Our annual celebration of Las Vegas’ best dining spots, dishes, and chefs
Miatake Mushrooms at Sparrow + Wolf
Upstarts and unlikely successes, mavericks and innovators, even a disruptor or two — this year’s Restaurant Awards honorees share in common uncommon backgrounds and origin stories. And one defining trait: an unflagging attention to detail. Whether they’re remixing family recipes, refining a noble culinary tradition, or just joyously making it up as they go along, a loving precision — applied to the craft, the service, the entire dining experience — is the shining hallmark of this year’s recipients. Raise your fork to the honorees of the 2017 Restaurant Awards.
Dessert of the Year
Paris-Brest at Eatt
There are two requirements for a dessert to be magnificent: one, that it be intense; and two, that it be French. A French renaissance of sorts has blossomed off the Strip in the last year, and the team at Eatt is one of the restaurants doing the food of its homeland proud. On a menu full of standouts both lavish and light, it is Vincent Pellerin’s desserts that will have you swooning — and forgetting about all the delicious, healthy fare you just had for dinner. These classic cream puffs, named to celebrate the Paris-to-Brest bicycle race, are filled with a praline cream, then topped with a house-made chocolate bar and caramelized hazelnuts. They come three to an order, which won’t be enough — whether there’s one person at the table, or three. John Curtas
(7865 W. Sahara Ave. #104, 702-608-5233, eattfood.com)
DEALicious Meal of the Year
Chengdu Zajiang Noodles at Mian Sichuan Noodles
The Chengdu Zajiang noodle bowl at Mian Sichuan Noodles is a simple dish — house-made noodles, pork, fried egg, baby bok choy, green onions and a savory sauce. But there’s nothing simple about that sauce. Embracing chiles as a central ingredient, Mian turns an ordinary noodle dish into a regional Chinese take on a classic Bolognese; spiked with Sichuan peppercorns and chili flakes, it’s a hearty and piquant torrent of flavor. But what’s noteworthy about the Chengdu Zajiang noodles — and the entire menu at Mian — is that the spice is about flavor, not just heat. It makes for a sweat-inducing kick, to be sure, but that’s a side benefit to the dish’s deep, rich complexity. Jim Begley
(4355 Spring Mountain Road #107, 702-483-6531)
Excellence in Service and Management
Morels French Steakhouse & Bistro
Running a three-meal-a-day restaurant in a busy Las Vegas hotel has to be one of the toughest jobs in the hospitality business. It’s one thing if the operation is a glorified coffee shop, but quite another if it aspires to be a top-flight French steakhouse with a wine bar, an outdoor patio, and a menu that runs the gamut from sparkling oysters to eggs Benedict to dry-aged ribeyes. Add a cheese program, au courant cocktails, tableside Caesar salads, rolling beverage carts, artisanal beers, and late-night dining, and you have the service challenge to end all service challenges. But every day of every week, from daybreak until well past midnight, G.M. Louis Hirsch (pictured) keeps Morels Steakhouse running like a luxury timepiece. I ate four meals here in the past year — two when I was recognized and two when I was not — and the service was perfect every time. JL Carrera’s classic steakhouse fare never disappoints; the ease and professionalism with which it is served, morning, noon and night, only deepens the pleasure of dining at this unsung restaurant. JC
(The Palazzo, 702-607-6333, morelslv.com)
Asian Restaurant of the Year
One of the valley’s best Japanese restaurants is far from bustling Chinatown, tucked behind an AutoZone on East Silverado Ranch Boulevard. But what chef/owner Kaoru Azeuchi is doing at Kaiseki Yuzu is nothing short of a revelation.
Azeuchi, a Japanese culinary veteran, first came to Southern Nevada in 2014 with the intent of opening a strictly kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki is a multicourse, seasonal dining experience with ornate presentations and specially sourced ingredients. But would locals embrace such a novel concept right out of the gate? Azeuchi played it strategically safe, opening Yuzu Japanese Kitchen with more mainstream Japanese fare. And yes, even hidden in a suburban strip mall, Yuzu’s menu — boasting a worldly refinement thanks to Azeuchi’s training in both Japanese and French cuisine — soon attracted a following. Taking that as a vote of confidence, last year Azeuchi transitioned to focus on kaiseki, and Yuzu’s fan base only grew.
