A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish that my foodie ami had found lacking.)
Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.
Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.
Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be a heartless asshole to argue otherwise.
No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1990s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.
Once Ruth Reichl wrote her 1993 take-down of Le Cirque — where she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant — every reader wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in, as if being identified as a critic by the restaurant invalidates the review. Even today I get asked by people if “they (the restaurants) know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:
Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit. (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times Food Section once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)
But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.
A friend is someone you hang out with.
A friend is someone who has been to your house.
A friend is someone who invites you to their house.
A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.
By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.
Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.
And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.
When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat, and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.
We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that has always brought a smile to my face.
The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.
7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.
EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.
The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, like these Buffalo chicken hearts:
…while others fall flat (some large proteins are examples of how addition-by-subtraction might benefit a recipe). Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and plenty of well-chosen libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos happy. There’s a lot of talent working here, and when it all comes together, this place could become a culinary force to be reckoned with.
Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (there’s never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.
Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama. Go for a quick bite; go for the full kaiseki — either way you’ll be blown away.
Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.
Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.
The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating here. This is a mistake I always regret.
Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop ‘cue joints.
Good Pie – Vincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.
Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.
Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Period. Puts all the others to shame.
Yobo Shabu Shabu – Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.
Cafe Berlin – I know a little German.…he’s eating (these sausages) right over here.
Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me. (Allegro is the other.)
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.
El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.
Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with a bottle of wine, drinking it and drinking in all the despair walking by.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else? There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.
The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes (see above)….and galettes too! Sweet or savory, they’re all great.
Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t.
Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.
Ohlala French Bistro – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.
Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).
Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!
Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.
Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.
Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best! Five years ago, you had to go to Bouchon for pastries this good:
…now, all you have to do is drive to south Fort Apache.
So there you have it. My final roundup.
These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.
I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.
I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and downtown — walking distance from where I work.
I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
False advertising by restaurants is taken for granted. How many times do you just shrug when you see “homemade” on a menu, or “best ___ in town” on a sign? So inured are we to the hyperbole of food puffery that we barely blink when something tells us that some foodstuff is the greatest this, or the the most authentic that. Most of the time, most of us presume the exact opposite of what is being touted, and no one bats an eyelash.
When it comes to “real” Greek food, most Greek restaurants are co-conspirators against consumers and the land of their birth. Like the Chinese and Italians before them, these immigrants created facsimiles of recipes that dumbed-down the real thing, because, they thought (rightly at the time), Americans couldn’t handle the truth. Unlike other ethnic restaurateurs though (who simply watered things down), Greeks decided to invite entire countries into their kitchens. Thus can you often find everything from mezze platters (Persia), to falafel (Syria), to hummus (Israel), to Caesar salads (America) to kebabs (Turkey) in your average Greek restaurant. Imagine French chefs cooking up a passel of pizza, bratwurst and bangers in a bistro and you’ll get the idea. The bastardization of real Greek food started decades ago, and it shows no signs of abating, as most Greek food now gets compromised by a lava flow of babganoush and a enough shingles of pita bread(Lebanon) to tile a roof.
Amidst our Aegean sea of mediocrity there is an island of Hellenic serenity. With nary a cliche in sight, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna opened its doors a little over a month ago, and immediately started changing people’s preconceptions about this cuisine. There are no Greek flags flying. No hideous Greek statuary adorns, nor is the color scheme another variation of bright blue and white. The walls are muted, the linens are thick, and the tablecloths are real cotton. Even the bouzouki music is tuned to a nice, conversational level. In short, this small, 30 seat space is unlike any American-Greek restaurant you have ever been to.
Small it may be, but mighty are the things coming out of this kitchen. Whole fish, supple, grilled octopus, spanakopita (pictured above), gorgeous, oregano-dusted lamb chops, oven-roasted lemon potatoes, superb tomato salad, gigante beans, and the big 4 of savory dips (tzatziki, tarama, tyrokafteri, and skordalia), all pay homage to the kind of food that Greeks take for granted — be it at home or in the neighborhood taverna. The all-Greek wine list is well priced, and the welcome makes you feel like you belong — because you do, and because real Greek food finally does in America .
The only untrue thing about Elia is that it’s not located on a side street in Athens.
ELIA AUTHENTIC GREEK TAVERNA
4226 S. Durango Dr.
Las Vegas, NV 89147