The Final List – 2020

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A man cannot be too serious about what he eats. – Confucius

I can’t stand people who aren’t serious about their meals. – Oscar Wilde

We’ve spent the past week quizzing friends (many of whom we’ve dined with over the past year) about how many restaurants they thought we had been to during the pandemic. Some guessed as few as 5; most hovered in the 20-30 range; while a few put the number at around 50.

It was amusing to point out to them how wrong they were.

Care to guess?

Consider this before you do: A popular notion now holds that you have to do something 10,000 times before you get really good at it — be it hitting a baseball, knitting, or playing chess. When it comes to eating out, I eclipsed that number twenty years ago. Now, it’s too many to count. Even in an off year, I accumulated restaurants like some people do bad habits.

Image(Tempura lunch at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Yes, even in this down year (the understatement of the century), the number — according to my records (receipts, social media postings and such) — was almost 100 (96 to be precise), and I’m probably missing a few.

Many of them were visited more than once. Cipriani I probably went to 25 times; Esther’s Kitchen a dozen; Guy Savoy twice; and Kaiseki Yuzu at least 5. We finally got back to an old Mexican friend in the northeast (Los Molecajetes), discovered a great wine program in an old haunt (Grape Vine), and gained new-found respect for some superior Italian seafood (Costa di Mare).

We have mourned the death of our great frog ponds (Robuchon, Gagnaire), swelled with pride at the resilience of Chinatown, and marveled at the resurgence of downtown.

Through it all we’ve been battling the soul-crushing weight of America’s obsession with Covid. With that obsession has come wave after wave of regulations, each a cruel blow to small business owners, none more ravaged than the hospitality industry.

The irony of Covid hitting right when America’s participation in eating out was at an all time high is not lost on us — a “market correction” which was neither inevitable nor necessary. Restaurant-going was not a stock market/real estate bubble. It was an enjoyable human activity from which everyone profited.

And then we killed it, or at least let it be killed — ruining the lives of many in service of the few.

But the Curtas household couldn’t/wouldn’t let groupthink take over our lives. We certainly didn’t let it prevent us from supporting the restaurants of Las Vegas which we hold so dear.

I don’t bother with mediocrity anymore. I’ll leave exploration of the obscure to the intrepid, and of the absurd to Instagram influencers. What goes into my pie hole is the best food Las Vegas has to offer. So it has been for thirty years, and so it was over the past 12 months.

As usual, all places are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted. Our restaurant bills this year would choke a horse, but was money well spent and I’m proud to have spent it. You should consider parting with some of yours at one of these as soon as possible:

Image(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)

THE LIST 2020

  1. Barry’s Downtown Prime – 2 visits down, 1 to go before we take the measure of this new entry in Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks.
  2. Yui Edomae Sushi – still gets our nod over Kabuto by the thickness of a piece of gari.
  3. Kaiseki Yuzu – a little slice of Tokyo for those who appreciate the real deal.
  4. Letty’s – best tacos downtown. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.
  5. Good Pie – new digs are impressive…now all they need is the right to use them.
  6. The Black Sheep – another joint we don’t get to enough…because there’s only one of us to go around.
  7. Kabuto – exquisite sushi. Some prefer it to Yui; we think it’s a toss-up.
  8. 7th & Carson – haven’t been in a while but thankful for them feeding us for months during the shutdown.
  9. Carson Kitchen – new menu = renewed vigor for a downtown pioneer.Image(Esther’s is re-intenting itself)
  10. Esther’s Kitchen – we go for the pasta, head for a tent (above), and stay for the wine.
  11. Grape Vine – improved food – better than it was under the old ownership (Grape Street) – the wine program worth a trip all by itself.
  12. PublicUs – saved our bacon during the darkest days of the Covid shutdown.
  13. Los Molecajetes – so good, so far from where most gringos prefer to tread.Image(Chip chip hooray! For Sin Fronteras salsas!)
  14. Sin Fronteras Tacos – northwest Mexican worth a trip from any part of town.
  15. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna – new digs (and an expanded menu) have us more excited than Zorba at a lamb roast.Pin en Other Oldish Films
  16. Yummy Rice – The Food Gal’s® says the unagi rice bowl here is eely, eely good.
  17. Pop Up Pizza – still fave; still under-appreciated.Image(“Blueberries” at Guy Savoy)
  18. Restaurant Guy Savoy – I go here as often as my wallet and waistline will let me.
  19. Rao’s – surprisingly delicious no matter how depressing the Strip gets.
  20. Elio – remarkable, inventive, elevated Mexican, but will it make it?

  21. Ferraro’s – closed until February at the earliest (sigh).Image(Prosciutto & figs at Osteria Fiorella)
  22. Osteria Fiorella – started as a pop-up, now firmly ensconced at Red Rock; a hit from day one.
  23. Saga Pastry + Sandwich – the only thing wrong with this place is it’s too far from my house.Image(Pithivier at Partage)
  24. Partage – only went once this year and it was spectacular.
  25. Jaleo – no one does Spain better than a man named José.
  26. Capital Grille – our old reliable; also our best chain steakhouse.
  27. Pizzeria Monzu – there ought to be a line out the door for this food.Image(Dat sum dim sum)
  28. New Asian BBQ – best dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.
  29. Aloha Specialties – I like this place for a white-on-white bite (like Kahlua pig with rice and mac); The Food Gal® loathes it.
  30. Costa di Mare – so good, still stunningly beautiful. The pastas are as great as the fish, which is really saying something.
  31. Weera Thai Kitchen – one of many superb Thai restaurants in Vegas now. We’re really spoiled when it comes to our Asian alimentation. Only LA sports a better array. Image
  32. Toridokoro Raku – stunningly good chicken parts, as only the Japanese can do them.
  33. Raku – Japanese food doesn’t get any better, anywhere but Japan.
  34. Hiroyoshi – it’s so small that capacity restrictions are laughable. Beautiful, finely-wrought Japanese food, less expensive than the sushi heavyweights on Spring Mountain Road.
  35. Bazaar Meat – haven’t been in a while; always drop a bundle when I do.
  36. 8oz Korean Steakhouse – for the Korean steak lover in you. The best of the bunch.
  37. Lamaii – holding on, like a lot of its brethren. Fabulous wine list; inflammatory Thai.
  38. The Real Crepe – galettes, crepes, and a slice of Brittany on the cusp of Summerlin.
  39. La Maison de Maggie – essential when you need a French fix.
  40. Delices Gourmands – they do the most with the yeast here. Bread so fine it will have you Loave-ing Las Vegas.
  41. Rosallie Cafe – as crumby as they come when it comes to baking your day. Don’t get me tarted.
  42. Cafe Breizh – always gets a rise out of us, especially when we’re leaven beyond our means. With Pierre Gatel’s creations, we’re never bun and done. He’s always up to his baguette of tricks, and it’s usually a give and cake proposition, guaranteed to have us leaving in a glaze of glory. Think of it as cream and punishment.
  43. Japaneiro – Kevin Chong was our first post-shutdown dinner. Still the best steak in the ‘burbs.
  44. Khoury’s Mediterranean – every time we eat here I kick myself for not eating here more often.
  45. Weiss Restaurant Deli – good, but not as good as….
  46. Saginaw’s – the best deli sandwiches in town, which, sadly, isn’t saying much…about our town, not the sandwiches.Image
  47. Cipriani – I’ll see you there for lunch this Friday…and almost every Friday.
  48. Ocha Thai – downtown’s most reliable Thai.
  49. DE Thai – downtown’s most convenient Thai, now with a second location!
  50. China Mama – noodles, dumplings, cumin lamb and crispy beef to die for.
  51. Edo Tapas & Wine – now open every weeknight and killing it.
  52. Ohlala French Bistro – if it were in my ‘hood, I’d be here once a week.
  53. Rooster Boy Cafe – ditto.
  54. CUT by Wolfgang Puck –  1-2 with Bazaar Meat when it comes to beef emporium hegemony.
