Pouring Over Downtown’s Coffee Scene

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Downtown is awash in great coffee these days. So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d scope them out for you.

Before we begin, some admissions are in order:

One, yours truly is no coffee connoisseur. In fact, coffee is something yours truly swore off of for the longest time. Having been married to two caffeine fiends in a row (the type who need a hot, steaming cup in their hands the minute their eyes pop open in the morning), we pretty much gave it up for a decade or so in the late 20th century.

Admission number two: #BeingJohnCurtas doesn’t give a puck about pour-overs, cold brews and nitro this or flat white that. John Curtas is a coffee classicist first and foremost.

Image(Cappuccino at Writer’s Block)

Italy is where JC regained his caffeine mojo fifteen years ago, and Italians are the coffee standard by which all others are measured. A bad cup of caffè is harder to find in Italy than a Southern Baptist, and when it comes to brews — from ristrettos to correttos — they get it right, whether you’re in an airport, a trattoria, or a convenience store.

Coffee is wonderfully subjective, both the flavors and one’s relationship to it. One man’s macchiato might not cut the cortado for another. Some use it simply to get up in the morning; for others it’s a social thing. Some people like to drink coffee all day long; others can’t stomach it after lunch. One of our exes could pound a doppio espresso at 10:00 pm and sleep like a baby.

But like a lot of beautifully simple things, coffee has also jumped the the shark in multiple ways. The whole barista thing is pathetically ridiculous. As is obsessing over your beans’ origins and attending coffee “cuppings.” Whatever you might think about comparative tastings (and sure, they can be fun no matter what the beverage), giving “awards” to people for pouring a cup of joe is as dumb as competing for who is the best lasagna layer.

In other words: we care not a whit about fancy-dancy ornamentation or exotic concoctions. They are the quintessential Millennial pursuit: creating a cult of obsession  over something that should be elementally satisfying on its own terms, without parsing the details to death.

Image(Dueling espressos at PublicUs)

When it comes to all things Arabica, it is about the warm, brownish glow of these beans and the soul-soothing broth they bring forth. To us, it’s about the ritual, the taste and the deeply-satisfying buzz you get from a good cup.

If you’re expecting a dissertation on free-trade fermentation, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But know this: there isn’t a coffee house in Las Vegas who can make a proper espresso to save their life. None of them gets the viscous, syrupy mouthfeel right, and the primary flavor component is always sour, as opposed to the sweet-bitter release of a great Italian cup.

So bad are local espressos, we’ve given up entirely. If you want a good one, go to Cipriani at the Wynn. It’s the only one we’ve had recently that truly tastes of Italy.

But I’ve sampled the wares at all of our newest coffee hound hangouts, and here are my conclusions. For ease of reference, we’ve broken each coffee shop into five components: Coffee, Comfort, Comestibles, Crew and Crowd.

PUBLICUS

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PublicUs kickstarted downtown’s coffee renaissance  five years ago in a big way. It’s always busy, despite being on a forlorn corner of east Fremont Street. Until Vesta came along a couple of years later, it had the upscale coffee market all to itself.

Coffee – the espressos here range from unforgivably sour to lightly bitter and acidic, depending on the beans they are made with. The cappuccino is wonderful, as are the pour-overs (what, back in the day we called good old Chemex drip). The cappuccino is the closest you’ll get to Rome in the High Mojave Desert.

Comfort – everything from two-tops to communal tables, in a modern, naturally-lit room that screams “urban hipster hangout.” Nice bathrooms. In fact bathrooms so nice they make you want to go to the bathroom.

Comestibles – all made in-house. Excellent pastries; good savories, avocado toast, waffles, and even a killer corned beef hash on polenta. If you’re hungry for a big breakfast or lunch with a nice range of menu choices, this is where you want to come.

Crew – young, attractive, lots of crazy haircuts, tatts and such. Invariably friendly and fast. The baristas know their beans.

Crowd – an odd assortment of hipsters, youngsters, ‘grammers and tourists….with tables of actual grownups thrown in the mix occasionally. (Amazingly, a lot of cops love it here too.) Probably the artsiest crowd of the coffee bars downtown. This is where you’re also most likely to see some poseur walk in with one of their filthy dogs.

VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS

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Mr. Curtas has a confession to make: he is secretly in love with all of the female baristas here. (Please do not tell Mrs. Curtas.) Because of this, he cannot be fully objective about Vesta Coffee Roasters, although he will try.

Coffee – strong. Really strong. The most lethal of any coffees downtown. All roasting is done on premises and you can taste the freshness. You can also taste a cappuccino that, compared to other brews, hits you like 151 rum after a light beer. The Food Gal® (aka the Mrs. Curtas referred to above) also swears by something called “Golden Milk” here, which isn’t coffee per se, but which she claims has health-giving properties. In the summer, we’re also partial to their “Espresso Tonic” which is just what it sounds like: cold espresso mixed with tonic and lemon. Remarkably refreshing. The cold brew here is also our favorite, but the espresso was given up on long ago. That doesn’t keep us for ordering it occasionally (for the caffeine kick), but it always tastes of acerbic blueberries, rather than the elusive, dense, haunting pungent holy grail of which we seek.

Comfort – seating can be problematic at peak times, simply because all of the tables are always taken with by Millennials furiously pecking away, pretending to be doing something important. Wait a few minutes though, and something always opens up.

Image(Egg-cellence at Vesta)

Comestibles – very limited, especially compared to PublicUs. No great pastries, a few lunch items (sandwiches and such), good soups made in-house, but that’s about it. Wonderful egg sandwich though (above).

Crew as we said above, not something we can be completely objective about. Let’s just say they’re mostly female and work their tails off at peak times. There may be some dudes who also work here, and we believe the owner is also a person of the male persuasion, but to be honest, we’ve never really noticed.

Crowd – eclectic to say the least. A mixture of business types, tourists, lawyers, smelly hippies, tatted-up hipsters, hairdressers, chefs and crowd-following Yelpers. Also big with the alphabet soup sexuality crowd.

MOTHERSHIP COFFEE
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Mothership Coffee is an offshoot of the teeny tiny operation in Henderson that became a coffee nerd favorite a few years ago. It is as renowned for its small selection of exquisite pastries as it is for its Guatemalan Feminino.

Coffee – “Can I get a single espresso?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Can I get it made with more water –  what the Italians call lungo?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Okaaaaay….”

Moving on: gorgeous, nutty, beautifully balanced cappuccino. The espresso was beautiful one time, thin and acrid the second, undrinkable the third. A younger, Millennial cousin of ours (who is a major coffee hound) claims that what we call sour is actually the fruitiness of African beans coming through, as opposed to the milder, less acidic nature of South American coffee. What we call impermissibly sour, he refers to as too sweet. We love the kid, but think he has rocks in his head….or a gueule de bois (wooden mouth). Be that as it may, despite this worthwhile newcomer, a good espresso remains harder to find downtown than a hooker with teeth.

Comfort – open and airy. Kind of a pain in the neck to get to, located as it is in the back of the Ferguson’s Motel complex (at what was once the bottom of its swimming pool, see above), but very nicely appointed inside. Not a lot of seating, although you can also sit on the terraced lawn outside. Because of the location, you won’t be fighting many crowds (like Vesta and PublicUs) but you will be surrounded by self-serious Millennials furiously attached to their laptops.

Image(You’ll love getting sconed at Mothership)

Comestibles – Mothership is known for their pastries (above) and all are top notch. A limited selection of savories and sandwiches, which are invariably fresh and well-crafted. More of a place for a light snack than a full meal. If forced to bestow awards, we’d give the sweet pastries here a slight nod over PublicUs, while the latter wins the savory battle by a landslide.

Crew – Nice, but as green as an Arabica bean.

Crowd – lots of Tony Hsieh acolytes and other youngsters who keep their heads buried in their laptops for hours on end. In many ways this joint feels like a clubhouse for the Downtown Project crowd….which is probably the whole idea.

WRITER’S BLOCK COFFEE SHOP

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Rock and roll journalism was once described as people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In this same vein, putting an erudite, interesting bookstore (Writer’s Block) in downtown Las Vegas is the clueless trying to sell the thoughtful to the thoughtless. The good news is even if the Paris Review and LBGTQWXYZ Quarterly are not your cup of tea, the coffee and pastries will capture your (short) attention span.

Coffee – they use Mothership’s beans here to create the mildest brews of the bunch. This is a compliment to the cappuccino, as it reaches peak coffee perfection with its balance of sweetness, nuttiness, bitterness and acidity. Not a lot of folderol going on with the foam, but the proportions are just right. The espresso, though, is gawdawful — weak, bland, thin, and as sour as a parson’s smile.

Comfort – nothing more than a few tables, a counter and some high-tops located in the entrance foyer. The outdoor seating on the patio is a real plus. You’re also inside a groovy bookstore, which is also a real plus. Parking is a breeze and free along Bonneville.

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Comestibles – extremely limited. Almond croissants (above), cookies, a cinnamon roll and a couple of other items provided by Sonia El-Awal at Rooster Boy Café.  The good news is they are wonderful. The bad news is they run out early.

Crew – also limited, as the place is tiny. One of our favorite barista/bartenders Michelle, moved over here from Velveteen Rabbit/Vesta, making us feel right at home. I’m secretly in love with her too (Jeebus, Curtas, what’s with you!?), so that means this place is now on our steady rotation.

Crowd – here ya go:

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As this post grinds to a halt, and comes to its bitter end, we almost afforgato to tell you something. So, let us not procaffeinate any further, and espresso some final thoughts.

Unbeanknownst to Las Vegas, a hot beverage revolution has been going on around the world for some time now. It’s a brewtiful thing to watch Vegas finally perk up and smell the…

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…. because we couldn’t au lait for it any longer. Now we’re as frappé as can be, and we’re going to cup up, plunge in, and milk this trend for all its worth. We hope you do too.

THE END

 

A Moveable Feast – How to Eat and Drink in France and Italy

Good food is everywhere in Europe, at all price points these days, so there’s no excuse for not eating well when you’re over there.

The three countries I visit most (Italy, France, Germany) have serious coffee cultures, so a good cup of joe is always within reach. Those ubiquitous cafes and coffee bars also stock plenty of other juices, teas, and alcohol….so if you’d like some Jack Daniels or Amaretto in your cup at 8 am, they’ll oblige.

I’m not going to get into all the fine points of Euro coffee cups, but the  big difference between their coffee cultures and ours has to do with volume, strength, and frequency. Euros take their coffee in small, strong doses, and do shots of it throughout the day as caffeinated fuel. If you can’t handle the high octane stuff (aka espresso), ask for yours au lait (“with milk”) or café crème (France) or con crema (Italy). Crème and crema both mean “with cream”, although it’s really more like whole milk.

Confused? Don’t be. Just do what I do: either order a cappuccino or just say olé!

My routine is: find a cafe close to your hotel, adopt it as your hangout for how many days you’ll be in town. By day two or three the proprietor/barista will treat you like an old friend when you walk in. Unless you’re in Germany. In Germany, they don’t even treat old friends like old friends.

For the record, here’s my 12 Step Program for eating in France and Italy:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Shower, shave, take care of business while trying not to twist, strain, or break anything in the process (see previous article).
  3. Go to your regular cafe and get a cafe au lait with a croissant (France), or a cappuccino with a brioche (Italy). Gently caress the pastry in one hand as you dunk it into the soothing brown liquid, then eat it while sipping and holding your cup in your other hand. Perfect this art and you’ll feel like a native in no time. Perfect it whilst standing up and affecting a vague air of insouciance about world affairs, and the women will flock to you like you’re Marcello Mastroianni in 1962.
  4. Remember, in France and Italy, breakfast is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch.
  5. Start thinking about lunch
  6. Eat lunch (see below).
  7. Towards the end of lunch, start discussing your dinner plans.
  8. Rest up for dinner.
  9. Have dinner.
  10. Walk off dinner for an hour or so, promising your wife you’ll take her shopping or sightseeing in the morning (which you both know is a lie).
  11. Return to hotel.
  12. Sleep, then repeat steps 1-12 the next day.

Lunch

(Dejeuner at Le Grand Véfour)

The older I get, the more I like to eat and drink myself silly at lunch rather than dinner — it gives you more time to digest things and walk off the calories.

Americans aren’t used to intensive care service at high noon, but it’s the best way to enjoy a big deal meal at a destination restaurant. There’s usually a “lunch special” of a few courses for a set price that’s a relative bargain, and the difference between the food at lunch and dinner is nil. In fact, to my observation, lunch is when most the local gourmets come out to play in the big cities. Dinnertime seems to be for businessmen and tourists.

Lunch takes one of three forms: either a formal affair in a restaurant (France) or ristorante (Italy), or a more casual, but still coursed-out meal in a bistro or trattoria, or a quick bite in one of those cafes where you grab your coffee (all of them usually serve some kinds of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches).

The Rick Steves of the world (and many tourists) prefer the quick casual lunch because it leaves them more time for sightseeing. In my world, the food is the sight to see, so I prefer the bistros of Paris, or a local trattoria which serves the traditional cuisine of the area. Regardless of your mood, there’s always fascinating sustenance to find.

Cafes are everywhere in Paris (I counted nine in a five block walk to my hotel, above), and Rome, Milan, Venice, Verona, Bardolino (not to mention Lyon and smaller French towns like Beaune, and the entirety of Alsace) are chock full of places to eat. You may get an indifferent meal in some of them, but even average Italian or French food over there is a lot better than what we’re subjected to over here.

Dinner

Dinner should be the opposite of lunch. If you stuff yourself silly at midday, find a cafe or casual spot and while away the evening over one or two courses while pondering where to eat the next day. Wine bars are also great for small snacks and light meals.

Know, however, that more formal restaurants have fairly strict and limited service hours. Lunch is usually served from 12:30-2:30, and dinner from 7-9. Restaurants that take reservations usually have one seating only, and the table is yours until they close up shop.

Cafes, bistros, brasseries and trattorias are much more flexible and generally have non-stop service throughout the day….although the only people you’ll see chowing down on a pizza or choucroute garni at 5:00 pm are usually jet-lagged tourists. A good rule of thumb is: the more limited a place’s hours, the more serious it is about its food. Speaking of which…

Rules of Thumb

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Get the specials. If there’s a chalk board (and in France, there’s always a chalk board), order off it. That’s where the good stuff is.

Get out of your comfort zone AKA take the stick out of your ass. You didn’t come to Europe to eat a burger anymore than you would come to America to view ancient ruins. European menus are full of wonders, but you have to bring an adventuresome spirit to the table.

Europeans are closer to their food than we are. Literally. They eat and drink products that are grown or manufactured where they live, not a thousand miles away. And you can taste the difference. Plus, all of the dishes we take for granted over here (pizza, Béarnaise sauce, oeufs Romagna avec sauce Espagnole a pigeoneaux Romanoff jubilee) had their origins over there, and tasting the real enchilada where it was invented cannot be overstated as an epicurean experience.

Don’t be intimidated. English is spoken all over Europe these days — it’s a mandatory subject for schoolchildren — and between the English language menus and helpful waiters, you’ll rarely be at a loss for words, or some tasty morsel. The spry fellow we had at Trattoria Milanese (above) spoke better English than my Greek popou, and the waiter we had at our best bistro meal in Paris (at La Bourse et la Vie) was a bi-lingual chap from New Jersey.

Forget about cocktails. With a few exceptions (e.g. The Jerry Thomas Project in Rome, gin and tonics in Spain) cocktails are not a thing in Europe. They’ll pour you a vodka soda or expensive scotch in upscale hotels and bars (and at the corner cafe), but hard booze is to grape-centric Europe what digestivos are to the new world: not indigenous to the culture and something they struggle to understand.

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If you don’t know anything about wine, get the house wine by the glass or carafe. Societies steeped in wine culture don’t wallow in cheap, disgusting wine. (They blend, bottle and bequeath their plonk to us.)   Even the worst tourist traps in Rome and Paris serve decent stuff. All you have to know are the words for red (rouge or rosso), white (blanc or bianco) or pink (rosé) to drink fairly well.

If you know a little or a lot about wine, grab the list and go nuts. Bottles that go for hundreds over here can be had for 50 euros over there. My budget is usually in the 80-100 euro range, and invariably, a waiter or somm will look at my selection, and then point me to something just as good for half the price. On my recent trip, this happened on five consecutive days in Milan (Trattoria Milanese), Paris (Willi’s Wine Bar, Le Grand Véfour, Les Climats), and Verona (Pane e Vino).

Plan, plan, plan or just wing it. There are two ways to eat and drink your way around France and Italy: book everything in advance, or just walk around and see what looks good. I’ve done both and rarely been disappointed.

A compromise procedure involves doing your homework and making a list of addresses that sound interesting….and then cruising by to check them out. Only at the hoity-est of the toity will turn you away without a reservation.

Youngsters like to book everything through mobile app services (Michelin, La Fourchette, etc.), but many charming, out-of-the-way joints don’t subscribe to reservation services, and you’ll miss a lot of local flavor if you keep you nose in your phone and rely on your apps for everything.

I could go on and on. It’s been said that traveling is living intensified (actually, I think Rick Steves said that), and if it’s true, then traveling is eating intensified times ten. When you’re in a strange place known for its gastronomy, the flavors come into focus, aromas are sharper, textures linger, and the sensations are more vivid. Not for nothing do people fall in love over a bottle of wine on the Amalfi Coast, or re-evaluate the world’s beauty from their perch in a Parisian cafe. To paraphrase Hemingway: Europe is a moveable feast, and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.

 

In Praise of EAT.

Is it the pancakes?

The hash?

The hash before and after you break the perfectly poached yolk?

The Stumptown cold brew?

Or is it something else? Something else that makes us fall in love with the food at EAT. every time we eat here?

Well, it’s all of those things and more.

It’s the unexpected kick of a kick-ass posole:

…and the freshness of the bread and the care of the cooks. It’s the lickety-split service staff and the Black Bean Veggie Chili and the truffled egg sandwich and the Huevos Montulenos — the latter bathed in some incendiary chili sauces that will light you up.

They also do a very respectable chilaquiles, and probably the best eggs Benedict you’ll find outside of a hotel.

Most of all, though, what we always fall for are the pancakes and the hash. Now that Glutton and Du-par’s have closed, there’s no where else to get good buttermilk flapjacks, and if you’re a fan of big, chunky, salty corned beef (and let’s face it who isn’t?), you’ll think you’ve died and gone to hash heaven.

There’s been a lot of stuff written about all the failures of the Downtown Project (and believe me, there have been a LOT of failures), but one of the few smart things it did was to form a partnership with Natalie Young and let her concoct the tastiest breakfast-lunch nook in all of Vegas.

Downtown or otherwise.

P.S. For those of you too timid to brave the wilds of DTLV, a new location is set to open this summer at 1910 Village Center Circle, smack dab in the middle of the  Land of the White Range Rover, aka Summerlin.

EAT.

707 Carson Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.534.1515

http://eatdtlv.com/