Wine is Hard, GARAGISTE Makes It Easy

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

It used to be so simple. Learn a few grapes, a couple of countries, carry a vintage chart around with you, and sound like an expert.

Back in the Stone Age, that’s all you needed to do.

And by “Stone Age” I mean about 15-20 years ago.

40 years ago (about the time I started getting into wine), it was all about France….with a little California thrown in. Remember the Judgment of Paris? I do; I even remember the original Time magazine article about it. The whole episode rated about 300 words on a back page of the ‘zine — barely a blurb about some California upstarts (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) beating the Frogs at their own game.

Up until then, if you wanted to “know” wine as a consumer, you needed to know Bordeaux. Memorizing the 1855 Classification was essential, and woe to the poseur who couldn’t tell his troisieme cru from a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

There were sub-parts and sub-parts to the sub-parts of these classifications, but by and large, it was all about France. California started flexing its muscles in the early 1980s (bolstered in part by the growing legend of that 1976 Paris competition), but California was always easy: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and that was it.

Back then, Italy was atlas esoterica; Spain, the undiscovered country. Germany, Australia and Portugal? Strictly for the nerdiest of wine nerds. Chile, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, China? Fuggidabadit.

Big, fruity Cabs were what counted in Cali, along with massive, over-oaked Chards. All you had to do was know your producers — few wineries were trumpeting their specific vineyards  — and after a couple of trips to Napa, you could strut around like some imperious Brit, expounding on the merits of the Rutherford Bench, or the superiority of Sonoma fruit.

Was it all bullshit? Of course it was all bullshit. Practically everything about wine is bullshit. Getting past the bullshit (so you can enjoy what’s in the glass) is half the fun.

These days it’s less about antiquated, overblown French marketing ploys and more about the beverage. Like the internet, the world of wine has expanded our horizons while shrinking the earth. Good wine is everywhere, and now being made from grapes no one had ever heard of in the last half of the 20th Century.

Wine is hard now. Very hard. As in, having to learn a dozen languages (plus topography) hard.

The trick is making sense of it. The secret is you don’t have to. All you have to do is know your wine bar.

Image

GARAGISTE opened late last year and almost immediately became an industry hangout — a place where the cool kids, not the rich kids, drink wine. It eschews the easy pickings of “name brand” wines (famous Burgundies, big hitter cabs, overpriced Bordeaux) for an ever-changing selection of new-fangled bottles from producers you’ve probably never heard of.  (For those unfamiliar with the term, “garagiste” refers to small, Right Bank producers who became known in the 1990s for making cult wines that aren’t worth the prices people pay for them.)

To be sure, you can still pick up some hefty Barolos, big Burgundies, or righteous Rhones here, but the specialties of the house are lip-smacking wines at reasonable prices that are so good you don’t care about their snob appeal.

This poses a serious conundrum for, let’s say, 90% of the fine wine drinkers in the world, who only drink wines based upon reputation. Or even worse, buy bottles based on the “score” some hack writer in some advertising rag (read: most wine journals) gave it.

You’re not going to hear a lot of “The Spectator gave this a ’94′” at Garagiste; nor will you see a lot of label whores showing off their good taste. Instead, you’ll find people who like wine because it tastes good, not by how impressive they think it is.

Las Vegas is late to this party (no surprise there) as these kinds of wine bars have been all the rage in Paris for over a decade. Just last weekend we stumbled upon Mignon in downtown Los Angeles, and it fit the same mold: passionate owners, reasonable prices, exquisite, obscure wines in an unpretentious setting. Exactly the opposite of the snobbery so often (rightfully) attached to wine drinking.

No one is talking scores here. Owners Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are more interested in describing to you what’s in the glass, and turning you on to unfamiliar bottles, producers, and grapes.

They also do the natural wine/biodynamic-thing, but aren’t obnoxious about it. Both will tell you that some natural wines have a funky, less-polished, rough-around-the-edges taste to them that may not be to some people’s liking. You will get fair warning and also a taste before you have to commit to a whole glass.

You will also be getting an education here unlike any available at any other wine bar in town. Having two gifted sommeliers on hand most evenings to guide you through the pours is something other wine-drinking locations (what few we have) can only dream about. (Some joints around town are “wine bars” in the same way that any restaurant with a steak on the menu is a steakhouse.)

To be sure, there are things I don’t like about Garagiste. The setting is a bit cold, more industrial than cozy. Noise levels are up there — perhaps not at military jet-afterburner levels, but conversation-impeding just the same. (Enhancing conversation should be a wine bar’s second main purpose.) Some cushy chairs and strategically-placed sound baffles would go a long way. The nibbles are little more than a single (good) cheese platter with excellent bread from Esther’s Kitchen across the street, and at busy times, the owners and staff can be over-matched. (I’m actually ecstatic when the place is packed, and some crunchy grissini at the bar would also go a long way when you can’t get the staff’s attention.)

The plus side is that you’re in a wine bar, so relax, pilgrim. You’re not there to see how fast you can catch a buzz.

Also, patrons have quickly embraced options to the limited food offerings…by bringing their own! Prato and Enriquez are totally fine with you inhaling a burrito from Casa Don Juan (down the street) next to a sexy syrah, or pairing some Pad See Eiw from DE Thai Kitchen (around the corner) with a sassy Juliénas. Want a big-ass steak with your Chateau Cantermele? No problem, just get one to-go from Esther’s and eat it on the premises.

Image

Being something of a cheesehead, I’ve taken to bringing my own platters of Fourme d’Ambert, Comté, Pecorino, and Cabot’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar to enjoy with whatever cheese-wine pairing suits my fancy that day.

Another issue (more like a curiosity) is the way the bottles for sale are priced. Garagiste is both a bar and a retail store. The list you’re given is also what’s available for sale. Bottles to take home are priced at half what they cost if you drink them there. This makes the prices seem like a steal if you take one to-go, and a bit pricey if you opt to pop a cork on the premises. Still, even with this in-house mark-up, everything is at least half of what you’d pay for the same juice on the Strip.

And what you’re paying for is unique indeed. Interesting bottles, ever-changing wines by the glass, low prices, knowledgeable patrons, friendly owners, and a feeling as if you’re at the epicenter of a Las Vegas wine renaissance.

I’ve been saying for years that the craft beer has become ridiculous, and Millennials will eventually age out of all the cocktail folderol. It looks like it’s happening and Garagiste is ground zero for how it’s happening in Las Vegas.

Being someone who has waited 30 F*CKING YEARS,  for a place to drink good wine downtown, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon.

Skoal!

GARAGISTE WINE ROOM/MERCHANT

197 E. California Ave. #140

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.954.3658

Image(Weird-ass spirits in a wine bar? Yes!)

 

 

New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

Image

Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

Image

Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

Image(Holy Mole!)

While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

Image

With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

Image(Too hip for the room)

On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

Image(Boffo beef at a bargain)

So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

Image

 

A Tale of Two Thais

Image

Las Vegas has had a robust Thai restaurant scene for decades. Even before Saipin and Bill Chutima put us on the Siamese gastro-map with Lotus of Siam in 1999, there were dozens of family-run Thai joints serving crab sticks, papaya salads and tom kah kai to a fare-thee-well.

My introduction to this cuisine occurred in the early 1980s at a free-standing white building on Las Vegas Boulevard (across from where the Federal Courthouse now sits). I don’t think it even had a name, just the words “Thai Food” in big red letters on the side of the building. Even then, it was one of three Thai places downtown, and there were a couple more in Commercial Center off east Sahara.

You could get a decent larb or mint chicken in any of these, but they pretty much stuck to a greatest hits catechism of deep-fried wings, beef salad, pad Thai, and those hot pot soups that made Thai food famous. When anything had to be sauced, though, “sweet and gloppy” always took precedence over sour and pungent. This was also the era of “How hot do you want your food on a scale of 1-10?” — as if a heat level of “7” would be all that different from a “6.”

As similar as these menus may have been, they provided just the right introduction to this country’s food, and they paved the way for our Thai 2.0 revolution. These new players (including the small-but-mighty DE Thai downtown, and Chuchote Thai on west Sahara) are expanding our horizons, in nicer surroundings, and using better groceries to boot.

The first thing you’ll notice about Weera Thai Kitchen is the decor. Located in the spanking new Shanghai Plaza, it is quite the upgrade from its older sibling, Weera Thai on west Sahara. Cool, conical lamps descend from the open ceiling and illuminate a yet-to-open bar, while oversized flower murals dominate a brightly-lit room with well-spaced tables.

The eye-popping picture menu will next appear, and you’ll immediately wonder if everything tastes as good as it looks. It does. So much so, the only problem you’ll have is trying to reign in eyes growing bigger than your stomach with every luscious item. With the move to Chinatown, the Weera Thai clan (including the lovely Sasi, pictured above) is broadcasting its intent to compete with the big boys, and bask in the black belt foodie cred Spring Mountain Road now represents.

Image(Khao yum means yummy)

Every Thai meal starts with appetizers, but somewhat confusingly, these don’t appear until page four of the multi-paged menu. This is no doubt calculated, since the fish cakes, crab sticks and curry puffs are supporting players to the upscale’d street food — the real stars of the show.

