Of Cabbages and Kings…and Pizzas and Pia Zadora

The Wisdom In Carroll's Nonsensical Poem, The Walrus And The Carpenter – The Wisdom Daily

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –

Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot –

And whether pigs have wings.’

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

Image(And all the little oysters stood, and waited in a row)

Oyster season is upon us. The days in Vegas aren’t quite so hot; and the nights are even a bit cool. Spirits brighten, paces quicken, appetites increase, and Las Vegans come out of their shells, as do bivalves…inasmuch as the latter involves being on the end of an oyster fork.

Summers you see, are for hibernating, both for certain shellfish, and people accustomed to enduring 108 degree heat for weeks on end. Oysters mate in the summer (and get watery and flabby in the process), while residents of the High Mojave do the same, at least as it involves staying in our air conditioned shells, or in a swimming pool, as much as possible.

Every year, almost like clockwork, we get hungrier on September 15th. Labor Day may be the unofficial end of Summer, but for us, the weather always seems to break about two weeks later. Sure, the hot days don’t disappear entirely until mid-October, but as soon as we feel a nip of cool in the morning, we start celebrating. And by celebrating we mean going out to eat like a starving man attacking a banquet.

Through happenstance as much as planning, this year we found ourselves overwhelmed by Italian, suffused with seafood, and awash in oysters. Below are some impressions of our more noteworthy meals…and by “noteworthy” I mean ones we either loved or hated.

Image(Never eat ‘ersters in any month without a paycheck in it)

Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, we eagerly await the arrival of plump, firm ‘ersters from both coasts, and the best and freshest collection in town can usually be found at the Water Grill. Unlike the Walrus, we feel little guilt in luring a couple of dozen of these eager little creatures into our greedy maw. Instead of poetry and persuasion, we use cash…in this case around $42/dozen. Stick with West Coast is our usual mantra: they have traveled less and have more of the mineral-rich salinity we look for. The WG may be part of a chain, but it’s a chain restaurant with sole…that knows it plaice, and hasn’t floundered since landing on the L.A. scene 30 years ago.

After gorging ourselves on Fanny Bays and Indigos, we next found ourselves inundated with Italians. (In case you haven’t noticed, Vegas is lousy with Italians these days.)

An old friend met us at Piero’s for a birthday party (and we stayed for a bite); another epicurean acquaintance lured us back to Lago; everyone said Amalfi was amazing, so we had to see for ourselves. Then RPM opened for lunch, and of course we had to go. In between all these, we also squeezed in multiple lunches at Cipriani, a lunch at Esther’s Kitchen, and dinners at Milano and Rosa Ristorante. Between the eight of them, we noshed on enough noodles to numb a Neapolitan.

But you do not come here to hear about our digestion, dear readers, you come for the piquancy of our opinions. So let us get straight to the nitty Pecorino.

SHIPWRECK

Image(All show no dough)

Lago has always suffered from unfortunate nautical design that puts one in mind of a cruise ship. Which is fine if you like dining with people whose idea of culinary adventure is a carving station with a salad bar. There is truth in advertising, though, because the food here lives down to the decor.

The cheesy design also commits the sin of raising expectations. “You’d think with a contraption that impressive, they’d turn out something less crappy,” one of our companions  observed after being confronted with a pizza oven that had to cost more than a Ferrari, and is the size of a walk-in closet (above). Another dining companion (let’s call him the Restaurant Pro) said: “If they were serving this stuff in a neighborhood Eye-talian joint, you could forgive it.” What he referred to was a meal of seven different items, each more sloppy and less worth it than the first

What is unforgivable is a mini “pizzette” tasting as if the Pillsbury Dough Boy poured a thimble of so-so sauce on a saltine:

Image(Fuggidabadit)

….followed by gloppy, overpriced pasta, pedestrian, puny panzanella (bread salad), and pathetic chicken parm (see below) — the whole tourist-trapping shebang aimed at separating the credulous from their cash.

Lest you forget, Lago is located smack dab in the center of the Bellagio — a hotel which once had the greatest assortment of restaurants in Las Vegas, and maybe the world. It replaced Circo, a gastronomic gem of design, wine, solicitous service and Tuscan excellence. All Lago is servicing is the bottom line.

Sirio Maccioni must be rolling over in his grave.

Image(Somewhere, Vital Vegas is salivating)

If you’re interested (and you shouldn’t be), lunch for five, with tip and a single, modest bottle, set us back a cool $411. This included seven tubes of rigatoni for $32 which in quantity and taste would’ve been a perfect meal for a three-year old.

LET’S GO FISH

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Amalfi by Bobby Flay was a pleasant surprise, and RPM blew us away so much we can’t wait to return for dinner. Both feature by-the-numbers fare, with nothing to scare, tweaked here and there to give the place some flair.

Poetry GIFs | Tenor

The whole point of Amalfi is pesce, and it takes its template from Milos by pricing fish by the pound and letting you choose it from a display at the back of the restaurant:

Image(Bobby’s wet dream)

As with Milos, the fish is impeccably fresh and eyebrow raising-ly expensive (although we noticed a couple of species priced a buck or two/lb. less than at Milos). Appetizers toggled between ordinary (tuna tartare) to interesting (lemon-oregano prawns) to impressive (soft scrambled eggs with bottarga and tomato toast). Pastas were surprisingly astonishing, with a spaghetti limone that was loaded with Dungeness crab, and pasta “rags” (below) that showed spice, brightness, and restraint.

Image(From rags to richness)

These pastas prey among the pecunious, though, as they’re priced from $28-$38.

As splendid as the food was, the crowd was even more inspiring, because 1) there was one (it was packed on a hot, Tuesday night); and 2) everyone looked their best, rather than the cargo shortswearing/hat-backwards/flip-flopping/t-shirt sporting/mouthbreathers who usually infest this hotel in summer.

Image(Missing: wife-beaters and Bud Lite)

 

Image(“This guy Curtas says we should get the turbot…”)

If Bobby Flay can motivate people to dress for dinner (and by “dress for dinner” we mean put on a collared shirt), maybe there’s hope for humanity yet.

ENDLESS PASTABILITIES

Image(Classic cheese and pepper)

RPM is the latest Italian upgrade on the Strip, and like its competition, it plows no new ground, preferring to concentrate on quality cooking over cartwheels. One lunch for two people does not a good sample size make, but we found our charred pepperoni pizzette to be almost perfect — a slightly spongy charred crust supporting a thick layer of strong, melted cheese and good sausages:

Image(Cheesy does it)

Look closely (above) and you’ll see dough, properly proofed and baked with just the right amount of a tomato sauce  — smothered in an amalgam of nutty, serious cheese — so vibrant and umami-rich it practically explodes in your mouth. Finding a better mini-pizza in Vegas will not be easy. The cacio e pepe (above) and carpaccio were also first rate, as was the torta meringata, which roughly translates as “baked Alaska.”

Image(Don’t think Alaska the Food Gal to share)

I’d rate the pastas at RPM (carbonara, pappardelle, pomodoro...) as a little more basic than the seafood-forward ones at Amalfi (scialatielli, squid ink fettucine, gnocchi, agnolotti, and the like), as well as being slightly lower in price ($17-$42). Both show real commitment to careful cooking of Italian classics, which is a lot rarer than you’d think in this genre — it being painfully easy to throw any slop on a noodle and have Americans beat a path to your door.

A final bonus: RPM may have the best Italian wine list of any place in town that isn’t named Ferraro’s. Organized by region, it is full of interesting, off-beat bottles at acceptable markups. Only time will tell if they stick with such an ambitious wine program — Vegas is littered with the remains of interesting lists which regress to the mean once the original hoopla dies down, and the incessant demands of satisfying the less adventuresome grabs the bottom line.

