Lunching Las Vegas

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Yours truly is a world-class luncher. Dejeuner makes my day. I revel in my midday repasts like Andrew Cuomo hovering over a female cheek.

Lunch is when my appetite shines — senses are keenest, taste buds sharpest, and my bonhomie in its fullest flower. If breakfast is only good for thinking about lunch, then lunch does its best work by making you forget about dinner. And couldn’t we all do with a little less of the latter?

I didn’t always think this way. Back in the day I indulged in fabulous feasts lasting deep into the night. My first Michelin 3-star meal (at Le Grand Vefour in the early 90s) started before 8 pm and didn’t finish until after midnight. My early excursions to Paris, New York, ‘Frisco, Lyon, Rome and Milan were filled with 8 o’clock dinner reservations at nothing but the toniest supper spots.

But time passes and what once seemed exotic now feels tedious. My upcoming trips to Europe will concentrate on where to get the best midday meal, mostly with locals, not a bunch of tourists with more money than manners, whooping it up after dark.

But I digress.

We are here to discuss midday meal suggestions…but permit me another small digression before getting to those.

Lunch is an urban invention. Back in the day (way back in the day), the midday meal was the biggest – when you ate the most (after a hard morning’s labor), and giving you sustenance for an afternoon of grueling work.

The actual word “lunch” stands for a small something you can hold in one hand, kind of like half a sandwich, or David Chang’s brain.

As people became less agrarian, the middle meal kept moving to later in the day. By the nineteenth century, according to this historian, after the invention of electricity, all the proper English were “dining” after 5:00, so copycat Americans followed suit. Thus, with such hoity-toity pretensions (along with the rise of the industrial working classes) eating at noon moved from being our main fuel to being merely a pit stop in the daily rat race. Pity.

‘Tis sad because lunch – and by “lunch” we mean a proper, sit-down lunch – is the best time of the day to gather yourself, reflect on a morning’s hard work, and gird your loins for whatever action lies ahead. Not to be crude (okay, to be crude), but sex on a full stomach is as much fun as running the high hurdles with hemorrhoids.

Gluttony and fucking are as incompatible as chocolate and cheese. Exhibit A: Have you ever heard of anyone getting laid after a huge Thanksgiving dinner? (I REST MY CASE.)

I mean who even thinks about bumping uglies after taking down six jumbo shrimp, three dinner rolls, a bleu cheese wedge, a giant rib eye, potatoes au gratin, two bottles of wine and three desserts at a late supper? (PROVE ME WRONG!)

Stuffing yourself after dark is sheer lunacy. It also makes you fat. Something the good ole Romans understood two thousand years ago:

“[Romans]….believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day…They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”Caroline Yeldham

Maybe that’s why I’m at Cipriani every Friday, chowing down on one simple, spectacular lunch after another:

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End of history lesson.

Las Vegas isn’t a lunch town. Few towns are these days. Bureaucrats eat at their desks, real estate types are driving around all day, lawyers are nailed to their computers, and casino execs do nothing but fret into their phones. With no white collar infrastructure to sustain a proper lunch environment, the pickins are slim when it comes to eating well at noon.

But do not despair mon ami, lunch is not a total loss. There are dining gems buried amongst the fast food zircons. You just need to know where to look.

And not to brag (okay to brag) but I probably eat better lunches than anyone in town.

So here they are, my highly vetted, very personal list of the best place for a midday meal in Las Vegas, with commentary, of course.

Crème de la Crème

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Note: Many, many places that used to open for lunch on the Strip are now closed. (This includes some former favorites like Spago, Jaleo, Delmonico, Bouchon, et al.) Good luck finding a decent sit-down midday meal in any big hotel…which is one of the reasons for this post.

Brera/Matteo’s – these sister spots have some of the best pizzas and pastas in town. Matteo’s downstairs at the Venetian is the quieter alternative, without music so loud you can’t hear yourself eat. Some of the pies upstairs at Brera will take your breath away, but fuggidabat any conversation until the stupid cruise ship music takes a break.

Brezza – for the time being, Nicole Brisson’s showplace is a 7 day lunch and dinner affair. Her extraordinary pastas need no introduction, and she even does an outstanding burger:

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(Update: As we predicted two weeks ago, BREZZA has now“postponed lunch” after serving it for less than a month. We knew it was too good to be true)

Cipriani – I eat here every week for a reason.

Capital Grille – the best chain steakhouse. Good steaks, great service, fabulous view. Some of the meat is standard issue, and the menu never changes, but it is huge and cozy at the same time (no mean feat that), and gals love it. Also good for business meals.

Milos – love it or hate it, but the Venetian has more decent midday meal options than any Strip hotel. It also now has our premier Greek seafood restaurant. Not quite the lunch bargain it used to be, but still a deal. Fabulous fish.

