Celebrity Chef Hell
2007-2017: IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…
Ten years is a long time. In restaurant years it’s practically a lifetime. Restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it to a decade are approaching retirement, especially in Las Vegas. With luck, they may continue to glide along deep into old age like those fortunate souls lucky enough to be alive and kicking into their nineties. More likely, the grim reaper will come for them soon enough.
2007 seems like an eternity ago to many of us. If you remember, it was the last “boom year” before the big bust of 2008. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t a ‘thing,” Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with grown-ups, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics. In 2007, no restaurant had its own Facebook page, no one knew what Yelp was, and if you wanted to know what your meal might look like at a Strip hotel, you had to buy a guidebook, or find a review in a magazine or newspaper. If you were lucky, that review might include a single shot of the interior and perhaps a couple of photos of featured dishes.
In 2007 there were only a few people in America taking pictures of their food, and a lot of people watching us do it, (including my then 83-now-93 year-old mother) thought we were nuts.
A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were ALEX and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden (the man and the restaurant) and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2002 and 2004. Boulud Brasserie (also in the Wynn) was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-California cuisine at Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay Bay — at the time perhaps the prettiest dining room in town.
There was no downtown dining scene in 2007; there was barely a downtown drinking scene. No one knew what xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) were, and high-toned Japanese cooking (like Raku, Yui, Kabuto, Yuzu Kaiseki among others) was unheard of. Food trucks were still called “roach coaches,” and were looked upon with disdain by anyone with a taste bud in their head (or more than $5 in their wallet). Everyone was living high off the hog ten years ago, employment was full, the restaurants were even fuller, and the whole world wanted a slice of the Vegas food and beverage pie.
(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)
Then, reality set in. Faster than you could say “credit default swaps” people stopped coming. Restaurants cut back hours, high rollers and conventioneers stopped blowing a house payment on dinner, and lay-offs were everywhere. Out-of-work chefs either left town or started food trucks; big hotels like Wynn started unloading high-priced talent; and by 2013 all of those restaurants mentioned above had closed their doors. For the next five years (2009-2013), it was the serious doldrums.
There were some stalwarts who stemmed the tide, to be sure. Even the Great Recession couldn’t blunt the enthusiasm for CUT and Carnevino (both of which opened in 2008). and their success in the most dire of times proved the axiom that every restaurant in Las Vegas secretly wishes it was a steakhouse. The support of a big hotels helped the Aria (December, 2009) and The Cosmopolitan (December, 2010) lineups to remain afloat, but a mom-and-pop operation like Rosemary’s (which saw its gross revenues cut in half from 2008-2011), was a dead man sinking from the moment Bear Stearns drowned itself in debt.
Through it all, some places prevailed. Marche Bacchus actually grew in popularity after 2007, thanks to new owners (Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt) and its lakeside venue providing a welcome respite from all the financial gloom and doom hanging over the suburbs. The aforementioned Raku opened in January 2008, and immediately tapped into the smaller-is-better zeitgeist of the times. In the process, it kick-started a Chinatown renaissance that has continued unabated for the past nine years.
(Chinatown Plaza opened in 1995)
The Chinatown as we know it has been around since 1995, but it wasn’t until people started pinching their pennies that they discovered the glories of izakaya eating, ramen noodles, and obscure Asian soups. Even with the economic upturn of the past few years, this enthusiasm continues to grow — now expanding to upscale sushi (Yui Edomae Sushi, Kabuto, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Kaiseki), as well as the glories of lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Shang Artisan Noodle), high-quality Korean bbq (8oz, Hobak, Magal, Goong), and even inventive Thai (Chada Thai) and Vietnamese (District One, Le Pho). Downtown’s revival has proceeded in fits and starts, but there’s no denying that Carson Kitchen and EAT (two early pioneers now celebrating their third and fifth birthdays, respectively) are here to stay.