Until that happens, you’ll find us scouring it for Sagrantino, Aglianico, Primitivo and all sorts of bottles you won’t find elsewhere:

TIME FOR YOUR PIA ZADORA BREAK…

Pia Zadora Photos (4 of 9) | Last.fm(Pia’s not Fonda Jane )

Why Pia, you ask?

Because Pia Zadora, like Piero’s is a pleasant reminder of days gone by — when men were men, women had big hair, and Vegas wasn’t run by a bunch of bean counters. A time when a young man could make his way in Las Vegas by sheer chutzpah, shameless womanizing, and a tolerance for substance abuse that would make Keith Richards blush.

Or so I’ve heard.

For the uninitiated, Piero’s is a Las Vegas institution I have loved to hate since 1985. Perhaps I am softening in my old age, or maybe the time has come for a reassessment, or maybe I was wearing rosé colored glasses on the night we dined. Whatever it was, it has to be on me, since the restaurant hasn’t changed a thing about itself in decades.

You still valet your car in the port cochere; enter a short hallway leading to the hostess stand; admire the giant chimps adorning the walls; and then find one of two large bars which flank a warren of dining rooms (some cozy, some huge), which are packed with a crowd who thinks nothing of slugging down a few martinis with their marinara.

Film Scene: Mad Max and Pia Zadora bring Savannah film magic(Cheers to you, Pia!)

The pint-sized chanteuse now entertains the conventioneers at “Pia’s Place” inside Piero’s on weekends, and as if on cue, we bumped into her on our way in. She’s starting to shrivel at bit (like all of us), but it’s nothing that muted lighting, pancake makeup, and an appreciative crowd can’t fix. Since sunlight and Piero’s are strangers, everyone can watch her show, and tuck into their (decent) osso buco, and (very good) linguine with clams with the confidence they look twenty years younger in these subdued rooms.

I”m not saying this place is a time warp, but if Dan Tanna walked in sporting poly-quad, triple knit bell bottoms and ordered a Harvey Wallbanger, no one would bat an eye.

Pia’s still belting them out like it’s 1982. Like all of us, she is fighting the ravages of time they only way she knows how: by sticking with what works. Piero’s works, both as a memory and institution. The food won’t win any awards but there’s plenty of it and it fits its clientele like a Tommy Bahama trunk show. The drinks are huge (and well-made) and the servers are always on it like a bonnet. When it and Pia depart this mortal vale, Las Vegas will be a poorer place.

DEEP POCKET DIVING

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Speaking of being poorer for it, if deep sea diving (into your wallet), is how you cast about, then snorkel on down to Estiatorio Milos, where dropping 400 sand dollars on a 5 lb. fagri (red porgy, below) is a delicious way to get soaked.

Image(Porgy is the best)

On the plus side, this beauty easily feeds six. But do the math: any way you sashimi it, you’re still dropping a lotta clams. Milos does a wonderful job of casting for (and landing) those angling for trophy-sized seafood, as well as others bobbing for much smaller fry. The latter usually can be found taking the bait at lunch — where the $30 special is still a steal, which allows you to drink like a….to drink a lot.

Image(Gone fishing…at Milos)

Take us home, Lewis:

“O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.”

 

The Final List – 2020

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A man cannot be too serious about what he eats. – Confucius

I can’t stand people who aren’t serious about their meals. – Oscar Wilde

We’ve spent the past week quizzing friends (many of whom we’ve dined with over the past year) about how many restaurants they thought we had been to during the pandemic. Some guessed as few as 5; most hovered in the 20-30 range; while a few put the number at around 50.

It was amusing to point out to them how wrong they were.

Care to guess?

Consider this before you do: A popular notion now holds that you have to do something 10,000 times before you get really good at it — be it hitting a baseball, knitting, or playing chess. When it comes to eating out, I eclipsed that number twenty years ago. Now, it’s too many to count. Even in an off year, I accumulated restaurants like some people do bad habits.

