At the Cosmopolitan it was Comme Ça, a French bistro that turned into so much more. Before that, Aria brought spectacular Thai food to the Strip with Lemongrass. Those are two of the quietly great casino restaurants that missed their first shot at the culinary spotlight, something that comes with any new Las Vegas resort opening.
At SLS, Cleo is that place, overshadowed by Bazaar Meat by José Andrés and Umami Burger and possibly others. And yet for those who would trek here—SLS is a quick if unlikely trip for locals and tourists—Cleo should be the first stop. Its Mediterranean cuisine is familiar yet refreshing, surprisingly dynamic, and the most expensive dish on the menu is $16.
Like the rest of this renovated resort, there’s a lot crammed into this space, a narrow, bustling cavern with private dining rooms hiding here and there and a towering central brick oven cranking out crispy-chewy laffa bread topped with the spice mixture za’atar or flatbread combos like merguez sausage with smoked mozzarella ($14).
Don’t be shy when ordering. Dishes are small and shareable, so bring a group and eat everything, starting with as many mezzes plates as you can handle. The dips ($7) are fresh and fantastic, from creamy, smoky hummus to sweet, spicy, addictive carrot harissa. An array of vegetable dishes from that wood-burning oven are just as tempting, especially charred, vadouvan-spiced cauliflower with cashews and simple, briny artichokes with lemon. An early appetizer favorite is the spicy cigars, a sort of Mediterranean taquito filled with ground beef, but there are also various kebabs ($7), from lamb to Wagyu beef, and sausages to sate your carnivorous side.
Across the way at Bazaar, Andrés does all kinds of raw meat dishes, but they’ve got nothing on chef Danny Elmaleh’s kibbeh nayyeh ($12), a velvety blend of lamb tartare with bulgar wheat, mint, and a bit of lebaneh yogurt cheese. Kibbeh is a family favorite for me, thanks to our Syrian-Lebanese grandmother, and while we’re used to the deep-fried version of this dish (Cleo does that, too), this raw version marks a joyful evolution.
There are more meat dishes to try, including a delicately grilled octopus ($13), a mini-gyro of slow roasted lamb shawarma ($8) and a variety of tagines with meatballs, lamb or chicken sparked by smoked tomato, piquillo peppers or preserved lemon. But vegetables are the star of this show. They’re mixed into light beignets with buttermilk tahini ($12). They come together in beautiful salads, like the one with pickled beets, avocado, walnuts and pomegranate ($11). They’re used creatively in traditional preparations, like the zucchini keftedes ($10).
SLS has only been around a few months, but it’s already clear that dining is the main reason to visit, and Cleo is a big piece of that puzzle. Elmaleh’s take on this popular cuisine is as good as it gets in Las Vegas, and his restaurant is easily one of the best new eateries in town.
Cleo SLS, 702-761-7612. Tuesday-Thursday, 6-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 6-11:30 p.m. (Seven-day schedule resumes December 23.)