A visitor to Sin City might be tempted to stick to the corporate comfort of the glitzy hotels on and around the famous Strip. But the obvious candidates for the appetites of chowhounds can be a gamble these days. I know, having recently pushed a lot of food around on my plate at the otherwise dramatic Tao in the Venetian; tasted the great divide between the lackluster Spago in the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the ever-impressive original in Los Angeles; and gaped more at the price of admission than at any of the Chinese food I encountered at Wing Lei at the Wynn.
Get this: “The most interesting food in Las Vegas right now is being done by young chefs off the Strip,” says John Curtas, author of “Eating Las Vegas: The 52 Essential Restaurants.” An observer of the scene for more than two decades, Curtas dates the dining shift to the 2007 recession, which cost many chefs on the Strip their jobs and begat a flurry of food trucks. Several years ago saw the emergence of more locally owned neighborhood establishments. Allow me to share my winnings:
HEAPING HELPINGS OF ITALY
Generosity is a hallmark of Pizzeria Monzú, the light-filled, bighearted, Sinatra-soundtrack restaurant that Giovanni Mauro opened in March, on the site of his parents’ Nora’s Italian Cuisine, which relocated within walking distance. Mauro’s signature salad — tomato, cucumber, mozzarella, onion and fennel — could fill a mixing bowl, while his pizzas (ferried to the tables by servers in T-shirts that declare “I love gluten”) could double as rafts. Size matters here, but so does flavor.
The dough holds the secret to the pies’ success. Mauro forgoes commercial yeast for a starter developed from two old strains, one based on apricots from a local farm, the other from the island of Ischia off Naples. The process takes five days, but the payoff is a crust that’s subtly sour and nutty. I’m drawn to the pizza billed as Vegas Meets Italy, a mash-up of toppings that grow in the desert (dates and pistachios) and things that speak to Sicily (prosciutto and arugula), where Mauro, a Los Angeles native was reared.
Every dish has a detail or two that makes it stand out from the city’s Italian pack. Note the crackle that gives way to molten ricotta in every bite of the fried squash blossom. Lemon leaves wrapped around juicy fillings of ground beef, pork and garlic impart a hint of citrus, and lasagna is rethought using fine, house-made crepes instead of heavier noodles, plus a filling enriched with béchamel. The lasagna, a Sunday staple the chef learned to make in the old country, now lights up Vegas seven days a week.
INFO Pizzeria Monzú, 6020 W. Flamingo Rd., Suite 10, Las Vegas. 702-749-5959, monzulv.com
At the sleek new Partage in Chinatown, chef Yuri Szarzewski sends out food that has diners Googling his background (31 years old, native of southwest France, veteran of Parisian heavyweights L’Ambassade and Le Bristol Paris, and winner on “Chopped”) and he pampers them like moneyed whales in the casinos. Pea soup with a quenelle of lemon-basil sorbet is followed by golden fritters, kneaded from salmon and choux pastry, and presented with a sabayon of avocado and citrus; then minced squid, cooked and served as if the seafood were risotto, with Parmesan, as well as mascarpone and pesto.
Tasting “portions,” or small plates, are the way to go if you want to sample a lot for less, although the a la carte entrees are impressive, too. The splurges include whole Thai snapper, baked with herbs in a salt crust, filleted in the kitchen and anointed with a reduction of orange juice and roasted fennel.
Partage, opened in May, figures the best way to sell dessert is to put it on display. Faced with a rolling cart, diners find it hard to resist baba au rhum, which comes with a shot of the signature spirit in a plastic vial, or baked Alaska, filled with whipped cream rather than ice cream (to help it stay up all night). Heed the restaurant’s call — partage is French for sharing — and split something.
INFO Partage, 3839 Spring Mountain Rd., Las Vegas. 702-582-5852, partage.vegas
SUSHI WITH A SIDE OF TRANQUILITY
Should you crave a meal that doesn’t involve a celebrity chef or razzle dazzle — it can happen in this nonstop, neon-lit city — you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better break than Yui Edomae Sushi, watched over by Tokyo native Gen Mizoguchi.
The curtains in the small foyer part to reveal . . . well, not much, just a stretch of smooth wooden counter, cut from a 350-year-old cypress tree, and a man with a knack for buying superb fish, mostly from Japan, and slicing it with precision.
The master sends out lush, ocean-scented sea urchin from Japan and rectangles of fish — tuna streaked with fine lines of fat, and pink, baby yellowtail — that taste as if they just flopped from the water onto his cutting board. The sashimi comes with a garnish of tiny fried crab that I dispatch in a single noisy bite. The restaurant takes such pride in its wagyu beef that a server shows off its certification of pedigree — the cow’s ID number included — when a small skewer of rib-eye is introduced. The rich meat, seasoned with Himalayan sea salt and cooked over Japanese charcoal, is so tender that you barely need to chew; wedges of grill-kissed Japanese potato are a nice punctuation.
Tonight’s finish, a tender yellow cube of sweet omelet, bears the stamp of the restaurant: an original touch in a restaurant of quiet distinction.
INFO Yui Edomae Sushi, 3460 Arville St. Suite HS, Las Vegas. 702-202-2408, yuisushi.com
WHERE TO DINE ON THE STRIP
Ablaze in neon, the Strip is Las Vegas’ boulevard of hotels, grand and glitzy, and the restaurants that go with them. Some are as bright as the lights, some as dim as your luck at the casinos. Here are recommendations for dining along the way and nearby.
EXPENSIVE If you’ve hit it big, go all in to taste the food inspired by two of France’s greatest chefs, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy, or invest in a top steakhouse. Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, in the Waldorf Astoria (formerly the Mandarin Oriental), is an elegant showstopper. So’s the $777 tasting menu with wines. Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace has a “prestige tasting menu,” at $385 per person; add $200 for wine pairing. For beef-loving whales, there’s SW Steakhouse at Wynn, where chef David Walzog prepares all cuts, notably highest quality wagyu, peaking at $220 for four ounces of densely marbled Sanuki Wagyu, Kagawa Prefecture.
MODERATE Enjoy star chef Jose Andres’ creative tribute to noodles and tacos at China Poblano in The Cosmopolitan. A tasting menu is $45 per person. Nearby is a branch of Andres’ Jaleo, for delectable tapas, via a $95 tasting menu, or a la carte. These establishments are deals compared with his Bazaar Meat at the SLS and the coveted, private é, complete with acute accent, at The Cosmopolitan.
INEXPENSIVE Tucked in a shopping center on South Las Vegas Boulevard about 10 minutes from Wynn is Viva Las Arepas, with Venezuelan treats less than $10.
L.I. IN L.V. BBDs of Rocky Point, Ralph Perrazzo’s full-flavored spot devoted to burgers-beers-desserts, has opened an off-Strip branch in the Palace Station hotel and casino. It marks a return to Las Vegas by chef Perrazzo, who’d cooked at the departed Bradley Ogden restaurant at Caesars Palace.