Image(Tempura lunch at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Yes, even in this down year (the understatement of the century), the number — according to my records (receipts, social media postings and such) — was almost 100 (96 to be precise), and I’m probably missing a few.

Many of them were visited more than once. Cipriani I probably went to 25 times; Esther’s Kitchen a dozen; Guy Savoy twice; and Kaiseki Yuzu at least 5. We finally got back to an old Mexican friend in the northeast (Los Molecajetes), discovered a great wine program in an old haunt (Grape Vine), and gained new-found respect for some superior Italian seafood (Costa di Mare).

We have mourned the death of our great frog ponds (Robuchon, Gagnaire), swelled with pride at the resilience of Chinatown, and marveled at the resurgence of downtown.

Through it all we’ve been battling the soul-crushing weight of America’s obsession with Covid. With that obsession has come wave after wave of regulations, each a cruel blow to small business owners, none more ravaged than the hospitality industry.

The irony of Covid hitting right when America’s participation in eating out was at an all time high is not lost on us — a “market correction” which was neither inevitable nor necessary. Restaurant-going was not a stock market/real estate bubble. It was an enjoyable human activity from which everyone profited.

And then we killed it, or at least let it be killed — ruining the lives of many in service of the few.

But the Curtas household couldn’t/wouldn’t let groupthink take over our lives. We certainly didn’t let it prevent us from supporting the restaurants of Las Vegas which we hold so dear.

I don’t bother with mediocrity anymore. I’ll leave exploration of the obscure to the intrepid, and of the absurd to Instagram influencers. What goes into my pie hole is the best food Las Vegas has to offer. So it has been for thirty years, and so it was over the past 12 months.

As usual, all places are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted. Our restaurant bills this year would choke a horse, but was money well spent and I’m proud to have spent it. You should consider parting with some of yours at one of these as soon as possible:

Image(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)

THE LIST 2020

  1. Barry’s Downtown Prime – 2 visits down, 1 to go before we take the measure of this new entry in Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks.
  2. Yui Edomae Sushi – still gets our nod over Kabuto by the thickness of a piece of gari.
  3. Kaiseki Yuzu – a little slice of Tokyo for those who appreciate the real deal.
  4. Letty’s – best tacos downtown. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.
  5. Good Pie – new digs are impressive…now all they need is the right to use them.
  6. The Black Sheep – another joint we don’t get to enough…because there’s only one of us to go around.
  7. Kabuto – exquisite sushi. Some prefer it to Yui; we think it’s a toss-up.
  8. 7th & Carson – haven’t been in a while but thankful for them feeding us for months during the shutdown.
  9. Carson Kitchen – new menu = renewed vigor for a downtown pioneer.Image(Esther’s is re-intenting itself)
  10. Esther’s Kitchen – we go for the pasta, head for a tent (above), and stay for the wine.
  11. Grape Vine – improved food – better than it was under the old ownership (Grape Street) – the wine program worth a trip all by itself.
  12. PublicUs – saved our bacon during the darkest days of the Covid shutdown.
  13. Los Molecajetes – so good, so far from where most gringos prefer to tread.Image(Chip chip hooray! For Sin Fronteras salsas!)
  14. Sin Fronteras Tacos – northwest Mexican worth a trip from any part of town.
  15. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna – new digs (and an expanded menu) have us more excited than Zorba at a lamb roast.Pin en Other Oldish Films
  16. Yummy Rice – The Food Gal’s® says the unagi rice bowl here is eely, eely good.
  17. Pop Up Pizza – still fave; still under-appreciated.Image(“Blueberries” at Guy Savoy)
  18. Restaurant Guy Savoy – I go here as often as my wallet and waistline will let me.
  19. Rao’s – surprisingly delicious no matter how depressing the Strip gets.
  20. Elio – remarkable, inventive, elevated Mexican, but will it make it?

