ELV note: What does the following have to do with food writing? Absolutely nothing. Well, maybe a little something. But it’s my damn blog and I’ll write anything I damn well please. ;-) I hope you are mildly amused by it, and perhaps learn something about me in the process.
COMMON HUMAN CONDITIONS THAT DON’T APPLY TO ELV
Indigestion – Even in late middle age, the only things that give me indigestion are (too much) champagne and barbecue. Which is a pity because champagne goes great with barbecue.
Intolerance – There are three things on this earth I can’t stand: 1) intolerance of other cultures, 2) the Dutch, and 3) people talking in movie theaters. Seriously, as my kids say, “Dad, you are both a very tolerant and intolerant guy.” True dat. Slobs, guns, and pets in public drive me nuts, otherwise I don’t care if you’re a neo-fascist, satan-worshipping, wife-swapping, dope-taking, sitcom-loving sado-masochist. But I draw the line if you’re one of these guys.
Alarm clocks – I haven’t used an alarm clock in 30 years. You tell me when I have to get up, I wake up an hour before that.
Answering you back – If you call, I return the call. Text me, you get a text right back. Same with e-mails. The only times I don’t get right back to people is either when I’m traveling, extremely busy at work, or sick.
Attention to detail – Details only count if you’re a scientist, an engineer, or a baker.
Taking yourself too seriously – Has never been a problem. I am as amused at myself as I am at what a fool you are being.
Kitchen timers – I swear to god I have a kitchen timer for a heart. The only thing I use a kitchen timer for is baking cookies.
Forgetting things – I don’t forget anything. I can tell you the song that was playing the first time I kissed a girl (Mason William’s “Classical Gas”); I can tell you where I was standing when I first found out I passed a bar examination (1414 Eastern Parkway, Louisville, Kentucky); I can tell you the names of all of my fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt (most of whom I loathed). A good memory is a double-edged sword, though. There are a thousand things I wish I could forget.
Pickiness about what I eat – The only thing I would never eat is a live bug. If it’s served as food by some culture on this planet, I’ll try it.
Getting drunk – I don’t brag about it, but I can hold my liquor like nobody’s business. Drinking to drunkenness doesn’t interest me anymore, but even when it did, there are probably only a handful of people who have ever seen me really drunk.
Celebrity worship – Famous people (especially actors, athletes, politicians and musicians) are some of the most boring people on earth. Whenever I’m in the company of someone famous, I always wonder why they’re not much more interested in talking to me. The life I’ve led — criminal lawyer, trial lawyer (in four different states), bon vivant, American explorer, world-traveling womanizer, galloping gourmand, avid cook, fashionista, oenophile, pretty good golfer (back in the day), inveterate snob, public servant — is ten times more interesting than anything Donald Trump or Beyonce has to say. People become famous because all they’re interested in is themselves. It’s much more fascinating to talk to someone interested in something other than themself, be it chess, restoring old cars, or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1933. I give comedians a pass, since to be a good comedian, you have to be tuned in to all sorts of things. I don’t worship comedians but I admire them.
Back problems – Never had ’em – unlike every other adult male friend of mine. My dad didn’t have them either, so I’m hoping my DNA stays strong on this one.
Foot problems – Ditto.
Attraction to crowds – The attraction of hanging out with large groups of strangers, for the sake of saying you were “there” has never appealed to me for one second.
Concerts – A boring, uncomfortable way to listen to songs that sound better on your car radio. Surrounded by dullards (see above). If that’s not bad enough: Port-o-Lets.
Attention to service in restaurants – I don’t care if a waiter pours soup on my head, as long as it’s good soup.
Friends – I haven’t hung with a posse since I was a public defender. I haven’t had an entourage since my golfing/lawyer buddies in Danbury, Connecticut in the 80s. I have a few friends that I hook up with in short spurts, but I’m more of a loner than you might imagine.
Money – I don’t give a shit about money. Never have, never will. This is something each of my wives has taken great pains to point out to me over the years.
Kissing ass – I’ve failed at many things in my life, but one thing I’ve never done is kiss anyone’s ass to get anything. When I was a very young lawyer, I once kissed my boss’s ass to keep my job. I didn’t like the taste of it. It’s often occurred to me that I might have gone farther in my legal career if I had sucked up to more people…or even one person. I’m not proud of many things in my life, but this is one of them.
What people think of me – One of my ex-wives lived in mortal fear that people were talking about her, or knew too much about her. There are less than a dozen people on earth whose opinion of me means anything to me.
Rudeness – The only people I’m rude to are people who accost me on the phone or on the street.
THINGS I COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH BETTER AT
Getting the fuck out of my own way
Keeping my opinions to myself
Shutting the fuck up
Doing anything responsible with money
Exercise – I’ve tried; I’m still trying, but this is a body built for comfort, not speed.
Eating less sugar
Eating less bread – Sugar I can do without, but bread? Never.
Writing – I’m a good writer; I can be interesting and clever on occasion. I can even make people laugh. But I’m not a great writer. To be a great writer (to be great at anything, really) you have to do it all the time. If I did it all the time, it would be a job. I love writing too much to make a job out of it. I like to think of myself (Warning: Obscure golf reference coming up!) as the Robert Tyre Jones of food writers. Bobby Jones was an amateur golfer in the 1920s-1930s. He was every bit as good as the pros (and much better than most of them) but he never turned professional. He loved his sport too much to turn it into a paycheck — because, among other things, there was no $$$ to be made in professional golf back then. (Sound familiar?) But he never had any doubt how good he was. I am the Bobby Jones of food writers and I know it. Of this I am quite proud.
So me an da paesans wuz gettin’ pretty messed up da udder nite. Ya know whad I’m talkin’ about?
Let’s just say we wuz so umbriag our capicolas felt more like muzzarell.
Der wuz tree of us, and boy were we were sesenta fame and needed sum beef and we needed it pronto.
One of my jamokes, Vinnie Boombahts sez: “Hey, Jabrone! Why donts we head to Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads?”
I sez, “Fuggedabadit….that’s not a good idear.”
He sez, “Ahright ahready….then where do youse wants to go?”
I sez, “I ain’t never had no buona fortuna there…and I’m sorta kinda persona non grata, gabish?”
Now, this goombah of mine, he’s a gavone, a real chooch, always with the agita, so I told him to go “ah ffangul,” and he “iamo,” and I said, “haicapid?” and he called me a mamaluke, and I called him a scorchamend, and somehow we ended up at Oscar’s.
And you know what? We had a whale of a time.
We started at the bar at happy hour, and were pleasantly surprised (blown away really) by how great everything was. It was just the three, chopped prime rib sliders that grabbed our attention, but also a remarkably fresh, and a no-filler-allowed crab cake:
…that was the definition of this steakhouse mainstay.
Almost as good (if a tad tough) were the Mob (chicken) Meatballs:
…and a series of side dishes — creamed, but not-too creamy spinach, fresh roasted corn brûlée, asparagus cooked right — all served with classic cocktails containing just the right amount of kick-your-ass.
The main courses in the dining room measured up far better than I remembered from four years ago, when I wrote a none-too-flattering review of the place. Back then, the dishes seemed as flaccid as Fredo Corleone. Now, the filet was as perfect as a filet mignon can get — and seasoned just right by the kitchen:
…..and the strip sirloin smothered in crab, asparagus and Bearnaise was the kind of throwback indulgence that made you long for the 70s. A couple of the sides (Brussels sprouts, mushrooms) were by-the-numbers, but the “extraordinary” mac & cheese was cheesier than a Wayne Newton love song.
I’m not sure when Oscar’s got its act together, but obviously, sometime in the past few years it has. Executive chef Jeffery Martell oversees a big menu (too big, really), but he’s pulling it off and people have obviously responded. (The joint was jumping even on a Tuesday night.)
So, whether you’re with intelligent, discriminating friends, or the stunads and scustumads that yours truly drinks with, whether you’re mortadafam or just want a quick bite, Oscar’s has you covered. It may not be ready to muscle into Strip steakhouse territory, but the throwback food and booze is tutto bene! Gabish?
OSCAR’S BEEF, BOOZE & BROADS
Plaza Hotel and Casino
1 Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101
2007-2017: IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…
Ten years is a long time. In restaurant years it’s practically a lifetime. Restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it to a decade are approaching retirement, especially in Las Vegas. With luck, they may continue to glide along deep into old age like those fortunate souls lucky enough to be alive and kicking into their nineties. More likely, the grim reaper will come for them soon enough.
2007 seems like an eternity ago to many of us. If you remember, it was the last “boom year” before the big bust of 2008. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t a ‘thing,” Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with grown-ups, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics. In 2007, no restaurant had its own Facebook page, no one knew what Yelp was, and if you wanted to know what your meal might look like at a Strip hotel, you had to buy a guidebook, or find a review in a magazine or newspaper. If you were lucky, that review might include a single shot of the interior and perhaps a couple of photos of featured dishes.
In 2007 there were only a few people in America taking pictures of their food, and a lot of people watching us do it, (including my then 83-now-93 year-old mother) thought we were nuts.
A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were ALEX and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden (the man and the restaurant) and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2002 and 2004. Boulud Brasserie (also in the Wynn) was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-California cuisine at Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay Bay — at the time perhaps the prettiest dining room in town.
There was no downtown dining scene in 2007; there was barely a downtown drinking scene. No one knew what xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) were, and high-toned Japanese cooking (like Raku, Yui, Kabuto, Yuzu Kaiseki among others) was unheard of. Food trucks were still called “roach coaches,” and were looked upon with disdain by anyone with a taste bud in their head (or more than $5 in their wallet). Everyone was living high off the hog ten years ago, employment was full, the restaurants were even fuller, and the whole world wanted a slice of the Vegas food and beverage pie.
(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)
Then, reality set in. Faster than you could say “credit default swaps” people stopped coming. Restaurants cut back hours, high rollers and conventioneers stopped blowing a house payment on dinner, and lay-offs were everywhere. Out-of-work chefs either left town or started food trucks; big hotels like Wynn started unloading high-priced talent; and by 2013 all of those restaurants mentioned above had closed their doors. For the next five years (2009-2013), it was the serious doldrums.
There were some stalwarts who stemmed the tide, to be sure. Even the Great Recession couldn’t blunt the enthusiasm for CUT and Carnevino (both of which opened in 2008). and their success in the most dire of times proved the axiom that every restaurant in Las Vegas secretly wishes it was a steakhouse. The support of a big hotels helped the Aria (December, 2009) and The Cosmopolitan (December, 2010) lineups to remain afloat, but a mom-and-pop operation like Rosemary’s (which saw its gross revenues cut in half from 2008-2011), was a dead man sinking from the moment Bear Stearns drowned itself in debt.
Through it all, some places prevailed. Marche Bacchus actually grew in popularity after 2007, thanks to new owners (Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt) and its lakeside venue providing a welcome respite from all the financial gloom and doom hanging over the suburbs. The aforementioned Raku opened in January 2008, and immediately tapped into the smaller-is-better zeitgeist of the times. In the process, it kick-started a Chinatown renaissance that has continued unabated for the past nine years.
(Chinatown Plaza opened in 1995)
The Chinatown as we know it has been around since 1995, but it wasn’t until people started pinching their pennies that they discovered the glories of izakaya eating, ramen noodles, and obscure Asian soups. Even with the economic upturn of the past few years, this enthusiasm continues to grow — now expanding to upscale sushi (Yui Edomae Sushi, Kabuto, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Kaiseki), as well as the glories of lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Shang Artisan Noodle), high-quality Korean bbq (8oz, Hobak, Magal, Goong), and even inventive Thai (Chada Thai) and Vietnamese (District One, Le Pho). Downtown’s revival has proceeded in fits and starts, but there’s no denying that Carson Kitchen and EAT (two early pioneers now celebrating their third and fifth birthdays, respectively) are here to stay.
