The 17th Annual Desert Companion Restaurant Awards
The post-bubble economy may have inspired a new embrace of comfort food and casual fare but, thankfully, some chefs realized that not all of us need a celebrity-branded gourmet burger to heal our souls. Come on: Thrill us! They did. How do you sum up a year that brought us steampunk restaurants, remixed steakhouses and Asian flavors to challenge adventurous palates? It feels like 2013 was the year when restaurants on and off the Strip started pushing the limits again — whether it was with whimsical ideas, classic concepts refreshed or all the different things you can do with squid. Variety, as ever, remains the spice of life — and it’s a key ingredient in our 2013 Restaurant Awards.
Downtown Cocktail Room
This studious young expert has a thirst for cocktail perfection — and, yes, he knows the story behind your favorite drink.
So, how do you become a great bartender? Sure, you can bone up on the Mr. Boston guide, get your TAM card and a gig next to the beer taps but, really, there’s no set curriculum that will turn you into an expert. Kevin Gorham got there by “doing everything else you can do in a restaurant” before he began barbacking at Downtown Cocktail Room — and there found his calling.
“I read everything I could about the craft of the cocktail,” he says. “I’d memorize recipes and how each ingredient blended. I tasted and mixed everything behind the bar multiple times.” He practiced on his own time and shadowed the full-time bartenders, developing a vast knowledge of liquors — not just their tastes, but the stories behind them. He can make a vintage-New Orleans Ramos Gin Fizz that will knock your proverbial socks off, rattling the shaker for several minutes while telling you about the legendary saloon that had a dozen bartenders whose sole job was to pass and shake a shiny carafe of gin fizzes. He can also throw together an exotic invention at a moment’s notice, as one flavor leads to another. “It was busy and we had just gotten in Zucca — it’s an Italian liqueur made out of Chinese rhubarb,” he recalls of one such creation. “I added a little splash of Scotch to pair with the woodiness, a little Campari for citrus but not too much, bitters …”
Not that it’s simply alchemy. A good bartender also knows your name, your drink, notices that you got your hair cut and orders you chicken fingers from the pizzeria around the corner. Jeremy Merritt, now director of beverage and training at Future Restaurant Group, feels that Gorham can maintain the Downtown Cocktail Room tradition from both angles. “He can create to the individual palate, he’s got a diverse knowledge of flavor and mixability ... also, patience behind the stick with all customers and situations.” That means quizzing new customers to find them the perfect drink as well as knowing just how a regular likes her usual — and always being on the lookout for a new way to mix. “There are no limits,” Gorham says, “if you know how they blend together.” — Lissa Townsend Rodgers
111 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 880-3696, thedowntownlv.com
Cocktail bar of the year
How did this Arts District bar become so beloved? Graceful,dazzling, lovingly precise cocktails
Some cocktail lounges shift focus to the wrong end of the equation — all atmosphere and clientele and vibe, with a few fancy bevvies to keep the shakers shiny. But at Velveteen Rabbit, the cocktails are front and center, discovered, perfected and finally spotlit like MGM starlets.
The bartenders have a graceful touch with the classics — a gimlet is expertly balanced, icy-cold and served in a stainless steel coupe that maintains the chill and adds a fillip of Holy Grail glamour. But Velveteen Rabbit truly dazzles with its house cocktails, a seasonal menu of exotic libations unlike what you’ll find anywhere else — from the served-in-a-teacup Moon Shine to the Mezcal-and-Rye Spaceship to the now-legendary whiskey/Bukowski homage, Crucifix in a Deathhand.
Velveteen Rabbit is less than a year old, but is already a well-loved mainstay of Downtown and its denizens. “We’ve been so well-received. People are excited to come here, they’re excited when they see we have a new menu,” says Pamela Dylag, who co-owns and runs the bar with her sister, Christina. Their success came as a bit of a surprise. “We didn’t expect it. The day before we opened, I was having a nervous breakdown: Are people gonna like this?”
They certainly do, and the Rabbit draws regulars who live and work in the neighborhood, as well as visitors from Henderson, Summerlin and far further environs. Even during a weekend rush, the cocktails are always made to exacting standards, regardless of earthly pressures. “It’s about consistency,” Dylag says. “We do the recipes over and over, we measure everything, even the small stuff. ... Then muscle memory kicks in.” A clientele that comes for the exaltation and the exhilaration of the cocktail gets that Benedictine honey syrup and curry bitters involve more care than a blue daiquiri from a hose. “It can get three people deep,” she says, “but people are patient. They understand that it takes a little more time to make our drinks.”
— Lissa Townsend Rodgers
1218 S. Main St., 685-9645
Shrimp toast and Grandma’s pot stickersat Fat Choy
Two appetizers we heartily encourage you to fill up on
Tucked away in the Eureka Casino, Sheridan Su’s Fat Choy is a bastion of DEALicous dining (see what we did there?). While the whole menu is reasonably priced for sizable portions, my favorites are a pair of appetizers you can make a meal out of: Grandma’s pot stickers and shrimp toast.
Fat Choy’s Grandma’s pot stickers ($6) are the valley’s best gyoza; with daily housemade wrappers pan-seared to a point of crispness, crunchy outer shells give way to a moist pork-and-chive filling. Accompanied by an addictive chile and shallot soy dipping sauce, every meal should include some of Grandma’s love. No less artful and addictive is the shrimp toast ($8). The dish combines lap cheong (Chinese sausage), minced shrimp, a drizzle of Sriracha mayo and a fried egg atop a piece of white toast in a nod to a traditional East Coast dish certainly worth scheduling around. — Jim Begley
In the Eureka Casino, 595 E. Sahara Ave., 794-3464, fatchoylv.com
Pork belly bites at Ogden’s Hops & Harvest
Over bacon? Twists like this prove that the porcine delight has plenty of mileage left
Bacon. Make fun of it if you like, snobby eater, call it a trendy, over-used ingredient ... but you know you love it. We all do. And we never really get sick of tasting new takes. It comes as no surprise that when truly great chefs — Bradley and Bryan Ogden — apply their refined culinary approach to bar-friendly comfort food, something great happens. Apply it to bacon, and you have these addictive, crunchy-fatty morsels, sweet and slightly spicy with a barely-there Chinese barbecue influence. When this dish launched, the brilliant bacon bites were served with a decadent beer-cheese sauce for dipping. The accompaniment has evolved into blue cheese and shaved celery, quite the lighter touch. It’s an advantage, really, because now you can feel better about having a second order. — Brock Radke
In Tivoli Village, 450 S. Rampart Blvd. #120, 476-3964, hopsandharvestlv.com
Black cod with miso at Nobu
Many restaurants have copied this iconic dish, but the original is still the best
Twenty years after the first Nobu opened in New York, it’s easy to forget what a huge influence it had on Japanese cuisine. In fact, many of the restaurant’s signature dishes have been copied so frequently, many forget where they originated. With the opening of the new Nobu hotel tower at Caesars Palace — which hosts the largest Nobu restaurant in the world — it’s a perfect time to go back and rediscover the classics. There’s no better place to start than with the black cod with miso. The chef marinates a thick slice of this rich, succulent fish in sake, miso paste and sugar overnight before cooking it in a brick oven. The result is a silky-smooth, slightly sweet treat. Despite all of the imitations available across the country, none compares to the original. — Al Mancini
In Caesars Palace, 785-6628
Butterscotch and bacon pot de crème with chocolate-dipped bacon at Comme Ça
Judicious use of that magic ingredient (hint: oink!) makes for a surprisingly complex dish
While the bacon craze has arguably gone the way of Arthur Fonzarelli and the great white, its occasional use is always welcome because, well, it’s bacon. Exhibit A: Comme Ça’s butterscotch and bacon pot de crème with chocolate-dipped bacon, in which Executive Chef Brian Howard demonstrates restraint in using the swine judiciously while still highlighting it. First unveiled as a part of his event, Brian’s Bacon Extravaganza in celebration of August’s National Bacon Day, the dessert was so well-received it found its rightful place on the regular menu. An amalgamation of sweet and meat highlighted by undertones of saltiness, the pot de crème itself is memorable. Coupled with chocolate-dipped bacon, the dish is practically unfair. Instead of having to wait for the annual event, you can sample the treat on a more regular basis — daily, maybe? — Jim Begley
In The Cosmopolitan, 698-7910, commecarestaurant.com
Amid the new wave of Japanese cuisine, Kyara continues to innovate and intrigue
Kyara Japanese Tapas opened in 2011 to strong reviews in the midst of the burgeoning Japanese dining scene. While the wave has settled, the valley’s Japanese cuisine continues to impress, and Kyara remains at the forefront. In the early days, Naked Fish and Kyara owner/head chef Yasou Komada seemed to split time between the two restaurants; over the past year, he’s been a fixture in Kyara’s open kitchen, and good dishes are just that much better. Presentation is impeccable, whether you’ve ordered a whole fried fish off the daily specials board or an artistic sashimi selection, while the robatayaki — skewers grilled over Japanese charcoal — are infused with perfect char. And their selection of Japanese libations — including shochus, sakes and whiskeys — remains unparalleled. While you’ll find some