The Best Food City in the West

Seattle? San Francisco? Or Las Vegas? Foodie Jennifer Reese dines in nine restaurants and picks her favorite dining town.

buttermilk panna cotta dessert from Serious Pie, Seattle

And for dessert? Buttermilk panna cotta (“cooked cream”) does it at Serious Pie.

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I get a little breathless pondering my dinner at Joël Robuchon, the ravishing Las Vegas outpost of the legendary Paris chef. I am sitting on a velvet banquette beneath a Swarovski chandelier, trying to maintain my composure while confronted with the most extravagant meal of my life. Each course—molten egg yolk ravioli, caviar submerged in a cloud of cauliflower cream, frozen yogurt laced with effervescent sugar that crackles like Pop Rocks—is more surprising and brilliant than the last.

But what vaults Robuchon into the realm of the mythic are the carts. First arrives a cart bearing 14 varieties of house-baked bread—baguettes, rolls,saffron-scented focaccias. "If there is better bread in America, I don't know about it," says my companion, Max Jacobson, restaurant critic for the Las Vegas Weekly. "Try the bacon bread. I couldn't name a rabbi who would turn it down."

A Boston native with the chutzpah to wear a Hawaiian shirt to Robuchon, Jacobson once won a Cadillac on the 1980s TV game show Classic Concentration and can talk about it in 12 languages, including Serbian. But what Jacobson really likes to talk about is food, from the coolest Korean dives in Los Angeles to the reasons Robuchon is Vegas's best restaurant. The bread cart is one; the candy cart, which rolls up at the meal's finale, another. Laden with raspberry marshmallows, translucent Calvados-filled pastilles, chocolates, caramels, nougats, and dozens of other playful house-made confections, the cart is the clincher. In the universe of splurge restaurants, Joël Robuchon is a perfect 10 (702-891-7925, www.mgmgrand.com/dining.)

Does this qualify Las Vegas as a great eating town? After all, there's more to dining than caviar and candy. At VIA, we engineered an experiment. Between Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Seattle—the three top dining cities in the West (see page 51for how we chose the finalists)— we wanted to determine which is the most exciting culinary destination. I asked a food critic in each city to take me around his or her town and show me its best restaurant; its best bargain restaurant; and a place on the creative edge. I then ranked each spot on a scale of 1 to 10.

Jacobson is having trouble coming up with a cutting-edge restaurant. From its early days, Vegas has always celebrated high-rolling glamour and glitz, which is why Robuchon flourishes here. It is not, however, a hotbed of chefs cooking outside the box. Jacobson finally settles on Mario Batali's new B&B Ristorante, in the Venetian resort. "Mario hasn't dumbed it down for Vegas," says Jacobson. "There's tripe on the menu."

I bow to no one in my devotion to Mario's gutsy Italian cooking, but the dinner Jacobson and I share at B&B—lamb's tongue salad, homemade pasta, squab—is a decidedly less vibrant facsimile of a dinner I ate five years ago at Batali's New York City flagship, Babbo. "I don't think we caught them on the best night," says Jacobson, poking at a lackluster goat cheese truffle.

At least I think that's what he says. I can barely hear over the tunes downloaded from Mario's iPod. (He likes David Bowie. A lot.) Noise aside, the meal is pleasant—but the next big thing in Vegas was hot five years ago in New York. B&B Ristorante: 6.5 (702-266-9977, www.venetian.com/bbrest.aspx).

On the other hand, there must be terrific cheap eats in a town where people regularly lose their shirts. Without hesitating, Jacobson recommends Dong Ting Spring, a Hunanese gem located in a remote strip mall. Says Jacobson: "This place is the stone-cold nuts"—gamblerspeak for unbeatable.

And it is. Sadly, there's not another soul in this bright little dining room to savor the chef's tangy pickled long beans or the smoked ham and bamboo shoots. Two people can dine magnificently here for under $25, but it's dispiriting to sit in a restaurant where the only energy is on the plate. Dong Ting Spring: 8.5 (3950 Schiff Dr., 702-387-7888).

San Francisco's Bodega Bistro, by contrast, is bustling when I meet San Francisco Examiner critic Patricia Unterman at this colorful North Vietnamese café for her budget meal. The food is equally lively. Bun cha ha noi—pork, herbs, and noodles that you wrap in lettuce—could not be zestier. Still, I'm disappointed when Unterman orders pho. I've eaten many a bowl of the rib-sticking noodle soup and am convinced it never transcends pretty good. But the $6 pho from Jimmie Kwok's kitchen is phenomenal: pristine golden broth, limpid rice noodles, and chicken so tender it's almost creamy. Bodega Bistro: 9 (607 Larkin St., 415-921-1218).

In fact, dining with Unterman is often revelatory. Like Jacobson, she can talk about anything, from ballet to Saul Bellow to tennis. But above all, Unterman—who co-owns San Francisco's Hayes Street Grill—knows the city's restaurants, which reflect a reverence for farm-fresh and deeply personal cooking.

