Pouring Over Downtown’s Coffee Scene

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Downtown is awash in great coffee these days. So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d scope them out for you.

Before we begin, some admissions are in order:

One, yours truly is no coffee connoisseur. In fact, coffee is something yours truly swore off of for the longest time. Having been married to two caffeine fiends in a row (the type who need a hot, steaming cup in their hands the minute their eyes pop open in the morning), we pretty much gave it up for a decade or so in the late 20th century.

Admission number two: #BeingJohnCurtas doesn’t give a puck about pour-overs, cold brews and nitro this or flat white that. John Curtas is a coffee classicist first and foremost.

Image(Cappuccino at Writer’s Block)

Italy is where JC regained his caffeine mojo fifteen years ago, and Italians are the coffee standard by which all others are measured. A bad cup of caffè is harder to find in Italy than a Southern Baptist, and when it comes to brews — from ristrettos to correttos — they get it right, whether you’re in an airport, a trattoria, or a convenience store.

Coffee is wonderfully subjective, both the flavors and one’s relationship to it. One man’s macchiato might not cut the cortado for another. Some use it simply to get up in the morning; for others it’s a social thing. Some people like to drink coffee all day long; others can’t stomach it after lunch. One of our exes could pound a doppio espresso at 10:00 pm and sleep like a baby.

But like a lot of beautifully simple things, coffee has also jumped the the shark in multiple ways. The whole barista thing is pathetically ridiculous. As is obsessing over your beans’ origins and attending coffee “cuppings.” Whatever you might think about comparative tastings (and sure, they can be fun no matter what the beverage), giving “awards” to people for pouring a cup of joe is as dumb as competing for who is the best lasagna layer.

In other words: we care not a whit about fancy-dancy ornamentation or exotic concoctions. They are the quintessential Millennial pursuit: creating a cult of obsession  over something that should be elementally satisfying on its own terms, without parsing the details to death.

Image(Dueling espressos at PublicUs)

When it comes to all things Arabica, it is about the warm, brownish glow of these beans and the soul-soothing broth they bring forth. To us, it’s about the ritual, the taste and the deeply-satisfying buzz you get from a good cup.

If you’re expecting a dissertation on free-trade fermentation, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But know this: there isn’t a coffee house in Las Vegas who can make a proper espresso to save their life. None of them gets the viscous, syrupy mouthfeel right, and the primary flavor component is always sour, as opposed to the sweet-bitter release of a great Italian cup.

So bad are local espressos, we’ve given up entirely. If you want a good one, go to Cipriani at the Wynn. It’s the only one we’ve had recently that truly tastes of Italy.

But I’ve sampled the wares at all of our newest coffee hound hangouts, and here are my conclusions. For ease of reference, we’ve broken each coffee shop into five components: Coffee, Comfort, Comestibles, Crew and Crowd.

PUBLICUS

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PublicUs kickstarted downtown’s coffee renaissance  five years ago in a big way. It’s always busy, despite being on a forlorn corner of east Fremont Street. Until Vesta came along a couple of years later, it had the upscale coffee market all to itself.

Coffee – the espressos here range from unforgivably sour to lightly bitter and acidic, depending on the beans they are made with. The cappuccino is wonderful, as are the pour-overs (what, back in the day we called good old Chemex drip). The cappuccino is the closest you’ll get to Rome in the High Mojave Desert.

Comfort – everything from two-tops to communal tables, in a modern, naturally-lit room that screams “urban hipster hangout.” Nice bathrooms. In fact bathrooms so nice they make you want to go to the bathroom.

Comestibles – all made in-house. Excellent pastries; good savories, avocado toast, waffles, and even a killer corned beef hash on polenta. If you’re hungry for a big breakfast or lunch with a nice range of menu choices, this is where you want to come.

Crew – young, attractive, lots of crazy haircuts, tatts and such. Invariably friendly and fast. The baristas know their beans.

Crowd – an odd assortment of hipsters, youngsters, ‘grammers and tourists….with tables of actual grownups thrown in the mix occasionally. (Amazingly, a lot of cops love it here too.) Probably the artsiest crowd of the coffee bars downtown. This is where you’re also most likely to see some poseur walk in with one of their filthy dogs.

VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS

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Mr. Curtas has a confession to make: he is secretly in love with all of the female baristas here. (Please do not tell Mrs. Curtas.) Because of this, he cannot be fully objective about Vesta Coffee Roasters, although he will try.

Coffee – strong. Really strong. The most lethal of any coffees downtown. All roasting is done on premises and you can taste the freshness. You can also taste a cappuccino that, compared to other brews, hits you like 151 rum after a light beer. The Food Gal® (aka the Mrs. Curtas referred to above) also swears by something called “Golden Milk” here, which isn’t coffee per se, but which she claims has health-giving properties. In the summer, we’re also partial to their “Espresso Tonic” which is just what it sounds like: cold espresso mixed with tonic and lemon. Remarkably refreshing. The cold brew here is also our favorite, but the espresso was given up on long ago. That doesn’t keep us for ordering it occasionally (for the caffeine kick), but it always tastes of acerbic blueberries, rather than the elusive, dense, haunting pungent holy grail of which we seek.

Comfort – seating can be problematic at peak times, simply because all of the tables are always taken with by Millennials furiously pecking away, pretending to be doing something important. Wait a few minutes though, and something always opens up.

Image(Egg-cellence at Vesta)

Comestibles – very limited, especially compared to PublicUs. No great pastries, a few lunch items (sandwiches and such), good soups made in-house, but that’s about it. Wonderful egg sandwich though (above).

Crew as we said above, not something we can be completely objective about. Let’s just say they’re mostly female and work their tails off at peak times. There may be some dudes who also work here, and we believe the owner is also a person of the male persuasion, but to be honest, we’ve never really noticed.

Crowd – eclectic to say the least. A mixture of business types, tourists, lawyers, smelly hippies, tatted-up hipsters, hairdressers, chefs and crowd-following Yelpers. Also big with the alphabet soup sexuality crowd.

MOTHERSHIP COFFEE
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Mothership Coffee is an offshoot of the teeny tiny operation in Henderson that became a coffee nerd favorite a few years ago. It is as renowned for its small selection of exquisite pastries as it is for its Guatemalan Feminino.

Coffee – “Can I get a single espresso?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Can I get it made with more water –  what the Italians call lungo?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Okaaaaay….”

Moving on: gorgeous, nutty, beautifully balanced cappuccino. The espresso was beautiful one time, thin and acrid the second, undrinkable the third. A younger, Millennial cousin of ours (who is a major coffee hound) claims that what we call sour is actually the fruitiness of African beans coming through, as opposed to the milder, less acidic nature of South American coffee. What we call impermissibly sour, he refers to as too sweet. We love the kid, but think he has rocks in his head….or a gueule de bois (wooden mouth). Be that as it may, despite this worthwhile newcomer, a good espresso remains harder to find downtown than a hooker with teeth.

Comfort – open and airy. Kind of a pain in the neck to get to, located as it is in the back of the Ferguson’s Motel complex (at what was once the bottom of its swimming pool, see above), but very nicely appointed inside. Not a lot of seating, although you can also sit on the terraced lawn outside. Because of the location, you won’t be fighting many crowds (like Vesta and PublicUs) but you will be surrounded by self-serious Millennials furiously attached to their laptops.

Image(You’ll love getting sconed at Mothership)

Comestibles – Mothership is known for their pastries (above) and all are top notch. A limited selection of savories and sandwiches, which are invariably fresh and well-crafted. More of a place for a light snack than a full meal. If forced to bestow awards, we’d give the sweet pastries here a slight nod over PublicUs, while the latter wins the savory battle by a landslide.

Crew – Nice, but as green as an Arabica bean.

