The List – January 2020

Image(Happy New Year!)

For years I’ve maintained that to do this job correctly, you have to be a little touched, a lot obsessive, and slightly manic about where you eat.

It’s also like being a porn star: something that sounds like a good idea (to dudes anyway) until you have to do it daily, on command.

And like being a porn star, most guys think they could do it, but they can’t.

Let’s go through my month (a very light one by my standards) and see if you could keep up, eating-wise. Keep in mind these dishes are just the highlights — every meal contained much more to eat, some things of which I nibbled at, other parts I devoured wholesale.

It started with a smiley face on a croque Madame on January 1st at Marche Bacchus (top of page).

Then, in rapid succession, over the course of the month, we devoured…

Esther’s Kitchen

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We grow weary of telling you how great Esther’s is….but we will never get tired of James Trees’ cacio e pepe (above).

DE Thai Kitchen

Image(Kanom jeen namya pu AKA fish curry with noodles)

Not to take anything away from our wealth of Thai options downtown, but the food at the teeny tiny DE Thai Kitchen is the best of the bunch. When the fish-crab curry (above) is on the menu, get it.

Kaiseki Yuzu

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Sure the kaiseki menu is expensive (starting at $100/pp), but the small bites/sake bar up front (above) is quite the deal for food this refined, and a good introduction to Japanese food the way it tastes in Japan.

New York Bagel and Bakery

No better bagels in our humble burg.

ShangHai Taste

Image(Through these doors lie dumpling delights)

Screw those over-hyped Chinese chains (Tim Ho Wan, Din Tai Fung), Jimmy Li’s xiao long bao are the bomb and made with love, not on an assembly line.

Serrano’s Mexican Food

Image(This salsa lit me up from my head tomatoes)

There is nothing remarkable about Serrano’s.…except the service and the spot-on Mexican food. It’s also one of the spiffiest holes-in-the-walls you will encounter, with not a grimy corner in site. A real hidden gem in an unlikely location.

Sage

Image(Egg-cellent caviar; unbliniably good pancakes)

We pop into Sage every other year just to make sure it hasn’t lost its fastball. It hasn’t lost its fastball. In fact it may be throwing more heat than ever. New chef Thomas Griese is seeing to that.

Hiroyoshi

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni)

Every time I eat at Hiroyoshi, I kick myself for not eating here more often. Simply marvelous sushi at more than reasonable prices for what you get. The uni 3-ways will have you dropping your chopsticks in appreciation.

Estiatorio Milos

Image(These prawns give great head)

These Carabineros deep water prawns may be $30 a piece, but sucking sherry out of one of their detached craniums is the best cephalothorax you can get on the Strip.

Moon Palace

Image(This Double is damn Tasty)

Everyone knows David Chang hates me. And I’m no fan of his warmed over, quasi-Korean concepts at Momofuku, either. But I’m willing to give his new joints a fair shot, and Moon Palace (located across the hall from the spanking new Majordomo), is a mini-burger empire whose time has come. Delicious from the first bite, and probably the apotheosis of the American slider.

Eiffel Tower Restaurant

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Sometimes, we go visit an old favorite hoping for the best but expecting less. Despite the great view and good service, this place is become way too touristy for any serious gastronome. The lunch menu was mainly sandwiches; the torchon of foie gras wasn’t as finely-tuned as it should have been, and the burger not worth the pain-in-the-ass trek it takes to get there from the parking lot. Methinks me and The Food Gal® have eaten our last meal here.

18bin

Image(Well kiss my biscuits)

Fingers are crossed that Louisiana native Jen Landry (above) can put this place on the culinary map. The menu seems promising, and the gal has a way with biscuits. If only the physical layout of the joint weren’t so shitty.

Graffiti Bao

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We liked Graffiti Bao, but didn’t love it enough to ever again travel to the far southwest to eat its bread-y, doughy dumplings. It didn’t help that each of the fillings (Szechuan beef, kung pao chicken and barbecue pork were almost indistinguishable in taste. Our Chinese-Korean dining companion was also put off by the burrata offering on the menu (with garlic-chili sauce and scallion pancake!) — a combination that makes as much sense as kimchi on a pizza. “White people trying too hard to be hip Asians,” she sniffed. And she’s probably right.

