EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants
Those early years were exciting times. Las Vegas had never seen a jewel box like Adam Tihany’s 60-seat design, nor witnessed food so fine or service so precise. With the Maccionis patrolling the room and paterfamilias Sirio making constant appearances from his throne in New York, Las Vegas was a satellite operation, but one every bit the equal of its hallowed namesake. A succession of great chefs (beginning with Marc Poidevin) has kept this kitchen firing on all cylinders since day one, and one of the best service staffs in the business keeps the dining room humming like a long-running musical where everyone still belts out showstoppers after years of hitting their marks.
Showstopping has always been what Le Cirque has always been about, but I was afraid that show might come to an end in 2013 when the management deal with the family ended. With Sirio getting older (he’s deep into his eighties now) and son Mario gone, there is no longer a strong whiff of Italian buon gusto to go along with Le Cirque’s inimitable savoir faire. No one is showing me the contracts, but these days the operation is a licensing rather than a management deal — more Bellagio, less Maccioni. The good news is the food hasn’t suffered for it. Nor has the service.
Credit for that crackerjack service goes to a team that has barely changed in nineteen years. To put that in perspective: if you came here back when Bill Clinton was President, and returned today, you would see all the same faces serving you. Frederic Montandon still pours vintages (French, please! California, if you insist) with a twinkle in his eye, while Ivo Angelov manages with the touch of an orchestra conductor. A lot of restaurants start feeling stale after two decades. Here, phoning it in isn’t in their vocabulary.
The food has changed over time, but never wavered. Some of the chefs (Poidevin, David Werly) were superstars in their own right, while others were just putting in their time. But whoever was at the helm, the kitchen has always been solid — rendering classics like rack of lamb with glazed sweetbreads and rabbit with mustard cream sauce with the same aplomb it devotes to gold-crusted quail stuffed with foie gras, or blue crab under a robe of caviar. You can still get a lobster salad here that is almost note-for-note what Daniel Boulud invented in 1988, or have your taste buds startled by current wunderkind Wil Bergerhausen’s “hidden” spring garden of English peas, tendrils and garbanzos misted with strawberries.
What used to be dueling menus of Le Cirque classics versus more modern (read: lighter) fare has expanded under Bergerhausen into four offerings at all price ranges. You can do everything from a $108, pre-theater affair to a $350 extravaganza that steps into the ring with whatever punches Savoy, Gagnaire, or Robuchon are throwing and doesn’t flinch. There’s even a delicious-sounding five course vegetarian menu offered ($115) that looks like a good idea, in the same way that yoga classes, wheat grass and prostate exams do.
Now that we’ve rebounded from the Great Recession, every night seems like New Year’s Eve here. High rollers, celebrities and hedonic jet-setters treat this place like a private club, making a reservation a tough-to-impossible on weekends. Personally, I like to go early in mid-week, grab and seat at the bar, and watch the choreography unfold before me. After almost two decades, the balletic grace of Le Cirque is still something to behold.
Bellagio Hotel and Casino
It is done.
Not the writing, but the eating.
The writing and researching are in their final stages.
Sometime in the next 10 days all of the reviews will be completed.
Sometime in September, all the editing and re-writing will be finished.
Even my porn star stamina has been tested; at some point, even my resolve and passion weakened.
Dozens of restaurants (actually, close to 90) have been eaten in, some for the first time, many for the tenth. All have been scoured over the past 6 months for what’s current and delicious (or not so) in them these days.
The new title will be EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants. Many of these will get their own pages in the book; most will not. Some are being kicked to the curb because they’ve failed to sustain whatever excellence they might’ve once had; others are newcomers so good they’ve knocked established brands off their perch at the top of the Las Vegas dining scene.
A few are so terrible that the only mention they will ever get from me is on this list.
To find out which is which, and where these all rank in our pantheon of palate pleasing purveyors, you’ll have to buy the book.
But you already knew that.
Restaurant Guy Savoy
Andre’s Bistro & Bar
Meraki Greek Grill (I like this place, and admire its owners, but I wish they didn’t serve that cheap-ass gyro meat.)
Yui Edomae Sushi
SW Steakhouse (The most expensive steak you’ll ever not enjoy.)
JinJu Chocolate (Weird location, good chocolate. How do they stay in business?)
Italian-American Club (For blue hairs only; don’t bother.)
Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe
The Kitchen at Atomic Liquors
Americana (Jinxed location; don’t hold your breath waiting for this place to be a success.)
Yuxiang Korean Chinese Cuisine
Niu-Gu Chinese Noodles
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
Lawry’s The Prime Rib
Andiron Steak & Sea
Two Bald Brothers (Should be re-named “Two Bland Brothers.”)
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar
Rosallie Le French Cafe
Khoury’s Mediterranean Cuisine
Cornish Pasty Co. (Our advice: split a pasty with a friend, unless you’re an NFL tackle.)
Sparrow + Wolf
Sin City Smokers
Momofuku (David Chang hates me; this is a good thing.)
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Salud Mexican Bistro
Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
Jean Georges Steakhouse
India Curry House
Kkulmat Korean Kitchen
Huevos Tacos (Who thought this concept would work here? Whoever they are, they’re seriously mistaken.)
8 Oz Korean Steakhouse
Anna Marie’s Italian Cuisine (Proceed at your own risk.)
Komex Kitchen (I’ve never understood the popularity of this place, but the service is fast and friendly.)
B&B Burgers & Beer (Closing soon; get that “drive-thru burger” while you still can.)
McCormick & Schmick’s
Shang Artisan Noodle
Lotus of Siam
Piero’s (Doesn’t give a fuck what I think about it, and what I think is that it’s the worst, most overpriced Italian in town.)
There you have it: four solid months of intense eating, digesting, note-taking, fretting and analyzing. Not sure how many more of these books I have in me, but my heart and soul is going into the 6th edition. The only person I’m arguing with these days is myself, and for this version, there’s no one I’d rather joust with.
* You find someone who eats in as many restaurants as I do, and I’ll show you a fat man, a fool, or both. Wait, what?
ELV ANNOUNCEMENT: Huntington Press announced last week that the 6th Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants is in production and looking forward to a release in mid-November. For the first time, those 52 eateries will be chosen and written about by me and me alone. As much as I’ve appreciated the yeoman’s work that Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn did on the last two editions (2016 and 2017), Anthony Curtis (publisher of HP) thought it was time for me to do one book with my complete, unfettered and unvarnished look at the Las Vegas restaurant scene. Curtis (no relation, although he does have the same sounding name as our staff), is taking responsibility for the second half of the book — evaluating and listing everything from best burgers to boffo buffets (with an assist here and there from yours truly). As long time publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, Curtis knows the ins and outs of Las Vegas in a different way than I do, but one that readers will find highly useful when more down-to-earth dining is on the agenda. The heavy lifting (i.e., research and writing) of this edition has been going on for several months now (if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram you can get an idea of all the territory I’ve been covering), and the next six weeks is crunch time. In the meantime, below is a taste of one of the additional chapters I’ll be writing that will pepper the book with some of my insights gleaned over 23 years of restaurant writing and covering the Las Vegas food scene. Bon appetit!
WHAT DOES A (REAL) RESTAURANT CRITIC DO?
He writes. She eats. He Cooks. She travels. He eats more. She studies. She reads everything she can about food and travel; he thinks incessantly about food, all the time. And after all that, he/she spends an inordinate amount of time hunched over a keyboard, trying to describe food and the experience of eating out in the pithiest, most informative and entertaining way possible.
Not just the food that he or she happens to be shoveling into their piehole at any one moment, but about how everyone eats. And cooks. And feeds each other. More specifically, a restaurant critic is charged with the responsibility of evaluating how restaurants — who are in the business of selling food to the public to satisfy human hunger — are doing their job.
To be a good restaurant critic you need to eat a lot, write a lot, read a lot and travel a lot. If you lack the stamina for any one of these things, you should hang it up right now.
Being a restaurant critic is like being a porn star: It sounds like great idea until you have to do it all the time, on schedule.
A restaurant critic (a real one, not a casual food blogger) is a writer first and foremost. But their beat isn’t sports or news or politics, it’s rating and reviewing each and every bite of food they ever put in their mouth, and put those thoughts on paper, usually weekly, while facing deadlines to do so.
Most importantly, a restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. If your motivation for the job isn’t to help the general public spend their dining dollars wisely, then you should find another occupation. People who just like to eat out all the time and tell everyone what they thought of their meal are known as blowhards….or food bloggers. Food bloggers, as knowledgeable and passionate as some of them are, are not restaurant critics. A real critic analyzes its subject; opinionated Yelpers/bloggers tell you things are “legit.” Big difference.
The job of a restaurant critic is to eat out, all the time, and write cogent, informative and entertaining essays about what they ate, how good or bad it was, and how they felt about the whole experience. A real restaurant critic gets paid for what they do.
There are four types of professional critics: 1) full-time columnists who write for major metropolitan newspapers or national periodicals (these jobs are becoming increasingly rare, and there are probably less than 100 writers in America who make a living from them); 2) free-lance journalists who work as subcontractors to dead-tree magazines, free newsweeklies, and papers (sometimes as a steady gig, sometimes intermittently); 3) on-line critics who work for established Web sites (like Grub Street, Eater National, Huffington Post); or 4) established critics who maintain Web sites of their own (some of which make money, some of which don’t). Yours truly fit into the second category for the first fifteen years of his restaurant writing career, and now plies his trade as a member of the fourth group (since 2008), with occasional forays into numbers 2) and 3). The rarest of the rare critics actually publish yearly restaurant guides, written on real paper!
Restaurant critics don’t make a lot of money. If you’re lucky enough to land a job with a newspaper, you’ll make about as much as a high school teacher; if you free-lance, you’ll be lucky to top what a barista makes at Starbucks. Being a restaurant critic is like being a poet: you better do it for the love and passion for your subject or you better not do it at all.
Food writers are not restaurant critics. A food writer is someone who writes articles or books about food. A food writer might write an entire book about a specific food topic: Salt by Mark Kurlansky, or diet and food politics: The Ominvore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or food fads: pick up any monthly food magazine like Bon Appetit or Saveur. Food writers write about themselves (M.F.K.Fisher), or recipes (Julia Child), or their travels (Anthony Bourdain, Joseph Wechsberg, etc.); restaurant critics write about what they taste, and then evaluate the final product of professional chefs who charge the public money for the fruits of their labors at businesses licensed to sell cooked food.
All restaurant critics are food writers, but rare is the food writer who is also a restaurant critic.
Most restaurant critics work on a weekly basis. (There may be a critic out there who manages to eat, digest, think and review multiple restaurants in a week, but if they exist it’s a fair bet they are either independently wealthy, really, really fat or crazy.) Many periodicals assign their critics to double-duty and ask them to file reports and articles on various foods and food trends for publication in between their reviews of restaurants. In this respect, most critics, if they are good writers (more on this below), are able to toggle back and forth as part-time food writers. Most cookbook authors and food writers wouldn’t be caught dead writing hard-boiled, opinionated prose about some phoning-it-in celebrity chef. But that’s just fine with real critics, because you wouldn’t want a food writer to write a proper restaurant review any more than you’d want a cheerleader to be a football coach.
In a typical week, a critic will visit at least half a dozen restaurants — most for the first time, some to get a second look — as they keep their writer’s pipeline stuffed with potential articles, reviews in progress, and possible subjects for future reviews. Back in the Stone Age — and by “Stone Age” I mean the late 20th Century — it was de rigueur for a critic to visit a restaurant multiple times before filing a review. These days, due to the news-a-minute, immediate gratification impact of the Internet, almost no publication, save for maybe a few major newspapers, requires a critic to eat more than one meal in a restaurant before giving their opinion of it. (This is extremely unfortunate, because restaurants are not movies. Every movie critic sees the same movie; a restaurant is an organic being, dependent upon the coordination of many people to do its job well. All it takes is for a dishwasher to call in sick, or a waitress to have a fight with her boyfriend, or a cook to check into rehab for you to have a lousy time. Only by eating in a place multiple times can a real critic take the measure of a place. (Every place in EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (past editions) has been visited multiple times by me. Every place in the upcoming issue will have been visited by me more times than I can count. No other critic in Las Vegas can make this claim. No other food writer or critic in the history of Las Vegas can come close to it. No brag, just fact.)
Also, due to to Internet: anonymity has gone the way of the tasseled menu and the hat check girl. Every single real critic (those writing for respected publications, or known to wield any real clout in their city) is known to every major restaurant in town. Pictures of them are posted in restaurant kitchens, and the anyone with a mobile phone can look up anyone’s picture in 30 seconds.
With all of the above as a given, your average (professional, respected, loved or hated) restaurant writer has two parts to their job: eating and writing. The eating part isn’t as easy as it seems. You have to have (or develop) an iron stomach, adventuresome attitude and a fine-tuned palate. You must learn to eat things you loathe and learn enough about them to objectively judge their net worth. (Yours truly will never like beets or Vietnamese food, but has eaten enough of both that he could start a farm or a pho parlor.)
Eating a single meal in a restaurant is no more enough to correctly opine on its merits than looking at a single painting is for you to judge an artist — even if you’re a knowledgeable critic. If you’re going to judge a steakhouse, you better have eaten in dozens of them all over the country. An amateur is one who says, “I went to Mama Leone’s and really liked the lasagna.” A restaurant critic has made lasagna in her home kitchen, watched professionals make it on TV, eaten lasagna in the great Italian restaurants of the world, and traveled to Bologna to see and taste the real thing. Any idiot can tell you whether something is good. I don’t know beans about art, but I can tell you that that Rembrandt fellow sure looks like he knows what he was doing. A good critic knows (and tells you) why something is good or bad.
After all of that is lined up — the porn star stamina, the iron stomach, the insatiable appetite, serious cooking skills, traveling the world, eating the world, reading the great food writers — then it’s time to get down to what real restaurant critics really do: write the review.
And that’s the hardest part of all.