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what it's like at aureole.

Aureole was one of the Strip restaurants on my "can't believe I haven't eaten there" list until this week. That list is getting smaller all the time. I am lucky, but also fatter.

Years ago I wrote a column about wine with Aureole sommelier William Sherer. It was an educational experience, and the lesson learned was how fun it can be to indulge in the expert's recommendations and try new things. The wine program at Aureole is one of the best and biggest in the country, and so we were honored to dine there and let Sherer do his thing. The meal started with canapes: a crispy, creamy chicken croquette; a slab of horseradish-accented country pate on toast; a perfect, delicate fig tart; tuna tartare in a crisp pastry cylinder; and in the center of the tic-tac-toe-type plate, a chunk of spicy, earthy merguez sausage. We foolishly ordered cocktails and finished them with this opening dish.

Then, ricotta ravioli with smoked salmon, baby artichokes, sugar snap peas and lemon thyme, an entire universe of cheesy-smokey-sharp tastes, and a salad of rosso bruno tomatoes, burrata, radish, arugula pesto and walnut tuille. The salad looked like a painting and was a study in clean, fresh flavors. The kitchen did not allow us to rest with those as our first courses, firing away with Hudson Valley foie gras with rhubarb and strawberry sorbet, a perfect contrast of rich to tang, and an off-menu dish, seared scallop over a creamy risotto with great big shards of black truffle.

On to the mains: a blue cheese-crusted beef tenderloin with macaire potatoes, onion jam and asparagus, and roasted Mediterranean sea bass with fennel quinoa and romesco sauce. Sherer hyped that romesco up, and it paid off, thanks in part to his masterful pairing with Borgo Del Tiglio Collio Rosso, a rich red deep and wide enough to cover that sharp sauce and buttery fish. On the side, there was a decadent sweet corn succotash with a hint of bacon, and an even more indulgent spinach au gratin.

Dessert was never-ending. Pre-dessert was a charming selection of sorbets (pictured) augmented by Sherer's choice of Tintero Moscato d'Asti Sori Gramella, a brisk, sparkly, dry white. Actual dessert was creme brulee with two sublime macarons riding along, just for fun, and a trio of Meyer lemon creations: a classic tart, warm lemon pudding cake, and a creamy lemon-olive gelato. Then came a plate of warm-from-the-oven madeleines, which soaked up coffee. We were then placed in a cushiony wheelbarrow and toured through into Chef Vincent Pouessel's kitchen. He's a very friendly guy who has lasted much longer -- 8 years -- than so many great chefs in so many big money kitchens. Overall, it was one of the greatest meals of all time, made more meaningful in a restaurant that has been around long enough to lose some of the Vegas spotlight. But it really hasn't lost a thing; there's no falling off at Aureole.


an open letter to the mexican restaurant getting ready to open across the street.

Dear Mi Tierra Mexican Restaurant:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for planning to open a Mexican restaurant just a few steps away from my house. Thank you for taking over a pretty nice, pretty large space that has been empty for years in my neighborhood. Thank you for bringing another restaurant option to my nearest shopping center, which only contains a pub, a pizza shop, a noodle shop, a Subway and a Carl's Jr. I am not sure when you are planning to open, but your sign says "Coming Soon" and so I have to believe that is true. I appreciate your hard work and wish you the best of luck. I just have one simple request:

Please, please don't be shitty.

I generally don't subscribe to the widespread belief that there is no good Mexican food in Las Vegas. I think the best stuff can be found in little hole-in-the-wall taco shops and big, fancy, boundary-pushing restaurants on the Strip. In between, there are plenty of generic, family-style Mexican restaurants with chips and salsa and margaritas and enchiladas with lots of yellow cheese melted on top. These are, at best, okay. And these are the restaurants -- while popular -- that build on that belief that Vegas doesn't have high quality Mexican grub.

