Desert Companion

The Desert Companion 15th Annual Restaurant Awards

We bet you’ve got quite an appetite right about now. After all, 2011 was a year of hard work, hunkering down, and holding on beneath thundercloud headlines about halting recovery and slow economic comeback. It was no less true in the valley’s restaurants. With scant splashy new arrivals on the dining scene — and some sad, surprising closures of some local mainstays — continued excellence under pressure was the dish du jour.

That means our Restaurant Awards panel — made up of respected dining critics Max Jacobson, Al Mancini and Brock Radke — had a tough job. But that’s good news. It means that even in dark times, Las Vegas continues to be a nexus of culinary talent that gives our critics migraines when it comes time to have to decide who’s the best.

Here are the fruits of their labor. Pull up a seat and dig in to our 15th Annual Restaurant Awards.


Cocktail bar of the year

Vanguard Lounge

516 Fremont St. | 868-7800,

The urban-artsy Vanguard Lounge emits a frequency that welcomes those looking for a laid-back experience that disguises how carefully curated it is — an experience that confuses plastic guitar drink-strapped tourists who’ve strayed across Las Vegas Boulevard. It is the one spot you cannot miss on what has become Vegas’ essential bar crawl — the Fremont East Entertainment District. There is something for every drinker on this block, but all the best cocktails are at Vanguard.

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The space is narrow and big city-ish, there’s loud music late at night and a mini-patio for observing the creeping humanity of downtown. There’s nothing pretentious about Vanguard but the drinks are all class, sips that change with seasons and never disappoint. Bar manager Nathan Greene has been around since the joint opened last fall, quietly perfecting sweet and savory concoctions that balance with a rounded selection of unique brews and boutique wines.

This team does classics like Negronis and daiquiris as well as any spot in town, and twists up a few; for instance, Vanguard’s Aviation uses black tea-infused gin and subs a Chinese five spice citrus cordial for lemon juice. Try not to latch onto just one of the bar’s original creations, like the Broken Neck, a honey-lemon-white whiskey composition. Vanguard cocktails are good as gold, so evaluate the opportunity cost of choosing a favorite. — Brock Radke


Bartender of the year

Rebecca Ahnert Hayden

Fleur by Hubert Keller Inside Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S., |

Bartender of the yearWhile local mixologists have spent the past several years re-discovering “classic cocktails,” Rebecca Ahnert Hayden has marched to her own drummer — looking forward instead of back. Her bar at Fleur, where she’s designed many of the signature cocktails, is the only one in town to work with liquid nitrogen. (Bartenders use it to mix up deliciously creamy frozen drinks tableside in a cloud of sub-zero smoke.) And specialties, available frozen or traditionally, include the sparkling peach blossom, a blood orange margarita and the classic Fleurtini, made with Grey Goose, pomegranate, sour apple and prosecco.

“Even though Hubert (Keller) is fine dining, you need to take into consideration that there are people who are in Las Vegas who don’t care about classic cocktails — they think they’re disgusting,” she explains. “So I try to keep things very approachable. And I like to do bright, fun colors.”

In addition to mixing up great drinks, Ahnert Hayden is one of those classic bartenders who’s also a great conversationalist; perhaps that explains why she met her husband while she was behind the bar. She’s currently working on a book that pairs her favorite recipes with accompanying stories from a career spent pouring drinks. But she’s more than happy to share some of those tales for free with anyone sitting at her bar. And trust me, she’s got some good ones. — Al Mancini


Small PlatesFood Trend of the year

Small plates

Small plate dining, an often multicultural extrapolation on the Spanish tapas trend, has rapidly eked out a home on the Strip, perhaps epitomized best in the refashioning of Hubert Keller’s brilliant Fleur de Lys dining room into just Fleur, an upbeat space with a globally inspired menu of delectable micro-munches. It seems like everyone’s gotten into the act of making a meal out of appetizers. José Andrés has two small plate emporiums at The Cosmopolitan, and even Wynn made room for La Cave, an intimate wine and nosh bar. The trend has been booming in our neighborhoods, too, crystallized when the original Vegas tapas joint, Firefly, opened its ragingly popular location in Summerlin. But slinging bacon-wrapped dates isn’t the only way to small plate success; worthy new ethnic eateries such as Nittaya’s (Thai), Forte (Eastern European) and Kyara (Japanese) are all riding the wave. — B.R.


