Last Call at CIRCO

September 29, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Wake

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I didn’t make it to Circo’s last night, last night, and that’s probably for the best.

Between the memories, the nostalgia and twinges of bitterness, watching the old girl take her last breath would’ve been too much for a person of my delicate constitution to handle. Knowing my feelings for the place, what could’ve been an evening of fond farewells was destined to end with me even sadder than I am right now as I write these words. So I stayed away.

I also stayed away because what happened last night was the end of an era — an era the beginning of which no other food writer in this town attended, or is even aware.

You see, none of them, not Max, not Heidi Knapp Rinella, not Al Mancini (and no Yelpers) were there at the beginning. But I was. And Circo was the beginning. And the beginning was October 15, 1998.

Sure, before Circo there was Spago (opened December, 11, 1992), and Emeril and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe and Charlie Trotter.  They were all pioneers of our restaurant revolution. The mountain men who headed west (well, east in Spago’s case) and saw gold in them thar hills before the world caught the fever. But October 15, 1998 was when the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave and the whole world felt the shudder.

We sat in the far right corner, next to the window looking out at the Bellagio fountains. I think I was happily married at the time, but was soon not to be, so that doesn’t matter. What mattered was this was a real Italian restaurant; a Tuscan Italian restaurant, run by Italian restaurant nobility (the Maccionis), with a fun bar and a great wine list; the whole package under one, colorful, circus-themed, Adam Tihany-designed, roof.

It was a like a tasty slice of mid-town Manhattan had parked itself right in my back yard, and I was beaming from ear to ear as I sampled what seemed like half the menu.

Then and now I considered it one of the best designed restaurants I had ever been in. Wraparound windows looking onto the Bellagio “lake,” a bar neither too big nor too small, a comfy waiting area, classy little banquet room and, best of all, restrooms IN the restaurant. (People forget that, until Steve Wynn did so with the Big B, none of the restaurants in Las Vegas’s main hotels had bathrooms in them.)

And these weren’t just government-issue toilets like you found in every other hotel; these were Adam-Tihany-designed bathrooms with the decor of the restaurant incorporated into their look, using lots of  marble and real, thick cotton hand towels like you get in real cities. (I think I was as jazzed about the bathroom situation as I was about the food on that first day.)

(Circo wasn’t the only beautifully designed restaurant at the Bellagio. From Michael DeSantis’s Prime to Jasmine to Picasso to the jewel box that is Le Cirque — also done by Tihany — this hotel ‘s murderer’s row of restaurants set the template for many hotels to follow…and fail to emulate. Wynn loves to gasbag on and on about how Wynn/Encore is his crowning achievement, but the Bellagio is/was his masterpiece, and deep down he knows it.)

Lunch that day was a three-hour affair, and many more soon followed. I took colleagues there, friends there, clients there, my parents  and even a few dates* once that marriage fell apart. Sometime around when Bill Clinton was ejaculating on Monica Lewinsky’s dress, they stopped charging me, but up until then, there were dozens of visits and thousands of dollars spent in the joint.

I first sang Circo’s praises on November 26, 1998 on KNPR, and within two months of its opening, my family and friends were considering having me enter a 12-step program because of my addiction to it and its restaurant brethren.

Two and a half years after the opening, I publicly mourned the tragic, premature death of its first chef — Enzino Secci — and was crestfallen when, in the aftermath of 9/11, they decided to permanently discontinue lunch. I remember feeling as if a friend had died on both occasions, because they had.

Regardless, there was always the food. Mama Egi’s family classics were the backbone of the menu: ravioli with sheep’s milk ricotta and butter-sage sauce, Pici Toscani (hand-rolled thick spaghetti with a true Bolognese), rack of lamb crusted with Pecorino cheese, Caciucco Toscano (fisherman’s stew), mascarpone polenta) — a single bite of which told you you were no longer in (lousy) lasagna land.

