A Tale of Two Fishes

The critic’s job is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator.

I got into food writing to be a consumer advocate. It wasn’t to brag about my culinary adventures, or create a diary of my gastronomic life with pictures of every meal. I wasn’t interested in imposing my standards or condescending to those who didn’t measure up. As big a snob as I am (have become?), it wasn’t elitism that motivated me.

As a product of the 60s and 70s, I’ve always looked at consumer advocacy as a noble calling. As a serious restaurant-goer, I started thinking 30 years ago about a way to turn my obsession into something worthwhile for my fellow food lovers. (This was a good fifteen years before anyone used the term “foodie.”)

To put it simply, I wanted to use my experience and share my knowledge with others about where to find the “good stuff.” Still do.

In these days of Yelp, Instagram “influencers” and food blogging braggarts, it’s easy to forget the original reason behind restaurant reviewing; the raison d’être being simply to start a conversation about where best to spend your dining-out dollars.

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Without boring you with a history lesson, the first acknowledged “restaurant reviewer” was a fellow named Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière  (pictured above, usually abbreviated to Grimod de la Reynière or simply “Grimod”) — a rather weird chap* who compiled a list of restaurants in Napoleonic Paris, to help its burgeoning middle-class choose a place to dine, at a time when eating out in restaurants was first becoming the popular thing to do.

Grimod was also one of the first to popularize the terms “gourmet” and “gourmand.” He introduced the idea of food criticism as something that “reestablished order, hierarchy, and distinctions in the realm of good taste” through the publication of texts that helped define the French food scene, back when it was the only food scene worth defining.

(Grimod ate here…at Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, in 1803)

Put another way, Grimod pretty much invented the gastronomic guidebook. While hardly a saint, he is nevertheless the spiritual patron saint of restaurant critics — the person who first influenced the tastes and expectations of restaurant consumers, and inserted a third party between the chef and the diner.

I thought about all of this when I had two meals recently: one great and one horrid, at two ends of our restaurant spectrum.

The centerpiece of each meal was a piece of fish. A flat fish to be precise. To my surprise, the frozen Asian “sole” (at the top of the page) was the more satisfying of the two. The “fresh” Dover (or so it was called) sole was horrendous. A stale, fishy, musty-mushy abomination of seafood that only a landlubber sucker could love.

The frozen Asian fish cost $26. The “Dover” sole, $70.

The better fish dish was the culmination of a great meal at a relatively unsung neighborhood restaurant — Oh La La French Bistro. Its counter-part ended what was supposed to be a big deal meal at an “exclusive” Strip restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Michael Symon. (In reality, it’s a branding/management deal using the Symon name. The hotel owns and runs the restaurant.)

Before we address the failure of that fish, let us first sing the praises of Oh La La. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall smack in the middle of Summerlin, Richard Terzaghi’s ode to casual French cooking is a gem among the zircons of west Lake Mead Boulevard.

My contempt for Summerlin is well-known (it being the land of million dollar homes and ten cent taste buds), but there’s no disdain for the faithful French recreations put out by Terzaghi, at lunch and dinner, at very fair prices.

(Straight from Paris to Summerlin)

At Oh La La the service is always fast and friendly, the wine list simple, pure and approachable. The bread is good, the foie gras terrine even better. OLL might also have the best steak tartare (above) in town — its combo of gherkins, mustard and onions hits a flavor profile that takes me straight back to Le Train Bleu in the Gare Lyon.

Winners abound all over its menu: frisee salad “La Lyonnaise”, escargot, prawns “risotto” with Israeli couscous, steak frites, mussels, endive salad, great French fries and simple, satisfying desserts, all of them faithful to the homeland without a lot of fuss. And whenever they post a special — be it a seasonal soup or a lamb stew — I always get it and I’m never disappointed.

Contrast this to the “secret” hideaway that is Sara’s — a “curated dining experience” in a “luxurious secret room” where we were told more than once you had to make reservations weeks in advance. The entrance to it is behind a semi-hidden door at the end of the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.  I have no idea where all that “luxurious” curation occurs, but from my vantage point, it looked no fancier than a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. As for the meal being “curated” all I can say is, at this point in my life, when I hear words like that, I start looking for the Vaseline.

