Now THAT’S Italian!

An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.

What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)

Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:

Esther’s Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzú

Eataly

Vetri

Masso Osteria

La Strega

Cipriani

Manzo (inside Eataly)

The Factory Kitchen

All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.

What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.

Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.

Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.

To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.

The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.

Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.

If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)

These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.

The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.

Image result for The Factory Kitchen Las Vegas

Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!

Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid  stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.

Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)

Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.

Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.

(Ravioli di pesce)

Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle.  He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.

(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu.  The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.

TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.

Ignore the name and the decor and dive in.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.

 

(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)

THE FACTORY KITCHEN

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

 

The (Food) Year in Review 2018

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Hay-Seuss Friggin’ Christie! What a wild ride!

What started with a whimper ended with a bang, and not since the glory years of 1998-2008 have we seen such a watershed of good eats arrive in our humble burg in such a short period of time.

Two years ago we were bored out of our skull and complaining about the moribund nature of our Strip and local dining scene. In the span of 12 short months, all of that kvetching got canned, and now we’re like a kid in a candy store.

Consider the following:

The year began with Esther’s Kitchen debut downtown — it was a hit from the get-go.

Spago closed in January (sigh) after 25 years in the Forum Shops.

The next six months would see Pizzeria Monzú, Pamplona, Jammyland, Partage, Mordeo, and EDO Tapas & Wine, all open in rapid succession.

Spago then re-opened at the Bellagio. (hooray!)

DE Kitchen brought another excellent (tiny) Thai to downtown.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos served up platters of Ensenada excellence right on Las Vegas Boulevard.

China Mama came back from the dead.

(Beef roll at China Mama_

Nuro Bistro brought Hainanese chicken to the ‘burbs.

Michael Mina re-booted itself into Restaurant of the Year status.

Scotch 80 Prime re-imagined the old N9NE steakhouse as a major league whisky bar-cum-meat emporium, and in one fell swoop vaulted to the top tier of our prime steak locations.

All of it was almost enough to get me over the loss of Carnevino in July.

Then things settled down for a few months, before a blizzard of fab food hit the Strip — the first time in a long time for such an influx.   November 2018  might go down as one of our greatest milestone months, as it saw Cipriani, NoMad (both the bar and the restaurant), Vetri, and Mabel’s all spring to life.

(By our calculations, the last time so many great restaurants opened at once was December 15, 2010, when The Cosmopolitan threw open its doors revealing the likes of Jaleo, Scarpetta, D.O.C.G., China Poblano, Estiatorio Milos, STK and Blue Ribbon.)

And, the cherry on top of this sundae was Eataly opening this week.

We took a break from this blog on April 1st, but by mid-August there was so much to write about we couldn’t keep up.

If things weren’t tasty enough around here, we went to Italy (twice), Nantucket for the umpteenth time, and even wedged in trips to New York, L.A., and Washington D.C..

Then, we even found the time to update the 7th edition of  EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants, which, coincidentally, was published this week.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

Yes, it was a busy twelve months.

As good as the offerings on the Strip are, it’s no secret to anyone that the explosion in quality neighborhood eateries has been the big news this year. Not for nothing did Partage, EDO and Esther’s share Restaurant of the Year honors, and new developments in Chinatown (and Bank Atcharawan’s upcoming wine-centric Lamaii) promises even more adventures in the year ahead.

Put them all together and there’s plenty to keep even the most voracious gourmand busy for months.

Make no mistake, most of these Strip newcomers are simply the most current links in well-developed chains. The outlier is Vetri — only the second restaurant with the chef’s name on it — and one getting his full attention these days. It may be the most polished Italian food Las Vegas has ever seen. It is certainly the most stunning. How locals and tourists alike react to his blend of tradition-meets-modern-deliciousness will be interesting to watch. (Our full reviews of it and NoMad will be coming out in January.)

How much wine and cheese and beef Eataly sells (as opposed to grab-and-go sandwiches, coffee, pizza and snacks) will also be mighty interesting to see.

Before we go, we cannot sign off for the year without remembering the losses the culinary world suffered. Both Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon died in 2018, as did that magnificent bastard Anthony Bourdain. The marks all of them left on the food world, are indelible. The restaurant empires of Bocuse and Robuchon will soldier on without them, but we shall not see the likes of them again, not in Las Vegas, not in my lifetime.

Robuchon once got misty-eyed describing to me the simple, grilled seafood he found in a seaside restaurant south of Barcelona. It was almost a perfect meal, he said (though an interpreter), nothing more than the freshest fish grilled over embers bathed in the ocean mist. He did that thing French chefs do when they half close their eyes and bring their fingers to their mouths to signal perfection, and I could see the elemental glory of great food shining in those eyes.

That the greatest chef on the planet could be moved by a simple piece of fish said a lot about him, and his glow in describing it has stayed with me for thirteen years. It was the first thing I remembered when I heard he had passed away in August — his beatific elation at having having found completeness in a simple meal. The elemental act of feeding ourselves becoming a transcendent meld of our lives and nature. Many times in the past few months I have pondered the visceral connection between Robuchon and the natural world he conveyed to me that day. Sadly, we restaurant customers too often forget how tied to the land and sea chefs really are. The good ones anyway.

 

Image may contain: 3 people, including John Curtas, people smiling(JR and JC 2006)

I would run into JR many more times over the years, and he always gave me a big hug, and always jabbered away in French that I could barely understand. (It usually had to do with me being the first American writer to actually review his American restaurants.)  The Food Gal® and I even ran into him  briefly at the 2017 Bocuse d’Or and joked around with him for a few minutes.

He and Bocuse (and Bourdain, for that matter), had that quintessentially French combination of being intense and bombastic but also a bit shy. Being French, they considered great food a religion to be worshiped, and being who they were they would want their legacies to be remembered by people enjoying their meals to the utmost, prepared by people who really care about it.

As we embark on a new year, we should honor them by basking in the glow of all these sensational eats that are now on our doorstep. Las Vegas has come a long way in twenty years. Our avenues are teaming with some of the best restaurant food in America, both simple and sophisticated. You may never be as religious about it as Chef Robuchon was, but just like most religions, you can never go wrong by trying to live up to the ideals they represent.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(The bar at Vetri)

 

Enough Already 2018

It’s that time of the year, food fans: when the winter solstice descends and our mood grows dark and our prophesies portend.

When our thoughts turn not to festive merriment or seasonal meetings, but to over-baked puddings and gristly greetings.

Yes, it is when we are duty-bound to scream to the heavens,  for the world to hear, no matter how it  might frighten some timid reindeer.

These are the trends we hope soon to end…so that the New Year we pray…can finally make amends.

So without further ado, although some are not new, I hereby say to you:

ENOUGH ALREADY…

Smoked anything

Unless your name is Sonny and you’re tending a hickory pit, lose the smoke. Please.

Wood-fired everything

Yeah yeah yeah….you saw that dude on that Netflix series and he looked like some kind of god chopping his own wood and cooking everything but his profiteroles over it…but the whole idea only works if you’re, you know, like living out in the fucking forest or something. You’re not Paul Bunyan and most of that smoke gets sucked out the oven (thanks, health department!) before it even comes close to flavoring the vittles.

Craft IPAs

We get it: IPAs are cooler than lagers and you can hop them higher than a smack addict in the South Bronx (circa1971), but that doesn’t mean they taste good.

Sour beers

Leave them to the Belgians, please

Steakflation

The aged strip steak at Bavette’s was priced at a whopping $73 when it opened over the summer. Within three months they raised the price to $78. The original price was about 10% higher than the cost of the same steak in Chicago. The new price bumped that to a 20% premium. In Vegas, which is a much smaller town than Chicago, with (supposedly) a much cheaper cost of living (and labor force). Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Las Vegas isn’t the most expensive restaurant town in the country. It is also not a place to chow down on giant steaks anymore, unless you like taking your serious steaks where the sun don’t shine.

Pizza fetishization

With apologies to good friends John Arena, Mike Vakeen, Scott Wiener, Vincent Rotolo, Gio Mauro, Chris Decker, and a dozen others…the whole artisanal pizza thing has jumped the shark. As Steve Cuozzo says in the New York Post, the humble pie has been warped by the whole ‘”authenticity” thing…or cruel mutation.

Brussels sprouts and Beets

Chefs: we know you are duty bound to put edible plants out there, but can’t you find something else to round out your proteins?

Crazily-flavored ice creams

(This is what ice cream is supposed to look like)

Was the world begging for broccoli ice cream? Were orphans crying out for tuna fish gelato? What began as a novelty 4-5 years ago is now a tsunami of bad taste. Only the Instagram generation could ruin something as un-ruin-able as ice cream.

Caviar on everything

Caviar used to be a luxury food. Now it’s more ubiquitous than a Kardashian ass. There’s a reason chefs put it on things: to give the illusion of grandeur….when all they’re really doing is spooning some not-very-expensive farmed fish eggs from China, Brazil, Spain, etc. onto some dish that, 80% of the time, would be better without it. Duping the credulous hordes? You bet! Padding the bill? Absolutely! Worth it? Hardly ever. If I want fish eggs, I’ll eat them off a mother of pearl spoon all by themselves.

Liquor/Food matches

It’s gotten beyond ridiculous: Come to our four-course dinner paired with….Johnny Walker Scotch! Have you ever tried aged rum with rigatoni? Brandy with sea bass? Here we are, a restaurant on a slow night (usually a Tuesday), and some liquor distributor has talked our chef into preparing a wonderful multi-course extravaganza all based around….MEZCAL! Trying to drum up enthusiasm for a high-proof spirit by (ill) matching it with food is the worst idea since the canned cheeseburger.

Short ribs/beef cheeks

Both are the cupcakes of the savory world. Victims of endless permutations that rarely make sense, and so filling they rarely inspire a second bite. Beef cheek ravioli is the ultimate belt-and-suspenders combination that does an injustice to both.

Things in bowls

Here’s the short list of things you should eat in a ginormous bowl: Vietnamese pho, Chinese noodles, and weird Korean soups.

Eating in the dark

I actually liked the two meals I had at Bavette’s. I couldn’t see them, but I liked them.

Eating when you can’t hear

I know, I know: you want your restaurant to have a “party” vibe. Because everyone knows adults go out to eat not to put finely-cooked food in their mouths, but rather to “party”….just like the kids do…at Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone knows the drill now: you’ve got the restaurant pumped to ear-splitting levels to turn tables and sell more booze. You’re not fooling anyone anymore. Let’s all grow up a bit, shall we? It’s 2019, not 2010.

Chefs’ groovy “playlists”

If there’s been one benefit to the downfall of Mario Batali, it’s been that a chef imposing his musical tastes on his guests has finally lost whatever “cool” factor it once had.

900 bottles of booze on the wall

I love what they did to Scotch 80 Prime. I really like that gorgeous wall of 1,000 bottles behind the bar. I love the same thing at Sage and the hundreds of terrific tequilas at La Comida. But we’ve gotten into an arms race here both with the makers of strong booze and the restaurants that sell them. And it’s ridiculous. The world doesn’t need a thousand brands of tequila, and it got along just fine with a hundred quality scotches and a few dozen good bourbons. I don’t know what’s worse: the hyper-specificity (“aged in 37 year old fino sherry casks, consisting of re-toasted Andalusian birch bark bathed in the sweat of Rob Roy’s old peat marsh and only released by the light of a full moon in August”), or the con job promoted by the makers of “extremely rare” whiskys. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that grown men (some of whom may be reading these words), couldn’t tell Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old from a dozen other premium brands. Hell, I bet the distiller himself couldn’t tell. That doesn’t keep them from perpetuating the myth of its “special-ness” when all it is is another fucking aged 90 proof whisky. Double yeesh.

Cannabis in your comestibles

If I want to get stoned, I’ll smoke a joint, thank you.

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A curmudgeon we may be, but a light we yonder see.

Some good things have returned, and for these we must no longer yearn.

And lest we be thought of as too persnickety, by jove we’re all excited about each of these most lickity.

Welcome back:

Grown-up dining

NoMad, Cipriani, Partage, and Vetri (above) are places for people with worldly palates, or aspirations to same. They are not for the party-as-a-verb crowd. Eataly is for those who either know about real Italian food, or want to learn about it. Uncomfortable chairs and small plates are not part of these equations.

Reasonable, thoughtful wine lists

As I’ve said before: the Las Vegas Strip is no place to find wine bargains, but the newbies on the block —   NoMad, Cipriani, and Vetri — all boast lists with plenty of drinkable bottles for under a hundy.  Mordeo, Partage, Sparrow + Wolf, and most of all, Esther’s Kitchen , all have bottles galore that are priced to sell, not show off.

Simple, elegant cocktails

Thank you, Jammyland, and continued thanks to the simple, elegant cocktails at NoMad, Scotch 80 Prime, Esther’s Kitchen and Vetri for continuing to stress simple sophistication over the complex and contrived..

Guéridons

Because who doesn’t love a rolling cart full of tasty delights?

Tableside pyrotechnics

Because who doesn’t love a performance with their food?

Dessert carts

Partage!!

Dressed up waiters

Cipriani!!

Real Italian food

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca at Vetri)

Has come roaring back into town. (see above)

Roast Chicken

Merci beaucoup, Daniel Humm.

Cheese

Molto grazie, Marc Vetri for including a cheese course with your nonpareil cuisine.

Good Barbecue

Sin City Smokers (above) sets the standard in the ‘burbs, Mabel’s brings a slice of authentic Austin to the Strip. Smoked meats are back with a vengeance. Everything else in town isn’t worth your time or the heartburn.

(Platter at Mabel’s)
HAPPY NEW YEAR from the staff at Being John Curtas:
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