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Desert Companion

2016 Restaurant Awards

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Bazaar Meat
Photography by Sabin Orr

Bazaar Meat's beefsteak tomato tartare, with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cucumbers and black olives.

Our judges

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 food store. His food writing appears in Vegas Magazine and Desert Companion.

Disclaimer: As you dig into our annual honor roll of the valley’s best chefs and restaurants this year, you’ll come across the words revolution, revolutionize and revolutionary a lot, and you’ll start to wonder whether we should get a better thesaurus. But here’s the thing: The words fit. From hidden corners of Chinatown to suburban strip malls to the fine dining citadels of The Strip, 2016 was, well, a year of culinary revolutions. Some restaurants pursued uncompromising purity and simplicity; others poured their energy into whimsical, rarefied invention; still others practiced a principled devotion to great food that appeals to real people. The 2016 Restaurant Awards mark a dining scene in happy tumult. Who knew revolution could taste so good? Curtas and Begley discuss the revolution on KNPR's State of Nevada.

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New Restaurant of the Year

Libertine Social

Sausage board with merguez hot link, bratwurst, and sauerkraut and peppers.

Libertine Social

Vegas needed a certain kind of restaurant in 2016 — bold, playful, irreverent — and Libertine Social is it

Libertine Social didn’t merely open this year — it blazed onto the dining scene in a surge of hype that was, for once, justified. It was a fitting way to start given the high-wattage personalities behind the project: The brain behind one of the most innovative haute-cuisine spots in town, Shawn McClain of Sage, teamed up with legendary mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim to fuse creative gastropub cuisine and world-class cocktails.

Petaluma chicken

Petaluma chicken with truffled potatoes and brussels sprouts.

It was an instant hit. Where else can you see a simple, fire-oven flatbread with country ham and pineapple on a menu alongside the “Modern Fried Egg,” a single eggshell cradling an emulsified corn pudding, sous-vide egg white foam and a dollop of American sturgeon caviar? The playful tension between the menu’s hearty eats and high-concept dishes is part of the fun, whether you’re noshing on grilled sausage, taking down a whole Petaluma chicken (roasted airline breasts and deboned, Kentucky-fried thighs), quivering in gastronomic pleasure from the perfect “Modern Fried Egg,” or digging into the “Zabuton” steak, which is braised for 24 hours, finished on an Argentine-style wood grill and topped with smoked onion petals and chimichurri. Libertine Social’s desserts, meanwhile, embody the whimsical interplay between food and drink, each based on the flavors of a classic cocktail, from the margarita donut to rye Manhattan bread pudding. (And speaking of its cocktails, the best place to enjoy them is at Libertine Social’s “Arcade Bar” tucked in the back of the main lounge, with its expanded menu of Abou-Ganim’s mind-bending drinks in an intimate setting.)

Libertine

All this dizzying culinary sophistication has a simple philosophical foundation. Libertine Social is the product of giving complete control to two trusted, proven visionaries who chop and stir to a credo of “If it tastes good, do it.” It’s a jaunty kickstart of the revitalization of Mandalay Bay’s rep as a dining destination, and it’s the restaurant Las Vegas needed — and, blessedly got — in 2016. MW

In Mandalay Bay

702-632-7200

mandalaybay.com

 

DEALicious Meal of the Year

Beef kabob at Pro Kabob Persian Cuisine

These perfectly cooked skewers sing with just the right amount of spice

Beef KabobYou might not be familiar with Afghani cuisine. But after a trip to Pro Kabob Persian Cuisine, you’ll soon be able to discern between chalaow and qalebi palao with the best of them — because I’m confident you’ll be making many return visits. The newly opened mom-and-pop operation focuses on skewers. And while there are multiple protein options, the hearty, cumin-laden beef kabobs rank among the best. Order them with the intensely addictive qalebi palao — a flavorful brown rice pilaf strewn with raisins and shredded carrots hearty enough to suffice as a meal unto itself — and you’ve got enough food for multiple meals. Explore the housemade sauces, as both the cilantro/vinegar chutney and spicy avocado complement the hearty beef chunks — and don’t overlook the shakers of sour grape powder whose tartness provides a foil to an otherwise earthy dish. While a kabob plate should suffice for all but the most voracious appetites, the mantu and boolani are also worthy of your time (and stomach space). Mantu are tender steamed beef dumplings served with a combination of yogurt and tomato sauces, while the boolani is a vegetable-stuffed flatbread. If you don’t have room for it all, trust me — you’ll be back. JB

