The Taste(s) of a Critic

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The rich are different from you and me. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

So are restaurant critics.

Unlike the rich in Fitzgerald’s quote though, we don’t think we’re better than you, just more observant.

More tuned in. Less distracted. More sharply aware of the fine points of the food we are sticking in our mouths.

Are we snobs? Absolutely. Of the highest order. Don’t you want any professional critic (of art, music, literature, design, etc.) to have the highest standards? To bring years of education and discrimination to the subject at hand?

Of course you do.

Nothing would be more boring, and less useful, than a “critic” who liked everything. Fast food tacos? Great! Canned soup? Beat a path to that door! The 24th link in a celebrity chef’s chain? Don’t miss it!

If you’re looking for that sort of reflexive boosterism, Instagram has plenty of influencers for you.

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If you’re looking for an educated point of view, then you seek out and read someone who knows their stuff. And by “knows their stuff” I mean has a wealth of knowledge based upon real world experience, travel, study, and deep involvement with the subject. You want opinions, Yelp is full of them. If you want to learn something, read on.

To a food critic, every bite, every meal is really about one thing:

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Perspective. A point of view. Vision. The intent behind the food. What is it that this restaurant is trying to do and how well do they do it?

There can be as much perspective behind a taco truck as there is at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Is the truck content to sling the same stuff dozens of others are doing, at a cheap price, to help you feed your face quickly and cheaply while helping it pay the rent? If so, then there ya go.

Or is it aiming higher? Are the salsas not out of a can? Are the tomatoes riper, the meat better, and the seasonings finer? Were the tortillas made minutes or days ago? After your second or third bite, are you saying to yourself, “Self, I can’t wait to come back here”?  Or are you just happy you are not hungry anymore?

Not every meal can provoke this kind of reaction:

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…but it’s what you always seek — the Holy Grail of Food — something so intense, so transporting, that memories are stirred of the visceral, the elemental, the emotional ties we have to food.

All a critic is looking for is either that imaginary transportation to another place, or to be riveted to where you sit. If food achieves neither it has failed you. Your mother’s chicken soup could do it; Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes do it. A great piece of meatloaf can be just as soul-satisfying as a French Laundry degustation.

One of the reasons critics disdain fast food is because it divorces food from time and place, memory and feeling. Fast food is food as fuel and that’s it. There is no connection, no enrichment gained from eating it. The spiritual binding brought forth from a simple home-cooked meal is non-existent. We cram, we get full, we are connected to nothing but the will to stay alive.

If chain restaurants represent one end of the feeding spectrum, then critics occupy the obverse. Food is the furthest thing from fuel in a critic’s mind. It is an ideal to be sought; perfection to pursue….sometimes with hesitance, sometimes with gusto. To search and find perfection is our quest, but we’ll settle for excellence, wherever we find it.

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Perfection is unobtainable, in art or food, but excellence can be anywhere. And in searching for it with every bite, you acquire what I call a taste Rolodex in your head.
Every bite contains a comparison. A spoonful of ice cream gets graded against every other one you’ve ever had. When you stumble into Giolitti in Rome for a scoop, from your first lick you’re comparing it to La Strega Nocciola in Florence, which, you recall, kicked the ass of that poseur franchised crap you had in New York that time. And when you stroll into Gelato di Milano in Las Vegas, consciously or unconsciously you are holding them to those standards.

The glory of course is in the pursuit; the obsessive hunt for the best. And if you’re going to obsess over anything, what’s better than having an all-consuming ardor for something you have to do twice a day to stay alive?

Yes, we can dutifully shovel proteins, amino acids, starches and complex sugars into our piehole, solely to stay alive, and not give them another thought.

But nature gave us a sense of smell and taste for a reason: to discern the edible from the inedible in the wild. Modern man doesn’t live in fear of dying from toxic berries or diseased meat, but the same skills our ancestors used to eat healthily thousands of years ago serve us well today when deciding the right time to eat a piece of fruit, or when a protein has been cooked to its optimum flavor potential.

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On some level, that’s all a food critic can tell you. Did they know how to season it and know when it’s done? There is your baseline. Then, there are finer points and deeper dives: Did the foie gras poached in Sauternes (above) taste of wine-drenched, silky liver, or just salt? Was it properly cleaned?  Is the recipe trying to mimic a classic? Or a riff on it? Or is it a copy of a copy of a riff on a classic? Is the ornamentation on the plate for taste or show or both? Are there too many elements to a dish or not enough? (Rarely the latter.)

All gastronomes are searching for dishes of high amplitude – where the flavor elements converge into a single gestalt. A good critic should likewise be such an inquisitive epicure (or at least aspire to be one), even though many, sadly, are not.

A knowledgeable critic has a wealth of experience in his brain (that Rolodex thing again) to give you answers to these questions. Does that mean he’s right and you’re wrong if you disagree with him? No, but if he/she is doing the job right, at least they’ve given you a baseline of information upon which to make your own judgments.

As with movies, a good critic can not only tell you if something is good, but why it is so. No one said it better than Rogert Ebert:

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are “just looking for a good time.” He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Substitute “food” for “movies” in the above paragraph and you have the best defense of a restaurant critics I can think of.

Finally, we come to the question of the actual tasting itself. How does a critic evaluate a dish? Is it different from how you taste food? Most likely. It is certainly a lot faster.

Hypersensitivity is our calling card — to raw ingredients, degree of doneness, balance, temperature, spices, herbs, texture, mouthfeel (not the same thing), harmony, assertiveness, amplification of one note over another — all of which goes racing through our brain before the second bite.

As with wine or music, once you understand the subject on a deeper level, you’re incapable of being satisfied with mediocrity. You might be perfectly happy grooving to the sweet, sweet sounds of Donny and Marie singing their greatest hit, but someone schooled in classical music or modern jazz is not so easily amused. In another life, Domino’s pizza might’ve sufficed; now it makes you want to barf.

Then there’s that pesky perspective thing again: how does this dish, this restaurant, this meal, fit within the context of every other meal, you’ve had?

Back to Ebert again, he quotes Socrates when arguing that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He pushes the movie goer to understand both their and a filmmaker’s philosophy about a movie, in order to explain with some depth why you like or don’t like a film.

It would certainly be nice if all movie buffs had that level of understanding, just as I would argue that if everyone who eats (and that would be everyone) would examine their food with same intellectual rigor a critic does, the world would be a happier, healthier place.

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In reality, this will never happen. All a passionate critic can hope for is to shine a small ray of enlightenment on your meal. You should go to Bouchon for oysters, for example, because they always seem to get the plumpest, briniest specimens in town. (Or Sage, for their classic Tabasco sorbet-topped beauties, above.) The selection at Bouchon is never too large and the staff always knows their bivalves. This is the sort of information an informed consumer should have in their holster before dropping fifty bucks on a dozen of them.

Does this mean you will identify the watermelon/cucumber notes of a deep-pocketed Kusshis the same way I will? Perhaps not, but if you taste them next to some $1 oyster bar (Hello, Palace Station!), you would find it’s no contest. Such is the ground a critic plows so you won’t have to.

Yes, I get ecstatic over restaurants like Bouchon and Sage, just like I do over oysters, pizza, steaks, tacos and the fanciest French food you can imagine. (I can still recall my oyster epiphany in Brussels almost thirty years ago, when the slippery little critters were so fresh and alive they contracted when hit with a squirt of lemon.) Such was the beginning of a life-long affair.

As any romantic can tell you, once you fall in love, falling in like is no longer an option. To be a good critic, you must love your subject even when it isn’t loving you back.

True love is like that.

 

ELV at the Crossroads

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What’s that old joke? If you see the fork in the road, take it.

Well, loyal readers, Eating Las Vegas is at a crossroad.

Writing about restaurants seems more than a bit trivial in these troubled times.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of cool new stuff going on.

And a lot of old stuff continues to shine  — like the sides and steak yours truly had at CUT the other night:

One part of me wants to dive in and tell you all about the great meals I’ve had recently at:

Allegro

Chuchote Thai Bistro

Le Cirque

Cafe Breizh

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7th & Carson

The Black Sheep

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Hofbräuhaus (yes, the Hofbräuhaus)

Bazaar Meat

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The aforementioned CUT

Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads (yes, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads)

Prosecco

Bardot Brasserie

MB Steak

Ferraro’s

Casa Don Juan (yes, that Casa Don Juan)

Chada Street…and…

Morel’s Steakhouse

…just to name a few.

But my heart is heavy, and the blogosphere ain’t what it used to be.

Tens of thousands of people used to want to read these restaurant reviews, now but a few thousand do. Facebook and Instagram turned everyone into a food blogger (this is not a bad thing), and in so doing, created a world where the audience is small for anything but mindless listicles, gossip and food porn.

My personal theory is that once camera phones got better, around 5 years ago, everyone could see decent pictures of what a restaurant’s food looked like. When that happened, reading about it became a chore for all but the most ardent foodies. In other words, blogs like this had a mass appeal right up until the masses could look at purty pictures to hit their low information threshold. Thus did clickbait like “Top 5 Tacos in Town!” and “David Chang’s Favorite Pizzas!” supplant actually learning about food.

Simple-mindedness is the rule these days, no matter the issue, no matter what the topic. The dumbing down of America extends to subjects as diverse as climate change to politics to sports. No one is diving deep; everything is visceral or the Cliff Notes version. Even the President of the United States.

Speaking of mindlessness, people are being murdered wholesale in our country, and not enough people care enough about that, either. Because you know, freedom. If that’s not enough to sober me right out of restaurant writing, nothing is.

No matter how you slice it, there’s nothing deep about food writing. Food writers, critics, journalists, nutritionists, etc., are all doing different forms of the same thing: imparting information (and opinion) to the public to help it eat better, tastier, healthier food. No rocket science in that. Precious little politics, too. But if you want to learn something, you have to pay attention. Just like in elementary school. And just like elementary school, most students would rather be told the right answer than figure it out for themselves.

Loyal readers, I have grown weary of helping you figure it out for yourselves.

About the only thing that keeps me writing these days is contemplating what is left of the Vegas food writing community should I retire. Years ago, I hoped that the free weeklies would morph into a true voice for our food and restaurant scene. All they’ve morphed into is a platform for b-list bars and restaurants, cocktail features, and barely-written “reviews.” I don’t blame the writers, I blame the editors. They know their audience can hardly read (or barely wants to), so on one level, you can’t blame them.

My previous co-author, Al Mancini, professes not to want to write about restaurants anymore, so the worthless rag he works for has him covering hot topics like “What blue cocktails are made without blue curaçao?” and other such drivel. (Memo to Al Mancini: the world isn’t interested in “cocktails of the week,” only the people pushing them are.)

Max Jacobson, god bless him, will never re-join the food writing ranks, and my other former co-authors (Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn) talented though they are, have neither the coin nor the time to immerse themselves in our foodie scene. Eater Las Vegas is a joke (it’s run by a pathetic woman who, when she’s sober, remembers that she lives in Des Moines, Iowa), and no other local blog is worth a shit. So bleak the landscape is.

And bleak I feel about it. I love writing, and I love going to great restaurants. Combining those two passions in this blog, six books, and 23 years of reviews for radio, TV, guidebooks, ‘zines, and  dozens of periodicals has been a match made in heaven for me. No one has ever covered the restaurants of Las Vegas like I have over the past two decades. No one else is even close. All the food writers in town put together aren’t even close. On average, I eat out more in a week than all of them do in a month.

Am I bragging? Sure I am, but it’s also true, and it’ll be a long time before any food writer comes close to what I’ve done. And I’m proud of it.

But while the body might be willing, the spirit is weak. Sometime next month the sixth edition of EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants will be published. Those 52 restaurants (yes, two more this year!) are all mine this time. No co-authors, no dueling reviews. You will get my complete, unvarnished look at the best this town has to offer, plus a snapshot or two about where we fail as a food and restaurant town.

These are the same things I’ve been trying to do on this web site since April 1, 2008, and in various forms since October 15, 1995, when I debuted on Nevada Public Radio. I don’t know if the book will continue after this edition, but I’m fairly certain this web site will post its last toothsome pick, or eviscerating pan, on its tenth anniversary, April 1, 2018.

Until then, bon appétit!

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Top Tastes of 2011 in Las Vegas Weekly

ELV note: Click here to read this article in its original format, or scroll below to see what Brock, Jim and ELV thought were their top bites of 2011.

On the plate, it was a very good year. In revisiting their best bites of 2011, the Weekly food critics will get you salivating for 2012.

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John Curtas

1. Oxtail Bucatini with Oxtail Sauce (Le Cirque, at Bellagio) This Gregory Pugin dish looks like a plain, savory custard but unspools to reveal bucatini strands hiding insanely rich braised oxtail. It’s a meat dish made by angels with a devilish calorie count, and it might be the biggest umami bomb of the year.

2. Roasted Sea Bass over Arugula (Due Forni, 3555 S. Town Center Dr.) Take a talented Italian chef (Carlos Buscaglia) and give him an 800 degree oven and a juicy piece of branzino—in a minute or two he can turn out a crispy, succulent seafood wonder, atop a bed of tangy arugula sprinkled with capers. The best off-Strip seafood dish I had this year.

Continue reading “Top Tastes of 2011 in Las Vegas Weekly”