Courses vary with each visit — the point and the beauty of kaiseki — but past offerings have included smoky grilled Kobe beef slices swaddling king oyster mushrooms, and kale chip-garnished lobster delivered with an umami-rich mushroom sauce. Azeuchi actually keeps track of diners’ menus, so you never eat the same course twice. It’s another way that Azeuchi’s attention to detail has made Kaiseki Yuzu a devotee’s destination for high-concept Japanese cuisine. JB
(1310 E. Silverado Ranch Blvd. #105, 702-778-8889, yuzukaiseki.com)
Pastry Chef of the Year
Sara Steele, Chica
Sara Steele is one of our own. An Eldorado High School graduate, she earned degrees from both the California Culinary Academy and the College of Southern Nevada before turning her talents to pastry. She began wowing customers with her dessert carts at the Wynn and Encore a decade ago, bringing a playful touch to all sorts of classic cookies, candies, and sweets at Botero and Lakeside. Then she left the grind of restaurant work for a while, much to the dismay of her fans. But the siren song of culinary creativity lured her back to the Chica kitchen when it opened earlier this year, and pan-Latin desserts have never tasted so good. Steele’s forte is tweaking the familiar in fascinating ways. Lemon donuts are given a new personality when made with ricotta — and a definite wardrobe upgrade when dressed with white chocolate dulce de leche sauce. You won’t find a richer tres leches cake this side of Mexico City, and her take on the Venezuelan marquesa de chocolate is a study in sinful indulgence. Getting every dessert in the house is always the best option here, since there never seems to be enough donuts or churro-fried ice cream pops to go around. Sara Steele can make desserts sing in any language. JC
(The Venetian, 702-805-8472, chicalasvegas.com)
Restaurateurs of the Year
Sheridan Su and Jenny Wong
From hot plates in a hair salon, Su and Wong have built a small empire on Chinese comfort classics
From humble beginnings, husband and wife restaurateurs Sheridan Su and Jenny Wong have assembled a small culinary empire in and near Downtown. And it couldn’t have happened in a more unlikely manner.
After beginning his career on the Strip, six years ago, the classically trained Su was let go as Comme Ça’s executive chef. Faced with a momentous life decision, he did what any reasonable chef would do: He and then-girlfriend Wong opened up Great Bao in a hair salon, doling out bao and other Asian specialties served up from a two-burner hotplate in a closet-size space.
The couple only intended for the venture to maintain cash flow while their food truck got up and running. The food truck never materialized, but a cult following did, catching the eye of Eureka Casino owner Greg Lee, who was looking to revamp his East Sahara casino diner. With Su overseeing the kitchen and Wong shining at front-of-house, in early 2013 the couple revamped the greasy spoon menu with Asian-American flair, including their now-famous bao, handmade potstickers and savory sesame noodles, along with novel takes on staples such as the Fat Choy Burger and a short-rib grilled cheese. An appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives only bolstered their following. Driven by the success of Fat Choy, the couple pursued a dream: a postage stamp-size joint dishing out Hainan chicken in an aging East Sahara strip mall. Their hope was to break even serving the obscure Asian poached chicken dish they loved, only to discover everybody else loved it as much as they did. Flock & Fowl put the dish — and the culinary couple — on the map.
Their conquests continue: A second Flock & Fowl has just premiered at the Ogden. Su, a gentle giant, and Wong, a wry firecracker, provide the perfect foil for one another. His steady demeanor is perfect for running a kitchen; her bright persona in the dining room gives every meal a touch of familial warmth — a perfect pairing for this cross-cultural comfort food. JB
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year
This was a rocky year for off-Strip restaurants, with some disappointing closures and some noteworthy openings. But what struck me were the retreats — restaurants that walked back ambitious concepts, watered down innovative menus, or abandoned culinary ideals in favor of safe mediocrity. To me, that’s a kind of spiritual defeat worse than closing. Amid this trend, Black Sheep and partner/chef Jamie Tran was an inspiring exception.
