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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The Mind of a Restaurant Critic

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When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk. For that, the user reviews on Yelp are beyond useless….So there in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to. – Josh Ozersky

The two questions I get asked most frequently are, 1) How did you become a restaurant critic? and 2) How do you decide where to go…. and how do you critique a restaurant once you’re there?

That’s actually three questions, but for the purpose of this piece we’ll treat the last two as a single inquiry into the my machinations and methodology used when reviewing restaurants.

Regarding question #1: I’ve gone through the story of how I became a critic so many times even I am tired of telling it. The fastest explanation is best summarized by the axiom “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Vegas in 1994 was extremely near-sighted when it came to food, and yours truly was the only one urging our local press to wake up and smell the celebrity chefs. Thankfully, KNPR- Nevada Public Radio was hep to the idea of commentary on our burgeoning restaurant scene, and a (second) career was launched. Click here if you’re interested in some of my (now ancient) reviews.

If you’re interested in spending a few minutes inside the mind of a critic, read on.

Many ask if there is some sort of master plan in how I go about my reviewing business? A highly detailed outline of restaurants charted days, weeks, months in advance for possible exploration, delectation, and possible evisceration. In a macro sense, the first half of the year is spent scouting new territory; the middle three months (summer) is spent writing/updating EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants. Once the final copy is in around September/October, and once I weigh in on Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards issue, I then spend a couple of months (November-December) trying to lose a few pounds (good luck with that).

On a micro-level, it’s much more ad hoc than you think — a mixture of ear-to-the-ground interest in what’s new, blended with a need to revisit old haunts to see if they’re still up to snuff.

These days my attention centers upon all the action downtown and in Chinatown. Kaiseki Yuzu just opened in its new digs on Spring Mountain Road, and another kaiseki joint is coming hot on its heels, soon to pop its doors on Decatur and SMR in the next month. Apparently there’s an udon noodle bar on West Flamingo that slipped through my attention cracks, and the just-opened ShangHai Taste needs a return since my initial visit only a few days into its run.

Such are the thoughts running through my brain at any moment.

Competing in this crowded space are sugar plums awaiting at the soon-to-open Main Street Provisions and the new Good Pie — two highly-anticipated, chef-driven joints just days away from boosting the Main Street dining scene.

And oh, by the way, someone told me to check out the food at Able + Baker brewpub, and Sheridan Su’s new concept…and isn’t it high time I gave vegetarian tacos a try at Tacotarian?

(Side joke that practically wrote itself: Me, walking past the almost-empty Tacotarian last night: “Why are there no customers in the vegetarian taco joint?” Friend of Me: “Because it’s a vegetarian taco joint.”)

Also swimming through these synapses are yearnings for return visits to tried and true favorites. I really don’t need to go back to Sage, Bardot Brasserie, Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Guy Savoy to remind myself how tasty they are, but their menus beckon me like the seductive song of a siren. Odysseus may have strapped himself to a mast to resist his temptations, but my only restraints are time and my waistline.

The older I get, the more I realize how my appetite for restaurants usually splinters into one of three shards when the stomach growls: there’s the curious (“I need to try check out _____)”), the complacent (“Let’s go to an old favorite”), and the conscientious (“Duty demands I revisit ______, even though I have -0- interest in doing so.”) Thus am I compelled, sometimes, to haul my ass to some far corner of the Vegas valley to check out a chef, or recheck that I either still like or loathe someplace. (It was this motivation that led me to embark on a cook’s tour of classic Las Vegas restaurants a few years ago….a trek for which my stomach still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Having decided on where, the next issue is how. As in: How do I size up the places I write about?

Before I go any further, let’s start by stating I am well aware of the subjectivity involved in judging anything that involves personal taste — be it food, fashion, music, or movies. If you like your burgers well done I feel sorry for you, but you are not wrong.

Image result for overcooked burger

I could argue with you that you’re not experiencing your burger’s inherent juicy, tangy, deep-roasted wonderfulness by eating it one step removed from a piece of desiccated charcoal, but if that’s how you like it, so be it. What I will do is explain that the full flavor of the meat is being shortchanged by a chef who either doesn’t know or care to lift the patty off the grill at the “right” time. In this sense, I am merely reflecting popular wisdom (and perhaps my own prejudices) about when beef tastes best.

But there are standards in cooking and restaurant operation (just as there are in music performance and movie production). All a food critic does is try to hold a restaurant to them.

All a restaurant review does is filter a consumer product through his own prism. A writer should never lose sight his own prejudices, lest the focus of the review become more about him than what is on the plate. I strive to remember this unless, of course, you are dead wrong about liking some shitty Italian restaurant, or gluten-free anything.

As for the standards I try to uphold, the criteria is much different for new v. old.

At an old favorite, I let my guard down and take a lot for granted. All I’m there for is to confirm that the place hasn’t lost its fastball.

A new joint gets the full once-over: from the lighting to the silverware to the taste of the water they pour.

How’s the greeting? Where is the greeting? Is it awkward? Polished? Sure, they might know me, but how are those three ladies right behind me addressed? Does it feel good in there? Do you get a feeling of comfort and warmth when you enter, or something more cool and aloof?

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What about the chairs? The booths? The depth of the seats? Their width? Do you stick to them? Slide off? Does the table wobble? (Iconic old eateries get a pass here; brand new ones, not so much.)

Is the design unique? (Hatsumi) DIY? (Elia Authentic Greek Taverna) Beautiful? (Lamaii, Weera Thai Kitchen) Hackneyed? ( Majordomo) Or does it fit the food? (Rao’s) (BTW: nothing gets graded on steeper curve than decor. Local joints hanging on by a thread get a lot more leeway than Strip hotels who pay millions to come up with the hideous cruise ship look (Lago), or a coffee shop/bus station (the otherwise excellent StripSteak).

Is the place too big? (Usually, yes, e.g. Mott 32) Or too small? Or poorly laid out?

Can you hear yourself think? Does the music intrude? How energized is the staff? Are they working in silent, satisfied synchronicity? (They should be.) There is a hum that great restaurants exude — it can be almost silent as in the case of a haute cuisine frog pond, or close to a cacophonous roar in some over-amplified gastropub — but you know it when you hear it, and it means the place is firing on all cylinders. (If you want to hear what I’m talking about, go to Cipriani sometime.)

What about the napkins? (Polyester? Paper? Real cotton?) The plates? How close are the tables? Does the bar serve food? Does it look comfortable doing so? Would a single diner be happy eating there? Did they spend money on the glassware, or do it on the cheap?

How uncomfortable are the bare tables? Are they naked as a design statement? Or because of an impecunious proprietor?

And while we’re at the table, how clean was it when you sat down? Still wet from a wiping? And how long has it been since those place-mats were steam-cleaned?

Does it smell like a restaurant? Or is the ventilation so good you could be in a library?

Is the staff alert? Young? Old? Happy to be there or biding their time until the Culinary Union calls? Snappily dressed or slovenly? (A staff in t-shirts can look sharp; frayed-around-the-edges formal wear is fooling no one.)

Is there an adult in charge? Or are a bunch of 20-somethings aimlessly looking for direction?

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Does that adult help with service? Busing of tables? If a table is in distress, does the manager, or another waiter offer to help, or give you that “it’s not my station, I’ll go find your waiter” look? How fast do the menus arrive? How chatty (too much or not enough) is the waiter?

Can they handle a corkscrew? (You’d be surprised how clueless some waitrons are. This is not their fault. It shows a lack of training, which shows a lack of caring….by management.)

While we’re on the subject: How seamless is the transition from water to cocktails to wine?

Then check out the least sophisticated table in the place. Are they happy? Being treated with respect? Frustrated? Acting intimidated? If the latter, how patient is the staff (or the harried bartender) being with them?

Lastly, and most importantly, is it a passion restaurant or a money restaurant? (Esther’s Kitchen is a passion restaurant; Ada’s – its offshoot – is a money restaurant.)

Then there’s the menu. Easy to read? All over the map? Too descriptive? Minimalist? Too cute? Full of cliches? Tourist friendly or gastronomically challenging? Or a little of both? Can you parse the  the food from the card before you, or will you require the assistance of a soothsayer, shaman, and a polymath’s transliteration to figure it out?

Automatic deductions for roasted beets, salmon, scallops, and chicken breasts. Bonus points for offal, strange birds, good soups and singular focus.

Believe it or not, I process most of this information in about 90 seconds.

I’ve usually filed away the answers in the Rolodex of my mind before the food even arrives.

And then it does and then it’s a whole new ballgame. But you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that process.

This is the first of a two-part article.