Major Awards – 2021

Image 1 - 45 Inch Full Size Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story
“It’s a major award!”

It was a weird year to say the least. Many local places came roaring back from Covid, but the Strip remains stuck in neutral. Only the opening of Resorts World breathed some new life into what is rapidly becoming a very stale hospitality industry. But let us not dwell on the pathetic and the plebeian; let us now consider the “Major Awards” of 2021 — kudos conveyed completely at random, without rhyme but with righteousness and reason — the only infallible, incisive, inviolable and (sometimes) inhospitable trophies we can impart off the top of our head:

Image

Pizza of the YearRebellion Pizza’s New York slice (above). Like a taste of lower Manhattan in goddamn Henderson. Go figure.

Image
Get ya Coney Island (pizza?) right here!

Weirdest Pizza – Some oddball concoction called the “Coney Pie” at Guerilla Pizza in the Hard Hat Lounge. Think a Nathan’s chili dog on a Detroit-style pie (see above). Stoner food to be sure, but tons o’ fun when you’re more baked than a brownie factory.

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My HouseMain Street Provisions

Restaurant I’m Glad Is NOT Closer to My House Burgundy French Bakery & Cafe. Otherwise, I’d be here every day.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Did somebody say BURGERS?

Image
Main Street’s chopped champ
Image
Smashed succulence from Nevada Brew Works

Burger(s) of the Year, Las Vegas Division (4-way tie) – Soulbelly BBQ, Oscar’s Steakhouse, Nevada Brew Works (the thinner single cheeseburger above), Main Street Provisions (above, top with sesame seeds). Fat or smashed, double or single, downtown’s burger scene has got you covered.

Image

Burger of the Year, International Division – this green chile champion (above) from Dr. Field Goods at the Sawmill Market in ABQ was so good it stopped me in my tracks.

Worst Burger of the Year – Victory Burger in downtown’s Circa hotel. Let’s take it as a given that if you’re going to call yourself a burger restaurant, you should know how to cook one. Two visits produced a grey, overdone, mealy patty that could’ve come from a cheapo buffet. Both tasted like defeat.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Requiem for a seafood dream….

Image

The Food Gal was happy/sad this last night

Saddest Closing – Costa di Mare. Let us know when a restaurant prettier than the one above opens up. I won’t hold my breath. The Food Gal is still holding back her tears.

Worst Meal of the Year – (toss up) Mint Indian Cafe – terrible service, dirty interior, and food that tasted like it’d been in a steamer tray for a week. On the plus side: at least it was cheap. And then there was Hugo’s Cellar – where the menu, the attitude and the carpet haven’t changed since 1983. It definitely takes the stale cake. On the plus side: at least it’s insanely expensive.

Image
Ocean trout with ponzu at Garlic Yuzu

Pleasant Surprises of the Year Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Wally’s, Milano, Aromi, Mt. Everest India’s Cuisine. Garlic Yuzu (above)

Never Again Award – Delilah

Destined to Fail Award – Superfrico

Gotta to hand it to Delilah and Superfrico — both convinced me that whatever lies ahead on the Las Vegas Strip will hold little of my interest. My glory days ran out around 2015 (about when the Strip’s did), and I don’t see anything compelling on the horizon. Don’t cry for me, Argentina, it was a twenty-year run with the best seat in the house for the greatest restaurant revolution America has ever seen. But watching the old cows get milked, and restaurants become raucous nightclubs (more concerned with distraction than food) holds as much interest for me as waiting in line for Chick-Fil-A. Las Vegas is about to pivot hard into tour bus/cruise ship territory and yours truly plans to be dining in Europe when it does.

Strangest City Visited – Minneapolis. Vibrant, locavore-driven food scene. Great steakhouses. Thriving warehouse district. Desolate downtown. One giant schizoid metropolis that’s so far from the town Mary Tyler Moore made famous it makes Los Angeles’s wasteland feel like Times Square.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

L.A. excellence….

Image
Divine dining in LA
Image
Michael Cirmarusti blew Babs and me away

Fancy-Dancy Dinner of the YearProvidence, Los Angeles. With Barbara “Call Me Babs” Fairchild. ;-)

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

May I introduce you to The Proper Lunch Bunch…?

Image
I’m in the back, drunk again
Image
My usual at Cipriani
Image

Lunch(es) of the YearCiprianigrazie to the Proper Lunch Bunch (above), for making my Fridays the best in the business.

Question from a dozen chefs: “Why do you eat at Cipriani so much?”

Me: “You put out a product this good at lunch, with this atmosphere and level of service, and I’ll eat at your restaurant every week, too.” How do you say “feng shui” in Italian?

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Bagels and other beauties…

Image

Bagels of the YearLife’s a Bagel. Don’t even think of arguing with me (or Kathy Kelly, above) about this.

