I Think I’m Tired of Fucking the Restaurants of Las Vegas

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I have evolved.

I am no longer the avid food lover that I was in 1977 when I started consuming Julia Child and James Beard cookbooks wholesale.

I am not the insatiable gourmand I was from 1981-1990 when I ate my way through Southern California, Chicago, and New York City at every opportunity.

And no longer am I the intrepid gastronome of 1994-2012, when I considered it my sacred duty to dutifully report on everything and anything happening in the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene.

Things have changed and I have changed.

The Las Vegas Strip is no longer the revolutionary force is was from 1995-2010 — when it single-handedly invented the idea of the modern day, globe-trotting “celebrity chef” by giving burgeoning brands like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-George Vongerichten, Joël Robuchon and Michael Mina a platform to rake in mountains of cash while expanding their businesses.

I am no longer fascinated by every new opening, nor am I enthralled (as I used to be) by whatever menu delights were being trotted out by Hubert Keller, Scott Conant or Mario Batali.

And as much as I love my frogs and my frog ponds, the seasonal changes at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon are met with more of a yawn these days than a hip-hip-hooray.

(These days, I pop in about once a year just to re-affirm what I already know: that our top flight French remain some of the finest restaurants in the world.)

Restaurants, I’ve come to conclude, are a lot like lovers. Remember the tingle of excitement that always precedes your first time with someone? The sense of exploration? The desire to consume them wholesale? It’s that anticipation and the unknown that makes them so fascinating. You’re anxious; they’re anxious; everyone’s anxious and no one knows what to expect. That’s why it’s so much fucking fun!

Or can be. New sex with someone can also be a disaster…especially when one side doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. (For those in need of a primer on the subject, there are only two things you need to have great sex with someone: gratitude and enthusiasm.)

Or maybe you just lose interest much too quickly, or the whole thing was a gigantic let down. That happens a lot too.

The point is, going to a new restaurant, like getting newly naked with someone, is exciting because of the unknown. Once you become familiar with each other, you can still enjoy yourselves, but you do so in a deeper, more relaxed sort of way. And no matter how good you are at the process (and how much you love each other), sometimes, one of you can get bored.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think I’m tired of fucking the restaurants of Las Vegas.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. But it does mean I don’t get a woody at the thought of diving deep (or sticking my tongue) into the damp, juicy folds of their flesh anymore.

Even worse, it seems I’ve become immune to foreplay.

Flash your cleavage at me (in the form of fancy decor as décolletage) and nothing happens. Tongue my ear and you’ll get a ho-hum.

Give me a hummer of a hamburger and I’m hard-pressed to press the flesh.

Cheap and easy (comps/free food) doesn’t work on me anymore either (as if they ever did), and neither does mysterious and exclusive. (There may be some nimrods out there who are impressed by what fellow nimrods Bourdain and Chang have to say, but yours truly got over listening to the boring drivel of inarticulate chefs many years ago. And when I see a press release trumpeting some “exclusive” event with Chef Morimoto, I just scoff.)

Drugs don’t work either. Ply me with grower champagne or grand cru Burgundy and Mr. Happy remains as limp as a wet biscuit. Titillate my taste buds with truffles and my mood remains tepid.

I used to think of foie gras as the fellatio of fine food — something it would be impossible to forgo. Now I wave it off like a weary sultan dismissing the nubile delights of his harem.

Could anything be more concupiscent than caviar? One would think. But after consuming copious amounts of it, I have become immune to its charms.

Szechuan I used to consider salaciously salubrious; now I think of it as so-so.

Korean used to captivate; dim sum used to delight; now I deign them both barely desirable.

20,000 restaurant meals over 40 years in 16 different countries will do that to you.

Is there a cure?

Yes and no.

Some things there is no going back to.

The whole “celebrity chef” thing is so played-out that I’m callous to whatever they’re selling. It would be hard for me to ever getting excited again about someone’s 38th restaurant, or whatever concept Caesars Palace wants to slap Gordon Ramsay’s name on. The Giadas and Fieris of the world are exploiting their brand, and that’s it. They barely give a shit about the food, and their credulous public barely does either. Like a low-rent stripper shilling for a lap dance, the product doesn’t have to be great, it simply has to be is good enough to separate you from your cash.

It’s sad for me in a way, because I remember the excitement of 1998-2009, when so many “name” chefs opened their stores here and turned our humble burg from The Town That Taste Forgot into a world-class dining destination. But those days are long gone, and now our legacy has devolved into being the launching pad (or just another venue) for corporate brands (hello Slanted Door!), not the incubator of big deal dining.

Soooo, as with middle-aged sex, I’m going to pick my spots. With no longer the interest nor the energy for marathon orgies of eating. At this point, I won’t be looking for comfort every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be looking for meaningful experiences with worthwhile consorts, not the promiscuous joys of conquest through conspicuous consumption.

Proving what a stud you are is a young man’s game. The rampant devouring of the pleasures of the flesh is a lot of fun when you have the time, the curiosity and the energy.

Like all young men, quantity used to trump quality, which is okay when you’re 20, or 30, or 40. Then, it’s all about ego and belt-notching.  What’s important in your youth is whether you scored, whether you can say you’ve been there. (When I see Instagrammers clamoring to be the first to post about whatever shiny new object is plated before them, I see myself twenty years ago.) But those delights are ephemeral, fleeting, and ultimately self-defeating. Now, as an experienced epicure I know just what I’m looking for, and it takes a lot more than a pretty face and a pair of tits to keep me interested.

What you seek as an older man — in sex and food — is substance and style. Combine them both and you have my attention.

Show me some real passion, some creativity, and some actual interest, and I’m yours for life.

2007-2017: A Decade of Restaurants

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2007-2017: IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…

Ten years is a long time. In restaurant years it’s practically a lifetime. Restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it to a decade are approaching retirement, especially in Las Vegas. With luck, they may continue to glide along deep into old age like those fortunate souls lucky enough to be alive and kicking into their nineties. More likely, the grim reaper will come for them soon enough.

2007 seems like an eternity ago to many of us. If you remember, it was the last “boom year” before the big bust of 2008. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t a ‘thing,” Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with grown-ups, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics. In 2007, no restaurant had its own Facebook page, no one knew what Yelp was, and if you wanted to know what your meal might look like at a Strip hotel, you had to buy a guidebook, or find a review in a magazine or newspaper. If you were lucky, that review might include a single shot of the interior and perhaps a couple of photos of featured dishes.

In 2007 there were only a few people in America taking pictures of their food, and a lot of people watching us do it, (including my then 83-now-93 year-old mother) thought we were nuts.

A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were ALEX and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden (the man and the restaurant) and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2002 and 2004. Boulud Brasserie (also in the Wynn) was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-California cuisine at Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay Bay — at the time perhaps the prettiest dining room in town.

There was no downtown dining scene in 2007; there was barely a downtown drinking scene. No one knew what xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) were, and high-toned Japanese cooking (like Raku, Yui, Kabuto, Yuzu Kaiseki among others) was unheard of. Food trucks were still called “roach coaches,” and were looked upon with disdain by anyone with a taste bud in their head (or more than $5 in their wallet).  Everyone was living high off the hog ten years ago, employment was full, the restaurants were even fuller, and the whole world wanted a slice of the Vegas food and beverage pie.

https://www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/5830044-1-4.jpg(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)

REALITY BITES

Then, reality set in. Faster than you could say “credit default swaps” people stopped coming. Restaurants cut back hours, high rollers and conventioneers stopped blowing a house payment on dinner, and lay-offs were everywhere. Out-of-work chefs either left town or started food trucks; big hotels like Wynn started unloading high-priced talent; and by 2013 all of those restaurants mentioned above had closed their doors. For the next five years (2009-2013), it was the serious doldrums.

There were some stalwarts who stemmed the tide, to be sure. Even the Great Recession couldn’t blunt the enthusiasm for CUT and Carnevino (both of which opened in 2008). and their success in the most dire of times proved the axiom that every restaurant in Las Vegas secretly wishes it was a steakhouse. The support of a big hotels helped the Aria (December, 2009) and The Cosmopolitan (December, 2010) lineups to remain afloat, but a mom-and-pop operation like Rosemary’s (which saw its gross revenues cut in half from 2008-2011), was a dead man sinking from the moment Bear Stearns drowned itself in debt.

Through it all, some places prevailed. Marche Bacchus actually grew in popularity after 2007, thanks to new owners (Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt) and its lakeside venue providing a welcome respite from all the financial gloom and doom hanging over the suburbs. The aforementioned Raku opened in January 2008, and immediately tapped into the smaller-is-better zeitgeist of the times. In the process, it kick-started a Chinatown renaissance that has continued unabated for the past nine years.

https://desdemialacena.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/chinatown-las-vegas.jpeg(Chinatown Plaza opened in 1995)

The Chinatown as we know it has been around since 1995, but it wasn’t until people started pinching their pennies that they discovered the glories of izakaya eating, ramen noodles, and obscure Asian soups. Even with the economic upturn of the past few years, this enthusiasm continues to grow — now expanding to upscale sushi (Yui Edomae Sushi, Kabuto, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Kaiseki), as well as the glories of lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Shang Artisan Noodle), high-quality Korean bbq (8oz, Hobak, Magal, Goong), and even inventive Thai (Chada Thai) and Vietnamese (District One, Le Pho). Downtown’s revival has proceeded in fits and starts, but there’s no denying that Carson Kitchen and EAT (two early pioneers now celebrating their third and fifth birthdays, respectively) are here to stay.

Some suburbs, however, have remained problematical. In the past ten years, Henderson/Green Valley has turned its back on Bread & Butter, David Clawson, and Standard & Pour (three excellent, chef-driven restaurants) and a non-franchised meal in those parts is harder to find than a pork chop at VegeNation.

