The Covid Diaries – Vol. 4 – Eating Out While Rome Burns

Image(The Curbside Curmudgeon is not amused)

The week just past was a slog and a blur at the same time. It started (on Sunday) with abject despair. And ended with a glimmer of hope.

Day 10, Monday, March 23, Settling In:

He went to work today. He’s gone to work every day. Even with the generous leave being offered by the City (his employer) he’s going to go to work.

Work gives him something to do. It breaks the monotony of the day. Even if he does little but catch up on e-mails, it is time well spent. In the past seven work days his phone has rung exactly twice. Court appearances are now being done telephonically. Depositions are all being cancelled or pushed way back; deadlines are being extended left and right. Business has ground to a halt.

This will have far-reaching effects on the body politic, he thinks, and the fools have no idea what they’re doing to themselves.

He interacts with people at work the way he always has. They all think the shutdown is horseshit too, but no one can say it out-loud for fear of being shouted down by the (now galvanized) health mob.

He finds himself calling it the “lamestream media” as the torrent of overblown cases and melodramatic reporting washes over him every morning.

Sensible voices have been drowned out.

Sanity is always quieter than panic.

His neighbor offers some Spanish Iberico ham as a salve for boredom. He delivers it by coming in through the front door and running away after he drops it on the counter.

“C’mon in and have a drink!” (They are twenty feet away at the dining room table.)

“No way, man..social distancing,” he calls out over his shoulder as he exits at a pace slightly slower than being chased by someone with a knife.

This is a young, smart guy who’s now acting like a fool. Such is what a herd mentality does to people.

The Food Gal® helps make some incendiary salsa. They eat it with chips and slivers of nutty, intense, mahogany-colored ham. This is their dinner. Neither of them has much of an appetite.

Day 11, Tuesday March 24, The Curbside Curmudgeon:

Image(The new awkwardness)

They want the fear to be immediate, even when everything about it seems so remote. There is so much discordant information. Just this morning a doctor tells everyone soothingly that “80% of people will recover with only mild symptoms.” Five minutes later there’s another talking head stating the virus has “overwhelmed” America. At this point it isn’t clear whether guy #2 is talking about actual infection, or the (self-imposed) destruction of the American economy.

If you watch the day-by-day national news, all they do is run a scoreboard of who has the virus and how many have died. Into this limited mix they toss in commentators talking about how the illness will soon be “sweeping the nation” — conveniently ignoring that 99.9% of Americans have been untouched by it. (The math is as follows: 133,000 cases divided by 330,000,000 million Americans equals  .04% of the American population – the number of folks documented as having had the illness. For you math retards, that’s 4 one-hundredths of 1%.)

To keep the math going, the number of dead from the virus as of this writing numbers approximately 2,400 people. Dividing that number by the total population gives you a death % of .0007% of Americans have died from the infection. (That is 7 ten-thousandth of 1% for you numbers-challenged folks.) For the last time: These are a far cry from the numbers used to start this slow-rolling horror show.

Remember 60% infected/3% dead? Conveniently for the gloom-and-doomers, no one else does either. They just want to keep the scoreboard going… as the press would rather stoke the flames than keep anything in perspective.

The whole thing reminds one of weather panic — the constant drumbeat of impending doom pounded day and night to keep you tuned in. The only difference is: when the hurricane or snow doesn’t show (or isn’t cataclysmic), everyone shrugs and moves on. The shrugging and the moving on won’t be so easy this time. As long as New York City remains our media capital, there will be no “fair and balanced” reporting of this disaster. He knows he’s beating this to death, but so is the media, so his critics can go fuck themselves.

The weather is cold and windy. Undeterred, they set out to Trés Cazuelas to show support for Angelo Reyes and his crew as they fight to stay alive.

He has a new moniker: Curbside Curmudgeon. It fits his mood. The cold breeze fights their dining al fresco scenario, but they persevere.