Before you got to them, though, there was the bread. Good bathrooms weren’t the only trail blazed by the Bellagio. Now, we all take good bread for granted, but sixteen years ago, locating good bread in Vegas was harder than finding a stripper who would take a check. A real breadbasket full of grissini, crusty bread and chewy rolls straight from an oven was unheard of. From the first bite (from that very first breadbasket) we knew a revolution had taken place.

All of it was a testament to the talent and standards of the Maccioni clan, and the vision of Wynn and his executives who wanted to change the game and had the good taste to do so.

Circo made us grow up as a restaurant city. It brought big-city sophistication, and sophisticated Italian food, to a town sorely in need of both. No longer would Las Vegas not be taken seriously as a food town. So did I predict after those very first bites, and so did it come to pass.

My ardor cooled a bit over the past dozen years. I’ve never quite recovered from the body blow of losing my very own, first class, white tablecloth dining room for lunch. But increased competition also had a lot to do with it. Being a pioneer, setting a trend and raising the bar are all applicable clichés, but once the die was cast, it was hard to stem the tidal wave of copycats and wannabes from swamping these desert shores…and grabbing a piece of our tourist-food- dollar-pie in the process.**

Over the past few years, I pretty much quit going to Circo altogether. Between the economic downturn, rotating chefs, and the sense that the corporate parent was milking the old cow for all she’s worth, it hardly seemed worth the effort…or the calories. And once the Bellagio severed ties with the Maccioni family (and big brother Mario left town), the magic was gone. Our last meal there of a year or so ago, was decent enough, but it was obvious the staff was playing out the string.

Rather than dwell on how far the mighty had fallen, we preferred to stay away last night and remember all the good things: Mario, Sirio and Egi nervously sitting at the front tables, watching the staff like a hawk; kibbitzing with Mauro and Marco when they were in town; Antonello Paganuzzi, Greg Jarmolowich and Lesley Terborg running the front of the house like a fine-tuned watch; Enzino in the kitchen; Paolo Barbieri, Jaime Smith and Patrick Pretz teaching our palates and blowing our minds with undiscovered, massive, dirty-earthy wines; Noe; Amy Rosetti; bartenders who always knew your name; all that great Tuscan food; and one or two waitresses whom I would’ve loved to ask out (post-divorce) if I hadn’t been so old, and they hadn’t been so married.

That’s how I’ll always remember Osteria del Circo….and why I couldn’t go last night.

But it was something to behold on October 15, 1998. You really should have been there.

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* One was with a high-maintenance, full-of-herself female lawyer (is there any other kind?) who complained to me: “The service isn’t very good here, is it?” within 90 seconds of being handed a menu.

** ELV defies you to mix more (bad) metaphors in one sentence than this.

The Hater’s Guide to Football

September 27, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Rant

 

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ELV note: We ran this item last year, and, if anything, everything we wrote then is even more relevant now. For those of you who will protest with comments like:  “This is a restaurant Web site, why are you writing about other things? Blah, blah, blah…” (and believe us, we get a number of them), all we can say is: This is ELV! He writes about what he wants when he wants, and hopes you enjoy the ride. If you don’t, remember our solemn pledge to our loyal readers: All opinions guaranteed or your money back!

THE HATERS GUIDE TO FOOTBALL

Most professional athletes are assholes pretending to be nice guys. – Mike Lupica

When Oscar Wilde said: “Seriousness is the last refuge of the shallow,” he must have been thinking about Roger Goodell. – ELV

Between its tin-pot nationalism, greedy, billionaire owners, corrupt colleges, and players (who are either absolute assholes or brain-damaged morons) it’s getting easier and easier to loathe everything about football. Below is a primer for those who are either unaware of its idiocies, or who turn a blind eye to the stupefying witlessness of the game, and the shameless arrogance of those who bring it into our living rooms.

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EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – Hits the Home Stretch

September 26, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, The List

 

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ELV, the man, the myth, the arbiter of all things culinary in Las Vegas, has hit the home stretch in listing the 50 Essential Restaurants® of Las Vegas.

Below are the first 36.

