New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

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The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

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Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

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So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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The Best Burger in Town

America’s obsession with juvenile food is subsiding.

Press your ear (or stomach) to the ground (as we do) and you’ll find the food media paying scant attention to tacos, pizzas and burgers these days.

People aren’t going apeshit over ramen like they were five years ago, cupcakes have been consigned to the corner (where they belong), small plates are sooo 2014, and Brobdingnagian milk shakes have been marginalized.

With any luck, perhaps one of these days the New York Times will end its decade-long love affair with David Chang.

In the meantime, Chang and his bao buns notwithstanding, grown up dining has returned. Classics are back.

If you require evidence, just look at what’s opened here in the past few months. Cipriani, Vetri and NoMad are nothing if not throwback dining experiences. Look past the modern industrial look of Factory Kitchen and what you’ll find is a classic Italian meal. The only thing modern about Mott 32 is the decor and the cocktail program.

Heck, some of these places even offer cheese at the end of your meal. How fin de siecle is that?

But some things never go out of style, and a great burger is one of them.

Amidst all the Eataly anticipation at the end of the year, a sizeable (300 seat) meat emporium quietly opened in the Palace Station hotel. Called BBD’s (Beers, Burgers, Desserts) it brought forth a gargantuan menu of everything from burgers and steaks to amazing bowls of duck ramen ($18) to never-seen-before dishes like Buffalo burnt chicken wings ($13):

On top of those, it also features probably the best beer selection in town (notice I said “best” not “biggest”), fried pickles and hot chicken. There’s a Philly cheese steak served with smoked onions ($15 and excellent) , a one-pound Bavarian pretzel, and even lamb gyros for those so inclined.

But the real stars of the show are the burgers. Three are offered: the dry-aged prime steakhouse burger ($19), a griddle burger ($10 single, $14 double) that seeks (and succeeds) at elevating the In-N-Out burger template, and a steamed burger ($8 single, $12 double) mimicking the chopped onion, grey meat magnificence of a White Castle slider.

They offer 20(!) different sauces (all made in-house), potatoes a number of ways (the classic french fries above, are potato perfection), three salads (who gives a fuck?), and the usual frivolous fat-filled fried stuff (onion rings, poppers, cheese sticks and such).

But your attention is drawn to the meat from the moment you walk past the butcher shop at the entrance, and that’s where your gaze should stay.

Those burgers are each superb. Made with in-house ground beef, juicy and packed with the kind of dense, mineral-rich beefiness that is but a wisp of memory in the hamburgers most people consume. I’ve said for years: the best burgers are always found in good steakhouses, because good steakhouses use the best beef and treat it right.

The beef here tastes like it could’ve come straight from Delmonico or CUT. The grind is coarse and the packing is just firm enough to hold together and sear properly, the better to retain the juiciness essential for proper burger apotheosis. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted better.

Seasonings are on-point, too, telling you that someone in the kitchen is paying close attention to the details.

As much as well love all of the cheeseburgers here, I have to admit the steamed mini-burgers (above) are my favorite. They taste like what White Castles would be if they were 3xs thicker, used great meat sandwiched in a superior bun and satisfied your cravings without laying in your stomach like a cheap, greasy brick. (The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been parking booze in your gut all night.)

Those minis are not to be missed, but neither are any of these meat patty sandwiches. The beef in the dry-aged prime burger (above) is aged for 40-50 days and achieves that tinge of umami-laden gaminess true beef aficionados look for. The grilled beauties (not pictured) are next-level delicious as well — one bite and you might forswear In-N-Out forever.

Put them all together and you have a hamburger hamlet of unbridled greatness, the likes of which Vegas has never seen under one roof.

All of this is the handiwork of one Ralph Perrazzo — a Long Island chef (and Bradley Ogden alum) who won some burger battle on some food network show, paving the way for his expansion to Vegas. Sorry Ralph, but I don’t take those shows very seriously anymore, but your food is the real deal, and whether it’s juvenile or fashionable or not, I intend to eat many more of your burgers, and take them very very seriously while doing so.

(A burger lunch or dinner for two, without booze, should run between $25-$50, depending on how many sides or appetizers you tackle. The beer selection is for serious suds lovers.)

BBD’s

Palace Station Hotel and Casino

2411 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.221.6513

https://eatbbds.com/experience/

 

A Hamburger and a Hot Dog

People have lots of opinions about hamburgers and hot dogs.

