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Sin City Eats: The Restaurants of Las Vegas and Environs
Las Vegas has seen a culinary explosion of sorts during the past ten or fifteen years. Food in Sin City was once thought of as cheap and plentiful and nothing more, but now many dining establishments have gone upscale, and you can scarcely throw a stone without hitting a celebrity chef restaurant. As you might guess, there’s been a corresponding increase in restaurant prices.
But the news isn’t all bad. Along with those increased prices, there is now some very good food to be had in area restaurants. Note that if you eat at a fine-dining restaurant on The Strip itself where you will find Las Vegas hotels, it will be exceptionally pricey (think about the rent such a restaurant must be charged). If you are able to get off The Strip, there are at least several establishments very much worth patronizing. Some are not cheap, but their prices are bargains compared to what you’ll find on Las Vegas Boulevard. While it’s unusual to find good restaurants in strip malls in many parts of the US, it’s quite normal here.
In these uncertain days, restaurants appear and disappear with great swiftness, so please check to make sure a place still exists before you make the trip there! It’s also worth making reservations in advance at many of these eateries, especially if you plan to go on a weekend night. Restaurants are listed in the order in which we dined in them.
---Diego, www.mgmgrand.com, (702) 891-3200. A bewildering place. Management gets many aspects right here: a visually-arresting décor using lots of red, a space that manages to be hip and casual simultaneously, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff. Some of the food is solidly good, too. But those positives are crushed by a soundtrack so loud you can’t hear your companion speak across a small table. Even our waitress and busboy had to shout to make themselves heard. My companion and I started our meals with salads; he opted for the Chicken Salad (smoked chicken breast, mixed baby greens, toasted almonds, sangria-poached raisins, and sesame seeds tossed in a roasted serrano mustard vinaigrette) while I chose the Caesar (romaine, sweet onions, radishes, and queso fresco with on-the-side cilantro lime dressing). The Chicken Salad was a trifle lacking in smoked chicken, but otherwise pleasant enough. My Caesar was oddly salty even without dressing. Although our waitress assured me this was due to the queso fresco, I’ve had this cheese in salads before and haven’t noticed such a salty taste. We fared better with our main courses. The Tacos al Carbon were quite a presentation! Hot corn tortillas were accompanied by four bowls, containing red chile rice; beans and cheese; lettuce, onions, and more cheese; and garlic lime marinated grilled chicken with onions. From the marinated chicken to the red bean maneados, the ingredients were zesty and satisfying. My companion selected the grilled Boneless Beef Ribeye marinated in red chile adobo, with mole coloradito, frijoles mareanados, and a roasted cactus and onion salsa. He praised the flavorful nature of the dish while noting that the ribeye was not overcooked. Desserts include flan and limon con chocolate (lime curd trifle with baked meringue), but the only “dessert” we had was aspirin to clear our headaches from all that loud music. Would I return? No.
---Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana, www.settebello.net, 140 S. Green Valley Parkway, Henderson, (702) 222-3556. An oft-cited contender for the title of “Best Pizza” in the Las Vegas area. Located in a strip mall in Henderson, mere steps from a huge Whole Foods, Settebello serves pizze (the plural of “pizza”) with a crust that’s a cross between thick and thin. Try the Pizza Bianca, with mozzarella, arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto crudo, and extra virgin olive oil. If tomatoes are compulsory, the Pizza Carbonara has them, along with pancetta, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil, and an egg. You can even get a Pizza Lasagna, that includes sausage and ricotta among its toppings. The staff here are used to working quickly, and they need to be, as the place can be crazy at lunchtime (yup, even on a weekday). You’ll not find many of the toppings you’re used to here, because the proprietor is serious about what he does. He strives for Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN; you can find an explanation on the website), and pineapple and Canadian bacon simply don’t fit into that picture. The wood-burning oven ensures a hint of smokiness in your pizza, the ingredients are fresh and of great quality, and the pizze emerge as round, edible works of art. My companion and I were there twice, and yes, we’d return again.
---Todd’s Unique Dining, www.toddsunique.com, 4350 E. Sunset Rd., Henderson, (702) 259-8633. Located in (wait for it!) a strip mall in a Las Vegas suburb, Todd’s serves some of the best food I had in the Las Vegas area. It’s a rare eating establishment that recognizes that the devil is in the details, but so much is “just right” here that you begin to wonder how they do it. You’ll find a subtly sophisticated décor, with dark reds and browns. This is fine dining, but mercifully, dressing to the nines is unnecessary. There’s a bar in one corner, and, although a basketball game was being shown while we ate there, my companion and I could converse at normal volume. As an appetizer, the Kung Pao shrimp (five shrimp in a colorful, spicy-but-not-too-hot sauce) were pronounced by my companion to be the best shrimp he’d had in a long time. As a main course, he chose the Pork Tenderloin with Granny Smith Apple Pan Sauce and Onion Mashed Potato, and it was another winner. The tenderloin was sliced and fanned out across a beautiful presentation of vegetables, those mashed potatoes, and the pan sauce---a great combination of flavors and textures. My Filet Mignon, with a Wild Mushroom Cabernet Sauce, was similarly delectable. Tender, beefy, and perfectly cooked, with an earthy, sensuous counterpoint provided by the sauce. Note that this dish contains some black pepper. It was a little too much for me, pepper wimp that I am, but most people probably wouldn’t be bothered by it. For dessert, we shared a Chocolate Hazelnut Dome and a Lemon Berry Bombe. While the former was good (a cocoa-powder-dusted chocolate mousse with a hazelnut cream center), the latter was one of the best desserts I’ve had in ages. A thick almond crust was topped with a berry filling, then surmounted by a layer of spongecake with a tart, lemony glaze over it. Service here is polished and nicely paced. Would I return? I’ll put it this way: it might be worth another trip to Las Vegas just to eat here again.
---Pasta Shop & Ristorante, www.pastashop.com, 2495 E. Tropicana Ave., Las Vegas, (702) 451-1893. From The Strip, turn onto East Tropicana. Pass the Liberace Museum and you’ll find a shopping plaza dominated by King Ranch, a large Mexican grocery. In that shopping plaza, you’ll also discover this little gem. Half restaurant and half art gallery, this informal eatery produces a number of outstanding pasta dishes. Entrees include bread and a salad, a nice plus. If the Ravioli Bianca is available when you visit, don’t miss it. Perfectly-cooked, al dente pasta forms seven large, round ravioli, with a delicate filling of ricotta. Browned butter, roma tomatoes, fresh basil, and toasted pistachios lend support in the flavor and texture departments. Or have the Baked Rigatoni, a large plate of that pasta with a pink cream sauce and several cheeses baked atop. The only downside was that I couldn’t finish the entire portion. The Chicken Marsala was a generous portion of chicken and mushrooms over linguini, a dish my companion praised as ideal. Owned by two brothers who have supplied fresh pasta to upscale Las Vegas restaurants for over two decades, this restaurant is quietly cozy, utterly unpretentious, and the type of place my neighborhood at home needs desperately. We ate here on a Sunday evening and were so taken with the place that we returned for our final dinner in Las Vegas.
---Morels French Steakhouse & Bistro, www.palazzolasvegas.com, (702) 607-6333. The Palazzo is the uber-upscale enclave at The Venetian. Morels is a rather large space, with muted tones in cream, brown, and black, chandeliers, mirrors, and (sigh) music that’s slightly too loud. I love the idea of the fromage/charcuterie menu offered at lunch here. You won’t find it on the website, and I don’t know if it’s available at dinner, but this menu offers an impressive selection of some very fine cheeses, sausages/potted meats, and “go-withs”; you pay by the number of selections you choose. My companion started with the Gratineed Onion Soup. We were expecting a cup of soup, but he was given a deep bowlful. With flavorful broth and plenty of onions and cheese, there were no complaints, but it was a lot of soup for an appetizer. His main course, the Grilled Canadian Salmon (with fennel, fresh basil, tomato, kalamata olives, and lemon beurre blanc), was a decent-sized portion, nicely presented. It was not overcooked, and the multiple components of the dish kept the flavor lively. My entrée was somewhat less successful. The Open Face Prosciutto & Poached Eggs (with egg brioche, wilted spinach, and Brie) was a too-thick circle of rich brioche, with the other ingredients piled atop and a mesclun garnish. But there was too much spinach, which overwhelmed the more delicate tastes of egg and prosciutto. And surely the Brie would have been better had it been cut up into a few smaller pieces and distributed more evenly, rather than just being left in one hunk on one side of the sandwich? For dessert, we shared the Classic Profiteroles, with candied almond ice cream and malted chocolate sauce. These were perfect; there’s no other term for it. Crisp pate a choux shells, great ice cream that actually tasted like almonds, and a wondrous, smooth chocolate sauce. Would I return? Perhaps for the profiteroles or to try the fromage/charcuterie menu.
---Hash House a Go Go, www.hashhouseagogo.com, 6800 W. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, (702) 804-4646. “Twisted Farm Food” is the fare in a slightly upscale diner atmosphere. It’s very seldom that I’m intimidated by anything which I’m served, but the Sage Fried Chicken here did just that. Don’t get me wrong: the dish tasted great. Two pieces of fried chicken were stacked on top of four large squares of waffle with whole strips of bacon baked into them. This was drizzled with a maple caramel reduction, lending a note of sweetness. The whole plate was crowned by frizzled leeks, and a long sprig of rosemary was a vertical garnish. But it was so much food that it was overwhelming. My companion had The Kokomo, in which an enormous slice of “griddled” meatloaf reposed upon “old fashioned milk bread”, in combination with roasted tomato and smoked mozzarella; the sandwich arrived with a large knife stuck through the top of it. He loved the blend of flavors, but although he’s often described himself as a very big eater, he couldn’t even finish half the sandwich. When our efficient, smiling waiter was clearing our plates, I asked if anyone ever finished a plate of the fried chicken. The waiter replied that it happened once in a while but was quite unusual. Prices are more than fair here, but they’d still be fair even if portions were smaller, and there might be less waste, too (even if you can take home leftovers, which we couldn’t, some dishes just don’t work well eaten the next day). Portion sizes aside, I love the approach to food here, and there’s no denying the popularity of this restaurant with locals; when we came in just after 11 AM on a weekday, there were a good number of other diners present. Would I return? The food merits another visit, but next time I go I’ll try to take a group of big eaters with me, preferably those who enjoy sharing.
---Rosemary’s Restaurant, www.rosemarysrestaurant.com, 8125 W. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, (702) 869-2251. It’s in Las Vegas and it’s a fine dining restaurant. Ergo, it must be in a strip mall. Right you are! In yet another of the innumerable shopping plazas that dot this city, you’ll find this quietly elegant haven done up tastefully in subdued greens and yellows. There’s a small, tasteful bar area out front. If you’re early for your reservation (and reservations are a must here), you’ll likely wait for a while, but that’s because the management knows a thing or two about how to pace a meal. No one is rushed at Rosemary’s. Some of the food was simply brilliant, but there were a few glitches, as well. Our amuse bouche was a dab of whitefish salad on a crispy wonton. I never knew whitefish salad could be so good! My Caesar for Mark (a Caesar salad with Parmesan croutons) had fresh, crisp greens, but overall it was a little lacking in character. My companion chose Texas BBQ Shrimp as an appetizer. The shrimp arrived with sauce and a small side of slaw. He enjoyed the shrimp, noting their good flavor, but the bleu cheese in the slaw he found overpowering. As an entrée, he selected the Roasted Rack of Lamb, served with kalamata olive mashed potatoes, fried arugula, and a rosemary Bordelaise. This was a stunning presentation, with the chops poised almost vertically on the mashed potatoes and the greens and sauce arranged artistically. Even better, he was delighted with the dish and commented on the harmonious mix of tastes and varying textures. My Parmesan Tossed Angel Hair Pasta (with sautéed green vegetables, basil pesto, toasted pistachios, and Parmesan cream sauce) was not as successful. The pasta, accompanying sauce, and pesto were all terrific. But angel hair is a delicate pasta, and many of the green vegetables were too crunchy, and in pieces too large; they overpowered the hapless angel hair. There were even two large, thick spears of asparagus at the bottom of the plate. We shared a Hazelnut Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Scotch Caramel Sauce for dessert, a marvelous conclusion. A cinnamon graham cracker crust formed the bottom for this round of fluffy, light, and creamy cheesecake. The Scotch in the whipped cream topping provided a nice surprise, but it worked well with both the cheesecake itself and the drizzles of Scotch Caramel Sauce. We finished every bite. Service was flawless throughout the meal. Would I return? Having experienced what the kitchen can pull off with their better dishes, yes.