  21. Ferraro’s – closed until February at the earliest (sigh).Image(Prosciutto & figs at Osteria Fiorella)
  22. Osteria Fiorella – started as a pop-up, now firmly ensconced at Red Rock; a hit from day one.
  23. Saga Pastry + Sandwich – the only thing wrong with this place is it’s too far from my house.Image(Pithivier at Partage)
  24. Partage – only went once this year and it was spectacular.
  25. Jaleo – no one does Spain better than a man named José.
  26. Capital Grille – our old reliable; also our best chain steakhouse.
  27. Pizzeria Monzu – there ought to be a line out the door for this food.Image(Dat sum dim sum)
  28. New Asian BBQ – best dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.
  29. Aloha Specialties – I like this place for a white-on-white bite (like Kahlua pig with rice and mac); The Food Gal® loathes it.
  30. Costa di Mare – so good, still stunningly beautiful. The pastas are as great as the fish, which is really saying something.
  31. Weera Thai Kitchen – one of many superb Thai restaurants in Vegas now. We’re really spoiled when it comes to our Asian alimentation. Only LA sports a better array. Image
  32. Toridokoro Raku – stunningly good chicken parts, as only the Japanese can do them.
  33. Raku – Japanese food doesn’t get any better, anywhere but Japan.
  34. Hiroyoshi – it’s so small that capacity restrictions are laughable. Beautiful, finely-wrought Japanese food, less expensive than the sushi heavyweights on Spring Mountain Road.
  35. Bazaar Meat – haven’t been in a while; always drop a bundle when I do.
  36. 8oz Korean Steakhouse – for the Korean steak lover in you. The best of the bunch.
  37. Lamaii – holding on, like a lot of its brethren. Fabulous wine list; inflammatory Thai.
  38. The Real Crepe – galettes, crepes, and a slice of Brittany on the cusp of Summerlin.
  39. La Maison de Maggie – essential when you need a French fix.
  40. Delices Gourmands – they do the most with the yeast here. Bread so fine it will have you Loave-ing Las Vegas.
  41. Rosallie Cafe – as crumby as they come when it comes to baking your day. Don’t get me tarted.
  42. Cafe Breizh – always gets a rise out of us, especially when we’re leaven beyond our means. With Pierre Gatel’s creations, we’re never bun and done. He’s always up to his baguette of tricks, and it’s usually a give and cake proposition, guaranteed to have us leaving in a glaze of glory. Think of it as cream and punishment.
  43. Japaneiro – Kevin Chong was our first post-shutdown dinner. Still the best steak in the ‘burbs.
  44. Khoury’s Mediterranean – every time we eat here I kick myself for not eating here more often.
  45. Weiss Restaurant Deli – good, but not as good as….
  46. Saginaw’s – the best deli sandwiches in town, which, sadly, isn’t saying much…about our town, not the sandwiches.Image
  47. Cipriani – I’ll see you there for lunch this Friday…and almost every Friday.
  48. Ocha Thai – downtown’s most reliable Thai.
  49. DE Thai – downtown’s most convenient Thai, now with a second location!
  50. China Mama – noodles, dumplings, cumin lamb and crispy beef to die for.
  51. Edo Tapas & Wine – now open every weeknight and killing it.
  52. Ohlala French Bistro – if it were in my ‘hood, I’d be here once a week.
  53. Rooster Boy Cafe – ditto.
  54. CUT by Wolfgang Puck –  1-2 with Bazaar Meat when it comes to beef emporium hegemony.
  55. ‘e’ by José Andrés – amazingly, re-opened this fall and is still a tough ticket.Image(2020 drove us to drink…a lot)
  56. Delmonico Steakhouse – now a senior sirloin statesman, still a superb one.
  57. Matteo’s Ristorante – superb pasta, perhaps the best on the Strip. Right now I can’t think of any better.
  58. Yum CHA – our go-to for dim sum in the southwest.
  59. Soyo Korean Restaurant – we go with our Korean friends so they can explain everything to us — one umami bomb after another.
  60. Majordomo Steakhouse – Vegas’s most interesting steakhouse; see, I said something nice about David Chang.
