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Desert Companion Restaurant Awards

2014 was an anxious year for foodies — but a good kind of anxious. The kind of anxious that comes from maintaining a feverish, nearly athletic dining schedule to try to keep up with all the new restaurants that opened this year. (Or will open, or will have opened by the time I finish this sentence.) Whether it was Downtown or Downtown Summerlin, on the Strip or in the suburbs, 2014 witnessed fresh upstarts making splashy debuts and familiar faces expanding their brands, firing up an already vibrant culinary scene.

It was those restaurants that captured the imagination of our critics this year. Indeed, if 2014’s culinary scene has a theme, it’s new, new, new — new menus, new trends and new restaurants. Which makes complete sense: Newness is what Vegas does best. And yet we strongly suspect the newcomers we celebrate in this year’s Restaurant Awards will be the classics of tomorrow. Dig in.


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Our judges

Jim Begley is a freelance food writer whose work appears in Las Vegas Weekly, Las Vegas Magazine and Desert Companion.

Debbie Lee is a former pastry chef and Desert Companion’s dining critic.

Al Mancini is Vegas Seven’s dining critic.

James P. Reza is a longtime local writer and columnist for Vegas Seven.

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Cocktail bar of the year

Herbs & Rye

3713 W. Sahara Ave.,

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Their passion for cocktails took them to the national stage. Their relentless focus on craft makes them a hometown favorite

Located in a stand-alone building noteworthy for its start as the Ruvo family’s old-school Venetian Ristorante, Herbs & Rye channels the past to create the present. Dim lights, a swinging soundtrack and a selection of steaks, pastas and pies lay a foundation for a night of exploring the drink. Though the barkeeps here are demonstrably more than capable, the Herbs & Rye cocktail menu (organized into colorful categories like “Gothic Age,” “Dark Age” and “Golden Age”) eschews reinvention in favor of a high reverence for the classics. The searing Sazerac. The potent and delectable Ford. The rye-reverent Ward Eight. Need more proof of Herbs’ greatness? Consider this: Where else in this grand boozing city of ours can you drink a legitimate daiquiri, one that came from a bottle and not a blender? Here, it’s the aptly named Hemingway. And if you are one of those who simply must drink vodka, there’s always the Moscow Mule.

You may recall that we’ve previously honored this cozy west-central bar and restaurant with Cocktail Bar of the Year in 2012. That was before they wrestled down an honor that no other Las Vegas bar has: Herbs & Rye was called to a national cocktail invitational, and they came home with a trophy. And not just any national cocktail invitational, the national cocktail invitational: New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail 2014. That Herbs & Rye bested five other finalists in the popular vote of the “Bar Fight Club” competition tells you all you need to know about this place. They take their drinking very seriously.

We don’t take our repetition of recognition for Herbs & Rye lightly. This team has elevated both service and style, and the results are now national. These are classic cocktails: potent, properly poured and beautifully balanced. James P. Reza


Bartender of the year

Max Solano at Delmonico steakhouse

In the Venetian,

When he’s on shift, the curated cocktails spill their secrets

We’re so spoiled. With bars stretching across the valley and drinking gone upscale, your neighborhood watering hole likely has a microbrew list and a mixology menu. That’s well and good, but you can’t have truly great drinks without someone great at preparing them.

So in a town crowded with barkeeps, what makes one Bartender of the Year? Exceptional cocktails, of course. And being essential to an operation certainly doesn’t hurt your cause. But most of all, it’s got to be someone whose bar you’d like to sidle up to time after time after time. This year, that bartender is Delmonico Steakhouse mixologist, beverage manager and renaissance man Max Solano.

Any mention of Solano must begin with whiskey. He’s quietly assembled the Strip’s most diverse collection of brown liquor, with more than 650 to choose from. But even more impressive are the cocktail options available on a quartet of special menus. Three are readily available to the public: the Vintage, Specialty and Whisky menus. The Vintage offers up classics such as the Blood & Sand and Monkey Gland, while the Specialty and Whisky menus include the smoky Bacon & Bourbon Manhattan, combining housemade barrel-aged bitters with smoky bacon-infused Baker’s, and the Dark Roast, a nutty, Dewar’s-based nightcap with dark chocolate-infused simple syrup and Florio espresso.

 But best of all are the selections from the Secret Cocktail Menu, only available when Solano himself is on the stick. The Secret Menu comprises almost 20 cocktails painstakingly prepared with ingredients ranging from five-spice simple syrup to black walnut bitters to, simply, smoke. It’s an inspired collection of riffs on traditional whiskey cocktails such as the Penicillin and the Old Fashioned, and it’s only available when Solano brings the bright red Secret Menu binder into work with him. These are secrets worth sharing — heck, make it a double. Jim Begley


Dealicious Meal of the year

The Tomato at The Goodwich 

1516 Las Vegas Blvd. S.,

Proving that less is way more, The Tomato is a marvel of sandwich simplicity

The tomato sandwich. The most simple of sandwiches, composed of tomato, mayo and salt on white bread. A staple in the South rarely seen outside of the boundaries of the old Confederacy, it hinges on the humble tomato. Small problem: In Vegas, our tomatoes are typically abysmal. Somehow, though, for only $3, The Goodwich serves an upscale version with sweet, firm tomatoes swaddled between buttery slices of toasted white bread, with creamy housemade aioli and sharp smoked sea salt. It’s real and it’s spectacular. The downside: You’ll have to wait until summer to taste for yourself; The Tomato is only available when the heirlooms are in their juicy prime. The upside: There are plenty of other hand-crafted sandwiches on The Goodwich menu to occupy your mouth until then. JB


Appetizer of the year

Bacon Jamat Carson kitchen

124 S. 6th St. #100


Witness the pinnacle of human ingenuity: bacon you can spread

With Carson Kitchen, Kerry Simon has given downtown what it’s long needed — a restaurant that rivals the most interesting spots on the Strip. The way the ailing chef (battling the life-threatening illness Multiple System Atrophy) has used his fine-dining experience to elevate simple comfort food classics is nothing short of brilliant. Moreover, it’s perfect for the neighborhood: accessible enough for the young and hip downtown denizens, yet sophisticated enough to attract serious foodies from across the Valley. No dish may illustrate this better than the bacon jam, a deceptively simple spread served with toasted bread. The multiple ingredients — sugar, garlic, vinegar, salty bacon and hot chilis — present themselves one at a time, then blend into a blissful umami symphony. There’s so much going on in the jam itself, you don’t really need the melted brie that tops it. But you’ll won’t find me complaining about good cheese on a dish. (In fact, for a real treat, save a little of the jam to mix into Simon’s macaroni and cheese.) Al Mancini


Signature dish of the year

Escargots Spätzleat db Brasserie 

In the Venetian


This French twist on tradition sets the tone for a lively, innovative menu

With the opening of db Brasserie earlier this year, the Strip welcomed Daniel Boulud back after a four-year hiatus. During his storied career, the longtime restaurateur and celebrity chef has built a vast culinary empire with a bevy of signature dishes. And with db Brasserie, he has a venue to highlight these hits from elsewhere while interspersing some found only here in Vegas.

The best of his signature dishes at db Brasserie is one from db Bistro Modern in NYC, a dish executive chef David Middleton fashions flawlessly: the escargots spätzle. Burgundy snail fricassee is intermixed with chicken “oysters” with hazelnuts over housemade spätzle, strewn with an addictive parsley coulis. The dish blends textures and flavors seamlessly. Dark meat “oysters” offer a contrast to the chewier snails, with almonds contributing hints of firmness — all while swimming in sharp coulis. The dish couldn’t be a better reintroduction to Vegas. JB


Dessert of the year

Banana pudding in a Mason jar at Made LV

In Tivoli Village, 450 S. Rampart Blvd. #120


A homespun classic gets a decadent twist that even Grandma would approve.

It’s been open a short few months, but we’ve already noshed our way through much of the Made LV menu. There’s hardly a miss at this modern gastropub, which makes leaving room for dessert a culinary challenge of the first order. However, we must insist that you do leave room, and we must also insist — no matter how tempting the Bag of Donut Holes or S’mores Nachos may sound — that you pass them up and head straight for the banana pudding. Sometimes, the best things are the simple traditions, and this one has been modernized just enough to make it utterly addictive. It’s delectable, perfectly sweet, oh-so-creamy and served straight from a Mason jar bottomed out with Nilla wafers and loaded with whipped cream and the perfect foil of salted caramel. That it’s served in a jar is a nifty conceit, one that always leaves us looking over our shoulder to see if anyone notices us sticking our finger in, running it around the inside and then popping it in our mouth. Grandma never minded. JPR


Ethnic Restaurant of the year

District One Kitchen & Bar

3400 S. Jones Blvd. #8


This not-so-Vietnamese Vietnamese restaurant upends expectations with generous portions and surprising mashups

Vietnamese cuisine in Vegas has always been underwhelming, with menus largely limited to the standard offerings of pho, bahn mi and spring rolls. But with the arrival of District One earlier this year, Vegas got a revolutionary Vietnamese restaurant — or at least a revolutionary restaurant with Vietnamese influences. Whatever District One is, what’s happening here is so much better than anything you’ve had before.

District One doesn’t bind itself to traditional Vietnamese cuisine, which is what makes the fare served in this chic industrial space so appealing. Their beef carpaccio is presented swimming in sesame oil and lime juice, layered with crisp garlic slices — a melding of Italian and Vietnamese cuisine. Their oxtail fried rice is an amalgam of smoke and savory with a richness that’ll warm your soul. The Southern (as in Mississippi, not Maracaibo) and Chinese influences are undeniable and, while not particularly Vietnamese, they are particularly good.

But lest we forget that District One is named after the urban center of Ho Chi Minh City, there is pho. But this is not your mother’s pho — unless she served something as incredible as District One’s whole lobster pho, impressively presented to make it seem like the lobster is trying to scramble out of the bowl. Equally as impressive is the Big Bone Soup, anchored by an enormous bone rich with marrow in all its gelatinous glory. And then there are the garlic noodles. This dish alone is worth the visit as a rival of those from the now-shuttered Crustacean — the standard by which all garlic noodles should be judged. Accompanied with your choice of protein (I prefer the smoky, lightly grilled crab legs) as a foil to the sharp and buttery pasta, it’s a memorable dish worthy of one of the Valley’s best ethnic restaurants, a stellar, more-than-Vietnamese Vietnamese joint. JB


Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year

Carson Kitchen

124 S. Sixth St. #100


With the launch of Simon’s latest restaurant, the Downtown culinary scene has officially arrived

Other big names have christened new spots Downtown in recent years, but none hit the ground running quite like Kerry Simon’s Carson Kitchen, which shares space in the renovated John E. Carson Motel with a juice bar, a gourmet donut shop and a new sushi stop. We credit Carson Kitchen’s success to the years of practice that Kerry and his team have when it comes to conjuring hip spots serving energetic young (or young-minded) crowds at what are now multiple Kerry Simon restaurants across the country.

Fittingly, it all began in Las Vegas. After a successful stint stirring things up with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York and on the Strip, in 2002 Simon struck out on his own with the Hard Rock’s uber-popular Simon Kitchen & Bar, which Simon sizzled up with the help of notable restaurant guru Elizabeth Blau. Simon Kitchen quickly became the go-to dining spot in a city whose dining scene was still in many ways stuck in a past rife with steak, lobster and Italian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Simon vaulted our scene into the now, successfully attracting celebrities, foodies and locals in-the-know who were hip to the joint’s quality Modern American menu and lively attitude.

Fast forward to 2014, and Carson Kitchen is where all those years of practice get cooking. Capitalizing on Downtown’s high-energy social vibe, Carson Kitchen corrals the concepts of chefs’ tables, open kitchens, communal seating and bar dining into one glorious, classic rock-fueled party where Downtown movers meet and shakers shake hands, making deals and having dates from lunch to nearly midnight. The story of Carson Kitchen’s immediate and continuing success seems simple enough: The staff is on-point, friendly and fast, and Simon’s signature American menu is tasty, accessible and affordably upscale. Which is probably why there always seems to be a line, day or night. No worries; the upstairs veranda is now open on the regular, so snag a seat and a cocktail and wait it out. It’s worth it. JPR


Chef of the Year

Gerald Chin at StripSteak

In Mandalay Bay,

Never willing to settle, he’s turned a respectable steakhouse into a daring culinary sensation

When is a steakhouse not a steakhouse? For the answer, you only have to look as far as the reinvigorated StripSteak at Mandalay Bay, where Executive Chef Gerald Chin has transformed the staid steakhouse into an extraordinary culinary destination.

When Chin was spirited away from his position as The Cosmopolitan’s chef de cuisine early last year, StripSteak was a steady if unspectacular fixture within the famed Michael Mina empire. With a premier spot along the walkway from the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, it had a captive audience of conventioneers and passersby. But instead of settling, Chin decided to make his mark.

He was wise enough to keep some perennial favorites: The Maine lobster fritters remain, with their melding of minty shiso and tart Meyer lemon, as does the earthy truffle mac & cheese. StripSteak meats are still prepared atop the showcase wood-burning grill, while the Strip’s best complimentary offering — the amuse bouche duck fat French fry trio — is a fixture at every seating.

But for every mainstay, there’s a new innovation reviving the restaurant. Crispy foie gras dumplings deliver a surprisingly subdued dose of unctuous fattiness balanced by a sharp huckleberry and umeboshi jam. And then there’s Instant Bacon. This slab of five-spice-rubbed pork belly accompanied by a tempura oyster atop julienned jicama is delivered under a glass dome clouded with smoke. The unveil releases campfire scents that bathe the senses.

Other highlights: black truffle macaroons and the ultimate surf-and-turf presentation with uni-laden bone marrow — a studied contrast of salinity and earthiness. But best of all might be the spicy fried rice. Comprising pork belly-laden fried rice with duck fat, carrots and sweet peas and endowed with a hint of spice from housemade hot sauce, it’s a savory side exemplifying Chin’s ability to blend contemporary and classic ingredients seamlessly.

Chin is no stranger to the spotlight. As the former victor on Food Network’s “Chopped,” he willed himself to victory in the “Leftovers Overload” episode. He should only be under slightly less scrutiny as our Chef of the Year — but we’re infinitely confident in his continuing ability to wow us. JB


New Restaurant of the Year

Bazaar Meat

In the SLS Las Vegas,

José Andrés’ wildly inventive carniporium brings the excitement back to dining out

If there’s any trace of glitz or glamour left in this city, you’d be hard-pressed to find it on your dinner plate. In case you haven’t noticed, our current restaurant landscape has been infiltrated by a glut of haute casual street food. Besides the few fine dining temples left standing (Guy Savoy, Twist, Joël Robuchon), we live in a world of burgers, pizza, noodles and tacos.

Fortunately, the second half of 2014 brought relief in the form of Bazaar Meat at SLS Las Vegas. Chef José Andrés’ spin-off of his five year-old Beverly Hills restaurant, The Bazaar, provides a novel experience to match Las Vegas’ best assets. It’s grandiose, hospitable, entertaining and the food is delicious.

As the name implies, protein — of every kind, in every form, and made to suit every taste — is the name of the game. (You can also play blackjack inside the restaurant, but I digress.) There is outrageously priced caviar service for the whales, shrimp cocktail for the traditionalists and Iberico ham for the food snob. Offal enthusiasts are offered kidneys while steakhouse lovers can stick to a Kobe ribeye. Or, for an obscene feast, guests can drop half a grand on an entire suckling pig, roasted in a wood-fired oven.

But for an over-the-top show, your best bet is to sample Andrés’ signature dishes and succumb to his magic. “Smoke and Ice” oysters arrive under a dramatic smoke-filled glass cloche, while chicken croquettes are served in curious sneaker-shaped dishware. For dessert, a palate-cleansing sorbet is frozen tableside with liquid nitrogen. It’s a lot of gimmickry that my cynical side might shun in any other city. However, this being Las Vegas, the showmanship is more than welcome — in fact, it’s long overdue. Debbie Lee




Restaurant of the Year

db Brasserie

In the Venetian


Just when you thought casual dining hit critical mass, db Brasserie classes it up

It was a very American year in Las Vegas dining. Guy Fieri led the way to Flavortown at the LINQ, Giada DeLaurentiis fed Food Network fans from flyover states at The Cromwell, and Bobby Flay planted a flag on behalf of his namesake Burger Palace at City Center.

However, despite these highly publicized openings, it was a Frenchman who won my heart — and my stomach — in 2014. This year’s best restaurant, db Brasserie, earns the honor for achieving something that few places could: keeping casual dining tasteful.

Much of the credit is due to its top toques, chef/owner Daniel Boulud and executive chef (and longtime local) David Middleton. The synergy between the revered culinary star and the ALEX/Marché Bacchus alum translates into creative reinterpretations of classic brasserie fare. Traditional Francophiles can opt for familiar items like tarte flambée and steak frites, while spice-lovers can sample exotic dishes in the form of Tunisian lamb and Thai calamari. The plates are restrained but the flavors are forward — exactly what you’d expect from the classically trained chefs.

Want to display your patriotism on your plate? Don’t let the menu, peppered with French, fool you. The kitchen is not above offering a standout burger topped with pulled pork. Dining here is a civilized affair, but not necessarily a snobbish one. Finish the meal with a sophisticated but playful take on an ice cream sundae if you need more convincing.

Boulud’s return to Las Vegas (his Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn closed in 2010) could not have come at a better time. With gastropub cuisine reaching its saturation point, db Brasserie fills the void between high-end hot dogs and tasting menus bearing triple-digit price tags.

And they do it in style. The interior, designed by Jeffrey Beers International, is sexy, subdued and perfect for dates. The cocktails are creative and a French-heavy wine list with more than 300 selections is a plus for oenophiles. Finally, the service is warm and professional without being intimidating.

It’s a breath of fresh air in this comfort food climate saturated with the scent of truffle oil; it’s shelter from the sea of soulless vanity projects that pepper the Strip. Perhaps it also signals a resurgence of French cooking. Regardless, we can only hope that Boulud will not pull another disappearing act on us anytime soon. DL