Ethnic RestaurantEthnic Restaurant of the year


4180 S. Rainbow Blvd. | 220-3876,

Forte doesn’t serve just a single type of ethnic cuisine. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of some of the most unique types of cooking available in Las Vegas. The sign on the door calls it a European tapas restaurant — and certainly, there are plenty of traditional Spanish tapas on the menu. But Bulgarian-born Nina Manchev has also brought the recipes of her native country — as well as Russia, Georgia and Croatia — to the west side of town. In addition, she’s tapped her well-traveled father Stephan to oversee the kitchen, to assure they’re all prepared authentically.

The atmosphere is eclectic and hip. Manchev is an artist, and her own works adorn the dark walls. An Eastern European music video channel is usually on TV. And the crowd is a mix of expatriates and Vegas foodies from all walks of life. (Some might argue the décor lost a touch of its charm when they replaced the original beat-up thrift store furniture with new tables. But hey, the new ones don’t wobble.)

The menu is heavy on meats, sausages and dumplings. But many of the dishes are surprisingly light and delicate, defying the stereotype of Eastern European cooking. The food is best enjoyed family-style, at reasonable prices that allow large parties to sample a little bit of everything. There are several standout dishes, but no trip here is complete without adjarski khachapurri: a large bread boat filled with bubbling cheese and a fried egg. And while there are some great imported beers, don’t leave without sampling a few of the homemade flavored vodkas and brandies. — A.M.


"Dealicious" meal of the year


5030 Spring Mountain Road #6,

The best soul food in Las Vegas is Japanese. I hope that’s not offensive or blasphemous. No disrespect to your favorite fried chicken joint. It’s just that “soulful” is the perfect descriptor for a bowl of noodles so simple yet so sophisticated, flavors so clean and precise, a dish simultaneously exotic and reassuringly homey. I never planned to attach such emotion to lunch, but I believe we are all in love with the ramen at Monta Japanese Noodle House.

Take your seat at the bar in this tiny Chinatown treasure. You can choose from pork bone (tonkotsu), chicken-vegetable (shoyu) or miso broth as the perfect base for a mountainous portion of fresh, hand-pulled noodles and two slices of buttery chashu (roasted pork). Impossibly, it’s about $7. Splurge if you must, and drop a couple more bucks for toppings such as extra chashu, hard-boiled egg, sweet corn, tangy kimchi or wonderfully bitter mustard leaf. Simple ingredients for a simple soup, but it’s sublime eating, with so much soul. — B.R.


SommelierSommelier of the year

John Burke

Prime inside Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 693-8865,

When you enter the stylish Prime Steakhouse by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Bellagio, you might marvel at the way that brown and light blue blend together seamlessly in the room, or the Lichtenstein tapestry on the back wall in the private room. This is the domain of John Burke, sommelier here for 13 years. In fact, he’s been here since the place opened its doors to rave reviews back in 1998 — and it’s still going very strong, thanks in part to him. Burke built the wine list of this temple of great meat to match the foods served here — all simple, strong dishes and, of course, steak. His tenacity and dedication in creating this eclectic list was sparked by a simple desire: to sell some great bottles of wine to go on the tables. Indeed, Burke’s charisma and authority is such that he does not come to a table and leave without diners ordering at least a couple bottles. It’s no surprise, then, that Prime had the biggest wine program in any one single restaurant in the United States by 2001, generating more than $6 million in revenue just in wine. This made Burke the favorite sommelier of movie stars, sports celebrities and moguls alike. Early on, he would personally handle the wine service for Steve Wynn when on the premises.

But he’s here for us, too. When you go to dinner at Prime, you ask for John Burke, because you know he always has something special for you. — Gil Lempert-Schwarz


Gil Lempert-Schwarz is a wine consultant and wine journalist based in Las Vegas.


Pastry ChefPASTRY Chef of the year

Megan Romano

Aureole Inside Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S., | 632-9400,

In a restaurant known to tourists for gymnastic “wine angels,” beautiful swans and Charlie Palmer’s classic cuisine, Megan Romano has quietly earned a reputation among local foodies as one of America’s best pastry chefs. And while she’s worked faithfully for Palmer since Aureole opened in 1999, she’s also used that reputation to build a small empire that includes her own line of desserts and a cookbook, “It’s a Sweet Life.” In fact, she parted company with Aureole last month to continue building her empire — this time in the form of a new local pastry shop she plans to open in January. There, she's sure to maintain her commitment to treating dessert as an integrated and essential part of every meal.

“I don’t want it to be such a break from the appetizer and entrée,” Romano explains. “There’s really no reason someone should say ‘No’ to dessert.”

Aureole's offerings include classics such as crème brûlée, decadent bon-bons and luscious fruit dishes. Does Romano have a favorite?

