A Tale of Two Fishes

The critic’s job is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator.

I got into food writing to be a consumer advocate. It wasn’t to brag about my culinary adventures, or create a diary of my gastronomic life with pictures of every meal. I wasn’t interested in imposing my standards or condescending to those who didn’t measure up. As big a snob as I am (have become?), it wasn’t elitism that motivated me.

As a product of the 60s and 70s, I’ve always looked at consumer advocacy as a noble calling. As a serious restaurant-goer, I started thinking 30 years ago about a way to turn my obsession into something worthwhile for my fellow food lovers. (This was a good fifteen years before anyone used the term “foodie.”)

To put it simply, I wanted to use my experience and share my knowledge with others about where to find the “good stuff.” Still do.

In these days of Yelp, Instagram “influencers” and food blogging braggarts, it’s easy to forget the original reason behind restaurant reviewing; the raison d’être being simply to start a conversation about where best to spend your dining-out dollars.

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Without boring you with a history lesson, the first acknowledged “restaurant reviewer” was a fellow named Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière  (pictured above, usually abbreviated to Grimod de la Reynière or simply “Grimod”) — a rather weird chap* who compiled a list of restaurants in Napoleonic Paris, to help its burgeoning middle-class choose a place to dine, at a time when eating out in restaurants was first becoming the popular thing to do.

Grimod was also one of the first to popularize the terms “gourmet” and “gourmand.” He introduced the idea of food criticism as something that “reestablished order, hierarchy, and distinctions in the realm of good taste” through the publication of texts that helped define the French food scene, back when it was the only food scene worth defining.

(Grimod ate here…at Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, in 1803)

Put another way, Grimod pretty much invented the gastronomic guidebook. While hardly a saint, he is nevertheless the spiritual patron saint of restaurant critics — the person who first influenced the tastes and expectations of restaurant consumers, and inserted a third party between the chef and the diner.

I thought about all of this when I had two meals recently: one great and one horrid, at two ends of our restaurant spectrum.

The centerpiece of each meal was a piece of fish. A flat fish to be precise. To my surprise, the frozen Asian “sole” (at the top of the page) was the more satisfying of the two. The “fresh” Dover (or so it was called) sole was horrendous. A stale, fishy, musty-mushy abomination of seafood that only a landlubber sucker could love.

The frozen Asian fish cost $26. The “Dover” sole, $70.

The better fish dish was the culmination of a great meal at a relatively unsung neighborhood restaurant — Oh La La French Bistro. Its counter-part ended what was supposed to be a big deal meal at an “exclusive” Strip restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Michael Symon. (In reality, it’s a branding/management deal using the Symon name. The hotel owns and runs the restaurant.)

Before we address the failure of that fish, let us first sing the praises of Oh La La. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall smack in the middle of Summerlin, Richard Terzaghi’s ode to casual French cooking is a gem among the zircons of west Lake Mead Boulevard.

My contempt for Summerlin is well-known (it being the land of million dollar homes and ten cent taste buds), but there’s no disdain for the faithful French recreations put out by Terzaghi, at lunch and dinner, at very fair prices.

(Straight from Paris to Summerlin)

At Oh La La the service is always fast and friendly, the wine list simple, pure and approachable. The bread is good, the foie gras terrine even better. OLL might also have the best steak tartare (above) in town — its combo of gherkins, mustard and onions hits a flavor profile that takes me straight back to Le Train Bleu in the Gare Lyon.

Winners abound all over its menu: frisee salad “La Lyonnaise”, escargot, prawns “risotto” with Israeli couscous, steak frites, mussels, endive salad, great French fries and simple, satisfying desserts, all of them faithful to the homeland without a lot of fuss. And whenever they post a special — be it a seasonal soup or a lamb stew — I always get it and I’m never disappointed.

Contrast this to the “secret” hideaway that is Sara’s — a “curated dining experience” in a “luxurious secret room” where we were told more than once you had to make reservations weeks in advance. The entrance to it is behind a semi-hidden door at the end of the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.  I have no idea where all that “luxurious” curation occurs, but from my vantage point, it looked no fancier than a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. As for the meal being “curated” all I can say is, at this point in my life, when I hear words like that, I start looking for the Vaseline.

(Pro tip: Rather than buy into all the faux exclusivity, skip the secrecy and stay in Mabel’s for some smoked ribs. Your wallet will be heavier, and your tummy a lot happier.)

(Squint real hard and you’ll see the brown butter. Counting the capers is easy.)

The shittiness of the fish wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the rest of the meal at Sara’s had been up to snuff. But the menu was nothing more than one over-priced cliché after the other (caviar, “Truffle Fried Chicken”, lobster salad, duck fat fries, crispy Brussels sprouts, etc.) at least half of which wouldn’t pass muster at the Wynn buffet.

Truffles were MIA in the rudimentary fried chicken, the forlorn caviar presentation looked like it came from a restaurants 101 handbook, and the rubbery lobster salad tasted like it had been tossed with sawdust.

Memories are also vivid of gummy pasta with all the panache of wallpaper paste, and some heavily-breaded, by-the-numbers escargot.

That the joint considers it groovy (or oh-so celeb cheffy) to begin your meal with a giant crispy, smoked beef rib (as an appetizer no less) is also a testament to the “if it’s good for the ‘gram, it’s all good” mentality of this place. Appearances being everything these days, you know.

But when the fish hit the table, I hit the bricks. It may appear appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. It was bred for beauty not substance (that appearance thing again), and calling it simply “fishy” would be an understatement. It was either stale or freezer-burned (or both), and came with zero brown butter and exactly two capers atop it. It wasn’t overcooked but it should have been — a little more heat might’ve killed some of the smell. All this and less for $70…at a supposed “upscale, exclusive” dining enclave in the Palms.

“Who are they fooling with this shit,” was all I could think to myself.

After three straight awful dishes, I had had enough. “This place is terrible!”, I bellowed to all within earshot. I then threw my napkin down, and stormed out — the first time in this century I’ve done so. Being a keen observer of human nature, the solicitous manager sensed my displeasure and followed me outside. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional, but the damage was done.

What ensued was a polite conversation best summarized thusly:

Me: Does anyone here actually taste this food, or are you just content to rip off tourists who’ll buy anything?

Him: Thank you for your concerns, sir, I’ll pass them along to the kitchen.

At first, I agonized about how to handle this abysmal experience: Give them another try? Rip them a new one on social media? Forget about it altogether?

Then, I remembered why I got into this business. It was for you, dear reader. To help you eat better, spend wiser, blow the trumpet for good places and expose the bad.

Just like good old Grimod.

For twenty-five years I have maintained a personal code that excludes the little guy from my withering gaze — but treats the big boys on the Strip as fair game.

Sara’s is fair game.

You have been warned.

(My meal at Oh La La was comped but we left a huge tip. A foodie friend picked up the tab (whatever it was) at Sara’s.)

OH LA LA FRENCH BISTRO

2120 N. Rampart Blvd. #150

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.222.3522

https://www.ohlalafrenchbistro.com/

SARA’S

Palms Hotel – Inside Mabel’s BBQ

702.944.5941

https://web.palms.com/saras.html

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

* Grimod once faked his own death and threw a funeral party for himself to see who would show up. On another occasion, he dressed up a dead pig as a person and sat it at the head of a table at a fancy banquet he was throwing. His used a mechanical prosthesis to eat and write because, depending upon who you believe, he was either born with deformed hands or (as he liked to explain), pigs chewed off his fingers as a young child.

(The world’s first restaurant guide)

 

 

The (Final) List

(Spago boyz: Matthew Hurley, David Robins, and Eric Klein)

A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish that my foodie ami had found lacking.)

Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.

Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.

Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be a heartless asshole to argue otherwise.

No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1990s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.

Once Ruth Reichl wrote her 1993 take-down of Le Cirque — where she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant — every reader wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in, as if being identified as a critic by the restaurant invalidates the review. Even today I get asked by people if “they (the restaurants) know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:

Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit. (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times Food Section once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)

But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.

A friend is someone you hang out with.

A friend is someone who has been to your house.

A friend is someone who invites you to their house.

A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.

By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.

Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.

And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.

When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat, and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.

We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that has always brought a smile to my face.

(Justin Kingsley Hall gettin’ it done at The Kitchen at Atomic)

The List

The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.

 Yui Edomae Sushi – forever and always, my go-to place for superior sushi. Kazu-san is now the executive chef. Still the best in town. Ask for Tomoko-san when you call for a res and tell her I sent you.

7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.

EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.

The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, like these Buffalo chicken hearts:

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…while others fall flat (some large proteins are examples of how addition-by-subtraction might benefit a recipe). Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and plenty of well-chosen libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos happy. There’s a lot of talent working here, and when it all comes together, this place could become a culinary force to be reckoned with.

(Esther’s Kitchen specializes in pasta porn)

Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (there’s never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.

Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama. Go for a quick bite; go for the full kaiseki — either way you’ll be blown away.

Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.

Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.

The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating here. This is a mistake I always regret.

Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop ‘cue joints.

Good PieVincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.

Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.

Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Period. Puts all the others to shame.

Yobo Shabu Shabu Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.

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Cafe Berlin I know a little German.…he’s eating (these sausages) right over here.

Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me. (Allegro is the other.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.

El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.

Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with a bottle of wine, drinking it and drinking in all the despair walking by.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else?  There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.

The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes (see above)….and galettes too! Sweet or savory, they’re all great.

Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t. 

Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.

Ohlala French Bistro – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.

Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).

Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!

Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.

Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best! Five years ago, you had to go to Bouchon for pastries this good:

…now, all you have to do is drive to south Fort Apache.

So there you have it. My final roundup.

These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.

I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.

I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and downtown — walking distance from where I work.

I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.

(Day drinking…or as I like to call it: Friday)

Solipsism, The Strip, and GOOD PIE

First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind words and comments. It’s hard to express how much they mean to me. While we may not get the number of page views we had 7-8 years ago, it’s gratifying to know that what we write still resonates with a certain level of intrepid foodie and discriminating gastronaut….like you.

Second of all, as promised, we’re going to end this incarnation of EATING LAS VEGAS with some short, to-the-point recommendations based upon where we’ve been chowing down since the first of the year, and where you’ll be finding us in the coming months.

As you will notice, most of these are off the Strip. Try as we might, it has been almost impossible to work up any enthusiasm for dining on Las Vegas Boulevard for months now. The greed, the stupidity, the same-old sameness, and the insanity of its pricing has finally gotten to us. After twenty five years of being their biggest cheerleader, we can no longer summon the energy to drag our ass down to one of the huge hotels, pay for parking, and endure the slack-jawed hordes who are being subjected to metronomic service at stratospheric prices.

Need more reasons for our disaffection? Then how about:

> Bavette’s is charging $74 dollars for a steak you can barely see.

> Big Casino now tacks “resort fees” onto bills for things (like the gym and landline phones) that most people don’t use.

> Drink and wine prices continue to be obscene. Getting a drink at a Vegas casino is like fighting with the peasants for a sliver of soylent green.…and paying $22 for the privilege.

> Paying for parking is a non-starter for us (as with most locals) — another reason to continue to patronize the Venetian/Palazzo, at least until they capitulate to their accountants and start nickel and dime-ing everything like everyone else.

> The Las Vegas “food press” (note the air quotes) trips over their dick praising Hell’s Kitchen, and whatever licensing deal Giada struck this week to slap her name on some pathetic piece of plagiarism. My compliant, credulous colleagues continue to write about these places like they are actually a Gordon Ramsay, Morimoto, or Giada Di Laurentiis operation, when in actuality they are branding exercises for hotel-run restaurants. Most of these aren’t even management deals — like the one Wolfgang Puck struck with Bellagio for the upcoming Spago re-launch. Instead, they stand as a cynical testament to the continuous soaking of yokels that has become Vegas’s stock in trade.

> Mario Batali is now persona-non-grata in his own restaurants (which his {former} company actually does run) — restaurants that are only famous because his name is attached to them. Yes, we know he’s a pig and has behaved deplorably around many women on many occasions, but what are we to make of his Las Vegas presence? Can his restaurants stand on their own? Even with the talented Nicole Brisson at the helm? Three years ago I would’ve cared, now I can barely manage a shrug.

> The Strip may be dying the slow death of a million paper cuts, but the re-branding/down-sizing of the Batali-Bastianich empire — a bastion of serious foodie cred in our humble burg for almost a decade — is an immediate casualty from which there may be no recovery. Because there are no more celebrity chefs on the horizon, and because the ones here (with a few exceptions, mostly French) are either played out or washed up.

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One final story before I rest my case, stop my navel-gazing, and make a recommendation.

I went to lunch not long ago with some very well-known, affluent types who live in those Happy Trails/Heartbreak Ridges-type neighborhoods in the fancy part of town. These folks have known me for a long time and are fully aware of my writing, my persona, my palate, and my prejudices.

They spend their days tooling around in expensive automobiles, playing golf and planning their vacations. They travel the world. They profess to love good food and wine. As far as I know they can all read and write. It was for that reason that I had given them copies of my book in the past. They asked me where I wanted to go (up around Summerlin), but I got overruled.

Where we ended up was one of those inexplicably popular restaurants that pretends to be about wine, but really isn’t, and acts like it’s putting out great food, but doesn’t.

As I sat there pushing my food around on my plate and trying to find a drinkable wine for under a hundy, it struck me: “You’re never going to reach these people, John.” 23 years of preaching and proselytizing hasn’t made a dent….not with this crowd. They can buy and sell me a dozen times over, and talk about flying here and renting a yacht there, but they wouldn’t know a good cacio e pepe if it bit them on their Asti spumante. And they don’t care to know. Like most folks when it comes to food (and wine) they are blissful in their ignorance. (Did I mention that Santa Margherita pinot grigio was the preferred libation? And that the place was thick with lawyers? And that two of them proudly told me that Michael’s at the South Coast was “the best restaurant in town”?)

As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve been no different all these years than a music or movie critic who is always suggesting that people learn to appreciate a higher, more advanced form of the entertainment they enjoy. Month after month and year after year these critics recommend more complex, better music, better movies, and more elevated examples of these art forms. And what do they get for their troubles? People asking them how they like a stupid Star Wars re-boot, or taking them to a Miley Cyrus concert.

When the hoi polloi does this, it doesn’t bother me. When wealthy friends and acquaintances do, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But for you, dear reader, I have nothing but respect.

You have braved the wilds of the inter webs to find me, and have suffered through enough of my kvetching.

You, my friend, are here to learn about the good stuff — the best food and drink this town has to offer. So I say: fuck the knuckle draggers; screw the affluent….AND GET THEE TO GOOD PIE!

Why Good Pie? Because it’s the best New York-style pizza in town. It’s a slice joint no wider than a pepperoni, but the deck oven stuff being put out by Vincent Rotolo puts other pretenders to shame.

Good Pie gives me hope. It stands for the proposition that passionate individuals are still out there trying to bring good taste, and better pizza, to Las Vegas.

Good Pie is everything Tivoli Village and Downtown Summerlin (which is neither down, nor a town, nor downtown of anything) are not.

Good Pie is as real as the dough Rotolo is proofing (every two days) and rolling out to order.  Good Pie is excellent ingredients, house-made sauce (from a combination of California and Italian tomatoes), and the best pizza cheese you’re ever going to find in a take-out joint.

Those pizzas are something to behold, but his garlic knots:

…are going to be what makes him famous.

Yours truly is not a calzone lover (too bready and cheesy — even for this carb-lovin’ turophile), but if you insist on one of these belly-bombs, this is the place to get one:

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And if vegan pizza is your thing, look no further than this bad boy:

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….or what these bad boyz are up to:

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My rich friends won’t come here, because, on a fundamental food and wine level, they’re content to remain in a culture-free cocoon of their own making.

But you, my friend, should, because, like me, you’re always searching for something better, whether in a pizza or a cacio e pepe.

If I wasn’t fat and old and being hounded by my wife and cardiologist, I’d be here every day.

GOOD PIE

725 Las Vegas Boulevard South #140

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.844.2700

https://www.facebook.com/goodpielv/