ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.
In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.
Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung. Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement. In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?
Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.
Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.
It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.
A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?
Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.
Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.
There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)
To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.
Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)
Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters. Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo? Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.
Life is too short to be confused by your food.
(Oohs and aahs not included)
ELV note: A major metropolitan/international newspaper recently asked us to compile a list of the top fine dining destinations in Las Vegas — places that are sui generis, nonpareil, and unmatched for the finest food and drink in town. Most of these are price-is-no-object joints; all of them serve some of the best food of its kind you’ll ever find. (To balance things out, we also submitted a list of “Hidden Local’s Favorites” containing a number of places that mere mortals can afford.) Buon gusto!
THE TOP 20 FINE DINING RESTAURANTS IN LAS VEGAS
‘e’ by José Andrés (Cosmopolitan) – The toughest seat to score in town, made by e-mail reservation only, gets you one of eight “golden tickets” for a molecular ride the likes of which you won’t experience anywhere else this side of Espana. Feran Adria was Andrés’ spiritual mentor, and his influence is everywhere on the seasonal menu. In the wrong hands, this cuisine is pretentious; here it is profound.
Lotus of Siam (953 E. Sahara Ave.) – Multiple expansions haven’t dimmed the star of America’s best Thai restaurant. (So sayeth me and every other critic who’s eaten here.) Go early for dinner or late for lunch if you want to get a table, and bring a thirst for German/Austrian/French wines. Bill Chutima’s Riesling list has become almost as famous as his wife’s northern Thai cooking. Not exactly “fine dining,” but so good it deserves to be in whatever “best of” list gets drawn up for Las Vegas restaurants.
Prime (Bellagio) Eighteen years on, Prime still boasts one of the prettiest dining rooms in America. A revamped bar area provides more room for nibbling and sipping, and the main room blends beefiness with romance as well as anyplace in which you’ll ever enjoy a peppercorn-crusted strip steak.
Michael Mina (Bellagio) – Start with the tableside-mixed tuna tartare (everyone does), then throw caution to the wind as you order the whole lobe of foie gras. Follow that with Mina’s decadent lobster pot pie and a rack of lamb and you’ll have plenty of reasons to hit the Stairmaster once you return to your life of kale smoothies and denuded chicken.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (Mandarin Oriental) – Twist isn’t for everyone. Like all restaurants in the Gagnaire oeuvre, it takes a decidedly adventuresome tack towards most of its menu. Here they take creative seasonality seriously, making boredom an impossibility. Get a tasting menu, buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Or get a steak and bathe in one of the best Bordelaise sauces in the business.
Joël Robuchon (MGM) – The big daddy of big deal meal restaurants in Vegas. You’ll be surrounded by Asian high rollers, a few punters, and some Eurotrash, but none of that will matter once the food starts showing up. Intricate, high-flying French are the watchwords here, but it’s best to have a second mortgage on hand before you approach the wine list.
Sage (Aria) – High ceilings and theatrical décor set the stage for some of Las Vegas’ most dramatic food. The seven-course tasting menu is a flat out steal at $150, but you won’t want to miss the standards on the menu – foie gras brûlée, roasted sweetbreads, kusshi oysters with peppers – either. The bar and bar menu are as stunning as the main room, and an excellent spot to drink your dinner, if that’s your thing.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (MGM) – There are multiple L’Ateliers around the globe these days, but this one takes a back seat to none of them. Chef Steve Benjamin has been at the helm since it opened (in 2005) and the dishes pouring forth from his open kitchen never fail to astonish. The dizzying array of menus and a la carte options encourage abandon but demand restraint. Do what we do: just close your eyes and point. And get the sweetbreads. And the hangar steak. And the spaghetti. (ELV update: Benjamin recently left his position at L’Atelier to pursue other adventures in sunny SoCal. We have not been in since his departure, but if the Robuchon machine runs true to form, we doubt there will be a dip in the quality of the cuisine.)
Carnevino (Palazzo)– Vegas has the greatest steakhouses in the world, next to New York, and Mario Batali’s steak and wine emporium can go hoof to hoof with them any of them. Here, the beef is aged in-house, for months not days, and the “riserva” steaks call to you from the ginormous menu, as do the pastas, salads and house-made salumi. The wine list is a dream for lovers of the “killer Bs” — Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. But bring your bank.
Bazaar Meat (SLS) – Calling it a meat emporium is a little unfair, since the seafood and wacky Spanish (read: molecular) creations are every bit as good as the steaks. Everyone raves about the cotton candy foie gras, but it’s the tartares (both tomato and steak), that deserve your attention first. Then it’s on to jamon croquetas, suckling pig, or whatever else suits your fancy in the Andrés repertoire…and it’s a huge repertoire.
Restaurant Guy Savoy (Caesars Palace) – When it’s on its game, one of the best restaurants in the world, with neither the pyrotechnics of Robuchon nor the in-your-face creativity of Gagnaire. What Savoy brings is gorgeous, sophisticated food that doesn’t need to pirouette on the plate to impress. The deep, refined flavors do that all by themselves. The wine list is a treasure trove, with more than a few bargains, if you’re willing to dig.