(Pro tip: Rather than buy into all the faux exclusivity, skip the secrecy and stay in Mabel’s for some smoked ribs. Your wallet will be heavier, and your tummy a lot happier.)

(Squint real hard and you’ll see the brown butter. Counting the capers is easy.)

The shittiness of the fish wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the rest of the meal at Sara’s had been up to snuff. But the menu was nothing more than one over-priced cliché after the other (caviar, “Truffle Fried Chicken”, lobster salad, duck fat fries, crispy Brussels sprouts, etc.) at least half of which wouldn’t pass muster at the Wynn buffet.

Truffles were MIA in the rudimentary fried chicken, the forlorn caviar presentation looked like it came from a restaurants 101 handbook, and the rubbery lobster salad tasted like it had been tossed with sawdust.

Memories are also vivid of gummy pasta with all the panache of wallpaper paste, and some heavily-breaded, by-the-numbers escargot.

That the joint considers it groovy (or oh-so celeb cheffy) to begin your meal with a giant crispy, smoked beef rib (as an appetizer no less) is also a testament to the “if it’s good for the ‘gram, it’s all good” mentality of this place. Appearances being everything these days, you know.

But when the fish hit the table, I hit the bricks. It may appear appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. It was bred for beauty not substance (that appearance thing again), and calling it simply “fishy” would be an understatement. It was either stale or freezer-burned (or both), and came with zero brown butter and exactly two capers atop it. It wasn’t overcooked but it should have been — a little more heat might’ve killed some of the smell. All this and less for $70…at a supposed “upscale, exclusive” dining enclave in the Palms.

“Who are they fooling with this shit,” was all I could think to myself.

After three straight awful dishes, I had had enough. “This place is terrible!”, I bellowed to all within earshot. I then threw my napkin down, and stormed out — the first time in this century I’ve done so. Being a keen observer of human nature, the solicitous manager sensed my displeasure and followed me outside. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional, but the damage was done.

What ensued was a polite conversation best summarized thusly:

Me: Does anyone here actually taste this food, or are you just content to rip off tourists who’ll buy anything?

Him: Thank you for your concerns, sir, I’ll pass them along to the kitchen.

At first, I agonized about how to handle this abysmal experience: Give them another try? Rip them a new one on social media? Forget about it altogether?

Then, I remembered why I got into this business. It was for you, dear reader. To help you eat better, spend wiser, blow the trumpet for good places and expose the bad.

Just like good old Grimod.

For twenty-five years I have maintained a personal code that excludes the little guy from my withering gaze — but treats the big boys on the Strip as fair game.

Sara’s is fair game.

You have been warned.

(My meal at Oh La La was comped but we left a huge tip. A foodie friend picked up the tab (whatever it was) at Sara’s.)

OH LA LA FRENCH BISTRO

2120 N. Rampart Blvd. #150

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.222.3522

https://www.ohlalafrenchbistro.com/

SARA’S

Palms Hotel – Inside Mabel’s BBQ

702.944.5941

https://web.palms.com/saras.html

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>

* Grimod once faked his own death and threw a funeral party for himself to see who would show up. On another occasion, he dressed up a dead pig as a person and sat it at the head of a table at a fancy banquet he was throwing. His used a mechanical prosthesis to eat and write because, depending upon who you believe, he was either born with deformed hands or (as he liked to explain), pigs chewed off his fingers as a young child.

(The world’s first restaurant guide)

 

 

The Evolution of a Critic

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(Ed. note: People are always asking me” “How did you become a food critic?” Here is the answer.)

Food writer John Mariani once said there are 3 kinds of restaurant critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”

The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat. Ask any editor and they will tell you they prefer a real writer who wants to become a food critic, to a passionate foodie who wants to (try to) become a writer. Getting real writers to write about real restaurants is usually a lot easier than getting them into a collared shirt.

Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic years ago. For the longest time, I ate everything in sight and was pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. Somewhere over the past decade, I shed my omnivorous obsessions and replaced them with unabashed epicurean snobbery, and therein lies the tale.

John Anthony Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. As a preteen in the 1960s, I circumnavigated the United States with my family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle, New York to New Orleans. My  parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, and wanted their children (me, two sisters and a brother) to experience the best of eating out. Neither parent was a gourmet; we never had wine or liquor in our house, and seafood was as foreign to our table as chopsticks. But what Mom and Dad loved was going out to a restaurant — dressing us all up and making a night of it. To them, dining out was about the experience of leaving the confines of home and seeking the thrill of being served good food in a fabulous place where they waited on you hand and foot. Wherever we traveled, they always sought out the best restaurant in town and the best table in the house —  the better to experience the theater of great dining.

As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine in 1978 that I ate up, literally and figuratively. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and they indulged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)

My ex-wife was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the folderol of  Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)

Wedged into all of this was a move back east in the mid-1980s — where I lived mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan. It was a seminal time for American food, and I consumed the New York restaurant scene wholesale, as Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.

In 1990, after five years of eating in places like Odeon, the Coach House, Four Seasons, Peter Luger, and the Union Square Cafe (not to mention enjoying the best seafood in America every summer on Nantucket), I moved back to Las Vegas and surveyed the edible landscape. It was not a pretty sight. The best restaurants in town were two chain steakhouses: Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. Every hotel had five eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and Italian, and a (not-very) “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine” from some unnamed continent. All of them facing the keno pit, or so it seemed. Marcel Taylor — the Caesars Palace dealer who brought Ruth’s Chris to town in 1989 — told me the philosophy of every hotel back then was to capture the casino customer and never let them out the front door. As he put it, “…they figured we have every place anyone could ever want to eat in right here, what more could they (the tourists) want?”

But want they did, and when Ruth’s Chris realized its Vegas outpost was outselling all its other franchises, the word quickly spread to upscale chains and chefs everywhere that Las Vegas was the place to be. Late 1992 brought the opening of Spago, and soon thereafter, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse planted their flags in the MGM. Suddenly, we had a real restaurant scene.

The only thing lacking was a serious critic to write about it. Hard to believe 23 years later, but in 1994, the only person covering restaurants in Las Vegas was the mother-in-law of a certain newspaper owner. She belonged to the “My friend Mabel had the chicken soup and she thought it was a bit salty” school of food writing, and was avidly followed every week by what few society matrons there were in town.

So, I stepped into the breach. It took a year of hounding media outlets, but finally, in October, 1995,  I got a shot at being the Nevada Public Radio food critic — a position I pretty much invented for myself and a gig that lasted until 2011. Did I know anything about radio? Absolutely not. But I knew a helluva lot about food, and could put two sentences together, and looked great in a button-down shirt. As I like to say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For five years I was the only game in town when it came to critiquing serious restaurants in a serious way. It would not be until 2001 that our main newspaper hired a full-time food writer, and in keeping with tradition, they made sure she was of the “My friend Edna had the steak and she thought it was a little chewy” school of food writing.

The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, and writing for all sorts of magazines and guidebooks. It was then that I honed both my palate and my writing. It took a decade plus, but only after all those meals, travel and reviews did I begin to appreciate my subject matter and my relationship to it. Food is the most intimate relationship we will ever have, and allowing strangers to cook it for us is an oddly perverse ritual which many struggle to understand. (It’s the reason so many people have a chip on their shoulder when they eat out.) Giving over our bodies, our health, and our mouths to persons unknown, and paying them for the privilege of feeding all three, is surrendering an inordinate amount of power to a stranger — and paying them money for the privilege of taking advantage of you. It is this curious dynamic that continues to fascinate me, as much as anything that I shove in my piehole.

As for the food, then and now the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French have always fascinated my palate. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. Italian cuisine — in all of its regional glories — celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, while a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies still hold me in their thrall, and, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).

Enter Japan. Japanese food is about the quest for perfection, and in many ways, eating Japanese food in America and Japan has refined my tastes even further and eliminated my helter-skelter insatiability. No longer am I a galloping gourmand, happily ingesting everything in sight. Now, in my sixties, I seek the unobtainable grail of the quintessential. Like a Japanese chef, I take interest in the details of the divine.  A wasted meal, or even an ingredient, puts me in a bad mood. I have eaten so much of everything that I now simply want the best of anything — be it in a street taco, a glass of wine, or a piece of fish.

I am no longer an “oh, goodie goodie,” and I am certainly not a slob. It is said that to become a gourmet, like becoming a first class horseman, you have to start young. I am an epicure and I started very young. But there are many more steps before me, and it is this mountain that I continue to climb.

