John Curtas is …

Miscellaneous

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Thoughts and Prayers My Ass

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ELV note: We temporarily interrupt this web site’s obsession with food in order to share with you a serious, personal anecdote. Because sometimes there are things much more important to talk about than where to eat, and because we believe everyone has a moral obligation to (try to) prevent murder.

Several decades ago, when I was still practicing criminal law, I happened upon a homicide scene where I knew the detectives. One of them with a particularly morbid sense of humor (homicide dicks are famous for their gloomy humor) asked me if I wanted to see the body. (He joked that since I might end up defending the perp, I might want to see the other half of the equation.) “Sure,” I said, so he led me over to a parked car.

Inside was the driver with his head resting on the steering wheel and twisted to the left as if he were leaning forward and trying to see something out the driver’s side window. His eyes were wide open, and you wouldn’t even had thought he was dead if you just casually glanced at him. From a distance of about five feet, the only odd thing about the body was its stillness and a small black indentation — about the size of a nickel — just below the left cheekbone. There was no blood on his face, and it being nighttime, at first I saw no blood anywhere else, either.

“What happened,” I asked the detective, “how did he die?”

“Since you asked, counselor, come with me.”

With that we walked around to the passenger side, took out his flashlight and shined it through a curtain of blood and what looked like wads of chewing gum stuck all over the side window. Inside I could see a ragged, gaping hole the size of a large man’s fist had been blown out of the back of the victim’s skull. A mosaic of flesh, brains, blood and bone dripped from every interior surface as if someone had sprayed it there with a fire hose. I can still see the shards of skull stuck in globs of pink-grey brain.

“Must’ve ruined his whole fucking day,” the cop quipped. It certainly did mine.

Impressions like that are powerful and never forgotten. They are far different from what you see in violent movies, or watching people shoot pumpkins with firearms. They also make you much more sensitive to what really happens when people are shot. You can’t compartmentalize it with distant sympathy. You can’t create a gauzy, intellectually-removed effect of poor bodies antiseptically slumped motionless in a sleep-death of sadness. No, what you live with is the knowledge of just how violent, bloody and revoltingly grotesque their death was.

Gun nuts and the gun lobby don’t want you to understand just how destructive their implements of death are. Guns are, first and foremost, killing machines. And they do their work most effectively. Hunting is about killing things and self-protection is about killing people. Hunters at least are well aware of the power of firearms. I don’t think they’re the ones behind all the political nonsense spewed forth by the NRA. The self-protection nuts are the bigger problem. They are the ones who have been convinced they “need” guns for some unknown boogeymen who are out there (usually, other gun nuts), or that guns are cool.

If more people saw what a gun really does to a human body, that “cool factor” would be greatly diminished. If gun-control advocates (which greatly outnumber those who still believe in the myth of the 2nd Amendment) saw the blood, the wounds, and the faces of shooting victims, lying there in sticky, putrid, purple-black pools of their own fluids, the gun control movement might galvanize in the same way the Civil Rights movement did when the public saw pictures of lynchings and dogs biting through the legs of protesters.

It’s time to show the bloodshed. There are photographs of those 20 Newtown children slumped bloody across their tiny desks with gaping bullet holes in their terrified, disfigured faces and little chests. There is, I’m sure, a photograph of the fatal neck wound my friend Cameron Robinson suffered on October 1st — a gun shot that snuffed out a young life just as it was beginning. People need to see this shit — literally see the shit, and the blood, and the guts, and the brains, and the bone shards — in order to break the murderous stranglehold the gun lobby has on our politics.

People need to have their whole fucking day ruined, too.

#MeToo #MeThree #Me400k

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Back in the 1980s, I had a client. She was a cocktail waitress on the Strip. As I recall, she was a pretty brunette in her early 30s, divorced, and with a small child. She was referred to me by another lawyer who didn’t think she had much of a case.

When she came to my office she acted shy and quiet, barely speaking above a whisper. The whole time she sat across from me she acted like she was embarrassed about something.

At first I thought she was there with a workman’s compensation case. I thought this because the first thing she did was roll up one of her sleeves to show me the bruises on her upper arm.

“It looked worse a few days ago,” she told me. “It happened over a week ago.”

“What happened?”

“My boss grabbed me and tried to have sex with me.” She was quivering as she said this, eight days after the incident.

“Where did this happen?”

“In his office,” she replied, “where he takes all the girls he wants to have sex with.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“He’s the vice president of food and beverage.”

“For the whole hotel?”

“Yes. I don’t want to lose my job, but he shouldn’t have done this.”

“Did he do anything else to you other than grab you by the arm?”

“Yes…as I twisted away from his grip, he reached out with his other hand and grabbed my boob and ripped my dressed as I was pulling away from him.”

“Where’s the dress?”

“Right here.”

With that, she reached into a large bag she had with her and produced a short, torn cocktail server dress with the upper quarter of it ripped open.

Then, with her next statement, we both got embarrassed.

“Do you want to see it,” she murmured almost inaudibly.

I knew what she was talking about but had to ask. “See what?”

“My boob.”

It was difficult for both of us, but she showed me the inside of her breast with three short scratches and a fading bruise. It looked like someone had tried to twist her her breast off.

“Did you tell anyone at the time this happened?”

“Yes, I told my shift supervisor.”

“A man or a woman?”

“A woman.”

“What did she say?”

“She told me to forget about it if I wanted to keep my job.”

Long story short, she eventually quit, claiming sexual harassment. We sued on those grounds as well as assault and battery. The hotel fought tooth and nail, and the case eventually settled…for $15,000.

As I’ve said many a time over the years, if this case had happened two decades later, we could’ve added two zeros to the settlement. As it was, both the hotel and its attorneys continually scoffed at the claim. “All he did, at the very worst, was make a pass at her,” was their contention. The ripped dress was a fake and the bruises on her arm could’ve come from anywhere. The fact that she immediately told her supervisor bothered them not at all. “So her boss got a little out of line. What’s the big deal?”

To some youngsters, 1986 seems like the 1800s, but to those of us of a certain age, it wasn’t that long ago. And America was hardly in the dark ages about sexual harassment in the Eighties — it had been a hot topic, both legally and socially, for at least twenty years.

But Vegas took no heed of that. Las Vegas, then and now, plays by its own rules. And those rules begin and end with the fact that whatever blue-collar, unskilled job you have, you should be damn grateful to have it. Better still, you, the employee should never forget that if you move back to Fresno or Little Rock, you’ll be holding down the same job for about 60% less money.

The same holds true for our hotel executives. To a man (and woman) they know that no where else in America can they make the same, six-figure income, managing a bunch of maids, dealers and bookkeepers. And the big bosses — the guys with the high six-figure/seven-figure incomes — know that they know this, so all of them create a tight little bubble of economic security that no one wants to puncture.

Low level employees are expendable. Hot young masseuses, manicurists, waitresses are a dime a dozen. Use ’em up and spit ’em out. When one makes waves, circle the wagons and wait for it to pass. (And waiting for it to pass is what Steve Wynn is doing right now.)

And pass it does. I know one well-known executive (who has worked in at least half a dozen hotels in town), who was fired from two of his jobs because he couldn’t keep his hands off the cocktail waitresses. Nevertheless, whenever a new hotel is in the works (as many were ten-fifteen years ago) this fellow’s name kept popping up as a F&B executive. “Un-friggin-believable,” I would always say to myself….but then I would look up and there he was, strutting around the new hotel like a little Caesar with his monogrammed shirts and fuck-you Italian shoes.

The culture that allows this to go on all over Vegas is endemic to Vegas. It is unique in that we’re a town built upon the seven deadly sins. Our pleasure palaces depend upon all sorts of vices: sex, drugs, and rock & roll are what sells this town. Take away the drugs (I’m including booze when I say drugs), and the glitz and  the easy women and what do you have? Fremont Street in 1936: a dusty old western outpost with a dozen seedy gambling halls.

But dusty old gambling parlors do not support six-figure lifestyles and fuck-you Italian loafers. We need glitz and glamour and an endless supply of young. eager, compliant, blue collar employees to constantly polish and enhance our image. Managing so many uneducated folks ain’t easy, and if a casino boss wants to partake of these vices and take a few liberties, who does it harm? (Or at least that’s the thinking among the powers that be….even if they won’t admit it.)

Look no further than John L. Smith’s “Running Scared — The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn” — an exposé on the rise of Wynn that paints in horrifying detail his use of his executives to procure a ready supply of young women (mostly employees) for his sexual gratification. It was published in 1995, and the only eyebrows it raised were among the press. What horrified them was his ensuing libel lawsuit against Smith and the publisher — cases that were eventually tossed out of court. Wynn may have lost that battle, but he won the war. From that point forward, the sexual peccadilloes of Vegas big shots were off limits. And for twenty-plus years, the public didn’t give a shit, either.

It’s one thing when sex in the workplace is a fair fight (e.g. among the restaurant crowd with their after-hours partying and musical beds*), quite another when someone risks a valuable job in a big hotel by calling out a rich and powerful boss, especially one with his name on the building. Complicating things are the willing or semi-willing females (or males, I suppose) who go along with sexual overtures to get ahead. Or at least get along.

But my guess is that the ones who do mind outnumber the ones who don’t by 10 to 1. Everyone in Las Vegas has a story, but precious few will ever spill the beans, because Mr. Gucci will always be making $400,000 a year, and, no matter how bruised your psyche or dented your flesh, fifteen grand only goes so far.

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*When the Mario Batali scandal hit, in early December, I made the observation on social media that people get into the restaurant business precisely because it’s a hotbed of social/sexual activities. (As one manager once told me, “It’s like a never-ending frat party you can continue well into your thirties.”) The morality police jumped all over me, accusing me of “hating restaurant workers” and “condoning sexual harassment.” The difference is, of course, that the groping and grabbing (and language and philandering) among  young people is an even economic match. What happens after-hours among restaurant staffs  is a far cry from Steve Wynn patrolling the halls of his hotel, looking for more notches on his belt.

Where I’ll Dine in 2018 – Part One

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“Crass!” “Vulgar!” “Boring!” “I’m done reading you!”

“Time for you to bow out.”

“Quit angling your way into restaurants so you can ogle hostesses and drink for free.”

Thus came the comments after my last post.

Someone even bent their logic so they could criticize me for my supposed insufficient support of the #metoo movement. Ahhh, the internet.

This was to be expected. The provocative title ensured offense to at least some readers, and the clickbait picture was (literally) the icing on my cake of bad taste.

But if you read the article (and you have half a brain in your head), perhaps you sensed the tone as jaded and wistful, not crude and disgusted. I wasn’t so much condemning the restaurants of Las Vegas as I was mourning days gone by, when my ardor was keen and my pulse quickened at the thought of new restaurant mountains to climb.

Yes, I analogized new eating experiences with sexual adventures (and bemoaned how enthusiasm for both can wane as one ages), but the disappointments mostly come from within. I am bored with the restaurants of Las Vegas because I’ve eaten in everyone of them dozens of times. No one else on earth can make this claim, so pardon me if all my experiences have caused me to look at the Las Vegas Strip the way a sultan does when he’s (a bit) tired of his harem. It doesn’t mean I don’t love or admire them anymore, but neither do my loins quiver at the mere thought  of approaching their supple charms.

Does this mean I’m going to stop restaurant-hopping? Of course not. I’ve stopped eating out as much as I used to, but I still hit 3-4 eateries a week. (At my peak, around 2005-2007, it was 10-12 restaurant meals a week. No brag, just fact.)

With these thoughts in mind, I thought a “Where I’ll Dine in 2018” post was in order. Note the solipsistic title. This post is going to be about where you’ll find me in 2018, not where I think you should go. There are dozens of places all over town I highly recommend (e.g. Michael Mina, Jaleo, Julian Serrano, Delmonico, CUT, just to name a few) but that I’ve been to so many times I’m not sure I ever need to go back.

(If you want to read about every restaurant I recommend, you can buy the 2018 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants by clicking here.)

But no longer am I going to scour the town, looking for every new discovery, or trying to beat out other writers with restaurant scoops and scores. I am through eating at places because I think (or an editor thinks) I should review them because they’re new, or hot or popular. That doesn’t mean I won’t review new or hot or popular places, but I’m only going to comment on them if I think they’re worth my time and calories. Nothing Gordon Ramsay does interests me (except his steakhouse), and Giada could invite me to dine in  the nude with her and I’d take a pass. (Fooling myself? YOU BET!)

But there are places that don’t bore me, that still cause a tingle in my nethers, and that I still look forward to going to, even for the 15th time. So here they are:

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DOWNTOWN

Downtown is my hood. I live and work there. Have for decades now. I used to say that downtown was seven taco parlors in search of an audience, but things have changed. I still love Irma Aquirre’s al pastor and frijoles at El Sombrero, and am long overdue for a return visit. But the news downtown these days is how the gastro-pubs have taken off. A year ago I thought nothing could challenge Carson Kitchen for elevated bar grub hegemony, but the stuff being put out by Gregg Fortunato at 7th & Carson goes roasted beet to roasted beet with anything CK is slinging. Right there with them is Justin Kingsley Hall’s new menu at The Kitchen at Atomic. He’s making everything from barley with blood sausage to crispy rabbit sing at this hipster haunt on East Fremont, and after only a couple of months at the stoves has made this a must-stop on any foodie tour. It’s kind of weird to us how this restaurant can attract such a different crowd from the hipster booze hounds next door at Atomic Liquors, but attract it has, and expect to read a lot more about the splash Hall’s cooking is making in the coming months.

Speaking of splashes, no place has ever made bigger waves from the get-go than Esther’s Kitchen. James Trees is doing everything but grinding his own flour at this ode to Italy, and his bread and pastas and pizzas are not to be missed. (The salads are also amazing as well.) Put it all together with a stylish bar, and an interesting wine list, and you have a game-changer on south Main Street.

When I’m not in a gastro-pubby mood, you can always find me enjoying a carnitas por dos at Casa Don Juan, or a gut-busting pasty at Cornish Pasty Co.. I don’t drink as much beer as I used to, but the selection at Cornish is top notch.

And then, of course, there are the old reliables: Oscar’s Beef Booze and Broads for steaks and a killer happy hour, La Comida for flights of tequila fancy, Le Pho for pho-nomenal Vietnamese, Ocha Thai for terrific, rustic Thai, and the newly launched outpost of  Flock & Fowl when the craving for Hainanese chicken rice hits.

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THE ‘BURBS

Ah the ‘burbs. Bucking the tide, swimming upstream, and fighting the current of Las Vegas’s constant race to the bottom of the restaurant pond. Between greedy and clueless landlords, an indifferent public, and economic realities of the restaurant business, it’s a wonder we have anything but Cheesecake Factories to feed us in the neighborhoods.

God bless those chefs who take the plunge into this stacked deck (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!), because without them, I’d probably move to Albuquerque. And god bless my favorite wine hangout, because on any weekend, you’re likely to find me on the patio at Marche Bacchus, sipping Burgundy and trying to figure out a way to piss off the idiots who rely on Thrillist for their food recommendations.

When I’m in the mood for superior (and healthy) French,  EATT always fills the bill. More and more I’m less and less impressed with Green Valley (pretty amazing, I know, since I’ve held it in the lowest esteem since…..1984), and its addiction to franchised food shows no sign of abating. If I find myself hungry in that neck of the woods, there’s now only two places I will even consider are Boteco for it’s cool, Spain-meets-America wine bar vibe, and Prosecco Italian Kitchen for its classic, whole Dover sole. That, or I head over to Valley Cheese & Wine and throw myself upon the mercy of Bob and Kristin Howald for a slice of prosciutto.

The Southwest part of town seems to be where the action’s at these days, and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna is everything its name says. A bit farther down the road (and a pain-in-the-ass to get to from my house) is Andre’s Bistro & Bar — where the bistro fare is always solid. Equally inconvenient is Japaneiro, but Kevin Chong’s boffo beef and inspired uni will inspire a road trip at least once in the next twelve months.

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BREAKFAST

Breakfast gets its own category because breakfast in Las Vegas is almost, across the board atrocious. (I’m talking about the ‘burbs here. ) Unless you love the straight-from-a-freezer bag slop served up by the Hash House A Go-Gos of the world, you are pretty much consigned to the bad eggs pun entrants like Egg & I, Crepe Expectations and the like — none of whom cook anything from scratch except the GMO eggs they break.

Downtown weighs in against this morass of mediocrity with EAT (also in Summerlin) where the food is fresh and the cooks care about what they’re feeding you. On the Strip, Bouchon remains a favorite, as does Morel’s French Steakhouse & Bistro. Bouchon’s nonpareil baked goods are more than worth the aggravation it takes to get to them, and the Dungeness crab Benedict and turkey hash at Morel’s will blow the socks off of any breakfast snob you take there.

But as we’re always fond of saying, “Breakfast is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch.” We are foursquare against a big, hearty breakfast because it always interferes with our lunch plans. That’s why we love eating early the French way, and in Las Vegas, it doesn’t get anymore French than, Cafe Breizh and Delices Gourmands French Bakery. One is close to the regal confines of the Curtas manse, while the other is too friggin’ far for us to frequent, but both put out the best pastries and breads in town, bar none.

On the rare occasions when we want to go big before going home, there’s only one option: Jewish food. Canter’s Deli Jewish food, to be precise. As a certifiable, actually circumcised, almost Jew, I can attest to the primacy of its pastrami and the copiousness of its corned beef. The bagels and cream cheese taste straight from Fairfax Avenue, too. And if you don’t get that reference, it’s time to turn in your yarmulke.

Other than that, you’re on your own when it comes to breaking your fast. Other towns like Portland and Austin have vibrant breakfast scenes — early bird joints where chefs love to strut their stuff with various egg, meat and pastry dishes. In Vegas, there’s a line out the door at Claim Jumper (in the most affluent part of town) every morning. Go figure.

In Part Two of Where I’ll Dine in 2018, we’ll explore our favorite Chinatown haunts, and take a mournful look at the Strip.

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