ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.
In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.
Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung. Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement. In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?
Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.
Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.
It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.
A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?
Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.
Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.
There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)
To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.
Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)
Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters. Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo? Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.
Life is too short to be confused by your food.
(Oohs and aahs not included)
ELV note: The following is an article we wrote earlier this week for The Now Report. It’s written in a more standardized, journalistic style than the free-wheeling prose we employ on this web site, but the subject was important enough that we thought we should let our loyal readers know what’s happening with this issue. The Asian restaurant owners we’ve spoken to admit that there’s nothing they can do about the pick-on-the-little-guy coverage of Channel 13’s “Dirty Dining,” but with heightened awareness of various Asian food cultures, they hope the SNHD will stop handing out demerits willy-nilly for things such as week-old kim chee, and failure to change sanitary gloves every time a sushi chef handles a different piece of fish.
More than 50 Asian restaurant owners presented a list of grievances to the Southern Nevada Health District Monday afternoon at Desert Breeze Community Center, outlining what they consider to be continuing discriminatory treatment by health inspectors grading restaurants throughout Clark County.
With County Commissioners Chris Guinchigliani and Marilyn Kirkpatrick in attendance, Sonny Vinuya –President of Asian Chamber of Commerce – spelled out systemic problems within the inspection process that target Asian restaurants serving foods from cultures foreign to inspectors. In the restaurant owners’ minds, this leads to inspectors who harshly judge restaurant kitchens and cuisines without understanding the societies they come from.
“It’s a real problem in this community,” Vinuya said. “Restaurants get a double whammy of getting demerits, paying fines, correcting the problems, and then (they have) a Channel 13 story about them two weeks later. In some cases it has cost them 50-75% of their business. Some even go out of business.“ (KTNV-TV 13 has run a “Dirty Dining” news segment for years that has been accused of unfairly targeting minority businesses.)
Vinuya said that lack of understanding of ethnic foods and cultures causes many of the problems, as well as having inspectors who don’t speak any Asian languages. “There’s a lack of communication on both sides, but Asian people, by nature, are quite and polite, and things often get misunderstood.”
Not knowing anything about the recipes themselves has often been the source of such misunderstandings. Vinuya pointed to Korean kim chee (fermented cabbage) as one example: “The inspectors want cabbage thrown out after a few days as being too old, but it’s only after 6 days that kim chee is starts getting good.”
Multi-lingual inspectors would help, Vinuya believes, as well as diversity training for those doing the job.
Another ongoing problem pointed out to the Commissioners was that of restaurant consultants being pushed upon the restaurants to advise them of how to better pass inspections. William Wong, communications director for the Asian Chamber, mentioned that these consultants can charge up to $165/hour, and health inspectors often pressure the restaurateurs to use them. “It becomes very expensive,” Wong said, “and if you let them go, they (the consultants) threaten you with a bad rating. It’s really like blackmail.”
After the meeting, both Wong and Vinuya expressed appreciation for the opening of a dialogue on these and other issues, as well as a commitment by the Health District and Commissioners to continue to work together to solve some of the problems. “A good place to start is with better communication between the inspectors and the restaurants,” Vinuya added. To that end, the Asian Chamber is looking to present focus groups to the SNHD in hopes of helping inspectors to gain a deeper understanding of the diversity in Asian restaurants, and to work with Clark County to find translators to assist in helping the inspectors.
Vinuya also hopes to get the County to agree to allow the restaurants to fill out a survey with each inspection, rating how well the inspector did their job. “No one wants to do anything to hurt their business,” he said. “We want consistency in what they do just like they want it in restaurants.”
So me an da paesans wuz gettin’ pretty messed up da udder nite. Ya know whad I’m talkin’ about?
Let’s just say we wuz so umbriag our capicolas felt more like muzzarell.
Der wuz tree of us, and boy were we were sesenta fame and needed sum beef and we needed it pronto.
One of my jamokes, Vinnie Boombahts sez: “Hey, Jabrone! Why donts we head to Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads?”
I sez, “Fuggedabadit….that’s not a good idear.”
He sez, “Ahright ahready….then where do youse wants to go?”
I sez, “I ain’t never had no buona fortuna there…and I’m sorta kinda persona non grata, gabish?”
Now, this goombah of mine, he’s a gavone, a real chooch, always with the agita, so I told him to go “ah ffangul,” and he “iamo,” and I said, “haicapid?” and he called me a mamaluke, and I called him a scorchamend, and somehow we ended up at Oscar’s.
And you know what? We had a whale of a time.
We started at the bar at happy hour, and were pleasantly surprised (blown away really) by how great everything was. It was just the three, chopped prime rib sliders that grabbed our attention, but also a remarkably fresh, and a no-filler-allowed crab cake:
…that was the definition of this steakhouse mainstay.
Almost as good (if a tad tough) were the Mob (chicken) Meatballs:
…and a series of side dishes — creamed, but not-too creamy spinach, fresh roasted corn brûlée, asparagus cooked right — all served with classic cocktails containing just the right amount of kick-your-ass.
The main courses in the dining room measured up far better than I remembered from four years ago, when I wrote a none-too-flattering review of the place. Back then, the dishes seemed as flaccid as Fredo Corleone. Now, the filet was as perfect as a filet mignon can get — and seasoned just right by the kitchen:
…..and the strip sirloin smothered in crab, asparagus and Bearnaise was the kind of throwback indulgence that made you long for the 70s. A couple of the sides (Brussels sprouts, mushrooms) were by-the-numbers, but the “extraordinary” mac & cheese was cheesier than a Wayne Newton love song.
I’m not sure when Oscar’s got its act together, but obviously, sometime in the past few years it has. Executive chef Jeffery Martell oversees a big menu (too big, really), but he’s pulling it off and people have obviously responded. (The joint was jumping even on a Tuesday night.)
So, whether you’re with intelligent, discriminating friends, or the stunads and scustumads that yours truly drinks with, whether you’re mortadafam or just want a quick bite, Oscar’s has you covered. It may not be ready to muscle into Strip steakhouse territory, but the throwback food and booze is tutto bene! Gabish?
OSCAR’S BEEF, BOOZE & BROADS
Plaza Hotel and Casino
1 Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101