Restaurant(s) of the Year 2018

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.

(The Three Musketeers)

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.

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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.

 

 

The List

(John Lee at work)

Ed. note: Since we eat in more restaurants, more often, than anyone in Las Vegas, we periodically list where we’ve recently chowed down as a way of directing our loyal readers, to the best meals in town. As usual, all places are randomly listed and highly recommended unless otherwise noted.

NURO BISTRO – a serious challenge to Flock & Fowl’s Hainanese chicken hegemony

ROSALLIE LE FRENCH CAFE – good coffee; even gooder pastries

NOMAD BARget the hamburger and the hot dog

PUBLICUS – always packed these days, for good reason

EDO TAPAS & WINE – The Food Gal’s favorite, for good reason

NOMAD RESTAURANT – bring a wheelbarrow; load it with cash; expect to be dazzled

PARTAGE – how lucky we are to have this food off the Strip

(Hamchi crudo at Esther’s Kitchen)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN – to get a table, go late for lunch or early for dinner

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC – great vibe, even if some dishes sometimes miss the mark

PAMPLONA COCKTAILS AND TAPAS – Spaniards are so fun-loving they make the Italians seem like the French

LE CIRQUE Alan Mardonovich now has the kitchen; Ivo Angelov runs the tightest ship in the business

(November is white truffle time at Le Cirque)

KKULMAT KOREAN KITCHEN – the food feels like a loving Korean grandma is cooking it (she is!); but the place sometimes smells like disinfectant

CIPRIANI – a full review is upcoming, but here’s a hint: I think I could eat this food every day

(We’re not sure gelato can taste any better than this)

CUBA CAFÉ – about once every ten years we eat some Cuban…just to remind ourselves why we don’t eat much Cuban

MICHAEL MINA – I’m on a seafood diet; when I see food, I eat it, especially seafood this good

DE KITCHEN – small (12 seats) but mighty Thai in #DTLV

OHLALA FRENCH BISTRO – couldn’t be more French if there was a mime with a monkey out front gargling with Gruyère and garbling La Marseillaise

FERRARO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND WINE BAR – I’d eat here once a week if it was closer to my house

MARCHE BACCHUS – you might like the new full bar; I like Amanda Purdy’s additions to the menu

CASA DON JUAN – much of the food is by-the-numbers, but the carnitas por dos is out of this world

SOHO JAPANESE RESTAURANT – a raucous sushi bar with a serious omakase (see John Lee at work at the top of the page, and behold these tasty snaps below):

SCOTCH 80 PRIME – steaks, whiskys, and sides, all superior

SHINYA MARU RAMEN & IZAKAYA – if you need a ramen fix downtown, this is not bad, but it’s not that good either

PIZZERIA MONZÚ – simply spectacular Sicilian

MORDEO BOUTIQUE WINE BAR – compelling food that was a hit from the get-go

BAJAMAR FISH TACOS – gee, I wonder what their specialty is?

(The “Lucas” at Bajamar)

CLEAVER – the jury is still out on this one

FU MAN DUMPLING HOUSE– closed

SHAKE SHACK – more and more, we’re realizing that SS kicks In-N-Out’s ass

(Blackened mahi mahi at Triple George)

TRIPLE GEORGE – super service; improved food

HONEY SALT – more solid than ever; great brunch

URTH CAFFE – superb cappucino; absurdly-sized pastries

(Too. Damn. Big.)

 

 

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

Ground Zero for downtown’s dining renaissance. So crowded, as Yogi Berra said, no one goes there anymore. So popular, a seat at the bar (any night of the week) is harder to find than a Mario Batali fan.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a meal here….only that when you do, you’d better plan ahead, before the downtown denizens descend.

What began with Carson Kitchen four years ago took a giant leap forward in 2018 with the opening of this intimate space just off Main Street in the Arts District. But where CK is all gastropub-y with it’s burgers, salads, wings and such, here chef/owner James Trees goes full Italian, bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, 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 porchetta (never as good as I want it to be). Nothing wrong with a giant loaf of rolled pork, mind you, I’ve just never been impressed by the dish, in or out of Italy.

Another thing CK and EK have in common is ear-splitting, military jet afterburner noise levels. Be forewarned: this is not a place for intimate (or even business) discussions. If anything, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern urban dining — an atmosphere where people come for the food and “to party” (as Trees puts it), not for contemplation or conversation. My solution is to come either for a late lunch or an early dinner, or, weather permitting, sit outside. Another minor criticism is the way you order and pay at the counter at lunch, grab a number, and wait for your food to be delivered. None of this affect the exquisite food coming out of the open kitchen, but it does give the place a fast-casual feel that detracts from the foodie vibe. On the plus side, once you’re done eating, there’s no waiting for a check, you just get up and go.

Picky picky picky, you’re probably saying to yourself right now (especially if you’re under 40), but like I said, none of this affects the food, almost all of which is drop-your-fork gorgeous.

Begin with the bread, because it’s baked in-house and out of this world. Then proceed to the meat and cheese platter — one of the prettiest in Vegas. From there, dive into the verduras (veggies): cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and capers, mushrooms with house-ground polenta, an above-average Caesar, and a chopped salad so enticing everyone at your table will grab a forkful. At lunch you’ll love most of the sandwiches, with the grilled truffle cheese with mushroom, on house bread crusted with fontina cheese, attaining second level status in the pantheon of grilled fromage. The garlic poached tuna “Niçoise Things” is too healthy for us (and occasionally under dressed), but the “Spicy Greens” with candied pecans, pickled (and we mean pickled) plums, brie and prosciutto, hits just the right balance between produce, spicy and sweet.

As good as the left side of the menu is, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant wars 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 handmade, portioned for two and presented to elicit oohs and aahs for their perfection of pasta porn.

Where you’ll really gasp, though, is when you see his radiatorre with black garlic, lemon and cream, a palate-coating belly bomb of the best kind:

Nothing is run of the mill about these noodlelicious dishes — they use top shelf groceries, rotate the recipes seasonally, and unlike so many other restaurants, aren’t afraid to get in your face with flavor. When Trees says “amatriciana” he means it. The spice will be there as surely as the pepper in the cacio e pepe will light you up.

Pizzas are far from standard issue, either, with beautiful, charred cornicione (above), good cheese, and always a surprise or two in the topping department — like salty bacon with caramelized onion, or Greek sausage and fennel.

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, amazing amaros, 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: feed its customers (and quench their thirsts) in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(Lunch for two should run around $40, with dinner about double that, exclusive of drinks, which shouldn’t be excluded, ever. There’s a reserve wine list in addition to the $40/btl  one, and it’s a lot pricier, if no less exciting.)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.570.7864

https://www.estherslv.com/