Major Awards – 2022

Leg Lamp From The Movie A Christmas Story –

2022 was the year that wasn’t.

Everything was supposed to come together this year, remember? The Covid insanity had passed, the economy was starting to boom again, demand was pent up and the party-as-a-verb crowd was raring to go.

Instead we had inflation, supply chain teeth-gnashing, water woes and travel nightmares.

We started the year in Paris and ended it in London. In between two tasty bookends there was grief aplenty, health issues and the gnawing sense that the town and body we live in both have their best days behind them. A dear friend (original Proper Lunch Buncher Bruce Bloch), and local food writer (Greg Thilmont) — both left us far too soon — leaving us reeling from too much sadness compressed into one twelve month period. It is one thing when folks older than you kick the bucket, quite another when your juniors start checking out without warning. If 2022 will be remembered for anything, it will be recalled as the year of serious reassessment — the time when the preciousness of time and life was brought to the fore.

On the bright side, deaths tend to bring people closer together (“Even if we’re just whistling past the graveyard,” as my mom put it), so we saw more of our relatives (and children) than we have in any year in recent memory; we lost a little weight (TRUE!); regained our golf swing, and kept our hearing and our hair, so there’s that.

Another year-end bonus was a very successful Desert Companion Restaurant Awards fête, which had me tearing up with pride at how far these awards have come.


From very modest beginnings, these magazine awards have endured and flourished over 25 years. In the early days (1997-2005) I was a committee of one, and for years, I paid for the tiny plaques and awards myself, and drove all over town delivering them to a recipients. (You can still see one near the front door at Sen of Japan.) Now, under the stewardship on Nevada Public Radio, there’s a yearly banquet, with all the trimmings, and they’ve grown into something meaningful to our culinary community, instead of a solo poofter bestowing them like some imperious potentate bellowing into the wind.

Which means there’s a fair amount of pomp and circumstances accompanying them…not to mention a tremendous lunch. The banquet was a big success; glasses were raised and speeches given, but not before the crowd was acknowledged as we usually do to begin the proceedings:

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2022 will also go down as the year where your majesty truly lost a bit of his appetite…but not so much that he cannot bestow credit where credit is due, one last time, for the myriad of marvelous meals he enjoyed.

So here goes….first with the actual, important awards (decided by a committee of Desert Companion food writers), then the Major Awards you’ve been waiting for….with commentary, of course.

Desert Companion


Neighborhood Restaurant(s) of the Year (tie):

Khoury’s Mediterranean Restaurant:

Khoury Mediterranean Restaurant - Las Vegas Sun News

Rosa Ristorante:


Asian Restaurant of the Year: Trattoria Nakamura-Ya:

Trattoria NAKAMURA-YA | Tokyo Style Italian Restaurant Las Vegas

Restaurateur of the Year: John Arena


– the godfather of the Las Vegas food scene, and a force of nature in the world of pizza, Arena should’ve gotten this award years ago. (My bad.)

Hall of Fame (tie):

Piero’s Italian Cuisine – which didn’t care enough to show up for the awards (or even acknowledge them), so we won’t do more than give them a mere mention here (even though it was some of my best prose in the ‘zine).

Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge – which was my father’s favorite restaurant, right down to the indelible fruit platter brimming with melon (at varying degrees of ripeness) and cottage cheese. No matter what you think of the Miami Vice lighting or gargantuan portions, there’s no denying its place in the firmament of iconic Vegas eats.

Rising Star of the Year: Eric Prato, Garagiste Wine Bar:

 – to quote the deathless prose of the wordsmith-in-residence:

Prato’s mission is educating customers to try something new, and if the steady stream of younger, adventuresome wine lovers at the bar is any indication (along with his burgeoning online sales), he is succeeding by tapping into (or helping create) a market no one in Las Vegas knew existed.

Chef of the Year: Nicole Brisson:

 – Never was there a more deserving recipient. Can I pick ’em or can I pick ’em?

Strip Restaurant of the Year: Brezza – A hit right out of the gate, Brezza scored the daily double with this award and the kudos to its chef. As Heidi Knapp Rinella put it in DC:

Brezza is the Italian word for “breeze” — an apt name, as executive chef Nicole Brisson and business partner Jason Rocheleau have imbued their Resorts World restaurant with a freshness that seems to drift from the Amalfi Coast.

New Restaurant of the Year: Scotch 80 Prime – the name might not be new (this is its second incarnation), but the steakhouse that now occupies a corner of the Palms is a whole different beast that the previous tenant. Chef Marty Red DeLeon Lopez has this joint firing on all cylinders with an arresting menu of seared cow classics mixed with creative apps and killer sides. A unique addition to our thundering herd of steer emporiums. Jim Begley:

…it can be difficult to differentiate one [steakhouse] from another. But Lopez manages do so in the details. He highlights his heritage in his tiradito with the inclusion of traditional Filipino ingredients such as jackfruit, pickled papaya, and taro chips. His kitchen takes risks with burrata topped with uni and Osetra caviar, pairing seafood with cheese, and the sweet sea urchin assuming a role normally reserved for fruit. 

Restaurant of the Year: Anima by EDO – When it came time to debate ROTY the discussion was short, obvious and unanimous. No other restaurant in Las Vegas made the splash that Anima did this year.



With the prestigious awards out of the way, let us further flounce some flummery, and focus on the fatuous. Here they are food fans, our favorites follies of feast and misfortune in 2022:


Worst Meal of the Year – Lago

Runner-Up – whatever this was (at The Pepper Club):


So Not Worth It Meal of the Year – Wakuda:


Cry Me a River Award – every chef or owner who bent my ear in the last year over staffing woes, supply-chain issues, and money problems, and then was spotted cavorting through Tokyo, slurping up Tuscany, or making whoopee at a Mallorcan fish market.

Saddest Closing – Saga Pastry + Sandwich

You Tell Me and We’ll Both Know Award – the inexplicable appeal of Asian hotpot…….the only meal on earth where no matter what you order, everything always ends up tasting the same:

Image(…and we’ll have the A-5 wagyu that tastes just like the U/15 shrimp…)

Schadenfreude AwardDavid Chang’s overblown, overrated, overpriced Majordomo fiasco at The Palazzo. It takes real talent to screw up a steakhouse in Vegas, but Mr. Bao Bun figured out how.

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We’re So Over It


QR codes

orange wine

natural wine

any beer it takes more than two words to describe

celebrity chefs


food competitions

pizza fetishization

gooey food videos

impossible to get into restaurants

smoked cocktails

smoked everything

smoked anything but smoked meat

communal seating


tweezer food

“vegan” butchers

“vegan” cheese

let’s face it: vegan anything

Japanese beef

tequila bars

Martha F**cking Stewart

Tits on a Bull Award – I’m rooting hard for you, Eater Vegas, because you could be such a force for good on the Vegas food scene. But the reliance on p.r. fluff and listicle after listicle needs some seasoning with actual opinion. On the plus side, at least Bradley Martin is nowhere to be found. ;-)

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Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House (toss-up) – Main Street Provisions and Esther’s Kitchen

Favorite Watering HoleGaragiste

Steak of the YearSparrow + Wolf:




Sushi of the YearSushi Hiro:


Runner-UpYUI Edomae Sushi

Most Anticipated Opening of the YearLotus of Siam at Red Rock

Italians of the Year – these guys:

Image(Vetri & Trees sounds like a haberdashery)

Lunch(s) of the YearCipriani


Lunch of the Year (European Division)La Tour D’Argent Paris (France, not Kentucky)

Brunch of the YearAl Solito Posto

French Meal of the YearGuy Savoy (Paris)


Runner-UpGuy Savoy (Las Vegas)

Japanese Meal of the YearRaku:


Runner(s)-UpSanga, Kaiseki Yuzu

Chinese Meal of the YearGenting Palace (Resorts World)

Runner-UpRainbow Kitchen

Korean Meal of the YearSoyo Barstaurant

Tacos of the Year (toss-up)Sin Fronteras Tacos and Letty’s

Image(Quesotacos FTW)

Favorite Meat-festRincon de Buenos Aires

Runner-Up8oz Korean Steakhouse

Burger of the YearMain Street Provisions


Runner-Up BOTYNusr-Et:


Slider of the Year – this mini-filet on a hot-buttered bun at Jamon Jamon Tapas:

Brisket of the Year – this beauty from Tamez BBQ (a speck of a roadside stand) in Athens, Georgia:
Hot Dog of the YearWindy City Beef N Dogs:
Salad of the Year (because The Food Gal® insists we have some green on this page) – the Caesar at Esther’s Kitchen:


Pleasant Surprise of the YearBalla

Runner-Up PSOTY: Amalfi by Bobby Flay

Most Expensive Meal of the Year – a $400 fagri (red porgy) at Milos:


Image(It says right here: I owe $14.72 because you had the salad with the dressing on the side)

Most Fun Food Event Not Connected with Any Awards or Eating: Las Vegas Book Festival:


Butcher of the YearFeatherblade English Craft Butchery


Podcast of the YearEat.Talk.Repeat. – Have you been living under a rock or something?

Hole-in-the-Wall of the YearThe Daily Bread


Most Visited Hotel Because It Has the Most Good Restaurants in the Most Accessible SpaceResorts World

Restaurant We’re Rooting Hardest ForMariscos El Frescos:


Cappucino AwardMothership Coffee Roasters



Crabcake of the Year – this concupiscent crabby concoction at Vic & Anthony’s:


We Wish We Had Eaten Here More AwardKaiseki Yuzu:


Food Writer to Watch of the Year Brent Holmes

Vlogger of the YearSo-Chan! (Even if you don’t speak Japanese, his videos are informative, well-produced, and ton of fun….and mercifully short.)

Lifesaver Awards – to those places we repaired again and again when our favorites were busier than a whisky concession at an Irish wedding:

Noodlehead – Szechuan noodles in a pinch

Izakaya Go – all-purpose Japanese fills the bill:


Mt. Everest – friendly and fast Indian

Matteo’s – always underrated; always excellent

Delmonico – great steaks; fabulous Friday lunch

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – so much better than The Pepper Club

Carversteak – just edged out for steak of the year by two heavyweights

Wally’s – best wine selection and prices on the Strip

Ed. note: In case you’re wondering, we didn’t include any meals/restaurants from our recent London trip to any of these categories, it’s because we are just days back from the trip and want to share our British musings with you in a separate post early next year.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all!

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ELV note: This week marked the unveiling of the 19th Annual Desert Companion Restaurant Awards. It also marked our return to the fold in writing and choosing some of these awards, after a four year absence. Since we picked the first ones in 1996, it was only fitting that we chimed in on the Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year, Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year, and the very first Hall of Fame Restaurant entry, in this, our 20th official year of restaurant writing. Continue reading  below for the full enchilada, or click here to read this article in its original format, or, even better, subscribe to DC by joining KNPR. Congrats to all the winners and bon appetit to all.

P.S The initials after each of the segments stand for the writer — Jim Begley (JB), Debbie Lee (DL), Mitchell Wilburn (MW), and the man who needs no introduction (JC)– who chose and wrote that award.


Appetizer of the year

Crispy Buffalo Cauliflower

Crispy Buffalo Cauliflower at Public School 702
1850 Festival Plaza Drive, 702-749-3007,
This sinfully creative upgrade proves that veggies don’t always have to be virtuous
Now that diners are content to pay upwards of $34 for cauliflower “steaks” in high-end restaurants, it’s safe to say that the cruciferous vegetable has hit its peak. One might even call it the new kale. But for the countless restaurants that have made cauliflower a new menu staple, Public School 702 at Downtown Summerlin earns top honors for its creative (and reasonably priced) upgrade on the bland florets of bad buffets and high school cafeterias.Consider it further evidence of the universal truism that anything tastes good if it’s deep-fried. Battered chunks of cauliflower are given the traditional Buffalo wing treatment: fried until golden and then drenched in a heart-stopping shower of melted butter and hot sauce (hey, no one said veggies and virtue are inseparable). Buffalo sauce and a requisite side of blue cheese aioli are included, because no self-respecting wing aficionado dare dip a drumette into ranch dressing.It’s not groundbreaking, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. It’s also just one of many tasty twists (three words: bacon cheddar tots) that make this gastropub a welcome addition to the neighborhood. DL

