“Crass!” “Vulgar!” “Boring!” “I’m done reading you!”
“Time for you to bow out.”
“Quit angling your way into restaurants so you can ogle hostesses and drink for free.”
Thus came the comments after my last post.
Someone even bent their logic so they could criticize me for my supposed insufficient support of the #metoo movement. Ahhh, the internet.
This was to be expected. The provocative title ensured offense to at least some readers, and the clickbait picture was (literally) the icing on my cake of bad taste.
But if you read the article (and you have half a brain in your head), perhaps you sensed the tone as jaded and wistful, not crude and disgusted. I wasn’t so much condemning the restaurants of Las Vegas as I was mourning days gone by, when my ardor was keen and my pulse quickened at the thought of new restaurant mountains to climb.
Yes, I analogized new eating experiences with sexual adventures (and bemoaned how enthusiasm for both can wane as one ages), but the disappointments mostly come from within. I am bored with the restaurants of Las Vegas because I’ve eaten in everyone of them dozens of times. No one else on earth can make this claim, so pardon me if all my experiences have caused me to look at the Las Vegas Strip the way a sultan does when he’s (a bit) tired of his harem. It doesn’t mean I don’t love or admire them anymore, but neither do my loins quiver at the mere thought of approaching their supple charms.
Does this mean I’m going to stop restaurant-hopping? Of course not. I’ve stopped eating out as much as I used to, but I still hit 3-4 eateries a week. (At my peak, around 2005-2007, it was 10-12 restaurant meals a week. No brag, just fact.)
With these thoughts in mind, I thought a “Where I’ll Dine in 2018” post was in order. Note the solipsistic title. This post is going to be about where you’ll find me in 2018, not where I think you should go. There are dozens of places all over town I highly recommend (e.g. Michael Mina, Jaleo, Julian Serrano, Delmonico, CUT, just to name a few) but that I’ve been to so many times I’m not sure I ever need to go back.
(If you want to read about every restaurant I recommend, you can buy the 2018 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants by clicking here.)
But no longer am I going to scour the town, looking for every new discovery, or trying to beat out other writers with restaurant scoops and scores. I am through eating at places because I think (or an editor thinks) I should review them because they’re new, or hot or popular. That doesn’t mean I won’t review new or hot or popular places, but I’m only going to comment on them if I think they’re worth my time and calories. Nothing Gordon Ramsay does interests me (except his steakhouse), and Giada could invite me to dine in the nude with her and I’d take a pass. (Fooling myself? YOU BET!)
But there are places that don’t bore me, that still cause a tingle in my nethers, and that I still look forward to going to, even for the 15th time. So here they are:
Downtown is my hood. I live and work there. Have for decades now. I used to say that downtown was seven taco parlors in search of an audience, but things have changed. I still love Irma Aquirre’s al pastor and frijoles at El Sombrero, and am long overdue for a return visit. But the news downtown these days is how the gastro-pubs have taken off. A year ago I thought nothing could challenge Carson Kitchen for elevated bar grub hegemony, but the stuff being put out by Gregg Fortunato at 7th & Carson goes roasted beet to roasted beet with anything CK is slinging. Right there with them is Justin Kingsley Hall’s new menu at The Kitchen at Atomic. He’s making everything from barley with blood sausage to crispy rabbit sing at this hipster haunt on East Fremont, and after only a couple of months at the stoves has made this a must-stop on any foodie tour. It’s kind of weird to us how this restaurant can attract such a different crowd from the hipster booze hounds next door at Atomic Liquors, but attract it has, and expect to read a lot more about the splash Hall’s cooking is making in the coming months.
Speaking of splashes, no place has ever made bigger waves from the get-go than Esther’s Kitchen. James Trees is doing everything but grinding his own flour at this ode to Italy, and his bread and pastas and pizzas are not to be missed. (The salads are also amazing as well.) Put it all together with a stylish bar, and an interesting wine list, and you have a game-changer on south Main Street.
When I’m not in a gastro-pubby mood, you can always find me enjoying a carnitas por dos at Casa Don Juan, or a gut-busting pasty at Cornish Pasty Co.. I don’t drink as much beer as I used to, but the selection at Cornish is top notch.
And then, of course, there are the old reliables: Oscar’s Beef Booze and Broads for steaks and a killer happy hour, La Comida for flights of tequila fancy, Le Pho for pho-nomenal Vietnamese, Ocha Thai for terrific, rustic Thai, and the newly launched outpost of Flock & Fowl when the craving for Hainanese chicken rice hits.
Ah the ‘burbs. Bucking the tide, swimming upstream, and fighting the current of Las Vegas’s constant race to the bottom of the restaurant pond. Between greedy and clueless landlords, an indifferent public, and economic realities of the restaurant business, it’s a wonder we have anything but Cheesecake Factories to feed us in the neighborhoods.
God bless those chefs who take the plunge into this stacked deck (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!), because without them, I’d probably move to Albuquerque. And god bless my favorite wine hangout, because on any weekend, you’re likely to find me on the patio at Marche Bacchus, sipping Burgundy and trying to figure out a way to piss off the idiots who rely on Thrillist for their food recommendations.
When I’m in the mood for superior (and healthy) French, EATT always fills the bill. More and more I’m less and less impressed with Green Valley (pretty amazing, I know, since I’ve held it in the lowest esteem since…..1984), and its addiction to franchised food shows no sign of abating. If I find myself hungry in that neck of the woods, there’s now only two places I will even consider are Boteco for it’s cool, Spain-meets-America wine bar vibe, and Prosecco Italian Kitchen for its classic, whole Dover sole. That, or I head over to Valley Cheese & Wine and throw myself upon the mercy of Bob and Kristin Howald for a slice of prosciutto.
The Southwest part of town seems to be where the action’s at these days, and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna is everything its name says. A bit farther down the road (and a pain-in-the-ass to get to from my house) is Andre’s Bistro & Bar — where the bistro fare is always solid. Equally inconvenient is Japaneiro, but Kevin Chong’s boffo beef and inspired uni will inspire a road trip at least once in the next twelve months.
Breakfast gets its own category because breakfast in Las Vegas is almost, across the board atrocious. (I’m talking about the ‘burbs here. ) Unless you love the straight-from-a-freezer bag slop served up by the Hash House A Go-Gos of the world, you are pretty much consigned to the bad eggs pun entrants like Egg & I, Crepe Expectations and the like — none of whom cook anything from scratch except the GMO eggs they break.
Downtown weighs in against this morass of mediocrity with EAT (also in Summerlin) where the food is fresh and the cooks care about what they’re feeding you. On the Strip, Bouchon remains a favorite, as does Morel’s French Steakhouse & Bistro. Bouchon’s nonpareil baked goods are more than worth the aggravation it takes to get to them, and the Dungeness crab Benedict and turkey hash at Morel’s will blow the socks off of any breakfast snob you take there.
But as we’re always fond of saying, “Breakfast is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch.” We are foursquare against a big, hearty breakfast because it always interferes with our lunch plans. That’s why we love eating early the French way, and in Las Vegas, it doesn’t get anymore French than, Cafe Breizh and Delices Gourmands French Bakery. One is close to the regal confines of the Curtas manse, while the other is too friggin’ far for us to frequent, but both put out the best pastries and breads in town, bar none.
On the rare occasions when we want to go big before going home, there’s only one option: Jewish food. Canter’s Deli Jewish food, to be precise. As a certifiable, actually circumcised, almost Jew, I can attest to the primacy of its pastrami and the copiousness of its corned beef. The bagels and cream cheese taste straight from Fairfax Avenue, too. And if you don’t get that reference, it’s time to turn in your yarmulke.
Other than that, you’re on your own when it comes to breaking your fast. Other towns like Portland and Austin have vibrant breakfast scenes — early bird joints where chefs love to strut their stuff with various egg, meat and pastry dishes. In Vegas, there’s a line out the door at Claim Jumper (in the most affluent part of town) every morning. Go figure.
In Part Two of Where I’ll Dine in 2018, we’ll explore our favorite Chinatown haunts, and take a mournful look at the Strip.
The end of 2017 is nigh, and all kidding aside, it’s been one of the best years of my life — personally, professionally, and gastronomically.
All those troubles of the past 20 years: the relationship troubles, the career problems, the financial difficulties and the overindulgence in various vices seemed to fade away this year — and many, many positive things came into focus for me.
Marriage and maturity will do that to you. (For the record: yours truly is proof positive that you’re never too old to grow up.)
With so many “issues” disappearing in my rear-view mirror in 2017, it’s time to look ahead. More to the point, now that we’ve grown up, what do we want to do with the rest of our life.
Before we get to that, let’s review some of the highlights of the past 365 days:
We went to Rome for a Roman wine tour. (All that one week in Rome did was whet our appetite for more Italian travel.)
We went to France, twice, which only whetted our appetite for more France.
Amongst all this travel, there were side trips to Canada, Chicago, Atlanta, Arizona, Germany and Switzerland.
In between all that, we even had time to carve out a North Carolina ‘cue quest.
