My Worst Meals of 2019

Image(Yeah that’s me, dunking on bad food)

Sick of “Best Of” lists?

Tired of “Top 10” torpor?

Had it with holiday hype?

Then Being John Curtas has a refreshing intermezzo for you….

Sorry if these ruffle a few feathers, but since real food writing is fast becoming non-existent in Las Vegas, we thought we’d supply you with some information that flies against the all the bought-and-paid-for drivel.

For the record, none of these meals was truly terrible; all of them are good restaurants; most diners would enjoy them without batting an eye. But each fed me one or two or three things that had me shaking my head throughout the meal, and grumbling to myself that there was no reason to return.

In a small way this breaks my heart. In my world, I want every meal to be transforming, life-affirming, jaw-dropping, and transcendent. I’m rooting for the restaurant every time I walk through the door. Leaving a restaurant mumbling about a dish puts me in a bad mood for hours, sometimes days. The Food Gal has been known to consult everyone from therapists to divorce lawyers whenever darkness descends upon my countenance after a dining disaster.

And sad to say, it only takes one misfire to sometimes ruin an entire meal for me. Especially in a place I know and love.

In fact, the way I feel about my favorite restaurants is a lot like love…or at least lust. As with the latter, sometimes it doesn’t take much to cool your ardor. With sex, the line between “I want to kiss you all over” to “Ewww” can be pretty thin. With food, all it takes is a pseudo-Caesar with some caperberries in it.

Image(Not even a 9 year old would eat some of this stuff)

My Worst Meals of 2019.

Bavette’s

I had a pretty good steak dinner here. Two of them, actually. But I couldn’t see what I was eating. At these prices, you ought to be able to see what you’re paying for.

Burnt Offerings

We so wanted to love this place. I so wanted to be able to crow to my Jewish friends how I’m now “keeping Kosher” (at least for one or two meals a year) and actually admit to enjoying it. But the tough meat (at a place that brags about its smoking skills) was a sin that Yahweh himself could not forgive.

Carson Kitchen

Calm down. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. My two lunches here this year were perfectly fine. But as game-changing as CK has been, it hasn’t followed its success with anything further on the local scene. Instead, it’s being used as a flagship for expansion in other cities. Bravo for them, but the menu and the concept here has gotten stale. There, I said it.

Image(Dumb Dish of the Year – bony fishy fish on burnt toast)

La Strega

People love La Strega, so who am I to argue? Well, I’m me, and for what that’s worth: the apps were more than a little disappointing (I almost broke a tooth on some stale, toasted baguette, the tartare tasted like hospital food, the Caesar has caperberries in it). Pizzas and pastas can impress though (if you go for overload, subtlety isn’t in this kitchen’s vocabulary), but the feeling I got on my two trips here was that La Strega is that all-too-common creature: a restaurant where everything sounds better than it tastes. The menu might be fine for restaurant-starved Summerliners, but at its core, it is safe and boring…which is just what its customers want.

Locale

Locale amused us more than La Strega, but is still flawed in fundamental, incurable ways. The menu is too big and actually the inverse of La Strega’s — too hip for the room, too complicated, trying too hard to separate itself from the pack. If it were downtown (or playing to a black-belt foodie audience) it would give Esther’s a run for its money. Out in the sticks, its prospects for success are questionable. The old saw: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” ought to be rephrased here into: You can lead Las Vegas to interesting Italian food, but they’ll still want chicken parm.

Forte Tapas

What once seemed fascinating (kachapurri, Bulgarian mixed grill, pelmini, Stroganoff fries, etc.) tasted tired and rehashed. The verve of the room, the brightness of the recipes, snappiness of the staff, all had disappeared. It didn’t help that they served us one corked wine, and another at a nice, warm bath-like 80 degrees. I think I liked this place better when it was filled with Russian mobsters in track suits.

La Comida

For the last seven years or so, La Comida was on our regular downtown rotation. But we ate there twice at the beginning of the year and something was different. The menu read the same, but the management was different, the food had changed, and not for the better. These things can be subtle, but sometimes it’s just a matter of some under-seasoned meat, less vibrant guacamole, cold corn and stale tortillas that tells you they don’t care anymore. Haven’t been back since February. Don’t intend to go back.

The Nomad Restaurant

What Daniel Humm did with Eleven Madison Park in New York was phenomenal. What he and his investors are doing in Las Vegas is predictable. The Nomad is a chain restaurant pretending it’s a gourmet one. Worst service of the year too, by a country mile.

Image(Oh no, they’re serving us sardines on stale toast! Mr. Curtas is not amused.)

Oscar’s Steakhouse

God bless Oscar’s. It so terribly wants to be a top-tier steakhouse but it so consistently fails miserably at it. To paraphrase “A Christmas Story”: it’s not that bad…but it’s not that good either.

Pepe’s Tacos

The Food Gal® and I were starving at lunch one day and pressed for time while driving on N. Decatur. Suddenly, like a Mexican apparition it shimmered before us: a bright yellow awning beckoning, “Come hither, partake of our tacos poor pilgrim, enjoy our asada sopes, Help Wanted.” So in we trudged, seduced by hunger, the advert (and stomach pangs) having relieved us of our common sense. From now on we’re sticking with Del Taco.

Sara’s

They start you off here with some gargantuan, brontosaurus bone-in beef rib-thing they serve as an appetizer. Yes, an appetizer. This is supposed to impress you. Our Dover sole was the worst piece of fish I’ve had in a decade. Strictly for those wowed by dark rooms and hidden doors.

Image(Pearl can’t bear to look at our best of the worst)

The Kitchen at Atomic

We went in for a steak. We were told that they only had one, 48 oz. rib eye left. We settled on other meat: a hangar and something else. None of it was very good and the flatbread was a mess. I had four meals here in 2019 and loved 3 of them. We’ll leave it at that.

Tim Ho Wan

Don’t believe the hype. This is a copy of a copy of a copy of a famous dim sum house. You will not eat badly, but you will wait in line to eat food that’s done better (and cheaper) across the street at Ping Pang Pong.

Water Grill

I enjoyed my one meal here…in the same way I used to enjoy McCormick and Schmick’s….in 1998.

Image(Some of these meals deserved a good sabering…and needed more champagne)

Years ago you would’ve found me wallowing in a lot more mastication misery. These days, I am much more selective about where I eat — discrimination and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Vegas food scene keep my “worst meals” at a minimum.

In the past, I would go to the opening of an envelope, but time, taste and age have left me little interest in whatever “fast casual” concept some ambitious restaurateur is launching to take him/her to the promised land. This knowledge alone has saved me from a lot of indigestion, and further enhancement of my already dyspeptic personality.

I really don’t eat badly these days, even in the restaurants noted above. As you can see, my “worst meals” usually amount to a few dishes that missed the mark and put a damper on the overall experience. These failings shouldn’t be looked upon as a condemnation of the whole operation. At all of these places (save poor old Pepe), your average diner can have a most enjoyable meal.

But unfortunately for restaurants, I am not your average diner.

 

 

Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

Image(Restaurant of the Year)

Big deal dining is back! Big box Chinese makes a splash, Asian eats remain awesome, and some classics never go out of style.

That’s how we’d characterize the DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT AWARDS 2019.

Or as we like to refer to them: “the only restaurant awards that count.”

They’re small in number, but they also mean something — representing sustained excellence that enhances not just their customer’s palates, but the Vegas food/restaurant scene as a whole.

Image(2007 aka The Stone Age)

The text below represents the awards written by yours truly (as I’ve been doing for over 20 years). In the beginning, I was a committee of one (see the ancient artifact above). Now, they are orchestrated by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kiraly and my fellow writers, and year in and year out, they stand for the best Las Vegas has to offer.

(Ed. note: We’d like to take credit for all of the stunning photography below, but most of it has been brazenly lifted/plagiarized/stolen from the brilliant photographer Sabin Orr and Desert Companion magazine.)

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

Veal Chop(Look no further for the world’s best veal chop)

There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining.

Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates.

Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere.

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

Great service should be not too fast, not too friendly and almost invisible. Think of it as the inverse of pornography – you know it when you don’t see it.

A great restaurant operates with the concealed efficiency of a fine-tuned watch, every joint, mechanism and movement dependent upon the other, coiling and uncoiling every second, seamlessly sweeping you through the time spent enjoying your meal. Time spent at Michael Mina has always been a good investment, and one of the reasons is unfailingly great service.

Since 1998 it has held down its corner of the Bellagio as a bastion of seafood and San Francisco-inspired elegance. The food and the decor have always been stars in their own right, but the unsung heroes at work every night are the management and staff, who seat the customers, mix drinks, pour the wines and toss the tartares. Holding them all together is General Manager Jorge Pagani (pictured above with Executive Chef Nick Dugan and Sommelier Kayla Krause), a maestro who performs in the lowest key, quietly charming a steady stream of customers while keeping his troops in shape.

Chefs and sommeliers have come and gone over the years, but Pagani, has been a constant. From the moment you approach the hostess stand until you pay your bill, you sense the quiet hum of a restaurant that is doing everything right. Watching the staff shift from table to table, filleting fish, unveiling pot pies, and carving and mixing is a symphony without music. Michael Mina makes you feel as cosseted and cared for as any restaurant in Las Vegas, and like all real pros, they make it look easy. In fact, you almost don’t see it at all.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

You might be excused for wondering what all the shouting is about when you roll up on Café Breizh for the first time. It sits towards the far end of one of those generic strip malls that are as Las Vegas as slot machines in a grocery store.

But do not be deterred by the surroundings, for once inside you will find the best French pastries in town. The selection is small but the craftsmanship, artistry and intense flavors will grab you from the first bite. There is no better croissant in Vegas, on or off the Strip; the chocolate éclair is so packed with custard it threatens to burst its pastry case, and the picture-perfect tarts do that tri-level taste thing (crusty, creamy, and fruity) that the French perfected around the time the musketeers were buckling their swashes.

Pierre Gatel is the chef, owner and hand-maker of each of these, and from the day he opened three years ago (after a stint at the Wynn), Francophiles, Napoleon nabobs and Danish devotees have made a beeline here for his creations. He also does a limited number of baguettes every day which sell like hotcakes, so go early if you want to grab a loaf and feel like les Français on your way home.

Las Vegas is blessed with a wealth of pastry talent, but most of it stays in the hotels. Now we have one of them staging his magic right on south Fort Apache, in a spot that feels like a slice of Paris, and the alchemy he performs daily with butter, flour, cream and sugar is something to behold.

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

Vetri, if you let it, will take your breath away. The qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizzas and chicken parm are nowhere to be found. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat.  All of it served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian restaurant in America. With this offshoot he has bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems foreign to most people’s Italian vocabulary — casoncelli, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique to Las Vegas and every bite a revelation.

No restaurant enhanced Vegas’s foodie cred more than it did in the past year, and at a time when everyone is announcing the death knell of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big city sass to our scene. You don’t have to dress to the nines to go there, but the food on your plate (and that view) will make you feel like a million bucks. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky.

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

Matthew Hurley(You can’t beat this man’s meat)

In the past few years, it’s become deliciously obvious to us that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding of course, because it is Puck’s gastronomic gravitas that enables Las Vegas to have one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in our backyard.

But calling CUT just another celebrity beef boutique would be a grave injustice, because by flexing his own culinary muscles, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few meat emporiums could ever dream of.  No doubt his creations are highly vetted by his corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he has done with his freedom, and all the top shelf ingredients at his disposal, is stunning.

Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette — toggling back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to pull off a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-beating steaks, and gorgeous pasta, and never miss a beat. The elegant fish cookery alone would be right at home in some hoity-toity French joint, and he and his minions are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi and various Italian carpaccios.

If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a hankering for Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a  CIA graduate like Hurley  (who has been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to sit back, go through the motions, and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into one of the best restaurants in America.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago (after a deluge), many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’s most famous restaurant.

The previous seventeen years had seen the Chutima family (Saipin, Penny, and Sabrina above) build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been called “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for over a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran.

Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s nam prik noom. Instead of being a set-back, the move created a boom. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers and the new digs provided a more fitting backdrop for this award-wining cuisine.

What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please the American palate. Be it khao soi or koi soi these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) Siamese food is known for. (It is a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) This grander stage seems to have caused the whole operation to snap to attention and also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists.

Maybe it was the flood, or the inspiration from a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing seems crisper and more consistent these days. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam, and now, finally, it looks the part.

Click on this link to read about the rest of these worthy recipients from Jim Begley, Mitchell Wilburn, Lissa Townsend Rogers and Greg Thilmont:

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEARDan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá)

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New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

Image(Holy Mole!)

While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

Image(Too hip for the room)

On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

Image(Boffo beef at a bargain)

So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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