Things Will Never Be the Same

Ed. note: The following essay appears in this month’s Desert Companion magazine. Click here to read it in its original format.

We seemed invincible once, didn’t we? Thirty years of ever-expanding prosperity will do that to you. Having survived Gulf wars, dot-com busts, recessions, mass shootings and depressions, it was a cinch the public’s appetite for all things Las Vegas was insatiable. Since 1994, we had seen one restaurant boom after another: celebrity chefs, the French Revolution of the early aughts, Chinatown’s twenty year expansion, Downtown’s resurgence — all of it  gave us rabid restaurant revelers a false sense of security. A cocky confidence that the crowds would flock and the champagne would always flow.

And then we were floored by a Covid left hook no one saw coming. Poleaxed, cold-cocked, out on our feet.  In an instant, literally, thirty years of progress hit the mat. To keep the metaphor going, we’ve now lifted ourselves to the ropes for a standing eight count. The question remains whether we can recover and still go the distance, or take one more punch and suffer a brutal TKO.

There was an eeriness to everything in those early months, as if a relative had died, or we were living in a bad dream. A sense of loss and apology filled the air. Like someone knocked unconscious (or awakening from a nightmare), our first instincts were to reassure ourselves. Restaurants were there to feed and help us back to our feet and the feelings were mutual. Reassurances and gratitude were the watchwords whenever you picked up a pizza or grabbed take-out from a chef struggling to make sense of it all.

Then, as quick as an unseen uppercut, the mood turned surly and defensive. The moment restaurants were given the go-ahead to start seating people again, the battle lines were drawn. It took some weeks to build the trenches, but by July, what began as a “we’re all in this together” fight for survival devolved into a multi-front war pitting survivalists on all sides against each other.  Mutual support evaporated as tensions arose between those needing to make a living and those who saw epidemic death around every corner.  Caught in the middle were the patrons: people who just wanted to go out, take advantage of our incredible restaurant scene and have a good time. Suddenly, everyone felt uncomfortable, and in a matter of a few calamitous weeks, dining out in America went from “we’re here to have a good time” to “let’s all struggle to get through this’ — not exactly a recipe for a good time, which is, after all, the whole point of eating out.

Reduced hours and crowds meant shorter menus, since every restaurant in town was forced to narrow its food options. No one seemed to mind, since anyone taking the time to dine out was simply happy the place was open. But if you sum it all up — the rules, the emptiness, the fear, the feeling of everyone being on guard — it’s a wonder anyone bothered going out at all. But going out to eat is what we do, because it is fun, convenient and delicious, and because we are human.

As Las Vegas’s most intrepid gastronaut, I’ve had to curb my voracious appetite more than anyone. Overnight my routine went from visiting ten restaurants a week to a mere few. Even in places where I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, the experience is as suppressed as the voices of the waiters. Instead of concentrating on hospitality, the singular focus is now on following all the rules. All of which makes you appreciate how the charm of restaurants stems from the sincerity of those serving you — something hard to notice when you can’t see their face.

Nowhere are these feelings more acute than on the Strip. “Las Vegas needs conventions to survive,” says Gino Ferraro, facing the simplest of facts. “If the hotels suffer, we suffer.” He’s owned Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar since 1985 and will be the first to tell you how thin the margins are for success in the business. Restaurants are in your blood more than your bank account, and micromanaging, cutting costs, and (hopefully) another year of government assistance are what he sees as keys to their survival. “Good restaurants will survive, but there’s no doubt there will be less of them.”

Unlike the free-standing Ferraro’s, the Strip is different. There, the restaurants are amenities — like stores in a mall if you will — and from Sunday-Thursday (when the conventions arrived) they used to thrive. These days, like Ferraro’s, they still pack ’em in on weekends, but almost all are closed Monday-Wednesday. This doesn’t mean the food or the service has suffered, far from it, only that everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and this anxiety is palpable when you walk through the doors. The staffs are almost too welcoming, which is nice, but you can sense the fear and it’s not pretty, and it is not going away for many months to come.

As Vegas slowly re-opens, one thing you can no longer take for granted is that each hotel will have a full compliment of dining options, from the most modest to world famous. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that a year from now, some hotels may field a smaller team of culinary superstars, and their bench will not be as deep, and those stars will have another season of wear and tear on them without any talented rookies to come along and take their place.

Long before the shutdown, there were signs we had reached peak Vegas and things were starting to wane. Some fancy French venues were showing their age, the Venetian/Palazzo (with its panoply of dining options), seemed overstuffed, and rumblings were heard that even the indefatigable David Chang had lost his fastball. The same could be said for the whole celebrity-chef-thing, which was starting to feel very end-of-last-century by the end of last year. The Palms’ murderer’s row of newly-minted sluggers was mired in a slump, and our gleaming, big box, pan-Asian eye-candy (Tao, Hakkasan) were not shining as bright as they once did.

The stakes are much higher when you consider the reputation of Las Vegas as a whole. Survey the landscape these days and all you can ask is, how much of this damage is permanent? It took from 1989-2019 to take Las Vegas from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to a world class, destination dining capital — a claim to fame like no other — where an entire planet of gastronomic delights, cooked by some of the best chefs in the business, was concentrated among a dozen swanky, closely-packed hotels. Now, what are we? A convention city with no conventions? A tourist mecca three days a week? Can we recapture this lost ground, or is some of it gone forever? Everyone is asking but no one has the answers.

Perhaps a culling of the herd was already in the works and all Covid did was accelerate the process. Are the big money restaurant days over? Certainly until those conventions return, and no one is predicting that until next year, at the earliest. If that’s the case, it will be a leaner/meaner gastronomic world that awaits us down the road — not the cornucopia of choices laid before you every night, no matter what style of food struck your fancy. The fallout will include the casinos playing it safe; not throwing money at chefs like they once did, and sticking with the tried a true for awhile.  Less ambitious restaurant choices? Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine a single European concept making a splash like Joël Robuchon did in 2005, or any Food Network star getting the red carpet treatment just for slapping their name on a door. The era of Flay, Ramsay, Andrés and others is over, and the “next big thing” in Las Vegas dining won’t be a thing for a long time.

If the Strip’s prospects look bleak (at least in the short term), locally the resilience has been astounding. Neighborhood venues hunkered down like everyone else, but now seem poised for a resurgence at a much faster rate than anything happening in the hotels.  If the Strip resembles a pod of beached whales, struggling to get back in the water, then local restaurants are the more nimble pilot fish, darting about, servicing smaller crowds wherever they find them. Four new worthwhile venues are popping up downtown: upscale tacos at Letty’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Sake, Good Pie and the American gastro-pub Main Street Provisions, all in the Arts District. Off the Strip Mitsuo Endo has debuted his high-toned yakitori bar — Raku Toridokoro — to much acclaim, and brew pubs are multiplying everywhere faster than peanut butter stouts.

Chinatown — with its indomitable Asians at the helm — seems the least fazed by any of this, and Circa will spring to life before year’s end on Fremont Street, hoping to capture some of the hotel mojo sadly absent a few miles south. Going forward, some of these imposed restrictions will remain in place to ensure survival (more take-out, smaller menus, fewer staff), but the bottom line is look to the neighborhoods if you wish to recapture that rarest of sensations these days, a sense of normalcy.

Watching my favorites absorb these body blows has been like nursing a sick child who did nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. In a way it’s made me realize that’s what these restaurants have become to me over decades: a community of fledgling businesses I’ve supported and watched grow in a place no one thought possible. As social experiments go, the great public health shutdown of 2020 will be debated for years, but this much is true: Las Vegas restaurants were at their peak on March 15, 2020, and reaching that pinnacle is a mountain many of them will never again climb.

 

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.

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)