Top billing on pages 1-2 is given such jaw-droppers as khao yum (above – blue-tinted butterfly pea rice with toasted coconut and all sorts of crunchy veggies), khoa kluk kapi (another rice dish given special pungency by fermented shrimp paste, and depth from chunks of pork belly, and giant river prawns (goong maenam pao (below) or goong pao cheese – with mozzarella cheese, which is apparently a thing in Thailand. Dipping sauces are to Thai cuisine what melted butter is to French, and these house-made beauties always seem to hit the right balance of tart to sweet to hot.

Image(Nuthin’ shrimpy ’bout these shrimp)

These river prawns (above) might be common in Bangkok, but they’re new to this part of the world. As big as small lobster tails, they are perfect as an appetizer for four, or a meal for two.

Before you get to them, a platter of ma haw or ma hor (literally: galloping horses, below) might catch your eye. These balls of caramelized minced pork are served up on pineapple slices and are best described as meat candy. They are very sweet, but somehow beckoning bite after each teeth-aching bite. If nothing else, the sweet meat sets up your palate for the barrage of penetrating flavors yet to come.

Image(Galloping horses? Or meat candy?)

If there’s one way WTK distinguishes itself from the original restaurant, it is with the emphasis on both things that swim and street food. Beautiful shrimp get wrapped in thin rice noodles and deep-fried in kung sarong, yum hi-so sees slightly slimy, raw blue crab get lit up with chili and lime. That crab and the tender spicy squid salad will give you all the heat you can handle. And then there is the garlic shrimp (below)  — so loaded with melted slices and crispy chips you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Allium heaven.

Image(Garlic, garlic, and more garlic)

One of the tamer dishes is ka pow gai-kai dao – four bowls containing minced basil chicken, rice, onion and peppers and a fried egg — all ready to mix into an amalgam of a one-dish meal, but we’d rather spend our time with their sai oua (“stuffed intestine”) northern Thai sour sausage, or the nam khao tod which is right up there with Lotus’s.

They also do a nice dry version of yen ta fo, here called yen ta fo hang, which is much more palatable in the Vegas heat than the same ingredients served up in a giant steaming bowl of tomato-laced broth, and you shouldn’t miss their definitive pad see ewe pong (below) — broad flat noodles, with really tasty shrimp, in yellow curry.

Image(Pad see ewe = pad see perfect)

You won’t find any fault with the pinkish pad kee mow with chicken, either, but the whole pompano lard prik — deep fried topped with sweet-hot chili sauce — is a bit challenging for those used to eating fish in neat little fillet form.

Image(Deep-fried pompano makes you work for the tasty bits)

The crowds have taken to WTK from day one: it’s been open for barely a month and tables are already a precious commodity at peak hours. It’s as if they (the Thonguthaisiri family and its loyal customers) recognized a pent-up demand for a good Thai restaurant on Spring Mountain Road — one bringing forth the in-your-face flavors of the Thai street with better ingredients in a stylish atmosphere. As soon as they get their full liquor license, and start featuring cocktails and wines to go with all of this incredible food, it might become as hot as gaeng tai pla.

Image(Lamaii at twilight)

Lamaii is playing a different game — one rooted in the Thai street food vernacular but also seeking broader food/wine credibility. Chef/owner Bank Atcharawan has picked up where Chada Street (his previous Thai-meets-wine venue) left off. In this case, by taking an ice cream parlor at the far end of a strip mall (Sparrow + Wolf anchors the other end) and creating magical space of comfy booths and upscale furnishings that are as far a cry from a Bangkok street as a Thai fishing boat is from a cabin cruiser.

While you wouldn’t call Lamaii luxurious, it certainly wins the Chinatown design award for those booths, subdued colors, lots of wood, muted lighting, and huge, drop-down lamps. (Thai people apparently have a thing for light fixtures the size of hot tubs.)

As pretty as the decor is, it is also noisy — like gymnasium noisy — at peak hours. They also turn the lights too low at night, which is a problem since the joint is only open for dinner. Grab a table early (preferably in summer) if you want a good view of your food. What you’ll find on your plate (either by touch or flashlight) will blow your socks off, sometimes literally.

Image(I’ll take Zind-Humbrecht for 125, Alex)

Before you get to the food, you’ll have to negotiate the beverage selections. Atcharawan is an old F&B pro (he previously managed Lotus of Siam), so his lists are full of saison ales, obscure stouts, and (by now obligatory) creative cocktails — none of which go as well with this food as a Kabinett Riesling or cru Beaujolais. (In the interest of fairness, we will concede that certain chilled, malted beverages — pilsners, session beers and such — match this food just as well.)

Regardless of your preferences, there’s no ignoring the wine list here. It is short, wrinkled, and superb. (see above) Prices run from the low $30s to the low 100s, and to a bottle, selections are priced at at least half of what you would pay on the Strip. The Gravner Breg (at $110) is less than I paid for the same bottle in Italy a year ago. There is a grand cru Chablis for $65….which has to be close to the wholesale price of this bottle to the restaurant. (Personally, I consider myself fortunate whenever I can score any Chablisienne grand cru for under a hundy, retail.)

In other words, this list is insane. A treasure trove of interesting bottles at ridiculous prices.

Image(Shrimp cakes with plum-blueberry sauce)

The only down side is, it’s a small restaurant with limited storage space, so what you want may not always be available, but if you’re a white wine lover (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you owe it to yourself to dive in. Like almost every wine professional in town already has.

Atcharawan’s cuisine is designed to match with these top-shelf wines, and much of his menu dials back the heat in favor of more wine-friendly fare. Pork jowl gets grilled, belly gets deep-fried, chicken is satay’d, and fluffy shrimp cakes the size of ping pong balls float on a plum-blueberry sauce — all of them designed to be enhanced by a steely Riesling or herbaceous sauv blanc.

Image(Kua gling is not for the Thai timid)

Loui  suan wraps ground pork in lettuce and rice paper, and is designed to showcase the Thai herbs, not incendiary heat. When the staff does ask you how hot you want something, as in the kua gling ground pork with southern curry paste (above), or gang pu (spicy crab curry noodles) be forewarned, then strap in and hang on.

Image(What’s mu pu with you?)

No one will ask you how spicy you want your mu pu (crab fat) fried rice, but the silky richness of rice shot through with crab tomalley doesn’t need a pepper kick. Neither does a grilled 12 oz. rib eye  (sua rong hai on the menu, below) that might be the best $24 steak in town. The pad Thai here comes festooned with huge crispy prawns, and the surprisingly fresh, non-muddy-tasting catfish comes dressed with just the right tart chili-lime-mango dressing.

Image(The best 24 buck steak in town)

Even the curries are toned down here, but are none the lesser for it. Gang rawaeng, described as an ancient turmeric curry, has the creamy depth to play off fork-tender chunks of braised beef, and that old reliable, panang curry gives new life to crackling slices of duck breast. Atcharawan has always done a tongue-searing steak tartare, and the one here is for brave souls only.

Everyone gets the honey toast for dessert here, but the mango sticky rice, fried bananas, and coconut ice cream are just as exemplary.

Lamaii isn’t a standard Thai restaurant, but it challenges all your preconceptions about Thai food. Weera Thai Kitchen is like a old friend who’s decided to shape up with a nicer wardrobe, upscale attitude, and fresh new ambitions after moving into new digs. Between them, they signal a quiet but significant change in the way Vegas now appreciates the food of this country. It is spicy and soul-warming, but it is also one of the world’s great cuisines. Las Vegas is finally starting to appreciate it as such.

Nothing on any of these menus is over $24, and most dishes are priced in the $10-$15 range, meaning: it’s hard for two people to spend more than $50-$70 on food. Lamaii offers half price portions of some of its noodle dishes. I’ve been comped once at Lamaii and a couple of times at WTK.

Get this (Weera Thai Kitchen): Yum hi-so – raw blue crab salad; Thai fried rice with shrimp paste; yen ta fo hang – “pink noodle dry version”; “Galloping Horses” – minced pork on pineapple; jumbo river prawns; khao yum – butterfly pea rice with vegetables; ka pow gai-kai dao – ground chicken stir-fry with basil and egg; sai oui sausage; kung sarong – noodle wrapped fried shrimp; beef salad; spicy squid salad; fish cake; papaya salad; garlic shrimp; pad see ewe.

Get this (Lamaii): Garlic green beans; loui suan – ground pork wrapped in rice/lettuce; shrimp cakes with blueberry sauce; steak tartare; moo ma now – grilled pork jowl; gang rawaeng – ancient curry with braised beef; panang duck curry; pla crispy beef; kua gling – ground pork with southern curry paste; sua rong hai – grilled rib eye steak; mu pu fried rice; pad Thai with shrimp; mango crispy catfish; honey toast; mango sticky rice.

WEERA THAI KITCHEN

4276 Spring Mountain Road #105-106

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.485.1688

LAMAII

4480 Spring Mountain Road #700

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.238.0567