The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

HATSUMI

There are three things you’ll notice about Hatsumi as you approach it: 1) the strange neighborhood it’s in; 2) the walled-off fortress (inside a refurbished motel, above) that encases it; and 3) its nondescript entrance (below). None of these are exactly welcoming. All of them may give you pause before you enter.

Regardless of how you feel about the design, take the plunge pilgrim, because excellent eats lie within, courtesy of the Downtown Project’s latest über-cool real estate venture.

Before we get to praising the food, let’s address the elephant in the room. Can we come right out and say it? The DTP (the organization created by Tony “Mr. Personality” Hsieh to revive downtown) has been a disaster, restaurant-wise. Its attempts to create a viable food and restaurant scene has been a slow, painful, uphill climb, with more do-overs than my love life. I’ve lost track of the failures, the buy-outs and the re-boots of various places, and Hsieh’s real estate maneuvers have stultified, rather than revitalized, much of the neighborhood.

After ten years of dumb ideas and over-hyped music festivals, downtown continues to struggle due to its primary problem: a lack of residents to support its non-casino businesses.

What Hsieh and his sycophants have done, however, is create a cult of insiders who treat downtown Las Vegas like a private club. There’s really not enough of them to support more than a few bars and restaurants, but the whole point of the Fergusons (the walled-off space housing Hatsumi) is that there may be enough of them to turn this renovated motel space into a foodie-centric hipster hangout…er….uh….excuse me…a “curated market cultivating local music, art, nature, food and creatives/makers.” (Think Container Park without the smell of desperation.)

To do this, the DTP has recruited Dan Krohmer — one of our most successful local chefs (cf. Other Mama) — to create a food and drink scene compelling enough to make these folks want to flock here. (Krohmer, apparently, is one of those “creatives” who doesn’t mind being called by an adjective.)

Approaching the courtyard, you’ll see some giant, upended truck sculpture that signals you’re in the land of Burning Man. Impressive it is, but nothing gives you a clue that a robatayaki/yakitori restaurant (one operated by a bunch of gaijin, no less) lies behind it.

This is intentional. The whiff of exclusivity is everywhere. You’re just supposed to know, you know? In other words, if you have to ask about Hatsumi, you’re probably not hip enough to be here.

When it comes to Krohmer’s food, however, there are plenty of reasons to raise your coolness quotient.

Once you enter, things start to make sense. The elongated, skinny room is situated sideways with the kitchen and bar right in front of you, just a couple of steps from the doorway. To the left and right are comfortable booths, and the left-to-right wide space is surprisingly comfy and welcoming.

Krohmer’s other restaurant, Other Mama, is all about seafood, and he’s received much local acclaim for his unique spin on sushi, crudo and all things swimming. With Hatsumi, he’s ditched the yanagi for a yaki in order to marinate, skewer and grill a host of bite-size Japanese delicacies —  the sort of quickly-consumed food you find underneath train tracks all over Tokyo.

What you’ll start with involves either a cocktail, beer or sake. The wine list is practically non-existent — just like in Japan. The selection of sakes is impressive, and priced for all budgets. (I make no claims of brewed rice beverage expertise, beyond knowing that, as with wine, you rapidly hit a point of diminishing returns as you go up in price.) Bottles are offered in both 300ml and 720ml sizes, making light imbibing a breeze if you’re a party of one or two. Nothing goes better with this food.

(My oh my okonomiyaki)

If you want to turn completely Japanese, you’ll head straight to the okonomiyaki — a savory cabbage pancake here spiked with shrimp and bacon. It may not be composed with the same tenderness as the ones as Tatsujin X or Raku, but it pushes all the right umami buttons. From there you should proceed to the breaded and deep-fried eggplant katsu, which will have even eggplant haters reflexively grabbing for second bites.

(Tantalizingly terrific tataki)

Both of these come under the “Plates” section of the menu and are meant to be shared, as are the gyoza (here with that crispy skirt thing that’s all the rage), beef tataki salad (swimming in ponzu), and Lomi Lomi (ocean trout, also swimming in chili-enhanced ponzu).  Less acidic, but equally satisfying, are the poached chicken salad, nicely dressed with a mild, miso vinaigrette and full of big chunks of cashews, and asparagus chawanmushi — a baked, grainy, white tofu custard that tastes better than it looks.

Having made three visits here, it appears this section of the menu is a work in progress. Krohmer made his name by creating a core menu and then playing off it, seasonally. I expect some of this menu is still in flux, depending upon how the neighborhood reacts to his warm mushroom salad (a bit dense for summertime), or a jumble of braised pork bellies (kakuni) on a plate — a recipe straight from the David Chang playbook.

If they’re available, get the crispy quail breast stuffed with ground pork flecked with veggies. Unless you’re a tofu lover skip the house-made stuff (thick slabs in a cool dashi broth that is the very definition of the bland leading the bland). You’re better off with the pickled vegetables — they’re a lot tastier and a treat unto themselves.

(Smoke some kushi, grab a kushi)

Then, there are the skewers. Lots of them, grilled carefully over binchotan charcoal, and glazed with sweet soy. The perfect bar food. Food you can contemplate, or absentmindedly nibble as you drink or concern yourself with more incorporeal matters.

Las Vegas doesn’t have a pure yakitori restaurant — one specializing solely in grilling chicken parts — but this is the closest we’ve come.  Yes, there are izakayas on Spring Mountain Road and points south, but Hatsumi is the first to raise the grilling of bird parts to a specialty of its own. Heart, liver, thigh, meatball, you name it, they’re grilling it…to a “T”. Juicy, succulent, meat from the whole bird comes to your table on point and perfect.

Like a lot of seemingly simple food, the beauty is in the details — in this case cutting each morsel to a similar size and watching them to the exact second of proper doneness. Nothing is worse than overcooked chicken, and nothing less appealing than the opposite. Here, you won’t have to worry about either and will drop your kushi in appreciation.

As for dessert, just remember what you’ve been told (by me) dozens of times: if you want a great dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.

Krohmer’s menu is striking in its foreignness, and rather stubborn insistence on hewing closely to the izakaya template. How he carefully articulates the flavors of Japan, without compromise, is something to be admired, but it begs the question(s): Is downtown Las Vegas ready for real Japanese food? Are there enough residents, true believers, and Downtown Project acolytes to provide it with enough customers? Could it (shudder) be good enough to actually draw people from the ‘burbs to these long-neglected blocks?

Well, it certainly drew these three gals down there one night, and each of them looked about as hip as a halter top…so there’s hope.

My first meal here was comped; my next two ran us around $100/two including a small bottle of sake and two cocktails. You can easily get out of here for half that if you want just a few skewers, a share plate and some sides. .

HATSUMI

Fergusons Downtown

1028 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.268.8939

 

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.