I Once Flew to Paris Just to Have Lunch

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I once flew to Paris just to have lunch

To Paris I went without care, without crunch

I once flew to Paris just ’cause I could

On a plane, on a whim, on the hopes of meals good

To Paris I flew, alone as it were

Leaving the wife to her toils, don’t think me a cur

A fantasy it had been throughout my manhood

To fly just for lunch, thinking I should…

Learn French, eat France, explore all things Gaulois!

My fate I once thought, it wistfully was

Today on this day, I thought of such things

And the swings of good fortune which enabled such flings

To meet Mariani, a gastronome friend

Paris did beckon us fellow curmudgeons

On landing that morn, I rubbed out the sleep

Where I’d dreamed to myself of lambs, ducks and geese

Image(Duck confit with summer vegetables)

To the Ritz as it were, did we travel that day

Where a meal was awaiting the French call déjeuner

The difference you see, is one of degree

For in France you can feast, and here we just feed

A pity it seems, so to France I did fly

To eat like a king and kiss troubles goodbye

How much do you ask, would be this repast?

Expensive it is, too much for mere mortals

But walking is free among these luxe portals

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This is insane, I thought on the Seine

To travel for food so many disdain

But undaunted I was, so to lunch I did go

For dining so fine it sets me aglow

The Ritz is The Ritz, as ritz as they come

As were our courses, one after one

So beautiful they were, elegant, precise

Both John and I could’ve eaten them thrice

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And the bread, oh the bread, for which French are so famous

Rising and baking Français are not aimless

Crusty, yeasty, with softness yet crunch

One travels an ocean to have it for lunch

Image(Pan-fried Dorade with mussel tortellini and artichoke purée)

And while we’re at it, did we mention the fish?

Nowhere on earth, is it found this delish

The French have a way with all things that swim

While America flounders with fins the most grim

Image(Raisin Einset en compotée et sorbet, crème montée et meringue croustillante)

Image(aka grapes in vanilla cream sorbet in meringue crust)

And it goes without saying that desserts reign supreme

Anywhere the French are whipping some cream

The Ritz, as you imagine, is kingly of sorts

When it comes to sorbets, meringues, tarts and tortes.

An art form lunch is, in France like no other

With wine, with cheese, with friends or a lover

I once flew to France just for a feast

On food so sublime all troubles did cease.

Image(Crab “Napoleon” with lobster sauce)

Image(Tomate stracciatella, crémeaux basilic poundré à l’olive noire – but you knew that)

 

 

Las Vegas Italians Up the Ante

Menu - La Strega - Italian Restaurant Las Vegas(Our Italians are finally putting on some mussels. Sorry.)

Ed. note: The following article appeared last week in John Mariani’s The Virtual Gourmet. Click here to read it in its original form.

Italian cuisine never goes out of style, and Las Vegas boasts its share of forgettable pasta palaces. But new entries – aiming for authenticity over the ersatz — have re-set the paradigm of quality when it comes to this much-abused food. While the tourist corridor has seen two famous, big city off-shoots plant their flags in the last year, off-Strip neighborhoods have been enriched by chef-driven (rather than red sauce-drenched) ristorante, and food all of them deliver is as stunning as a Ligurian sunset.

La Strega Archives — Being John Curtas

LA STREGA 

3555 S. Town Center Drive Ste 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702-722-2099

 Mediocre Italian restaurants are as common in Las Vegas as slot machines. So it’s big news when an off-Strip restaurant opens with ambitions of doing Amalfi Coast tasting menus, Roman-style artichokes, and pitch-perfect Neapolitan pastas. Throw some superior seafood into the mix, and you have a recipe for being packed every five nights a week and impossible to get into for Sunday brunch.

Gina Marinelli is the talent behind these menus and she’s serving them for over a year from an open kitchen in one of the sleekest rooms in town. Her knack with noodles has made her a celebrity among local pasta hounds, and her facility with fish is not far behind. She travels all over the Italian map, keeping her food seasonal and her customers intrigued, unlike few, if any, local Italians ever have.

Showing her range, Marinelli offers a first rate fritto misto (with calamari and rock shrimp) alongside rigatoni Bolognese, Lombardian scarpniocc, and Tuscan short ribs. Octopus is sparked by Calabrian peperoncino, while her tricolor salad (salami, mortadella, pesto, tomatoes) somehow manages to makes a kitchen sink of ingredients sing in harmony.

La Strega — Gaby J Photography

Everyone sources Nigerian prawns these days, but Marinelli dresses hers up without overdoing it – by floating them in a lobster broth of just enough intensity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Dressings on the salads are equally demure — whether they be a sweet-sour accent to crunchy pazanella, or bitter frisée greens enhanced with a subtly tart vinaigrette and an unctuous poached egg. The Witch’s Garden of fresh veggies, to be dipped in whipped chickpeas, is at its peak in summer, and looks almost too good to eat.

Pastas change with the seasons, as does most of the menu, but that rigatoni is gut-busting (in all the right ways) no matter what time of year. It hews close to a classic Bolognese, while some of the lighter offerings (spaghetti pomodoro with blistered tomatoes, linguine vongole with Manila clams, preserved lemon and chives) tweak the recipes just enough to peak your interest without losing the soul of what made them famous. When available, the bucatini Genovese – a tangle of dandelion pesto, potatoes and green beans – is a lip-smacking example of how Marinelli innovates without losing the subtle rhythms of Italian cooking.

LA STREGA, Las Vegas - Menu, Prices, Restaurant Reviews ...

Big proteins are well represented – roast chicken with rapini, whole fish (usually branzino) stuffed with herbs, the obligatory sirloin – but it’s in the appetizers, pastas and salads where this kitchen really shines. Pizzas subscribe to the more is more philosophy of toppings, but there’s no denying the quality of the crust or cornicione.

Back when bars were allowed to act like bars, this was one of the liveliest in the ‘burbs. The craft cocktails are just as good these days, only now you have to take them at your table. You won’t find much to complain about on the wine list, either – it being manageable with prices well-underneath what you pay for the same bottles twelve miles to the east.

The cannolis filled with house-made ricotta are worth a trip all by themselves.

La Strega is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. and for weekend brunch. Appetizers and salads are priced from $7- $20, pizzas and pastas are in the $15-$25 range, big proteins run from $26 (chicken) to $72 (sirloin), and $8 for dessert.

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MATTEO’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

Matteo’s aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined fashion. Without the pedigree of Cipriani, what it does it does well, at a friendly price point with lots of options. It began its run in Las Vegas as an offshoot of The Factory Kitchen, a popular Los Angeles Italian once located in an actual abandoned factory. What was groovy and hip in LA made no sense in Vegas, so, less than a year after opening, the name was changed to give more of a clue to the Italian cuisine served.  Thankfully, they didn’t change a thing about the food, which includes some of the best pasta in town.

The wine list is of manageable size and almost entirely Italian, with  well-chosen bottles, priced to drink, rather than to soak the high rollers. There are plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil, the real deal from Liguria, with herbaceousness to burn and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next week. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just as in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those earthy notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up that awesome olive oil, you’ll confront a menu with dishes you may never have heard of— ortolana; peperú; sorrentina,  and mandilli di seta sit beside those you have— carpacciofritturapappardelle, branzino.,  all of them eye-popping and mouth-dropping; all are translated into English.

Image(They had us at “brown butter sage ravioli”)

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

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto fanned out in slices sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics that Italian food achieves effortlessly when the ingredients are right. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

The other starter is the “sorrentina” — Chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy. Grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans are enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing.

Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they are, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha-roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good ingredients, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate.

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The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-thin noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above) will be a revelation to those who’ve spent any time in the Cinque Terre. Likewise, the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples.  Pastas are all fairly-priced between $21-$31) and meant to be shared. Executive Chef Eduardo Perez (who held the fort down for years at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo), executes this menu to a degree of faithfulness far beyond what you find at most of the other Italians in the Venetian/Palazzo complex, most of which are skewed to the Cedar Rapids crowd.

You may probably stuff yourself on those pastas but if self-control takes hold, save room for the lamb chops, which are superb, as is the branzino, the veal, and the 16 oz. ribeye steak.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re made in-house and fantastic.

Open for lunch and dinner, with starters ranging from $10-$25; pastas from $21-$36; main courses $32-$54. The wine list is heavily Italian, organized by regions, and marked up far less than its competition.

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 CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702-770-7390

You don’t go to Cipriani because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy.

The restaurant is there to serve you but has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows an aria from Madame Butterfly. In its original incarnation Cipriani has been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully for decades. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like most Americans probably have never tasted before.

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that traces its lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice, founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani—the grandfather of the family—and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. Giuseppe was fond of saying he deliberately made Harry’s Bar hard to find, because he wanted people to go there “on purpose.”

Cipriani Restaurant | Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Resort

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani-run restaurant in the world, stretching from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. Las Vegas’s Cipriani references the look of the original but spruces it up more than a bit to give the premises a flashy sense of urbanity the original has only by way of reputation. (First timers to Harry’s Bar in Venice often walk through the almost-hidden side door, look around and say “This is it?”) Where the original boasts only ten low-slung tables in its main room and a modest eight-seat bar, with faded furniture, pale yellow walls and a few windows you can barely see out of, the “copies” around the world polish things to a fare thee well. The tables are still low, but the bold tan, white, and dark blue color scheme bespeaks a nautical, unpretentious elegance that you will slip into like a pair of well-worn Ferragamos.

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will. Arrigo Cipriani, Giuseppe’s son, in his written history of Harry’s Bar, explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-nine years on, the details still matter. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy décor—all polished woods and gleaming brass—makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Before you get to the menu, you will first have a Bellini—a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” He then named it after the 15th Century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.  They cost $17 in Vegas, more in Venice, and they’re pretty small, but an essential part of the experience.

After your Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio, the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, this one from 1950, stemming from some  “ravishing countess” whose doctor said she couldn’t eat cooked meat. Cipriani simply pounded a raw filet paper thin and dressed it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce, naming it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, whose works happened to be on exhibition in Venice at the time.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.) The list is of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these is what springs to mind when most Americans think “Italian food.”

Of things not to be missed are the baby artichokes “alla Romana” and the Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta). Americans usually resist the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich, but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

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Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold Vitello tonnato, an umami-rich, meat-meets-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer. Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by beautiful shrimp (above), plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia—a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two to four and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure could become habit forming. It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragù as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or been baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle, another signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like a Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver alla Veneziana, a dish the  Venetians claim to have invented, but, as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin.”

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease Americans, no doubt),  and they are quite good, but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Image(You gelato be kidding!)

Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-y gelato you have ever tasted.

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor elitist. It is Italian style made accessible; simple, sophisticated food served with panache. There is a seductive, reassuring quality to its flavors and atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. But Cipriani is not for everyone. You have to go there on purpose.

 Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers and pastas running $14-$34, main course  $30-$64.  The $29 prix fixe lunch is a steal.

BONUS FEATURE!!

As an added bonus for those who are craving Italian these days, here is a complete list of my favorite ristorante in Las Vegas. These are the best of the best; they are also the only places I will go to when I crave a fix of Italy (in no particular order):

Monzù (go for the pizzas; stay for the Sicilian specialties)

Allegro (a gem of Neapolitan cooking in the Wynn)

Esther’s Kitchen (the bread, the wine, the pastas, that steak)

Osteria Fiorella (just opened last month at Red Rock Hotel and Casino, destined for greatness)

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (the granddaddy of them all still has its fastball)

Casanova (in The Venetian – get the cioppino)

Spago (gorgeous, hand-made pastas)

Costa di Mare (go fish….for more than just seafood)

Carbone (take a crowd, and a second mortgage)

These also happen to be the only Italians open right now. A few others out there are either closed, in flux, or have futures which are in doubt (e.g. Eataly, Rao’s et al). Sorry if I offend your favorite pasta palace, but most of them are cheap and lousy and you know it. Others, like Sinatra in the Wynncore, and a few others on this list, are just plain boring and you know that, too.

Letter of the Year – The Meals of a Lifetime

Image result for Antoine's New Orleans

Bryan writes:

Indulge me for a minute. Thanks for your work. I think I was born with all the right inclinations for wonder and curiosity for all the good things the world has to offer. I stumbled onto your blog, via NPR, maybe as early as 2005, right after I got married. I really appreciate your “52 Essentials” book and still have my first edition!

I grew up in very religious home, and it wasn’t really until the summer of 2010 when I discovered wine at Steve Wynn’s place out at Shadow Creek. Before that, I didn’t know a Pomerol from a Pomeranian, but set myself to learning, at least from books, about these tiny areas and how the people and land have come together in such a meaningful expression of life.

I hadn’t ever even tasted alcohol until perhaps 2011, when I was 33. My then wife and I, along with our extremely bright Francophile 2 year old, went to France for a couple weeks in 2012 to see first hand what all the fuss was about. We went all around Normandy, and tried every stinky and homemade thing they wanted to expose us to (a cheese course? what is that?).

The kicker was when we visited a wine shop in their old town called Cave Voltaire, and I saw scores of different labels, all from right around the town! The shop owner described the wines, the patch of soil, and the guy who made it with so much love and reverence. I took home as many as would fit in my suitcase. And so cheap! People would visit at the tables outside the shop, late into the night and enjoy the local product. I just just couldn’t believe it.

 I just saw you post about your ‘meal of a lifetime’ at Lameloise, which got me thinking about this. I have had ‘lifetime’ meals I think, probably at a much simpler level, which really had so much to do with how I felt about everything around me in the moment. The most high-end experience I ever had was on your blog recommendation…. I took my wife to Alex at the Wynn, completely on a whim. That was a ton of money but it opened me up.

I never felt more cared for than when we went to Le Cirque for her birthday — though I still think that a $40 upcharge for truffle shavings on my risotto wasn’t worth it.

I mention this because this, as the ritziest of my experience, was not necessarily the best. I have never been to Burgundy, or Lyon, or the Alsace, or Italy even though I have a touch of Provencal/Piemonte ancestry. I felt bad when that ‘Bocuse’ fellow died because maybe I had missed the boat to see some heritage cooking.

SO….. I am stuck on the idea of “Meals of a Lifetime”. Where have your top 10 been found? How do you find them? How do you know them when you see them? I wouldn’t mind some guidance on how to find mine.

My response:

Dear Bryan,

Ahhh…the meals of a lifetime. How do I even begin to encompass a half-century of serious eating into a few short rules? Have there been only ten? Or perhaps many, many more?

I’ll start by listing them. with the caveat that, even as obsessive as I am about what goes into my mouth, I’ll probably miss a several memorable ones. Then we’ll explore how they came about — which, you’ll discover, runs the gamut from serendipity to meticulous planning, sometimes months in advance.

I like to break down my “Meals of a Lifetime” into three categories:  stepping up my game, the getting of wisdom, and reaping the rewards of a galloping gastronome.

The first category encompasses the epiphanies — those times in one’s early epicurean education when you sit up and take notice. When the clouds part and suddenly, with exquisite clarity, you understand something both elemental and ethereal has gone into what you are shoveling in your piehole.

 Upping My Game (1977-1991)

Image result for Four Seasons restaurant new york(The Pool Room of the Four Seasons)

Antoine’s – New Orleans 1965

Casa Grisanti – Louisville, Kentucky 1978

Pigalle’s – Cincinnati, Ohio 1979

The Mandarin – San Francisco – 1983

Le Français – Wheeling, Illinois 1983

Lutèce – New York 1986

Four Seasons – New York 1987

Lafayette – New York 1988

Your first step is acquiring information. Along with that comes the accumulation of experience. From there it’s a steady climb to knowledge, appreciation, and eventually, wisdom.

As with art, music, and other transcendent experiences, you have to be open to the educational process — needing both hunger and a thirst for knowledge based upon early exposures. If the bug doesn’t bite, you’re out of luck. A certain kind of person can tour the Louvre and say, “Those pictures shore were purty!” while another immerses herself in the history, philosophy, technique and imagination all around them.

If you look at a great restaurant as just another better-than-average re-fueling station, you will never enter the zone of curiosity, learning and refinement necessary to appreciate every nuance of a fabulous meal. It will be no more moving than a quick glance at a Vermeer or a momentary gaze at a Gentileschi.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that quantity equals quality, i.e., simply amassing information makes you an expert. (Many Yelpers, “influencers,” and bloggers fall into the delusion of thinking that just because they’ve been somewhere, they know something.) Restaurant-hopping is as poor a way to learn about food as concert-going is to learn about music.

Related image(Antoine’s now, just the way it looked then)

With me, the epiphanies started as a pre-teen when a small, gleaming silver tureen of lump crab meat bubbling in a butter-sherry sauce was placed before me at Antoine’s in 1965. I can still see the bright-tiled dining room and starched white shirts and just-so tuxedos of the waiters as they took the order from our table of six (Mom, Dad and four children).

Then and now, Antoine’s is a 19th Century throwback, and from the moment we sat down we knew we were in for something both historical and special. A great restaurant does that to you — makes you feel like a bond has been formed between you and it from the moment you take your seat. When you can still remember a meal 50 years later, it was a meal of a lifetime.

Most of my culinary education in my 20s and 30s took place in world-famous French-American restaurants. Before I got to them, however, I remember a pasta-tasting menu at Casa Grisanti in Louisville when I was a newbie lawyer. It was the first time the glories of northern Italian pasta were laid before me, and it was a revelation. Cream sauces instead of tomato! Light dustings of cheeses, rather than a mountain of melted mozz. Ravioli stuffed with real meat! And what is this stuff they call risotto? These were unknown to me and many Americans in the 1970s.

With Kentucky being to Italian food what Rome is to fried chicken, this might not seem like much now, but forty years ago, Casa Grisanti was the shit in Louisville (where I went to law school), and they treated a wet-behind-the-ears budding gourmand (who was just learning to be a grownup) with respect, and I’ll never forget it.

From there it was all about research. Decades before the internet, you learned about the best restaurants from newspapers and magazines and that was it. In the early 1980s, Playboy magazine published “The 25 Best Restaurants in America” by John Mariani, and I scoured the article (Yes, I got Playboy SOLELY for the articles!) for places to conquer. It was my road map for several years and led me and the second Mrs. Curtas to San Francisco’s The Mandarin — Celia Chang’s seminal Chinese restaurant — the first time we (and most Americans) discovered there was more to Chinese food than sweet and sour pork, egg foo yung, and General Tso’s chicken.

Image result for le francais wheeling

We were novices and we knew it, but so was everyone else. The restaurants (heady with success, but still humble) treated everyone like a king. The only thing you were there for was the satisfaction of eating the best food money could buy. There were no pictures; there were no bragging rights. Because there was no one to brag to. I could’ve told everyone I knew in the early 80s that I had “bagged” these trophy restaurants and no one would’ve known what I was talking about.

What is so easy now took a lot of work forty years ago. You had to subscribe to the New Yorker to read Calvin Trillin, and New York magazine to read Seymour Britchky, and get Gourmet and Bon Appetit once a month to have even an inkling about what was going on on the national food/restaurant scene.

You’d watch Julia Child on PBS and when Jay Jacobs wrote a book (or James Villas wrote anything), you bought it. But mostly, you had to learn to cook (from cookbooks!) to learn about food.

Burying my head in the works of Pierre Franey, Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Jacques Pepin gave me a foundation of knowledge of food that has paid dividends for decades.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ten years I spent immersed in Chinese cooking. (Another failing of the Instagram generation: precious few people under forty – even some notable food writers – know anything about actual cooking. All they know is gleaned from the insta-information the internet provides. This creates is a food culture where everyone’s knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep. Welcome to 2018.)

 The Getting of Wisdom (1992-2003)

Image result for Le Grand Vefour

Le Grand Véfour (above)

L’Auberge d’Lill

L’Ambroisie

Georges Blanc

Troisgros

Dal Bolognese

Spago Los Angeles

Image result for Trattoria Milanese

Trattoria Milanese (above)

Lameloise

Norman’s Coral Gables (closed)

Pierre Gagnaire

Le Cirque New York

After fifteen years of honing the fundamentals and calibrating my palate, it was time to get serious. You don’t realize it at the time, but what you’re doing (when you are constantly cooking, reading, traveling and tasting) is creating a mental Rolodex of flavors and sensations to call upon every time you try something new. I know many poor souls who are content eating the same pizza, from the same pizzeria every week for most of their lives. They have their favorite taco truck and steakhouse and Italian food and couldn’t be less interested in driving across town to sample something new.

But when you do, what you’re creating is a data bank — information you can draw upon to compare and contrast what you’re eating now with everything that’s come before.

And what I did in the 1990s was cram a fuckload of food data into my maw and brain. Two things always assisted me: an insatiable curiosity and endless appetite. (It also helped to live near New York City in the late 80s-early 90s, and have a job that flew me around the country.)

How did I find these life-changing meals? Again, through a lot of reading and research. Zagat guides were popular then and they helped, but it cannot be overstated that ethereal restaurant experiences are also the product of volume. For every jaw-dropping moment of epicurean bliss, there were dozens (nay hundreds) of comme çi comme ça meals.

Along the way, though, you will find many disappointments and travel up many a blind alley — in the restaurant world, coasting on reputation and phoning it in are time-honored traditions. And just because “everyone says it’s great” doesn’t mean it is. I’ve been let down by everyone from Thomas Keller to Charlie Trotter to Alain Ducasse, mainly because their restaurants seemed more impressed with themselves than trying to impress me. It is for this reason I seek out one and two Michelin-starred restaurants when I’m in France and Germany — like Avis, they usually try harder.

Explorers never start at the summit. Forty years ago, when it came to restaurants, it was impossible to start at the top. You didn’t even know where the top was. You had to work your way up — starting in your own humble kitchen, through less expensive restaurants of a genre, then, when the opportunity presented, to bigger and bigger game.

I’ve said it a thousand times: to get the most out of restaurants you have to eat out a lot, travel a lot, cook a lot and read a lot.

And that’s what I did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Reaping the Rewards (2002-present)

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Dal Pescatore (above)

Daniel

Cello (closed)

Le Bernadin

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (closed)

Schwarzwaldstube

Le Cirque (New York and Las Vegas)

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Paris)

Joël Robuchon

Narisawa

Pierre Gagnaire (again)

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Cecchino dal 1887 (above)

Cracco Peck

L’Auberge d’Lill (again)

Le Calandre Alajmo

La Bouitte

Edulis

Lameloise (again)

The Inn at Little Washington

Once you’ve put in the leg work, finding exquisite meals becomes easier. You’ve become a big game hunter who knows exactly where to look for your prey. Just as important, you develop a sixth sense about what to avoid. You’ve learned to skip the hottest places (always too stressed to serve you a memorable meal), and look for sustenance where your fellow diners are as serious about their dining as you are. (It will be a cold day in hell before I compete for some treasured on-line reservation at some mega-hot venue. Trendiness and transcendental dining go together like oysters and chocolate.)

Of course, being a restaurant writer, I’m privy to more tips and invites than most people. Being located in Las Vegas has been YUGE as well. The bar here may be set pretty low (being the the best known food writer in Vegas in like being the best violinist in Vermont), but the strength of our restaurant scene has allowed me to punch way above my weight.

This why I’ve been privileged to have had the great French chefs of our time (Savoy, Robuchon, Gagnaire, Boulud) personally serve me, and why other chefs and food writers provide an infrastructure of information I can call upon whenever I travel. Which is is how I found the beyond-gorgeous La Bouitte in the French Alps (a local chef – John Courtney had staged there years ago), and how the lovely Edulis came up on my radar (Toronto food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith said I “had to go there” and he was right — it was one of the finest, simplest, most perfect two hours of eating I’ve ever had.)

Many times, though, I’m just like anyone else, plowing through endless info on the internet, trying to find a good place to reserve a table when I’m out of town. As the Food Gal® says, in many ways we’ve come full circle. Where forty years ago you had to scrape and claw for scraps of information about where to eat when you traveled, now, the blizzard of white noise makes finding quality information just as difficult.

But research is just as essential today as it was in 1977. Google is essential but the first page is almost always worthless — that’s where all the paid TripAdvisor, Booking.com, and Yelp stuff is. Dig a little deeper, go to pages 2-4 of a google search to find independent articles/reviews/websites about where you’re headed. Go to bookstores (or Amazon) and buy books! People still publish interesting/informative guidebooks to eating in certain cities and they can help immensely to steer you to hidden gems.

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And don’t forget wine writers and wine websites — great food and wine go hand in hand, and wine writers know a thing or two about out-of-the-way jewels known only to the industry. That’s how I found Auberge du Pot d’Étain (above) when I was in Burgundy a year ago. It will never make anyone’s “50 Best” list, but Burghounds the world over know about it, and the wine list alone is worth a flight across the pond.

Finally, remember that nothing worthwhile comes easily. Many of the world’s greatest restaurants are hard to find, hard to book (they can be quite small), and even harder to get to. Le Calandre (my most recent MOAL) is in a forgettable suburb of a small Italian city, and takes four distinct rides  (plane, train, rental car and taxi) before you arrive at the front door. Our cab driver in Tokyo is still looking for the entrance to Narisawa.

Alsace, Chablis, Beaune, L’Auberge d’Lill, Troisgros, Dal Pescatore, and the Black Forest are all pains in the ass, location-wise, but once you get there, something magical happens.

Thank you, Bryan, for indulging me on my trip down memory lane. I’ve given you a very long answer to a very short question, but I hope I’ve also imparted some useful information.

In the end, though, the best answer is always the shortest: How have I found my meals of a lifetime? By always looking for one….and never forgetting that climbing a mountain is so much more rewarding than being helicoptered to the top.

Best and bon appetit,

John