“I work with a lot of chocolate lately,” she says. “And I love that because it’s just a neat medium. It’s pretty intense. So we play around with a lot of layers of chocolate — with teas and citrus. But honestly, what I like to eat is clean, crisp, clear flavors that aren’t muddied.”

Regardless of what style dessert you order, Romano says she’s always hoping for the same result. “My best compliment is ‘Yum!’ That’s what I want you to say.” — A.M.


SurpriseSURPRISE of the year

Korean Barstaurant

7775 S. Rainbow Blvd. #105 | 897-7696

Korean food hasn’t quite spread to Vegas from the Left Coast in the same way that Chinese food has, although we do have a Korean food court at the Greenland Market and occasional flashes of brilliance at places such as Honey Pig. However, Soyo, which bills itself as a “barstaurant,” stands up to any good eatery in L.A.’s sprawling Koreatown, which is why it has to be considered such a major surprise.

The décor features muted colors and booths carved cannily into the walls. Cooking is done in the kitchen, not at table, and many of these dishes are designed to make you drink. Kim’chi pancake, a thin crêpe with a persistent crunch, and mandu, that’s fried dumplings to us, both offer any dedicated barfly an excuse to drink. Other dishes not to miss are soon du bu, soft, silky tofu, a suspension with the texture of crème brûlée, and some of the best fried chicken in the city, laced with hot spices. — Max Jacobson


AppetizerAppetizer of the year

Cheese plate

Vintner Grill 10100 W. Charleston Blvd. | 214-5590,

Yes, we know the French prefer their cheese before, or in lieu of, dessert. But there are times when we Americans like to enjoy a cheese plate at the start of the meal — particularly if it’s paired with some nice cured meats (or as the French say, charcuterie). There’s no better place to do that than Vintner Grill. Chef Matt Silverman is a serious cheese connoisseur who recently took his cheese program to another level by making his own. Using milk from local suppliers, he ages it on premises in a special refrigerator. Given the small quantities he produces, supplies vary. But he recently had nine different house-made varieties on his menu. His chèvre (goat cheese) and his Roquefort are both surprisingly mild. The truffled ricotta is creamy and earthy. And an espresso-crusted goat cheese with a thin layer of cocoa powder is unlike anything you’ve ever had before. The best part: You can take home a wheel of your favorite. — A.M.


Signature DishSignature dish of the year

Kusshi oysters with tabasco sorbet

Sage Inside Aria at CityCenter, 3730 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 230-2742,

Shawn McClain’s Sage is one of the true originals of the Strip, a bona fide American restaurant that serves dishes that reflect both the skill and the aesthetic of the chef. McClain’s cooking is confident and creative. Witness dishes such as his Wagyu beef tartare garnished with slow-poached egg, crushed caper aioli and crisp chocolate wafer, or a note-perfect Iberico pork loin with milk-braised cannellini, baby eggplant, and boutique Italian mortadella, and you’ll get the idea.

But it is his Kusshi oysters with Tabasco sorbet — five delicate, buttery bites perfectly offset by the acidity in the sorbet — that we always come back to. These perfect little bivalves hail from the icy waters of British Columbia, and their sweet complexity is the perfect metaphor for the chef’s approach to cooking. — M.J.


DessertDessert of the year

Bread pudding

Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse
Inside the Golden Nugget, 129 E. Fremont St. |

Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse doesn’t get much ink because it’s downtown, but it has set a high standard that Oscar Goodman’s new steakhouse at the Plaza should strive for. It has a retro feel, courtesy of a stained glass skylight and amber-colored chandeliers shaped like giant starfish, not to mention a gallery of black and white snaps of old Vegas. Say, isn’t that Elvis standing toe to toe with Liberace?

The crab cake here is killer, and the steaks are fine, too, but the real reason to come is for their brioche bread pudding, two warm, egg-rich slabs of pure heaven alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, served in a pastry tuile. This bread pudding might not be the visual stunner that you’ll find at a place like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, but it has a solid, down-home appeal, and is the best way to end a traditional meal here. — M.J.

Neighborhood restaurant of the year

Neighborhood Restaurant of the year

Marché Bacchus

2620 Regatta Drive #106 | 804-8008,

Once the city’s best kept suburban secret, Marché Bacchus is now a regular winner in this category, but this year is different. It would have been totally acceptable for owners Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt to rest on their restaurant’s reputation as a charming, tasty French bistro with an impeccable (and affordable) wine selection. But since they took the reins in 2007, the energetic couple has never stopped to rest, constantly renovating the food and remodeling the beloved lakeside experience.

