A Tale of Two Fishes

The critic’s job is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator.

I got into food writing to be a consumer advocate. It wasn’t to brag about my culinary adventures, or create a diary of my gastronomic life with pictures of every meal. I wasn’t interested in imposing my standards or condescending to those who didn’t measure up. As big a snob as I am (have become?), it wasn’t elitism that motivated me.

As a product of the 60s and 70s, I’ve always looked at consumer advocacy as a noble calling. As a serious restaurant-goer, I started thinking 30 years ago about a way to turn my obsession into something worthwhile for my fellow food lovers. (This was a good fifteen years before anyone used the term “foodie.”)

To put it simply, I wanted to use my experience and share my knowledge with others about where to find the “good stuff.” Still do.

In these days of Yelp, Instagram “influencers” and food blogging braggarts, it’s easy to forget the original reason behind restaurant reviewing; the raison d’être being simply to start a conversation about where best to spend your dining-out dollars.

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Without boring you with a history lesson, the first acknowledged “restaurant reviewer” was a fellow named Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière  (pictured above, usually abbreviated to Grimod de la Reynière or simply “Grimod”) — a rather weird chap* who compiled a list of restaurants in Napoleonic Paris, to help its burgeoning middle-class choose a place to dine, at a time when eating out in restaurants was first becoming the popular thing to do.

Grimod was also one of the first to popularize the terms “gourmet” and “gourmand.” He introduced the idea of food criticism as something that “reestablished order, hierarchy, and distinctions in the realm of good taste” through the publication of texts that helped define the French food scene, back when it was the only food scene worth defining.

(Grimod ate here…at Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, in 1803)

Put another way, Grimod pretty much invented the gastronomic guidebook. While hardly a saint, he is nevertheless the spiritual patron saint of restaurant critics — the person who first influenced the tastes and expectations of restaurant consumers, and inserted a third party between the chef and the diner.

I thought about all of this when I had two meals recently: one great and one horrid, at two ends of our restaurant spectrum.

The centerpiece of each meal was a piece of fish. A flat fish to be precise. To my surprise, the frozen Asian “sole” (at the top of the page) was the more satisfying of the two. The “fresh” Dover (or so it was called) sole was horrendous. A stale, fishy, musty-mushy abomination of seafood that only a landlubber sucker could love.

The frozen Asian fish cost $26. The “Dover” sole, $70.

The better fish dish was the culmination of a great meal at a relatively unsung neighborhood restaurant — Oh La La French Bistro. Its counter-part ended what was supposed to be a big deal meal at an “exclusive” Strip restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Michael Symon. (In reality, it’s a branding/management deal using the Symon name. The hotel owns and runs the restaurant.)

Before we address the failure of that fish, let us first sing the praises of Oh La La. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall smack in the middle of Summerlin, Richard Terzaghi’s ode to casual French cooking is a gem among the zircons of west Lake Mead Boulevard.

My contempt for Summerlin is well-known (it being the land of million dollar homes and ten cent taste buds), but there’s no disdain for the faithful French recreations put out by Terzaghi, at lunch and dinner, at very fair prices.

(Straight from Paris to Summerlin)

At Oh La La the service is always fast and friendly, the wine list simple, pure and approachable. The bread is good, the foie gras terrine even better. OLL might also have the best steak tartare (above) in town — its combo of gherkins, mustard and onions hits a flavor profile that takes me straight back to Le Train Bleu in the Gare Lyon.

Winners abound all over its menu: frisee salad “La Lyonnaise”, escargot, prawns “risotto” with Israeli couscous, steak frites, mussels, endive salad, great French fries and simple, satisfying desserts, all of them faithful to the homeland without a lot of fuss. And whenever they post a special — be it a seasonal soup or a lamb stew — I always get it and I’m never disappointed.

Contrast this to the “secret” hideaway that is Sara’s — a “curated dining experience” in a “luxurious secret room” where we were told more than once you had to make reservations weeks in advance. The entrance to it is behind a semi-hidden door at the end of the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.  I have no idea where all that “luxurious” curation occurs, but from my vantage point, it looked no fancier than a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. As for the meal being “curated” all I can say is, at this point in my life, when I hear words like that, I start looking for the Vaseline.

(Pro tip: Rather than buy into all the faux exclusivity, skip the secrecy and stay in Mabel’s for some smoked ribs. Your wallet will be heavier, and your tummy a lot happier.)

(Squint real hard and you’ll see the brown butter. Counting the capers is easy.)

The shittiness of the fish wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the rest of the meal at Sara’s had been up to snuff. But the menu was nothing more than one over-priced cliché after the other (caviar, “Truffle Fried Chicken”, lobster salad, duck fat fries, crispy Brussels sprouts, etc.) at least half of which wouldn’t pass muster at the Wynn buffet.

Truffles were MIA in the rudimentary fried chicken, the forlorn caviar presentation looked like it came from a restaurants 101 handbook, and the rubbery lobster salad tasted like it had been tossed with sawdust.

Memories are also vivid of gummy pasta with all the panache of wallpaper paste, and some heavily-breaded, by-the-numbers escargot.

That the joint considers it groovy (or oh-so celeb cheffy) to begin your meal with a giant crispy, smoked beef rib (as an appetizer no less) is also a testament to the “if it’s good for the ‘gram, it’s all good” mentality of this place. Appearances being everything these days, you know.

But when the fish hit the table, I hit the bricks. It may appear appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. It was bred for beauty not substance (that appearance thing again), and calling it simply “fishy” would be an understatement. It was either stale or freezer-burned (or both), and came with zero brown butter and exactly two capers atop it. It wasn’t overcooked but it should have been — a little more heat might’ve killed some of the smell. All this and less for $70…at a supposed “upscale, exclusive” dining enclave in the Palms.

“Who are they fooling with this shit,” was all I could think to myself.

After three straight awful dishes, I had had enough. “This place is terrible!”, I bellowed to all within earshot. I then threw my napkin down, and stormed out — the first time in this century I’ve done so. Being a keen observer of human nature, the solicitous manager sensed my displeasure and followed me outside. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional, but the damage was done.

What ensued was a polite conversation best summarized thusly:

Me: Does anyone here actually taste this food, or are you just content to rip off tourists who’ll buy anything?

Him: Thank you for your concerns, sir, I’ll pass them along to the kitchen.

At first, I agonized about how to handle this abysmal experience: Give them another try? Rip them a new one on social media? Forget about it altogether?

Then, I remembered why I got into this business. It was for you, dear reader. To help you eat better, spend wiser, blow the trumpet for good places and expose the bad.

Just like good old Grimod.

For twenty-five years I have maintained a personal code that excludes the little guy from my withering gaze — but treats the big boys on the Strip as fair game.

Sara’s is fair game.

You have been warned.

(My meal at Oh La La was comped but we left a huge tip. A foodie friend picked up the tab (whatever it was) at Sara’s.)

OH LA LA FRENCH BISTRO

2120 N. Rampart Blvd. #150

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.222.3522

https://www.ohlalafrenchbistro.com/

SARA’S

Palms Hotel – Inside Mabel’s BBQ

702.944.5941

https://web.palms.com/saras.html

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>

* Grimod once faked his own death and threw a funeral party for himself to see who would show up. On another occasion, he dressed up a dead pig as a person and sat it at the head of a table at a fancy banquet he was throwing. His used a mechanical prosthesis to eat and write because, depending upon who you believe, he was either born with deformed hands or (as he liked to explain), pigs chewed off his fingers as a young child.

(The world’s first restaurant guide)

 

 

Dim Sum Dilemma

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What should you do about mold on your food?

To complain or not complain? That is the question.

And does it matter whether you’re in a Chinese restaurant (where they may or may not speak English that well) or a less “foreign” one?

Allow me to explain.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re driving to Los Angeles.

Part of your tradition is always to stop in the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, Alhambra, etc.) for some dim sum fun.

You’ve been doing this since 1991 — decades before Instagrammers and Yelpers discovered the place, and long before Jonathon Gold made it cool to go there.

In other words, you know what to expect: huge, open rooms, packed with Asian families of all stripes, and rolling carts (or menus) filled with a mind-blowing assortment of small bites, steamed, fried, and baked goodies straight from the Cantonese playbook.

You also know that kitchen hygiene can be a rather flexible concept in certain Asian restaurants. But no matter, the food is usually spectacular (especially compared with the meager dim sum offerings of Vegas), so you look past these shortcomings.

Every time you come to the SGV, you try to hit a new joint. On your last trip you made it to Sea Harbour and it was spectacular.

This time, you decide to try a place that’s received some buzz called Lunasia Dim Sum House.

You get up early so you can get there when it opens, because these places get nuts around lunch time, especially on weekends.

You’re super excited (and starving) when you drive up, especially when you score a parking spot right in front of it.

Right away, you see it checks all the boxes:

Giant crowded room full of Asians – check

Fish tanks brimming with crabs and other creatures of the sea – check

Smells like soy, steam, shrimp, and Shanghai – check

People scurrying about with trays full of delicious looking dumplings – check

Everyone smiling as they stuff their maw with har gow, shu mai, don tot, and char siu bao – check

Chopsticks flying across tables in a pitched battle for the last bite — check

All of this gets you very excited. But then, just to pee in your cornflakes, The Food Gal® — a clean freak but also someone with (slightly) bendable standards when it comes to certain, hyper-delicious Chinese food — notices the sign on the front door:

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“Are you sure you want to go here?” she asks. But you are undaunted — you wade right in, confident it was simply the kind of misdemeanor that would fade from consciousness as soon as your table was swamped by a tsunami of dim sum umami.

And it did, and for a while, it was.

For a while, you were transported by golf ball-sized sui-mai:

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Concupiscent spicy clams:

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Sticky/terrific/thick/sausage/turnip cake:

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…and delectable don tot:

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It wasn’t the best dim sum we’d had by a long shot. But it hit the spot, even if it fell short of Elite, Ocean Star or Sea Harbour excellence.

As you know, dim sum can be a willy-nilly eating experience. Everything shows up in random order, and you might find yourself slurping a beautiful almond milk-puff pastry sweet soup — or those warm-from-the-oven Macao-style custard cups — before you’re done with the savories. No matter, when it’s all good, it’s all good.

Right up until it isn’t.

Because of that delicious chaos, sometimes you circle back to a savory after a sweet. Which is what we did with these peppery stuffed peppers:

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They were hot — that innocuous-looking black pepper sauce was a scorcher — but they were also real good, so you want to tackle one more before pushing away from the table.

Big mistake.

One bite and you know something is wrong. Where before there was pillowy minced shrimp on bright green, herbaceous pepper, now there is an moldy, old, damp and musty taste in your mouth. The textures are still right, but the aftertaste is of dank cardboard — as if you’d just licked a fuzzy petri dish.

It turns out you had.

Tearing the top off of the pepper, there was the culprit: staring at you like a fungal funhouse of funky mold — the kind you grow in labs, the kind vegetables grow by themselves when they’re left too long to their own, organic devices:

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Is this a cardinal sin for a restaurant? Not really. But it shows a certain sloppiness. The kind that gets a “C” grade from the health inspector.

Does it give your wife a gigantic “I told you so”?

Of course it does. And she ain’t lettin’ you forget it for a long time to come.

Was it worth pointing it out to the management? Ah, there’s the rub and the dilemma.

Would it have resulted in them taking $7.88 off the bill? Maybe, but only after discussions, delays and sideways glances, and having to convince them you weren’t trying to get a free meal out of the ordeal.

There might also be debate over what it was. No restaurant is going to willingly admit it serves moldy food, so you’d have to be ready for an argument…an argument that could be won if they’d take a bite out of that musty-dusty pepper….which, most assuredly they would not.

Then you have to consider: will your complaint cause them to clean up their act?

Probably not. If the “C” grade didn’t do it, showing them some fungi fuzz tap dancing on their produce won’t.

So you pay the bill in silence….all $76.28 of it.

But you won’t be back, even though you were probably never going to go back anyway. And now your California food fantasies are a little less fanciful. There is no dim sum Santa Claus in San Gabriel, and you’ve learned no matter how rave-worthy some of it is, some of them are cutting the same corners as everyone else.

And it’ll be a cold day in hell before your wife lets you walk into another low-rated restaurant.

(Sigh)

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)