Breakfast of the Year – “The Irish” at 7th and Carson (sorry, no tasty snap)

Image
Take Note: Dylan knows you can Bank on these wines

Wino of the Year – Bank Atcharawan at The Patio Wine Garden. Better wine bars (Garagiste, Ada’s, French Cellar by Partage) have now become part of our culinary landscape, but this Bank takes the bubbly with his terrific Thai menu and prices that can’t be beat.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

WTF?

Washed Up, Recycled, Past-His-Prime, Against All Odds Lazarus Award Todd English. I’d like to meet the business brain who said to himself: “Self, you know what Las Vegas really needs? MORE Todd English!” That said, we are rooting hard for his downtown boutique hotel/restaurant to be a YUGE success. To be perfectly candid, we’d be cheering for him if he served nothing but a rehash of the 1990s food that made him famous…which he will.

Restaurant I Won’t Touch With a Ten-Foot Pole…or a three-foot Czechoslovakian – JING. The year I start paying attention to restaurants crawling with MILFS and middle-managers on the make is the year you can hook my big toe to a shotgun and make me eat the ammunition.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Ya gotta love….

Image
Hot diggity Danish

Hot Dog of the Year – nothing beats the Danish dogs at Saga Pastry + Sandwich.

Image

Chinese Banquet of the YearRainbow Kitchen. The most elemental and sophisticated Cantonese food in being cooked these days in the mini-Chinatown that’s sprung up on South Rainbow Blvd. The above was a special banquet, but the daily dim sum and fresh catch offerings are unbeatable.

Image
Even uber-food blogger So-Chan-san agrees on this Greek

Greek of the YearSaavas Georgiadis

Sticking the Landing Award Steve Young, who jumped from Edge Steakhouse to top toque at Al Solito Posto.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

And now for some negativity….

I’m Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore Award – All MGM properties (Bellagio, MGM, etc.).

Between the parking fees, resort fees, closed restaurants, limited hours, $25 valet charges, corporate bullshit heaped upon more corporate bullshit, etc….we have a hard time getting excited about pulling into any MGM hotel. There’s a reason we mostly hang out at Wynn, Venetian/Palazzo and Resorts World these days, and the reason is the Wall Street ruination of our hotel/casino industry…which explains…

Restaurant(s) I Wish I had Visited More Often…or Even Once – Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bardot Brasserie, Carbone, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku.

To be fair (to myself), the year started under the shroud of limited seating and slogged through months of abbreviated hours from which it still hasn’t rebounded. Monday-Thursday were always my prime eating out/putting in the legwork days, and Covid restrictions pretty much chopped that time in half. (Friday is for three-hour lunches, Saturday is amateur hour, and Sunday is for resting the liver.) Despite Vegas’s somewhat “return to normalcy”, it is still harder to find a good Strip restaurant open on Monday-Tuesday than a T-bone at Tacotarian (sigh).

Yawn of the Year – Casa Playa

Yawning GIFs | Tenor

Hotel No One Ever Talks About Anymore Award – Mandalay Bay. Remember when it had the beautiful Shanghai Lilly? Hubert Keller’s equally gorgeous Fleur de Lys? Burger Bar? The awesome Aureole? TWO Rick Moonen restaurants? Most are gone, some are hanging on, but food-wise, this place is a sad shell of its former self.

Opening Most Ignored By Everyone But “Influencers” Who Still Think It’s A Big Deal To Be Invited (“Hosted”) To A Second-Rate Hotel Being Revamped For the Fourth Time So They Can Sell Their Souls For a Free Crab Cake – Virgin Hotel

Worst Reboot of a Second-Rate Retread – Virgin Hotel. Nothing says, “We’re out of ideas,” like sticking a Todd English joint in your joint.

Dumbest Restaurant Names – Superfrico, Night + Market, Boom Bang

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Image
Delicious doings at Resorts World

Most Funnest Opening – Resorts World

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Shameless Plug No. 1:

Image
Who was that tan man?

Funnest Lunch (other than my usual Cipriani Friday-fest) – Giving a speech to the Las Vegas Rotary Club about Vegas’s food/restaurant history over the past 30 years (see above).

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Miscellaneous Meals of Mixed Emotions…

Image
Compelling Thai in a curious casino corner

Greatest Asian Least Likely to Succeed Night + Market. Part of me wants to applaud the Virgin Hotel for this move, as it was the best Thai food we had this year. But I’ve looked around this sad place and think the Raiders have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than a cutting-edge Southeast Asian restaurant (specializing in “orange” and “natural” wines) has of wooing a bargain-hunting clientele who wouldn’t know an orange wine from Tang.

Image
Risotto Milanese with marrow at Aromi

Ole Sole Mio Unsung Italians AwardAromi, Matteo’s, Brera. Other ristorante get more pub, but this trio can go pappardelle to pappardelle with any of them.

Image
The Crown Jewel Box of Vegas restaurants

Jury Is Still Out AwardLe Cirque. Like many, we were totally jazzed about its re-opening…until we learned it was now a $388/pp all-tasting menu format ($288 for the “plant-based” option). Whether they pull it off will say a lot about the future of upscale dining on the Strip, but our first impression is they are turning this Maccioni masterpiece into another Michael’s, i.e., a comp room strictly for rubes and high-rollers. We shall see, but in the meantime, Sirio is rolling over in his grave.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Need a drink?

https://twitter.com/i/status/1440862108619460614

Bartender of the Year – Justine at Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar (above). With or without her mask on, she wowed us with her impromptu cocktail creations.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Make It Stop Power Rangers GIF - Make It Stop Stop Power Rangers - Discover  & Share GIFs
I’m begging you

Make It Stop – Tasting menus, wagyu, octopus, scallops, foam, craft beers, local distilleries, branzino, salmon, “plant-based,” hot chicken, Italian restaurants, kale, weird-ass grains, smoke, “cannabis-infused,” caviar on everything, female chef empowerment, white people making sushi, “woke” restaurant writers, ridiculously long podcasts, in-feasibly large cuts of meat, crudo, chefs with mission statements, knowing way too much (or even anything) about a chef’s sexual identity, gooey food videos, influencers, thinly-disguised promotional events pretending to be about “charity.”

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

In the best of taste…

Image
Nobody beat this meat in ’21

Steak of the Year – Nothing got our heart beating faster than this hunk o’ hunk o’ aged, charbroiled steer muscle from Manny’s Steakhouse’s private herd in Minneapolis. No bull.

That Place Is So Crowded No One Goes There Anymore Award Esther’s Kitchen

Noodlelicious Award – Big Dan Shanxi Taste

Image
Crystal pork-spinach dumplings at Rainbow Kitchen

Humpty Dumpling/Dat Sum Dim Sum Award – these dumplings never get a bad wrap, don’t gyoza too far, bao to no ones, and have a wonton disregard for the competition:

Xiao Long Dumpling

ShangHai Taste

China Poblano

Rainbow KItchen

China Mama

Image
We were Korean tears of joy over this beef

Korean Beef of the YearPark BBQ, Los Angeles (above)

Cholesterolfest of the Year – Totoraku, Los Angeles

Image

Sushi of the YearSushi Hiroyoshi (above)

Image

Desserts of the YearSweets Raku (pictured); SW Steakhouse (not pictured because our lousy, poorly-lighted pics didn’t do them justice).

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Tacos, tacos y mas tacos…and more!

Image
Carnitas tacos at Sin Fronteras

Tacos of the Year, Las Vegas Division: Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Birria El Compa La Cruda, Sin Fronteras Tacos

Image
Ditroit chicken tacos
Image
Taco crawl, LA-style. Eating street tacos the LA way

Tacos of the Year, California Division:

Carnitas El Momo

Ditroit Taqueria

Mariscos Jaliscos

Sonoratown (above, feeding our friend GT off the hood of an SUV)

Image

Best Reason For Going To Henderson: Rebellion Pizza (above)

Best Neighborhood to Eat In – Chinatown

Worst Neighborhood(s) to Eat In – North Las Vegas, where gringos fear to tread. Runner-up: Southern Highlands – filled with folks with more money than taste. At least NLV has an excuse: its residents aren’t 1/100th as wealthy as the corporate bigwigs counting their bitcoins on the SH golf course.

Image

Best Addition to the Vegas Food Scene Featherblade English Craft Butchery. Need proof? Here ya go:

Image
Finally, a veally veally good butcher in my ‘hood

>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

And this little piggy….

Image
We went whole hog in 2021

Low and Slow Award(s):

I love smoked meat like Oscar Goodman loves a martini. This year we traveled back East three times to sample pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) and whole hog in the Carolinas and Georgia, the way it was meant to be. Once pigs cross the Rockies, something seems to happen to them: they all end up tasting like a cross-over country song – the bland leading the bland into Taylor Swift land. Getting that ethereally sweet, moist, tender, finely-grained, fluffy, slightly smokey delicacy on a bun is an art, and like sushi, the gradations are subtle but important. And, as with the best raw fish, once you’ve tasted the real thing, ham-handed attempts hold no currency for aficionados. Many thanks to Brandon and Mary Coleman Smith for giving us the Carolina ‘cue tour of a lifetime.

Skylight Inn BBQ

Smiley’s Lexington BBQ

Soulbelly BBQ

Speaking of pork…

Image

Pork Chop of the Year – the above piece of pulchritudinous porcine perfection at Osteria Fiorella

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Image

Dive Bar of the Year Chez Jay, Santa Monica, CA

Image
We didn’t know what to call them, but boy did we eat a bunch of these this year…

Muffin/Scone/Cookie Award – Whatever this chewy blueberry-infused beauty is at PublicUs (above), we couldn’t get enough them.

Image
So-Chan-san’s English is far better than my Japanese

Food Vlogger of the Year – So-Chan-san, whose So-Channel on YouTube and Instagram covers our Asian food scene in more depth than I ever thought possible. Looking for insights on the inscrutable? He’s your man. Is it all in Japanese? You bet your sweet yen it is! But it comes with subtitles, of course. That’s why it’s so interesting! If you don’t get hungry after watching one of his videos, you need to check your pulse.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Fabulous Faces of 2021:

Image

Spaniard of the YearRafael Salines-Catala (above), whose Jamon Jamon is a hidden gem so good it reminds us why god gave us taste buds.

Image

Celebrity Chef of the Year (coincidentally, also a Spaniard) – Jose Andres, because he still shows up and talks to everyone like an old friend when he does.

Image
One busy gal in 2021

Hit the Ground Running Award Nicole Brisson. Opening one Brezza or Bar Zazu at Resorts World would be extraordinary. Two is practically unthinkable. Along with Caviar Bar, Wally’s, and Carversteak, her two new venues have given this hotel a murderer’s row lineup not seen since the Cosmo came online over a decade ago.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

The best, Jerry, the BEST!

Best New Restaurants of 2021 –

Image

Brezza

Caviar Bar

Wally’s Las Vegas

Jamon Jamon

Le Cafe Du Val

Aromi

Milano

Image
Mapo dofu at Chinglish

Chinglish Cantonese Wine Bar

Soulbelly BBQ

Ada’s

Al Solito Posto

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Rainbow Kitchen

Win Kee HK BBQ & Noodle

Image
Legendary jambalaya

States visited – 8 -Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, California

Foreign countries visited -0- for the first time in 10 years. ;-(

Restaurants visited – 380

Cheapest sit-down meal (not including fast food burgers and tacos eaten off the hood of a car) – Waffle House (somewhere in Georgia), where twenty bucks smothered and covered us in southern-fried goodness.

Most expensive mealn/naka, Los Angeles, where we dropped a cool $1,100 for two on a Japanese kaiseki dinner.

Image
Image
Image
New York’s loss was Minnesota’s gain

Meal of the Year Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis. Sorry Las Vegas, despite all the self-aggrandizing, mutual back-slapping going on around here, none of you put out a product as jaw-dropping as Gavin Kaysen in the great white north. Even his simple squash soup (above) gave us a woody. Note to chefs: When’s the last time you took the time to put out a superior soup? Kaysen is a chef’s chef who is in his restaurant every night, content to live where he works, and leave the empire-building to glory-seekers. His was also the best wine list I saw this year — hefty (but not too), eclectic, fascinating, and fairly-priced. Our dinner there reminded me of one we had in Toronto a few years back at a tiny, unassuming place called Edulis. The food was simple and stunning, riven with technique and flavors that penetrated your rib cage. And it was casual and a la carte, and half the price of the equally spectacular (if much more formal) Providence. Not fer nuthin’, but all of my exceptional meals in 2021 took place out of town. Las Vegas still has a lot of growing up to do.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<<<

And finally, let’s get to the really important stuff…..

Shameless Plug #2:

Image
After 27 years of writing about food, I’m officially something

Podcast (shameless plug) of the YearWhat’s Right Sam with Sam & Ash – Perhaps I’m slightly biased, but this is the only podcast in Vegas that actually gives you good info on where to eat (every Friday when a certain aging boomer grabs the microphone).

Image

Eat at the restaurants featured above and you will eat very well, indeed. So tune in every Friday, and have a happy holiday from all of us in the #BeingJohnCurtas orbit!

Image

Best in Dough: The Best Bagel in Vegas

Image(Bronzed beauty)

“Bagels anywhere but New York just taste like round bread.” – Calvin Trillin

When you think about it: a bagel taste-off makes perfect sense. Unlike burgers, pizzas or cupcakes, there aren’t hundreds of competitors in the field. The ingredients of a bagel are simple; opinions of quality are ubiquitous, and various anecdotage of its etymology are everywhere.

What we do know about bagels is that you can’t avoid them these days, and Jew and gentile alike claim them as one of America’s favorite forms of bread. (People have been spending more $$$ on bagels than doughnuts since the early 1990s.)

Without boring you with a lot of history, we will recommend this overview of bagels beginnings, and state for the record that they have a lot more in common with the German soft pretzel than anyone wants to admit.

And as long as we’re being frank, as a batter of fact, yours truly is more a fan of the un-boiled bialy than bagels. But I digress.

Image(Max Bialystock would be proud)

Bialy that as it may, we knead to boil things down for you at #BeingJohnCurtas — turn up the heat, and bake things right so as not to leave a flour taste in your mouth.

Once you’ve finished this article, the yeast you can do is bread the word around and crust our findings into the limelight. This is serious stuff folks, and this competition could result in a legend in the baking. Or something like that.

CONTESTANTS

Las Vegas seems to be going through a bagel resurgence these days, with new ones poppyseeding up all over town, bready to announce that all others are toast.  It’s a crowded field (a flock of bagels, if you will will), but not so crowded that we couldn’t slice the contestants down to eight, and weed out the crumbs.

In alphabetical order:

Bagel Cafe

Bagelmania

Bodega Bagel

Einstein’s

Life’s A Bagel

New York Bagel N Bakery

Saginaw’s Deli

Weiss Deli

JUDGES

Image

Picking the judges was harder than choosing the finalists. We wanted a nice cultural cross-section of bagel aficionados — which is coded language for “mainly Jews.”

This was for two reasons: 1) because other Jews will scream “FOUL!!!’  if an insufficient number of the tribe are there to represent….and I forgot what the other reason was.

So the judges broke down as follows:

Cranky Old Jew (Peter Sidlow)

Mexican Jewess (Rebeca Golden)

Lou the F & B Jew (Louis Hirsch)

Jolly Middle-Aged, Fashioned-Challenged Foodie Jew (Jason Harris)

Random Shiksa (Kathy Kelly)

Wannabe Jew (me)

…and once they were in their places, all took the sacred Hebrew oath: “Are you ready, willing, and bagel?”

And off to tasting we were.

STANDARDS

Image

With all the pseudo-scientific precision we could muster, our bagel hounds proceeded to break their bread with alacrity. Debates were heated, temperatures rose, and more than one got cheesed off. But in the end, flour power determined the rules:

Crust (1-5) – A good crust should have some kick to it; it should be crusty but not hard. Presenting just enough resistance as you bite into your bagel

Interior/Chew (1-5) – A bagel should never be rubbery; it should be soft, doughy, and delicious.

Taste (1-5) – This is the overall experience. Is it too salty? (That is bad.) Is it too sweet? (Also bad.) Are all the flavors in perfect harmony, aligning the planets and exposing to you all that’s right with the world? (That is good.)

An expert weighs in (from the Washington Post):

“And just what makes a bagel good? Bread guru Mark Furstenberg, founder of local foodie temples Breadline and Marvelous Market, says well-made bagels should have a slightly sweet exterior from the malt syrup used in the water they’re boiled in and heavy but soft insides. How do you know you’re biting into a great bagel? “First, your teeth break the crust,” he says. “Then you get to a pliable, doughy interior. It’s that contrast that’s so pleasing.”

With these in mind, we dove in.

METHODOLOGY

First we said “gluten morgen” to each other — well before noon so everything was as fresh as possible.

Methodology was agreed upon relatively easily (especially for a bunch of Jews). Rather than split Talmudic hairs over fine points, we settled on a simple formula: 1-5 ranking  in three categories: crust, chew (interior), and taste. The max points any bagel could get was 15. (No bagel came close to getting a 15. Only one, the winner, scored a 13, from me.) Every judge gave each bakery a final score, and then all the scores were added together for a final tally.

Although two different bagels were sampled from each bakery (a plain and an “everything” bagel), the impressions of both were combined into one score. So, for an example, each judge tasted the crust of both (different) bagels from the same bakery but gave only one score for the “crust” category — for how well it does the crust on two different bagels. (Go ahead, start splitting those Talmudic hairs.)

Judging was blind (only after all the scores were in did we know flip the plates over to reveal the names), but there were active discussions during the judging, comparing sensations if not scores.

It was actually quite remarkable how much we agreed on so many of the entries.

Image(New York Bagel array)

Crust, bite and texture were key. Soft and bready didn’t cut it. Blandness was the bugaboo of the lower rated bagels, while a strong, fresh-baked, sweet/wheat/yeast quality (sometimes slightly salty – New York Bagel, sometimes with a touch of tang – Life’s A Bagel), tipping the scales greatly in the winners’ favor.

Some of the bagels didn’t even look the part, and resembled a doughnut that had lost its way. A couple were so pale they could’ve decorated a Mormon wedding cake. The worst sported the texture of cheap white bread.

Judging Comment of the Day (describing Bagelmania’s “everything” bagel): “This is the Backstreet Boyz of bagels…nothing is In Synch.” (Thank you, Lou.)

The envelope please….

THE WINNERS:

Image(Random Shiksa Kathy K. holds the gold)

Gold MedalLife’s A Bagel

The clear winner, scoring 10 points higher than second place. Beautiful crust, salty-sweet, just the right chew, it was the top-rated bagel of 5 of the 6 judges.

Silver Medal New York Bagel N Bakery

Image(You are my everything)

My pre-tournament favorite was less dense than the winner (but not by much), with a slightly softer crust and a slightly sweeter finish. It edged out….

Bronze Medal (tie) Bodega Bagel/Weiss Deli

Both worthy in their own right, but lighter, and lacking the substantial doughy/chewiness, distinctive exterior, and overall punch that separated the top two from the pack.

Also-rans – Bagelmania, Saginaw’s

Image(Also rans)

To be fair, these two were close to Bodega and Weiss in scoring, but were miles behind the top two. We ignored price-to-value ratio, but if you’re factoring that in, Bagelmania (at almost 2 bucks a pop) would be dead last.

Dishonorable Mention – Einstein’s, Bagel Cafe

To give you an idea of how lame these were, Life’s A Bagel scored 69 total points, and New York Bagel 59. The next two tied at 56. Einstein’s (33 points) edged out Bagel Cafe by a point.

Quibble if you will, but when you do side-by-side comparisons like this, lots of pre-conceived opinions crumble, and quality shines through. People are full of opinions, but nothing hones the palate better than comparative tastings — whether it’s bagels or Burgundy.

And if you don’t like our results, do your own tasting!

Just be sure to have plenty of Jewish friends.  ;-)

Many, many thanks to Lou Hirsch for doing all the heavy bagel lifting.

Congratulations to Life’s A Bagel! We’ll be seeing you for a nosh soon.

L’Chiam!

hd restaurant GIF

 

What’s New In Vegas – Part Deux

Image

You can’t talk about Las Vegas without mentioning Circa. A modern behemoth on the western end of Fremont Street, it is the first major hotel/casino to open downtown in forty years.

It sits at the far western terminus of Fremont, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel, and across the street from the Golden Gate — Las Vegas’s oldest hotel. To say it brings a breath of fresh air to the run-down environs of downtown is like saying a Rolls Royce adds a touch of class to a drag race.

The resort has gone all-in on sports betting and pool-lounging, with Olympic-sized video screens indoors and out. The effect in the sports book is one of immersion: bringing the hi-def athletes so close to the viewer they appear larger than life.

The Legacy Club and rooftop pool have quickly become attractions in their own right, and on the second floor you’ll find two very different restaurants, side-by-side, which are two of the best of their kind anywhere in town. In the basement is the show pony — a new high-steaks entry in our beef emporium wars.

Image

Barry’s Downtown Prime

Could a new gilded age be upon us? One look at Barry’s and you’d think so. All brass, glass and sass, the decor echoes the 70s (a fern bar without ferns springs to mind) with its gleaming surfaces inset with oversized booths. It is a huge (300+ seats), underground space, but the muted lighting (and the way they’ve chopped it up), creates a certain clubby intimacy. What it has also created in a few short months is buzz — the sort of vibe that spreads like jello shots through a day club.

What Barry’s has in spades is the sort of steakhouse-as-nightclub atmosphere first perfected at N9NE in the Palms, and then carried forth by the STK Steakhouse chain (a meat market as concerned with beefcake and babes as it is with its beef).

Now, it’s a well-known fact that celebrities, short skirts and superior sustenance go together about as well as chocolate chips and shrimp. An inviolable alimentary axiom posits that the quality of the cuisine always is inversely proportional to the number of hot chicks at the bar. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

(Parenthetical digression: last month I went on a barbecue tour of Eastern North Caroline (the spiritual home of whole hog ‘cue), and there wasn’t a babe within 30 miles of the smokehouse. FACT. You won’t find any cleavage or clippy-cloppy stilettos at a New England lobster shack, either.)

The point is: the food at Barry’s is beside the point. It’s really just a placeholder for having a good time. Chef Barry Dakake made a name for himself (and perfected this template) at N9NE at the Palms. Now he’s gone underground to take his steak fame to another level.

Image(Rib cap with mandatory shishitos)

Dakake knows how to make a steakhouse good but not too good. This is not to damn him with faint praise but to admire his tightrope walking/business acumen. Barry’s doesn’t want fussy gastronomes sniffing around; it wants big wallets and big egos prowling for hot trim. Eventually, it will turn into a Lavo, Tao (or the aforementioned STK), and it’s only a matter of time before it is crawling with hockey and football players. Until then, it is a worthy addition to the Vegas steak roster.

The aforementioned bar has plenty of top-shelf booze and expensive cocktails to whet your whistle. Pound down a couple for a cool forty bucks, and then check out the wine list.

To be fair, it was conceived in a pandemic and executed in a panic so you can forgive its lack of imagination. Prices are high (but not pre-Covid Strip high); interesting bottles are few and far between. To give you an idea: a $24 of Nozzole Chianti Classico will set you back $70. Nothing is under fifty bucks and good bottles for under a hundy are harder to find than a collared shirt in the casino. Settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir or some weak-ass Merlot, or bring your own if you don’t mind a fifty buck corkage.

With those preliminaries out of the way, it’ll be time to tuck into the menu. Prepare yourself for the shockingly bad (gummy-flabby lobster potstickers), the bizarrely bad (a “real” garbage salad, appropriately named), and the could-be better (a bland steak tartare)…as well as the usual steak suspects.

Venture too far from the herd and a mixed bag awaits. A braised short rib in an eye-opening harissa-mint sauce wins “best in class” no matter whose you compare it to. But then there’s a Mary’s Farm organic chicken both voluminous and sloppy. (Adorned with a prosciutto “crisp” of no consequence other than to impress the rubes.)

The $76 Dover sole is good….but not $76 good, and I can’t recommend the salmon. Not because I didn’t like it, but because ordering salmon in a steakhouse is like going to a bordello for a back rub. AMIRITE?

Image(This filet slays)

Dakake doesn’t know how to make a bad steak, so you’re on solid turf if you decide to skip the surf. Everything is flawlessly charred, slightly smokey and seasoned so well that saucing them becomes an afterthought. All meat comes at a price and with a pedigree, but even the 8 oz., $56 filet (above) is a succulent slice of superior steer. I can’t remember the last time I praised a filet.

As good as the steaks are, it is a pasta dish which is destined to be a showstopper: the lobster mac ‘n cheese. Brimming with enough richness to induce an infarction, it has “signature side” written all over it:

Image(Lobster ‘n mac me, please)

For dessert you will get the baked Alaska, not because you love baked Alaska but because you’ll see it being flamed table-side all around you. I’ve never understood the appeal of too-hard, mediocre ice cream inside a charred meringue crust, but I’ve ordered it here, twice. This is because I’m a fool for fire, and an idiot for anything singed tableside.

If you don’t identify as a self-loathing pyromaniac, the carrot cake and campfire s’mores are worthy alternatives.

A meal for two here, exclusive of booze, gets to two hundred dollars faster than you can say “medium-rare.” One of our three meals was comped; one of them happened anonymously. The service was excellent each time.

BARRY’S DOWNTOWN PRIME

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5504

Image(Real men eat deli)

Saginaw’s

I hesitate to name Saginaw’s “The Best Deli in Town” because every time I bestow such benefaction, the recipient of my beneficence is out of business within a year. (Same thing happens with barbecue.)

But it is, and the proof is in the latkes. “Most of them in other restaurants look like a hockey puck,” Paul Saginaw (above) will tell you. “Ours take longer, and they have a good amount of schmaltz in them.”

That’s really all you need to know about this place. It’s full of schmaltz — Jewish olive oil — the kind of bred-to-the-bone Jewishness which is proud of its culinary heritage, not running away from it.

“When we first opened,” he continues, “our corned beef outsold turkey by this much (placing his right hand high above his left). Now, they’re about equal.”

“Nobody eats lox (cured salmon) anymore, even though it is cheaper,” Saginaw says. He then admits other smoked fishes, despite their keto-approved healthiness, are considered the domain of 80 year old Bubbees. These admissions come after I question whether the classic Jewish delicatessen is now about as fashionable as Henny Youngman.

He admits that it has. Pickled herring, smoked whitefish, lox used to fly out the door. No longer, he says wistfully. Lox now takes a back seat to cold-smoked Nova, if you can sell it at all.

This may not bode well for the future of delicatessens, but as a dedicated faynshmeker, I would urge you to take one bite of this beauty before writing them off entirely:

Image(Whatever you do, don’t Passover this Nova!)

At the drop of his fedora, Saginaw will wax poetic about rendering chicken fat and skins down, filter it into schmaltz, then frying the gribenes (cracklings) before whipping them into the chopped liver and sauteed onions. The result, when done right, like it is here, is otherworldly:

Image(Not just any chopped liver)

You’ll have to travel to New York, or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles to find any as good.

He admits no self-respecting Millennial would be caught dead professing admiration for chopped liver…even if they swoon over some fancy-schmancy paté. Such are the tides Saginaw’s is swimming against.

And then there is the corned beef — the holy grail of edible Judaism.

Brined in Michigan to Saginaw’s specs, flown to Vegas and finished on-site, it is so good it could turn a Hindu into a Hebrew:

Image(Beef – properly curated and corned)

As I’ve said on social media, don’t even talk to me about the best corned beef in town until you’ve had this bad boy.

Bread crust with real crackle, soft-yet-dense chewy rye enveloping lean, salty/spicy meat, it is a sandwich that puts its competition to shame. “Even the New York delis use cheaper bread and pre-slice it these days,” he rues. “Ours takes more time but we think you can taste the difference.”

Saginaw’s house-made, slightly-spicy Russian dressing has twelve ingredients in it and is worth a trip all by itself. So are the house-fried potato chips. They get their breads from Bon Breads locally, and he’s looking for a local bagel bakery which meets his standards. (Right now they’re coming par-baked from New York).

The desserts are from the nonpareil Zingerman’s Bakehouse. They also do real half-sour (“new”) pickles here along with fully sour (“old”) ones; the cream cheese is “the cream of the cream cheese crop” (according to Cooks Illustrated), and even the kneidlach (matzoh ball) soup is a deeper, denser, more intense broth than the shiksa stuff you’re used to.

Spend five minutes with Paul Saginaw and you’ll find his enthusiasm for good deli is infectious. He’s in the restaurant every day, and is a non-stop fount of opinions you can learn from. (Get him talking about bread and fatty brisket and he’ll make a convert of you forever.)

This deli is his labor of love and it tastes like it. Don’t even think about telling me your deli is better until you’ve tried it.

Image

Sandwiches are in the $15-$22 range but easily feed two. A meal for two with plenty of leftovers should be about $50, including tip. I had five meals here before I met and interviewed Mr. Saginaw. Service was always friendly and helpful and lickity-split.

SAGINAW’S

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5506

Image

8East

Sitting within a stone’s throw of Saginaw’s, on the same side of the second floor, is a stark contrast to a traditional deli and big hitter beef emporium. 8East checks the boxes for those wanting something Asian, unique, modern, and flexible. It is not a noodle bar, per se, nor is it all about bao, or dedicated to dumplings. What you’ll find is a mix and match menu of Asian nibbles from across the Pacific, given a personal spin by chef/owner Dan Coughlin.

Coughlin is something of an Asian-American phenomenon. His family has run traditional Thai restaurants for years, and he struck out on his own a decade ago with the fabulously successful Le Thai on East Fremont. Given a bigger space to work with (above), he’s let his imagination run wild (but not too wild) with the various techniques  of the Far East.

Image(Boffo bao)

The cuisine itself is hard to pigeonhole, but that’s part of the fun. Coughlin may be playing with flavors from all over the Pacific, but he has enough restraint to keep things in focus.

You can toggle between the traditional (a steamed egg custard with soy and sesame), to the trendy (pork belly bao) and never find a flaw. His Dan Dan and Sizzling Noodles would be right at home on Spring Mountain Road, while seared circles of carpaccio, adorned with baby tatsoi greens and dressed with citrus wasabi creme, are straight from the Nobu playbook.

Coughlin is unabashed in wanting to use the entire Asian flavor palette, as when he drops traditional Chinese sauteéd green beans with ground pork, right next to bites of Hawaiian musubi, and a Tokyo crepe rolled, sushi roll-style, around sauteéd mushrooms and fried tofu.

Image(My little dumplings)

He doesn’t make a big deal about his vegetarian offerings, but he should. Dishes like the simple, stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce, the fried tofu, and the mélange of mushrooms in butter are some of the tastiest plant-based recipes you’ll find, in Asia or anywhere.

Page two of the menu finds a plethora of impressive proteins  — from definitive salt & Szechuan pepper wings to cumin lamb lollipops to crispy pork belly — square chunks of sticky sweet pork that could be sold as meat candy if someone wanted to make a killing. The only entree over twenty bucks is the Five Spice New York Strip ($25), with echos of Chinese spices playing off good beef and a tangy “butterfall” sauce.

Image

About the only thing we can’t wholeheartedly endorse is the “$MKT-priced Lobster Fried Rice” (above). It’s plenty good, but (as we like to say), it ain’t $55 good. Stick with the Brisket Fried Rice ($16), or one of the noodle dishes if starch is what you seek.

Sharing is the mantra here, and experimenting with Asia, the theme. Coughlin’s menu has something for everyone and packs quite a punch for such a small operation (at such a small price point). The only thing it needs now is customers.

Nothing on the menu (except that steak) is over $16. Two people can eat like kings for $50, and four will be stuffed for a Benjamin, exclusive of booze. We haven’t tried any cocktails, but they’re quite proud of them. The wine list is barely adequate to the task; the sake selection a little better.

8EAST

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5508

>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<

To summarize: Barry’s is a worthy addition to Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks; Saginaw’s is best in show by a Moses mile; and 8East is a breath of fresh Asian-fusion air in a part of town that needs one.

Derek Stevens’ team should be applauded for shaking up a hotel’s culinary offerings with something other than the usual steak, Italian, coffee shop suspects. There’s also a burger restaurant (Victory Burger, below) which is fine, if not life-changing, and a coffee bar (Jack Pots) with some tasty brews and tastier breakfast cakes straight from Zingerman’s.

Bottom line: You don’t need to leave the premises to eat very well, and it’s been a long long time since anyone said that about a hotel on Fremont Street.

Image(Victory Burger!)