Desert Companion

Raise your forks

I have this borderline stalker-ish awe and admiration for chefs, probably because I myself am an enthusiastic cook. Enthusiastic but terrible. Oh, sure, I’ve got the sandwich and salad basics down, and I can whip up an incredibly digestible smoothie, but flip on an oven burner and any dubious culinary instincts of mine go rogue, resulting in infamous dishes such as Soup Casserole Delite, Meatish Surprise II, Fish Brittle and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Hey What Exactly Is This. So, any trip to a restaurant with more than two dollar signs on Yelp guarantees that I’ll spend half the meal vivisecting my entrée with the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, hoping to somehow grok the gossamer secrets of the chef’s soul.

I was especially spoiled this year. I’ve lost count of how many new restaurants opened, but yeah, I’ll take the invention of foie gras cotton candy as a sign that 2014 was the year Vegas got an electoral majority of its groove back. Foie gras cotton candy, by the way, is the brainchild of the restlessly innovative José Andrés, whose latest project, Bazaar Meat, is a culinary anchor in the new SLS Las Vegas on the North Strip. It’s also a convenient metaphor for an exciting year of dining in which we saw spirited mashups of high and low, East and West, uptown and down-home, classy and casual.

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And it’s just one of the restaurants that was part of our critics’ conversation leading up to their selections for the (elaborate flourish!) 2014 Restaurant Awards (p. 51). Once again, we’ve turned to some of the valley’s most discerning mouths and exuberant eaters — Al Mancini of Vegas Seven, native foodie and culturist James Reza, critic-at-large Jim Begley and Desert Companion’s own Debbie Lee — to serve up their picks for the year’s best chefs, restaurants and dishes.

A quick detour into where the sausage is made. Now, usually, the critics’ first-blush nominations slowly and eventually settle into a graceful orbit of nodding consensus — favorites emerge, second-placers float off, everyone goes home friends — and balance is restored to The Force. But this year, the seeming volume of new restaurants arriving on the scene — whether it was big splashes on the Strip or boutique micro-spots in Chinatown — meant that the critics’ nominations, in short, were a crazy quilt Rorschach splatter of undiluted passion. It took numerous sessions of wrangling, argument, discussion, feverish emailing and, in some cases, hostage negotiations to sort it all out and avoid too many fork-based stab wounds.

Many worthy nominees didn’t make the final list. Tough love reigned; we resisted the sketchy urge to enlarge the tent with new categories to accommodate all the excellence, dole out As for effort or grade on a curve. If a category didn’t inspire the critics to pitch nominees they’d kill for, we shelved it. After all, what’s the meaning of an award if everyone wins? Which isn’t to say that there aren’t killer dishes that deserve singling out for a mouthful of praise — that’s where our Side Dish awards come in, highlighting plates (and the personalities behind them) that helped define the dining year.

So, raise your fork to this year’s Restaurant Awards winners. And dig in — because the best part is that this celebration of excellence is edible.

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