Of Cabbages and Kings…and Pizzas and Pia Zadora

The Wisdom In Carroll's Nonsensical Poem, The Walrus And The Carpenter – The Wisdom Daily

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –

Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot –

And whether pigs have wings.’

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

Image(And all the little oysters stood, and waited in a row)

Oyster season is upon us. The days in Vegas aren’t quite so hot; and the nights are even a bit cool. Spirits brighten, paces quicken, appetites increase, and Las Vegans come out of their shells, as do bivalves…inasmuch as the latter involves being on the end of an oyster fork.

Summers you see, are for hibernating, both for certain shellfish, and people accustomed to enduring 108 degree heat for weeks on end. Oysters mate in the summer (and get watery and flabby in the process), while residents of the High Mojave do the same, at least as it involves staying in our air conditioned shells, or in a swimming pool, as much as possible.

Every year, almost like clockwork, we get hungrier on September 15th. Labor Day may be the unofficial end of Summer, but for us, the weather always seems to break about two weeks later. Sure, the hot days don’t disappear entirely until mid-October, but as soon as we feel a nip of cool in the morning, we start celebrating. And by celebrating we mean going out to eat like a starving man attacking a banquet.

Through happenstance as much as planning, this year we found ourselves overwhelmed by Italian, suffused with seafood, and awash in oysters. Below are some impressions of our more noteworthy meals…and by “noteworthy” I mean ones we either loved or hated.

Image(Never eat ‘ersters in any month without a paycheck in it)

Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, we eagerly await the arrival of plump, firm ‘ersters from both coasts, and the best and freshest collection in town can usually be found at the Water Grill. Unlike the Walrus, we feel little guilt in luring a couple of dozen of these eager little creatures into our greedy maw. Instead of poetry and persuasion, we use cash…in this case around $42/dozen. Stick with West Coast is our usual mantra: they have traveled less and have more of the mineral-rich salinity we look for. The WG may be part of a chain, but it’s a chain restaurant with sole…that knows it plaice, and hasn’t floundered since landing on the L.A. scene 30 years ago.

After gorging ourselves on Fanny Bays and Indigos, we next found ourselves inundated with Italians. (In case you haven’t noticed, Vegas is lousy with Italians these days.)

An old friend met us at Piero’s for a birthday party (and we stayed for a bite); another epicurean acquaintance lured us back to Lago; everyone said Amalfi was amazing, so we had to see for ourselves. Then RPM opened for lunch, and of course we had to go. In between all these, we also squeezed in multiple lunches at Cipriani, a lunch at Esther’s Kitchen, and dinners at Milano and Rosa Ristorante. Between the eight of them, we noshed on enough noodles to numb a Neapolitan.

But you do not come here to hear about our digestion, dear readers, you come for the piquancy of our opinions. So let us get straight to the nitty Pecorino.

SHIPWRECK

Image(All show no dough)

Lago has always suffered from unfortunate nautical design that puts one in mind of a cruise ship. Which is fine if you like dining with people whose idea of culinary adventure is a carving station with a salad bar. There is truth in advertising, though, because the food here lives down to the decor.

The cheesy design also commits the sin of raising expectations. “You’d think with a contraption that impressive, they’d turn out something less crappy,” one of our companions  observed after being confronted with a pizza oven that had to cost more than a Ferrari, and is the size of a walk-in closet (above). Another dining companion (let’s call him the Restaurant Pro) said: “If they were serving this stuff in a neighborhood Eye-talian joint, you could forgive it.” What he referred to was a meal of seven different items, each more sloppy and less worth it than the first

What is unforgivable is a mini “pizzette” tasting as if the Pillsbury Dough Boy poured a thimble of so-so sauce on a saltine:

Image(Fuggidabadit)

….followed by gloppy, overpriced pasta, pedestrian, puny panzanella (bread salad), and pathetic chicken parm (see below) — the whole tourist-trapping shebang aimed at separating the credulous from their cash.

Lest you forget, Lago is located smack dab in the center of the Bellagio — a hotel which once had the greatest assortment of restaurants in Las Vegas, and maybe the world. It replaced Circo, a gastronomic gem of design, wine, solicitous service and Tuscan excellence. All Lago is servicing is the bottom line.

Sirio Maccioni must be rolling over in his grave.

Image(Somewhere, Vital Vegas is salivating)

If you’re interested (and you shouldn’t be), lunch for five, with tip and a single, modest bottle, set us back a cool $411. This included seven tubes of rigatoni for $32 which in quantity and taste would’ve been a perfect meal for a three-year old.

LET’S GO FISH

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Amalfi by Bobby Flay was a pleasant surprise, and RPM blew us away so much we can’t wait to return for dinner. Both feature by-the-numbers fare, with nothing to scare, tweaked here and there to give the place some flair.

Poetry GIFs | Tenor

The whole point of Amalfi is pesce, and it takes its template from Milos by pricing fish by the pound and letting you choose it from a display at the back of the restaurant:

Image(Bobby’s wet dream)

As with Milos, the fish is impeccably fresh and eyebrow raising-ly expensive (although we noticed a couple of species priced a buck or two/lb. less than at Milos). Appetizers toggled between ordinary (tuna tartare) to interesting (lemon-oregano prawns) to impressive (soft scrambled eggs with bottarga and tomato toast). Pastas were surprisingly astonishing, with a spaghetti limone that was loaded with Dungeness crab, and pasta “rags” (below) that showed spice, brightness, and restraint.

Image(From rags to richness)

These pastas prey among the pecunious, though, as they’re priced from $28-$38.

As splendid as the food was, the crowd was even more inspiring, because 1) there was one (it was packed on a hot, Tuesday night); and 2) everyone looked their best, rather than the cargo shortswearing/hat-backwards/flip-flopping/t-shirt sporting/mouthbreathers who usually infest this hotel in summer.

Image(Missing: wife-beaters and Bud Lite)

 

Image(“This guy Curtas says we should get the turbot…”)

If Bobby Flay can motivate people to dress for dinner (and by “dress for dinner” we mean put on a collared shirt), maybe there’s hope for humanity yet.

ENDLESS PASTABILITIES

Image(Classic cheese and pepper)

RPM is the latest Italian upgrade on the Strip, and like its competition, it plows no new ground, preferring to concentrate on quality cooking over cartwheels. One lunch for two people does not a good sample size make, but we found our charred pepperoni pizzette to be almost perfect — a slightly spongy charred crust supporting a thick layer of strong, melted cheese and good sausages:

Image(Cheesy does it)

Look closely (above) and you’ll see dough, properly proofed and baked with just the right amount of a tomato sauce  — smothered in an amalgam of nutty, serious cheese — so vibrant and umami-rich it practically explodes in your mouth. Finding a better mini-pizza in Vegas will not be easy. The cacio e pepe (above) and carpaccio were also first rate, as was the torta meringata, which roughly translates as “baked Alaska.”

Image(Don’t think Alaska the Food Gal to share)

I’d rate the pastas at RPM (carbonara, pappardelle, pomodoro...) as a little more basic than the seafood-forward ones at Amalfi (scialatielli, squid ink fettucine, gnocchi, agnolotti, and the like), as well as being slightly lower in price ($17-$42). Both show real commitment to careful cooking of Italian classics, which is a lot rarer than you’d think in this genre — it being painfully easy to throw any slop on a noodle and have Americans beat a path to your door.

A final bonus: RPM may have the best Italian wine list of any place in town that isn’t named Ferraro’s. Organized by region, it is full of interesting, off-beat bottles at acceptable markups. Only time will tell if they stick with such an ambitious wine program — Vegas is littered with the remains of interesting lists which regress to the mean once the original hoopla dies down, and the incessant demands of satisfying the less adventuresome grabs the bottom line.

Until that happens, you’ll find us scouring it for Sagrantino, Aglianico, Primitivo and all sorts of bottles you won’t find elsewhere:

TIME FOR YOUR PIA ZADORA BREAK…

Pia Zadora Photos (4 of 9) | Last.fm(Pia’s not Fonda Jane )

Why Pia, you ask?

Because Pia Zadora, like Piero’s is a pleasant reminder of days gone by — when men were men, women had big hair, and Vegas wasn’t run by a bunch of bean counters. A time when a young man could make his way in Las Vegas by sheer chutzpah, shameless womanizing, and a tolerance for substance abuse that would make Keith Richards blush.

Or so I’ve heard.

For the uninitiated, Piero’s is a Las Vegas institution I have loved to hate since 1985. Perhaps I am softening in my old age, or maybe the time has come for a reassessment, or maybe I was wearing rosé colored glasses on the night we dined. Whatever it was, it has to be on me, since the restaurant hasn’t changed a thing about itself in decades.

You still valet your car in the port cochere; enter a short hallway leading to the hostess stand; admire the giant chimps adorning the walls; and then find one of two large bars which flank a warren of dining rooms (some cozy, some huge), which are packed with a crowd who thinks nothing of slugging down a few martinis with their marinara.

Film Scene: Mad Max and Pia Zadora bring Savannah film magic(Cheers to you, Pia!)

The pint-sized chanteuse now entertains the conventioneers at “Pia’s Place” inside Piero’s on weekends, and as if on cue, we bumped into her on our way in. She’s starting to shrivel at bit (like all of us), but it’s nothing that muted lighting, pancake makeup, and an appreciative crowd can’t fix. Since sunlight and Piero’s are strangers, everyone can watch her show, and tuck into their (decent) osso buco, and (very good) linguine with clams with the confidence they look twenty years younger in these subdued rooms.

I”m not saying this place is a time warp, but if Dan Tanna walked in sporting poly-quad, triple knit bell bottoms and ordered a Harvey Wallbanger, no one would bat an eye.

Pia’s still belting them out like it’s 1982. Like all of us, she is fighting the ravages of time they only way she knows how: by sticking with what works. Piero’s works, both as a memory and institution. The food won’t win any awards but there’s plenty of it and it fits its clientele like a Tommy Bahama trunk show. The drinks are huge (and well-made) and the servers are always on it like a bonnet. When it and Pia depart this mortal vale, Las Vegas will be a poorer place.

DEEP POCKET DIVING

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Speaking of being poorer for it, if deep sea diving (into your wallet), is how you cast about, then snorkel on down to Estiatorio Milos, where dropping 400 sand dollars on a 5 lb. fagri (red porgy, below) is a delicious way to get soaked.

Image(Porgy is the best)

On the plus side, this beauty easily feeds six. But do the math: any way you sashimi it, you’re still dropping a lotta clams. Milos does a wonderful job of casting for (and landing) those angling for trophy-sized seafood, as well as others bobbing for much smaller fry. The latter usually can be found taking the bait at lunch — where the $30 special is still a steal, which allows you to drink like a….to drink a lot.

Image(Gone fishing…at Milos)

Take us home, Lewis:

“O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.”

 

Fish Fight: MILOS v. COSTA di MARE

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Las Vegas is to fish what tumbleweeds are to Tahiti.

Seafood and the High Mojave go together like Hawaii and gambling. (If you don’t believe me, just look out the window.)

There’s an old rule of thumb that goes: for every ten miles you move inland, the fish gets ten percent worse.

By this calculation, seafood in Las Vegas should be 150% worse than it is on the coast.

Of course this isn’t true. The miracles of refrigeration and air freight have made fresh (or reasonably fresh) fish a reality no matter how far you are from an ocean. All you need is an airport, and presto change-o! – you can charge prices for a wild-caught turbot that would make a potentate’s knees buckle.

That said, seafood in Las Vegas is still something of a crap-shoot. Much of it is farmed, and too much of it is the same old same old salmon and sea bass in restaurant after restaurant.

But we are blessed with two, world-class, seafood emporiums: Estiatorio Milos and Costa di Mare. Each of them is special in its own way, and together they put to shame the fish being flung at all but our toniest steakhouses and sushi parlors.

Image(Something fishy is going on…will salmon help me order?)

So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d outline their similarities and differences, to better help you decide where to drop a boat payment the next time you want to swim in the deep end of our best seafood restaurants.

As usual, only the most skillful, precise, and scientific measurements were used to chart the distinctions between the two. And by “skillful and scientific” we mean our own, historically-proven, unchallenged omniscience and infallibility.

Decor

Image(Feng shui in spades)

Milos’s reboot in the Venetian is soothing, dramatic, reminiscent of the Greek Islands, and appetite-inducing. It’s feng shui is so good there should be a picture of it beside every definition of feng shui. Plus, the fish display alone (see above) is worth major design props.

Advantage, Milos, for feng shui and all that tasty fish.

Image(A great place to set the hook, just for the halibut, or on porpoise, if you’re fishing for a gill-friend)

Costa di Mare’s re-launch in the Wynn reopens a space that is by turns eye-popping, comforting, and mouth-watering. As gorgeous as the new room is at Milos, it’s hard to beat the bi-level views and poolside drama of CdM.

Advantage CdM for outdoor dining, romantic lighting and jaw-dropping design.

In other words: Draw

Greeting

At Milos, they treat me like a big shot who owns the place; at CdM, they treat me like the King of Siam. I’ve been comped at both and I’ve paid through the nose at both.

Draw

Service

Image(Oh for cod’s hake, we’ve haddock enough! Stop floundering and choose!)

Intensive care service is the rule at both. Milos is still in its shakedown cruise, so things are a bit wobbly — well-meaning, but not as polished as they will be.

CdM (above) is operating like it never closed in the first place. Both plaices are so solicitous it feels like someone would cut your food, sand dab the corners of your mouth and troll you to your car if you asked them too.

You expect nothing less than consummate professionalism from both operations since two of the smoothest cats in the business (Ivo Angelov and Fabian Forlini) hold down the front of the house — at CdM and Milos, respectively.

You also can’t fault Milos for having to adjust to a huge new space with a brand-new crew, but at this juncture, we’ll award…

Slight advantage, Costa di Mare 

Price

Bring $$$. Lots of it. Seafood this spectacular has gone through quite a journey to get to your table within a single day. What you’re eating Thursday night was probably flopping around on a boat Wednesday morning….6,000 miles away.

A small rouget or racasse (for two) will easily run $150 at either place. A five pound St. Pietro (John Dory) set us back $275 at CdM, but easily fed five. Plan on at least $125/pp minimum. These beautiful scallops at Milos, are $17 apiece, and you’ll want one each…or two.

Image(So good we can’t clam up about them)

Ordinarily, we’d call the price war a draw, but Milos scores an early knockdown with something in its arsenal CdM can’t defend against or counter…..

Lunch

Image(We’re in lavraki)

Milos serves lunch. A great one. And quite a bargain to boot. Its special $36, 3-course dejeuner is justifiably famous as the best lunch deal on the Strip. Yes, there are surcharges on some dishes, but stick with the basic menu (like the gorgeous lavraki above) and you’ll eat a very healthy, very Greek midday repast and feel a little like a thief while you’re doing it.

Costa di Mare: no lunch. This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions, and thus…

Advantage, Milos

Hours

For the time being, CdM is only open Thurs.-Sun nights. Milos is open 7 days for lunch and dinner.

We’d like to give a point to Milos for being so accessible, but the shutdown of restaurants put them in a no-win situation, so as they re-open, it wouldn’t be fair to judge them harshly on what they have to do to stay afloat. Still…

Advantage, Milos

Bread

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Costa di Mare gets its superior basket of baked goodies from Wynn’s in-house shop. Milos serves its single, toasted, thick nutty slices of sourdough pain de campagne with some of the best olive oil in the biz.

