Enough Already…

Whiskey Barrel Wood Block SMOKED Cocktail Gift Set image 0(Please god, Make. It. Stop.)

Smoke – No one likes smoked meats more than yours truly. But bread? Veggies? Cocktails? Butter? Ice? Banana pudding? (Yep, we had it once, in Austin, TX, natch.) When it comes to smoked foods, a little goes a long way (unless we’re talking beef brisket), and the gimmick has run its course.

Octopus – If another piece of octopus never touches these lips it will be too soon. If another waiter never comes to my table bringing the grilled tentacles of a dead cephalopod (which probably cost the restaurant 89 cents), I will jump for joy. The gleam in their eyes when they act like Neptune has anointed them special dispensation to shower us with rubbery nothingness is actually quite comical, considering that every upscale restaurant in the world seems to offer it these days.

Branzino – I’m old enough to remember when Mediterranean sea bass was a new thing in America (we’re talking mid-90s); now every chef in town trots them out like the fresh-caught king of the sea is being bestowed upon your table. When every restaurant you go to is shilling “branzino,” you know you’re being mass-marketed by a wholesaler with plenty of product. It’s almost enough to make us miss Orange Roughy.

And as long as we’re talking about being sick of seafood, how about…

Scallops in the shell

Scallops – are great, when they’re done correctly. And by “correctly” we mean being broiled whole, in the shell, with their roe (see above) — like they do in Europe. Sea scallop abductor muscles are the boneless, skinless chicken breasts of American cuisine. Every chef cooks them exactly the same way: crispy-browned on one side, sitting in the middle of a naked plate. This is because they (and their diners) are afraid of actual scallops. ADMIT IT.

Infeasibly large Nigerian prawns – God only knows why/when these things started to invade American menus (actually, we know: it was around four years ago). Now they’re more ubiquitous in Las Vegas than attorney billboards.

Curated cocktails – Just make me a decent drink with good booze and get over yourself.

Tacos – unless you’re Mexican. It is a scientific fact that you can’t make a good taco unless you speak with a slight Spanish accent. No one named Seamus McMullen ever made a taco worth eating.

Image(Made by real Mexicans at Milpa)

Every chef thinking he/she can barbecue – Unless you’re getting three hours of sleep a night, hauling whole hogs around, and are covered with more smoke than a northern Californian, you aren’t doing it right.

(Ken Spadey, doin’ it right)

“Tapas menu” – Unless you’re Spanish, stop it.

Tomahawk steaks – Bros and Bruhs love these odes to excess, served in temples to testosterone. Modern Vegas was made for them. Show me a table making a big deal over 40 ounces of meat and I’ll show you a group of douchebags. Give me a tasty strip or picanha steak any day.

Image(Picanha steak at 8East)

Natural wines – Don’t get me started. If I wanted to drink fetid feet, I’d ferment my sweaty socks.

Korean ketchup Unless you’re a Korean cooking Korean, you need to holster this luscious condiment and leave it to the experts. Non-Koreans playing with Korean flavors are as out of their depth as a short order cook at a sushi bar.

Bao – Unless you’re Chinese (or at least vaguely Asian), stop sticking everything imaginable inside of tiny buns! I know, I know: THASS RACESS!

Avocado toast – I know, I know: taking on avocado toast is trashing some pretty low-hanging fruit. Most of it is terrible, but the one exception? This bad boy at Johnny C’s Diner:

Image

Tataki – Thank you Nobu Matsuhisa, for giving every chef in America license to throw a tangy, vaguely Asian vinaigrette on some lightly-seared protein and call it original. “Ceviche” is almost as bad, but I’m too exhausted to complain about it right now.

Tartare’d everything – It started with steak, now it’s everything from tuna to avocado to beets. Calling it poke doesn’t get you off the hook. We realize attaching “tartare” to a foodstuff removes the sting of it being raw, but slapping a trendy name on something doesn’t make it special,

Obscure, weird-ass menu names Tatsoi, Dulse, Samphire, Tropaeolum tuberosum….we get it: you are ready to dazzle us with your out-of-the-box cooking and mastery of the inscrutable. But we’re here for dinner, not Google searches.

