Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

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Ah…the end of summer. Traditionally when we would be turning in the final copy for EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants.

But not this year. This year there is no joy in Mudville. This year the Mighty Las Vegas has struck out. What we once saw as invincible, unconquerable, un-defeatable, has been laid so low as to be in need of resuscitation, not inspection and dissection.

No way can we justify rating or ranking restaurants according to their quality this year. That so many of them are open at all is a testament to the fortitude of cooks, chefs, owners, staff and everyone connected with our hospitality industry.

Even places we’ve disdained in the past now have our undying respect. This is no time for poncy snobs and their persnickety-ness. Effete, elitist, edicts should not elicit during this era of almost endless enervation.

Put another way: it would be exhausting and unfair to critique any retail business struggling to survive in this climate. Our heart’s not in it, nor should it be.

Right now it’s all about survival, and even though a remarkable number of places have re-opened, it’s too soon to tell which ones will make it.

If I had to describe my prediction for the future of local eateries, I’d call it cautiously optimistic. There seems to be real support out there for the neighborhood joints who have weathered the storm (so far). And interest is high in the places on the drawing boards, ready to spring to life in the coming weeks: Main Street Provisions, Good Pie, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi, all have created real buzz, and the public’s appetite for going out seems to be increasing every week. Letting the bars re-open is also a big plus which will boost the business of many. (Restaurants need a lively bar just as much as a bar needs a lively bar.)

The Strip is another beast entirely, as the fates of so many of our favorite cookshops hang in the balance these days, as the beached whales of Las Vegas Boulevard South struggle to find their footing, right the ship, and regain their sea legs. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

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As of this writing, 15 of our 52 Essential Restaurants remain closed. Some are gone for good (goodbye Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Hatsumi, Sage…), others hang in the balance (Le Cirque? Picasso? Robuchon?), while a remarkable number have bounced back (even at 50% capacity) and are doing booming business on the days they’re open (usually Wed.-Sun.).

We’ve also gained new appreciation for some places we’d written off in the past (Costa di Mare), and developed an infatuation for a newcomers (ELIO, Letty’s, Raku Toridokoro, Osteria Fiorella) whose menus have knocked us out at every meal we’ve had. (If we were doing a 52 Essential list this year, all of them would certainly be on it, as would ShangHai Taste, Saga , Japaneiro, and Big B’s Texas BBQ.)

Throughout the summer, beginning in early June right through this past weekend, we hit dozens of restaurants, on and off the Strip, and usually found them teaming with customers. Sure, the mask thing makes everyone awkward, and early on, the feelings of discomfort was palpable between customers and staff, but over time these things have faded…even if the unease hasn’t disappeared completely.

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Looking back, it’s now a safe bet to say the publication of our 8th Edition of Eating Las Vegas was the high-water mark of Las Vegas’s gastronomic scene — not the book itself, but  everything that came before it, everything it represented. Thirty years of progress, thousands of hands working for three decades to bring better food and drink to the High Mojave Desert, in a place where once no one thought it possible. My own personal odyssey of eating, studying and writing about this scene led me and others to our event that evening, and it seemed like nothing but blue skies, handmade pizzas and top-flight champagne was ahead for everyone.

But of course it wasn’t. There was an iceberg looming ahead no one saw coming.

It was a grand night, made all the more possible by chefs like John Arena, Chris Decker, Ismaele Romano, James Trees and Vincent Rotolo pitching in to feed us all so well. Toasts were made; speeches were given; babies were kissed; books were signed. At the end of it all was a lively discussion panel with Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and Trees weighing in with humor and insight on the future of the Las Vegas dining scene. Little did we know how wrong we would all be proven, only two weeks later.

At the top of the page you’ll see us with Paul — a genial fellow whose last name we can’t recall. Paul has bought every edition of ELV going back to 2011. He and his charming wife came, listened us bloviate, and waited for the discussions to end so we could sign all of his books. One thing led to another, multiple distractions intruded, and before we knew it, the evening was over and Paul and spouse had left without us making good on our promise.

No matter, we thought at the time, we’ll catch up with Paul _____ soon enough. Maybe sometime this year in a restaurant, or maybe at next year’s release party.

How foolish of us to take it for granted — because there may never be another book signing party — because there may never be another Las Vegas like there was on February 27, 2020.

Paul, if you’re out there, I apologize. I’m sorry I didn’t sign your books and I’m sorry I didn’t get your last name so I could hunt you down and return the favor.

Peak Vegas had been achieved that day and none of us knew it. But I’m still here with pen in hand, Paul, ready to be of service, if ever again you need me.

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Buy This Book or I’ll Shoot This Dog

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Nothing else has worked. Press releases, social media, TV spots, international celebrity, controversy as Las Vegas’s very own lovable curmudgeon….they’ve all failed to launch yours truly into the Pulitzer pantheon to which he belongs.

So, we’re going to try something new: murder.

Don’t worry, Muffin, or Fluffy or Muffly or whatever his goddamned name is won’t feel a thing. One .38 Special to the noggin and he’ll be in  chew-toy heaven.

And he belongs to my neighbors and they have lots of dogs so they’ll barely miss him.

You can prevent this doggycide of course, by purchasing the just-released 2020 (and 8th) edition of my book!

You can do so by clicking here or here. (Helpful tip: if you buy directly from the publisher – the second click – you’ll save 3 WHOLE DOLLARS!)

For the mere price of a cocktail,  your conscience will be clear, and your alimentary education enhanced.

A small price to pay, I’d say.

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And I’d say Mufflin would agree with me.

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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.

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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.

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