New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

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The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

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Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

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So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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OLD SOUL

And the winner for Best Food in the Most Obscure Location goes to…….Old Soul!

There’s no other way to say it: Old Soul is so hidden, so oddly-placed, and so not-where-you’d-expect-a-restaurant-to-be that you’ll feel like congratulating yourself once you find the front door. Once you find it, and eat there once, these issues will disappear. From then on, you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to mind the locale.

That location is inside the World Market Center — a behemoth of a building complex near downtown Las Vegas containing three, intimidating buildings and no retail spaces, save for this single door stuck between darkened windows of one ground floor corner. Even as you valet your car (and you will have to valet it), you’ll glance around inside the Land of the Giants courtyard and wonder where you’ll be eating. The car park will point to the modest sign, and you’ll stroll in, wondering, like all first timers: who in the world in is eating here? (The answer is: fans of chef/owner Natalie Young, Smith Center devotees, and culinary culture vultures looking for her particular brand of gutsy, elevated American food.)

As soon as you enter, what awaits is a capacious, rather dark interior, with well-spaced tables, a civilized noise level, and some oversized art on the walls. The old silent movies they run on the back wall near the bar are a hoot. Between those and the antique furnishings (including the mismatched dishware), the vibe is one of cool comfort, designed to make you forget about what’s outside. Once you dive into the food, the whole place starts feeling, well, like an old, overstuffed sofa you’ve sunk into and don’t want to leave.

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The space might be an acquired tasted, but Young’s food is not. She is a self-taught, long-time Strip veteran who found her mojo with the opening of Eat downtown 2012. Her talents have toggled over the years between high-toned French (Eiffel Tower Restaurant) to steaks (P.J. Clarke’s)  to superior flapjacks (Eat), but here she’s found her wheelhouse: boldly-flavored, elemental American dishes with a certainty of purpose that only comes from a confident chef.

Young describes herself as an old soul. Old souls, she’ll tell you, get right to the point. Old souls have seen it all and they know that honesty and simplicity are what counts. An old soul eschews the novel, the contrived, and the overwrought, for simple authenticity. (It’s the reason some old souls jump on planes to Europe whenever they can to taste a country’s food where it originated — not after it’s been deconstructed and reconfigured by Instagram-addicted culinary school graduates. But enough about me.)

An old soul like Young has the confidence to put liver and onions on a menu. She knows a lot of people like liver — especially liver tossed with caramelized onions, and given a piquant punch by grainy, stone ground mustard — and that an older crowd (the types that attend Smith Center concerts religiously), will appreciate a throwback item given just the right update.  Young or old will appreciate the same attention given a thick slab of meatloaf — this one not like your momma used to make, but adorned with cauliflower puree, meaty ‘shrooms, a splash of tomato concasse and a dribbling of red wine jus. It’s comfort food to be sure, but soothing has never had so much sparkle.

Chicken (half a Cornish game hen above) get some gussying up as well with the help of a wild rice pilaf speckled with bits of pickled veggies, and a tongue-slapping chimichurri sauce. Both were so good the Food Gal® and I couldn’t decide which was more worth fighting over: the bird or the starch.

Before you get to these mains (available at lunch and dinner for the same price), you’ll have to navigate the starters, and rather than steering clear, I’d advise you to bump into as many of them as your gustatory canoe can handle. The house-made chicken liver pâté could give a few torchons of foie gras a run for their money, and the smoked trout with house-made applesauce and chive corn cakes will have everyone at your table straining for superlatives.

Most spectacular of the bunch is a head of roasted cauliflower (above), studded with pickled raisins and peppers, sprinkled with more of that chimichurri, and festooned with herbs. All of it sits on a pool of sharp, acidic sauce that’s listed as “tahini dressing” but comes off more like “tangy/fruity vinaigrette.”

As nuts as you’ll be about all of these, it will be the fried oysters (below) with horseradish aioli that will have you making plans to return as soon as you leave. Crispy, meaty and devoid of oiliness, one bite took me straight back to a Connecticut clam shack.

(All that’s missing are the seagulls)

There are also sandwiches available at lunch — including Young’s definitive pan-seared chicken breast with pesto mayo and a veggie “burger” that didn’t make me gag — as well as simple and chopped salads for those who insist.

But if you come here looking to eat light, you’re sort of missing the point. This is soulful American food made by a chef who blends flavors like a maestro — seemingly without effort, but building to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The food here is as pretty as it is delicious, and that’s really saying something.

(Live a little! This pie is to die for.)

For dessert, get whatever cobbler they’ve made that day. And the cherry pie (above). Each of them a la mode. You’ve come too far to deny yourself such a sweet release, so give in to temptation. You can thank me later.

(Open for lunch and dinner. With starters in the $10-$15 range, and mains all under $25, the food here is a serious bargain, particularly at dinner. Full cocktail bar with plenty of whiskies and libations, but the wine choices – what few there are – are of interest only to an octogenarian alcoholic.)