---rm seafood, www.rmseafood.com, in Mandalay Place. Rick Moonen’s seafood restaurant is divided into two areas: a swanky upstairs area and a casual downstairs section. We ate downstairs. I like the open-kitchen floorplan here, and roughly half of the dining area downstairs is watched over by a large display of iced seafood. My companion enjoyed his Jumbo Lump Crab Stacker, a sandwich with smoked bacon and chipotle mayonnaise on a homemade potato roll. The crab cake that formed the basis for the sandwich was of moderate size, with some pepperiness. The accompanying slaw added color and made the plate almost festive in appearance. I ordered the Fish Tacos, three sautéed fish tacos with cabbage, chipotle cream, and mango salsa. There was plenty of cabbage to go around, and it was fresh and crisp. The fish itself---a mild, white-fleshed variety---wass nicely sautéed, but there wasn’t a sufficient quantity for three tacos, much less the six white corn tortillas with which I was provided. The fries that came with this platter were excellent, however---thin and crisp, and sprinkled with exactly the right amount of salt and parsley. A question to our waiter regarding the three extra tortillas produced the answer that it’s traditional in southwestern cooking to provide extra tortillas so one can “double up”, as fillings tend to soak through single tortillas. I don’t pretend to be an expert on traditional southwestern cuisine, but I know people who know much more than I do about it. Follow-up inquiries to them on this subject resulted in the suggestion that this waiter might not have known what he was talking about. Further, I overheard a different waiter telling another couple something I know to be untrue. rm seafood is big on sustainability, which I admire, but I didn’t think the food was special, and the waitstaff put me off. Would I return? Probably not; I’d try another seafood place next time.
---Evos, www.evos.com, 10895 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson, (702) 269-1389. Evos in Henderson, one branch of a small chain, bills itself as “feel great fast food”. The beef used is raised hormone- and antibiotic-free, the fries are “airbaked ™” and contain 50 to 70 percent less fat than those of other fast food retailers, the salads are made with organic greens. You get the idea. I had a Freerange Beef Taco (chopped steak, leaf lettuce, tomato, onion, and natural Cheddar in a honey-wheat wrap; the reduced-fat sour cream was held at my request). The beef was a little tough, but otherwise the “taco” was both tasty and filling. My companion decided upon the American Champion Burger, their signature soy burger with leaf lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, ketchup, and mustard; he added a Vanilla Shake and an order of those Airfries™. He lauded the bun’s excellence but stated that the soy burger itself had no taste. In combination with all of the other ingredients, though, it was fine. The Airfries™ were decent, and the Vanilla Shake was surprisingly good. There’s a menu especially for kids, too. Evos is trying to make fast food a little healthier, and they genuinely care about how their offerings taste, too (they even have several varieties of ketchup!). Fine dining it isn’t, but not every meal needs to be. I like the approach, and I’d try the food here again.