Some suburbs, however, have remained problematical. In the past ten years, Henderson/Green Valley has turned its back on Bread & Butter, David Clawson, and Standard & Pour (three excellent, chef-driven restaurants) and a non-franchised meal in those parts is harder to find than a pork chop at VegeNation.
As a counterweight, look to the explosion of good food in the southwest. Rainbow south of the I-215 has become its own mini-Chinatown, Andre’s and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have both opened to great acclaim in the last year, and Other Mama, Japaneiro, Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Cafe, Sparrow+Wolf, and Rosallie Le French Cafe, continue to draw passionate foodies in search of the good stuff.
On the Strip, some venerable joints (Le Cirque, Twist, Picasso, Guy Savoy, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) just keep getting better, while newcomers like Libertine Social, re-boots like the new Blue Ribbon, and the extraordinary food at Bazaar Meat, give us hope for Vegas’s dining out future. Thankfully, the small plates thing is subsiding, as are celebrity chefs. Caesar’s Entertainment wants you to get excited about whatever licensing deal it has struck with Gordon Ramsay, Giada and Guy Fieri, but most serious foodies look at these craven exercises in marketing with a big yawn. Real food cooked by chefs who are in their restaurants is what creates a buzz these days — witness the success of Harvest by Roy Ellamar — not some branding deal that has all the authenticity of a gordita.
All of which raises the question: What keeps some places alive, through thick and thin, while other, equally worthy businesses fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Cafe kept itself afloat (and is now thriving in a new location). Circo and Valentino bit the dust but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it a year in Green Valley; Carson Kitchen downtown (with a similar menu) is packed day and night. Glutton closes; EAT across the street thrives. What gives?
(Alex Stratta had the goods…and a great restaurant)
THE PRICE OF FAILURE
I have two theories on this, one food-related, one not. The less sexy one involves real estate, contracts, and accounting — three of the most boring subjects on earth. The Strip is a numbers game pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it; investors demand it, the food and beverage honchos think of little else. Restaurants to them aren’t amenities like swimming pools, they’re more like fancy, big-box retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of a cold green eye-shade.
When the lease is up (a la Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Circo et al), the focus shifts from how nice a place is to which tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Sappy, romantic notions of soft dappled lights in an architecturally-perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce means nothing to the bean counters. Exit the Maccionis, enter Lago: a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station (slinging pizzas and pastas at the nightclub crowd) and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. ALEX, Circo, Fleur de Lys, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.
THE FOOD ABIDES
Theory number two concerns food. Specifically what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook — something to make people remember you. At Marche Bacchus it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion concoctions (like French toast caviar) that get your attention.
Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. One hundred feet away, one bite of EAT’s yeasty pancakes (or dense corned beef hash), and it becomes everyone’s favorite breakfast spot.
Even on the Strip, it seems more and more like it’s the food that’s getting the attention, not the absentee chefs. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past ten years, and the big splash these days are made by the over-the-top showiness of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, and the table-side ministrations of Carbone.
Big and showy fits Las Vegas like a Wayne Newton leisure suit, but the places that last another decade are going to be all about what’s on the plate, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed ten years ago, before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance. Now, the downsizing is over and it’s time to get cooking.
(These guys were da bomb. Their replacement is a wet firecracker.)
3 favorites that bit the dust too early and why.
Circo (1998-2013) – The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after fifteen years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine.
Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (2005-2013) – Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America.
Bradley Ogden (2002-2012) – Caesars had a choice to make: continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world class chef and his ground-breaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a sad, huge, downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which concept won out?
If you loved….
If you loved Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.
If you loved Rosemary’s, try Marche Bacchus.
If you loved Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos.
It’s been quite the Winter/Spring. Trips to Italy, France, Germany, and Georgia. Countless trips to Chinatown, and too many trips taken (kicking and screaming) to inexplicably popular Italian-American restaurants.
Since I live and work downtown, I pretty much cover that beat without breaking a sweat, and getting to the Strip is no big deal either, although more and more I find myself less and less interested in dining there.