For the 23rd year in a row, we ate in more Las Vegas restaurants than we could count, and distilled them down into the 6th edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants.
(This edition, unlike previous ones, contains a number of essays about my life as a galloping gastronome, as well as some overall observations about the Las Vegas restaurant scene, past, present, and future. If you still haven’t ordered your copy – and you know you want to – you can do so by clicking here.)
For the umpteenth time we wrote the Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year articles (among others) for Desert Companion magazine.
For about the 100th time, we went out of our way to remind the world what a piece of shit the Eater Las Vegas web site is.
But enough ax-grinding, let’s get to our year in food. Sadly, most of the highlights took place out of this country, or out of the state of Nevada.
Memorable Meals of the Year (in no particular order):
Specific standout dishes/meals of 2017:
Oysters of the Year – Le Dôme:
Photogenic Dish of the Year – Summer fruits salad at Jean-Georges Steakhouse:
Steak of the Year – the aged-on-the-hoof beauty from TXOGITXU – Basque beef:
Runner up: the Charolais côte de boeuf at Le Sauvage in Dijon, France:
Japanese Meal of the Year – Kaiseki Yuzu (see above)
Sushi of the Year – Yui Edomae Sushi:
Pizza of the Year – Contento Pizzeria and Bar:
Vegetarian Meal of the Year – Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (see above)
Deer of the Year – Waldhotel Sonnora, Dreis, Germany:
Beef Bourguignon of the Year – Restaurant Caveau des Arches, Beaune, France:
View of the Year – Canoe, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (see pic at top of page)
Decor of the Year – Le Clarence:
Gamiest, Rankest, Earthiest, Dirtiest Dish of the Year – AAAA Andouillette a la Chablisienne:
Italian Meal of the Year – Ferraro’s:
Cheese of the Year – a mimolette so old Louis XIV probably sampled a slice:
Barbecue of the Year – Toss up: Picnic/Allen & Son (see above)
Beer of the Year – The Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:
Eclair of the Year – Breizh Café:
Cheese Cart of the Year – a turophiles dream at Hostellerie Des Clos in Chablis, France.
Wine List(s) of the Year – Le Pot d’Etain:
Runners up: Les Climats:
…and La Bouitte:
Vegetable Dish of the Year – Winter vegetable melange at La Bouitte:
Fish of the Year – no fish dish haunted my dreams more than this omble chevalier at a little roadside restaurant outside of Annecy, France called Auberge du Roselet:
Cold Cuts of the Year – Cesare Casella’s artisanal prosciutto at Carnevino:
Most Intense Dessert of the Year – Sebastien Polycarpe’s clay-baked pineapple at Restaurant Guy Savoy:
Bistro of the Year – Le Comptoir du Relais, Paris, France:
Coffee and Doughnuts of the Year – Tim Hortons:
Yes, it was a helluva year for sheer travelocity and intrepid epicureanism. But amidst all the gourmet jewels, there were some zircons that stood out. and managed to pee in our cornflakes
Lowlights of the Year:
Alinea – To put it as succinctly as possible: Anyone who appreciates the gastronomic temples of Europe can see what a joke this restaurant is. Strictly for Midwestern rubes and impressionable Instagrammers, and the writers who speak to them.
Momofuku – I love what David Chang has done for Asian food in America. But his restaurants are not nearly as good as they think they are.
Terrible Italian – Bad Italian food continues to pull ’em in in Las Vegas. If I had a dollar for every yokel who tells me how much they “love” Piero’s, Cafe Chloe, Battista’s, Chicago Joe’s, et al, I’d have a wine cellar full of grand cru Burgundies. It pains me to say it but Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo are better than most of our locally-owned Italians.
Food writing in Las Vegas – Can the Review-Journal get any worse? Oh, yes it can. It can cover chain restaurants and “cocktails of the week” while continuing to aim its appeal at the Sun City crowd. Someone needs to put this dead horse out of its misery.
Our Moribund Corporate Hotel Culture – This is the thing that depresses me the most. The heyday of the Vegas restaurant revolution ended for good around 2010. What the great celebrity chefs wrought (Spago, Emeril’s, Le Cirque, Picasso, et al) the big hotels are now either running into the ground or milking for all they’re worth. There hasn’t been an original thought in a Vegas F&B office in ten years. There hasn’t been a new, food-forward/chef-driven place since Bazaar Meat opened in 2014. Instead of cuisine, we get whatever re-packaged crap they can slap Gordon Ramsay’s or Giada’s name on. There are still restaurants on the Strip that I adore (and buy my book and you can read about them ;-) ) but I’ve been falling out of love with the Strip for years now, and nothing I see is going to re-kindle the flame of passion I once had anytime soon.
