The (Food) Year in Review 2018

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Hay-Seuss Friggin’ Christie! What a wild ride!

What started with a whimper ended with a bang, and not since the glory years of 1998-2008 have we seen such a watershed of good eats arrive in our humble burg in such a short period of time.

Two years ago we were bored out of our skull and complaining about the moribund nature of our Strip and local dining scene. In the span of 12 short months, all of that kvetching got canned, and now we’re like a kid in a candy store.

Consider the following:

The year began with Esther’s Kitchen debut downtown — it was a hit from the get-go.

Spago closed in January (sigh) after 25 years in the Forum Shops.

The next six months would see Pizzeria Monzú, Pamplona, Jammyland, Partage, Mordeo, and EDO Tapas & Wine, all open in rapid succession.

Spago then re-opened at the Bellagio. (hooray!)

DE Kitchen brought another excellent (tiny) Thai to downtown.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos served up platters of Ensenada excellence right on Las Vegas Boulevard.

China Mama came back from the dead.

(Beef roll at China Mama_

Nuro Bistro brought Hainanese chicken to the ‘burbs.

Michael Mina re-booted itself into Restaurant of the Year status.

Scotch 80 Prime re-imagined the old N9NE steakhouse as a major league whisky bar-cum-meat emporium, and in one fell swoop vaulted to the top tier of our prime steak locations.

All of it was almost enough to get me over the loss of Carnevino in July.

Then things settled down for a few months, before a blizzard of fab food hit the Strip — the first time in a long time for such an influx.   November 2018  might go down as one of our greatest milestone months, as it saw Cipriani, NoMad (both the bar and the restaurant), Vetri, and Mabel’s all spring to life.

(By our calculations, the last time so many great restaurants opened at once was December 15, 2010, when The Cosmopolitan threw open its doors revealing the likes of Jaleo, Scarpetta, D.O.C.G., China Poblano, Estiatorio Milos, STK and Blue Ribbon.)

And, the cherry on top of this sundae was Eataly opening this week.

We took a break from this blog on April 1st, but by mid-August there was so much to write about we couldn’t keep up.

If things weren’t tasty enough around here, we went to Italy (twice), Nantucket for the umpteenth time, and even wedged in trips to New York, L.A., and Washington D.C..

Then, we even found the time to update the 7th edition of  EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants, which, coincidentally, was published this week.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

Yes, it was a busy twelve months.

As good as the offerings on the Strip are, it’s no secret to anyone that the explosion in quality neighborhood eateries has been the big news this year. Not for nothing did Partage, EDO and Esther’s share Restaurant of the Year honors, and new developments in Chinatown (and Bank Atcharawan’s upcoming wine-centric Lamaii) promises even more adventures in the year ahead.

Put them all together and there’s plenty to keep even the most voracious gourmand busy for months.

Make no mistake, most of these Strip newcomers are simply the most current links in well-developed chains. The outlier is Vetri — only the second restaurant with the chef’s name on it — and one getting his full attention these days. It may be the most polished Italian food Las Vegas has ever seen. It is certainly the most stunning. How locals and tourists alike react to his blend of tradition-meets-modern-deliciousness will be interesting to watch. (Our full reviews of it and NoMad will be coming out in January.)

How much wine and cheese and beef Eataly sells (as opposed to grab-and-go sandwiches, coffee, pizza and snacks) will also be mighty interesting to see.

Before we go, we cannot sign off for the year without remembering the losses the culinary world suffered. Both Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon died in 2018, as did that magnificent bastard Anthony Bourdain. The marks all of them left on the food world, are indelible. The restaurant empires of Bocuse and Robuchon will soldier on without them, but we shall not see the likes of them again, not in Las Vegas, not in my lifetime.

Robuchon once got misty-eyed describing to me the simple, grilled seafood he found in a seaside restaurant south of Barcelona. It was almost a perfect meal, he said (though an interpreter), nothing more than the freshest fish grilled over embers bathed in the ocean mist. He did that thing French chefs do when they half close their eyes and bring their fingers to their mouths to signal perfection, and I could see the elemental glory of great food shining in those eyes.

That the greatest chef on the planet could be moved by a simple piece of fish said a lot about him, and his glow in describing it has stayed with me for thirteen years. It was the first thing I remembered when I heard he had passed away in August — his beatific elation at having having found completeness in a simple meal. The elemental act of feeding ourselves becoming a transcendent meld of our lives and nature. Many times in the past few months I have pondered the visceral connection between Robuchon and the natural world he conveyed to me that day. Sadly, we restaurant customers too often forget how tied to the land and sea chefs really are. The good ones anyway.

 

Image may contain: 3 people, including John Curtas, people smiling(JR and JC 2006)

I would run into JR many more times over the years, and he always gave me a big hug, and always jabbered away in French that I could barely understand. (It usually had to do with me being the first American writer to actually review his American restaurants.)  The Food Gal® and I even ran into him  briefly at the 2017 Bocuse d’Or and joked around with him for a few minutes.

He and Bocuse (and Bourdain, for that matter), had that quintessentially French combination of being intense and bombastic but also a bit shy. Being French, they considered great food a religion to be worshiped, and being who they were they would want their legacies to be remembered by people enjoying their meals to the utmost, prepared by people who really care about it.

As we embark on a new year, we should honor them by basking in the glow of all these sensational eats that are now on our doorstep. Las Vegas has come a long way in twenty years. Our avenues are teaming with some of the best restaurant food in America, both simple and sophisticated. You may never be as religious about it as Chef Robuchon was, but just like most religions, you can never go wrong by trying to live up to the ideals they represent.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(The bar at Vetri)

 

Getting It and Not Getting It

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When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best to inhabit a precise financial spot — one should have enough money to pay the tariff, but not so much that he is indifferent to the size of the bill. This is so because modest deprivation leads to experimentation. A rich man never has to choose between an inexpensive main course (braised beef heart for example) paired with a good bottle of wine and a pricier main course with a rather middling bottle; he will simply order the best of everything and in so doing will never know whether he likes beef heart or not. – A. J. Leibling

Item: I have friends who go to Italy all the time, have traveled all over the country, and love to return with tales of white truffle hunts and very special meals — meals where they always meet the chef, and he was “just divine,” and “John, you have to go and we’ll put you in touch, and it will be the best meal you’ve ever had in Rome, Venice, Palermo….” whatever. Within days of returning from one of their trips, they can look me straight in the eye and suggest we go out for some red sauce slop at some terrible local Italian because, and they say this with a straight face, “We really like the food there.”

Item: Dearly departed Robin Leach, who had chefs and sommeliers bowing before him for forty years, always preferred the cheapest, shittiest sauvignon blanc on any wine list.

Item: I recently went to Raku with some folks who raved about the food. (They were not Raku rookies, and we must’ve parked the entire menu on our table.) During our meal, they told me I had  to go to their “favorite place for Japanese” which will “blow me away.” We did go a couple of weeks later and it turned out to be a mediocre sushi bar/Japanese restaurant, that is no different from dozens of other cookie-cutter, Korean-owned, Japanese joints in town. (At the rematch, many of the inventive dishes fell flat and the fish was merely okay. That didn’t keep the price for our omakase from being through the roof.)

Item: I’m friendly with a local mogul who has bucks deluxe — travels to Europe all the time, rents houses for a month in Tuscany, islands in the Mediterranean, hobnobs with chefs, had his wedding in Rome, etc — you know, the usual for a guy scraping by on a couple of mil a year. This guy loves to hold court at one of the oldest, lousiest Italian restaurants in Vegas. Garlic City, I called it. So pungent you can smell it a block away. I ran into him there one time (after losing a bet), and he was beaming at a table filled with his business associates. “John, John! Come over here! Let me introduce you.” After telling everyone what I do as a food writer and joking around for a minute, he pulls me down to him and whispers, “Isn’t the food here great?” To which I replied, “Well, there’s certainly a lot of it.”

Do you know what all of these people have all have in common?

They don’t get it. Never have and never will. No matter how many trips to Europe they take, or so-so sushi meals they have, they are constitutionally incapable of making discerning judgments about food.

Getting it isn’t hard. Anyone can get it, but you have to want to.

Frenchmen think they get it simply by virtue of their being French.

As Joël Robuchon so aptly put it:

Only a small number of French possess refined palates. The French believe they have innate knowledge in the gastronomic domain as in the domain of wines. Whereas nothing is further from the truth. The Japanese (and Swiss for example) show real curiosity; they are very attentive in trying to understand and taste what they are served. That is what refinement is.

New Yorkers think they get pizza, simply because they grew up around a lot of crappy street slices. (Just ask pizza maven John Arena sometime about how often he’s heard the words, “I’m from New York; I know pizza.”)

Los Angelenos think they know tacos.

Bostonians brag about knowing good chowda.

All of them do this because everyone wants to think that they get it — in the same way everyone wants to think they have good taste in clothes or music. (And we all know what we like, so what we like has to be good, right?)

I know my friends above will never get it. Because they all have too much money and they all think having that money gives them discernment….when all it really does is make them lazy.

To truly get it (be it in food, wine, fashion or whatever) you have to, 1) want to get it; and 2) work at getting it. And by “work at getting it” I mean you have to think about things, rather than just constantly pat yourself on the back about how good you’ve got it.

I’m reminded of some rich clients I used to have when I was in private practice. They knew I was into wine and were always asking me what I liked. “Do you prefer Nuits-Saint-Georges or Volnay?” they would ask. “Which vintage should I buy, ‘o5 or ‘o6? Are you a bigger fan of Dujac or Remoissenet?” After dozens of these inquisitions (and precious little sips from their cellars), it became clear they weren’t interested in actually experiencing the pleasure of wine as much as acquiring information about it — for investment or showing off or whatever. There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, and they didn’t give two shits about acquiring the latter. (For the record, my answers were: It depends. lay down your ‘o5s, drink the ‘o6s, and either one if you’re pouring.)

Getting it involves passion and study, not just purse. Getting it involves asking a lot of questions, while acknowledging (and remaining comfortable with) how little you know. The reason rich people never get it is because they’d have to admit how stupid they are about the subject at hand. It’s so much easier just to spend a lot and then feel good about your good taste.

Getting it involves insatiable curiosity.

Getting it means being willing to admit your ignorance. All successful people hate to admit they don’t know something — doctors especially so — which is why they’re always pretending to be much smarter than they are.

Not getting it is like listening to  Boccherini and then stating you prefer Death Cab For Cutie.

A lot of people like the idea of getting it much more than the real thing….just as they like the idea of wine much more than the actual product. Tons of people these days (and seemingly every Millennial on the planet) loves the idea of being a foodie, without really wanting to put in the work.

So, you have to ask yourself dear reader: Do you get it or do you just want to pretend you get it?

Are you the type who knows why Raku is so great and its competitors fall so short? Do you actually think about why a wine is good when you sip it? Or do you just remind yourself that it has to be good for the money you paid? And if you’re a younger foodie out there (or a blogger or Yelper), do you base your judgments upon what you know or what you like?

Like I said, there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.

And if you’re one of those rich folks, well, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it….but you have to stop using your money as a crutch.

I’m sure there are lots of astute, discriminating gourmets out there who are very wealthy.

I’m just not sure they exist in Las Vegas.

Let’s give Joël the last word on this:

This might surprise you, but the number of those who possess real knowledge and have refined palates is extremely limited. And it has nothing to do with social class. Indeed, people from all stations come to my place, and the least wealthy are far from the least knowledgeable.

Remembering Joel Robuchon

(Ed. note: This article originally appeared, in slightly different form (and with less food pictures) in Desert Companion magazine; you can access that version by clicking here.)

The Death of Taste

Joël Robuchon’s passing isn’t just sad news in itself. It signals the beginning of the end of Strip fine dining as we know it

When Joël Robuchon announced in 2004 that he was coming to the MGM Grand, Ruth Reichl, then editor of Gourmet magazine, called it the most important news in American gastronomy in the past 50 years. He was not a TV chef a la Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, nor was he an old warhorse in the Paul Bocuse mold. Instead, this was a very French chef — the “Chef of the Century” (as designated by one French gastronomic journal) who had retired in 1995 while still at the top of his game — and Las Vegas was where he was going to plant the first flag in his campaign for an international comeback. He was bringing not just the fanciest of French food to town, but something far more important: credibility.

It’s hard to overstate what his arrival meant for Las Vegas’ dining reputation. Our top-down, celebrity-chef culture was starting to garner some criticism by the early 2000s; and even though our dining options had vastly improved under the (absentee) auspices of Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, and others, it was easy for food snobs to dismiss our restaurants as little more than branding exercises designed to appeal to the reality TV crowd. But Robuchon and his colleagues changed all that. Here was a chef’s chef, a revered master of the culinary arts bringing his technical skills and otherworldly flavors to Sin City, a place whose culinary history had more in common with Elvis impersonators that the haute cuisine of Paris.

All that changed in early 2005. Robuchon was not a household name in America, but gourmands the world over spoke of him with reverential awe. Imagine Yo-Yo Ma showing up in the land of Donnie and Marie, and you get the idea. He arrived not only with a cuisine that had wowed international gastronomes, but also with a radical concept in fine food that remains with us today. What L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon did (first in Paris in 2003 and then in Las Vegas) was to turn the very idea of gourmet dining on its head by presenting the most sophisticated of cuisines in something that looked like a sushi/tapas bar. These days, avid foodies take for granted — indeed, demand — eating finely tuned food in laid-back surroundings. Robuchon, however, did it first and did it best. “C’est une revolution!” the French food press proclaimed, and so it was. And it set the stage for the wave of chef-driven food in informal settings that was to become the signature style of restaurants everywhere for the first two decades of the 21st century.

In gastronomy, as in art, fashion and architecture, the seismic changes often happen from the top down. What is haute couture one year in Milan often shows up three years later on the clearance rack at Macy’s. Robuchon begat this revolution as a reaction to the high pressure (and crippling expense) of chasing Michelin stars. He brought forth his L’Ateliers as a new way to feature the best of French food. Unfortunately, as with many knockoffs of luxury brands, imitators have remixed his ideas into a sweeping casualization of our dining culture — without the attention to detail or chops that Robuchon and his troops brought to the table.

The past 10 years have seen a steady erosion of the many comforts that used to make eating out so delightful. Civilized noise levels, comfortable chairs, and tablecloths are becoming as obsolete as tasseled menus, and one wonders if truly fine dining and its attendant luxuries won’t soon be leaving the stage along with the ghost of Monsieur Robuchon. Our entire dining revolution began with Spago, and gained worldwide attention with the addition of luminaries such as Le Cirque and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare. These were big-deal meal restaurants, with service and prices to match, but they announced themselves (and Las Vegas) as a food scene to be reckoned with.

No one is making such a splash these days. Bradley Ogden won the Best New Restaurant James Beard Award in 2004; it was replaced with a boring (I’m being kind) Gordon Ramsay Pub. Instead of the Tuscan elegance of Circo, we now have Lago, a restaurant with lots of small plates and all the charm of a bus station. The Strip isn’t trying to make its restaurants world-class anymore; it wants social media “likes” and Instagrammable David Chang clones. For 20 years, Las Vegas’s reputation as an upscale resort town was directly related to the quality of its restaurants. (You can gamble or get a Chanel bag anywhere these days, but where else in the world could you find dozens of superb dining options, from the greatest steaks to haute cuisine palaces, all in a couple of miles of each other?) As we head deeper into this century, it seems our hotels are all too willing to soil that reputation in their quest to dumb down Vegas into another Branson, Missouri — albeit one with drier weather and more day clubs.

The visionaries of Las Vegas recognized that Baby Boomers had money to spend on upscale food and drink — but, beyond that, they recognized great restaurants as an aspirational signifier of the finer things in life. When sitting side-by-side and screaming at each other is the new restaurant normal, it may signal a devolution from which there is no return. If Las Vegas wants to retain its stature as a dining destination for a certain level of affluent traveler, it’s going to have to recapture the spirit that brought Robuchon, José Andres, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire here, not vapid TV personalities and warmed-over noodle shops.

In the meantime, we still have the virtuosity of his two restaurants in Las Vegas. Whether L’Atelier and Joël Robuchon at the Mansion (his more classically formal dining room) will soldier on remains an open question, but his legacy will be far vaster than whether his restaurants continue to serve the food he made famous. Joël Robuchon taught us how technically precise, and almost perfect, restaurant cooking can be. And for his last act, he taught chefs and diners that elegant, visually stunning plates of food need not be accompanied by stuffiness or pretension. Ruth Reichl was right: Joël Robuchon was the biggest thing ever to happen to American gastronomy — and he was the biggest and best thing ever to happen to restaurants in Las Vegas.

The unforgettables Some quintessentially Robuchon plates:

The world’s best mini-burger

Everyone does sliders/mini-burgers these days, but you’ve never tasted one as good as this.

Tomato gelée with mozzarella

Photo of Joël  Robuchon - Las Vegas, NV, United States. Tomato gelee topped with mozzarella

Robuchon once told me the hardest dish in the world to make was a Caprese salad. “It only has four ingredients, so there’s no place to hide.” Ever the master of simplified sleight-of-hand, he riffs on tomato, olive oil, basil and cheese by disguising the tomato as a clear liquid, and putting the world’s most perfectly formed, teeny tiny, basil-accented, mozzarella balls on top of it.

A simple composed salade

So good it could make a vegetarian out of you.

Le Caille (Quail)

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A dish that goes back to Robuchon’s glory days at Jamin (his first 3-star Michelin), the breast of quail is rolled and filled with foie gras and then given a honey-soy glaze. “His philosophy was to treat simplicity with sophistication,” is how Executive Chef Christophe De Lellis describes JR’s cuisine, and nothing says it better than this dish.

La Langoustine “Fritter”

It’s hard to improve on the flavor of a dense, sweet, almost gamy langoustine, but Robuchon figured out that wrapping it in phyllo with a single basil leaf and serving it with a basil-garlic pistou was just the trick. “We were taught not to needlessly add flavors,” says L’Atelier Exec Chef Jimmy Lisnard, “but to amplify the product itself.”

Fin