The Goodwich

Image(Move over Babe Ruth…and pastrami on rye)

The Patty (pictured above) deserves to be in the Sandwich Hall of Fame. It takes a while to melt all of that gooey cheese into the chopped beef, but the wait is always worth it.

Suzuya Patisserie & Cafe

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On South Buffalo,  a mini-micro-climate of hip Asian-fusion eats has sprung to life, with Suzuya, Graffiti Bao and Fukuburger all located within a stone’s throw of each other. Each space (like its surrounding shopping center) is spanking new, with all the polished, antiseptic charm of a mall food court. This seems to bother the patrons not at all, as from the get-go, Suzuya has been packed with customers both Asian and non-, in numbers that would’ve overwhelmed its original cracker-box location, a few miles west. Suzuya’s pastries are very French, but also a la Française as filtered through Japanese sensibilities, meaning: more delicate and less sweet. From the crowds we’ve observed, there seems to be a pent-up demand for this Sino-Franco fusion, as there should be.

Soyo Korean Barstaurant

Image(Who knew everything but the kitchen sink could be so tasty?)

Korean food baffles me. It’s intense, over-the-top, ingredient-heavy, starchy, spicy, gut-busting and soul-warming all in one. Korean food after a Japanese meal is like a NFL team lining up next to the Bolshoi Ballet. I love it but I don’t claim to understand it. If you want to do both, Soyo is a good place to start.

PublicUs

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I love croissants like a bear loves honey. Like a Pelosi loves impeachments; like a Trump loves beauty pageants. The ones at PublicUs might be the best in town. If not, they’re certainly in the top three.

Yum Cha

Image(Shrimply mouth-watering)

Our new go-to for dim sum. Not in Chinatown, but a real find on W. Tropicana with great prices, an open kitchen, a picture menu (great for dim sum beginners) and very attentive service.

Cornish Pasty Co.

(Belly bombs away!)

If you look up “stick to your ribs” in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of a Cornish pasty.

El Dorado Cantina

That Ass Though Jennifer Lopez GIF - ThatAssThough JenniferLopez Shakira GIFs(Some buns get a rise out of us)

We spent $83 on Mexican food here. For 3 tacos, and bowl of soup, and appetizer and a beer. For eighty-three bucks I want mariachi music. Or Shakira shaking her ass in my face.  Never again.

Cipriani

Image(Baked, Béchamel’d, and beautiful)

I eat at Cipriani so often they ought to name a booth after me. I could eat its baked tagliolini with ham (above) every day of the week and never get tired of it. Like everything here, it is stunningly simple Italian food served by real pros who never miss a beat.  If you want to see what a great Italian ristorante looks like, this is the place. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the gelato. You’ll be hooked from the first bite.

That’s 21 restaurants in 31 days — barely breaking a sweat by my standards.

Remember, I’m plowing all this ground so you don’t have to (kind of like a porn star). My continuing mission is to guide you to only the best of the best, so you will know where best to spend your dining out dollars.

We at Being John Curtas hope these posts are helpful to achieve these goals. But if any of this causes you menu envy, try to remember this German word to help you over your green-eyed hunger hurdles:

Futterneid is a compound noun which is made up of the words ‘food’ and ‘jealousy’. The German word ‘Futter’ translates as ‘animal feed’ or ‘fodder’, but is also used colloquially to describe human food. Futterneid translates into English literally  as ‘food jealousy’, but the more idiomatic ‘food envy’ is a better translation.

The word describes the highly relatable feeling when you simply order food at a restaurant wrong, and then have to suffer through the rest of the meal watching someone else eating something that looks and smells much better than what you have.

Examples:

Er war gestern abend wegen des Futterneids so mürrisch.

He was so grumpy yesterday evening because he was envious of the food.

Danke schoen to @thelocalGermany for giving us a word that is now an essential part of our eating vocabulary.

Prost!

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Taste of Spain Tour 2020 – The Ultimate Food and Wine Fest

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Here it is food fans — the ultimate food and wine tour of Spain — being offered in advance to my readers, fans, friends and foodies who would like to experience the best of Spain with its greatest guide (not me, Gerry Dawes). Take a gander below and contact me at johncurtas@me.com (or call 702-528-7454) if you’d like more information or to discuss things further.

I’m thinking it would make the ultimate stocking stuffer for the Barcelona/San Sebastian lover in your life.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Gerry Dawes & John Curtas Taste of Spain Tour 2020

Bilbao, San Sebastián, Navarra, Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante & Madrid

Wednesday, May 20 – Sunday, May 31, 2020
(11 Days, 10 Nights)

A Customized Itinerary for John Curtas & Eating Las Vegas Followers

Tour Designed and Guided by Gerry Dawes
Premio Nacional de Gastronómía 2003
(Spanish National Gastronomy Award)

$4,995 per person; $5,995 single supplement
(without airfare)

 

A complete prospectus and trip contract will be sent to each interested party.  Travel insurance is recommended.  Check with your credit card provider or personal insurance company.

“In his nearly thirty years (now fifty) of wandering the back roads of Spain,” Gerry Dawes has built up a much stronger bank of experiences than I had to rely on when I started writing Iberia…His adventures far exceeded mine in both width and depth…” — James A. Michener, author of Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections

“Trust me everyone, I have traveled with this man, if Gerry Dawes tells you to eat somewhere it’s like Bourdain, believe it!!” – – Chef Mark Kiffin, The Compound Restaurant, Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless criss-crossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country’s culinary life.” — Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés of José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019

About Gerry Dawes and His Unique Experiences in Spain

“But, for Gerry, Spain is more than just the Adriàs and (Juan Mari and Elena) Arzaks. He has connected with all manner of people working at every level and in every corner of Spain. I’m always amazed at this reach. You can step into a restaurant in the smallest town in Spain, and it turns out they know Gerry somehow. I remember one rainy night in Madrid during the 2003 Madrid Fusión congress. I wanted to go to my favorite place for patatas bravas, but Gerry had another place in mind, and I didn’t know about it. But Gerry is always right. The potatoes at his place were amazing.” – – Chef-restaurateur José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of ThinkFoodGroup and Mercado Little Spain, Hudson Yards, New York.

Gerry Dawes will lead an exceptional, intensive, insider’s food, wine and cultural of the Basque Country’s Atlantic food and wine regions, with an excursion into la Rioja and Navarra and on to Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante’s contrasting Mediterranean interpretations of food and wine, before ending the trip in Spain’s capital city, Madrid. 

In all our travels, we will be dining in restaurants specially selected by Gerry Dawes for their authenticity, quality and uniqueness and our meals will be accompanied by wines chosen by Gerry to reflect the best aspects of each locale.  Although the emphasis will be on food and wine, there will be cultural activities and some spectacular countryside to see and photograph as well.  Participants on this trip will meet and interact with Spanish chefs and wine personalities, with whom Gerry Dawes is very well acquainted, visit placed known only to long-time Spain hands, and relax and enjoy the company and camaraderie of our fellow travelers.

Gerry Dawes received Spain’s prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003.  He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish gastronomy, wine and cultural themes.  He has shown Spain to many top American chefs and culinary figures such as Thomas Keller, Mark Miller, Michael Chiarello, Michael Lomonaco, Mark Kiffin, Norman Van Aken, cookbook author Rozanne Gold, Michael Whiteman (Joseph Baum Michael Whiteman Restaurant Consultants) and many others, including baseball great Keith Hernandez.  He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute’s First Prize for Journalism (€14,000)for his article on Cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.  

 About John Curtas

John A. Curtas has been the voice of the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. As a resident since 1981, he has seen Vegas grow into one of the leading restaurant cities in the world. His weekly radio commentaries air were heard on KNPR-Nevada Public Radio, 88.9 FM www.knpr.org for 15 years, and since 2008, he can be seen Friday mornings as “Las Vegas’ Favorite Foodie” on KSNV (NBC) Morning News in Las Vegas.  He is the author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, which will have its 8th edition published in December, 2019, as well as being the author of the Eating Las Vegas website (www.eatinglv.com). 

