Pouring Over Downtown’s Coffee Scene

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Downtown is awash in great coffee these days. So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d scope them out for you.

Before we begin, some admissions are in order:

One, yours truly is no coffee connoisseur. In fact, coffee is something yours truly swore off of for the longest time. Having been married to two caffeine fiends in a row (the type who need a hot, steaming cup in their hands the minute their eyes pop open in the morning), we pretty much gave it up for a decade or so in the late 20th century.

Admission number two: #BeingJohnCurtas doesn’t give a puck about pour-overs, cold brews and nitro this or flat white that. John Curtas is a coffee classicist first and foremost.

Image(Cappuccino at Writer’s Block)

Italy is where JC regained his caffeine mojo fifteen years ago, and Italians are the coffee standard by which all others are measured. A bad cup of caffè is harder to find in Italy than a Southern Baptist, and when it comes to brews — from ristrettos to correttos — they get it right, whether you’re in an airport, a trattoria, or a convenience store.

Coffee is wonderfully subjective, both the flavors and one’s relationship to it. One man’s macchiato might not cut the cortado for another. Some use it simply to get up in the morning; for others it’s a social thing. Some people like to drink coffee all day long; others can’t stomach it after lunch. One of our exes could pound a doppio espresso at 10:00 pm and sleep like a baby.

But like a lot of beautifully simple things, coffee has also jumped the the shark in multiple ways. The whole barista thing is pathetically ridiculous. As is obsessing over your beans’ origins and attending coffee “cuppings.” Whatever you might think about comparative tastings (and sure, they can be fun no matter what the beverage), giving “awards” to people for pouring a cup of joe is as dumb as competing for who is the best lasagna layer.

In other words: we care not a whit about fancy-dancy ornamentation or exotic concoctions. They are the quintessential Millennial pursuit: creating a cult of obsession  over something that should be elementally satisfying on its own terms, without parsing the details to death.

Image(Dueling espressos at PublicUs)

When it comes to all things Arabica, it is about the warm, brownish glow of these beans and the soul-soothing broth they bring forth. To us, it’s about the ritual, the taste and the deeply-satisfying buzz you get from a good cup.

If you’re expecting a dissertation on free-trade fermentation, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But know this: there isn’t a coffee house in Las Vegas who can make a proper espresso to save their life. None of them gets the viscous, syrupy mouthfeel right, and the primary flavor component is always sour, as opposed to the sweet-bitter release of a great Italian cup.

So bad are local espressos, we’ve given up entirely. If you want a good one, go to Cipriani at the Wynn. It’s the only one we’ve had recently that truly tastes of Italy.

But I’ve sampled the wares at all of our newest coffee hound hangouts, and here are my conclusions. For ease of reference, we’ve broken each coffee shop into five components: Coffee, Comfort, Comestibles, Crew and Crowd.

PUBLICUS

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PublicUs kickstarted downtown’s coffee renaissance  five years ago in a big way. It’s always busy, despite being on a forlorn corner of east Fremont Street. Until Vesta came along a couple of years later, it had the upscale coffee market all to itself.

Coffee – the espressos here range from unforgivably sour to lightly bitter and acidic, depending on the beans they are made with. The cappuccino is wonderful, as are the pour-overs (what, back in the day we called good old Chemex drip). The cappuccino is the closest you’ll get to Rome in the High Mojave Desert.

Comfort – everything from two-tops to communal tables, in a modern, naturally-lit room that screams “urban hipster hangout.” Nice bathrooms. In fact bathrooms so nice they make you want to go to the bathroom.

Comestibles – all made in-house. Excellent pastries; good savories, avocado toast, waffles, and even a killer corned beef hash on polenta. If you’re hungry for a big breakfast or lunch with a nice range of menu choices, this is where you want to come.

Crew – young, attractive, lots of crazy haircuts, tatts and such. Invariably friendly and fast. The baristas know their beans.

Crowd – an odd assortment of hipsters, youngsters, ‘grammers and tourists….with tables of actual grownups thrown in the mix occasionally. (Amazingly, a lot of cops love it here too.) Probably the artsiest crowd of the coffee bars downtown. This is where you’re also most likely to see some poseur walk in with one of their filthy dogs.

VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS

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Mr. Curtas has a confession to make: he is secretly in love with all of the female baristas here. (Please do not tell Mrs. Curtas.) Because of this, he cannot be fully objective about Vesta Coffee Roasters, although he will try.

Coffee – strong. Really strong. The most lethal of any coffees downtown. All roasting is done on premises and you can taste the freshness. You can also taste a cappuccino that, compared to other brews, hits you like 151 rum after a light beer. The Food Gal® (aka the Mrs. Curtas referred to above) also swears by something called “Golden Milk” here, which isn’t coffee per se, but which she claims has health-giving properties. In the summer, we’re also partial to their “Espresso Tonic” which is just what it sounds like: cold espresso mixed with tonic and lemon. Remarkably refreshing. The cold brew here is also our favorite, but the espresso was given up on long ago. That doesn’t keep us for ordering it occasionally (for the caffeine kick), but it always tastes of acerbic blueberries, rather than the elusive, dense, haunting pungent holy grail of which we seek.

Comfort – seating can be problematic at peak times, simply because all of the tables are always taken with by Millennials furiously pecking away, pretending to be doing something important. Wait a few minutes though, and something always opens up.

Image(Egg-cellence at Vesta)

Comestibles – very limited, especially compared to PublicUs. No great pastries, a few lunch items (sandwiches and such), good soups made in-house, but that’s about it. Wonderful egg sandwich though (above).

Crew as we said above, not something we can be completely objective about. Let’s just say they’re mostly female and work their tails off at peak times. There may be some dudes who also work here, and we believe the owner is also a person of the male persuasion, but to be honest, we’ve never really noticed.

Crowd – eclectic to say the least. A mixture of business types, tourists, lawyers, smelly hippies, tatted-up hipsters, hairdressers, chefs and crowd-following Yelpers. Also big with the alphabet soup sexuality crowd.

MOTHERSHIP COFFEE
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Mothership Coffee is an offshoot of the teeny tiny operation in Henderson that became a coffee nerd favorite a few years ago. It is as renowned for its small selection of exquisite pastries as it is for its Guatemalan Feminino.

Coffee – “Can I get a single espresso?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Can I get it made with more water –  what the Italians call lungo?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Okaaaaay….”

Moving on: gorgeous, nutty, beautifully balanced cappuccino. The espresso was beautiful one time, thin and acrid the second, undrinkable the third. A younger, Millennial cousin of ours (who is a major coffee hound) claims that what we call sour is actually the fruitiness of African beans coming through, as opposed to the milder, less acidic nature of South American coffee. What we call impermissibly sour, he refers to as too sweet. We love the kid, but think he has rocks in his head….or a gueule de bois (wooden mouth). Be that as it may, despite this worthwhile newcomer, a good espresso remains harder to find downtown than a hooker with teeth.

Comfort – open and airy. Kind of a pain in the neck to get to, located as it is in the back of the Ferguson’s Motel complex (at what was once the bottom of its swimming pool, see above), but very nicely appointed inside. Not a lot of seating, although you can also sit on the terraced lawn outside. Because of the location, you won’t be fighting many crowds (like Vesta and PublicUs) but you will be surrounded by self-serious Millennials furiously attached to their laptops.

Image(You’ll love getting sconed at Mothership)

Comestibles – Mothership is known for their pastries (above) and all are top notch. A limited selection of savories and sandwiches, which are invariably fresh and well-crafted. More of a place for a light snack than a full meal. If forced to bestow awards, we’d give the sweet pastries here a slight nod over PublicUs, while the latter wins the savory battle by a landslide.

Crew – Nice, but as green as an Arabica bean.

Crowd – lots of Tony Hsieh acolytes and other youngsters who keep their heads buried in their laptops for hours on end. In many ways this joint feels like a clubhouse for the Downtown Project crowd….which is probably the whole idea.

