The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

The Covid Dairies Vol. 2

Image(My other specialty: walking on water)

As of today, 0.000219178% of the world’s population has been killed by the Covid_19 virus.

Day  7, Friday, March 20, The New Absurdity:

“Take out, grab-and-go only,” the Gubenator declares. And everyone falls into line. It’s a mere band-aid to local restaurants, who will never be able to stay open under those conditions. Most don’t even try.

Some brave souls, like Ohlala French Bistro in Summerlin are going to try to power through. It seems that the smaller the joint (i.e., the more the owner can do on their own without staff), the easier it will be for some to survive being nothing but a  ghost kitchen. Rooster Boy Cafe fits this description perfectly, as chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal already is a one woman band at her tiny operation. But for most venues that aren’t named Chick-Fil-A or McDonald’s? Fuggidabadit.

Friday is a weird day around the Curtas manse as well, as Mr. C spends the day feeling sorry for himself and watching documentaries, while The Food Gal® is nailed to her computer, restructuring and cancelling contracts (she sells advertising). By the end of the day, it’s a running joke that she’s busier than ever NOT making money.

As dinnertime rolls around, a good friend — Don Cramer — contacts us with an idea: Why don’t we do a Facebook Live chat about local restaurants who are remaining open?

We tell him we’re heading to Ohlala (and dining al fresco with our own table and chairs) and he says he’ll be right over.

So, Don shoots a Facebook Live, we freeze our buns off, and chef/owner Richard Terzaghi feeds us some beautiful paté and a steaming bowl of French onion soup in the parking lot. Classy AF, don’t you agree?

Image(Feeling very, very French al fresco on Friday)

“I’m not going to let this thing get me down,” Curtas tells himself, even as it’s getting him down.

Day 8, Saturday, March 21, Here Come the Health Nazis:

Saturday morn breaks, and Las Vegas’s biggest foodie girds his loins for a day visiting the front lines of this war against common sense.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, here they come, with friends in tow, to see the damage for ourselves.

The first stop is Rooster Boy. Sonia has set up an ordering table out front, and is doing a limited menu of her specialties.

Orders are given, fabulous food shows up, and Las Vegas’s best breakfast is declared in fine fiddle.

Sonia also gives a nice interview. Some highlights:

– Her menu is very limited.

– Call ahead and check daily. Don’t act like John Curtas and barge in and order something; he’s an asshole.

– This could end up being a good model for her continued business (less hassle with taking orders and waiting tables).

– In some ways, a small operation like hers is better able to adjust and still keep its customers.

– She’s still baking her ethereal pastries every morning….but she’s not doing breakfast right now.

– Curtas doesn’t give a shit about social distancing.

– Thank god for alcohol.

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If there’s two things this shitshow of a public health fiasco is going to teach us, it’s that restaurants are indispensable cultural institutions, and that it’s a very short slide from well-intended vigilance to outright autocracy.

This becomes evident from Mr. Curtas’s next two stops.

Curtas has been friends with Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt since they took over Marché Bacchus Bistro and Wine Shop fifteen years ago. Many a day and evening they’ve whiled away over bottles of vino. He considers Jeff the go-to guy for Burgundies in Nevada, and although the selection is small, there’s never a bad buy in the bunch. Some would say this coziness keeps Curtas from being entirely objective about MB, but he’s fond of pointing out that he gives it to the chef with both barrels if the cooking isn’t up to snuff.

None of that matters today, as he drops in to buy some wine and give the Wyatt’s support, both emotional and financial.

Rhonda tells him she’s already gotten blowback about their Saturday wine sale. “Non-essential!” the finger-waggers scream. The Gubenator’s order isn’t 12 hours old and already people are chastising and accusatory. It’s all ridiculous (since nothing prevents people from buying booze at the supermarket), but that doesn’t keep folks from losing their shit over someone trying to sell a few bottles and stay in business.

Side bar: Anyone who’s ever wondered how Nazi Germany turned against the Jews has only to follow (so-called) liberals falling straight into fascism the second they think their well-being is being threatened.

