The farther you get off the ground, the old saying goes, the worse the food gets, with airplanes being the prime example. As someone who suffered through the revolving-restaurant craze of the late 1970s (and more than a few horrendous airline meals), I can attest to the accuracy of this maxim. And as someone who had dined at Top of the World several times after its opening in April 1996, I always thought it stood out as Exhibit A among earthbound examples.
Now, under the careful guidance of two new, experienced chefs — Claude Gaty (formerly of Mon Ami Gabi) and Rick Giffen (formerly of the Wasabi Cafe) — the menu teems with French/Asian flavors, and might single-handedly put that old axiom out to pasture, at least for meals that aren’t moving at hundreds of miles an hour.
About the only thing not to like about TOTW these days is the logistical flaw it’s always had — getting there is a bitch. If you cab it to the front door of the Stratosphere, your access to the 106-floor elevators is a short, direct walk, aided by an escalator. But if you park in the back of the hotel, as most locals will, you’re forced to navigate the unappealing warrens of Stupak’s Folly, without so much as a single restaurant sign to guide you.
But it’s worth the trek; once past those cramped elevators (and a reception area that could use a facelift), you’ll be seated at the most spectacular restaurant setting in all of Las Vegas — if not the world. It may not be the Bund in Shanghai, or Roppongi in Tokyo, but watching daylight dim and the lights come up on the Vegas Valley from 850 feet is a world-class, breathtaking sight. Too many locals forget this vantage is right in their backyard.
So breathtaking is the view, Top of the World could probably serve warmed-over tacos and still pack the place, but it’s a testament to Giffen and Gaty’s professionalism that they’ve brought the food into the late 20th century with some delectable fusion-French. Prices are high, but, for the first time in 14 years, the tariff is worth it, and the food is worthy of the view.
Among the appetizers, only the seared ahi tuna takaki with a crispy potato gaufrette (waffle) disappointed — promising more flavor than our ice-cold-in-the-center example delivered. The crab cake is beautifully seared and plenty crabby, while the jumbo prawns are so big they’ll have you thinking you’re eating a baby-lobster tail. Cooked just right, they come with a bracing Yucatan shrimp ceviche shooter that promises to distract you from the view.
All three salads are above average — even the Caesar passed our exam — but the one to try is the baby frisée with Maytag blue cheese and bacon lardons — classically French, lightly dressed and an early indication there’s a pro at work in the kitchen.
Those jumbo prawns show up again with scallops a la plancha (seared on a stainless steel griddle). As perfectly cooked as they are, it will be the couscous with pine nuts, golden raisins, preserved lemon and chive oil that will have you licking the plate. Likewise, the roasted, orange miso-glazed black cod with ponzu butter sauce will have everyone at the table stabbing for a bite.
Gaty doesn’t miss a beat with his meats, either. His horseradish-crusted prime rib is a thing of beauty, the Kurobuta pork chop comes with a finger-licking good sweet-chile glaze and the lime/hoisin sauce on the medium-rare Muscovy duck breast threatened to make us forget about a l’orange forever. Gaty is justifiably proud of his North Carolina-bred, free-range chickens, and they bring forth all the deep, roasted, slightly gamy flavors that have been leached from factory-farmed birds over years of questionable feeding and breeding practices. Close your eyes as you take a bite and you’ll experience what this once noble bird once was, before it “tasted like chicken.”
Wash down these ethereal eats with a bottle or two from Dean Wachsletter’s well-chosen wine list. It skews heavily toward good vintages from familiar new-world producers, but markups are remarkably down to earth for being served from such a lofty perch.
Desserts are served family-style, as trays of mini-cakes and tarts are brought forth. Most popular are the cheesecake lollipops for rolling and dipping into various sauces and chopped toppings. As good as those are, the mini caramel turtle tart and the petite banana bread pudding really captured our fancy. As Top of the World will, from the moment you sit down.
John Curtas is the food critic for KNPR 88.9-FM and holds court online at eatinglv.com.