ELV ANNOUNCEMENT: Huntington Press announced last week that the 6th Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants is in production and looking forward to a release in mid-November. For the first time, those 52 eateries will be chosen and written about by me and me alone. As much as I’ve appreciated the yeoman’s work that Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn did on the last two editions (2016 and 2017), Anthony Curtis (publisher of HP) thought it was time for me to do one book with my complete, unfettered and unvarnished look at the Las Vegas restaurant scene. Curtis (no relation, although he does have the same sounding name as our staff), is taking responsibility for the second half of the book — evaluating and listing everything from best burgers to boffo buffets (with an assist here and there from yours truly). As long time publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, Curtis knows the ins and outs of Las Vegas in a different way than I do, but one that readers will find highly useful when more down-to-earth dining is on the agenda. The heavy lifting (i.e., research and writing) of this edition has been going on for several months now (if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram you can get an idea of all the territory I’ve been covering), and the next six weeks is crunch time. In the meantime, below is a taste of one of the additional chapters I’ll be writing that will pepper the book with some of my insights gleaned over 23 years of restaurant writing and covering the Las Vegas food scene. Bon appetit!
WHAT DOES A (REAL) RESTAURANT CRITIC DO?
He writes. She eats. He Cooks. She travels. He eats more. She studies. She reads everything she can about food and travel; he thinks incessantly about food, all the time. And after all that, he/she spends an inordinate amount of time hunched over a keyboard, trying to describe food and the experience of eating out in the pithiest, most informative and entertaining way possible.
Not just the food that he or she happens to be shoveling into their piehole at any one moment, but about how everyone eats. And cooks. And feeds each other. More specifically, a restaurant critic is charged with the responsibility of evaluating how restaurants — who are in the business of selling food to the public to satisfy human hunger — are doing their job.
To be a good restaurant critic you need to eat a lot, write a lot, read a lot and travel a lot. If you lack the stamina for any one of these things, you should hang it up right now.
Being a restaurant critic is like being a porn star: It sounds like great idea until you have to do it all the time, on schedule.
A restaurant critic (a real one, not a casual food blogger) is a writer first and foremost. But their beat isn’t sports or news or politics, it’s rating and reviewing each and every bite of food they ever put in their mouth, and put those thoughts on paper, usually weekly, while facing deadlines to do so.
Most importantly, a restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. If your motivation for the job isn’t to help the general public spend their dining dollars wisely, then you should find another occupation. People who just like to eat out all the time and tell everyone what they thought of their meal are known as blowhards….or food bloggers. Food bloggers, as knowledgeable and passionate as some of them are, are not restaurant critics. A real critic analyzes its subject; opinionated Yelpers/bloggers tell you things are “legit.” Big difference.
The job of a restaurant critic is to eat out, all the time, and write cogent, informative and entertaining essays about what they ate, how good or bad it was, and how they felt about the whole experience. A real restaurant critic gets paid for what they do.
There are four types of professional critics: 1) full-time columnists who write for major metropolitan newspapers or national periodicals (these jobs are becoming increasingly rare, and there are probably less than 100 writers in America who make a living from them); 2) free-lance journalists who work as subcontractors to dead-tree magazines, free newsweeklies, and papers (sometimes as a steady gig, sometimes intermittently); 3) on-line critics who work for established Web sites (like Grub Street, Eater National, Huffington Post); or 4) established critics who maintain Web sites of their own (some of which make money, some of which don’t). Yours truly fit into the second category for the first fifteen years of his restaurant writing career, and now plies his trade as a member of the fourth group (since 2008), with occasional forays into numbers 2) and 3). The rarest of the rare critics actually publish yearly restaurant guides, written on real paper!
Restaurant critics don’t make a lot of money. If you’re lucky enough to land a job with a newspaper, you’ll make about as much as a high school teacher; if you free-lance, you’ll be lucky to top what a barista makes at Starbucks. Being a restaurant critic is like being a poet: you better do it for the love and passion for your subject or you better not do it at all.
Food writers are not restaurant critics. A food writer is someone who writes articles or books about food. A food writer might write an entire book about a specific food topic: Salt by Mark Kurlansky, or diet and food politics: The Ominvore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or food fads: pick up any monthly food magazine like Bon Appetit or Saveur. Food writers write about themselves (M.F.K.Fisher), or recipes (Julia Child), or their travels (Anthony Bourdain, Joseph Wechsberg, etc.); restaurant critics write about what they taste, and then evaluate the final product of professional chefs who charge the public money for the fruits of their labors at businesses licensed to sell cooked food.
All restaurant critics are food writers, but rare is the food writer who is also a restaurant critic.
Most restaurant critics work on a weekly basis. (There may be a critic out there who manages to eat, digest, think and review multiple restaurants in a week, but if they exist it’s a fair bet they are either independently wealthy, really, really fat or crazy.) Many periodicals assign their critics to double-duty and ask them to file reports and articles on various foods and food trends for publication in between their reviews of restaurants. In this respect, most critics, if they are good writers (more on this below), are able to toggle back and forth as part-time food writers. Most cookbook authors and food writers wouldn’t be caught dead writing hard-boiled, opinionated prose about some phoning-it-in celebrity chef. But that’s just fine with real critics, because you wouldn’t want a food writer to write a proper restaurant review any more than you’d want a cheerleader to be a football coach.
In a typical week, a critic will visit at least half a dozen restaurants — most for the first time, some to get a second look — as they keep their writer’s pipeline stuffed with potential articles, reviews in progress, and possible subjects for future reviews. Back in the Stone Age — and by “Stone Age” I mean the late 20th Century — it was de rigueur for a critic to visit a restaurant multiple times before filing a review. These days, due to the news-a-minute, immediate gratification impact of the Internet, almost no publication, save for maybe a few major newspapers, requires a critic to eat more than one meal in a restaurant before giving their opinion of it. (This is extremely unfortunate, because restaurants are not movies. Every movie critic sees the same movie; a restaurant is an organic being, dependent upon the coordination of many people to do its job well. All it takes is for a dishwasher to call in sick, or a waitress to have a fight with her boyfriend, or a cook to check into rehab for you to have a lousy time. Only by eating in a place multiple times can a real critic take the measure of a place. (Every place in EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (past editions) has been visited multiple times by me. Every place in the upcoming issue will have been visited by me more times than I can count. No other critic in Las Vegas can make this claim. No other food writer or critic in the history of Las Vegas can come close to it. No brag, just fact.)
Also, due to to Internet: anonymity has gone the way of the tasseled menu and the hat check girl. Every single real critic (those writing for respected publications, or known to wield any real clout in their city) is known to every major restaurant in town. Pictures of them are posted in restaurant kitchens, and the anyone with a mobile phone can look up anyone’s picture in 30 seconds.
With all of the above as a given, your average (professional, respected, loved or hated) restaurant writer has two parts to their job: eating and writing. The eating part isn’t as easy as it seems. You have to have (or develop) an iron stomach, adventuresome attitude and a fine-tuned palate. You must learn to eat things you loathe and learn enough about them to objectively judge their net worth. (Yours truly will never like beets or Vietnamese food, but has eaten enough of both that he could start a farm or a pho parlor.)
Eating a single meal in a restaurant is no more enough to correctly opine on its merits than looking at a single painting is for you to judge an artist — even if you’re a knowledgeable critic. If you’re going to judge a steakhouse, you better have eaten in dozens of them all over the country. An amateur is one who says, “I went to Mama Leone’s and really liked the lasagna.” A restaurant critic has made lasagna in her home kitchen, watched professionals make it on TV, eaten lasagna in the great Italian restaurants of the world, and traveled to Bologna to see and taste the real thing. Any idiot can tell you whether something is good. I don’t know beans about art, but I can tell you that that Rembrandt fellow sure looks like he knows what he was doing. A good critic knows (and tells you) why something is good or bad.
After all of that is lined up — the porn star stamina, the iron stomach, the insatiable appetite, serious cooking skills, traveling the world, eating the world, reading the great food writers — then it’s time to get down to what real restaurant critics really do: write the review.
And that’s the hardest part of all.
If Cincinnato and Marco Carpineti represent Roman vinters moving forward by looking to the past, Casale Del Giglio is a winery of a much more modern stripe. Located on the slopes and plains (and some former marshland) some fifty kilometers south of Rome, it utilizes its 180 hectares of vines to make an assortment of varietals that stretch the boundaries of what Italian wines can be.
Along with wine journalist Charles Scicolone, we toured the winery with winemaker Paolo Tiefenthaler who explained that the area, being located on sandy soil in the Agro Potino valley near Anzio, did not have much of a wine-making tradition before they started cultivating it back in the 1990s. Teifenthaler told us through an interpreter that they saw this unexplored territory as being perfect for viticultural experimentation — it having a temperate maritime climate similar to those found in Australia, California and Bordeaux. As a result (and with the full blessing of the European Union), over sixty different varietals were planted to see what grew (and tasted) best. With such a broad canvas to work from, Tiefenthaler arrived at a stunning assortment of wines — fifteen in all — that aim to bridge the gap between classic and international tastes, as well as solidifying the area as a microclimate to be taken seriously.
One very un-Italian thing about Casale Del Giglio’s wines are the labels. In a nod towards the international market (and in breaking with the traditional Italian wine labels – the motto of which has always been: “obscurity and confusion over clarity and information”), their bottles identify the maker, the grape (if it’s not a blend) and the location of the vineyard. Most of their wines are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica – the third tier of Italian wine classification) which allots more freedom to winemakers to use different grapes and blends than the more restrictive DOCG and DOC denominations.
Triefenthaler takes that freedom and runs with it. His chardonnay uses no oak and goes through no malolactic (secondary) fermentation. The result is a full-bodied, crisp wine that is a pure expression of the grape. It was one of many non-traditional wines we tasted that caused me and Scicolone to sit up and take notice. Just as pleasantly surprising was the Albiola Rosato — a rose of Syrah and Sangiovese grapes — that was surprisingly rich for a wine so pink. It’s strong acidity and raspberry/strawberry aromas make it a perfect wine for sipping all Summer long.
On the more traditional front, Casale Del Giglio weighs in with a big, spicy, tannic, vaguely herbaceous Cesanese (pictured above) that Elise Rialland — our winery guide for the day — said goes perfectly with a Spezzatino di Bufaletta dell’Agro Pontino (water buffalo stew). Absent any water buffalo in your neighborhood, a beef stew would match splendidly as well.
Of the other red wines we tasted, the huge, sweetly tannic Tempranijo was a monster that needs taming by food or aging, and the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon showed promise as well, although, like many of the reds, it seemed quite young, very fruit-forward and a bit rough around the edges. Still, when you consider that these wines retail for well under twenty dollars a bottle, you’re getting quite a mouthful for the price.
Two wines that need no qualifiers are the Bellone and Mater Matuta. The Bellone is yet another worthwhile way to break the bonds of your chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio habit — it being a complex and subtle blend of ripe tropical fruit beneath a nicely floral nose. What sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill $15 white wines is the strong acidity and a bracing finish that tastes like a sea breeze smells. I can’t think of a better wine to accompany a fish stew or raw seafood platter.
If the Bellone is an ode to the ancient varietals of Lazio (the province of Italy wherein Rome lies), the Mater Matuta represents a leap into the 21st Century. Elegant and powerful, this flagship wine is a blend of 85% Syrah and 15% Petit Verdot, and displays a deep, dense ruby red color, and complex aromas of black cherry, coffee and about half a spice rack. The tannins are finely integrated and the finish lasts until next Tuesday. In all, quite a bottle for $50, and quite a landmark for an area that had no idea it could make such a splash with grapes that had never before spoken Italian.
Old school or new, Roman wines have broken the shackles of cheap white wine that defined its viticulture for so long. Tasting the full panoply of Casale Del Giglio wines (including a wonderful late harvest wine called Aphrodisium) taught me that no longer will I look past the “Lazio” designation when I see it in a wine store or on a list. These are very attractive wines at very attractive prices, and all of them are made to match with Roman food, one of the world’s great cuisines.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT ROMAN RESTAURANTS
“To a Roman, wine is just another form of food.” Charles Scicolone reminded me of this several times as we tasted our way around Rome for a week. What he also impressed upon me was that Romans (who are very serious about their cuisine) look upon wine as an integral part of any meal, but, being Romans, don’t exactly stress out over it. You’ll never find a Roman dissecting the fine points of a food and wine match. Certain fundamental rules are followed (lighter wines with fish, heavier ones with meat), but after that it is all about enjoying them simultaneously. Here are a few restaurant and wine bars where you can maximize your enjoyment of both in the Eternal City.
Il Sanlorenzo – Despite being 45 minutes from the ocean, Rome has never been much of a seafood town, until now. This elegant, seafood-centric place, a block off of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, proudly displays the daily catch at the front bar, offers six kinds of Le Acque (mineral water), artisanal breads, and stunning selection of raw seafood. It’s 85€ tasting menu is quite the bargain, and the modernist carpaccio of red shrimps just as satisfying as the artful twist on linguine con vongole.
Flavio al Velavevodetto – The trouble with traveling to Rome (as with New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc.) is I’m always torn between classic places to which I can’t wait to return, and wanting to try out newer joints that everyone is raving about. Thankfully, Rome doesn’t follow food trends as much as the rest of the world, so it’s easier to ignore whatever some travel magazine is writing about this month. Flavio de Velavevodetto has been around forever, and isn’t on anyone’s thrillist, but the food is Roman to the core. A wall of wines greets you as you enter (and doubles as the wine list) and the menu couldn’t be simpler. The rigatoni con la pajata (with veal intestines) and coda alla vaccianara (braised oxtail) also could not be any better. “Velavevodetto” means something like a Roman “I told you so,” and after two bites of your meal, you will have to admit that I told you so.
Checchino dal 1887 – Right around the corner from Flavio al Velavevodetto is this venerable establishment, that is just as comfortable and just as good. Specializing in the “fifth quarter” of the animal, the menu is a testament to how Romans were into offal long before it became fashionable. Wonderful wine list as well.
Dal Bolognese – I never go to Rome without taking at least one meal here. Directly off the Piazza del Popolo, you enter this fashionable haunt of power lunchers and well-healed shoppers. The thing to get is the bollito misto with mostarda and salsa verde. There might be other good things to eat on the menu, but the meat platter with mustard fruits is so spectacular I can’t even think of ordering anything else. Except the fritto misto (fried seafood); it’s out-of-this-world too.
Al Moro – There is an old saying about Roman restaurants that the worse the art is on the walls, the better the food. Al Moro’s walls won’t win any awards (see picture above), but the fegato (calves liver with agrodolce onions) ought to be enshrined somewhere. You won’t find better culatello ham or bufala mozzerella anywhere else around the Trevi Fountain, either. Go early for lunch to see how the smart business set enjoys its midday repast.
A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ROMAN WINE BARS
Roman ristorante are far less formal affairs than their Parisian counterparts. Still, you’re expected to order two or three courses in them, and they are not the place to pick up a light bite. For that you have pizzerias and espresso bars everywhere (of variable quality), but for our money, wine bars are the way to go if you want a simple snack or plate of pasta without a lot of fuss after dark. The bonus is, of course, they also have incredible wine selections, some real bargains by the glass (or carafe), and no one frowns at you if you just want a small plate of some incredible artichoke ravioli with a Gravner Breg like we had L’Angolo Divino. The other bonus is these spots are all within a short walk of each other in the Centro Storico
Il Goccetto (pictured above) – Very popular with the young crowd. Doubles as a wine store. Nice antipasti display counter as you enter. Go early or late and go with a thirst.
Cul de Sac – An old favorite off the Piazza Navona. Friendly welcome. Outdoor seating. Rome’s first proper wine bar (since 1977) is still one one the best, with food a lot better than you expect it to be.
L’Angolo Divino – A cozy spot right off the Camp de’ Fiori, the modest entrance gives you not a clue as to the beauty of the food and the wine selection. An incredible list with a very helpful staff.
CASALE DEL GIGLIO
Latina LY, Italy
39 06 9290 2530
13, Vicolo Bollette
39 06 678 3495
CHECCHINO DAL 1887
30, Via di Monte Testaccio
39 06 574 3816
1, Piazza del Popolo
39 06 361 1426
FLAVIO AL VELAVEVODETTO
97, Via di Monte Testaccio
39 06 574 4194
4/5, Via dei Chiavari
39 06 68 65 097
THE WINE BARS
CUL DE SAC
73, Piazza di Pasquino
39 06 6880 1094
ENOTECA IL GOCCETTO
14, Via dei Banchi Vecchi
39 06 686 4268
Via del Balestrari
06 68 64 413
And it just-hit-the-shelves. like yesterday: The 5th edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants – a concise, literate, irreverent, honest, meticulously researched tome that tells you where you should be eating and drinking in Las Vegas right now….and for the next year.
Everything you’ve come to know and love about Las Vegas’s only definitive dining guide is here:
- The Top 10 (with several surprises in store)
- The Rest of the Best (with 13 new entries added just since last Spring)
- Chinatown (Updated and expanded with almost 20 pages of recommendations of where to get your Asian on.)
- Steakhouses (Why we’re becoming the center of the steakhouse universe + our top 10 + shout outs to all the usual suspects.)
- A new “French” section (Did you know there were 16 great French places in town? Neither did I until I wrote the darn thing.)
- 17 Mexican joints rate a wave; 28 Italian ones do.
- Expanded “Desserts” section
- “Sushi” now merits its own chapter.
- A fun and fascinating foreword by fantastic foodie Barbara “Babs” Fairchild.
- 8 full pages of “Cheap Eats” (Done under duress by yours truly; thank god for Mitchell Wilburn and Greg Thilmont.)
- “Drinking Las Vegas” now gets a serious section, with Thilmont and young Wilburn weighing in on everything from coffee culture, to brewpubs to dive bars. (Cooler, more sober heads prevailed and they left the wine recommendations to me.)
- And my favorite section of all, soon to become a fan favorite: “JOHN CURTAS’ BOTTOM 10”! Rather than give away too much, we’ll just quote our introduction to the chapter and let you find out for yourself who won this race to the bottom.
Do you enjoy overpriced tourist traps? Tired food? Dated decor? Giving hard earned dollars to celebrity chefs who are phoning it in? Then Las Vegas has you covered too! Not only does Sin City boast dozens of the world’s greatest restaurants, it also hosts more htan a few half-baked concepts, licensing deals with “name” chefs, and sad old warhorses, all of which exist to separate the gullible from their cash. Proceed to any of these at your own risk, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
We at ELV are warning you:
….or BY SIMPLY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE TO YOUR LEFT!
How simple can it be?
Do it now….to avoid that most dreaded of all eating-out fates: dining in Tourist Trap or Celebrity Chef Hell.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
P.S. They make great stocking stuffers for the restaurant goer in your life….which is like everybody these days, isn’t it?