Ed. note: It’s that time of the year, food fans: time for the Desert Companion magazine’s restaurant awards, a.k.a. the only restaurant awards that count. For almost 20 years we’ve been handing these out, and unlike others in our humble burg, these are the result of meticulous eating, research and writing, not plagiarized listicles (Eater, Thrillist), ballot stuffing (the Review-Journal), or crowd-sourced nonsense (Yelp). Since I started to whole shebang back in the late 90s (at KNPR – Nevada Public Radio), I usually get the honor of writing the Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year entries. Back in the day, I was a committee of one, now, the candidates get thoroughly picked over, re-hashed, strained, refined and clarified (by me, Editor Andrew Kiraly, Jim Begley, Greg Thilmont, and Mitchell Wilburn) before the final selections are agreed upon. This was a watershed year for local restaurants and our winners reflect that. As usual, click here to read about all the awards in their original format. Buon gusto!
DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT(S) OF THE YEAR 2018
There couldn’t be just one. Not this year. Not in a year that was a watershed for great kitchen talent emerging in the suburbs. For the first time since I can remember (which goes all the way back to 1981) more great restaurants opened off the Strip than on it. And for the first time since our restaurant revolution began in earnest — twenty years ago with the opening of the Bellagio — all the serious foodies in town were not heading to a big hotel, but to Chinatown or downtown — places hitherto dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration by galloping gastronomes.
It was ten years in the making, this restaurant renaissance — the roots of which can be traced to the great recession of 2008, when real estate values nosedived, and chefs everywhere were thrown on the streets. As that recession hung on, two things happened in Las Vegas: the hotels lost their nerve, and young chefs started getting some. The mojo that enticed everyone from Sirio Maccioni to Pierre Gagnaire to come here gave way to a Strip scene reduced to celebrating warmed-over celebrities and licensing deals. Into this void stepped a few brave souls who wondered why Strip-quality cooking couldn’t succeed with locals. In a town of over two million people, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a thriving local restaurant scene, they thought, and with lots of diners coming of age who wanted the good stuff without all the tourist trappings, it was time for our neighborhood food scene to explode, and explode it has.
In terms of progress, downtown made the biggest jump with Esther’s Kitchen leading the pack. James Trees’ ode to Italy has become ground zero for a neighborhood (the arts district) that went from being little more than a collection of junk shops to a stroll-able, eatable and drinkable area all within the past year. Esther’s doesn’t sound very Italian but that’s exactly what it is– bombarding you with antipasti, verduras (veggies), handmade pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and a thick, porky porchetta for mavens of meat. As good as they are, it’s those pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines.
Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant scene and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are the pinnacle of pasta porn. All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century. It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: satisfy its customers in a way that will have them returning again and again.
If downtown came of age in 2018, Chinatown took a European turn. If someone had told me three years ago that this three mile stretch of pan-Pacific eats would be anchored by a French restaurant at one end, and a Spanish one at the other (with an excellent American gastropub – Sparrow + Wolf – in the middle) I would’ve told them to get their head examined. What Executive Chef Yuri Szarzewski, Pastry Chef Vincent Pellerin, and General Manager Nicolas Kalpokdjian (above) have done at Partage is nothing short of phenomenal: transplant a bit of sophisticated France to an all-Asian plaza with a beautiful dining room and drop-your-fork gorgeous food.
Partage means “to share” and the menu encourages you to do just that. Twenty small plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than 2-3 bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit), or a perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow, served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious fried bread. The menu toggles back and forth between small bites and big proteins, with a significant nod given to vegetarians as well. A walk through this door transports you to a place I didn’t think could exist in Las Vegas: elevated French dining in a stunning, casual atmosphere, with a great bar and wine list, all served with flair at a fair price. Bon appetit, indeed.
Our milestone year ended with an olé! From its forty cozy seats to the giant mural dominating one wall to the rolling gin and tonic cart, Edo Tapas & Wine is a jewel box designed to make you fall in love with it from the moment you enter. It arrived at the western end of the Spring Mountain in mid-summer, and announced its serious tapas intentions from the get-go. Things may look unassuming from the front but there’s quite a pedigree behind that door. Chef/owner Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran, as is partner Roberto Liendo. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demands the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas thing may seem like old hat, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.
When it comes to those tapas, just pick and point. Chunky Maine lobster comes “salpicón-style — dressed with “tiger’s milk” — which lightens the richness of the crustacean, while croquetas get that Asian spin with kimchi pisto. After those, the hits just keep on coming: pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime), and something called “Bikini” — wafer-thin, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast. You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here — some are just more spectacular than others. One of the more eye-popping ones is huevos estrellados – a toothsome riff on this Spanish staple — assembling olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers and a melange of mushrooms atop fried potatoes. The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, and the paella is worth a trip all by itself.
By Las Vegas Strip standards, these are small fry, but what they represent for the future of our neighborhoods is a very big deal. Cooking this good — with serious cocktail and wine intentions — was unheard of five years ago outside of the hotels. By opening their doors, these operators announced that Italy, France and Spain (the gastronomic capitals of the western world) have arrived in our backyard. Eating out locally in Las Vegas will never be the same, and we have these three to thank for this tasty state of affairs.