I eat a lot of everything every year in Las Vegas, so you might assume I have tons of mind-shattering experiences to share when looking back at all I ate in 2013. The truth is, everything blurs together, which makes the real standouts really stand out.
There’s no pattern here. Some of these are special experiences and some seem ordinary. But that’s how it goes; you never know when or where you’re going to have your most dynamic meals. So here are my 13 most memorable meals of 2013. Go try the ones you can; maybe they’ll stick in your brain, too.
1. Beef & Whiskey Japan-style at Stripsteak Mandalay Bay’s steakhouse—one of the best on the Strip—hosted this ridiculously indulgent late lunch during this year’s Vegas Uncork’d weekend. Chefs Michael Mina, Gerald Chin and Gary FX LaMorte were on hand to create three courses of top-flight Japanese beef paired with whiskey cocktails from Mina Group barman Carlo Splendorini. It was heavy. It was masculine. It was insane. I was beyond satisfied after slurping Wagyu broth ramen with a skewered chunk of crispy beef tendon, and then we were each served two magnificently massive medallions of A5 Wagyu, one of the most expensive food products in the world. We probably shouldn’t have retired to the bar after the meal to taste more 12-year-old Suntory Hibiki, but we did.
2. Barbecue and Beer at Bellagio Every summer, Bellagio hosts this barbecue lunch in its Tuscany Kitchen as part of the Epicurean Epicenter events series. You should go. In 2013, the focus was on crisp Belgian beers, easy drinkers like Goose Island’s Sofie and Leffe Blond, and incredible grilled and smoked meats prepped by resort executive chef Edmund Wong and his staff. I like to do mixed grill, but this stuff put my home cookery to shame. The main plate had braised pork belly with salsa verde, cedar plank salmon with purple potato salad and roasted chicken with sweet onions. I can still taste each bite.
3. Kabuto I don’t always make it to all the hot new restaurants when they first arrive, but I really wish I hadn’t waited until 2013 to experience Kabuto. There’s simply nothing else like it. If you’re serious about sushi, this is pure paradise. If you’re not, it’s still a must-try, the most singular restaurant in Las Vegas. 5040 W. Spring Mountain Road #4, 676-1044.
4. Spring tasting menu at Twist Bacon-artichoke ice cream with foie gras. Parmesan-coated cuttlefish with black gnocchi. Green curry-scented eggplant with veal tenderloin. The flavors created at Twist by chef Ryuki Kawasaki and the legendary Pierre Gagnaire are the Strip’s wackiest, most experimental, and least boring. The menu changes four times a year, so there’s always something new. If I could, I’d eat here every time a new menu is unleashed. Mandarin Oriental, 888-881-9367.
5. Jean Georges Steakhouse It seemed like bad timing: I visited Jean Georges in January during the rush of CES. Any time there’s a mammoth convention in town, the Strip’s best steakhouses will be packed; a party of 24 was seated next to my table. Despite the madness—or maybe because of it?—the service was as good as I’ve ever received, and that’s saying something. And the meal, highlighted by hamachi sashimi, broiled bone marrow and an incredible, juicy dry-aged New York strip, was flawless. Now when I’m asked for a big Vegas steakhouse recommendation, I send my peeps here. Aria, 877-230-2342.
6. Teppan at Nobu Other than its size and the fact that it’s attached to its own branded hotel tower, there’s nothing really new about Nobu Caesars, right? Wrong. They do teppan here, and like no other. I did the $280 menu, highlighted by half a Maine lobster with red onion shiso salsa, foie gras with crunchy garlic and plum wine teriyaki, and a lobster miso cappuccino. (That last one has to be experienced to be understood.) It’s spendy, but considering this supreme cuisine is prepared right before your eyes, it might be worth the splurge. Caesars Palace, 785-6628.
7. Trash Fish Dinner at Border Grill Most pop-up dinners have some sort of educational component, even if it’s just a little light storytelling about how and why your food got to your plate. This one took it a step further, highlighting seldom-used seafood species to spread the word about the importance of sustainable practices and protecting our oceans. We learned a lot but we enjoyed the food more, especially Rick Moonen’s “bycatch bouillabaisse” of Pacific rockfish, seabass, sablefish, monkfish and clams in a tomato-fennel-saffron broth. I don’t care where your fish comes from; if you can make this sublime stew, I’m in.
8. Finally taking my wife to Naked City Pizza Shop We have an agreement. I’m allowed to eat and write for a living as long as she’s the plus-one when it’s time for Thai food, Mexican food, and of course, pizza. I’m not sure why it took me so long to introduce her to the upstate New York goodness that one can only find at Naked City Pizza Shop. Its deliciousness made her ecstatic and angry at the same time. Or maybe that was the Suicide Fries. 3240 S. Arville St., 243-6277.
9. Omakase at Yellowtail Chef Akira Back has a style all his own, mixing reverent respect toward classic cuisine with a little attitude and lots of confidence. You can get a sense of this rising kitchen star’s culinary personality by sampling the omakase menu at his original Vegas outpost, a collection of popular dishes and creative, customized food that tells his story in his own way, with his own flavor. Bellagio, 693-8865.
10. A celebrity chef doubleheader at Eat and Fat Choy When Jet Tila called to say he was coming to Las Vegas to meet with the Life Is Beautiful crew and needed a great Downtown lunch spot, I told him: Go to Eat. He invited me along. I got there a little early and ordered some posole to keep me busy. Ashton Kutcher and Tony Hsieh were talking at a corner table. Tila just missed them, but he brought another celeb: Scott Conant. After eating every sandwich on the menu and sharing Demi Moore jokes with Eat owner Natalie Young, the chefs dragged me to their next stop, meeting Bruce Bromberg and Jolene Mannina at Fat Choy. I munched duck bao, fried pork sauce noodles and the short rib-fried egg burger and pretended not to listen to the group’s LIB food plans. Eat, 707 Carson Ave., 534-1515. Fat Choy, Eureka Casino, 794-3464.
11. Tasting menu at Alize In the spring, I revisited one of the all-time great restaurants of Las Vegas, a place that might be a little overlooked after years of consistency. Today, Andre Rochat’s charming Alize at the top of the Palms is in the hands of chef couple Mark Purdy and Tammy Alana, and they are churning out beautiful food to match the views. I can only hope next spring will see the return of some of these delicious dishes, like pan-seared foie gras with almond crumble and port reduction, and lobster salad with celery root and green apple. Palms, 951-7000.
12. A birthday doubleheader at Yonaka and Chada Thai I can never decide where to dine on my birthday. Too many favorites. This year, I narrowed it down to two great new Asian restaurants, but couldn’t decide between creative Japanese or brilliant Thai. So, both. Yonaka gave me cold sake, crispy Brussels sprouts, karaage and the salmon treasure sake orenji, and Chada gave me wine, spicy herb spring rolls, and salmon steamed with chili, lemongrass and lime. Yonaka, 4983 W. Flamingo Road, 685-8358. Chada, 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A, 641-1345.
13. Los Jarochos There are few things better than discovering a great new taco shop. I found Los Jarochos one lazy Saturday morning. It’s clean and comfortable, easy and cheap, and offers every kind of taco meat filling you can imagine. I keep going back for the tender, rich, funky lengua, piled into warm, fresh tortillas with a splash of hot sauce. At 4811 S. Rainbow Blvd., 646-0125.