It’s all very depressing, so Curtas and friends buy a boatload of wine and spend some hours getting hammered on the MB patio. Is it good wine? Of course it’s good wine! When the world is burning to the ground around you, you might as well blow your wad on great hooch.

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Buzzed on champagne and Barolo, Curtas and his too live crew head on over to Locale to show support for another good citizen who’s trying to soldier on through this debacle — recent James Beard nominee Nicole Brisson.

Side bar: Curtas likes Locale, but it’s too fucking far from his house (15 miles) to make it a regular stop on his restaurant rotation. It’s also too fucking far for almost anyone who doesn’t live in the far far southwest part of town to get to, which is a shame because its location (North Korea, a friend calls it) is a big hindrance to its popularity.

Like North Korea, the militarists here are everywhere and ready to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, as you’ll see below.

Image may contain: Nicole Brisson, sitting(Nicole cooks, Cramer works, Curtas drinks)

So Cramer and Curtas shoot another Facebook video with Nicole, and chow down on the patio with some take-out food. Martin Scorceeze and Bobby DeNiro they are not, but hearts are in the right place, and a good time is ha by all.

Interview over, they eat; they kibitz, they drink and smoke cigars — on the restaurant’s patio way away from its front doors. This warms Curtas’s cockles. For an hour or so, he almost convinces himself the world has returned to normal.

He also notices a steady stream of folks going to Albertson’s a few doors down. Lots of them. In groups large and small, and nearly every group with a toddler or infant in tow. Much more than his little band of five hungry souls. This fact will come back to haunt him the next day.

The next morning, this shows up on some neighborhood website:

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“You are literally going to kill people,” someone named John Cooper says.

Someone named John Cooper does not know we are going to kill people. He only feels it. He feels it because the media has been drumming fears into him since February.

He has no idea how or why we would accomplish this. All Someone Named John Cooper knows is that the government and the media have spent the last six weeks whipping him and everyone else into a paranoid frenzy over how a superbug name Covid_19 — a coronavirus more contagious than other cold/flu viruses but no more deadly than the common flu — can be spread, and that we must all band together to stop the spread.

The government has very few tools at its disposal to do this. It can support the health care system when it gets overloaded, and it can encourage people not to spread disease, and, as a last resort, it can shut down things by declaring an “emergency.”

As of yesterday, there are 200+ cases of this virulent upper respiratory infection in the entire State of Nevada. Exactly four people have died from it, two in Southern Nevada. As emergencies go, it’s a pretty lame one.

From U.S. New and World Report: Most patients exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially among the elderly and people with existing health problems. The vast majority recover.

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No one’s  going to kill anyone by sitting on a patio chatting, eating delicious oysters, and smoking cigars. Respectfully, Someone Named John Cooper, you are out of your mind.

But honestly, no one blames you, SNJC. You’ve had a steady stream of fear fed to you for weeks. Constant stories of how the virus will scale up until millions of Americans have it. Millions of Americans don’t have it, Approximately 47,000 Americans have had it. And they’re getting over it, SNJC, and feel just fine. But you never see media stories on the recoveries; you’ll only see people in respirators, and projections of who’s “going to get it” (they hope), so you’ll stay riveted to the drama.

Literally, in America, only two people in a million have died from it.

What many are calling a pandemic is really senseless panic — an unholy alliance of gloom-and-doom doctors, sky-is-falling statistics, health care Cassandras, hypochondriacs, a manic media, and do-gooder liberals — coming together to paint an end-of-days picture over a superbug. That’s it. We have as much chance of eradicating Covid_19 as we do of stopping sunshine. So get over it, and go have a good time.

Thanks for inspiration, SNJC, now, let’s get these myths disposed of so life can get back to normal.

Do you feel better? John Curtas hopes so.

Image(Capital Grille, noon, Friday March 20, 2020)

Image(Locale, 7 pm, Saturday March 21, 2020)