OLD SOUL

World Market Center

495 S. Grand Central Parkway

Las Vegas, NV 89106

702.534.0999

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas….and Paella! (Part 2)

Edo Tapas & Wine is half as big as Pamplona with twice the ambition. Its matchbox size belies an attempt to expand the flavors of Spain beyond all boundaries.  By and large it succeeds, in a forty seat space that announces from the get-go you’re in for a wild ride in tapas territory.

It may look unassuming from the front but it has quite a pedigree. Exec Chef Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran (and a survivor of the food truck craze of 8 years ago), while partner Roberto Liendo (late of Bazaar Meat) runs the front of the house. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demands the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas thing may seem like old hat by now, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.

The small, narrow space gets a big lift from a bright mural taking up an entire wall (above). The reference to Spain is dramatic, and sets the stage for a production that punches way above its weight. It presents the requisite specialty cocktails, along with a rolling gin and tonic cart, a small-but-mighty wine list (with nothing over a hundy), and those three sherries by the glass I was complaining about Pamplona not having. There’s also eight nice craft beers on hand, a variety of vermut (vermouths) and cordials, and dessert wines (all by the glass or bottle).

If you think that’s a lot going on in this teeny space (formerly home to Chada Thai), then wait until you see the menu.

Four different dressed oysters are offered — depending upon what sort of bath you like your bivalves to take. Personally, I went nuts over the tamarind mole with pickled cucumber (above), although you might prefer yours to be swimming in kiwi leche de tigre or braised melon, lemon and mint. Bottom line: they’re all fabulous.

The obligatory Spanish cheese and ham selections, and they’re perfectly fine, if totally in line with what you’ll find all over town. (This is not to damn Spanish jamon with faint praise — it is the tastiest cured pork leg in the world — but only to point out that these folks get their stuff from the same distributors as everyone else, so if you’ve chowed down on one lomo, you’ve probably tasted them all. The really expensive hams are too muy caro for our ‘burbs, and you’ll have to head to Bazaar Meat (and pay through the snout) for them.

As satisfying as these starters are, it is in the cold and hot tapas where Edo hits his stride.  His fermented tomatoes with burrata and basil air was probably the most summery summer dish I had this summer; it both sparkled and soothed the palate the way only super-sweet tomates can — making like an overripe Caprese at half the weight. While his tuna tostada was a little bland for these buds, nice big and chunky Maine lobster comes “salpicón-style — dressed with more of that “tiger’s milk” — which nicely lightens the richness of the crustacean.

On the “hot tapas” side of things, the hits just keep coming: croquetas with kimchi pisto; pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime); and something called “Bikini” — a wahfer theen, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast:

One is tempted to wax poetic about these bikinis, so packed with flavor are these two inch envelopes. So much soft crunch, so much sausage punch, my guess you’ll want to order a bunch is more than a hunch.  I overplay calling certain foodstuffs “addictive” at times, but the moniker fits here like the best cheese between bread you’ve ever eaten.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here — some are just more spectacular than others — but there’s not a clinker in the bunch. One of the more eye-popping ones is Huevos Estrellados:

…a toothsome concoction of olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers sitting atop a melange of mushrooms and fried potatoes. You can’t see the ‘shrooms underneath, but that collection of maitake, shitake, enoki, and king-oysters is crave-able in its own right. Top it all off with some garlic-parsley oil and you have a classic of Spain tweaked in all the right ways.

Of course, some purists might disagree. My friend Gerry Dawes — who probably knows as much about Spanish food and wine as any American — went apoplectic (on Facebook over it not being a proper estrellados, but he misses the point. Edo is using this menu to riff on the cuisine of Spain.  There will be hits and misses with some of his creations, but he’s putting it out there, and when the results are this lip-smacking, what’s to argue about?

The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, but, given that this is Spanish food we’re talking about, even the seafood can have a certain dense, rich sensibility, such as these Manila clams — which get the full arroz meloso de pescadores (rice seafood stew) treatment:

And when it comes to a certain famous Spanish rice dish, let’s just say that we are now blessed with a plethora of palate pleasing paella. If I had to grade the different ones in town, I’d put both Edo’s and Pamplona’s a notch below Jaleo’s, if only because there’s no substitute for the open fire smokiness imparted by José Andrés’ paella pit.

Image may contain: food(Edo’s pulchritudinous jamon paella)

None of these new places goes overboard on desserts, and this is a good thing. After bombarding your senses with oysters, clams, eggs, hams and octopus, what you’re looking for is something simple and soothing. The flan here pushes all the right buttons and the olive oil dark chocolate fudge does the same while adding an inch to your waistline. If you’re looking to go lighter, you’ll love the intensity of this strawberry granita with popcorn mousse:

….and if you’re looking for the most interesting Spanish food ever to come to off-Strip Las Vegas, you’ve come to the right place.

(Drinks are $14-$16 – and worth every penny. Tapas are priced from $7-$18, with most at the upper end of that. Paellas and stews run $25 for four modest servings. Two people can eat like royalty here for less than $100, excluding tip. )

EDO TAPAS & WINE

3400 South Jones Blvd. Suite 11A

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702. 641.1345

https://edotapas.com/