The Covid Dairies Vol. 2

Image(My other specialty: walking on water)

As of today, 0.000219178% of the world’s population has been killed by the Covid_19 virus.

Day  7, Friday, March 20, The New Absurdity:

“Take out, grab-and-go only,” the Gubenator declares. And everyone falls into line. It’s a mere band-aid to local restaurants, who will never be able to stay open under those conditions. Most don’t even try.

Some brave souls, like Ohlala French Bistro in Summerlin are going to try to power through. It seems that the smaller the joint (i.e., the more the owner can do on their own without staff), the easier it will be for some to survive being nothing but a  ghost kitchen. Rooster Boy Cafe fits this description perfectly, as chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal already is a one woman band at her tiny operation. But for most venues that aren’t named Chick-Fil-A or McDonald’s? Fuggidabadit.

Friday is a weird day around the Curtas manse as well, as Mr. C spends the day feeling sorry for himself and watching documentaries, while The Food Gal® is nailed to her computer, restructuring and cancelling contracts (she sells advertising). By the end of the day, it’s a running joke that she’s busier than ever NOT making money.

As dinnertime rolls around, a good friend — Don Cramer — contacts us with an idea: Why don’t we do a Facebook Live chat about local restaurants who are remaining open?

We tell him we’re heading to Ohlala (and dining al fresco with our own table and chairs) and he says he’ll be right over.

So, Don shoots a Facebook Live, we freeze our buns off, and chef/owner Richard Terzaghi feeds us some beautiful paté and a steaming bowl of French onion soup in the parking lot. Classy AF, don’t you agree?

Image(Feeling very, very French al fresco on Friday)

“I’m not going to let this thing get me down,” Curtas tells himself, even as it’s getting him down.

Day 8, Saturday, March 21, Here Come the Health Nazis:

Saturday morn breaks, and Las Vegas’s biggest foodie girds his loins for a day visiting the front lines of this war against common sense.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, here they come, with friends in tow, to see the damage for ourselves.

The first stop is Rooster Boy. Sonia has set up an ordering table out front, and is doing a limited menu of her specialties.

Orders are given, fabulous food shows up, and Las Vegas’s best breakfast is declared in fine fiddle.

Sonia also gives a nice interview. Some highlights:

– Her menu is very limited.

– Call ahead and check daily. Don’t act like John Curtas and barge in and order something; he’s an asshole.

– This could end up being a good model for her continued business (less hassle with taking orders and waiting tables).

– In some ways, a small operation like hers is better able to adjust and still keep its customers.

– She’s still baking her ethereal pastries every morning….but she’s not doing breakfast right now.

– Curtas doesn’t give a shit about social distancing.

– Thank god for alcohol.

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If there’s two things this shitshow of a public health fiasco is going to teach us, it’s that restaurants are indispensable cultural institutions, and that it’s a very short slide from well-intended vigilance to outright autocracy.

This becomes evident from Mr. Curtas’s next two stops.

Curtas has been friends with Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt since they took over Marché Bacchus Bistro and Wine Shop fifteen years ago. Many a day and evening they’ve whiled away over bottles of vino. He considers Jeff the go-to guy for Burgundies in Nevada, and although the selection is small, there’s never a bad buy in the bunch. Some would say this coziness keeps Curtas from being entirely objective about MB, but he’s fond of pointing out that he gives it to the chef with both barrels if the cooking isn’t up to snuff.

None of that matters today, as he drops in to buy some wine and give the Wyatt’s support, both emotional and financial.

Rhonda tells him she’s already gotten blowback about their Saturday wine sale. “Non-essential!” the finger-waggers scream. The Gubenator’s order isn’t 12 hours old and already people are chastising and accusatory. It’s all ridiculous (since nothing prevents people from buying booze at the supermarket), but that doesn’t keep folks from losing their shit over someone trying to sell a few bottles and stay in business.

Side bar: Anyone who’s ever wondered how Nazi Germany turned against the Jews has only to follow (so-called) liberals falling straight into fascism the second they think their well-being is being threatened.

It’s all very depressing, so Curtas and friends buy a boatload of wine and spend some hours getting hammered on the MB patio. Is it good wine? Of course it’s good wine! When the world is burning to the ground around you, you might as well blow your wad on great hooch.

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Buzzed on champagne and Barolo, Curtas and his too live crew head on over to Locale to show support for another good citizen who’s trying to soldier on through this debacle — recent James Beard nominee Nicole Brisson.

Side bar: Curtas likes Locale, but it’s too fucking far from his house (15 miles) to make it a regular stop on his restaurant rotation. It’s also too fucking far for almost anyone who doesn’t live in the far far southwest part of town to get to, which is a shame because its location (North Korea, a friend calls it) is a big hindrance to its popularity.

Like North Korea, the militarists here are everywhere and ready to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, as you’ll see below.

Image may contain: Nicole Brisson, sitting(Nicole cooks, Cramer works, Curtas drinks)

So Cramer and Curtas shoot another Facebook video with Nicole, and chow down on the patio with some take-out food. Martin Scorceeze and Bobby DeNiro they are not, but hearts are in the right place, and a good time is ha by all.

Interview over, they eat; they kibitz, they drink and smoke cigars — on the restaurant’s patio way away from its front doors. This warms Curtas’s cockles. For an hour or so, he almost convinces himself the world has returned to normal.

He also notices a steady stream of folks going to Albertson’s a few doors down. Lots of them. In groups large and small, and nearly every group with a toddler or infant in tow. Much more than his little band of five hungry souls. This fact will come back to haunt him the next day.

The next morning, this shows up on some neighborhood website:

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“You are literally going to kill people,” someone named John Cooper says.

Someone named John Cooper does not know we are going to kill people. He only feels it. He feels it because the media has been drumming fears into him since February.

He has no idea how or why we would accomplish this. All Someone Named John Cooper knows is that the government and the media have spent the last six weeks whipping him and everyone else into a paranoid frenzy over how a superbug name Covid_19 — a coronavirus more contagious than other cold/flu viruses but no more deadly than the common flu — can be spread, and that we must all band together to stop the spread.

The government has very few tools at its disposal to do this. It can support the health care system when it gets overloaded, and it can encourage people not to spread disease, and, as a last resort, it can shut down things by declaring an “emergency.”

As of yesterday, there are 200+ cases of this virulent upper respiratory infection in the entire State of Nevada. Exactly four people have died from it, two in Southern Nevada. As emergencies go, it’s a pretty lame one.

From U.S. New and World Report: Most patients exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially among the elderly and people with existing health problems. The vast majority recover.

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No one’s  going to kill anyone by sitting on a patio chatting, eating delicious oysters, and smoking cigars. Respectfully, Someone Named John Cooper, you are out of your mind.

But honestly, no one blames you, SNJC. You’ve had a steady stream of fear fed to you for weeks. Constant stories of how the virus will scale up until millions of Americans have it. Millions of Americans don’t have it, Approximately 47,000 Americans have had it. And they’re getting over it, SNJC, and feel just fine. But you never see media stories on the recoveries; you’ll only see people in respirators, and projections of who’s “going to get it” (they hope), so you’ll stay riveted to the drama.

Literally, in America, only two people in a million have died from it.

What many are calling a pandemic is really senseless panic — an unholy alliance of gloom-and-doom doctors, sky-is-falling statistics, health care Cassandras, hypochondriacs, a manic media, and do-gooder liberals — coming together to paint an end-of-days picture over a superbug. That’s it. We have as much chance of eradicating Covid_19 as we do of stopping sunshine. So get over it, and go have a good time.

Thanks for inspiration, SNJC, now, let’s get these myths disposed of so life can get back to normal.

Do you feel better? John Curtas hopes so.

Image(Capital Grille, noon, Friday March 20, 2020)

Image(Locale, 7 pm, Saturday March 21, 2020)

 

Well This Sucks – The Covid Diaries Vol.1

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The Coronavirus Diary. Volume 1, Day 1, Friday the 13th: Clouds on the Horizon

Who would’ve thought that my lunch at Cipriani last Friday would be the last time I had a really good, relaxed time in a restaurant?

We ate well. I ate in two shifts: the first with two colleagues, the second with good friends and The Food Gal®.

Lunch turned into dinner at Soho Japanese Kitchen where I tapped out after a few courses. (Seven straight hours of eating and drinking will do that to you.)

Crowds were smaller at both places; you could feel the clouds of contagion building. Everyone knew fear and layoffs were in the air. We just didn’t know how soon and how severe it would be.

Our waiter Vincenzo looked around the Cipriani dining room and said he was worried for both of his jobs (there and at Giada). Like many in the Vegas hospitality trade, he holds down two gigs — lunch and dinner — often at two very different spots. Vincenzo is as Italian as Pavarotti, with a twinkly charm underneath his sing-song-y accent, and he fits an Italian restaurant like parm on pasta. Three days later he will be out of both jobs.

Day 2, March 14: Canary, Meet Coal Mine

The Bellagio announces it is closing all restaurants except Sadelle’s and Prime.

Day 3, March 15: Reality Looms

Beware the Ides of March, Caesar was told. He ignored the warning; the rest of Las Vegas took it to heart. Within five days of the announced severity of the coronavirus, MGM uses today to let the hammer drop on all of its venues. Some hotels, like Caesars and Venetian/Palazzo stand firm and act like they can weather the storm.

Because of this, for about two days, locals feel restaurants and bars will still be functioning, albeit with far fewer customers. Still, it’s obvious the virus has mushroomed into society-wide panic. Most media outlets are claiming the virus is “sweeping the nation,” even though the number of Americans actually infected with Covid_19 amounts to .00016% of the American populace.

“We’ll figure out a way to keep the doors open,” Venetian and Caesars say. Silly them.

I spend the afternoon getting drunk on expensive hooch on my patio, and eating some tasty cheese I had flown in from The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills — because eating and drinking well is to me what swinging a golf club is to Tiger Woods.

Day 4, March 16: Support Your Local Chinatown

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Hotels and Strip restaurants closing left and right. Local joints girding their loins but seem safe. I make a show of going to Every Grain for lunch (it’s mostly empty), and China Mama for dinner (ditto). And I’m not shy about letting social media know what I think about all of this viral hysteria and how it will devastate the hospitality industry. For this I get called everything from Typhoid Mary to the worst thing since Hep C.

I also get into one of those Facebook commenting wars with someone named Emily Jillette, who’s married to someone named Penn Jillette, who calls me everything from a joke to an asshole. It’s really quite amusing to have her (try to) insult me by telling me how she’s “friends with lots of chefs” who “universally hate me.” Emily hates me (apparently) because I’m eating in restaurants and encouraging others to support these businesses in a time of crisis.

She’s not the only one who hates me for thinking this whole quarantine-thing is a huge overreaction, but she’s definitely the most profanely entertaining  of the bunch.

Day 5, March 17, Goodbye to all That:

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In less than 24 hours, every bar and restaurant is being told to close or serve customers by take-out only. This results in my having to drink my coffee outside of my favorite coffee bar — Vesta Coffee Roasters — in downtown Las Vegas. I do not like being told I have to drink my coffee on a grab-and-go basis. My lack of amusement at this ridiculous restriction will be made more than apparent in the coming days.

This is when reality really starts to sink in. By noon everyone knows the Governor is going to order the shutdown of all “non-essential businesses.” The Governor of the State of Nevada does not realize that for many of us, restaurants, coffee bars are just as essential as a warm bed.

For these reasons, we hunker down on Tuesday and eat leftovers (yummy) from China Mama for lunch as we await the governor’s proclamation. It is Saint Patrick’s Day and no one seems to notice.

