We don’t know what Henry David Thoreau would make of Las Vegas’s restaurant scene, but, he’d probably conclude (once we cleaned him up, gave him a tour, and put some decent grub in his gut), that there’s too much and not enough going on at the same time.
Aria is a disappointment, not just because of its surfeit of sustenance providers, but because, after all of that bullshit about what a game-changer it would be, it is simply another huge hotel/casino with a bunch of copycat restaurants inside. (Btw: Does anyone in our local business press ever challenge the bigwigs at MGM-Mirage for the bill of goods they sold us five years ago? Remember how City Center — that is neither a city nor in the center of anything — was going to create a “new urban/living experience” for locals and tourists alike?)
Big corporations love to think of themselves as dynamic and creative behind all of those starched collars, but in the end, they are successful because they have a formula for making money, and they always revert to form — after using promises of innovation to hype their stock. The first time we observed this phenomenon was way back in the mid-1970’s when Walt Disney World was promoting its Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow (EPCOT) as a utopian suburban community for those desiring the sort of antiseptic, well-groomed and civil-rights-free lifestyle of which Uncle Walt was so fond.
In the end, what did we get? Another theme park. A pretty cool theme park, but a theme park nonetheless.
So Vegas is stuck with another soulless hotel/casino that is, ultimately, a copy of a copy of a copy (albeit one with really cool public art). If Aria changes anything about Las Vegas it will be because of its architecture, and for that we are grateful to it for finally discarding the “ducks and sheds” shackles (and the immediate successor – the Y-shaped atrocity) that defined hotels around here for fifty years.
But we digress. (Of course we’ve digressed! We’re ELV; that’s what we do!)
All of this is by way of saying that people “in-the-know” often don’t know much except repetition.
Which is a problem for a lot of chefs and restaurateurs, no matter how creative they think they are.
And why many who think they “have a clue” often don’t.
The formula for success in food service isn’t creativity, and it’s not hiring a “good chef” and letting them do things their way.
The formula is to simplify.
For if there’s one thing we’ve learned in forty years of serious cooking and eating, it’s that the best meals and the happiest customers come from places that have mastered something. It might be something as simple as the cheeseburgers at Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut — where they grill the burgers on bread between two upright, ancient, gas-fired toasters — or Wolfgang’s Puck‘s smoked salmon pizza, or fish tacos in Ensendada, or a Caesar salad done right (practically nowhere) or oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s (We could give a hundred other examples – including all the great barbecue we’ve had in our life). These are not hard recipes, but they are done impeccably every time, with good ingredients.
Joel Robuchon once told me that the hardest thing to make it the world is a great caprese salad. “There is no margin for error,” he said. “Everything must be perfect or it will taste like nothing.” And he was right (although I doubted him at the time.)
Chefs learn techniques and then feel they have to use them, and forget what brought them to food in the first place. We hate to go all “Alice Waters” on you, but it was that perfect ripe peach (or rice pudding) that seemed ever and for always to be a religious experience. Instead of concentrating on those things, they feel they have to use their repetoire — to strut their stuff — if they are to be taken seriously.
It’s like all those amateur singers (and quite a few professional ones) who feel they have to emulate Whitney (“I’ve got a big voice and I’m gonna use every inch of it”) Houston every time they sing anything. They only end up sounding ridiculous and water down what talent they do have. (Some singing voices, like ELV’s, are best when serenading his significant other, amidst the act of physical love, during an exchange of precious bodily fluids.)
As in singing, what makes a cuisine (or a chef or a single dish) great is harmony, restraint, and balance. These characteristics are why we’d rather eat once a week at Guy Savoy than at Robuchon or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire — not that we don’t admire what the latter do, but only because their pirouettes on the plate make them seem like special occasion places. It also why those three gentlemen (even at their most roccoco) are great chefs, and why Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Palmer and Todd English are not.
But the American sensibility of too much is not enough has infected chefs and restaurants for too long now. Between those unhealthy cravings for big portions, and lots of plate falderol, and the restaurateur’s desire to provide something for everyone, most restaurant menus are a a jumble of ideas that make sense to no one.
So restaurants of Las Vegas, here is an idea: Pick an idiom and stick with it. Cut your menus in half, find a few dishes you do well, execute the bejesus out of them, and create a market for your goods by doing something better than anyone around — instead of doing dozens of things half-baked and hoping that variety will carry the day. (Of course you’ll have supporting players in the cast, but make your stars shine.)
And if you want to see how menus are done right, go to Mon Ami Gabi, or Settebello, or In-N-Out Burger, and closely observe their operations. They all concentrate on simple food done right. Nothing has more than three or four ingredients in it (not including seasonings), and the flavors on everything always pop.
The old saying goes: Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Chefs and owners have forgotten this, and our restaurant food has suffered as a result. Quit trying to be all things to all people. Build a better grilled cheese and stop trying to impress us with your techniques and “creativity” and menus that are too long by half, and maybe more of you will stay in business.
Zeus hath spoken.
Go forth and sin no more….