Best New Restaurants 2023

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It’s been a banner year for new restaurants, but most of the growth has been confined to the ‘burbs. (Face it: the Strip is now more boring than an Elon Musk boondoggle.)

Whether the engine is a booming economy, pent-up demand or big money finally stepping into the food game (Hello, The Sundry and Lev Group!), the greater Las Vegas area is teeming with worthy newcomers, some done on a shoestring, others well-financed, each seeking a slice of the hunger pie. In years past we might’ve had trouble coming up with half a dozen lip-smacking joints, this year has been a bounty of riches, with more to come in the final four months.

And yes, I know the year is only 66.6% over, but whether it is out of habit (10 years of writing my guidebook, and 25 of doing the Desert Companion/KNPR Restaurant Awards), I seem to be congenitally wired to start writing about the “year’s best” when summertime is on the wane.

So consider this a partial list, which bears updating, but a good start if you’re looking for what is recent and deserving of your dining out dollars:

The Best New Restaurants of 2023 (in no particular order, with commentary):

138 Degrees Craft Chophouse

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Image(…and then this lawyer dude asked for ketchup…)

Henderson has a steakhouse to call its own, aging everything from the sirloins to the salmon.

Basilico Ristorante Italiano

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Image(Surf and turf risotto alla Francesco Di Caudo)

It’s hard to get excited about Italian anymore, but I can almost work up a woody over this one.

1228 Main

You will not find me here most mornings only because my waistline won’t allow it.

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As good as the pastries are, the lunch/dinner options (including the best pasta of the year pictured above) here are every bit as technically perfect as you would expect from a Wolfgang Puck operation.

Azzurra Cucina

Image(Not your father’s Water Street)

If this keeps up, we’re going to have to retire the word Hendertucky and start eating crow….with a proper demi-glace, of course.

Aroma Latin American Cocina

Nueva Latina in Green Valley makes about as much sense as a salsa band at a Mormon social, but here it is, just waiting to be discovered by the mortgage-poor crowd. Full disclosure: we haven’t been, but Eat. Talk. Repeat. co-host Ash the Attorney raves about this place.

Ocean Prime

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Vegas needs another chain steakhouse like I need another ex-wife, but when the payoff is this spectacular, the heart goes where the heart goes.

Kaiseki Yuzu Sushi Bar

ImageJonathon Mau knows his Maguro)

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Strictly for purists; no sushbags allowed.

00 Pie & Pub

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Mike Vakneen is a pizza savant and Chinatown is now his playground.

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The starters — including the roasted Calabrian peppers with anchovies above — are Esther’s Kitchen-worthy.

Mizunara at The Sundry

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Image(Bun-Bun Hiyashi Chuka)

Homie don’t order off no QR code. Home boy (who hasn’t been a boy for 50 years) demands old-fashioned service…and cold ramen noodles like these.

Marche Bacchus – Bradley Ogden edition

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MB has been through so many incarnations we’ve stopped counting. So has Bradley Ogden for that matter. But the menu here hasn’t been this good in a decade, and though things might look the same, you’re basically eating in a whole new restaurant.

Naxos Taverna

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Think of it as a slightly cheaper, local’s Estiatorio Milos, with free parking and without the fish displayed like jewelry… and thank me later. (Efcharistó, Mark Andelbradt)

Taste of Asia

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Chinatown-level Chinese in Summerlin makes about as much sense as haute Latina in Henderson, but the times they are a-changin’. Karrie Hung is out to raise the Asia steaks in a part of town who finds Panda Express too “foreign”. There’s plenty to placate the sweet and sour pork crowd, but the real gems are in the chef’s specials and seafood, plus the best Peking duck deal ($80) this side of New Asian BBQ.

Daeho Kalbijjim

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Years of dining with our Korean komrades has taught us that Korean restaurants are usually known for doing one or two things well, and the rest of the menu is just filler. Daeho does its justifiably famous sweet-spicy beef rib stew, with promiscuous cheese pulls for those infected with Tik Tok brain….like us above, straining to influence the f++k out of this place.

B.S. Taqueria at The Sundry

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The B. S. stands for “Broken Spanish” and it’s the best Mexican food we had this year. Second only to Viva! by Ray Garcia in Resorts World. Same chef, terrific tortillas, serious south of the border stuff.

Lamoon

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Lamoon packs a one-two punch of fiery food and highly-curated wine that will leave you fit to be Thai’d. The decor (in an old Dairy Queen!) is pretty snappy too.

Hola Mexican Cocina + Cantina

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I once made the mistake on KNPR radio of pronouncing “cocina” as co-CHEEN-a instead of saying co-THEEN-a  or co-SEEN-a — which apparently meant I was describing a local restaurant as a prostitute instead of a kitchen. No matter how you pronounce it, the food here tastes great no matter how much Mexican you speak.

Yukon Pizza

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Why a burger and not a pizza pic? Because of all the griddled, frilly smashed cheeseburgers in town, this one meats all expectations…as do all their kick-ass pies.

Yen Viet Kitchen

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Not strictly new this year, but new to us, and best Vietnamese food we have eaten in Las Vegas, ever — and we’ve eaten in all of them, up and down Spring Mountain Road. What this video lacks in dynamism and drama, it makes up for in information. A must-stop on SMR, and the definition of a hidden gem.

Speaking of hidden gems….

Yummy Kitchen

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They don’t get much more tucked away than Yummy Kitchen, tossing its chili crab and other Singaporean-Malaysian delights inside an Asian supermarket, far across a parking lot at Spring Mountain and Decatur. The crabs are still-moving fresh, and the garlic shrimp, roti, Hainanese chicken, and Malay curries will save you plane fare to Disneyland-with-the-death-penalty.

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While we’re at it…..

Worst new restaurants of 2023:

M.Y. Asia (Closed!)

From stunt noodles to chicken so bad it left us yearning for a Panda Express, this tourist trap was D.O.A.

Told. You. So.

Vic’s

Comically < average Italian at the Smith Center, brought to you by folks who’ve never dined at Brezza or Basilico….and wouldn’t understand them if they did.

Bespoke Kitchen

Nothing bespoke except the name.

Cathédrale

By-the-numbers dining for the selfie wall crowd, brought to you by the Tao Group — who haven’t had an original idea since 2005. Soulless decor, jaw-dropping prices, insulting wine list — the symbol of every unimaginative ripoff late-stage Las Vegas has become in one, overdecorated restaurant.

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Did we miss a few on both sides of these equations? Probably, but this list should get you started, and we have three months to keep eating and augment things.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, and cheers!

THE END

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Major Awards – 2022

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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.

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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:

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Asian Restaurant of the Year: Trattoria Nakamura-Ya:

Trattoria NAKAMURA-YA | Tokyo Style Italian Restaurant Las Vegas

Restaurateur of the Year: John Arena

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– 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:

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 – 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:

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 – 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.

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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:

THE PANS

Worst Meal of the Year – Lago

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

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So Not Worth It Meal of the Year – Wakuda:

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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

caviar

QR codes

orange wine

natural wine

any beer it takes more than two words to describe

celebrity chefs

cronuts

food competitions

pizza fetishization

gooey food videos

impossible to get into restaurants

smoked cocktails

smoked everything

smoked anything but smoked meat

communal seating

micro-greens

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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THE PICKS

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:

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Runner-UpCUT:

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Sushi of the YearSushi Hiro:

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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

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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)

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Runner-UpGuy Savoy (Las Vegas)

Japanese Meal of the YearRaku:

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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

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Favorite Meat-festRincon de Buenos Aires

Runner-Up8oz Korean Steakhouse

Burger of the YearMain Street Provisions

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Runner-Up BOTYNusr-Et:

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

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

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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:

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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:

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Butcher of the YearFeatherblade English Craft Butchery

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

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

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

Restaurant We’re Rooting Hardest ForMariscos El Frescos:

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Cappucino AwardMothership Coffee Roasters

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Runner-UpPublicUs

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

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We Wish We Had Eaten Here More AwardKaiseki Yuzu:

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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:

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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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Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos

The Beverly Hills Hotel Sign(Gimme gimme)

Los Angeles is a city, a county, a tangle of towns and a state of mind. It begins in the San Gabriel Valley just west of the El Cajon Pass, and ends at the beach cities along the Pacific Coast Highway. In between are almost 5,000 square miles of municipalities (88 in all), along with the biggest spaghetti bowl of freeways in America. Hidden among them are all sorts of good things to eat.  Getting to them, however, will always be a challenge, in more ways than one.

If you’re driving from Las Vegas, the gravitational pull of L.A. is palpable. Once you’ve crossed that mountain pass, it is downhill all the way until you hit the terminus of the Original Route 66 underneath the Santa Monica Pier. Driving is the only way to see LA, by the way, it having sold its soul to the cult of the car before anyone reading these words was even alive. (There are walk-able areas among its many towns, but they are laughably small, and you’d better know the territory before beginning any trek, unless you enjoy hobnobbing with the homeless.)

But up to the challenge we were, so drive there we did (courtesy of friends with sweet, oversized rides befitting the landscape), to check out the food scene. This time, though, we weren’t in search of the best new places. This time we were big game hunting — bagging the ultimate elusive prey like Hemingway on a bender, led by a local food guide, and armed with credit cards instead of shotguns.

It was epic eating of a particular SoCal sort, punctuated by meals both highbrow and low, from the absurd to the sublime. We covered a lot of territory in four days…and here is the tale:

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Polo Lounge

It doesn’t get more old school than The Beverly Hills Hotel — perched on a hill above Sunset Boulevard, looming over swimming pools and movie stars like an edifice of pink excess. The BHH has been in more movies and dreams than one can count, and its Polo Lounge serves as a de facto commissary for big shots of the movie producer ilk. (These days, you’re more likely to be rubbing shoulders with FOMO Instagrammers and bachelorette parties than Jerry Bruckheimer, but such is the century we live in.)

While it is still possible to be seduced by the prospect of running into B-list actors and eurotrash here, we came for the food…and maybe a little of the glamour that this place still wears like a faded fur on Norma Desmond.

What we found was a lot more spruced up than we remember from 20 years ago. Now a part of the Dorchester Collection, its mega-rich owners cannot be accused of letting it go to seed. Things were polished to a fare thee well; the bathroom fixtures are now more Louis Quinze than Louis B. Mayer, with carpet so plush you could sleep on it.

There is lots of obsequious head-bowing as you stroll through the joint  (which must be the way hotshot Hollywood hottentots like it) and food calculated not to offend — artfully presented and tasty, but un-challenging to the palate (which is another way wealthy barbarians like their pablum). There’s nothing particularly interesting on the card, just the standardized menu fare that gets hustled out of hotel kitchens from Long Beach to Louisville — here made with better groceries than most. You will eat well, but you won’t be so distracted by the food that you can’t spend most of your meal searching for someone famous. Which is, after all, the whole point of this place.

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Worthy menu items included a really good piece of California sea bass — a fish that never seems to find its way to Vegas, 240 miles up the road — a substantial steak, excellent steak tartare, mammoth double-decker club sandwich, and a not over-priced wine list. On the down side: prices are astronomic and service metronomic — for the privilege of paying $32 for a Cobb salad, and 42 bucks for fish tacos (above), you also get waiters who barely look at you.

The Damage:

Around $130/pp. The Food Gal® says: “Only my husband is dumb enough to pay forty-two dollars for fish tacos. Get a salad and hope Jennifer Aniston shows up to make it worth your while.”

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Chez Jay, Baby

We’re spoiled, of course. You can pin a lot of negatives on Las Vegas restaurants, but bad service isn’t one of them. From our haute cuisine palaces to pizza/pasta/sports pubs, the management and staffs both on Strip and off are always happy to see you.

The great thing about Chez Jay is, it never got the snooty L.A. memo. Here, the absence of attitude is as refreshing as the salty breeze coming off the Pacific. Even when you roll in slightly inebriated, late at night (Who? Me?!) with the kitchen about to close, it feels like you’ve staggered into an old friend who is happy to see you.

This downmarket, laid back louche-ness has been drawing us to this lovable dive for thirty years. Only a stone’s throw from the Santa Monica Pier, the place used to be filled with drunks and fisherman (not to mention drunk fishermen) and smelled like Coppertone mixed with bait. The smell is gone, but the boozers remain. This is a good thing. There is a quiet, scruffy alcoholism to Chez Jay that provides the perfect antidote to its upscale neighbors. “Every guy who ever played Tarzan used to hang out there,” says writer/director James Orr, and you can still feel their presence every time some worn-out fellow with a weather-beaten tan and a floppy hat walks in.

Image(Sand dabs by the sand)

What you’ll find at CJ is the opposite of hoity-toity: a smiling welcome (whether you’re a has-been actor or not), strong, well-made cocktails, and an old-timey “steaks, seafood, chops” menu with some surprisingly tasty fare. Skip the so-so steaks and head for the garlic shrimp or sand dabs (above). And tip your sassy waitress well: she’s honed the skill of reading people into a fine art.

If there’s a better way to bring eating Los Angeles into sharp relief than lunch at the Polo Lounge and dinner at Chez Jay, we haven’t found it.

Sadly, Denny Miller is no longer around.

The Damage:

Two entrees and a few stiff drinks will run about $50/pp. The Food Gal® says:  “Chez Jay is old-school fun whether your spouse is sober or not when you arrive. Sadly though, Billy Bob Thornton, was nowhere to be found, either.”

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n/naka

Then, shit got real. Scoring a res at n/naka takes the patience of Job and the perseverance of Sisyphus. The person typing these words has neither, but he does have friends with connections, so in we strolled to the toughest ticket in Los Angeles — a small house on a corner of a commercial street containing a 30 seat restaurant, a multi-course kaiseki meal, and a bill that would choke a horse.

Having appeared on the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table made a ticket to this meal harder to come by than a backstage pass at the Oscar’s.

Fawning, persistent press has sealed its fate as one of those places that actually transcends the hype and has become a cultural touchstone. To eat here is to know what high-falutin’ Californian food is about, but you no longer come to n/naka just to eat; you come to embrace it as a status symbol. As with the French Laundry up north, the food (good as it is) has become beside the point.

You’re also up against drivel like this:

Though the effort to evolve the restaurant industry’s bro culture has seen some progress, those toxic roots still run deep. Niki and Carole carved out a successful restaurant in a male-dominated industry while cooking a historically male-dominated cuisine, never compromising on their vision and values. “What is so interesting about the whole subject, about how kaiseki is this male-dominated form, is that it’s a form that relies so deeply on nature, which seems to me to be inherently feminine,” says Kleiman. “So I find that in a way Niki is this correction.”

…so woe to the diner who wants to assess things through a prism of culinary objectivity rather than a “gendered lens” of alphabet soup sexual politics.

Because these things are so important to Los Angelenos, chefs (Carole Iida-Nakayama and Niki Nakayama) have found their perfect niche: a casual-yet-formal, California-inflected Japanese kaiseki restaurant that pushes all the right buttons. Here, you can enjoy the best seafood/sushi/produce Cali has to offer, and congratulate yourself for doing the right thing while paying for the privilege.

Of course, we’re more interested in the dashi than gendered lenses, so our thoughts drifted to similar meals we’ve had in Tokyo, New York, and Las Vegas.

Nothing compares to Japan, where these multi-course, hyper-seasonal feasts are rigidly formal, with flavors so obscure they sometimes border on the invisible. Las Vegas has a kaiseki restaurant, and like n/naka, Kaiseki Yuzu is tiny, pristine, and all about impeccable technique. It can’t compete with the Nakayamas when it comes to right-off-the-boat fish, or produce grown in their own back yard, but in terms of what I saw on the plate, I’d call it a push. (Our kaiseki is also $100/pp cheaper than their kaiseki.)

Where n/n excels is in unforced elegance. The restaurant itself is simple bordering on the austere, but look closer and you see exquisite details — in the plates, the table, the seating and the food. They don’t miss any of their marks here. Service is as smooth as the inside of an oyster shell, and informative without being intrusive.

The sake and wine lists are short and superb and like the Polo Lounge, much softer in markups than what we’re used to in Sin City. (Absurdly overpriced Vegas wine lists have inured us to sticker shock forever.)

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The food is one eye-popping course after another, smoothly, almost effortlessly served with succinct explanations and instructions. There’s an old joke about every waiter in L.A, being a wannabe actor, so the boss says, “Why don’t you try acting like a good waiter for a change.” No one’s acting here; the service is as good as it gets.

The point of kaiseki is not as much to wow you with a single dish, but to soothe your soul with a parade of bite-sized, ultra-fresh delights, plucked at the peak of their deliciousness. It actually started out as a few small savory bites served to blunt the effects of strong green tea during a  sadō  – Japanese tea ceremony, but has morphed into its own thing. Both here and across the Pacific, “kaiseki” now denotes the height of Japanese epicureanism — a prix fixe, omakase, tasting menu (does anyone call them degustations anymore?) representing the pinnacle of a chef’s skill — hyper-seasonal, and full of symbolism (both obvious and inscrutable), edible and otherwise.

Your twelve courses aim for each station on the kaiseki cross: Sakizuke, Zensai, Owan, Yakimono etc., and to a plate, there was something to rave about.

You begin with a Sakizuke of Hokkaido uni so fresh it practically sparkled. Sippery-slick, orangeish-tan and luminescent, it enveloped a carrot coconut ice and was topped with a dollop of trout eggs, every element announcing right out of the chute the chef’s skill at combining disparate ingredients into a whole greater than the sum of its parts:

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This is high-wire cooking without a net, and every bite has to be in perfect balance with what came before, which it was in the Zensai course (assortment of small bites), showcasing the chef’s repertoire:

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….and then on to “Modern Zukuri” course (raw fish from live seafood, usually served whole) of the kind of freshness you only find within a few miles of an ocean:

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…and from there your meal proceeds through an Owan (soup course), with dashi so bracing we could’ve slurped it all night long.

One course leads seamlessly into another: after the Tai (sea bream) soup comes twin ribbons of sashimi, followed by grilled sea trout, and then the star of the show: a Mushimono of a peeled, poached tomato wrapped around lobster, floating atop fennel mochi croutons in a tomato broth:

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Gorgeous, complex food somehow retaining its elemental simple dignity — the best evocation of summer on a plate we can remember.

A couple of things I didn’t “get” on the menu: some weird  jelly of cactus leaves, cukes and chia seeds as the Sunomono course — usually a tart, refreshing cucumber salad. This one could compete with okra in the slimy foods Olympics. Ending the meal with with Nigirizushi (after the A-5 Mizyazaki wagyu course) was likewise odd.  “Must be a Cali thing,” I thought to myself. It sure as shootin’ ain’t a Japanese one. The signature dish of spaghetti with abalone and Burgundy summer truffles (ugh) was also about as seasonal as ski boots on a surf board, but these were but tiny blips in an otherwise extraordinary experience.

I may have had it with western tasting menus, but you’d have to be one jaded palate to ever tire of a proper kaiseki dinner. There are only a handful of restaurants in America that can compete with n/naka in delivering a meal of such subtle refinement. I’m fairly certain there isn’t a better one in Southern California when it comes to service.

The Damage:

Cost pp (including wine and sake but nothing too precious): $560. The Food Gal® says: “Loved it, but there’s definitely a California bump in pricing which is ridiculous.”

Image(Mizumono – ginger-poached plum, lavender ice cream, warabi mochi)

This is Part One of a two-part article.