The envelope (and the check), please. It's time for our annual Desert Companion Restaurant Awards.
This marks the 14th year since John Curtas began picking the valley's best restaurants on Nevada Public Radio in 1997, a broadcast tradition we brought to print last year.
The year 2010 might be the one that clinched Las Vegas' status as a true culinary destination, attracting a critical mass of top talent and putting the spotlight on the Strip's high-end eateries. That definitely made our selection of the year's best restaurants a tough (and sometimes combative) process. However, we're pleased to report that none of the esteemed food writers and critics on our informal panel sustained any fork wounds. And they certainly agree on one thing: It was a very good year in dining. (So good it inspired one of our judges to coin the word "hyper-delicious.")
However you describe it, we're confident that the restaurants we celebrate on the following pages will bring the valley great flavors in years to come. Dig in.
Generous portions, exceptional prices - and astounding flavors that border on outrageous
It's hard to decide what is most impressive about the Com Tam Dac Biet combo special at Bosa 1, our city's best Vietnamese restaurant. Each of the many components on this megadish is powerfully delicious: a sweet and spicy skewer of barbecued shrimp resting on a mountain of flavor-absorbing broken rice; a flaky, peppery shrimp cake; a tender egg-and-pork quiche; a pile of shredded pork skin with some lightly pickled vegetables. Wait: You have one more meat to select, from Chinese sausage, grilled pork chop, barbecued chicken or beef or Korean-style short ribs. Everything is amplified with liberal use of the homemade fish sauce and chicken broth, two sparkling, savory elixirs that bring new dimensions of flavor.
Consider now that all of this is yours for $11, the priciest meal on the menu at Bosa 1. There is an entire world of great dining deals in Las Vegas, especially in this sprawling stretch we call our Chinatown. But the tastes and value at Bosa 1 are truly from beyond. - Brock Radke
3400 S. Jones Blvd., Suite 2A, 418-1931. www.bosa1.com
As Vegas grows up, Raku continues to educate - and stimulate - our palates
A city really comes into its own as a dining destination when ethnic and neighborhood restaurants begin to shine, which is exactly what's happening at Raku. Owner Mitsuo Endo, a Tokyo native, refers to his restaurant as an aburiya, which is Japanese for, if you will, gastropub. It's been a chef's hangout from the jump, but Endo's food - meticulously prepared robata-yaki, or finger foods cooked in a back kitchen on a wood-fired grill - has quickly become popular with the masses. It proves that our tastes are becoming more eclectic, and that people are beginning to understand that there is more to Japanese cuisine than sushi. Little wonder Raku recently expanded. Once a tiny place with a small counter, it is now a labyrinth of small rooms paneled in wood stained the color of dark cherry.
Rounding out the robata-yaki menu are specials written in English on a small blackboard. You might start with skewered chicken or, for the more adventurous, fish guts. By all means, though, save room for the homemade tofu, which is unlike any you've ever eaten, and soboro gohan, also known as a chicken and rice bowl - ground chicken and pickles on steamed rice. A long list of beers and sakes will help you figure it all out.
Our city has never been stronger in the ethnic restaurant category, and Raku takes this award not just for excellent food, but for expanding our tastes. - Max Jacobson
5030 Spring Mountain Road, 367-3511. www.raku-grill.com
The team behind the service orchestrates fine dining moments to remember
Carlos Perez and Michael Schwarz have as much to do with the day-to-day success of Spago as any impeccable recipe Chef Eric Klein is whipping up. Food may have put Spago on everyone's restaurant map, but crackerjack service is what helps it stay there, and these front-of-the-house pros make certain the service is as carefully orchestrated as one of Klein's tasting menus. Maitre d' extraordinaire Perez and Schwarz, the general manager, run one of the tightest (and busiest) ships in the business - averaging 600-800 covers a day - giving each table the sort of intensive-care service that's usually just for the reservations-only crowd. Perez, who has been with the Wolfgang Puck empire since, he says, "Wolfgang was personally bringing food to the table in West Hollywood," reserves preferential seating treatment for locals, and makes everyone from naïve Midwesterners to big-city sophisticates feel like old friends. For a volume restaurant, the extraordinary quality of Spago's food has always been something of a miracle of nature, and the world-class service that seats, explains and brings it to you is every bit its equal. - John Curtas
Inside the Forum Shops at Caesars. 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 369-6300. www.wolfgangpuck.com
by Michael Mina
Their painstakingly hand-crafted drinks are delivering major buzz
Forget the martinis and the cosmos. Serious drinkers these days are looking for the type of classic cocktails their grandparents turned to when they wanted to imbibe. Of course, any hack bartender can buy a copy of The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book and try to make a "gloom lifter" or a "peach blow." But doing it right is a different story. Michael Mina's American Fish takes this year's prize not only because of its extensive cocktail list, which emphasizes drinks from before the 1940s, but also because of the barstaff's dedication to fresh, quality ingredients and painstaking precision.
All of the drinks are made with small-batch premium gins, rums, bourbons, ryes and brandies, exactly measured on every pour. The fruit syrups and bar syrups that flavor the drinks are all made in-house, while mixers and sodas come out of glass bottles, not squirt guns. (They even use Coca-Cola from Mexico, made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup.) All citrus juices are squeezed fresh when you order your drink, and they use fresh egg whites rather than that mysterious packaged stuff. You may wait a few minutes longer for your drink, but the results are certainly worth a toast in themselves. - Al Mancini
Inside the Aria at CityCenter, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S., (877) 230-2742. www.arialasvegas.com/dining/american-fish.aspx
With his sly grin and joyful approach, he brings a sense of serious fun to wine
Running the wine program (and working the floor) at a world-famous restaurant is an exacting, exhausting job under the best of circumstances. When that particular restaurant is famous precisely because of its wine program, those jobs are not for the timid or the easily intimidated. Aureole Las Vegas, with its striking, sunken design by Adam Tihany, wine tower and 2,400-label list is a magnet for oenophiles worldwide, and they pour in nightly to pore over the list for treasures, bargains and obscure gems that might only be found in handful of restaurants worldwide.
Keeping, knowing and selling this inventory has been Master Sommelier William Sherer's task since 2005. He undertakes his job with relish and a sly grin, whether he's crossing swords with a wine snob or educating a curious neophyte. The word "sommelier" comes from the French word for pack animal - and denotes the very real heavy lifting and schlepping of wooden cases of glass bottles that is the unglamorous side of the job. By training, Sherer knows the historical, physical and intellectual demands of the job. By his personality, he's been able to infuse the wine program at Aureole with joie de vivre that's maintained and enhanced its pre-eminent place on the world wine scene. He also makes fine Spanish-style wines from California grapes called Iberian Remix, which has been a hit in restaurants all over Vegas. Wine maker, wine schlepper, wine maven - William Sherer, our Sommelier of the Year. - J.C.
Inside Mandalay Bay. 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S, 632-7401. www.aureolelv.com
Living - and delicious - proof that great neighborhood restaurants can thrive in the valley
Rosemary's remains the gold standard for Las Vegas neighborhood restaurants. It's hard to believe it's been 11 years since Emeril Lagasse protégés Michael and Wendy Jordan opened their doors, naming what would become a Vegas institution after Michael's mom. At the time, it was seen as a huge risk. But Rosemary's soon proved that great Las Vegas restaurants don't have to be confined to the Strip.
And the place just keeps getting better. It doesn't matter if you're enjoying a prix fixe meal in the main dining room, snacking on small plates in the lounge or watching the line cooks prepare your meal at the unique food bar, Rosemary's consistent excellence is amazing. Better yet, they boast an incredible wine selection, as well as one of the best collections of craft beer you're likely to find in any serious restaurant in the valley. You can also pick up a copy of the Jordans' cookbook, Food of Love, on the way out to try to recreate some of their masterpieces at home. But good luck trying to replicate this amazing food. - A.M.
8125 West Sahara Avenue, 869-2251. www.rosemarysrestaurant.com
Joel Robuchon/L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Half his secret? The best ingredients. The other half? Pure invention
To hear Kamel Guechida describe his incredible desserts, they're all about the ingredients - particularly his carefully sourced fruit.
"Fifty percent of the product should stand by itself, with good flavor and a texture that's interesting.," he explains. But it's in the other 50 percent that this master chef works his magic. He'll infuse delicious tart raspberries with Lillet and rose sabayon, and then set them atop a rich pistachio cream. Or he'll accompany blueberry compote with lemon brulee, and then finish the mouth-watering dish with a light violet milkshake.
At the more formal of his two restaurants, the entire menu and the restaurant's décor is reinvented every three months. And Guechida usually begins working on new creations a full month before deciding they're up to the Robuchon standards. At L'Atelier, on the other hand, his offerings change with a bit more frequency.
While Joel Robuchon is best known for its pricey, multi-course feasts, one of The MGM Grand's best kept secrets is that diners who call in advance can actually book a seat in either the breathtaking formal dining room or the lounge to enjoy an a la carte dessert, which cost a mere $25. Or you can simply drop by the more casual L'Atelier on the spur of the moment to enjoy the chef's painstaking, precise and wonderful-tasting work. - Al Mancini
Inside the MGM Grand. 3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 891-7358. www.mgmgrand.com/restaurants
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
This daring chef cooks without a net - and never flinches
What Pascal Sanchez does six nights a week at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire is nothing short of remarkable. This veteran of the Gagnaire empire must execute some of the most high-flying techniques in all of food, combining the strange, brilliant and sometimes befuddling ideas of the master without a net - all to an audience of visitors and locals who've never seen artistry such as venison-flavored ice cream or Dabob Bay oysters over beef gelee. That he does so flawlessly, to accolades from veteran foodies to neophytes alike, is a testament to the passion and training he brings to the kitchen.
Before coming to Las Vegas, Sanchez spent five years running the kitchen at Gagnaire's Sketch in London, where, he tells us, the English were much more difficult to please. "[Customers here] are so much more sophisticated now [because of the Internet]. They come to our restaurant expecting to be surprised."
And he delivers surprises, with dishes as simple as a succulent cote de boeuf with an escargot/Burgundy wine sauce, to a flawless langoustine five ways that is the apotheosis of shellfish. A great chef takes as much pride in the small details of his operation as he does in the signature dishes, and one bite of a seemingly innocuous bowl of capellini with green pepper, celeriac and cauliflower veloute makes you appreciate how much flavor a superb kitchen can pack into what is basically a side dish.
Whether it's seasonal sea scallops and foie gras or a simple filet of John Dory poached in Malabar black pepper butter, everything this kitchen turns out is an intense evocation of its ingredients. Maintaining standards this high with food this complex can only be done by a seriously talented chef who demands - and gets - the best out of his kitchen brigade. Night after night, that's exactly what Pascal Sanchez does and who he is. - J.C.
Inside Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter. 3752 Las Vegas Blvd S., 590-8888. www.mandarinoriental.com/lasvegas/dining/twist/
Wildly creative but still accessible, Sage impresses every palate
Shawn McClain's Sage may be the most significant restaurant to open in Las Vegas in the past three years. Certainly, Sage serves up cuisine that's every bit as hyper-delicious and innovative as that of Twist (the other candidate for this honor). What gives Sage the edge, however, is an almost Midwestern sensibility that makes it more approachable for non-foodies - without sacrificing appeal to scrupulous gourmands.
What makes a meal at Sage so compelling? The ability to serve up everything from drop-your-fork-delicious vegetarian dishes to exotica such as escargot and pork belly agnolotti to its signature foie gras crème brulee to small bites of sweet and sour sweetbreads (in the spacious, well-appointed bar) - all conceived to fit any appetite or culinary expectation. Exotic cocktails and an intriguing craft beer list are also part of the mix, as is a seasonal menu that's equally at home serving yellowtail crudo with pine nut foam as it is sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi that practically disappear in your mouth before you bite into them.
Thus has McClain brought a restaurant to Las Vegas that made its mark with locals almost immediately, very difficult to do with high-end Strip restaurants. Manager Tobias Peach has managed to make it a fun, accessible spot for a quick bite, a couple of au courant cocktails or a full-blown, big-deal meal, without any one of these detracting from the other. Sage is a foodie's dream that impresses without intimidation, and that's why it's our Restaurant of the Year. - John Curtas
Inside the Aria at CityCenter, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S., (877) 230-2742. www.arialasvegas.com/dining/sage.aspx