As a counterweight, look to the explosion of good food in the southwest. Rainbow south of the I-215 has become its own mini-Chinatown, Andre’s and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have both opened to great acclaim in the last year, and Other Mama, Japaneiro, Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Cafe, Sparrow+Wolf, and Rosallie Le French Cafe,  continue to draw passionate foodies in search of the good stuff.

On the Strip, some venerable joints (Le Cirque, Twist, Picasso, Guy Savoy, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) just keep getting better, while newcomers like Libertine Social, re-boots like the new Blue Ribbon, and the extraordinary food at Bazaar Meat, give us hope for Vegas’s dining out future. Thankfully, the small plates thing is subsiding, as are celebrity chefs. Caesar’s Entertainment wants you to get excited about whatever licensing deal it has struck with Gordon Ramsay, Giada and Guy Fieri, but most serious foodies look at these craven exercises in marketing with a big yawn. Real food cooked by chefs who are in their restaurants is what creates a buzz these days — witness the success of Harvest by Roy Ellamar — not some branding deal that has all the authenticity of a gordita.

All of which raises the question: What keeps some places alive, through thick and thin, while other, equally worthy businesses fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Cafe kept itself afloat (and is now thriving in a new location). Circo and Valentino bit the dust but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it a year in Green Valley; Carson Kitchen downtown (with a similar menu) is packed day and night. Glutton closes; EAT across the street thrives. What gives?

http://thedivinedish.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/2alexstrattaphotobyalexkarvounis.jpg(Alex Stratta had the goods…and a great restaurant)

THE PRICE OF FAILURE

I have two theories on this, one food-related, one not. The less sexy one involves real estate, contracts, and accounting — three of the most boring subjects on earth. The Strip is a numbers game pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it; investors demand it; and the food and beverage honchos think of little else. Restaurants to them aren’t amenities like swimming pools, they’re more like fancy, big-box retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of a cold green eye-shade.

When the lease is up (a la Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Circo et al), the focus shifts from how nice a place is to which tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Sappy, romantic notions of soft dappled lights in an architecturally-perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce means nothing to the bean counters. Exit the Maccionis, enter Lago: a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station (slinging pizzas and pastas to the nightclub crowd) and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. ALEX, Circo, Fleur de Lys, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.

THE FOOD ABIDES

Theory number two concerns food. Specifically what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook — something to make people remember you. At Marche Bacchus it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest  onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion concoctions (like French toast caviar) that get your attention.

Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. One hundred feet away, one bite of EAT’s yeasty pancakes (or dense corned beef hash), and it becomes everyone’s favorite breakfast spot.

Even on the Strip, it seems more and more like it’s the food that’s getting the attention, not the absentee chefs. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past ten years, and the big splash these days are made by the over-the-top showiness of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, and the table-side ministrations of Carbone.

Big and showy fits Las Vegas like a Wayne Newton leisure suit, but the places that last another decade are going to be all about what’s on the plate, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed ten years ago, before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance. Now, the downsizing is over and it’s time to get cooking.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EPILOGUE FOR A DECADE

http://www.eatinglv.com/wordpress/wp-content/gallery/last-night-at-bradley-ogden/last-night-at-bradley-ogden-044-large.jpg(These guys were da bomb. Their replacement is a wet firecracker.)

3 favorites that bit the dust too early and why.

Circo (1998-2013) – The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after fifteen years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine. I also think the family had had enough of Vegas. New York is their home and that’s where they all want to be, and who can blame them?

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (2005-2013) – Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America.

Bradley Ogden (2002-2012) – Caesars had a choice to make: continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world class chef and his ground-breaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a sad, huge, downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which concept won?

If you loved….

If you loved Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.

If you loved Rosemary’s, try Marche Bacchus.

If you loved Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos.

If you loved Andre’s (either downtown Las Vegas, or in the Monte Carlo) try Andre’s Bistro & Bar or Sparrow + Wolf.

EATING LAS VEGAS 2016 Makes the Airwaves Today

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If you’re a hungry radio buff — and let’s face it who isn’t? — you can hear us being interviewed about the newest edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants not once but TWICE today!

The first one hit the airwaves at 9:00 am this morning and can be linked to by clicking here.

Next up will be our live interview at 1:00 on ESPN 1100 AM on your radio dial, where we’ll be dishing the dish on where to to dine to Mitch & Pritch:

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http://dehayf5mhw1h7.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/402/2015/07/28193311/Mike-Pritchard.jpg(Mitch Moss and Mike Pritchard)

…two members of the jockocracy who know their vittles. (And who love to eat and are curious about where to get the good stuff.)

Tune in, turn on, and get hungry at 1:00 today!

Both of these shows will confirm what you already know: That ELV has a face made for radio.

In case you missed it, here we are — transplendently holding forth in the mellifluous tones for which we are known — with Mitch Moss and Mike Pritchard yesterday — on ESPN Radio, 1100 on your AM dial: http://www.lvsportsnetwork.com/episode/614-mitch-and-pritch-john-curtas-int/.