WRITER’S BLOCK COFFEE SHOP

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Rock and roll journalism was once described as people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In this same vein, putting an erudite, interesting bookstore (Writer’s Block) in downtown Las Vegas is the clueless trying to sell the thoughtful to the thoughtless. The good news is even if the Paris Review and LBGTQWXYZ Quarterly are not your cup of tea, the coffee and pastries will capture your (short) attention span.

Coffee – they use Mothership’s beans here to create the mildest brews of the bunch. This is a compliment to the cappuccino, as it reaches peak coffee perfection with its balance of sweetness, nuttiness, bitterness and acidity. Not a lot of folderol going on with the foam, but the proportions are just right. The espresso, though, is gawdawful — weak, bland, thin, and as sour as a parson’s smile.

Comfort – nothing more than a few tables, a counter and some high-tops located in the entrance foyer. The outdoor seating on the patio is a real plus. You’re also inside a groovy bookstore, which is also a real plus. Parking is a breeze and free along Bonneville.

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Comestibles – extremely limited. Almond croissants (above), cookies, a cinnamon roll and a couple of other items provided by Sonia El-Awal at Rooster Boy Café.  The good news is they are wonderful. The bad news is they run out early.

Crew – also limited, as the place is tiny. One of our favorite barista/bartenders Michelle, moved over here from Velveteen Rabbit/Vesta, making us feel right at home. I’m secretly in love with her too (Jeebus, Curtas, what’s with you!?), so that means this place is now on our steady rotation.

Crowd – here ya go:

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As this post grinds to a halt, and comes to its bitter end, we almost afforgato to tell you something. So, let us not procaffeinate any further, and espresso some final thoughts.

Unbeanknownst to Las Vegas, a hot beverage revolution has been going on around the world for some time now. It’s a brewtiful thing to watch Vegas finally perk up and smell the…

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…. because we couldn’t au lait for it any longer. Now we’re as frappé as can be, and we’re going to cup up, plunge in, and milk this trend for all its worth. We hope you do too.

THE END

 

HATSUMI

There are three things you’ll notice about Hatsumi as you approach it: 1) the strange neighborhood it’s in; 2) the walled-off fortress (inside a refurbished motel, above) that encases it; and 3) its nondescript entrance (below). None of these are exactly welcoming. All of them may give you pause before you enter.

Regardless of how you feel about the design, take the plunge pilgrim, because excellent eats lie within, courtesy of the Downtown Project’s latest über-cool real estate venture.

Before we get to praising the food, let’s address the elephant in the room. Can we come right out and say it? The DTP (the organization created by Tony “Mr. Personality” Hsieh to revive downtown) has been a disaster, restaurant-wise. Its attempts to create a viable food and restaurant scene has been a slow, painful, uphill climb, with more do-overs than my love life. I’ve lost track of the failures, the buy-outs and the re-boots of various places, and Hsieh’s real estate maneuvers have stultified, rather than revitalized, much of the neighborhood.

After ten years of dumb ideas and over-hyped music festivals, downtown continues to struggle due to its primary problem: a lack of residents to support its non-casino businesses.

What Hsieh and his sycophants have done, however, is create a cult of insiders who treat downtown Las Vegas like a private club. There’s really not enough of them to support more than a few bars and restaurants, but the whole point of the Fergusons (the walled-off space housing Hatsumi) is that there may be enough of them to turn this renovated motel space into a foodie-centric hipster hangout…er….uh….excuse me…a “curated market cultivating local music, art, nature, food and creatives/makers.” (Think Container Park without the smell of desperation.)

To do this, the DTP has recruited Dan Krohmer — one of our most successful local chefs (cf. Other Mama) — to create a food and drink scene compelling enough to make these folks want to flock here. (Krohmer, apparently, is one of those “creatives” who doesn’t mind being called by an adjective.)

Approaching the courtyard, you’ll see some giant, upended truck sculpture that signals you’re in the land of Burning Man. Impressive it is, but nothing gives you a clue that a robatayaki/yakitori restaurant (one operated by a bunch of gaijin, no less) lies behind it.

This is intentional. The whiff of exclusivity is everywhere. You’re just supposed to know, you know? In other words, if you have to ask about Hatsumi, you’re probably not hip enough to be here.

When it comes to Krohmer’s food, however, there are plenty of reasons to raise your coolness quotient.

Once you enter, things start to make sense. The elongated, skinny room is situated sideways with the kitchen and bar right in front of you, just a couple of steps from the doorway. To the left and right are comfortable booths, and the left-to-right wide space is surprisingly comfy and welcoming.

Krohmer’s other restaurant, Other Mama, is all about seafood, and he’s received much local acclaim for his unique spin on sushi, crudo and all things swimming. With Hatsumi, he’s ditched the yanagi for a yaki in order to marinate, skewer and grill a host of bite-size Japanese delicacies —  the sort of quickly-consumed food you find underneath train tracks all over Tokyo.

What you’ll start with involves either a cocktail, beer or sake. The wine list is practically non-existent — just like in Japan. The selection of sakes is impressive, and priced for all budgets. (I make no claims of brewed rice beverage expertise, beyond knowing that, as with wine, you rapidly hit a point of diminishing returns as you go up in price.) Bottles are offered in both 300ml and 720ml sizes, making light imbibing a breeze if you’re a party of one or two. Nothing goes better with this food.

(My oh my okonomiyaki)

If you want to turn completely Japanese, you’ll head straight to the okonomiyaki — a savory cabbage pancake here spiked with shrimp and bacon. It may not be composed with the same tenderness as the ones as Tatsujin X or Raku, but it pushes all the right umami buttons. From there you should proceed to the breaded and deep-fried eggplant katsu, which will have even eggplant haters reflexively grabbing for second bites.

(Tantalizingly terrific tataki)

Both of these come under the “Plates” section of the menu and are meant to be shared, as are the gyoza (here with that crispy skirt thing that’s all the rage), beef tataki salad (swimming in ponzu), and Lomi Lomi (ocean trout, also swimming in chili-enhanced ponzu).  Less acidic, but equally satisfying, are the poached chicken salad, nicely dressed with a mild, miso vinaigrette and full of big chunks of cashews, and asparagus chawanmushi — a baked, grainy, white tofu custard that tastes better than it looks.

Having made three visits here, it appears this section of the menu is a work in progress. Krohmer made his name by creating a core menu and then playing off it, seasonally. I expect some of this menu is still in flux, depending upon how the neighborhood reacts to his warm mushroom salad (a bit dense for summertime), or a jumble of braised pork bellies (kakuni) on a plate — a recipe straight from the David Chang playbook.

If they’re available, get the crispy quail breast stuffed with ground pork flecked with veggies. Unless you’re a tofu lover skip the house-made stuff (thick slabs in a cool dashi broth that is the very definition of the bland leading the bland). You’re better off with the pickled vegetables — they’re a lot tastier and a treat unto themselves.

(Smoke some kushi, grab a kushi)

Then, there are the skewers. Lots of them, grilled carefully over binchotan charcoal, and glazed with sweet soy. The perfect bar food. Food you can contemplate, or absentmindedly nibble as you drink or concern yourself with more incorporeal matters.

Las Vegas doesn’t have a pure yakitori restaurant — one specializing solely in grilling chicken parts — but this is the closest we’ve come.  Yes, there are izakayas on Spring Mountain Road and points south, but Hatsumi is the first to raise the grilling of bird parts to a specialty of its own. Heart, liver, thigh, meatball, you name it, they’re grilling it…to a “T”. Juicy, succulent, meat from the whole bird comes to your table on point and perfect.

Like a lot of seemingly simple food, the beauty is in the details — in this case cutting each morsel to a similar size and watching them to the exact second of proper doneness. Nothing is worse than overcooked chicken, and nothing less appealing than the opposite. Here, you won’t have to worry about either and will drop your kushi in appreciation.

As for dessert, just remember what you’ve been told (by me) dozens of times: if you want a great dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.

Krohmer’s menu is striking in its foreignness, and rather stubborn insistence on hewing closely to the izakaya template. How he carefully articulates the flavors of Japan, without compromise, is something to be admired, but it begs the question(s): Is downtown Las Vegas ready for real Japanese food? Are there enough residents, true believers, and Downtown Project acolytes to provide it with enough customers? Could it (shudder) be good enough to actually draw people from the ‘burbs to these long-neglected blocks?