Pastry, Chocolates, Gelato, etc.
There is some fine pastry to be had in the Las Vegas area, but I found most chocolates and gelato to be lacking.
---The Chocolate Swan, www.chocolateswan.com. Located on The Strip in Mandalay Place, the shopping mall between Mandalay Bay and the Luxor, on the second floor (Mall Level). A beautifully set up shop, with tables and chairs so you can relax and savor your selections in comfort. A pleasant frozen custard can be found here (try the Vanilla with Strawberries). Of the several pastries I tried here, the best was a mini éclair, which wasn’t too sweet and had a good pastry cream filling. A miniature chocolate cream-filled cupcake with chocolate glaze was passable, but it was a bit too sweet and lacking in chocolate flavor. Skip the mini cheesecakes.
---Jean-Philippe, www.bellagio.com. Located in The Bellagio on The Strip, Jean-Philippe Maury’s patisserie/creperie/chocolaterie really packs in the crowds, especially on a late Sunday morning. There is some justification for this, however. A very fine chocolate éclair, filled with both vanilla and chocolate pastry creams, can be found here. A lemon tart, with a crisp, short, almond base and a pretty layer of strawberries under the lemon curd, was another winner, though there was a bit too much meringue piled atop for my taste. You’ll do well with the chocolate bars here, too. The creamy hazelnut bouchee was good, but the duo texture bouchee was a standout. This bar has a bottom layer of what seems to be hazelnut praline, with a top layer that offers a contrast in texture as well as flavor.
---Payard Patisserie and Bistro, www.caesarspalace.com. Breakfast, lunch, pastries, and chocolates. A smallish, yet nicely executed space, with a few tables and chairs located just outside the doors. Promise me you’ll order the Pear Napoleon if it’s available when you go! This patisserie produces a flawless example of that dessert, with perfectly-poached pears, a not-too-sweet mascarpone cream, and crisp pastry layers. I finished every crumb and could cheerfully have devoured a second.
---Ice Dessert Boutique, http://iceboutique.com. This doesn’t seem to be a retail establishment. That’s a great pity, because Las Vegas could use them. They make a lovely hazelnut ice cream (they have many flavors, but I was able to try only the hazelnut), which can be purchased at the Whole Foods in The District (in Henderson).
---Cheesecake and Crime, www.cheesecakeandcrime.com. You’re going to think I’m making this up, but I promise you I’m not. In a strip mall in Henderson you’ll find this shop, which is devoted to both mystery books and cheesecake. Unobtrusive flat-screen TV’s might be showing a film noir when you enter. Feel free to browse the considerable number of books on offer, or just indulge in a slice of New York-style cheesecake (the Original is as dense and creamy as it should be---very good!) and a cup of tea. There’s a small outdoor terrace, too. A book club, German Chocolate Cheesecake, author signings; I’m not sure this combination would be found together anywhere else, but it’s all great fun. The tables and chairs invite customers to stay a while, and the staff is cheerful. You can hold a party here, order a wedding cheesecake, or have them ship a cheesecake to you. Why don’t more people open creative businesses like this one? Look here, too, for Sin City Salsa, locally-made salsas running the gamut from not hot to scorching (try the excellent Strawberry if you’re not one for heat).
And One More…
---Valley Cheese and Wine, www.valleycheeseandwine.com, 1770 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway, Henderson, (702) 341-8191. True, this isn’t a restaurant, but they do sell food. There’s a great selection of wines from all over, and a choice of cheeses that shows a lot of thought. You’ll find a charcuterie section, gourmet gifts (including some nice chocolate), and, best of all, both love and knowledge. You can tell that the proprietors are devoted to their endeavor, and they’ve obviously gone out of their way to become educated about the products they sell. No backing from a big chain, no flashy advertising, just a quiet and steadfast belief in what they’re doing. If you rent a car while you’re in the area, I hope you’ll make an effort to get here.
Stephanie (firstname.lastname@example.org) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.