 Signature dish of the year

Hainan Chicken

Hainan chicken at Flock & Fowl

380 W. Sahara Ave., 626-616-6632,

Simply put, this simple dish is the very essence of chicken

It’s hard to describe how passionate well-known local chef and Fat Choy proprietor Sheridan Su is about Hainan chicken. Along with his wife and partner Jenny Wong, the couple has been so infatuated with the dish since a trip to Boon Keng Chicken in Taipei, they recently opened the postage stamp-sized Flock & Fowl in a dingy East Sahara strip mall as a labor of love in homage to the dish. And so your infatuation will begin.

Hainan chicken is a semi-obscure (at least among us gweilos) Chinese poached chicken dish generally unnervingly served at room temperature. Su delivers his slightly-warm (and deboned!) poached Mary’s organic chicken atop rice cooked in schmaltz (chicken fat), layering fowl flavors in a dish best described as the essence of chicken. Accompanied by a trio of housemade dipping sauces (Indonesian sambal, a slightly-sweet soy and an intensely addictive ginger-scallion) and what is quite probably the best chicken broth in town, the simple dish is simply comforting. JB

Dessert of the year

Milk n Cookies

Milk n cookies at Yonaka Modern Japanese

4983 W. Flamingo Road #a, 702-685-8358,

Yonaka has gained a reputation for extremely creative Asian-fusion, but its desserts have always been pure magic apart from that. They don’t typically adhere to the Asian palate; rather, they rather take after the fine French dining tradition of combining dazzling flavors and pleasing visuals. The one that’s stayed on the menu since inception, Chocolate Ten Ways, is a great example. However, Yonaka has ventured into the uniquely constructed nostalgia now and again, and most triumphantly with Milk N Cookies.

It’s simple but perfectly pleasing: They take basic, wholesome ingredients and just make the best damn chocolate chip cookie they can muster, baked fresh and delivered straight from the oven. Somewhat like a to-order soufflé, it takes a few minutes to prepare, but there’s nothing quite like it. It’s served with a small scoop of the cookie dough and, taking a cue from Momofuku, a glass of “cereal milk.” It’s a page right out of childhood, and yet a fitting cap to the feast of the senses that is a meal at Yonaka. MW

 Ethnic Restaurant of the year


Inyo Asian Variety Restaurant


600 W. Spring Mountain Road #1B, 702-248-0588,

Inyo is less a restaurant than an international port where Far East flavors mix and mingle

In the past couple of years, the Las Vegas Valley has experienced an onslaught of Asian restaurants; a heavy concentration was Japanese, with new Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese venues also dotting the landscape. This proliferation is great for diners, but the options can be dizzying  in such a crowded field. A restaurant has to be exemplary to stand out. Inyo Asian Variety Restaurant is just such a place.

Inyo’s menu doesn’t hail from any single country but rather travels across the Far East in living up to its billing as an Asian variety restaurant. In lesser hands, such wandering could result in a muddled menu. But with stints as executive chef at Cosmo’s Blue Ribbon and Palms’ Little Buddha on his resume, Executive Chef Gregg Fortunato is well-versed in Asian cuisine. Instead of being burdened with lack of focus, Inyo is defined by its diversity.

Inyo’s chicken wings exemplify the international flavor, offering a trio of options: Japanese tebasaki, Korean gochugaru, and Thai chile nam pla. The tebasaki, simply seasoned with sweet ginger soy and black pepper, demonstrate the straightforward flavors commonly associated with Japanese cooking, while the gochugaru deliver heat from their eponymous chile flakes. But best of all are the transcendent chile nam pla, delivering a pungent kick from the pervasive fish sauce. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a good thing.)

While the menu draws upon different cuisines, individual dishes honor their roots. The distinctly Japanese uni udon delivers udon noodles swimming in an intense, sea urchin broth, garnished with a dollop of caviar; the combination delivers the essence of the sea in a raw form. Similarly, the lightly charred whole yari ika serves grilled squid basting in memorable garlic soy butter.

Less country-centric are the multicolored roasted cauliflower, elevated with the inclusion of funky fish sauce. But the Chinese influences are evident in the smoky, scrambled egg-topped crab fried rice. And the daily specials board can wander from soft shell crab to uni egg scrambles depending upon available ingredients and Fortunato’s mood. Luckily for us, he seems to be clearly inspired in his pursuit of world cuisine. JB

Bartender of the year

Bartender of the Year

Juyoung Kang at Delmonico steakhouse

In the Venetian, 702-414-3737,

Her dedication to cocktail craft has made her shine the brightest in a mad, mad mixology scene

Juyoung Kang — June or Ju to friends and regulars — has been a star behind every bar she’s worked in. From the now-defunct Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan to Commonwealth and The Laundry Room Downtown, back to Cosmo to open Rose.Rabbit.Lie, down the Strip to BLVD in the Linq, she blazed a bright trail mirroring the rise of the Vegas cocktail scene. Now she’s taken up the prestigious program left by Max Solano at Delmonico Steakhouse, given the keys to one of the most powerful whiskey rooms in town.

Juyoung has already started making it her own. She’s trimming the menu here and there and bringing in techniques learned in her travels; hip ideas such as “shimming” (low-alcohol, easy-drinking cocktails) are sure to express her style in a new light — and watching her helm a cocktail program at an acclaimed steakhouse should be fascinating to watch. If her past is any indication — a resumé built on a detail-minded dedication to herb-infused liquors, spiced syrups and specialty tinctures — the future of drinks at Delmonico should be bright. MW

Other Mama - Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Other Mama – Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Other Mama - Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Other Mama – Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Other Mama - Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Other Mama – Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Oysters foie Rockerfeller

Lago - New Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Lago – New Restaurant of the Year

Lago - New Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Lago – New Restaurant of the Year

Lago - New Restaurant of the Year

Photography by Sabin Orr

Lago – New Restaurant of the Year

Squid ink couscous (above)

Spago - Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Photography by Sabin Orr

Spago – Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Spago - Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Photography by Sabin Orr

Spago – Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Wolfgang Puck

Spago - Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Photography by Sabin Orr

Spago – Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame Award

Salmon pizza (above)

Bardot Executive Chef Josh Smith

Photography by Sabin Orr

Restaurant of the Year 2015 – Bardot Brasserie

Bardot Executive Chef Josh Smith

Restaurant of the Year 2015 - Bardot Brasserie

Photography by Sabin Orr

Restaurant of the Year 2015 – Bardot Brasserie

Bardot’s confident classics such as steak frites rival the French originals.

Cocktail bar of the year

Herbs & Rye

3713 W. Sahara Ave., 702-982-8036,

The cocktail bar and restaurant has magnetic appeal to discriminating drinkers — and also attracts the city’s top mixologist talent

Vegas cocktail culture is constantly in flux, but the eye of the storm is this little spot on Sahara, lovingly called “The Clubhouse” by the mixology in-crowd.  Herbs & Rye built its brand by being able to pull very strong up-and-coming talent from anywhere and everywhere in town — and out of town.  The people who’ve moved in and out make up some serious superstars in the beverage scene, with Nectaly Mendoza at the head. The food menu, recently re-vamped to keep up with the stellar drinks, is known for its half-off steak happy hour, both in the early evening and late night.

Its commitment to quality drew more than discriminating drinkers. Herbs & Rye has become a magnet for cocktail talent, attracting names such as Matt Graham, Emily Yett, Adam O’Donnell, Kinson Lau, Joe Pereira, and Mark Vega, familiar faces to even the most novice industry folk. With such a roster, Herbs has garnered honors and awards from dozens of national and international “best of” lists. It might be the most frequently recommended bar in the city, and it’s a distinction well-earned. Herbs & Rye was one of the first bars to embrace the classic cocktail trend, and also one of the first where you could safely have your bartender improvise a truly inspired drink. It remains a place that’s electric with talent and energy every single night. MW

Dealicious Meal of the year


Pozole rojo at El Menudazo

3100 E. Lake Blvd. #18, 702-944-9706,

In a sleepy strip mall, complex flavors come together in a deceptively straightforward bowl of soup

Situated on a stretch of East Lake Mead in North Las Vegas littered with nondescript strip malls, El Menudazo is likely not in your neighborhood. It’s certainly not in mine. But that doesn’t stop me from making a semi-regular crosstown trek to one of the valley’s best breakfasts and altogether deals: their pozole rojo.