  55. ‘e’ by José Andrés – amazingly, re-opened this fall and is still a tough ticket.Image(2020 drove us to drink…a lot)
  56. Delmonico Steakhouse – now a senior sirloin statesman, still a superb one.
  57. Matteo’s Ristorante – superb pasta, perhaps the best on the Strip. Right now I can’t think of any better.
  58. Yum CHA – our go-to for dim sum in the southwest.
  59. Soyo Korean Restaurant – we go with our Korean friends so they can explain everything to us — one umami bomb after another.
  60. Majordomo Steakhouse – Vegas’s most interesting steakhouse; see, I said something nice about David Chang.
  61. Estiatorio Milos – closed at Cosmo, set to re-open in February in the Venetian. We wish them luck. They’ll need it.Image(Kinnara Thai)
  62. Serrano’s Mexican – nice neighborhood standby.
  63. Marché Bacchus – still the most romantic spot in town. Rosé all day? Better off red? Experiencing growing champagnes? Drawing a blanc? Wine not dine here?
  64. New York Bagel N Bakery – best bagels in town.
  65. Every Grain Sheridan Su can still score.
  66. La Strega – too far from Chez Curtas but mighty tasty.
  67. Trés Cazuelas – difficult location, great food.
  68. Players Locker by Wolfgang Puck – an under-the-radar gem.
  69. Locale – also too far from civilization, but we wish them luck.
  70. Kinnara Thai – eye-popping Thai in an unlikely location.Image(Roll with it)
  71. Cafe Mong – I didn’t think I’d love a rolled crepe (above). Boy how wrong I was.
  72. Bajamar Fish Tacos – good tacos but the bums at the front door drove us away, for good.
  73. Sin City Smokers – love their pulled pork…and the ribs.
  74. Big B’s Texas BBQ – love their brisket…and the sides
  75. The Goodwich – under new ownership. Not a good sign, especially in this climate.
  76. L&L Hawaiian BBQ – strictly for the loco moco lover in you.
  77. Magal Korean BBQ – open for lunch, so we go for the bibimbap at lunch. 
  78. 8East – remarkable Asian fusion, tucked in an obscure corner of an empty hotel (for now).
  79. Victory Burger – big burgers, good beef, slightly overdone.Image(A happy Chutima clan means a well-fed Las Vegas)
  80. Lotus of Siam – both locations now reopened (see smiling Chutimas above)!
  81. Spago – not the superstar it once was, but still in the game.
  82. ShangHai Taste – superb dumplings and other things to numb your tongue.
  83. Pho So 1 – our old Vietnamese reliable.
  84. Shang Artisan Noodle – with Covid restrictions, can only seat a comically small # of people. Image
  85. Oscar’s Steakhouse – sometime this year, we’ll do an Oscar’s v. Barry’s downtown throwdown. You’ll be able to read about it here.
  86. Oodle Noodle – Udon’t need to look any further for your wheat starch noodle fix.
  87. Kung Fu Thai & Chinese – I had a Covid fever dream that when every other restaurant in Las Vegas has closed, Kung Fu (since 1973) will still be slinging yen ta fo and cashew chicken to its loyal customers. God bless them, every one.
  88.  Mg Patisserie – Crust in case, dough yourself a favor, and don’t be a hothouse flour. You’ll only make batters worse by not rolling in here when you knead to.
  89. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – What’s going on in the Arts District right now is like a little foodie X-mas present for all of Las Vegas: three new restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, have opened in the last three weeks. This gorgeous little bento box is the hidden gem of the bunch.

