The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.

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There were no winners this year, only survivors.

“Best of” awards seem frivolous now. They may have always been so, but it feels unseemly to play favorites when everyone is adrift in a sea of uncertainty, clinging to leaky life rafts being periodically punctured by clueless bureaucrats.

But good times were had, and excellence deserves recognition.

Even amidst all the despair, the restaurants of Las Vegas — especially off the Strip — surprised us, day after day, dinner after dinner, with their recuperative powers. Three month shutdown – 50% occupancy – 25% occupancy – Reservations Required – Table spacing – No parties of more than four – Closed bars – Ridiculous rules (at Circa bars, they make you put your mask on between sips of your cocktail) – none of which deterred hundreds of intrepid restaurants (and thousands of service workers) from soldiering on.

Any other businesses put through this ringer would’ve folded their tents long ago. (Can you imagine an insurance agency, bank, or plumber being told they could only service 25% of their customers and keeping their doors open?)

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None of them have thrived, but survive they did. And a remarkable number of them opened in the midst of all this — all serving food and drinks that astounded us with its consistent awesomeness. It is a testament to the depth of Vegas’s kitchen talent that so many restaurants — on and off the Strip — have maintained their excellence throughout this year of trials and tribulations.

So, as a final recap, we at Being John Curtas thought we’d entertain you with some highlights of our year in dining. As you may have seen from the previous post, we were busy, even during the pandemic. Probably a third less busy than we would be normally in covering the Las Vegas culinary scene, but still pounding the pavement every week, looking for a noteworthy nosh.

And pound we did. One hundred restaurants were visited at last count (up a few since we pegged the number at 97 two weeks ago), and most of them were more than worthy of attention. Of course, being who we are, we can’t leave this kidney stone of a year without a few pointed barbs at some less-worthy venues, but we will try (as we have all year) to keep the snark to a minimum.

So, here they are food fans: The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.

Image(Smiling Siamese eyes foretell fantastic Lotus Thai revival)

Audacity Award(s) For Gallantry Under Fire:

Against All Odds Award(s) (Hi Falutin’ Division) –

Chowhound Award (for feeding us the most (and the most exquisite) meals in 2020) – Cipriani

You Can’t Beat This Meat Award – CUT

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Image(My usual at CUT)

Titanic Award – Palms Hotel

110 Unsinkable "Titanic" GIFs | Titanic ship, Titanic, Titanic sinking(Actual footage of Palms on July 1, 2020)

Rising Sun Award/Hidden Gem AwardKaiseki Yuzu

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Esther’s Kitchen

Biggest (Tastiest) Surprise(s) –

Image(Crab roll at 8East)

Newcomer of the Year Award – ELIO guac’d our world in 2020. Unfortunately, it is “temporarily closed” until further notice (sigh).

Biggest Regret – not getting to Saga Pastries + Sandwich more often.

Wet Dream AwardCosta di Mare – which simultaneously takes home the coveted Go Fish Award, for feeding us the best seafood in the most romantic setting in Las Vegas.

Outdoor Restaurants in Las Vegas(Gentlemen: if you can’t score after a dinner here it’s time to retire the hardware)

Closed Strip Restaurant We Missed The Least – Eiffel Tower Restaurant

Lifesaver Award (for keeping us well fed during the Spring Shutdown): 7th & Carson/Capital Grille

Bacchus/Dionysus Award – Garagiste

Zorba AwardElia Authentic Greek Taverna

Image(You don’t eat meat? That’s okay, we’ll have lamb!)

St. Jude Lost Cause Award –  the Green Valley/Henderson food scene

Honest to Christ, it is a mystery how anyone who lives among these stucco farms (ringed by franchised dreck) weighs more than 140 pounds. My advice if you want to lose weight: move to Hendertucky.

José Can You See Award Sin Fronteras Tacos

WTF AwardEstiatorio Milos closes at Cosmo, moves to Venetian….where now it will compete with 47 other restaurants at a location where many have fallen flatter than a fold of phyllo.

Καλή τύχη
Kalí týchi ("good luck" in Greek - they'll need it)

Cassandra Award – to us for forlornly forecasting the future fatalities facing our fanciful frog ponds.

The Raw and the Cooked Award Yui Edomae Sushi/Kabuto

Image(Uni won’t believe the urchin at Yui)

Hotel If We Never Set Foot In Again Will Be Too Soon – Paris Hotel and Casino

Al Yankovic Award for Weirdest Meal of the Year – the “before” lunch at Cafe No Fur for a future episode of “Restaurant Impossible”— vegan food so bad it could make a meat eater out of you.

Rudy Giuliani Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Slinger of Bullshit – Eater Vegas

  • Honorable Mention – the R-J’s “Best of Vegas” awards

Phoenix “Rising From The Ashes” Award –  Osteria Fiorella  

  • Honorable Mention – Letty’s

En Fuego Asian Award Toridokoro Raku

Image(Endo-san is one bad mother clucker; we suspect fowl play)

En Fuego Neighborhood Award The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas

Life Support Award – Sahara Hotel (What’s keeping this joint open is anyone’s guess…)

Frank Lloyd Wright Medal for Architectural IngenuityEsther’s Kitchen

Image(Nowhere are flavors more intents than at Esther’s)

Best Intentions (Sorry We Didn’t Get There This Year) Awards

Wine(s) of the Year – 4 days wallowing in Walla Walla, Washington wines

Trip of the Year4 days in Mexico City to restore our sanity

Dessert of the Year – “banana cream pie” at CUT by Nicole Erle and Kamel Guechida:

Banana, caramel in elegant Las Vegas dessert | Las Vegas Review-Journal

Dish of the Year – “duck carnitas” at ELIO:

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Rigor-Mortis Award – to food writing, which already had its one good foot on a banana peel before Covid hit. The pandemic has effectively ended food writing from any perspective other than that of a public relations lapdog, and turned what few media outlets are left into sniveling seekers of approbation (see “Rudy Giuliani Award” above). When the typist at this keypad retires (and it is not far off), you will be left to your idiots, sycophants, and influencers to guide you where to eat. As the Greeks would say: Kalí týchi with that.

Chef(s) of the Year – All of them

Waiter(s) of the Year – Anyone who served us so much as a cupcake in 2020

Restaurateur of the Year – God bless them everyone

….and let’s leave it at that.

Good Riddance, 2020.

Image(….and Happy New Year 2021 from The Food Gal® and Thurston Howell III)

 

My Worst Meals of 2019

Image(Yeah that’s me, dunking on bad food)

Sick of “Best Of” lists?

Tired of “Top 10” torpor?

Had it with holiday hype?

Then Being John Curtas has a refreshing intermezzo for you….

Sorry if these ruffle a few feathers, but since real food writing is fast becoming non-existent in Las Vegas, we thought we’d supply you with some information that flies against the all the bought-and-paid-for drivel.

For the record, none of these meals was truly terrible; all of them are good restaurants; most diners would enjoy them without batting an eye. But each fed me one or two or three things that had me shaking my head throughout the meal, and grumbling to myself that there was no reason to return.

In a small way this breaks my heart. In my world, I want every meal to be transforming, life-affirming, jaw-dropping, and transcendent. I’m rooting for the restaurant every time I walk through the door. Leaving a restaurant mumbling about a dish puts me in a bad mood for hours, sometimes days. The Food Gal has been known to consult everyone from therapists to divorce lawyers whenever darkness descends upon my countenance after a dining disaster.

And sad to say, it only takes one misfire to sometimes ruin an entire meal for me. Especially in a place I know and love.

In fact, the way I feel about my favorite restaurants is a lot like love…or at least lust. As with the latter, sometimes it doesn’t take much to cool your ardor. With sex, the line between “I want to kiss you all over” to “Ewww” can be pretty thin. With food, all it takes is a pseudo-Caesar with some caperberries in it.

Image(Not even a 9 year old would eat some of this stuff)

My Worst Meals of 2019.

Bavette’s

I had a pretty good steak dinner here. Two of them, actually. But I couldn’t see what I was eating. At these prices, you ought to be able to see what you’re paying for.

Burnt Offerings

We so wanted to love this place. I so wanted to be able to crow to my Jewish friends how I’m now “keeping Kosher” (at least for one or two meals a year) and actually admit to enjoying it. But the tough meat (at a place that brags about its smoking skills) was a sin that Yahweh himself could not forgive.

Carson Kitchen

Calm down. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. My two lunches here this year were perfectly fine. But as game-changing as CK has been, it hasn’t followed its success with anything further on the local scene. Instead, it’s being used as a flagship for expansion in other cities. Bravo for them, but the menu and the concept here has gotten stale. There, I said it.

Image(Dumb Dish of the Year – bony fishy fish on burnt toast)

La Strega

People love La Strega, so who am I to argue? Well, I’m me, and for what that’s worth: the apps were more than a little disappointing (I almost broke a tooth on some stale, toasted baguette, the tartare tasted like hospital food, the Caesar has caperberries in it). Pizzas and pastas can impress though (if you go for overload, subtlety isn’t in this kitchen’s vocabulary), but the feeling I got on my two trips here was that La Strega is that all-too-common creature: a restaurant where everything sounds better than it tastes. The menu might be fine for restaurant-starved Summerliners, but at its core, it is safe and boring…which is just what its customers want.

Locale

Locale amused us more than La Strega, but is still flawed in fundamental, incurable ways. The menu is too big and actually the inverse of La Strega’s — too hip for the room, too complicated, trying too hard to separate itself from the pack. If it were downtown (or playing to a black-belt foodie audience) it would give Esther’s a run for its money. Out in the sticks, its prospects for success are questionable. The old saw: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” ought to be rephrased here into: You can lead Las Vegas to interesting Italian food, but they’ll still want chicken parm.

Forte Tapas

What once seemed fascinating (kachapurri, Bulgarian mixed grill, pelmini, Stroganoff fries, etc.) tasted tired and rehashed. The verve of the room, the brightness of the recipes, snappiness of the staff, all had disappeared. It didn’t help that they served us one corked wine, and another at a nice, warm bath-like 80 degrees. I think I liked this place better when it was filled with Russian mobsters in track suits.

La Comida

For the last seven years or so, La Comida was on our regular downtown rotation. But we ate there twice at the beginning of the year and something was different. The menu read the same, but the management was different, the food had changed, and not for the better. These things can be subtle, but sometimes it’s just a matter of some under-seasoned meat, less vibrant guacamole, cold corn and stale tortillas that tells you they don’t care anymore. Haven’t been back since February. Don’t intend to go back.

The Nomad Restaurant

What Daniel Humm did with Eleven Madison Park in New York was phenomenal. What he and his investors are doing in Las Vegas is predictable. The Nomad is a chain restaurant pretending it’s a gourmet one. Worst service of the year too, by a country mile.

Image(Oh no, they’re serving us sardines on stale toast! Mr. Curtas is not amused.)

Oscar’s Steakhouse

God bless Oscar’s. It so terribly wants to be a top-tier steakhouse but it so consistently fails miserably at it. To paraphrase “A Christmas Story”: it’s not that bad…but it’s not that good either.

Pepe’s Tacos

The Food Gal® and I were starving at lunch one day and pressed for time while driving on N. Decatur. Suddenly, like a Mexican apparition it shimmered before us: a bright yellow awning beckoning, “Come hither, partake of our tacos poor pilgrim, enjoy our asada sopes, Help Wanted.” So in we trudged, seduced by hunger, the advert (and stomach pangs) having relieved us of our common sense. From now on we’re sticking with Del Taco.

Sara’s

They start you off here with some gargantuan, brontosaurus bone-in beef rib-thing they serve as an appetizer. Yes, an appetizer. This is supposed to impress you. Our Dover sole was the worst piece of fish I’ve had in a decade. Strictly for those wowed by dark rooms and hidden doors.

Image(Pearl can’t bear to look at our best of the worst)

The Kitchen at Atomic

We went in for a steak. We were told that they only had one, 48 oz. rib eye left. We settled on other meat: a hangar and something else. None of it was very good and the flatbread was a mess. I had four meals here in 2019 and loved 3 of them. We’ll leave it at that.

Tim Ho Wan

Don’t believe the hype. This is a copy of a copy of a copy of a famous dim sum house. You will not eat badly, but you will wait in line to eat food that’s done better (and cheaper) across the street at Ping Pang Pong.

Water Grill

I enjoyed my one meal here…in the same way I used to enjoy McCormick and Schmick’s….in 1998.

Image(Some of these meals deserved a good sabering…and needed more champagne)

Years ago you would’ve found me wallowing in a lot more mastication misery. These days, I am much more selective about where I eat — discrimination and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Vegas food scene keep my “worst meals” at a minimum.

In the past, I would go to the opening of an envelope, but time, taste and age have left me little interest in whatever “fast casual” concept some ambitious restaurateur is launching to take him/her to the promised land. This knowledge alone has saved me from a lot of indigestion, and further enhancement of my already dyspeptic personality.

I really don’t eat badly these days, even in the restaurants noted above. As you can see, my “worst meals” usually amount to a few dishes that missed the mark and put a damper on the overall experience. These failings shouldn’t be looked upon as a condemnation of the whole operation. At all of these places (save poor old Pepe), your average diner can have a most enjoyable meal.

But unfortunately for restaurants, I am not your average diner.

 

 

The (Food) Year in Review 2018

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Hay-Seuss Friggin’ Christie! What a wild ride!

What started with a whimper ended with a bang, and not since the glory years of 1998-2008 have we seen such a watershed of good eats arrive in our humble burg in such a short period of time.

Two years ago we were bored out of our skull and complaining about the moribund nature of our Strip and local dining scene. In the span of 12 short months, all of that kvetching got canned, and now we’re like a kid in a candy store.

Consider the following:

The year began with Esther’s Kitchen debut downtown — it was a hit from the get-go.

Spago closed in January (sigh) after 25 years in the Forum Shops.

The next six months would see Pizzeria Monzú, Pamplona, Jammyland, Partage, Mordeo, and EDO Tapas & Wine, all open in rapid succession.

Spago then re-opened at the Bellagio. (hooray!)

DE Kitchen brought another excellent (tiny) Thai to downtown.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos served up platters of Ensenada excellence right on Las Vegas Boulevard.

China Mama came back from the dead.

(Beef roll at China Mama_

Nuro Bistro brought Hainanese chicken to the ‘burbs.

Michael Mina re-booted itself into Restaurant of the Year status.

Scotch 80 Prime re-imagined the old N9NE steakhouse as a major league whisky bar-cum-meat emporium, and in one fell swoop vaulted to the top tier of our prime steak locations.

All of it was almost enough to get me over the loss of Carnevino in July.

Then things settled down for a few months, before a blizzard of fab food hit the Strip — the first time in a long time for such an influx.   November 2018  might go down as one of our greatest milestone months, as it saw Cipriani, NoMad (both the bar and the restaurant), Vetri, and Mabel’s all spring to life.

(By our calculations, the last time so many great restaurants opened at once was December 15, 2010, when The Cosmopolitan threw open its doors revealing the likes of Jaleo, Scarpetta, D.O.C.G., China Poblano, Estiatorio Milos, STK and Blue Ribbon.)

And, the cherry on top of this sundae was Eataly opening this week.

We took a break from this blog on April 1st, but by mid-August there was so much to write about we couldn’t keep up.

If things weren’t tasty enough around here, we went to Italy (twice), Nantucket for the umpteenth time, and even wedged in trips to New York, L.A., and Washington D.C..

Then, we even found the time to update the 7th edition of  EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants, which, coincidentally, was published this week.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

Yes, it was a busy twelve months.

As good as the offerings on the Strip are, it’s no secret to anyone that the explosion in quality neighborhood eateries has been the big news this year. Not for nothing did Partage, EDO and Esther’s share Restaurant of the Year honors, and new developments in Chinatown (and Bank Atcharawan’s upcoming wine-centric Lamaii) promises even more adventures in the year ahead.

Put them all together and there’s plenty to keep even the most voracious gourmand busy for months.

Make no mistake, most of these Strip newcomers are simply the most current links in well-developed chains. The outlier is Vetri — only the second restaurant with the chef’s name on it — and one getting his full attention these days. It may be the most polished Italian food Las Vegas has ever seen. It is certainly the most stunning. How locals and tourists alike react to his blend of tradition-meets-modern-deliciousness will be interesting to watch. (Our full reviews of it and NoMad will be coming out in January.)

How much wine and cheese and beef Eataly sells (as opposed to grab-and-go sandwiches, coffee, pizza and snacks) will also be mighty interesting to see.

Before we go, we cannot sign off for the year without remembering the losses the culinary world suffered. Both Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon died in 2018, as did that magnificent bastard Anthony Bourdain. The marks all of them left on the food world, are indelible. The restaurant empires of Bocuse and Robuchon will soldier on without them, but we shall not see the likes of them again, not in Las Vegas, not in my lifetime.

Robuchon once got misty-eyed describing to me the simple, grilled seafood he found in a seaside restaurant south of Barcelona. It was almost a perfect meal, he said (though an interpreter), nothing more than the freshest fish grilled over embers bathed in the ocean mist. He did that thing French chefs do when they half close their eyes and bring their fingers to their mouths to signal perfection, and I could see the elemental glory of great food shining in those eyes.

That the greatest chef on the planet could be moved by a simple piece of fish said a lot about him, and his glow in describing it has stayed with me for thirteen years. It was the first thing I remembered when I heard he had passed away in August — his beatific elation at having having found completeness in a simple meal. The elemental act of feeding ourselves becoming a transcendent meld of our lives and nature. Many times in the past few months I have pondered the visceral connection between Robuchon and the natural world he conveyed to me that day. Sadly, we restaurant customers too often forget how tied to the land and sea chefs really are. The good ones anyway.

 

Image may contain: 3 people, including John Curtas, people smiling(JR and JC 2006)

I would run into JR many more times over the years, and he always gave me a big hug, and always jabbered away in French that I could barely understand. (It usually had to do with me being the first American writer to actually review his American restaurants.)  The Food Gal® and I even ran into him  briefly at the 2017 Bocuse d’Or and joked around with him for a few minutes.

He and Bocuse (and Bourdain, for that matter), had that quintessentially French combination of being intense and bombastic but also a bit shy. Being French, they considered great food a religion to be worshiped, and being who they were they would want their legacies to be remembered by people enjoying their meals to the utmost, prepared by people who really care about it.

As we embark on a new year, we should honor them by basking in the glow of all these sensational eats that are now on our doorstep. Las Vegas has come a long way in twenty years. Our avenues are teaming with some of the best restaurant food in America, both simple and sophisticated. You may never be as religious about it as Chef Robuchon was, but just like most religions, you can never go wrong by trying to live up to the ideals they represent.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(The bar at Vetri)