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.

Image result for grimod de la reynière

 

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)

 

 

Michelin Guides are Bullshit

Remember 2008? How proud we were that the Michelin Guide had come to Las Vegas to rate our restaurants?

Remember how much legitimacy it brought?

The respect?

Do you recall how disappointed everyone was when it decided not to return after the 2009 guide?

Do you know that, to this day, Las Vegas restaurants still trumpet their Michelin stars even though the accolades are a decade old?

Even today, does any guide in the world bestow more credibility on a city’s food scene? Even though it’s a worthless piece of public relations?

The answers are yes and yes.

The fact is, Michelin’s clout may have been real in the past (although we’ll argue some of the points below), but you can now toss its good name straight out the window.

Yes, the jig is up.

The cat is out of the bag.

The Michelin Guide is now in the business of promoting restaurants, not objectively rating them. Far from being a scrupulous, trustworthy consumer guide, it has now been exposed as nothing but an instrument of advertising.

(Because when we think “great restaurants,” we’re thinking Sacramento)

Here’s how it works: a tourist board (much like Las Vegas’s LVCVA) decides that it wants to promote/advertise its restaurants. (This works better for places like San Francisco than it does for Fresno.) As a taxpayer-funded promotional arm of the community, it is charged with bringing as many tourists as possible to town (or a state) to increase the coffers of the community and its local businesses — like restaurants.

And when you have the most famous guidebook selling its services, what better way to increase those businesses coffers than by applying the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval….er….uh….I mean Michelin stars to as many of your restaurants as possible?

Which is just what the state of California has done. It is paying for Michelin to come and “review” its restaurants, and include them in a published guidebook, so that more tourists will come to California and want to go to those restaurants. In California. The entire state. Which will now have its own guidebook, paid for by the state, “recommending” its restaurants to unsuspecting tourists who will think it was “professionally researched” by a company without any skin in the game.

In taking the money, Michelin has, in one fell swoop, defenestrated its credibility, and lifted its skirt faster than a forty buck hooker.

In coming to light, these meretricious machinations confirm what I have long suspected: the Michelin Guides in America are a farce. A bought-and-paid-for scam trading on an outdated reputation to make money by duping restaurant consumers.

Gerry Dawes — Spanish food expert, guide, raconteur, writer, etc., (and a fellow so curmudgeonly he makes me look like Dora the Explorer) —  had these insights that are worth considering the next time you hear someone brag about their Michelin stars:

Why do you think restaurants in Japan were suddenly given a surfeit of rosettes? Because Doughboy (aka Bibendum) wants to sell tires to Japanese car manufacturers! In Spain, France’s next door neighbor, who competes with them for gastro-tourism Euros, Michelin gives a miserable number of rosettes, about a fifth of what France has. I have proposed a boycott of Michelin tires in Spain unless the Guide gives out a significant number of rosettes to really reflect the quality of restaurants in Spain. Spain should make Michelin decide what they really want, to sell paper (the Guide) or rubber.

John Mariani (a man who knows a thing or two about restaurant criticism), was more succinct when I asked him about Michelin guides: “It’s a sham these days.”

And it probably was in 2008-2009 as well. I never bought for one second the Michelin claim that a “team of inspectors” descended on Las Vegas for a year visiting restaurants multiple times in order to objectively rate them. If you read the atrociously-written guide, you see that the prose comes straight from press releases, and the “top restaurants” are little more than a compendium of well-known addresses that were as easy to research in 2007 as they are today. More likely, Michelin sent a couple of people here to scout around for a few weeks, dine in a dozen or so heavy hitters (Robuchon, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Spago….) and then handed out stars based upon reputation.

Those food historians/nerds out there may recall that for decades (from the 1920s onward), Michelin standards, methodology and anonymity were legendary. Restaurants had to be visited multiple times by multiple inspectors, results were tabulated independently, and the scores were poured over meticulously before a coveted star (really a rosette) was awarded.

Does anyone believe that Michelin paid for multiple inspectors to go multiple times to Joël Robuchon (much less Yellowtail), before deciding how many stars to bestow upon it?

Now that the California tourism board is paying for the guide to “review” its restaurants (throughout the entire state, I might add), just how thorough do you think they’re going to be?

More likely, Michelin will do there what it did here: survey the landscape, find who the big players are, and “rate them” according to hearsay.

On the plus side, the scales can now fall from your eyes and you should see the whole Michelin star-thing as the advertising gimmick it is. Especially in America.

What’s going on in Europe is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that in France, where the whole thing started, the stars remain coveted and more accurate. I’ve found the guide reliable in Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy as well, although as I’ve become a more experienced diner over the past 30 years, its failings are more noticeable, and the nuances between a 2 or 3-star rating are hardly discernible to anyone but a supercilious Frenchman.

michelin-guide.jpg

So, I respect Michelin (at least in Europe), even though I can recognize the monster it created, and how it ended up killing the thing it loved. As the late, great A. A. Gill put it:

The Michelin guide made kitchens as competitive as football teams, becoming the most successful and prestigious guidebook in the world, and along the way it killed the very thing it had set out to commend. It wasn’t the only assassin of the greatest national food ever conceived, but it’s not hyperbole to say Michelin was French haute cuisine’s Brutus.

The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit.* Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.

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Nothing I write can match the verbal gesticulations of a picky Brit, but Gill nails it. The “stars” are all about insecurity (the chef’s and the diner’s), and the whole enterprise has become bloated as month-old haggis (above)…and even less tasty.

Michelin is ridiculous. A joke. Unmitigated bullshit. Let’s face it: it always was. San Francisco had one 3-star destination in 2006 (French Laundry, not even in ‘Frisco), now it has eight. Tokyo has dozens of starred restaurants, even though some of them only have four seats. With grade inflation like this, Swan Oyster Depot (below) will be garnering les etoiles in no time.

(2 stars for food and 1 for ambiance!)
* No doubt referring to every “50 Best” fashion victim out there.