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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

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

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

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

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

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

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

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

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

Image(Too hip for the room)

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

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

Image(Boffo beef at a bargain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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