Crowd – lots of Tony Hsieh acolytes and other youngsters who keep their heads buried in their laptops for hours on end. In many ways this joint feels like a clubhouse for the Downtown Project crowd….which is probably the whole idea.

WRITER’S BLOCK COFFEE SHOP

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Rock and roll journalism was once described as people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In this same vein, putting an erudite, interesting bookstore (Writer’s Block) in downtown Las Vegas is the clueless trying to sell the thoughtful to the thoughtless. The good news is even if the Paris Review and LBGTQWXYZ Quarterly are not your cup of tea, the coffee and pastries will capture your (short) attention span.

Coffee – they use Mothership’s beans here to create the mildest brews of the bunch. This is a compliment to the cappuccino, as it reaches peak coffee perfection with its balance of sweetness, nuttiness, bitterness and acidity. Not a lot of folderol going on with the foam, but the proportions are just right. The espresso, though, is gawdawful — weak, bland, thin, and as sour as a parson’s smile.

Comfort – nothing more than a few tables, a counter and some high-tops located in the entrance foyer. The outdoor seating on the patio is a real plus. You’re also inside a groovy bookstore, which is also a real plus. Parking is a breeze and free along Bonneville.

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Comestibles – extremely limited. Almond croissants (above), cookies, a cinnamon roll and a couple of other items provided by Sonia El-Awal at Rooster Boy Café.  The good news is they are wonderful. The bad news is they run out early.

Crew – also limited, as the place is tiny. One of our favorite barista/bartenders Michelle, moved over here from Velveteen Rabbit/Vesta, making us feel right at home. I’m secretly in love with her too (Jeebus, Curtas, what’s with you!?), so that means this place is now on our steady rotation.

Crowd – here ya go:

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As this post grinds to a halt, and comes to its bitter end, we almost afforgato to tell you something. So, let us not procaffeinate any further, and espresso some final thoughts.

Unbeanknownst to Las Vegas, a hot beverage revolution has been going on around the world for some time now. It’s a brewtiful thing to watch Vegas finally perk up and smell the…

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…. because we couldn’t au lait for it any longer. Now we’re as frappé as can be, and we’re going to cup up, plunge in, and milk this trend for all its worth. We hope you do too.

THE END

 

JOEL ROBUCHON

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(Ed. note: In celebration of Nevada Day (and we suppose Halloween, although no one over the age of 12 should be celebrating Halloween), we at Being John Curtas thought an updated look at Nevada’s best restaurant was in order.)

Having a Joël Robuchon restaurant in your hotel is like having a Vermeer hanging in the lobby, or Yo-Yo Ma playing in the house band: most people will walk right by and not know what they’re missing. The cognoscenti will thank their lucky stars, while the rest of the world will just shrug. That’s the way it is with quintessence. Most people wouldn’t appreciate it if it bit them on the ass.

Imagine being so good at something that the only competition you have is with yourself. Every day the air you breathe is rarified; the tasks you perform, unparalleled in your industry, save for a handful of similarly gifted colleagues strung across the globe.

Then imagine that your toils take place within a soulless environment, populated by slack-jawed Philistines, sharp-eyed grifters and bulbous middle-managers. The town where you exist practically ignores you, and, but-for a handful of high rollers and black belt foodies, you are invisible. Nevertheless, you persevere in a corner of behemoth casino and perform at a level of craftsmanship almost unequaled…anywhere in the world.

Image(A little potato with my butter, s’il vous plait?)

Such is the role of Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas – on any given night one of the best restaurants in the known universe; a restaurant that exists solely to provide a certain level of luxury for MGM patrons and destination dining for those gastronomes with the perseverance (and the coin) to find it.

Robuchon the man (who died in 2018) and the restaurant represent a level of high-toned, fanatical perfectionism that is impressive even by French haute cuisine standards. Nowhere but here will you find a bread cart so elaborate, the amuse bouche so precise, butter so luscious, or proteins so refined.

The good news is all of these can now be enjoyed during something less than a culinary forced march. There are a variety of 4-5 course menus offered that run well below the $455 degustation, and allow garden-variety gourmets to enjoy this cooking in a two hour time frame, and at a $150-$250/pp price range. Still steep it may be, but the climb isn’t so daunting, and the payoff more than worth it.

Image(Campbell’s this is not)

What you get will be seasonal, extracted and intense. Chilled corn soup (above) makes you wonder how corn could be so silky.

Image(Superveggies!)

Morels and asparagus atop an onion jam tart (above) ask the question: how can vegetables taste so much of themselves and yet even more?

Foie gras in whatever guise will make your knees weak, and however they’re stuffing noodles (with truffled langoustines, perhaps?) will redefine your idea of how delicate a pasta can be.

Image(Shiso beautiful)

They have fabulous beef here (and, of course beautiful duck), but seafood is the thing to get, whether it’s scallops in green curry, a flan of sea urchin, or John Dory under a shield of tempura shiso leaf (above).

Another hit involves placing a soft-boiled egg in a light Comte cheese sauce topped with an Iberico ham crisp — and idea so layered with umami it ought to be illegal.

Image(No foie in New York? No problem.)

Commanding this brigade de cuisine is Christophe De Lillis, who, despite his youth, brings an artisans hand and a general’s authority to the proceedings. At this level of cooking, mistakes are something other kitchens make. You won’t be able to resist dessert or the petit fours cart so don’t even try. I give Robuchon’s cheese cart the nod over Guy Savoy’s by the width of a ribbon of Tête de Moine.

As for wine, you oenophiles will be happy to know the Great Recession did for this wine list what my last divorce did for my sex life: improved it immeasurably with lots more variety at different price points.

Get this: Four-course menu; five-course menu; degustation menu (for tri-athletes with time on their hands); chilled corn cream soup; asparagus velouté; morel-asparagus tart; duo of beetroot and apple; Robuchon potatoes; foie gras; boiled egg with Comte sauce; sea-urchin flan; truffled langoustine ravioli; frog leg fritter; scallops in green curry; John Dory with tempura shiso leaf; caramelized black cod with pepper; spit-roasted duck; grilled wagyu rib eye cap; all the bread; all desserts; petit fours; mignardises.

JOËL ROBUCHON

In the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino

702.891.7925

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What’s For Lunch?

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Is a proper sit-down lunch in Las Vegas as obsolete as Wayne Newton?

Well, yes and no.

Las Vegas is a different kettle of fish from other gastronomic destinations. Here, thousands of tourists create their own kind of midday meal boom, and the noon hour is when many of them are waking up, or roaming a convention hall.  Because of this, many of our best restaurants are closed for lunch — the thinking being that tourists are either sleeping, shopping or too hungover to be bothered. Hard to argue with that logic.

Thus are the lunchtime pickings slim unless you’re in the right hotel, or close to downtown, or within a chopstick of Chinatown. Out in the ‘burbs it’s positively depressing, as almost nothing but franchised food exists to satisfy your afternoon cravings.

But if you’re looking for a good lunch you’ve come to the right place, pilgrim, because yours truly is the king of the midday meal. My 3-hour liquid lunches are legendary, and the best places to grab a plate of tasty vittles are always on my radar when those hunger pangs strike around 11:30 am each day.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to divide my lunches into two categories: power lunches and foodie favorites. The first is for those quiet business meetings that are always more digestible in a nice setting. The second are establishments (some more exotic than others) where the food takes precedence over the decor.

Put another way: the first group is where I go for my big deal meals, and the second is where I eat every day when the sun is highest in the sky.

Image(Nothing says “power lunch” like a blizzard of white truffles)

POWER LUNCHING

Cipriani – The day it opened it was the place to be for hi-falutin’ meetings, or just to munch on some of the best pastas in town. The top-shelf service is the equal of those noodles, and makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Capital Grill – A chain steakhouse but a great one, with white tablecloths, good service, decent beef, and nice lunch specials.

Ferraro’s – Movers and shakers aplenty populate these tables at noon. Most of them are too busy with business to notice how good the food is.

Old Soul – Quiet, secluded, a bit dark and very cozy —  the perfect place to conduct a hush-hush meeting (or an affair) — although some of us prefer to concentrate on Natalie Young’s fried oysters and superb soups.

Image(Icelandic cod “Hong Kong” style at Spago)

Spago – Beautiful setting; fabulous food; lots of dudes in suits. Also lots of terribly dressed tourists. Pay neither any attention and concentrate on your fish dish (above) or a wienerschnitzel straight from Vienna.

Eiffel Tower Restaurant – Dinner is packed with young couples celebrating their starter marriages. Lunch is calmer and less delusional.

Delmonico – Great steaks, luxurious surroundings, an awesome burger, and a world-beating wine list make for a hushed, elegant midday repast. It’s never crowded and the food tastes the same as dinner…only the prices are easier to swallow.

Top of the World – Way too touristy for anyone who isn’t a tourist, and the food isn’t in the same league as the view, but the view is spectacular. As with Mon Ami Gabi, it’s harder to get to than a Himalayan ashram, but the payoff is worth it.

Morel’s – Morel’s flies under the radar, but it’s my first choice when a group of hungry guys ask me where they should chow down at noontime.

Marché Bacchus – Al fresco dining so nice you’re liable to forget yourself and spend the afternoon drinking bottle after bottle from its wonderful wine list. But enough about me.

Image(Don’t flounder, clam up, or shrimp from your duties – take your grouper to Milos for lunch )

Estiatorio Milos – Fresh off the boat fish (above) that doesn’t cost a fortune between 11:30-2:30, as long as you stick to the lunch specials (around $30/pp). Always as packed in tight as those fish, so go early or reserve ahead.

Veranda at the Four Seasons – a South Strip staple where the elite meet to eat.

Image(Sea bass en croute at EATT)

FOODIE FAVORITES

Mon Ami Gabi – It’s a pain in the ass to get to (unless you’re staying on the Strip), but the steak frites and people watching are worth the walk.

Esther’s Kitchen – Downtown’s favorite lunch spot is too loud at peak times, so go after the gold rush…around 1:00.

EATT – Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in some ways I prefer the lighter, healthier fare here to that of its fancier sibling Partage.

Lotus of Siam – It’s easier to get a table at lunch, before the crowd of idiot Instagrammers (and those that heard from someone who heard from someone who heard from someone that it was good) has descended.

Image(Pristine and very Japanese)

Raku Sweets – Only open on weekends for lunch, but everything from the potato salad to the omelette to the tomato soup (above) will blow you away. The pastries are in a league of their own.

7th & Carson – New chef Sammy DeMarco is set to bring this place into the spotlight.

China Mama – A steamer full of xiao long bao is just about the perfect noontime nosh.

Carson Kitchen – This downtown pioneer hasn’t lost its (food) fastball. The noise level is deafening, however.

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Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar – Just started opening for lunch a few weeks ago and it’s a killer…with a not-to-be-missed dry-aged burger (above).

Mabel’s BBQ – More relaxed at lunch, which also gives you the rest of the day to digest those ginormous platters of smoked meat.

Jaleo – I sometime forget Jaleo is open for lunch; I’m glad I forget because otherwise I’d be here all the time.

New Asian BBQ Tang Kung Ky – My new go-to for superior dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled noodles straight from Taiwan, by way of UNLV (the owner is a graduate).

Image(Small but mighty – Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – The newest spot on my lunch rotation (above); Angelo Reyes seamlessly combines Latino cuisines in a tiny restaurant that punches way above its weight.

Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer – Best. Tacos. In. Town. Why do I have to keep telling you these things?

The Goodwich – Sometimes, only one of these hand-tooled sandwiches (below) will do.

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That should get you started, pilgrim. After you’ve hit each of these a few times, let me know and I’ll point you to a few more favorites.