I recently sent a holiday e-mail to one of the titans of American gastronomy (not the fellow pictured above – more on him later). The dude I was sending season’s greetings to has major food chops. He’s what I call a restaurant intellectual, as well as being a noted cookbook author and food writer of great renown. My holiday greeting was filled with the usual “2014 was a wonderful year as we discovered the joys of making compost” blather, but in the midst of all the trite, yuletide good cheer I strangely found myself typing these words:
It’s funny that I choose this year to do it, because unlike the last twenty, this one has been a fairly dull one when it comes to our dining scene. Of course the party had to end sometime, but after the restaurant revolution of 1998-2010, these past few years have witnessed little, if any, interesting work being done by chefs and hoteliers, save for the occasional Japanese joint tucked away in places most gringos fear to tread.
In fact, the biggest revolution of all has taken place in my head, where I have become increasingly disenchanted with the tourist-trap pricing of our major hotels. It seems after almost two decades of entreating people to embrace the Strip and its celebrity-chef wonders, I find myself choking on the prices, and deploring the inorganic, top-down nature of our food culture. In this sense I’ve also come around to understanding certain journalist’s (and the James Beard Foundation’s) lack of respect for our casino-driven food “culture” – which has warped and stunted any real growth in our neighborhood food scene.
So basically I’ve become 1984 in reverse – I’ve learned to hate Big Brother (after once being his biggest fan).
The words came so fast and so easily it was sort of a shock. It was like my fingers had brains of their own and decided to type something completely at odds with opinions and thoughts and actions I had held firmly too for over twenty years. Could I really be saying to an esteemed member of the national food press that the condescending naysayers about the Vegas food scene were right all along? Was I actually throwing in the towel, conceding defeat and changing Vegas’s plea to guilty as charged?
Was I — John A. Curtas, Las Vegas’s biggest champion to the outside food world (especially over the last ten years) — admitting that the Vegas restaurant revolution has been a house of cards; a Potemkin Village of flash and cash, containing no substance?
Yes I did and yes it is.
Upon reflection, I realized this 180 degree change of attitude has been creeping up on me for some time. After a brief flirtation with reasonable prices and making a half-hearted attempt to appeal to locals (remember all the specials that ran in the wake of the 2008-2009 crash?), the Strip has come raping back with a vengeance — with prices that would choke a horse and the sort of arrogance that only comes from having a captive, gullible audience. I’m talking about $18 cocktails, $40 glasses of wine, $25 side dishes and $35 pastas. I’m talking about being a la carted and upsold to death. I’m talking about big, fancy places with famous chefs’ names on the door just going through the motions, making their numbers and not giving a shit.
What I’m talking about is a food “culture” that never really was one, and is now but a shell of what it was ten years ago. A restaurant scene born of excess; created by the stroke of a pen and thrown money. Something that never had a foundation to build upon, and now exists as just another way to rip-off tourists.
“All those people that had the vision and made (Vegas) great back in the late 90s and early aughts are gone now.” These are the words of a former F&B executive who opened a couple of our most iconic hotels and now owns a small restaurant off the Strip. As he starts ruing the sad state of our hotel restaurants he also starts getting specific and naming names: “Remember when Tony Angotti was the head of F&B at Mandalay Bay? Or Ana Marie Mormando at Bellagio? Or the lineup of chefs that opened the Wynn? How about Gamal Aziz? He was every bit the visionary that Steve Wynn was. They all were passionate and knowledgeable about the restaurant business. But they’ve all moved on. Now, everything’s run by accountants who don’t know anything about the business…and they hire third string chefs who are only interested in making their numbers and getting their paychecks.”
That’s an insider’s perspective, of course, but from where this outsider sits he couldn’t be more spot on. The lack of passion is palpable when you dine on the Strip these days. Does Bobby Flay change his menu anymore? Does anyone care? Is there a single good reason to eat in a Tom Colicchio restaurant? Does Todd English give a crap about Olives? Beyond the check he receives every quarter (and its ability to lure major babes into a hot tub – see above)? Our answer is probably no. Hubert Keller’s Fleur is a mess of a menu (dictated, no doubt by those accountants), and dear old, Emeril Lagasse — both the man and his food — has sunk into the abyss of irrelevance.