Under-cooked vegetables – This includes potatoes. You’d be surprised how many restaurants don’t know how long to cook a spucking fud.

Photo of Able Baker Brewing - Las Vegas, NV, United States. Beer Menu 1(Pacifiers not included)

Local brews – Face it: most Las Vegas-made beers taste like carbonated dishwater. FACT! The only time you’ll ever catch me telling people NOT to support locals is when they’re trying to drag me into a local brewpub. You can tell our water is all wrong for beer brewing because our suds landscape is littered with…

Infeasibly absurd beer flavors (see above) – You can tell how awful most made-in-Vegas brews are by the ridiculous additives (and juvenile/asinine names) they employ to get you to drink them. Pineapple-Curry-Spice Stout? Coming right up, sir!

Dumplings – unless you’re a dumpling restaurant.

Shishito peppers everywhere – Who decided this was a good idea?

Image

Deep-fried cauliflower – hasn’t quite yet jumped the shishito pepper/Brussels sprouts shark, but it’s close.

Crispy sweet-sour Brussels sprouts – Another way for chefs to push some cheap-ass bitter vegetable no one likes to try to boost their bottom line.

Quinoa – No one likes it; it tastes like cardboard ; it doesn’t go well with anything. The only people who order it are pansy-ass trend followers.

Word I Agree GIF by INTO ACTION

Keto – I don’t even know what the fuck it is, but I hate it.

Paleo anything – When I’m allowed to start dragging women around by the hair, I’ll start eating like a caveman.

Gluten-free – Are we done with all that celiac disease nonsense? (I know some people suffer, but most of you don’t, so get over it and eat a real pizza fer chrissakes.)

Calling anything “milk” that isn’t – Soy milk, almond milk, rutabaga milk…..STOP IT! It ain’t milk, it’s JUICE. Call it “soy juice” and watch the sales dry up…like they should.

Making a big deal out of a motherf*cking chicken sandwich – ANY chicken sandwich.

Air-frying – You ain’t FRYING A GODDAMN THING! How dumb are you? Wait, don’t answer that.

Celebrity booze – Does the world really need another tequila? Or Jay-Z slapping his name on another overpriced champagne? The question answers itself.

Each one of these is enough to make me want to chug a bottle of Walton Goggins’ Mulholland Gin.

Feel The Bern Democrats GIF by Bernie Sanders

The End

Postscript:

Image

 

Image

 

 

 

 

What’s New In Vegas – Part Deux

Image

You can’t talk about Las Vegas without mentioning Circa. A modern behemoth on the western end of Fremont Street, it is the first major hotel/casino to open downtown in forty years.

It sits at the far western terminus of Fremont, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel, and across the street from the Golden Gate — Las Vegas’s oldest hotel. To say it brings a breath of fresh air to the run-down environs of downtown is like saying a Rolls Royce adds a touch of class to a drag race.

The resort has gone all-in on sports betting and pool-lounging, with Olympic-sized video screens indoors and out. The effect in the sports book is one of immersion: bringing the hi-def athletes so close to the viewer they appear larger than life.

The Legacy Club and rooftop pool have quickly become attractions in their own right, and on the second floor you’ll find two very different restaurants, side-by-side, which are two of the best of their kind anywhere in town. In the basement is the show pony — a new high-steaks entry in our beef emporium wars.

Image

Barry’s Downtown Prime

Could a new gilded age be upon us? One look at Barry’s and you’d think so. All brass, glass and sass, the decor echoes the 70s (a fern bar without ferns springs to mind) with its gleaming surfaces inset with oversized booths. It is a huge (300+ seats), underground space, but the muted lighting (and the way they’ve chopped it up), creates a certain clubby intimacy. What it has also created in a few short months is buzz — the sort of vibe that spreads like jello shots through a day club.

What Barry’s has in spades is the sort of steakhouse-as-nightclub atmosphere first perfected at N9NE in the Palms, and then carried forth by the STK Steakhouse chain (a meat market as concerned with beefcake and babes as it is with its beef).

Now, it’s a well-known fact that celebrities, short skirts and superior sustenance go together about as well as chocolate chips and shrimp. An inviolable alimentary axiom posits that the quality of the cuisine always is inversely proportional to the number of hot chicks at the bar. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

(Parenthetical digression: last month I went on a barbecue tour of Eastern North Caroline (the spiritual home of whole hog ‘cue), and there wasn’t a babe within 30 miles of the smokehouse. FACT. You won’t find any cleavage or clippy-cloppy stilettos at a New England lobster shack, either.)

The point is: the food at Barry’s is beside the point. It’s really just a placeholder for having a good time. Chef Barry Dakake made a name for himself (and perfected this template) at N9NE at the Palms. Now he’s gone underground to take his steak fame to another level.

Image(Rib cap with mandatory shishitos)

Dakake knows how to make a steakhouse good but not too good. This is not to damn him with faint praise but to admire his tightrope walking/business acumen. Barry’s doesn’t want fussy gastronomes sniffing around; it wants big wallets and big egos prowling for hot trim. Eventually, it will turn into a Lavo, Tao (or the aforementioned STK), and it’s only a matter of time before it is crawling with hockey and football players. Until then, it is a worthy addition to the Vegas steak roster.

The aforementioned bar has plenty of top-shelf booze and expensive cocktails to whet your whistle. Pound down a couple for a cool forty bucks, and then check out the wine list.

To be fair, it was conceived in a pandemic and executed in a panic so you can forgive its lack of imagination. Prices are high (but not pre-Covid Strip high); interesting bottles are few and far between. To give you an idea: a $24 of Nozzole Chianti Classico will set you back $70. Nothing is under fifty bucks and good bottles for under a hundy are harder to find than a collared shirt in the casino. Settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir or some weak-ass Merlot, or bring your own if you don’t mind a fifty buck corkage.

With those preliminaries out of the way, it’ll be time to tuck into the menu. Prepare yourself for the shockingly bad (gummy-flabby lobster potstickers), the bizarrely bad (a “real” garbage salad, appropriately named), and the could-be better (a bland steak tartare)…as well as the usual steak suspects.

Venture too far from the herd and a mixed bag awaits. A braised short rib in an eye-opening harissa-mint sauce wins “best in class” no matter whose you compare it to. But then there’s a Mary’s Farm organic chicken both voluminous and sloppy. (Adorned with a prosciutto “crisp” of no consequence other than to impress the rubes.)

The $76 Dover sole is good….but not $76 good, and I can’t recommend the salmon. Not because I didn’t like it, but because ordering salmon in a steakhouse is like going to a bordello for a back rub. AMIRITE?

Image(This filet slays)

Dakake doesn’t know how to make a bad steak, so you’re on solid turf if you decide to skip the surf. Everything is flawlessly charred, slightly smokey and seasoned so well that saucing them becomes an afterthought. All meat comes at a price and with a pedigree, but even the 8 oz., $56 filet (above) is a succulent slice of superior steer. I can’t remember the last time I praised a filet.

As good as the steaks are, it is a pasta dish which is destined to be a showstopper: the lobster mac ‘n cheese. Brimming with enough richness to induce an infarction, it has “signature side” written all over it:

Image(Lobster ‘n mac me, please)

For dessert you will get the baked Alaska, not because you love baked Alaska but because you’ll see it being flamed table-side all around you. I’ve never understood the appeal of too-hard, mediocre ice cream inside a charred meringue crust, but I’ve ordered it here, twice. This is because I’m a fool for fire, and an idiot for anything singed tableside.

