Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

Image(Restaurant of the Year)

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.

Image(2007 aka The Stone Age)

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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What’s For Lunch?

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Is a proper sit-down lunch in Las Vegas as obsolete as Wayne Newton?

Well, yes and no.

Las Vegas is a different kettle of fish from other gastronomic destinations. Here, thousands of tourists create their own kind of midday meal boom, and the noon hour is when many of them are waking up, or roaming a convention hall.  Because of this, many of our best restaurants are closed for lunch — the thinking being that tourists are either sleeping, shopping or too hungover to be bothered. Hard to argue with that logic.

Thus are the lunchtime pickings slim unless you’re in the right hotel, or close to downtown, or within a chopstick of Chinatown. Out in the ‘burbs it’s positively depressing, as almost nothing but franchised food exists to satisfy your afternoon cravings.

But if you’re looking for a good lunch you’ve come to the right place, pilgrim, because yours truly is the king of the midday meal. My 3-hour liquid lunches are legendary, and the best places to grab a plate of tasty vittles are always on my radar when those hunger pangs strike around 11:30 am each day.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to divide my lunches into two categories: power lunches and foodie favorites. The first is for those quiet business meetings that are always more digestible in a nice setting. The second are establishments (some more exotic than others) where the food takes precedence over the decor.

Put another way: the first group is where I go for my big deal meals, and the second is where I eat every day when the sun is highest in the sky.

Image(Nothing says “power lunch” like a blizzard of white truffles)

POWER LUNCHING

Cipriani – The day it opened it was the place to be for hi-falutin’ meetings, or just to munch on some of the best pastas in town. The top-shelf service is the equal of those noodles, and makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Capital Grill – A chain steakhouse but a great one, with white tablecloths, good service, decent beef, and nice lunch specials.

Ferraro’s – Movers and shakers aplenty populate these tables at noon. Most of them are too busy with business to notice how good the food is.

Old Soul – Quiet, secluded, a bit dark and very cozy —  the perfect place to conduct a hush-hush meeting (or an affair) — although some of us prefer to concentrate on Natalie Young’s fried oysters and superb soups.

Image(Icelandic cod “Hong Kong” style at Spago)

Spago – Beautiful setting; fabulous food; lots of dudes in suits. Also lots of terribly dressed tourists. Pay neither any attention and concentrate on your fish dish (above) or a wienerschnitzel straight from Vienna.

Eiffel Tower Restaurant – Dinner is packed with young couples celebrating their starter marriages. Lunch is calmer and less delusional.

Delmonico – Great steaks, luxurious surroundings, an awesome burger, and a world-beating wine list make for a hushed, elegant midday repast. It’s never crowded and the food tastes the same as dinner…only the prices are easier to swallow.

Top of the World – Way too touristy for anyone who isn’t a tourist, and the food isn’t in the same league as the view, but the view is spectacular. As with Mon Ami Gabi, it’s harder to get to than a Himalayan ashram, but the payoff is worth it.

Morel’s – Morel’s flies under the radar, but it’s my first choice when a group of hungry guys ask me where they should chow down at noontime.

Marché Bacchus – Al fresco dining so nice you’re liable to forget yourself and spend the afternoon drinking bottle after bottle from its wonderful wine list. But enough about me.

Image(Don’t flounder, clam up, or shrimp from your duties – take your grouper to Milos for lunch )

Estiatorio Milos – Fresh off the boat fish (above) that doesn’t cost a fortune between 11:30-2:30, as long as you stick to the lunch specials (around $30/pp). Always as packed in tight as those fish, so go early or reserve ahead.

Veranda at the Four Seasons – a South Strip staple where the elite meet to eat.

Image(Sea bass en croute at EATT)

FOODIE FAVORITES

Mon Ami Gabi – It’s a pain in the ass to get to (unless you’re staying on the Strip), but the steak frites and people watching are worth the walk.

Esther’s Kitchen – Downtown’s favorite lunch spot is too loud at peak times, so go after the gold rush…around 1:00.

EATT – Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in some ways I prefer the lighter, healthier fare here to that of its fancier sibling Partage.

Lotus of Siam – It’s easier to get a table at lunch, before the crowd of idiot Instagrammers (and those that heard from someone who heard from someone who heard from someone that it was good) has descended.

Image(Pristine and very Japanese)

Raku Sweets – Only open on weekends for lunch, but everything from the potato salad to the omelette to the tomato soup (above) will blow you away. The pastries are in a league of their own.

7th & Carson – New chef Sammy DeMarco is set to bring this place into the spotlight.

China Mama – A steamer full of xiao long bao is just about the perfect noontime nosh.

Carson Kitchen – This downtown pioneer hasn’t lost its (food) fastball. The noise level is deafening, however.

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Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar – Just started opening for lunch a few weeks ago and it’s a killer…with a not-to-be-missed dry-aged burger (above).

Mabel’s BBQ – More relaxed at lunch, which also gives you the rest of the day to digest those ginormous platters of smoked meat.

Jaleo – I sometime forget Jaleo is open for lunch; I’m glad I forget because otherwise I’d be here all the time.

New Asian BBQ Tang Kung Ky – My new go-to for superior dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled noodles straight from Taiwan, by way of UNLV (the owner is a graduate).

Image(Small but mighty – Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – The newest spot on my lunch rotation (above); Angelo Reyes seamlessly combines Latino cuisines in a tiny restaurant that punches way above its weight.

Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer – Best. Tacos. In. Town. Why do I have to keep telling you these things?

The Goodwich – Sometimes, only one of these hand-tooled sandwiches (below) will do.

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That should get you started, pilgrim. After you’ve hit each of these a few times, let me know and I’ll point you to a few more favorites.

TRÉS CAZUELAS is the Best Restaurant You Haven’t Been To

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At first glance you might think Trés Cazuelas has the worst location in town.

But what seem to be liabilities are actually assets.  Yes, it’s tucked into a corner of a worn out building that houses the Sand Dollar Lounge and not much else. True, it faces an industrial side street only used by commercial trucks and crafty cab drivers. And of course there is zero bustle and no buzz in the neighborhood. Curb appeal is negligible; pedestrian traffic nil.

But look again, pilgrim. The Strip is only a half-mile east; Chinatown’s food mecca beckons a quarter mile west. Large open windows face that street, and behind them something cozy and comforting this way comes. Parking is a breeze (you pull up right to the front door), and as soon as you step inside, smells of moles, chipotles, and achiote waft over you.

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The place is tiny — no more than 40 seats — but the tables are well set and sturdy, the chairs are comfortable, and the vibe is as if you’ve found the coziest cantina on a Guadalajaran side street.

Fresh-made warm chips and three dips (spicy mayo, pickled onions, and habanero chile-mix, above) greet you, and it takes about three seconds to forget all about the industrial park outside.

Image(Great food while you’re getting your brakes re-lined across the street)

Decisions are easier at lunch than dinner. You can opt for burrito stuffed with al pastor pork or eggs or chicken or one of the usual suspects, or (our choice) head straight for the rotating cast of cazuelas (cauldrons) that change everyday.

Image(I like my food in threes)

Monday finds your cute little trio of bowls filled with tinga de pollo, longaniza en salsa verde, and bistec en chile pasilla, while Wednesday (above) presents fork-tender pork ribs in ancho chile sauce, green mole chicken, and strips of beef amplified by beans, bacon and pepper. You really can’t go wrong with any of these guizados (braised meats), and three of them for $15 is a steal.

And did I mention that the house-made corn tortillas are worth a visit all by themselves?

Image(The best, Jerry. The best!)

Dinner is where this minuscule kitchen punches way above its weight. You will start with guacamole tinged with habanero (above) because it might be the best in town. From there you can’t go wrong with any of the tapas or apps.

We were partial to the garlicky gambas al ajillo, queso fundido, and organic beet carpaccio, but other beauties like a single lamb chop “moruño” (redolent of cumin and coriander), a nice (if small) crabcake, and roasted corn (off the cob) “esquites”, all compete for your attention. The very Spanish papas bravas also do owner Angelo Reyes’ Latin heritage proud, as do his Churrasco Argentino (short rib skewers), and a tart, chunky mahi mahi ceviche.

Image(Positively pulchritudinous paella)

Main dishes are large and mostly meant for sharing — whether you’re getting more of those lamb chops, or diving into a clay pot roasted chicken perfumed by rosemary-garlic sauce, or tucking into more seafood paella (above) than any four-top can handle.

Image(Allium avoiders beware)

A rib eye “Del Torero” (above) is the most expensive thing on the menu ($39), and comes shingled with garlic chips and coated with chimichurri — both announcing the “no prisoners” approach this kitchen takes with its seasonings and spices.

Which is why you come here. Not for some namby-pamby attempt to make Latin cuisine(s) palatable for gueros — these Hispanic dishes strut their stuff, smacking you left and right with garlic, herbs, chilies and spices in full flower.

If Trés Cazuelas has anything in common with its Chinatown neighbors, it is in the honesty and integrity of its cooking. You might as well ask Chengdu Taste to dispense with Szechuan peppercorns as wanting Reyes to dial back the cilantro. This is they way these dishes are supposed to taste, and if you don’t like it, adios muchacho.

The dense flan comes sprinkled with Mexican sea salt, and the coffee, by LaVazza, is excellent as well. The wine list is short, well-chosen and well-priced.

So why haven’t you come here yet, gringo? Because it’s tucked into a next-to-nothing building on a forlorn corner on the cusp of Chinatown? That’s no excuse. If you love pan-Latin cooking the way they’re supposed to be, and can’t resist a great tortilla, and are tired of dumbed-down, warmed-over verdes and pathetic pasillas, then you owe it to yourself to get here pronto.

Lunch for two will run around $30-40; dinner about double that. Despite what the sign says, they no longer serve breakfast.

TRÉS CAZUELAS

3355 W. Spring Mountain Road #35

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.370.0751