Tag Archives: Las Vegas Restaurants

Wicked Spoon is Pretty Forkin’ Good

The proving ground of all Vegas buffets: Shrimp Cocktail

The proving ground of all Vegas buffets: Shrimp Cocktail

It’s an odd thing to stake a claim as something of an expert when it comes to Las Vegas buffets…especially when you weigh in at under 200 lbs…but why hide it? I’m probably one of the few people on the planet to have dined at virtually all of the casino-resort buffets, typically in the course of research (see my Orbitz.com Top Ten Buffets, most of which I believe still holds accurate, with the exception of Mirage’s Cravings, about which I’ve heard too many complaints) but occasionally just in the pursuit of a quick, effortless meal. Which is largely the point of these casino smorgasbords, at least historically, as I noted in another piece I wrote on the topic for the Las Vegas Weekly.

Though many critics and gourmands tend to dismiss them—and certainly with valid reasoning—buffets obviously continue to be popular with visitors, otherwise newer resorts like Aria and the Cosmopolitan wouldn’t invest in them (in fact, it’s almost more intriguing to note which Strip resorts don’t have buffets: New York New York, Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Bally’s, Venetian/Palazzo, Stratosphere; Tropicana now only offers a limited buffet for breakfast). And the Cosmopolitan in particular has certainly invested in the Wicked Spoon, a quite elegant entry into buffet land, marked by modern design and polished wood tables that wouldn’t look out of place in any fine dining scenario.

Some of those small pans that are Wicked Spoon's signature... (they should have tip jars for the dishwashers!)

Some of those small pans that are Wicked Spoon's signature... (they should have tip jars for the dishwashers!)

Their main aesthetic distinction—to offer many selections in small-portion china and cute metal pans-is also a serious investment, not just in hardware but also in labor cost in serving and cleaning (as well as making sure people aren’t swiping those cute little sauciers). One might presume the point would be to limit how much you can eat, but I suspect it has more to do with curtailing the typical buffet behavior of piling your plate high with food, and then not finishing, letting it go to waste. That’s as much an ecological issue as it an economic one, and in that aspect, I applaud the Cosmopolitan for the gesture.

But enough musing: It’s interesting to note that of all the places I eat and tweet about, none has aroused more curiosity than Wicked Spoon, so I’m sorry it took over a week to post a full blog.

Typically, I’ve reviewed buffets during weekday dinner service, since it’s their most full array of offerings, without anything special added. But for Wicked Spoon, I went during Sunday brunch, assuming I’d get a bit of what’s available during breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think that held true.

Overall, most of what Wicked Spoon offers doesn’t stray far from the basic buffet formula: standard American breakfast offerings, cold salads, an ample carving station, Mexican, Italian and Asian items, some fish, and lots of decadent desserts. It’s the product quality, overall, and the execution, that sets this apart.

Breakfast items include oversize coffee mugs, an omelet station with a greater-than-usual number of fillings, eggs benedict, chicken-apple link sausage, and perfect applewood smoked bacon.

C'est cheese.

C'est cheese.

One could argue two cold u-16/20 shrimp in cocktail sauce is not really “shrimp cocktail,” but they are fresh and properly cooked. The salad station also features a couple of gazpachos, some ceviches and cold fish, several fine cheeses, fresh-sliced salumi, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes (likely seasonal) and most impressively, fresh burrata with watercress that any restaurant would be proud to serve—one of a handful of dishes here that’s worth the price of admission alone (as long as you eat as much of it as you can!).

Surly carver, tender carving. As it should be.

Surly carver, tender carving. As it should be.

The carving station is even more well-achieved: Virginia ham, prime rib, Andouille sausage, turkey, and yes, slab bacon (that’s a first) are all good, juicy and fresh. And beside them, served two pieces to a pan, is “Wicked” fried chicken. Even most buffet boosters will admit fried chicken is rarely a go-to, but these spice coated pieces were moist, crispy and flavorful, really pretty great. Get two. At least.

Pizza and panini

Pizza and panini

In the Italian section, standouts include creamy/earthy mascarpone polenta with mushrooms (it’s not Scott Conant’s, but it ain’t bad), cavatelli with short rib, and some creative thin crust pizzas—short ribs (again) abd pulled pork among the toppings. The latter was more interesting than inspiring, but really, who goes to a buffet for pizza (and if you’re going to the Cosmo and eating pizza anywhere but D.O.C.G. or the nameless joint, you should be spanked)?

Char Siu and friends: that's unretouched color!

Char Siu and friends: that's unretouched color!

Asian offerings include some of the best char siu pork I’ve ever had—bright red, but uncommonly tender; red curry vegetables with tofu that were light on the vegetables but flavorful regardless; General’s chicken that was crispy, lightly breaded and altogether better than it should be, as well as decent pork belly fried rice and some Korean short ribs that looked good, but also involve more work than I wanted to invest.

One of probably a dozen sample plates (sorry guys, it's a JOB): great cod, good sweets, bland al pastor

One of probably a dozen sample plates (sorry guys, it's a JOB): great cod, good sweets, bland al pastor

A few other nice discoveries were lemongrass cod with asparagus (cooked fish is usually the weakest link in any buffet), crispy sweet potato fries, ratatouille, and a succotash that was perfect, really.

And then there’s dessert: several fudges and barks (that’s another first), dipped strawberries and  marshmallows, all kinds of pretty parfaits and pastries, so tiny you can sample, crumbles and chocolate bread pudding in pans, and16 gelato flavors served in mini-cones. I showed restraint but enjoyed a scoop of creamy, dense, fresh-tasting pistachio gelato.


There are some weak spots, of course. The tacos al pastor were virtually flavorless, as was ceviche. The pastas in pans were nice, but pesto separates when it’s kept warm (as it did on the gnocchi) and the mac’n’cheese was lukewarm. Sushi rolls here look nice but are also ridiculously bland. There’s an attempt at Asian noodle soups (ramen/pho, whatever) but it’s kind of a joke. And what was labeled as a Caesar salad definitely wasn’t (unless bacon is a part of the recipe I’ve been missing all these years), though I enjoyed it anyway.

The end result is that Wicked Spoon is definitely in the “upper echelon” of Vegas Buffets—and if you’re wondering what company I’m referring to, it’s Bellagio, Wynn and M Resort. Period (there are other certainly acceptable buffets, but none that really aspire to the level of quality and quantity of these folks). Just to make some comparisons, overall Bellagio has by far the best sushi and salads; Wynn—which also does some small-portioning—has great soups, ceviches, and a gut-busting patisserie; M’s Studio B just has a massive array of everything, all very good, along with free beer/wine—and by far the lowest price points among this company. Wicked Spoon fits in well here, and is the most elegant and relatively intimate experience of them all. And I hasten to add, it had the best looking buffet crowd I’ve ever seen. I’m talking model-quality. Shocking, I admit (who knew they even ate, much less “all you can” ate?).

The bottom line with any buffet is that yes, obviously you are making a trade off of quality when you’re eating pre-made food vs. cooked to order. My biggest beef with buffets—and all of the best share this problem, including Wicked Spoon—is when you have to wait on a lengthy line to sit down. I’ve never understood the point of this (it always seems intentional on the part of the management to seat people slower than they could). To me the biggest attraction to a buffet, and it’s initial raison d’etre way back at the El Rancho in the 1940s, was that one could sit down and eat a meal more quickly than with normal service, in order to get back to the gaming tables, or whatever else you had planned. I have to be honest, if I had to wait more than 10 minutes in order to sit down at a buffet, even any of these great buffets, I wouldn’t do it.

Especially when you can grab a great slice of pizza right down the hall in a minute and a half.

Worst of the “Best:” A Response to the “Best of Las Vegas 2010”

With Chef Geno Bernardo, who unfortunately does not cook at Olive Garden.

With Chef Geno Bernardo, who unfortunately for R-J readers does not cook at Olive Garden.

It’s a rite of nearly every publication to do both “Best of”s and Readers’ Polls, but few seem as equally anticipated and dreaded as the Review-Journal’s “Best of Las Vegas,” a readers/staff/celebrities selection, that never fails to engage yet enervate the community. Of course, as long as it’s talked about, it’s a success for the R-J (let me pause to note that I consider several staffers there friends and colleagues), which is probably why the two-decades-plus old poll’s enduring flaws are never cured, and possibly get worse.

