The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

Sirio Maccioni (1932-2020) – A Remembrance

Gloriously elitist Sirio Maccioni was the perfect restaurant host

Le Cirque changed everything.

Las Vegas had been upgrading its food and beverage options for several years when Le Cirque opened in late 1998, but when it showed up, our gastronomic ground shook and the whole world felt the shudder.

Le Cirque was big time, New York sophistication planted right in our backyard. There was nothing “Vegas” about it. The Las Vegas of Dean, Frank, and Elvis impersonators suddenly seemed pretty cheesy next to opera stars and real royalty. Almost overnight, we went from Rat Pack to Savile Row.

The snappy suits on the staff announced this, as did the eye-popping Adam Tihany designs of “The Circus” and its sister, Osteria del Circo next door. The food and wine were otherworldly as well, right from the jump. There was no “ramping up” with these operations — everything ran like a fine-tuned watch from day one. Las Vegas has never been more urbane, before or since.

Overseeing it all was the Maccioni family. Mario, the eldest, moved here and was put in charge. Brothers Mauro and Marco flew out from New York to spell him occasionally, and every month or so, there would be patriarch Sirio sitting at a front table, looking all the world like a man who knew the roof was going to cave in any minute.

If there was ever an Olympic medal for worrying, Sirio Maccioni would’ve retired it. He was the Michael Phelps of worryworts. Nothing escaped him; everything was a potential disaster — from a waiter’s crooked necktie to a woman waiting too long to have her water re-filled.

Even though he was technically not “running” the Las Vegas restaurants, his eagle eye and sharp tongue had everyone on high alert. In between, he would bend your ear about his businesses going to hell in a hand-basket: unions, landlords, waiters, casino executives, customers, suppliers — Sirio was convinced there was a cabal of incompetence lurking right around the corner, ready to destroy the wonderful world(s) he had created, one misplaced napkin at a time.

In other words, he was the perfect restaurateur.

He didn’t come by it easily. His mother died when he was a little boy; his father by a Nazi bomb. Working in restaurants was in his blood, though, and he quickly moved from local ristorante to posh hotels to haute cuisine palaces, before making his way to New York while working on a cruise ship in the 1950s. Being tall and movie star handsome didn’t hurt. Neither did speaking five languages and being able to flirt with women in all of them. Saying Sirio Maccioni had a way with people is like saying a fish has a way with swimming.

A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes from New York's Most ...

Le Cirque and Sirio were already New York institutions by the time I discovered them in the late 1980s. By my second visit, five years later, their elitist reputations for “playing favorites” and  “shunning unknowns” were well-established. But from where I sat, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. The allegations seemed like raw meat for the populists to me — dished up by writers who knew there was always a public appetite for casting high society as priggish swine — ignoring the magical food and service going on around them.

I went to his restaurants three times as a nobody before I went as a somebody, and the service never wavered. Long before the VIP treatment came, we always felt cosseted and cared for by the best service we had ever seen. Not for nothing was Le Cirque America’s most famous restaurant in the 1990s, and the care and feeding it gave all its customers, not just the famous ones, was the reason.

My second trip was the only anecdote needed to debunk this tedious cliche about regulars getting special treatment. It was getting late in the afternoon, well past 2:30 pm, when we stuck our heads in the front door of Le Cirque 2000, just to get a glimpse of the room. It was almost empty, and we knew it was too late to be seated. Sirio wasn’t there, but his number one lieutenant was, and he sensed, almost preternaturally, that we were hungry but too embarrassed to ask for a table. “If you are hungry, we are here for you,” were the words I remember to this day.

And with that, we were seated in at a beautiful table, and treated like kings. It would be two more years and another (anonymous, perfect) meal in New York before I would meet Sirio and start telling Las Vegans that our restaurants had taken a quantum leap in class.

EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants - 18. LE CIRQUE ...(Le Cirque Las Vegas)

Once I started writing about his Las Vegas offshoots, my stock rose considerably, and that meant there would invariably be more food than I, or any six people, could eat. Once he smuggled a culatello ham from Italy back to New York and made sure we had a platter of this ethereal pork. There were chocolate sculptures and jewelry boxes of sweets and free champagne aplenty, but the real bonus was having Sirio stop by to chat.

Being known by Sirio was a treat unto itself. He wasn’t only a world-class worrier, he was a spell-binding conversationalist who could spin yarns like sugar, always sprinkled with a little acido to keep things interesting. He once spent so much time at our table in New York in the summer of 2000, a well-heeled gent on his way out of the restaurant leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Who are you?”

“We are not in the food business,” Sirio always said, “we’re in the hospitality business.” Time and again his restaurants proved it. Making people feel good — making them feel like they were living life to its fullest — was his stock in trade. Night after night, decade after decade, he practiced sprezzatura: the Italian art of making the difficult look effortless. His was not the world of stuffy French pretension. He had suffered many a French chefs’ scorn as a young Italian, trying to make his way as a waiter. When his French restaurant became the talk of the town, it was because Italian warmth permeated the dining room as assuredly as truffles did the roast chicken.

Of course, Las Vegas will never have the celebrity social scene that first put Le Cirque on the map. High rollers and livin’ large conventioneers were never going to replace the King of Spain and Liz Taylor. But Sirio and his famiglia  slipped into our culture as surely as they did a pair of Ferragamos. What Le Cirque did then, what Sirio Maccioni always did, was make his customers feel special, no matter who they were.

In the end, I guess we’re all nobodies  — ashes to ashes and all that — but Le Cirque, whether in New York or in Las Vegas, helped you forget the truth that we are so fragile, so temporal, so much less the sum of our parts.

And now the parts that were Sirio are gone from this mortal vale, even if the style and the drive and the savoir faire that made him so special seem as dated as a society column. There will never be another Sirio Maccioni, not in our lifetimes. Because the forces that made him are no more. He was the last maestro. The end of a breed. The restaurateur as social arbiter. A purveyor of good taste, as well as of things that tasted good. By New York standards, Las Vegas only got a glimpse of Sirio Maccioni, but it was enough to make an impression on our entire hospitality industry.

Because he had a gift. Not just of gab. Not just being so suave, so successful, and such a devoted family man. Sirio also had the rarest of touches: something born of poverty, war, and strife. Something bred deep in his Tuscan soul, where food, family, community and kindness were all-important. Beneath that tall, twinkling, imperious, driven, difficult, elegant, moody/brooding charm there beat the heart of a true gentleman — someone who always made us nobodies feel like somebody.

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