If that's what you're gonna be, Mi Tierra, I'll take it. Because out here in the northwest end of the valley, we don't have much Mexican food at all. A few significant good restaurants have opened up in recent years in the blocks surrounding your new business. We've got solid Italian food at Parma by Chef Marc and Thai food at Nittaya's. And we've got neighborhood standards that are some of the best in town, like the Bagel Cafe and Marche Bacchus. But we need good Mexican food. The best that could still be considered kinda nearby is Frank & Fina's Cocina, but we have to drive up to the Beltway and way out to West Flamingo for that stuff.

I love Frank & Fina's, and I don't expect you to outdo it. Just please, don't suck. Be as reliable as Ricardo's, a longtime Vegas family favorite on Decatur and Flamingo. Be as friendly as Vega's Cafe, another spot with a deep local history, unfortunately shuttered within the last year. Be at least as interesting as Galerias, the slightly eccentric restaurant your space used to be, where they served some authentic and just plain strange chile rellenos. Make fresh salsa, please. And guacamole. Cold beer. No yellow cheese would be nice.

I really want you to be good, Mi Tierra, so I can walk across the street after work and drink too many Modelos and eat a nice plate of chile verde and then stumble home and be happy. I want another reason to love my neighborhood. If you are good, I promise to tell everybody. Thanks, and again, best of luck.


best of the best? the strip's top dining destinations.

First thing's first: this lovely image here is the badass benedict at ZoozaCrackers, the deli inside Wynn Las Vegas. Forget about an English muffin. This sucker is built on an authentic, savory potato latke, stacked with house-made pastrami and corned beef, then Swiss cheese, poached egg and Russian dressing. If you are skilled enough to get a bite with each component, it's a pretty amazing mouthful. It's just one of the specialty dishes at Zooza, one of the more overlooked restaurants at Wynn, and it's absolutely delicious. Even in a pair of resorts with spectacular brunch offerings, it's hard to imagine a better midmorning nosh than this satisfying benny.

So I'm thinking about (and eating at) Wynn and Encore lately, because there's been a lot of change 'round here, and a lot of talk that the dining at these two beautiful Strip resorts are slipping. The closure of Alex Stratta's restaurant Alex is the catalyst for this theory, but there have been other developments. Combined with the big foodie impact of the Cosmopolitan's opening in December, these changes have me returning to one of the great debates of the Vegas Strip: Which resort has the best restaurants? It's definitely a loaded question, but it's still fun to think about. And I don't think it's fair to limit this question to single hotels, because Wynn and Encore are the same, Venetian and Palazzo are the same, and CityCenter is essentially a single destination. So I'm grouping things together where they make sense.

What makes a great dining destination in Vegas terms? You must offer a diversity. Every casino has a top-notch steakhouse, but what about French and Asian food? Got Mexican? There must be great casual munchies as well as amazing high-end stuff, and the highest of the high-end needs to be a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. This is Vegas; it's all or nothing. Quantity of good restaurants is not as important as quality of those restaurants.

And so with lots of "research" and a belly full of Wynn pastrami, I say behold: The Top 6 Dining Destinations on the Las Vegas Strip, according to me. Enjoy. Seriously, go enjoy. (Note: Sure, we can argue about this if you want.)

6. Cosmopolitan. Notable dining: Blue Ribbon, China Poblano, Comme Ca, D.O.C.G., Estiatorio Milos, Jaleo, Scarpetta, STK.

5. Wynn/Encore. Notable: Bartolotta, Country Club, Sinatra, Society Cafe, Stratta, SW Steakhouse, Tableau, Wazuzu, Wing Lei.

4. MGM Grand. Notable: Craftsteak, Fiamma, Joel Robuchon, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Nobhill Tavern, Seablue, Shibuya.

3. CityCenter. Notable: American Fish, Bar Masa, Jean Georges Steakhouse, Julian Serrano, Lemongrass, Mozen Bistro, Sage, Sirio, Social House, Twist.

2. Caesars Palace/Forum Shops. Notable: Beijing Noodle No. 9, Bradley Ogden, Joe's Stone Crab, Mesa Grill, Payard, Rao's, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Spago.

1. Bellagio. Notable: Circo, Jasmine, Le Cirque, Michael Mina, Noodles, Picasso, Prime Steakhouse, Sensi, Yellowtail.


what i learned on my summer vacation.

I’m a bit of a shut-in. I haven’t been anywhere. I’ve lived in Oregon as a kid, in Reno as a student, and spent a lot of time in Southern California; briefly glimpsed Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Minnesota and Colorado. Went to Mexico once. That’s it. I’ve tried to figure out how my perceptions are altered or restricted by a life spent in Las Vegas without a lot of comparison. It’s hard to assess because, hey, I don’t know anything else.

Staying in Vegas may have some negative impact or produce some inefficiency in my development as a writer-human, but there’s at least one awesome upside: when I do go somewhere, I'm wide open. It’s like outer space travel. If it isn’t my beloved dry desert, my brain and body don’t know how to react. Super-cold temperatures inspire fear. Inches of snow might be a natural disaster. Sky-high mountains, thick rows of forest green, rivers and oceans are fantastic things straight out of the movies. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic.

In July, I was in Chicago for the first time ever. I crashed with and was guided around the city by family, a couple of jazz musicians/personal trainers. Seems like a perfectly normal dual vocation for people who live in Chicago. We walked a lot. We didn’t drive much. We rode a train. That was some outer space shit; in fact, moving from the subterranean airport corridor straight to the train made me feel kinda Total Recallish. We saw some touristy stuff and some art museum stuff, a really old and beautiful church, and some amazing, never-ending cityscapes. We ate deep dish pizza, great burgers from Kuma’s Corner, and jicama salad and duck enchiladas at Frontera. I fell in love, with a bar. It was five days and it went by too fast. But it was long enough to see a city, a real one, and long enough to gain a bit of that perspective I’ve been missing. And I return refreshed, with a healthy dose of appreciation for what we’ve got here that you just can’t find anywhere else. It’s also very easy to see what we don’t have in Vegas, but exploring this issue through comparison is a slippery and senseless slope.

There’s a lot of discussion going on these days about the state of Vegas, the culture and community of this place, and where we are headed. Our backbreaking shift from ultra-growth mode to cover-up-and-hide recession fuels the conversation, and conceals the fact that despite its size and population, this city is an adolescent. So Vegas cannot be legitimately compared to New York or L.A. or this crazy Chicago place I just discovered, or even to metropolitan areas with closer population like Houston or Philadelphia. We are just a baby, or maybe more appropriately, a whiny preteen.

One publication I write for recently did a package called What Las Vegas Really Needs. All the usual suspects were rolled out: A pro sports team. Cultural and economical diversity. Walkable, urban areas full of retail, restaurants, museums and fun shit. Public art. Public transportation that actually works and makes sense for the region. (A Vegas L-train would totally be like Total Recall.) In a demonstration of egotastical laziness, I declined to contribute to this package of articles. I didn’t want to beat a deaditorial horse. And I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to see the vast majority of these suggestions are less What We Need and more Ways Vegas Could Be More Like Other Cities. That’s the way the collective Vegas brain operates because almost all of us are from some other place, and what we really want is all the convenience and sunshine of Vegas with the best amenities from back home. All we want is everything. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s fair. If you spend a lot of time wishing for these kind of things We Need, I think you should ask yourself why you want so much out of Vegas, which has done nothing but entertain you and make your life easy. Hasn’t it given you enough? I think so.

I’m going to go see more places. I don’t want to be such a shut-in. Other cities may expose the shortcomings of my home, or they might make me love Vegas more, but those are just instinctual, superficial reactions and they don’t mean anything. A larger understanding, a wider perspective … that’s the plan. My Vegas is going to grow up to be whatever it wants to be. There might not be a consciousness, a spirit or soul of this city that’s driving its development, steering growth and change, and that’s fine with me, too. Maybe Vegas doesn’t want. Did you ever consider that?


ah damn, rosemary's?

Before I started writing about food, I wrote about music. I wrote reviews of concerts and new albums and interviewed whoever was coming through town, people like Morris Day and Rob Halford and John Legend, and guitar players or bass players from rock bands whose lead singers didn't want to talk. It was fun, but my favorite part was listening to the music and then writing about it. (This was back in the old days when there were things called CDs.) Just as in writing about restaurants, I did not particularly enjoy being a critic of music, of someone's self-expression, of their art. But that's the job.

Listening to lots of new CDs created a clear-cut divide for me. There were only two kinds of records: those intended to be art and those intended to make money. The age-old struggle. And of course, the real truth is that most were a blend of both.

The music critic days are long gone and now that I've been doing this food thing for a few years, I see those same classifications in the Vegas restaurant world. Some joints, you can tell as soon as you walk in that it's all about pushing out product, satisfying customers, turning over tables and stacking cash. This is the case with the vast majority of restaurants on the Strip, franchises, and pretty much everybody else. Nothing wrong with that; this is business. But a few of our city's eateries exist for something more, or at least they inject enough affection into the experience to make it feel like they love what they're doing, they love to cook your food, they love to send you off with delicious memories. Once upon a time there was one of these in every casino, a loss-leading, mind-blowing dining room selling tourists a once-in-a-lifetime epicurean experience. There's a few left. Alex at Wynn was one. It's probably more likely you'll find art-over-commerce eats off the Strip, in the neighborhoods, where the pressure to make a million dollars isn't weighing on the kitchen every day. This phenomenon occurs most commonly when a talented chef moves in from another town to work the Strip, decides to make his or her home in Vegas, and ends up opening a great neighborhood restaurant where he or she can really cook his or her own food. This is how we got Firefly. This is how we got Todd's Unique Dining. This is how we got Rosemary's.

Earlier this week, it was announced Rosemary's had closed for good. It opened in the spring of 1999 on the west side of the valley, near the Lakes and Summerlin neighborhoods. That was the same time I came back home to Vegas after college. It took me a while to make my first trip to Rosemary's, even though it was nearby, because it seemed too fancy and too expensive for a 20-something. But over the last 12 years I've had some truly great meals there, and even more stops at the bar for a light dinner, incredible snacks and lots of cocktails. Chefs and owners Michael and Wendy Jordan have been as beloved in the local dining community as their jewel of a restaurant, mostly because their cuisine -- warm, modern American with a kiss of Southern influence, nodding to Emeril Lagasse who brought them to Las Vegas -- was reliable and delicious and really set a new standard for neighborhood dining in the area. I don't think it's a stretch to say that for its entire tenure, Rosemary's was considered the best restaurant in Las Vegas off the Strip. If you believe food can be art, this was the place.


hook me up with a good pan roast.

I spent a chunk of years working for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is located on the northwest edge of what is considered to be downtown. For some of those same years, I lived in the northwest part of the valley. Much of my time then was commuting on Rancho Drive, back and forth, passing Texas Station a few times every day. So I've eaten a lot of meals there, in one of Station Casinos' most humble properties. Lots of Fatburgers and Rubio's fish tacos, and not so much cafe and buffet food. (It should be noted, however, that Texas' steakhouse, Austin's, is pretty decent. Recently, it began serving a fun little happy hour menu from its A-5 bar, stuff like sliders and salads and fried shishito peppers.)

But most of my Texas Station lunches were at the Texas Star Oyster Bar, murdering many bowls of blisfully orange, seafood-laden pan roast. It had been a long time, years maybe, since I ate this lunch here. It's still pretty good, but it could have been fired up a bit. A pan roast is a weird, semi-Cajun seafood bisque, full of spices (paprika makes it orange), a little sherry and a lot of cream prepared in a steam cooker. At Texas, you can order it with shrimp, crab or oysters, or a combination of all of the above. Definitely get the combination. There is some white fish in there, too, and you have the option of white rice or pasta to soak up this rich, thick, fishy, totally-overdoing-it broth. It's also best to order it spicy, like I did, although it won't come hot enough. The thing about this dish is that it's huge. There's a reason you only ever get lobster bisque in a tiny little cup. This is a mighty big bowl of creamy, savory warmth, and yet I always eat at all. I love pan roast. What can I say?

There's other more pedestrian food at this oyster bar besides the raw stuff: fried seafood, sandwiches, salads. What kept me coming back, besides proximity and convenience, was the fact that there just aren't many oyster bars or seafood houses of this type anymore. It's kind of a played-out, throwback restaurant concept. There's only one southern seafood house I can think of in town -- Lola's downtown at the Holsum Lofts. Buzio's restaurant in the Rio used to serve a good pan roast, but that place has seen many menu changes and is more of a New England seafood spot now. In fact, most of the seafood restaurants in Vegas are closer to steakhouses with some fish on the menu. In fact, I can't think of an oyster bar anywhere in this town that's not inside a casino. I guess that makes me a tourist. Huh.


lunch at estiatorio milos.

As I said to some colleagues while I was eating this lunch at Milos, it's getting difficult to find new, fresh food to write about in Las Vegas outside of The Cosmopolitan. The local economy is still moving slowly and fewer restaurants are opening these days, so that's part of it. The fact that we're not going to have a giant resort opening with tons of new eateries inside it anytime soon is another part. But really, it's all about the fact that Cosmo totally hit the nail on the head in terms of what's hot in the food world right now and how to present it. The hotel's glitzy steakhouse STK is murdering it, everybody's still buzzing about the secret pizza shop, the wild China Poblano and the spaghetti at Scarpetta, and now, six months after opening, locals and steady Vegas visitors are discovering more good eats as they sample the "deep cuts" of Cosmo's culinary repertoire.

The 2011 Lunch Menu at Estiatorio Milos, priced at $20.11 for three courses, has been raved about by every local food writer and even some out-of-towners. It's an incredible deal considering the ingredients alone, as this restaurant -- transplanted from Montreal and set to open its fifth location later this year in Miami -- is known for flying in the freshest fish from the Mediterranean. The goal is to change the American perception of Greek food, and after one meal, it's safe to say this cuisine is unlike almost anything else you can get in Vegas. I think of it as the Greek answer to Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn, another fantastic restaurant that spends a lot on jet fuel transporting goodies to the desert. The difference is Bartolotta has never done lunch, and the beautiful, wide open, tranquil room at Milos is much less imposing. It's a great place to eat, and noon is a great place to do it. I'm happy to join the local chorus in claiming this is the best lunch deal in Vegas. Here's a little look; now go get your own.

To start, the hortopita: delicate housemade phyllo stuffed with wild greens and aged feta cheese, served with salumi and the thickest, best Greek yogurt ever.

Then the fish: lavraki, or sea bass, served pretty much whole. This is much more food than it appears to be, especially since you're going to want every bite. The fatty, crispy skin parts are unreasonably delicious.

For dessert, Karidopita Me Pagoto. It was described as nutty cake with a little bit of ice cream, but it's actually a moist, fluffy brick of the stuff that makes baklava so awesome. It's beyond rich and seemingly impossible to finish. Especially after all that amazing fish.


back to raku. oh, now i get it.

Let's get simple. There are three places to eat in Las Vegas. There's the Strip, there's your neighborhood, and there's Chinatown. For most of us, the Strip is for special occasions. (If you're just visiting Vegas, that's pretty special, right?) Your neighborhood is where you dine most of the time. It's normal for humans to do this. And unless it happens to be your neighborhood (or if you're one of the food obsessed), Chinatown is an occasional culinary adventure, for the more adventurous. That's all there is to it, really.

