John Curtas is …

John Curtas

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Indian Uprising

The average Italian restaurant gets more customers in one night than a good Indian restaurant gets in a month. – Calvin Trillin

When it comes to restaurant food, I have the attention span of a housefly. I can be awash in wonderful Italian and find myself dreaming about French. Knee deep in delicious dim sum can’t dissuade me from dreaming about Dijon, and when I’m tucked into a tiramisu, I tremble at the thought of terrific tom yum.

And when I’m supping on seafood, I sigh about steak. And vice versa.

Yes, I’m an inveterate food slut, jumping promiscuously from cuisine to cuisine, and chef to chef, always looking for something elusive and delectable and just out of reach. A true gourmet is always a bit unhappy; always unsure of whether he has found the perfection that he seeks, invariably restless to fall in love with whatever he’s not having that very minute.

Any great restaurant town — New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Las Vegas, etc. — is like an orgy to an epicure. Lying before him are endless pleasures of the flesh: ripe, nubile, willing morsels there for the taking. But as anyone who’s ever been to an orgy knows, they can be exhausting and overwhelming…or so I’ve been told.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much great Italian food, an overflow of fine French, or a surfeit of steak. I can even overdose occasionally on superior sushi. When a confluence of these things occurs, there’s only one cuisine that helps me re-calibrate my desires — Indian.

Maybe it’s the breads, maybe it’s the vegetables. Most assuredly it is the heady mix of spices that infuse this cooking. Indian food overwhelms the senses. Subtlety is not its strong suit.  Kaleidoscopic flavors, intense aromas, and powerful punches to the palate are what defines it. There is also a depth and richness to its soups and stews that is deeply soul-stirring. The Japanese may have defined umami, but Indian culture imbues its cuisine with almost mystical levels of savory complexity. Just like it does its religion.

It always amuses me to wonder what an Indian chef or cook must think of a simple, French tarragon chicken, or spaghetti and meatballs. “My god,” they must think, “what kind of simple-minded baby food is this? It only has a few ingredients and hasn’t been absorbing fifteen different ground spices all day.”

Spices being the raison d’etre of Indian food. Not spicy in the sense of extreme heat and concentrated capsicum (although some Indian food can be as fiery as any foods) but spicy in that every dish contains a plethora of pronounced piquancy, presented by a panoply of palate-pleasing presentations.

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When you consider the dozens of spices, and hundreds of combinations that can be made with these ingredients, a mastery of this cuisine seems almost unobtainable:

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And these are just the basic ones. Did you know that both green and black cardamom is used in the Indian kitchen? Or that cumin should be freshly roasted? Or that un-ground nutmeg lasts forever?

The point is toasting and roasting of these seeds is essential to good Indian cooking, and it is the mastery of these things that distinguishes a good Indian chef from a poor one.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I can tell whether an Indian chef is a whiz at re-creating this cuisine 8,000 miles from his homeland. I can however, say that we are experiencing an upgrade among our Indians, brought forth by chefs who seem to be putting a lot more effort into their dishes, and trying to take tepid tikka masala and lame lamb rogan josh from the doldrums of the dreaded all-you-can-eat Indian buffet, and bring them into the 21st Century. And our two best are only a half mile apart from each other on Paradise Road:

ORIGIN INDIA

Part of the reason Indian food has such a dreadful reputation is that the dishes lend themselves to constant reheating — the thick, stew-like concoctions fairly begging to be put in a steamer tray buffet. Unfortunately, this re-serving of yesterday’s (and the day-before-yesterday’s) dishes results in a flattening out of the piquancy that distinguishes the great, spice-infused concoctions of the sub-continent.

Origin India has always aimed to be our best Indian restaurant, and by and large it has always succeeded. It’s definitely the most upscale, with a nice bar, wine list and decor that stresses comfort over quick and easy convenience.

What the menu now stresses, under the new hand of Chef Jeyakumar Jeevamurali  (call him Murali for short) is the bright, powerful flavors of southern India. I’ve eaten at Origin many times in the past, but this is the first time I noticed the dense, unique layering of flavors in each of the dishes. Indian food is as tough to photograph as the names of its chefs are difficult to pronounce, so you won’t get a deluge of food porn close-ups like we might with other cuisines.

Suffice it to say that each of Origin’s dishes at the top of the page — chutney chicken, lamb nihari, goat pepper fry, et al — may look similar from afar, but each punch you in the palate with their own flavor profile. The chili paneer (batter-fried cheese in a tomato-pepper sauce) was sweet and slightly spicy, just as it should be, while the ground lamb chapli fairly explodes with fresh herbs and green chilies. Only the slightly dry tandoori chicken seemed a bit careless, but as most customers want chicken cooked until the last drop of juiciness is  wrung from its tender striations into a cinder of meat (the same way Greeks overcook everything into a briquet), it’s probably just a concession to the public.

Better by far are those stewed proteins — each one different in spice and texture. What we look for in Indian food is distinctiveness between its dishes, and Jeevamurali provides it in spades. A touch of sweetness distinguishes the chutney chicken (along with some bright vinegar notes), while the lamb is deep, soulful richness in a dark gravy. His signature dish is the goat pepper fry: it being a study in drier, stir-fried meat-meets-heat. The Peshwari nan coming out of this tandoor is the best you’ll find this side of Harvest by Roy Ellamar.

URBAN TURBAN

A relative newcomer (only two years old), Urban Turban occupies the space of a former cigar bar on Paradise Road.

Small bites and more creative plating than in your average Indian joint are what separates it from the pack, and the meal we recently had felt more refined and polished than the stew and soup-centric stuff you usually get.

Credit for this goes to Chef Tarun Kapoor, who brings a more modern sensibility to this menu, without sacrificing the multi-dimensional ka-pow that distinguishes this cuisine. The butter chicken royale (pictured above) employs cream cheese to take this ground nut, butter-cashew sauce to a different level, and his clay oven roasted fruits (bottom left above) are a thing of subtle beauty.

(Tarun Kapoor emphatically instructs on his intense, indigenous Indian eats)

Speaking of soups and stews, you won’t find a more life-changing one than Kapoor’s take on black lentil dal:

….it being surpassingly complex for something that looks so simple. Kapoor tells us that it takes long, long cooking to get the lentils, spices and milk to blend into a buttery mass of vegetarian decadence. One bite in and you’ll be willing to forswear meat altogether.

Equally good is his parda biryani (bread-covered rice):

…a satisfying  marriage of two ingredients not usually made for each other. But unlike most nuptials between two starched souls, no friction ensued. Instead, you’ll find yourself reflexively dipping into the rice with your bread, and then dipping the both of them into the cool raita, or the nice, warm tomato sauce.

As we said at the top, there is a depth to this food that few Western cuisines can match. Between the long, slow cooking, the raft of spices, and the liberal use of legumes, you will find yourself hardly missing meat at all. Which is sometimes just what your palate and your body needs.

Both of ELV’s meals were comped.

ORIGIN INDIA

4480 Paradise Road

Las Vegas, NV 89169

702.734.6342

http://www.originindiarestaurant.com/

URBAN TURBAN

3900 Paradise Road

Las Vegas, NV 89169

702.826.3217

http://www.urbanturbanusa.com/

 

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ELV postscript: We dearly, direly, desperately wanted to include Turmeric Flavors of India in this round-up, but after four meals there (each one worse than the last) we simply cannot recommend it. Our love of this cuisine is such that we will probably give it a fifth try, sometime in the near future, before writing it off altogether.

Carlos Buscaglia Is Leaving DUE FORNI

The pizza ovens will remain. The pastas will continue to be made. The uber-cool drinks, funky wine list and Neapolitan pies aren’t going anywhere.

But Due Forni is losing the man who (along with Alex Taylor) invented the concept and has kept it going for the past six years.

Yes, Carlos Buscaglia is moving on, going back to the Strip, and leaving his pizzeria progeny behind.

And suddenly, Las Vegas feels a little less artisanal, more by-the-numbers, and not quite as culinarily compelling.

Six years ago it was a match made in heaven. Six years ago, the Strip was in the doldrums, and chefs like Buscaglia, Howard Choi, and Daniel Ontiveros were looking to make their mark in the ‘burbs. One by one they sought to pioneer and present a better way of eating to the citizens of Las Vegas. One by one they tried to elevate our food scene, and one by one they (along with David Clawson, Bradley Ogden and others) have crashed upon the rocks of our insatiable addiction to prefabricated, freeze-dried and franchised food.

There have been some success stories, to be sure: Dan Krohmer’s Other Mama being the most notable of the bunch. But by and large we are a blue collar town who prefers the sanitized and safe to the original and thought-provoking.

“There’s too many chain restaurants and too many people who want to eat in them,” is how Carlos put it to me last night. “It can be very discouraging.”

Indeed it can. Every day at my office I’m confronted by staff and co-workers who prefer Jimmy John’s and Claim Jumper to something owned by a local. All they really know is that these places are safe and predictable, and that’s all they really want. Instinctively they know, what Buscaglia and I know: that it takes a certain leap of faith to put yourself in the hands of a local chef. Better by far to trust the judgment of thousands before you, and give yourself over to a formula that’s worked millions of times, be it in making a mediocre sandwich or a fried chicken chalupa.

That’s what Due Forni and Buscaglia have been up against from the get-go, and that’s what they’ve succeeded against, against all odds.

But, as he explained to me, it’s time to move on.

“Frankly, I’m tired of cooking everything in two ovens and in a 400 square foot kitchen with no stove. I’m looking forward to managing a big kitchen again.”

That shouldn’t be a problem where’s he’s going since HEXX (where he’ll be running the kitchen), is a multi-tiered, high-volume operation that will keep Carlos on his toes.

What they are gaining Due Forni will be losing: a chef with great taste, and serious cooking chops. Buscaglia has been on the Vegas food scene since the early 90s when he was slinging noodles at Pasta Mia. From there he worked his way up the kitchen ladder all the way to becoming top toque at Fiamma, before departing to pursue his dream of bringing great ingredients and great pizza to the neighborhoods.

He succeeded and Due Forni succeeded, but time marches on and new challenges must be faced. From the sound of things, new ownership is taking over DF and, for the time being, the template will remain in place. (It still does a bang-up business most nights of the week, despite being surrounded by shopping malls with loads of shitty dining options that the public can’t get enough of. I’m talking to you, Downtown Summerlin.)  It remains to be seen if they do Carlos’s legacy proud, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that the dough will be just as crispy-chewy, and the toppings just as top-shelf as ever.

Even if they do, however, not having Carlos Buscaglia cooking off the Strip just made eating off the Strip a little less tasty.

The Dirt on Dirty Dining

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People love to be grossed out. People also love to think that dark-skinned and strange-talking mom-and-pop restaurateurs are the only ones doing the grossing-out.

For those who live in fear of being served the unspeakable by the unsanitary, KNTV’s Darcy Spears and her weekly “Dirty Dining” feature are there to exploit those fears in the form of lazy racism disguised as consumer reporting.

It doesn’t take a sociologist to decipher what Spears and her shameless producers are up to. “Worms at Tacos El Gordo” the headline announces. “Roaches at Thai Street Cafe!” “Rat Droppings at Honey Pig!” “Raw Meat Issues at Korean Garden!” A quick look at the KNTV Home Page demonstrates that this “investigative reporter” makes a living from reading Southern Nevada Health District reports and then trolling Asian and Mexican restaurants in hopes of ambushing and embarrassing them.

More often than not that person is an Asian- or Mexican-American who looks like a deer caught in the headlights when Spears shows up at their front door.

“You know you have to be clean even when you’re really busy?” she asks with all the hard hitting chops of a weather girl wannabe.

Because of course, she proclaims with grave inflection, “…the onions themselves were not being washed.”

“That’s the head of a chicken…” she exclaims as if she didn’t know they ever had one. Then comes, “Tyler says they use them to cook broth,” her voice fading in quiet disbelief. Finally, dripping with false sincerity and classic intonations of self-seriousness, there’s: “…cut lettuce that was kept at room temperature.”  Quelle horreur!

She then proceeds to walk through the place, with the haughtiness of a third grade teacher, pointing out various things that she thinks need to be cleaned up.

It’s all pretty craven and embarrassing (for the restaurant, for the viewer and for her – even if she’s clueless), but where she and her station really show their innate bigotry is a few minutes later in the same report.

The last minute of the February 15th segment is devoted to a raw sewage spill in Applebee’s. Seems like a toilet backed up and Applebee’s employees were walking through human waste in the restaurant. What is notable about this “reporting” is what it does not contain. There’s no ambush, no interview, no attempt to contact Mr. Applebee to inquire about the company policy for having cooks and waitresses walking through human shit. No attempt to ask customers what they think. No manager in the headlights. Just a few shots of a soap-sudded floor and the statement that it was eventually cleaned up.

And we’re talking human feces here folks, not a small splatter of chicken blood on the side of a refrigerator.*

So Applebee’s gets a pass and a family pho parlor gets the third degree. So it goes every week with this whole enterprise — a segment that’s selling sensationalism and stereotypes, not news you can use. (I don’t recall her ambushing anyone at Firefly after it poisoned hundreds of patrons four years ago, or more recently when it hosted a cockroach convention.)

To prove my thesis, I looked through 746 pages of Southern Nevada Health District restaurant reports, involving 14,778 inspections to see just how many larger operations Darcy “Chief Investigator” Spears actually “investigated.”

Aside from the casual mention that Appelbee’s got, the answer is bupkus. I could find no mention on the KNTV website of places like the California Hotel, Klondike Casino, or Emerald Island (all of whom, this year, received over 30 demerits from SNHD in its inspections). Even if Spears did call attention to these places, it’s dollars to doughnuts she didn’t show up on the hotel floor with her camera and a list of questions for the CEO.

No, she reserves that treatment for people who don’t push back. Look no further than the October, 13, 2016 report on Korean Garden BBQ. A raw onion sitting on a shelf appalls her. A food stain on stainless steel is cause for alarm.

“Not a sanitary condition to be defrosting meat,” she says like she knows anything about the subject. A few flies in the place (because the front door was open), also gives her much cause for faking some concern.

None of these are isolated incidents, all of them are business as usual when you’re in the business of harassing non-white people.

What Spears doesn’t tell you is that she is reading off preliminary health reports — most of which are followed up on within a matter of days to see if the operator has corrected the condition. Many, many restaurants get poor grades after random inspections. The Health District then follows up shortly thereafter to see if the corrections have been made. It is after THAT inspection that the restaurant gets a “final” grade.** Spears like to gloss over this fact by stating that she only goes after the places with the highest number of demerits — even when she knows they will soon be reevaluated with a second inspection. But, of course, that wouldn’t make good TV. Better by far to catch them with their pants down after that first score, play up all the disgusting things you can, and then casually mention at the end of the segment that the restaurant now has an “A.”

None of this would matter if there was any perspective being brought to bear. But in the Darcy Spears world, a dishtowel next to food is cause for the same alarm as expired spinach and cockroaches.

“Hopefully that knife tip didn’t come off in anyone’s food,” is said with a nervous giggle as she looks upon a stunted blade — just to give you something else to worry about.

Television “news” doesn’t get anymore craven than that. Not content with the information (and “gotcha” interview) she has at her disposal, she has to gin up another cause for alarm (all while pretending to be on the side of her subject), so you’ll keep paying attention.***

That’s where Dirty Dining really goes off the rails. Each segment elevates a bucket on the floor, or produce kept at an improper temperature, to the same sky-is-falling tragedy as rats in the rice bowl. Shaming the little guy is her mission statement, not educating the public.

There’s a public service to be offered here, but it’s too easy to pick the low hanging fruit and choose to intimidate our hard-working immigrant population and call it a day. The entire segment ought to be renamed “Fear and Loathing of Foreign Food.”

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* Spears is all over the guy at Thai Pepper about his overflowing toilet.

** No grades are ever “final,” the SNHD tells me; they always quickly reevaluate a place if they have a significant number of demerits. The grade you see see on the SNHD website is the one given after a follow-up inspection.

*** Which is why some people (and fans of certain restaurants) are starting to (literally) push back.

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