If you don’t identify as a self-loathing pyromaniac, the carrot cake and campfire s’mores are worthy alternatives.

A meal for two here, exclusive of booze, gets to two hundred dollars faster than you can say “medium-rare.” One of our three meals was comped; one of them happened anonymously. The service was excellent each time.

BARRY’S DOWNTOWN PRIME

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5504

Image(Real men eat deli)

Saginaw’s

I hesitate to name Saginaw’s “The Best Deli in Town” because every time I bestow such benefaction, the recipient of my beneficence is out of business within a year. (Same thing happens with barbecue.)

But it is, and the proof is in the latkes. “Most of them in other restaurants look like a hockey puck,” Paul Saginaw (above) will tell you. “Ours take longer, and they have a good amount of schmaltz in them.”

That’s really all you need to know about this place. It’s full of schmaltz — Jewish olive oil — the kind of bred-to-the-bone Jewishness which is proud of its culinary heritage, not running away from it.

“When we first opened,” he continues, “our corned beef outsold turkey by this much (placing his right hand high above his left). Now, they’re about equal.”

“Nobody eats lox (cured salmon) anymore, even though it is cheaper,” Saginaw says. He then admits other smoked fishes, despite their keto-approved healthiness, are considered the domain of 80 year old Bubbees. These admissions come after I question whether the classic Jewish delicatessen is now about as fashionable as Henny Youngman.

He admits that it has. Pickled herring, smoked whitefish, lox used to fly out the door. No longer, he says wistfully. Lox now takes a back seat to cold-smoked Nova, if you can sell it at all.

This may not bode well for the future of delicatessens, but as a dedicated faynshmeker, I would urge you to take one bite of this beauty before writing them off entirely:

Image(Whatever you do, don’t Passover this Nova!)

At the drop of his fedora, Saginaw will wax poetic about rendering chicken fat and skins down, filter it into schmaltz, then frying the gribenes (cracklings) before whipping them into the chopped liver and sauteed onions. The result, when done right, like it is here, is otherworldly:

Image(Not just any chopped liver)

You’ll have to travel to New York, or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles to find any as good.

He admits no self-respecting Millennial would be caught dead professing admiration for chopped liver…even if they swoon over some fancy-schmancy paté. Such are the tides Saginaw’s is swimming against.

And then there is the corned beef — the holy grail of edible Judaism.

Brined in Michigan to Saginaw’s specs, flown to Vegas and finished on-site, it is so good it could turn a Hindu into a Hebrew:

Image(Beef – properly curated and corned)

As I’ve said on social media, don’t even talk to me about the best corned beef in town until you’ve had this bad boy.

Bread crust with real crackle, soft-yet-dense chewy rye enveloping lean, salty/spicy meat, it is a sandwich that puts its competition to shame. “Even the New York delis use cheaper bread and pre-slice it these days,” he rues. “Ours takes more time but we think you can taste the difference.”

Saginaw’s house-made, slightly-spicy Russian dressing has twelve ingredients in it and is worth a trip all by itself. So are the house-fried potato chips. They get their breads from Bon Breads locally, and he’s looking for a local bagel bakery which meets his standards. (Right now they’re coming par-baked from New York).

The desserts are from the nonpareil Zingerman’s Bakehouse. They also do real half-sour (“new”) pickles here along with fully sour (“old”) ones; the cream cheese is “the cream of the cream cheese crop” (according to Cooks Illustrated), and even the kneidlach (matzoh ball) soup is a deeper, denser, more intense broth than the shiksa stuff you’re used to.

Spend five minutes with Paul Saginaw and you’ll find his enthusiasm for good deli is infectious. He’s in the restaurant every day, and is a non-stop fount of opinions you can learn from. (Get him talking about bread and fatty brisket and he’ll make a convert of you forever.)

This deli is his labor of love and it tastes like it. Don’t even think about telling me your deli is better until you’ve tried it.

Image

Sandwiches are in the $15-$22 range but easily feed two. A meal for two with plenty of leftovers should be about $50, including tip. I had five meals here before I met and interviewed Mr. Saginaw. Service was always friendly and helpful and lickity-split.

SAGINAW’S

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5506

Image

8East

Sitting within a stone’s throw of Saginaw’s, on the same side of the second floor, is a stark contrast to a traditional deli and big hitter beef emporium. 8East checks the boxes for those wanting something Asian, unique, modern, and flexible. It is not a noodle bar, per se, nor is it all about bao, or dedicated to dumplings. What you’ll find is a mix and match menu of Asian nibbles from across the Pacific, given a personal spin by chef/owner Dan Coughlin.

Coughlin is something of an Asian-American phenomenon. His family has run traditional Thai restaurants for years, and he struck out on his own a decade ago with the fabulously successful Le Thai on East Fremont. Given a bigger space to work with (above), he’s let his imagination run wild (but not too wild) with the various techniques  of the Far East.

Image(Boffo bao)

The cuisine itself is hard to pigeonhole, but that’s part of the fun. Coughlin may be playing with flavors from all over the Pacific, but he has enough restraint to keep things in focus.

You can toggle between the traditional (a steamed egg custard with soy and sesame), to the trendy (pork belly bao) and never find a flaw. His Dan Dan and Sizzling Noodles would be right at home on Spring Mountain Road, while seared circles of carpaccio, adorned with baby tatsoi greens and dressed with citrus wasabi creme, are straight from the Nobu playbook.

Coughlin is unabashed in wanting to use the entire Asian flavor palette, as when he drops traditional Chinese sauteéd green beans with ground pork, right next to bites of Hawaiian musubi, and a Tokyo crepe rolled, sushi roll-style, around sauteéd mushrooms and fried tofu.

Image(My little dumplings)

He doesn’t make a big deal about his vegetarian offerings, but he should. Dishes like the simple, stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce, the fried tofu, and the mélange of mushrooms in butter are some of the tastiest plant-based recipes you’ll find, in Asia or anywhere.

Page two of the menu finds a plethora of impressive proteins  — from definitive salt & Szechuan pepper wings to cumin lamb lollipops to crispy pork belly — square chunks of sticky sweet pork that could be sold as meat candy if someone wanted to make a killing. The only entree over twenty bucks is the Five Spice New York Strip ($25), with echos of Chinese spices playing off good beef and a tangy “butterfall” sauce.

Image

About the only thing we can’t wholeheartedly endorse is the “$MKT-priced Lobster Fried Rice” (above). It’s plenty good, but (as we like to say), it ain’t $55 good. Stick with the Brisket Fried Rice ($16), or one of the noodle dishes if starch is what you seek.

Sharing is the mantra here, and experimenting with Asia, the theme. Coughlin’s menu has something for everyone and packs quite a punch for such a small operation (at such a small price point). The only thing it needs now is customers.

Nothing on the menu (except that steak) is over $16. Two people can eat like kings for $50, and four will be stuffed for a Benjamin, exclusive of booze. We haven’t tried any cocktails, but they’re quite proud of them. The wine list is barely adequate to the task; the sake selection a little better.

8EAST

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5508

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

To summarize: Barry’s is a worthy addition to Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks; Saginaw’s is best in show by a Moses mile; and 8East is a breath of fresh Asian-fusion air in a part of town that needs one.

Derek Stevens’ team should be applauded for shaking up a hotel’s culinary offerings with something other than the usual steak, Italian, coffee shop suspects. There’s also a burger restaurant (Victory Burger, below) which is fine, if not life-changing, and a coffee bar (Jack Pots) with some tasty brews and tastier breakfast cakes straight from Zingerman’s.

Bottom line: You don’t need to leave the premises to eat very well, and it’s been a long long time since anyone said that about a hotel on Fremont Street.

Image(Victory Burger!)

 

 

 

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:

Image

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)

Image