Image(Oysters w/ ponzu and chives)

Also Visited This Year but Closed for Good

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Santos Guisdados Tacos

Mordeo Wine Bar

Flock & Fowl

Hall of Shame

Eiffel Tower – went here on my birthday. Two bites in I regretted it. Never again, even if it reopens.

Mon Ami Gabi – when management will treat yours truly as a pigeon to be plucked, you know they have no shame. “Keep your hand on your wallet,” as my dad used to say. You have been warned.

Final one to visit before the end of 2020…

97. Main Street Provisions – looking forward to trying it as soon as their shakedown cruise ends.

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Someone recently asked me why I go to so many restaurants. I answered by saying I’ve become the (un)official, upaid publicist for about 60 of them.

It is a role I will gladly embrace until we retire all this restricted dining nonsense…and I can get back to the role I’m best know for: being a lovable curmudgeon.

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The Covid Diaries – Vol. 11 – Survivors

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Day 69, May 24 – Who Will Survive?

This will be our last “Covid Diaries” post.

Where we go from here, no one knows, least of all the person typing these words.

Life is returning to normal in Las Vegas; restaurants are re-opening; and we’ve spent the last two weeks plowing through a bunch of them.

And by “plowing through them” we mean spending beaucoup bucks in support thereof.

Image(Did you mezze me? Oh yes we did, Khoury’s)

As of today, the Strip and all major hotels remain closed, so downtown and the neighborhoods have been where we’ve concentrated. Even when it opens, most hotels will be running at very low occupancy rates, with only a handful of restaurants being re-booted.

The Wynncore has announced five of its venues will resume operations on May 29, but other hotels aren’t showing their cards just yet.

Steakhouses will lead the way in every hotel, with buffets nowhere to be found for the time being.

Here’s the list of places we’ve hit lately in the order we’ve hit them since the quarantine lifted:

La Maison de Maggie

Japaneiro

Kaiseki Yuzu

Khoury’s

Capital Grille

Orchids Garden

Esther’s Kitchen

Marche Bacchus

Edo Tapas and Wine

The Real Crepe

7th & Carson

Carson Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzù

And right there, you have the beginnings of the next edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants 2020. (More on this below.)

Twice we’ve been to the Capital Grille and 7th & Carson, and the cooking at both has blown us away. Even those serving truncated menus in smaller dining rooms are working extra hard. Don’t think for one second that every restaurant in town won’t be busting its ass for months to come, whether it’s a creperie, a Middle Eastern standard, or high-falutin’ gastopub,

You’ll see the same thing on the Strip when it reopens. Every cook, every waiter, every bottle-washer will be on their game. They’re in survival mode now and they know it, and the only way to prevail is to impress every customer so much they will want to come back — and dazzle them so much they’ll tell all their friends to go there — even if everyone looks pretty ridiculous in all those masks.

Image(Brunch, sans mask, at 7th & Carson)

So, you might say in some perverse way that this shutdown will be a boon for restaurant goers.

But it won’t be for restaurant writers.

With the end of phoning it in (Hello, Giada!), indifferent cooking, and poor service (at least for the time being) comes the lack of raison d’etre for a critic to be in the game.

The idea of criticizing a restaurant — even well-financed, over-hyped, under-performing Strip restaurants — will not fit the current zeitgeist of everyone hanging on for dear life.

Entire hotels are being phased out, and in the ones that remain, nothing is certain until the casinos can gauge the level of returning tourism. This could take a year…or longer.

Our gubenator thinks Las Vegas won’t get back to where it was until a vaccine can be found. Experts are saying this could be years away.

As a local, I’ve always hated going to the Strip on weekends or when huge conventions were in town, but now, the idea of wandering around Aria or Caesars Palace when it’s only 30% full seems kind of creepy.

We’re also mindful of the fact that once the shutdown began, our book became more artifact than all-encompassing.