3854 W. Sahara Ave.

702-586-9229

 

Pastry Chef of the Year

Nicole Erle at CUT

A spirit of surprise guides this master’s hand in creating desserts to remember

Nicole ErlePastry chefs are a beleaguered group these days. Between the corporate downsizing of the Great Recession and the rise of haute casual dining, employing a skilled technician to craft 50 to 100 plates of sweet, decadent artistry is a luxury few of them will spring for. It’s something of a dirty little secret these days that quite a few top-end restaurants now get their desserts wholesale rather than having them made to order. Swimming against this tide is the Wolfgang Puck family of restaurants. Every one of them employs a pastry chef, overseen by former Joël Robuchon pastry king Kamel Guechida, and because of this commitment, one of the best meat emporiums in the world also puts forth world-class desserts that, in some ways, outstrip the steaks.

Nicole Erle got her start baking cakes as a teenager in her mother’s kitchen. Most kids save money from their first job for a car or clothes; she bought a KitchenAid mixer. As a native of upstate New York, she easily found her way to the Culinary Institute of America teaching kitchens of Hyde Park, and then into the mass-production machinery of the MGM. A year of serving high rollers at The Mansion at the MGM got her noticed by Guechida, and before you can say crême brûlée, she was hand-tooling pastries for both Robuchon restaurants. Now, both of them have gone from refined French to the eclectic stylings of Puck, and Erle’s experience has paid off for diners who are looking for an eye-popping, fun and drop-dead delicious ending to their meal instead of same old-same old cheesecake.

Take, for example, Erle’s cheesecake. It’s the Picasso of cheesecakes, a deconstructed, cubist amalgam of molded rounds, off-center almond graham cracker and brown sugar ice cream. If ever there was evidence of how a talented artisan makes a ho-hum standard sing, this is it. Her Baked Pear is another wonder: a luscious Bosc surprisingly stuffed with sweet mascarpone cream, atop a pecan cake, accompanied by a perfect sorbet. “A lot of people are going very simple with their desserts these days,” she says. “I like to give the guests unexpected twists with the desserts we serve.” With that spirit of playful surprise, Nicole Erle helps CUT serve the best desserts of any steakhouse in Vegas. JC

In the Venetian

702-607-6300

wolfgangpuck.com

 

Chef of the Year

Wilfried Bergerhausen, Le Cirque

The restlessly innovative and cosmopolitan Bergerhausen is a chef Las Vegas can proudly call its own

Wilfried BergenhausenNaturally, Las Vegas is a magnetic market for celebrity chefs and top-tier culinary wizards. That’s wonderful, but when are we going to grow one we could call our very own? Very soon. We’re only now starting to see some promising names emerging on the Strip — talents that truly came into their own in Las Vegas — and the one who most deserves our attention is Wilfried Bergerhausen, executive chef at Le Cirque in Bellagio. Bergerhausen has true expertise, undeniable passion and a strikingly adept mind that appreciates the art and science of running a restaurant.

