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April 23, 2017

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Ben Vaughn: Three favorite new(-ish) restaurants in Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

Southern fried chicken, egg rolls and pho with tofu fit on the same menu at Chow.

Chow: Chinese and Chicken

A sign at Chow, Chef Natalie Young's Chinese and Chicken restaurant, 1020 E. Fremont St., in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015. Launch slideshow »

Lago at Bellagio

Lago at Bellagio by star chef Julian Serrano. Launch slideshow »

2015 VUBBA: Saber-Off at Lago

The 2015 Vegas Uncork’d saber-off led by Julian Serrano on Thursday, April 23, 2015, at his new Italian restaurant Lago in Bellagio. Launch slideshow »

Here we are. It’s December again, and time has flown off the shelf like an American Girl doll on a Black Friday 50 percent off sale. As we begin to put 2015 on ice and look toward to flipping the calendar to January 2016, I’m excited about the New Year, but I’m not exactly sure why.

We love new. New beginnings. New horizons. New, new, new. “Star Wars” has a “new” hope. The Boston-based boyband was called New Kids on the Block. But like my dated references, what was once new is now old. With apologies to Jordan, Jonathan, Joey, Donnie and Danny, they’re the old dudes on the block now.

“Star Wars: New Hope,” when all is said and done, will have yielded eight subsequent hopes all newer than the last. We like new because it’s different. Not only are there countless opportunities when an outcome is unknown, but we also can personalize the situation, input our imaginations, and the series of optimal results becomes never-ending in our minds.

The mathematics of this logic can be extrapolated to an upcoming movie, job change or new restaurant. New vs. old is a timeless conflict. Because this is a generally food-related talk space, let’s apply it to the choices on a menu. We all have our favorite menu items that we order regularly.

If you’re like me, you like to try new and different foods and see what fare ranks above the rest. That said, I don’t like to waste an eating opportunity, either. We’re only on this planet for a finite amount of time, and I’d rather not spend it eating poorly or things I don’t particularly care for, especially when I know there’s already something that I like.

When you go to your favorite restaurant, you’ve got two options: You can order your favorite dish, the one you know you’ll like. You know that it’s dependable, it’s comfortable, it’s home. The alternative option is to try something new. Something like the chef’s special that’s the pretty little new girl on the menu who’s waving at you and looking to make new friends.

I don’t have good advice when it comes to what’s best. Part of the excitement of dining out is the anticipation and optimism of discovery. Another greater part is the instant gratification and satisfaction of eating something good. There’s the buildup and delivery. The best possible outcome is where anticipation matches the expectation, but that is a tight rope to walk with little margin for error.

This is a balancing act that doesn’t always have a right answer. New and old is a conflict that exists not only for consumers, but for creators, as well. Speaking as a chef, I know that there are a number of reasons why a new menu item will pop up in your options or another item will drop off. While there are exceptions, most restaurants don’t regularly turn over the entire menu.

As you begin to build a regular crowd, those people have their favorites and expect home to be where they left it. It’s why they came to the restaurant in the first place. Any time a menu item is replaced, you’re going to hear about it. It could be the worst selling item. If you sold one of them in the last month, chances are the guy who ordered it that one time will be wondering why you got rid of the “best thing on the menu.”

Chefs are creatives who work with food. It’s natural for a chef to want to expand his cooking horizons, much like a customer may want to expand his eating horizons. The only difference is you likely don’t eat the same meal 100 times a night every night for a period of years. A popular dish in a larger restaurant can be ordered thousands upon thousands of times weekly.

This is the life of a chef. But the purpose of a restaurant is to serve food that people like, not to entertain the culinary fancies of the chefs who work there. Or is it? Is the egg there for the purpose of housing a baby chicken, or is the chicken’s primary purpose to create the egg? It’s all so existential, and probably a stretch as metaphors go.

So I’m left with a new hope that the newest “Star Wars” will be great, and maybe I’ll buy a 30-year-old can of New Coke off eBay. Here’s to 2016 and a new batch of the next greatest thing, and here’s to it becoming yesterday’s news 10 minutes later.

And while we’re on the subject of new, here are a few of the best (relatively) new eateries in the city. If you haven’t tried them yet, they’re worth a visit.

Chow, 1020 Fremont St., Suite 120, downtown, @ChowDTLV

Chicken and Chinese, it’s more than just a late-night crave dream of a fat man. It’s an actual thing, and that’s thanks to chef Natalie Young’s newest endeavor downtown, Chow.

Similar to her successful and tasty Eat just up the street, Chow is a taste-driven experience that focuses on accessible “people” food. Like the concept itself screams, great dining doesn’t always have to make sense in your brain. It just needs to make sense in your mouth.

Chow makes sense.

Therapy, 518 E. Fremont St., downtown, @Therapy_LV

Here’s another downtown upstart that should definitely be on your list. If you’re like me, you’ve done the late night at Le Thai and nearby. They’re all good at quenching the late-night cravings of a fun and festive downtown outing.

It’s now time to add Therapy and its late-night menu to the list. From hangar steak tartar and shrimp ceviche to the “Big Sexy” Wagyu burger, Therapy has options for those late-night cravings.

Lago at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., the Strip, @Bellagio

Chef Julian Serrano opened this treat earlier this year. If you haven’t enjoyed a meal at Lago, you should definitely make your way to Bellagio for a taste. It’s your typical Spanish chef does Italian cuisine as a modern, small-plates concept.

Typical in that it’s quite atypical, as is chef Serrano’s calling card. The interior is gorgeous, as you would expect from Bellagio, and the food lives up to its picturesque background. Brunch on the patio is how I prefer Lago, but you can rest assured knowing that it works for lunch and evening, as well.

Honorable mention: Carbone Italian Restaurant, Aria; Whist Stove & Spirits, Green Valley Ranch; and Piology Pizzeria, Summerlin.

Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s latest book, “Southern Routes,” chronicles his journey to find the best-kept food secrets in the South from the Carolinas to Texas. “Southern Routes” is published by HarperCollins.

Ben resides in Tennessee and serves as CEO and culinary director for his restaurant group Fork Knife Spoon. Ben’s new brand of Southern Kitchen food trucks hit the streets in Las Vegas. Follow all the action from the mobile kitchen @SoKitchenLV. @BenVaughn also is host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premiered in the fall.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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