Do any diners even know or care that the generally excellent Sage is a Shawn McClain restaurant? Answer: no and really no.
None of this would matter to yours truly if the price of a meal at any of these joints was in line with what you’d pay in any other big city in America. But in Vegas, your tariff will get to $100+ a person without breaking a sweat, and at the end of the evening you will most likely have paid around $300/couple for tired food cooked by rote and served by a hotel more concerned with depreciation than deliciousness.
Such was not the case ten years ago. Then, everyone had something to prove. Sure it was a revolution every bit as store-bought and soulless as critics say, but it was exciting and full of wonders brought to you by people at the top of their game. It was also unprecedented in a no-one-had-ever seen-anything-like-it way. But, like our restaurateur/insider says: “Those days are as dead as Woodrow Wilson.”
Of course each of these “celebrity chefs” could actually come to town, start cooking and infuse their operations with some of the energy and ingenuity that made them famous in the first place. But that was never their deal and why bother? The template still works; the tourists are still rolling in and the checks still clear. Most of them now get their money for nothing and their chicks for free (see above, again). And that’s just fine with them. Once the brand is exhausted, they will slink away with their pockets full, and bid adieu to a town that they never really came to in the first place.
THIS IS PART ONE OF A TWO-PART ARTICLE. THE SECOND INSTALLMENT (CONCERNING HOW THE STRIP ENSURES WE WILL NEVER HAVE A REAL, NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT SCENE) WILL APPEAR IN A FEW DAYS AND DEPRESS YOU EVEN MORE.
50. ART OF FLAVORS
Let’s get one thing straight, shall we?
Art of Flavors is not a restaurant. It has no menu; it has no waitrons. There is no maitre’d to seat you, nor are there many real seats to be had. The flatware is plastic, the dishware is cardboard, and the appetizers and main courses are as non-existent as the good judgment of the girls dancing across the street.
So why is is number 50 on our list of The 50 Essential Restaurants of Las Vegas? Because, quite simply, no eating tour of our humble burg would be complete without a stop here. Because, even more simply, lying in the shadow of both the Olympic Garden strip club (literally) and the Luv-it-Custard ice cream stand (figuratively), lies the best goddamned gelato ever to melt on a Las Vegas sidewalk.
The brainchild of pastry chef Desyreé G. Alberganti, these luscious concoctions are all made on premises, with all natural flavors, no additives, and a ton of passion — passion (and intensity) you can taste with every silky smooth spoonful.
It is gelato so good that we at ELV have been in dozens of times and have to fight with ourselves not to go on a daily basis. It is gelato so good it single-handedly raised the foodie IQ of downtown Las Vegas the day it opened. It is gelato so good you will never be satisfied with store-bought ice cream again.
Yeah, it’s that good.
There’s nothing generic about AoFG. It is as hand-tooled and artisanal as food gets in the High Mojave Desert, and after one bite of Alberganti’s cioccalato di pepperocino (chocolate spiced with the back-of-the-throat warming glow of peppers),or her Fior di Latte (basic vanilla gelato base), or the Pumpkin Spiced Pie Creme Brûlée, or Smurf (yes, it’s very blue), or the last word in Cookies ‘n Cream, you will foreswear all other forms of frozen desserts forever.
And if it’s boundary-pushing sweets you’re after, you’ll swoon over things like Roasted Garlic with Herb and EVOO, Black Sesame Seed with Edamame and Caramelized Soy Sauce, or…..wait for it….Chicken Wings:
…each of which tastes exactly like the thing(s) it is named after….yet somehow manages still to be a sweet, palate-pleasing, slurp-worthy dessert.
How Desyreé does it is anyone’s guess, but one lick in and you’ll know you’re in the hands of a devilishly creative kitchen angel — with a heavenly sense of humor that’s going to be hell on your waistline.
Favorite dishes: The gelato, Bozo. All of them.
ART OF FLAVORS GELATO
1616 Las Vegas Blvd. South #130
48. ZEN JAPANESE CURRY & TOPPINGS
That chef/owner (Takaya Zenbayashi) is always at the stoves.