Some suburbs, however, have remained problematical. In the past ten years, Henderson/Green Valley has turned its back on Bread & Butter, David Clawson, and Standard & Pour (three excellent, chef-driven restaurants) and a non-franchised meal in those parts is harder to find than a pork chop at VegeNation.
As a counterweight, look to the explosion of good food in the southwest. Rainbow south of the I-215 has become its own mini-Chinatown, Andre’s and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have both opened to great acclaim in the last year, and Other Mama, Japaneiro, Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Cafe, Sparrow+Wolf, and Rosallie Le French Cafe, continue to draw passionate foodies in search of the good stuff.
On the Strip, some venerable joints (Le Cirque, Twist, Picasso, Guy Savoy, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) just keep getting better, while newcomers like Libertine Social, re-boots like the new Blue Ribbon, and the extraordinary food at Bazaar Meat, give us hope for Vegas’s dining out future. Thankfully, the small plates thing is subsiding, as are celebrity chefs. Caesar’s Entertainment wants you to get excited about whatever licensing deal it has struck with Gordon Ramsay, Giada and Guy Fieri, but most serious foodies look at these craven exercises in marketing with a big yawn. Real food cooked by chefs who are in their restaurants is what creates a buzz these days — witness the success of Harvest by Roy Ellamar — not some branding deal that has all the authenticity of a gordita.
All of which raises the question: What keeps some places alive, through thick and thin, while other, equally worthy businesses fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Cafe kept itself afloat (and is now thriving in a new location). Circo and Valentino bit the dust but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it a year in Green Valley; Carson Kitchen downtown (with a similar menu) is packed day and night. Glutton closes; EAT across the street thrives. What gives?
(Alex Stratta had the goods…and a great restaurant)
THE PRICE OF FAILURE
I have two theories on this, one food-related, one not. The less sexy one involves real estate, contracts, and accounting — three of the most boring subjects on earth. The Strip is a numbers game pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it; investors demand it; and the food and beverage honchos think of little else. Restaurants to them aren’t amenities like swimming pools, they’re more like fancy, big-box retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of a cold green eye-shade.
When the lease is up (a la Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Circo et al), the focus shifts from how nice a place is to which tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Sappy, romantic notions of soft dappled lights in an architecturally-perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce means nothing to the bean counters. Exit the Maccionis, enter Lago: a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station (slinging pizzas and pastas to the nightclub crowd) and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. ALEX, Circo, Fleur de Lys, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.
THE FOOD ABIDES
Theory number two concerns food. Specifically what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook — something to make people remember you. At Marche Bacchus it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion concoctions (like French toast caviar) that get your attention.
Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. One hundred feet away, one bite of EAT’s yeasty pancakes (or dense corned beef hash), and it becomes everyone’s favorite breakfast spot.
Even on the Strip, it seems more and more like it’s the food that’s getting the attention, not the absentee chefs. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past ten years, and the big splash these days are made by the over-the-top showiness of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, and the table-side ministrations of Carbone.
Big and showy fits Las Vegas like a Wayne Newton leisure suit, but the places that last another decade are going to be all about what’s on the plate, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed ten years ago, before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance. Now, the downsizing is over and it’s time to get cooking.
FINAL THOUGHTS/EPILOGUE FOR A DECADE
(These guys were da bomb. Their replacement is a wet firecracker.)
3 favorites that bit the dust too early and why.
Circo (1998-2013) – The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after fifteen years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine. I also think the family had had enough of Vegas. New York is their home and that’s where they all want to be, and who can blame them?
Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (2005-2013) – Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America.
Bradley Ogden (2002-2012) – Caesars had a choice to make: continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world class chef and his ground-breaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a sad, huge, downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which concept won?
If you loved….
If you loved Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.
If you loved Rosemary’s, try Marche Bacchus.
If you loved Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos.