A growing number of talented Las Vegas chefs are trading steady salaries and the job security of prime casino restaurants to forge their own paths. The upside for visitors? There’s never been a better time to eat out in Las Vegas.
It’s not just along Las Vegas Boulevard, where outsized images of Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay and other celebrity chefs shine down from bright marquees. You also can find great dining along less familiar roads such as Spring Mountain, Blue Diamond and South Durango Drive that unspool into neighborhoods full of strip malls and supermarkets.
1:19 PM, Dec. 23, 2019An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of chefs Andy Hooper and Ralph Perrazzo.
Tucked behind the storefronts, inside cramped kitchens, those former Strip chefs are mapping out a new culinary topography.
You may not yet recognize their names, but you’ve probably eaten their food. They’re the chefs who ran the kitchens (and often developed the menus) for such star chefs as Ramsay and Flay. Now they’re rolling up their knives and heading out on their own. They are the chefs you need to know about right now.
And you’ll find them off the Strip.
“It’s hard to leave the comfort of a job on the Strip,” said Nicole Brisson, formerly executive chef at Park MGM Eataly and the Venetian’s now-closed CarneVino Italian Steakhouse. Brisson and Andy Hooper, another respected Strip restaurant alum, recently opened Locale, in the Mountain’s Edge neighborhood, about 20 minutes from the Strip.
“Five years ago, people would never spend money on truffles or wine dinners off the Strip,” Brisson said. “Guests who knew us at our restaurants on the Strip drive over to see us, tell their friends from L.A. about us, and then they become regulars too.”
Price may be part of the attraction. Visitors are open to leaving the Strip for a top-quality dining experience that’s more affordable, said Ralph Perrazzo, a veteran chef who, until recently, co-owned a casino steak-and-burger restaurant.
“Vegas is more than Las Vegas Boulevard,” said Perrazzo who plans to open his own off-Strip restaurants in the Vegas Arts District and another in downtown Los Angeles. “We can give [visitors] a better meal for less money, even if they have to jump in an Uber to get here.”
In the people business
Brian Howard thinks Las Vegas is on the cusp of culinary greatness, but he wants to redefine the restaurant business. In 2016, Howard, a 10-year veteran of Strip kitchens, traded the top toque position at David Myers’ now-closed Comme Ça restaurant at the Cosmopolitan Resort for Sparrow + Wolf, his start-up a short drive from the Strip.
“It’s easy to feel out of touch with your guests on the Strip because it becomes a business transaction,” he said. “I left to open my own place because I’m not in the restaurant business; I’m in the people business.”
That focus on hospitality — knowing that the chefs and servers are looking out for the guests — gives diners the confidence to push their flavor boundaries and try new cuisines or blends of cuisines.
At Sparrow + Wolf, for example, customers queue up well into the night for Howard’s bold cooking, which blends ingredients from Western ranches, local farmers and neighboring Asian markets into an origami of modern dishes such as osso bucco tortellini, beet and green apple tartare and Chinatown Clams Casino, where lap cheong (Chinese sausage), shiitake mushrooms and uni (sea urchin roe) hollandaise take the place of pancetta, oregano and Parmesan.
At Locale, Brisson serves more assertively flavored rustic Italian food than she felt comfortable offering on the Strip. The one-page menu includes fresh pastas, plenty of vegetables, a half-dozen pizzas, but none of the massive cuts of long-dry-aged beef (and prices for same) for which CarneVino was known.
Howard is grateful for the training he received on the Strip, but, he said, “That also means when you leave the Strip, you have the skills that set you up for success.”
Those skills helped chef Sheridan Su find success a decade ago when he swapped fancy French cooking at the Cosmopolitan for a food truck, then three successful brick-and-mortar restaurants of his own.
He landed a James Beard Award nomination last year, not for tablecloth cuisine but for Hainan chicken, the specialty of his counter-service Flock &Fowl and for the bao, burgers, chicken wings and rice bowls that are his calling cards at Fat Choy, his throwback diner mashup. He’s aiming for another win with Every Grain, a new fast-casual rice bowl spot he and his wife, Jenny, opened recently in downtown.
Chef James Trees also found his niche in expertly crafted comfort food. After helping well-known chefs Michael Mina, Bradley Ogden, Éric Ripert, Heston Blumenthal, Akasha Richmond and Ray Garcia build successful restaurants, Trees, a Vegas native, chose his hometown for Esther’s Kitchen, his first solo venture, and for Ada‘s, his recent follow-up,.
Esther’s Kitchen, in the Vegas Arts District, fuses modern Roman cooking with a Californian, veg-forward obsession. Both restaurants excel at a variety of dishes, including grilled meats, handmade pastas, natural sourdough pizzas and ice creams, but it’s the vegetable dishes that sing loud and clear here.
Need proof? Order a plate of his flash-fried cauliflower, which he anoints with capers, garlic, red chilies and anchovies. It’s the best $10 you’ll spend in Vegas.
A dash of daring
Chef Gina Marinelli last year opened La Strega, her modern Italian charmer after a long stint behind the range at D.O.C.G. Enoteca, chef Scott Conant’s restaurant (now closed) at the Cosmopolitan. Few tourists ventured into Marinelli’s popular restaurant at first, but now it draws a nearly equal share of locals and visitors, who book tables for her blistered pizzas, house-made bucatini tumbled with dandelion pesto, and crostini stacked with tiny anchovies, shaved coins of tart preserved oranges and shaved ricotta salata.
“Don’t tell Scott [Conant], but her version of pasta pomodoro is even better than his,” said Perrazzo, the chef with plans for two restaurants next year.
Luis de Santos and Khai Vu heard the off-Strip siren call too. De Santos, a master sommelier, decamped from Wolfgang Puck’s fine dining group to open Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar last year with Vu, a well-regarded chef whwo also owns the popular District One restaurant downtown.
Mordeo, which means “small bites” in Latin, offers a one-page menu of hefty prime steaks, bite-size tapas, small plates of ibérico ham, and wines and sakes. De Santos’ wine cellar and Vu’s cooking lean to Spain and Japan (and sometimes both, as with Vu’s popular cauliflower bisque, a corrida de toros of shiitake mushrooms, salmon roe, scallions, chili oil and cauliflower), with nods to Italy.
“We came out here to offer old-school hospitality and solid values, especially in wines,” de Santos said. “I’d rather someone spend half as much twice a week than a whole lot every six months.”
Thoughtfully crafted tapas also are featured prominently at Edo Tapas and Wine, where former Strip chef and Edo co-owner Oscar Amador revisits classic Catalan cuisine.
The all-Spanish wine list is packed with labels you might not recognize. The tapas? Plenty of oysters, iterations of corn-fed ibérico pork and an array of Spanish cheeses. If the vegan green tartare (a brilliant use of zucchini) or Peruvian scallops with ibérico pork shoulder and foie gras are on the menu that day, order them.
Or double down with Edo’s $48, ten-course tasting menu, which is served (like everything else) with a pair of tweezers. “The tweezers are for the charcuterie and crudos,” said Roberto Liendo, Edo’s managing partner. “We have a lot of chefs who eat here, and you know chefs love to play with tweezers.”
There aren’t any tweezers on the tables at Partage, a French boîte, but you will find them in the kitchen, firmly in the pincers of Yuri Szarzewski, Partage’s chef and owner. With Partage, he and Vincent Pellerin, his business partner and long-time pastry chef, created one of the city’s most exacting French restaurants, where the decor is a mix of buttery leathers, dark woods and high-key design.
Szarzewski, who cooked in Michelin-starred kitchens throughout France, said he sensed Vegas would embrace star-worthy food away from the Strip. He was right. Partage’s 70 seats fill each evening with a mix of locals and visitors, who arrive for his modern French cooking. His three-, five- and seven-course tasting menus, from $55 to $100, may convince you that neighborhood cooking deserves its buzz.
Cooking without borders
If you prefer cooking without borders, The Black Sheep, chef Jamie Tran’s off-Strip restaurant, gallops from California to Mexico then jumps to Vietnam for the win.
Tran, a protégé of chef Daniel Boulud, serves fish tacos unlike those usually found in Baja; instead of supple corn tortillas, she fills flash-fried salmon skins shaped into taco shells with salmon-belly tartare, tobiko and smoked shishito peppers. Consider yourself lucky if her lemongrass-braised short ribs and creamy grits with Asian pears are on the menu that day.
If you’re a fan of Lotus of Siam, one of the city’s best-known off-Strip restaurants, then you’ll like Lamaii, former Lotus sommelier Bank Atcharawan’s new, modern Thai restaurant. From its shotgun space in an unassuming strip shopping center (also home to Sparrow + Wolf) it turns out high-voltage dishes that include slow-roasted duck and from-scratch curries, which synch well with one of the city’s best value-priced wine lists. His sweet spot? Wines for less than $50 a bottle.
Besides lower rents, many chefs revel in a certain freedom.
“I’m working just as hard or harder than I did on the Strip, but I love it,” said Brisson, the former CarneVino chef who left Eataly to open Locale. “I finally have the freedom to create a dish and put it on the menu that night without going through three layers of approval.
“This is why I became a chef.”
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