Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

Image(Restaurant of the Year)

Big deal dining is back! Big box Chinese makes a splash, Asian eats remain awesome, and some classics never go out of style.

That’s how we’d characterize the DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT AWARDS 2019.

Or as we like to refer to them: “the only restaurant awards that count.”

They’re small in number, but they also mean something — representing sustained excellence that enhances not just their customer’s palates, but the Vegas food/restaurant scene as a whole.

Image(2007 aka The Stone Age)

The text below represents the awards written by yours truly (as I’ve been doing for over 20 years). In the beginning, I was a committee of one (see the ancient artifact above). Now, they are orchestrated by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kiraly and my fellow writers, and year in and year out, they stand for the best Las Vegas has to offer.

(Ed. note: We’d like to take credit for all of the stunning photography below, but most of it has been brazenly lifted/plagiarized/stolen from the brilliant photographer Sabin Orr and Desert Companion magazine.)

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

Veal Chop(Look no further for the world’s best veal chop)

There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining.

Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates.

Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere.

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

Great service should be not too fast, not too friendly and almost invisible. Think of it as the inverse of pornography – you know it when you don’t see it.

A great restaurant operates with the concealed efficiency of a fine-tuned watch, every joint, mechanism and movement dependent upon the other, coiling and uncoiling every second, seamlessly sweeping you through the time spent enjoying your meal. Time spent at Michael Mina has always been a good investment, and one of the reasons is unfailingly great service.

Since 1998 it has held down its corner of the Bellagio as a bastion of seafood and San Francisco-inspired elegance. The food and the decor have always been stars in their own right, but the unsung heroes at work every night are the management and staff, who seat the customers, mix drinks, pour the wines and toss the tartares. Holding them all together is General Manager Jorge Pagani (pictured above with Executive Chef Nick Dugan and Sommelier Kayla Krause), a maestro who performs in the lowest key, quietly charming a steady stream of customers while keeping his troops in shape.

Chefs and sommeliers have come and gone over the years, but Pagani, has been a constant. From the moment you approach the hostess stand until you pay your bill, you sense the quiet hum of a restaurant that is doing everything right. Watching the staff shift from table to table, filleting fish, unveiling pot pies, and carving and mixing is a symphony without music. Michael Mina makes you feel as cosseted and cared for as any restaurant in Las Vegas, and like all real pros, they make it look easy. In fact, you almost don’t see it at all.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

You might be excused for wondering what all the shouting is about when you roll up on Café Breizh for the first time. It sits towards the far end of one of those generic strip malls that are as Las Vegas as slot machines in a grocery store.

But do not be deterred by the surroundings, for once inside you will find the best French pastries in town. The selection is small but the craftsmanship, artistry and intense flavors will grab you from the first bite. There is no better croissant in Vegas, on or off the Strip; the chocolate éclair is so packed with custard it threatens to burst its pastry case, and the picture-perfect tarts do that tri-level taste thing (crusty, creamy, and fruity) that the French perfected around the time the musketeers were buckling their swashes.

Pierre Gatel is the chef, owner and hand-maker of each of these, and from the day he opened three years ago (after a stint at the Wynn), Francophiles, Napoleon nabobs and Danish devotees have made a beeline here for his creations. He also does a limited number of baguettes every day which sell like hotcakes, so go early if you want to grab a loaf and feel like les Français on your way home.

Las Vegas is blessed with a wealth of pastry talent, but most of it stays in the hotels. Now we have one of them staging his magic right on south Fort Apache, in a spot that feels like a slice of Paris, and the alchemy he performs daily with butter, flour, cream and sugar is something to behold.

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

Vetri, if you let it, will take your breath away. The qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizzas and chicken parm are nowhere to be found. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat.  All of it served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian restaurant in America. With this offshoot he has bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems foreign to most people’s Italian vocabulary — casoncelli, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique to Las Vegas and every bite a revelation.

No restaurant enhanced Vegas’s foodie cred more than it did in the past year, and at a time when everyone is announcing the death knell of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big city sass to our scene. You don’t have to dress to the nines to go there, but the food on your plate (and that view) will make you feel like a million bucks. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky.

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

Matthew Hurley(You can’t beat this man’s meat)

In the past few years, it’s become deliciously obvious to us that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding of course, because it is Puck’s gastronomic gravitas that enables Las Vegas to have one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in our backyard.

But calling CUT just another celebrity beef boutique would be a grave injustice, because by flexing his own culinary muscles, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few meat emporiums could ever dream of.  No doubt his creations are highly vetted by his corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he has done with his freedom, and all the top shelf ingredients at his disposal, is stunning.

Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette — toggling back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to pull off a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-beating steaks, and gorgeous pasta, and never miss a beat. The elegant fish cookery alone would be right at home in some hoity-toity French joint, and he and his minions are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi and various Italian carpaccios.

If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a hankering for Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a  CIA graduate like Hurley  (who has been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to sit back, go through the motions, and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into one of the best restaurants in America.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago (after a deluge), many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’s most famous restaurant.

The previous seventeen years had seen the Chutima family (Saipin, Penny, and Sabrina above) build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been called “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for over a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran.

Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s nam prik noom. Instead of being a set-back, the move created a boom. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers and the new digs provided a more fitting backdrop for this award-wining cuisine.

What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please the American palate. Be it khao soi or koi soi these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) Siamese food is known for. (It is a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) This grander stage seems to have caused the whole operation to snap to attention and also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists.

Maybe it was the flood, or the inspiration from a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing seems crisper and more consistent these days. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam, and now, finally, it looks the part.

Click on this link to read about the rest of these worthy recipients from Jim Begley, Mitchell Wilburn, Lissa Townsend Rogers and Greg Thilmont:

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEARDan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá)

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2007-2017: A Decade of Restaurants

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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.

https://www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/5830044-1-4.jpg(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)

REALITY BITES

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.

https://desdemialacena.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/chinatown-las-vegas.jpeg(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?

http://thedivinedish.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/2alexstrattaphotobyalexkarvounis.jpg(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; and 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 to 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.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EPILOGUE FOR A DECADE

http://www.eatinglv.com/wordpress/wp-content/gallery/last-night-at-bradley-ogden/last-night-at-bradley-ogden-044-large.jpg(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. I also think the family had had enough of Vegas. New York is their home and that’s where they all want to be, and who can blame them?

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?

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.

If you loved Andre’s (either downtown Las Vegas, or in the Monte Carlo) try Andre’s Bistro & Bar or Sparrow + Wolf.

Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards Announced

Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to Andrew Kiraly, Sabin Orr and Christopher Smith for making our prose look so delicious. (Click on the link below to read all of this lip smacking news amongst some of the most luscious photographs imaginable…)




The BEEG WEINERS:

Restaurant of the Year: SAGE

Chef of the Year: Pascal Sanchez (Twist by Pierre Gagnaire)

Pastry Chef of the Year: Kamel Guechida (Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon)

Sommelier of the Year: Willi Sherer (Aureole)

Excellence in Management and Service: SPAGO

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: ROSEMARY’S

Ethnic Restaurant of the Year: RAKU

Cocktail Bar of the Year: AMERICAN FISH

“Dealicious” Meal of the Year: BOSA 1