Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

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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.

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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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San Francisco

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The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco – Mark Twain

Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? – Herb Caen

Is there anyone who doesn’t love San Francisco?

Yes, but most of them live in Los Angeles.

Los Angelenos hate ‘Frisco because San Franciscans have spent the last 150 years looking down the state and their noses at them.

San Franciscans see their bigger, richer, more politically powerful younger sibling the way a Boston Brahmin sees a Jewish mobster: tacky and money-grubbing, bereft of class.

Angelenos think of their northern relatives as a bunch of cloistered snobs.

Both have a point.

I’ve spent so much time in each city that I feel a kinship with these two Californios with nothing in common. Next to New York City, they  are where most of my urban education has taken place, and after dozens of trips to both (for business and pleasure), I feel comfortable walking or driving the streets like a native. (Driving in ‘Frisco is not for the faint of heart; driving in L.A. causes afflictions still being catalogued by mental health professionals.)

(BTW: I call it ‘Frisco, especially when I’m in ‘Frisco, because San Franciscans are a bunch of insufferable elitists who hate their precious city being referred to with a slang term.)

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My memories of San Fran go back to 1960, when we froze our asses off on Fisherman’s Wharf ….in July. We ate Dungeness crabs out of little paper cups and went to DiMaggio’s (when Joe DiMaggio was still a big deal) and screamed as our dad navigated the steep hills in our three-seat Ford station wagon — like the one above, only in red. It had a seat in the way, way back that pointed backwards.

With every incline, we were sure our car was going to tip over backwards. To this day, it takes a bit of trust in the laws of physics to point the nose of your sedan straight up Hyde and gun it…when the only thing(s) you can see is blue sky and the nose of your car.

Then, there was the walking, up and down Powell, Mason, and Taylor streets: trekking so angled it felt like we could touch our noses to the pavement while standing up. I have no idea how many precipitous hikes we took that first day, but I’ve taken many since, and these elevations still fascinate me. The only other city I’ve seen with such abrupt ascensions is Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Food Gal® and I will be taking off for San Francisco this morning. We’re going there for a day trip to celebrate our birthdays. (It’s a big one for her, just another in a long march towards oblivion for moi.)

It will be 12 hours of walking in the fog and rain and straining our calves and trying to touch our noses to the pavement, and no doubt freezing our asses off the whole time.

We’re going to love every minute of it.

A Random List of Favorite ‘Frisco Food Memories

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That crab meat in 1960.

DiMaggio’s – sadly Joe was nowhere to be seen. Like Joltin’ Joe, it’s long gone.

Fournou’s Ovens – shuttered in 2008, it was way ahead of its time in 1981.

The Mandarin – Celia Chiang’s seminal restaurant taught America there was more to Chinese food than chop suey and egg foo yung.

Fleur de Lys – being wined and dined by Hubert and Chantal Keller – when this place was at the top of its game – is a food memory I will never forget. Closed in 2014.

StarsJeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. What a crock of shit.

Chez Panisse – the first time (in 1983), it was a study in simplified perfection; by meal #3 (two decades later) the place bored me to death. Alice Waters is still boring me to death.

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Tadich Grill – Calvin Trillin sent me here in the late 70s; I’ve been a dozen times since. “The Original Cold Day Restaurant,” serving the best sand dabs and tartare sauce on the planet.

Jack’s – best sourdough ever. The place made you feel like a Barbary Coast freebooter.

Aqua – where the world, and yours truly, first discovered a young Egyptian-American chef named Michael Mina.

Michael Mina – where that not-so-young Egyptian chef still rules the waves.

Le Centralcassoulet to die for; it’s been bubbling since 1974.

Postrio – my very nice, very good, very not-heterosexual waiter tried to pick me up here. Not many men have tried to pick me up, but when it’s happened (the attempt, not the pick-up) it’s happened in San Francisco. Closed in 2009.

Sam’s Seafood Grill – like Tadich, a classic. Get the petrale sole.

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Trader Vic’s (above) – long before anyone had heard of Asian fusion, Vic Bergeron was mixing and matching his food metaphors.

Mike’s Cantonese Cuisine – back in the day, New York and San Fran were the only places in America where you could find anything approaching real Chinese food.

Campton Place HotelBradley Ogden single-handedly rejuvenated hotel dining back in the 80s with his destination restaurant here.

Masa’s – ruled the roost of San Francisco dining in the 80s and early 90s. The founding chef —  Masa Kobayashi — was murdered. I’m not sure the crime was ever solved. Julian Serrano took over the kitchen and was considered San Fran’s best chef until he was lured to Sin City by Steve Wynn in 1997. The restaurant adjoined the Vintage Court hotel. It was way better than the hotel.

Nob Hill Restaurant – the first place I ever had nouvelle cuisine. In the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Salmon with vanilla sauce anyone? Anyone?

Cafe Mozart – tiny and exquisite. Sadly, gone.

Caffé Sport and Trattoria – loud and colorful….and apparently still in business serving food I fear I have long outgrown.

JardinièreTraci Des Jardins blew me away, back in the day. Two lesbians (at the adjoining table) wanted me to go home with them. I was either too drunk or too sober to go along with the plan.

Greens at Fort Mason – America’s first famous vegetarian restaurant, staffed by real cooks, not people with fear of food.

Boulevard – I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve had lots of meals here.

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Pabu – Mina does Japanese! And does it extremely well.

Acquerello – Italian food the way its supposed to taste. Fabulous wine list.

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State Bird Provisions (above) – an early acolyte of the small plates revolution.

Tartine Manufactory – good, but, like a lot of things these days, not as special as it thinks it is.

The Slanted Door – made Vietnamese food safe for white people. Which means it’s a lot more impressed with itself than it ought to be. They have threatened to come to Las Vegas. They were supposed to open 6 months ago. Yawn.

The Ferry Building – we were there when it first opened as a foodie mecca (in 2003), and have returned many times since. The last time (a couple of years ago) it was mobbed and filthy. I liked it a lot better when every tourist in the world didn’t want to be a food expert.

Swan Oyster Depot – no frills west coast seafood worth waiting in line for.

Farallon – stunning undersea fantasy decor; designed by Pat Kuleto; was there when it first opened (a client dinner if memory serves), haven’t been back since.

Kuleto’s – right off Union Square. Closed two years ago. Like all Pat Kuleto restaurants, it never disappointed.

John’s Grill – when I want to feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon.

The Cliff House (below) – stunning views, lots of tourists, surprisingly good food. Literally perched at the far western tip of the United States. How cool is that?

And those are just some of my faves, pulled off the top of my head, after 5 decades of eating everything in sight. There are scores of bistros, bars, destinations and dives that have faded from memory. There’s one bachelor party in the early 80s I wish I didn’t remember, and birthday parties, a wedding or two, and multiple business meals forever suspended in the recesses of my taste memories, waiting to be revived as soon as I see those beautiful hills.

I love San Francisco the way some people love Las Vegas: as a playground, full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells no other city in America can match.

I love all of those taste memories, but what endears San Francisco to me most is what set it apart from other western cities a hundred years ago, and what sets it apart today: it is civilized. Existing in a very special sphere of its own sophistication that other western cities can only dream of.

‘Frisco may have a world of problems, and be filled with snobs and terrifying streets, but San Franciscans know how to live.

And they know how to eat.

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P.S. When we get off the plane tomorrow morning, we’re heading straight to Swan Oyster Depot. Happy Birthday Food Gal!
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Strip Restaurant of the Year – MICHAEL MINA

Ed. note: This year’s Desert Companion award for Strip Restaurant of the Year goes to an old reliable with a new format.  No matter how it’s presented, the seafood is always impeccably fresh, while the 20 year old restaurant itself has aged like a fine wine. As usual, click here to read about this award in its original format. Bon appetit!

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras.

These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with. Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways.

(Smoked trout with caviar cream)

In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream (above). If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

(Caviar parfait)

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait (pictured above), that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly re-imagined restaurant, they will never go out of style.