The Final List – 2021

Image(Bento lunch at PublicUs lately?)

Try as we might, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to 400 restaurants this year. As of this writing, we’ve hit 333 establishments, and even if we kick it into high gear, it’s doubtful we have 70 more meals in us in the next 50 days.

By way of comparison, back in my halcyon/salad days (ten years ago), 500/year was pretty much the norm…for 20 years in a row.

Now, The Food Gal and I will go two, three, sometimes even four days in a row without eating out. Once unthinkable, now, a concession to the down-sized Strip  and our not-getting-any-younger selves.

But serious ground was still plowed in the past few months….with some new and not-so joints floating our boat in all the right ways.

Compared to a year ago, Las Vegas is now a target-rich environment, but lezbee honest here: it is still a pretty weird place, restaurant-wise.

The Strip has rebounded, but has become something of a shitshow on weekends. There has been a tectonic shift in the food and beverage industry here, but the ground is still moving beneath our feet and I cannot yet opine on just how the dust will settle. Suffice it to say, things are palpably different: options are down, prices are up, reservations challenging, and sourcing a real problem at the epicurean end of things. All of our big-hitter spots want to pretend they have gotten back to their 2019 selves, but they have not and you can feel it.

The newly re-opened Le Cirque, for example, seats only on Thurs.-Saturday nights. If you’re hungry for better restaurants Mon.-Weds., good luck picking your way through the meager offerings available on Las Vegas Boulevard. Things are easier in the ‘burbs, but aside from Italian, very few interesting ideas are floating out there.

And when you run off one of the best Mexican chefs in the world (Enrique Olvera) for a joint called “Casa Playa ” (at the Wynn), include me out.

So, the Strip is mostly a pain (or, even worse, boring), but local eateries are booming, so you would think that would satisfy us, wouldn’t you?

Wrong.

Both have a long way to go before Vegas claims its destiny — which is to be one of the most exciting restaurant cities (for tourists and locals) in the world.

A short list of what we still need (in the neighborhoods):

Some decent French bistros. It seems like every other opening is Italian these days. C’mon frogs! Show the flag! Vive La France and all that!

More affordable wine, less crappy “craft” beer.

A few new interesting Mexicans (to compete with a raft of mediocre places going through the motions for the mucho macho grande burrito crowd).

Who does a guy have to blow to get a decent sandwich shop around here?

Less shitty breakfast joints; more in-house baking.

For all the Insta love for John Arena and friends, there are still only about four places in Vegas to get a decent pizza.

Why isn’t there a ramen shop downtown?

How about a good, retail bread bakery somewhere fer chrissakes?

Or gelato? (There is an ice cream shop on Main Street, but it is terrible.)

It’s time for crepes and fondues to make a comeback.

Outside sidewalk dining….EVERYWHERE!

And finally, what the f*ck happened to good Indian food in this town?

(As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted.)

THE LIST

MANGIA MANGIA!

Italian food never goes out of style, but the boom in quality over the past few years has been a little crazy. No longer is Vegas the home to cookie-cutter eye-talian straight from a can. There are so many good ones popping up (and older ones upping their game), that we thought we do homage to Italy by painting THE LIST in the color of its flag.

Milano

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Of all the beautiful Italian food now available in town, this may be the most compelling. Simple, striking dishes that let the elemental flavors of Italy shine through. Great breads, challenging location, reasonable prices. Too hip for the room, but southern Strip foodies, and industry pros (starved for decent, non-franchise food in this part of town) may save it.

Aromi

We need to get back here. Best cioppino you’ll find this far from the Amalfi Coast.

Brezza

Open every night and already a tough ticket. Set to become the worthy successor to Carnevino as our best Italian steakhouse.

Cipriani

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Every Friday for a reason. Northern Italy served by the smoothest crew in town.

