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Confectionery defection

<p>PHOTO: TODD LUSSIER Megan Romano stocks her pastry counter.</p>

PHOTO: TODD LUSSIER Megan Romano stocks her pastry counter.

For years, Strip casinos had a monopoly on big restaurant openings. Over the past year, however, a succession of off-Strip launches has had the food community buzzing — from Le Thai and Oscar’s downtown, to the Royal hotel’s Barrymore and Henderson’s Bread & Butter. But no restaurant on or off the Strip has been as eagerly anticipated by sweet-toothed foodies than Chef Megan Romano’s new Chocolate & Spice Bakery, which opened this month on Sahara Avenue off Tenaya Way.

Romano is one of the few pastry chefs in town whose name carries as much cachet in the restaurant world as her executive chef counterparts. She spent 12 years preparing mouth-watering desserts at Mandalay Bay’s Aureole, and is the author of the pastry cookbook It’s A Sweet Life. Last year, KNPR’s Desert Companion magazine named her Pastry Chef of the Year. Unfortunately, between the time that article (which I authored) went to press and the time it was published, Romano left the position she had held since Charlie Palmer opened the restaurant in 1999.

Explaining her departure, Romano cites “a combination of events” that included her longtime desire to set up shop in the suburbs as well as internal casino politics.

“I had been looking at spaces for a long time, and signed a lease,” she explains. “And then some drama happened at the casino. And it was kind of the final reason to do my own thing.” That drama, she elaborates when pressed, was budgetary.

Chocolate & Spice is a quaint mid-sized restaurant with a private room for parties and cooking classes. It’s very much a family affair. Romano’s husband, Joe, another Aureole vet now working as a chef for Golden Gaming, was instrumental in opening the shop. The chef herself is a regular fixture behind the counter, and it’s not unusual to find her kids lending a hand with the baking. On top of that, two of her employees worked with her at Aureole, one for a dozen years.

When I dropped by on its second day of operation, the place was packed with chefs, restaurateurs and writers anxious to wish her well. When I returned for a more formal review two weeks later, I found more of the same. I’m happy to report, the hype is well-deserved.

Open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the restaurant offers assorted frittatas, a croissant sandwich or seasonal berries for breakfast ($5 apiece), and various sandwiches ($7), soups ($4) and pastas ($7) for lunch. The roasted turkey and gruyere sandwich served with apricot mustard aioli and bibb lettuce on scrumptious cranberry multigrain bread is amazing. I also loved an order of macaroni and cheese that came loaded with thinly sliced garlic and topped with toasted bacon-cheddar crumbs, although I’ll admit it’s something of an acquired taste. (They’ve since added a seasonal butternut squash mac and cheese with haricovert, shaved parmesan and toasted sourdough crumbs.)

The most unique dish I sampled, however, was from the daily specials menu. Described as an eggplant Napoleon, it was a crispy slice of breaded eggplant piled high with fresh tomato and basil and a huge slab of buffalo mozzarella.

Good as those dishes are, the real reasons to go to Chocolate & Spice are baked goods and desserts. The restaurant’s bakery display features countless varieties of cookies, croissants, muffins, scones, rolls and tarts ($2.75-$3.75). They have seven types of bon bons in flavors like mountain berry tea, margarita lime and strawberry balsamic ($2), two types of truffles ($1.50), and assorted homemade candy bars ($3.75-$4), cupcakes ($3.75) and dipped fruits and nuts ($2).

With the exception of the bite-sized bon bons and truffles, most of the desserts are pretty huge — more than enough for even the hungriest diner. Yet I couldn’t limit myself to just one or two. Instead, I asked Romano to pack up a large assortment I could deliver to some friends. I personally had bites of four or five, and they were all incredible. Everyone else in the group agreed the entire assortment was amazing.

Chocolate & Spice is still new, and it’s fair to expect a few growing pains along the way. For now, however, it seems to have hit the ground running. Off-Strip dining just keeps getting better and better.

Chocolate & Spice Bakery 7293 West Sahara Avenue, 527-7772. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog,