My Summer of Suck

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The only things worth talking about are sex and death. – Jean-Paul Sartre

I’m supposed to be in Italy right now. Should have been there a week already. But something sinister grabbed me by the lungs three weeks ago and hasn’t let go. All the tests say I’m healthy enough to kayak the Colorado, but my short, panicky breathing tells me otherwise. Taking a deep breath has become harder for me than ordering a vegan pizza.

I’m not exactly bedridden, but a twelve hour plane flight was more than my anxieties could bear. More specialists are on the horizon; we shall see.

In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of time to wonder why the stars have aligned to turn this into my personal Summer of Suck.

Mother dying? Check. Wicked sinus infection that laid me up for most of June? Check. Remember my busted toe? Walking was a pain for almost two months, but that’s small potatoes at this point.

Just when the physical pain, body aches, and soul-crushing loss of a loved one all seemed to be subsiding, I awoke in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. Haven’t spent a conscious minute not thinking about breathing ever since.

Many people close to me (The Food Gal®, my sister, the last sommelier who poured me a glass) think the whole thing may be in my head. With that in mind, I thought I’d explore a few theories about why this is happening. More specifically: what could be weighing on me to the point where a fundamental, automatic bodily function now feels like a daily challenge. Some of these are pretty obvious, others unique to me. Collectively they might supply some answers. Writing them down helps me take a deeper breaths while I’m typing. So there’s that.

GETTING OLD SUCKS

YARN | Getting old sucks. Don't let anybody tell you any different. | Jumanji: The Next Level | Video clips by quotes | c4d2c0cf | 紗

Who knew? It is such a cliche to say that youth is wasted on the young, life is too short, and you never really appreciate someone (or your health) until they are gone. But as you age, the import of these phrases comes into sharp relief, and their meaning weighs on you like a ghostly specter, always there whispering terrifying realities to you.

It’s a given that we always take good health for granted until some affliction grabs us. (You have no idea how much you take your bung hole for granted until hemorrhoid surgery turns your aching anus into the focal point of every waking second. DETAILS UPON REQUEST!)

The list of things that fade with age are too numerous to count. I’ve been blessed with good hair, decent skin and a great memory. (My memory is so good I sometimes wish it wasn’t. There are many events from my past, some many decades old, that I still cringe about when I remember them in excruciating detail.) My eyesight has been shitty since I was six, so aside from those annoying floaters inside my eyeballs, I can’t complain there, either.

Of course I’m heavier than I once was, and losing ten pounds seems like a Sisyphean task, which also describes my sexual performance. (Note to young men: enjoy those heroic erections while you can. After sixty, even with pharmaceutical help, you’re lucky if your penne ever gets to al dente.)

LOVE AND DEATH

“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

Film — Love and Death ,Woody Allen , 1975.(Your table is waiting, Mr. Curtas)

Losing your last parent is another reality that comes to us all. They were there at your beginning — bigger, stronger, wiser than you could ever hope to be. Then, over the decades, the roles reversed. They begin to decline as you ascent, and in their advanced years they look to you the way you once revered them: as a tower of strength, love and protection. If you’re lucky like I was, at least one of your parents will not go gentle into that good night, fighting back and forestalling their inevitable disintegration, retaining their mobility and their nobility right up to the end.

My father faded more quickly than my mom, dying at 80 of a blood disease, but neither of them ever lost their eyesight, their hearing, or their joie de vivre. I still remember my dad sitting up in his hospice bed, fading in and out from whatever pathogens and chemicals were coursing through his veins, but lighting up like a kid at Christmas when I brought him a plate of barbecue. Mom used to joke about his hearing: “I wish it didn’t work so well – whenever we’re whispering in the corner about his condition, he hears every word.”

So I’ve got that to look forward to: being keenly aware, through sight and sound, of every chink in the armor and leak in the machinery which is certain to befall me.

I’m dying and I know it. All of us are. The great Oliver Sacks, while literally on his deathbed, wrote a book “Gratitude” about what kept him going through his terminal illness.  As a (part-time) writer, I can see how absorption in one’s craft can supply an important diversion from the reckoning we face.

Sacks, famously, did it with his obsession with science (he was a neurologist and a total Periodic Table geek). As he put it:

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”

It would be nice if religion or (C12H14CaO12)n (calcium alginate) gave me a boner (or helped me sleep at night), but that’s not the way I’m hard-wired. Losing yourself in abstract principles is difficult when you have the attention span of a housefly.

LOSING AMBITION

Forever Lazy GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY(Epicurean education, 21st Century style)

I used to be great at rebooting myself, and reviving my energies, no matter how badly I crapped out at something (marriage, career setbacks, money troubles, etc.) “I never worried too much about you, you’re a survivor,” my mom always said, and I guess she was right.

For 60+ years I was great at springing to my feet and avoiding the standing eight count. Whether is was something good for me (golf, cooking, writing, work), or self-destructive (women, ego, partying like it’s 1999, all the time), my attentions vacillated from the compelling to the insatiable. (One thing that never motivated me was money, much to my ex-wives’ chagrin.)

But times have changed and age has caught up with me. As Garrison Keillor recently remarked: “In your seventies, you lose your ambition.”

Boy do you ever. And when someone like me loses his motivation to prove himself (whether in the kitchen, the bedroom, or the courtroom), the wattage within has dimmed and you can feel it.

Younger people do not know this feeling. They still have mountains to climb, and an entire world of commerce exists to trade on their hopes and spurious dreams: selling them everything from cars to clothes to entertainment — each sales pitch aimed at trying to convince us how important something fungible is to our well being.

Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it, anesthetizing ourselves in the service of mindless consumerism. The smarter among us suspend our disbelief and indulge ourselves with these perquisites of purchase, while ultimately realizing how little they mean. But you don’t realize this until you’ve drifted into old age, and one day realize how little joy you actually get from everything competing for your attention.

As I age, I have become less and less interested in: politics, the economy, global warming, abortion, culture wars, gender identities and education battles. These are future concerns; at my age, you become a man of the present.

FOOD WRITING FUTURE

Food Blog GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY(Restaurant critic, 2022)

Through divorce, professional pressures and numerous ups and downs, my food writing has sustained me since 1994. Kept me level and focused when (sometimes) all I could see was despair and chaos.

For all those years, no matter what was going on, there was always a script to record, a television appearance to make, or a review to write. Thus did the world of food and restaurants become woven into the fabric of my daily life. Even with the advent of the internet, this website provided us a nice blank canvas (and a bigger microphone) from which to pepper the landscape with our opinions. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

Social media, as it slowly eats our brains, has only made things worse. “Everyone’s always sellin’,” my dad used to say, but until a dozen years ago, the only ones selling were those with something to sell, as in: an actual product. Now, everyone is their own brand, and woe to anyone under forty who isn’t constantly promoting themselves. The whole thing is exhausting, and definitely a young person’s game.

I understand why businesses do it, but long for the old days when restaurants slaved away and hungered for a little recognition in traditional media, rather than constantly bombarding customers with promotions, food porn, and chef’s lifestyle pics. I yearn for the undiscovered gem and hidden treasures — not the umpteenth video of pizza goo,   advertising disguised as influencing, or whatever the f**k this is:

Chantal Sarault / Foodie Beauty | Page 2330 | Kiwi Farms

You may find this hard to believe, but a dozen years ago, I was begging, BEGGING, restaurants to get on social media. Now my Instagram feed is nothing but a tsunami of selling, and all social media is one gigantic marketing platform.

What you gain in information, though, you lose in the romance of discovery and the seduction of surprise. Where’s the fun in knowing the whole menu, and what the food will look like, before you step through the door? By the time you get to most restaurants these days, you know everything from the brand of olive oil they use to the names of the chef’s children. God bless Chinatown, where a bit of modesty is still practiced, and they let the food (and not shite like this) do the talking:

Mishti Rahman Influencer GIF - Mishti Rahman Influencer Pretty - Discover & Share GIFs(I am so influenced now to eat this pizza)

I NEED A HOBBY

For forty years I’ve been obsessed with food. For almost thirty I’ve been writing about it. But as I’ve said since 2014: people are not interested in reading about food anymore (see above).

Something is needed to fill in the gaps of more free time which you and I will inevitably have in our later years.

My wife calls it something to propel me forward. Something which is decidedly lacking in my world right now.

On the bright side, I made a very good risotto this week which made me happy. I learned to make risotto from Marcella Hazan (in person) and that makes me proud. Maybe I’ll turn this into a cooking blog. Heaven knows the world needs more of those…

https://twitter.com/i/status/1553819294646947840

I kid. I kid. The world needs another cooking blog like I need another ex-wife. Showing off your kitchen skillz is something for which social media is beautifully suited. I think I’ll confine my creations to those venues. Maybe that’s what I should do on Tik Tok, when I’m finished looking at young women lip-syncing in their underwear.

I SUCK AT GOLF

…but not as much as this guy:

Charles Barkley Golf GIFs | Tenor

Golf was once my go-to therapy for everything from business pressures to a broken heart. I started playing when I was twelve and played a pretty respectable game (10 handicap) for about twenty-five years. My best golf came in my forties when I could break 85 on a good course without breaking a sweat. (BRAGGADOCIOS? YOU BET!)

Then, I gave it up….for twenty years! Many things conspired to end my love of golf: a divorce, the expense (playing became criminally expensive during the Tiger Woods era), losing a well-paying job in a big law firm, re-booting my career as a solo practitioner in the early aughts, and finally (and probably most important): the food thing taking off at the same time. Put them all together and my golf bag became a forlorn, discarded symbol of another me in my garage; so starved for attention that when the clubs were eventually stolen, it was probably a year or two before I even knew they were gone.

But all golfers are secretly gluttons for punishment. So against all odds, I decided to dust off the old irons about a year ago and have been diligently pounding balls at the driving range at least once a week — fully aware that my best golf is like a long-gone ingenue whose beauty will never be recaptured…even if an old diva like yours truly won’t admit it:

Is it better to speak, or to die?(Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my pitching wedge)

There are many reasons for this: 1) Golf is hard. 2) Golf is really hard when you have a twenty-pound gut on you that wasn’t there twenty years ago. 3) You’re way less limber. And finally, 4) your bifocals wreck havoc on any attempt to focus on the ball — either just sitting there, waiting to be whacked, or anywhere it happens to go in flight (usually sideways).

In other words, I’m not as strong, or as flexible as I once was. I can’t see the ball worth a shit whether it’s right in front of me or flying through the air. (The skulled grounders I hit I can follow just fine, thank you.) My coordination has faded and my swing now flows less like syrup and more like a busted jalopy constructed of spare parts.

It makes NO SENSE whatsoever for me to put myself through this humiliation, but am I going to stick with it? You bet!

At this point, golf is like sex: something I used to be fairly good at that still beckons me, even though my performance falls woefully short of my previous standards. The benefit of golf is there’s no one balefully staring up at you when, once again, your putter comes up short. But I continue to chop away, taking comfort in the words of three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret: “Golf and sex are the two things in life you don’t have to be any good at to still enjoy.”

NOSTALGIA BITES

Nostalgia GIFs | Tenor

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that when you turn sixty, you start looking back. I’ve delayed that process for ten years, but am now reckoning with it. But It’s hard to turn a rose-colored gaze on the gauzy memories of the past when sadness lays heavy on your breast and and you have trouble taking a breath.

I have too many pictures, too many books, too many menus, and too many memories to cull through. Things that once comforted me, now feel like a burden. The thought of looking through decades old albums of times both good and bad, should bring a smile to my face. Instead, I think of them with dread, as if revisiting the past diminishes the present, or reminds me of the person I will never be again.

SELF DIAGNOSIS

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Some people (like me), love to go whistling past the graveyard — feigning nonchalance with the confidence of a teenager — but we know we’re only fooling ourselves. The Boogeyman under your bed may be in your imagination as a child, but the Grim Reaper is all too real, and standing at the end of your personal cornfield as an adult — ready to reduce your sentient stalk to a pile of dust.

Maybe the cure is simple for my summer of suck: to find meaning in the simple pleasures and tender mercies of everyday life. It has been very hard for me to do that over the past two months, but keep trying I will, because giving up is not yet an option.

Growing old will not make me a better person. (Turning fifty and settling down with my wife did that.) I intend to be the same feisty, not-suffering fools dude I’ve been for my entire adult life. There will be no religious conversion, no new leaves overturned, and no kinder-gentler persona adopted. By my age, your personality is pretty much set in stone, but the stage upon which my performance occurs doesn’t have to be. I may fit the official definition of an old man but I am not ready to be one.

Something has to change.

I need to find another mountain to climb.

The Best Restaurant(s) in the World

Image(Restaurant Guy Savoy, Paris)
If you take it as a given that French restaurants are the best in the world, it only stands to reason that the best restaurant in the world will be in France.
Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m not here to dismiss the cuisines of entire countries — only to point out that, like sushi, Mexican street food, and pasta, the places where some food was invented are generally where you will find the highest elevation of the art. And Paris, in case you’ve forgotten, is where the modern restaurant was born in the latter half of the 18th Century.

Of course, the “best” of anything is a conceit and highly subjective. Measuring a “winner” or “the best” of anything — from wine to women — is a nice parlor game, but ultimately a waste of time unless there’s a stopwatch involved.

Whoever wins these accolades usually comes down to who got fawned over the most in a few influential publications — not who objectively gives diners the best food, drink, and experience. Anyone who thinks the several hundred voters who weigh in on these awards have actually eaten at the places they vote for as “the best restaurant in the world” (as opposed to forming their opinions based upon reading accounts of the few who have), has rocks in their head.

“Awards” of this sort are simply a way to give a deceptively false measuring stick to those who don’t know much about a subject. Subjectivity disguised as objectivity, all in the name of marketing to the wealthy with more money than taste. Same as with wine scores and Oscar nominations. The rich need these adjudications to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing, and “The “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is there for them. As Hemingway puts it in “A Moveable Feast”:

The rich came led by the pilot fish. A year earlier they never would have come. There was no certainty then.

Back when El Bulli was garnering these awards (and I was voting on them), I heard from several colleagues who ate there, and what they described was more of a soul-deadening food slog (an edible marathon, if you will) than an actual pleasant experience.

A close friend (who also happens to be a chef) told me he stopped counting after 40(?) courses of (often) indecipherable eats, and was looking for the door two hours before the ordeal ended. (The trouble was, he said, there was literally no place to go — El Bulli being, literally, in the middle of nowhere.)

But Feran Adrià (like Thomas Keller before him and Grant Achatz and René Redzepi after), was anointed because, as in Hollywood, a few influential folks decided they were to be christened the au courant  bucket list-of-the-moment, and woe be to anyone in the hustings to question these lordly judgments. In the cosseted world of gastronomic beneficence (and the slaves to food fashion who follow them) this would be akin to a local seamstress suggesting Anna Wintour adjust her hemline.

Because of this nonsense, we’ve been saddled with the tyranny of the tasting menu for twenty-five years (Keller, Achatz, et al), disguised foods and tasteless foams (Adria), and edible vegetation (Redzepi) designed more for ground cover than actual eating.

As far as I can tell, neither molecular cuisine nor eating tree bark and live ants has caught on in  the real world — beyond trophy-hunting gastronauts, who swoon for the “next big thing” the way the fashion press promotes outlandish threads to grab attention.

Which brings us back to France. More particularly, French restaurants and what makes them so special. Let’s begin with food that looks like real food:

Image(Surf & Turf: Langoustines au Truffes La Tour D’Argent)

….not someone’s idea of playing with their food, or trying to turn it into something it isn’t. This cooking philosophy alone separates fine French cuisine from the pretenders, and gives it a confidence few restaurants in the world ever approach.

For one, there’s a naturalness to restaurants in France that comes from the French having invented the game. Unlike many who play for the “world’s best” stakes, nothing about them ever feels forced, least of all the cooking.  With four-hundred years to get it right, and French restaurants display everything from the napery to the stemware with an insouciant aplomb that is the gold standard.

You don’t have to instruct the French how to run a restaurant any more than you have to teach a fish how to swim. Or at least that’s how it appears when you’re in the midst of one of these unforgettable meals, because, to repeat, they’ve been perfecting things for four hundred years. Everything from the amuse bouche to the petit fours have been carefully honed to put you at ease with with being your best self at the table.

Image(Gruyère gougeres have been around longer than America)

Having been at this gig for a while, I’m perfectly aware that the death of fine French dining, and intensive care service accompanying it, has been announced about every third year for the past thirty.

I’m not buying any of it. When you go to France (be it Paris or out in the provinces), the food is just as glorified, the service rituals just as precise, and the pomp and circumstance just as beautifully choreographed as it was fifty years ago. The fact that younger diners/writers see this form of civilized dining as a hidebound, time-warp does not detract from its prominence in the country that invented it.

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Copenhagen, the style and performative aspects of big deal meals still takes their cues from the French. Only elaborate Mandarin banquets or the hyper-seasonality of a kaiseki dinner  match the formality and structure of haute cuisine.

These forms of highly stylized dining follow a path straight up the food chain. There are rules and they are there for a reason, usually having to do with how you will taste and digest what is placed before you. Light before heavy; raw before cooked; simple before complex — you get the picture
You usually begin with something fished directly from the sea. Oysters and other shellfish are a natural match, as is a shrimp cocktail. (A good old-fashioned American steakhouse has more in common, with high falutin’ French than people realize.)  Their natural salinity stimulates the appetite without weighing you down.
Man’s evolution into a more cultivated forms of eating is represented by bread, as is the domestication of animals by the butter slathered upon it. (If you want to stretch the symbolism even further, look at olive oil and the fermentation of wine and beer as representing mankind’s earliest bending of agriculture to his edible wants and needs.)
Image(Early man struggled with the whole pommes soufflé-thing)
From there things get more elaborate, depending on whether you want to go the seafood, wild game, or domesticated fowl route. Vegetables get their intermezzo by using salad greens as a scrub for the stomach to help digest everything that precedes them. (The French think eating a salad at the start of a meal is stupid, and it is.) You finish of course with cheese (“milk’s leap toward immortality” – Clifton Fadiman), and then with the most refined of all foods: sugar and flour and all the wonderful things that can be done with them. A great French meal is thus every bit the homage to nature as Japanese kaiseki, albeit with a lot more wine and creme brûlée.
As I’ve written before, French food is about the extraction and intensification of flavor. Unlike Italians and Japanese, a French cook looks at an ingredient (be it asparagus, seafood, or meat) and asks himself: “Self, how can I make this thing taste more like itself.” All the simmering, searing, pressing, and sieving in a French kitchen is as far a cry from leaving nature well enough alone as an opera is from the warble of a songbird.

With this in mind, we set our sights on two iconic Parisian restaurants: one, as old-fashioned as you can get, and the other a more modern take on the cuisine, by one of its most celebrated chefs. Together, they represent the apotheosis of the restaurant arts. They also signify why, no matter what some critics say, the French still rule the roost. Blessedly, there is no chance of encountering Finnish reindeer moss at either of them.

LA TOUR D’ARGENT

Image

If experience is any measure of perfection, then The Tower of Money should win “best restaurant in the world” every year, because no one has been serving food this fine, for this long, in this grand a setting.

A restaurant in one form or another has been going on at this location since before the Three Musketeers were swashing their buckles. What began as an elegant inn near the wine docks of Paris in 1582 soon enough was playing host to everyone from royalty to Cardinal Richelieu. It is claimed that the use of the fork in France began in the late 1500s at an early incarnation of “The Tower of Silver”, with Henry IV adopting the utensil to keep his cuffs clean.

Apocryphal or not,  what is certainly true is that Good King Hank (1553-1610) bestowed upon the La Tour its crest which still symbolizes it today:

History, of course, provides the foundation, and the setting continues to provides a “wow” factor unmatched by all but a handful of restaurants in the world. No place but here can you dine with the ghosts of Louis XIV, Winston Churchill and Sarah Bernhardt, all while seeming to float above Paris on this open door to the city’s past — all of it available to anyone with the argent to book a table.
But the proof is in the cooking — that has been, on our last two visits, as awesome as the view. It’s no secret that the glory had started to fade twenty years ago, and that Michelin — the arbiter of all things important in the French food world — had taken notice, and not in a good way.
A reboot of sorts was announced over five years ago, and by the time we visited in 2019, the kitchen was performing at a Michelin two-star level at the very least. Independent of the view, the service, and the iconic wine program, the cooking (and presentation) was well-nigh perfect. It was all you want from this cuisine: focused, intense flavors put together with impeccable technique and an almost scientific attention to detail.
When we returned this past winter, things seemed be have gotten even better. This time we showed up with a party of six. It was a busy lunch, filled with local gourmets and some obvious big business types, but also a smattering of tourists who (like us) had to keep picking their jaws up off the table as spectacle of Paris and its finest French food was spread before them.
I have never been to La Tour at night, but for my money, lunch is the way to go. The food is unchanged (lunch specials are offered, but you can order off the dinner menu and we did), and the sight of the Seine River stretching beneath you and Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite in the distance are worth the admission all by themselves.
I suppose the ideal time to dine here would be arranging for a table at dusk, so you could see the lights of Paris come alive in all their blazing glory. But as I’ve argued before, lunch has always been the ticket for us when we want to eat and drink ourselves silly in a fine French restaurant.
There’s nothing silly, of course, about the food. This is serious stuff, but there’s nothing stuffy about it, despite its pedigree — French service having retired the snootiness thing decades ago. Meaning: if you show up and are well-behaved, they are friendly to a fault.
(Canard au sang with a side of burns, coming right up)
Credit for that has to lie with owner André Terrail, the third generation of the family to be at the helm. (The Terrails have owned the restaurant since 1911.) Since taking over a few years before his father Claude’s death in ‘o6, Terrail has kept all the historical provenance of his venerated birthright intact — upgrading the cuisine while still managing to keep the whole operation true to its roots. No easy feat that. We don’t know what the problems were twenty years ago, but on our last two visits, we didn’t see any missteps, either on the plate or in the service. And what appeared before us was every bit as stunning as any Michelin 3-starr meal we’ve had…in Paris or elsewhere.
You take good bread for granted in Paris, but even by those lofty standards, this small baguette was a stunner:

Image(Face it: you knead this)

Perfect in every respect: a twisted baguette of indelible yeastiness — perfumed with evidence of deep fermentation — the outer crunch giving way to ivory-pale, naturally sweet dough within that  fought back with just the perfect amount of chew. It (and the butter) were show-stoppers in their own right, and for a brief minute, they competed with the view for our attention. We could’ve eaten four of them (and they were offered throughout the meal), but resisted temptation in light of the feast that lay ahead.

Soon thereafter, these scoops of truffle-studded foie gras appeared, deserving of another ovation:

Image(Home cooking this is not)

From there on, the hits just kept on coming: a classic quenelles de brochet (good luck finding them anywhere but France these days), Then, a slim, firm rectangle of turbot in a syrupy beurre blanc, or the more elaborate sole Cardinale:

Image

….followed by a cheese cart commensurate with this country’s reputation.

The star of the show has been, since the 1890s, the world-famous pressed duck (Caneton Challandais) — served in two courses, the first of which (below) had the deepest-colored Bèarnaise we’ve ever seen; the second helping bathed in the richest, midnight-brown, duck blood-wine blanket imaginable. Neither sauce did anything to mitigate the richness of the fowl, which is, of course, gilding the lily and the whole point.

Image(You can never be too rich or have too much Béarnaise)

We could go on and on about how fabulous our meal was, but our raves would only serve to make you ravenous for something you cannot have, not for the next ten months, anyway.

Yes, the bad news is the restaurant will be closing today, April 30, 2022 for almost a year — until February 2023 — for renovations. This saddens us, but not too much, since we don’t have plans to return until about that time next year. In the meantime, the entry foyer probably could use some sprucing up (since it looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1953), and we have confidence Terrail won’t monkey with the sixth floor view, or this skinny little pamphlet he keeps on hand for the casual wine drinker:

Image(Not found: 2-Buck Chuck)

If the measure of a great restaurant is how much it makes you want to return, then La Tour D’Argent has ruled the roost for two hundred years. (Only a masochist ever left El Bulli saying to himself, “I sure can’t wait to get back here!”) Some things never go out of style and La Tour is one of them. We expect it to stay that way for another century.

À Bientôt!

RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY

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If La Tour represents the old guard of Parisian dining at its finest, then Guy Savoy — both the man and his restaurant — provides the connective tissue between haute cuisine’s past, present, and a future where new chefs will take up this mantle and teach the world what elegant dining is about.

The Adam Platts of the world may decry the “irrelevance” of the “old gourmet model”, but I stand with Steve Cuozzo in maintaining that the call for luxury and refinement in how we eat (admittedly at rarefied levels of expense), will never go completely out of fashion. Quoting our friend Alan Richman, Cuozzo writes:

As critic Alan Richman eloquently expressed it in the Robb Report a few years ago, fine dining is more than “a demonstration of wealth and privilege . . . It is an expression of culture, the most enlightened and elegant form of nourishment ever devised. Without it we will slowly regress into the dining habits of cave people, squatting before a campfire, gnawing on the haunch of a bar.”

All I can say to the Adam Platts of the world (and younger food writers who echo the same sentiments) is: If you think “the old gourmet model” is dead or dying, plan a trip to France, where formal restaurants are poised to come roaring back, indeed if they haven’t already done so.

Put another way: get your goddamned head out of that bowl of ramen or whatever Nigerian/Uzbekistani food truck you’re fond of these days and wake up and smell the Sauvignon Blanc.

Or just go to Guy Savoy.

(Savoy at his stoves)

If the world’s best restaurant can’t change your mind, nothing will. Before you accuse me of bandwagon-ing, let me remind you that I’ve been singing the praises of Savoy’s cuisine since 2006, and have even gone so far as to travel between Vegas and Paris to compare his American outpost with the original. Back then (2009), the flagship got the nod, but not by much.

Since its move to the Monnaie de Paris (the old Parisian Mint) in 2015, Savoy’s cuisine and reputation have attained a new level of preeminence (which is all the more incredible when you consider he has held three Michelin stars since 1980).

With mentors like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse having departed to that great stock pot in the sky, and Alain Ducasse having spread himself thinner than a sheet of mille-feuille, Savoy now rules the French gastronomic firmament as a revered elder statesman. The difference being that he and his restaurants haven’t rested on their laurels, but are every bit as harmonious with the times as they were thirty years ago. To eat at Guy Savoy overlooking the banks of the Seine from a former bank window, is to experience the best French cooking from the best French chefs performing at the top of their game. There is something both elemental and exciting about his cooking that keeps it as current as he was as the new kid on the Michelin block back in the 80s.

Dining in the dead of winter can have its challenges. Greenery is months  away, so chefs go all-in on all things rooted in the soil. The good news is black truffles are in abundance; the bad news is you better like beets.

The great news is: in the hands of Savoy and his cooks, even jellied beets achieve an elegance unheard of from this usually humble taproot:

Image(Savoy heard we hated beets, so he tried to hide them from us)

As mentioned earlier, a French chef respects an ingredient by looking at it as a blank canvas to be improved upon. Look no further than this beet hash (Truffes et oefus de caille, la terre autour) lying beneath a quail egg and a shower of tuber melanosporum, both shaved and minced:

Image(Beet-i-ful)

Neither of these would I choose for my last meal on earth. Both gave me new respect for how the French can turn the prosaic into the ethereal –food transcending itself into something beautiful.

Which, of course, is what Savoy did with the lowly artichoke so many years ago, when he combined it with Parmesan cheese and black truffles and turned it into the world’s most famous soup.

There’s no escaping this soup at Guy Savoy, nor should you want to. Regardless of season, it encapsulates everything about the Savoy oeuvre: penetrating flavor from a surprisingly light dish, by turns both classic and contemporary:

Image(Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen)

We may have come for the truffles, but we stayed for the filet of veal en croute (below), once again lined with, you guessed it, more black truffles.

Image(Filet de veau et truffes cuits en croûte is French for: the most delicious meat dish in the history of the world)

From there we progressed through a salad of roasted potatoes and truffles, a bouillon of truffles served like coffee in a French press, then a melted cheese fondue over a whole truffle:

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…and even something that looked like a huge black truffle but which, upon being nudged with a fork, revealed itself to be a chocolate mousse. All of it served by a staff that looked like teenagers and acted like twenty-year veterans.

Suffice it to say the wine pairings were as outstanding as the food, all of it meshing into a seamless meld of appetite and pleasure — the pinnacle of epicurean bliss — high amplitude cooking where every element converges into a single gestalt.

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We then went nuts with multiple desserts, including a clafoutis (above) and the petit fours carte (like we always do), and rolled away thinking we wouldn’t be eating again for two days. This being Paris, we were at it again later that night, taking down some steak frites at Willi’s Wine Bar

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I write these words not to convince you that Guy Savoy is the greatest restaurant in the world, or even that such a thing exists, but rather to persuade you of the transcendent gustatory experiences you can have at places like it. Until I’ve been to every restaurant in the world, I won’t be able to proclaim one of them “the best.” Even then, the best would only be what best fit my mood, my likes and my expectations at the very moment I was there.

Adam Platt was right about one thing: “the best restaurant in the world” doesn’t have to be fancy. The best restaurant in the world can be something as simple as a plat du jour of boeuf bourguignon , studded with lardons and button mushrooms in a run-down bistro smelling of wine sauces and culinary history. It can be at a tiny trattoria on the Amalfi Coast or a local diner where everyone knows your name, or that little joint where you first discovered a dish, a wine, or someone to love. But your favorite restaurant, no matter where or what it is, owes an homage to the place where it all started.

Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” describes the markets of Les Halles as “…some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city.” Those markets may be gone, but their soul lives on in the form of Parisian restaurants, which remain, one hundred a fifty years later, its beating heart. To eat in the great restaurants of Paris is to be inside the lifeblood of a great city, communing with something far bigger than yourself. To be in them is to be at the epicenter of the culinary universe and the evolution of human gastronomy — where the sights and smells of the food, and the way it is served, reflect the entire history of modern dining.

2021 – By the Numbers

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Before we leave 2021 in the rear view mirror for good, a few words on what will be our last year of eating hugely.

As you can see above, we hit 390 restaurants last year — by our standards a light one, even though we were far busier than in 2020, when the world conspired to put food service permanently out of business and almost succeeded.

During our salad days of 1995-2015, 390 restaurant meals wouldn’t have broken a sweat. Back then, 500/year was the norm, as we hunted high and low for the best grub in Vegas. From 2010-2020, EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants kept us in the game until everything ground to a halt.

Now, we write for ourselves and for fun and for the hundreds and hundreds of you who actually still care about such things as finding the best restaurants (high and low) in which to spend your hard-earned dollars. Our staff told us last week we now average about 1,000 unique views a month. Quite a drop from the “good internet” days of 2008-2014, when 100,000 folks would tune in. No matter, at this point we’ve downsized (voluntarily or not), and starting this year, that’s the way we’ll be eating.

With that said, here are some final thoughts on our weirdest restaurant year ever:

90 Asian meals! This should be no surprise to anyone who follows me on social media. Spring Mountain Road, along the new mini-Chinatown springing up on South Rainbow, is our default setting for eating out. When the question is, “Where should we go tonight?” and the The Food Gal sighs “I dunno,” we head to Chinatown without hesitation and dive in to whatever suits our fancy…BECAUSE its eazy-peazy, inexpensive, healthy, honest food, usually served by family-owned establishments who spend more time in the kitchen than on social media.

Of those 90, almost half were Japanese, with Chinese in second place, and Korean in third. Bringing up the rear were Thailand, Vietnam and (shudders) Malaysian — the charms of which continue to rank somewhere between canned chow mein and Panda Express.

How much Asian do I eat? I eat so much Asian my nickname is Woo-Is-He-Fat. I eat so much Asian my wife calls me a hopeless ramen-tic. I tell her she means so matcha to me, and I can’t stop thinking bao her, and she tells me I’m tofu-rific and she’s crazy pho me. (This causes things to get steamier than a Mongolian hot pot.) Our Chinese friends ask us, “Har Gows it?” while our Korean buddies always want to know, “Sochu wanna hang out?” We eat so much Asian The Food Gal’s favorite sex toy is a Japanese rice cooker. (Wait. What?) Yeah…we eat a lot o’ Asian. ;-)

80 Italians? Are you friggin’ kidding me? We knew it was a lot but had no idea until the totals were run. Of course our regular Friday Cipriani lunch was almost half the total, but even if you back those out, that’s a helluva lot of pasta, pizza, antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni. 80 Italian meals is too much….unless you live in Italy. So you’ll pardon us if we say we’re pretty much over Italian for the time being. The next time we eat this food….I hope to be in Italy, not suffering through another local, oversized/underseasoned version of cacio e pepe.

48 “Casual” meals — included everything from a bagel sandwich to coffee and croissants. Deli comprised almost half of that as we hit everything from PublicUs to Bagelmania to Saginaw’s to Life’s A Bagel with the enthusiasm only a non-Jew-wannabe-Jew like yours truly can have for this food. Our deli choices improved in 2021, consigning Bagel Cafe to an even lower-level of Jewish food suckitude than it already holds .

38 American Bistro — includes everyplace from Main Street Provisions to burger joints to the execrable Taverna Costera — the latter of which was so terrible it coulda/shoulda gotten our “Worst Meal of the Year” major award…but was so pathetic we didn’t deem it worthy of further insult. You could also call these places gastropubs: cozy, food-forward joints like 7th & Carson, Carson Kitchen, Ada’s Wine Bar, and Sparrow & Wolf. All have thrived despite the challenges of the past two years. Sometimes I wish some would dial things back a little more — adding to their menus by subtraction — but if you’re looking for good cooking in the ‘burbs, our home-grown bistros are where to start.

28 Mexicans means mas mucho macho grande burritos and tacos, muchacho. (We probably ate more tacos this year, here and in Los Angeles, than in the previous five journeys around the sun. 2021 also saw our last meal ever at the sad, straight-from-a-can Casa Don Juan. “Never again,” we muttered as we paid a $40 check for a lunch that wasn’t worth half that. Used to be charming service pulled this place through. That’s gone too. Walk down to Letty’s and get yourself a taco. You can muchas gracias me later.

Kinda funny we only hit 21 French meals, considering that it’s our favorite food in the world. Limited hours at many of our famous frog ponds are to blame (Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Le Cirque..), and the merry-go-round of chefs at Marche Bacchus put us off as well. (Side note: We’ve also lost several players — Gagnaire, Boulud, Hubert Keller — who brought Vegas some very serious French cache back in the early aughts.)

For the survivors, things are still not back to pre-pandemic normalcy, but are improving. MB has enlisted that old Gallic warhorse Andre Rochat to revamp its menu and turn it into what it should be: a serious French bistro. A bold move, long overdue, which we applaud, even if my relationship with Andre has sometimes resembled the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The home stretch…

We traveled back to the southeast four times in 2021, which explains our 21 BBQ meals.

The armada of Spanish (19) in town (EDO, Pamplona, Jamon Jamon, Jaleo, Bazaar Meat), accounts for our Iberian intake, and visiting a Steakhouse (19) about twice a month also feels about right…although we’ll readily admit that, as with Italian, we’re getting bored with all the by-the-numbers menus of wedge salads salmon, and identical steak cuts. CUT and Bazaar Meat are the only joints that break this mold. Long may their cholesterol flag fly.

Bringing up the rear we have Greek (8), almost entirely at either Milos or Elias Authentic Greek Taverna, and Fast Food (7) which generally consists of Shake Shack, In-N-Out or the (seriously underrated) Double-Del Burger from Del Taco.

Finally, there are Fancy-Schmancy Meals (6). What stuck out for us when we were making our final tally was not only how few there were, but that every one of the year’s most impressive meals was out of state. FWIW: nothing we ate in Vegas, in 2021, held a candle to to our dinner at Providence (L.A.), the precise cuisine of Gavin Kaysen at Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis, and the steaks and sides we had at Totoraku (L.A.) and Manny’s in Minneapolis.

True confession time. What the above meals drove home to me was something I’ve been holding back from saying for years: much of what Vegas’s top restaurants do may be good, but it still isn’t as good as the similar work being done in other cities, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. There are many reasons for this — from more demanding diners to access to agriculture — but the well-traveled palate can tell the difference. Our Mexicans aren’t in the same league as Southern California’s, our gastropubs aren’t as finely tuned as Washington D.C.’s, and our barbecue and pizza scenes (as improved as they are) still lag far behind those in bigger cities.

And our steakhouses, for all the money poured into them, still feel like food factories compared to America’s classic beef emporiums.

Have I been guilty (for years) of overpraising places in the name of provincial boosterism? Absolutely. But as I get older, and my time and calories become more precious, I want to spend my appetite in places where the cooking is more connected to something other than an Instagram page. It’s one of the reasons you find me in Chinatown so often, enjoying simple Asian fare over the more convoluted cooking being done by the cool kids.

Vegas has always been the sort of place where people stay just long enough to make enough money to leave, and too many of our local restaurateurs seem to be in it for the cash, not the passion. Quite frankly, I’m surprised so many young chefs have stuck around once they leave the Strip. But the play-it-safe-and-cash-in mentality remains strong (e.g. Harlo, Carversteak), and there’s not enough demand here for simple, sophisticated food. The Japanese and Spaniards get it right….but few others do.

So, that’s the final chapter on 2021. The direction this website takes in 2022 is anyone’s guess. When the muse hits me, I’ll write…because I love to write when she visits. In the meantime, we’re off to France for a couple of weeks to re-calibrate the palate, refresh the mind, and forget about America for awhile. Bon appetit to all and Happy New Year.