That night we eat at Edo Tapas & Wine to show our support, and as good as the food is, the place feels like we’re administering its last rites. No way will a chef-centric, highly-tuned restaurant like Edo be able to survive on take-out trade. Someone should tell our clueless Gubenator this, but he’s too busy listening to the hysterics.

Day 6, March 18, The Day the Music Died:

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Last night the Gubenator shut down the Strip (which he has the power to do). He also “ordered” all “non-essential businesses” to close, which, technically, he does not have the power to do. (At least it’s debatable in some quarters.)

Regardless, he’s a politician and politicians pander to the majority and the majority of people are screaming for government to “do something” about a virus that’s infected .000017% of the American population. So order away he does.

And everyone complies. Everyone complies because, 1) they’re scared not to comply; and 2) they know everyone will hate them if they don’t comply. (I know 1 and 2 are basically the same thing, but I’m trying to make a point here.

In support of our Chinese-American restaurants — who, after all, have been doing to-go food better than anyone for 170 years — we order take-out from Kung Fu Thai-Chinese. (Las Vegas oldest – since 1973 – Chinese restaurant.) I’ve never been quite sure whether Kung Fu is a Chinese restaurant that serves Thai food or a Thai restaurant with a Chinese menu, but it doesn’t matter these days. It always does a solid job, and it’s been years since I’ve been. so there’s a silver lining to the unfortunate circumstances that bring me here.

The Food Gal® picks up our huge order ($66 + $10 tip) we gorge ourselves on Yen Ta Fo, Todd Munn, Pad Thai and Spicy Chicken. We have enough food to last for days.

I announce on Twitter that no one’s getting a bad review while we try to weather this economic body blow, and I mean it.

Day 7, Thursday, March 19, Pastries and Steaks:

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I wake up at 4:00 am with an idea(s): 1) to start this diary; and 2) not to let this craziness defeat me. Restaurants are as much a part of the American cultural identity as football and gas-guzzling cars. It’s sort of amazing how quickly sports dried up (and how no one seems to miss them all that much), but restaurants are where we sustain life and enrich it. Methinks people are going to be screaming for food to return to normalcy a lot faster than begging to see if Andrew Bogut dunks on Miles Plumlee.

I’ve also decided to stick with my normal routines as much as possible. And by “stick with my routines as much as possible” I mean start my morning with good French pastry.

This part is easy. Food serving operations like Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe are not being shut down, you simply can’t stay and sit to enjoy your morning brioche. Mr. Curtas is very fond of his morning brioche, and will therefore pick-up, take it to his office, and enjoy it there.

These pastries taste to him both of butter, dough and normalcy, so, for fleeting seconds he can pretend his world is not crumbling around him.

As he’s munching and pretending with his Danish, Mr. Curtas wonders just how fucked is the American restaurant industry? 

Answer: Very. 15 million people are out of work in less than three days to combat a virus that will never infect even 1.0% of our population. A virus that all medical experts say 80% of adults will recover from without any medical intervention.

As Mr. Curtas ponders these statistics, he decides to do two things: 1) refer to himself solely in the third person til this thing blows over; and 2) eat steak for lunch. Good steak. Steak directly from the Capital Grille meat locker.

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With the help of Manager Drew Weintraub, we get a tour of the locker and get to pick out an entire strip loin to be bandsaw’d into individual steaks. This costs $250, but we get eight, restaurant-quality strip steaks (and a porterhouse)out of the deal.

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We take them home, and with the help of our comrades-in-epicurean arms the Tollefson’s, we cook up the porterhouse — heavily-seasoned (above), seared on both sides, finished under the broiler). It was damn tasty, and half the cost it would’ve been at the restaurant. But let’s face it, great steaks lose some luster when nibbled on your kitchen counter.

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Sounds pretty okay, doesn’t it? Super steaks and expensive wines for lunch?

It’s not. It’s bloody awful. As he’s chewing his steak and quaffing his wine, Curtas can’t stop the emptiness from grabbing his stomach, like a clouded mood settling permanently into his gut. Fears and fatalism sickening in their ubiquity, unquenchable by food or drink.  And now they are upon him. The world has lost its fucking mind. And things are about to get worse.

It’s Not You, Jose Andres, It’s Me

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The hottest love has the coldest end. – Socrates

We’re done, José.

It’s over.

It’s not you; it’s me.

Time to move on.

I’m not good enough for you.

I need space. (So do my trousers.)

Breakups can be sad, but sometimes tears are the price we pay for the freedom we need. (And boy do I need my freedom from the tyranny of tasting menus.)

Breaking up can make you a better person. This might be good for both of us.

Before we go into why this is necessary, a little history is in order.

What we now call tasting menus, used to be called degustation menus. They were the province of a certain level of high-falutin’ French restaurants, and they usually came on a little insert to the menu offering to let the chef decide what special courses he would feed you that night.

Tasting menus were an adjunct to the main, a la carte selections, and were of interest to mainly the most dedicated gourmands. You knew you weren’t in for the usual starter-main-dessert meal, and that the courses would be smaller, and there might be a couple more of them. Mainly though, you went the degustation route because it promised to show the kitchen strutting its best stuff.

This is the way things were from the late 1970s (when yours truly became seriously involved with cooking/food/restaurants), until the late 1990s.

Then, Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller and Ferran Adrià came along and ruined everything.

Image result for French Laundry menu(This looks like 10 courses, but at the end of the evening, it was more like 15)

Gastronomy historians might have another take on this, but from my perch, the whole “you will be eating/swooning over 15 small plates of chef’s creations” really took off when Keller got soooo much press for his (mandatory, multi-course) feast at The French Laundry.

In 1997, I was in Napa Valley at a writer’s conference with Ruth Reichl, Colman Andrews, Corby Kummer, Barbara Kafka, and a host of others, and that’s all they could talk about. This talking eventually morphed into a gazillion raving/fawning articles about Keller in every major food ‘zine. Soon enough, the copycat race was on.

When Adrià made his big splash with El Bulli around the same time, the die was cast and high-end restaurants from Lima to London adopted the formula of wowing their customers with “techniques” over taste. A chef friend told me of going to El Bulli fifteen years ago and throwing in the towel….after the 44th course with more on the way.

No longer were a half-dozen specialties of the house enough, as you might find at Paul Bocuse or Le Cirque.  Instead, Keller and Adria started an arms race of escalating courses…where mutually-assured palate destruction was the result if not the goal.

These days, almost every restaurant in the World’s 50 Best centers its cooking around a bill of particular, itty bitty ingredients done by the biteful.

 

Image result for el bulli menu degustacion

It’s time to stop the madness.

Who really wants to eat like this? Answer: no one.

Watching chefs piece together teeny tiny pieces of food into dish after dish of edible mosaics no longer holds any fascination for anyone but jaded critics who constantly need to be dazzled while “discovering” the next big thing.

As Robert Brown elucidates in his excellent evisceration of the form, tasting menus have debased cuisine by turning it into an exercise in solipsism for chefs:

By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you cannot have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you did not bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

I read this essay two years ago and agreed with it, but it took that much time (and several more marathon meals) for the lessons to sink in. (You might remember that I was also bored out of my gourd by Meadowood and Alinea a couple of years ago.)

If New York restaurants are any indication, the next big thing is a return to sanity: the classic catechism of appetizer-entree-dessert. The way you eat in good French restaurants and homey Italian trattoria; the way the human body was meant to digest food.

When I go to Spain in a couple of months, it’s going to be a challenge — since the Spaniards invented (or have at least expanded and exploited) this unnatural way of eating more than any other culture. One of my solutions will be to go at lunch (like I do in Paris and Italy), where the meals are shorter, more focused and more fun. Plus, you then have the rest of the afternoon/evening to walk off the calories.

As for my recent meal at é by José Andrés, below you will find the list of dishes, along with some tasty snaps.

For the record: almost every bite was a testament to intense flavors and culinary skill. It was my third meal at é in as many years, and the best of the bunch. Chef de Cuisine Eric Suniga and his crew orchestrate a perfectly-timed concert where everything harmonizes — with a staff busting their asses while never missing a beat or hurrying the customers.

It’s dinner and a tweezer show, a plating performance if you will (the actual cooking takes place out of sight), which almost makes you forget you’re paying $400/pp for a meal with strangers.

The only trouble is there’s both too much and too little going on. Too many dishes and not enough time to reflect and contemplate them, and not that enjoyable if you really want to savor the cooking, the techniques, or the food and wine matches (which are excellent).

Even with those criticisms, though, there probably aren’t five other restaurants in America that can match it.

Image(Suniga and crew are on it like a bonnet)

But for me, no màs. Never again.

I don’t want to eat 20 different things at a sitting. I realized some time ago that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns with these slogs — your satisfaction being inversely proportional to the number of fireworks going off in front of you.

Three to six courses is all one’s brain and palate can absorb. Everything else is just cartwheels in the kitchen, the chef as baton twirler.

To be brutally honest about it, this type of meal isn’t about the food, or the wine, or the conversation. The point is to have you ohh and ahh over the production. There isn’t much time between courses to do anything else.

The great joy of going to a restaurant is deciding at the very last minute what you want to eat, not what the chef insists you eat. Tasting menus rob you of that singular pleasure, and for that reason alone, I must bid them adieu.

Here are the dishes:

Truffle Tree

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Morning Dew

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Beet Rose

It was small and and tasty but not that photogenic; let’s move on.

Stone

Image(The black and white thingees are actually cheese; the things that look like stones are stones. Don’t eat those.)

Spanish Pizza

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Wonderbread

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Pan Con Tomate

This was a small piece of the world’s greatest ham on an almost-not-there puff of bread. The only thing wrong was there should have been more of it.

Uni Y Lardo

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Vermut

Image(This dish fomented much mussel love)

Edible Sangria

Image(The description doesn’t lie)

 

Esparragos en Escabeche

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Txangurro a la Donastiarra

Crab served in its shell — deliciously crabby but unremarkable.

Foie Royal

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Platija

Image(Steak for 8? No problemo!)

Chuleta

A block of fluke that was no fluke…even if it was a bit boring. FYI: fluke is always boring. Sorta surprised they used it.

Empanada

Image(This started out as a ball of cotton candy the size of a small child)

Menjar Blanc

Image(White food, aerated)

Winter in Vegas

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Intxausaltsa

Image(Your guess is as good as mine)

Cherry Bomb

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More things…

By the time you get to “more things”, only the heartiest of soldiers is still ready for combat. Most have run up the white flag as they’re being politely herded off to make room for more cannon fodder.

That’s when it hit me and I mumbled, “I still love you, José; I’m just not in love with you anymore. Certainly not with this dining concept. Whatever flame you may have ignited in me 20 years ago with your wacky Spanish molecular manipulation is now but a smoldering ash — the charred remnant of a fiery passion that once had no bounds (or course or calorie counts), and is now as worn out as bacon-wrapped dates.”

You’re better off without me. You’ll be happier with someone who appreciates you more than I do.

And I’ll be happier dating your sexy siblings: the smoking-hot Jaleo or the bodacious Bazaar Meat.

You wouldn’t mind, would you?

I hope we can still be friends.

Our meal for 2 came to around $800, including tax, tip, and $120 worth of wines by the glass. Notably absent above is any consideration of price-to-value ratio. For aspiring gourmets, globe-trotting gastronauts, and culinary show-offs, it’s probably worth it. For a one-time splurge it’s absolutely worth it. There’s no more convivial way to experience the glories(?) of molecular gastronomy, accompanied by a great steak.

é by Jose Andres

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7950