Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2019

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Big deal dining is back! Big box Chinese makes a splash, Asian eats remain awesome, and some classics never go out of style.

That’s how we’d characterize the DESERT COMPANION RESTAURANT AWARDS 2019.

Or as we like to refer to them: “the only restaurant awards that count.”

They’re small in number, but they also mean something — representing sustained excellence that enhances not just their customer’s palates, but the Vegas food/restaurant scene as a whole.

Image(2007 aka The Stone Age)

The text below represents the awards written by yours truly (as I’ve been doing for over 20 years). In the beginning, I was a committee of one (see the ancient artifact above). Now, they are orchestrated by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Kiraly and my fellow writers, and year in and year out, they stand for the best Las Vegas has to offer.

(Ed. note: We’d like to take credit for all of the stunning photography below, but most of it has been brazenly lifted/plagiarized/stolen from the brilliant photographer Sabin Orr and Desert Companion magazine.)

HALL OF FAME – Picasso

Veal Chop(Look no further for the world’s best veal chop)

There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining.

Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates.

Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere.

EXCELLENCE IN SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT – Michael Mina

Michael Mina(The Big 3 at MM)

Great service should be not too fast, not too friendly and almost invisible. Think of it as the inverse of pornography – you know it when you don’t see it.

A great restaurant operates with the concealed efficiency of a fine-tuned watch, every joint, mechanism and movement dependent upon the other, coiling and uncoiling every second, seamlessly sweeping you through the time spent enjoying your meal. Time spent at Michael Mina has always been a good investment, and one of the reasons is unfailingly great service.

Since 1998 it has held down its corner of the Bellagio as a bastion of seafood and San Francisco-inspired elegance. The food and the decor have always been stars in their own right, but the unsung heroes at work every night are the management and staff, who seat the customers, mix drinks, pour the wines and toss the tartares. Holding them all together is General Manager Jorge Pagani (pictured above with Executive Chef Nick Dugan and Sommelier Kayla Krause), a maestro who performs in the lowest key, quietly charming a steady stream of customers while keeping his troops in shape.

Chefs and sommeliers have come and gone over the years, but Pagani, has been a constant. From the moment you approach the hostess stand until you pay your bill, you sense the quiet hum of a restaurant that is doing everything right. Watching the staff shift from table to table, filleting fish, unveiling pot pies, and carving and mixing is a symphony without music. Michael Mina makes you feel as cosseted and cared for as any restaurant in Las Vegas, and like all real pros, they make it look easy. In fact, you almost don’t see it at all.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR – Pierre Gatel

Pierre Gatel

You might be excused for wondering what all the shouting is about when you roll up on Café Breizh for the first time. It sits towards the far end of one of those generic strip malls that are as Las Vegas as slot machines in a grocery store.

But do not be deterred by the surroundings, for once inside you will find the best French pastries in town. The selection is small but the craftsmanship, artistry and intense flavors will grab you from the first bite. There is no better croissant in Vegas, on or off the Strip; the chocolate éclair is so packed with custard it threatens to burst its pastry case, and the picture-perfect tarts do that tri-level taste thing (crusty, creamy, and fruity) that the French perfected around the time the musketeers were buckling their swashes.

Pierre Gatel is the chef, owner and hand-maker of each of these, and from the day he opened three years ago (after a stint at the Wynn), Francophiles, Napoleon nabobs and Danish devotees have made a beeline here for his creations. He also does a limited number of baguettes every day which sell like hotcakes, so go early if you want to grab a loaf and feel like les Français on your way home.

Las Vegas is blessed with a wealth of pastry talent, but most of it stays in the hotels. Now we have one of them staging his magic right on south Fort Apache, in a spot that feels like a slice of Paris, and the alchemy he performs daily with butter, flour, cream and sugar is something to behold.

 NEW RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Vetri

Vetri(Vetri got our goat)

Vetri, if you let it, will take your breath away. The qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizzas and chicken parm are nowhere to be found. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat.  All of it served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian restaurant in America. With this offshoot he has bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems foreign to most people’s Italian vocabulary — casoncelli, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique to Las Vegas and every bite a revelation.

No restaurant enhanced Vegas’s foodie cred more than it did in the past year, and at a time when everyone is announcing the death knell of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big city sass to our scene. You don’t have to dress to the nines to go there, but the food on your plate (and that view) will make you feel like a million bucks. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky.

CHEF OF THE YEAR – Matthew Hurley

Matthew Hurley(You can’t beat this man’s meat)

In the past few years, it’s become deliciously obvious to us that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding of course, because it is Puck’s gastronomic gravitas that enables Las Vegas to have one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in our backyard.

But calling CUT just another celebrity beef boutique would be a grave injustice, because by flexing his own culinary muscles, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few meat emporiums could ever dream of.  No doubt his creations are highly vetted by his corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he has done with his freedom, and all the top shelf ingredients at his disposal, is stunning.

Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette — toggling back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s not easy to pull off a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-beating steaks, and gorgeous pasta, and never miss a beat. The elegant fish cookery alone would be right at home in some hoity-toity French joint, and he and his minions are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi and various Italian carpaccios.

If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a hankering for Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a  CIA graduate like Hurley  (who has been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to sit back, go through the motions, and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into one of the best restaurants in America.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Lotus of Siam

Image(Girl power is Lotus’s secret weapon)

When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago (after a deluge), many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’s most famous restaurant.

The previous seventeen years had seen the Chutima family (Saipin, Penny, and Sabrina above) build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been called “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for over a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran.

Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s nam prik noom. Instead of being a set-back, the move created a boom. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers and the new digs provided a more fitting backdrop for this award-wining cuisine.

What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please the American palate. Be it khao soi or koi soi these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) Siamese food is known for. (It is a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) This grander stage seems to have caused the whole operation to snap to attention and also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists.

Maybe it was the flood, or the inspiration from a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing seems crisper and more consistent these days. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam, and now, finally, it looks the part.

Click on this link to read about the rest of these worthy recipients from Jim Begley, Mitchell Wilburn, Lissa Townsend Rogers and Greg Thilmont:

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ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEARTatsujin X

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEARThe Sand Dollar Lounge

HIDDEN GEMS OF THE YEARHardway 8 and Trés Cazuelas

Image(Paella at Très Cazuelas)

STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Mott 32

Image(Peking duck at Mott 32)

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEARDan Krohmer (Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá)

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The 3% Solution

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You would’ve thought someone had put Rice Krispies in the Nam Khao Tod.

But this brouhaha had nothing to do with food.

What it concerned was this little cost dollop added to the bill, at Lotus of Siam, which hit the presses last week:

No photo description available.

THANK YOU. The 3% employee health insurance added to you bill help our team members afford health insurance for them and their families that is provided by the restaurant. Thank you for supporting a healthier Las Vegas. If you would like the charge removed, please let your server know and the charge will be removed.

The haters had a field day:

“Greedy owners!”

“I’ll never eat there again!”

“Obnoxious.”

“Tacky.”

“I hope this place closes.”

The dummies were out in force:

“We won’t be eating there. Customers should not have to pay for employees insurance/medical”

“The food is terrible and too expensive. Now I’ll never go back.” (A 3% surcharge apparently being more of a deal-breaker than terrible, overpriced food. Ed. note: the food at Lotus is some of the best Thai food in America.)

“This is what happens when California socialism destroys America.”

“I dont pay junk fees, so Avoid places like this. You fee me to death, you never get my business again. I dont CARE about your financial problems, don’t fee me to pay for your inability to make money,”

The slightly more rational objectors pointed out:

“It’s not our job to pay your employee’s healthcare! It doesn’t matter if the fee is optional the fact you put that on customers is ridiculous. Just spend the money and reprint menus and build it into your cost and not go the cheap route on the register receipt!”

So, you don’t want to supply your employee’s any benefits – but you think your customers should pay for it on top of your profit? Yeah, that’s going to go over like a lead balloon!

And a few intelligent folks chimed in along the lines of:

“I don’t mind paying an additional 3% for their healthcare. The restaurant should increase menu prices 3% instead of adding it to the bill separately; that way people can quit complaining. You guys are complaining about 30 cents for every $10.”

So it went on for hundreds and hundreds of comments, most of them by turns negative, incensed and disgusted.

Here’s the official statement, by Nay Chua, daughter of LOS founders Bill and Saipin Chutima:

 I do my best as a person to be able to provide, help and encourage my employees. I try to help by leveraging their cost so they can enjoy their way of life. I am able to provide my employees with a livable wage, with work hours that don’t impact their mental health or physical. I help my staff and their families. I try to save my staff on their deductions, their taxes, whatever they need help on, in legal fees and even personal problems.

Chua has also said in social media posts that she doesn’t want to increase prices (because she gets taxed on the revenue), or pay it directly to her employees (because it would then be taxed to them as income).

What’s going on here? Aside from diners generally being cheapskates and ignorant about how restaurants run?

Before we get to the answer(s), however, a few thoughts about what Lotus of Siam (our most famous and decorated restaurant), is trying to do.

By tacking on an additional 3% to the bill (which you see only at the end of your meal), it is asking the patron to subsidize its health insurance cost to employees. (Because it has more than 50 employees, LOS is mandated by law to provide health care coverage.)

But nothing raises a restaurant customer’s ire more than being told (asked?) to pay a little more for their meal. Especially when it’s a separate charge, specifically earmarked to help the restaurant’s employees.

Keep in mind the no-tipping policy of some restaurants is still under siege.

People love the illusion that they are totally in control of how much waiters get paid to deliver their food. Asking them to pay a little more is seen by many to be a personal affront.

Asking patrons to help a restaurant provide decent health insurance to its workers is something new (and admirable), but from the comments, you’d think the restaurant was asking its paying customers to underwrite a human trafficking operation.

Almost immediately upon showing this surcharge, the social media blowup began.

Image result for Nam khao tod(I would happily pay 36 cents more for this)

My thoughts:

The restaurant industry has created its own hell of unreasonable expectations, and now it’s being burned.

But the blame does not rest solely on its beefy shoulders; there’s plenty of chicken fingers to point at the other participants in this unholy stew of how we pay people to serve us. And now (to keep my metaphors mixed) those putrid birds are coming home to roost.

By depending on diners to directly defer labor costs, all sorts of false expectations get reinforced with each tip paid at almost every restaurant in America.

Thus does a culture of obliviousness remain here about the true cost of eating out.

This surcharge represents another in a long list of creative ways the hospitality industry has tried to boost its bottom line (or minimize expenses) by tacking on fees rather than incorporating them into the price being charged for what is actually being bought: be it a hotel bed, a meal, or a plane ticket to Timbuktu.

Nobody wants to actually raise prices (THAT WOULD DRIVE AWAY CUSTOMERS!) so instead they prefer to nibble their patrons to death with minnow-sized fees.

The bottom line is the bottom line: the restaurant industry has relied on customers underwriting their employment costs for so long, it can’t break the cycle of dependence. Foisting a significant part of its expenses on customers on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis has become a habit they can’t break.

For waiters, getting paid by customers as a different line item on the bill has been a sweet deal for years.

Customers get to see a lower check cost (while retaining the illusion that they somehow “control” or “reward” how good the service is); the waitstaff retains a deluded sense of independence (and the ability to cheat on their taxes); and the owner gets to pawn off part of his/her labor costs. (Wouldn’t my dry cleaner and lawn guys love it if they could tell their employees to look to me directly to help them make their paycheck.)

The trouble is, of course, that with all that freedom (from all points of the 3-legged stool) comes an in-bred lack of responsibility.

Customers aren’t paying the true cost of the meal (they’re chopping it up into segments so they can fool themselves about only paying $40 for dinner, even though they left a 22% tip and the actual cost was closer to fifty bucks.)

Waiters can make out like bandits — although with cash become scarcer, the (tax free) wad in your pocket at the end of the night is becoming rarer. And benefits? FUCK benefits. “Gimme the $$$ and I’ll benefit myself,” has been the mantra of restaurant workers for about a hundred years.

As for the owners….well, they’ve let these twin delusions keep them in tall cotton for a long time.

But things they be-a changing.

Whether it’s our booming economy, health-care politics, Millennial-inspired advocacy, or a mini-revolution how we eat out, a sea change in how restaurants operate is underway.

As governments have gotten more aggressive with labor laws, minimum wages, health care, etc., creative accountants have come up with all kinds of ways to defer expenses without raising prices.

In California, an entire cottage industry has sprung up advising restaurants how to increase the bill without actually having to pay more to the help, or in taxes.

It’s all a big exhausting game pitting the restaurant versus its employees and customers, in a new sort of 3-way contest.

And the big losers are you, the diner. The person who only wants some good, clean, tasty food delivered to him at a fair price.

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My thoughts Part II:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the LOS gambit — it’s clearly a fair way for them to enlist the customer’s help in underwriting health care costs.

But the optics are all wrong.

The 3% charge may be optional, but not really. You have to take pains to have it removed. And as soon as it hits the table, the diner feels they’ve been had. And no one, in a restaurant like to feel like the restaurant has pulled a “gotcha!”

The moment the tariff is presented, the appearance is one of an entire dishonest exchange from the get-go. (People don’t read signs, let’s face it.)  By surprising the client, with a charge that has nothing to do with the food or service (see above), the restaurant is ensuring awkwardness all around.

The surcharge also inserts two things into people’s meals most would prefer to avoid: economics and politics — both of which leave a bad taste in the mouth.

And let’s face it: People are petty. If tacking a $1.50 fee onto a $50 bill (for an admittedly good cause) will keep them from a night on the town, then they shouldn’t be eating out in the first place. But the very act of asking them triggers something supremely small-minded in some folks (makes them think, perhaps?), and they will take their pettiness out on you.

The owners of Lotus of Siam are to be commended for their transparency in instituting this measure. Their intentions are honorable, but their methodology is flawed. As much as segregating an employee benefit and asking your patrons to help you finance it would seem to be the “right thing” to do, people, lots of them, won’t see it that way.

This 3% addendum creates a whole new dynamic between restaurant and customer far beyond the “you pay me, I’ll give you food” formula that has been in place for 200 years.

In a perfect world, we’d all be paying more for our food. Americans have become fat, stupid and lazy relying on cheap restaurant food (and labor) to sustain them. We eat so shitty because we eat so cheap. It’s high time we paid more for good food and paid restaurant employees like every other job.

Such a paradigm shift may be on the horizon, but in this town, at this time, if you want to bestow employees with more benefits (and not endure the blow-back), the best thing to do is add a buck to the price of your burrito.

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New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

Image(Too hip for the room)

On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

Image(Boffo beef at a bargain)

So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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