While the culinary attractions of the Las Vegas Strip are rightly world-renowned, visitors who never turn their attention to the larger Vegas Valley don’t know what they’re missing. Many of the top Strip eateries are budget-bruisingly expensive. The legendary buffets operate in a cafeteria din, with the smoke and jangle of the casino floor greeting you at the exit.
In 15 minutes or so — about the duration of a three-block stroll up Frank Sinatra Drive, depending on the crowds — you can hop a car to great independent restaurants with original menus, attentive servers, moderate prices and a lot more riding on your satisfaction than the dining spots tied to high-volume casinos.
During a recent trip there, I skipped the Strip and found five ace food destinations worth a quick side trip. No dancing fountains, no kaleidoscopic neon dazzle, just memorably good cuisine.
Todd’s Unique Dining
4350 E. Sunset Road, Henderson, Nev.; 1-702-259-863; www.toddsunique.com
Last year and in 2012, readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal snubbed the big hotels’ celebrity-chef palaces, awarding its Fine Dining award to Todd’s Unique Dining. It wasn’t an anomaly. An unprepossessing eatery in a nondescript Henderson strip mall, Todd’s for years has been the hush-hush choice of airline pilots on the Vegas route. With main courses from $25 to $35, owner/chef Todd Clure promises “Steaks, Seafood, Unique Dining” — the restaurant’s subhead — which is misleadingly humble.
The kitchen serves creative, high-quality dishes with seasonal ingredients and flavors both bold and subtle. Clure’s innovative signature dishes include grilled skirt steak “on fire,” a peppery, meltingly tender cut served beside a mound of sinful chili-cheese fries. There’s a braised boneless short rib, slow-cooked for days and served in deep, earthy red-wine gravy smothering a bed of jalapeño mashed potatoes, the pot roast of the gods.
If you’re after lighter fare, the quinoa and pomegranate salad is a winner. Clever Continental and Asian touches cooperate to give the dishes an element of surprise. Sculpturally beautiful enoki mushrooms garnish smoky barbecue; creamy goat cheese bursts from a crunchy wonton shell, and Japanese pumpkin-filled ravioli drizzled with truffle butter will do more for cross-cultural good feelings than a week of speeches at the G-8 Summit.
The wait staffers are wine-pairing wizards. Clure is the man who turned a blah brunch at Bally’s into a national sensation, so imagine how carefully he runs his own operation.
2620 Regatta Dr., Suite 106, Summerlin, Nev.; 1-702-804-8008; www.marchebacchus.com
Marche Bacchus began as a top-shelf wine emporium and evolved into a French-inspired restaurant with an invitingly tranquil view. Situated on wee manmade Lake Jacqueline, smack dab in a residential area, it’s a perfect spot to watch gliding swans and relax to classical music. The Sunday brunch menu here concentrates on classic fare. The standout was stuffed French toast, a lighter-than-air brioche full of strawberries and bathed in Chantilly cream and maple syrup.
For lunch it’s cheese and charcuterie selections, salade Lyonnaise, soupe a l’oignon (French onion soup), and a bleu cheese burger with pommes frites; at dinner, steak frites and seared sea scallops. Entrees and salads are in the $10 to $15 range. There’s a $10 corkage fee for the vast selection of retail wine. If you’re looking for a low-key spot for a romantic date, Marche Bacchus is hard to beat.
Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Av., Las Vegas; 1-702-735-3033; www.saipinchutima.com
There’s no secrecy about the Lotus of Siam, a Las Vegas — no, a national — institution. Chef Saipin Chutima and her husband, Suchaym, who came from northern Thailand by way of Southern California, opened the restaurant in 1999. The next year, the Lotus of Siam moved Gourmet magazine to declare it the best Thai restaurant in North America. It hasn’t received a serious challenge since.
On a random midwinter Monday, a line of 150 foodies and local habitués snaked out the door. The setting is the Commercial Center, a dilapidated mall where sick businesses go to die. But the Lotus is vibrant with activity, aroma, bustling servers and patrons groaning in delight while relishing their meals.
Despite being slammed by the hungry tsunami flowing in the door, the kitchen knocked out complex, exotic dishes with magical ease. My group — 17 friends altogether — put in our orders, and the sophisticated soups, shellfish and meat skewers arrived almost simultaneously.
The ingredients are utterly fresh and the flavors electrically vibrant, even when the dish is as humble as mango and sticky rice (do not miss it). It would be a travesty to miss the salted, fried fish chunks, basil-stuffed country pork sausage, and epic curry noodles garnished with pickled vegetables. If the 15-page menu is overwhelming, put your server in charge, and go with the wine recommendation, even if it seems counter-intuitive. Yes, German riesling is a perfect match for pungent Thai flavors. There’s a reason for all those Wine Spectator awards bracketing the huge glass-walled wine cellar.
Sen of Japan
8480 W. Desert Inn Road, Las Vegas; 1-702-871-7781; senofjapan.com
Exceptional sushi in the desert? Sounds like a verse from Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” yet it exists. Another gem tucked into a nondescript strip mall, Sen of Japan serves a dizzying variety of premium seafood, from subtly oceanic flying fish egg and pleasantly savory fluke sashimi to tasty Spanish mackerel. If raw fish isn’t your thing, the offerings can be served tempura style, braised, charcoal grilled or in soups. For non-pescatarians there’s Kobe beef with foie gras, citrus-soy filet mignon, or Japanese pork with mustard soy and veggie selections from mushroom risotto to tofu eggplant.
The restaurant has a dark minimalist interior design that focuses all attention on the artfully composed, gorgeously plated entrees. The Japanese notion that the beauty and pleasure of food can be lost if it is served with neglect or disrespect is honored here. That extends to servers who can suggest a framework for eight diners who want to share. Our vivacious waitress, a Tokyo transplant, was especially helpful with Sen’s impressive collection of sakes and deliciously bitter Japanese beers. I’d go again in a snap but only for dinner. The nighttime view of the Las Vegas skyline is breathtaking.
707 Carson St., Las Vegas; 1-702-534-1515; www.eatdtlv.com
The north end of Fremont Street, Vegas’ old-time glitter gulch, is seeing new signs of life and the first green shoots of gentrification. There’s a nostalgic array of World War II-era signs in the shape of martini glasses and high-heeled shoes. Some hipsterish breakfast and lunch kitchens have made a beachhead. The most inviting is the industrial-upscale gloss of Eat, a breakfast and sandwich bistro near the venerable El Cortez.
Eat’s $7 to $13 entrees will leave you full and happy. This is unpretentious, comforting food — oatmeal, grilled cheese, eggs Benedict or eggs served with red and green chili. The lovingly prepared BLTs with thick-cut bacon slabs and arugula salads are honest home cooking elevated a notch or three. You don’t want your eye-opener to be overly intricate. You’re probably hungover anyway.