Wine Tasting

Related image

“Red wine with the fish, that should’ve told me something.” – James Bond in “From Russia With Love.”

The easiest way to pander to the plebes is by knocking wines and wine snobbery.

It’s the food writing equivalent of shooting monkey-suited, fish-faced drunks in a French oak barrel.

“See, most people prefer cheap wines to expensive ones! Expensive wine is for suckers!” — is how reverse-wine snobs put it.

That’s true — in the sense that most people prefer a cheap, fast-food hamburger to a custom-made one, and any Taco Bell outsells my favorite taco truck by 100-1 on any given day.

But the more you learn about wine (and tacos, for that matter), the more you come to appreciate the taste of an authentic, small-batch one.

Still, there’s no doubt that wine has brought a lot of this opprobrium on itself with its history of pretension, and all the currency it gives to arcane language, one-upmanship, and hi-falutin’ “experts” reciting laundry lists of scents and flavors.

For what it’s worth — I find the whole “I’m getting peach pits, Meyer lemon zest, wet tobacco, gun-flint, hedgerow fruits and forest forest floor on the nose” nonsense to be a particular affliction affecting mainly insecure American sommeliers and head-up-their-ass wine writers.

Reciting a list of descriptors to describe a wine is like trying to figure out what a recipe tastes like from a list of ingredients.

This disease can be cured, but it takes years of deprogramming to get them out of their snooty little heads. “Hedgerow fruits”? Really?

And while we’re at it, how many somms do you know who are familiar with 18th Century musketry?

One of my favorite descriptions (of those white Burgundies I’m so fond of) is they “taste like you just licked a wet rock.” Now that’s something even a six year old can understand.

Let’s face it, wine people talking about wine is boring with a capital “B.” And sommeliers can be insufferable when taken in anything but small sips. (This does not apply to the people who actually make wine — who can be some of the most charming people on earth.)

Yes, learning about wine is hard, but everything worthwhile is difficult when you first try it.

The thing about wine is how much fun the learning curve can be….as opposed to things like golf, needlepoint, or mountain climbing. But once you climb even a small wine hill, you’ll find that the journey was worth it….even if bottles costing hundreds of dollars rarely are.

To keep the mountaineering metaphor going for a minute, there’s a big difference between climbing Mount Everest and being helicoptered to the top. People who only drink “the best stuff” miss the beauty of the journey entirely. I drink a lot of “the best stuff” (as you see below), but those fifty buck bottles light my fire just as much as the five hundred dollar ones do.

If you want to become good at tasting wine, there’s only one way to do it: grab a corkscrew and start using it. And then think about what you’re drinking and why you like it (or don’t), and leave the friggin’ hedgerow fruit metaphors to the wineholes.

Image may contain: drink and indoor(My usual on a Friday night)

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas…and Paella! (Part 3)

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar is a small plates purveyor of a different stripe. Where Pamplona shoots and scores with authentic, Madrid-style tapas, and Edo gives an updated spin to their Spanish classics, MBWB takes the tapas thing in several different directions. And those directions have as much to do with wine as it does with shareable food. The good news is both are pretty nifty.

What confronts you when you enter is a long, in-laid, colorful three-sided bar. Very L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon that. This counter represents latest manifestation of the side-by-side dining that has been all the rage since Robuchon made such a splash with it in Paris in 2003. Grownups may find it a tad awkward, and for us there’s a couple of high-boy tables in one corner where 4-6 people can actually talk without leaning in and out with every sentence. Hearing is another matter, as you’ll see below.

Once you get comfortable (and to their credit, the staff here puts everyone at ease), you will observe the hustle and bustle behind that bar, as well as the refrigerated wine racks, and all sorts of people moving to and fro, taking orders, mixing drinks, pouring wines, and delivering plates.  It’s really quite a scene, but only three months into its run, the staff and kitchen seem well-synchronized. If you score one of those tables, don’t expect to hear any whispered sweet nothings from your dearly beloved though, as that would require a bullhorn over the din. (In this regard, side-by-side seating makes a lot of sense.)

Image may contain: 2 people, including Luis de Santos, people smiling, drink

If the term “wine bar” in the name doesn’t give you an idea what this place is all about, then the two-sided list will. It’s compact — five whites, six reds, some sake, several sherries — but (almost) everything is price to sell. Strip wine maven/veteran Luis de Santos (pictured above) co-owns and runs the libations side of things, and he has tailored his list to go with the food, but also to be quaffed and enjoyed, not pondered and discussed.

The whole point is to try a couple of bottles with your food, and when you can get a pretty Clarete rosé from Rioja for only $34, and tempranillo-syrah for the same price, there’s no reason not to try both. (Those are bottle prices, not the by-the-glass gouges you find on The Strip.) You almost get the feeling that he and chef/owner Khai Vu are testing the waters with these wines, as they try out which ones, at what price point, will appeal to their customers. Something tells me the offerings will expand as this place gains its footing, and every bottle won’t always be in the $30-$50 range. But for the time being, everything is quite a bargain. Even the beer.

Tasty, inexpensive wine may be what brought you through the door, but the food is what will keep you here.