"This place has an ecosensibility ceilings and polished stone décor at Coi, Daniel Patterson's hushed nine-table retreat on Broadway—her top candidate for the next big thing in San Francisco.

Everything here, from the huitlacoche foam atop the corn custard to the avocado ganache garnishing a chocolate cake, is fresh, and not just conceptually. Patterson avoids using produce that's more than 36 hours out of the ground. "It's a special cuisine that comes from the garden and it's the most beautiful way to eat," says Unterman."It's lively, delicious, and interesting, and you walk out of here feeling absolutely great."

To be honest, Unterman has to help me appreciate some of Patterson's creations, such as a savory-sweet pistachio marshmallow with kumquat relish—not dessert but an appetizer. "Your first reaction is Whoa," says Unterman. "But as you clear your mind you begin to get it. It's like understanding a poem. You think, Oh god, what's that sticky food? But it leaves a nice taste in your mouth. It's intellectual and completely new."

Do I hate this marshmallow—or is it what I've been waiting for all my life? I'd go back to decide, but it has almost certainly vanished from the everchanging menu of this feverishly inventive restaurant. Coi: 9 (415-393-9000, www.coirestaurant.com).

Just as memorable is the feast that Unterman and I share at Quince, her favorite restaurant in the city. "These are fussy, fussy, fussy to make by hand," she says, wielding one of the addicting grissini—housemade bread sticks the diameter of chopsticks.

Everything at this intimate eatery is irresistible, from the bread sticks to the feathery homemade gnocchi to the eccentric selection of china, some pieces of which chef Michael Tusk buys on eBay. Atop a plate featuring an exquisitely detailed sea creature sit a fresh sardine and a triangle of pinkgold melon. The pairing doesn't sound as astonishing as it is, the oiliness of the fish both intensified and offset by the sweetness of the fruit. "I've never had a better sardine," says Unterman. "There's no place like this." After finishing the meal with an orb of peach sorbet that has somehow been wrapped in almond gelato and then rolled in toasted coconut, I holeheartedly agree. Quince: 9.5 (415-775-8500, www.quincerestaurant.com).

How can Seattle—birthplace of grunge and Eddie Bauer—possibly compete? Nancy Leson wants to show me how. Leson became passionate about food during the 17 years she worked as a waitress, and she now writes about restaurants for The Seattle Times. A bubbly and wry Debra Winger lookalike, Leson chooses a pizzeria—superchef Tom Douglas's year-old Serious Pie—for her top bargain bite. Virtually all the communal tables at this clamorous Belltown charmer are filled. Understandably, because the priciest dish on the menu is a $16 chanterelle and truffle pizza. The pie has a chewy, slightly blistered crust and arrives topped with huge handfuls of chanterelles. Sharing a buttermilk panna cotta for dessert, two can eat amply and luxuriously here for under $30. Serious Pie: 9 (206-838-7388).

This is what Seattle is all about—democratizing the good life. More and more chefs are opening lowkey, reasonably priced neighborhood joints serving local, high-end food, says Leson. To illustrate, she takes me to Licorous, a narrow Capitol Hill storefront that John Sundstrom, previously the chef at Douglas's Dahlia Lounge, has transformed into an airy bar with an enticing menu of cocktails. I order a pretty blueberry vodka concoction and we get some snacks: lobster-mushroom tartines, duck rillettes, and Leson's favorite, $2 foie gras "bonbons" speared on toothpicks and sprinkled with Szechuan pepper. "Last time we didn't eat them," says Leson."We just put them on our tongues and waited until they disappeared."

We walk next door to Licorous's sister restaurant, Lark, to finish the evening. Candles flickering in juice glasses illuminate battered wood floors and platters of crispy duck leg with huckleberries, local carrots cooked in butter, and roasted pork belly with sweet corn. Unpretentious little chef-owned bars and restaurants popping up everywhere: If this is the future of eating in Seattle, it is glorious. Licorous-Lark: 9.5 (Licorous 206-325-6947, www.licorous.com; Lark 206-323-5275, www.larkseattle.com).

But Leson's top restaurant is not an upstart. It's Canlis, the venerable Northwest institution where, as the pianist plays "The Girl from Ipanema" to a full house, courting couples trade bites and a 95-year-old woman blows out birthday candles. Canlis—which opened in 1950—is that kind of place. With its views of Lake Union, the swank dining room could be a snapshot from a mid-20th century House & Garden. "It's so old school,"says Leson. "What's interesting is that they've been able to sustain the fine service and wonderful food and make it as contemporary as it is."

The service is indeed fine and the food wonderful, from a tiny sake cup of bean soup to a luscious ribeye and Grand Marnier souffle. But among splurge restaurants—and the bill leaves no doubt about that—Canlis lacks that extra fillip of glamour, the over-the-top je ne sais quoi that Robuchon has in such abundance. It comes down to the bread. Canlis serves excellent rustic crackers from a local bakery, but they're crackers you can buy at the supermarket. In a class that includes Robuchon's bread cart and Quince's bread sticks, the hard-working, high-performing Canlis gets 8.5 (206-283-3313, www.canlis.com).