Draw

Appetizers

Both are minimalists. Both let the ingredients sing for themselves. Each does the best langoustines and crab dishes Las Vegas has ever seen. Even with Milos offering the nonpareil “Milos Special”:

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…we ‘re calling it a….

Draw

Seafood Selection

This one is relatively easy: there is no competition with Milos when it comes to a daily variety of fresh fish and seafood. CdM has a beautiful, impeccably chosen but smaller selection.

Advantage, Milos

Bar

Image(Swanky and sexy)

The new bar at Milos is huge and a focal point. It is destined to be a hangout in its own right. CdM bar is smaller and more of a way station for those waiting for a table. Both have impressive collections of pre- and post-prandial booze. I’m not the guy to judge the mixology, but I’ve never had anything less than a stellar cocktail at either.

Draw

Pasta

Image(Uni pasta a la LoRusso)

No contest. Costa di Mare has some of the best Italian pastas you will find in Las Vegas….or anywhere in America for that matter.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Food/Cooking/Menu

Milos doesn’t know how to improperly cook a piece of seafood. But CdM has serious kitchen talent at the stoves in the form(s) of Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos.

Milos has tried and true formula which works across the world; CdM is more inventive with its menu and cooking, and its pastas alone are worth a special trip.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Dessert

Image(We heart Daniela)

Once again, you can’t fault Milos for its tried and true Greek sweets, but CdM has a first-class pastry chef (Santos) in the kitchen.

Image(Berry, berry good)

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Wine

Greek wines go with seafood like mint leaves and lamb. You may not be able to pronounce them (see below), but that’s why they’re so reasonable.

The list at CdM is objectively better, deeper, and broader in its selections. It is also priced for the big boys, not mere mortals. Trying to find a wine bargain at the Wynn is more useless than looking for a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah, BUT Covid has caused a huge surplus of un-drunk bottles up and down the Strip, so CdM now offers some discounted “Cellar Selections” with softer markups.

Selection – Advantage, Costa di Mare

Price – Advantage, Milos

Wine Service –  Advantage, CdM

Country of Origin – Advantage, Milos (You may disagree, but Greeks were washing down their Χταπόδι (Chtapódi/octopi) with Asyrtiko when the Romans were suckling on the teats of wolves.

Therefore, Draw…unless you’re fishing for big game, in which case you’ll love the Costa di Mare list. If you’re looking for a good bottle at a less predatory-shark price, it’s Milos.

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Let’s Recap:

Wine – Draw

Dessert – Costa

Food/Cooking/Menu – Costa

Pasta – Costa

Bar – Draw

Bread – Draw

Appetizers – Draw

Seafood Selection – Milos

Hours – Milos

Lunch – Milos

Price – Draw

Service – Slight advantage to Costa because of Milo’s new digs

Decor – Draw

Judgment

If you’re scoring, you’ll see a 1 up victory for Costa di Mare by the thickness of a soft shell crab shell:

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However, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that what looks at first like two similar restaurants are, in fact, two entirely different experiences.

Costa di Mare is a big deal meal Vegas restaurant with all the luxury trappings, right down to the exotic amaros, ports, and digestivos.

Milos is very much like its chef/owner Costas Spiliadis: welcoming, informal, but very serious about its Greek food.

Wherever you find a Milos (from Montreal to Miami) it is always one of the best seafood restaurants in town. It is, by far, the best Greek restaurant within ten miles of the Las Vegas Strip, and you’ll have trouble finding a better one anywhere west of the Mississippi.

Costa di Mare is Italian in focus, a lot more chef-y, and sui generis. If I wanted to impress a date, I’d take her to the Wynn; if I want simple, beautiful fish that tastes like it jumped out of the sea and directly onto my plate, I’ll go to Milos.

No matter where you end up, you won’t regret it, because, and you can sea, both are fin-damentally….wait for it….wait for it… soleful:

Image(Face it, you’re bass-ically hooked on these sofishticated puns)

COSTA di MARE

Wynn Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770.3305

ESTIATORIO MILOS

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1270

What’s New In Vegas

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What’s new on our restaurant scene?