Care to validate, vandalize, vilify, or vet any of his picks for their vacuity?

Or perhaps vouchsafe some of your own volition?

Then please vacate this vellum and veer to the comments section.

But, verily, be sure to verbalize your vehement and venomous vexation with his vaunted, viable, vulpine, veritable, venerable, voluble and voluptuous vichyssoise  without vituperation or verbosity.

Lest we vanquish you.

And you may call me V.

The List:

1. Joël Robuchon

2. Restaurant Guy Savoy

3. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

4. Raku/Sweets Raku

5. Carnevino

6. Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

7. Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare

8. Kabuto Edomae Sushi

9. Picasso

10. Estiatorio Milos

11. Yonaka Modern Japanese

12. China Poblano

13. Julian Serrano

14. Sage

15. Allegro

16. China MaMa

17. Mizumi

18. Le Cirque

19. db Brasserie

20. Giada – The Restaurant (on Earth – The Planet)

21. Rose.Rabbit.Lie.

22. Yusho

23. Carson Kitchen

24. Spago

25. Lotus of Siam

26. Michael Mina

27. CUT

28. Bouchon

29. Bazaar Meat

30. Eiffel Tower Restaurant

31. Forte

32. Due Forni

33. Jaleo

34. Rao’s

35. District One

36. Chada Thai

 

 

 

 

 

How to Eat/Speak Greek (at the Greek Food Festival) with Kim and Dana Wagner

September 26, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Events, Food

The Greek Food Festival runs tonight through Sunday night.

Kali orixi! (bon appétit in Greek)

EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – 36. CHADA THAI

September 26, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews, Wine

36. CHADA THAI

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This is the little Thai restaurant that could. And by “could” we mean successfully and deliciously challenge Lotus of Siam for Thai food hegemony in our humble burg.

It did so by staying true to its roots while repositioning itself as a place for small-plates of tweaked Thai “tapas” that bring  a sense of sophistication to the cuisine, while sacrificing none of its soul-blistering intensity.

Everything on the menu (and believe us, we’ve had just about everything on the menu) displays a vividness of flavor, and a distinction of spice that you don’t often get in generic Thai restaurants — most of whom settle for the identical spicing of all dishes (varying only the amount of dried chilies they toss into the mix, in order to satisfy that lame 1-10 scale so many of them rely upon to appease the gringos). Another common flaw in American-Thai places is a surfeit of sugar, as in: the cooks take the path of least resistance with American customers by drenching everything in sweet-sour sauces.

Not so at Chada, where sour, fermented pungency is the rule, almost as much as eyeball-searing heat. (You know you’re not in round-eye land when you can feel the sweat collecting on your lids.)

Thus will you try many a dish that seems innocuous at first bite, like a definitive pork larb or Miang Pou (crab meat lettuce cups), but suddenly have you gasping for air after a few chews. Ditto the Yum Nua (good rib eye steak with a chili paste-lime dressing),  and any of the soups — of which Tom Saap (pork rib spicy soup) is our favorite — all of which create the pain-pleasure dichotomy that Thai food delivers so well.

Chef/owner/wine guru Bank Atcharawan:

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…learned at Lotus of Siam that superior Rieslings — at soft and supple prices — are the perfect libation to wash down the pungent, sweet and incendiary spices of great Thai cooking. His list may not rival his former master’s for breadth and depth….but, as Samuel Goldwyn once said, it has great warmth and great charmth…and you’re a fool if you don’t take his suggestions for wine with your meal.

A final word about spicing: Bank is as risk-averse as any güero to the “Bangkok-hot,” psychedelically-singeing spices of his homeland, and agrees they generally obliterate your enjoyment of the main ingredient. He’s a wine guy, after all, and wants one half the occasion to compliment the other. That being said, beware of anything in the upper heat ranges. Ask for medium-hot and you’ll be able to both get the point of great Thai food and enjoy the wine.