Mr. Curtas has been the restaurant critic for the Las Vegas Weekly, Las Vegas Life, SCOPE and Desert Companion magazines. He also and writes (or has written) on Las Vegas restaurants, food and wine for a variety of publications and web-based sites, including VEGAS magazine, VURB, BestPlaces Las Vegas, Fodor’s Las Vegas, TimeOut Las Vegas, and the Virtual Gourmet (www.JohnMariani.com).  He has also been a member of the North American voting panel for Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World issue and has been the Las Vegas voting correspondent for the James Beard Foundation. John has also made a number of appearances on national TV shows, including as a judge for the finale of Top Chef Masters (twice) and Iron Chef America (four episodes).  

John Curtas & Gerry Dawes A Taste of Spain Tour 2020 

Itinerary

(B=Breakfast, L=Lunch, T=Tapas, D=Dinner)

Day 00 Wednesday, May 20 U.S. to Madrid 

*Each traveler or group of travelers will arrange their air transportation from their departure city to Madrid and from Madrid to Bilbao.  Many airlines such as American or Iberia have special pricing to cities in Spain via Madrid.  Flights should be booked U.S. to Bilbao* (via Madrid) and return from Madrid to U.S.  (*It is important to make the U. S. to Bilbao flight as part of your ticket, so your luggage gets checked through to Bilbao and you do not have to check in again and go through security again in Madrid to get your connection to Bilbao.

 

Day 01 Thursday, May 21 Madrid – Bilbao (D)  

All tour members will rendezvous in Bilbao at our hotel.  At 2 p.m., for those who have arrived and want to go for lunch, there will be an optional tapas crawl in the old quarter, then the afternoon will be free to relax.

In late afternoon, we will have a look at the Guggenheim Bilbao from the exterior and take a tour of the interior.   

Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

 

At 9 p.m., we will meet across the river from the Guggenheim at a terrific Basque steakhouse with great steaks, regional specialties and good young wines from the Rioja Alavesa wine country southeast of Bilbao.

Day 02 Friday, May 22 Bilbao – San Sebastián (B, L, D) 

We will relax in Bilbao until late morning, then our bus will take us down into the mountainous interior of the Basque Country for lunch at Extebarri, one of the greatest grill restaurants in the world. 
After lunch, we will ride to the wonderful seaside city of San Sebastián, the gastronomic capital of the Basque Country.   We will check into our hotel, which has stunning views overlooking the city and one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the world.  We will spend the afternoon free for relaxing, shopping or enjoying on a walk on the spectacular Playa de La Concha, one of the world’s greatest urban beaches.  

 

 San Sebastián.
Paseo de la Concha, San Sebastián

 

In the evening, we will take a ride up to Monte Igeldo, which has stunning views overlooking San Sebastián, then a kilometer back down the hill, we will have a relatively light dinner in a traditional Basque cuisine restaurant, accompanied by specially selected wines from the restaurant’s wine cellar, which is one of the greatest in all of Europe.


Day 03 Saturday, May 23 San Sebastián – Getaria – San Sebastián (B, L, T)

In the morning, we will visit the market in downtown San Sebastián and stop for a morning tapa at one of the city’s most popular tapas spots.

Ferry to Pasajes de San Juan, a one-street seaside village where Victor Hugo once lived, near San Sebastián.

 

After the market visit, we will make a short excursion via bus and a five-minute ferry ride to a beautiful, one-street Basque village where Victor Hugo once spent a year.   We will stroll the town, have a tapa and a glass of the local txakoli wine, then drive half an hour west of San Sebastián to the fishing village of Getaria, hometown to the dress designer Balenciaga, to opera singer Plácido Domingo’s mother and the birthplace of Juan Sebastián Elkano, the first man to complete the circumnavigation of the world (Magellan was killed in the Phillipines and Elkano completed the voyage). 



 Fishing village of Getaria, hometown of Juan Sebastián Elkano, the dress designer Balenciaga and Plácido Domingo’s mother.
Getaria´s famous seafood restaurants specialize in fish, like the exquisite grilled rodaballo (turbot) shown here, grilled on open grills outdoors alongside the restaurants.

 

We will have lunch in a spectacular restaurant in Getaria overlooking the port, dining on exceptional, whole, wood-grilled rodaballo (turbot), other dishes such as txangurro (the classic Basque crab dish) and baby squid, all accompanied by special wines from the restaurant’s exceptional cellar.

After lunch, we will visit the Balenciaga Museum, then see some wonderful Basque countryside on our way back to San Sebastián, where the rest of the afternoon will be free to stroll, explore and relax.

 Gerry Dawes and Kay Balun tapas hopping in San Sebastián.
 Typical bar de pintxos (Basque for tapas) in San Sebastián.

 

In the evening, we will gather in the lobby of our hotel and began a walking tour of the tapas restaurants in the old quarter of San Sebastián, sampling emblematic tapas as we go, then have the option of a ending our evening in a classic bar that is credited with starting the Spanish gintonic craze among great chefs, who drank them here after attending one of the legendary gastronomic conferences held here. 

 

Gintonics maestro Juanjo, Bar Dickens, San Sebastián.

Day 04 Sunday, May 24 San Sebastián – Navarra – Barcelona (B, L, T)

 Olite, a striking Medieval castle village in Navarra.
 
In the morning, we will ride south to Navarra, where we will visit a striking Medieval castle village.  We will have an early lunch in southern Navarra with a winemaker at a restaurant that specializes in vegetable-based dishes from this great vegetable-growing district in Spain.  We will also taste a lineup of white wines, exceptional garnacha rosados (rosés), red and sweet dessert wines with the winemaker. 

 

 Drinking wonderful 100% free-run Garnacha rosados in Navarra.

 

Bodegas Aliaga owner, Carlos Aliaga, Navarra.

 

After lunch, our intrepid travelers can take a siesta on the bus as we press on to Barcelona, stopping a couple of times for refreshments.

We will arrive in Barcelona in early evening, check into our centrally located hotel, have a little time to relax, then those who are game can have the option of going out for a few Catalan tapas.

 

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

Day 05, Monday, May 25 Barcelona (B, L, D)

 

In the morning, we will take a walking tour of the old quarters of Barcelona with an English-speaking author who has written extensively on Barcelona and is a con-summate expert on the city.

Miró, Picasso and Dalí, three legendary artists associated with Barcelona.

For lunch, we will go to a seafood-and-paella specialty restaurant in the port area of La Barceloneta, whose owner is a long-time friend of Gerry Dawes.  We have lunch on a terrace that looks out on the beach. 

Tapas in Barcelona.

 

The afternoon and evening will be free to explore, shop or take an optional cultural tour of the Barcelona, etc.

Day 06 Tuesday, May 26 Barcelona (B, L, D)

 

In the morning, we will visit the famous la Boquería market and have lunch with Cava (Spanish Champagne) at one of the top market bars, whose chef-owner is a great friend of Gerry Dawes and where you will be amazed at the food his cooks turn out from market kitchens. 

 

Quim Márquez, Quim de la Boquería, La Boquería Market, Barcelona with his costillas de ternera (veal ribs) with potatoes, Maldon salt and black Chinese garlic.

 

In the afternoon, there will be free time to shop, take an optional cultural tour of the Barcelona, etc.

We will have a dinner at a superb traditional Catalan cuisine restaurant run by Albert Adrià, Ferran Adrià´s brother and José André’s partner in Mercado Little Spain in New York.   After dinner, those still game will have the option of going to one of the best cocktail bars in the city.

 

Albert Adrià, Ferran Adrià´s brother and José André’s partner in Mercado Little Spain in New York.

 

Day 07 Wednesday, May 27 Barcelona – Valencia (B, L, D)

We will leave Barcelona early and drive to Valencia, where we will see some of Santiago Calatrava’s famous City of Arts and Sciences, visit Valencia’s Mercat Central (Central Market), then take a short excursion south of the city to see the picturesque Albufera lagoon and rice fields and get a hands-on class in paella making, then have paellas for lunch.

 Antonio Catalan spice shop, Valencia’s Mercat Central (Central Market).



Helping to make a paella at La Matandeta in La Abufera south of Valencia.

