The Final List – 2020

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A man cannot be too serious about what he eats. – Confucius

I can’t stand people who aren’t serious about their meals. – Oscar Wilde

We’ve spent the past week quizzing friends (many of whom we’ve dined with over the past year) about how many restaurants they thought we had been to during the pandemic. Some guessed as few as 5; most hovered in the 20-30 range; while a few put the number at around 50.

It was amusing to point out to them how wrong they were.

Care to guess?

Consider this before you do: A popular notion now holds that you have to do something 10,000 times before you get really good at it — be it hitting a baseball, knitting, or playing chess. When it comes to eating out, I eclipsed that number twenty years ago. Now, it’s too many to count. Even in an off year, I accumulated restaurants like some people do bad habits.

Image(Tempura lunch at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Yes, even in this down year (the understatement of the century), the number — according to my records (receipts, social media postings and such) — was almost 100 (96 to be precise), and I’m probably missing a few.

Many of them were visited more than once. Cipriani I probably went to 25 times; Esther’s Kitchen a dozen; Guy Savoy twice; and Kaiseki Yuzu at least 5. We finally got back to an old Mexican friend in the northeast (Los Molecajetes), discovered a great wine program in an old haunt (Grape Vine), and gained new-found respect for some superior Italian seafood (Costa di Mare).

We have mourned the death of our great frog ponds (Robuchon, Gagnaire), swelled with pride at the resilience of Chinatown, and marveled at the resurgence of downtown.

Through it all we’ve been battling the soul-crushing weight of America’s obsession with Covid. With that obsession has come wave after wave of regulations, each a cruel blow to small business owners, none more ravaged than the hospitality industry.

The irony of Covid hitting right when America’s participation in eating out was at an all time high is not lost on us — a “market correction” which was neither inevitable nor necessary. Restaurant-going was not a stock market/real estate bubble. It was an enjoyable human activity from which everyone profited.

And then we killed it, or at least let it be killed — ruining the lives of many in service of the few.

But the Curtas household couldn’t/wouldn’t let groupthink take over our lives. We certainly didn’t let it prevent us from supporting the restaurants of Las Vegas which we hold so dear.

I don’t bother with mediocrity anymore. I’ll leave exploration of the obscure to the intrepid, and of the absurd to Instagram influencers. What goes into my pie hole is the best food Las Vegas has to offer. So it has been for thirty years, and so it was over the past 12 months.

As usual, all places are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted. Our restaurant bills this year would choke a horse, but was money well spent and I’m proud to have spent it. You should consider parting with some of yours at one of these as soon as possible:

Image(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)

THE LIST 2020

  1. Barry’s Downtown Prime – 2 visits down, 1 to go before we take the measure of this new entry in Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks.
  2. Yui Edomae Sushi – still gets our nod over Kabuto by the thickness of a piece of gari.
  3. Kaiseki Yuzu – a little slice of Tokyo for those who appreciate the real deal.
  4. Letty’s – best tacos downtown. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.
  5. Good Pie – new digs are impressive…now all they need is the right to use them.
  6. The Black Sheep – another joint we don’t get to enough…because there’s only one of us to go around.
  7. Kabuto – exquisite sushi. Some prefer it to Yui; we think it’s a toss-up.
  8. 7th & Carson – haven’t been in a while but thankful for them feeding us for months during the shutdown.
  9. Carson Kitchen – new menu = renewed vigor for a downtown pioneer.Image(Esther’s is re-intenting itself)
  10. Esther’s Kitchen – we go for the pasta, head for a tent (above), and stay for the wine.
  11. Grape Vine – improved food – better than it was under the old ownership (Grape Street) – the wine program worth a trip all by itself.
  12. PublicUs – saved our bacon during the darkest days of the Covid shutdown.
  13. Los Molecajetes – so good, so far from where most gringos prefer to tread.Image(Chip chip hooray! For Sin Fronteras salsas!)
  14. Sin Fronteras Tacos – northwest Mexican worth a trip from any part of town.
  15. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna – new digs (and an expanded menu) have us more excited than Zorba at a lamb roast.Pin en Other Oldish Films
  16. Yummy Rice – The Food Gal’s® says the unagi rice bowl here is eely, eely good.
  17. Pop Up Pizza – still fave; still under-appreciated.Image(“Blueberries” at Guy Savoy)
  18. Restaurant Guy Savoy – I go here as often as my wallet and waistline will let me.
  19. Rao’s – surprisingly delicious no matter how depressing the Strip gets.
  20. Elio – remarkable, inventive, elevated Mexican, but will it make it?

