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 the sumptuous-but-hope-someone-else-is-paying Wing Lei at the Wynn.
News flash: “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, especially downtown and in Chinatown. Allow me to share my winnings:
Heaping helpings of Italy
The chef and co-owner of Pizzeria Monzú, a source of Italian street food along with the implied pies, asks a question of every item on his menu: “Can four people have a taste of this and feel like they’ve had enough?”
Generosity is a hallmark of the light-filled, bighearted, Sinatra-playing restaurant Giovanni Mauro opened in March, on the site of his parents’ Nora’s Italian Cuisine, which relocated within walking distance. (“I didn’t want to let the space go,” he says.) Mauro’s signature salad - tomato, cucumber, mozzarella, onion and his beloved 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. 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 the Los Angeles native was raised.
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, housemade crepes instead of heavier noodles, plus a filling enriched with bechamel. The lasagna, a Sunday staple the chef learned to make in the old country, now lights up Vegas seven days a week.
Pea soup might sound like a humble beginning, but in the hands of the modern French chef at the sleek new Partage in Chinatown, the bowl, set in a small globe of dry ice, might as well be trying out for Cirque du Soleil. The puree is sweet and pure, green as grass, and on it floats a quenelle of lemon-basil sorbet that heightens the flavors as it melts.
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.
The chef - who arrived in Las Vegas only three years ago, with French pals who now serve as Partage’s manager and pastry chef - 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.
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. There are other places to sit in the small restaurant, but the best is nearest the chef, who polishes his rice daily.
“Cook for me, just a few dishes you like,” I ask Mizoguchi after a night on the town. The master sends out lush, ocean-scented sea urchin from Japan and rectangles of fish - tuna streaked with fine lines of fat, 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 baby potato are a nice punctuation.