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.

 

The Mexicans

Image(Elio)

For years, Mexican food in Las Vegas has gotten a bad rap. I should know, I was one of those doing the rapping.

All you had to do is travel to SoCal, Arizona, or Denver to see our Mexicans fell woefully short when it came to bringing the bounty of Mexico to the High Mojave. Like Greek and Indian restaurants, Mexican eateries seemed mired in identical menus, ignoring regional differences in search of a one-size-fits-all formula. In place of Yucatan seafood specialties or Oaxacan moles we got fajitas fajitas fajitas! When we weren’t getting nachos, enchiladas and tacos!

With plenty of kitchen talent surrounding us, the question always was: Why was Vegas Mexican food so bad for so long? Part of it had to do with the early Vegas pioneers — the Ricardo’s, Macayo’s, Chapala’s and their ilk — which were all hamstrung by the lack of good groceries. Back in the 70s and 80s, those jalapenos and beans probably came from a can, the meat was cheap, and the seafood came from who knows where. Whatever scratch cooking was done was reserved for the proteins, and you might find a fresh tortilla at a place like Lindo Michoacan, but woe be the diner who expected the tomatoes to be fresh or the salsa to be house-made.

Things have changed a lot recently, and three new places are leading the way.

Image(José can you see these salsas)

José Aleman’s Sin Fronteras Tacos y Mas  isn’t exactly new. He’s been tucked into a strip mall in the northwest part of town for three years, turning out remarkable food made all the more special by how surprising it is in such an unlikely location.

Usually, Mexican restaurants parked in these forgettable strip malls serve food on par with the surroundings. Not so, José. Here you’ll find all the usual suspects (fajitas, fundidos and the like), but if you look a little more closely you’ll notice everything is a cut or three above your usual one-size-fits-all Mex menu.

Aleman’s menu is full of surprises, starting with the salsas. Six are offered (above, including guacamole and queso), all made daily, in house. They cost a buck a piece, and you should treat yourself (at least on your first visit) to one of each. The “Diablo” (made with arbol chiles), and smokey habanero/chipotle “Morita,” will give a chilehead all they can handle, while the milder ones (including a gorgeous tomatillo-based “Verde”) will have you reflexively dipping into them until all that’s left is your finger scraping the bowl.

Aleman calls his restaurant a “no Tapatio zone” with good reason: it would be a sin at Sin Fronteras to ruin this food with a bottled sauce.

Image(Relleno gets real)

Hidden among the same old Mexican standards are gems of careful cooking made with  — ranging from terrific tacos to more cheffy stuff which would be right at home at the Border Grill or one of Rick Bayless’s outposts. The chile relleno, oozing Oaxacan cheese (above), is in a class by itself, and his fried pork “Michoacan-style” (below) is worth a trip all by itself.

Image(They had us at “deep-fried pork ribs”)

One dip into the queso fundido laced with house-made chorizo tells you you aren’t in Ricardo’s land anymore, and showstoppers like the enchiladas “aguascalientes style” (named after Aleman’s Mexican birthplace – topped with roasted potatoes, crema, and cotija cheese) are as far from mediocre Mexican as Cabo San Lucas is from Lake Mead.

Image(Aguascaliente means either “hot water” or festooned with taters)

All aquas frescas are made in house, as are the desserts. To a flavor, each will stop you in your tracks. Sin Fronteras means “without borders,” and refers as much to Aleman’s culinary odyssey as it does to the boundaries he is pushing with his refined cooking.

What began with dish washing at haute cuisine palaces in Chicago brought him to cooking at top Vegas spots (Eiffel Tower, Boa Steakhouse, Marché Bacchus), and now to a place where his passion for his homeland’s food can flourish.

Sin Fronteras Tacos y Mas is much much more than just another taco shop. Its surroundings might be uninspiring and the decor modest, but if there’s a better neighborhood Mexican restaurant in Vegas right now, cooking food this finely tuned, I have yet to find it.

José never lets me pay, but I always try to leave a tip equal to what I think the meal would’ve cost…which includes a couple of tacos at $2.50 (a flat out steal), $15 for those rellenos, and ten bucks for enchiladas. In other words, $40 will give two folks all the food they can handle here. He could boost prices by 50% and they would still be a bargain.

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Letty’s De Leticia’s Cocina (aka Letty’s) is an entirely different animal. Where Sin Fronteras punches way above its weight, Leticia Mitchell is swinging at pitches she knows she can hit. (Mix. That. Metaphor!) Her wheelhouse in this case is downtown’s insatiable appetite for tacos.

Opening Letty’s a quarter mile from Casa Don Juan, Dona Maria’s, and Tacotarian would seem to be risky business, but when the food is this good, we can certify it as a home run, only a month into its opening.

Letty’s is tiny (the old El Sombrero building), the menu is small, you order at the register, and they run the food out to one of eight tables inside, with a few more on the sidewalk. Mitchell has made some smart decisions in taking over an iconic space — turning the old freestanding building (the oldest restaurant building in Las Vegas) into sign by itself — in the form of an eye-popping mural which wraps around the structure. The effect is festive and eye-catching, and puts you in the mood for her sparkling cuisine.

Image(Guisado my cochinita, por favor)

Before going any further, I should state that Leticia and I have a history. For years I considered her full-service restaurant in Centennial Hills to be one of our best Mexicans. It was a classic old-school south-of-the-border joint —  colorful decor, lots of seating, lively crowd, full bar, beer and tequila ads everywhere — that felt like a cliche until the food arrived and blew your mind. The fresh tortillas alone were worth the trip, and some of her moles and sauces were extraordinary.

And then, something happened. A few years ago, we suffered two terrible meals in a row which made me question my sanity. It was pretty obvious the “C” team had been put in charge, and soon enough, I started hearing rumors she was closing her doors. Landlord troubles ensued (or so we heard) and soon enough, she did.

Image(Two hot tamales)

All that is water under the bridge now, because Centennial Hills’ loss has been downtown’s gain. Leticia has recovered her taco mojo, and, like Aleman, has gotten better by going smaller,

No longer facing the challenge of serving hundreds (and employing dozens), she’s free to downscale and make handmade food that feels more personal. Tacos and tortas are the focus, stuffed with all your favorite proteins — the difference being each bite brings a level of quality lacking in many of its competitors.

The nominations are closed as far as tamales (above) are concerned: you won’t find better outside of an abuela’s house. We don’t remember anything like her tamarind-sauced, carnitas enchilada in town, either — a tangy take on tradition which managed to be both wonderfully familiar and hauntingly strange.

Image(Sweet heat: carnitas tamarindo)

The sauce starts out tart-sweet and ends with the mellow glow of chile heat filling your throat and back palate — by turns exciting and soothing, and extraordinary by any measure.

Image(Holy fatback, Batman!)

Chicharrones? You only think you know chicharrones….especially if you equate them with crispy fried pork rinds. Letty’s version is more like deep-fried pork belly (more meat than rind, see above) and they are outrageously good by any measure. A big basket shows up, too much for two, you’ll think to yourself, before devouring the whole thing. She also does something called  “quesotacos” which wraps your protein of choice inside a layer of melted, caramelized Oaxaca cheese, wrapped inside a tortilla. A cheese blanket inside a taco may sound a bit Taco Town-ish, but the result is damn tasty.

And while we’re at it, don’t sleep on the Ensenada tacos or the cochinita pibil seared tortillas either. The former are small but pack a punch — whether your seafood is grilled or battered — and the latter are two rolled little rolled corn tortillas of pure adobo pork goodness.

Lest I be seen as overpraising Letty’s, keep in mind this is a modest operation, very much concentrating on tacos, tortas, and snacks. But its delights are in the details, and even the simplest of items — like her black beans with crema — signals a great leap forward in downtown dining options. Bayless once told me the reason Mexican food in America was so lousy was because most of it came out of a can. Nothing here tastes like it came out of a can.

Finally, save room for dessert, but be forewarned: the flan is so dense, light bends around it.

The tacos cost around $4 each (and you’ll want to get two). Everything else on the menu hovers in the $7-$14 range (and you’ll want to try one of each).

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ELIO is in another league entirely. It comes to us straight from Mexico City by way of New York. One look at the place tells you that things are serious here, as in lobster salpicón serious, green mole-tokyo turnip serious, and duck carnitas serious.

The menu is heavy on herbs, veggies, and various non-meaty items, although there are plenty of those around to keep the trenchermen happy.

‘Vegetales” get the super-serious treatment here, enough to justify $19 for a “Gem” lettuce salad (below), and $26 for a single turnip served with green mole. But don’t let these prices dissuade you: whether it’s a deceptively simple salad or a sweet potato served with pumpkin seed salsa, this kitchen has such a way with things that sprout from the earth, you might consider foregoing eating animals altogether.

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Of course, man does not live by pristine salads and “Mole verde (broccoli with hoja santa) alone, so there’s plenty of non-traditional dishes to nosh on, with raw seafood taking center stage, along with such beauties as these marvelously tangy mussels, served “in escabeche”:

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…and it’s doubtful you’ll ever pay more for a carrot dish than these roasted “al pastor” beauties:

Image(Shriveled yet succulent)

….all of it served with various sauces (e.g. guacachile, salsa macha, salsa roja) from deep in the Mexican catechism.

The deepest dives of all are reserved for seafood — rather remarkable from a restaurant having migrated to the high desert from a landlocked, volcanic valley. Regardless, the “crudo” is given top billing on the menu for good reason. Whether it’s striped bass in corn aguachile, scallop ceviche or tuna tartare, there’s not a clinker in the bunch. Soaking seafood in citrus comes as naturally to this cuisine as nixtamalization, and the chefs here are masters of the art.

Image(Duck carnitas with fixins)

Unlike many restaurants these days, things don’t get less interesting once you step up to the main courses. Everything from the lamb barbacoa to the “Branzino a la talla” (served atop a pool of guajillo chile adobo) is meant to be tucked into a taco, but you’ll be excused if you alternate between wrapping ingredients in one of the excellent corn tortillas, or just nibbling away directly from the dish.

The two signature “must have” items are the “Mole de la casa” (a softball of fresh mozzarella cheese plopped into a mole sauce days in the making), and the “Duck carnitas” (above), almost two pounds of spoon-tender duck breast, with crackling skin, begging to be devoured by everyone at the table. The carnitas are pricey ($90) but more than enough for four, and there better be at least that many of you present if you want to take down this big boy. (The picture above is a half portion, and gave The Food Gal® and I all we could handle, with plenty left over for lunch the next day.)

Prices may seem high, but everything is easily shared between 2-4 diners. The Bocados (snacks) section are a good way to dip your toe into the Olvera oeuvre with a minimum of sticker shock, and mix and matching them is half the fun. There, you’ll find a Pan de Elote that might be the last word in corn bread; fat little shrimp tostadas sharpened by grated horseradish and soothed by guacamole (below); and a minced lobster salpicón — all better than anything you’ve ever had in a Mexican restaurant.

Image(Shrimply fabulous)

That’s because you haven’t. Mexican food, especially in the States, has never been treated with such respect, by the cooks or the customers. Here, like a lot of “ethnic” cuisines, it has suffered from a reputation for being cheap and easy, inelegant, informal, and inexpensive. No more.  Enrique Olvera started turning those premises on their head twenty years ago — when Pujol first made a splash in Mexico City — and in the two decades since, Mexican food has taken its rightful place as a world gastronomic treasure. As Feran Adrià has said: “There was Mexican food before Enrique Olvera and Mexican food after Enrique Olvera.”

Like Aleman, Olvera trained at Jean Joho’s Everest in Chicago before embarking on his solo career path, but unlike José, he’s now an empire builder. Multiple venues in Mexico, New York, Los Angeles (and now Vegas) are threatening to turn him into a chilango Vongerichten.

Cornhusk Meringues with Corn Mousse | Recipe | Mexican food recipes, Desserts, Wine recipes

I’ll give him his business aspirations, as long as he keeps giving us desserts like his corn husk mousse (an entire Mesoamerican metaphor in one meringue), and the best churros north of CDMX.

Unlike many globe-trotting chefs, though, Olvera has his proselytizing work cut out for him. He doesn’t just have to make fabulous, inventive, flavorful food, utilizing the cornucopia of edible treasures from his homeland, he also has to convince people to take Mexican food seriously — not as high-falutin’ as fussy French, mind you, but certainly miles beyond the smothered burritos and Mariachi merriment standard template for this food in America.

How he’s doing it is with the most compelling, ambitious Mexican food Las Vegas has ever seen. Aided by his number one — Daniela Soto-Innes –– Olvera is taking our taste buds to places they’ve never been. I don’t care if Elio is a spin-off, or a copy of a copy, right now we have the gustatory glory of Cuidad de México right on our doorstep, the way it was meant to be displayed, on level we have never seen before. All deliciously packaged in a first class room with top flight service. This is a whole other culinary world, muchachos, and it is beckoning all intrepid gastronomes as we speak.

Is it expensive? Si, señor, but the best of anything always is.

Snacks start at around $15, and are meant for two; the raw fish dishes hover in the twenties. Mains cover more territory than the Sonoran Desert — starting at $30 for the Mole de la casa and topping out at $110 (Whole fish) to $165 (a Flintstonean Tomahawk steak) — and easily feed four. The wine list reads like someone actually thought about matching modern wines with Mexican food (rather than some standardized snoozer) and markups are (relatively) reasonable. Tequila and mezcal hounds will think they died and went to heaven.

<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>

SIN FRONTERAS TACOS Y MAS

4016 N. Tenaya Way

Las Vegas, NV 89129

702-866-0080

LETTY’S DE LETICIA’S COCINA

807 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702-476-9477

ELIO

Wynn/Encore Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770-5342

Image(José)

 

Image(Letty)

GUY SAVOY

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The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves. – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

FRANCE

As clichés go, the one about Americans falling in love with France is an old one. It probably started around the time they helped us win our independence from England, gained more currency when noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, and gathered full steam when the literary lions of the Roaring 20s (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al) took France to their bosom and spent most of the mid-20th Century living there and writing about it.

When I began traveling there in the early 1990s, France was still the ne plus ultra of dining. The rise of Spain in the early aughts might have eclipsed it for a while (as did the mercifully short New Nordic fad), but the French gastronomic meal (an official UNESCO cultural heritage icon) is still the standard by which all western dining is judged.

More accurately, the progression of how we eat our formal meals — from light to heavy, fish to meat, soup to nuts — is based upon culinary rules set down hundreds of years ago. They’ve lasted this long because they make sense — both from a taste and digestion standpoint — and because:

The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.

In other words, there’s a reason you don’t start dinner with ice cream and steak, proceed to chocolate cake, and then end with a hunk of sautéed skate, and those reasons were first codified by the French when native Americans were still throwing rocks at each other.

FRENCH FOOD

Image(It’s tough to clam up about GS)

From a food writing perspective, that same period (deep into 1990s) was dominated by the French. From M.F.K. Fisher to Richard Olney to Elizabeth David to Julia Child, if you were “into food” back then, you were into France. Couldn’t help it. Whereas these days the food media goes a ga-ga over obscure Asian soups and South African street food, then it was pot au feu or bust.

Fifteen years before I actually went there, I immersed myself in French cooking. Pierre Franey, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Jacques Pepin were my guides (as were two subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines), and I soaked up information like a baguette in bouillabaisse.

Reading about French food is nothing like tasting it, though, and tasting it in France is incomparable to eating it anywhere else. This I had to learn the expensive way.

French food is about technique — French chefs are drilled with military precision into masters of slicing, dicing, braising and plating. Their repertoire is vast and their training so thorough they can break down chicken or fish with the ease of a blindfolded Marine dismantling his rifle.

The French spend more time thinking about steaming a bundle of asparagus than an Italian thinks about vegetables his entire life. And when it comes to sauces, no country can touch them. A Greek’s idea of a sauce is squeezing a lemon over something; the Japanese don’t have them at all. A Gaulois will massage a demi-glace for hours.

Image(Ex-cepe-tional Parisian eats)

French food gets a bad rap because it’s complicated — and it is — in the same way all worthwhile things are. Do you refuse to listen to classical music because too many instruments are involved? (Too many notes!) Do we avoid art museums because studying all those pictures hurts our eyes? Should we disdain books because they overload us with information? Criticizing French food for being multi-layered, richly-textured, and densely fascinating is like knocking Mozart because you can’t dance to him. The old triticism about La Cuisine Française being too heavy — another insult tossed about by those challenged by anything beyond a meatball — hasn’t been true since 1972.

Modern French cuisine really began with Escoffier over a century ago. It was further lightened up by the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s — spearheaded by Paul Bocuse, Jean Troigros and others —  and settled into post-modern form (if you want to label it thus) around the time Guy Savoy received his second Michelin star (back when they actually meant something) in 1985. Thirty-five years later, he is still cooking some of the best food in Paris…which means some of the best food in the world.

French restaurants continue to dominate any list of the world’s best, and at the time of the Covid shutdowns, Savoy was riding high atop (or near the top) of many of them.

Having spent forty years with this food, we don’t place a lot of stock in the opinion of others. Nor do we cotton to the idea that there a “best” restaurant anymore than there is a best concert, movie, or book. The “best” of anything really can’t be measured unless a score or finish line is involved. At most what you have is a continuum of quality, and at the pinnacle (as with art, literature, and music) there is a level of excellence only a select few ever achieve. All the rest of us can do is sit back and enjoy the show.

The show at both Guy Savoys is always on the plate. No one and nothing seems to be trying too hard, and the effect is one of seamlessness — like a virtuoso who is barely breaking a sweat. As the audience, we soak it all up, blissfully unmindful of how much training and repetition goes into making it look so easy.

PARIS

Image(Guy Savoy Paris)

Invariably, whenever I update my review of Restaurant Guy Savoy, the question is asked: How does Vegas compare to Guy Savoy Paris? The most honest answer I can give is: GS Paris is great French food in France; RGS in America is sublime, but it’s an extension of the original that’s traveled 6,000 miles to get here. Nothing compares to eating a cuisine on its native soil, and nothing, not clam chowder, tacos or Lièvre à La Royale improves once it is transported to another locale for interpretation.

This is not to take away from our off-shoot (as you will read below), but only to point out that the edges are finer, the applications more punctilious, the snap and sizzle a tad sharper in Paris than anywhere not Paris. Eating French bread and French cheeses on French soil, or desserts too, for that matter, is the apotheosis of alimentation — black belt gastronomy at tariffs to match.

The French know these things and are very proud of their culinary heritage, but the old saw about French restaurants being snooty is as out of date as the guillotine. Yes, you have to have the coin to dine in these temples, but if you come with an open mind and a smile on your face, you will be charmed out of your socks. Everywhere in Paris, restaurant staffs are young, way better looking than waiters were in my day, multi-lingual, and cheerfully solicitous. Anyone who thinks French waiters are sour and condescending ought to visit Germany sometime.

You eat with your eyes, the old saying goes, and everything about Savoy’s new digs (since 2015) in Paris is an eyeful. As at Caesars Palace, the location is in an unlikely place: in this case through a courtyard of a large building that used to house the Paris Mint (Monnaie de Paris), up two massive flights of stairs, to an entrance desk leading to a warren of small rooms, each holding 3-4 tables looking out onto the Pont Neuf (Ninth/New Bridge).

The maze is impressive and effective — preparing you for your entry into the rarefied air of the French meal at its most refined. Four centuries of savoir faire distilled into edible things on a plate, served course by course, all so delicious they will send a happy shudder down your spine.

Image(Sweetbreads and peas in Gay Paree)

Many months after my last meal there, the details are still vivid: the petit pois with sweetbreads (above); woodsy cèpes — tasting of good clean earth — folded into a flower around an onion-bacon marmalade; San Pierre with the sweetest razor and baby clams; bread and butter to die for; a langoustine seemingly dropped from a Norway fijord onto to your plate; les fromages; les desserts…as I sit here writing it all comes flooding back, haunting me like Proust ruminating on a madeleine:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

All it took was a few crumbs from a tea cake for Marcel; with me, it is sitting down to a meal at Guy Savoy to make my mortality and the burdens of existence but a fleeting thought for a few hours. A great meal in a great city by a great chef will do that to you.

LAS VEGAS

Image(There’s a lot to loaf about Guy Savoy)

By the time Guy Savoy planted his flag in Las Vegas in May 2006, I had dived deeply into the restaurants of France multiple times. His was a name revered for his Michelin stars and his innovative take on the gustatory pleasures of France, but it was one I had missed amidst all my high-altitude eating.

In the early days of Restaurant Guy Savoy, I was like a kid in a French candy store, probably dining there ten times in its first two years, sometimes on my dime, sometime on his. As our dining scene cranked up, the competition got stiffer (Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud to name a few) so my visits cooled, even if my ardor didn’t.

In normal times, we hit RGS about once a year. But these are anything but normal times, mon ami. August 2020 finds a double-sawbuck of Vegas hotels closed, and the open ones running at half-steam, if that.

Cruise any hotel on a mid-week evening and you’ll find only a handful of spots open. Even the mighty Bellagio is operating with Picasso, Le Cirque, Michael Mina (and others) closed until further notice.

The late, great Joël Robuchon’s twin destinations in the MGM (his namesake and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – the world’s classiest chain restaurant) are shuttered right now. Pierre Gagnaire looks to be kaput over at the Waldorf, and the Eiffel Tower is but an empty vessel these days.

What this means is Savoy has the territory all to himself, and those looking for a high-falutin’, once-in-a-lifetime, big deal French meal — the kind becoming rarer and rarer anywhere outside of France and a few cosmopolitan world capitals — have but one place left in Las Vegas, and that place is located up a flight of stairs in an obscure corner of Caesars Palace.

Repeat customers will notice how things have changed: the bar is closed, the menu is accessed through your phone, the bread is sliced and served from the kitchen, and the cheeses and desserts are lesser in number and covered with plastic lids (yummy). What hasn’t changed is the precise cooking and plating, the fork-dropping combinations of flavors in each dish, and the jaw-dropping amazement one feels at the beginning, middle and end of each dish.

Image(Berry berry berry good)

Great French chefs (unlike the Japanese and Italians) are never content to leave well enough alone . They, like the Chinese, never saw an ingredient they didn’t think they could make taste like more of itself (see blueberries times three above). Unlike the wacky Spanish, they rely more on extracting an ingredient’s essence and less on culinary sleights of hand. What sets Savoy apart is his ability to simplify, amplify, and still astonish without ingenuity for its own sake.

You start your meal with an amuse of something tiny — ranging from the world’s miniest miniburger to an etoile (star)-shaped nugget of poached foie gras. You will, at first, think nothing of this trifle until you pop it in your mouth. It will be rich yet light, intriguing but beckoning you to want more. OMG you will say, either to yourself or to your companions, I could eat ten more of these. And so you could, and so has the amuse-bouche accomplished its job.

Image(Spinach-truffle “Napoleon”)

From then on, you can’t go wrong, no matter what you order. As per everything post-Covid, the menu has been truncated: only one seasonal tasting menu is offered ($355); a la carte sees five starters and six entrees are on the card and that’s it. Newbies with purpose, appetite and purse would do well to go whole hog, but mere mortals will find a shorter experience just as enchanting by sticking to three courses – which quickly become more like six once various treats are tossed your way by the kitchen. (Dessert always seems to be a three course affair, no matter what you order.)

It all starts with the bread (above). The point of French food at this level is that everything has a purpose, and bread is as elemental to the French as water and wine. Échiré butter (salted and un- always at the correct temperature) accompanies it and resistance to their charms will be futile. (This is no place for the gluten or lactose averse.) The whole point of the bread and butter being to transport you to French soil, and within two bites, you’re imagining yourself on the Champs-Elysée.

Those mini-bites of foie gras (along with another perfectly round, seared slab appearing in tiny truffle-d sandwich form) are another symbol of French food — representing classic cuisine both new and old. A larger portion can be ordered as an appetizer, seared and served on brioche, which gives a foie liver lover all they can handle.

Image(The world’s greatest soup)

Savoy’s classic artichoke, truffle, Parmesan soup is always on the menu (even though its flavor profile fits cooler climes than a Las Vegas summer), but by now, its reputation precedes it, so no Savoy meal is without. Likewise “Colors of Caviar” — a multi-hued concoction of  caviar in various guises (creamed, naked, vinaigrette) layered in a small glass with a green beans, is a wonder of tastes, textures and temperatures in a compact vessel that, by all rights, shouldn’t be able to hold so much sumptousness in such a small space. Is it expensive? Yes ($90), but it also represents a level of delicacy very few kitchens in the world can match.

Savoy’s oyster trilogy is remarkable as well, even if they’re out of season. The shellfish are plump and fat and come bedecked with uni, caviar, and a citrus gelée. We could do without the uni (it’s a flavor bully who doesn’t always bring a lot to the party except brininess – something not in short supply with good oysters), but if you insist on ordering ‘ersters in summer, you will find no better.

Image(Tomato “carpaccio” and sorbet)

The cheapest appetizer on the menu right now ($65) is also the best: “Tomatoes All Around.” A play on another Savoy signature, “Peas All Around,” — a  seasonal wonder presenting the love apple in three, distinct ways: as a carpaccio, giving way to a gazpacho (deceptively parked underneath the top plate), accompanied by a thick-flesh tomato compote of pure, aching, tomato sweetness.

At this level of dining, everything counts, everything on the plate has a purpose, every swirl, garnish and smudge is there for a reason. If Japanese food is the most inscrutable, and Italian the most crowd-pleasing, then French is the surely the most thoughtful. Little bites give way to bigger ones: lobster with coral sauce; veal chop and sweetbreads; roast duck in all its glory; John Dory (St. Pierre fish en Français) come sprinkled with crispy fish scales in a nice-sized pool of impeccable beurre blanc.

When Andy Hayler reviewed our Guy Savoy six years ago, he took issue with the quality of the produce (compared to Paris), While there’s no denying the superiority of some European products, I’ve never found the fruits and veggies here to be lacking; where I’ve had some (minor) quibbles has been with the fish. Las Vegas, no matter how good the air freight, can’t compete with Paris for the absolute freshness and variety of French oysters or cold water European seafood…and absolute freshness is everything when considering fish. Just ask François Vatel.

Not sure if chicken has ever appeared on this menu, but we must concede to French authority there as well.

Image(The French know ducks like a Korean knows cabbage)

Savoy himself has told me he prefers American beef, so we will brook no debate with Hayler or anyone else about the quality of the major proteins here (including veal and that roast duck). All compete on equal terms with anything Paris can throw at you.

Chef Nicolas Costagliola runs the kitchen these days, and I have yet to find a misstep in his recitation of the Savoy catechism. No doubt some of these recipes are now so rote the cooks could do them in their sleep, but at this level, every detail must be attended to and it is.  Here, the craftsmanship is so meticulous it is almost invisible, which, at this lofty perch in the fine dining universe, is how it should be.

Each of the entrees pushes way past a hundred dollars (most are in the $120 range), but, as we said, between the extra flourishes, the ingredients, and the flawlessness of the execution, you’re getting the best food money can buy.  As restaurant food goes, this is some of the priciest on earth. But the best of anything is always expensive, and unlike cars, clothes, and real estate, non-oligarchs can experience these delights for themselves, on equal footing with high rollers and trust fund babies.

Image(My usual at GS Caesars)

At these prices the service should never miss a beat…and it never does. As I’ve mentioned before, the wine list (now overseen by Andrew Hurley) remains an oenophile’s dream come true. The only things to fault are not the restaurant’s: the shortened menu, fewer desserts, cheeses, and the sense that you are eating in a restaurant operating with one hand tied behind its back.

But those hands are some of the most skilled in the business, and they’re right in our own backyard. Thomas Keller is closed; California is now being run by scared-of-their-shadow bureaucrats; New York is putting everyone on a sidewalk. Great restaurants are under siege, through no fault of their own. If and how they recover is anyone’s guess.

Guy Savoy is all we have left, ladies and gentlemen, the last Frenchman standing in America, if you will. Who knows what the future will bring, but if you are one of those intrepid types who seeks food so good it will make you weep, all you can do is applaud Caesars Palace for taking the bold move of reopening its most high-toned restaurant. From two recent visits, the gamble seems to be paying off, as most of the tables were full — telling us that even in this messed-up world, there are those who still seek the best when it is offered to them.

And make no mistake, Guy Savoy is the best. To completely contradict myself: Restaurant Guy Savoy is certainly the best restaurant in Las Vegas right now, and for the foreseeable future, it might be the best one in America.

My last two meals at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, cost $1,000 and $455 (for two). (The more expensive one was 50% wine.) My last meal at Guy Savoy Paris was comped; I left a 100E tip.

Monnaie de Paris
11 Quai de Conti
Paris, France 75006
+33 1 43 80 40 61
Caesars Palace
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702.731.7286
French chef Guy Savoy in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant in Paris.