It’s fitting that Le Cirque is the proving grounds for Chef Bergerhausen; the Manhattan location has a reputation for debuting future stars, such as Daniel Boulud. But Bergerhausen’s education began long before Le Cirque; it’s no exaggeration to say that he was born and bred in the dining world. In the Cannes region of France, he had family in both front-of-house and back-of-house positions, and was surrounded by some of the finest restaurants in the world. His parents were lovers of both fine dining and art, exposing a young Wilfried to the great pedigree of French cuisine. At 14, he enrolled in the hands-on cooking program at Paul Augier in Nice, doing stints at Michelin-starred restaurants and coming to America to work at Jöel Robuchon. At 21, barely speaking a word of English, Bergerhausen became a sous chef and kitchen manager in the most prestigious restaurant in Las Vegas and, later, executive sous chef and chef de cuisine at Michael Mina in Bellagio. When Le Cirque’s then-Executive Chef Paul Lee left, Bergerhausen stepped in and immediately set to work making his mark.

We didn’t know what to expect — but our expectations were high, especially given that Bergerhausen had carte blanche and virtually unlimited resources to build his menu. Every dish on his debut fall 2014 menu was a resounding success, with standouts such as the fall salad: artichoke hearts, avocado, thin slices of aged Parmesan and Iberico ham, tossed in a light Dijon dressing and finished with finely grated foie gras. Every menu since has managed to be more exciting than the last, and a finer articulation of a New French aesthetic that might be called luxe experimental: Consider Bergerhausen’s gold-crusted, foie gras- and truffle-stuffed quail farci, or the soup of porcini cream, chestnut velouté, pickled beech mushrooms, confit egg, and watercress sponge cake. Chef Wilfried Bergerhausen represents a new and better breed of chef, a culinary adventurer ready to take any tools available to make life-changing experiences on a plate. MW

In the Bellagio

702-693-8100

bellagio.com

 

Signature Dish of the Year

Modern Fried Egg at Libertine Social

This unassuming appetizer stuns with multiple levels of texture and flavor

Modern fried eggChef Shawn McClain has a knack for signature dishes. His foie gras custard brûlée is one of our most iconic dishes in a city lacking a specific culinary identity. And with the opening of Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, McClain and executive chef Jamaal Taherzadeh have another destination dish on their hands with the humbly named Modern Fried Egg.

The Modern Fried Egg arrives unassumingly in an eggshell paired with a crisped, buttery brioche stick, but the dollop of American sturgeon caviar adorning the dish hints of something special. Lying beneath the salty roe is a duo of egg preparations — a fried egg white-foam and sea salt-laced sous vide egg yolk — layered atop sweet summer corn purée. So, begin digging with the demitasse spoon, making sure you get a spoonful of everything for a blissful amalgam of salty and sweet, while saving the brioche for cleanup duty. Because with this dish, you’ll want to sop up all you can from that deceptively humble eggshell. JB

In Mandalay Bay

702-632-7200

mandalaybay.com

 

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Eatt Healthy Food

This chef-driven eatery is leading the off-Strip foodie revolution

Buckwheat flour blinis with cured salmon, lemon cream and microgreens

Buckwheat flour blinis with cured salmon, lemon cream and microgreens

Scallops with swet potato puree mushroom, ravioli leek foam and lobster bisqueEatt is everything people say they want their eateries to be: casual, good, good for you and cheap. To be more specific, it is chef-driven, ingredient-focused, innovative, healthy, creative and delicious.

The three young Frenchmen running the place — Nicolas Kalpokdjian, Yuri Szarzewski and Vincent Pellerin — are doing what’s never been tried before in our neighborhoods: bringing great-tasting, healthful French food to the suburbs. Food as pretty as it is flavorful. Szarzewski oversees the veggies and proteins, Pellerin the sweets, and Kalpokdjian handles the front-of-the-house chores. Theirs is the passion of true believers — émigrés undaunted by those who would raise an eyebrow at the location (a graveyard of failed concepts), the name (shared, phonetically at least, with another local breakfast joint), and the simple audacity of trying to create finely tuned French food in franchise-land.

But they create just that every day at lunch and dinner, with such tantalizers as salmon blinis with caviar; burrata with pesto, mozzarella and candied tomatoes; and a lobster linguine of a richness and intensity I’ve never experienced before. Eatt’s signature dish might be strips of perfectly cooked Black Angus ribeye with ratatouille rolls, but these fellows lavish an equal amount of love on their beets and bean sprouts as they do on their chicken breast with green pea mousse.

The desserts are as shockingly good as the savories — and like nothing else Las Vegas has ever seen off the Strip. Whether it’s a textbook-perfect crème brûlée, or Pellerin’s updated take on Paris-Brest, or a pistachio dome filled with raspberry cream, these creations are second to none.

Black Angus beef with French ratatoulille rolls

Black Angus beef with French ratatoulille rolls

Eatt is remarkable for all of these things and more. It stands as further testament to Las Vegas’s maturation from a top-down, casino-driven restaurant scene to something much more organic: a restaurant by and for locals whose cuisine competes with anything on Las Vegas Boulevard South, at half the price. Long may its French flag fly. JC

7865 W. Sahara Ave.
#104-105

702-608-5233

eattfood.com

 

Appetizer of the Year

Bone marrow at Searsucker

This head-turning, hedonistic starter will satisfy the most primal appetites

Bone marrowForget those calcified butter medallions served with your complimentary breadbasket. For a hedonistic take on the traditional bread-and-butter formula, bone marrow is the spread of choice. At the local outpost of Searsucker, Chef Brian Malarkey’s New American restaurant chainlet, roasted beef bones undergo a show-stopping transformation from primal nasty bits to decadent — and, in our Instagram-crazed age, highly photogenic — starter. They’re as large as split fireplace logs, lacquered in a Fresno chili bourbon glaze and topped with a sweet, sour and sticky onion jam for an added boost of flavor. A bushel of fresh parsley lends a necessary brightness to prevent overkill. Scoop the warm and wobbly marrow from its natural vessel and slather it on crusty slices of grilled bread. It melts on contact, creating a luscious pool of fat that seeps into every last craggy crumb. A butcher’s cut that once literally went to the dogs has come a long way. DL

In Caesars Palace

702-866-1800

searsucker.com

 

Hall of Fame Award

Marché Bacchus

With its great wines, food and ambience, this lakeside bistro has become a fixture in valley food and wine culture

Smoked salmon with macaron

Smoked salmon with macaron

Truffled goat cheese NapoleonWhen Gregoire and Agathe Verge opened Marché Bacchus in Desert Shores in 1999, it created quite a stir in the local wine-drinking community. For the first time in Las Vegas history, a well-stocked wine shop — something of game-changer in its own right — was being combined with a casual French bistro, and the whole operation was located on a decidedly un-Vegasy artificial lake with a gorgeous outdoor patio. It didn’t take long for lovers of al fresco dining, French bistro cuisine and great wine at fair prices ($10 over retail) to start filling up the place. Before long, local chefs (especially French ones) adopted it as their hangout on their days off, and to this day, they and oenophiles from around the valley treat Marché Bacchus as something of a private club. When the Verges decided to sell in 2007, two of their best customers, Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt, were at the ready, and what they’ve done to the place has been a boon for lovers of fine food and even finer wines.

Executive Chef Jose Aleman

Executive Chef Jose Aleman

The allure of Marché Bacchus has always been that patio and the wine program. Basically, it’s an outdoor restaurant with a wine store attached to it. Or, if you prefer, it’s a wine store that happens to serve very good food. (Food that, by the way, is getting more assured and sophisticated under the consulting of Chef Luciano Pellegrini and Executive Chef Jose Aleman.) No matter what you call it, a stroll among the bottles on your way to your table is unavoidable, and anyone who can resist picking one to have with their meal is a stronger person than I.

Having weathered the Great Recession, the Wyatts have spent the past decade establishing Marché Bacchus as our number one neighborhood restaurant, a place so much a part of our food and wine culture that locals of all stripes now consider it their dining home away from home. In the process, they’ve also garnered national attention for their dynamic bistro on the lake, and these days you’ll find more than a few Strip tourists making the 13-mile trek up here to get a taste of what Vegas locals already know — that Marché (Mar-SHAY, as regulars call it) is one of our best and most beloved eating institutions. JC

2620 Regatta Drive #106

702-804-8008

marchebacchus.com

 

Asian Restaurant of the Year

Yui Edomae Sushi

Yui has done nothing less than transform the Vegas sushi experience

A Yui Chef's artistry favors simplicity and purity

A Yui Chef's artistry favors simplicity and purity

When master sushi chef Gen Mizoguchi opened Kabuto four years ago, he started to change the way Las Vegas eats sushi. When he opened Yui last year, he completed the revolution, taking the sushi experience back to its quintessentially Japanese purity and simplicity: raw fish impeccably sourced, minimally seasoned and expertly sliced, served the way they do in Japan, where a Zen-like communion between fish, chef and customer is sought with every bite; where you take your seat and choose between one or two omakase menus, and then watch while Gen-san and his chefs perform their artistry in monk-like silence.

Yui's grilled platter features a rotating mix of seafood

Yui's grilled platter features a rotating mix of seafood

Shigoku OystersYui is in an obscure location and impossible to see from the street — factors that lend just the right amount of Edomae (Tokyo-style) mystery to your experience. (Hunting for hidden restaurants is practically a national sport in Japan.) Don’t be intimidated, though. If you’re open to eating sushi the Japanese way, here you’ll have the greatest raw fish-eating experience in Las Vegas, and probably the best wagyu beef-eating one as well. (The A-5 wagyu served here, ordered off a special menu and grilled over binchotan charcoal, is the equal of anything you’ll find on the Strip.) What you get always depends on what’s been flown in that day from Japan or California. Fish you’ve likely never heard of (half-beak, aji mackerel, tilefish, gizzard shad, etc.) are interspersed with the traditional items (tuna in all its guises, uni, eel, salmon roe) in a delicate interplay of form, texture and accent. Some of it will be naked; some of it will be atop the best sushi rice you’ve ever tasted. All of it will be a revelation.

Yui isn’t for everyone. This is the sort of sophisticated seafood experience that sushi connoisseurs in Los Angeles have been going nuts over for 20 years. But thanks to Mizoguchi, we now have it in Las Vegas. And thanks to him, and those who have followed in his wake, our Japanese food scene has been revolutionized. JC

3460 Arville St. #HS

702-202-2408

yuisushi.com

 

Restaurateur of the Year

Cory Harwell at Carson Kitchen, Standard & Pour

He’s blazing a new trail in the dining scene — while honoring a legacy

Cory HarwellCory Harwell’s legacy is inextricably bound to that of the late, great Kerry Simon. Just as Simon broke new ground with his restaurants in the original Hard Rock Hotel and Palms Hotel and Casino, so did the two of them see gold in other hills when they formed the Simon Hospitality Group in 2012. Their partnership was based upon a love of refined, bold flavors in a laid-back setting — haute casual dining, if you will — and what Simon began in the late ’90s is now the template for thousands of gastropubs across the country. Both had the genius to spot an untapped market in Downtown Las Vegas in 2014, and what they accomplished there — and what Harwell has continued to do since Simon’s passing last year — is remarkable, both for the level of success achieved and as an object lesson for ambitious chefs looking to spread their wings.

Calling Carson Kitchen a trailblazer is an understatement. It not only blazed a trail, it started a revolution. There are at least a dozen great spots to eat in Downtown now, all of which owe a debt of gratitude to the vision of Cory and Kerry. Sadly, by the time Carson Kitchen launched in mid-2014, Simon’s waning health forced him to cede the reigns to Harwell, but under his guidance, this little 50-seat powerhouse has redefined the Downtown eating and drinking scene. Lunch or dinner, day or night, this place dazzles a full house with its veal meatballs, bacon jam and outstanding cocktails.

With the Downtown gamble having paid off, Harwell set his sights this year on Henderson, a place not exactly known for seasonal, chef-driven cuisine. Harwell calls Standard & Pour a gastro-lounge with a feminine touch, but to people eating there it’s drop-your-fork delicious. Not content to revolutionize the restaurant world in two formerly taste-challenged ZIP codes, he’s currently building a temple to the street food of Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea, in yet another forlorn area of town (near east Charleston), where he hopes to ignite in others a passion for eating in the alleyways of Asia. If he succeeds in reviving three formerly moribund neighborhoods through great food, Harwell’s reputation as a culinary pioneer will be unmatched by any chef or restaurateur, on or off the Strip. In the process, he has done Kerry Simon’s legacy proud and created a new gastronomic one for all of Las Vegas. JC

Carson Kitchen

124 S. 6th St. #100

702-473-9523

carsonkitchen.com

 

Standard & Pour

11261 S. Eastern Ave. #200

702-629-5523

standardandpourlv.com

 

Dessert of the Year

Bananas à la Rum at Carbone

This sweet closer showcases old-school flair from new-school chefs

Dessert of the YearCo-chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi are masters at modernizing old-school dining. Carbone, their upscale Italian-American restaurant in New York City, opened a second location at Aria last year, and its arrival was a no-brainer. From start to finish, it offers the kind of meal that suits our town’s Rat Pack-loving, high-roller set. Take the bananas à la rum, which doesn’t need fancy-schmancy foams or powders, exotic foraged ingredients or outrageous architectural plate-up to earn its honors. All it takes are simple ingredients and a little showmanship. A tableside preparation of bananas and booze by a tuxedo-clad waiter brings flair (and towering flames) to your final course. The fire-kissed fruit is plated before your eyes in a decorative coupe glass with scoops of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of crushed amaretti cookies for a little crunch.  Consider it a sundae fit for the likes of Frank Sinatra. DL

In the Aria, 877-230-2742, aria.com

 

Restaurant of the Year

Bazaar Meat

It’s so much more than a steakhouse. It’s a laboratory of tireless culinary imagination

The "Foiffle," an air waffle with foie gras espuma

The "Foiffle," an air waffle with foie gras espuma

Tableside preparation of Bazaar Meat's classic tartareCalling Bazaar Meat a great steakhouse does it an injustice. It’s a great steakhouse in the same way Las Vegas is a great place to play blackjack — that’s true, but it doesn’t tell even half the story. Bazaar Meat in the SLS is a meat emporium, featuring the finest proteins on earth, but so much more. It is also a first-class seafood parlor, a den of molecular gastronomy, a marvel of mixology, and a wine bar par excellence. It can be a place to eat the finest hams on the planet or a bevy of small plates at the bar. Or, if all you want is some grilled live scallops and a dozen oysters, make yourself at home. Have an appetite for an entire roast baby pig? No problem. Well-aged steaks? They’ve got you covered. Here you can get beef aged on or off the hoof — meat from older cows being the au courant thing to eat in the steak world these days. Perhaps you just want to graze on tapas, both new- and old-school. Then get ready to chow down on playful croquetas de pollo (served in a glass shoe), or “foiffles” — air waffles with foie gras espuma so light you’re afraid they might float off the plate.

A steak sizzles on the grill in the "fire pit."

A steak sizzles on the grill in the "fire pit."

Jose Andres is not reckless. He knew when he opened Bazaar Meat two years ago that Vegas is a steakhouse town. He also knew that combining crowd-pleasing steaks with multiple tastes of Spain was something no one in Sin City had tried. His genius lies in recognizing these things and pulling off what no one (myself included) thought he could. In the process, he’s garnered international recognition for his restaurant and raised the bar for steakhouses everywhere — a bar that, in Las Vegas, was pretty high to begin with. If anyone had told me five years ago that a Spanish steakhouse would make it in Las Vegas, I would’ve told them they were crazy. When Jose told me that I’d be just as wowed by his traditional tortilla sacramonte, roasted turbot and tomato tartare as I would be by his prime beef, I told him he was loco. These days, I tell the world that Bazaar Meat might be the best steakhouse in America. JC

In the SLS

702-761-7610

slslasvegas.com