Summer Truffles – If one more chef puts one more tasteless summer truffle on my plate (always with a BIG smile like they’re doing me a favor) I’m going to get a concealed carry permit, strap a .38 to my thigh, and put a bullet through the plate. There is no excuse for these dreaded, bill-padding fungi, and you insult my intelligence (and taste buds) by expecting me to be impressed.
Truffle Oil – See above.
Octopus – If I never see a piece of cephalopod again it will be too soon.
Scallops – Ditto.
Drinking Wine/Drinking in General – I took Carnevino to task this year for its obscenely-priced wine list. It is the most egregious offender, but is by no means alone in playing the rape-the-tourist/price-gouging game — e.g. the Wynncore – an entire hotel whose F&B price structure would make P.T. Barnum blush, and the $30 gin and tonics at Jaleo. In the past 20 years (ever since they learned they could “sell” Vegas and a world-class eating and drinking experience, our hotels have turned the town into one, gigantic edible tourist trap. We should be ashamed of ourselves. I can barely bring myself to order anything but a glass of wine these days….or some cheap vermouth…in any of our Strip hotels. Spend a couple of days in any wine region, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see how fucked up drinking is in Las Vegas.
Which brings me to my conclusion…at the conclusion of this most significant year.
As you know, we’ve been struggling with what to do with this web site for the past year or so. It’s becoming harder and harder for us to get enthused about restaurants I have visited dozens of times, and, as I just mentioned, there isn’t a lot of excitement on the horizon. I try to gear what I write to people like me, or those who may have been like me 30 years ago when I was hungry to learn all I could about food, dining out, travel, and the world of restaurants. I like to think of my readers as a black belt foodie audience, but within the realm of Las Vegas restaurants, there is less and less that I can teach them.
Right now I’m pondering whether to write more about my travels (next up: Spain, Italy, Normandy and Scandinavia), or maybe even expand into home cooking. Unbeknownst to many, I used to be an avid home cook, and people love recipe websites more than they do restaurant reviews. There will definitely be a change in graphics sometime in the new year. (I’m quite aware that the look of this site is cluttered and dated and it’s all my fault.) The new look will be simpler — more Drudge Report than Bon Appetit — as soon as I can find a graphic designer.
Happy New Year from the Curtas BBQ Boyz!
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – TWIST BY PIERRE GAGNAIRE
When Twist by Pierre Gagnaire opened in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2009, it capped a culinary renaissance that had been seven years in the making. Beginning in 2003 with Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, our French revolution continued through the openings of Joël Robuchon (2005), Daniel Boulud (2005) and Guy Savoy (2006), and was such a sea change in the quality of restaurant cooking that the whole world took notice. By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, only New York and San Francisco could lay claim to having a fine dining scene as sophisticated as ours.
Twist was last but not least to this party, but what an entrance it made. From the beginning, it featured the groundbreaking, modernist cuisine of Pierre Gagnaire, usually served in a blizzard of plates surrounding a central theme. At the time, you might be excused for thinking that you were getting too much of a good thing as Gagnaire’s chefs riffed on everything from crabs to cauliflower, sometimes overwhelming your palate in the process. These days, Chef de Cuisine Frédéric Don does his master proud by creating more focused menus, in a glistening atmosphere, delivered by a staff that never misses a beat.
Besides the razor-sharp execution, jaw-dropping presentations and fork-dropping flavors, what impresses the most about Twist is how it’s come together in the past year to become an almost perfect Las Vegas restaurant. It always had the pedigree, the spectacle and the world-class cooking, and now its menu fits the Strip like a Chanel suit. Exotic fare (foie gras parfait, langoustine beignet, smoked haddock soufflé) competes with eye-popping vegetarian menus as this kitchen toggles back and forth between wild tubot finished in a classic beurre Nantais to a not-so-classic black eggplant tortellini with black garlic velouté. This is cooking in the deep end of the epicurean pond, and in the wrong hands you could find yourself drowning in a sea of ingredients. Instead, everything from the proteins to the plants is always on point. If all chefs cooked vegetables this well, the birds and the beasts that roam the earth would have nothing to worry about.
The point of Twist is to dazzle, to intrigue, and to amuse; but it never confuses. (Along with those pirouettes on the plate, they also serve some mighty great steaks.) With an improved (and more affordable) wine program, and Vivian Chang’s ethereal desserts, it has become our most complete dining salon — ready to impress the neophyte gastronome as much as the fussiest gourmet — all served with a view that’s as breathtaking as what’s on your plate.
TWIST BY PIERRE GAGNAIRE
Mandarin Oriental Hotel