As a restaurant name, “Black Sheep” reflects Tran’s rebel status in a male-dominated industry, but it’s much more than a clever brand. There’s fun swagger and self-assurance in the menu, the wait staff — even the location. In the culinary desert of the southwest Las Vegas — where the IKEA café is a dining destination, where eateries have to throw a cheeseburger on the menu to soothe cranky suburbanites wielding Yelp accounts like switchblades — Black Sheep is a playful dare. In the process, it’s drawn in every serious food-lover in town and become a chefs’ hangout. The menu has a comfort-food heart with elegant fine-dining touches. The braised Duroc pork belly, done in a sweet and savory sauce of Hood River cherries and seasonal mushrooms, is as rib-sticking as Grandma’s pot roast, but the flavor is complex, inflected with the flavors of Hoisin sauce. The fried beef crisps (think a large chicharron), with a spicy Japanese togarashi dust and a drizzle of a thin chili-lime sauce, is a perfect handshake between Tran’s fine-dining past (she spent five years at Aureole) and her current embrace of casual comfort food. There’s even a great happy hour, with cheap cocktails and $1 oysters. By refusing to play by the unspoken rules of neighborhood restaurants, the Black Sheep is doing everything right. Mitchell Wilburn
(8680 W. Warm Springs Road, 702-954-3998, blacksheepvegas.com)
New Restaurant of the Year
Sparrow + Wolf
Chef Brian Howard didn’t just open a stellar restaurant. He created a template for inspiring future innovation
If you’re going to judge the New Restaurant of the Year based upon the splash it made, no one did a bigger cannonball in 2017 than Sparrow + Wolf. After leaving the Strip and wandering in the desert for a few years, Chef Brian Howard found a home in the middle of Chinatown. From day one, he’s been pulling in locals and tourists with a protein-rich menu that demands you pay attention. Never before has Chinatown, much less the rest of Las Vegas, seen things like clams casino with an uni hollandaise, beef cheek and bone marrow dumplings, and halibut in a white Alabama barbecue sauce. Because of these and other dishes, our restaurant scene will never be the same again.
Those dishes — along with the cool vibe, inventive cocktails, and spot-on service — will probably prove to be Howard’s legacy. By going so far out on a limb — with his food, his concept, and his location — he’s established a template for chefs who want to break with the corporate culture and do it their way. His is not cooking that bows to any convention (sweetbreads wrapped in grilled romaine with smoked bacon is not exactly grandma-friendly), but it is squarely aimed at Gen X and Millennial customers, diners whose palates have come of age in the internet era. They’re the customers who will drive the restaurant business for the next 20 years, and Sparrow + Wolf taps right into this hyper-foodie zeitgeist.
Whether you’re looking for a fusion homage to the neighborhood (udon Bolognese), hearth-baked bread or coal-roasted beets, Howard has you covered. That he can squeeze so many flavors into such a modest space is a testament to his passion and planning. That his intended audience responded immediately bodes well for the future of chef-driven restaurants. I don’t know if Las Vegas has enough dedicated foodies to support other young chefs trying to do what Sparrow + Wolf has pulled off, but its success is a great start for the future of good eating. JC
(4480 Spring Mountain Road #100, 702-790-2147, sparrowandwolflv.com)
Hall of Fame Award
Raku’s food is extraordinary, but its impact on the Las Vegas culinary culture is incalculable
Mitsuo Endo’s Aburiya Raku, better known as simply Raku, has been a fixture of the Vegas dining scene for most of the last decade — actually, multiple fixtures to multiple crowds. It opened in 2008 as a Chinatown destination courting Asian tourists. Then it grew into a late-night spot for Strip chefs in the know; today, it’s a mainstream darling, garnering numerous accolades, including James Beard nominations for Best New Restaurant and a half-dozen nods as a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest. Every accolade, every nomination, every nod is richly deserved: Raku’s head chef, Mitsuo Endo, applies an attention to detail that manifests in every facet of the dining experience — whether it’s the multitude of soy sauces or salts paired with dishes (including an outrageous green tea salt), the handcrafted Japanese tableware selected by Endo-san himself, or even the tropical-paradise restroom that has to be seen to be believed.
The food is extraordinary. Raku is known for dishes such as its silky-smooth agedashi tofu, smoky binchotan-fired robata offerings (the unctuous beef tendon is not to be missed), and the mystifying potato-stuffed corn. But it truly excels on its blackboard specials that never cease to impress, many of which hail directly from Japan’s Tsukiji Market. I’ve marveled at flying fish fried whole, while miniature sawagani (sand crabs) are flash-fried in fighting formation like a small toy army.
