RN&R's food writer looks back at the best appetizers of 2017
Through the course of the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling a lot of great meals cooked up by local folks with a passion for food. Small plates and appetizers are sometimes overlooked. Ordering several choices and sharing with a group is a great way to try new things and have a good time with friends. Here are just a few of the appetizers I enjoyed in 2017.
Pick a pickle
Though I always love a nice, crisp kosher dill pickle, the trend toward fresh pickled veggies has really taken off. The DeLuxe presented a rainbow plate of garlic smashed cucumber, citrus cabbage, shallot, ginger, daikon and carrot ($6). The colorful collection of sliced and julienned veggies lived up to its name, and each item had a distinct character—some sour, others a bit salty, and even a bit sweet. Kauboi Izakaya offered a plate of pickled cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, cucumber, cherry, ginger and Thai basil garnish, blending bright colors with subtle, pleasant flavors ($5). The perfect use of seasoned rice vinegar and gorgeous plating made the dish.
Speaking of trends, it seems you can’t go anywhere without running into yet another take on pork belly. Washoe Public House ensconced the fatty decadence in spring rolls ($8) stuffed with cilantro, pickled carrot, jalapeño, kimchi, hot and sweet mustard and an above-average peanut sauce. Every bite was a delight. A bit simpler but a total crowd pleaser, Creazian’s pork belly pops are not to be missed ($9). Cubes of braised, fatty meat on skewers were glazed in maple and ponzu sauce, the sweetness matched with salt and spice. They’re lightly crisped, tender, and succulent.
Get your goat
There’s something rustic-yet-refined about goat cheese that defies explanation. It just works so well with so many other elements. At Hard Water House, I ordered crottin de chevre—pistachio-crusted goat cheese cakes drizzled with balsamic fig sauce, served with sliced Fuji apples and pine nuts ($12.95), and chased it with a plate of green, red and black Italian olives sprinkled with a bit of parmesan and rosemary ($5.95). It was a fantastic contrast of flavors and textures. Meanwhile, Sierra Street Kitchen & Cocktails introduced me to skewered, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese ($7), served atop a spring mix salad, dressed with freshly grated parmesan and balsamic vinegar— savory, sweet and amazing.
By the sea
Back in the day, there were signs all over Las Vegas touting, “Shrimp cocktail, 99 cents.” Um, no thanks. I’ll pay the extra 10 bucks at Sabrina’s West Street Kitchen for the giant Mexican gazpacho shrimp cocktail ($11) with pink bay shrimp, cucumber, tomato, avocado, sweet onion and cilantro, swimming in a picante lime gazpacho and served with housemade tostada chips. Or, if I’m really hungry, Si Amigos serves a campechana ($15.95) of sauteed shrimp, bay scallop and octopus, mixed with diced tomato, cilantro, onion, avocado, tomato sauce and a blend of citrus juice. The shrimp is tender and tasty, with the right blend of sweet and spice.
Chicken wings used to be tossed aside or used for stock. Really. While I love me a plate of classic hot wings, finding different twists is nice as well. At Original Thai Restaurant the “stuffed chicken wings” ($9.95) are cylindrical meatloafs of ground chicken, clear noodle, carrot, cilantro and black pepper, deep-fried in panko bread crumbs and served with Thai sweet chili sauce. Very tasty, but I really like to pull the meat off the bone. Noble Pie Parlor fries up wings that are moist and crispy, though the sauce is the real story ($11.99). They’re made “burg-style,” coated in a tangy, spicy sauce and topped with plenty of fresh garlic and scallion. These are not your average wings.
Pucks of indulgence
Crab cakes are usually pretty basic breadcrumb delivery vehicles, and I’m rarely impressed. However, Morgan’s Lobster Shack & Fish Market serves up a sizeable pair of seafood pucks with both minced crab meat and chunks of crab claw, nicely browned and seasoned ($13). Not to be outdone, the Roundabout Grill killed it with blue fin crab cakes nestled atop a schmear of champagne sauce, topped with butter-poached lobster meat ($14). It was the sort of morsel I’d request for a last meal.
Most think of curries with Indian food, but I love all the small nibbles such as samosas at Cafe Masala. Three fried vegetable pyramids were stuffed with curried potato and peas ($6.99), another trio with curried chicken ($7.99). Dipped in a pair of sauces—one lightly sweet and the other with plenty of cilantro and a spicy kick—they are full-on comfort food. Likewise, Taste of India’s lentil papadum crisps served with tamarind, mint and garlic sauces, and a plate of aloo tikki ($4.95)—crispy potato patties stuffed with vegetables and spices, topped with chana masala of green pepper, onion, garlic, cilantro, chickpea, tomato—served with dollops of tamarind, mint and garlic sauces—just made me smile.
I’ve certainly enjoyed a potsticker or 12, but the Korean mandoo at Bab Cafe stand apart ($2.99 for five). Made with ground pork and beef, Asian chives, mushroom, onion, tofu, scallion, egg, garlic, seasonings, sesame oil and fish sauce, they were very crispy and packed with zesty, herby flavor. But for something really different, I recommend the shishamo—five little smelts ($4) dredged in flour and salt, deep-fried and served with a drizzle of shoyu and a side of shichimi—done to perfection at Uchi Ramen. They might be a bit too “fishy” for some, but I loved every bite right down to their crispy little tails.
Start with sweets
Bleu Cafe does many things well, but I will always start with the lemon beignets ($4.99 for three). The New Orleans cousin to doughnuts, these pillows of crescent-shaped fried dough filled with lemon curd are served hot and copiously dusted in confectioner’s sugar. They’re every bit as good as they sound. Meanwhile, at Bazaar European Deli & Cafe you can enjoy authentic Russian crepes—blinchiki ($6)—which are a bit thicker and softer in texture than a French crepe. These sweets were topped with a raspberry spread while the farmer’s cheese pancakes ($6.50) were filled with something like ricotta, both sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a dollop of sour cream—rustic yet refined.
Finally, I have to mention a couple items that stood out for sheer wow factor. Though I went to Smee’s Alaskan Fish Bar & Marketplace for the fish and chips, the scallop sliders ($15 with fries) took center stage. Three Hawaiian rolls were layered with lettuce, pickle, tomato, purple onion and sriracha mayonnaise, each topped with a lightly seared half dollar of shellfish. The spiciness of the sauce cut the sweetness of the roll, veggies added crunch and flavor, and the scallops were buttery perfection. In a completely different turn, a pair of portabella mushroom caps ($8.29) at Great Full Gardens South were stuffed with a seasoned vegetarian boca mix, topped with melted mozzarella, vegetable shoots and sprouts. If you’re the sort who thinks vegetarian dishes are boring, I defy you to try this and not ask for more. Mushrooms are among my favorite things, and this recipe fully demonstrated that they aren’t just for side dishes and risotto.