  61. Estiatorio Milos – closed at Cosmo, set to re-open in February in the Venetian. We wish them luck. They’ll need it.Image(Kinnara Thai)
  62. Serrano’s Mexican – nice neighborhood standby.
  63. Marché Bacchus – still the most romantic spot in town. Rosé all day? Better off red? Experiencing growing champagnes? Drawing a blanc? Wine not dine here?
  64. New York Bagel N Bakery – best bagels in town.
  65. Every Grain Sheridan Su can still score.
  66. La Strega – too far from Chez Curtas but mighty tasty.
  67. Trés Cazuelas – difficult location, great food.
  68. Players Locker by Wolfgang Puck – an under-the-radar gem.
  69. Locale – also too far from civilization, but we wish them luck.
  70. Kinnara Thai – eye-popping Thai in an unlikely location.Image(Roll with it)
  71. Cafe Mong – I didn’t think I’d love a rolled crepe (above). Boy how wrong I was.
  72. Bajamar Fish Tacos – good tacos but the bums at the front door drove us away, for good.
  73. Sin City Smokers – love their pulled pork…and the ribs.
  74. Big B’s Texas BBQ – love their brisket…and the sides
  75. The Goodwich – under new ownership. Not a good sign, especially in this climate.
  76. L&L Hawaiian BBQ – strictly for the loco moco lover in you.
  77. Magal Korean BBQ – open for lunch, so we go for the bibimbap at lunch. 
  78. 8East – remarkable Asian fusion, tucked in an obscure corner of an empty hotel (for now).
  79. Victory Burger – big burgers, good beef, slightly overdone.Image(A happy Chutima clan means a well-fed Las Vegas)
  80. Lotus of Siam – both locations now reopened (see smiling Chutimas above)!
  81. Spago – not the superstar it once was, but still in the game.
  82. ShangHai Taste – superb dumplings and other things to numb your tongue.
  83. Pho So 1 – our old Vietnamese reliable.
  84. Shang Artisan Noodle – with Covid restrictions, can only seat a comically small # of people. Image
  85. Oscar’s Steakhouse – sometime this year, we’ll do an Oscar’s v. Barry’s downtown throwdown. You’ll be able to read about it here.
  86. Oodle Noodle – Udon’t need to look any further for your wheat starch noodle fix.
  87. Kung Fu Thai & Chinese – I had a Covid fever dream that when every other restaurant in Las Vegas has closed, Kung Fu (since 1973) will still be slinging yen ta fo and cashew chicken to its loyal customers. God bless them, every one.
  88.  Mg Patisserie – Crust in case, dough yourself a favor, and don’t be a hothouse flour. You’ll only make batters worse by not rolling in here when you knead to.
  89. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – What’s going on in the Arts District right now is like a little foodie X-mas present for all of Las Vegas: three new restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, have opened in the last three weeks. This gorgeous little bento box is the hidden gem of the bunch.

Image(Oysters w/ ponzu and chives)

Also Visited This Year but Closed for Good

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Santos Guisdados Tacos

Mordeo Wine Bar

Flock & Fowl

Hall of Shame

Eiffel Tower – went here on my birthday. Two bites in I regretted it. Never again, even if it reopens.

Mon Ami Gabi – when management will treat yours truly as a pigeon to be plucked, you know they have no shame. “Keep your hand on your wallet,” as my dad used to say. You have been warned.

Final one to visit before the end of 2020…

97. Main Street Provisions – looking forward to trying it as soon as their shakedown cruise ends.

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Someone recently asked me why I go to so many restaurants. I answered by saying I’ve become the (un)official, upaid publicist for about 60 of them.

It is a role I will gladly embrace until we retire all this restricted dining nonsense…and I can get back to the role I’m best know for: being a lovable curmudgeon.

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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.

Image(Kusshi me quick)

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.