ELV is in the Deep South for the next few days, eating the locavore, farm-to-table, deep-fried, okralicious dishes of Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, and, of course, this…
Because I knew I was going to need some fortification.
I won’t lie; I knew what I was in for, and a good stiff martini (or two) would be just the thing to soften the red sauce slings and overcooked Italian arrows of this dining dinosaur. They might even create the sort warmth and bonhomie that might make the evening enjoyable.
So, I ordered a martini (actually, a Gibson) and it came in a vessel the size of a small boat. Thus, with one fell swoop did the cocktail (that was actually three drinks in one), start to erase the memory of the indignity I suffered upon entering this warhorse only a few moments earlier.
That indignity, the sort that must be suffered by countless diners in this town, was a new one on me. It wasn’t the usual “would you like to wait in the bar” scam, nor was it the “we’re fully committed” bullshit that confronts hapless conventioneers (staring into half empty dining rooms as they’re turned away) nightly in our humble burg. (Hint: They’re almost never fully booked, they’re just too lazy to figure out a way to seat you just then.) No, this was a unique situation. Let’s re-trace the steps, shall we?
It started at the hostess booth. It was 5:30 on a Tuesday night.
“Do you have a reservation?” she asked. “We’ll see what we can do; would you like to wait in the bar?”
“No problem,” we thought to ourselves. “I’m planning on getting drunk tonight so that’s just the ticket,” is what was dancing in my head.
Unfortunately bar #2 was wall to wall with patrons (at 5:32 pm) and there wasn’t a seat to be had. (Bar #1 was reserved for a private function — an event that appeared to be four guys swigging beers in a corner. An hour and a half later, it was down to three guys swigging in the same corner, among a dozen empty barstools and three vacant booths.)
So I ambled back to the hostess stand, content with the fact that I’d have to begin my drinking at the dinner table.
“There’s no room at the bar,” I stated cheerfully to the host. “Could I get seated now?”
This appeared to cause some concern. Or at least some conspiratorial whispering. Said whispering ensued as I glanced upon a sea of empty tables behind them.
In a minute or so, the conspiracy was settled and the young women asked me to follow her. The downcast look she shot me when she popped the question should’ve given me a clue.
We walked past that ocean of emptiness and she directed me to one of two, vacant, elongated u-shaped booths in a corner. Preferring to sit looking out onto the dining room, rather than facing a wall, I started to slide along the wall to settle into my seat.
The problem was, I couldn’t slide. As soon as my torso hit the space between the table and the back of the booth, there was no room. The rounded table was pushing so deeply into my 41″ waist that it was all I could do to slide a few feet into the table, all while being cut in half by the furniture. At first I tried to see if the table was adjustable; it wasn’t. When I tried the other side of the booth, it was just as bad.
At most, there was maybe 12″ of clearance between the table and the back of the booth. I fully admit to have three more inches on my waist than I should have, but even a 150 pound stringbean would have difficulty sitting there.
About then, I looked up at the hapless waiter and said, “This is unacceptable,” and noticed him smiling meekly at me — a smile that quietly announced, “This is where we seat all the suckers, if we can get away with it.”
So, I trudged to the hostess stand for the third time.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a voice that was preternaturally soft and calm, deferential and exceedingly polite, especially for me, “but that booth you showed me is very uncomfortable. Do you have anything else?” (By this time, as you can guess, I really wanted that martini.)
With that, she proceeded to lead me past the almost-empty bar #1 into a room that looked like a second class convention hall in Cedar Rapids:
Thus began my last meal at PIERO’S.
The first thing that confronts you at Piero’s is their list of celebrity guests:
…which confirms one of two invariable rules of Italian dining. First, the more pictures of Frank Sinatra there are on the walls, the worse the food, and second, the more celebrities that show up, the faster you should run away.
Not that we have anything against Paula Abdul or Rob Zombie, but neither is known for their culinary discernment. (Nor is anyone else on that list.) And let’s face it, Mike Tyson is to gastronomy what Thomas Keller is to wife-beating.
With all this in mind, we were off to the worst start since Trump’s presidency. But we soldiered on.
By the time we were halfway into it, the Gibson started to do its trick, and by the time the wine list was presented, we were almost in a good mood.
(A note on the wine list: It is the most ridiculous carte des vins in all of Las Vegas, with markups that would make Steve Wynn blush. On the plus side, it dispenses with all of that $81 v. $79 nonsense — everything is rounded up to the nearest $5 increment — but locating a bottle under a hundy is harder than finding a hymen in a whorehouse.)
So we settled in, caught a mild buzz, and ordered a twenty buck primitivo that was served 20 degrees too warm.
Then, the real adventure began:
$64 worth of dry, stringy stone crab:
An aptly-named “Garbage Caesar” salad (white lettuce, bottled dressing, mealy tomatoes):
$29 worth of pasta puttanesca swimming in sauce:
…tasting of overly sweetened tomatoes upon which two olives and a dozen capers were sprinkled. It was by turns both anemic and a diabetic’s nightmare — no mean feat that — and about as authentic as pineapple on a pizza.
Then there was the veal saltimbocca:
Our waitress (very good, BTW) sold us on the creamed corn, so we bit:
…and what was delivered contained corn (canned) upon which cream had been poured, and some bread crumbs toasted, and that was it. Creamed corn it was not. On the plus side they didn’t charge us for it.
When the stupefaction subsided, we were handed a bill for $220. $220 for four dry crab claws, one worthless salad, a lousy pasta, a terrible veal dish, two rock hard cannolis, and two very alcoholic drinks.
There is a certain type of local who will tell you to this day that Piero’s is a great restaurant. “One of our favorites,” the refrain goes, or “the best Italian in town.” In fact, just two nights after our dinner here we ran into some old friends who stated their love for the joint and how they go there at least once a week. Upon closer inquiry, they confessed that the ginormous cocktails were a big draw, and the fact that they had a house account. And, to be fair, the service (notwithstanding that booth debacle) is excellent.
We’ve had similar conversations over the years and they always leave us dumbfounded. People who should know better — the well-heeled and the well-traveled — treat this place like a private club, even though most nights it’s packed with slack-jawed tourists who accept their fleecing like a bunch of lanyard’d lambs at slaughter time.
But week in and week out you’ll find them here — blue-haired doyennes, white-haired car dealers, past-their-prime attorneys, real estate agents, politicians, and pit bosses — a certain breed of Old Vegas that long for the days when men were men and red sauce ruled.
The point is, Piero’s was never any good, even in its prime. It’s not a place to go for good cooking now, and it wasn’t in 1984 when I first ate there. (Back then it was all about the bent-nose guys who hung out there – who didn’t know anything about good food either.) It’s like the place in Big Night that packs in the fun loving, the celebrities and the nouveau riche, even though the food is atrocious. This doesn’t keep them from charging three times what it’s worth, however.
Drown anything in crappy tomato sauce and cheap cheese and the world will beat a path to your door. I wrote those words 22 years ago and they’re still true today. The people eating here don’t care about authentic Italian or even authentic American-Italian. All they care about is feeling comfortable with blunt instrument cooking that hit its expiration date 30 years ago, but to them never goes out of style. But Piero’s doesn’t care about that, and most assuredly it doesn’t give a fuck what a food snob like me thinks about it.
And two fucks it will continue not to give, not while it continues to make a mint off of credulous conventioneers and the fading big shots of Las Vegas.
355 Convention Center Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89109
ELV note: It was just announced this week that the executive chef of Momofuku Las Vegas (Michael Chen) left after only two months on the job. We doubt this will affect any of the food there, however, as the “executive chefs” in most celeb chef Strip restaurants are little more than functionaries, executing a menu that is pre-determined thousands of miles away. Our objections to the food (as you will read below) has much more to do the recipes as conceptualized, not as they were cooked.
ELV Note #2: The following review appears in this month’s issue of Desert Companion magazine.
UMAMI BOMBS AWAY!
It’s hard not to admire what Chef David Chang has done with Momofuku (“Lucky Peach” in Korean). What began as an eight-seat eatery in lower Manhattan in 2004 has spawned an empire that now stretches from Soho, New York to Sydney Australia. It’s also not hard, after eating your way through Momofuku, to sometimes wonder what all the shouting is about – shouting from the rooftops being what the influential New York food media has done almost from the day Chang opened. Once they laid the groundwork, social media took over, and for well over a decade, foodies the world over have been inundated with tales of Chang’s influence and ground-breaking cuisine.
When other chefs and restaurants went into recession hibernation in 2008, Chang kicked his expansion into high gear, opening noodle bars, Vietnamese restaurants and impossible-to-get-into joints in New York — expanding his brand while taking full advantage of the rise of the Millennials and their need to have something tasty (and Instagram-worthy) to eat. There are now five Momofukus in the world, more are planned, and to the delight of his fans, Las Vegas finally has one.
In the beginning, the entire Chang oeuvre consisted of barely a handful of items. Because of its small size, the original Momofuku Noodle Bar in lower Manhattan featured a few bowls of ramen, a couple of appetizers and some stuffed bao buns and that was it. On such bare bones was a food empire born.
The genius of Chang did was in upgrading those noodles, enriching the broth, and loading smoky bacon onto classic Korean and Japanese items that, until he came along, most Americans wouldn’t touch with a ten food chopstick. He also cooked (and seasoned) the Korean fried chicken like a real chef, and made a big deal about using better ingredients. No bottom bin ham for him. He used real Virginia country ham, Kurobuta pork, and the fluffiest bao he could find. He cured his own pickles too, (a big deal in 2004) and made sure everyone in the food media knew about it.
Most of all, though, Momofuku became all about umami — umami being the word for the intense, savory quality that only the densest, saltiest, most amino-acid rich foods (like steak, cheese, smoked meats and soy sauce) possess. In the Chang universe (then and now), it’s all about overwhelming your palate with this fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). His food does this at the expense of delicacy and refinement but his audience didn’t seem to care one bit. Subtlety being as important to a David Chang meal as dialogue is in a Vin Diesel movie.
Thus will most of your meal be so umami-drenched that your palate will be screaming for mercy after several plates appear, each overloaded with whatever miso-shoyu-smoky-kombu concoction Chang can’t help buy incorporating into every bite.
If smoke is your thing, you’ll be in smoked hog heaven. By all means then, don’t miss the pork meatballs swimming in (you guessed it) plenty of smoked black-eyed peas. Is Momofuku’s pork ramen soup good? Yes, but it’s also so smoky that three sips in you will want to run up the white flag. Ditto the oysters Momofuku – the seafood essence of which is obliterated by smoky bacon bits. There’s also a smoked pork chop and roasted mussels on the menu, with the mussels being festooned with (wait for it) plenty of smoked Benton’s bacon. The food is so smoky here it ought to be sponsored by Marlboro.
When Chang and his troops are through pouring on the smoke, they find many other ways to up the umami ante. Sichuan rice cakes are thick stubby rice noodles smothered with pork sausage, while chilled spicy noodles get a heap of sausages and cashews to effectively overwhelm the interesting starches and spices beneath them – pork sausage and cashews being the belt and suspenders of the umami-overload universe.
After three trips around this menu, I threw in the towel. There are some good things to eat here – the spicy cod hotpot being good fish, well-treated; the katsu chicken an old-fashioned, mushroom cream sauce delight – but by the time you get to them, you will have been drowned by a tsunami of umami. By all means get the pork belly buns (the ones that made Chang famous), but skip the chicken karaage version – they being sad and stringy. The vaunted rotisserie chicken comes with deep-fried bones (some edible, some not), and is not as good as it thinks it is.
What is good is the seating. You may have trouble getting one, but that’s only because every under-40 in Vegas seems to be beating a path to this second floor location in The Cosmopolitan these days. What they find is a large restaurant fronted by a long bar that itself is five times the length of the original operation. Beside that bar are a number of high tops – for waiting, drinking or overflow dining – and beyond them a huge open kitchen that looks like it could feed an army base. For its size, the room is remarkably comfortable, the tables well-spaced, and the noise level (relatively) civilized. Service is also top notch, with management and waiters who are well-versed in the food. The wine list is sinfully overpriced, and the sake/sochu list woefully sparse.
David Chang deserves a lot of credit. He made this food safe for aspirational foodies and non-Asians alike — folks with limited resources who wanted to hop on the foodie bandwagon and expand their knowledge of chewy noodles, miso broth and various edible esoterica. All of this was a treat when you were ducking into a teeny tiny noodle emporium for a quick fix of soup and a bao bun. To put an entire meal together from this food, however – after your taste buds have been bludgeoned into one-dimensional submission – is a big-box experience of a different order. If you still use party as a verb, and don’t mind that everything on your table tastes the same, you might feel right at home amongst all the umami.
Nothing about Momofuku is as good as its reputation, but in this day and age, that’s enough.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino