Desert Companion’s 19th Annual Restaurant Awards
Jim Begley is a freelance food writer whose work appears in the Las Vegas Weekly, Las Vegas Magazine and Desert Companion.
John Curtas is a longtime dining critic who writes at EatingLV.com and appears on KSNV Channel 3.
Debbie Lee is a former pastry chef and Desert Companion’s dining critic.
Mitchell Wilburn works at a fine foods store and describes himself as a “writer, eater and human.” His writing appears in Vegas Magazine and Desert Companion.
In the tag cloud that describes Las Vegas, you have to squint pretty hard to find the word “tradition” in there. Our gleaming, go-go glamopolis has a sense of tradition? Yes, but not in the, well, traditional sense. We borrow ideas and give them backspin; we steal and remix; we reinterpret and reanimate. That decidedly Vegas practice has become a tradition all its own.
Tradition seems to be a theme for this year’s Restaurant Awards — but, again, in true Vegas style, don’t expect the stale tradition of
stuffiness and stagnation in the pages ahead. Rather, inside you’ll find new icons making a splash with innovative menus, mold-breaking mainstays that have become guiding lights of the dining scene, and familiar names making brash new moves. But whether they’re making traditions or breaking them, these chefs and restaurants have captured our critics’ imaginations (and their palates) for our 19th Annual Restaurant Awards — another tradition we’re sure you’ve developed a taste for.
Appetizer of the year
Crispy Buffalo Cauliflower at Public School 702
1850 Festival Plaza Drive, 702-749-3007, psontap.com
This sinfully creative upgrade proves that veggies don’t always have to be virtuous
Now that diners are content to pay upwards of $34 for cauliflower “steaks” in high-end restaurants, it’s safe to say that the cruciferous vegetable has hit its peak. One might even call it the new kale. But for the countless restaurants that have made cauliflower a new menu staple, Public School 702 at Downtown Summerlin earns top honors for its creative (and reasonably priced) upgrade on the bland florets of bad buffets and high school cafeterias.
Consider it further evidence of the universal truism that anything tastes good if it’s deep-fried. Battered chunks of cauliflower are given the traditional Buffalo wing treatment: fried until golden and then drenched in a heart-stopping shower of melted butter and hot sauce (hey, no one said veggies and virtue are inseparable). Buffalo sauce and a requisite side of blue cheese aioli are included, because no self-respecting wing aficionado dare dip a drumette into ranch dressing.
It’s not groundbreaking, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. It’s also just one of many tasty twists (three words: bacon cheddar tots) that make this gastropub a welcome addition to the neighborhood. DL
Signature dish of the year
Hainan chicken at Flock & Fowl
380 W. Sahara Ave., 626-616-6632, flockandfowl.com
Simply put, this simple dish is the very essence of chicken
It’s hard to describe how passionate well-known local chef and Fat Choy proprietor Sheridan Su is about Hainan chicken. Along with his wife and partner Jenny Wong, the couple has been so infatuated with the dish since a trip to Boon Keng Chicken in Taipei, they recently opened the postage stamp-sized Flock & Fowl in a dingy East Sahara strip mall as a labor of love in homage to the dish. And so your infatuation will begin.
Hainan chicken is a semi-obscure (at least among us gweilos) Chinese poached chicken dish generally unnervingly served at room temperature. Su delivers his slightly-warm (and deboned!) poached Mary’s organic chicken atop rice cooked in schmaltz (chicken fat), layering fowl flavors in a dish best described as the essence of chicken. Accompanied by a trio of housemade dipping sauces (Indonesian sambal, a slightly-sweet soy and an intensely addictive ginger-scallion) and what is quite probably the best chicken broth in town, the simple dish is simply comforting. JB
Dessert of the year
Milk n cookies at Yonaka Modern Japanese
4983 W. Flamingo Road #a, 702-685-8358, yonakajapaneserestaurant.com
Yonaka has gained a reputation for extremely creative Asian-fusion, but its desserts have always been pure magic apart from that. They don’t typically adhere to the Asian palate; rather, they rather take after the fine French dining tradition of combining dazzling flavors and pleasing visuals. The one that’s stayed on the menu since inception, Chocolate Ten Ways, is a great example. However, Yonaka has ventured into the uniquely constructed nostalgia now and again, and most triumphantly with Milk N Cookies.