  21. Ferraro’s – closed until February at the earliest (sigh).Image(Prosciutto & figs at Osteria Fiorella)
  22. Osteria Fiorella – started as a pop-up, now firmly ensconced at Red Rock; a hit from day one.
  23. Saga Pastry + Sandwich – the only thing wrong with this place is it’s too far from my house.Image(Pithivier at Partage)
  24. Partage – only went once this year and it was spectacular.
  25. Jaleo – no one does Spain better than a man named José.
  26. Capital Grille – our old reliable; also our best chain steakhouse.
  27. Pizzeria Monzu – there ought to be a line out the door for this food.Image(Dat sum dim sum)
  28. New Asian BBQ – best dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.
  29. Aloha Specialties – I like this place for a white-on-white bite (like Kahlua pig with rice and mac); The Food Gal® loathes it.
  30. Costa di Mare – so good, still stunningly beautiful. The pastas are as great as the fish, which is really saying something.
  31. Weera Thai Kitchen – one of many superb Thai restaurants in Vegas now. We’re really spoiled when it comes to our Asian alimentation. Only LA sports a better array. Image
  32. Toridokoro Raku – stunningly good chicken parts, as only the Japanese can do them.
  33. Raku – Japanese food doesn’t get any better, anywhere but Japan.
  34. Hiroyoshi – it’s so small that capacity restrictions are laughable. Beautiful, finely-wrought Japanese food, less expensive than the sushi heavyweights on Spring Mountain Road.
  35. Bazaar Meat – haven’t been in a while; always drop a bundle when I do.
  36. 8oz Korean Steakhouse – for the Korean steak lover in you. The best of the bunch.
  37. Lamaii – holding on, like a lot of its brethren. Fabulous wine list; inflammatory Thai.
  38. The Real Crepe – galettes, crepes, and a slice of Brittany on the cusp of Summerlin.
  39. La Maison de Maggie – essential when you need a French fix.
  40. Delices Gourmands – they do the most with the yeast here. Bread so fine it will have you Loave-ing Las Vegas.
  41. Rosallie Cafe – as crumby as they come when it comes to baking your day. Don’t get me tarted.
  42. Cafe Breizh – always gets a rise out of us, especially when we’re leaven beyond our means. With Pierre Gatel’s creations, we’re never bun and done. He’s always up to his baguette of tricks, and it’s usually a give and cake proposition, guaranteed to have us leaving in a glaze of glory. Think of it as cream and punishment.
  43. Japaneiro – Kevin Chong was our first post-shutdown dinner. Still the best steak in the ‘burbs.
  44. Khoury’s Mediterranean – every time we eat here I kick myself for not eating here more often.
  45. Weiss Restaurant Deli – good, but not as good as….
  46. Saginaw’s – the best deli sandwiches in town, which, sadly, isn’t saying much…about our town, not the sandwiches.Image
  47. Cipriani – I’ll see you there for lunch this Friday…and almost every Friday.
  48. Ocha Thai – downtown’s most reliable Thai.
  49. DE Thai – downtown’s most convenient Thai, now with a second location!
  50. China Mama – noodles, dumplings, cumin lamb and crispy beef to die for.
  51. Edo Tapas & Wine – now open every weeknight and killing it.
  52. Ohlala French Bistro – if it were in my ‘hood, I’d be here once a week.
  53. Rooster Boy Cafe – ditto.
  54. CUT by Wolfgang Puck –  1-2 with Bazaar Meat when it comes to beef emporium hegemony.
  55. ‘e’ by José Andrés – amazingly, re-opened this fall and is still a tough ticket.Image(2020 drove us to drink…a lot)
  56. Delmonico Steakhouse – now a senior sirloin statesman, still a superb one.
  57. Matteo’s Ristorante – superb pasta, perhaps the best on the Strip. Right now I can’t think of any better.
  58. Yum CHA – our go-to for dim sum in the southwest.
  59. Soyo Korean Restaurant – we go with our Korean friends so they can explain everything to us — one umami bomb after another.
  60. Majordomo Steakhouse – Vegas’s most interesting steakhouse; see, I said something nice about David Chang.
  61. Estiatorio Milos – closed at Cosmo, set to re-open in February in the Venetian. We wish them luck. They’ll need it.Image(Kinnara Thai)
  62. Serrano’s Mexican – nice neighborhood standby.
  63. Marché Bacchus – still the most romantic spot in town. Rosé all day? Better off red? Experiencing growing champagnes? Drawing a blanc? Wine not dine here?
  64. New York Bagel N Bakery – best bagels in town.
  65. Every Grain Sheridan Su can still score.
  66. La Strega – too far from Chez Curtas but mighty tasty.
  67. Trés Cazuelas – difficult location, great food.
  68. Players Locker by Wolfgang Puck – an under-the-radar gem.
  69. Locale – also too far from civilization, but we wish them luck.
  70. Kinnara Thai – eye-popping Thai in an unlikely location.Image(Roll with it)
  71. Cafe Mong – I didn’t think I’d love a rolled crepe (above). Boy how wrong I was.
  72. Bajamar Fish Tacos – good tacos but the bums at the front door drove us away, for good.
  73. Sin City Smokers – love their pulled pork…and the ribs.
  74. Big B’s Texas BBQ – love their brisket…and the sides
  75. The Goodwich – under new ownership. Not a good sign, especially in this climate.
  76. L&L Hawaiian BBQ – strictly for the loco moco lover in you.
  77. Magal Korean BBQ – open for lunch, so we go for the bibimbap at lunch. 
  78. 8East – remarkable Asian fusion, tucked in an obscure corner of an empty hotel (for now).
  79. Victory Burger – big burgers, good beef, slightly overdone.Image(A happy Chutima clan means a well-fed Las Vegas)
  80. Lotus of Siam – both locations now reopened (see smiling Chutimas above)!
  81. Spago – not the superstar it once was, but still in the game.
  82. ShangHai Taste – superb dumplings and other things to numb your tongue.
  83. Pho So 1 – our old Vietnamese reliable.
  84. Shang Artisan Noodle – with Covid restrictions, can only seat a comically small # of people. Image
  85. Oscar’s Steakhouse – sometime this year, we’ll do an Oscar’s v. Barry’s downtown throwdown. You’ll be able to read about it here.
  86. Oodle Noodle – Udon’t need to look any further for your wheat starch noodle fix.
  87. Kung Fu Thai & Chinese – I had a Covid fever dream that when every other restaurant in Las Vegas has closed, Kung Fu (since 1973) will still be slinging yen ta fo and cashew chicken to its loyal customers. God bless them, every one.
  88.  Mg Patisserie – Crust in case, dough yourself a favor, and don’t be a hothouse flour. You’ll only make batters worse by not rolling in here when you knead to.
  89. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – What’s going on in the Arts District right now is like a little foodie X-mas present for all of Las Vegas: three new restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, have opened in the last three weeks. This gorgeous little bento box is the hidden gem of the bunch.

Image(Oysters w/ ponzu and chives)

Also Visited This Year but Closed for Good

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Santos Guisdados Tacos

Mordeo Wine Bar

Flock & Fowl

Hall of Shame

Eiffel Tower – went here on my birthday. Two bites in I regretted it. Never again, even if it reopens.

Mon Ami Gabi – when management will treat yours truly as a pigeon to be plucked, you know they have no shame. “Keep your hand on your wallet,” as my dad used to say. You have been warned.

Final one to visit before the end of 2020…

97. Main Street Provisions – looking forward to trying it as soon as their shakedown cruise ends.

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Someone recently asked me why I go to so many restaurants. I answered by saying I’ve become the (un)official, upaid publicist for about 60 of them.

It is a role I will gladly embrace until we retire all this restricted dining nonsense…and I can get back to the role I’m best know for: being a lovable curmudgeon.

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Stick to Food

Image(Aging Boomer confronts his mortality)

Ed. note: The following is a trip down memory lane. It has very little to do with food.

When you hit your sixties you start looking backwards.

There are more miles behind you than in front, so it’s natural (I guess) to take stock of all the places you’ve been rather than where you’re going.

And as we all know, where we’re headed is a terminus without return.

Looking back is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, and nothing makes me do it more than when someone tells me to “stick to food.”

The way these comments arise is invariably the same: I venture an opinion on social media about some issue (Covid-19, climate change, Tom Brady. George Floyd, potholes in my neighborhood…) and someone on Facebook or Twitter (or occasionally here) doesn’t agree with me. What they’re thinking to themselves is, “I only know this dude as a food critic/Las Vegas restaurant expert/reviewer and here he is opining on Trump or foreign policy or racism in America and why the hell doesn’t he STAY IN HIS LANE and stick to letting me know where I should eat?”

Since they only know me in one limited way, they weaponize what they think is my only area of expertise and turn it into an insult. And on some crude level, it works, at least from their limited perspective.

“Stick to food” always amuses me, not only as a juvenile insult, but also because it is so easy to toss at a person who writes about food…as if that’s the only thing they’re qualified to think about. Any red-blooded male will tell you food and sex are the two things every man is highly qualified to think about….along with the New England Patriots and how to avoid household chores.

al franken fact GIF by Election 2016

“Sticking to food” is easy for dudes. Food is fascinating, but most men think about it in a “me eat now” sort of way. Face it: heterosexual men are the most boring creatures on earth, so any attempt we make to discuss anything outside of food and Mr. Happy should be encouraged, not criticized. Just a thought, ladies.

And goddammit, if a hillbilly like Taylor Swift is allowed to weigh in on white supremacy, then a food writer should be given leeway to opine on something besides the saltiness of the shrimp. The only thing most men want Taylor Swift to weigh in on is their face.

Things get dicier for us less famous folks of dubious repute. We’re supposed to establish a rapport with our readers, stick to the script, not make people think, and most certainly don’t disagree with them about something they KNOW TO BE TRUE.

Regardless, when someone tells me to stick to food, here are the things that race through my mind:

I survived the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and have tales to tell about each decade. (The 70s were the WORST….the 80s were when I was at my worst.)

Up until this worldwide coronavirus shutdown, the Vietnam War was the dumbest thing I ever lived through.

Once you’ve survived it, Richard Nixon, and Watergate (not to mention Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Lewinskygate) you learn to have a healthy skepticism about anything government does…not to mention when not to ejaculate on a woman’s dress.

youtube smile GIF by Rosanna Pansino

This doesn’t mean government (at all levels) isn’t capable of doing great things. I work in government (at the municipal level) and know very well what good it can do for its citizens. But huge social experiments involving anything but road building, public safety, utilities, or fighting wars are not its forte.

When someone tells me to stick to food, it invariably makes me remember everywhere I’ve lived and traveled, and to quote Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I refer to myself as a Connecticut Yankee, but I was educated in Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, and my family has lived in Georgia since the 1970s…so I have more than a passing acquaintance with the customs, food, and failings of the the West, the Northeast and the Deep South.

4 Ways Billboard Woman of the Year Taylor Swift Changed Country ...(Come sit right over here)

People are fond of calling Nashville a “cool city” these days, but when I went to college there it was a racist backwater. Plus, country fucking music, need I say more?

My love-hate relationship with the South runs deep. The people are friendly, the women beautiful, and the food is to die for, literally. But the politics are as fetid as a Savannah swamp in summer.

Louisville, Kentucky was kinder and gentler, and gave me my first job as a public defender — cutting my teeth as a trial lawyer and handling hundreds of cases from capital murders to minor misdemeanors. Four years in those courtrooms taught me lessons I put to good use for the next three decades. Having a jury come back and say “not guilty” to a packed courtroom is the second greatest feeling a man will ever have.

As a young boy, I wanted to be a baseball player; as a young man, I wanted to be an actor.  Not having the talent for either broke my heart. Baseball was my first heartbreak. As they used to say when I took the field, “That Curtas kid may be small, but at least he’s slow.”

My mother wanted me to be a piano player; I failed miserably there, too. Ditto, playing the guitar. It helps to be coordinated (and possess some manual dexterity) if you’re trying to learn instruments that require both. In that sense, I’m no different from the 95% of us who fail at music and sports (which would be 95% of everyone), I just learned my lessons harder and quicker than most.

Four times in my life I’ve tried to learn French. Flunked it twice in college. Finally gave up when I was in my 40s. Even now, after having been to France ten times, I’m barely past the bonjour! and s’il vous plait stage. Thankfully, the French have always taken pity on me, and more of them now speak English, so it’s easier to hide my shame these days.

french GIF

Three ex-wives taught me a lot about marriage, the hard way. Handling divorce cases was a wonderful remedy to cure my belief in the fundamental goodness of the human race.

By the time I started writing about food (in 1994, in Las Vegas), I had already practiced law for seventeen years in three different states. Despite appearances, it was not because I was thrown out of any of them.

I was a helluva criminal trial lawyer and gave it up to do business/commercial law, probably to please my father. Business law paid the bills for twenty-five years, but wasn’t nearly as sexy as a biker bar homicide trial with everyone in the courtroom in flack jackets.

You start out as a wide-eyed product of the 60s  — a  young attorney, wanting to help the underprivileged, protect the Constitution, change society for the better, cure poverty, etc.. Twenty years later, you find yourself always representing one half of a bad business deal, with both sides competing to see who can be the greediest motherfucker. Good times.

Complicated business disputes pale, however, next to rubbing shoulders with a guy who likes to seal people’s eyes shut with Krazy Glue before he rapes them. (Yeah, you read that right.) His name was Ed Wagner and he was a peach of a fellow, just ask the four victims who couldn’t see him. Nothing says “doing the lord’s work” like defending serial sex offenders.

One of my sub-specialties in this genre involved representing a series of pedophiles. (You read that right, too.)  These were not cases for the faint of heart or stomach. The Vatican has nothing on this cowboy when it comes to getting nose deep in others’ sexual perversions.

Speaking of perversions, porn stars were also clients of mine. The tales they told would curl your hair. Some of those stories have gone with Marilyn Chambers to her grave. R.I.P. Marilyn, since you had so little of it in your lifetime.

In between I did personal injury plaintiff’s work, divorce, real estate, contract litigation, you name it. No one will ever call me the world’s greatest attorney, but there’s not much you can slip by, or shock me with, at this point in my career.

Don’t talk to me about gun control until you’ve been to an autopsy.

Having survived two very depressing periods in my life, after divorces bookended the 1990s (when I smoked, popped, snorted or swallowed anything put in front of me), I also consider myself something of an expert on being your own worst enemy. My aim was never better than when pointing a large caliber character flaw at my own foot.

There’s an old saying about becoming more conservative as you get older, but for me it’s been the opposite — although the liberal media’s hysteria about everything from Trump’s latest brain fart to the pandemic has me questioning my loyalty to institutions like the New York Times. And if I never see a television newscast again, it’ll be too soon…no matter how hot the weather girl is.

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This is just age talking, but after following politics for decades, one gets to the point where the ideological clashes seem like a young person’s sport. At a certain point, you long for a toothsome bite of pasta amplified by the perfect cheese. Or whiling away the morning in a Parisian cafe, sipping strong coffee over a good book. Or viewing a Mediterranean sunset from a mountain in Italy (above). Anything but witnessing another never-ending political wrestling match.

If you look at my home library, you’ll find an inordinate number of nonfiction, travel and cookbooks, followed by various social and political science tomes. And for a card-carrying pacifist who has never owned a gun, there are more military books than I can count. Anytime you’d like to discuss the finer points of Blücher’s assault at Waterloo, the US Navy at Guadalcanal, or the Second Battle of the Somme, ring me up.

I used to be a movie buff. Used to go to at least one a week. Have dozens of books about movies and actors. Now we’re lucky if we hit a theater four times a year. These days it looks like we may never go again.

If I hadn’t become a food critic I think I would’ve become a drama critic (failed actor and all that), or some kind of writer. But I’m a food writer because I’ve been obsessed with food since I was twelve, and when you get right down to it, the only way to get good at something is to be obsessed with it.

Image(Wine lists are more fun to wrestle with than systemic racism)

To quote two of my faves: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food” (G.B. Shaw), and “Food is life itself; the rest is parsley.” (A. Richman)

Warren Zevon said enjoy every sandwich……and so you should.

Twenty years ago I flirted with the idea of giving up the law and becoming a full-time writer. I knew I could do it as well as anyone, but a quick survey of the landscape showed me I’d be working twice as hard for half the dough (I was making then) in a dying profession. So I stuck with the law and kept my writing going as what they now call a “side hustle.”

The irony is, of course, that two decades later I am known much more as a food writer than a lawyer. This fact never ceases to amuse my accountant, once he finishes weeping over my tax return.

These are the things that run through my mind whenever anyone tells me to stay in my gastronomic lane, as if I’ve never had a life outside of it. All they’re really doing is exposing how little they know me. (It’s also kind of a compliment, I suppose.)

They know me only one way, and that’s okay. The very way all of us present ourselves publicly these days is predicated upon snap judgments and visceral reactions. Now everyone has a public persona (remember: only a select few used to) and there is no time for reflection, for research, for the slow satisfaction of actually learning about a person or an idea.

Oscar Wilde said the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and truer words have never been ignored so completely.

This is where our world is now. So much information, so much access, so much ignorance. One of the great(?) things about the pandemic shutdown is how it focused Baby Boomers on how little time we have left, and how little we count anymore. Society has become over-sensitized to everything and common sensical about nothing. If it isn’t easily digestible, no one wants to chew on it.

We Boomers have to come to grips with this: our selfish time has passed; the world is no longer ours; the “me generation” has become the meh generation. We have been eclipsed by the internet, social media and groupthink , and it took the Pandemic Panic of 2020 to drive the point home.

Being a lawyer for forty years has taught me to assume little and question a lot. You look at things from a contra perspective, ever suspicious of the low-hanging intellectual fruit. There are no easy answers; nothing is as black and white as it appears. People who hate Donald Trump (including my wife) don’t want to hear this, anymore than those who would lionize George Floyd. The easy road taken, the current trend followed, the popular thought parroted, will always earn you applause. But making yourself feel good about what you think is not a way to make you think.

Not conforming to the facile or the fatuous is why I will never stick solely to food, and anyone who suggests I should can stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Image(While you’re solving the world’s problems, I’ll be in Venice)