Reyes’ stews and salsas are next-level, and go great in small, fresh tortillas, even cold ones. Eating them outside is a race against the wind, but the chilly weather keeps the wine at the right temp, so there’s a silver lining in everything. This is also the best guacamole in Las Vegas, so the comfort food makes up for the cold:

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Day 12, Wednesday March 25, Anne Frank Would Understand:

His oldest sister posts this meme that’s going around:

https://static.wixstatic.com/media/620f5f_e071488913d64d83868b4e97f4890587~mv2.jpeg/v1/fill/w_939,h_939,al_c,q_85,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/620f5f_e071488913d64d83868b4e97f4890587~mv2.jpeg?fbclid=IwAR2ON0oE1WW0Kvu4IVW2ttDyhlTYbAy2lp5fdnG5wc8mgxMliRuvbcMdlHs

How true, but being stir-crazy isn’t the worst of this. The truly insidious thing is how any fear — stoked into a panic by government and media–  can empower people to police each other. “Police each other” meaning, in this context,  turning into the lowest, sniveling, holier-than-thou asshole — the type who gets great joy in telling the teacher on fellow students, turning someone into the HOA, or betraying a Jewish family to the Nazis.

Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. Tell humans they have a right to tell others how to behave and a small-but-significant portion of them will take it upon themselves to act as judge, jury, and executioner to anyone they disagree with.

Marché Bacchus — which, you may recall, was the site of some wine buying last week — gets narc’d on by some do-gooder. “People were inside Marche Bacchus buying wine and sitting down!” she screamed to business licensing officials.  “Something must be done!”

Dutifully, the government officials appear to investigate; feathers are ruffled, but assurances given and the whole thing passes. Meanwhile, people are packing into Walmart, Costco, drug stores and supermarkets and no one says a thing. Government policy in action.

Later in the day, the City of Las Vegas, in a show of sanity,  announces liquor and wine stores can continue to sell their wares curbside.

The Gubenator’s office remains silent — apparently content with the thousands of strangers milling about supermarkets all over town.

Image(Coming up – one lonely cappuccino)

The day starts with a lonely cappuccino at PublicUs – sold at a take-out booth inside the front door. A young bloke takes your money turns around and makes the coffee. It is a splendid cappuccino, perhaps the best in town. There are two tiny tables left out front where it can be sipped and contemplated. These would no doubt greatly offend the Covid Gestapo.

The coffee costs, $4; he gives the kid a double sawbuck and tells him to keep it.

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On the way back from coffee, he bumps into chef Donald Lemperle at VegeNation. Like many small operators, ⁦@VegeNation is keeping its doors open by having a single chef do all the work. Vegans are a loyal bunch,”  Lemperle tells him, “and they’re keeping me busy.” This brings a smile to both their faces.

The Food Gal® picks him up and they head to the far confines of Eastern Boulevard in Henderson for lunch. There is only one restaurant (indeed only one thing) that can get him to this whole, godforsaken area of the world: Saga Pastry + Sandwich. Of course we bring our own table and chairs (see pic at top of page)….and then we chow down on superb, sweet Arctic shrimp (tasting like a combination of crab and lobster) and a smorgasbord sando to beat the band.

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They even squeeze in a little chat time with chef/owner Gert Kvalsund. This improves everyone’s mood, as does another cup of joe from Bad Owl in the same shopping center. When this is all over, he hopes people will more readily appreciate how much good sandwiches and cups of coffee can do to improve your mood.

But his biggest fear is just the opposite: that the only survivors of this self-inflicted apocalypse will be standardized food and corporate restaurants.

David Chang agrees with this dire prediction. Strange bedfellows indeed.

 

The Covid Dairies Vol. 2

Image(My other specialty: walking on water)

As of today, 0.000219178% of the world’s population has been killed by the Covid_19 virus.

Day  7, Friday, March 20, The New Absurdity:

“Take out, grab-and-go only,” the Gubenator declares. And everyone falls into line. It’s a mere band-aid to local restaurants, who will never be able to stay open under those conditions. Most don’t even try.

Some brave souls, like Ohlala French Bistro in Summerlin are going to try to power through. It seems that the smaller the joint (i.e., the more the owner can do on their own without staff), the easier it will be for some to survive being nothing but a  ghost kitchen. Rooster Boy Cafe fits this description perfectly, as chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal already is a one woman band at her tiny operation. But for most venues that aren’t named Chick-Fil-A or McDonald’s? Fuggidabadit.

Friday is a weird day around the Curtas manse as well, as Mr. C spends the day feeling sorry for himself and watching documentaries, while The Food Gal® is nailed to her computer, restructuring and cancelling contracts (she sells advertising). By the end of the day, it’s a running joke that she’s busier than ever NOT making money.

As dinnertime rolls around, a good friend — Don Cramer — contacts us with an idea: Why don’t we do a Facebook Live chat about local restaurants who are remaining open?

We tell him we’re heading to Ohlala (and dining al fresco with our own table and chairs) and he says he’ll be right over.

So, Don shoots a Facebook Live, we freeze our buns off, and chef/owner Richard Terzaghi feeds us some beautiful paté and a steaming bowl of French onion soup in the parking lot. Classy AF, don’t you agree?

Image(Feeling very, very French al fresco on Friday)

“I’m not going to let this thing get me down,” Curtas tells himself, even as it’s getting him down.

Day 8, Saturday, March 21, Here Come the Health Nazis:

Saturday morn breaks, and Las Vegas’s biggest foodie girds his loins for a day visiting the front lines of this war against common sense.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, here they come, with friends in tow, to see the damage for ourselves.

The first stop is Rooster Boy. Sonia has set up an ordering table out front, and is doing a limited menu of her specialties.

Orders are given, fabulous food shows up, and Las Vegas’s best breakfast is declared in fine fiddle.

Sonia also gives a nice interview. Some highlights:

– Her menu is very limited.

– Call ahead and check daily. Don’t act like John Curtas and barge in and order something; he’s an asshole.

– This could end up being a good model for her continued business (less hassle with taking orders and waiting tables).

– In some ways, a small operation like hers is better able to adjust and still keep its customers.

– She’s still baking her ethereal pastries every morning….but she’s not doing breakfast right now.

– Curtas doesn’t give a shit about social distancing.

– Thank god for alcohol.

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If there’s two things this shitshow of a public health fiasco is going to teach us, it’s that restaurants are indispensable cultural institutions, and that it’s a very short slide from well-intended vigilance to outright autocracy.

This becomes evident from Mr. Curtas’s next two stops.

Curtas has been friends with Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt since they took over Marché Bacchus Bistro and Wine Shop fifteen years ago. Many a day and evening they’ve whiled away over bottles of vino. He considers Jeff the go-to guy for Burgundies in Nevada, and although the selection is small, there’s never a bad buy in the bunch. Some would say this coziness keeps Curtas from being entirely objective about MB, but he’s fond of pointing out that he gives it to the chef with both barrels if the cooking isn’t up to snuff.

None of that matters today, as he drops in to buy some wine and give the Wyatt’s support, both emotional and financial.

Rhonda tells him she’s already gotten blowback about their Saturday wine sale. “Non-essential!” the finger-waggers scream. The Gubenator’s order isn’t 12 hours old and already people are chastising and accusatory. It’s all ridiculous (since nothing prevents people from buying booze at the supermarket), but that doesn’t keep folks from losing their shit over someone trying to sell a few bottles and stay in business.

Side bar: Anyone who’s ever wondered how Nazi Germany turned against the Jews has only to follow (so-called) liberals falling straight into fascism the second they think their well-being is being threatened.

It’s all very depressing, so Curtas and friends buy a boatload of wine and spend some hours getting hammered on the MB patio. Is it good wine? Of course it’s good wine! When the world is burning to the ground around you, you might as well blow your wad on great hooch.

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Buzzed on champagne and Barolo, Curtas and his too live crew head on over to Locale to show support for another good citizen who’s trying to soldier on through this debacle — recent James Beard nominee Nicole Brisson.

Side bar: Curtas likes Locale, but it’s too fucking far from his house (15 miles) to make it a regular stop on his restaurant rotation. It’s also too fucking far for almost anyone who doesn’t live in the far far southwest part of town to get to, which is a shame because its location (North Korea, a friend calls it) is a big hindrance to its popularity.

Like North Korea, the militarists here are everywhere and ready to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, as you’ll see below.

Image may contain: Nicole Brisson, sitting(Nicole cooks, Cramer works, Curtas drinks)

So Cramer and Curtas shoot another Facebook video with Nicole, and chow down on the patio with some take-out food. Martin Scorceeze and Bobby DeNiro they are not, but hearts are in the right place, and a good time is ha by all.

Interview over, they eat; they kibitz, they drink and smoke cigars — on the restaurant’s patio way away from its front doors. This warms Curtas’s cockles. For an hour or so, he almost convinces himself the world has returned to normal.

He also notices a steady stream of folks going to Albertson’s a few doors down. Lots of them. In groups large and small, and nearly every group with a toddler or infant in tow. Much more than his little band of five hungry souls. This fact will come back to haunt him the next day.

The next morning, this shows up on some neighborhood website:

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“You are literally going to kill people,” someone named John Cooper says.

Someone named John Cooper does not know we are going to kill people. He only feels it. He feels it because the media has been drumming fears into him since February.

He has no idea how or why we would accomplish this. All Someone Named John Cooper knows is that the government and the media have spent the last six weeks whipping him and everyone else into a paranoid frenzy over how a superbug name Covid_19 — a coronavirus more contagious than other cold/flu viruses but no more deadly than the common flu — can be spread, and that we must all band together to stop the spread.

The government has very few tools at its disposal to do this. It can support the health care system when it gets overloaded, and it can encourage people not to spread disease, and, as a last resort, it can shut down things by declaring an “emergency.”

As of yesterday, there are 200+ cases of this virulent upper respiratory infection in the entire State of Nevada. Exactly four people have died from it, two in Southern Nevada. As emergencies go, it’s a pretty lame one.

From U.S. New and World Report: Most patients exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially among the elderly and people with existing health problems. The vast majority recover.

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No one’s  going to kill anyone by sitting on a patio chatting, eating delicious oysters, and smoking cigars. Respectfully, Someone Named John Cooper, you are out of your mind.

But honestly, no one blames you, SNJC. You’ve had a steady stream of fear fed to you for weeks. Constant stories of how the virus will scale up until millions of Americans have it. Millions of Americans don’t have it, Approximately 47,000 Americans have had it. And they’re getting over it, SNJC, and feel just fine. But you never see media stories on the recoveries; you’ll only see people in respirators, and projections of who’s “going to get it” (they hope), so you’ll stay riveted to the drama.

Literally, in America, only two people in a million have died from it.

What many are calling a pandemic is really senseless panic — an unholy alliance of gloom-and-doom doctors, sky-is-falling statistics, health care Cassandras, hypochondriacs, a manic media, and do-gooder liberals — coming together to paint an end-of-days picture over a superbug. That’s it. We have as much chance of eradicating Covid_19 as we do of stopping sunshine. So get over it, and go have a good time.

Thanks for inspiration, SNJC, now, let’s get these myths disposed of so life can get back to normal.

Do you feel better? John Curtas hopes so.

Image(Capital Grille, noon, Friday March 20, 2020)

Image(Locale, 7 pm, Saturday March 21, 2020)

 

Well This Sucks – The Covid Diaries Vol.1

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The Coronavirus Diary. Volume 1, Day 1, Friday the 13th: Clouds on the Horizon

Who would’ve thought that my lunch at Cipriani last Friday would be the last time I had a really good, relaxed time in a restaurant?