Which brings us to the tallies. Las Vegas 25, Seattle 27, San Francisco 27.5. Three great food towns, but San Francisco wins. By a bread stick.

MORE DELICIOUS CHOICES

We asked restaurant critics and dining experts in three other cities for their tips on excellent eats—and excellent eats at a great price.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA - Josh Niva, Anchorage Daily News

  • Double Musky Inn "Cajun cuisine in a cabin 40 minutes south of Anchorage. Start with scallop-stuffed mushrooms and finish with the Cajun Delight." (907) 783-2822, www.doublemuskyinn.com.
  • Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria "Order the Backpacker and a pint of creamy, dark Pipeline Stout." (970) 258-2537, www.moosestooth.net.

BOISE, IDAHO - James Patrick Kelly, The Idaho Statesman

  • Andrae's Restaurant "Ultratender Idaho beef short ribs with silky-smooth celeriac purée—comforting when the temperature starts to drop." (208) 385-0707, www.andraesboise.com.
  • Gernika "On Boise's historic Basque block, you can savor a marinated pork solomo sandwich with a glass of rioja." (208) 344-2175.

BOZEMAN, MONTANA - Erin Klenow

  • "Kitchen Guy" Jim Gray, six ABC-TV stations around Montana, www.kitchenguy.biz.
  • Boodles "Fantastic duck breast in a gorgeous cherry-based sauce. Pick a big, bold zinfandel from the wide-ranging wine list." (406) 587-2901.
  • Sir Scott's Oasis "Twenty miles west of town, this classic Montana steakhouse serves prime rib au jus in a noisy, family-friendly setting." (406) 284-6929.

DENVER - Tucker Shaw, Denver Post

  • Fruition "Elegantly prepared comfort food, sharp technique, and a very smart chef. Think chicken soup with handmade noodles and vegetables diced in a perfect brunoise." (303) 831-1962, www.fruitionrestaurant.com.
  • El Taco de Mexico "The green chile smother that goes on every burrito is rich, smoky, and vegetal—the very best in Denver." (303) 623-3926.

LOS ANGELES - Jonathan Gold, L.A.Weekly

  • Providence "Chef Michael Cimarusti marries strict French technique to global ingredients—soft slivers of pig's ear with squid and piquillo peppers, raw scallops with pickled plum puree and shiso—but his food tastes only like L.A." (323) 460-4170, www.providencela.com.
  • La Casita Mexicana "Elegant variations on traditional cuisine—exquisite white mole and a touchstone version of chiles en nogada, the sweet, meat-stuffed peppers venerated in Mexico." (323) 773-1898, www.casitamex.com.

PORTLAND, OREGON - Camas Davis, Portland Monthly

  • Le Pigeon "Inspired creations include beef cheek bourguignon—a velvety, meaty, earthy dish that simply melts in your mouth." (503) 546-8796, www.lepigeon.com.
  • Toro Bravo "At this divine new tapas place, I'm always sure to order the crab and pork croquettes with salsa verde and salsa roja." (503) 281-4464, www.torobravopdx.com.

SACRAMENTO - Mike Dunne, The Sacramento Bee

  • Lemon Grass "My top choice for its cooks' confidence and menu's range—homey to hip. Monk's curry is my desert-island dish." Three locations, www.lemongrassrestaurant.com.
  • Cafe Bernardo "Part casual European café, part American diner. Try their signature mushroom and Jarlsberg salad." Three locations, www.paragarys.com.

SALT LAKE CITY - Vanessa Chang, The Salt Lake Tribune

  • Takashi "Synthesizes a slick metropolitan style with the most elemental of foodstuffs: sashimi that actually tastes like the ocean." (801) 519-9595.
  • Red Iguana "Venture into the meu's ‘Marvels of Mexico' for the enmoladas—stuffed tortillas smothered with smoldering mole negro." (801) 322-1489, www.rediguana.com.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Alexandra Gill, The Globe and Mail

  • Tasting Bar at Lumière "In what feels like a ritzy Manhattan lounge, savor the Asian and Canadian flavors of sake- and maple-marinated sablefish." (604) 739-8185, www.lumiere.ca.
  • Rangoli "I'm no vegetarian, but I love their portabello mushroom curry with paneer cheese." (604) 736-5711, www.vijsrangoli.ca.

By Erin Klenow

HOW DID WE PICK OUR TOP THREE DINING CITIES?

  • Lots and lots of opportunities to eat really well—what every adventurous food lover wants—was the overall target we defined.
  • Los Angeles and San Diego dropped out. We set aside the Southern California megalopolis as an outsized urban superregion that deserves its own district-by-district food story.
  • Cities with 500,000 to 1 million residents— not too big or little—were noted. In the West, that's Denver, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, and Vancouver, B.C.
  • Quantity. Diversity. Quality. These became our watchwords. We ranked each of the seven cities by the total count of restaurants inside its boundaries, by the overall diversity (Afghan to Vietnamese), and by the number of highly rated dining establishments. Three cities stood out. For more details, go to www.viamagazine.com and search for "Top Dining Cities".

Photography by John Granen

This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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