Downtown upstarts with fresh moves and fine-dining citadels on the Strip upending their own traditions — 2012 was a year of surprises, mashups and fertile chaos. The gastropub dished up a remix of the artisanal and casual; desserts refused their status as sweet epilogues and rushed the stage; and Vegas culinary institutions strove anew not to just meet a standard, but to forge a new one. Our 16th Annual Restaurant Awards reflect a year of renewed energy and bright-eyed enterprise. This year in culinary excellence moves even us to forget our manners: Would it be rude to ask for seconds?
Bartender of the Year
Vesper Bar In The Cosmopolitan,
What makes a great bartender? It helps if he’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, maybe the cheerful sense there’s no place he’d rather be. How about an award-winning mixologist at the Strip’s hottest bar with a killer Christopher Walken impression? Yeah, that ought to do it. But those are only some of the reasons Vesper Bar’s Roger Gross is the drink slinger you should be seeking out.
You’ll find Gross plying his skills for locals and tourists alike at The Cosmopolitan’s fanciful take on the standard hotel lobby bar. Whether you’re ordering on- or off-menu, he’s bound to find something meeting your tastes — just provide him some general parameters and let him run with it. Tell him your liquor of choice and taste preferences — spicy? sweet? fruity? frozen? — and you’re on your way. You may end up with a cocktail with habañero syrup, cherry bark bitters or an absinthe ice sphere — whatever it is, rest assured it’ll be memorable. (Just don’t ask him to make you an RBV — Red Bull and vodka. That’s like asking Picasso to do paint-by-numbers.) Do come with an open mind, some time to kill and realize that not only is he your favorite bartender, he’s also everyone else’s. You’re bound to find a new favorite cocktail — and maybe be treated to a ridiculously good Walken. — Jim Begley
Cocktail Bar of the Year
Herbs & Rye
3713 W. Sahara Ave.
Every bar has a Prohibition-era cocktail menu these days. Every joint wants to be a speakeasy. This seems strange — isn’t trying to stop people from drinking fundamentally un-Vegasy? But it’s our way of celebrating the madness of the past, especially since those old drinks are delicious and mostly simple. The best place to consume them, then, would have to be a bar where simplicity and appreciation of cocktail history is embedded in the house philosophy, and Herbs & Rye is that place.
It’s an after-hours industry fave and a purist’s vision of perfection, and with our big fancy hotels upgrading their beverage programs to produce tremendous cocktail bars in casinos and restaurants, there’s something incredibly charming about spending your time in this seemingly modest west-central haunt. Owner and booze historian Nectaly Mendoza makes sure everything is made in-house, every ancient recipe — from Blood and Sand to Moscow Mule — is followed faithfully, and every customer finds his drink of choice. It won’t take long to find a favorite, but you could spend a lifetime exploring and educating yourself from the cocktail menu, which can be just as contemporary as classic. Just about three years old, Herbs & Rye has truly hit its boozy stride and is an integral part of our cocktail community. — Brock Radke
Trend of the Year
Unless you happen to have a taste for smoked kippers and fruitcake, there are few culinary traditions for which we can thank the British. Co-opting the gastropub was our only smart steal. What started with Todd English’s P.U.B. in 2009 has finally become its own independent dining category over the past year. Las Vegans are now free to choose from a number of restaurants for upscale pub grub: roasted bone marrow and brown ale from Public House at the Venetian; fish and chips with a Fat Tire at the Hard Rock’s new Culinary Dropout; or poutine with a Prohibition punch at Comme Ça’s “Gastropub Mondays.” Chef Gordon Ramsay is also getting in the mix with a namesake pub and grill that’s expected to open by the end of the year. At this rate, we can soon eradicate our own less-than-stellar traditions of pre-frozen shrimp cocktails and cheap, chewy steak dinners. — Debbie Lee
DEALicious Meal of the Year
Tacos El Gordo
1724 E. Charleston Blvd. | 251-8226;
3049 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 641-8228
What would you pay for the most joyously delicious taco in your city? I have no problem paying almost six bucks for one tiny duck tongue taco at Cosmopolitan’s China Poblano, or even a ten spot for the lobster taco. But that’s on the Strip, where there’s no such thing as cheap, fantastic street food — wrong! Cooks at the finest restaurants of the Wynn and Encore resorts routinely sneak out on the job to run next door and feast on Tijuana’s own Tacos El Gordo, where the sublimely spicy and succulent taco adobada (pork, pineapple, avocado crema, cilantro and onions) is two freaking dollars. Wrapped in two griddle-crisped, chewy corn tortillas and exploding with full-range flavor, this is the best taco in Vegas, at any price. I’ll take four with an icy can of Coca-Cola, feast on the patio in the shadows of Echelon’s steel skeleton and marvel at how amazing an $11 meal can be. — Brock Radke
Surprise of the Year
Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace
In Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 731-7110, caesarspalace.com
It’s not surprising Caesars’ $17 million Bacchanal Buffet renovation would result in a meal worth experiencing. What’s surprising is exactly how good it is. The early accolades have been numerous, the mind-numbing lines indicate people have taken notice — but the attention to detail makes the Bacchanal Buffet even better than it’s been made out to be. Note: This praise is coming from a non-buffet guy.
Consider the fried chicken — boasting delicate, crunchy buttermilk batter with just the right amount of spice. Its secret recipe might make this chicken the best in the valley, at least according to my Southern-born wife who’s quite the expert on such things. The broccoli and cheese certainly is the best in valley (even if they are cheating a little bit on this one by frying the broccoli to retain its firmness). Even the tonkatsu ramen is being served up by a former Monta chef. That’s dedication.
And then there’s dry-aged lollipop ribeye — one of a multitude of rotating meats available at the carving station, including thick slab bacon. This is the same cut they’re serving at Old Homestead. But here, it’s a fraction of the price and is worth the cost of admission alone. With more than 500 items continually being rotated onto the lines, you’re bound to find something that amazes. Just don’t be surprised at the wait — and don’t be surprised when you find it more than worth the wait. — Jim Begley
Sommelier of the Year
Scarpetta In The Cosmopolitan,
3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 877-893-2003, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com
If you’re eating at celebrity chef Scott Conant’s quietly brilliant Italian room Scarpetta, you really need to do the signature tasting menu. That way, you’ll get to experience two of Las Vegas’ best pastas, the classic spaghetti with tomato and basil and the rich short rib agnolotti. And if you’re tasting this menu, you really must go with the wine pairing, because it’s pretty amazing how the hefty red berry notes from a glass of Il Poggione Rosso Di Montalcino, a 2008 Tuscany, hold their own against both dishes. Master sommelier Paolo Barbieri will happily pour whatever you like, but it might be best to let him pick. He’s worked all over the world, helped build the dining dynasties at Bellagio and Wynn, snagged a Wine Spectator Grand Award for Alex Stratta’s restaurant right before it closed, and now he’s having a great time giving you Italy’s best stuff at Scarpetta (and some shockingly great bargains at D.O.C.G.) next door. Barbieri’s seemingly unlimited knowledge and casual, charming manner add a new dimension to both restaurants. And if he wants to share his own wine — smooth and sultry syrahs from Santa Barbara County — by all means, let the guy do his thing. — Brock Radke
Ethnic Restaurant of the Year
5040 W. Spring Mountain Road #5 | 251-0022
Over the last few years, the valley has witnessed a Japanese restaurant onslaught. Sushi joints have long been an fixture throughout town, but recently we’ve been introduced to other, less-heralded aspects of Japanese cuisine. Ramen joints and izakayas are becoming more plentiful, and we even have our own kissaten and an edomae sushi joint. But probably the most interesting of the group is Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, serving Tokyo-style pasta from the burgeoning Tokyo Plaza at Decatur and Spring Mountain.
Nakamura Ya’s Tokyo-style pastas are pretty straightforward — Italian pasta dishes you’re familiar with, using Asian ingredients you may not be, with a heavy emphasis on seafood. This means combinations such as a surprisingly light and amazingly addictive miso carbonara pasta and an otherworldly uni and tomato cream sauce spaghetti — the latter is one of the best dishes in town and worth the nomination alone. A little more challenging is the squid ink pasta, whose eponymous ingredient will leave you with lips like a goth but is worth seeking out.
While the menu is pasta-centric, there are options for those avoiding carbs. The free-range fried jidori chicken is a menu staple, while salads combining seasonal fish and greens rotate and are always worth a taste. Be sure to check both chalkboards and the menu before ordering, as specials change daily. And do be sure to save room for the soy milk panna cotta with Okinawan black sugar sauce, an example of how surprisingly good Japanese desserts can be. — Jim Begley
Pastry Chef of the Year
Gordon Ramsay Steak
In Paris Las Vegas,
3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S. |
Ultra-famous chef Gordon Ramsay’s first Las Vegas restaurant opened this year with lofty expectations; that anticipation was only amplified by the fact that his debut would be a steakhouse. We couldn’t wait to see what it would feel and taste like. Gordon Ramsay Steak doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t surprise anyone, either — until you arrive at dessert. That’s where Steve Yi comes in. His varied Vegas experience — he’s been at MGM Grand, Wynn, Venetian, Hard Rock and The Cosmopolitan — manifests in scintillating translations of creamy classics like cheesecake with graham cracker crust, blueberry compote and strawberry granita, and heavenly panna cotta with honeydew consommé and watermelon sorbet. Delicate banana-toffee tarts are graced with cocoa nibs and coffee ice cream, an overload of indulgence. If the only treat on Yi’s list was the sticky toffee pudding, he’d still be my pick for this award. Instantly my favorite dessert in the city, this mega-moist, dense yet fluffy pudding cake melts with notes of caramel, toffee and brown sugar; you’ll have to force yourself to slow down and cherish each spoonful (and you might not even make it to the whimsical brown butter ice cream on the other side of the plate). On a famed street where so many magnificent pastry pros ply their trade nightly, it’s difficult to discover a standout. That this chef complements — and crowns — a terrific and complete experience at this superb new restaurant proves Yi is a star. — Brock Radke
Appetizer of the Year
King Crab Taro Taco
Mizumi In Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 770-3463, wynnlasvegas.com
The transformation of Wynn’s Okada restaurant into the fresh, innovative Mizumi was a highlight of the dining year. It also marked a big step into the limelight for rising star chef Devin Hashimoto, another veteran of the former Alex restaurant. But after a few lovely meals at Mizumi, all I can think about is how I wish Hashimoto would quit the Wynn life to start a mini-taco truck and patrol our neighborhoods with unlimited crunchy, tiny goodness. His taro tacos, using a lightly fried disc of this slightly sweet tuber as shell, may be the perfect beginning bite — filled with moist king crab leg meat, cucumber relish, citrus-tinged crème fraîche and tomburi seeds — but I’d rather eat a whole plate of them. Only a true talent can pack that much flavor into a single mouthful. — Brock Radke
Signature Dish of the Year
Gordon Ramsay Steak In Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
When the culinary star of “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “MasterChef” and other shows announced he’d be opening a Vegas steakhouse with a British twist, skepticism flared in my hungry brain. Two things, though: I wasn’t thinking about how Gordon Ramsay has a dozen Michelin stars to go with what seems like dozens of TV shows, and I didn’t know people still eat Beef Wellington. Ramsay’s version of the seemingly simple, nearly impossible-to-perfect traditional dish is more than a new standardbearer; it’s a meaty maturation. Leading off the “signatures” section of Ramsay’s menu and available as an order for two — the holiday dinner of our dreams — this Wellington is a dry-aged tenderloin hand-selected by legendary beef baron Pat LaFrieda, enclosed in a shell of flaky pastry, magically baked to optimal deliciousness and served with roasted root vegetables and potato puree by chef de cuisine Kevin Hee. One beautiful plate is all it took to change this eater’s impression of what British food can be. — Brock Radke
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year
Parma by Chef Marc
7591 W. Washington #110
As is the case with most off-Strip gems, Parma by Marc is tucked away in a nondescript strip mall. The restaurant signage exclaims a decidedly longer run-on restaurant name, Parma Pastavino & Deli by Chef Marc, and inside you’ll find a hybrid space that’s equal parts deli, wine lounge, retail space and restaurant. Such schizophrenia is forgivable, because Chef Marcus Sgrizzi is dishing out the valley’s best Italian cuisine this side of Rao’s in a manner unparalleled off-Strip.
Housemade pastas, a hallmark of any good Italian kitchen, are only the beginning on the continually changing dinner menu. Both the pappardelle Bolognese and the butternut squash agnolotti in brown butter are normally available and highly recommended. Rarer are specials such as an unforgettable ahi tuna Bolognese — commonly served on Fridays during Lent — and an immaculate and wonderfully layered veal saltimbocca.
But the best way to experience Parma is to order the Chef’s Table and let Sgrizzi pick your dishes while you enjoy a leisurely dinner. Composed of only the night’s freshest offerings, the selections will give you the best opportunity to experience the restaurant through his eyes (and is even better with the reasonably priced wine-pairing option). In between courses, he’ll visit your table to affably discuss the what, why and how of the wonderful dishes. Tableside chef visits during a tasting menu in a strip mall? Only one of many reasons why Parma by Chef Marc is a rarity and a must-visit.
— Jim Begley
Dessert of the Year
Salted Caramel Budino
at D.O.C.G. In The Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S. |
Normally languishing at the end of a meal, dessert can be the unintended casualty of a fulfilling dining experience. Without proper planning, you may find yourself chock-full from appetizers and entrées before even perusing dessert selections. Do not fear, as with a little preparation you’ll prevent this unfortunate predicament from occurring at The Cosmopolitan’s D.O.C.G. Enoteca, home to a dessert worth planning your day around: the salted caramel budino.
This Italian dessert is a simple vanilla pudding topped with an oh-so-wonderfully balanced salted caramel sauce — an ethereal, addictive amalgam of salty and sweet. Served alongside a pretzel brittle mimicking the dish’s own flavor combination, it’s a perfect conclusion to a meal (one that should always include the grilled filone, smoky yeast bread served alongside a duck egg fondue for dipping). With some good planning, you’ll have yourself quite a memorable meal. – Jim Begley
New Restaurant of the Year
523 Fremont St. | 778-0888, lethaivegas.com
This was supposed to be the “Year of Downtown,” and maybe it was, considering the arrival of The Smith Center, the Mob Museum and the renovated Neon Museum. But precious few exciting restaurants have popped up in our original city center, which makes the impact of Le Thai, opened in late 2011, seem even greater. When was the last time a downtown dining venue amassed the power to attract suburban eaters from Summerlin, Green Valley and even Southern Highlands? Chef/owner Daniel Coughlin’s hip, tiny palace of spiciness has done the impossible, shifting foodie buzz from the Strip and Chinatown to little old Fremont East, boosted by daily (sometimes twice daily) visits from the small crowd of urban adventurers who are attempting to remake downtown. Never lost in the hype is how consistently good Coughlin’s cuisine is, soulful street food versions of favorites like pad Thai, spicy meatball soup and waterfall beef with sweet, sticky rice. Spring brought the opening of Le Thai’s comfy back patio space, and it filled up as quickly as it arrived. I never thought I’d stand and wait 15 minutes for a table in a small downtown restaurant, and perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give to the addictive nature of the Awesome Noodles, the spicy and sweet combination of flat rice noodles, chicken, eggs, bean sprouts, green onions and a tangy fish sauce with a heavy chili kick. If a true downtown dining revolution ensues, Le Thai was the spark. — Brock Radke
Chef of the Year
Marché Bacchus 2620 Regatta Drive #106
Marché Bacchus has always been a treasure, from the day Gregoire and Agathe Verge opened the unexpectedly quaint local wine shop 12 years ago. When neighbors and regulars Jeff and Rhonda Wyatt bought what had become a quietly popular French bistro in 2007, they had a vision to transform it into something more than a great neighborhood spot. A handful of talented chefs have taken a turn at this reimagining, but only now has the kitchen exerted such immense force, pushing its menu to new heights and pulling its Desert Shores audience of eaters into that greater being. David Middleton, veteran of Strip dining rooms Fleur de Lys, Alex, David Burke and Scarpetta, took over as executive chef late last year, hand-picked by consulting chef Alex Stratta. Encouraged by the ambitious Wyatts, Middleton made his changes slowly and slyly to keep from shocking the fickle lakeside regulars. Favorite dishes still linger: obligatory onion soup, cheese and charcuterie platters, and brunch’s sweetly decadent lobster salad croissant. But after a year of tinkering and teasing, Middleton has evolved Marché Bacchus into comfy bistro by day and brilliant brasserie by night. His precise style is deftly demonstrated at dinner with artful, memorable dishes. Tartare of hand-cut hanger steak. Maple leaf duck breast with orange-braised fennel and black pepper jus. Braised beef short rib, just as tender and rich as it always was at Alex. A traditional torchon of foie gras with strawberry-jalapeño gelée and luxurious duck fat-grilled bread. Middleton is the first chef at Marché Bacchus to acknowledge that perhaps the culinary intelligence and curiosity of the local dining populace is on the rise, and his risks are our rewards. — Brock Radke
Restaurant of the Year
Restaurant Guy Savoy
In Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 877-346-4642, caesarspalace.com
The truth is that Las Vegas’ finest French dining rooms — all of which nod to genre-defining classic cuisine while dramatically reaching for a more contemporary edge — could all be the Restaurant of the Year, every year. There is no lack of consistency, or thrills, nor is there any boring eating happening at Robuchon, L’Atelier, Le Cirque, Twist or Picasso. The question is: How do you advance what is already universally recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience? How do you improve on perfection? The answer: Since this is Vegas, you double down.
For the first time since he arrived at Caesars Palace in the spring of 2006, the world-renowned master Guy Savoy completely changed the menu at his only U.S. restaurant. But he didn’t just refresh and reload with brilliant new dishes like Australian Wagyu beef with saffron sponge cake and decadent foie gras with horseradish and savory bouillon that tastes startlingly like potato chips. In an era when the Strip finds itself cutting rates and casualizing every part of its experience, Savoy and his gifted, 25-year-old Vegas lieutenant Mathieu Chartron unleashed Innovation-Inspiration, a 13-course, $348 menu featuring never-before-seen dishes. It feels like a defiant, brilliant strike against those who claim fine dining is dead, or at least recognition that in Las Vegas, there will always be strong demand for ultimate over-the-topness. From the salmon “cooked” tableside on dry ice, to the whimsical mango-and-yogurt dessert that visually impersonates a sunny-side up egg, there’s no other meal like it.
Big, bold moves haven’t made Restaurant Guy Savoy unapproachable. Beloved bites like artichoke and truffle soup, crispy sea bass and butter-roasted veal sweetbreads remain; try the $258 Signature menu for the greatest hits. The as-you-like-it options and warm service that set such a high standard six years ago are as welcoming as ever. And now, with this exhilarating new energy, choosing from among the Strip’s top tietier of restaurants just became an easy move. — Brock Radke