Sin City's food scene ranges far from the Strip, with Chinatown and Downtown offering exceptional restaurants with ambitious meals
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 24, 2014
LAS VEGAS » Perched at the counter of Sweets Raku, a small, year-old dessert restaurant where almost everything is the gleaming white of a new iPhone charger, I chose a three-course tasting from a rice-paper menu printed in gold.
Mio Ogasawara, the chef and a native of Japan, set a drum of coconut panna cotta in a wine glass, and surrounded it with buttons of mango mousse, balls of cantaloupe sorbet and bananas she had caramelized with a blowtorch. She covered the glass with something that looked like a coaster. Then, raising a pitcher that stood on little feet with red toenails, she poured hot mango syrup over the top. The sauce pooled and spread and was about to cascade over the edge when the coaster, made from white chocolate, melted away and dropped into the glass.
At that point, I couldn't remember all the ingredients in this sweet tropical magic trick, but it was too late to check the menu. I had dipped it in raspberry sauce and eaten it.
Of all the surprises that made my meal at Sweets Raku so entertaining, perhaps the most interesting was its location: a shopping plaza about two miles from the Las Vegas Strip, in the sprawling and still-growing Chinatown area. It is one of many excellent, intimate restaurants that have sprung up in the last two or three years far from the mammoth casinos where celebrated chefs have made the city a global dining destination.
In a recent week spent restaurant hopping around this city, I was drawn back by remarkable meals in Chinatown again and again. I was well-fed Downtown, too, where little independent restaurants and cloistered cocktail lounges are helping that historic area climb back from years of decay.
Every day, I would leave my hotel in the City Center complex for some other part of town, eat a couple of lunches followed by a dinner or two, then return to my hotel bed. I believe this makes me the first person in history who went to the Las Vegas Strip to sleep.
When I did hike along the mountain range of glass towers, pyramids, Roman arcades and Manhattan skyscrapers on Las Vegas Boulevard, I kept seeing famous chefs used as advertisements for no-holds-barred indulgence. Giant photographs of Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller hang from the Doge's Palace at the Venetian. At the Paris, a huge scrim superimposes the Arc de Triomphe with the scowling face and crossed arms of Gordon Ramsay. Seeing Europe's great monuments repurposed as billboards was almost enough to make me wonder why we fought World War II.
For a taste of food that wasn't advertising anything other than itself, I veered off the Strip. The distinctive, original new restaurants there tended not to be ones imported from far away but ones grown here in the desert. They were built by and feed the year-round residents whose numbers have been climbing at a healthy clip since the housing-market crisis. The population of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, grew by nearly 4 percent from 2010 to 2013, and now stands at more than 2 million, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Many of those new arrivals come from Mexico, as evidenced by the tiny taquerias sprouting up around the city, and from a host of Asian countries.
To get to Sweets Raku, I had driven past block after block of strip-mall restaurants: Hong Kong-style seafood houses, Filipino family restaurants, Korean barbecue grills and Vietnamese sandwich shops. Then there were the Japanese places: izakayas, sake bars, ramenyas, curry and tonkatsu specialists.
Sweets Raku occupies a space on Spring Mountain Road, Chinatown's main drag, in a mall called Seoul Plaza. The name is as imprecise as Chinatown's. Seoul Plaza has become a one-stop-shopping destination for excellent Japanese food since 2008, when chef Mitsuo Endo, who also owns Sweets Raku, opened Aburiya Raku, an exquisite yakitori grill. Raku has won a measure of national recognition, but I knew it deserved even more with my first bite of Endo's oyaji tofu, as rich and fluffy as ricotta, served with a sauce of dried chilies and fried garlic so good I ate it with a spoon. Everything that passed over Endo's glazing-hot charcoal was seasoned and cooked with spooky precision, from flaky white yellowtail belly to the tender kurobuta pork cheek that made me think all the pork-belly worshippers are eating the wrong end of the pig.
In 2012, a friend of Endo's opened Kabuto, a traditional Edo-style sushi bar across the plaza. This spring, he handed the chef's position over to Ken Hosoki, who was carving delicate sheets of rarely seen fish species like hairtail when I arrived. I wasn't thrilled with the overcooked omelet or the menu format, which forced me to take some lackluster grilled items I didn't want to get the sashimi that I did. But the sashimi turned out to be exceptional, skillfully chosen to bring out contrasts in texture and fat, and the nigiri was very good as well.
For years, the one restaurant that justified a taxi ride away from the Strip for many visitors was Lotus of Siam, specializing in northern Thai cuisine. Two years ago, a manager and sommelier from Lotus of Siam named Bank Atcharawan struck out on his own to open Chada Thai & Wine. He placed it in another Chinatown plaza that he shares with one of the few North American restaurants serving the lamb-centric cuisine of China's Shaanxi province. Chada's menu is shorter than Lotus', the portions more dainty, but the cooking struck me as more exact and polished after one meal at each.
The flavors at Chada tilt toward southern Thailand, as in the stunningly fine coconut-based crab curry served with nests of rice vermicelli. Quail eggs fried into little bull's-eyes were topped with dried shrimp and set in a superbly focused lime-chili dressing. A tamarind-chili dipping sauce that hit every flavor on the grid at once was sensational with chewy oddments of pork called lo-ba in Phuket. Has anyone in Phuket ever chased pigs' ears with Eric Bordelet's sparkling pear cider from Normandy? Atcharawan has priced the wine list to encourage experiments like that, with many bottles around $40.
Like Raku, Chada stays open until 3 a.m., the better to ensnare cooks and servers on their way home from the Strip. Workers in the celebrity-chef restaurants, whether they stay for a year or decide to settle down, help many off-Strip restaurants stay in business. Sometimes they do more than that. In June, chef Kerry Simon opened Carson Kitchen in the John E. Carson Hotel, a former flophouse downtown.
Simon, who recently learned that he has a severe form of Parkinson's disease, installed Matt Andrews as executive chef. The menu of small plates is antic and border-crossing in a way that could be awful or great. It turns out to be mostly great. A vertical caprese salad deserved sweeter tomatoes, but the gyro tacos were fantastic, with grilled pita instead of a tortilla, holding spiced lamb that spills juice as you eat it. Veal meatballs in a rich, camel-colored sauce of foie gras and sherry played the high-low comfort food game as well as any dish I've come across.
More out-of-towners have been finding their way downtown lately, and places like Carson Kitchen should help. Far fewer make it to Summerlin, in the city's west end, a residential area rich in chain restaurants. That's why I was interested in Honey Salt. It opened there two years ago, owned by Kim Canteenwalla, a chef who has worked on and off the Strip, and his wife, Elizabeth Blau, a consultant who helped lure Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina and many other chefs to the Strip. She and Canteenwalla were key figures in making Las Vegas a stop on the food-tourism route, and I wanted to see how they were treating the locals.
Very well, it turned out. Honey Salt doesn't have pirate ship battles or indoor roller coasters. It's just a restaurant, with paintings by Blau's sister and cooking that's seasonal, up-to-date and refreshingly free of drama, like the summer salad of greens with honey-roasted peaches and the appetizer of fried squid and tender soft-shell clams with shishito peppers. If you're lucky, you have a place like this in your neighborhood. Honey Salt doesn't try to compete with the casino restaurants, but as a downstream effect of the Strip's high-end scene, it's an emblem of where the rest of Las Vegas is moving these days.