Fish Fight: MILOS v. COSTA di MARE

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Las Vegas is to fish what tumbleweeds are to Tahiti.

Seafood and the High Mojave go together like Hawaii and gambling. (If you don’t believe me, just look out the window.)

There’s an old rule of thumb that goes: for every ten miles you move inland, the fish gets ten percent worse.

By this calculation, seafood in Las Vegas should be 150% worse than it is on the coast.

Of course this isn’t true. The miracles of refrigeration and air freight have made fresh (or reasonably fresh) fish a reality no matter how far you are from an ocean. All you need is an airport, and presto change-o! – you can charge prices for a wild-caught turbot that would make a potentate’s knees buckle.

That said, seafood in Las Vegas is still something of a crap-shoot. Much of it is farmed, and too much of it is the same old same old salmon and sea bass in restaurant after restaurant.

But we are blessed with two, world-class, seafood emporiums: Estiatorio Milos and Costa di Mare. Each of them is special in its own way, and together they put to shame the fish being flung at all but our toniest steakhouses and sushi parlors.

Image(Something fishy is going on…will salmon help me order?)

So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d outline their similarities and differences, to better help you decide where to drop a boat payment the next time you want to swim in the deep end of our best seafood restaurants.

As usual, only the most skillful, precise, and scientific measurements were used to chart the distinctions between the two. And by “skillful and scientific” we mean our own, historically-proven, unchallenged omniscience and infallibility.

Decor

Image(Feng shui in spades)

Milos’s reboot in the Venetian is soothing, dramatic, reminiscent of the Greek Islands, and appetite-inducing. It’s feng shui is so good there should be a picture of it beside every definition of feng shui. Plus, the fish display alone (see above) is worth major design props.

Advantage, Milos, for feng shui and all that tasty fish.

Image(A great place to set the hook, just for the halibut, or on porpoise, if you’re fishing for a gill-friend)

Costa di Mare’s re-launch in the Wynn reopens a space that is by turns eye-popping, comforting, and mouth-watering. As gorgeous as the new room is at Milos, it’s hard to beat the bi-level views and poolside drama of CdM.

Advantage CdM for outdoor dining, romantic lighting and jaw-dropping design.

In other words: Draw

Greeting

At Milos, they treat me like a big shot who owns the place; at CdM, they treat me like the King of Siam. I’ve been comped at both and I’ve paid through the nose at both.

Draw

Service

Image(Oh for cod’s hake, we’ve haddock enough! Stop floundering and choose!)

Intensive care service is the rule at both. Milos is still in its shakedown cruise, so things are a bit wobbly — well-meaning, but not as polished as they will be.

CdM (above) is operating like it never closed in the first place. Both plaices are so solicitous it feels like someone would cut your food, sand dab the corners of your mouth and troll you to your car if you asked them too.

You expect nothing less than consummate professionalism from both operations since two of the smoothest cats in the business (Ivo Angelov and Fabian Forlini) hold down the front of the house — at CdM and Milos, respectively.

You also can’t fault Milos for having to adjust to a huge new space with a brand-new crew, but at this juncture, we’ll award…

Slight advantage, Costa di Mare 

Price

Bring $$$. Lots of it. Seafood this spectacular has gone through quite a journey to get to your table within a single day. What you’re eating Thursday night was probably flopping around on a boat Wednesday morning….6,000 miles away.

A small rouget or racasse (for two) will easily run $150 at either place. A five pound St. Pietro (John Dory) set us back $275 at CdM, but easily fed five. Plan on at least $125/pp minimum. These beautiful scallops at Milos, are $17 apiece, and you’ll want one each…or two.

Image(So good we can’t clam up about them)

Ordinarily, we’d call the price war a draw, but Milos scores an early knockdown with something in its arsenal CdM can’t defend against or counter…..

Lunch

Image(We’re in lavraki)

Milos serves lunch. A great one. And quite a bargain to boot. Its special $36, 3-course dejeuner is justifiably famous as the best lunch deal on the Strip. Yes, there are surcharges on some dishes, but stick with the basic menu (like the gorgeous lavraki above) and you’ll eat a very healthy, very Greek midday repast and feel a little like a thief while you’re doing it.

Costa di Mare: no lunch. This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions, and thus…

Advantage, Milos

Hours

For the time being, CdM is only open Thurs.-Sun nights. Milos is open 7 days for lunch and dinner.

We’d like to give a point to Milos for being so accessible, but the shutdown of restaurants put them in a no-win situation, so as they re-open, it wouldn’t be fair to judge them harshly on what they have to do to stay afloat. Still…

Advantage, Milos

Bread

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Costa di Mare gets its superior basket of baked goodies from Wynn’s in-house shop. Milos serves its single, toasted, thick nutty slices of sourdough pain de campagne with some of the best olive oil in the biz.

Draw

Appetizers

Both are minimalists. Both let the ingredients sing for themselves. Each does the best langoustines and crab dishes Las Vegas has ever seen. Even with Milos offering the nonpareil “Milos Special”:

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…we ‘re calling it a….

Draw

Seafood Selection

This one is relatively easy: there is no competition with Milos when it comes to a daily variety of fresh fish and seafood. CdM has a beautiful, impeccably chosen but smaller selection.

Advantage, Milos

Bar

Image(Swanky and sexy)

The new bar at Milos is huge and a focal point. It is destined to be a hangout in its own right. CdM bar is smaller and more of a way station for those waiting for a table. Both have impressive collections of pre- and post-prandial booze. I’m not the guy to judge the mixology, but I’ve never had anything less than a stellar cocktail at either.

Draw

Pasta

Image(Uni pasta a la LoRusso)

No contest. Costa di Mare has some of the best Italian pastas you will find in Las Vegas….or anywhere in America for that matter.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Food/Cooking/Menu

Milos doesn’t know how to improperly cook a piece of seafood. But CdM has serious kitchen talent at the stoves in the form(s) of Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos.

Milos has tried and true formula which works across the world; CdM is more inventive with its menu and cooking, and its pastas alone are worth a special trip.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Dessert

Image(We heart Daniela)

Once again, you can’t fault Milos for its tried and true Greek sweets, but CdM has a first-class pastry chef (Santos) in the kitchen.

Image(Berry, berry good)

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Wine

Greek wines go with seafood like mint leaves and lamb. You may not be able to pronounce them (see below), but that’s why they’re so reasonable.

The list at CdM is objectively better, deeper, and broader in its selections. It is also priced for the big boys, not mere mortals. Trying to find a wine bargain at the Wynn is more useless than looking for a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah, BUT Covid has caused a huge surplus of un-drunk bottles up and down the Strip, so CdM now offers some discounted “Cellar Selections” with softer markups.

Selection – Advantage, Costa di Mare

Price – Advantage, Milos

Wine Service –  Advantage, CdM

Country of Origin – Advantage, Milos (You may disagree, but Greeks were washing down their Χταπόδι (Chtapódi/octopi) with Asyrtiko when the Romans were suckling on the teats of wolves.

Therefore, Draw…unless you’re fishing for big game, in which case you’ll love the Costa di Mare list. If you’re looking for a good bottle at a less predatory-shark price, it’s Milos.

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Let’s Recap:

Wine – Draw

Dessert – Costa

Food/Cooking/Menu – Costa

Pasta – Costa

Bar – Draw

Bread – Draw

Appetizers – Draw

Seafood Selection – Milos

Hours – Milos

Lunch – Milos

Price – Draw

Service – Slight advantage to Costa because of Milo’s new digs

Decor – Draw

Judgment

If you’re scoring, you’ll see a 1 up victory for Costa di Mare by the thickness of a soft shell crab shell:

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However, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that what looks at first like two similar restaurants are, in fact, two entirely different experiences.

Costa di Mare is a big deal meal Vegas restaurant with all the luxury trappings, right down to the exotic amaros, ports, and digestivos.

Milos is very much like its chef/owner Costas Spiliadis: welcoming, informal, but very serious about its Greek food.

Wherever you find a Milos (from Montreal to Miami) it is always one of the best seafood restaurants in town. It is, by far, the best Greek restaurant within ten miles of the Las Vegas Strip, and you’ll have trouble finding a better one anywhere west of the Mississippi.

Costa di Mare is Italian in focus, a lot more chef-y, and sui generis. If I wanted to impress a date, I’d take her to the Wynn; if I want simple, beautiful fish that tastes like it jumped out of the sea and directly onto my plate, I’ll go to Milos.

No matter where you end up, you won’t regret it, because, and you can sea, both are fin-damentally….wait for it….wait for it… soleful:

Image(Face it, you’re bass-ically hooked on these sofishticated puns)

COSTA di MARE

Wynn Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770.3305

ESTIATORIO MILOS

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1270

Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

Image(Mutual admiration society)

Ah…the end of summer. Traditionally when we would be turning in the final copy for EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants.

But not this year. This year there is no joy in Mudville. This year the Mighty Las Vegas has struck out. What we once saw as invincible, unconquerable, un-defeatable, has been laid so low as to be in need of resuscitation, not inspection and dissection.

No way can we justify rating or ranking restaurants according to their quality this year. That so many of them are open at all is a testament to the fortitude of cooks, chefs, owners, staff and everyone connected with our hospitality industry.

Even places we’ve disdained in the past now have our undying respect. This is no time for poncy snobs and their persnickety-ness. Effete, elitist, edicts should not elicit during this era of almost endless enervation.

Put another way: it would be exhausting and unfair to critique any retail business struggling to survive in this climate. Our heart’s not in it, nor should it be.

Right now it’s all about survival, and even though a remarkable number of places have re-opened, it’s too soon to tell which ones will make it.

If I had to describe my prediction for the future of local eateries, I’d call it cautiously optimistic. There seems to be real support out there for the neighborhood joints who have weathered the storm (so far). And interest is high in the places on the drawing boards, ready to spring to life in the coming weeks: Main Street Provisions, Good Pie, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi, all have created real buzz, and the public’s appetite for going out seems to be increasing every week. Letting the bars re-open is also a big plus which will boost the business of many. (Restaurants need a lively bar just as much as a bar needs a lively bar.)

The Strip is another beast entirely, as the fates of so many of our favorite cookshops hang in the balance these days, as the beached whales of Las Vegas Boulevard South struggle to find their footing, right the ship, and regain their sea legs. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

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As of this writing, 15 of our 52 Essential Restaurants remain closed. Some are gone for good (goodbye Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Hatsumi, Sage…), others hang in the balance (Le Cirque? Picasso? Robuchon?), while a remarkable number have bounced back (even at 50% capacity) and are doing booming business on the days they’re open (usually Wed.-Sun.).

We’ve also gained new appreciation for some places we’d written off in the past (Costa di Mare), and developed an infatuation for a newcomers (ELIO, Letty’s, Raku Toridokoro, Osteria Fiorella) whose menus have knocked us out at every meal we’ve had. (If we were doing a 52 Essential list this year, all of them would certainly be on it, as would ShangHai Taste, Saga , Japaneiro, and Big B’s Texas BBQ.)

Throughout the summer, beginning in early June right through this past weekend, we hit dozens of restaurants, on and off the Strip, and usually found them teaming with customers. Sure, the mask thing makes everyone awkward, and early on, the feelings of discomfort was palpable between customers and staff, but over time these things have faded…even if the unease hasn’t disappeared completely.

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Looking back, it’s now a safe bet to say the publication of our 8th Edition of Eating Las Vegas was the high-water mark of Las Vegas’s gastronomic scene — not the book itself, but  everything that came before it, everything it represented. Thirty years of progress, thousands of hands working for three decades to bring better food and drink to the High Mojave Desert, in a place where once no one thought it possible. My own personal odyssey of eating, studying and writing about this scene led me and others to our event that evening, and it seemed like nothing but blue skies, handmade pizzas and top-flight champagne was ahead for everyone.

But of course it wasn’t. There was an iceberg looming ahead no one saw coming.

It was a grand night, made all the more possible by chefs like John Arena, Chris Decker, Ismaele Romano, James Trees and Vincent Rotolo pitching in to feed us all so well. Toasts were made; speeches were given; babies were kissed; books were signed. At the end of it all was a lively discussion panel with Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and Trees weighing in with humor and insight on the future of the Las Vegas dining scene. Little did we know how wrong we would all be proven, only two weeks later.

At the top of the page you’ll see us with Paul — a genial fellow whose last name we can’t recall. Paul has bought every edition of ELV going back to 2011. He and his charming wife came, listened us bloviate, and waited for the discussions to end so we could sign all of his books. One thing led to another, multiple distractions intruded, and before we knew it, the evening was over and Paul and spouse had left without us making good on our promise.

No matter, we thought at the time, we’ll catch up with Paul _____ soon enough. Maybe sometime this year in a restaurant, or maybe at next year’s release party.

How foolish of us to take it for granted — because there may never be another book signing party — because there may never be another Las Vegas like there was on February 27, 2020.

Paul, if you’re out there, I apologize. I’m sorry I didn’t sign your books and I’m sorry I didn’t get your last name so I could hunt you down and return the favor.

Peak Vegas had been achieved that day and none of us knew it. But I’m still here with pen in hand, Paul, ready to be of service, if ever again you need me.

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Las Vegas Battles Lethargy

Image(Costa di Mare)

Nobody knows anything. – William Goldman

Trying to take the temperature of where we are and where we’re going is a fruitless exercise. No one knows the answers; everyone has their fingers crossed.

During a recent conversation with a local magazine editor, I was at a loss when asked what I wanted to write about. The “new normal” is anything but. Hotels and restaurants have opened seeking to reestablish themselves, but no one knows how sustainable these operations can be over the long haul, especially when seating is restricted and probably a quarter of your (former) customers are too scared to dine out.

The Strip has rolled the dice and opened its doors: chugging along at a quarter speed with no conventions in the foreseeable future and the slowest time of the year staring it in the face. People are showing up, but nowhere near in the numbers for which these places were designed.

No one has any idea what the demand for Las Vegas is going to be. Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s in the dark. Demand for beds, booze, or breakfast — it’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be: next week, next month, or in November for that matter..

Because we’re all flying blind, no one can plan anything. Everyone is in survival mode, on and off the Strip. Restaurants designed to turn hundreds of covers a night are making do with a fraction of their capacity — like a Formula One racer puttering around and conserving fuel on a go-kart track. Tiny 40 seat Japanese gems like Hiroyoshi and Yui Edomae Sushi are confined to twelve diners at a time.

If you thought we had a tedious, interminable Spring, the next eight weeks are going to be brutal.

Image(ELIO es magnifico!)

Even in places that are open, something very key to every restaurant’s survival is missing. The key to everyone’s survival — un-quantifiable but essential nonetheless. We’re not talking tables, turnover or customers. We’re not even speaking of service, aliments or alcohol.

No, we’re talking about energy. The Big E, the thing every business needs to succeed. It doesn’t matter what business, if you don’t bring energy to what you do, you won’t be doing it for long.

Restaurants derive energy from two places: their patrons and their staff. Both feed off of each other, literally and figuratively.

Small places like ShangHai Taste exude energy (or at least they did) from the moment you enter. It comes from customers eagerly awaiting their seats, and from the chefs furiously rolling, pinching and steaming your xiao long bao for scores of hungry stomachs.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, a huge restaurant like Mott 32 crackles from the minute you hit the gangplank. Bazaar Meat and Cut smell of beef, testosterone, and money; Restaurant Guy Savoy of French perfection.

Even a homey neighborhood joint like Jamie Tran’s Black Sheep has (or used to have) an electricity about it when you walked in the door — a palpable sense of people enjoying themselves. Energy, conviviality, and excitement are what made Esther’s Kitchen a hit from the get-go.

Now, they’ve lost it. All of them. Vitality has been replaced by defensiveness — an almost apologetic feeling in the air permeating these rooms and everyone in them.

The feeling is the same from the our most expensive to our most modest eateries, and it isn’t a pretty sight, even if the food remains as tasty as ever.

Diners are on the defensive. They are out and about at great risk, they are told, and they’re being policed by self-righteous, finger-waggers — emboldened by media, government, and public health officials — who’ve deputized them (they think) to tell the rest of us how to behave. The restaurants themselves live in fear of being outed for the smallest health infraction; their customers are less fearful, but ever vigilant, lest they be thought of as not properly protecting themselves or those around them.

Needless to say, none of this is a recipe for success.

But undaunted, we persevere. Eating out more than anyone, trying to gauge the temperature of our hospitality industry every week. Since good lunches are problematic downtown, and the hotels have reduced options and hours, we’re picking our spots

The following are the places I’ve eaten since the the quarantine was lifted in early June. As usual, all places come highly recommended.

The (short) List:

Restaurant Guy Savoy

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Against all odds, Caesars Palace decided to reopen one of America’s fanciest and most expensive restaurants. Like most higher-end joints, it’s only serving four nights a week (Wed.-Sat.), and multiple compromises have been made in the way they serve things. The bread cart is now for show only, silverware comes wrapped in paper, and the (smaller) cheese selection is one step removed from a Tupperware party.

Image(Pretty cheesy if you ask me)

That said, Exec Chef Nicolas Costagliola continues to execute the Guy Savoy canon with delicious precision, the service never misses a beat, and you won’t find any better duck, veal, fish, vegetables, and desserts anywhere. With its already limited competition being laid low on both coasts, there is no better big deal meal in America right now. In fact, it may be the only big deal meal in America right now.

ELIO

Image(You won’t turnip your nose at these)

Another surprise. Straight from Mexico City by way of New York City. On every gastronaut’s radar, even though it’s only open Thurs.-Sun.. Wonderful bar, mescal tasting room, molés out the wazoo, and modern Mexican food like Vegas has never seen before. Most of the food gobsmacked us, but we want/need a second round before letting our opinions gel. Be advised though: they take no prisoners with strong flavors and it is pricey — some of the vegetable dishes are priced from in the mid-twenties….for turnips (above).

Costa di Mare

Image(John Dory at Costa di Mare)

Dramatic setting, dramatic seafood. We wrote this place off several years ago after two mediocre meals. But to the Wynn’s credit (as well as Chef Mark LoRusso and GM Ivo Angelov), it has arisen from the quarantine ashes and recaptured some of the old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare mojo. The Food Gal® (aka my wife) can’t wait to go back. Neither can I.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad meal at Bazaar Meat, or even a bad bite. Totally hit the ground running and tastes as wonderful as ever. The only thing that feels strange are the socially-distanced empty tables. As a steakhouse, however, it remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma which is the new-old Sahara hotel.

ShangHai Taste

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One of those mom and pop places struggling with reduced seating. Acclaim-worthy xiao long bao, noodles and spareribs were a hit from day one….the Covid hit. Now, the once-mobbed, spanking-new Shanghai Plaza is a shadow of its once-bustling self. All Chef Jimmy Li can do is hang on and hope.

Oodle Noodle

Oodles of udon. Healthy bowls of Japanese goodness and super-foods like seaweed salad. If you’re looking for a tasty, economical lunch with wellness-giving properties, look no further.

DE Thai

We had one of our best meals ever here for lunch the other day. Small but mighty terrific Thai.

Other Notables — Where you should be eating now:

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Lotus of Siam

Pho So 1

Yui Edomae Sushi

Lamaii

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Carson Kitchen

7th & Carson

Kaiseki Yuzu

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Monzú Italian Oven + Bar

Esther’s Kitchen

The Black Sheep

PublicUs

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Marche Bacchus

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Allegro at Wynn

Image(Keep calm and carrot on at ELIO)