With this in mind, we at #BeingJohnCurtas have been doing some thought experiments in our heads, trying to guess which of our 52 favorites (and others) will survive the #coronapocalypse.

So, for shits and giggles, we’re going to list all 52 of our “essential” Las Vegas restaurants, along with a rating of chances for survival (or eventual resuscitation).

Here’s how we’ve rated the restaurants:

4 **** – a cinch to reopen (or has already reopened).

3 *** – on the bubble, but corks could be popped, sooner or later.

2 ** – outlook is drearier than a Golden Corral steak.

1 * – put a fork in them, they’re done.

As always, these opinions are worth exactly what you paid for them.

Image(Black rice/oxtail risotto at Carson Kitchen)

****

Carson Kitchen

Chances for survival: good to great. Downtown’s popularity and loyal customers will see to that.

China Mama

Future outlook: Rosy. Good Chinese food (even bad Chinese food) could survive a nuclear winter.

District One

This is a tougher call. How Chinatown reacts to the shrinking economy will be interesting to watch.

Edo Gastro Tapas

Small and agile, with a passionate fan base.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

It will thrive….IF it can find a new location

Esther’s Kitchen

It came roaring back a week ago. Already, reservations are harder to get than a PPP loan.

Ferraro’s

I have a dream that in the year 2065, long after Gino Ferraro and I have departed this mortal vale, he will still be complaining about his overhead and offering me a sip of Chianti.

Kabuto Edomae Sushi

Will there still be a market for ultra-refined, high-end sushi once this cloud lifts? Only time will tell.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Another tiny gem now threatened by a looming recession/depression. All I know is I’m going to eat here as often as I can as long as Kaoru-san is cooking.

Khoury’s

Our best Lebanese restaurant hit the ground running and won’t look back.

Image(Al fresco tables – only for the sober – at Marche Bacchus)

Marche Bacchus

Even with its new table-spacing, none of the charm has been lost and some has been gained (see above).

Lamaii

Incendiary Thai + killer wine list = a long list of food and wine professionals who treat this place like a private club.

Lotus of Siam

Will they re-open both locations or just one? Either way, they’ll be packed.

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar

Was on its way to becoming a must-stop for serious winos and foodies. Can it re-capture its mojo?

Ohlala French Bistro

Another tiny neighborhood gem. If the landlord cooperates, Chef Richard Terzaghi will be in great shape.

Pamplona Cocktails & Tapas

I love this place, but it’s location was challenging even during a boom economy.

Partage

The well-spaced tables and booths here will need very little adjustment to comply with “social distancing” regulations. The food needs no improvement.

Pizzeria Monzù

Believe it or not, it’s better than ever.

Other Mama

An industry watering hole that has succeeded against all odds. For that reason alone, I’m not worried about it.

Raku & Sweets Raku

Like Lotus, one of our most famous restaurants. It’s worldwide reputation and customers constantly clamoring for a table will sustain it.

Sparrow + Wolf

Brian Howard is set to re-open as we type this — how he re-sets his menu will be most interesting to watch

The Black Sheep

Jamie Tran has a small, nimble restaurant with a minuscule kitchen, and a large following. But the location gives us pause. Fingers are crossed.

Weera Thai Kitchen

Won’t miss a beat.


***

Here’s where things get trickier. Timing, tourists, and multiple tabulations control the fate of (most of) these places. Being on the cusp of summer doesn’t help matters, either. My guess is that each has a strong enough following (and is a critical part of a hotel’s F&B program) not to be considered a good candidate for reopening sooner than later.

Cipriani

Management has told us they may not reopen until after Labor Day. This might be a smart move since summertime is bargain-hunting-time in Vegas, and the Cipriani brand does not appeal to the 2-for-1 crowd.

CUT

Steakhouses will lead the way when high-end restaurants re-open, and there’s not a more famous one in town.

Bardot Brasserie

Aria will no doubt cut back on its strong lineup of top-shelf eateries; either Carbone or Bardot will get the boot, and we’re betting it will be the former.

Bazaar Meat

Along with CUT, our most famous steakhouse. Between the re-branding of the Sahara and the re-booting of everything, it’s bounty of beef and seafood may not fit the current mood. Personally, I wish it would re-locate to a hotel more befitting its brand and quality.

Jaleo

Jaleo is a big, multi-faceted, expensive operation. What might save it is a flexible menu which appeals to multiple price points. Plus, José Andrés may be the only surviving celebrity chef with a big following when this is all over. Several sources have told us “Julian Serrano” (its tapas competition in the Aria) has pitched its last paella.

Le Cirque

The Bellagio without Le Cirque is like Disneyland without the mouse.

Spago

The location alone will keep it alive.

Rooster Boy Cafe

Such a gem. So tiny. So perfect. My fear is Sonia El-Nawal may find catering more profitable than table service. And who could blame her?

Yui Edomae Sushi

My favorite sushi spot. Waiting with bated breath for them to start slicing again.


**

Here’s where a higher level of pessimism kicks in.

Bouchon

Expensive French bistro in this climate? I just don’t see it happening, but god I hope I’m wrong.

‘e’ by José Andrés

The aspirational, 30- and 40-somethings who have coveted a reservation here for nine years are the same ninnies who are cowering in fear of coronavirus. Having to sit within three feet of fellow diners is the type of stress their snowflake brains can’t handle.

Estiatorio Milos

I’m hearing rumors they might be moving. I’m not hearing anything about The Cosmo’s re-opening plans. Neither is a good sign.

Hatsumi

The seating is naturally “social-distanced” (at least in the booths), but Dan Krohmer’s going to have his hands full with Other Mama.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Again….high end French comes back? I just don’t see it.

Matteo’s Ristorante Italiano

A real sleeper in the Venetian that serves incredible pasta. Having to compete with 40 other restaurants (6 of which are Italian) might be too much to ask.

Michael Mina

Will top-notch hotels need multiple “fine dining” venues? My heart wants MM to stay, but my head tells me his restaurant group is in for a thinning.

Mott 32

No conventions. No Asian tourists. No more superb Peking duck.

Old Soul

Great cooking, but a tough sell in the best of times.


* Put a fork in them, they’re done…

Mabel’s BBQ

More done than a twelve-hour brisket.

Guy Savoy

I’m weeping as I write these words, but I think I’m going to have to go to Paris to eat Guy’s food again.

Joël Robuchon

On any given night, the best restaurant in America. Certainly in the top 5. But it’s a big deal meal restaurant, perhaps the biggest, and too many of its customers are not coming back to Vegas in the foreseeable future.

Sage

Was already on the ropes.

The Kitchen at Atomic

Ditto.

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Ditto.

Vetri Cucina

We love Marc Vetri, and he tried to put a game face on things, but announcing “we won’t be opening this year, maybe in 2021” is the same as saying we’re history.

Wing Lei

The only type of food more endangered than high-end French in Las Vegas is high-end Asian.


My hearts weeps for each of these uncertain futures, and I hope I am wrong about all of them.

No matter who opens, the reopening will be the easy part. Staying open in a depressed economy is going to be the real struggle, and who is still in business a year from now is anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain though: there won’t be any new restaurants opening on the Strip for many, many months to come. You have a better chance of catching me at a Garth Brooks concert than you will of seeing any new concepts springing up in 2020.

Which brings us back to our book. If we do one, it’ll be probably be so stuffed with neighborhood eateries that it’ll be more useful as a local’s guide than something for tourists.  At this point, that might be its final legacy.

Anything we can do to help the restaurant industry bounce back from this idiotic, force-fed oblivion, the better. And if that means forgetting about the big hotels until they’ve had time to re-adjust, that’s what we’ll do.

I don’t know if our local food scene can sustain itself without all those Strip dollars being pumped into our economy, but we’re about to find out.

Life was so much easier when all we had to do was compare the Dover sole presentations.

Image(Social distance dining at Edo)

 

It’s Not You, Jose Andres, It’s Me

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The hottest love has the coldest end. – Socrates

We’re done, José.

It’s over.

It’s not you; it’s me.

Time to move on.

I’m not good enough for you.

I need space. (So do my trousers.)

Breakups can be sad, but sometimes tears are the price we pay for the freedom we need. (And boy do I need my freedom from the tyranny of tasting menus.)

Breaking up can make you a better person. This might be good for both of us.

Before we go into why this is necessary, a little history is in order.

What we now call tasting menus, used to be called degustation menus. They were the province of a certain level of high-falutin’ French restaurants, and they usually came on a little insert to the menu offering to let the chef decide what special courses he would feed you that night.

Tasting menus were an adjunct to the main, a la carte selections, and were of interest to mainly the most dedicated gourmands. You knew you weren’t in for the usual starter-main-dessert meal, and that the courses would be smaller, and there might be a couple more of them. Mainly though, you went the degustation route because it promised to show the kitchen strutting its best stuff.

This is the way things were from the late 1970s (when yours truly became seriously involved with cooking/food/restaurants), until the late 1990s.

Then, Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller and Ferran Adrià came along and ruined everything.

Image result for French Laundry menu(This looks like 10 courses, but at the end of the evening, it was more like 15)

Gastronomy historians might have another take on this, but from my perch, the whole “you will be eating/swooning over 15 small plates of chef’s creations” really took off when Keller got soooo much press for his (mandatory, multi-course) feast at The French Laundry.

In 1997, I was in Napa Valley at a writer’s conference with Ruth Reichl, Colman Andrews, Corby Kummer, Barbara Kafka, and a host of others, and that’s all they could talk about. This talking eventually morphed into a gazillion raving/fawning articles about Keller in every major food ‘zine. Soon enough, the copycat race was on.

When Adrià made his big splash with El Bulli around the same time, the die was cast and high-end restaurants from Lima to London adopted the formula of wowing their customers with “techniques” over taste. A chef friend told me of going to El Bulli fifteen years ago and throwing in the towel….after the 44th course with more on the way.

No longer were a half-dozen specialties of the house enough, as you might find at Paul Bocuse or Le Cirque.  Instead, Keller and Adria started an arms race of escalating courses…where mutually-assured palate destruction was the result if not the goal.

These days, almost every restaurant in the World’s 50 Best centers its cooking around a bill of particular, itty bitty ingredients done by the biteful.

 

Image result for el bulli menu degustacion

It’s time to stop the madness.

Who really wants to eat like this? Answer: no one.

Watching chefs piece together teeny tiny pieces of food into dish after dish of edible mosaics no longer holds any fascination for anyone but jaded critics who constantly need to be dazzled while “discovering” the next big thing.

As Robert Brown elucidates in his excellent evisceration of the form, tasting menus have debased cuisine by turning it into an exercise in solipsism for chefs:

By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you cannot have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you did not bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

I read this essay two years ago and agreed with it, but it took that much time (and several more marathon meals) for the lessons to sink in. (You might remember that I was also bored out of my gourd by Meadowood and Alinea a couple of years ago.)

If New York restaurants are any indication, the next big thing is a return to sanity: the classic catechism of appetizer-entree-dessert. The way you eat in good French restaurants and homey Italian trattoria; the way the human body was meant to digest food.

When I go to Spain in a couple of months, it’s going to be a challenge — since the Spaniards invented (or have at least expanded and exploited) this unnatural way of eating more than any other culture. One of my solutions will be to go at lunch (like I do in Paris and Italy), where the meals are shorter, more focused and more fun. Plus, you then have the rest of the afternoon/evening to walk off the calories.

As for my recent meal at é by José Andrés, below you will find the list of dishes, along with some tasty snaps.

For the record: almost every bite was a testament to intense flavors and culinary skill. It was my third meal at é in as many years, and the best of the bunch. Chef de Cuisine Eric Suniga and his crew orchestrate a perfectly-timed concert where everything harmonizes — with a staff busting their asses while never missing a beat or hurrying the customers.

It’s dinner and a tweezer show, a plating performance if you will (the actual cooking takes place out of sight), which almost makes you forget you’re paying $400/pp for a meal with strangers.

The only trouble is there’s both too much and too little going on. Too many dishes and not enough time to reflect and contemplate them, and not that enjoyable if you really want to savor the cooking, the techniques, or the food and wine matches (which are excellent).

Even with those criticisms, though, there probably aren’t five other restaurants in America that can match it.

Image(Suniga and crew are on it like a bonnet)

But for me, no màs. Never again.

I don’t want to eat 20 different things at a sitting. I realized some time ago that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns with these slogs — your satisfaction being inversely proportional to the number of fireworks going off in front of you.

Three to six courses is all one’s brain and palate can absorb. Everything else is just cartwheels in the kitchen, the chef as baton twirler.

To be brutally honest about it, this type of meal isn’t about the food, or the wine, or the conversation. The point is to have you ohh and ahh over the production. There isn’t much time between courses to do anything else.

The great joy of going to a restaurant is deciding at the very last minute what you want to eat, not what the chef insists you eat. Tasting menus rob you of that singular pleasure, and for that reason alone, I must bid them adieu.

Here are the dishes:

Truffle Tree

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Morning Dew

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Beet Rose

It was small and and tasty but not that photogenic; let’s move on.

Stone

Image(The black and white thingees are actually cheese; the things that look like stones are stones. Don’t eat those.)

Spanish Pizza

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Wonderbread

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Pan Con Tomate

This was a small piece of the world’s greatest ham on an almost-not-there puff of bread. The only thing wrong was there should have been more of it.

Uni Y Lardo

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Vermut

Image(This dish fomented much mussel love)

Edible Sangria

Image(The description doesn’t lie)

 

Esparragos en Escabeche

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Txangurro a la Donastiarra

Crab served in its shell — deliciously crabby but unremarkable.

Foie Royal

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Platija

Image(Steak for 8? No problemo!)

Chuleta

A block of fluke that was no fluke…even if it was a bit boring. FYI: fluke is always boring. Sorta surprised they used it.

Empanada

Image(This started out as a ball of cotton candy the size of a small child)

Menjar Blanc

Image(White food, aerated)

Winter in Vegas

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Intxausaltsa

Image(Your guess is as good as mine)

Cherry Bomb

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More things…

By the time you get to “more things”, only the heartiest of soldiers is still ready for combat. Most have run up the white flag as they’re being politely herded off to make room for more cannon fodder.

That’s when it hit me and I mumbled, “I still love you, José; I’m just not in love with you anymore. Certainly not with this dining concept. Whatever flame you may have ignited in me 20 years ago with your wacky Spanish molecular manipulation is now but a smoldering ash — the charred remnant of a fiery passion that once had no bounds (or course or calorie counts), and is now as worn out as bacon-wrapped dates.”

You’re better off without me. You’ll be happier with someone who appreciates you more than I do.

And I’ll be happier dating your sexy siblings: the smoking-hot Jaleo or the bodacious Bazaar Meat.

You wouldn’t mind, would you?

I hope we can still be friends.

Our meal for 2 came to around $800, including tax, tip, and $120 worth of wines by the glass. Notably absent above is any consideration of price-to-value ratio. For aspiring gourmets, globe-trotting gastronauts, and culinary show-offs, it’s probably worth it. For a one-time splurge it’s absolutely worth it. There’s no more convivial way to experience the glories(?) of molecular gastronomy, accompanied by a great steak.

é by Jose Andres

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7950