While its name may trumpet the menudo — the breakfast soup, not the Puerto Rican ’80s boy band — the pozole is utterly infatuating. A rich, practically chewy broth weightlessly suspends pork short ribs and an ample amount of hominy. Garnished with lettuce, onions, cilantro and radish (although those in the know also request avocado and sour cream) the bowl delivers flavors as complex as you’ll find anywhere in the valley, including our world-renowned five-star resorts. If you haven’t been, the space is tiny but twice the size from years past when it was only open on weekends. And unless you have an offensive line in tow, don’t order the grande. Trust me on this one. JB


Neighborhood restaurant of the year

Other Mama

Caviar French Toast

Other Mama

3655 S. Durango Drive #6, 702-463-8382,

Strong flavors and impeccable quality: almost overnight, Other Mama changed the way we think about seafood in the valley

Location counts — except when it doesn’t. Other Mama may be harder to find than a celebrity chef slaving away at the stoves, but that hasn’t stopped every galloping gastronome around from zeroing in on this hidden gem, tucked into an invisible corner in a strip mall on south Durango. Weeks after it opened, Dan Krohmer’s ode to great seafood went from a “where’s that?” to a “let’s go” on the lips of every foodie in town. These days, it’s practically a hangout for off-duty chefs and F&B professionals, as well as being the go-to joint for locals seeking serious shellfish.

Nothing about its obscure locale suggests that you’re in for top-flight oysters, Penn Cove mussels, or sashimi-grade scallops when you find it. Nor does the name give you a clue — it sounds like a blues bar, and the retro-louche signage suggests a down-on-its-heels absinthe joint you might find in New Orleans. Even when you walk in, things are bit confusing. It’s modestly appointed (Krohmer did the build-out himself) with seating for around 50, and the far wall is dominated by a long L-shaped cocktail bar that looks directly into an open kitchen. That bar may look simple, but it’s also significant, with mixologist David English shaking, stirring and conjuring cocktails to a fare-thee-well.

Then you notice a large menu board and things start falling in place. Because what Other Mama is, is an American/Japanese izakaya/sushi/raw bar/gastropub — got that? Krohmer learned his seafood skills with Iron Chef Morimoto in Philadelphia, and honed his skills locally at Sen of Japan, just down the street. He specializes in strong flavors paired with impeccably chosen seafood, such as his oysters foie Rockefeller, a dish that combines sweet, saline and salty bivalves with an umami-bomb of duck liver. Anything and everything from the raw bar — from amberjack crudo with Meyer lemon to scallop carpaccio to a sashimi salad with thyme and honey — competes with anything you’ll find 10 miles to the east, at two-thirds the price, and his pork belly kimchee fried rice, seafood toban yaki, and caviar & French toast prove he can pull together proteins and starches in unlikely combinations like nobody’s business. Gone are the days when all-you-can-eat sushi bars defined our seafood options off the Strip. Almost overnight, Other Mama unveiled a new, higher standard, and put to rest the idea that you have to travel to Las Vegas Boulevard South to get the good stuff.  JC


New restaurant of the year

Chef Julian Serrano


In the Bellagio, 702-693-8865,

This stellar example of contemporary Italian cuisine also exudes a sense of place that says: Vegas, Vegas, Vegas

In a city full of imported restaurant concepts and faux atmospheres (care for some pizza under the “Venetian” skies?), it’s often difficult to find a restaurant that exudes a solid sense of place. But what qualifies as a meal that screams “Las Vegas!”— a buffet? Sure, but that’s a tad tacky. Shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate? See previous response. An eons-old steakhouse dinner might fit the bill, but probably best suited for the Rat Pack generation of yore.

For the city’s new guard of bon vivants, there’s Lago by Julian Serrano. The modern Italian destination, which debuted in April at Bellagio, is more than a due replacement for the late Circo. It’s the best new restaurant in town.

Start with the jaw-dropping transformation in design. The stale, old-money vibe that once ruled the space — all drab tones and heavy drapes — has been eradicated. In its place is a vast expanse of bright and shiny accents. Glass, chrome and geometric patterns abound. It’s massive, it’s fresh and it’s just a wee bit loud; in other words, it’s an accurate reflection of our city’s personality.

It’s also a match for the chef’s modern approach to food. Combining the formal technique Serrano displays at Picasso with the shared plates concept of his eponymous Spanish restaurant/tapas bar in the Aria, Lago is a fine example of contemporary Italian cuisine. Plates are small but flavorful, and the menu provides a balanced blend of safe (meatballs, mini margherita pizzas) and adventurous (risotto with tripe, squid ink couscous).

Oh, and the view. The addition of an outdoor dining space allows guests to hover over the Bellagio fountains as they feast. On a breezy day, you might feel the mist on your skin as jets of water spray in choreographed movements.

“It’s supposed to be like dining on an Italian lakeside,” my dinner companion says.

Looking across the Strip at a replica of the Eiffel Tower, the boulevard clogged with foot traffic and mobile billboards of bikini-clad women, I reach for my limoncello.

“No,” I protest. An Elvis tune from the fountain show is still ringing in my head. “It’s just like dining in Vegas.” DL

Chef of the year

Chef Nicole Brisson

Nicole Brisson at Carnevino

In the Palazzo, 702-789-4141,

A culinary force all her own, Brisson has turned Carnevino into a canvas for re-envisioning the steakhouse

When Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened Carnevino, they no doubt hoped their concept of great Italian food and even greater steaks would be an unbeatable combination. What they probably didn’t suspect was that they were also unleashing a 34-year-old dynamo of a chef, from upstate New York, onto the Vegas food scene — a woman who would redefine the steakhouse genre and prove to be a culinary force in her own right. Because Nicole Brisson not only has serious Italian cooking chops, she also rides herd over a large kitchen staff serving hundreds of covers a night to some of the most demanding diners in the business.

With Brisson at the helm, Batali, Bastianich and company have taken the lead in connecting our great Strip restaurants with the local population and, in the process, brought locally sourced food to a desert tourist town that didn’t think such things were possible. These days, Carnevino isn’t just one of the best steakhouses in Las Vegas, it might be the best steakhouse in the country. It also is, on any given night, one of the best Italian restaurants in America — a one-of-a-kind, only-in-Vegas experience that deserves to be a lot more famous than it is. Brisson makes the whole thing run like a finely tuned watch, and if she were doing this kind of work in New York or Los Angeles, she would’ve graced numerous magazines and television shows by now. As it is, Carnevino exists in a world of its own — a sui generis blend of superior pastas and the country’s best beef. Its “riserva” steaks are justifiably famous, and you have to call ahead to reserve one that’s been aged anywhere from 60-150 days (what Brisson considers the “sweet spot.”) Do so, and you’ll taste beef like you never have before. They aren’t for everyone (the regular, dry-aged rib eye and strip are otherworldly in their own right), but if you have the coin and the palate, you’ll enjoy the privilege of eating the most unique steaks in the world.

If beef and noodles aren’t your bag, take heart: The antipasti (all made in-house) and fish will more than satisfy your craving for a taste of Italia. Put these together with an abundance of local produce from Nevada and California farms, and you have that rarest of creatures: a huge, celebrity-chef-driven restaurant overseen by a major talent who’s made it very much a part of her life and the local food community. Mario and Joe might’ve made a safe bet with their menu, but their biggest payoff of all has been with the chef they picked, and just how special she turned out to be. JC

Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame award

Spago Dessert


In the Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-369-6300,

More than 20 years later, the restaurant that sparked Vegas’ fine dining revolution still dazzles, surprises and excels

In the beginning, there was Spago. And Spago begat Emeril’s, and Emeril’s success begat the tsunami that was the Bellagio, and by the turn of the century, all of them, along with many others, had put an exclamation point on the greatest restaurant revolution America had ever seen. But all that begetting began on December, 11, 1992, when Wolfgang Puck opened a branch of his seminal, West Hollywood eatery and single-handedly made Las Vegas a player on the world’s restaurant stage.

Puck tells many stories about that opening: how there were almost no customers the first week; how he told his general manager the whole thing was a big mistake; and how, once the National Finals Rodeo came to town, all the cowboys lined up in front of the open kitchen thinking it was a buffet. Soon enough they learned just how wonderful the grub was being rustled up by that kitchen. From day one, and 23 years later, it rarely misses a beat. First under David Robins and currently helmed by Eric Klein, the kitchen never fails to dazzle and surprise — a testament to Puck’s perfectionism and one of the most solid staffs in the business. That excellence extends to the front of the house, and has since the get-go: Have you ever heard anyone say they had bad service at Spago? Puck’s contributions to America’s restaurants are legendary. Open kitchens are everywhere these days, but they started with Spago. The lowly pizza was first given a gourmet cachet by Puck, and he was the first to incorporate a casual café in front, with a more formal — and expensive — space in the back of the restaurant. But most of all, what Puck and Spago did — first in Los Angeles and then in the Forum Shops — was make fine dining fun. They brought good cooking out from behind the curtain and showed America how to have a great time with great food.

Once Las Vegas got a taste of everything Spago brought to the table, there was no turning back. Food and beverage executives up and down the Strip knew they had to improve their game, and that’s exactly what they did, causing all of us today, and 42 million visitors a year, to eat better as a result. There was always gold in them hills to be sure, but Wolfgang Puck was the first to discover it, and in the process, he begat a dining revolution in the most tasteful way possible. JC



Restaurant of the Year 2015

Bardot Brasserie in Aria


This delicious ode to the golden era of brass, glass and béchamel-drenched sandwiches is a throwback with heart and soul

When Michael Mina announced he was closing American Fish in the Aria and replacing it with a classic French brasserie, more than a few foodies were skeptical. Didn’t he know that this was the age of tiny tables, minuscule plates, insulting noise levels, and uncomfortable everything? Hadn’t someone told him that old-time French style was about as hip as a dickey? And that Croque Madame and salad Niçoise were old hat by the Clinton era?

They may have told him, but we’re happy he didn’t listen. Instead, what he did was bring forth a drop-dead delicious ode to the golden era of brass, glass and béchamel-drenched sandwiches — hearty platters of wine-friendly food that many think went out of style with tasseled menus, but didn’t. It just took a break for a decade. With Bardot, the reasons all of these recipes became famous to begin with has come roaring back, to the delight of diners who want to be coddled and cosseted with cuisine, not challenged and annoyed. Mina had the prescience to know this, and also the good sense to hire Executive Chef Josh Smith to execute his vision. Smith is an American through and through, but obviously has a deep feeling for this food, and every night (and with the best weekend brunch in town) he proves why classics never go out style — and why overwrought, over-thought, multi-course tasting menus may soon go the way of the supercilious sommelier.

Make no mistake, Bardot Brasserie is a throwback restaurant. But this is a throwback that captures the heart and soul of real French food like none of its competition. It harkens to an age of comfort food from a country that pretty much invented it. What sets it apart is the attention to detail. Classics such as steak frites and quiche are clichés to be sure, but here they’re done with such aplomb you’ll feel like you’re on the Left Bank of Paris, only with better beef. The pâté de campagne (house-made country pâté) is a wondrous evocation of pressed pork of the richest kind, and the escargots in puff pastry show how a modern chef can update a classic without sacrificing the soul of the original recipe. The skate wing suffers not at all from being 6,000 miles from the Champs Elysee, and the lobster Thermidor — bathed in Béarnaise and brandy cream — is a glorious testament to the cuisine of Escoffier. Most of all, though, Bardot Brasserie is an homage to the great, homey restaurants of France. By going old school, Michael Mina has set a new standard in Franco-American style, and made us realize what we were missing all along. JC