Here, you’re just as likely to find a Mexican-inspired elote corn skewer, and snow pea leaves with garlic, ginger and sake, as you are a satisfying fingerling patatas bravas. This all-over-the-map menu has them all, and by and large, you won’t be disappointed. The Lomi Lomi Ocean Trout (pictured above) can only be described as zesty. It may be the best ceviche you’ve ever had in Vegas. Right beside it on the ceviche list are a classic, Mexican shrimp aguachile, and Maine lobster with mango salsa, and they’re no slouches, either.

Just as enthralling as all that sparkling seafood is The Cloud — thin, and we mean really thin, slices of Iberico de Bellota Cinco Jotas on top of a super thin, almost invisibly crispy chicharrónes :

— as perfect a nibble with a glass of verdejo as has ever been invented.

They do something they call Beet Garden here — red and golden beets with a goat cheese mousse — that is as wine-friendly (and pretty) as any root veggie dish can get:

Image may contain: table, flower, plant and food

The meaty king crab leg (at $38, the most expensive thing on the menu, but not the most photogenic) is crabby enough for two, and the cold, briny oysters, and ginormous Nigerian prawn (below) show they’re also serious about their seafood:

Image may contain: people sitting, drink and food

Other winners include a meaty La Asada (grilled Angus skirt steak with some kick-ass chimichurri sauce), and a stew of clams, chorizo, and mussels (pictured above with the prawn) that has quite a kick of its own (from the white wine/sriracha sauce).

Desserts are only two in number (and always in flux), but if this mango rice pudding (made to look like a fried egg) is offered, don’t miss it:

Image may contain: food and indoor

You’ll have no complaints about the flan, either, but when was the last time you complained about a flan?

Too many many modern restaurants, in their endless attempts to mash up American food into with every cuisine on the planet, try too hard to dazzle you with their footwork at the expense of harmony and balance. There is both ingenuity and restraint in these dishes, which is rare these days. While it’s easy to decry the menu’s lack of focus, the wild ride you take among these flavors captivates your palate without ever wearing it out.

If you squint a little you’ll see a lot of similarities to what Edo is doing just down the street. But whereas Oscar Edo keeps his eye on Spain, Khai Vu let’s his wander a little farther, and tosses in everything from Mexico to the Japanese/Chinese kitchen sink. That he does this without ever going a seasoning too far is quite extraordinary. Mordeo, like its competition, may have hit on just the right formula to drive complacent palates down to Spring Mountain Road: interesting, hand-tooled, strongly-seasoned, wine-friendly food. The kind of food Las Vegas has needed since I moved here in 1981. The kind you can now find in three restaurants (Pamplona, Edo and Mordeo) all within a couple of miles of each other.

(Dinner for two, with a few drinks, or a bottle of modestly-priced wine, should run around $100/couple, excluding tip.)

MORDEO BOUTIQUE WINE BAR

5420 Spring Mountain Road #108

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.545.0771

https://www.mordeolv.com/

 

The (Final) List

(Spago boyz: Matthew Hurley, David Robins, and Eric Klein)

A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish that my foodie ami had found lacking.)

Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.

Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.

Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be a heartless asshole to argue otherwise.

No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1990s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.

Once Ruth Reichl wrote her 1993 take-down of Le Cirque — where she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant — every reader wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in, as if being identified as a critic by the restaurant invalidates the review. Even today I get asked by people if “they (the restaurants) know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:

Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit. (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times Food Section once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)

But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.

A friend is someone you hang out with.

A friend is someone who has been to your house.

A friend is someone who invites you to their house.

A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.

By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.

Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.

And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.

When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat, and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.

We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that has always brought a smile to my face.

(Justin Kingsley Hall gettin’ it done at The Kitchen at Atomic)

The List

The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.

 Yui Edomae Sushi – forever and always, my go-to place for superior sushi. Kazu-san is now the executive chef. Still the best in town. Ask for Tomoko-san when you call for a res and tell her I sent you.

7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.

EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.

The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, like these Buffalo chicken hearts:

Image may contain: food

…while others fall flat (some large proteins are examples of how addition-by-subtraction might benefit a recipe). Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and plenty of well-chosen libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos happy. There’s a lot of talent working here, and when it all comes together, this place could become a culinary force to be reckoned with.

(Esther’s Kitchen specializes in pasta porn)

Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (there’s never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.

Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama. Go for a quick bite; go for the full kaiseki — either way you’ll be blown away.

Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.

Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.

The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating here. This is a mistake I always regret.

Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop ‘cue joints.

Good PieVincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.

Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.

Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Period. Puts all the others to shame.

Yobo Shabu Shabu Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.

Image may contain: food

Cafe Berlin I know a little German.…he’s eating (these sausages) right over here.

Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me. (Allegro is the other.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.

El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.

Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with a bottle of wine, drinking it and drinking in all the despair walking by.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else?  There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.

The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes (see above)….and galettes too! Sweet or savory, they’re all great.

Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t. 

Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.

Ohlala French Bistro – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.

Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).

Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!

Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.

Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best! Five years ago, you had to go to Bouchon for pastries this good:

…now, all you have to do is drive to south Fort Apache.

So there you have it. My final roundup.

These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.

I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.

I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and downtown — walking distance from where I work.

I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.

(Day drinking…or as I like to call it: Friday)