Food is life itself, the rest is parsley. – Alan Richman

 

 

EATING LAS VEGAS Announcement + What Do (Real) Restaurant Critics Do?

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ELV ANNOUNCEMENT:  Huntington Press announced last week that the 6th Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants is in production and looking forward to a release in mid-November. For the first time, those 52 eateries will be chosen and written about by me and me alone. As much as I’ve appreciated the yeoman’s work that Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn did on the last two editions (2016 and 2017), Anthony Curtis (publisher of HP) thought it was time for me to do one book with my complete, unfettered and unvarnished look at the Las Vegas restaurant scene. Curtis (no relation, although he does have the same sounding name as our staff), is taking responsibility for the second half of the book — evaluating and listing everything from best burgers to boffo buffets (with an assist here and there from yours truly). As long time publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, Curtis knows the ins and outs of Las Vegas in a different way than I do, but one that readers will find highly useful when more down-to-earth dining is on the agenda. The heavy lifting (i.e., research and writing) of this edition has been going on for several months now (if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram you can get an idea of all the territory I’ve been covering), and the next six weeks is crunch time. In the meantime, below is a taste of one of the additional chapters I’ll be writing that will pepper the book with some of my insights gleaned over 23 years of restaurant writing and covering the Las Vegas food scene. Bon appetit!

WHAT DOES A (REAL) RESTAURANT CRITIC DO?

He writes. She eats. He Cooks. She travels. He eats more. She studies. She reads everything she can about food and travel; he thinks incessantly about food, all the time. And after all that, he/she spends an inordinate amount of time hunched over a keyboard, trying to describe food and the experience of eating out in the pithiest, most informative and entertaining way possible.

Not just the food that he or she happens to be shoveling into their piehole at any one moment, but about how everyone eats. And cooks. And feeds each other. More specifically, a restaurant critic is charged with the responsibility of evaluating how restaurants —  who are in the business of selling food to the public to satisfy human hunger — are doing their job.

To be a good restaurant critic you need to eat a lot, write a lot, read a lot and travel a lot. If you lack the stamina for any one of these things, you should hang it up right now.

Being a restaurant critic is like being  a porn star: It sounds like great idea until you have to do it all the time, on schedule.

A restaurant critic (a real one, not a casual food blogger) is a writer first and foremost. But their beat isn’t sports or news or politics, it’s rating and reviewing each and every bite of food they ever put in their mouth, and put those thoughts on paper, usually weekly, while facing deadlines to do so.

Most importantly, a restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. If your motivation for the job isn’t to help the general public spend their dining dollars wisely, then you should find another occupation. People who just like to eat out all the time and tell everyone what they thought of their meal are known as blowhards….or food bloggers. Food bloggers, as knowledgeable and passionate as some of them are, are not restaurant critics. A real critic analyzes its subject; opinionated Yelpers/bloggers tell you things are “legit.” Big difference.

The job of a restaurant critic is to eat out, all the time, and write cogent, informative and entertaining essays about what they ate, how good or bad it was, and how they felt about the whole experience. A real restaurant critic gets paid for what they do.

There are four types of professional critics: 1) full-time columnists who write for major metropolitan newspapers or national periodicals (these jobs are becoming increasingly rare, and there are probably less than 100 writers in America who make a living from them); 2) free-lance journalists who work as subcontractors to dead-tree magazines, free newsweeklies,  and papers (sometimes as a steady gig, sometimes intermittently); 3) on-line critics who work for established Web sites (like Grub Street, Eater National, Huffington Post); or 4) established critics who maintain Web sites of their own (some of which make money, some of which don’t). Yours truly fit into the second category for the first fifteen years of his restaurant writing career, and now plies his trade as a member of the fourth group (since 2008), with occasional forays into numbers 2) and 3). The rarest of the rare critics actually publish yearly restaurant guides, written on real paper!

Restaurant critics don’t make a lot of money. If you’re lucky enough to land a job with a newspaper, you’ll make about as much as a high school teacher; if you free-lance, you’ll be lucky to top what a barista makes at Starbucks. Being a restaurant critic is like being a poet: you better do it for the love and passion for your subject or you better not do it at all.

