My Worst Meals of 2019

Image(Yeah that’s me, dunking on bad food)

Sick of “Best Of” lists?

Tired of “Top 10” torpor?

Had it with holiday hype?

Then Being John Curtas has a refreshing intermezzo for you….

Sorry if these ruffle a few feathers, but since real food writing is fast becoming non-existent in Las Vegas, we thought we’d supply you with some information that flies against the all the bought-and-paid-for drivel.

For the record, none of these meals was truly terrible; all of them are good restaurants; most diners would enjoy them without batting an eye. But each fed me one or two or three things that had me shaking my head throughout the meal, and grumbling to myself that there was no reason to return.

In a small way this breaks my heart. In my world, I want every meal to be transforming, life-affirming, jaw-dropping, and transcendent. I’m rooting for the restaurant every time I walk through the door. Leaving a restaurant mumbling about a dish puts me in a bad mood for hours, sometimes days. The Food Gal has been known to consult everyone from therapists to divorce lawyers whenever darkness descends upon my countenance after a dining disaster.

And sad to say, it only takes one misfire to sometimes ruin an entire meal for me. Especially in a place I know and love.

In fact, the way I feel about my favorite restaurants is a lot like love…or at least lust. As with the latter, sometimes it doesn’t take much to cool your ardor. With sex, the line between “I want to kiss you all over” to “Ewww” can be pretty thin. With food, all it takes is a pseudo-Caesar with some caperberries in it.

Image(Not even a 9 year old would eat some of this stuff)

My Worst Meals of 2019.

Bavette’s

I had a pretty good steak dinner here. Two of them, actually. But I couldn’t see what I was eating. At these prices, you ought to be able to see what you’re paying for.

Burnt Offerings

We so wanted to love this place. I so wanted to be able to crow to my Jewish friends how I’m now “keeping Kosher” (at least for one or two meals a year) and actually admit to enjoying it. But the tough meat (at a place that brags about its smoking skills) was a sin that Yahweh himself could not forgive.

Carson Kitchen

Calm down. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. My two lunches here this year were perfectly fine. But as game-changing as CK has been, it hasn’t followed its success with anything further on the local scene. Instead, it’s being used as a flagship for expansion in other cities. Bravo for them, but the menu and the concept here has gotten stale. There, I said it.

Image(Dumb Dish of the Year – bony fishy fish on burnt toast)

La Strega

People love La Strega, so who am I to argue? Well, I’m me, and for what that’s worth: the apps were more than a little disappointing (I almost broke a tooth on some stale, toasted baguette, the tartare tasted like hospital food, the Caesar has caperberries in it). Pizzas and pastas can impress though (if you go for overload, subtlety isn’t in this kitchen’s vocabulary), but the feeling I got on my two trips here was that La Strega is that all-too-common creature: a restaurant where everything sounds better than it tastes. The menu might be fine for restaurant-starved Summerliners, but at its core, it is safe and boring…which is just what its customers want.

Locale

Locale amused us more than La Strega, but is still flawed in fundamental, incurable ways. The menu is too big and actually the inverse of La Strega’s — too hip for the room, too complicated, trying too hard to separate itself from the pack. If it were downtown (or playing to a black-belt foodie audience) it would give Esther’s a run for its money. Out in the sticks, its prospects for success are questionable. The old saw: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” ought to be rephrased here into: You can lead Las Vegas to interesting Italian food, but they’ll still want chicken parm.

Forte Tapas

What once seemed fascinating (kachapurri, Bulgarian mixed grill, pelmini, Stroganoff fries, etc.) tasted tired and rehashed. The verve of the room, the brightness of the recipes, snappiness of the staff, all had disappeared. It didn’t help that they served us one corked wine, and another at a nice, warm bath-like 80 degrees. I think I liked this place better when it was filled with Russian mobsters in track suits.

La Comida

For the last seven years or so, La Comida was on our regular downtown rotation. But we ate there twice at the beginning of the year and something was different. The menu read the same, but the management was different, the food had changed, and not for the better. These things can be subtle, but sometimes it’s just a matter of some under-seasoned meat, less vibrant guacamole, cold corn and stale tortillas that tells you they don’t care anymore. Haven’t been back since February. Don’t intend to go back.

The Nomad Restaurant

What Daniel Humm did with Eleven Madison Park in New York was phenomenal. What he and his investors are doing in Las Vegas is predictable. The Nomad is a chain restaurant pretending it’s a gourmet one. Worst service of the year too, by a country mile.

Image(Oh no, they’re serving us sardines on stale toast! Mr. Curtas is not amused.)

Oscar’s Steakhouse

God bless Oscar’s. It so terribly wants to be a top-tier steakhouse but it so consistently fails miserably at it. To paraphrase “A Christmas Story”: it’s not that bad…but it’s not that good either.

Pepe’s Tacos

The Food Gal® and I were starving at lunch one day and pressed for time while driving on N. Decatur. Suddenly, like a Mexican apparition it shimmered before us: a bright yellow awning beckoning, “Come hither, partake of our tacos poor pilgrim, enjoy our asada sopes, Help Wanted.” So in we trudged, seduced by hunger, the advert (and stomach pangs) having relieved us of our common sense. From now on we’re sticking with Del Taco.

Sara’s

They start you off here with some gargantuan, brontosaurus bone-in beef rib-thing they serve as an appetizer. Yes, an appetizer. This is supposed to impress you. Our Dover sole was the worst piece of fish I’ve had in a decade. Strictly for those wowed by dark rooms and hidden doors.

Image(Pearl can’t bear to look at our best of the worst)

The Kitchen at Atomic

We went in for a steak. We were told that they only had one, 48 oz. rib eye left. We settled on other meat: a hangar and something else. None of it was very good and the flatbread was a mess. I had four meals here in 2019 and loved 3 of them. We’ll leave it at that.

Tim Ho Wan

Don’t believe the hype. This is a copy of a copy of a copy of a famous dim sum house. You will not eat badly, but you will wait in line to eat food that’s done better (and cheaper) across the street at Ping Pang Pong.

Water Grill

I enjoyed my one meal here…in the same way I used to enjoy McCormick and Schmick’s….in 1998.

Image(Some of these meals deserved a good sabering…and needed more champagne)

Years ago you would’ve found me wallowing in a lot more mastication misery. These days, I am much more selective about where I eat — discrimination and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Vegas food scene keep my “worst meals” at a minimum.

In the past, I would go to the opening of an envelope, but time, taste and age have left me little interest in whatever “fast casual” concept some ambitious restaurateur is launching to take him/her to the promised land. This knowledge alone has saved me from a lot of indigestion, and further enhancement of my already dyspeptic personality.

I really don’t eat badly these days, even in the restaurants noted above. As you can see, my “worst meals” usually amount to a few dishes that missed the mark and put a damper on the overall experience. These failings shouldn’t be looked upon as a condemnation of the whole operation. At all of these places (save poor old Pepe), your average diner can have a most enjoyable meal.

But unfortunately for restaurants, I am not your average diner.

 

 

The List – Summer 2019 Edition

 

Image

We are elbow-deep in writing the 2020 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, so postings on this site have been slim this month.

While we’re in the process of gleaning and vetting and grooming and culling the herd of worthy restaurants down to manageable size (as well as re-writing the intro and other chapters), we thought we’d give you a little sumpin sumpin to chew on….

…and by “chew on” we mean a list of all the worthy places we’ve dined over the past several months, as well as a few unworthy ones.

As always, if you find anyone who eats out in Las Vegas even half as much as we do, lunch is on me.

As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted:

Image(Trés cazuelas at Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – Fab food in a funny location. And when I say “fab” I mean our most interesting, pan-Latin cooking, in a tiny, 40 seat space that is quite inviting once you get inside. Ignore the shitty building and dive in. You can thank me later.

Le Cirque – Ivo Angelov has left after 11 years of handling the front of the house like a maestro. As great as he was, no doubt the old pros running things will keep it humming along smoothly. Alan Mardonovich’s food fits the setting like pearls in a gorgeous oyster.

Joël Robuchon Christophe de Lillis keeps this place at or near the top of America’s (and the world’s) best restaurants.

Esther’s Kitchen that place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.

Flock & Fowl I don’t know what’s going on here, but two mediocre meals in a row tell me this place has lost its mojo.

Image(This soup won’t leave you wonton)

Nuro Bistro – our best Hainanese chicken. Don’t argue with me about this. Killer wonton soups, too.

Bazaar Meat – 1-2 with CUT for Vegas’s best steaks.

Jammyland – come for the drinks; stay for the Jamaican meat pies.

Image(Two terrific Thais, less than a half-mile apart)

Lamaii – Las Vegas is Thai’ing one on these days, haven’t you heard?

Weera Thai Kitchen – already a tough ticket at peak hours. Worth the wait.

Cipriani – my Friday fave.

Vesta Coffee – our hangout.

PublicUs – our hangout with good pastries and great bread.

Water Grill a chain seafood place for those who miss McCormick & Schmicks.

Image(Duck panang curry at Lotus)

Lotus of Siam – our greatest Asian has gotten even better.

88 Noodle Papa – brand new, and a solid second place in the Hainanese chicken sweepstakes.

Ocha Thai – always solid, if unspectacular, Thai favorites.

Orchid Vietnamese by-the-numbers Vietnamese.

Good Pie – others get more pub, GP makes the best pizza pies.

Pop-Up Pizza – another unsung hero in our pizza revolution. The stromboli is out of this world.

Image

Sin Fronteras Tacos – way up on Tenaya. Frightfully good Mexican food, not out of a can, made with real passion. Quite a find.

District One – best pho broth in Vegas….says noted pho expert The Food Gal® (honest to Christ, she’s tried them all).

Jaleo – we love the D.C. original, but the paella here is nonpareil.

Maker’s & Finders – the charms of this place never cease to escape me.

DE Thai Kitchen the best Jerry, the BEST! (Thai street food)

Santos Tacos – the best tacos within a 5 mile radius of downtown. Fight me.

Image(We’re secretly in love with Mio-san. Please don’t tell The Food Gal®)

Raku Sweets – Mio-san (above) makes our best sweets, and the sweetest weekend lunch in town.

Hatsumi – get skewered and sake’d in downtown’s hottest new joint.

Mabel’s BBQ – our best barbecue. Something else you shouldn’t argue with me about.

The Kitchen at Atomic – casual vibe, serious food. Not sure if downtown realizes exactly how good it is.

Image(Righto, Guv-nah!)

The Smashed Pig I’m not going out on a limb and recommend the whole menu, but the fish and chips (above) are worthy. A pleasant surprise on East Fremont Street when I was famished one weekday.

Gauchos Sacred Flavors – This place will be a lot nicer when it’s not 105 degrees outside (the only place to sit).

Pamplona – 5 years ago I would’ve been at Pamplona every week. Now, there’s too many good restaurants to choose from. #firstworldproblems

Locale – been once, liked it. Too fucking far to rush back….especially with downtown and Chinatown practically in my backyard. 

La Strega – been twice, want to like it more than I did. Cookie-cutter Italian menus just don’t tingle my nethers anymore. That said, the ingredients are top-drawer, the cooking is precise and the wine list is great.

Daigu Rice Noodle another in a tsunami of Asian chains (Korean, mainly) threatening to swamp Chinatown. This one advertises for you to buy your own Daigu Rice Noodle franchise….right on the menu! The food isn’t worth investing in.

Image(José Andrés would be proud)

Valencian Gold – $10 bowls of paella never tasted so good. Neither did patatas con bravas (above).

Vetri – the polar opposite of cookie-cutter Italian. Not for everyone, but the food is as awesome as the view.

The Goodwich – I have dreams about the Reuben-ish and The Patty.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – Gert’s sandwiches and pastries could make a new Nordic lover out of me.

Image(James Trees puts the putta in the puttanesca)

Ada’s – I like Ada, but I like her big sister Esther better.

Rooster Boy Cafe – Las Vegas’s best breakfast.

Serrano’s Mexican Food – a hole-in-the-wall worth seeking out.

Old Soul – Outstanding food in a less-than-outstanding location. If it makes it, it’ll be a miracle, but I’m rooting for the miracle.

Café Breizh – our best French pastries. I’m glad they’re so far from my house.

The Black Sheep – fantastic fusion food. Jamie Tran is a treasure.

Image(In heaven, all cookies are warm and chocolate chip)

Spago – our best old reliable. The people-watching isn’t as good as it was at the Forum Shops (how could it be?), but the place feels cozier and the food never misses a beat. And the chocolate chip cookies (above) might be the best on the planet.

New York Bagel and Bakery the best bagels in town. I’m tired of telling you this. Go see for yourself. Loser.

CUT – a meat lover’s fantasy come true. Not sure any steakhouse in America has a better selection of top grade beef.

China Mama – soup dumplings, crispy shrimp, cumin lamb and pepper beef…what more does a man need?

Not bad for one summer, considering we took two week’s vacation and visited a number of them more than once.

With a little luck, and a lot of hard work at Huntington Press, the 2020 edition of ELV should be released in November….and boy will there be some surprises…

Image(Chilaquiles at Rooster Boy Cafe)

 

 

A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099