standard dishes, what’s most remarkable about Kyara are the outliers, dishes you rarely encounter. Yamaimo somen is finely shaved Japanese yam served in an almost savory dashi broth. Though it looks like a cold noodle soup, the dish provides a surprising amount of texture with underlying umami. The sharp and creamy blue cheese potato salad is a surprising find for a Japanese menu, while housemade ika no shiiokara — essentially fermented squid guts — is surprising on any menu. And don’t overlook the housemade desserts, which include airy tofu and yuzu cheese mousses, green tea waffles and a well-balanced chocolate fondant. While Japanese restaurants aren’t necessarily known for dessert offerings, these are eye-opening — just like Kyara itself. — Jim Begley
6555 S. Jones Blvd., 434-8856, kyaraizakaya.com
Neighborhood restaurant of the year
Chada Thai & Wine
This innovative Chinatown upstart deserves all the national attention it gets
Chinatown consistently provides the buzziest restaurants. Have you been to that new joint on Spring Mountain? It seems there’s always another izakaya or noodle shop popping up, arousing near-equal interest from local foodies and Asian tourists sneaking off the Strip. You can see that oddly comfortable blend in so many hot spots around here, proving that as far as restaurants go, Chinatown is everyone’s neighborhood. Chada Thai is one of these places. On any given night you might find visiting celebrity chefs competing for a table with pre-clubbers or wide-eyed suburbanites, browsing the diverse wine list for just the right bottle. Serious eaters and drinkers know Bank Atcharawan from his time at Lotus of Siam and couldn’t wait to sample the goods at his own place, edgy, intense fare like crab-ginger-coconut lettuce wraps laced with chili and lime, or fried Cornish hen with garlic. In its first year, Chada earned national nods from Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. When’s the last time a neighborhood restaurant in Las Vegas pulled that off? Yet even with the early accolades and word-of-mouth recommendations, there’s still a sense this place has yet to be truly discovered. Maybe it’s because there are so many amazing dishes still to be experienced, no matter how many return visits: rich, spicy panang curry with chunks of meltingly tender beef; a stir-fry of mushrooms, lotus root and Brussels sprouts; fiery duck fried rice with a sour tang from fish sauce; or braised pork belly with black soy sauce. Welcome to the neighborhood. — Brock Radke
3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A, 641-1345, chadavegas.com
New Restaurant of the Year
Rx Boiler Room
Sure, the steampunk theme is clever. Beyond the cogs and beakers, however, churns a perfect flavor machine
Much has been made of the theme of Rick Moonen’s new casual eatery, which is the most original concept to hit the Strip in years. But this isn’t some cliquey clubhouse reserved for devotees of the steampunk fad. The purpose behind Rx Boiler Room’s theme is to encourage a childhood sense of wonder with mechanics and classic science fiction, laced with a dose of good old-fashioned fun. The room is decorated with glass skulls, sequined animal heads and plush couches. Jules Verne films run on video monitors. Bartenders tend to bubbling potions. And the drop-dead-gorgeous waitstaff is decked out in Victorian corsets. “Everybody that walks into this restaurant is intrigued by the way it looks,” Moonen says.
In other words, the decor is merely prepping your palate for the real source of intrigue and wonder: the food. Rx Boiler Room’s menu features some of the most original and playful creations in town. Who else but Moonen (aided by skilled Executive Chef John Church) could create such mischievously delicious dishes as bacon-wrapped bacon with quail egg, or Squid-E-O’s: squid “pasta” in squid ink tomato sauce with merguez sausage meatballs? Countless high-end chefs are making their food more affordable and approachable these days — thus the glut of gastropubs, burger joints and pizza places. To do it with something this unique sets Moonen top hat-and-shoulders above the crowd. — Al Mancini
In Mandalay Place, mandalaybay.com, 632-7200
Mio Ogasawara at Sweets Raku
This dessert guru’s creations are so amazing, she deserved a sweet stage of her own
With so many world-class restaurants on the Strip, there’s no shortage of great desserts created by extraordinarily talented chefs. But true dessert aficionados gladly make the short trip up Spring Mountain Road to the unassuming little strip mall that houses Sweets Raku. Here, amid Las Vegas’ finest collection of Japanese restaurants, Mio Ogasawara creates some of the most delicious desserts imaginable in a tiny restaurant with no sign on the door. The award-winning chef humbly insists her creations are exactly what you’d find in a typical dessert bar in Japan. But they’re so delicately balanced and exquisitely rendered, they would shine in any French fine-dining restaurant.
The menu (which itself is edible) is deceptively simple. You can order three courses for $19, with your choice of “main” course. One day, your options may include the “Apollo,” two layers of mousse (dark chocolate and raspberry) on top of a chocolate sponge cake, garnished with Earl Grey ice cream and raspberry sauce. Return the next day, and it may be replaced with Mont Blanc chestnuts with chestnut cream. If you’re not terribly hungry, you can get the pre-set first and third course for $12. But do yourself a favor, and go for all three — and add a cheese platter, which features a creamy mixture of blue cheese and heavy cream piped onto the plate like cake icing. Owner Mitsuo Endo could have simply showcased Ogasawara’s creations in the nearby sister restaurant Raku — an award-winning establishment in its own right. But he wisely decided to give her a stage of her own, allowing the chef to create her delicacies right before the eyes of each and every customer. And even if you don’t speak Japanese (which a large portion of the customers do), her charming personality and engaging smile add an extra dose of sweetness to already unforgettable desserts.
“This is my first time to be out in front of a counter,” the chef says through a translator. “So it’s my first time to really see and serve the customers. And I’ve learned a lot.” — Al Mancini
5040 W. Spring Mountain Road #3, 290-7181
Ryuki Kawasaki at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
His work is at once an inspired execution and disciplined interpretation of Gagnaire’s culinary vision
Interpreting the vision of a globe-trotting superstar chef on a nightly basis is a challenge put to the executive chefs and chefs de cuisine in countless top Las Vegas restaurants. But none faces as daunting a task as Ryuki Kawasaki. His boss, Pierre Gagnaire, is revered as one of the finest chefs in the world. He is also one of the most daring, unpredictable, adventurous and inspired — routinely putting together flavor and style combinations that would make the heads of even his most talented contemporaries spin. He and Kawasaki rewrite Twist’s menu every three months based on seasonal ingredients. And then? Gagnaire leaves. He trusts his local chef to recreate these jaw-dropping dishes for each and every guest.
Since opening in late 2009, Twist has never failed to impress. But it was the arrival of Kawasaki last year that truly matched the boldness of Gagnaire’s concepts with the precision they deserve. His execution of dishes as complex as pumpkin velouté with cubes of tuna and foie gras, or a trio of lobster preparations served as a single course, is flawless every night. At the same time, he somehow makes his boss’ potentially intimidating creations a bit more approachable.
“I’ve been working for him for eight years,” says Kawasaki, a veteran of Gagnaire’s restaurants in Paris and London. “My vision and his vision are the same. So it’s easy for me to understand what he wants to do.”
Unlike many chefs in high-profile Las Vegas restaurants, Kawasaki says he’s more comfortable in the kitchen than greeting guests in the dining room. “Of course, I trust my team,” he explains. “But I prefer to check every piece of food before it goes to the guest.” Having eaten many of those dishes since Kawasaki’s arrival, we can assure you they’ve all been perfect. — Al Mancini
In the Mandarin Oriental, 888-881-9367, mandarinoriental.com
The triumphant return — and reinvention — of the American steakhouse
The Strip surged this year. Esteemed arrivals Andrea’s, Hakkasan, Nobu at Caesars Palace and Mandalay Bay’s funky duo of Kumi and Rx Boiler Room seemed to re-assert hotel dining dominance when many of our most interesting developments are happening off the Strip. You have several new reasons to get back now, but you must begin with Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak at the Mirage, for many reasons. First, the space: Woven through the domed rainforest atrium just inside the classic resort’s main entrance, Heritage hearkens back to a time when casino
restaurants didn’t have to hide from the casino. It feels fresh and yet lived in, like a warm mahogany home was carved out of a giant tropical tree just for us. Second, the service: It’s rare for a new restaurant to come without some working-it-out slip-ups, even on the Vegas Strip. This crew shows no flaws, obliging with the cool confidence that comes with experience and education. They know their menu, which brings us to the impeccable food: Heritage declares there is still something new to be done with the American steakhouse. Chef Anthony Zappola, who’s logged nearly 10 years at Colicchio’s Craft restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, makes his Las Vegas debut a stunning one. The focus is on open-flame cooking, but really Heritage is doing what others are only attempting: balancing tradition with creativity, branching out into interesting ingredients while staying dedicated to simplicity. The natural prime filet will be the most flavorful one you’ve ever tasted, but the vadouvan-rubbed lamb ribs might be something you’ve never tasted before. You’ve certainly never seen skewers of quail glazed in soy, chili and black garlic on another steakhouse menu. Ditto for slightly smoky, wood-roasted peaches plated with extravagant Iberico ham. And the stuff you are familiar with — the braised short ribs, the charred octopus, the ribeye with balsamic onion relish — well, nobody does it better. — Brock Radke
In the Mirage, 791-7111, mirage.com