John Curtas is …

Critics

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The Last Course

There is no sincerer love than the love of food. – George Bernard Shaw

My father could sell ice to an Eskimo. He was a born salesman. Made (and lost) a lot of money in his life, but he ended his run on an up-tick, and left my mother quite comfortable, so I guess all the hustling and drama was worth it.

I’ve never been much good at selling anything….even myself. Maybe because I saw all the sturm und drang my dad put our family through as he made all that money; or maybe it’s because the German-Protestant side of me considers selling and marketing to be a craven and unseemly.

The internet, in case you haven’t noticed, has become about nothing but selling. Everyone and every thing on it is trying to sell you something. For what is a selfie but a exercise in self-promotion? And who is naive enough to think these days that Facebook is just about sharing pictures with your friends and relatives?

No, when you boot up your computer or click on your phone, your eyeballs immediately become both product and target. The internet, along with being the great equalizer and disseminator  of information, has fed us all into the sausage grinder of the world wide marketing machine.

And what it did to food writing was turn it all into fast food hamburgers.

By way of comparison, consider the New York Times writer (Amanda Hesser) who, in 1998, was given a company credit card and carte blanche to travel around France for two weeks finding subjects to write about. The only writers traveling to Europe these days either do it on their own dime (like moi), or hustle for a pay-to-play gig whereby they get a free trip in exchange for an agreement to write a favorable (it’s understood) story about their trip for some back-home publication (something I’ve also done, mainly for wine articles).

Thus has the entire field of food writing been turned on its head. No longer do publications like Bon Appetit and Travel + Leisure send writers to discover stories. Instead, they are the repositories for articles that have been pitched to them by hotels, cruise lines, tourist boards, international booze conglomerates, etc.. Marketing now dominates everything, and with the exception of a few giant national newspapers, and some teeny tiny periodicals, all opinions are now bought and paid for. It’s all quite sad because you can no longer trust anyone.

Except Chad H. on Yelp, who doesn’t like Estiatorio Milos because it’s “too fishy.” Him you can trust.

I say this with tongue only partially wedged in cheek, because at least “Chad H.” (who probably doesn’t know his xiao long bao from his Chow Yun-fat) actually went to the restaurant he’s opining about. The listicles that dominate web sites like Eater and Thrillist are the product of press releases. It’s doubtful that whoever compiles these has ever stepped foot in the places they proclaim as “hot.” All they know is what they’ve cribbed from a p.r. sales pitch, or the internet…or from the dwindling number of writers (or other publications like this one) who are doing boots-on-the-ground (or, in this case, food-in-the-mouth) research.

In it’s own not-so-subtle, insidious way, the internet created a vortex of simplified discourse that sucks the consumer farther and farther away from meaningful information. Which is just the type of controlled message that corporations and public relations people want.

I was never selling anything. Not when I started my “Food For Thought” radio gig with Nevada Public Radio in 1995, not when I started my TV gigs with local news stations in August, 2008, and not when I started this blog exactly ten years ago today.

If there was a primary motivation it certainly wasn’t money. Even in its late 20th Century heyday, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in writing about restaurants. If I have to point to a specific inspiration it would have to be much purer and less meretricious: I wanted to promote good restaurants so more people would eat there and they’d stay in business and their success would inspire others to follow.

Everyone thinks I’ve always been about criticizing restaurants, but in fact, what I really was doing was advertising them.

A restaurant critic might start out as a consumer advocate — and, indeed, it is through those eyes that you must view your subject — but what you end up being is a cheerleader, a fanboy, an unabashed promoter for the businesses you cover. You do it somewhat inadvertently, and you do it out of keen interest, but first and foremost, you do it out of admiration, not because you’re on the payroll…and that makes it the sincerest form of salesmanship there is.

Somehow though, I don’t think my father would’ve understood. He died in 2006, but I’m sure he, like many others, would’ve asked why I didn’t try to monetize Eating Las Vegas. All I could’ve told him was, “Because I’m doing it for love, Dad, not money.” I did it for the love of writing, and for the love of restaurants, and because I hated what the internet had done to food journalism.

I would further explain to him that to be a professional critic of anything, you have to be in love with your subject. The job of a critic is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator, but to be a good teacher, you have to be both enamored of and fascinated by your subject.

And boy, have I loved writing about food and restaurants.

And I really love writing about them on my own web site.

Nothing against the dozens of editors I’ve worked for, but there’s a freedom in being able to express yourself without the constraints of some blue nose with a blue pencil telling you to “tighten it up,” or “tone it down,” so they can keep their lowest common denominator readership happy.

And what I’ve loved about you, dear reader, is that you never wanted me to dumb it down or tone it down. You appreciated me letting fly with my opinions, my stylistic liberties and my awful, insistent alliteration. Only a few of you ever begrudged me my fantasies or my foibles. Most of you got it from the get-go, and you let me have fun writing in my style and from my heart — not from the perspective of some fuddy-duddy dead-tree publication.

Almost everything I’ve ever written has come from the heart, not from a paycheck — which either makes me a hopeless romantic or a fool.

The romantic in me longs for the days of incisive writing and journalistic standards applied to rigorous reporting about where you should eat and why. The fool in me thought that I could raise those standards (in Las Vegas at least), even as they were evaporating all around me. But unlike most critics (save for Seymour Britchky, my muse) I put my money where my mouth was. Sure I got comped a lot (especially in the last decade), but my restaurant bills from 1995-2010 would choke a horse. I went in, anonymously for the first ten years, threw down, and then coughed up my sincere opinions about what I ate. I don’t know if anyone ever again will be foolish enough to do what I did.

To be a blogger, you have to be obsessive. In the early days, my staff and I would crank out two or three posts a day. Those were exciting times. By 2008, the wave of fantastic food that had begun to build a decade earlier was just cresting. It was a tsunami of gourmandia the likes of which no city in the world had ever seen. What had begun with Spago in 1993 and Emeril’s in 1995 continued to swell with the opening of the Bellagio in 1998, and then, in rapid succession, the launching of the Venetian and Mandalay Bay. By the time Joël Robuchon showed up in 2005 and Guy Savoy arrived in 2007, I felt like the world’s luckiest surfer — one who was making the drop on some awesome lips, day after day, night after night, for a dozen years in a row.

15 years on the radio, 9 on TV, 6 books, countless magazine articles, multiple national television appearances, numerous contributions to guide books and web sites. — it’s been a good run. I’ve taken this whole food writing thing so much further than I ever imagined when I was nervously sitting in my bedroom on October 14, 1995, hand-scribbled script in one hand and a cassette recorder in the other, rehearsing for my first radio spot on KNPR —  sweating over how to make food sound fun and interesting for three minutes. But I got through that, and I got better — at writing, at eating, at tasting, and at radio and television. My waistline suffered, my liver suffered, my relationships suffered, and most assuredly by bank account suffered, but I made my mark, and helped a lot of restaurants and chefs in the process. Even my stick-to-business dad would’ve been proud of that.

As Augustus McCrae says to Woodrow Call at the end of Lonesome Dove: “By God Woodrow, it’s been quite a party hasn’t it?”

It’s been quite a party.

[ELV — the man, the myth, the inveterate Francophile, Romanophile, oenophile, turophile, Sinophile, Nipponophile, and Grecophile — will be on hiatus for the next month or two while he re-boots (and re-names) this web site and tries to decide what he wants to do when he grows up. Until then, kali orixi to all.]

(Ouzo iz always appropriate)

The (Final) List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A friend is someone you hang out with.

A friend is someone who has been to your house.

A friend is someone who invites you to their house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The List

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Esther’s Kitchen specializes in pasta porn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there you have it. My final roundup.

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

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

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

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

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

ELV at the Crossroads

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What’s that old joke? If you see the fork in the road, take it.

Well, loyal readers, Eating Las Vegas is at a crossroad.

Writing about restaurants seems more than a bit trivial in these troubled times.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of cool new stuff going on.

And a lot of old stuff continues to shine  — like the sides and steak yours truly had at CUT the other night:

One part of me wants to dive in and tell you all about the great meals I’ve had recently at:

Allegro

Chuchote Thai Bistro

Le Cirque

Cafe Breizh

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7th & Carson

The Black Sheep

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Hofbräuhaus (yes, the Hofbräuhaus)

Bazaar Meat

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The aforementioned CUT

Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads (yes, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads)

Prosecco

Bardot Brasserie

MB Steak

Ferraro’s

Casa Don Juan (yes, that Casa Don Juan)

Chada Street…and…

Morel’s Steakhouse

…just to name a few.

But my heart is heavy, and the blogosphere ain’t what it used to be.

Tens of thousands of people used to want to read these restaurant reviews, now but a few thousand do. Facebook and Instagram turned everyone into a food blogger (this is not a bad thing), and in so doing, created a world where the audience is small for anything but mindless listicles, gossip and food porn.

My personal theory is that once camera phones got better, around 5 years ago, everyone could see decent pictures of what a restaurant’s food looked like. When that happened, reading about it became a chore for all but the most ardent foodies. In other words, blogs like this had a mass appeal right up until the masses could look at purty pictures to hit their low information threshold. Thus did clickbait like “Top 5 Tacos in Town!” and “David Chang’s Favorite Pizzas!” supplant actually learning about food.

Simple-mindedness is the rule these days, no matter the issue, no matter what the topic. The dumbing down of America extends to subjects as diverse as climate change to politics to sports. No one is diving deep; everything is visceral or the Cliff Notes version. Even the President of the United States.

Speaking of mindlessness, people are being murdered wholesale in our country, and not enough people care enough about that, either. Because you know, freedom. If that’s not enough to sober me right out of restaurant writing, nothing is.

No matter how you slice it, there’s nothing deep about food writing. Food writers, critics, journalists, nutritionists, etc., are all doing different forms of the same thing: imparting information (and opinion) to the public to help it eat better, tastier, healthier food. No rocket science in that. Precious little politics, too. But if you want to learn something, you have to pay attention. Just like in elementary school. And just like elementary school, most students would rather be told the right answer than figure it out for themselves.

Loyal readers, I have grown weary of helping you figure it out for yourselves.

About the only thing that keeps me writing these days is contemplating what is left of the Vegas food writing community should I retire. Years ago, I hoped that the free weeklies would morph into a true voice for our food and restaurant scene. All they’ve morphed into is a platform for b-list bars and restaurants, cocktail features, and barely-written “reviews.” I don’t blame the writers, I blame the editors. They know their audience can hardly read (or barely wants to), so on one level, you can’t blame them.

My previous co-author, Al Mancini, professes not to want to write about restaurants anymore, so the worthless rag he works for has him covering hot topics like “What blue cocktails are made without blue curaçao?” and other such drivel. (Memo to Al Mancini: the world isn’t interested in “cocktails of the week,” only the people pushing them are.)

Max Jacobson, god bless him, will never re-join the food writing ranks, and my other former co-authors (Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn) talented though they are, have neither the coin nor the time to immerse themselves in our foodie scene. Eater Las Vegas is a joke (it’s run by a pathetic woman who, when she’s sober, remembers that she lives in Des Moines, Iowa), and no other local blog is worth a shit. So bleak the landscape is.

And bleak I feel about it. I love writing, and I love going to great restaurants. Combining those two passions in this blog, six books, and 23 years of reviews for radio, TV, guidebooks, ‘zines, and  dozens of periodicals has been a match made in heaven for me. No one has ever covered the restaurants of Las Vegas like I have over the past two decades. No one else is even close. All the food writers in town put together aren’t even close. On average, I eat out more in a week than all of them do in a month.

Am I bragging? Sure I am, but it’s also true, and it’ll be a long time before any food writer comes close to what I’ve done. And I’m proud of it.

But while the body might be willing, the spirit is weak. Sometime next month the sixth edition of EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants will be published. Those 52 restaurants (yes, two more this year!) are all mine this time. No co-authors, no dueling reviews. You will get my complete, unvarnished look at the best this town has to offer, plus a snapshot or two about where we fail as a food and restaurant town.

These are the same things I’ve been trying to do on this web site since April 1, 2008, and in various forms since October 15, 1995, when I debuted on Nevada Public Radio. I don’t know if the book will continue after this edition, but I’m fairly certain this web site will post its last toothsome pick, or eviscerating pan, on its tenth anniversary, April 1, 2018.

Until then, bon appétit!

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