In 2011 they made big moves with perfect timing. The great Alex Stratta was hired as consulting chef in May, and his protégé Joe Swan took charge in the kitchen. The result was a finely sharpened menu improving the dishes favored by regulars who storm the lake for dinner, brunch, or both in one weekend. Seared duck breast is moister. Steak is richer, frites are crispier. And there are more tables on that hotly requested patio. (More change: Swan moved to Ohio in October, so Stratta and Marché Bacchus rebounded by adding former Scarpetta and Alex chef David Middleton.)

All this effort explains why, when Rosemary’s Restaurant closed in July — easily the most beloved off-Strip culinary casualty of the times — many Summerlin diners just penciled in Marché Bacchus as their favorite neighborhood joint. But lots of us were already there, sipping a glass of Bordeaux, enjoying a baguette and watching the geese float by. — B.R.

Management and ServiceExcellence in Management and Service

Michael Mina

Inside Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 693-8255,

If quality and consistency are the hallmarks of a great kitchen, then the front of the house is distinguished by attention to detail, teamwork and attitude. Nothing is more annoying than an indifferent welcome at the front podium of a restaurant, a felony compounded by a staff that has little or no knowledge of the menu.

You won’t have these objections at Michael Mina, where veteran General Manager Jorge Pagani, who has been at the helm since the very beginning, has an expertly trained group of servers, bus people and hostesses there to cater to any customer’s potential need.

Team members such as Master Sommelier Joe Phillips and Brazilian server Marcio Silva have insider knowledge of the wine list and menu, respectively. Assistant GM Roberto Liendo, another Brazilian, who has also worked here from the very beginning, keeps a sharp eye on all the employees, making sure there isn’t an empty water or wine glass in the house, or an unsatisfied guest at check time. — M.J.


Chef of the yearCHEF of the year

Grégory Pugin

Le Cirque Inside Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. |  693-8100,

Le Cirque Le Cirque is a culinary institution. For more than three decades in Manhattan and 13 years at Bellagio, the name has been synonymous with classic French dining. Chefs have come and gone, many of them superstars. Yet Le Cirque has always been a constant, refusing to follow fads or trends. But over the past year, Grégory Pugin has breathed new life into the restaurant, making it more relevant than it’s been in years while still respecting its unique place in culinary history.

Trained in France under Chef Jean-Marie Gautier, Pugin went on to open eight restaurants for Chef of the Century Joel Robuchon. Later, at New York’s Veritas, he earned a Michelin star in 2009 and a Rising Star Chef of the Year nomination from the James Beard Foundation. Bellagio brought him to town in 2010, and charged him with making Le Cirque more approachable and contemporary.

“Grégory was given carte blanche,” says Bellagio’s Director of Service Dominique Bertolone.

What Pugin did with that freedom was institute two separate menus. Longtime fans of the restaurant can still order classics like escargot, Dover sole and the famed Rabbit Symphony. But the chef’s seasonal choices rely on familiar proteins prepared with a modern fine-dining flair – like his langoustine with caviar and apple-vodka gelee, and his oxtail bucatini.

“They are two different types of cuisine,” Pugin says. “There are old-school dishes that our customers still appreciate. And my dishes are a little bit more contemporary. However, they blend pretty well in the menu. And it gives our guests alternatives.” — A.M.


Restaurant of the year

Restaurant of the year

Comme Ça

Inside The Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S. | 698-7910,

Maybe you haven’t yet tasted the best house-made charcuterie on the Strip, or the brilliant egg-topped steak tartare in a jar. Maybe you haven’t lunched on the terrace overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard, wolfing down a BLT made with luscious pork belly. Maybe you haven’t plunked down at the comfy bar and dabbled with the creative Prohibition-era cocktail list, and then, when you’ve had too many, indulged in perhaps the greatest bar snack of all time: roasted bone marrow with rich oxtail jam.

If you haven’t done these things at Comme Ça, transplanted from Los Angeles to The Cosmopolitan by David Myers, then sure, maybe you’re surprised it’s our Restaurant of the Year. But the truth is this modern brasserie is pitch-perfect right now for the ever-changing Vegas dining universe. It’s a satisfying spin on the world’s greatest cuisine. Its modular design provides experiences both casual and formal, taking apart the question of fine dining. It’s a foodie haven and a specialty eatery while remaining approachable and affordable. In the small, exciting stable of restaurants the year-old Cosmo has unleashed upon us, Comme Ça is the most versatile, warm and welcoming. It confounds no one but pleases us all.

Credit goes to Myers, Cosmo’s John Unwin and his F&B team, and executive chef Brian Howard, a young Vegas veteran who was tasked with turning things around when, unlike the resort, the restaurant started slow. To say Howard and his crew have hit their stride would be an understatement; Comme Ça is a hit in every way. — B.R.

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