And now let's accept the fact that Strip dining, as dynamic as it is, can get old fast. It's too much sometimes. And your neighborhood can get boring, even faster. Chinatown doesn't have those problems. It's never too much, and it's never boring. It's the sweet spot every time.

So now let's return to one of the undeniable highlights of Las Vegas Chinatown, Raku. After my virgin visit, I accepted this place is something different, and can be a puzzling experience. But now I am compelled to recommend that you return to Raku often and find your own experience there. It will be rewarding. The high-fallutin' foodie folk will tell you this is just pure, authentic, clean Japanese pub food, but forget those people. Those are not normal people. There are challenging things on this menu, but you don't have to try them. There are just as many simple, delicious plates as there is crazy shit. It is inevitable that you will find something you love. For my lovely yet fearful wife, it was crispy asparagus okaki, perfect vegetable bliss (pic right). For me, it was everything else. But what really blew me away was something I would normally stay away from, an ingredient I only pretend to enjoy when it's mixed in and drowned out by lots of other ingredients and flavors. The beef tendon from the robata grill doesn't look like much, but after an evening of trying just about everything, tons of tastes subtle and powerful, it's the one bite that I can't get out of my head. First the lingering cloud from the charcoal grill hits you as you get ready to chomp, and then it's overwhelming. Distinctly beefy, but also salty, smokey, rich and buttery. And the texture attacks, spreading itself around without asking permission, but just go with it. This is not going to sound appetizing, but it's like The Blob from the old cheesy movies (I prefer the Kevin Dillon version), only a tiny version that tastes awesome and only wants to take over your mouth, not the whole city. It's simply a rendition of a dish that I've never experienced, and now it's the only way I want to eat tendon ever again. And there are so many other things at Raku that are just as great.

Kobe beef skirt with garlic.

More beef? Okay.

Back to the robata skewers, here's pork cheek, fatty, firm and delicious.

Peace in a bowl. Cold green tea soba noodles with a poached egg.

Amazing pork belly, great slabs of it in Raku's astonishing dashi with a little Chinese mustard. Wow.

And here's that beef tendon. Told ya it doesn't look like much. I'll have yours if you don't want it, sucker.


last lunch at venetian/palazzo.

For someone who eats out as much as I do (way too much), I have surprising few regular dining companions. And now I have lost one. My friend and former colleague Lauren has run off to New York, and it's a big loss for lunching. She finished up her Vegas era working for the Venetian and Palazzo resorts, which meant that we did some serious work on the many restaurants in these two big, beautiful Strip properties.

We made some mistakes, just a few. We went to First Food & Bar and Grand Lux Cafe a few times too many, getting stuck in mediocrity. We didn't go to Bouchon enough, but that's not our fault; only recently has the place been open for a proper lunch. We had decent lunches at restaurants that should be visited at dinner, like Valentino and Pinot Brasserie. Wolfgang Puck's Postrio is okay, but straight across from it, Mario Batali's Enoteca Otto is better, with some of the best pizza and pasta around. And, to my surprise, the lasagna at Zeffirino is outstanding, as is pretty much everything at the quiet Zine Noodles & Dim Sum.

The last lunch was last week, and we closed our run at Emeril Lagasse's Table 10. This place is hidden in the second story shops in Palazzo, above the casino, between a closed space that used to be Woo pan-Asian and the genre-bending SushiSamba. If this sounds confusing, that's because it is. Many of the restaurants at Palazzo have struggled due to strange placement (see Restaurant Charlie, as in Trotter).

Table 10, despite the big name chef on the marquee, also has been somewhat forgotten, but that may be changing. The menu, described as a New Orleans eatery with market fresh ingredients, has taken a prominent turn toward the market. There's a nice little frisee salad with a poached farm egg, smoked bacon, parmesan reggiano and red wine vinaigrette with a mini brioche on the side (above pic). There are "snacks" on the lunch menu including candied North Country farm bacon, fried Great Lakes smelt with lemon mayo, and veal cheeks with wild mushrooms and fava beans. Sure, there is some heavy stuff, like these amazing Kurobuta baby back rotisserie ribs (pic) and a killer ribeye sandwich with grilled portobello and horseradish, but there's also seared tuna with a farro salad and some simple po-boy sandwiches. At dinner, there's Colorado beef and lamb, suckling pig porchetta from Iowa and Hawaiian snapper. Don't do like we did and eat way too much meat. Save room for dessert, since Emeril's spots always do sweets right: banana cream pie, coconut cheesecake, or a chocolate flourless cake with a Kona coffee milkshake.

You can't really eat your way through all the restaurants in these huge, bajillion-dollar hotel casinos. There are just too many great choices, and once you find some food you love and go back for more, that's one more missed opportunity, one more tally for the still-have-to-try-it list. It's a tough job, take it from me. I probably won't be dining frequently in the Venetian or Palazzo now that Lauren's gone, but I will return to Table 10. It's worth it.


top of the strip.

So the Sahara closed. Yesterday. And yes, it is a bit sad. Few of us like to see a piece of Vegas history shut down. The part I don’t like to watch is when locals and visitors alike lament a classic casino going down even though they haven’t patronized the place in ages. You want something to live? Help keep it alive.

I don’t have a strong connection to the Sahara, mostly because there hasn’t been an interesting restaurant there in the last 10 years. (Although the Nascar Cafe did manage to score a visit from TV’s Man vs. Food.) Besides the casino's ownership, which has been at least a little misleading, we can attribute the closing to the fact that other planned North Strip properties -- Echelon, Fontainebleau, MGM’s barely planned project at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard -- never materialized, and therefore it remained isolated from all the action. And now there is a different casino that sits alone on that island, the misunderstood spot on the boulevard between the Strip and Downtown.

But I don’t think the Stratosphere is in trouble. First of all, exactly how would you go about imploding that thing? But seriously, the Strat just dropped a bunch of money into remodeling the rooms, and the casino already was in much better shape than the dilapidated Sahara. Most importantly for us, and people like us, it does have an interesting restaurant. Actually, calling Top of the World interesting is kinda stupid. It's truly unique, 800 feet above the desert floor, and dinner or lunch up here will provide you with unparalleled views of Vegas while munching on exquisite eats. I went for the first time recently. I knew the cuisine was much improved under the kitchen command of chefs Rick Giffen and Claude Gaty, but I just imagined the experience to be ultra-cheesy and inconvenient. Actually, it was an easy stroll through a nice casino, a quick straight shot up in a tiny elevator, and some of the best service I've received in a fine dining destination in the city.

I love that you can go to lunch here. So many big ticket restaurants on the Strip skip the mid-day meal, and this stunning environment seems to scream dinner only. Nope. Even better, the lunchtime menu is fun, not just a defused version of dinner. There are beef tenderloin "carne asada" tacos, excellent crab cakes, and a Vietnamese banh mi-style grilled chicken sandwich (Gaty is a classic French chef with a love for southeast Asia, which is why this baby lands on this menu.). Dinner will get spendy, yes, but prices are comparable to other fantastic dining rooms down the street and frankly, those dining rooms are not as fantastic. Obviously. I recommend the Tower Trio Combination appetizer, one of the most big-time Vegas dishes ever: seared foie gras, one of those meaty crab cakes, and a huge seared scallop. It's pretty heavy, but this is a special occasion kinda joint, so go ahead and splurge. Save room for a kickass ribeye with horseradish crust, and a sublime rack of Colorado lamb with natural jus and a seasoning blend that boggles the mind. There are a lot of options up on the Top, all approachable French-American fusion.

When I sat for dinner, my view peered right down on top of the Sahara. It takes about 80 minutes to revolve all the way around and see all of Vegas, and so I made another turn past the now-closed icon during an amazing meal. I wish the Sahara was still open, but it isn't. That doesn't mean the North Strip is forever dead. This circular motion continues.