The Taste(s) of a Critic

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The rich are different from you and me. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

So are restaurant critics.

Unlike the rich in Fitzgerald’s quote though, we don’t think we’re better than you, just more observant.

More tuned in. Less distracted. More sharply aware of the fine points of the food we are sticking in our mouths.

Are we snobs? Absolutely. Of the highest order. Don’t you want any professional critic (of art, music, literature, design, etc.) to have the highest standards? To bring years of education and discrimination to the subject at hand?

Of course you do.

Nothing would be more boring, and less useful, than a “critic” who liked everything. Fast food tacos? Great! Canned soup? Beat a path to that door! The 24th link in a celebrity chef’s chain? Don’t miss it!

If you’re looking for that sort of reflexive boosterism, Instagram has plenty of influencers for you.

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If you’re looking for an educated point of view, then you seek out and read someone who knows their stuff. And by “knows their stuff” I mean has a wealth of knowledge based upon real world experience, travel, study, and deep involvement with the subject. You want opinions, Yelp is full of them. If you want to learn something, read on.

To a food critic, every bite, every meal is really about one thing:

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Perspective. A point of view. Vision. The intent behind the food. What is it that this restaurant is trying to do and how well do they do it?

There can be as much perspective behind a taco truck as there is at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Is the truck content to sling the same stuff dozens of others are doing, at a cheap price, to help you feed your face quickly and cheaply while helping it pay the rent? If so, then there ya go.

Or is it aiming higher? Are the salsas not out of a can? Are the tomatoes riper, the meat better, and the seasonings finer? Were the tortillas made minutes or days ago? After your second or third bite, are you saying to yourself, “Self, I can’t wait to come back here”?  Or are you just happy you are not hungry anymore?

Not every meal can provoke this kind of reaction:

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…but it’s what you always seek — the Holy Grail of Food — something so intense, so transporting, that memories are stirred of the visceral, the elemental, the emotional ties we have to food.

All a critic is looking for is either that imaginary transportation to another place, or to be riveted to where you sit. If food achieves neither it has failed you. Your mother’s chicken soup could do it; Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes do it. A great piece of meatloaf can be just as soul-satisfying as a French Laundry degustation.

One of the reasons critics disdain fast food is because it divorces food from time and place, memory and feeling. Fast food is food as fuel and that’s it. There is no connection, no enrichment gained from eating it. The spiritual binding brought forth from a simple home-cooked meal is non-existent. We cram, we get full, we are connected to nothing but the will to stay alive.

If chain restaurants represent one end of the feeding spectrum, then critics occupy the obverse. Food is the furthest thing from fuel in a critic’s mind. It is an ideal to be sought; perfection to pursue….sometimes with hesitance, sometimes with gusto. To search and find perfection is our quest, but we’ll settle for excellence, wherever we find it.

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Perfection is unobtainable, in art or food, but excellence can be anywhere. And in searching for it with every bite, you acquire what I call a taste Rolodex in your head.
Every bite contains a comparison. A spoonful of ice cream gets graded against every other one you’ve ever had. When you stumble into Giolitti in Rome for a scoop, from your first lick you’re comparing it to La Strega Nocciola in Florence, which, you recall, kicked the ass of that poseur franchised crap you had in New York that time. And when you stroll into Gelato di Milano in Las Vegas, consciously or unconsciously you are holding them to those standards.

The glory of course is in the pursuit; the obsessive hunt for the best. And if you’re going to obsess over anything, what’s better than having an all-consuming ardor for something you have to do twice a day to stay alive?

Yes, we can dutifully shovel proteins, amino acids, starches and complex sugars into our piehole, solely to stay alive, and not give them another thought.

But nature gave us a sense of smell and taste for a reason: to discern the edible from the inedible in the wild. Modern man doesn’t live in fear of dying from toxic berries or diseased meat, but the same skills our ancestors used to eat healthily thousands of years ago serve us well today when deciding the right time to eat a piece of fruit, or when a protein has been cooked to its optimum flavor potential.

Image(More liver and wine, and less sodium please)

On some level, that’s all a food critic can tell you. Did they know how to season it and know when it’s done? There is your baseline. Then, there are finer points and deeper dives: Did the foie gras poached in Sauternes (above) taste of wine-drenched, silky liver, or just salt? Was it properly cleaned?  Is the recipe trying to mimic a classic? Or a riff on it? Or is it a copy of a copy of a riff on a classic? Is the ornamentation on the plate for taste or show or both? Are there too many elements to a dish or not enough? (Rarely the latter.)

All gastronomes are searching for dishes of high amplitude – where the flavor elements converge into a single gestalt. A good critic should likewise be such an inquisitive epicure (or at least aspire to be one), even though many, sadly, are not.

A knowledgeable critic has a wealth of experience in his brain (that Rolodex thing again) to give you answers to these questions. Does that mean he’s right and you’re wrong if you disagree with him? No, but if he/she is doing the job right, at least they’ve given you a baseline of information upon which to make your own judgments.

As with movies, a good critic can not only tell you if something is good, but why it is so. No one said it better than Rogert Ebert:

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are “just looking for a good time.” He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Substitute “food” for “movies” in the above paragraph and you have the best defense of a restaurant critics I can think of.

Finally, we come to the question of the actual tasting itself. How does a critic evaluate a dish? Is it different from how you taste food? Most likely. It is certainly a lot faster.

Hypersensitivity is our calling card — to raw ingredients, degree of doneness, balance, temperature, spices, herbs, texture, mouthfeel (not the same thing), harmony, assertiveness, amplification of one note over another — all of which goes racing through our brain before the second bite.

As with wine or music, once you understand the subject on a deeper level, you’re incapable of being satisfied with mediocrity. You might be perfectly happy grooving to the sweet, sweet sounds of Donny and Marie singing their greatest hit, but someone schooled in classical music or modern jazz is not so easily amused. In another life, Domino’s pizza might’ve sufficed; now it makes you want to barf.

Then there’s that pesky perspective thing again: how does this dish, this restaurant, this meal, fit within the context of every other meal, you’ve had?

Back to Ebert again, he quotes Socrates when arguing that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He pushes the movie goer to understand both their and a filmmaker’s philosophy about a movie, in order to explain with some depth why you like or don’t like a film.

It would certainly be nice if all movie buffs had that level of understanding, just as I would argue that if everyone who eats (and that would be everyone) would examine their food with same intellectual rigor a critic does, the world would be a happier, healthier place.

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In reality, this will never happen. All a passionate critic can hope for is to shine a small ray of enlightenment on your meal. You should go to Bouchon for oysters, for example, because they always seem to get the plumpest, briniest specimens in town. (Or Sage, for their classic Tabasco sorbet-topped beauties, above.) The selection at Bouchon is never too large and the staff always knows their bivalves. This is the sort of information an informed consumer should have in their holster before dropping fifty bucks on a dozen of them.

Does this mean you will identify the watermelon/cucumber notes of a deep-pocketed Kusshis the same way I will? Perhaps not, but if you taste them next to some $1 oyster bar (Hello, Palace Station!), you would find it’s no contest. Such is the ground a critic plows so you won’t have to.

Yes, I get ecstatic over restaurants like Bouchon and Sage, just like I do over oysters, pizza, steaks, tacos and the fanciest French food you can imagine. (I can still recall my oyster epiphany in Brussels almost thirty years ago, when the slippery little critters were so fresh and alive they contracted when hit with a squirt of lemon.) Such was the beginning of a life-long affair.

As any romantic can tell you, once you fall in love, falling in like is no longer an option. To be a good critic, you must love your subject even when it isn’t loving you back.

True love is like that.

 

TATSUJIN X

Anyone who knows me knows I’m nuts about Japanese food. I was crazy about it for years (decades really) before I actually went to Japan.

For me, going to Japan was like having sex for the first time — something I thought about, read about, and fantasized about before it really happened. Then, once I went, I realized what I’d been missing. And like a love-struck teenager, all I could do was fantasize about doing it again.

It was in Tokyo when I realized that eating Japanese food in America was really nothing more than foreplay — most Japanese food here being but a teasing, pornographic representation of the real thing. The real deal envelopes you, transports you, titillates the senses and pleases the palate in ways that get lost once the recipes travel across the Pacific. (A country obsessed with fresh fish and umami will do that to you.)

But as with many things edible and Asian, things have improved immeasurably over the last decade. Our finest Japanese places — Kabuto, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku, Kaiseki Yuzu, Monta, et al — do a fine job of recreating the food of their homeland. Thanks to an influx of dedicated chefs (and the wonders of air freight), faithful re-creations of noodle parlors and intimate sushi bars are now in our backyard. The fact that many of them are tucked away in odd locations only adds to their verisimilitude.

(A good rule of thumb when looking for the genuine article in Japanese food is to look for any Japanese word in the title of the restaurant. ( Korean-owned “Japanese” restaurants usually just slap the word “sushi” up there, knowing everyone will come for their California rolls.) Any nebulous Nippon nomenclature generally is a good sign, even if it tells you nothing. Because when it comes to most things Japanese, the more obscure something is, the better. )

And it doesn’t get much more obscure than Tatsujin X.

(Poetry on a teppan)

Stuck in the middle of an old strip mall in the shadow of the Palms Hotel, Tatsujin X (the name means “master”) is the most recent addition to our expanding catalogue of authentic Asian eats, and might be the last word in nondescript eateries. Only the noren cloth awning out front gives you a hint that something strange and wonderful lies within. As in Japan, the signage tells you nothing but the name.

Those in the know will discern its name to denote the teppanyaki cooking of Japan — the flat, steel griddle (teppan) upon which various foodstuffs are grilled, broiled or pan-fried (yaki). Call it a teppan or plancha or good old frying pan, what you get is food prepared on a hot, smooth metal surface upon which a dexterous chef can work wonders.

The showier aspects of this food gave rise to the post-WWII Japanese steak house craze, where knives got thrown and food got flamed, all to the oohs and ahhs of prom dates everywhere. But crowd-pleasing this place is not.  Tatsujin is to your average “Japanese steakhouse” what Jiro Dreams of Sushi is to Beer Fest.

Think of Tatsujin as Benihana with a PhD.

What Grand Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa aims for at this bare-spare 13 seat counter is not the applause of wet-behind-the-ears teens or well-lubricated tourists. He is shooting for appreciation on a deeper level: the sort of gratitude bestowed by black belt epicureans who know the right stuff when they taste it. And what they taste is an 8-course meal like nothing in Vegas.

You have to go to a Shinjuku alleyway to find food this good, starting with a “chef’s choice” platter (above) of a crispy sawagani crab  flanked by a bright salmon tartare, spicy edamame beans, a soy salad and meltingly tender strips of barely-grilled rib eye. All of it sets you up for a well-paced courses to come, from a sparkling wakame (seaweed) salad, to a dashimaki-tamago omelette gently wrapped around strands of king crab and oozing sea urchin. If there’s a bigger umami-bomb in town than this egg concoction, I’ve yet to find it.

(‘erster innards – yum)

As you’re swooning from the seafood omelette with its cross-hatching of mayo and sweet ponzu sauce, you’ll notice the seafood star of the show: a Brobdingnagian oyster the size of a filet mignon. It is designed to intimidate the most ardent ‘erster eater (me), and it does.

These five-year old beauts come from Washington State, and are not meant to be slurped, but instead, they are meant to be grilled and sliced…the better to see and taste all that fleshy bivalve muscle and those oyster innards. (There’s no way around it: what you see and eat are the oyster’s intestines. The good news is the only thing they’re filled with is algae and other microscopic sea veggies.)

Before you get to that big boy, however, you’ll first be served a hot, oily broth containing big, meaty chunks of clams. One of my dining companions called it a clammy bagna cauda, which pretty much summed it up. Both of these sweet bivalves will have seafood lovers in hog heaven. Less adventuresome types should take their favorite intrepid foodie friend along to share what they can’t handle.

From there you’ll move on to simple, teppan-grilled vegetables which act as an intermezzo to the proteins.

(Strip-san meet Rib eye-san)

Three steaks are offered (fillet, rib eye, strip), with a forth of imported Japanese wagyu for a $35 surcharge). Sea bass (excellent), salmon (good) are a bone thrown to non-meat eaters. Both are perfectly fine pieces of fish, well-handled and cooked, but they sort of miss the point of the joint. The steaks are the stars here, and they are lightly seasoned and gently cooked as perfectly as beef can be. There’s no denying the melt-in-your-mouth appeal of the expensive wagyu, but my Japanese friends profess to like the denser, beefy quality of the American “Kobe” better. Either way, the cuts are seared to a level of subtle succulence you don’t achieve with the pyrotechnics of charcoal grilling.

(American rib eye)

There probably should be a chicken option too, but as soon as Nakazawa starts trying to please everyone, this place will lose the vibe that makes it so special. The specialness comes from remaining true to the single set, coursed-out meals that defines many small restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is not a “something for everyone” culture — not eating-wise anyway. Restaurants do what they do well, and you’re expected to value them for their individual styles of cooking, not demand that you want something “your way.” This is going to be a challenge for Tatsujin as it moves forward.

However you like it, there’s no way to improve upon the final savory course. Choose either a thick, pork-filled okonomi-yaki pancake (above), or garlic rice. Both will have you dropping your chopsticks in awe. The pancake, served with waving katsuobushi (bonito) flakes dancing atop it, would almost be a meal unto itself somewhere else, and the garlic rice is a testament to great food coming in deceptively simple packages. It’s not much to look at, but soothing-sweet-nutty garlic permeates every bite of the sushi-quality grains. This is a grown-up rice dish for connoisseurs of starch.

Desserts are three in number and very Japanese. If you’re very Japanese, you will love them. If you’re not, stick to the ice cream.

To recap: Tatsujin is basically a fixed-price, fixed-meal steakhouse. (In Asia they call these fixed-course meals “sets.”) You pay one price (from $50-$70) and you receive eight dishes, four of which give you some choice (salad, protein, and whether you want the pancake or the rice, and dessert). It is not a menu for picky eaters; nor is it a place to take someone who demands to know whether they will “like something” before they order it. The whole idea behind teppanyaki restaurants is to sit down, enjoy the show and let the chefs work their magic.

Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work, I felt like I did in January, 2008, at the early days of Raku. Then, I was watching the birth of a new kind of restaurant — one that plugged into a new, sophisticated zeitgeist of budding internet gastronauts learning about Japanese food. Will Tatsujin be the next Raku (albeit with a much more limited palette)? Or will it be another Omae (remember it?) — a genre-bending, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broaden Las Vegas’s Japanese food cred?

Only time will tell, but we are a much more knowledgeable food community now than we were ten years ago. Our Japanese food scene has also increased exponentially since then. The time would seem to be right for us to embrace this sort of cooking in this sort of restaurant. Tatsujin is now our most unique Japanese restaurant and steakhouse, and it is certainly the closest you can get to Tokyo without flying there.

(The prices above do not include beverages, but as of this writing only water, tea and some soft drinks are offered. You can BYOB but they ask that you tactfully hand your covered bottles to the staff upon entering, and they will pour your (beer, sake, wine) from the kitchen into ceramic cups as you request. For the quality of the meat and the cooking and the show, and all the attendant dishes, this place has to be considered the best steak deal in town. One of our meals was comped, the other, with the Japanese wagyu surcharge, came to $225/two, including a $50 tip.)

TATSUJIN X

4439 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.771.8955

MICHAEL MINA Returns to the Sea

I almost sued Michael Mina once. More accurately, Michael Mina’s partners tried to hire me to sue him.

My law firm wanted me to take the case, but I demurred because….well….simply because I liked his restaurant so much.

The underpinnings of that suit had to do with the divorce that was then underway between the Bellagio and the Aqua Group — the company (and restaurant) that launched Mina’s career in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. By 1997, Aqua had become Frisco’s most famous seafood restaurant, and Steve Wynn (who had already lured Julian Serrano here from there), needed a seafood star to complete his murderer’s row of chefs at the Bellagio.

Aqua Las Vegas opened to great acclaim in 1998 (as did all of Bellagio’s stars), and for 7 years it was the unchallenged cooking champion of all things from the sea. As its eighth birthday approached, deals were coming to an end and leases needed re-negotiating. Mina apparently wasn’t in step with whatever his partners wanted, and that’s when both sides started lawyering up and I got the call.

I don’t know anything else about the dispute except that within a matter of months, Aqua was out and Michael Mina (the chef and the restaurant) was in.

Smartest move me and the Bellagio ever made.

Aside from a drift away from the seafood that made him famous, not a lot has changed at Michael Mina over the years. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Vegas (you can thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. The one design flaw was the bar to the left as you enter. Originally designed as a sushi bar, it was small and awkward and not conducive to cocktails (or a pre-prandial glass of vino) — with the drinks (formerly) being handed down over a high ledge in front of the seats. As you can see above, this is no longer a problem.

Neither is the menu re-vamp, which returns Michael Mina (the restaurant) to its roots. With this re-boot, the fish-friendly MM of yore is now alive and swimming in the Bellagio Conservatory. Taking a clue from Estiatorio Milos, a seafood display tempts as you are led past the bar, and if looking at whole branzino, John Dory, striped bass, Hawaiian kampachi and Arctic char doesn’t put you in the mood for a fish fry, nothing will.

Mina made his name as a seafood chef. His early fame came from treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and pairing tuna with foie gras. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than delicate flowers to be barely trifled with.  Where the Italians and Greeks barely dress their seafood with anything more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French nap theirs with the barest of butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be assaulted (in a good way) with sauces. Thus does lobster come bathed in brandy and cream (in his ethereal pot pie), while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory gets a dressing of intense, fermented black beans and bok choy. In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc with the phyllow-crusted sole, but he can’t resisted coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream,  His chefs will grill one those whole fish (or a half for 1-2 diners) and adorn it with grilled peppers and preserved oranges, or accent it with Thai green-coconut curry after deep-frying it Asian-style.

When it comes to fish, yours truly is something of a seafood snob (imagine that?). My rules of thumb when ordering a whole fish are simple:

Rule #1: If John Dory (aka San Pierre, aka San Pietro) is on the menu, get it.

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The John Dory is an exquisite fish – thick and meaty, but also delicate, not-too fatty and finely-grained. There is a firmness to the meat which will stand up to all sorts of preparations, but a soft sweetness to it that demands a careful hand. It goes well with a variety of sauces, and will stand up to strong accents — like the scallions, Serrano peppers and fermented black bean treatment it gets here. When properly cooked, it takes a rightful place in my pantheon of perfect pisces, along with wild turbot, fresh-caught Pomapno, and true Dover sole.

Rule #2 is: Only eat fish in a fish restaurant.

Rule #3: In a fish restaurant as good as this one, either close your eyes, point and pick, or ask the knowledgeable staff about the variations in species and how they are complimented by the cooking styles.

That last one is crucial, because on any given night, 6-8 whole fish are laid out before you, each begging to be grilled/smoked over applewood, broiled and beaned, or deep-fried with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed fish (snapper, sea and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating and sauce, while the denser Dory, kampachi and char demand to be basically broiled.

Before you get to them, however, you’ll have to navigate the shellfish waters, which are teeming with terrific options. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe pointed us to the “petite charcoal-grilled platter” ($130) which is more than enough for four. Nothing against the brisk and briny oysters and cold lobster you find all over town, but this time of year calls for warmth, and grilling the scallops, oysters and Maine lobster with a miso-garlic-yuzu glaze is just the ticket on a brisk fall evening:

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The only problem with the new menu is there are too many great choices. Sharpe and g.m. Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between the Mina classics (caviar parfait, tuna tartare, hamachi crudo), with these new (“Market Light”) items to build your best meal, and that sounded like a sound plan to me.

Speaking of classics, most of them are still there. (Pagani told me there’d be a revolt among some regular customers if the tartare, parfait, pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole were taken off the menu.) And why should they be? They’re classics for a reason. There may be no better starting course on earth than Mina’s caviar parfait:

….and even his steak Rossini is justifiably famous,. But for my money, the real show-stopper (a blend of Mina’s oeuvre, old and new) is his seared tuna and foie gras starter:

Mina has always known fatty liver like a Korean knows cabbage, and three forkfuls will prove it to you. Take a bite of the tuna, then take a bite of the foie, then take a bite of them both together. No meat-meets-fish dish ever became greater than the sum of its two (magnificent) parts than this beauty. It’s expensive ($57), but it’s more than enough for two and almost a complete meal in itself for one.

If you have room after all that seafood-y goodness, don’t miss the classic chocolate bar with salted caramel mousse, or the Egyptian rice pudding (almost as good as Greek!), or the pineapple granita with vanilla panna cotta and Sicilian pistachios (below). Desserts here have been wonderful for as long as I can remember (which is all the way back to 1998), and as with the fish, whatever you point to will be worth it.

A word about wine. No one goes to the Bellagio looking for wine bargains, but this list is well-chosen with lots of white wines at (for the Strip at least) reasonable prices that match well with the food. My sweet spot when looking at Strip wine lists is the $60-$120 range, and if you root around, you’ll find a few German Rieslings that fit the bill — like Müller-Catoir Kabinett for $80. The bright acidity of drier German whites compliments Mina’s love of bold, rich flavors, as do the more mineral-rich Chablis and less-complex (read: cheaper) white Burgundies — which you’ll find more than a few bottles of that don’t break the bank. Anyone who orders a Cali cab with this food ought to be taken out and shot (figuratively speaking).

The half-fish here run around $60-$75, which is a (relative) bargain. Most of the whole fish (that easily feed four) are double that. If you split some appetizers and go this route, you can get out of here for around $100/pp. Tasting menus are $138 and $188, respectively, and are more than worth it if you’re the “go big or go home” type. The last time I paid for a meal at MM, Bill Clinton was president.

MICHAEL MINA

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

866.259.7111

https://www.bellagio.com/en/restaurants/michael-mina.h