Well, it certainly drew these three gals down there one night, and each of them looked about as hip as a halter top…so there’s hope.

My first meal here was comped; my next two ran us around $100/two including a small bottle of sake and two cocktails. You can easily get out of here for half that if you want just a few skewers, a share plate and some sides. .

HATSUMI

Fergusons Downtown

1028 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.268.8939

 

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC – The Struggle is Real

“Kitchen at Atomic Sticking With Elevated Cuisine” read a recent headline. The article asked, primarily, how can you have an upscale restaurant right next to a dive bar? The point of the piece, if there was a point, read like the author was throwing a publicity bone to a place he wishes would quit with the fancy stuff.

But the point of The Kitchen at Atomic is not to be fancy, it’s simply to be good. Not burger and fries good, but foodie good, interesting good — the kind of chef-driven good that packs them into gastropubs from Boston to San Diego Bay. The kind of excellence that still struggles to find an audience in Las Vegas.

And the struggle is real. Because people struggle with the idea of paying for good food here. Mass-produced franchise food and soulless shopping malls create a race to the bottom for pricing, which puts local restaurants on their back foot from the jump.  (I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “Why should I pay $20 for something I can get for 15 at ____?”) Even when intrepid gastronauts take a place to their bosom (Esther’s Kitchen, Sparrow+Wolf, EATT), there’s not enough of them to go around.

The City of Las Vegas estimates that to hit critical mass for a vibrant downtown, you need 50,000 gainfully-employed people living there. Right now the number is around 5,000. God bless ’em (both the City and the residents), because they’re doing what they can to create a vibrant social, cultural and gastronomic scene between Charleston and Fremont Street, but there’s only so much discretionary income those 5K folks can spread among the restaurants vying for their attention.

The real issue comes down to this: Do enough people want a real restaurant on East Fremont Street? Not finger food, not another cocktail lounge, and not, god forbid, another uncomfortable, loud-as-fuck hipster hangout — but a real down-to-earth bar/restaurant serving coursed out food with good drinks.  You know, the way grownups eat.

Let’s analyze the data to (try to) answer this question. And by “analyze the data” I mean share the opinions springing feverishly from my brain as I type these words.

The Kitchen at Atomic began two years ago as an adjunct to Atomic Liquors — an über-cool, laid back cocktail/beer bar (above) with a steady clientele of Millennials, and a smattering of Gen Xrs. Like most things Millennial, half the people at AL look like they’re there for a purpose (quality imbibing, hooking up), while the rest look like they showed up because the ‘gram told  them to. Most of the AL crowd looks like it’s more at home discussing session beers and saison ales than it does the fine points of hamachi crudo, or the piquancy of a yogurt-herb vinaigrette as it plays off the herbaceousness of fresh English peas.

Atomic Liquors was an old bar given new life six years ago by owner Lance Johns. It retains the feel of a place Charles Bukowski might’ve called home in the 60s, but its craft cocktails and PhD beer program make it more like a run-down jalopy with a shiny new turbocharged engine under the hood. It operates on many levels — old Vegas icon, new Vegas hangout — and has an avid following of both locals and tourists.

TKAA resides in the shiny renovated space adjacent to AL. In a previous life it used to be a gas station. In its present incarnation, it will strike you as as a sleek and somewhat cold industrial space — no more than 50 feet from its louche neighbor next door. The incongruity lies with these two co-joined siblings existing in two separate universes. At AL, you drink; at TKAA the food is the star. And quite a star it is, even if the drunks next door don’t know it.

The menu checks all the right boxes as a destination restaurant — marrow, long beans, cured fish, charcuterie platter, artisanal greens — with appetizers hinting at the kitchen’s creativity, and mains driving the point home.  The attention to detail given to those beans, or a cold cucumber/grape gazpacho, announce a new level of cooking for downtown, and offering a whole fish at market price is a bold move indeed for a neighborhood still pockmarked with vacant lots and tattoo parlors.