Carbone (Aria) – A New York import that arrived in the Nevada desert with its pedigree intact. Throwback dining packs them in every night, meaning: lots of table-side histrionics to go with gutsy pastas and the priciest veal parm this side of Manhattan. You’re going to hate yourself for loving this place as much as you will.
Mr. Chow (Caesars Palace) – Purists may balk, but Mr. Chow is about unabashed big-deal meal service, a luminous setting, and a sense you’re being fed by, and dining with, grownups. Get the Peking Duck and the Dressed Dungeness Crab, and enjoy this throwback in all the right ways.
Wing Lei (Wynn) – A jaw-dropping room, white-gloved service, and upscale Chinese food (at a price) that will knock your socks off. Be you a Mandarin or from Main Street, you’ll find something to love on this menu, but we’re partial to the steamed fish, hand-pulled noodles and perfect stir-fries.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (4480 Paradise Road) – Slightly off the Strip lies one of our best Italian restaurants, family run, and dishing up the kind of pastas and proteins that compete with anything Giada or Mario can throw at you. The Ferraro’s (who are always on the premises) had the good sense to put Francesco di Caudo in charge of the kitchen a couple of years ago, and he upgraded the food to put it on par with their world-class (Italian) wine list. Leave the gun; take the cannoli.
Yui Edomae Sushi (3460 Arville Street) – Nonpareil sushi and sashimi, edomae (Tokyo) style. Simple, direct, and sliced by the piece for an omakase meal like none other. This is purist sushi, truly Japanese, with nary a California roll in sight. The A-5 wagyu beef (grilled over binochatan charcoal), will take your breath away with its silkiness, fattiness and price.
Le Cirque (Bellagio) – A jewel of a restaurant in a jewel box of a space. The Maccionis (who own the original one in New York) have little to do with this outpost any more (other than a licensing deal with the Bellagio), but the food, wine and service remain as spot-on as when Sirio himself was kissing cheeks and badgering waiters. The food – under culinary wunderkind Wilfried Bergerhausen – has gotten more inventive and less stuffy.
Picasso (Bellagio) – Where else in the world can you walk around a restaurant and see a dozen works of the master himself? Even if you wouldn’t know a Picasso from black velvet Elvis, you’ll still be impressed by Julian Serrano’s menu that, after eighteen years, continues to get the best venison and scallops west of the Hudson. The wine list could keep you occupied for days.
Raku/Raku Sweets (5030 W. Spring Mountain Road) – Mitsuo Endo was the first chef to bring elevated, izakaya cooking to Las Vegas (in 2008), and he still does it best. Raku is for a certain kind of adventuresome food lover, but its sweet sister a few doors down serves finely crafted desserts that can be analyzed, consumed wholesale, or admired for their art.
Estiatorio Milos (Cosmopolitan) – The best fish in town, period. Also the best Greek food in town by a Peloponnesian mile. You’ll pay through the nose, but you’ll also be shouting “Opa!” with every bite. Come for the $30, three course lunch if you’re on a budget.
LOCAL’S HIDDEN FAVORITES
- Settebello (2 locations – 9350 W. Sahara Ave., 140 S. Green Valley Pkwy.) – Smoke-tinged, wood-fired, Napoletana-inspired pizza at its absolute best.
- EATT (7865 W. Sahara Ave.) – Three young French fellows are trying to prove that real French food (and desserts!) can be as healthy as it is delicious. And they do. And it is. (See picture above)
- Japaneiro (7315 W. Warm Springs Road) – Perhaps the best food in the unlikeliest location in Las Vegas. Kevin Chong’s fusion fare is spot on, whether he’s mixing and matching uni with oysters, or putting out an umami-laden rib eye for two.
- Other Mama (3655 S. Durango Blvd.) – Seafood in all its guises, tucked away in a strip mall, overrun nightly with intrepid foodies and chefs on their day off.
- Chada Thai & Wine (3400 S. Jones Blvd.) – The name says it all: incendiary food married with the wines (mostly white, mostly Riesling) that match it so well.
- Yuzu Japanese Kitchen (1310 E. Silverado Ranch Blvd) – A little slice of Tokyo hidden behind a car parts store. Authentic sushi; amazing kaiseki; off-the-hook omakase.
- Carson Kitchen (124 E. Carson Ave.) – Small but mighty. The restaurant that started the downtown food revolution. Good, inventive small plates; good cocktails; good luck getting a seat.
- Bratalian (10740 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Traditional Neapolitan Italian in a quirky dining room dished by the sexiest Brazilian-Italian dish ever to vongole your linguine. Carla Pellegrino is a local legend who gives Henderson denizens a reason to go out at night.
- Standard & Pour (11261 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson) – Cory Harwell’s newest venture (just down the road from Bratalian) is a Carson Kitchen clone in all the right ways. Everyone gets the escargot, and the meatballs. You’ll want to get everything on the menu.
- Marche Bacchus (2620 Regatta Drive) – Al fresco dining connected to a wonderful wine store. The markups are gentle ($10 over retail) and the tables are filled with oenophiles day and night. By all means, buy that second bottle and tuck into the best brunch in the ‘burbs.
ELV is in the Deep South for the next few days, eating the locavore, farm-to-table, deep-fried, okralicious dishes of Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, and, of course, this…