No portion of the poll seems to get heads scratching so much as the “Food & Drink” section—restaurants, basically—whose categories are as random as the choices made. The R-J seems to choose genres as they suit them (or perhaps advertisers?), neither reflecting accurately the full breadth of eateries in the valley (and virtually ignoring the “drink” in “Eat & Drink”) nor bothering about how many overlaps there are in the ones they chose (both “Best New Restaurants” choices this year belong in other categories). Why the R-J staff and readers both tend to shun the Strip like a quarantine zone baffles me. It’s the center of the city. Nine out of ten times, casino resorts offer the best eating in town. And no, it is not all priced to gouge tourists.

I “get” that the readers of the R-J are not the same as restaurant critics, and I also get that there’s a great deal of food in the affordable range worthy of praise. What I don’t get is why R-J readers—and staff members, who are presumably more informed—continue to make uninspired or even embarrassing choices at least 50% of the time. I don’t buy the “what ordinary folks like” theory: go on yelp.com and you’ll see all kinds of intelligent, informed reviews by “normal” people about all kinds of eateries in town. (Let me add an extra thumbs-down to the design of the Best Of Eat & Drink page, which makes you click and click back on every category. Is the R-J trying to snub the Sun’s award winning design by being the worst designed website possible?)

Every year, those in the know groan over the choices but rarely put any reactions in print. This year, I decided enough was enough. I’m posting on my personal site so as to be clear that this is my position, and mine only. Feel free to RT, share, Digg, etc..

Best Bakery

Trolley du Pain at Guy Savoy

Trolley du Pain at Guy Savoy

I can’t fault the choice of Freed’s, a Vegas stalwart responsible for great whimsical creations, but when it comes to savory breads, both Wynn’s general baker, and the baker for Guy Savoy’s Trolley du Pain make many remarkable creations (unfortunately neither available at retail).

Best Bar Food

I confess I haven’t sampled the myriad chicken wing creations of many Vegas Pubs, so I might have to beg off this one. But the happy hour menu at Society in Wynn holds many pleasant surprises, and the seared tuna burger at Brasserie Puck in Crystals, City Center is also remarkable for the price, with perfect fries. That’s right, I used the word “perfect.”

Best Deli

Tuna Burger at Brasserie Puck...it's on a bar. Does that make it "bar food?"

Tuna Burger at Brasserie Puck...it's on a bar. Does that make it "bar food?"

I have been warned away from more delis in Vegas than I’ve tried, but Earl of Sandwich in Planet Hollywood makes fine toasted sandwiches—and Enoteca San Marco makes their own deli meats on premises, so how much better can it get than that?

Best Desserts

The choice of Cheesecake Factory here just makes me realize how little most Las Vegans get to sample what their city has to offer. There are several award-winning pastry chefs making miracles on the Strip. Those at Sage, Guy Savoy, American Fish and Aureole are just a few that come to mind right now. M Resort’s buffet desserts are also fantastic, to a one. And again, the dessert trolley at Guy Savoy? It isn’t better in heaven, I’m sure of it.

Best Doughnuts

Nutella filled donuts at Stratta, Wynn. Hate me later.

Nutella filled donuts at Stratta, Wynn. Hate me later.

Dunkin Donuts? Winchell’s?? WTF? The category isn’t “biggest” donuts. At least please pick Ronald’s, a Vegas legend that still holds its own with creative (and vegan) choices. Though really the best donuts in town are the the fresh-made nutella-filled ones at Stratta in the Wynn. Go try them and tell me I’m wrong.

Best Family Restaurant

This is a tricky category—not all restaurants ideal for families necessarily bill themselves as such, Having said that, R-J’s staff pick Red Robin is actually a solid choice, but in reality, any of the Station casino’s buffets, Seasons at Silverton Lodge or the buffet at Main Street Station are better family pleasers (especially if they let the under-six kids in free)

Best French Restaurant

I was scared to even peek at the choices here. There are no shortage of restaurants attemping fine French food in Vegas, though few are inspired. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Marche Bacchus, and I’m happy for them getting the attention, but really, in a town where Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire are plying their trades, be serious. On a more traditional level, Mon Ami Gabi and Bouchon both deliver solidly

Best Gourmet Restaurant

Far too vague a category. I abstain.

Best Hamburgers

The five dollar Binion's Snack Bar burger. Which you can't buy at In N Out.

The five dollar Binion's Snack Bar burger. Which you can't buy at In N Out. (courtesy Binion's)

This category drives me crazy. I spent more time than I’d want to admit last year trying burgers around Vegas. I know what I’m talking about. There are at least a dozen burgers served in town that are far, far, far better than In N Out at its very best (see my Top Ten Burgers here), but I will spare the snootiness. Just go get a fresh-ground five dollar burger at the snack bar in Binion’s. Eat it next to an In N Out. What are you afraid of?

Best Hot Dogs

Well there’s nothing wrong with a Costco hot dog, especially for the price, and toppings aside, I haven’t found anything in town that necessarily beats them. Although really, considering this consistent winner just makes food to feed its shoppers, is this category necessary?

Best Ice Cream

Do we have to reserve choices to only ice cream, by technical definition, or are we allowed to include fro-yo, gelato, custard, and other frozen options in town? Because frankly, I couldn’t begin to list the things that beat Cold Stone.

Best Indian Restaurant

Haven’t sampled enough Indian in Vegas to comment, but I have had a very fine lamb shank curry with all the proper sides at MOZen in Mandarin Oriental.

Best Italian Restaurant

An even bigger category in Vegas than French—and one with a significant tradition. So that’s why folks chose Olive Garden? Sigh. I could get angry, but really, what I feel is closer to pity. Please—PLEASE—go to the Palms, get on an elevator, and eat at Nove Italiano. It’s really not that expensive. If not there, the Grill at Valentino, Fiamma at MGM, Lupo in Mandalay Bay or Stratta in the Wynn. Olive Garden doesn’t love you. Olive Garden doesn’t need you. They do. (see my Top Ten Italian)

Best Japanese Restaurant


Yellowtail sashimi around warm foie gras at Sushi Roku

Another massive category, especially when you include sushi, robata, and everything else. But certainly neither R-J’s staff pick Raku or celebrity pick Ichiza can be slighted. In a more Americanized vein, I’ve also had a very good meal at Sushi Roku recently.

Best Meal for Less Than $10

Considering the tradition of amazing Graveyard Specials in Vegas, one would have to choose one of those, right? Oops, guess that would require some thinking. The Flamingo’s Burger Joint gives you a burger and fries for ONE DOLLAR after midnight. It’s not the best burger in town (even at midnight) but guess what: It’s just as good as In N Out! Buy ten of them for your friends, big spender.

Best Mexican Restaurant


Elote at Hussong's Taqueria

So… we’re supposed to distinguish this from taqueria, I imagine (see below)? Unfortunately, that’s difficult in Vegas, but Dos Caminos and Diego are solid choices—and Hussong’s delivers on many levels. Get the elote. (also see my Notes on eating Mexican)

Best Microbrewery

Not a lot of choices here, but along with the R-J staff, I’ve been impressed with the quality of several brews by Chicago Brewing Company. Color me shocked that I’m agreeing with them in more than one category.

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant

I’ve yet to try an Middle Eastern in Vegas that’s worth remarking upon. Not saying there isn’t any that’s good, just saying I haven’t found anything. I’ll defer to my favorite Greek, John Curtas.

Best Barbeque

Another category I confess might deserve more of my attention (there’s a few funky places on my to-do list), but for the moment, I’ve never been disappointed by Memphis Champs. And the pulled pork sandwich at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill is one of the best I’ve ever had—even in Memphis proper.

Best Other Ethnic Restaurant

I don’t really know where to go with this category… how does someone compare Cuban to Cajun or whatever “Ethnic” is supposed to include or exclude? So I’m going to go with the Hawaiian specialties at the Californian Hotel café. Just Because.

Best Pizza

Thankfully the customers at Metro Pizza aren't insulted by offerings like the mushroom and truffle Bosco pizza at Stratta.

Thankfully the customers at Metro Pizza aren't insulted by offerings like the mushroom and truffle Bosco pizza at Stratta.

A pyrrhic victory at best—I’m sorry to tell everyone, as a East Coaster, that even the best Vegas pizza is only passable by serious standards. But those best pizzas are found at the obvious choices—Settebello, Grimaldi’s, Anthony’s (R-J’s staff pick) all have their strengths—as well as Stratta at Wynn and Grotto at Golden Nugget. Particularly memorable: the Paul & Young Ron at Anthony’s, the Bosco at Stratta.

Best Place for a Power Lunch

By my definition, a Power Lunch spot is a place where atmosphere and service dominate over food itself, which shouldn’t be too distracting. With that in mind, I can’t think of any place better than Country Club at Wynn, Verandah at Four Seasons or Olives at Bellagio. Unless it’s a catered meal by Wolfgang Puck in Steve Wynn’s villa (unlikely, I know).

Best Place for Breakfast

Maybe I should’ve saved that last snarky answer for this one… the best breakfast I’ve had in Vegas was at Tableau in Wynn when Mark LoRusso was still running it. Nowadays? It’s probably Verandah.

Best Seafood Restaurant

The restaurant is very specific—all Italian pesci–but how can you compete with the one-of-a-kind Bartolotta in this regard? Or all-sustainable RM Seafood? Or so many places in Chinatown? I guess you do that by putting coupons in the newspaper, right Red Lobster?

Best Thai Restaurant

The Archi’s vs. Lotus death match must soldier on, but without slighting either, I personally don’t get the obsession with heat over ingredient quality in this cuisine… Lemongrass in Aria certainly does some nice dishes.

Best Coffee/Cappuccino

No strong opinion here—I think really excellent coffee is more and more rare actually—but I have had very fine coffee at Verandah in Four Seasons, and have a soft spot for Coffee Bean on Maryland Parkway.

Best Steakhouse

Gosh, this Craftsteak dry aged ribeye couldn't possibly compare to a filet at Outback, could it? (courtesy MGM/Mirage)

Gosh, this Craftsteak dry aged ribeye couldn't possibly compare to a filet at Outback, could it? (courtesy MGM/Mirage)

My only reaction to Outback winning the Reader’s pick this year is to breathe a sigh of relief that the serviceable but uninspiring Circus Circus did not win a 21st year. For a chain, I’ll admit Outback is edible, if only. I also researched this category extensively within the last year (see my Top Ten!)—there are many fine choices, to which I would add most recently Jean-Georges in Aria. On a more reasonable level, you’ll get a solid slab at Binion’s Ranch, the Carmel Room at Rampart, or The Flame in El Cortez.

Best Sub Sandwich


Best Tacos

I don’t even want to see what was chosen, but the most authentic, savory and satisfying tacos I have had recently in town are actually at Hussong’s in Mandalay Place. Really. Los Antojos obviously has some satisfying options as well (particularly the chicken mole).

Los Antojos' mole tacos

Los Antojos' mole tacos

Best Asian Restaurant

Would this be best Asian, except for Chinese, Thai and Japanese? Nice categorization, editors. Anyway, can’t argue much with Wazuzu, the R-J staff choice, since it’s literally an “Asian” i.e. fiercely pan-Asian restaurant, with a strong chef at the helm.

Best Soul Food Restaurant

Speaking of categories, why this gets one and Wine Bar, or Tapas, or many other growing categories do not, is beyond explanation.

Best Chinese Restaurant

…that you didn’t vote for in the “Asian” category, that is. I doubt even the owner of P.F. Chang’s would say he serves the best Chinese food in Las Vegas. But he’ll take your money.

Best Diner/Coffee Shop

Since we’ve already been asked to vote on best breakfast, best burger, best meal under $10, best coffee…what role does this category serve? I don’t know many places in Vegas that would even classify in my concept of a traditional Diner/Coffee Shop (besides the fact that there’s a decent one in every single casino, but so what?). So I’m going to be “that guy” and pick the Vegas-adjacent Peggy Sue’s in Yermo, CA. Hey, they’ve got a bobble head of Oscar Goodman over the pie case. And some damfine fried chicken.

Best Restaurant With a View

This would have been a different choice before Top of the World significantly remade their menu in December, but they are now the obvious pick weighing the view and food equally. Mix, Voodoo Steak, Sushi Roku, Eiffel Tower, Veloce Cibo, Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse and Panevino are also all solid food-and-view selections.

Best New Restaurant (Opened in 2009)

Goat Cheese Gnocchi at Sage

Goat Cheese Gnocchi at Sage

It’s Sage. Period. No, you’re wrong. It’s Sage (opened December 16, 2009)