggin’ menu.


MGM Grand Hotel and Casino



* Uh…hold on…wait a minute….that’s the way I want to die.

This Just In: EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants to go On-Line

July 24, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Critics, Reviews, Travel 2 Comments →

  • Order the Eating Las Vegas Book Here

Attention all foodies and Las Vegas food fans. What remains of EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants will soon be available on this Web site.

By that we mean the portions written by yours truly will soon become an integral part of, and will be available for your delectation and commentation(?), as well as being continually updated by ELV to provide readers, locals and tourists with the most current information and opinion available on the top restaurants in town.

Our staff will soon be posting the entire text of our top 50 picks from the 2013 edition, and over the next few months we will endeavor to revise and update the list, restaurant by restaurant.

The first thing we’ll do, however, is publish a new list of our 50 Essential Restaurants — as soon as we’ve had the opportunity to glean through and edit the old one.

And finally, before you ask: Al Mancini had no interest in doing another book (so we’ll leave him to pursuits more befitting a man of his talents), and Max Jacobson continues on his slow road of recovery from his terrible accident. That’s why the book will continue with yours truly at the helm for the time being.

CARSON KITCHEN is Kerry’s Crowning, Crowd-Pleasing Achievement

June 30, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Food, Openings, Reviews 8 Comments →

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Kerry Simon and I have had a rather prickly relationship over the years. We both like each other on a personal level, but he hasn’t always liked what I’ve written and I haven’t always liked what he has cooked.

That said, we have a certain wary respect for the other’s craft — which usually leads us to warmly greet each other — even if, two minutes after hugs are exchanged, we start debating one of his recipes or one of my sentences.


GIADA – THE RESTAURANT (Where the Suits are Picking Up the Bill)

June 23, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Food, Openings, Reviews 16 Comments →

Squirrel Nut Zippers "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill" directed by Norwood Cheek from Norwood Cheek on Vimeo.

It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for a celebrity chef — especially one who’s led as charmed a life as Giada De Laurentiis – but that was our primary response after reading a recent article on her trials and tribulations in trying to get things done her way at Giada – The Restaurant.


GUY FIERI Gets It Done

May 29, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Events, Food, Openings, Reviews 5 Comments →

When you’re a human cartoon, it’s tough to be taken seriously.

When your pedigree springs from the louche environs of UNLV and the middle-brow banality of Johnny Garlic’s (not to mention those dens of sophistication: Sacramento, Santa Rosa and San Jose, et al, (wherein this franchise fits like stretch pants on a soccer mom), serious gastronomes consider your cooking  (if they consider it at all) unworthy of their time or calories.


DB BRASSERIE Deliciously Beckons

May 15, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Food, Liquor/Liqueur/Libations, Openings, Reviews, Wine 8 Comments →

ELV note: Daniel Boulud is back, and gastronomes everywhere are licking their chops. But before we dive into reviewing his new spot db Brasserie (opened just three weeks ago), perhaps a little history lesson is in order.

When it was announced ten years ago that Daniel Boulud would be coming to Las Vegas (at the Wynn Hotel and Casino), no one in Las Vegas was happier than yours truly. When the Daniel Boulud Brasserie opened there in May of 2005, no one was a bigger fan or more loyal customer.

When Philippe Rispoli — the on-premises chef de cuisine who made the restaurant hum — was shown the door in ‘o7, things went downhill rapidly. Between the Wynn’s wanting to steak-i-fy the place, and a kitchen crew that had neither the heart nor the chops for true French food, it was pretty much a relief when they closed the joint (on July 4, 2010), so as to no longer sully the name of one of America’s greatest chefs.

But Boulud — being neither a fool nor a bad businessman — knew there was still gold in them thar hills; he just needed the Great Recession to recede a bit more before throwing down for another try in our humble burg. This time he’s maintaining more control (he owns the restaurant in partnership with the hotel, we’re told), and this time he’s gonna stick.



April 07, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Food, Openings, Reviews, Spring Mountain Road 11 Comments →

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Lobster pho photo by Sam Morris

Eating Las Vegas has often wondered whether Vietnamese food in America is the ultimate revenge for that little dust-up we caused there in the 60s. They could never hope to outgun us, the thinking goes, so the expats figured they’d bore us to death with their cuisine.