After lunch, weather permitting, we may take a short boat ride on the Albufera lagoon, then return to Valencia to relax, shop, visit some of Valencia´s many attractions or just stroll around the city.

In the evening, with the owner, we will have a great tapas dinner at the ambience-filled Bodega Casa Montaña, originally founded in the 19th Century.

Emiliano García, owner of the Valencia classic Bodega Casa Montaña and a long-time friend of Gerry Dawes.

Day 08 Thursday, May 28 Valencia – Alicante  (B, L, D)

In the morning, we will leave Valencia and drive just over an hour to visit a saffron processing facility, then visit the cooking school of the great chocolatero, Paco Torreblanca, voted the Best Pastry & Desserts Chef in Europe.   Paco Torreblanca is a friend of Gerry Dawes and either he or his son, Jacob, voted the top Pastry & Desserts Chef in Spain, will take us on a tour of his amazing chocolate and fancy pastries facility.


Gerry Dawes and Maestro Paco Torreblanco at Paco’s Baking School near Alicante.

After visiting Paco Torreblanca, we will take a short tour of an Alicante winery, then drive to a family restaurant in a nearby village, where we will have a paella with wild rabbit and snails, cooked over grape vine cuttings, along with other regional specialties and special wines from the region. 

 An Alicante winery.

 

 Paella with wild rabbit and snails, cooked over grape vine cuttings.

 

 Paella with wild rabbit and snails.

After lunch, we will return to Alicante and have the rest of the afternoon free to explore this lovely Mediterranean city.

Dinner will be at a tapas restaurant run by a woman chef who was awarded a Michelin star in her modern cuisine restaurant, but whose traditional tapas restaurant focusing on stellar Spanish products was recently voted the Best Tapas Bar in Spain.

Alicante Chef María José San Román, Chef-owner of Michelin-starred Monastrell and La Taberna del Gourmet, one of the best tapas restaurants in Spain.

We will stay in a boutique hotel near the port and Alicante’s palm tree-lined Explanada.

An Alicante winery.


Day 09 Friday, May 29 Alicante – Chinchón – Madrid  (B, L, T)


Don Quixote country, where we will stop to see some of the storybook windmills of La Mancha.


This morning, we will head to Madrid, passing through Don Quixote country, stopping to see some of the storybook windmills of La Mancha along the way, arriving in the storybook town of Chinchón in time for lunch at a charming restaurant specializing in classic Castilian cuisine and overlooking the Plaza Mayor, one of the most enchanting plazas in Spain.  



 The storybook town of Chinchón.
 Mural at the entrance to La Balconada Restaurant in Chinchón.

After lunch, a 45-minute ride will bring us to Madrid, where we will check into our hotel, then have the rest of the afternoon free to explore Madrid, shop, relax, etc.

In the evening, we will take a stroll through the literary quarter and the Plaza Mayor.  Near the Plaza Mayor, we will visit the renovated Mercado de San Miguel, a combination market-food court-wine bar.  We will divide into small groups and, coached by Gerry Dawes, each group will have the option to sample different tapas, moving from counter to counter.  There are shellfish, cheese, Ibérico hams and desserts counters; a sushi bar; an oyster bar and a wine bar.


Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid.


Day 10 Saturday, May 30 Madrid (B, D)

In the morning, there will be a guided tour of Madrid’s Prado Museum and the option of visiting other museums in the Triangulo del Arte, including the Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s Guernica, and the Thyssen-Bornemizsa, which is based on the remarkable private art collection of the late Baron Thyssen-Bornemizsa.

At lunchtime, we will stroll through Retiro Park to a top Madrid restaurant, famous for exceptional seafood tapas, but also offering a variety of dishes such as fried artichokes, superb jamón Ibérico and other specialty dishes.

After lunch, our tour members will have free time until dinner.

Cochinillo asado, brick-oven roasted suckling pig, at Casa Botín, Madrid.

In the evening, we will have our farewell dinner in a colorful traditional Madrid restaurant, famous for roast suckling pig, lamb and Castilian specialties, all of which will be accompanied by plenty of vino.

After dinner, our travelers will have the option of attending a performance at one of Madrid’s top Flamenco clubs.

A performance at one of Madrid’s top Flamenco clubs.

Day 11 Sunday, May 31 Madrid (B)

Flights to USA.

 

TATSUJIN X

Anyone who knows me knows I’m nuts about Japanese food. I was crazy about it for years (decades really) before I actually went to Japan.

For me, going to Japan was like having sex for the first time — something I thought about, read about, and fantasized about before it really happened. Then, once I went, I realized what I’d been missing. And like a love-struck teenager, all I could do was fantasize about doing it again.

It was in Tokyo when I realized that eating Japanese food in America was really nothing more than foreplay — most Japanese food here being but a teasing, pornographic representation of the real thing. The real deal envelopes you, transports you, titillates the senses and pleases the palate in ways that get lost once the recipes travel across the Pacific. (A country obsessed with fresh fish and umami will do that to you.)

But as with many things edible and Asian, things have improved immeasurably over the last decade. Our finest Japanese places — Kabuto, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku, Kaiseki Yuzu, Monta, et al — do a fine job of recreating the food of their homeland. Thanks to an influx of dedicated chefs (and the wonders of air freight), faithful re-creations of noodle parlors and intimate sushi bars are now in our backyard. The fact that many of them are tucked away in odd locations only adds to their verisimilitude.

(A good rule of thumb when looking for the genuine article in Japanese food is to look for any Japanese word in the title of the restaurant. ( Korean-owned “Japanese” restaurants usually just slap the word “sushi” up there, knowing everyone will come for their California rolls.) Any nebulous Nippon nomenclature generally is a good sign, even if it tells you nothing. Because when it comes to most things Japanese, the more obscure something is, the better. )

And it doesn’t get much more obscure than Tatsujin X.

(Poetry on a teppan)

Stuck in the middle of an old strip mall in the shadow of the Palms Hotel, Tatsujin X (the name means “master”) is the most recent addition to our expanding catalogue of authentic Asian eats, and might be the last word in nondescript eateries. Only the noren cloth awning out front gives you a hint that something strange and wonderful lies within. As in Japan, the signage tells you nothing but the name.

Those in the know will discern its name to denote the teppanyaki cooking of Japan — the flat, steel griddle (teppan) upon which various foodstuffs are grilled, broiled or pan-fried (yaki). Call it a teppan or plancha or good old frying pan, what you get is food prepared on a hot, smooth metal surface upon which a dexterous chef can work wonders.

The showier aspects of this food gave rise to the post-WWII Japanese steak house craze, where knives got thrown and food got flamed, all to the oohs and ahhs of prom dates everywhere. But crowd-pleasing this place is not.  Tatsujin is to your average “Japanese steakhouse” what Jiro Dreams of Sushi is to Beer Fest.

Think of Tatsujin as Benihana with a PhD.

What Grand Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa aims for at this bare-spare 13 seat counter is not the applause of wet-behind-the-ears teens or well-lubricated tourists. He is shooting for appreciation on a deeper level: the sort of gratitude bestowed by black belt epicureans who know the right stuff when they taste it. And what they taste is an 8-course meal like nothing in Vegas.

You have to go to a Shinjuku alleyway to find food this good, starting with a “chef’s choice” platter (above) of a crispy sawagani crab  flanked by a bright salmon tartare, spicy edamame beans, a soy salad and meltingly tender strips of barely-grilled rib eye. All of it sets you up for a well-paced courses to come, from a sparkling wakame (seaweed) salad, to a dashimaki-tamago omelette gently wrapped around strands of king crab and oozing sea urchin. If there’s a bigger umami-bomb in town than this egg concoction, I’ve yet to find it.

(‘erster innards – yum)

As you’re swooning from the seafood omelette with its cross-hatching of mayo and sweet ponzu sauce, you’ll notice the seafood star of the show: a Brobdingnagian oyster the size of a filet mignon. It is designed to intimidate the most ardent ‘erster eater (me), and it does.

These five-year old beauts come from Washington State, and are not meant to be slurped, but instead, they are meant to be grilled and sliced…the better to see and taste all that fleshy bivalve muscle and those oyster innards. (There’s no way around it: what you see and eat are the oyster’s intestines. The good news is the only thing they’re filled with is algae and other microscopic sea veggies.)

Before you get to that big boy, however, you’ll first be served a hot, oily broth containing big, meaty chunks of clams. One of my dining companions called it a clammy bagna cauda, which pretty much summed it up. Both of these sweet bivalves will have seafood lovers in hog heaven. Less adventuresome types should take their favorite intrepid foodie friend along to share what they can’t handle.

From there you’ll move on to simple, teppan-grilled vegetables which act as an intermezzo to the proteins.

(Strip-san meet Rib eye-san)

Three steaks are offered (fillet, rib eye, strip), with a forth of imported Japanese wagyu for a $35 surcharge). Sea bass (excellent), salmon (good) are a bone thrown to non-meat eaters. Both are perfectly fine pieces of fish, well-handled and cooked, but they sort of miss the point of the joint. The steaks are the stars here, and they are lightly seasoned and gently cooked as perfectly as beef can be. There’s no denying the melt-in-your-mouth appeal of the expensive wagyu, but my Japanese friends profess to like the denser, beefy quality of the American “Kobe” better. Either way, the cuts are seared to a level of subtle succulence you don’t achieve with the pyrotechnics of charcoal grilling.

(American rib eye)

There probably should be a chicken option too, but as soon as Nakazawa starts trying to please everyone, this place will lose the vibe that makes it so special. The specialness comes from remaining true to the single set, coursed-out meals that defines many small restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is not a “something for everyone” culture — not eating-wise anyway. Restaurants do what they do well, and you’re expected to value them for their individual styles of cooking, not demand that you want something “your way.” This is going to be a challenge for Tatsujin as it moves forward.

However you like it, there’s no way to improve upon the final savory course. Choose either a thick, pork-filled okonomi-yaki pancake (above), or garlic rice. Both will have you dropping your chopsticks in awe. The pancake, served with waving katsuobushi (bonito) flakes dancing atop it, would almost be a meal unto itself somewhere else, and the garlic rice is a testament to great food coming in deceptively simple packages. It’s not much to look at, but soothing-sweet-nutty garlic permeates every bite of the sushi-quality grains. This is a grown-up rice dish for connoisseurs of starch.

Desserts are three in number and very Japanese. If you’re very Japanese, you will love them. If you’re not, stick to the ice cream.

To recap: Tatsujin is basically a fixed-price, fixed-meal steakhouse. (In Asia they call these fixed-course meals “sets.”) You pay one price (from $50-$70) and you receive eight dishes, four of which give you some choice (salad, protein, and whether you want the pancake or the rice, and dessert). It is not a menu for picky eaters; nor is it a place to take someone who demands to know whether they will “like something” before they order it. The whole idea behind teppanyaki restaurants is to sit down, enjoy the show and let the chefs work their magic.

Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work, I felt like I did in January, 2008, at the early days of Raku. Then, I was watching the birth of a new kind of restaurant — one that plugged into a new, sophisticated zeitgeist of budding internet gastronauts learning about Japanese food. Will Tatsujin be the next Raku (albeit with a much more limited palette)? Or will it be another Omae (remember it?) — a genre-bending, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broaden Las Vegas’s Japanese food cred?

Only time will tell, but we are a much more knowledgeable food community now than we were ten years ago. Our Japanese food scene has also increased exponentially since then. The time would seem to be right for us to embrace this sort of cooking in this sort of restaurant. Tatsujin is now our most unique Japanese restaurant and steakhouse, and it is certainly the closest you can get to Tokyo without flying there.

(The prices above do not include beverages, but as of this writing only water, tea and some soft drinks are offered. You can BYOB but they ask that you tactfully hand your covered bottles to the staff upon entering, and they will pour your (beer, sake, wine) from the kitchen into ceramic cups as you request. For the quality of the meat and the cooking and the show, and all the attendant dishes, this place has to be considered the best steak deal in town. One of our meals was comped, the other, with the Japanese wagyu surcharge, came to $225/two, including a $50 tip.)

TATSUJIN X

4439 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.771.8955