Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

Image(Mutual admiration society)

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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The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)