Quite a lot, actually.

No other city in America can say the same, but Las Vegas, my dear foodie friends, is no ordinary city. We are the quintessential tourist town, with huge rumbling, cacophonous casino/hotels bestriding Nevada’s economy like so many Brobdingnagian towers — casting long shadows, quaking the earth, dominating the landscape.

Until now.

Now, like every other city in America our economic engine is moribund, comatose, on life support. Visitation numbers fell off a cliff in 2020, down to 19 million souls from a 2019 high of 42.5. And those coming are not the free-wheeling, high-spending conventioneers, whooping it up on someone else’s dime. No, these are the bargain hunters, the coupon-clippers, the escapees from California looking for something fun to do on the cheap. During the week, casinos are deader than Moe Dalitz. Even on weekends, the big hotels can feel like ghost towns. Shows are closed, shops are empty, and eatery options have been eviscerated.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Because it is there (on the Strip)but isn’t here — in the actual town where 2.3 million Las Vegans live.

It seems the Strip’s loss has been the neighborhoods’ gain. New restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard South might be harder to find than toilet paper in a pandemic, but the local scene is flat-out jumping. Downtown is leading the way, with a spanking new hotel (Circa), which opened late last year — the first new one on Fremont Street since 1980. It boasts five excellent restaurants, and seems to be busier every weekend. (We’ll deeply dive into its dining scene next week.)

A mile to the south, in the Arts District on Main Street, new joints are popping up like porcinis after a downpour. Can any other town in America say this?

Pretty doubtful. New York and California — the epicenters of American food/restaurant culture — are doing their best to crush the life out of the restaurant industry. Thankfully, little old Las Vegas has kept the foodie flame burning. albeit at bare BTU levels. But at least we’re open, and feeding people, and human beings are socializing and breaking bread together like humans were meant to.

While it might take those giant hotels another year to start humming again, locally, Las Vegas appears to be entering a new age of local dining — a resurgence led by a neighborhood that didn’t even exist four years ago, but now is one everyone is talking about.

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YU-OR-MI SUSHI BAR

The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas is fast becoming one of the coolest neighborhoods in America. While it still has a ways to go residential-ly, food-wise the options are expanding geometrically. A micro-climate of good eats has sprung to life on South Main Street, boasting a dozen bars, four brewpubs, and three new restaurants within a stone’s throw of each other. All are much much better than they have any right to be.

Image(The usual suspects)

Yu-Or-Mi (the name comes from a Jackie Chan movie) exists across the street from Esther’s Kitchen, a half-block from the Garagiste Wine Bar, and in a world of its own when it comes to Japanese-fusion food.

All the usual sushi suspects are here, but it’s in the small plates and rolls where the kitchen puts out an array of twenty appetizers that show a hand both refined and restrained.

Image(Yu So Shellfish)

Everyone does crispy Brussels sprouts these days, but the sweet-sour kurozu reduction on these keeps you reflexively reaching for another bite. Other standards like yakiniku (“grilled”) beef gyoza, rock shrimp tempura, tuna takaki, and chicken karaage rise above the cliches to remind you why they became famous in the first place.

The Yu So Shellfish roll (above) bundles lobster tempura with lobster salad in bite-sized packages of tofu skin which announce a textural, salty-sweet-seafood contrasts with every bite. The purist in me is horrified, but I can live with cutesy names like “Oh Snap” when the Japanese red snapper is this fresh, and the ginger-chili ponzu is this bracing:

Image(Two snaps up!)

Even non-ramen fans will have to admire the broth here — as rich as any you’ll find on Spring Mountain Road — and the yakisoba noodles and garlic fried rice are full of both subtlety and amplitude, no mean feat that.

All of these are conceived and executed by Chef Virakone Vongphachanh (he goes by “V” out of sympathy), a Laotian by birth and an inspired Japanese chef by temperament.

The sake list is not one you can get lost in, but the small selection is well-chosen and well-priced, and, for our yen, the only thing to drink with this food.

What YOM is doing is straddling a line between high-toned raw fish and crowd-pleasing concoctions — compelling creations that do its Nobu ancestry proud. Shopping mall sushi this is not. But the prices are fair and the setting is cozy and the downtown crowd has taken to it like barnacles to a boat.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

100 E. California Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.473.7200

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GOOD PIE

Like its neighbor Main Street Provisions (above), Good Pie opened late last year when starting a restaurant was dicier than drawing to an inside straight. It survived serving pizzas to-go and by-the-slice, and with a recent opening of both inside and outdoor tables, chef/owner Vincent Rotolo is poised to re-set Las Vegas’s pizza paradigm.

Rotolo is a classicist in the vein of every family-run Italian joint up and down the East Coast pizza belt. The dark bar, white tile and comfy booths (along with the “Grandma Wall” of family pictures), puts you in mind of the type of place where you’ll hear, “Ma, who gets the scungilli?” or Faackin’ Yankees did it to us again” over the thrum of dough being slung.

Image(To parm or not to parm? That is the question.)

And what dough it is. Quality flour, long-fermented, in a variety of styles, one bite tells you you’re in the midst of a higher-level of deck oven craftsmanship. The doughier, rectangular (Sicilian, Detroit) crusts have the complexity of great bread, while the thinner Brooklyn, and “Grandma” styles, display the crackle and char of their big-city forebears.

Ingredients matter is the mantra here, and from those crusts to the olive oil to the house-made tomato sauce to the ricotta and toppings, everything hits home. To my mind, there are almost too many choices, and the dizzying menu array can sometimes make ordering feel like a jigsaw puzzle. But amazingly, the pieces always fit no matter how you arrange them.

Beginners should tuck into a simple “Grandma” square, or Brooklyn round to acquaint themselves with the Good Pie oeuvre, while fressers should throw caution to the wind with a spongy Sicilian the size of a small desk, a Detroit-caramelized cheese crust carb-fest, or a “Quality Meat” 3-protein lollapalooza.  They offer something called “Mike’s Hot Honey” here to dribble on your pies, and, also amazingly, this little sweet-hot condiment adds quite the pleasant kick to counter the queso overload.

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Those not in a pizza mood will be happy with Italian-American standards like chicken parm, “Sunday lasagna,” garlic knots, superb fried ravioli (above), great meatballs, and a decent Caesar salad.

Prices start in the high teens to $34 for the Grandma Supreme, but the round pies come in small and large, and the big boys will satisfy 6 hungry adults. I’m no fan of gluten-free pizza, but if you insist on eating yours on top of cardboard, Rotolo’s are probably the best in town.

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Can a new school/old school pizzeria, which looks like it belongs on Wooster Street in New Haven, and acts like a modern restaurant (complete with upscale cocktail bar), come out of this pandemic smelling like a tomato rose? The crowds seem to be saying that it can. Pent-up demand for great pizza is real, people. Long may Good Pie’s red sauce flag fly!

Good Pie

1212 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.844.2700

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MAIN STREET PROVISIONS

You can throw a stone and hit all three restaurants mentioned here. All were on the drawing board, and scheduled to open downtown in mid-2020. Covid put an expensive dent in everyone’s plans, and none more so than Main Street Provisions. Owner Kim Owens and Executive Chef Justin Kingsley Hall spent the entire year cooling their heels until finally, in early December, the doors swung open to….25% maximum capacity.

Putting the best face forward she could, Owens has said that the restrictions allowed her to dispense with the usual friends and family shakedown cruise, and let her staff get used to customers without dealing with overload at either the front or back of the house. Now that things are starting to relax, they’re going to have to get used to being in the weeds.

Hall’s menu can best be described as smokey and southern — as in Utah and the Deep South. To those descriptions add the word gutsy: frou frou bistro food this is not.

Right off the bat the Scotch Egg will catch your eye — a soft boiled and wrapped with smoked Riverence trout crusted with potato chips, sitting in a shallow pool of lemon cream. Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like a smoked trout Scotch egg in verbena cream, and it takes a chef with Hall’s chops to pull it off — cloaking the prosaic egg in a sophisticated wrap which enhances both of them.

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(Don’t try this at home)

Beyond that, you’ll find a unique butcher plate of smoked meats, pates and rillettes made in-house, accompanied by fry bread that is pretty much the last word in Native American carbohydrates:

Image(Fit to be fried)

The same bread sits alongside an herb-flecked hominy hummus studded with preserved lemon, which turns something with usually all the interest of drywall spackle into a compelling starter. I wish I could celebrate the use of barely-seared venison in a tataki of whiskey-shoyu dressing, but the venison doesn’t come through and the whole dish feels like the chef is trying too hard. Likewise, the deep-fried, breaded Sole Kiev (wrapped around herb) butter feels forced and out-of-place on a menu brimming with interesting edibles.

Once you get past those misses the hits abound: rosy red Heritage Ham Steak blanketed with a sour-sweet pepper-tomato sauce, charcoal roasted quail gumbo with smoked andouille sausage stuffing, a serious New York strip dubbed “Utah Woman’s Steak” (after Hall’s wife) that comes with a one-two punch of aggressive, charred scallion chimichurri sauce and a soothing “funeral potato” croquette.

The burger is good, if a bit overloaded (with pickles, smoked cheddar and fried onions), but all sins are forgiven once the poached rabbit sausage with potato dumplings shows up. It is flat-out great, and for our money, should be the restaurant’s signature dish:

Image(This is some bunny I used to know)

Any restaurant bold enough to serve rabbit sausage, quail, hominy, and ham steaks is clearly trying to set a trend, not follow one, and the feeling one gets when sitting down here is of a chef who is cooking the kind of food with which he and his friends like to impress each other — gussied-up for restaurant customers of course, but substantial, rib-sticking stuff done with a chef’s flair and an eye for detail. It may not be the lightest meal you’ll have in Las Vegas, but it will be one of the most original, and there is no more interesting cooking going on right now than down on Main Street.

Whenever something threatens to feel a tad overwrought (the fish, that venison), Hall pulls you back to the simple reality of exquisite ingredients being allowed to shine, as with his harissa carrots (roasted, of course), oat milk grits, cattlemen’s bbq pea beans, and Louisiana popcorn rice (served plain or with schmaltz). These side dishes are frame-worthy on the menu (and would make a great meal all their own). The one salad we tried — For Ernie’s Birds — was a tantalizing tumble of local greens and seeds, dressed just-right in an herbaceous chimichurri vinaigrette.

Desserts are few in number but pack a wallop, especially the butter cake: another homage to the caloric glories of the South and southern Utah.

Like its neighbors, MSP has feng shui in spades. It is long and narrow with welcoming bar to one side, and colorful, comfortable seating pointing to an open kitchen in the back. The effect is to pull you in and make you feel like you belong there.

Whether by design or happenstance, all three of these restaurants have an inviting familiarity about them. Each reminds you of small, personal restaurants shoehorned into intimate spaces in large, impersonal cities. Restaurants like these give metropolitan spaces their warmth and livability. They are human scale, not profit-scaled by real estate developers. There are no anchor tenants to block out the sun, nor soul-killing ginormous parking lots to traverse. Cars drive by at civilized speeds, they don’t whiz by in a hurry to get to the secluded glory of living in the isolated splendor of a stucco farm.

Time will eventually credit these pioneers for changing the way Las Vegas looked at restaurants — for tapping into a market hungry for the real thing, not pre-packaged template dreamed up by a corporation in Dallas or Tampa.

The world is coming out of this pandemic, and the pent-up demand for authenticity will be real. It will be for community, and for togetherness and for gathering around food and drink prepared by people who care about these things as much as you do.

Main Street Provisions

1214 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.457.0111

This is Part One of a two-part article.