It’s simple but perfectly pleasing: They take basic, wholesome ingredients and just make the best damn chocolate chip cookie they can muster, baked fresh and delivered straight from the oven. Somewhat like a to-order soufflé, it takes a few minutes to prepare, but there’s nothing quite like it. It’s served with a small scoop of the cookie dough and, taking a cue from Momofuku, a glass of “cereal milk.” It’s a page right out of childhood, and yet a fitting cap to the feast of the senses that is a meal at Yonaka. MW
Ethnic Restaurant of the year
Inyo Asian Variety Restaurant
600 W. Spring Mountain Road #1B, 702-248-0588, inyolv.com
Inyo is less a restaurant than an international port where Far East flavors mix and mingle
In the past couple of years, the Las Vegas Valley has experienced an onslaught of Asian restaurants; a heavy concentration was Japanese, with new Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese venues also dotting the landscape. This proliferation is great for diners, but the options can be dizzying in such a crowded field. A restaurant has to be exemplary to stand out. Inyo Asian Variety Restaurant is just such a place.
Inyo’s menu doesn’t hail from any single country but rather travels across the Far East in living up to its billing as an Asian variety restaurant. In lesser hands, such wandering could result in a muddled menu. But with stints as executive chef at Cosmo’s Blue Ribbon and Palms’ Little Buddha on his resume, Executive Chef Gregg Fortunato is well-versed in Asian cuisine. Instead of being burdened with lack of focus, Inyo is defined by its diversity.
Inyo’s chicken wings exemplify the international flavor, offering a trio of options: Japanese tebasaki, Korean gochugaru, and Thai chile nam pla. The tebasaki, simply seasoned with sweet ginger soy and black pepper, demonstrate the straightforward flavors commonly associated with Japanese cooking, while the gochugaru deliver heat from their eponymous chile flakes. But best of all are the transcendent chile nam pla, delivering a pungent kick from the pervasive fish sauce. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a good thing.)
While the menu draws upon different cuisines, individual dishes honor their roots. The distinctly Japanese uni udon delivers udon noodles swimming in an intense, sea urchin broth, garnished with a dollop of caviar; the combination delivers the essence of the sea in a raw form. Similarly, the lightly charred whole yari ika serves grilled squid basting in memorable garlic soy butter.
Less country-centric are the multicolored roasted cauliflower, elevated with the inclusion of funky fish sauce. But the Chinese influences are evident in the smoky, scrambled egg-topped crab fried rice. And the daily specials board can wander from soft shell crab to uni egg scrambles depending upon available ingredients and Fortunato’s mood. Luckily for us, he seems to be clearly inspired in his pursuit of world cuisine. JB
Bartender of the year
Juyoung Kang at Delmonico steakhouse
In the Venetian, 702-414-3737, emerilsrestaurants.com
Her dedication to cocktail craft has made her shine the brightest in a mad, mad mixology scene
Juyoung Kang — June or Ju to friends and regulars — has been a star behind every bar she’s worked in. From the now-defunct Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan to Commonwealth and The Laundry Room Downtown, back to Cosmo to open Rose.Rabbit.Lie, down the Strip to BLVD in the Linq, she blazed a bright trail mirroring the rise of the Vegas cocktail scene. Now she’s taken up the prestigious program left by Max Solano at Delmonico Steakhouse, given the keys to one of the most powerful whiskey rooms in town.
Juyoung has already started making it her own. She’s trimming the menu here and there and bringing in techniques learned in her travels; hip ideas such as “shimming” (low-alcohol, easy-drinking cocktails) are sure to express her style in a new light — and watching her helm a cocktail program at an acclaimed steakhouse should be fascinating to watch. If her past is any indication — a resumé built on a detail-minded dedication to herb-infused liquors, spiced syrups and specialty tinctures — the future of drinks at Delmonico should be bright. MW
Cocktail bar of the year
Herbs & Rye
3713 W. Sahara Ave., 702-982-8036, herbsandrye.com
The cocktail bar and restaurant has magnetic appeal to discriminating drinkers — and also attracts the city’s top mixologist talent
Vegas cocktail culture is constantly in flux, but the eye of the storm is this little spot on Sahara, lovingly called “The Clubhouse” by the mixology in-crowd. Herbs & Rye built its brand by being able to pull very strong up-and-coming talent from anywhere and everywhere in town — and out of town. The people who’ve moved in and out make up some serious superstars in the beverage scene, with Nectaly Mendoza at the head. The food menu, recently re-vamped to keep up with the stellar drinks, is known for its half-off steak happy hour, both in the early evening and late night.
Its commitment to quality drew more than discriminating drinkers. Herbs & Rye has become a magnet for cocktail talent, attracting names such as Matt Graham, Emily Yett, Adam O’Donnell, Kinson Lau, Joe Pereira, and Mark Vega, familiar faces to even the most novice industry folk. With such a roster, Herbs has garnered honors and awards from dozens of national and international “best of” lists. It might be the most frequently recommended bar in the city, and it’s a distinction well-earned. Herbs & Rye was one of the first bars to embrace the classic cocktail trend, and also one of the first where you could safely have your bartender improvise a truly inspired drink. It remains a place that’s electric with talent and energy every single night. MW
Dealicious Meal of the year
Pozole rojo at El Menudazo
3100 E. Lake Blvd. #18, 702-944-9706, menudazo.com
In a sleepy strip mall, complex flavors come together in a deceptively straightforward bowl of soup
Situated on a stretch of East Lake Mead in North Las Vegas littered with nondescript strip malls, El Menudazo is likely not in your neighborhood. It’s certainly not in mine. But that doesn’t stop me from making a semi-regular crosstown trek to one of the valley’s best breakfasts and altogether deals: their pozole rojo.
While its name may trumpet the menudo — the breakfast soup, not the Puerto Rican ’80s boy band — the pozole is utterly infatuating. A rich, practically chewy broth weightlessly suspends pork short ribs and an ample amount of hominy. Garnished with lettuce, onions, cilantro and radish (although those in the know also request avocado and sour cream) the bowl delivers flavors as complex as you’ll find anywhere in the valley, including our world-renowned five-star resorts. If you haven’t been, the space is tiny but twice the size from years past when it was only open on weekends. And unless you have an offensive line in tow, don’t order the grande. Trust me on this one. JB
Neighborhood restaurant of the year
3655 S. Durango Drive #6, 702-463-8382, othermamalv.com
Strong flavors and impeccable quality: almost overnight, Other Mama changed the way we think about seafood in the valley
Location counts — except when it doesn’t. Other Mama may be harder to find than a celebrity chef slaving away at the stoves, but that hasn’t stopped every galloping gastronome around from zeroing in on this hidden gem, tucked into an invisible corner in a strip mall on south Durango. Weeks after it opened, Dan Krohmer’s ode to great seafood went from a “where’s that?” to a “let’s go” on the lips of every foodie in town. These days, it’s practically a hangout for off-duty chefs and F&B professionals, as well as being the go-to joint for locals seeking serious shellfish.
Nothing about its obscure locale suggests that you’re in for top-flight oysters, Penn Cove mussels, or sashimi-grade scallops when you find it. Nor does the name give you a clue — it sounds like a blues bar, and the retro-louche signage suggests a down-on-its-heels absinthe joint you might find in New Orleans. Even when you walk in, things are bit confusing. It’s modestly appointed (Krohmer did the build-out himself) with seating for around 50, and the far wall is dominated by a long L-shaped cocktail bar that looks directly into an open kitchen. That bar may look simple, but it’s also significant, with mixologist David English shaking, stirring and conjuring cocktails to a fare-thee-well.
Then you notice a large menu board and things start falling in place. Because what Other Mama is, is an American/Japanese izakaya/sushi/raw bar/gastropub — got that? Krohmer learned his seafood skills with Iron Chef Morimoto in Philadelphia, and honed his skills locally at Sen of Japan, just down the street. He specializes in strong flavors paired with impeccably chosen seafood, such as his oysters foie Rockefeller, a dish that combines sweet, saline and salty bivalves with an umami-bomb of duck liver. Anything and everything from the raw bar — from amberjack crudo with Meyer lemon to scallop carpaccio to a sashimi salad with thyme and honey — competes with anything you’ll find 10 miles to the east, at two-thirds the price, and his pork belly kimchee fried rice, seafood toban yaki, and caviar & French toast prove he can pull together proteins and starches in unlikely combinations like nobody’s business. Gone are the days when all-you-can-eat sushi bars defined our seafood options off the Strip. Almost overnight, Other Mama unveiled a new, higher standard, and put to rest the idea that you have to travel to Las Vegas Boulevard South to get the good stuff. JC
New restaurant of the year
In the Bellagio, 702-693-8865, bellagio.com
This stellar example of contemporary Italian cuisine also exudes a sense of place that says: Vegas, Vegas, Vegas
In a city full of imported restaurant concepts and faux atmospheres (care for some pizza under the “Venetian” skies?), it’s often difficult to find a restaurant that exudes a solid sense of place. But what qualifies as a meal that screams “Las Vegas!”— a buffet? Sure, but that’s a tad tacky. Shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate? See previous response. An eons-old steakhouse dinner might fit the bill, but probably best suited for the Rat Pack generation of yore.