(Marrow me; beet me)

Glistening knobs of quivering marrow may be as foreign to East Fremont Street as a hooker with teeth, but you’ll forget where you are as you slather these jewels of adipose protein on the gorgeous, nutty toasted bread served with them.  Grilled halloumi cheese may not fit with the neighborhood either, but the squeaky fromage will fit just fine as an appetizer for four. Raw seafood is everywhere these days, but the crudo, or denser, cured, striped bass, are both light and punch-packing — either with chili lime, or sumac and sherry vinegar.

(How green was my salad? Pretty friggin’ green.)

“Spring has sprung” were the words dancing in my head as I wolfed down the tumble of crunchy greenery called the Spring pea salad (above), while “clams to beat the band” was my mantra for the colorful array of grilled, sweet shellfish frosted with breadcrumbs and tinged with Fresno chili (below). In my lexicon of least favorite eats, raw veggie salads rank somewhere between frosted cupcakes and gummy hummus, but I found myself grooving on every bite of those snappy greens. The clams are simply in a class by themselves. You won’t find a better version of baked bivalves, on or off the Strip.

(Beauteous bivalves)

In many a gastropub, the larger the format, the worse the food gets — big proteins lacking the sexiness of high-concept tweezer food to some chefs. Not so to newly -installed Executive Chef Jackson Stamper, who seems to lavish just as much attention on pan-seared cauliflower steak and grilled swordfish as he does on his starters. I liked the menu of his predecessor, but the food now feels more focused, and the platings are prettier.

The biggest of his big boys is the Creekstone Farms dry-aged rib eye (at the top of the page). It’s priced by the ounce, and around $80 will get you enough mineral-tinged properly stored steer to feed four hungry souls. It may not have the iron-y tang and Roquefort-like zing of super-aged beef, but you won’t find a better steak within three miles of this one.

(Peak pork perfection)

And then there’s the rum-brined chop (above) — a dulcet compaction of pork so luscious and savory you will re-think your prejudices against this usually boring entree. Broccoli rabe, rum jus and mustard seeds complete the picture, and you’ll be tempted to graze upon another one as soon as it’s gone.

Desserts are more elemental and less chef-y than the savories. The deconstructed apple pie is a nice twist on an old standard, and the Guinness chocolate cake (below, really more like a dense, lacquered brownie), will have you reflexively polishing it off in defiance of all common dietary sense.

They seemed to have dialed back the beer and wine list, but it’s still interesting and well-priced — probably not enough for a true oenophile, but certainly so for the clientele. I won’t bother praising the top shelf cocktails because a bad mixed drink is now harder to find in Las Vegas than a good mixed drink used to be.

(Just what the doctor didn’t order)

Two years on, The Kitchen seems to have hit its stride. The talent is there, and the cooking is there, but will it be enough? Here is a restaurant that is doing almost everything right — from the bar to the service to the decor and to the food. Will it find its audience? Is there enough audience to find? Publicus down the street (with the most unwelcoming location in town) is packed all the time. Hatsumi (a stone’s throw across the street) seems to have hit a home run. But neither of them is a traditional, three-course restaurant. Are Millennials (the only customers that count downtown) ready to embrace this place?

Who knows? I’ve been at this too long to make any predictions. What I do know is that Las Vegas is in a constant battle with itself. The chefs and owners and food lovers — folks who really care about what they put in their mouths — desperately want downtown to become another Seattle or Denver….but you look around some days and realize we’re barely beating Bakersfield.

We are in the middle of another boom to be sure, and East Fremont and the Arts District are now on everyone’s radar. Will there be enough customers to sustain not just TKAA but all of these businesses? Or will there be a regression to the mean?

Las Vegas doesn’t need any more average anything. (That’s what Henderson is for.) But mediocrity is still what sells. Only time will tell.

(Apps run $15-$20; mains from $25-$30; and sides $6-$8. Dinner for two with a couple of drinks should run around $125. The rib eye is at least 30% less than you would pay for a comparable cut on the Strip, and worth every penny.)

THE KITCHEN AT ATOMIC

927 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.534.3223