A Tale of Two Fishes

The critic’s job is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator.

I got into food writing to be a consumer advocate. It wasn’t to brag about my culinary adventures, or create a diary of my gastronomic life with pictures of every meal. I wasn’t interested in imposing my standards or condescending to those who didn’t measure up. As big a snob as I am (have become?), it wasn’t elitism that motivated me.

As a product of the 60s and 70s, I’ve always looked at consumer advocacy as a noble calling. As a serious restaurant-goer, I started thinking 30 years ago about a way to turn my obsession into something worthwhile for my fellow food lovers. (This was a good fifteen years before anyone used the term “foodie.”)

To put it simply, I wanted to use my experience and share my knowledge with others about where to find the “good stuff.” Still do.

In these days of Yelp, Instagram “influencers” and food blogging braggarts, it’s easy to forget the original reason behind restaurant reviewing; the raison d’être being simply to start a conversation about where best to spend your dining-out dollars.

Image result for grimod de la reynière

 

Without boring you with a history lesson, the first acknowledged “restaurant reviewer” was a fellow named Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière  (pictured above, usually abbreviated to Grimod de la Reynière or simply “Grimod”) — a rather weird chap* who compiled a list of restaurants in Napoleonic Paris, to help its burgeoning middle-class choose a place to dine, at a time when eating out in restaurants was first becoming the popular thing to do.

Grimod was also one of the first to popularize the terms “gourmet” and “gourmand.” He introduced the idea of food criticism as something that “reestablished order, hierarchy, and distinctions in the realm of good taste” through the publication of texts that helped define the French food scene, back when it was the only food scene worth defining.

(Grimod ate here…at Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, in 1803)

Put another way, Grimod pretty much invented the gastronomic guidebook. While hardly a saint, he is nevertheless the spiritual patron saint of restaurant critics — the person who first influenced the tastes and expectations of restaurant consumers, and inserted a third party between the chef and the diner.

I thought about all of this when I had two meals recently: one great and one horrid, at two ends of our restaurant spectrum.

The centerpiece of each meal was a piece of fish. A flat fish to be precise. To my surprise, the frozen Asian “sole” (at the top of the page) was the more satisfying of the two. The “fresh” Dover (or so it was called) sole was horrendous. A stale, fishy, musty-mushy abomination of seafood that only a landlubber sucker could love.

The frozen Asian fish cost $26. The “Dover” sole, $70.

The better fish dish was the culmination of a great meal at a relatively unsung neighborhood restaurant — Oh La La French Bistro. Its counter-part ended what was supposed to be a big deal meal at an “exclusive” Strip restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Michael Symon. (In reality, it’s a branding/management deal using the Symon name. The hotel owns and runs the restaurant.)

Before we address the failure of that fish, let us first sing the praises of Oh La La. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall smack in the middle of Summerlin, Richard Terzaghi’s ode to casual French cooking is a gem among the zircons of west Lake Mead Boulevard.

My contempt for Summerlin is well-known (it being the land of million dollar homes and ten cent taste buds), but there’s no disdain for the faithful French recreations put out by Terzaghi, at lunch and dinner, at very fair prices.

(Straight from Paris to Summerlin)

At Oh La La the service is always fast and friendly, the wine list simple, pure and approachable. The bread is good, the foie gras terrine even better. OLL might also have the best steak tartare (above) in town — its combo of gherkins, mustard and onions hits a flavor profile that takes me straight back to Le Train Bleu in the Gare Lyon.

Winners abound all over its menu: frisee salad “La Lyonnaise”, escargot, prawns “risotto” with Israeli couscous, steak frites, mussels, endive salad, great French fries and simple, satisfying desserts, all of them faithful to the homeland without a lot of fuss. And whenever they post a special — be it a seasonal soup or a lamb stew — I always get it and I’m never disappointed.

Contrast this to the “secret” hideaway that is Sara’s — a “curated dining experience” in a “luxurious secret room” where we were told more than once you had to make reservations weeks in advance. The entrance to it is behind a semi-hidden door at the end of the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.  I have no idea where all that “luxurious” curation occurs, but from my vantage point, it looked no fancier than a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. As for the meal being “curated” all I can say is, at this point in my life, when I hear words like that, I start looking for the Vaseline.

(Pro tip: Rather than buy into all the faux exclusivity, skip the secrecy and stay in Mabel’s for some smoked ribs. Your wallet will be heavier, and your tummy a lot happier.)

(Squint real hard and you’ll see the brown butter. Counting the capers is easy.)

The shittiness of the fish wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the rest of the meal at Sara’s had been up to snuff. But the menu was nothing more than one over-priced cliché after the other (caviar, “Truffle Fried Chicken”, lobster salad, duck fat fries, crispy Brussels sprouts, etc.) at least half of which wouldn’t pass muster at the Wynn buffet.

Truffles were MIA in the rudimentary fried chicken, the forlorn caviar presentation looked like it came from a restaurants 101 handbook, and the rubbery lobster salad tasted like it had been tossed with sawdust.

Memories are also vivid of gummy pasta with all the panache of wallpaper paste, and some heavily-breaded, by-the-numbers escargot.

That the joint considers it groovy (or oh-so celeb cheffy) to begin your meal with a giant crispy, smoked beef rib (as an appetizer no less) is also a testament to the “if it’s good for the ‘gram, it’s all good” mentality of this place. Appearances being everything these days, you know.

But when the fish hit the table, I hit the bricks. It may appear appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. It was bred for beauty not substance (that appearance thing again), and calling it simply “fishy” would be an understatement. It was either stale or freezer-burned (or both), and came with zero brown butter and exactly two capers atop it. It wasn’t overcooked but it should have been — a little more heat might’ve killed some of the smell. All this and less for $70…at a supposed “upscale, exclusive” dining enclave in the Palms.

“Who are they fooling with this shit,” was all I could think to myself.

After three straight awful dishes, I had had enough. “This place is terrible!”, I bellowed to all within earshot. I then threw my napkin down, and stormed out — the first time in this century I’ve done so. Being a keen observer of human nature, the solicitous manager sensed my displeasure and followed me outside. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional, but the damage was done.

What ensued was a polite conversation best summarized thusly:

Me: Does anyone here actually taste this food, or are you just content to rip off tourists who’ll buy anything?

Him: Thank you for your concerns, sir, I’ll pass them along to the kitchen.

At first, I agonized about how to handle this abysmal experience: Give them another try? Rip them a new one on social media? Forget about it altogether?

Then, I remembered why I got into this business. It was for you, dear reader. To help you eat better, spend wiser, blow the trumpet for good places and expose the bad.

Just like good old Grimod.

For twenty-five years I have maintained a personal code that excludes the little guy from my withering gaze — but treats the big boys on the Strip as fair game.

Sara’s is fair game.

You have been warned.

(My meal at Oh La La was comped but we left a huge tip. A foodie friend picked up the tab (whatever it was) at Sara’s.)

OH LA LA FRENCH BISTRO

2120 N. Rampart Blvd. #150

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.222.3522

https://www.ohlalafrenchbistro.com/

SARA’S

Palms Hotel – Inside Mabel’s BBQ

702.944.5941

https://web.palms.com/saras.html

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>

* Grimod once faked his own death and threw a funeral party for himself to see who would show up. On another occasion, he dressed up a dead pig as a person and sat it at the head of a table at a fancy banquet he was throwing. His used a mechanical prosthesis to eat and write because, depending upon who you believe, he was either born with deformed hands or (as he liked to explain), pigs chewed off his fingers as a young child.

(The world’s first restaurant guide)

 

 

A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099

 

 

The List

(Lamaii)

Every few months we publish “The List” for two reasons: 1) to keep a constant update of our research for the next EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants edition; and 2) to brag to you, our loyal readers, about how we eat in more restaurants, more often, than anyone in Las Vegas — now or in the history of our humble burg.

This list is a bit incredible, even by our trencherman standards — over 50 places in a little more than two months, many of which we’ve been to more than once. It is one of our biggest blitzes ever, all brought about by an invasion of good taste the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in thirteen years.

I thought 2018 was a watershed year of good restaurants arriving on our shores(?), but from the looks of things, 2019 could top it.

All of it makes for a lot of mastication…all in the service of determining who will be new to our top 52 come this fall…

As usual, all restaurants are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted (an asterisk means I’ve been there more than once recently):

THE LIST

ManzoDon’t call it Carnevino-lite. It’s its own thing (above) and that thing is a world-class Italian steakhouse.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos – When you need to inhale a little Ensendada.

Soho Japanese Restaurant – Serious south side sushi + amazing omakase.

NoMad*I shall return to NoMad one of these days to see if the service has improved…after I figure out a way to sneak in.

NoMad Bar*That hamburger and that hot dog.

Andiron Steak and SeafoodFun brunch, fun making fun of all those self-impressed Summerlin-ers. “Oh look, honey! They have FRENCH champagne here! I hear it’s good!”

Image may contain: food

Other Mama – Can it get any better? (see sashimi above)

Honey SaltHolding its own against an ersatz Italian (North), that’s packed with SUV-driving, vapid Summerlin saps (but I repeat myself) all day long. P.S. I’ve eaten at North too, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about it.

Mabel’s BBQ*I find myself craving Mabel’s ‘cue…and I haven’t craved Vegas ‘cue in a coon’s age.

Mott 32*So much cleavage is on display I’ve taken to calling it Mott 32D. (This is not a bad thing.) Right now, might be the best Chinese in town. Correction: right now it IS the best Chinese restaurant in town.

Lamaii* – Two pre-opening visits have me hungering for more.

The Factory Kitchen* – Been twice, need to get back, love everything about it except the industrial decor. Superb pastas and a winning wine list.

Saga Sandwiches + Pastry – Scandinavian sandwiches in Henderson? Yep, and they’re great. Chef Gert has a tough road to hoe, competing with 3,000 other places to eat on Eastern Ave., but this natty little Norwegian is very very nice.

China Mama* – Praise the lord and pass the xiao long bao! This place has returned to its former glory.

Scotch 80 Prime* Barry Dakake puts out a menu of classics backed up by a whiskey bar par excellence. The decor is also a vast improvement over the previous steakhouse-which-shall-not-be-named.

(Spicy sesame noodles at Fat Choy)

Fat Choy – Congrats to Sheridan Su on his James Beard nomination!

Lawry’s The Prime Rib – The name says it all. Old school in all the best ways. With service that never misses a beat.

BBD’s – Burgers, Beer and Desserts*Best. Burgers. In. Vegas.

Forte Tapas Is back on my radar. Where it hasn’t been in a long time. Maybe it’s the caviar. Maybe it’s because I’m secretly in love with Nina Manchev. ;-)

Spago*It may sound like heresy, but Spago might be a better restaurant now than it was at Caesars Palace. The people watching isn’t as good, but the view is better and the menu is tighter.

Sparrow + WolfBetter than ever.

EATTNew decor now fits the consistently excellent  French food. A neighborhood gem from top to bottom with nicely priced wine, and oh those desserts!

John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill – Never again. You have been warned…even though it doesn’t do any good to warn you because you (the slack-jawed hordes) will still flock here (because Guy Fieri), but the place is terrible.

(Mordeo)
MordeoMay have the best steak off the Strip. They’re aging them right before your eyes and they’re something to behold. The wine list is on its way to becoming a local treasure.

Esther’s Kitchen*I’ve lost count of my meals here, and it’s only been open a little more than a year. The bar, those amaros, Sonia, the pizzas, the sandwiches, Paul, James….it’s pretty much become a semi-private club for me and a few hundred downtown foodies.

Ohlala French BistroAnother place too far from my palatial manse that I wish I visited more often.

Siam Square – New Thai downtown; the food was good, but not good enough to lure me away from Ocha Thai or D E Thai Kitchen.

Aloha Specialties Hawaiians eat so much white food it’s a wonder their bowels ever move. Belly bombs like Kahlua pig and Loco Moco won’t help, either, but they’re damn tasty…as are the bento boxes.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – There’s not a better off-Strip Italian in town, and very few on-Strip that measure up.

Yui Edomae Sushi1-2 with Kabuto for local sushi superiority.

Wing Lei* I’ve had two meals here recently and three at Mott 32. There’s no denying the beauty of Wing Lei, but the Beijing duck is better at Mott.

Vetri* – Philly’s best is now our best. And oh that view. (Look closely at the pic above – it’s a reflection of me taking a snap out the window.)

Jammyland – Come for the rum, stay for the Jamaican food.

Carson KitchenMay have lost its edge, but can still stun you with an occasional special.

Pop Up PizzaA great, simple pizzeria (serving nothing but slices and garlic knots) in search of a hotel that appreciates it.

PublicUs*Great coffee, wonderful bread, so so food (there, I said it). Those cream cheese scones, though.

Vesta Coffee*My coffee hangout.

Desert Wind Coffee Roasters – My coffee hangout outside my ‘hood.

Them’s a lot to chew on…but does that mean we’re done?

Gird your loins, pilgrim, we’re just getting started:

(Today’s thing that looks like a face)

Delices Gourmands*My go-to for croissants, baguettes, pistachio rolls, and canelés de Bordeaux. (above) There ought to be a line out the door for these baked goods.

DelmonicoStill humming after all these years (20 to be exact). Hasn’t lost a beat, or the best Caesar in the business.

Strip SteakI’d eat at SS once a week if it was easier to get to and didn’t feel like a bus station.

Charlie Palmer Steak Just nibbles at the bar, but they were a cut above.

Le PhoLe ginormous bowls of beef noodle soups are boring to me. But the rest of the menu, and the bánh mí, are not.

(Kanomjeen Namya Pu – yellow curry crab)

D E Thai Kitchen* – Street Thai in a teeny tiny space that I’ve now been to five times in three months. Yes, it’s that good, as you can see above.

Cipriani* – Another place I consistently crave.

New Asian BBQ*Good not great dim sum, a nice additional option when you’re craving a quick lunch on Spring Mountain Road. So full of fellow travelers (Asians) gwailo (you) will feel like a rabbi at an Arkansas pig roast. Which is as it should be.

Ocha Thai – Old-style Thai the polar opposite of teeny tiny DE down the street (large, big menu, booze) but always satisfying, and the house-made sausages alone are worth the trip.

The Goodwich* – I love the sandwiches here but I wish they were on better bread.

La Comida – Doesn’t have the verve or the consistency it once did. Feels like it’s just going through the motions. I fear I have had my last meal here.

No photo description available.

Raku If Raku were located anywhere but Las Vegas, it would be considered the best izakaya in the country.

White Castle – Because even snooty food critics go slumming once in a while.

Shake Shack – Because it’s better than In-N-Out. Don’t argue with me about this.

In-N-Out Burger – I still love my double-double, but the fries do suck.

Del Taco – The Double Del is one of the great, unsung fast food burgers in America. A guilty pleasure.

POTsEgypt goes vegan, and it’s good….if a bit limited. Have owner Iman explain the name. A charming little addition to our food scene.

Nuro Bistro – The Hainanese rice is even better than the chicken, and the chicken is spectacular. You’d better like chicken, though.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled awesomesauce.

La Cantine – Serious sandwiches in the northwest.

(New York Bagel N Bakery)

New York Bagel N Bakery – Some of you may remember the Montesano family who operated a quality Italian deli on Sahara back in the 90s. I don’t know where they went, but they’re back and they’ve given this sad little bakery a serious upgrade. Everything is baked on premises and the bagels kick the ass of whatever you think is good.

I know what you’re thinking: Did he go to 48 restaurants or 54? Well to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I sorta lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 caliber palate, the most powerful mandibles ever made, and could blow your mealy mouth clean off, you have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Well, do you, punk?