The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

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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SPAGO Redux

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No matter what it does, it does well. No matter what you order, expect it to be one of the best versions you’ve ever had. Call it Wolfgang Puck magic; call it a great management; call it hiring good chefs at the top of their game. Whatever it is, call it consistency. Because if there’s one thing that sets Spago apart from its competitors, it is an almost military precision to its food. You will rarely have a bad dish in any Puck restaurant. At Spago, you’ll never have a bad bite.

Las Vegas got its first taste of Spago in December. 1992, and for the next twenty-five years it loomed large over the Strip dining scene as the granddaddy of all of our great restaurants. When its lease finally was up at the Forum Shops in 2018, it decamped for the Bellagio. Puck signed a management deal with the hotel (no more operational headaches for him!), and with a wave of the hand (and a “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”), the dreary Olives got a bright, modern makeover into Spago 2.0.

About the only thing not to like about the new location is the front of it (seen above). Instead of signaling you’re in for a big deal meal at one of the most famous restaurants in America, the signage is abstruse to the point of invisibility, and you can be right in front and not know there’s a restaurant there.

Once you’re inside, this aesthetic sin will be quickly forgotten. The bar still hugs the right side of the restaurant, and low-slung table seating allows you to eat or linger near all those top-shelf cocktails. Large windows and glass doors now frame an outdoor patio that provides the best seating in the hotel for the fountain show. (There are lots of tables outdoors, but they go fast at peak times, so reserve ahead if al fresco is how you want to go.)

Whether you sit outdoors or in, the menu will provide the sort of soothing satisfaction Puck has always delivered: a blend of classics (veal wiener schnitzel, steamed cod “Hong Kong style,” smoked salmon pizzas, crispy skin branzino), with the seasonal (sweet corn agnolotti, heirloom tomato salad, Santa Barbara spot prawns, vegetable ragout with asparagus velouté), and the formidable (veal chop, lamb rack, and a côte de bouef for two – each as good as any steakhouse’s). Sometimes there will be big eye tuna crudo, sometimes foie gras ice cream. Whatever specials your waiter recites, rest assured it will be worth the tariff.

(I’m just mad about saffron…risotto)

Mark Andelbradt, a Puck veteran, has been at the helm since the move to the new digs, and his facility with pasta is every bit as nimble as his command of roasted cauliflower. If his proteins are the equal of a beef emporium, his noodles match up nicely against any Italian. More than once I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of Spago’s house-made pastas with some celeb-chef versions around town, and every time Spago’s has come out on top. Andelbradt’s spicy lamb Bolognese cavatelli, squid ink garganelli, and those agnolotti are textbook examples of the genre, and when he’s doing saffron-seafood risotto, don’t miss it.

Image result for Spago Las Vegas cookie platter

When you’re done with the savories, the sweets are there, just waiting to destroy your willpower. The spiked lemon with yuzu cream, chiffon cake and citrus mousse (above) has been on the menu so long, it’s almost iconic as those pizzas. The chocolate chip cookies are worth a trip by themselves, but as memorable as those are, the thing to get is Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren — a showstopping souffléd pancake (for two) that actually feeds four…but which will probably be wolfed down by the first one lucky enough to get to it.

The wine list holds few surprises. (It was pretty boring at the old location, too.) There are plenty of overpriced bottles from the usual MGM-Bellagio offerings. (Yes, they standardize the wine selections throughout the MGM family of hotels these days. Because accountants.) Stick with the by-the-glass selections if you don’t want to feel like you’ve been asked to bend over and grab your ankles.

You don’t go to Spago looking for culinary adventure anymore than you go to Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in search of a pork chop. What Spago is selling, what Spago has always sold, is a Cal-Ital blend of Europe technique with American panache — a hybrid cuisine that’s as fresh today as it was 35 years ago; a cuisine as elemental as a pizza and refined as caviar.

All of America owes a debt to Spago for the way we eat nowadays — combining finely-tuned, gutsy food with just the right sophisticated spin without pretense. Open kitchens, upgraded pizzas, casual dining with killer food — all of these started with Spago. In a way, every gastropub from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon is an homage to the type of cooking first popularized by Wolfgang Puck. But he did it first, and in many ways, Spago still does it best.

I’ve eaten at Spago so many times I’ve lost count. This new incarnation I’ve been to five times. They never comp me, but a few freebies always show up. Dinner for two will run around $150-$200, including a shared dessert and a couple of drinks each. Service is uniformly excellent whether they know you or not.

Get this: Artisanal salumi pizza; smoked salmon pizza; spicy shrimp pizza; spicy tuna tartare; foie gras ice cream; Gulf shrimp cocktail; prime beef burger; field mushroom soup; roasted cauliflower; Anson Mills grits; veal wiener schnitzel; steamed cod “Hong Kong” style; branzino; all pastas; seafood-saffron risotto; Santa Barbara spot prawns; vegetable ragout; veal chop; lamb rack; côte de boeuf rib eye steak for two; cookie platter; spiked lemon with yuzu cream; Wolfgang’s Kaiserschmarren.

SPAGO

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.693.8181