Along with China MaMa and District One (and Chinese Noodle and BBQ a few doors down) Chada has helped create its very own little microclimate of great Asian cooking in the shopping plaza in which it’s located. You could make an evening just strolling between these restaurants, and a few others in the mall…and believe us, we have.

Just make sure you save room for some Riesling.

Favorite dishes: Tod Mun; Nua Dad Diew; Larb; Som Yum; Tom Saap; Yum Nua; Miang Pou; Fresh Oyster with Roasted Chili; L0-Ba (pig’s ear); Kai Yang (Cornish Game Hen); Nua Nam Tok (rib eye steak); Kang Tai Pla (fermented fish curry); All Curries; All Noodles; Basically the whole friggin’ menu + a couple of bottles of wine — preferably a Riesling, Chenin Blanc or Gewurtztramier..

CHADA THAI & WINE

3400 South Jones Blvd. #11A

702.641.1345

EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – 35. DISTRICT ONE

September 25, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Reviews

35. DISTRICT ONE

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Lobster pho photo by Sam Morris

ELV note: District One is so good (and keeps getting better), we thought it deserved the full, Eating Las Vegas review treatment a second time.

Eating Las Vegas has often wondered whether Vietnamese food in America is the ultimate revenge for that little dust-up we caused there in the 60s. They could never hope to outgun us, the thinking goes, so the expats figured they’d bore us to death with their cuisine.

What Chef/owner Khai Vu is doing at District One Kitchen & Bar is giving lie to that notion and standing Vietnamese food on its ear, and creating glamour in a cuisine that used to have all the sex appeal of Hilary Clinton.

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EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – 34. RAO’S

September 24, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Food, Max Jacobson, Reviews

34. RAO’S

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ELV note: Rao’s hasn’t changed its menu since Ronald Reagan was President. So why is it “Essential?” Because, 1) the iconic, original one in NYC is impossible to get into; 2) the food is identical at both; 3) that food is about as righteous a rendition of Italian-American food as you’ll find in these here United States; and finally, because 4) ELV (the man, the myth, the deplore-r of all things low-class and Italian…as in “yo-Rocky!” Jersey Shore, low-class-Italian) has never had a bad meal or a bad bite in the joint. (And we’ve eaten here at least a dozen times since it opened.) That’s why the review below –  and Top 50 status — still stands.

“Red and dead” describes the vast majority of Italian-American restaurants with their cookie-cutter menus and uninspired cooking, but few Americans seem to demand or expect much from their chicken Marsala or pasta Bolognese.

Lucky for the rest of us, Rao’s is the exception to all this mendacious mediocrity. Read the rest of this entry →

EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – 33. JALEO

September 24, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Max Jacobson, Reviews

33. JALEO

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The best way to enjoy the wacky Spanish vibe of Jaleo is to dive in and hold on.

Like a traditional tapas restaurant, the joy comes from the blizzard of small plates that will appear at your table, each one seemingly more wonderful than the last. Like the nontraditional food of  José Andrés, you will be occasionally dazzled, occasionally disappointed, but never bored by what shows up at your table.

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A Rootsy, Japanese All-You-Can-Eat Surprise

September 23, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Critics, Food, Reviews

SPECIAL to Eating Las Vegas by Greg Thilmont:

All-you-can-eat sushi places generally come across as disappointing, dicey propositions to me. Most are expensive for the quality of nigiri they serve, and most lay out maki and more pre-made on buffet-style platters.

Nonetheless, I recently heard a few brief positive tidbits about Oyshi Sushi, so I followed curiosity to the Sahara Avenue location for a Sunday dinner exploration.

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EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – 32. DUE FORNI

September 22, 2014 By: John Curtas Category: Chefs, Critics, EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants, Max Jacobson, Reviews

32. DUE FORNI

Ingredients matter.

This mantra is in full force at Due Forni and it’s hard to argue with the results. Whether it’s taggiasca olives, San Daniele prosciutto; or true bufala mozzarella, the purity and inherent perfection they possess—much like one-third of the “EATING LAS VEGAS”  book — overwhelms the inferior competition to which they are often compared.

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