Only about pizza are they more passionate.

This is understandable because all three are among the most widely-consumed foods in America.

Rich or poor, everyone’s been chowing down on burgers and frankfurters for their whole lives.

Even my 94 year old mother — a committed vegetarian for half a century — admits to a hankerin’ for a hot dog occasionally.

The whole elevated-burger-thing started with Daniel Boulud’s DB Burger back in 2001. By putting braised short ribs and foie gras inside a patty of deluxe ground beef, Boulud created a sensation, and also cleared the way for restaurants large and small to upgrade their burger game, and figure out how to charge $27 for one.

For a while, the the burger wars escalated beyond all reason. Few restaurants wanted to pursue the haute cuisine route pioneered by Boulud, but everyone wanted to get in on the game of making a better burger that would have diners beating a path to their door.

These burger wars begat monstrosities more renowned for their verticality than their taste.

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Thankfully, the past several years have seen a retreat from these belly busters to creations more in line with what a hamburger is supposed to be: a simple, juicy, fresh, hot meat sandwich between two pieces of easy-to-handle bread.

A hamburger doesn’t have to be gourmet to be great. All the perfect burger requires is two things: proportion and taste. Gargantuan burgers — no matter how fabulous the ingredients — whiff on the first part of the equation, rendering the second half a nullity. (Fabulous flavor gets lost when you’re wrestling with something to get it into your mouth.) Don’t get me wrong, the taste of any burger from a great steakhouse (great steakhouses always make a terrific burger) trumps anything Shake Shack or In-N-Out can throw at you, but cheaper cuts of meat — well-handled, seasoned and cooked — can make for a very satisfying burger experience.

But let’s be honest here: when a great chef sets his mind to making a superb burger, the nominations close pretty quickly. I’m not talking about gourmet burgers as a social status signifier of omnivorousness, but rather, the simple fact that great chefs make food taste better than anyone else can.

And when Daniel Humm — the man some consider the best chef in America these days — puts his mind behind a beef patty, you can bet your bippy it will be memorable.

The cheeseburger at the top of the page is more than memorable; it is extraordinary beyond all beefy belief. It may be the best burger you’ve ever tasted.

It is made with dry-aged beef, in-house ground, and displays a dense, beefy funk on the palate like your average upscale burger can only dream of. You take a bite and immediately you recognize something is different with this ground meat. It haunts you as you chew, filling your olfactories with extreme beefiness, beckoning for another bite, a feat only the best dry-aged steaks achieve. This is not a burger for the masses; this is the ultimate connoisseur burger. Bradley Ogden used to make one (at Caesars Palace) that made you dream about it, days after you were done chewing, but this one tops it.

That it is of modest size is to its credit. Plenty for one, probably too small for two, it attains the longed-for sweet spot of being the perfectly-proportioned beef sandwich — just enough insanely fresh, sesame-studded bun, dribbled and dripping with cheese and dabbled just so with (thousand island-style ) special sauce.  Quantity-over-quality ‘Muricans might blanch at its dimensions, but feinschmeckers will be licking their lips in satisfaction.

Then there is the Humm Dog:

…what might well be the apotheosis of the tube steak.

There’s not a lot we can say about it that hasn’t been said before.

All beef, and (again) of modest girth, it claims its fame from being deep-fried with a bacon overcoat, and served with truffle mayo, melted Gruyère, and a tart, mustard seed/celery root relish. It is an impressive feat of food architecture, made more stunning by its elevation of the mundane to the magnificent. (Eating it can be a bit of a chore, as the balancing act of the sausage on that split bun must be overcome (or mushed down) before organoleptic bliss can be achieved.)

Both of these modest sandwiches represent a culinary transcendence of the ordinary into a realm they were never meant to approach. They are to be praised and damned for this. Praised for what they represent; damned for spoiling you for anything else.

I often tell people that in food and wine, you can never go back. Once you’ve tasted a certain level of quality — be it in a taco or a tempranillo — your mind and your mouth buckles at the thought of retreat. Neither my body or soul allows me to drink cheap chardonnay anymore. And now that I’ve tasted this hamburger and this hot dog, going back to what I used to be satisfied with will be difficult indeed.

The cheeseburger is $17 and the hot dog is $15.

NOMAD BAR

NoMad Hotel

3772 Las Vegas Blvd. South

833.706.6623

https://www.nomadlasvegas.com/en.html