Food writers are not restaurant critics. A food writer is someone who writes articles or books about food. A food writer might write an entire book about a specific food topic: Salt by Mark Kurlansky, or diet and food politics: The Ominvore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or food fads: pick up any monthly food magazine like Bon Appetit or Saveur. Food writers write about themselves (M.F.K.Fisher), or recipes (Julia Child), or their travels (Anthony Bourdain, Joseph Wechsberg, etc.); restaurant critics write about what they taste, and then evaluate the final product of professional chefs who charge the public money for the fruits of their labors at businesses licensed to sell cooked food.

All restaurant critics are food writers, but rare is the food writer who is also a restaurant critic.

Most restaurant critics work on a weekly basis. (There may be a critic out there who manages to eat, digest, think and review multiple restaurants in a week, but if they exist it’s a fair bet they are either independently wealthy, really, really fat or crazy.) Many periodicals assign their critics to double-duty and ask them to file reports and articles on various foods and food trends for publication in between their reviews of restaurants. In this respect, most critics, if they are good writers (more on this below), are able to toggle back and forth as part-time food writers. Most cookbook authors and food writers wouldn’t be caught dead writing hard-boiled, opinionated prose about some phoning-it-in celebrity chef. But that’s just fine with real critics, because you wouldn’t want a food writer to write a proper restaurant review any more than you’d want a cheerleader to be a football coach.

In a typical week, a critic will visit at least half a dozen restaurants — most for the first time, some to get a second look — as they keep their writer’s pipeline stuffed with potential articles, reviews in progress, and possible subjects for future reviews. Back in the Stone Age — and by “Stone Age” I mean the late 20th Century — it was de rigueur for a critic to visit a restaurant multiple times before filing a review. These days, due to the news-a-minute, immediate gratification impact of the Internet, almost no publication, save for maybe a few major newspapers, requires a critic to eat more than one meal in a restaurant before giving their opinion of it. (This is extremely unfortunate, because restaurants are not movies. Every movie critic sees the same movie; a restaurant is an organic being, dependent upon the coordination of many people to do its job well. All it takes is for a dishwasher to call in sick, or a waitress to have a fight with her boyfriend, or a cook to check into rehab for you to have a lousy time. Only by eating in a place multiple times can a real critic take the measure of a place. (Every place in EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (past editions) has been visited multiple times by me. Every place in the upcoming issue will have been visited by me more times than I can count. No other critic in Las Vegas can make this claim. No other food writer or critic in the history of Las Vegas can come close to it. No brag, just fact.)

Also, due to to Internet: anonymity has gone the way of the tasseled menu and the hat check girl. Every single real critic (those writing for respected publications, or known to wield any real clout in their city) is known to every major restaurant in town. Pictures of them are posted in restaurant kitchens, and the anyone with a mobile phone can look up anyone’s picture in 30 seconds.

With all of the above as a given, your average (professional, respected, loved or hated) restaurant writer has two parts to their job: eating and writing. The eating part isn’t as easy as it seems. You have to have (or develop) an iron stomach, adventuresome attitude and a fine-tuned palate. You must learn to eat things you loathe and learn enough about them to objectively judge their net worth. (Yours truly will never like beets or Vietnamese food, but has eaten enough of both that he could start a farm or a pho parlor.)

Eating a single meal in a restaurant is no more enough to correctly opine on its merits than looking at a single painting is for you to judge an artist — even if you’re a knowledgeable critic. If you’re going to judge a steakhouse, you better have eaten in dozens of them all over the country. An amateur is one who says, “I went to Mama Leone’s and really liked the lasagna.” A restaurant critic has made lasagna in her home kitchen, watched professionals make it on TV, eaten lasagna in the great Italian restaurants of the world, and traveled to Bologna to see and taste the real thing.  Any idiot can tell you whether something is good. I don’t know beans about art, but I can tell you that that Rembrandt fellow sure looks like he knows what he was doing. A good critic knows (and tells you) why something is good or bad.

After all of that is lined up — the porn star stamina, the iron stomach, the insatiable appetite, serious cooking skills, traveling the world, eating the world, reading the great food writers —  then it’s time to get down to what real restaurant critics really do: write the review.

And that’s the hardest part of all.