Even with the 2013 expansion to 48 seats (and rumors of a long-awaited patio expansion coming to fruition), it’s still hard to get a table. But luckily, its Seoul Plaza opening unleashed a tidal wave of ambitious and diverse Japanese cuisine. Without Raku, there might not be Monta, Kyara, Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, Curry House Zen, Kabuto, Kaiseki Yuzu, Yui … The impact of Raku upon our culinary landscape cannot be overestimated. Endo-san has since expanded Raku into a West Hollywood location. For once, rather than importing from SoCal, we’re gladly sharing a talent that is truly our own. JB
(5030 W. Spring Mountain Road #2, 702-367-3511, raku-grill.com)
Chef of the Year
Francesco Di Caudo, Ferraro’s
Taking a restaurant from great to glorious is a tricky proposition. Why gamble with a good thing? When it’s a place as iconic as Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar, you run the risk of alienating customers if you change so much as the bread basket. But the change the Ferraro family made by putting Francesco Di Caudo in the kitchen in 2015 has paid big dividends, while not disturbing what’s kept this place at the top of the Italian food chain since 1985.
Born at the foot of Mount Etna, Di Caudo is Sicilian by birth, but his training took him all over Italy until he arrived in Las Vegas more than a decade ago. Stints at Circo and Sinatra no doubt prepared him for a life of leading corporate kitchens, but when he landed at the doorstep of Ferraro’s, they had to know there was a show pony in their midst who was dying to strut his stuff. Taking over an operation famous for its osso buco and its wine cellar is a balancing act. But Di Caudo has managed to incorporate such push-the-envelope dishes as risotto roccaverano (Arborio rice with Rabiola cheese, lamb ragu and pistachio-coffee dust) with such classics as the house-made salsiccia Calabrese (spicy sausage), pleasing everyone — and gaining a lot of foodie cred in the process. The trippa satriano (tripe in spicy tomato sauce) is about as old-school as you can get, but when paired with Di Caudo’s sea urchin pasta in a ginger-carrot sauce, or new-age beef tartare (with garlic chips and cured, grated egg yolk), you have the best of old and new Italy in one meal. The Ferraro’s crowd has always been a meat-loving one, but the things Di Caudo does with black bass and salt cod are now attracting true gastronomes.
Making an established kitchen sing a new tune while still playing the golden oldies is a remarkable feat for any chef. Ferraro’s is better than ever in 2017, and that’s quite an accomplishment for the restaurant — and for Francesco Di Caudo. JC
(4480 Paradise Road, 702-364-5300, ferraroslasvegas.com)
Restaurant of the Year
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
When Twist by Pierre Gagnaire opened in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2009, it capped a culinary renaissance that had been seven years in the making. Beginning in 2003 with Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, our French revolution continued through the openings of Joël Robuchon (2005), Daniel Boulud (2005) and Guy Savoy (2006), and was such a revolution in restaurant cooking that the whole world took notice.
Twist was last to the party — but what an entrance it made. From the beginning, it featured the groundbreaking, modernist cuisine of Pierre Gagnaire, usually served in a blizzard of plates celebrating a central theme. At the time, you might be excused for thinking that you were getting too much of a good thing, as Gagnaire’s chefs riffed on everything from crabs to cauliflower, sometimes overwhelming your palate in the process. These days, Chef de Cuisine Frédéric Don does Gagnaire proud by creating more focused dishes, in a glittering atmosphere, delivered by a staff that never misses a beat.
Besides the razor-sharp execution, jaw-dropping presentations, and fork-dropping flavors, what impresses most about Twist is how it’s come together in the past year to become an almost perfect Las Vegas restaurant. It always had the pedigree, the spectacle and the world-class cooking, and now its menu fits the Strip like a Chanel suit. Exotic fare (foie gras parfait, langoustine beignet, smoked haddock soufflé) competes with eye-popping vegetarian menus, as this kitchen toggles back and forth between wild turbot finished in a classic beurre Nantais to a not-so-classic black eggplant tortellini with black garlic velouté. This is cooking in the deep end of the epicurean pond; in the wrong hands, you could find yourself drowning in a sea of ingredients. Instead, everything from the proteins to the plants is always on point. If all chefs cooked vegetables this well, the birds and beasts that roam the earth would have nothing to worry about.
The point of Twist is to dazzle, to intrigue, and to amuse; but it never confuses. (Along with those pirouettes on the plate, they also serve some mighty great steaks.) With an improved (and more affordable) wine program, and Vivian Chang’s ethereal desserts, it’s become our most complete dining salon — ready to impress the neophyte gastronome as much as the fussiest gourmet — all served with a view that’s as breathtaking as what’s on your plate. JC
(Mandarin Oriental, 702-590-8888, mandarinoriental.com)