For the city’s new guard of bon vivants, there’s Lago by Julian Serrano. The modern Italian destination, which debuted in April at Bellagio, is more than a due replacement for the late Circo. It’s the best new restaurant in town.
Start with the jaw-dropping transformation in design. The stale, old-money vibe that once ruled the space — all drab tones and heavy drapes — has been eradicated. In its place is a vast expanse of bright and shiny accents. Glass, chrome and geometric patterns abound. It’s massive, it’s fresh and it’s just a wee bit loud; in other words, it’s an accurate reflection of our city’s personality.
It’s also a match for the chef’s modern approach to food. Combining the formal technique Serrano displays at Picasso with the shared plates concept of his eponymous Spanish restaurant/tapas bar in the Aria, Lago is a fine example of contemporary Italian cuisine. Plates are small but flavorful, and the menu provides a balanced blend of safe (meatballs, mini margherita pizzas) and adventurous (risotto with tripe, squid ink couscous).
Oh, and the view. The addition of an outdoor dining space allows guests to hover over the Bellagio fountains as they feast. On a breezy day, you might feel the mist on your skin as jets of water spray in choreographed movements.
“It’s supposed to be like dining on an Italian lakeside,” my dinner companion says.
Looking across the Strip at a replica of the Eiffel Tower, the boulevard clogged with foot traffic and mobile billboards of bikini-clad women, I reach for my limoncello.
“No,” I protest. An Elvis tune from the fountain show is still ringing in my head. “It’s just like dining in Vegas.” DL
Chef of the year
Nicole Brisson at Carnevino
In the Palazzo, 702-789-4141, carnevino.com
A culinary force all her own, Brisson has turned Carnevino into a canvas for re-envisioning the steakhouse
When Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened Carnevino, they no doubt hoped their concept of great Italian food and even greater steaks would be an unbeatable combination. What they probably didn’t suspect was that they were also unleashing a 34-year-old dynamo of a chef, from upstate New York, onto the Vegas food scene — a woman who would redefine the steakhouse genre and prove to be a culinary force in her own right. Because Nicole Brisson not only has serious Italian cooking chops, she also rides herd over a large kitchen staff serving hundreds of covers a night to some of the most demanding diners in the business.
With Brisson at the helm, Batali, Bastianich and company have taken the lead in connecting our great Strip restaurants with the local population and, in the process, brought locally sourced food to a desert tourist town that didn’t think such things were possible. These days, Carnevino isn’t just one of the best steakhouses in Las Vegas, it might be the best steakhouse in the country. It also is, on any given night, one of the best Italian restaurants in America — a one-of-a-kind, only-in-Vegas experience that deserves to be a lot more famous than it is. Brisson makes the whole thing run like a finely tuned watch, and if she were doing this kind of work in New York or Los Angeles, she would’ve graced numerous magazines and television shows by now. As it is, Carnevino exists in a world of its own — a sui generis blend of superior pastas and the country’s best beef. Its “riserva” steaks are justifiably famous, and you have to call ahead to reserve one that’s been aged anywhere from 60-150 days (what Brisson considers the “sweet spot.”) Do so, and you’ll taste beef like you never have before. They aren’t for everyone (the regular, dry-aged rib eye and strip are otherworldly in their own right), but if you have the coin and the palate, you’ll enjoy the privilege of eating the most unique steaks in the world.
If beef and noodles aren’t your bag, take heart: The antipasti (all made in-house) and fish will more than satisfy your craving for a taste of Italia. Put these together with an abundance of local produce from Nevada and California farms, and you have that rarest of creatures: a huge, celebrity-chef-driven restaurant overseen by a major talent who’s made it very much a part of her life and the local food community. Mario and Joe might’ve made a safe bet with their menu, but their biggest payoff of all has been with the chef they picked, and just how special she turned out to be. JC
Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame award
In the Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-369-6300, wolfgangpuck.com
More than 20 years later, the restaurant that sparked Vegas’ fine dining revolution still dazzles, surprises and excels
In the beginning, there was Spago. And Spago begat Emeril’s, and Emeril’s success begat the tsunami that was the Bellagio, and by the turn of the century, all of them, along with many others, had put an exclamation point on the greatest restaurant revolution America had ever seen. But all that begetting began on December, 11, 1992, when Wolfgang Puck opened a branch of his seminal, West Hollywood eatery and single-handedly made Las Vegas a player on the world’s restaurant stage.
Puck tells many stories about that opening: how there were almost no customers the first week; how he told his general manager the whole thing was a big mistake; and how, once the National Finals Rodeo came to town, all the cowboys lined up in front of the open kitchen thinking it was a buffet. Soon enough they learned just how wonderful the grub was being rustled up by that kitchen. From day one, and 23 years later, it rarely misses a beat. First under David Robins and currently helmed by Eric Klein, the kitchen never fails to dazzle and surprise — a testament to Puck’s perfectionism and one of the most solid staffs in the business. That excellence extends to the front of the house, and has since the get-go: Have you ever heard anyone say they had bad service at Spago? Puck’s contributions to America’s restaurants are legendary. Open kitchens are everywhere these days, but they started with Spago. The lowly pizza was first given a gourmet cachet by Puck, and he was the first to incorporate a casual café in front, with a more formal — and expensive — space in the back of the restaurant. But most of all, what Puck and Spago did — first in Los Angeles and then in the Forum Shops — was make fine dining fun. They brought good cooking out from behind the curtain and showed America how to have a great time with great food.
Once Las Vegas got a taste of everything Spago brought to the table, there was no turning back. Food and beverage executives up and down the Strip knew they had to improve their game, and that’s exactly what they did, causing all of us today, and 42 million visitors a year, to eat better as a result. There was always gold in them hills to be sure, but Wolfgang Puck was the first to discover it, and in the process, he begat a dining revolution in the most tasteful way possible. JC
Restaurant of the Year 2015
Bardot Brasserie in Aria
This delicious ode to the golden era of brass, glass and béchamel-drenched sandwiches is a throwback with heart and soul
When Michael Mina announced he was closing American Fish in the Aria and replacing it with a classic French brasserie, more than a few foodies were skeptical. Didn’t he know that this was the age of tiny tables, minuscule plates, insulting noise levels, and uncomfortable everything? Hadn’t someone told him that old-time French style was about as hip as a dickey? And that Croque Madame and salad Niçoise were old hat by the Clinton era?
They may have told him, but we’re happy he didn’t listen. Instead, what he did was bring forth a drop-dead delicious ode to the golden era of brass, glass and béchamel-drenched sandwiches — hearty platters of wine-friendly food that many think went out of style with tasseled menus, but didn’t. It just took a break for a decade. With Bardot, the reasons all of these recipes became famous to begin with has come roaring back, to the delight of diners who want to be coddled and cosseted with cuisine, not challenged and annoyed. Mina had the prescience to know this, and also the good sense to hire Executive Chef Josh Smith to execute his vision. Smith is an American through and through, but obviously has a deep feeling for this food, and every night (and with the best weekend brunch in town) he proves why classics never go out style — and why overwrought, over-thought, multi-course tasting menus may soon go the way of the supercilious sommelier.
Make no mistake, Bardot Brasserie is a throwback restaurant. But this is a throwback that captures the heart and soul of real French food like none of its competition. It harkens to an age of comfort food from a country that pretty much invented it. What sets it apart is the attention to detail. Classics such as steak frites and quiche are clichés to be sure, but here they’re done with such aplomb you’ll feel like you’re on the Left Bank of Paris, only with better beef. The pâté de campagne (house-made country pâté) is a wondrous evocation of pressed pork of the richest kind, and the escargots in puff pastry show how a modern chef can update a classic without sacrificing the soul of the original recipe. The skate wing suffers not at all from being 6,000 miles from the Champs Elysee, and the lobster Thermidor — bathed in Béarnaise and brandy cream — is a glorious testament to the cuisine of Escoffier. Most of all, though, Bardot Brasserie is an homage to the great, homey restaurants of France. By going old school, Michael Mina has set a new standard in Franco-American style, and made us realize what we were missing all along. JC