We ate well. I ate in two shifts: the first with two colleagues, the second with good friends and The Food Gal®.

Lunch turned into dinner at Soho Japanese Kitchen where I tapped out after a few courses. (Seven straight hours of eating and drinking will do that to you.)

Crowds were smaller at both places; you could feel the clouds of contagion building. Everyone knew fear and layoffs were in the air. We just didn’t know how soon and how severe it would be.

Our waiter Vincenzo looked around the Cipriani dining room and said he was worried for both of his jobs (there and at Giada). Like many in the Vegas hospitality trade, he holds down two gigs — lunch and dinner — often at two very different spots. Vincenzo is as Italian as Pavarotti, with a twinkly charm underneath his sing-song-y accent, and he fits an Italian restaurant like parm on pasta. Three days later he will be out of both jobs.

Day 2, March 14: Canary, Meet Coal Mine

The Bellagio announces it is closing all restaurants except Sadelle’s and Prime.

Day 3, March 15: Reality Looms

Beware the Ides of March, Caesar was told. He ignored the warning; the rest of Las Vegas took it to heart. Within five days of the announced severity of the coronavirus, MGM uses today to let the hammer drop on all of its venues. Some hotels, like Caesars and Venetian/Palazzo stand firm and act like they can weather the storm.

Because of this, for about two days, locals feel restaurants and bars will still be functioning, albeit with far fewer customers. Still, it’s obvious the virus has mushroomed into society-wide panic. Most media outlets are claiming the virus is “sweeping the nation,” even though the number of Americans actually infected with Covid_19 amounts to .00016% of the American populace.

“We’ll figure out a way to keep the doors open,” Venetian and Caesars say. Silly them.

I spend the afternoon getting drunk on expensive hooch on my patio, and eating some tasty cheese I had flown in from The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills — because eating and drinking well is to me what swinging a golf club is to Tiger Woods.

Day 4, March 16: Support Your Local Chinatown

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Hotels and Strip restaurants closing left and right. Local joints girding their loins but seem safe. I make a show of going to Every Grain for lunch (it’s mostly empty), and China Mama for dinner (ditto). And I’m not shy about letting social media know what I think about all of this viral hysteria and how it will devastate the hospitality industry. For this I get called everything from Typhoid Mary to the worst thing since Hep C.

I also get into one of those Facebook commenting wars with someone named Emily Jillette, who’s married to someone named Penn Jillette, who calls me everything from a joke to an asshole. It’s really quite amusing to have her (try to) insult me by telling me how she’s “friends with lots of chefs” who “universally hate me.” Emily hates me (apparently) because I’m eating in restaurants and encouraging others to support these businesses in a time of crisis.

She’s not the only one who hates me for thinking this whole quarantine-thing is a huge overreaction, but she’s definitely the most profanely entertaining  of the bunch.

Day 5, March 17, Goodbye to all That:

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In less than 24 hours, every bar and restaurant is being told to close or serve customers by take-out only. This results in my having to drink my coffee outside of my favorite coffee bar — Vesta Coffee Roasters — in downtown Las Vegas. I do not like being told I have to drink my coffee on a grab-and-go basis. My lack of amusement at this ridiculous restriction will be made more than apparent in the coming days.

This is when reality really starts to sink in. By noon everyone knows the Governor is going to order the shutdown of all “non-essential businesses.” The Governor of the State of Nevada does not realize that for many of us, restaurants, coffee bars are just as essential as a warm bed.

For these reasons, we hunker down on Tuesday and eat leftovers (yummy) from China Mama for lunch as we await the governor’s proclamation. It is Saint Patrick’s Day and no one seems to notice.

That night we eat at Edo Tapas & Wine to show our support, and as good as the food is, the place feels like we’re administering its last rites. No way will a chef-centric, highly-tuned restaurant like Edo be able to survive on take-out trade. Someone should tell our clueless Gubenator this, but he’s too busy listening to the hysterics.

Day 6, March 18, The Day the Music Died:

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Last night the Gubenator shut down the Strip (which he has the power to do). He also “ordered” all “non-essential businesses” to close, which, technically, he does not have the power to do. (At least it’s debatable in some quarters.)

Regardless, he’s a politician and politicians pander to the majority and the majority of people are screaming for government to “do something” about a virus that’s infected .000017% of the American population. So order away he does.

And everyone complies. Everyone complies because, 1) they’re scared not to comply; and 2) they know everyone will hate them if they don’t comply. (I know 1 and 2 are basically the same thing, but I’m trying to make a point here.

In support of our Chinese-American restaurants — who, after all, have been doing to-go food better than anyone for 170 years — we order take-out from Kung Fu Thai-Chinese. (Las Vegas oldest – since 1973 – Chinese restaurant.) I’ve never been quite sure whether Kung Fu is a Chinese restaurant that serves Thai food or a Thai restaurant with a Chinese menu, but it doesn’t matter these days. It always does a solid job, and it’s been years since I’ve been. so there’s a silver lining to the unfortunate circumstances that bring me here.

The Food Gal® picks up our huge order ($66 + $10 tip) we gorge ourselves on Yen Ta Fo, Todd Munn, Pad Thai and Spicy Chicken. We have enough food to last for days.

I announce on Twitter that no one’s getting a bad review while we try to weather this economic body blow, and I mean it.

Day 7, Thursday, March 19, Pastries and Steaks:

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I wake up at 4:00 am with an idea(s): 1) to start this diary; and 2) not to let this craziness defeat me. Restaurants are as much a part of the American cultural identity as football and gas-guzzling cars. It’s sort of amazing how quickly sports dried up (and how no one seems to miss them all that much), but restaurants are where we sustain life and enrich it. Methinks people are going to be screaming for food to return to normalcy a lot faster than begging to see if Andrew Bogut dunks on Miles Plumlee.

I’ve also decided to stick with my normal routines as much as possible. And by “stick with my routines as much as possible” I mean start my morning with good French pastry.

This part is easy. Food serving operations like Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe are not being shut down, you simply can’t stay and sit to enjoy your morning brioche. Mr. Curtas is very fond of his morning brioche, and will therefore pick-up, take it to his office, and enjoy it there.

These pastries taste to him both of butter, dough and normalcy, so, for fleeting seconds he can pretend his world is not crumbling around him.

As he’s munching and pretending with his Danish, Mr. Curtas wonders just how fucked is the American restaurant industry? 

Answer: Very. 15 million people are out of work in less than three days to combat a virus that will never infect even 1.0% of our population. A virus that all medical experts say 80% of adults will recover from without any medical intervention.

As Mr. Curtas ponders these statistics, he decides to do two things: 1) refer to himself solely in the third person til this thing blows over; and 2) eat steak for lunch. Good steak. Steak directly from the Capital Grille meat locker.

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With the help of Manager Drew Weintraub, we get a tour of the locker and get to pick out an entire strip loin to be bandsaw’d into individual steaks. This costs $250, but we get eight, restaurant-quality strip steaks (and a porterhouse)out of the deal.

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We take them home, and with the help of our comrades-in-epicurean arms the Tollefson’s, we cook up the porterhouse — heavily-seasoned (above), seared on both sides, finished under the broiler). It was damn tasty, and half the cost it would’ve been at the restaurant. But let’s face it, great steaks lose some luster when nibbled on your kitchen counter.

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Sounds pretty okay, doesn’t it? Super steaks and expensive wines for lunch?

It’s not. It’s bloody awful. As he’s chewing his steak and quaffing his wine, Curtas can’t stop the emptiness from grabbing his stomach, like a clouded mood settling permanently into his gut. Fears and fatalism sickening in their ubiquity, unquenchable by food or drink.  And now they are upon him. The world has lost its fucking mind. And things are about to get worse.