John Curtas is …

Food

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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)

Solipsism, The Strip, and GOOD PIE

First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind words and comments. It’s hard to express how much they mean to me. While we may not get the number of page views we had 7-8 years ago, it’s gratifying to know that what we write still resonates with a certain level of intrepid foodie and discriminating gastronaut….like you.

Second of all, as promised, we’re going to end this incarnation of EATING LAS VEGAS with some short, to-the-point recommendations based upon where we’ve been chowing down since the first of the year, and where you’ll be finding us in the coming months.

As you will notice, most of these are off the Strip. Try as we might, it has been almost impossible to work up any enthusiasm for dining on Las Vegas Boulevard for months now. The greed, the stupidity, the same-old sameness, and the insanity of its pricing has finally gotten to us. After twenty five years of being their biggest cheerleader, we can no longer summon the energy to drag our ass down to one of the huge hotels, pay for parking, and endure the slack-jawed hordes who are being subjected to metronomic service at stratospheric prices.

Need more reasons for our disaffection? Then how about:

> Bavette’s is charging $74 dollars for a steak you can barely see.

> Big Casino now tacks “resort fees” onto bills for things (like the gym and landline phones) that most people don’t use.

> Drink and wine prices continue to be obscene. Getting a drink at a Vegas casino is like fighting with the peasants for a sliver of soylent green.…and paying $22 for the privilege.

> Paying for parking is a non-starter for us (as with most locals) — another reason to continue to patronize the Venetian/Palazzo, at least until they capitulate to their accountants and start nickel and dime-ing everything like everyone else.

> The Las Vegas “food press” (note the air quotes) trips over their dick praising Hell’s Kitchen, and whatever licensing deal Giada struck this week to slap her name on some pathetic piece of plagiarism. My compliant, credulous colleagues continue to write about these places like they are actually a Gordon Ramsay, Morimoto, or Giada Di Laurentiis operation, when in actuality they are branding exercises for hotel-run restaurants. Most of these aren’t even management deals — like the one Wolfgang Puck struck with Bellagio for the upcoming Spago re-launch. Instead, they stand as a cynical testament to the continuous soaking of yokels that has become Vegas’s stock in trade.

> Mario Batali is now persona-non-grata in his own restaurants (which his {former} company actually does run) — restaurants that are only famous because his name is attached to them. Yes, we know he’s a pig and has behaved deplorably around many women on many occasions, but what are we to make of his Las Vegas presence? Can his restaurants stand on their own? Even with the talented Nicole Brisson at the helm? Three years ago I would’ve cared, now I can barely manage a shrug.

> The Strip may be dying the slow death of a million paper cuts, but the re-branding/down-sizing of the Batali-Bastianich empire — a bastion of serious foodie cred in our humble burg for almost a decade — is an immediate casualty from which there may be no recovery. Because there are no more celebrity chefs on the horizon, and because the ones here (with a few exceptions, mostly French) are either played out or washed up.

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One final story before I rest my case, stop my navel-gazing, and make a recommendation.

I went to lunch not long ago with some very well-known, affluent types who live in those Happy Trails/Heartbreak Ridges-type neighborhoods in the fancy part of town. These folks have known me for a long time and are fully aware of my writing, my persona, my palate, and my prejudices.

They spend their days tooling around in expensive automobiles, playing golf and planning their vacations. They travel the world. They profess to love good food and wine. As far as I know they can all read and write. It was for that reason that I had given them copies of my book in the past. They asked me where I wanted to go (up around Summerlin), but I got overruled.

Where we ended up was one of those inexplicably popular restaurants that pretends to be about wine, but really isn’t, and acts like it’s putting out great food, but doesn’t.

As I sat there pushing my food around on my plate and trying to find a drinkable wine for under a hundy, it struck me: “You’re never going to reach these people, John.” 23 years of preaching and proselytizing hasn’t made a dent….not with this crowd. They can buy and sell me a dozen times over, and talk about flying here and renting a yacht there, but they wouldn’t know a good cacio e pepe if it bit them on their Asti spumante. And they don’t care to know. Like most folks when it comes to food (and wine) they are blissful in their ignorance. (Did I mention that Santa Margherita pinot grigio was the preferred libation? And that the place was thick with lawyers? And that two of them proudly told me that Michael’s at the South Coast was “the best restaurant in town”?)

As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve been no different all these years than a music or movie critic who is always suggesting that people learn to appreciate a higher, more advanced form of the entertainment they enjoy. Month after month and year after year these critics recommend more complex, better music, better movies, and more elevated examples of these art forms. And what do they get for their troubles? People asking them how they like a stupid Star Wars re-boot, or taking them to a Miley Cyrus concert.

When the hoi polloi does this, it doesn’t bother me. When wealthy friends and acquaintances do, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But for you, dear reader, I have nothing but respect.

You have braved the wilds of the inter webs to find me, and have suffered through enough of my kvetching.

You, my friend, are here to learn about the good stuff — the best food and drink this town has to offer. So I say: fuck the knuckle draggers; screw the affluent….AND GET THEE TO GOOD PIE!

Why Good Pie? Because it’s the best New York-style pizza in town. It’s a slice joint no wider than a pepperoni, but the deck oven stuff being put out by Vincent Rotolo puts other pretenders to shame.

Good Pie gives me hope. It stands for the proposition that passionate individuals are still out there trying to bring good taste, and better pizza, to Las Vegas.

Good Pie is everything Tivoli Village and Downtown Summerlin (which is neither down, nor a town, nor downtown of anything) are not.

Good Pie is as real as the dough Rotolo is proofing (every two days) and rolling out to order.  Good Pie is excellent ingredients, house-made sauce (from a combination of California and Italian tomatoes), and the best pizza cheese you’re ever going to find in a take-out joint.

Those pizzas are something to behold, but his garlic knots:

…are going to be what makes him famous.

Yours truly is not a calzone lover (too bready and cheesy — even for this carb-lovin’ turophile), but if you insist on one of these belly-bombs, this is the place to get one:

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And if vegan pizza is your thing, look no further than this bad boy:

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….or what these bad boyz are up to:

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My rich friends won’t come here, because, on a fundamental food and wine level, they’re content to remain in a culture-free cocoon of their own making.

But you, my friend, should, because, like me, you’re always searching for something better, whether in a pizza or a cacio e pepe.

If I wasn’t fat and old and being hounded by my wife and cardiologist, I’d be here every day.

GOOD PIE

725 Las Vegas Boulevard South #140

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.844.2700

https://www.facebook.com/goodpielv/

 

Oy Vey!

(Jews met, and protested ELV)

Hell hath no fury like a deli lover scorned.

And scorned they were. And furious did they become.

And so it came to pass that they attempted to strike down upon me with great vengeance and furious anger.

And therein lies the tale.

Before we begin, let’s get two things straight: I love Jews, and their food. Especially their Ashkenazi-American-Jewish-deli food.

Even before I knew a rugelach from a gefilte, I was a lover of the Jewish culture.  I consider the Jewish faith to be the best, most sensible and loving of all religions.

If I were a religious man, I would be Jewish.

But some Jews have a problem: they wouldn’t know a great piece of pastrami if it bit them on their bialy.

And even if they don’t know their kashrut from their kreplach, boy do they have opinions.

And when you start splitting Talmudic hairs with them, you better gird your loins for a fight.

First some background. I’m an old deli aficionado, as my father (a Greek) was before me. I was practically raised in Ronnie’s in Orlando, Florida — which was a direct copy of Rascal’s and Wolfie’s in Miami Beach. And if you don’t think they knew from delis in Miami Beach back then, you’re a putz. Or at least a schlemiel.

From the 1970s through the 1990s whenever I was in New York, a stop at the Stage, 2nd Avenue, Carnegie or Katz’s was mandatory. When I was out west, you’d find me at Canter’s or Langer’s. In Chicago, it was Kaufman’s and in Montreal, Schwartz’s. I even remember at stellar experience at the Gotham Deli on 47th Street, in the heart of the Diamond District, back in the Eighties that might’ve been the best bagel I ever tasted….next to Barney Greengrass’s….which was second only to Schwartz’s…none of which held a candle to the sweet-sour little pumpernickel rolls (wrapped around tiny bits of melted onions) at the Ronnie’s of my youth.

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Most of those mentioned are now closed. In New York, Katz’s continues to hang on, but the the rest of them are history. On the west coast, the famous ones persevere against all odds. (There’s even been an infusion of new Jewish deli blood in L.A. with the opening of Wexler’s.) But in Miami Beach, where my deli education began, good Jewish food is harder to find these days than a heterosexual.

All of which is by way of establishing my bona fides for this type of food. I love it the way only a person raised with something can. The deep, rich, mahogany red of great pastrami pulses through my blood every bit as much as my matching hemoglobin. At various times of my life, if you had opened a vein, I’m sure it would’ve smelled like corned beef on rye.

Which is why I was excited when Canter’s decided to come back to Vegas and open a store in Tivoli Village. (Some may remember they had an outlet in the Treasure Island hotel that skedaddled some years ago.)  The original Canter’s on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. is an institution. Although I’ve always found its sandwiches a notch below Langer’s, I vastly preferred them to the so-so stuff at the celebrity-studded Nate ‘n Al. (Further proof, if any is needed, of the inverse relationship between great food and famous people.)

It all started with this opening salvo on my Facebook page: “There ought to be a line out the door at Canter’s Las Vegas. But I bet there’s a 20 minute wait for a table at Mimi’s and the Bagel Cafe – where everything comes out of a bag or a box.” (It was a poor choice of words, since deleted, as I’m sure everything at the Bagel Cafe does not come out of a box — it just tastes like it.)

It started out as a mild controversy, as one of my Facebook friends weighed in a statement,”The owner claims they make all of their food from scratch.”

To which I replied:

Really? They do their own baking? (It never smells or tastes like it.) Cure their own meat? Make their own bagels? (possible….then why do they look and taste like the bagels at dozens of places around town?) Do they slave over salmon? Nourish the nova from the time they fillet the fish? Roll out their own rye? Do they have a cadre of cooks in the back making everything from the tuna salad to the shredding potatoes for the latkes? Color me skeptical….Or perhaps we just have different definitions of what “making things from scratch” means…

Then it was on.

What started as a tickle of tendentiousness swelled into a raging river of retorts, ripostes and rejoinders.

The comments ranged from the thoughtful:

[Canter’s] is like a pop-up deli missing many of our major top food items.

Desserts and pastries better at Bagel Cafe; pastrami and corned beef better at Canter’s.

To the underwhelmed:

Service was excellent, pancakes were heavy and chewy….pastrami a bit dry to my liking.

To the absurdly hyperbolic:

The matzoh ball soup at Bagel Cafe is ten times better than that at Canter’s.

To complete disagreement:

I enjoy Bagel Cafe very much and didn’t agree with John Curtas.

To the totally disagreeable:

Canter’s is disgusting. (ELV note: Canter’s is not disgusting, and the person making the comment thinks the best Jewish deli in America is in Texas — because we all know how high the deli bar is set in Texas.)

Then I got a little arrogant and pushy (I know, quite a surprise) when responding to those trashing Canter’s:

Canter’s has the best bagels I’ve tasted in town. It doesn’t duplicate the magic of the original, but in Vegas — where we haven’t had a decent deli in 30 years — it’s as good as you’re going to get. And BTW: your friends (who say otherwise) probably don’t know anything about Jewish food.

Finally, after dozens of comments, I weighed in with what I thought would be the end of it:

Here’s the bottom line: Canter’s actually cooks and prepares all its own food. Bagel Cafe (where I had eaten many times over the years, and seen the Sysco trucks and viewed the purchased meats in the counter) tastes pre-made. To those of you who say, “[Canter’s] is not as good as….” – I leave you to your pre-packaged mediocrity.

Then it was really on. There were comments upon comments and threads within threads and it all became exhausting after a while. (In all, I think there were well over 200 comments — which is amazing considering that this web site (and my FB page) is lucky these days to a dozen people commenting about one of my reviews.

Many agreed with me that the Bagel Cafe is a mediocre deli experience at best. The real fressers in the threads pointed to how well steamed and hand-sliced Canter’s meat is. (Those busy defending their BC turf hardly ever articulated why anything there was superior in any way.)

For the record, I did give props to the chicken noodle soup at the Bagel Cafe. It’s about the only thing I’ve ever had there that impressed me.

My favorite comment was:

I’m ashamed to see some of my fellow Yidden don’t know from great pastrami and corned beef. We finally get a world-class place and people just kvetch. This is why we can’t have nice things. (This comment even included a link to David Sax’s “Save The Deli” – a book I doubt anyone associated with the Bagel Cafe has ever read.)

But then, a day later, things got really interesting when the Bagel Cafe itself started weighing in:

I am the owner of The Bagel Cafe. You must immediately take down your slanderous comments….we do, in fact make our food, in house, fresh daily. Shame on you.

To which I replied:

Please explain “make our own food fresh daily” – I’ve asked questions and I’m skeptical. If you actually: 1) do ALL your own baking; 2) cure your own meat and fish; 3) smoke your own pastrami; and 4) make all of your salads and soups from scratch; etc…I will not only apologize, I’ll come eat there.

His response:

Sir, you are not welcome at the Bagel Cafe…I will not continue to engage with you.

I also heard from the general manager of the BC who gave me the usual “We’ve been in business forever, everyone loves us, how dare you say anything bad about us blah blah blah…” — to which I responded with the same questions I posed to the owner. I even requested he send me pictures of all of the curing, smoking, and baking going on there, with my assurance that I would retract any comments that turned out to be untrue.

His response was to block me from any further conversation.

And so it continued…for days.

At one point, BC acolytes were purposefully posting bad reviews of Canter’s on Yelp to (I guess) try to enhance their reputation by besmirching another’s. Classy.

People went nuts accusing me of all sorts of things, but I never did get my questions answered to my satisfaction, and my satisfaction demands more than the owner and his relatives telling me, “We cook all our own food.”

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Bottom line: My three meals at Canter’s have been really really good. It has demonstrably better sandwiches, meat, cheesecake, bagels and fish than Bagel Cafe. (The coffee is also great, too.) If people don’t want to believe it, that’s their business.

Bottom line #2: Just because you like a place doesn’t mean it’s any good, and just because you’re born into a culture doesn’t mean you have a clue about quality. There are Italians all over America who swear by shitty Italian food, and Americans who wouldn’t know a good cheeseburger if it bit them on the bun.

The next time I want a corned beef sandwich, I’m heading to Canter’s. The rest of you, I leave to your mediocrity and this message:

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CANTER’S LAS VEGAS

330 S. Rampart Blvd. Suite 160

Las Vegas, NV 89145

702.444.0407

http://www.canterslv.com/canters-tivoli-village/

 

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