Esther’s Kitchen

My last lunch was a disappointment. Covid hangover? Staffing issues? Coasting on reputation? Sadly, I fear my love affair with Esther’s has run its course. Remember that hottie who once fascinated you? The one of whom you could never get enough? The mere mention of her name aroused something primal — passions rumbling deep and seemingly forever, never to be quenched. Then, time, the enemy of us all, came between you. You see her again after you’ve both strayed and what once seemed fresh, so beckoning, now suddenly feels forced and stilted. Both your energies falter at the sight of each other. The sparks that once ignited, the fires that once burned so brightly have been dampened forever. You try, but both of you know you’re just going through the motions.

Yeah, that’s me with Esther’s. Nice new barstools, though.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar

The only reason I don’t eat here more often is I would end up spending my children’s inheritance (we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of $s here) drinking from this wine list.

Matteo’s/Brera

Eduardo Perez does some of our town’s most impressive pastas at these sister restaurants in the Venetian. Great pizzas too. And salads, and carne, and deserts, and…

.Osteria Fiorella

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Our cheffiest Italian. Marc Vetri (above) can stun you with his in-your-face flavor combinations…and the restaurant can stun you with the size of the bill.

FRENCH CONNECTION

We’re light on French food this year — a condition that will be rectified with a vengeance come January.

Burgundy French Bakery and Cafe

Image(Cinnamonfully good)

First class French pastries (above) have made a name for themselves off the Strip, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Le Cirque

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Love what they’ve done to the place (above). We don’t love the exclusively prix fixe tasting menu (with no a la carte options). At this point, Le Cirque is like the grande dame of Vegas: an aging diva seeking to recapture her past glories. Can she do it? Well, just about everyone is rooting for her, but the applause may dim once they realize it will cost a house payment to eat here.

GO FISH

Good seafood in the dessert used to be harder to find than a hooker who would take a check. No longer. The wonders of air freight have brought the best stuff to the ‘burbs.

Image(Mumbo gumbo at Legends)

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Top shelf seafood in an unlikely location. All-over-the-map menu seems disjointed, but the quality of the cooking (and those groceries,) comes through in the gumbo (above). About the only thing I wouldn’t order here is the beef stroganoff.

Saga Pastries + Sandwich

Image(Shrimply delicious)

There is no better tube steak in Vegas. Or waffles. Or breakfast sandwich. Or the tiny, open-faced shrimp sandwiches (the shrimp not the sandwiches).

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

Great neighborhood sushi. Great bar too.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Don’t even think of eating Greek anywhere else.

Jamon Jamon

Image(Prawn star)

The name means “ham ham” but the seafood is fine fine indeed. I’d eat here every week if a dozen other restaurants weren’t beckoning me.

WORKING CLASS

Informal eats that have fueled us to a fare thee well over the past six months.

Nevada Brew Works

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The Food Gal® prefers this smashed/caramelized/fromage-filled beauty (above) to Soulbelly’s thicker, juicier patty:

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We’ve almost come to blows debating the issue.

Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina

…and on the eighth day, the lord invented the quesotaco:

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Black & Blue Diner

Reminds me of the Connecticut roadside diners of my youth. Nothing fancy, but decent eggs, biscuits and gravy, and great service.

Hard Hat Lounge

Image(Get a pizza this!)

The idea of finding me in a joint called the “Hard Hat Lounge” would seem as unlikely as finding me changing my spurs at a rodeo. But the square, Detroit-style (thick, cheese-encrusted crust) pies (found on the “Guerilla Pizza Menu”) have developed a real following in this “upscale dive bar.” It’s stoner food to be sure, but it is good stoner food….even if you’re not stoned.

Soulbelly BBQ

The best ‘cue in town. One of the best burgers, too. ‘Nuff said.

PublicUs

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Coffee, baked good, and breakfasts fit for the gods (see above).

Serrano’s Mexican Food

Nothing fancy, just solid Mexican home cooking with a friendly and appreciative staff. At lunch it is filled with day-laborers who know a good thing and a good deal when they eat one.

Real Donuts

…has re-opened! On West Charleston.

Homer Donut GIFs | Tenor

Saginaw’s

My go-to for deli. Nothing else in town can touch it. Wish it was easier to get to.

Windy City Beef ‘N Dogs

Oh those snap dogs from Vienna beef. The Polish is a winner, and like everything here, is straight from the City of Big Shoulders.

Pop Up Pizza

A nice slice from a place you would never expect to find one.

PACIFIC RIM

It wouldn’t surprise me if one day our Asian food scene surpasses the Strip in gastronomic preeminence. 

Image(Legal eagles bao before me)

Xiao Long Dumplings

There’s a new dumpling in town. Actually, they now seem to be popping up all over. This one is serious about their folds, and its gigantic selfie-magnet mascot (above). Nice build-out of the old Harbor Palace space — so sleek and clean will make you forget how badly the former operation sucked.

Chinglish Wine Bar

The Cantonese food impressed us more than the “wine bar” did. But we’ll go back for the mapo dofu (pockmarked woman’s bean curd) along with a more than decent Peking duck.

8East

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We don’t get here often, but when we do, we kick ourselves for not coming more.

Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen

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New digs, better food, fun place for a full panoply of sweet-hot Thai classics.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya

Dark and cozy, feeling almost illicit when you enter, like it’s a speakeasy with a secret password. Those feelings evaporate as you’re taken to high chairs around a U-shaped central bar where waiters deliver decent sushi, potstickers, swish-swish (shabu-shabu), and other izakaya fare. Not in the same league as Raku, but fun and informal at a gentler price point.

Shanghai Taste

Still our go-to for xiao long bao and other starchy delights.

China Mama

Every Chinese restaurant in Vegas is judged by a single standard: Is it as good or not as good as China Mama?

Rainbow Kitchen

…is as good as China Mama. Better in some areas (roasted fowl, seafood, dim sum); not as good in others (noodles, soups, stir-fries and such).

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DE Thai Kitchen

On our regular DTLV lunch rotation for a reason. The small menu never gets old and still will kick your ass.

LET’S MEAT

Inviolable Food Axiom No. 26: Every restaurant in Las Vegas would be steakhouse if it could be.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

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Someone asked me the other day what was my favorite steak in Vegas and I said the “vaca vieja chuleton” from here. They’ve reduced the menu and the wine list, but I’d still put it up against any steakhouse in America. With Candace Ochoa (above) at the stoves, there’s no doubt it will stay that way.

Main Street Provisions

Justin Kingsley Hall does a lot of things well — from Scotch eggs to hummus to empanadas — but it’s his burger, steaks and (rabbit) boudin that keep us intrigued.

8oz Korean Steakhouse

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A few years ago, in the space of about a year, Vegas went from having like two Korean steakhouses to having ten of them. 8oz. is, far and away, our favorite.

Ricon de Buenos Aires

It’d been years, but then we went back twice in a month. A meat fest at a good price for all the steer muscle you need. Nice service; nice Argentine wines too., but we wish there were more of them.

SW Steakhouse

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God bless Mark LoRusso: he’s one of the few chefs in town who could move seamlessly from upscale Italian seafood (the closed Costa di Mare) to helming a big-hitter American steakhouse without missing a beef. Thanks to him and his crackerjack team, including Michael Outlaw, and Lauren Adkins:

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….this bastion of beef has taken on a whole new level of sophistication.

Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse

Difficult to get into these days. Don’t even think of showing up without a res. Competes with Oscar’s across the street, and Barry’s down the street for downtown prime supremacy. As our foodie friend JB says: “Solid. Unspectacular but solid across the board.” GREAT wine list chock full of bargains.

Capital Grille

A white tablecloth lunch with a view to boot!

Wally’s

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We are of several minds about Wally’s. We love the wine list, the wine store, the menu, the cooking of Chef Eric L’Huillier (who does the best steak frites in town), and just about everything we’ve tasted (except the pizza). We’re glad it’s open for lunch and staffed by a bunch of old Vegas pros. On the other hand, you’ll easily drop a hundy for two for lunch without whetting your whistle a bit.

FUGGIDABADIT

“Not plain terrible, but fancy terrible. Terrible with raisins in it.” – Dorothy Parker

Delilah

Food and decor by Carnival Cruise Lines. You will be told upon entering that you have two hours to eat and to listen to a lot of dumb music.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>

That’s it. My last list of the year. We’ll probably weigh in on these pages in another few weeks with our Best Of/Worst Of year-end “major awards”, but in the meantime, eat out often and eat out locally. And if you eat out more than me, we need to talk.

And remember: Life is short; eat more doughnuts.

Image(You donut want to miss Tonya and her sprinkly cakes of pure pleasure)

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THE END

 

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 11 – Survivors

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Day 69, May 24 – Who Will Survive?

This will be our last “Covid Diaries” post.

Where we go from here, no one knows, least of all the person typing these words.

Life is returning to normal in Las Vegas; restaurants are re-opening; and we’ve spent the last two weeks plowing through a bunch of them.

And by “plowing through them” we mean spending beaucoup bucks in support thereof.

Image(Did you mezze me? Oh yes we did, Khoury’s)

As of today, the Strip and all major hotels remain closed, so downtown and the neighborhoods have been where we’ve concentrated. Even when it opens, most hotels will be running at very low occupancy rates, with only a handful of restaurants being re-booted.

The Wynncore has announced five of its venues will resume operations on May 29, but other hotels aren’t showing their cards just yet.

Steakhouses will lead the way in every hotel, with buffets nowhere to be found for the time being.

Here’s the list of places we’ve hit lately in the order we’ve hit them since the quarantine lifted:

La Maison de Maggie

Japaneiro

Kaiseki Yuzu

Khoury’s

Capital Grille

Orchids Garden

Esther’s Kitchen

Marche Bacchus

Edo Tapas and Wine

The Real Crepe

7th & Carson

Carson Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzù

And right there, you have the beginnings of the next edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants 2020. (More on this below.)

Twice we’ve been to the Capital Grille and 7th & Carson, and the cooking at both has blown us away. Even those serving truncated menus in smaller dining rooms are working extra hard. Don’t think for one second that every restaurant in town won’t be busting its ass for months to come, whether it’s a creperie, a Middle Eastern standard, or high-falutin’ gastopub,

You’ll see the same thing on the Strip when it reopens. Every cook, every waiter, every bottle-washer will be on their game. They’re in survival mode now and they know it, and the only way to prevail is to impress every customer so much they will want to come back — and dazzle them so much they’ll tell all their friends to go there — even if everyone looks pretty ridiculous in all those masks.

Image(Brunch, sans mask, at 7th & Carson)

So, you might say in some perverse way that this shutdown will be a boon for restaurant goers.

But it won’t be for restaurant writers.

With the end of phoning it in (Hello, Giada!), indifferent cooking, and poor service (at least for the time being) comes the lack of raison d’etre for a critic to be in the game.

The idea of criticizing a restaurant — even well-financed, over-hyped, under-performing Strip restaurants — will not fit the current zeitgeist of everyone hanging on for dear life.

Entire hotels are being phased out, and in the ones that remain, nothing is certain until the casinos can gauge the level of returning tourism. This could take a year…or longer.

Our gubenator thinks Las Vegas won’t get back to where it was until a vaccine can be found. Experts are saying this could be years away.

As a local, I’ve always hated going to the Strip on weekends or when huge conventions were in town, but now, the idea of wandering around Aria or Caesars Palace when it’s only 30% full seems kind of creepy.

We’re also mindful of the fact that once the shutdown began, our book became more artifact than all-encompassing.

With this in mind, we at #BeingJohnCurtas have been doing some thought experiments in our heads, trying to guess which of our 52 favorites (and others) will survive the #coronapocalypse.

So, for shits and giggles, we’re going to list all 52 of our “essential” Las Vegas restaurants, along with a rating of chances for survival (or eventual resuscitation).

Here’s how we’ve rated the restaurants:

4 **** – a cinch to reopen (or has already reopened).

3 *** – on the bubble, but corks could be popped, sooner or later.

2 ** – outlook is drearier than a Golden Corral steak.

1 * – put a fork in them, they’re done.

As always, these opinions are worth exactly what you paid for them.

Image(Black rice/oxtail risotto at Carson Kitchen)

****

Carson Kitchen

Chances for survival: good to great. Downtown’s popularity and loyal customers will see to that.

China Mama

Future outlook: Rosy. Good Chinese food (even bad Chinese food) could survive a nuclear winter.

District One

This is a tougher call. How Chinatown reacts to the shrinking economy will be interesting to watch.

Edo Gastro Tapas

Small and agile, with a passionate fan base.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

It will thrive….IF it can find a new location

Esther’s Kitchen

It came roaring back a week ago. Already, reservations are harder to get than a PPP loan.

Ferraro’s

I have a dream that in the year 2065, long after Gino Ferraro and I have departed this mortal vale, he will still be complaining about his overhead and offering me a sip of Chianti.

Kabuto Edomae Sushi

Will there still be a market for ultra-refined, high-end sushi once this cloud lifts? Only time will tell.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Another tiny gem now threatened by a looming recession/depression. All I know is I’m going to eat here as often as I can as long as Kaoru-san is cooking.

Khoury’s

Our best Lebanese restaurant hit the ground running and won’t look back.

Image(Al fresco tables – only for the sober – at Marche Bacchus)

Marche Bacchus

Even with its new table-spacing, none of the charm has been lost and some has been gained (see above).

Lamaii

Incendiary Thai + killer wine list = a long list of food and wine professionals who treat this place like a private club.

Lotus of Siam

Will they re-open both locations or just one? Either way, they’ll be packed.

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar

Was on its way to becoming a must-stop for serious winos and foodies. Can it re-capture its mojo?

Ohlala French Bistro

Another tiny neighborhood gem. If the landlord cooperates, Chef Richard Terzaghi will be in great shape.

Pamplona Cocktails & Tapas

I love this place, but it’s location was challenging even during a boom economy.

Partage

The well-spaced tables and booths here will need very little adjustment to comply with “social distancing” regulations. The food needs no improvement.

Pizzeria Monzù

Believe it or not, it’s better than ever.

Other Mama

An industry watering hole that has succeeded against all odds. For that reason alone, I’m not worried about it.

Raku & Sweets Raku

Like Lotus, one of our most famous restaurants. It’s worldwide reputation and customers constantly clamoring for a table will sustain it.

Sparrow + Wolf

Brian Howard is set to re-open as we type this — how he re-sets his menu will be most interesting to watch

The Black Sheep

Jamie Tran has a small, nimble restaurant with a minuscule kitchen, and a large following. But the location gives us pause. Fingers are crossed.

Weera Thai Kitchen

Won’t miss a beat.


***

Here’s where things get trickier. Timing, tourists, and multiple tabulations control the fate of (most of) these places. Being on the cusp of summer doesn’t help matters, either. My guess is that each has a strong enough following (and is a critical part of a hotel’s F&B program) not to be considered a good candidate for reopening sooner than later.

Cipriani

Management has told us they may not reopen until after Labor Day. This might be a smart move since summertime is bargain-hunting-time in Vegas, and the Cipriani brand does not appeal to the 2-for-1 crowd.

CUT

Steakhouses will lead the way when high-end restaurants re-open, and there’s not a more famous one in town.

Bardot Brasserie

Aria will no doubt cut back on its strong lineup of top-shelf eateries; either Carbone or Bardot will get the boot, and we’re betting it will be the former.

Bazaar Meat

Along with CUT, our most famous steakhouse. Between the re-branding of the Sahara and the re-booting of everything, it’s bounty of beef and seafood may not fit the current mood. Personally, I wish it would re-locate to a hotel more befitting its brand and quality.

Jaleo

Jaleo is a big, multi-faceted, expensive operation. What might save it is a flexible menu which appeals to multiple price points. Plus, José Andrés may be the only surviving celebrity chef with a big following when this is all over. Several sources have told us “Julian Serrano” (its tapas competition in the Aria) has pitched its last paella.

Le Cirque

The Bellagio without Le Cirque is like Disneyland without the mouse.

Spago

The location alone will keep it alive.

Rooster Boy Cafe

Such a gem. So tiny. So perfect. My fear is Sonia El-Nawal may find catering more profitable than table service. And who could blame her?

Yui Edomae Sushi

My favorite sushi spot. Waiting with bated breath for them to start slicing again.


**

Here’s where a higher level of pessimism kicks in.

Bouchon

Expensive French bistro in this climate? I just don’t see it happening, but god I hope I’m wrong.

‘e’ by José Andrés

The aspirational, 30- and 40-somethings who have coveted a reservation here for nine years are the same ninnies who are cowering in fear of coronavirus. Having to sit within three feet of fellow diners is the type of stress their snowflake brains can’t handle.

Estiatorio Milos

I’m hearing rumors they might be moving. I’m not hearing anything about The Cosmo’s re-opening plans. Neither is a good sign.

Hatsumi

The seating is naturally “social-distanced” (at least in the booths), but Dan Krohmer’s going to have his hands full with Other Mama.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Again….high end French comes back? I just don’t see it.

Matteo’s Ristorante Italiano

A real sleeper in the Venetian that serves incredible pasta. Having to compete with 40 other restaurants (6 of which are Italian) might be too much to ask.

Michael Mina

Will top-notch hotels need multiple “fine dining” venues? My heart wants MM to stay, but my head tells me his restaurant group is in for a thinning.

Mott 32

No conventions. No Asian tourists. No more superb Peking duck.

Old Soul

Great cooking, but a tough sell in the best of times.


* Put a fork in them, they’re done…

Mabel’s BBQ

More done than a twelve-hour brisket.

Guy Savoy

I’m weeping as I write these words, but I think I’m going to have to go to Paris to eat Guy’s food again.

Joël Robuchon

On any given night, the best restaurant in America. Certainly in the top 5. But it’s a big deal meal restaurant, perhaps the biggest, and too many of its customers are not coming back to Vegas in the foreseeable future.

Sage

Was already on the ropes.

The Kitchen at Atomic

Ditto.

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Ditto.

Vetri Cucina

We love Marc Vetri, and he tried to put a game face on things, but announcing “we won’t be opening this year, maybe in 2021” is the same as saying we’re history.

Wing Lei

The only type of food more endangered than high-end French in Las Vegas is high-end Asian.


My hearts weeps for each of these uncertain futures, and I hope I am wrong about all of them.

No matter who opens, the reopening will be the easy part. Staying open in a depressed economy is going to be the real struggle, and who is still in business a year from now is anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain though: there won’t be any new restaurants opening on the Strip for many, many months to come. You have a better chance of catching me at a Garth Brooks concert than you will of seeing any new concepts springing up in 2020.

Which brings us back to our book. If we do one, it’ll be probably be so stuffed with neighborhood eateries that it’ll be more useful as a local’s guide than something for tourists.  At this point, that might be its final legacy.

Anything we can do to help the restaurant industry bounce back from this idiotic, force-fed oblivion, the better. And if that means forgetting about the big hotels until they’ve had time to re-adjust, that’s what we’ll do.

I don’t know if our local food scene can sustain itself without all those Strip dollars being pumped into our economy, but we’re about to find out.

Life was so much easier when all we had to do was compare the Dover sole presentations.

Image(Social distance dining at Edo)

 

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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