Paris (et Italia) Je t’aime!

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I may have grown to loathe Michelin and all that it stands for, but France will always have a special place in my heart. As will Italy.

That’s where I’ll be for the next two weeks (after a weekend in D.C.) because that’s where I go when I want great food with no attendant bullshit…bullshit being the main thing defining restaurant culture in America these days.

Whether it’s Michelin, the James Beard Foundation, Instagram, or Yelp, the restaurants throughout America have become like a bunch of slobbering dogs barking for attention. Everyone’s on the make; everyone wants “recognition,” and simply cooking good food for clients who enjoy it has become secondary to the endless chase for publicity.

And it’s exhausting (even for an old pro like me) to see the constant social media bombardment.

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So I’m off to Paris and northern Italy for a while, and here’s why I’m going:

the food is better

the wine is better

the great wines are cheaper

the great restaurants have become a bargain

almost everyone speaks at least a little English these days

people are friendly, even in Paris (the supposed snootiness of the French is a relic of the 1950s)

Google maps makes navigation (by car or foot) a breeze

you can sit all day in a cafe and no one bothers you

every chef in the country isn’t trying to be famous

wine bars are everywhere

drinking coffee in Italy is one of life’s great pleasures

eating pastries in France is almost better than sex

two words: unpasteurized cheese

the people-watching in both is spectacular

most of the great restaurants (and many casual ones) are not allergic to linens

you can spend a three hour lunch debating where you’re going to have a four hour dinner and no one looks twice at you

in between meals you can take a two hour walk that seems like 20 minutes

there’s always something to see

there’s never any music in restaurants

and did I mention the salumi and charcuterie?

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Europeans have a closer connection to their food — a passionate relationship that Americans can only dream of.

You can feel it when you walk the streets, you can smell it everywhere.

America was, and always will be, about chasing a buck. The artisanal dedication of European chefs may be fading in the digital age, but the cultures (of Italy and France) still revere food and cooking on a much deeper level than we do. Here, it’s all about getting an award, or getting on TV so you won’t have to slave away at the stoves anymore. In other countries, slaving away at the stoves is a lifelong calling. They don’t have the luxury of a (potential) escape hatch and empire-building like America affords its success stories, so people spend a lifetime perfecting a dish, or a sushi slice, or creating a quintessential experience. It’s drudgery sure, but it’s also pure.

I have found those quintessential experiences many times in western Europe — sometimes in a cathedral of fine dining, and sometimes in a dark little wine bar — and I’m going back in search of more.

So I’ll see you in a few weeks.

In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram if you have a hankering to see what I’m up to across the pond.

Bon appetit!

Buon gusto!

And remember: Michelin is bullshit.

Michelin Guides are Bullshit

Remember 2008? How proud we were that the Michelin Guide had come to Las Vegas to rate our restaurants?

Remember how much legitimacy it brought?

The respect?

Do you recall how disappointed everyone was when it decided not to return after the 2009 guide?

Do you know that, to this day, Las Vegas restaurants still trumpet their Michelin stars even though the accolades are a decade old?

Even today, does any guide in the world bestow more credibility on a city’s food scene? Even though it’s a worthless piece of public relations?

The answers are yes and yes.

The fact is, Michelin’s clout may have been real in the past (although we’ll argue some of the points below), but you can now toss its good name straight out the window.

Yes, the jig is up.

The cat is out of the bag.

The Michelin Guide is now in the business of promoting restaurants, not objectively rating them. Far from being a scrupulous, trustworthy consumer guide, it has now been exposed as nothing but an instrument of advertising.

(Because when we think “great restaurants,” we’re thinking Sacramento)

Here’s how it works: a tourist board (much like Las Vegas’s LVCVA) decides that it wants to promote/advertise its restaurants. (This works better for places like San Francisco than it does for Fresno.) As a taxpayer-funded promotional arm of the community, it is charged with bringing as many tourists as possible to town (or a state) to increase the coffers of the community and its local businesses — like restaurants.

And when you have the most famous guidebook selling its services, what better way to increase those businesses coffers than by applying the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval….er….uh….I mean Michelin stars to as many of your restaurants as possible?

Which is just what the state of California has done. It is paying for Michelin to come and “review” its restaurants, and include them in a published guidebook, so that more tourists will come to California and want to go to those restaurants. In California. The entire state. Which will now have its own guidebook, paid for by the state, “recommending” its restaurants to unsuspecting tourists who will think it was “professionally researched” by a company without any skin in the game.

In taking the money, Michelin has, in one fell swoop, defenestrated its credibility, and lifted its skirt faster than a forty buck hooker.

In coming to light, these meretricious machinations confirm what I have long suspected: the Michelin Guides in America are a farce. A bought-and-paid-for scam trading on an outdated reputation to make money by duping restaurant consumers.

Gerry Dawes — Spanish food expert, guide, raconteur, writer, etc., (and a fellow so curmudgeonly he makes me look like Dora the Explorer) —  had these insights that are worth considering the next time you hear someone brag about their Michelin stars:

Why do you think restaurants in Japan were suddenly given a surfeit of rosettes? Because Doughboy (aka Bibendum) wants to sell tires to Japanese car manufacturers! In Spain, France’s next door neighbor, who competes with them for gastro-tourism Euros, Michelin gives a miserable number of rosettes, about a fifth of what France has. I have proposed a boycott of Michelin tires in Spain unless the Guide gives out a significant number of rosettes to really reflect the quality of restaurants in Spain. Spain should make Michelin decide what they really want, to sell paper (the Guide) or rubber.

John Mariani (a man who knows a thing or two about restaurant criticism), was more succinct when I asked him about Michelin guides: “It’s a sham these days.”

And it probably was in 2008-2009 as well. I never bought for one second the Michelin claim that a “team of inspectors” descended on Las Vegas for a year visiting restaurants multiple times in order to objectively rate them. If you read the atrociously-written guide, you see that the prose comes straight from press releases, and the “top restaurants” are little more than a compendium of well-known addresses that were as easy to research in 2007 as they are today. More likely, Michelin sent a couple of people here to scout around for a few weeks, dine in a dozen or so heavy hitters (Robuchon, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Spago….) and then handed out stars based upon reputation.

Those food historians/nerds out there may recall that for decades (from the 1920s onward), Michelin standards, methodology and anonymity were legendary. Restaurants had to be visited multiple times by multiple inspectors, results were tabulated independently, and the scores were poured over meticulously before a coveted star (really a rosette) was awarded.

Does anyone believe that Michelin paid for multiple inspectors to go multiple times to Joël Robuchon (much less Yellowtail), before deciding how many stars to bestow upon it?

Now that the California tourism board is paying for the guide to “review” its restaurants (throughout the entire state, I might add), just how thorough do you think they’re going to be?

More likely, Michelin will do there what it did here: survey the landscape, find who the big players are, and “rate them” according to hearsay.

On the plus side, the scales can now fall from your eyes and you should see the whole Michelin star-thing as the advertising gimmick it is. Especially in America.

What’s going on in Europe is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that in France, where the whole thing started, the stars remain coveted and more accurate. I’ve found the guide reliable in Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy as well, although as I’ve become a more experienced diner over the past 30 years, its failings are more noticeable, and the nuances between a 2 or 3-star rating are hardly discernible to anyone but a supercilious Frenchman.

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So, I respect Michelin (at least in Europe), even though I can recognize the monster it created, and how it ended up killing the thing it loved. As the late, great A. A. Gill put it:

The Michelin guide made kitchens as competitive as football teams, becoming the most successful and prestigious guidebook in the world, and along the way it killed the very thing it had set out to commend. It wasn’t the only assassin of the greatest national food ever conceived, but it’s not hyperbole to say Michelin was French haute cuisine’s Brutus.

The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit.* Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.

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Nothing I write can match the verbal gesticulations of a picky Brit, but Gill nails it. The “stars” are all about insecurity (the chef’s and the diner’s), and the whole enterprise has become bloated as month-old haggis (above)…and even less tasty.

Michelin is ridiculous. A joke. Unmitigated bullshit. Let’s face it: it always was. San Francisco had one 3-star destination in 2006 (French Laundry, not even in ‘Frisco), now it has eight. Tokyo has dozens of starred restaurants, even though some of them only have four seats. With grade inflation like this, Swan Oyster Depot (below) will be garnering les etoiles in no time.

(2 stars for food and 1 for ambiance!)
* No doubt referring to every “50 Best” fashion victim out there.

A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099