Las Vegas Battles Lethargy

Image(Costa di Mare)

Nobody knows anything. – William Goldman

Trying to take the temperature of where we are and where we’re going is a fruitless exercise. No one knows the answers; everyone has their fingers crossed.

During a recent conversation with a local magazine editor, I was at a loss when asked what I wanted to write about. The “new normal” is anything but. Hotels and restaurants have opened seeking to reestablish themselves, but no one knows how sustainable these operations can be over the long haul, especially when seating is restricted and probably a quarter of your (former) customers are too scared to dine out.

The Strip has rolled the dice and opened its doors: chugging along at a quarter speed with no conventions in the foreseeable future and the slowest time of the year staring it in the face. People are showing up, but nowhere near in the numbers for which these places were designed.

No one has any idea what the demand for Las Vegas is going to be. Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s in the dark. Demand for beds, booze, or breakfast — it’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be: next week, next month, or in November for that matter..

Because we’re all flying blind, no one can plan anything. Everyone is in survival mode, on and off the Strip. Restaurants designed to turn hundreds of covers a night are making do with a fraction of their capacity — like a Formula One racer puttering around and conserving fuel on a go-kart track. Tiny 40 seat Japanese gems like Hiroyoshi and Yui Edomae Sushi are confined to twelve diners at a time.

If you thought we had a tedious, interminable Spring, the next eight weeks are going to be brutal.

Image(ELIO es magnifico!)

Even in places that are open, something very key to every restaurant’s survival is missing. The key to everyone’s survival — un-quantifiable but essential nonetheless. We’re not talking tables, turnover or customers. We’re not even speaking of service, aliments or alcohol.

No, we’re talking about energy. The Big E, the thing every business needs to succeed. It doesn’t matter what business, if you don’t bring energy to what you do, you won’t be doing it for long.

Restaurants derive energy from two places: their patrons and their staff. Both feed off of each other, literally and figuratively.

Small places like ShangHai Taste exude energy (or at least they did) from the moment you enter. It comes from customers eagerly awaiting their seats, and from the chefs furiously rolling, pinching and steaming your xiao long bao for scores of hungry stomachs.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, a huge restaurant like Mott 32 crackles from the minute you hit the gangplank. Bazaar Meat and Cut smell of beef, testosterone, and money; Restaurant Guy Savoy of French perfection.

Even a homey neighborhood joint like Jamie Tran’s Black Sheep has (or used to have) an electricity about it when you walked in the door — a palpable sense of people enjoying themselves. Energy, conviviality, and excitement are what made Esther’s Kitchen a hit from the get-go.

Now, they’ve lost it. All of them. Vitality has been replaced by defensiveness — an almost apologetic feeling in the air permeating these rooms and everyone in them.

The feeling is the same from the our most expensive to our most modest eateries, and it isn’t a pretty sight, even if the food remains as tasty as ever.

Diners are on the defensive. They are out and about at great risk, they are told, and they’re being policed by self-righteous, finger-waggers — emboldened by media, government, and public health officials — who’ve deputized them (they think) to tell the rest of us how to behave. The restaurants themselves live in fear of being outed for the smallest health infraction; their customers are less fearful, but ever vigilant, lest they be thought of as not properly protecting themselves or those around them.

Needless to say, none of this is a recipe for success.

But undaunted, we persevere. Eating out more than anyone, trying to gauge the temperature of our hospitality industry every week. Since good lunches are problematic downtown, and the hotels have reduced options and hours, we’re picking our spots

The following are the places I’ve eaten since the the quarantine was lifted in early June. As usual, all places come highly recommended.

The (short) List:

Restaurant Guy Savoy

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Against all odds, Caesars Palace decided to reopen one of America’s fanciest and most expensive restaurants. Like most higher-end joints, it’s only serving four nights a week (Wed.-Sat.), and multiple compromises have been made in the way they serve things. The bread cart is now for show only, silverware comes wrapped in paper, and the (smaller) cheese selection is one step removed from a Tupperware party.

Image(Pretty cheesy if you ask me)

That said, Exec Chef Nicolas Costagliola continues to execute the Guy Savoy canon with delicious precision, the service never misses a beat, and you won’t find any better duck, veal, fish, vegetables, and desserts anywhere. With its already limited competition being laid low on both coasts, there is no better big deal meal in America right now. In fact, it may be the only big deal meal in America right now.

ELIO

Image(You won’t turnip your nose at these)

Another surprise. Straight from Mexico City by way of New York City. On every gastronaut’s radar, even though it’s only open Thurs.-Sun.. Wonderful bar, mescal tasting room, molés out the wazoo, and modern Mexican food like Vegas has never seen before. Most of the food gobsmacked us, but we want/need a second round before letting our opinions gel. Be advised though: they take no prisoners with strong flavors and it is pricey — some of the vegetable dishes are priced from in the mid-twenties….for turnips (above).

Costa di Mare

Image(John Dory at Costa di Mare)

Dramatic setting, dramatic seafood. We wrote this place off several years ago after two mediocre meals. But to the Wynn’s credit (as well as Chef Mark LoRusso and GM Ivo Angelov), it has arisen from the quarantine ashes and recaptured some of the old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare mojo. The Food Gal® (aka my wife) can’t wait to go back. Neither can I.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad meal at Bazaar Meat, or even a bad bite. Totally hit the ground running and tastes as wonderful as ever. The only thing that feels strange are the socially-distanced empty tables. As a steakhouse, however, it remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma which is the new-old Sahara hotel.

ShangHai Taste

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One of those mom and pop places struggling with reduced seating. Acclaim-worthy xiao long bao, noodles and spareribs were a hit from day one….the Covid hit. Now, the once-mobbed, spanking-new Shanghai Plaza is a shadow of its once-bustling self. All Chef Jimmy Li can do is hang on and hope.

Oodle Noodle

Oodles of udon. Healthy bowls of Japanese goodness and super-foods like seaweed salad. If you’re looking for a tasty, economical lunch with wellness-giving properties, look no further.

DE Thai

We had one of our best meals ever here for lunch the other day. Small but mighty terrific Thai.

Other Notables — Where you should be eating now:

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Lotus of Siam

Pho So 1

Yui Edomae Sushi

Lamaii

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Carson Kitchen

7th & Carson

Kaiseki Yuzu

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Monzú Italian Oven + Bar

Esther’s Kitchen

The Black Sheep

PublicUs

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Marche Bacchus

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Allegro at Wynn

Image(Keep calm and carrot on at ELIO)

 

Wine is Hard, GARAGISTE Makes It Easy

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

It used to be so simple. Learn a few grapes, a couple of countries, carry a vintage chart around with you, and sound like an expert.

Back in the Stone Age, that’s all you needed to do.

And by “Stone Age” I mean about 15-20 years ago.

40 years ago (about the time I started getting into wine), it was all about France….with a little California thrown in. Remember the Judgment of Paris? I do; I even remember the original Time magazine article about it. The whole episode rated about 300 words on a back page of the ‘zine — barely a blurb about some California upstarts (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) beating the Frogs at their own game.

Up until then, if you wanted to “know” wine as a consumer, you needed to know Bordeaux. Memorizing the 1855 Classification was essential, and woe to the poseur who couldn’t tell his troisieme cru from a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

There were sub-parts and sub-parts to the sub-parts of these classifications, but by and large, it was all about France. California started flexing its muscles in the early 1980s (bolstered in part by the growing legend of that 1976 Paris competition), but California was always easy: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and that was it.

Back then, Italy was atlas esoterica; Spain, the undiscovered country. Germany, Australia and Portugal? Strictly for the nerdiest of wine nerds. Chile, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, China? Fuggidabadit.

Big, fruity Cabs were what counted in Cali, along with massive, over-oaked Chards. All you had to do was know your producers — few wineries were trumpeting their specific vineyards  — and after a couple of trips to Napa, you could strut around like some imperious Brit, expounding on the merits of the Rutherford Bench, or the superiority of Sonoma fruit.

Was it all bullshit? Of course it was all bullshit. Practically everything about wine is bullshit. Getting past the bullshit (so you can enjoy what’s in the glass) is half the fun.

These days it’s less about antiquated, overblown French marketing ploys and more about the beverage. Like the internet, the world of wine has expanded our horizons while shrinking the earth. Good wine is everywhere, and now being made from grapes no one had ever heard of in the last half of the 20th Century.

Wine is hard now. Very hard. As in, having to learn a dozen languages (plus topography) hard.

The trick is making sense of it. The secret is you don’t have to. All you have to do is know your wine bar.

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GARAGISTE opened late last year and almost immediately became an industry hangout — a place where the cool kids, not the rich kids, drink wine. It eschews the easy pickings of “name brand” wines (famous Burgundies, big hitter cabs, overpriced Bordeaux) for an ever-changing selection of new-fangled bottles from producers you’ve probably never heard of.  (For those unfamiliar with the term, “garagiste” refers to small, Right Bank producers who became known in the 1990s for making cult wines that aren’t worth the prices people pay for them.)

To be sure, you can still pick up some hefty Barolos, big Burgundies, or righteous Rhones here, but the specialties of the house are lip-smacking wines at reasonable prices that are so good you don’t care about their snob appeal.

This poses a serious conundrum for, let’s say, 90% of the fine wine drinkers in the world, who only drink wines based upon reputation. Or even worse, buy bottles based on the “score” some hack writer in some advertising rag (read: most wine journals) gave it.

You’re not going to hear a lot of “The Spectator gave this a ’94′” at Garagiste; nor will you see a lot of label whores showing off their good taste. Instead, you’ll find people who like wine because it tastes good, not by how impressive they think it is.

Las Vegas is late to this party (no surprise there) as these kinds of wine bars have been all the rage in Paris for over a decade. Just last weekend we stumbled upon Mignon in downtown Los Angeles, and it fit the same mold: passionate owners, reasonable prices, exquisite, obscure wines in an unpretentious setting. Exactly the opposite of the snobbery so often (rightfully) attached to wine drinking.

No one is talking scores here. Owners Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are more interested in describing to you what’s in the glass, and turning you on to unfamiliar bottles, producers, and grapes.

They also do the natural wine/biodynamic-thing, but aren’t obnoxious about it. Both will tell you that some natural wines have a funky, less-polished, rough-around-the-edges taste to them that may not be to some people’s liking. You will get fair warning and also a taste before you have to commit to a whole glass.

You will also be getting an education here unlike any available at any other wine bar in town. Having two gifted sommeliers on hand most evenings to guide you through the pours is something other wine-drinking locations (what few we have) can only dream about. (Some joints around town are “wine bars” in the same way that any restaurant with a steak on the menu is a steakhouse.)

To be sure, there are things I don’t like about Garagiste. The setting is a bit cold, more industrial than cozy. Noise levels are up there — perhaps not at military jet-afterburner levels, but conversation-impeding just the same. (Enhancing conversation should be a wine bar’s second main purpose.) Some cushy chairs and strategically-placed sound baffles would go a long way. The nibbles are little more than a single (good) cheese platter with excellent bread from Esther’s Kitchen across the street, and at busy times, the owners and staff can be over-matched. (I’m actually ecstatic when the place is packed, and some crunchy grissini at the bar would also go a long way when you can’t get the staff’s attention.)

The plus side is that you’re in a wine bar, so relax, pilgrim. You’re not there to see how fast you can catch a buzz.

Also, patrons have quickly embraced options to the limited food offerings…by bringing their own! Prato and Enriquez are totally fine with you inhaling a burrito from Casa Don Juan (down the street) next to a sexy syrah, or pairing some Pad See Eiw from DE Thai Kitchen (around the corner) with a sassy Juliénas. Want a big-ass steak with your Chateau Cantermele? No problem, just get one to-go from Esther’s and eat it on the premises.

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Being something of a cheesehead, I’ve taken to bringing my own platters of Fourme d’Ambert, Comté, Pecorino, and Cabot’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar to enjoy with whatever cheese-wine pairing suits my fancy that day.

Another issue (more like a curiosity) is the way the bottles for sale are priced. Garagiste is both a bar and a retail store. The list you’re given is also what’s available for sale. Bottles to take home are priced at half what they cost if you drink them there. This makes the prices seem like a steal if you take one to-go, and a bit pricey if you opt to pop a cork on the premises. Still, even with this in-house mark-up, everything is at least half of what you’d pay for the same juice on the Strip.

And what you’re paying for is unique indeed. Interesting bottles, ever-changing wines by the glass, low prices, knowledgeable patrons, friendly owners, and a feeling as if you’re at the epicenter of a Las Vegas wine renaissance.

I’ve been saying for years that the craft beer has become ridiculous, and Millennials will eventually age out of all the cocktail folderol. It looks like it’s happening and Garagiste is ground zero for how it’s happening in Las Vegas.

Being someone who has waited 30 F*CKING YEARS,  for a place to drink good wine downtown, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon.

Skoal!

GARAGISTE WINE ROOM/MERCHANT

197 E. California Ave. #140

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.954.3658

Image(Weird-ass spirits in a wine bar? Yes!)

 

 

The List – January 2020

Image(Happy New Year!)

For years I’ve maintained that to do this job correctly, you have to be a little touched, a lot obsessive, and slightly manic about where you eat.

It’s also like being a porn star: something that sounds like a good idea (to dudes anyway) until you have to do it daily, on command.

And like being a porn star, most guys think they could do it, but they can’t.

Let’s go through my month (a very light one by my standards) and see if you could keep up, eating-wise. Keep in mind these dishes are just the highlights — every meal contained much more to eat, some things of which I nibbled at, other parts I devoured wholesale.

It started with a smiley face on a croque Madame on January 1st at Marche Bacchus (top of page).

Then, in rapid succession, over the course of the month, we devoured…

Esther’s Kitchen

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We grow weary of telling you how great Esther’s is….but we will never get tired of James Trees’ cacio e pepe (above).

DE Thai Kitchen

Image(Kanom jeen namya pu AKA fish curry with noodles)

Not to take anything away from our wealth of Thai options downtown, but the food at the teeny tiny DE Thai Kitchen is the best of the bunch. When the fish-crab curry (above) is on the menu, get it.

Kaiseki Yuzu

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Sure the kaiseki menu is expensive (starting at $100/pp), but the small bites/sake bar up front (above) is quite the deal for food this refined, and a good introduction to Japanese food the way it tastes in Japan.

New York Bagel and Bakery

No better bagels in our humble burg.

ShangHai Taste

Image(Through these doors lie dumpling delights)

Screw those over-hyped Chinese chains (Tim Ho Wan, Din Tai Fung), Jimmy Li’s xiao long bao are the bomb and made with love, not on an assembly line.

Serrano’s Mexican Food

Image(This salsa lit me up from my head tomatoes)

There is nothing remarkable about Serrano’s.…except the service and the spot-on Mexican food. It’s also one of the spiffiest holes-in-the-walls you will encounter, with not a grimy corner in site. A real hidden gem in an unlikely location.

Sage

Image(Egg-cellent caviar; unbliniably good pancakes)

We pop into Sage every other year just to make sure it hasn’t lost its fastball. It hasn’t lost its fastball. In fact it may be throwing more heat than ever. New chef Thomas Griese is seeing to that.

Hiroyoshi

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni)

Every time I eat at Hiroyoshi, I kick myself for not eating here more often. Simply marvelous sushi at more than reasonable prices for what you get. The uni 3-ways will have you dropping your chopsticks in appreciation.

Estiatorio Milos

Image(These prawns give great head)

These Carabineros deep water prawns may be $30 a piece, but sucking sherry out of one of their detached craniums is the best cephalothorax you can get on the Strip.

Moon Palace

Image(This Double is damn Tasty)

Everyone knows David Chang hates me. And I’m no fan of his warmed over, quasi-Korean concepts at Momofuku, either. But I’m willing to give his new joints a fair shot, and Moon Palace (located across the hall from the spanking new Majordomo), is a mini-burger empire whose time has come. Delicious from the first bite, and probably the apotheosis of the American slider.

Eiffel Tower Restaurant

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Sometimes, we go visit an old favorite hoping for the best but expecting less. Despite the great view and good service, this place is become way too touristy for any serious gastronome. The lunch menu was mainly sandwiches; the torchon of foie gras wasn’t as finely-tuned as it should have been, and the burger not worth the pain-in-the-ass trek it takes to get there from the parking lot. Methinks me and The Food Gal® have eaten our last meal here.

18bin

Image(Well kiss my biscuits)

Fingers are crossed that Louisiana native Jen Landry (above) can put this place on the culinary map. The menu seems promising, and the gal has a way with biscuits. If only the physical layout of the joint weren’t so shitty.

Graffiti Bao

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We liked Graffiti Bao, but didn’t love it enough to ever again travel to the far southwest to eat its bread-y, doughy dumplings. It didn’t help that each of the fillings (Szechuan beef, kung pao chicken and barbecue pork were almost indistinguishable in taste. Our Chinese-Korean dining companion was also put off by the burrata offering on the menu (with garlic-chili sauce and scallion pancake!) — a combination that makes as much sense as kimchi on a pizza. “White people trying too hard to be hip Asians,” she sniffed. And she’s probably right.

The Goodwich

Image(Move over Babe Ruth…and pastrami on rye)

The Patty (pictured above) deserves to be in the Sandwich Hall of Fame. It takes a while to melt all of that gooey cheese into the chopped beef, but the wait is always worth it.

Suzuya Patisserie & Cafe

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On South Buffalo,  a mini-micro-climate of hip Asian-fusion eats has sprung to life, with Suzuya, Graffiti Bao and Fukuburger all located within a stone’s throw of each other. Each space (like its surrounding shopping center) is spanking new, with all the polished, antiseptic charm of a mall food court. This seems to bother the patrons not at all, as from the get-go, Suzuya has been packed with customers both Asian and non-, in numbers that would’ve overwhelmed its original cracker-box location, a few miles west. Suzuya’s pastries are very French, but also a la Française as filtered through Japanese sensibilities, meaning: more delicate and less sweet. From the crowds we’ve observed, there seems to be a pent-up demand for this Sino-Franco fusion, as there should be.

Soyo Korean Barstaurant

Image(Who knew everything but the kitchen sink could be so tasty?)

Korean food baffles me. It’s intense, over-the-top, ingredient-heavy, starchy, spicy, gut-busting and soul-warming all in one. Korean food after a Japanese meal is like a NFL team lining up next to the Bolshoi Ballet. I love it but I don’t claim to understand it. If you want to do both, Soyo is a good place to start.

PublicUs

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I love croissants like a bear loves honey. Like a Pelosi loves impeachments; like a Trump loves beauty pageants. The ones at PublicUs might be the best in town. If not, they’re certainly in the top three.

Yum Cha

Image(Shrimply mouth-watering)

Our new go-to for dim sum. Not in Chinatown, but a real find on W. Tropicana with great prices, an open kitchen, a picture menu (great for dim sum beginners) and very attentive service.

Cornish Pasty Co.

(Belly bombs away!)

If you look up “stick to your ribs” in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of a Cornish pasty.

El Dorado Cantina

That Ass Though Jennifer Lopez GIF - ThatAssThough JenniferLopez Shakira GIFs(Some buns get a rise out of us)

We spent $83 on Mexican food here. For 3 tacos, and bowl of soup, and appetizer and a beer. For eighty-three bucks I want mariachi music. Or Shakira shaking her ass in my face.  Never again.

Cipriani

Image(Baked, Béchamel’d, and beautiful)

I eat at Cipriani so often they ought to name a booth after me. I could eat its baked tagliolini with ham (above) every day of the week and never get tired of it. Like everything here, it is stunningly simple Italian food served by real pros who never miss a beat.  If you want to see what a great Italian ristorante looks like, this is the place. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the gelato. You’ll be hooked from the first bite.

That’s 21 restaurants in 31 days — barely breaking a sweat by my standards.

Remember, I’m plowing all this ground so you don’t have to (kind of like a porn star). My continuing mission is to guide you to only the best of the best, so you will know where best to spend your dining out dollars.

We at Being John Curtas hope these posts are helpful to achieve these goals. But if any of this causes you menu envy, try to remember this German word to help you over your green-eyed hunger hurdles:

Futterneid is a compound noun which is made up of the words ‘food’ and ‘jealousy’. The German word ‘Futter’ translates as ‘animal feed’ or ‘fodder’, but is also used colloquially to describe human food. Futterneid translates into English literally  as ‘food jealousy’, but the more idiomatic ‘food envy’ is a better translation.

The word describes the highly relatable feeling when you simply order food at a restaurant wrong, and then have to suffer through the rest of the meal watching someone else eating something that looks and smells much better than what you have.

Examples:

Er war gestern abend wegen des Futterneids so mürrisch.

He was so grumpy yesterday evening because he was envious of the food.

Danke schoen to @thelocalGermany for giving us a word that is now an essential part of our eating vocabulary.

Prost!

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