The (Final) List

(Spago boyz: Matthew Hurley, David Robins, and Eric Klein)

A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish that my foodie ami had found lacking.)

Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.

Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.

Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be a heartless asshole to argue otherwise.

No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1990s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.

Once Ruth Reichl wrote her 1993 take-down of Le Cirque — where she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant — every reader wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in, as if being identified as a critic by the restaurant invalidates the review. Even today I get asked by people if “they (the restaurants) know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:

Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit. (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times Food Section once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)

But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.

A friend is someone you hang out with.

A friend is someone who has been to your house.

A friend is someone who invites you to their house.

A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.

By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.

Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.

And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.

When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat, and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.

We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that has always brought a smile to my face.

(Justin Kingsley Hall gettin’ it done at The Kitchen at Atomic)

The List

The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.

 Yui Edomae Sushi – forever and always, my go-to place for superior sushi. Kazu-san is now the executive chef. Still the best in town. Ask for Tomoko-san when you call for a res and tell her I sent you.

7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.

EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.

The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, like these Buffalo chicken hearts:

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…while others fall flat (some large proteins are examples of how addition-by-subtraction might benefit a recipe). Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and plenty of well-chosen libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos happy. There’s a lot of talent working here, and when it all comes together, this place could become a culinary force to be reckoned with.

(Esther’s Kitchen specializes in pasta porn)

Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (there’s never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.

Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama. Go for a quick bite; go for the full kaiseki — either way you’ll be blown away.

Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.

Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.

The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating here. This is a mistake I always regret.

Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop ‘cue joints.

Good PieVincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.

Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.

Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Period. Puts all the others to shame.

Yobo Shabu Shabu Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.

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Cafe Berlin I know a little German.…he’s eating (these sausages) right over here.

Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me. (Allegro is the other.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.

El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.

Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with a bottle of wine, drinking it and drinking in all the despair walking by.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else?  There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.

The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes (see above)….and galettes too! Sweet or savory, they’re all great.

Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t. 

Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.

Ohlala French Bistro – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.

Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).

Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!

Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.

Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best! Five years ago, you had to go to Bouchon for pastries this good:

…now, all you have to do is drive to south Fort Apache.

So there you have it. My final roundup.

These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.

I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.

I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and downtown — walking distance from where I work.

I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.

(Day drinking…or as I like to call it: Friday)

ALINEA or, Life is Too Short to be Confused by Your Food

ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.

In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.

Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung.  Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement.  In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?

Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.

Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.

It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.

A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?

Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.

Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.

There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)

To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.

Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.

Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)

Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters.  Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo?  Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.

Life is too short to be confused by your food.


(Oohs and aahs not included)

PIERO’S Doesn’t Give a Fuck What I Think About It

The plan was to get drunk first.

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:

…a version devoid of character (not to mention cheese, sauce or sage), so as to make a mockery of the “jump in the mouth” translation of the name. Throwing pancetta on top of veal does not a saltimbocca make, but such things matter not to a kitchen that’s been getting away with culinary murder for decades.

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