1. Scallop carpaccio with sea urchin (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand) Some say it’s hard to pick a favorite course when you’re eating the best of the best and experiencing one of the Strip’s finest French dining rooms. For me, it was easy. Le Carpaccio is tiny, it’s not new, and it’s one of the first plates you might have at Robuchon’s super-cool “workshop.” But it’s a game-changer: paper-thin slices of pristine sea scallop topped simply with citrus oil, a bit of frisee, and generous dollops of rich, briny uni. It’s an education in balance and restraint with every bite, perfection on a plate. Any other restaurant and I’d order three more courses of this.
2. Sticky toffee pudding (Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris) Everything on the menu at Paris Las Vegas’ Gordon Ramsay Steak is impressive, and some dishes are shockingly good. But this most memorable treat is the reason I keep returning to Ramsay’s first local restaurant. The sticky toffee pudding is revolutionary in the same manner as the chef’s Beef Wellington, a modernized masterpiece. Its moisture and richness make it not quite cake and not quite anything else. It comes with a playful stick of brown butter ice cream, too, but must be ordered with coffee from the French press, served with three chocolates hiding amaretto, Bailey’s and Chambord liqueurs inside. Steak is great, but dessert is better.
3. Breakfast enchilada (Border Grill at Mandalay Bay) In my mental food journal, 2012 goes down as the year I discovered Border Brunch, chef Mike Minor’s impossibly delicious weekend meal at Border Grill. I try new and different dishes every time, but I always order this hearty, simple plate: grilled corn tortillas embracing juicy, citrus-marinated chicken over black beans and vibrant red salsa. It’s crowned with a poached egg, guacamole and cotija cheese. If only I could have this for breakfast every day.
4. PBB&J Crostini (McCall’s Heartland Grill at Stratosphere) I can’t get over how much fun the food is at this new steakhouse, and this appetizer (Could it be a dessert? A side dish?) is a microcosm of the kitchen’s easy-going, flavor-exploding attitude. You could make these at home—thin, toasty baguette slices slathered with creamy peanut butter, crispy bacon chunks, smooth blue cheese and jalapeño jelly. Sounds silly, until you order a second plate.
5. Kakuni (I-Naba, 3210 S. Decatur Blvd.) Simplicity rules. Barely edging out the battera—lightly cured wedges of mackerel over sweet, vinegary pressed sushi rice—as my favorite, most succulent bite at this quietly delicious soba noodle house is this small, understated bowl of braised pork belly and daikon. It’s just the right amount of decadence. And unbelievably, it’s only $6.
6. Yukon Gold potato pizza (Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina at Crystals) Wolfgang Puck personally created this pizza so I’d get over my childhood aversion to Brussels sprouts. Okay, not true, but if a kid did have that problem, pizza would be the way to go. This beauty also combines natural dancing partners of fresh rosemary and Yukon Gold potatoes, plus creamy, sweet mascarpone and crispy, salty guanciale, aka jowl bacon. Pizza by Puck is fine dining—as long as it’s not that frozen stuff.
1. Uni tomato cream spaghetti (Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, 5040 W. Spring Mountain Road #5) This one’s already such a favorite of mine, I almost didn’t realize I tried it for the first time in 2012. The common Tokyo dish seamlessly melds the sea urchin’s brininess with the tomato cream sauce’s acidity for the best of land and sea. If you don’t like uni as much as I do, this could convert you.
2. Crispy binagoongan (DT’s Filipino Food & Karaoke, 7320 S. Rainbow Blvd.) If you eat out enough, you’re bound to stumble across some hidden gems, like this otherwise unremarkable Filipino karaoke hangout at Rainbow and Warm Springs. Binagoongan might as well be Tagalog for “perfection,” but it’s actually deep-fried pork belly in shrimp paste—an exquisite amalgam of crunchy porkiness and shrimp paste pungency with jalapeño heat thrown in for kicks. Scoop this beast onto white rice to temper the robust flavors.
3. Coca con erizos de mar (Jaleo at Cosmopolitan) José Andrés is an evil genius. Coca con erizos de mar is, by simple translation, sea urchin toast, but Andrés makes something great even greater by sneaking mantequilla (butter) into the mix. It adds to the silken texture and flavors of the uni, which are contrasted by the crunch of the toast. The small bites are petite perfection.
4. Prince Pljeskavica (Prince Restaurant, 6795 W. Flamingo Road) This Serbian stronghold might seem a little uninviting, but its menu has a number of memorable dishes, including this favorite of mine. Strangely enough, the sandwich has morphed from essentially a Serbian Juicy Lucy (a cheese-stuffed burger, for the uninitiated) to a gyro-hybrid replete with sirena, an Eastern European feta. The meat is still intact, but rather than forming a patty, it’s folded over into a neat pocket and then served on house-made bread and delivered with ajvar (roasted red pepper spread) and kajmak (butter/cream cheese blend).
5. Ribeye with black bean sauce (Cafe de Japon, 5300 Spring Mountain Road #101) Cafe de Japon is a kissaten, a strange, Spaghetti Western sort of Japanese coffeehouse. The dishes are American-based with Asian influences and range from fairly good to unforgettable. This steak is a rotating special, so be sure to hunt it down beyond the regular menu. The subtle black bean sauce puts a spin on the traditional, amazingly prepared ribeye, empowering the meat without overwhelming it. Chef Kiichi Okabe excels at this type of finesse.
6. Chicken-fried steak (Eat, 707 Carson Ave.) Given Downtown’s ongoing renaissance, it’s only fitting that one of my favorite 2012 dishes came from a restaurant at the heart of the movement. Executive chef Natalie Young will tell you Eat’s not about cutting-edge cuisine, but rather classics done exceptionally well. Her take on the chicken-fried steak is a plate of goodness smothered in one of the best sausage gravies you’ll ever taste. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was in an Amarillo diner, the best compliment that can be hoisted on a dish like this.