Tastes Like Chicken

Image(Try it, you’ll like it)

Remember all the things you used to take for granted? Your health? A job? Walking around without looking ridiculous? Shopping? Going out to eat whenever you felt like it? Overpaying for food on the Las Vegas Strip?

Almost nothing is as it was four months ago, but some degree of normalcy has returned, once you get a table inside a good restaurant.

Yes, the staff will be speaking in muffled tones (and this will infuriate the both of you), and yes, the seating has been re-jiggered in many places at  awkward angles, but by and large, once the grub start showing up, you won’t be disappointed. The restaurants that were good-to-great before the Panic of 2020 hit are still putting out delicious meals, and surprisingly, there are openings planned which have us excited (one of which happens this week – see below).

These openings aren’t happening on the Strip as much as off it….as the Strip now resembles nothing so much as a giant, three mile long aircraft carrier that has been bombed and strafed into submission. No one knows the extent of the damage done, and they’re getting underway without a clue as to how seaworthy the old rustbuckets are.

Some encouraging notes:

High altitude eating got a boost this past week with the opening of Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace. No need for much social distancing at its elegant, well-spaced tables, but the champagne bar is usually where you’ll find us, noshing on nibbles and perusing one of America’s greatest wine lists. Going there tonight, actually. (Ed. note: went last night, dropped a bundle, had a whale of a time. ;-))

Elio has opened in the Wynn. We have a res later this week and are totally jazzed about its take on modern Mexican gastronomy. Our meal last summer at Cosme in NYC was one of the highlights of 2019. As with most big deal meals in town, it will only be open on Thursday-Saturday for dinner.

Speaking of big deals: three very different restaurants had us jumpin’ for joy in the last week. One of them will open to the public this Friday and was a dinner most fowl:

This is No Yolk: Raku Toridokoro Opens Friday

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Yes, we’re talking about an entire meal comprised (mostly) of chicken parts. But the star of the show was….wait for it…chicken sashimi!

Peck-uliar I must admit, but also, flocking amazing. A flight of fancy, if you will. A notable chef’s beak performance no doubt.

So without feather ado, I’ll give you a hent….and a bird’s eye view.

We’re talking conspicuous chicken here. Like nothing Vegas has seen before. No one is more fanatical about their fowl than the Japanese, and their chefs usually have a bag of chicks up their sleeve….which makes for eggcellent dining.

Image(Around here, they call me the gizzard king)

Yep, raw chicken. eaten by the slice, like sushi. Not a lot of it, a couple tender slices (of breast, gizzard and liver) will do ya.

It exists, in Japan, and, like fugu, is quite safe if the chef/restaurant knows what it’s doing. In this instance, the chef in question is Mitsuo Endo — the chef/owner of Raku and Raku Sweets. You can take it on faith that he knows what he’s doing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Americans won’t freak the fuck out over it. Because freaking the fuck out over foreign foods is what Americans do.

Let’s get to the details, shall we?

The restaurant in which you will be sampling your chicken sashimi will open on July 3. It is called Raku Toridokoro (toridokoro = poultry house). It is not just a simple yakitori parlor, although lightly seared chicken skewers will be a substantial part of your meal.

The restaurant occupies the space formerly occupied by Tatsujin X — one of our 52 Essential restaurants for EATING LAS VEGAS 2020 — which closed within weeks of the book being published late last year. This incarnation promises to be more crowd-friendly and compelling, capturing more the izakaya-vibe of its namesake, as well as serving things unheard of in Las Vegas before…like raw chicken parts.

Image(Liver a little…try it raw)

The raw poultry parts you will eat will not be slimy or old or taken from the outer flesh of the bird. They will be quickly poached (as you will see on the exterior) to kill some outside bacteria and firm up the meat.

Don’t worry, if you chicken out (sorry, that pun wrote itself), the restaurant provides a very hot rock (above) for you to quickly sear/cook the meat thoroughly. Texture-wise it’ll remind you of lean blue fin or Big Eye tuna. Taste-wise it is almost sweet, but very, very mild. With your eyes closed you wouldn’t peg it as poultry until the merest hint of fresh, raw chicken taken from the refrigerator surprises your back palate.

This rarest of rare treats (and a Vegas first) is only one small course in a multi-plate production spanning the entire length of the bird. Skin, gizzards, liver, heart, you name it, almost everything except the pecker.

Image(Our love for this food is a bit skewed)

You will start with an appetizer platter served in a basket, and end with what might be the richest chicken soup you’ve ever tasted without cream in it.

In between will be skewer after skewer of different parts, each of them challenging your preconceptions about this (heretofore) bland bird. Endo-san can be credited with jump-starting our Asian food revolution in 2008, when he opened Raku. With it he took Japanese food to another level. People were ewwwing and ahhhing then over such exotica as beef liver sashimi, dried sardine salad, monkfish livers, and uni custard back then. Now they’re as common as California rolls. Well, almost.

Life is short, pilgrim. It’s time to enjoy it to the fullest. Eating dangerously is the best revenge (even though it is not that dangerous). But don’t dispel your friends’ fears, exploit them!  Dive in and take the accolades. It’s really not a big deal, but don’t tell them that. Eating chicken sashimi will give you bragging rights among your gastronautic comrades for years to come. They’ll look at you as the Tenzing Norgay of poultry, the Sir Edmund Hillary of farm-to-table conquests.

See for yourself and eat here soon, before a reservation is harder to get than a martini at a Mormon wedding.

Tacos, Tacos y mas Tacos!

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When you walk into a Mexican restaurant, and the chips and salsas blow you away from the first bite, you know you’re on solid ground.

Chef Jose Aleman calls Sin Fronteras a “no Tapatio zone” and a splash of any of his five, “grandma sauces” will convince you never to hit that bottle again. He charges a buck apiece for them and they’re worth twice that much. We’re partial to the Verde and Roja (both on the mild side), but there’s not a loser in the bunch, and the Morita (habanero chipotle), and the arbol-based Diablo will light you up and set you free from the tyranny of Mexican tepidness which infects what so many think of as true south-of-the-border flavor.

Image(These are nacho average salsas)

These are salsas where the fruit and piquancy and smoke of the base ingredients come through — as far from bottled or canned Mexican salsas as a fresh corn tortilla is from a bag of Doritos. But the salsas and the house-made, addictive chips are just the beginning. You won’t find better nachos (above) anywhere this far north of Piedras Negras, and the chile relleno (stuffed with melted Oaxacan cheese and swimming in roasted tomato salsa) is a thing of beauty:

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And we haven’t even gotten to the tacos yet.

Suffice it to say they are great across the board, using meat, veggies, cheese and those sauces which put them light years beyond what you find in your standard neighborhood, straight-from-Sysco taco assembly line. Spoon-tender carnitas, smoky carne asada, crisp, non-greasy chorizo — these tacos are given a proper chef’s touch, befitting Aleman’s former stints in top-flight restaurants on and off the Strip.

At this point we’re tempted to say you won’t find any better tacos anywhere in Vegas. You certainly won’t find better salsas. It may be in an odd location — sort of a restaurant no man’s land at Tenaya and Alexander in the northwest — but wherever you’re coming from, you’ll find the trip was worth it. The churros alone are worth the trip.

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Something for Everyone…in a Sports Bar…Go Figure

I generally hate something-for-everyone restaurants and sports bars, but if I had to choose between the lesser of two evil meals, I’d pick the latter every time. Sports bars may not be known for great food, but within a narrow range, they can fill the bill. Salt and fat rule. Paltry pizza, afterthought burgers, frozen wings, and flabby fries. all of it soaked in ranch dressing. (Yuck!) Expectations are always low and usually exceeded, at least if you’ve parked five beers, your team is winning, and the waitress has a nice rack.

A postcard displaying a Howard Johnson's restaurant location in Bedford, Pa., featuring the chain's traditional Georgian-inspired style.(When quality reigned over quantity)

Something-for-everyone eateries are the enemy of good cooking. The specter of the dreaded “family restaurant” looms over all of them. The HoJo’s of my youth (above) were, in fact, family restaurants, but they didn’t call themselves that.

Howard Johnson’s was all about feeding families, but it gets a pass because it was divine — 28 flavors, fried clams, twin, butter-grilled hot dogs (called “Frankforts”) in those cradle buns, chicken pot pies with flaky crusts  — food overseen in later years by chefs like Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin. (True!) It was, as far as I’m concerned, the last family restaurant in America worth a split-top.

The Howard Johnson's hot dog. Buttered, split top, and grilled ...

Simple Simon and the Pieman may be long gone, but their legacy lives on. From Olive Garden to Cheesecake Factory, chain restaurants serving standardized, all-over-the-map fare are HoJo’s progeny. They prove daily that it really is impossible to do cross-cultural cooking under one roof with any authority. But, if you downsize, and put your cooking in the hands of a real chef, there are exceptions to the rule that culinary genres should never mix on one menu.

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And by “exceptions” I mean the Wolfgang Puck organization — the only collection of chefs I know who seem to be able to toggle between cooking styles and genres without missing a bean sprout.

They kept the flame alive at Player’s Locker over the three-month lock-down, and now they’re seating customers like nothing ever happened. Of course the tables look strewn about willy nilly — but big comfy booths let you social distance without feeling like you’ve been sent to detention.

The menu includes a lot of “best hits” from the Puck oeuvre, but you won’t be disappointed with any of them. If you’re looking to feed a crowd (whether of picky eaters or picky epicureans). it’s probably your safest bet this side of Spago, which is no coincidence.

Image(I’m really piggy when it comes to a porcine of interest)

It’s hard to find fault with any of it: great breads, good pizza, serious sandwiches, a killer burger, garlic shrimp, meatloaf, pastas, superb roast chicken, the famous Chinese chicken salad… good god this place even had me (a noted hummus hater) eating hummus…. All of them co-exist easily on a menu full of confidence and bold flavors.

The ribs are KC-style and righteous — easily pulled from the bone, but not falling off it, served under a blanket of thick, dark, sweet sauce and with some honey-sweetened cornbread my Georgia relatives would recognize.

Image(Poultry in motion – Puck’s chicken enchilada)

Even the deeply-spiced chicken enchiladas got our attention, as did the house-made pickles, the onion rings, the apple pie, banana pudding, you name it…It’s hard enough to run a restaurant where they do a couple of these things well, but Chef Robert Rolla and his mentors have an attention to detail a lot of sloppier places (some within a few hundred feet of this one) could learn from.

Player’s Locker is basically a good restaurant masquerading as a sports bar.  You could also call it a family restaurant, or a something-for-everyone eatery, but spare it those insults. If indeed there is such thing as an American bistro, it captures the essence of whatever the term means, in all of its mashed-up mixed metaphorical glory.  It is the restaurant every Applebee’s, Chili’s or Cheesecake Factory wishes it could be. It is the best food you will ever find among oversized screens displaying over-hyped sports.

(Here’s how things work in the John Curtas universe these days: We go to a restaurant. We order modestly, then, 4Xs more food shows up at the table. We fight for a bill. Sometimes we get a bill, but it is usually for a fraction of what showed up on the table. We then leave a monster tip. Our meal at Raku Toridokoro was a special pre-opening tasting, so no charge, but our sake bill was $130 and left a $100 tip. When the restaurant opens, the set menu will be $80/pp and there will be a la carte options. At Sin Fronteras, we ordered 3 tacos ($8.25) and then had five more dishes hit the table. No bill, but we left $40. At Player’s Locker, the entire menu showed up (or so it seemed), but they only charged us for about $40/couple. To compensate, we bought an $80 bottle of champagne and left a combined $70 tip.)

RAKU TORIDOKORO

4439 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.337.6233

SIN FRONTERAS TACOS Y MAS

4016 N. Tenaya Way

Las Vegas, NV 89129

706.866.0080

PLAYER’S LOCKER BY WOLFGANG PUCK

10955 Oval Park Drive, Ste D3

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.202.6300

Image(Because we knew you wanted another chick pic)

 

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 5 – Eat Here Now

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Did you know almost 8,000 people die every day in America. That’s almost 3 million deaths a year.

Today is the 12th anniversary of this website and these are the things Mr. Curtas finds himself looking up these days.

Day 13, Thursday, March 26 – Thai On The Go/Japanese Boffo Bento:

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Restaurants like DE Thai Kitchen already do a robust take-out business, so dropping in on them seems a natural thing to do. With his own table and chairs (above), Curtas braves the chill and tucks into pad Thai, pork BBQ, and a spicy papaya salad. Nothing is as good as it is when the place is going full tilt, but it feels almost normal to eat outside his favorite 12-seat tiny Thai.

Later that evening, they head to Kaiseki Yuzu for one of Chef Kaoru Azeuchi’s impeccable bento boxes. After filming a Burly Boyz video outside, they all sneak into a side room for a glass of sake with the chef. The whole time they are inside, everyone keeps looking out the window to see if anyone is going to spot them.

The paranoia is real. You would think that seeing a few people standing together having a quick drink would be no big deal to anyone, but it took America less than a week to go from zero to bat-shit-turn-your-neighbor-in crazy over this virus, and the narcs are out there only too ready to punish some under the guise of “protecting” the rest of us. (“You’re breaking the rules! How dare you?  You’re killing people!”) 

Thankfully, the only people outside the restaurant are a couple of cars waiting dutifully for their meals. Amidst all the craziness, good taste never dies.

Image(A flat out steal)

Yuzu’s bento boxes cost $30 and are things of beauty. Besides being criminally under-priced, they are packed with enough proteins, vegetables and starches to feed two people for two days. From the sushi quality rice to the pickled vegetables to the panoply of sweet, sour, bitter, and savory flavors, they are like an education in Japanese food in a single, one-foot square box. From the tempura to the kaarage to the macaroni, there’s not a single bite that won’t get your attention.

Image(Squid goals)

There will be things you won’t recognize (Fish dumplings? Sweet black slippery kelp ribbons?), but every bite is singular; every flavor next-level intense. There are other bentos around town, but these are a different beast. One can only hope Kaoru-san and his wife Miyumi-san can hang in there and sell enough of them to justify keeping their doors open. FYI: There are two smaller versions — the cheapest one is only $13 and is a fine katsu chicken box for one —  but the big boy is the one to get.

Day 14, Friday, March 27 – Support Your Local Purveyors:

Image(Frame-worthy veggies)

Friday is shopping day. First a trip to the Intuitive Forager Farmers Market — held every Friday morning in downtown Las Vegas — to visit with Kerry Clasby and sniff out her superb produce. They end up buying too much….as they always do. But there’s no better way to support your local food community than by buying too many fruits and vegetables, even if you can’t eat them all. (Side note: Breads by Ned are worth the trip, too. And now Chef’s Choice is offering meats and other goodies here as long as this shutdown nonsense prevails.)

From there it’s off to Henderson (again) to visit Solenne Peyronnin at the newly revived Valley Cheese and Wine. As everyone knows, Curtas has been a huge fan of VCAW for years. Until Saga Pastry + Sandwich opened, it was the only thing that could get him to Hendertucky/Green Valley. (Side note: There is nothing remotely green about Green Valley. The whole godforsaken place is one giant shade of beige. With terrible traffic.)

Anyhooo….the reason you go to Valley Cheese is for….wait for it….the cheese! And the wine. And to visit with Solenne.

Anyone who thinks the French aren’t a friendly bunch need only spend a few minutes chatting her up to change their opinion.

Image(Queso queso y mas queso!)

Curtas buys a $107 piece of Beaufort cheese from Solenne (above). The Food Gal® doesn’t quite approve of this, but she doesn’t exactly disapprove either. Like him, she believes in spending — even overspending — to help out local businesses in these trying times.

It is a fantastic fromage — showing from its pale yellow color and strong aroma an affinage of at least a year. He rates it as superior to Comté and Gruyére for its nutty, creamy, and honeyed notes, with hints of hazelnuts and scrambled eggs. (Brillat-Savarin called Beaufort “The Prince of Gruyères,” and so should you.)

This cheese lives up to the billing, with all flavor components in balance, and a slightly barnyard-y finish that lasts until next Tuesday. Whether they can eat one hundred dollars of it in the next few weeks remains to be seen.

Image(Cheesus Christ…that’s a lotta fromage!)