Marche Bacchus – still soothing after all these years. Still a wonder of wine and the best al fresco in the ‘burbs.

Wally’s – our newest fine wine/destination dining spot might have the best prices in town for expensive fermented grape juice. The store is a bargain hunter’s dream — if your idea of a bargain is getting a (normally) $400 bottle for two bills. Chef Eric L’Huillier is in charge of the kitchen, and is in imminent danger of turning this place into Las Vegas’s greatest French steakhouse.

Downtown’s Fabulous Food Faves

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Note: I work in downtown Las Vegas, and live two miles from my office, so you could say I eat out here All. The. Time. I eat out so much in DTLV I get bored with most of these — not because they’re not good, but because I’ve memorized the menus.

Carson Kitchen – still humming after seven years. Small menu; superb service.

DE Thai Kitchen – anything off the secret menu (which ain’t so secret) is great. So is the stuff not on the secret menu, like this incendiary green papaya salad:

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EAT. – get there early for one of Nat Young’s soul-satisfying breakfasts, serious sandwiches, and huevos motulenos.

8East – not so convenient unless you’re staying in the Circa hotel, but Dan Coughlin’s food is worth searching out.

Esther’s Kitchenwait for it…wait for it…this place is so crowded no one goes here anymore.

Letty’s – tacos, tacos y mas tacos!

Saginaw’s Deli – I love Paul Saginaw’s food, but there’s only so much deli my waistline can take.

7th & Carson – There is nothing surprising on the menu (except the stellar “Irish Breakfast”), but every time I eat here I walk away impressed by the execution.

Soulbelly BBQ – the No.1 barbecue in town and it isn’t even close. Excellent, out-of-the-ordinary sauces and one of our best burgers, too.

Chinatown

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Note: Chinatown (both the original on Spring Mountain Road and the new one popping up on South Rainbow) are their own thing. Most joints are open for lunch and dinner and everything in-between. Here are a few favorites, but there are dozens more where you can’t go wrong.

Big Wong – if bang for the buck was the only criteria, this Chinatown mainstay would be the best restaurant in town.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya – swish swish your way to above average izakaya fare in a dark, clubby setting.

China MaMa – our best Chinese restaurant. That’s all there is to say.

Curry Zen – The Food Gal’s® fave, for good reason. Simple rice, Japanese curry, and a few gyoza are just the thing when you need to munch and run.

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District One – Let’s go get the oxtail soup (above), she says, and we willingly comply, even if we’re there for the Vietnamese carpaccio.

Lamaii – open for lunch, even on weekends. Top flight Thai. Incredible wine list priced to sell.

New Asian BBQ & Noodle – the second best dim sum in town (after Rainbow Kitchen).

Shanghai Taste – the best xiao long bao until someone proves to me otherwise:

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Shang Artisan Noodlenot actually in Chinatown, but that’s how we’re listing it. Extraordinary soups.

Rainbow Kitchen – giving China MaMa a run for its dumplings in the Chinese food supremacy department.

Rincon Buenos Aireswe forgot about RBA until we popped in for lunch a month ago. We had also forgotten about how piquant their chimichurri sauce is, and how the “lomo completo” sandwich (below) is one of the best meat and carbo loads ever:

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Weera Thai Kitchen – speaking of piquant: it’s tough to beat this en fuego menu of Thai street classics. Not for gringos and that’s the way we like it.

Outliers of Excellence

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Note: These are not exactly convenient unless you live near their ‘hood, but if you do, you should be ducking in to one for a midday bite on a regular basis.

Jamon JamonI don’t know what behooves Rafael Salines Catalá to stay open weekdays for lunch but I’m damn glad he does.

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Saga Pastry + Sandwich – is finally unshackled by Covid restrictions, and is hitting its stride with Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches and a Danish hot dog to beat the band. Those tiny shrimp alone are worth the trip to Henderson.

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill – opened in the midst of the pandemic, in a weird-ass location with failure written all over it. Hopes are higher for this incarnation — the seafood is just too damn good. Classy/funky little build-out, too (sea above).

Win Kee Hong Kong Noodle & BBQ – Chinese ‘cue, soups and seats that make you think you’re in a Hong Kong alleyway. Criminally cheap, too.

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So why am I such a lunch lush these days? Some of it has to do with age and digestion — I find big evening meals simply don’t sit that well with my iron stomach, and can impinge on a good night’s sleep, even without wine.

Secondly, when I travel, I’ve found the great dining destinations of Europe to be friendlier, cheaper, and easier to access for the midday meal. Even a three hour repast at some destination dining palace leaves you plenty of time to walk it off and see the sights.

In Vegas, quite frankly, dinner on the Strip bores me. Have you tried parking there recently? MGM properties are the worst and Caesars isn’t far behind. Valet now costs $25+ at most hotels, and even on weeknights, getting in and out of the garages on the south Strip is a pain in the ass. (It was a pain in the ass even in the best of times, but at least it was free.)

Since 1998, I probably haven’t gone 4 weeks without stopping into the Bellagio. Now, I haven’t been in 6 months and still don’t see any reason to return.  What’s the point? To watch drunk day-clubbers stagger around?

The only reason to hit Caesars is Restaurant Guy Savoy. (Who exactly gets a boner over Bobby Flay doing Italian these days? No gastronome I know.) The shitshow that is Mandalay Bay? Are you kidding me? All the good places in these former dining destinations are either closed, on the rocks, or open for dinner, “Thurs-Sun 5 pm-10 pm.” Yeesh.

There’s a reason you find me these days hanging out at the Venetian/Palazzo, Wynn/Encore, and Resorts World and those reasons are: welcoming environment(s), ease of access, and most of all, good food…available at noon.

See you at lunch.

Image(See what you’re missing by eating at your desk?)

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

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Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

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All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

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Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

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A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

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Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

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Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

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I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

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Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

The Mind of a Restaurant Critic

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When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk. For that, the user reviews on Yelp are beyond useless….So there in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to. – Josh Ozersky

The two questions I get asked most frequently are, 1) How did you become a restaurant critic? and 2) How do you decide where to go…. and how do you critique a restaurant once you’re there?

That’s actually three questions, but for the purpose of this piece we’ll treat the last two as a single inquiry into the my machinations and methodology used when reviewing restaurants.

Regarding question #1: I’ve gone through the story of how I became a critic so many times even I am tired of telling it. The fastest explanation is best summarized by the axiom “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Vegas in 1994 was extremely near-sighted when it came to food, and yours truly was the only one urging our local press to wake up and smell the celebrity chefs. Thankfully, KNPR- Nevada Public Radio was hep to the idea of commentary on our burgeoning restaurant scene, and a (second) career was launched. Click here if you’re interested in some of my (now ancient) reviews.

If you’re interested in spending a few minutes inside the mind of a critic, read on.

Many ask if there is some sort of master plan in how I go about my reviewing business? A highly detailed outline of restaurants charted days, weeks, months in advance for possible exploration, delectation, and possible evisceration. In a macro sense, the first half of the year is spent scouting new territory; the middle three months (summer) is spent writing/updating EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants. Once the final copy is in around September/October, and once I weigh in on Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards issue, I then spend a couple of months (November-December) trying to lose a few pounds (good luck with that).

On a micro-level, it’s much more ad hoc than you think — a mixture of ear-to-the-ground interest in what’s new, blended with a need to revisit old haunts to see if they’re still up to snuff.

These days my attention centers upon all the action downtown and in Chinatown. Kaiseki Yuzu just opened in its new digs on Spring Mountain Road, and another kaiseki joint is coming hot on its heels, soon to pop its doors on Decatur and SMR in the next month. Apparently there’s an udon noodle bar on West Flamingo that slipped through my attention cracks, and the just-opened ShangHai Taste needs a return since my initial visit only a few days into its run.

Such are the thoughts running through my brain at any moment.

Competing in this crowded space are sugar plums awaiting at the soon-to-open Main Street Provisions and the new Good Pie — two highly-anticipated, chef-driven joints just days away from boosting the Main Street dining scene.

And oh, by the way, someone told me to check out the food at Able + Baker brewpub, and Sheridan Su’s new concept…and isn’t it high time I gave vegetarian tacos a try at Tacotarian?

(Side joke that practically wrote itself: Me, walking past the almost-empty Tacotarian last night: “Why are there no customers in the vegetarian taco joint?” Friend of Me: “Because it’s a vegetarian taco joint.”)

Also swimming through these synapses are yearnings for return visits to tried and true favorites. I really don’t need to go back to Sage, Bardot Brasserie, Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Guy Savoy to remind myself how tasty they are, but their menus beckon me like the seductive song of a siren. Odysseus may have strapped himself to a mast to resist his temptations, but my only restraints are time and my waistline.

The older I get, the more I realize how my appetite for restaurants usually splinters into one of three shards when the stomach growls: there’s the curious (“I need to try check out _____)”), the complacent (“Let’s go to an old favorite”), and the conscientious (“Duty demands I revisit ______, even though I have -0- interest in doing so.”) Thus am I compelled, sometimes, to haul my ass to some far corner of the Vegas valley to check out a chef, or recheck that I either still like or loathe someplace. (It was this motivation that led me to embark on a cook’s tour of classic Las Vegas restaurants a few years ago….a trek for which my stomach still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Having decided on where, the next issue is how. As in: How do I size up the places I write about?

Before I go any further, let’s start by stating I am well aware of the subjectivity involved in judging anything that involves personal taste — be it food, fashion, music, or movies. If you like your burgers well done I feel sorry for you, but you are not wrong.

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I could argue with you that you’re not experiencing your burger’s inherent juicy, tangy, deep-roasted wonderfulness by eating it one step removed from a piece of desiccated charcoal, but if that’s how you like it, so be it. What I will do is explain that the full flavor of the meat is being shortchanged by a chef who either doesn’t know or care to lift the patty off the grill at the “right” time. In this sense, I am merely reflecting popular wisdom (and perhaps my own prejudices) about when beef tastes best.

But there are standards in cooking and restaurant operation (just as there are in music performance and movie production). All a food critic does is try to hold a restaurant to them.

All a restaurant review does is filter a consumer product through his own prism. A writer should never lose sight his own prejudices, lest the focus of the review become more about him than what is on the plate. I strive to remember this unless, of course, you are dead wrong about liking some shitty Italian restaurant, or gluten-free anything.

As for the standards I try to uphold, the criteria is much different for new v. old.

At an old favorite, I let my guard down and take a lot for granted. All I’m there for is to confirm that the place hasn’t lost its fastball.

A new joint gets the full once-over: from the lighting to the silverware to the taste of the water they pour.

How’s the greeting? Where is the greeting? Is it awkward? Polished? Sure, they might know me, but how are those three ladies right behind me addressed? Does it feel good in there? Do you get a feeling of comfort and warmth when you enter, or something more cool and aloof?

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What about the chairs? The booths? The depth of the seats? Their width? Do you stick to them? Slide off? Does the table wobble? (Iconic old eateries get a pass here; brand new ones, not so much.)

Is the design unique? (Hatsumi) DIY? (Elia Authentic Greek Taverna) Beautiful? (Lamaii, Weera Thai Kitchen) Hackneyed? ( Majordomo) Or does it fit the food? (Rao’s) (BTW: nothing gets graded on steeper curve than decor. Local joints hanging on by a thread get a lot more leeway than Strip hotels who pay millions to come up with the hideous cruise ship look (Lago), or a coffee shop/bus station (the otherwise excellent StripSteak).

Is the place too big? (Usually, yes, e.g. Mott 32) Or too small? Or poorly laid out?

Can you hear yourself think? Does the music intrude? How energized is the staff? Are they working in silent, satisfied synchronicity? (They should be.) There is a hum that great restaurants exude — it can be almost silent as in the case of a haute cuisine frog pond, or close to a cacophonous roar in some over-amplified gastropub — but you know it when you hear it, and it means the place is firing on all cylinders. (If you want to hear what I’m talking about, go to Cipriani sometime.)

What about the napkins? (Polyester? Paper? Real cotton?) The plates? How close are the tables? Does the bar serve food? Does it look comfortable doing so? Would a single diner be happy eating there? Did they spend money on the glassware, or do it on the cheap?

How uncomfortable are the bare tables? Are they naked as a design statement? Or because of an impecunious proprietor?

And while we’re at the table, how clean was it when you sat down? Still wet from a wiping? And how long has it been since those place-mats were steam-cleaned?

Does it smell like a restaurant? Or is the ventilation so good you could be in a library?

Is the staff alert? Young? Old? Happy to be there or biding their time until the Culinary Union calls? Snappily dressed or slovenly? (A staff in t-shirts can look sharp; frayed-around-the-edges formal wear is fooling no one.)

Is there an adult in charge? Or are a bunch of 20-somethings aimlessly looking for direction?

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Does that adult help with service? Busing of tables? If a table is in distress, does the manager, or another waiter offer to help, or give you that “it’s not my station, I’ll go find your waiter” look? How fast do the menus arrive? How chatty (too much or not enough) is the waiter?

Can they handle a corkscrew? (You’d be surprised how clueless some waitrons are. This is not their fault. It shows a lack of training, which shows a lack of caring….by management.)

While we’re on the subject: How seamless is the transition from water to cocktails to wine?

Then check out the least sophisticated table in the place. Are they happy? Being treated with respect? Frustrated? Acting intimidated? If the latter, how patient is the staff (or the harried bartender) being with them?

Lastly, and most importantly, is it a passion restaurant or a money restaurant? (Esther’s Kitchen is a passion restaurant; Ada’s – its offshoot – is a money restaurant.)

Then there’s the menu. Easy to read? All over the map? Too descriptive? Minimalist? Too cute? Full of cliches? Tourist friendly or gastronomically challenging? Or a little of both? Can you parse the  the food from the card before you, or will you require the assistance of a soothsayer, shaman, and a polymath’s transliteration to figure it out?

Automatic deductions for roasted beets, salmon, scallops, and chicken breasts. Bonus points for offal, strange birds, good soups and singular focus.

Believe it or not, I process most of this information in about 90 seconds.

I’ve usually filed away the answers in the Rolodex of my mind before the food even arrives.

And then it does and then it’s a whole new ballgame. But you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that process.

This is the first of a two-part article.