2007-2017: IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…
Ten years is a long time. In restaurant years it’s practically a lifetime. Restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it to a decade are approaching retirement, especially in Las Vegas. With luck, they may continue to glide along deep into old age like those fortunate souls lucky enough to be alive and kicking into their nineties. More likely, the grim reaper will come for them soon enough.
2007 seems like an eternity ago to many of us. If you remember, it was the last “boom year” before the big bust of 2008. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t a ‘thing,” Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with grown-ups, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics. In 2007, no restaurant had its own Facebook page, no one knew what Yelp was, and if you wanted to know what your meal might look like at a Strip hotel, you had to buy a guidebook, or find a review in a magazine or newspaper. If you were lucky, that review might include a single shot of the interior and perhaps a couple of photos of featured dishes.
In 2007 there were only a few people in America taking pictures of their food, and a lot of people watching us do it, (including my then 83-now-93 year-old mother) thought we were nuts.
A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were ALEX and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden (the man and the restaurant) and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2002 and 2004. Boulud Brasserie (also in the Wynn) was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-California cuisine at Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay Bay — at the time perhaps the prettiest dining room in town.
There was no downtown dining scene in 2007; there was barely a downtown drinking scene. No one knew what xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) were, and high-toned Japanese cooking (like Raku, Yui, Kabuto, Yuzu Kaiseki among others) was unheard of. Food trucks were still called “roach coaches,” and were looked upon with disdain by anyone with a taste bud in their head (or more than $5 in their wallet). Everyone was living high off the hog ten years ago, employment was full, the restaurants were even fuller, and the whole world wanted a slice of the Vegas food and beverage pie.
(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)
Then, reality set in. Faster than you could say “credit default swaps” people stopped coming. Restaurants cut back hours, high rollers and conventioneers stopped blowing a house payment on dinner, and lay-offs were everywhere. Out-of-work chefs either left town or started food trucks; big hotels like Wynn started unloading high-priced talent; and by 2013 all of those restaurants mentioned above had closed their doors. For the next five years (2009-2013), it was the serious doldrums.
There were some stalwarts who stemmed the tide, to be sure. Even the Great Recession couldn’t blunt the enthusiasm for CUT and Carnevino (both of which opened in 2008). and their success in the most dire of times proved the axiom that every restaurant in Las Vegas secretly wishes it was a steakhouse. The support of a big hotels helped the Aria (December, 2009) and The Cosmopolitan (December, 2010) lineups to remain afloat, but a mom-and-pop operation like Rosemary’s (which saw its gross revenues cut in half from 2008-2011), was a dead man sinking from the moment Bear Stearns drowned itself in debt.
Through it all, some places prevailed. Marche Bacchus actually grew in popularity after 2007, thanks to new owners (Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt) and its lakeside venue providing a welcome respite from all the financial gloom and doom hanging over the suburbs. The aforementioned Raku opened in January 2008, and immediately tapped into the smaller-is-better zeitgeist of the times. In the process, it kick-started a Chinatown renaissance that has continued unabated for the past nine years.
(Chinatown Plaza opened in 1995)
The Chinatown as we know it has been around since 1995, but it wasn’t until people started pinching their pennies that they discovered the glories of izakaya eating, ramen noodles, and obscure Asian soups. Even with the economic upturn of the past few years, this enthusiasm continues to grow — now expanding to upscale sushi (Yui Edomae Sushi, Kabuto, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Kaiseki), as well as the glories of lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Shang Artisan Noodle), high-quality Korean bbq (8oz, Hobak, Magal, Goong), and even inventive Thai (Chada Thai) and Vietnamese (District One, Le Pho). Downtown’s revival has proceeded in fits and starts, but there’s no denying that Carson Kitchen and EAT (two early pioneers now celebrating their third and fifth birthdays, respectively) are here to stay.
Some suburbs, however, have remained problematical. In the past ten years, Henderson/Green Valley has turned its back on Bread & Butter, David Clawson, and Standard & Pour (three excellent, chef-driven restaurants) and a non-franchised meal in those parts is harder to find than a pork chop at VegeNation.
As a counterweight, look to the explosion of good food in the southwest. Rainbow south of the I-215 has become its own mini-Chinatown, Andre’s and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have both opened to great acclaim in the last year, and Other Mama, Japaneiro, Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Cafe, Sparrow+Wolf, and Rosallie Le French Cafe, continue to draw passionate foodies in search of the good stuff.
On the Strip, some venerable joints (Le Cirque, Twist, Picasso, Guy Savoy, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) just keep getting better, while newcomers like Libertine Social, re-boots like the new Blue Ribbon, and the extraordinary food at Bazaar Meat, give us hope for Vegas’s dining out future. Thankfully, the small plates thing is subsiding, as are celebrity chefs. Caesar’s Entertainment wants you to get excited about whatever licensing deal it has struck with Gordon Ramsay, Giada and Guy Fieri, but most serious foodies look at these craven exercises in marketing with a big yawn. Real food cooked by chefs who are in their restaurants is what creates a buzz these days — witness the success of Harvest by Roy Ellamar — not some branding deal that has all the authenticity of a gordita.
All of which raises the question: What keeps some places alive, through thick and thin, while other, equally worthy businesses fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Cafe kept itself afloat (and is now thriving in a new location). Circo and Valentino bit the dust but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it a year in Green Valley; Carson Kitchen downtown (with a similar menu) is packed day and night. Glutton closes; EAT across the street thrives. What gives?
(Alex Stratta had the goods…and a great restaurant)
THE PRICE OF FAILURE
I have two theories on this, one food-related, one not. The less sexy one involves real estate, contracts, and accounting — three of the most boring subjects on earth. The Strip is a numbers game pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it; investors demand it, the food and beverage honchos think of little else. Restaurants to them aren’t amenities like swimming pools, they’re more like fancy, big-box retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of a cold green eye-shade.
When the lease is up (a la Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Circo et al), the focus shifts from how nice a place is to which tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Sappy, romantic notions of soft dappled lights in an architecturally-perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce means nothing to the bean counters. Exit the Maccionis, enter Lago: a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station (slinging pizzas and pastas at the nightclub crowd) and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. ALEX, Circo, Fleur de Lys, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.
THE FOOD ABIDES
Theory number two concerns food. Specifically what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook — something to make people remember you. At Marche Bacchus it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion concoctions (like French toast caviar) that get your attention.
Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. One hundred feet away, one bite of EAT’s yeasty pancakes (or dense corned beef hash), and it becomes everyone’s favorite breakfast spot.
Even on the Strip, it seems more and more like it’s the food that’s getting the attention, not the absentee chefs. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past ten years, and the big splash these days are made by the over-the-top showiness of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, and the table-side ministrations of Carbone.
Big and showy fits Las Vegas like a Wayne Newton leisure suit, but the places that last another decade are going to be all about what’s on the plate, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed ten years ago, before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance. Now, the downsizing is over and it’s time to get cooking.
(These guys were da bomb. Their replacement is a wet firecracker.)
3 favorites that bit the dust too early and why.
Circo (1998-2013) – The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after fifteen years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine.
Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (2005-2013) – Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America.
Bradley Ogden (2002-2012) – Caesars had a choice to make: continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world class chef and his ground-breaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a sad, huge, downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which concept won out?
If you loved….
If you loved Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.
If you loved Rosemary’s, try Marche Bacchus.
If you loved Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos.
The Food Gal® and I recently subscribed to Milk Street – Christopher Kimball’s new food and cooking ‘zine. As an old Kimball fan, I’ve plowed through more issues of Cooks Illustrated than I can count, and still consider his old “America’s Test Kitchen” show to be the definitive television cooking show. Kimball’s Milk Street show on PBS recently debuted, and I’m sure that it will be every bit as good as his old enterprise.
Milk Street is very 21st Century in its sensibilities. Instead of the “perfect meatloaf” and “how to make a pie crust” articles of decades past, it is chock full of foreign foods and travel tidbits. There are also quite a few recipes for things like Peruvian ceviche, Indian curries and southeast Asian soups. All of which got our staff to wondering: What recipes are best left to the professionals, i.e., when are you biting off more than you can chew when you try to cook something at home that is always better in a restaurant?
The following lists are by no means definitive, but after 50 years of restaurant-going, and 40 years of serious home cooking, I’m a pretty good judge of when a recipe (or a type of food) is a waste of time for anyone but those who immerse themselves in it daily. These should give you a good start on what to avoid trying, even if a pro like Chris Kimball is doing the teaching. No offense to him (or avid home cooks everywhere), but no matter how hard you try, the best you can hope for is a distant approximation of what the pros turn out daily:
LEAVE IT TO THE PROFESSIONALS:
Bread (unless you bake all the time)
Vietnamese food (unless you’re Vietnamese)
Korean food (unless you’re Korean)
Chinese food (Take it from someone who spent the 80s cooking his way through a number of Chinese cookbooks.)
Indian food (unless you’re Indian and have a larder the size of ELV’s ego)
French food (Even simple French food has more steps than a Fred Astaire movie.)
Barbecue (unless you have the tools and the patience of Job)
Mexican street food (sophisticated Mexican food is another animal entirely)
Steaks (Although the best steakhouses always get the best beef, and they use higher heat, to get a better Maillard reaction than you can.)
Soup (Except ramen, pho and any number of other Asian noodle soups. NEVER try to make these at home. You will never master them so don’t even try.)
Stews of any kind
Rack of lamb
Filets of fish
Fruit (Fruit is its own best friend in the kitchen. You can get away with anything when you’re using good, ripe fruit.)
Home cooking is like any other skill: you have to do it all the time to be any good at it. Milk Street is a great place to learn, but never forget that your cooking reach should never exceed your cooking grasp.
ELV note: A major metropolitan/international newspaper recently asked us to compile a list of the top fine dining destinations in Las Vegas — places that are sui generis, nonpareil, and unmatched for the finest food and drink in town. Most of these are price-is-no-object joints; all of them serve some of the best food of its kind you’ll ever find. (To balance things out, we also submitted a list of “Hidden Local’s Favorites” containing a number of places that mere mortals can afford.) Buon gusto!
THE TOP 20 FINE DINING RESTAURANTS IN LAS VEGAS
‘e’ by José Andrés (Cosmopolitan) – The toughest seat to score in town, made by e-mail reservation only, gets you one of eight “golden tickets” for a molecular ride the likes of which you won’t experience anywhere else this side of Espana. Feran Adria was Andrés’ spiritual mentor, and his influence is everywhere on the seasonal menu. In the wrong hands, this cuisine is pretentious; here it is profound.
Lotus of Siam (953 E. Sahara Ave.) – Multiple expansions haven’t dimmed the star of America’s best Thai restaurant. (So sayeth me and every other critic who’s eaten here.) Go early for dinner or late for lunch if you want to get a table, and bring a thirst for German/Austrian/French wines. Bill Chutima’s Riesling list has become almost as famous as his wife’s northern Thai cooking. Not exactly “fine dining,” but so good it deserves to be in whatever “best of” list gets drawn up for Las Vegas restaurants.
Prime (Bellagio) Eighteen years on, Prime still boasts one of the prettiest dining rooms in America. A revamped bar area provides more room for nibbling and sipping, and the main room blends beefiness with romance as well as anyplace in which you’ll ever enjoy a peppercorn-crusted strip steak.
Michael Mina (Bellagio) – Start with the tableside-mixed tuna tartare (everyone does), then throw caution to the wind as you order the whole lobe of foie gras. Follow that with Mina’s decadent lobster pot pie and a rack of lamb and you’ll have plenty of reasons to hit the Stairmaster once you return to your life of kale smoothies and denuded chicken.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (Mandarin Oriental) – Twist isn’t for everyone. Like all restaurants in the Gagnaire oeuvre, it takes a decidedly adventuresome tack towards most of its menu. Here they take creative seasonality seriously, making boredom an impossibility. Get a tasting menu, buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Or get a steak and bathe in one of the best Bordelaise sauces in the business.
Joël Robuchon (MGM) – The big daddy of big deal meal restaurants in Vegas. You’ll be surrounded by Asian high rollers, a few punters, and some Eurotrash, but none of that will matter once the food starts showing up. Intricate, high-flying French are the watchwords here, but it’s best to have a second mortgage on hand before you approach the wine list.
Sage (Aria) – High ceilings and theatrical décor set the stage for some of Las Vegas’ most dramatic food. The seven-course tasting menu is a flat out steal at $150, but you won’t want to miss the standards on the menu – foie gras brûlée, roasted sweetbreads, kusshi oysters with peppers – either. The bar and bar menu are as stunning as the main room, and an excellent spot to drink your dinner, if that’s your thing.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (MGM) – There are multiple L’Ateliers around the globe these days, but this one takes a back seat to none of them. Chef Steve Benjamin has been at the helm since it opened (in 2005) and the dishes pouring forth from his open kitchen never fail to astonish. The dizzying array of menus and a la carte options encourage abandon but demand restraint. Do what we do: just close your eyes and point. And get the sweetbreads. And the hangar steak. And the spaghetti. (ELV update: Benjamin recently left his position at L’Atelier to pursue other adventures in sunny SoCal. We have not been in since his departure, but if the Robuchon machine runs true to form, we doubt there will be a dip in the quality of the cuisine.)
Carnevino (Palazzo)– Vegas has the greatest steakhouses in the world, next to New York, and Mario Batali’s steak and wine emporium can go hoof to hoof with them any of them. Here, the beef is aged in-house, for months not days, and the “riserva” steaks call to you from the ginormous menu, as do the pastas, salads and house-made salumi. The wine list is a dream for lovers of the “killer Bs” — Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. But bring your bank.
Bazaar Meat (SLS) – Calling it a meat emporium is a little unfair, since the seafood and wacky Spanish (read: molecular) creations are every bit as good as the steaks. Everyone raves about the cotton candy foie gras, but it’s the tartares (both tomato and steak), that deserve your attention first. Then it’s on to jamon croquetas, suckling pig, or whatever else suits your fancy in the Andrés repertoire…and it’s a huge repertoire.
Restaurant Guy Savoy (Caesars Palace) – When it’s on its game, one of the best restaurants in the world, with neither the pyrotechnics of Robuchon nor the in-your-face creativity of Gagnaire. What Savoy brings is gorgeous, sophisticated food that doesn’t need to pirouette on the plate to impress. The deep, refined flavors do that all by themselves. The wine list is a treasure trove, with more than a few bargains, if you’re willing to dig.
Carbone (Aria) – A New York import that arrived in the Nevada desert with its pedigree intact. Throwback dining packs them in every night, meaning: lots of table-side histrionics to go with gutsy pastas and the priciest veal parm this side of Manhattan. You’re going to hate yourself for loving this place as much as you will.
Mr. Chow (Caesars Palace) – Purists may balk, but Mr. Chow is about unabashed big-deal meal service, a luminous setting, and a sense you’re being fed by, and dining with, grownups. Get the Peking Duck and the Dressed Dungeness Crab, and enjoy this throwback in all the right ways.
Wing Lei (Wynn) – A jaw-dropping room, white-gloved service, and upscale Chinese food (at a price) that will knock your socks off. Be you a Mandarin or from Main Street, you’ll find something to love on this menu, but we’re partial to the steamed fish, hand-pulled noodles and perfect stir-fries.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (4480 Paradise Road) – Slightly off the Strip lies one of our best Italian restaurants, family run, and dishing up the kind of pastas and proteins that compete with anything Giada or Mario can throw at you. The Ferraro’s (who are always on the premises) had the good sense to put Francesco di Caudo in charge of the kitchen a couple of years ago, and he upgraded the food to put it on par with their world-class (Italian) wine list. Leave the gun; take the cannoli.
Yui Edomae Sushi (3460 Arville Street) – Nonpareil sushi and sashimi, edomae (Tokyo) style. Simple, direct, and sliced by the piece for an omakase meal like none other. This is purist sushi, truly Japanese, with nary a California roll in sight. The A-5 wagyu beef (grilled over binochatan charcoal), will take your breath away with its silkiness, fattiness and price.
Le Cirque (Bellagio) – A jewel of a restaurant in a jewel box of a space. The Maccionis (who own the original one in New York) have little to do with this outpost any more (other than a licensing deal with the Bellagio), but the food, wine and service remain as spot-on as when Sirio himself was kissing cheeks and badgering waiters. The food – under culinary wunderkind Wilfried Bergerhausen – has gotten more inventive and less stuffy.
Picasso (Bellagio) – Where else in the world can you walk around a restaurant and see a dozen works of the master himself? Even if you wouldn’t know a Picasso from black velvet Elvis, you’ll still be impressed by Julian Serrano’s menu that, after eighteen years, continues to get the best venison and scallops west of the Hudson. The wine list could keep you occupied for days.
Raku/Raku Sweets (5030 W. Spring Mountain Road) – Mitsuo Endo was the first chef to bring elevated, izakaya cooking to Las Vegas (in 2008), and he still does it best. Raku is for a certain kind of adventuresome food lover, but its sweet sister a few doors down serves finely crafted desserts that can be analyzed, consumed wholesale, or admired for their art.
Estiatorio Milos (Cosmopolitan) – The best fish in town, period. Also the best Greek food in town by a Peloponnesian mile. You’ll pay through the nose, but you’ll also be shouting “Opa!” with every bite. Come for the $30, three course lunch if you’re on a budget.
LOCAL’S HIDDEN FAVORITES
- Settebello (2 locations – 9350 W. Sahara Ave., 140 S. Green Valley Pkwy.) – Smoke-tinged, wood-fired, Napoletana-inspired pizza at its absolute best.
- EATT (7865 W. Sahara Ave.) – Three young French fellows are trying to prove that real French food (and desserts!) can be as healthy as it is delicious. And they do. And it is. (See picture above)
- Japaneiro (7315 W. Warm Springs Road) – Perhaps the best food in the unlikeliest location in Las Vegas. Kevin Chong’s fusion fare is spot on, whether he’s mixing and matching uni with oysters, or putting out an umami-laden rib eye for two.
- Other Mama (3655 S. Durango Blvd.) – Seafood in all its guises, tucked away in a strip mall, overrun nightly with intrepid foodies and chefs on their day off.
- Chada Thai & Wine (3400 S. Jones Blvd.) – The name says it all: incendiary food married with the wines (mostly white, mostly Riesling) that match it so well.
- Yuzu Japanese Kitchen (1310 E. Silverado Ranch Blvd) – A little slice of Tokyo hidden behind a car parts store. Authentic sushi; amazing kaiseki; off-the-hook omakase.
- Carson Kitchen (124 E. Carson Ave.) – Small but mighty. The restaurant that started the downtown food revolution. Good, inventive small plates; good cocktails; good luck getting a seat.
- Bratalian (10740 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Traditional Neapolitan Italian in a quirky dining room dished by the sexiest Brazilian-Italian dish ever to vongole your linguine. Carla Pellegrino is a local legend who gives Henderson denizens a reason to go out at night.
- Standard & Pour (11261 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Cory Harwell’s newest venture (just down the road from Bratalian) is a Carson Kitchen clone in all the right ways. Everyone gets the escargot, and the meatballs. You’ll want to get everything on the menu.
- Marche Bacchus (2620 Regatta Drive) – Al fresco dining connected to a wonderful wine store. The markups are gentle ($10 over retail) and the tables are filled with oenophiles day and night. By all means, buy that second bottle and tuck into the best brunch in the ‘burbs.