Maybe that’s because the Strip has finally settled into what it was always destined to be: a conglomeration of tourist restaurants, each formulaic in its own way, each playing a massive numbers game. That doesn’t mean there isn’t inspiration to be found there, but for every Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, there are dozens of places just going through the corporate motions.
And let’s face it: we at ELV can only tell you so many times what a wonderful place Prime or Libertine Social is without sounding like a broken record.
And dollars to doughnuts, the next time (if ever) we re-visit the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Yellowtail, Rao’s or Mizumi, we will have the exact same experience we had five years ago. That doesn’t mean these places aren’t any good, it just means that they’re not that interesting (anymore) to anyone who has eaten in them multiple times.
So, in our constant attempt to keep ourselves interested, and this site fresh in its 10th year of operation (Yes, we celebrated our 9th anniversary on April 1. Hooray us!), we periodically publish The List: a current snapshot of everyplace we’ve eaten in the past several months, along with the occasional pithy, erudite, incisive and astute commentary for which we are known.
As usual, all places mentioned are listed randomly and come highly recommended…unless otherwise noted:
Urban Turban – Remarkable, chef-driven, upscale Indian (dots not feathers). Not your usual mix and match soups and stews.
Evel Pie – Vincent Rotolo shoots and scores! By bringing a slice of the New York streets to Fremont.
Andre’s Bistro & Bar – The Dover sole is worth traveling across town for. Fabulous short wine list. Equally fabulous desserts.
Prosecco – Only one quickie meal so far, but encouraging enough that we will return.
Cleo – Still our best Mediterranean.
The Kitchen at Atomic – First bites were tasty and well-composed, if under-seasoned. The rib cap was a standout.
Le Pho – The soup that saved Las Vegas.
Carson Kitchen – Almost three years old and better than ever.
La Comida – Tequila heaven, solid if uninspiring Mexican.
Rosallie Le French Café – Now with wine to compliment Vegas’s best quiches and pastries.
Cornish Pasty Company – Gut-busting fare for the Welsh coal miner in you. Nice beer list, friendly people.
Vesta Coffee Roasters – Compelling coffee, amazingly good (if limited) food, always a superb soup-of-the-day.
The Goodwich – The Patty deserves to be in the hamburger hall of fame.
Bazaar Meat – I’ve run out of praise for this place.
Carnevino – Ditto.
El Sombrero – Politics schmolitics, Irma Aguirre makes great Mexican food.
Estiatorio Milos – The fish is still the freshest in town, and the lunch is still a steal.
Le Cirque – Every gastronome in Vegas (all twelve of us) now makes a seasonal pilgrimage to taste Wil Bergerhausen’s current menu.
Italian-American Club – Fuggidibadit.
Piero’s – REALLY Fuggidibadit.
Starboard Tack – Holy Habana, Batman, the rum cocktails here are no Joker! The food has yet to be tried. The location is in the middle of nowhere.
Morel’s Steakhouse & Bistro – Solid from top to bottom. Three meals a day.
CUT – Someone CUT the cheese, please!
Bardot Brasserie – My only issue with BB is that once you’ve eaten here a few times, you’ve basically covered the whole menu.
Marche Bacchus – Tom Moloney is now at the helm. Here’s hoping they let him do his thing.
Americana – Will it beat the jinx of this jinxed location? First bites showed some flair, but flair (and a gorgeous setting) may not be enough.
Niu-Gu Noodle House – Best xiao long bao in town, by a Shanghai mile. The stir-fries are other-worldly too.
YuXiang Korean Chinese Cuisine – Korean-Chinese is a sub-species of Korean cookery. It’s hearty, it’s a little more refined than traditional Korean fare, and it’s delicious.
Chada Thai – Sometimes I forget how fabulous the food is at Chada Thai, but one bite reminds me of how elevated Thai cooking can be. (See pic at top of the page.)
Chada Street – Slightly rougher around the edges than its sister restaurant a couple of miles down Spring Mountain Road; no less excellent; incredible wine/champagne list. There’s almost no reason to drink wine anywhere else in town.
Chengdu Taste – Real Szechuan that will light you up. Not for the faint of heart or timid of palate. Easy-to-navigate menu and congenial staff make it easy on round-eyes.
Yuzu Japanese Kitchen – Best. Japanese. Period. Call ahead for a kaiseki dinner that is straight from a side street in Shibuya, or wander in and just say “omakase, arigato!”
Capital Grille – My favorite chain. Wonderful room with a view; excellent steaks, classic salads.
JinJu Chocolates – Bon bons galore! Great cookies too.
Gelatology – Desyrée Alberganti’s concoctions are the stuff ice cream dreams are made of.
Yui Edomae Sushi – A slice of Japan in our own backyard. Fish so good it tastes like it just leapt out of Tokyo Bay. Call ahead and tell ’em Curtas-san sent you.
Japanese Curry Zen – How can rice on gravy be so tasty?
Meraki – Fast casual Greek. Made by guys who know their way around a souvlaki.
Origin India – Top to bottom, our most consistent, classic Indian. Nice bar and wine list, too.
Shang Artisan Noodle – Shaved or hand-pulled, these noodles are life-changing.
Momofuku – Umami bombs away! Strictly for Millennials who don’t know any better.
Milk Bar – Over-sugared, pre-packaged pedestrian fare raised to heights of slavering devotion by the Instagram generation. Nothing about it or Momofuku is as good as its reputation.
Udon Monzo – Eat anything here (or at Shang Artisan Noodle) and you’ll realize how overrated Momofuku (and David Chang) is.
Zuma – We are sooo over big box Japanese, but the food here is pretty nifty.
Turmeric Flavors of India – Four meals, each one worse than the last. Proceed at your own risk.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – Why anyone would eat at Piero’s when Ferraro’s is just down the street is anyone’s guess.
RM Seafood – I’ve had my last meal here. I’ll start caring about this place when its absentee celebrity chef does.
There you have it: four months, forty-four places (give or take) — and for one of those months we were out of town. Don’t let anyone ever tell you they eat out more in Las Vegas than we do. We’re doing it so you won’t have to, and so that you, dear consumer, can spend your eating-out dollars wisely.
ELV note: It was just announced this week that the executive chef of Momofuku Las Vegas (Michael Chen) left after only two months on the job. We doubt this will affect any of the food there, however, as the “executive chefs” in most celeb chef Strip restaurants are little more than functionaries, executing a menu that is pre-determined thousands of miles away. Our objections to the food (as you will read below) has much more to do the recipes as conceptualized, not as they were cooked.
ELV Note #2: The following review appears in this month’s issue of Desert Companion magazine.
UMAMI BOMBS AWAY!
It’s hard not to admire what Chef David Chang has done with Momofuku (“Lucky Peach” in Korean). What began as an eight-seat eatery in lower Manhattan in 2004 has spawned an empire that now stretches from Soho, New York to Sydney Australia. It’s also not hard, after eating your way through Momofuku, to sometimes wonder what all the shouting is about – shouting from the rooftops being what the influential New York food media has done almost from the day Chang opened. Once they laid the groundwork, social media took over, and for well over a decade, foodies the world over have been inundated with tales of Chang’s influence and ground-breaking cuisine.
When other chefs and restaurants went into recession hibernation in 2008, Chang kicked his expansion into high gear, opening noodle bars, Vietnamese restaurants and impossible-to-get-into joints in New York — expanding his brand while taking full advantage of the rise of the Millennials and their need to have something tasty (and Instagram-worthy) to eat. There are now five Momofukus in the world, more are planned, and to the delight of his fans, Las Vegas finally has one.
In the beginning, the entire Chang oeuvre consisted of barely a handful of items. Because of its small size, the original Momofuku Noodle Bar in lower Manhattan featured a few bowls of ramen, a couple of appetizers and some stuffed bao buns and that was it. On such bare bones was a food empire born.
The genius of Chang did was in upgrading those noodles, enriching the broth, and loading smoky bacon onto classic Korean and Japanese items that, until he came along, most Americans wouldn’t touch with a ten food chopstick. He also cooked (and seasoned) the Korean fried chicken like a real chef, and made a big deal about using better ingredients. No bottom bin ham for him. He used real Virginia country ham, Kurobuta pork, and the fluffiest bao he could find. He cured his own pickles too, (a big deal in 2004) and made sure everyone in the food media knew about it.
Most of all, though, Momofuku became all about umami — umami being the word for the intense, savory quality that only the densest, saltiest, most amino-acid rich foods (like steak, cheese, smoked meats and soy sauce) possess. In the Chang universe (then and now), it’s all about overwhelming your palate with this fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). His food does this at the expense of delicacy and refinement but his audience didn’t seem to care one bit. Subtlety being as important to a David Chang meal as dialogue is in a Vin Diesel movie.
Thus will most of your meal be so umami-drenched that your palate will be screaming for mercy after several plates appear, each overloaded with whatever miso-shoyu-smoky-kombu concoction Chang can’t help buy incorporating into every bite.
If smoke is your thing, you’ll be in smoked hog heaven. By all means then, don’t miss the pork meatballs swimming in (you guessed it) plenty of smoked black-eyed peas. Is Momofuku’s pork ramen soup good? Yes, but it’s also so smoky that three sips in you will want to run up the white flag. Ditto the oysters Momofuku – the seafood essence of which is obliterated by smoky bacon bits. There’s also a smoked pork chop and roasted mussels on the menu, with the mussels being festooned with (wait for it) plenty of smoked Benton’s bacon. The food is so smoky here it ought to be sponsored by Marlboro.
When Chang and his troops are through pouring on the smoke, they find many other ways to up the umami ante. Sichuan rice cakes are thick stubby rice noodles smothered with pork sausage, while chilled spicy noodles get a heap of sausages and cashews to effectively overwhelm the interesting starches and spices beneath them – pork sausage and cashews being the belt and suspenders of the umami-overload universe.
After three trips around this menu, I threw in the towel. There are some good things to eat here – the spicy cod hotpot being good fish, well-treated; the katsu chicken an old-fashioned, mushroom cream sauce delight – but by the time you get to them, you will have been drowned by a tsunami of umami. By all means get the pork belly buns (the ones that made Chang famous), but skip the chicken karaage version – they being sad and stringy. The vaunted rotisserie chicken comes with deep-fried bones (some edible, some not), and is not as good as it thinks it is.
What is good is the seating. You may have trouble getting one, but that’s only because every under-40 in Vegas seems to be beating a path to this second floor location in The Cosmopolitan these days. What they find is a large restaurant fronted by a long bar that itself is five times the length of the original operation. Beside that bar are a number of high tops – for waiting, drinking or overflow dining – and beyond them a huge open kitchen that looks like it could feed an army base. For its size, the room is remarkably comfortable, the tables well-spaced, and the noise level (relatively) civilized. Service is also top notch, with management and waiters who are well-versed in the food. The wine list is sinfully overpriced, and the sake/sochu list woefully sparse.
David Chang deserves a lot of credit. He made this food safe for aspirational foodies and non-Asians alike — folks with limited resources who wanted to hop on the foodie bandwagon and expand their knowledge of chewy noodles, miso broth and various edible esoterica. All of this was a treat when you were ducking into a teeny tiny noodle emporium for a quick fix of soup and a bao bun. To put an entire meal together from this food, however – after your taste buds have been bludgeoned into one-dimensional submission – is a big-box experience of a different order. If you still use party as a verb, and don’t mind that everything on your table tastes the same, you might feel right at home amongst all the umami.
Nothing about Momofuku is as good as its reputation, but in this day and age, that’s enough.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino