Brock Radke: For better or worse, it looks like Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants is becoming the essential Vegas restaurant guidebook. The 2013 edition has arrived, and there are some surprises in the new book, penned once again by longtime local critics John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini.
The first thing that caught my attention was not which restaurants made the list, but which ones didn’t: Strip stalwarts Aureole (Mandalay Bay) and Bouchon (Venetian) inexplicably got the axe, as did must-eat neighborhood spots DW Bistro, Sen of Japan and Settebello. I’m trying to keep in mind this is supposed to be the 50 essential restaurants of Las Vegas, a descriptor with much more flexibility than a simple “best of” guide, but … no Bouchon? It’s offensive. Vegas maintains a handful of classic bistros these days, but are any of them better than Bouchon? Curtas, the snobbiest of the trio, writes that removing it “is a crime against all that is proper and holy about eating good food in America.” Apparently Mancini disagrees; he vetoed the choice.
Which of their cuts rubbed you the wrong way?
Jim Begley: Some wrongs were righted with the new edition, while other egregious errors were exacerbated. Last year’s exclusion of Comme Ça (Cosmopolitan)—a travesty!—was corrected this time around, apparently at the expense of Bouchon. Trade one French brasserie for another, I guess.
Frankly, the exclusion of Sen of Japan irks me. I actually asked Jacobson about that one, and he replied, “How many sushi joints should be in the book?” Sen isn’t just a sushi joint. Apparently every French restaurant in the Valley can be included, but God forbid multiple Japanese joints make it in.
BR: Agreed. There’s been a proliferation of great Japanese food here in recent years, so it would make sense for the Top 50 list to reflect that. These guys have the great Raku in their Top 10, and then Bar Masa (Aria), straight-up sushi joint Kabuto, and ramen house Monta rounding out their Japanese favorites. They could have found room for one or two more.
JB: What about the tradeoff of Settebello, out of the Top 50, for Due Forni? I love both pizza places, but once again, why are we dealing with quotas? Probably my biggest problem with the book is that essential is not clearly defined. Do that and it’s easier to judge, but without a definition, the boys have more wiggle room. Settebello was revolutionary when it arrived with its VPN pizza and still continues to serve a great pie.
I hate to knock on local joints but I don’t think Bread & Butter should be on the Top 50 list. I can think of numerous other restaurants that are more essential to the local dining scene. I know everyone else loves the place, but I find it average. I want to love it but…
BR: I love it, but I understand your point. When you’re making a list like this, you have to draw the line somewhere between my favorite restaurants and the places that must not be missed, the places that really make Vegas such a tremendous restaurant city. That is what essential means.
JB: Another question: How the hell is Bartolotta not in the Top 10? Seriously? There’s not another restaurant of its kind in the states, let alone the city. It’s also the only Wynn inclusion on the list. Sure, Wynn doesn’t focus as much on F&B as they used to, but still.
BR: I’m with you on this one, too. Bartolotta is too good and too unique to not be in the Top 10, especially when you consider that Cosmopolitan's Milos—which is in their Top 10—is pretty much a Greek version of Bartolotta's insanely fresh Italian seafood concept. And what about steak? Apparently, unlike the vast majority of Vegas visitors, our three amigos don’t care much for beef. Only three steakhouses made their list: CUT by Wolfgang Puck (Palazzo), Carnevino by Mario Batali (also Palazzo), and the new Gordon Ramsay Steak (Paris).
Flipping through the new edition feels like the critics wanted to shake things up, to inject some fun into this year's book. I'll give 'em props for including great new restaurants like Le Thai, Kabuto, and Public House (Venetian), but it's still a pretty stuffy list, loaded down with fancy French joints and expensive eateries that might not be as good as they once were. What other restaurants would you have included in your Top 50?
JB: There are three that jump out at me: Andre’s, Parma and KoMex. Not that I think the list needs any more French joints, but Andre Rochat set the standard in Vegas for a long time and continues to dole out great food in his Monte Carlo hideaway. Overlooking neighborhood Italian joint Parma is simply a travesty and methinks there are other forces at work on this exclusion. Anyone who has read anything I’ve written over the last couple of years knows how much I love KoMex. To me, its Asian-Latin fusion represents the amalgamation of cuisines that exemplifies Las Vegas. We don’t have one style of our own but our borrowing and improving upon those of others is becoming quite a hallmark.
BR: Let’s break down the critics’ Top 10. They’ve picked Cut, Milos, Raku, Guy Savoy (Caesars Palace), Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (MGM Grand), Le Cirque and Picasso (Bellagio), Marche Bacchus (in Desert Shores) and Valentino (Venetian). Besides the Bartolotta exclusion, do you have other issues here?
JB: The Top 10 reminds me of Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong ... ” That would be Marche Bacchus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exemplary off-Strip restaurant, but in lieu of Bartolotta? I think you hit it on the head—they wanted to shake up the list and in doing so, have somewhat missed the mark. Any list of this length will have detractors but some of these are so blatant.
BR: I’m surprised two off-Strip restaurants are in the Top 10. But I believe Raku and Marche Bacchus are the two best off-Strip restaurants in the city, so it’s nice to see them get such lofty recognition.
JB: One other criticism I have about the book is for the most part, it’s fantasy. Journalist Steve Friess made an observation when the first edition came out a couple years ago regarding the acknowledgement and the thanks given to casino and restaurant PR people. These three critics can hardly walk into any of the places in the book—certainly not on the Strip—without being identified. As such, anything they write about service is completely out the window. Most of these restaurants have great service, but there are a few where most normal folks wouldn’t get the same coddling. The $100,000 question is: Would they rank these restaurants this way if they were treated the same as Don from Dubuque? What do you think?
BR: Ah, Jim, always the idealist. Your integrity is what I love most about you. But you make a good point. We can only hope the critics’ choices are based on multiple experiences in all of the restaurants they recommend and consider a nice, round balance of cuisine, service, atmosphere and value. My big question is why they haven’t raised the stakes and written the 100 essential restaurants of Las Vegas. Maybe we should write that book. What do you say?
JB: I’m game. But can we call it something other than essential? How about The 100 Most Greatest Las Vegas Restaurants? That’s got a nice ring, don’t it?