GUY SAVOY

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The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves. – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

FRANCE

As clichés go, the one about Americans falling in love with France is an old one. It probably started around the time they helped us win our independence from England, gained more currency when noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, and gathered full steam when the literary lions of the Roaring 20s (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al) took France to their bosom and spent most of the mid-20th Century living there and writing about it.

When I began traveling there in the early 1990s, France was still the ne plus ultra of dining. The rise of Spain in the early aughts might have eclipsed it for a while (as did the mercifully short New Nordic fad), but the French gastronomic meal (an official UNESCO cultural heritage icon) is still the standard by which all western dining is judged.

More accurately, the progression of how we eat our formal meals — from light to heavy, fish to meat, soup to nuts — is based upon culinary rules set down hundreds of years ago. They’ve lasted this long because they make sense — both from a taste and digestion standpoint — and because:

The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.

In other words, there’s a reason you don’t start dinner with ice cream and steak, proceed to chocolate cake, and then end with a hunk of sautéed skate, and those reasons were first codified by the French when native Americans were still throwing rocks at each other.

FRENCH FOOD

Image(It’s tough to clam up about GS)

From a food writing perspective, that same period (deep into 1990s) was dominated by the French. From M.F.K. Fisher to Richard Olney to Elizabeth David to Julia Child, if you were “into food” back then, you were into France. Couldn’t help it. Whereas these days the food media goes a ga-ga over obscure Asian soups and South African street food, then it was pot au feu or bust.

Fifteen years before I actually went there, I immersed myself in French cooking. Pierre Franey, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pepin were my guides (as were two subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines), and I soaked up information like a baguette in bouillabaisse.

Reading about French food is nothing like tasting it, though, and tasting it in France is incomparable to eating it anywhere else. This I had to learn the expensive way.

French food is about technique — French chefs are drilled with military precision into masters of slicing, dicing, braising and plating. Their repertoire is vast and their training so thorough they can break down chicken or fish with the ease of a blindfolded Marine dismantling his rifle.

The French spend more time thinking about steaming a bundle of asparagus than an Italian thinks about vegetables his entire life. And when it comes to sauces, no country can touch them. A Greek’s idea of a sauce is squeezing a lemon over something; the Japanese don’t have them at all. A Gaulois will massage a demi-glace for hours.

Image(Ex-cepe-tional Parisian eats)

French food gets a bad rap because it’s complicated — and it is — in the same way all worthwhile things are. Do you refuse to listen to classical music because too many instruments are involved? (Too many notes!) Do we avoid art museums because studying all those pictures hurts our eyes? Should we disdain books because they overload us with information? Criticizing French food for being multi-layered, richly-textured, and densely fascinating is like knocking Mozart because you can’t dance to him. The old triticism about La Cuisine Française being too heavy — another insult tossed about by those challenged by anything beyond a meatball — hasn’t been true since 1972.

Modern French cuisine really began with Escoffier over a century ago. It was further lightened up by the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s — spearheaded by Paul Bocuse, Jean Troigros and others —  and settled into post-modern form (if you want to label it thus) around the time Guy Savoy received his second Michelin star (back when they actually meant something) in 1985. Thirty-five years later, he is still cooking some of the best food in Paris…which means some of the best food in the world.

French restaurants continue to dominate any list of the world’s best, and at the time of the Covid shutdowns, Savoy was riding high atop (or near the top) of many of them.

Having spent forty years with this food, we don’t place a lot of stock in the opinion of others. Nor do we cotton to the idea that there a “best” restaurant anymore than there is a best concert, movie, or book. The “best” of anything really can’t be measured unless a score or finish line is involved. At most what you have is a continuum of quality, and at the pinnacle (as with art, literature, and music) there is a level of excellence only a select few ever achieve. All the rest of us can do is sit back and enjoy the show.

The show at both Guy Savoys is always on the plate. No one and nothing seems to be trying too hard, and the effect is one of seamlessness — like a virtuoso who is barely breaking a sweat. As the audience, we soak it all up, blissfully unmindful of how much training and repetition goes into making it look so easy.

PARIS

Image(Guy Savoy Paris)

Invariably, whenever I update my review of Restaurant Guy Savoy, the question is asked: How does Vegas compare to Guy Savoy Paris? The most honest answer I can give is: GS Paris is great French food in France; RGS in America is sublime, but it’s an extension of the original that’s traveled 6,000 miles to get here. Nothing compares to eating a cuisine on its native soil, and nothing, not clam chowder, tacos or Lièvre à La Royale improves once it is transported to another locale for interpretation.

This is not to take away from our off-shoot (as you will read below), but only to point out that the edges are finer, the applications more punctilious, the snap and sizzle a tad sharper in Paris than anywhere not Paris. Eating French bread and French cheeses on French soil, or desserts too, for that matter, is the apotheosis of alimentation — black belt gastronomy at tariffs to match.

The French know these things and are very proud of their culinary heritage, but the old saw about French restaurants being snooty is as out of date as the guillotine. Yes, you have to have the coin to dine in these temples, but if you come with an open mind and a smile on your face, you will be charmed out of your socks. Everywhere in Paris, restaurant staffs are young, way better looking than waiters were in my day, multi-lingual, and cheerfully solicitous. Anyone who thinks French waiters are sour and condescending ought to visit Germany sometime.

You eat with your eyes, the old saying goes, and everything about Savoy’s new digs (since 2015) in Paris is an eyeful. As at Caesars Palace, the location is in an unlikely place: in this case through a courtyard of a large building that used to house the Paris Mint (Monnaie de Paris), up two massive flights of stairs, to an entrance desk leading to a warren of small rooms, each holding 3-4 tables looking out onto the Pont Neuf (Ninth/New Bridge).

The maze is impressive and effective — preparing you for your entry into the rarefied air of the French meal at its most refined. Four centuries of savoir faire distilled into edible things on a plate, served course by course, all so delicious they will send a happy shudder down your spine.

Image(Sweetbreads and peas in Gay Paree)

Many months after my last meal there, the details are still vivid: the petit pois with sweetbreads (above); woodsy cèpes — tasting of good clean earth — folded into a flower around an onion-bacon marmalade; San Pierre with the sweetest razor and baby clams; bread and butter to die for; a langoustine seemingly dropped from a Norway fijord onto to your plate; les fromages; les desserts…as I sit here writing it all comes flooding back, haunting me like Proust ruminating on a madeleine:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

All it took was a few crumbs from a tea cake for Marcel; with me, it is sitting down to a meal at Guy Savoy to make my mortality and the burdens of existence but a fleeting thought for a few hours. A great meal in a great city by a great chef will do that to you.

LAS VEGAS

Image(There’s a lot to loaf about Guy Savoy)

By the time Guy Savoy planted his flag in Las Vegas in May 2006, I had dived deeply into the restaurants of France multiple times. His was a name revered for his Michelin stars and his innovative take on the gustatory pleasures of France, but it was one I had missed amidst all my high-altitude eating.

In the early days of Restaurant Guy Savoy, I was like a kid in a French candy store, probably dining there ten times in its first two years, sometimes on my dime, sometime on his. As our dining scene cranked up, the competition got stiffer (Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud to name a few) so my visits cooled, even if my ardor didn’t.

In normal times, we hit RGS about once a year. But these are anything but normal times, mon ami. August 2020 finds a double-sawbuck of Vegas hotels closed, and the open ones running at half-steam, if that.

Cruise any hotel on a mid-week evening and you’ll find only a handful of spots open. Even the mighty Bellagio is operating with Picasso, Le Cirque, Michael Mina (and others) closed until further notice.

The late, great Joël Robuchon’s twin destinations in the MGM (his namesake and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – the world’s classiest chain restaurant) are shuttered right now. Pierre Gagnaire looks to be kaput over at the Waldorf, and the Eiffel Tower is but an empty vessel these days.

What this means is Savoy has the territory all to himself, and those looking for a high-falutin’, once-in-a-lifetime, big deal French meal — the kind becoming rarer and rarer anywhere outside of France and a few cosmopolitan world capitals — have but one place left in Las Vegas, and that place is located up a flight of stairs in an obscure corner of Caesars Palace.

Repeat customers will notice how things have changed: the bar is closed, the menu is accessed through your phone, the bread is sliced and served from the kitchen, and the cheeses and desserts are lesser in number and covered with plastic lids (yummy). What hasn’t changed is the precise cooking and plating, the fork-dropping combinations of flavors in each dish, and the jaw-dropping amazement one feels at the beginning, middle and end of each dish.

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Great French chefs (unlike the Japanese and Italians) are never content to leave well enough alone . They, like the Chinese, never saw an ingredient they didn’t think they could make taste like more of itself (see blueberries times three above). Unlike the wacky Spanish, they rely more on extracting an ingredient’s essence and less on culinary sleights of hand. What sets Savoy apart is his ability to simplify, amplify, and still astonish without ingenuity for its own sake.

You start your meal with an amuse of something tiny — ranging from the world’s miniest miniburger to an etoile (star)-shaped nugget of poached foie gras. You will, at first, think nothing of this trifle until you pop it in your mouth. It will be rich yet light, intriguing but beckoning you to want more. OMG you will say, either to yourself or to your companions, I could eat ten more of these. And so you could, and so has the amuse-bouche accomplished its job.

Image(Spinach-truffle “Napoleon”)

From then on, you can’t go wrong, no matter what you order. As per everything post-Covid, the menu has been truncated: only one seasonal tasting menu is offered ($355); a la carte sees five starters and six entrees are on the card and that’s it. Newbies with purpose, appetite and purse would do well to go whole hog, but mere mortals will find a shorter experience just as enchanting by sticking to three courses – which quickly become more like six once various treats are tossed your way by the kitchen. (Dessert always seems to be a three course affair, no matter what you order.)

It all starts with the bread (above). The point of French food at this level is that everything has a purpose, and bread is as elemental to the French as water and wine. Échiré butter (salted and un- always at the correct temperature) accompanies it and resistance to their charms will be futile. (This is no place for the gluten or lactose averse.) The whole point of the bread and butter being to transport you to French soil, and within two bites, you’re imagining yourself on the Champs-Elysée.

Those mini-bites of foie gras (along with another perfectly round, seared slab appearing in tiny truffle-d sandwich form) are another symbol of French food — representing classic cuisine both new and old. A larger portion can be ordered as an appetizer, seared and served on brioche, which gives a foie liver lover all they can handle.

Image(The world’s greatest soup)

Savoy’s classic artichoke, truffle, Parmesan soup is always on the menu (even though its flavor profile fits cooler climes than a Las Vegas summer), but by now, its reputation precedes it, so no Savoy meal is without. Likewise “Colors of Caviar” — a multi-hued concoction of  caviar in various guises (creamed, naked, vinaigrette) layered in a small glass with a green beans, is a wonder of tastes, textures and temperatures in a compact vessel that, by all rights, shouldn’t be able to hold so much sumptousness in such a small space. Is it expensive? Yes ($90), but it also represents a level of delicacy very few kitchens in the world can match.

Savoy’s oyster trilogy is remarkable as well, even if they’re out of season. The shellfish are plump and fat and come bedecked with uni, caviar, and a citrus gelée. We could do without the uni (it’s a flavor bully who doesn’t always bring a lot to the party except brininess – something not in short supply with good oysters), but if you insist on ordering ‘ersters in summer, you will find no better.

Image(Tomato “carpaccio” and sorbet)

The cheapest appetizer on the menu right now ($65) is also the best: “Tomatoes All Around.” A play on another Savoy signature, “Peas All Around,” — a  seasonal wonder presenting the love apple in three, distinct ways: as a carpaccio, giving way to a gazpacho (deceptively parked underneath the top plate), accompanied by a thick-flesh tomato compote of pure, aching, tomato sweetness.

At this level of dining, everything counts, everything on the plate has a purpose, every swirl, garnish and smudge is there for a reason. If Japanese food is the most inscrutable, and Italian the most crowd-pleasing, then French is the surely the most thoughtful. Little bites give way to bigger ones: lobster with coral sauce; veal chop and sweetbreads; roast duck in all its glory; John Dory (St. Pierre fish en Français) come sprinkled with crispy fish scales in a nice-sized pool of impeccable beurre blanc.

When Andy Hayler reviewed our Guy Savoy six years ago, he took issue with the quality of the produce (compared to Paris), While there’s no denying the superiority of some European products, I’ve never found the fruits and veggies here to be lacking; where I’ve had some (minor) quibbles has been with the fish. Las Vegas, no matter how good the air freight, can’t compete with Paris for the absolute freshness and variety of French oysters or cold water European seafood…and absolute freshness is everything when considering fish. Just ask François Vatel.

Not sure if chicken has ever appeared on this menu, but we must concede to French authority there as well.

Image(The French know ducks like a Korean knows cabbage)

Savoy himself has told me he prefers American beef, so we will brook no debate with Hayler or anyone else about the quality of the major proteins here (including veal and that roast duck). All compete on equal terms with anything Paris can throw at you.

Chef Nicolas Costagliola runs the kitchen these days, and I have yet to find a misstep in his recitation of the Savoy catechism. No doubt some of these recipes are now so rote the cooks could do them in their sleep, but at this level, every detail must be attended to and it is.  Here, the craftsmanship is so meticulous it is almost invisible, which, at this lofty perch in the fine dining universe, is how it should be.

Each of the entrees pushes way past a hundred dollars (most are in the $120 range), but, as we said, between the extra flourishes, the ingredients, and the flawlessness of the execution, you’re getting the best food money can buy.  As restaurant food goes, this is some of the priciest on earth. But the best of anything is always expensive, and unlike cars, clothes, and real estate, non-oligarchs can experience these delights for themselves, on equal footing with high rollers and trust fund babies.

Image(My usual at GS Caesars)

At these prices the service should never miss a beat…and it never does. As I’ve mentioned before, the wine list (now overseen by Andrew Hurley) remains an oenophile’s dream come true. The only things to fault are not the restaurant’s: the shortened menu, fewer desserts, cheeses, and the sense that you are eating in a restaurant operating with one hand tied behind its back.

But those hands are some of the most skilled in the business, and they’re right in our own backyard. Thomas Keller is closed; California is now being run by scared-of-their-shadow bureaucrats; New York is putting everyone on a sidewalk. Great restaurants are under siege, through no fault of their own. If and how they recover is anyone’s guess.

Guy Savoy is all we have left, ladies and gentlemen, the last Frenchman standing in America, if you will. Who knows what the future will bring, but if you are one of those intrepid types who seeks food so good it will make you weep, all you can do is applaud Caesars Palace for taking the bold move of reopening its most high-toned restaurant. From two recent visits, the gamble seems to be paying off, as most of the tables were full — telling us that even in this messed-up world, there are those who still seek the best when it is offered to them.

And make no mistake, Guy Savoy is the best. To completely contradict myself: Restaurant Guy Savoy is certainly the best restaurant in Las Vegas right now, and for the foreseeable future, it might be the best one in America.

My last two meals at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, cost $1,000 and $455 (for two). (The more expensive one was 50% wine.) My last meal at Guy Savoy Paris was comped; I left a 100E tip.

Monnaie de Paris
11 Quai de Conti
Paris, France 75006
+33 1 43 80 40 61
Caesars Palace
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702.731.7286
French chef Guy Savoy in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant in Paris.

Las Vegas’ Most Romantic Restaurants

Image result for Vetri las Vegas(Vetri)

Face it: Valentine’s Day is about blow jobs. Men are hoping to get one, and women will consider giving one, if there’s a meal (and jewelry) involved. This is why lots of people go out to eat on Valentine’s Day. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

Because of this, lots of people are in restaurants on Valentine’s Day with their minds on things other than the food.

Because of all of the above, VD is the WORST DAY OF THE YEAR to eat out. (Correction: the second worst dayMother’s Day has it beat by a mile, even though no one’s thinking about BJs on that day.)

Restaurants hate Valentine’s Day (no big parties, no high rollers, just two-tops preoccupied with other oral enjoyments); servers hate it (two-tops and romance don’t compute to big tips); chefs hate it (no one cares about what they’re eating); and diners hate it (your service, and food will be lackluster – see all of the above).

Valentine’s Day really really sux when it comes to eating out. But let’s not kid ourselves, many couples will be eating out in a few days precisely for the reasons cited above.

And many of them aren’t really restaurant goers — so it’s amateur hour all around, from the soup to the nuts fondling.

But we at Being John Curtas are here to help…and least with the first part of the evening.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are Las Vegas’s most romantic restaurants. Gentlemen, if you can’t score after a meal at any one of these, it’s time to retire the hardware:

Image result for Stratosphere las vegas(Romance awaits on top of this phallus)

4 Lewinskys

(Satisfaction guaranteed):

Vetri (top of the page)

Top shelf Italian on top of the Strip.

The Top of the World (pictured above.)

Go at sunset, and I guarantee something will pop up while it’s going down.

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

The view up the the Strip is as stunning as the food.

Le Cirque

The very definition of “jewel box.” Old school elegance with the best service in the business.

Eiffel Tower Restaurant

Too touristy for true gourmets, but there’s no beating the view of the Bellagio fountains.

Picasso

Iconic art and great food go together like Burgundy and a Boris Johnson.

Image result for Prime bellagio images

Prime (above)

Almost too beautiful for a steakhouse; I’ve never met a woman yet who didn’t swoon over the room.

Marche Bacchus

We love MB….it’s likely already booked for VD but that doesn’t make it any less romantic. Try this: take your beloved there on the 13th or 15th of February and a bob nobbing is practically in the bag.

Image result for Edo tapas las vegas(Slurp a few more, my dear, they’re so much better than beer)

3 Welsh Breakfasts

(Not as much of a sure thing as the ones above, but solidly in the running to provoke a monocle lewinsky):

Edo Tapas & Wine 

Probably our coziest little spot for food to inspire some foolin’ around. Plus great oysters (above) which everyone knows are an aphrodisiac.

Bavette’s

So dark, a Swedish trumpet could be all yours and no one would notice.

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NoMad Restaurant (above)

When you’re looking for a peppermint patty from your book-loving date.

Partage

French food and decor designed to foment some French kissing.

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Great room, great view, great access to a cheap hotel room when it’s time to close the deal.

Restaurant Guy Savoy 

The only reason GS and Robuchon aren’t rated  more highly is because they are both more about food and wine than a Mexican mouthwash.

Joël Robuchon

If you want to blow your wad in more ways than one, this is the place.

Sage

Sexy bar, sexy room, sexy food will most certainly inspire some cabeza….and we ain’t talking tacos here.

Image result for Wing Lei las vegas(Wing will help you get Lei’d)

2 Polish Lawnmowers

(At these, you may have to work harder for your Princeton cheesecake):

Aureole

A shadow of its former self, but the room is still eye-popping….and women love eye-popping rooms.

Cleaver

It’s dark, the drinks are strong, and it serves steaks. For some, that’s enough to take you to Popsicle land.

Wing Lei

Probably the prettiest Asian dining room in Vegas (see above), with the best Chinese food in town…at a price.

Image result for americana las vegas(The lake may be fake but your happy ending won’t be)

1 English Toothbrush

(These are plenty cozy enough to inspire a Belgian Curtsy, but without the expense or the caché of those above):

The Steakhouse at Circus Circus

If you both like licking it old school.

Golden Steer

Ditto.

Americana

People love eating next to water. Women really love eating next to water….even if it’s a fake lake. (see above)

Strip House

There are nude pictures on the walls here – lots of them. Perhaps she’ll get the hint.

You’ll notice there aren’t many romantic restaurants listed in the ‘burbs. This is for good reason….because there aren’t many romantic restaurants in the ‘burbs.

To be considered “romantic” a restaurant needs to be cozy and cosseting or opulent and spectacular (preferably both). Las Vegas’s suburban sprawl does not lend itself to either. Finding a cozy and cosseting restaurant in a Vegas neighborhood is harder than finding a corner without a Walgreen’s on it.

So today’s lesson is: go big or go home….especially if Mr. Happy is looking for a German Geronimo.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Image result for happy valentines day gifs funny

 

The Taste(s) of a Critic

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The rich are different from you and me. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

So are restaurant critics.

Unlike the rich in Fitzgerald’s quote though, we don’t think we’re better than you, just more observant.

More tuned in. Less distracted. More sharply aware of the fine points of the food we are sticking in our mouths.

Are we snobs? Absolutely. Of the highest order. Don’t you want any professional critic (of art, music, literature, design, etc.) to have the highest standards? To bring years of education and discrimination to the subject at hand?

Of course you do.

Nothing would be more boring, and less useful, than a “critic” who liked everything. Fast food tacos? Great! Canned soup? Beat a path to that door! The 24th link in a celebrity chef’s chain? Don’t miss it!

If you’re looking for that sort of reflexive boosterism, Instagram has plenty of influencers for you.

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If you’re looking for an educated point of view, then you seek out and read someone who knows their stuff. And by “knows their stuff” I mean has a wealth of knowledge based upon real world experience, travel, study, and deep involvement with the subject. You want opinions, Yelp is full of them. If you want to learn something, read on.

To a food critic, every bite, every meal is really about one thing:

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Perspective. A point of view. Vision. The intent behind the food. What is it that this restaurant is trying to do and how well do they do it?

There can be as much perspective behind a taco truck as there is at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Is the truck content to sling the same stuff dozens of others are doing, at a cheap price, to help you feed your face quickly and cheaply while helping it pay the rent? If so, then there ya go.

Or is it aiming higher? Are the salsas not out of a can? Are the tomatoes riper, the meat better, and the seasonings finer? Were the tortillas made minutes or days ago? After your second or third bite, are you saying to yourself, “Self, I can’t wait to come back here”?  Or are you just happy you are not hungry anymore?

Not every meal can provoke this kind of reaction:

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…but it’s what you always seek — the Holy Grail of Food — something so intense, so transporting, that memories are stirred of the visceral, the elemental, the emotional ties we have to food.

All a critic is looking for is either that imaginary transportation to another place, or to be riveted to where you sit. If food achieves neither it has failed you. Your mother’s chicken soup could do it; Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes do it. A great piece of meatloaf can be just as soul-satisfying as a French Laundry degustation.

One of the reasons critics disdain fast food is because it divorces food from time and place, memory and feeling. Fast food is food as fuel and that’s it. There is no connection, no enrichment gained from eating it. The spiritual binding brought forth from a simple home-cooked meal is non-existent. We cram, we get full, we are connected to nothing but the will to stay alive.

If chain restaurants represent one end of the feeding spectrum, then critics occupy the obverse. Food is the furthest thing from fuel in a critic’s mind. It is an ideal to be sought; perfection to pursue….sometimes with hesitance, sometimes with gusto. To search and find perfection is our quest, but we’ll settle for excellence, wherever we find it.

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Perfection is unobtainable, in art or food, but excellence can be anywhere. And in searching for it with every bite, you acquire what I call a taste Rolodex in your head.
Every bite contains a comparison. A spoonful of ice cream gets graded against every other one you’ve ever had. When you stumble into Giolitti in Rome for a scoop, from your first lick you’re comparing it to La Strega Nocciola in Florence, which, you recall, kicked the ass of that poseur franchised crap you had in New York that time. And when you stroll into Gelato di Milano in Las Vegas, consciously or unconsciously you are holding them to those standards.

The glory of course is in the pursuit; the obsessive hunt for the best. And if you’re going to obsess over anything, what’s better than having an all-consuming ardor for something you have to do twice a day to stay alive?

Yes, we can dutifully shovel proteins, amino acids, starches and complex sugars into our piehole, solely to stay alive, and not give them another thought.

But nature gave us a sense of smell and taste for a reason: to discern the edible from the inedible in the wild. Modern man doesn’t live in fear of dying from toxic berries or diseased meat, but the same skills our ancestors used to eat healthily thousands of years ago serve us well today when deciding the right time to eat a piece of fruit, or when a protein has been cooked to its optimum flavor potential.

Image(More liver and wine, and less sodium please)

On some level, that’s all a food critic can tell you. Did they know how to season it and know when it’s done? There is your baseline. Then, there are finer points and deeper dives: Did the foie gras poached in Sauternes (above) taste of wine-drenched, silky liver, or just salt? Was it properly cleaned?  Is the recipe trying to mimic a classic? Or a riff on it? Or is it a copy of a copy of a riff on a classic? Is the ornamentation on the plate for taste or show or both? Are there too many elements to a dish or not enough? (Rarely the latter.)

All gastronomes are searching for dishes of high amplitude – where the flavor elements converge into a single gestalt. A good critic should likewise be such an inquisitive epicure (or at least aspire to be one), even though many, sadly, are not.

A knowledgeable critic has a wealth of experience in his brain (that Rolodex thing again) to give you answers to these questions. Does that mean he’s right and you’re wrong if you disagree with him? No, but if he/she is doing the job right, at least they’ve given you a baseline of information upon which to make your own judgments.

As with movies, a good critic can not only tell you if something is good, but why it is so. No one said it better than Rogert Ebert:

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are “just looking for a good time.” He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Substitute “food” for “movies” in the above paragraph and you have the best defense of a restaurant critics I can think of.

Finally, we come to the question of the actual tasting itself. How does a critic evaluate a dish? Is it different from how you taste food? Most likely. It is certainly a lot faster.

Hypersensitivity is our calling card — to raw ingredients, degree of doneness, balance, temperature, spices, herbs, texture, mouthfeel (not the same thing), harmony, assertiveness, amplification of one note over another — all of which goes racing through our brain before the second bite.

As with wine or music, once you understand the subject on a deeper level, you’re incapable of being satisfied with mediocrity. You might be perfectly happy grooving to the sweet, sweet sounds of Donny and Marie singing their greatest hit, but someone schooled in classical music or modern jazz is not so easily amused. In another life, Domino’s pizza might’ve sufficed; now it makes you want to barf.

Then there’s that pesky perspective thing again: how does this dish, this restaurant, this meal, fit within the context of every other meal, you’ve had?

Back to Ebert again, he quotes Socrates when arguing that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He pushes the movie goer to understand both their and a filmmaker’s philosophy about a movie, in order to explain with some depth why you like or don’t like a film.

It would certainly be nice if all movie buffs had that level of understanding, just as I would argue that if everyone who eats (and that would be everyone) would examine their food with same intellectual rigor a critic does, the world would be a happier, healthier place.

Image(Kusshi me quick)

In reality, this will never happen. All a passionate critic can hope for is to shine a small ray of enlightenment on your meal. You should go to Bouchon for oysters, for example, because they always seem to get the plumpest, briniest specimens in town. (Or Sage, for their classic Tabasco sorbet-topped beauties, above.) The selection at Bouchon is never too large and the staff always knows their bivalves. This is the sort of information an informed consumer should have in their holster before dropping fifty bucks on a dozen of them.

Does this mean you will identify the watermelon/cucumber notes of a deep-pocketed Kusshis the same way I will? Perhaps not, but if you taste them next to some $1 oyster bar (Hello, Palace Station!), you would find it’s no contest. Such is the ground a critic plows so you won’t have to.

Yes, I get ecstatic over restaurants like Bouchon and Sage, just like I do over oysters, pizza, steaks, tacos and the fanciest French food you can imagine. (I can still recall my oyster epiphany in Brussels almost thirty years ago, when the slippery little critters were so fresh and alive they contracted when hit with a squirt of lemon.) Such was the beginning of a life-long affair.

As any romantic can tell you, once you fall in love, falling in like is no longer an option. To be a good critic, you must love your subject even when it isn’t loving you back.

True love is like that.