Las Vegas Battles Lethargy

Image(Costa di Mare)

Nobody knows anything. – William Goldman

Trying to take the temperature of where we are and where we’re going is a fruitless exercise. No one knows the answers; everyone has their fingers crossed.

During a recent conversation with a local magazine editor, I was at a loss when asked what I wanted to write about. The “new normal” is anything but. Hotels and restaurants have opened seeking to reestablish themselves, but no one knows how sustainable these operations can be over the long haul, especially when seating is restricted and probably a quarter of your (former) customers are too scared to dine out.

The Strip has rolled the dice and opened its doors: chugging along at a quarter speed with no conventions in the foreseeable future and the slowest time of the year staring it in the face. People are showing up, but nowhere near in the numbers for which these places were designed.

No one has any idea what the demand for Las Vegas is going to be. Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s in the dark. Demand for beds, booze, or breakfast — it’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be: next week, next month, or in November for that matter..

Because we’re all flying blind, no one can plan anything. Everyone is in survival mode, on and off the Strip. Restaurants designed to turn hundreds of covers a night are making do with a fraction of their capacity — like a Formula One racer puttering around and conserving fuel on a go-kart track. Tiny 40 seat Japanese gems like Hiroyoshi and Yui Edomae Sushi are confined to twelve diners at a time.

If you thought we had a tedious, interminable Spring, the next eight weeks are going to be brutal.

Image(ELIO es magnifico!)

Even in places that are open, something very key to every restaurant’s survival is missing. The key to everyone’s survival — un-quantifiable but essential nonetheless. We’re not talking tables, turnover or customers. We’re not even speaking of service, aliments or alcohol.

No, we’re talking about energy. The Big E, the thing every business needs to succeed. It doesn’t matter what business, if you don’t bring energy to what you do, you won’t be doing it for long.

Restaurants derive energy from two places: their patrons and their staff. Both feed off of each other, literally and figuratively.

Small places like ShangHai Taste exude energy (or at least they did) from the moment you enter. It comes from customers eagerly awaiting their seats, and from the chefs furiously rolling, pinching and steaming your xiao long bao for scores of hungry stomachs.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, a huge restaurant like Mott 32 crackles from the minute you hit the gangplank. Bazaar Meat and Cut smell of beef, testosterone, and money; Restaurant Guy Savoy of French perfection.

Even a homey neighborhood joint like Jamie Tran’s Black Sheep has (or used to have) an electricity about it when you walked in the door — a palpable sense of people enjoying themselves. Energy, conviviality, and excitement are what made Esther’s Kitchen a hit from the get-go.

Now, they’ve lost it. All of them. Vitality has been replaced by defensiveness — an almost apologetic feeling in the air permeating these rooms and everyone in them.

The feeling is the same from the our most expensive to our most modest eateries, and it isn’t a pretty sight, even if the food remains as tasty as ever.

Diners are on the defensive. They are out and about at great risk, they are told, and they’re being policed by self-righteous, finger-waggers — emboldened by media, government, and public health officials — who’ve deputized them (they think) to tell the rest of us how to behave. The restaurants themselves live in fear of being outed for the smallest health infraction; their customers are less fearful, but ever vigilant, lest they be thought of as not properly protecting themselves or those around them.

Needless to say, none of this is a recipe for success.

But undaunted, we persevere. Eating out more than anyone, trying to gauge the temperature of our hospitality industry every week. Since good lunches are problematic downtown, and the hotels have reduced options and hours, we’re picking our spots

The following are the places I’ve eaten since the the quarantine was lifted in early June. As usual, all places come highly recommended.

The (short) List:

Restaurant Guy Savoy

Image

Against all odds, Caesars Palace decided to reopen one of America’s fanciest and most expensive restaurants. Like most higher-end joints, it’s only serving four nights a week (Wed.-Sat.), and multiple compromises have been made in the way they serve things. The bread cart is now for show only, silverware comes wrapped in paper, and the (smaller) cheese selection is one step removed from a Tupperware party.

Image(Pretty cheesy if you ask me)

That said, Exec Chef Nicolas Costagliola continues to execute the Guy Savoy canon with delicious precision, the service never misses a beat, and you won’t find any better duck, veal, fish, vegetables, and desserts anywhere. With its already limited competition being laid low on both coasts, there is no better big deal meal in America right now. In fact, it may be the only big deal meal in America right now.

ELIO

Image(You won’t turnip your nose at these)

Another surprise. Straight from Mexico City by way of New York City. On every gastronaut’s radar, even though it’s only open Thurs.-Sun.. Wonderful bar, mescal tasting room, molés out the wazoo, and modern Mexican food like Vegas has never seen before. Most of the food gobsmacked us, but we want/need a second round before letting our opinions gel. Be advised though: they take no prisoners with strong flavors and it is pricey — some of the vegetable dishes are priced from in the mid-twenties….for turnips (above).

Costa di Mare

Image(John Dory at Costa di Mare)

Dramatic setting, dramatic seafood. We wrote this place off several years ago after two mediocre meals. But to the Wynn’s credit (as well as Chef Mark LoRusso and GM Ivo Angelov), it has arisen from the quarantine ashes and recaptured some of the old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare mojo. The Food Gal® (aka my wife) can’t wait to go back. Neither can I.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad meal at Bazaar Meat, or even a bad bite. Totally hit the ground running and tastes as wonderful as ever. The only thing that feels strange are the socially-distanced empty tables. As a steakhouse, however, it remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma which is the new-old Sahara hotel.

ShangHai Taste

Image

One of those mom and pop places struggling with reduced seating. Acclaim-worthy xiao long bao, noodles and spareribs were a hit from day one….the Covid hit. Now, the once-mobbed, spanking-new Shanghai Plaza is a shadow of its once-bustling self. All Chef Jimmy Li can do is hang on and hope.

Oodle Noodle

Oodles of udon. Healthy bowls of Japanese goodness and super-foods like seaweed salad. If you’re looking for a tasty, economical lunch with wellness-giving properties, look no further.

DE Thai

We had one of our best meals ever here for lunch the other day. Small but mighty terrific Thai.

Other Notables — Where you should be eating now:

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Lotus of Siam

Pho So 1

Yui Edomae Sushi

Lamaii

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Carson Kitchen

7th & Carson

Kaiseki Yuzu

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Monzú Italian Oven + Bar

Esther’s Kitchen

The Black Sheep

PublicUs

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Marche Bacchus

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Allegro at Wynn

Image(Keep calm and carrot on at ELIO)

 

CIPRIANI

I liked the location at once because it was at the end of a dead-end street….This meant that the customers would have to come there on purpose and couldn’t just stop in as they were passing by. That is the way I wanted it. To this day people have to come to Harry’s Bar on purpose. – Giuseppe Cipriani (1900-1980)

You go to Cipriani on purpose. You don’t go because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy. (Venetian cuisine being perhaps the least-traveled of all regional Italian foods.)

The restaurant is there to serve you, but it has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows the aria from Madame Butterfly. It’s been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully since 1931. There is no need for it to change. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like you’ve probably never tasted before.

If you resist this submission you will be disappointed. If your idea of Italian food is Tuscan meatiness, Neapolitan flamboyance, Calabrian heat or Emilia-Romagna-Sicilian-Roman largesse, you may look at your plate and wonder what all the shouting is about. But if you’re open to experiencing the deceptively simple yet hyper-delicious food of the Veneto —  — you will be transported to a cuisine both rustic and refined.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Ernest Hemingway and Giuseppe Cipriani prepare for their hangovers, Venice, 1950)

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas (pronounced chip-ree-AH-NEE LAS VAY-gus) is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that trace their lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice (Italy, not California). Harry’s Bar was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani — the grandfather of the founding family — and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. (Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway were constant habitués, even though they hated each other, and once almost came to blows in the place. Orson Welles and Truman Capote were also regulars, and also hated each other, but the only punches they landed had rum in them.)

Being something of a louche, café society lover myself, I consider it my home away from home whenever I’m in Venice. (Unlike Hemingway, however, I find myself constitutionally incapable of parking six bottles of Amarone in my liver (as he did) every night before bedtime.)

Nevertheless, hanging out at Harry’s Bar has been de rigueur when I’m in town, perhaps in hopes of absorbing a bit of Ernest’s mojo. (In case you’re ever there, the first seat at the bar, by the cash register, is the one with my name on it.) So far, it hasn’t worked — I am also constitutionally incapable of writing short, declarative sentences —  but it’s made me more than a little acquainted with the bottom of a Bellini glass, and what constitutes a definitive seppie in tecia (cuttlefish served in its own ink).

When Arrigo Cipriani (Giuseppe’s son) answered the siren song of expanding and branding Harry’s Bar to other locales in 1989, he chose New York City  – specifically a space on the ground floor of the Sherry Netherland hotel. Then and now, the family considers the name “Harry’s Bar” to be sacrosanct, and chose their last name as the brand for their empire. (Arrigo originally wanted the first Harry’s Bar clone to be called “The Copy” but thankfully someone talked him out of it — no doubt because “Let’s meet at Cipriani” has a much more musical ring to it than “Let’s go grab some ‘Copy’ for lunch.”)

When I was frequenting New York in the early 90s, I found myself perched there many a time, too, although in 1992 I remember the prices to be cripplingly expensive. Now they don’t bother me at all — 30 years of “Eating Las Vegas” having immunized me from all restaurant sticker shock.

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani in the world. They stretch from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. This alone probably explains why the quality remains high, and why the food in Las Vegas may be as close to the original as one could ever hope for.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Harry’s Bar)
(Cipriani Las Vegas)

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will.

Arrigo Cipriani, in his written history of Harry’s Bar,  explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes (they and the chairs are about 3″ lower than standard height) and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-seven years on, the details still matter, whether you’re in Las Vegas or one of the other Ciprianis around the world. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized (Arrigo hates big, clunky knives and forks), and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy decor — all polished woods and gleaming brass — makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

And then there is the food. It’s the real deal, not an Americanized version of the idiosyncratic cuisine of Venice, but as pitch perfect as you could hope for thousands of miles from its homeland.

Before you get to it, you will first have a Bellini: a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” Purée them and add the sparkling wine was the answer. He then named it after a 15th Century Venetian painter — Giovanni Bellini — and the world, literally, started beating a path to his bar.

The good news is that those Bellinis are cheaper here! They cost $17.00 in Vegas, and 30 euros in Venice, so have two! (They’re pretty small.)

(A proper carpaccio)

After the Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio: the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani. Only slightly younger than the Bellini, its invention (in 1950) stemmed from some “ravishing countess” telling Giuseppe that she couldn’t eat cooked meat. “No problemo, segnora,” was his reply, “I’ll just pound a raw filet paper thin and dress it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce.” He could have called it anything he liked, but the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio happened to be hanging about Venice at the time (his paintings, at least). Giuseppe loved his bold red and white colors, so “carpaccio” it was, and every raw, flattened piece of food ever since has been stuck with the name.

As with the Bellini, a proper carpaccio couldn’t be any simpler, but as with all unadorned, exquisite things, there is no room for error. The raw ingredients must be impeccable, and their treatment must be precise, the better to let the result transcend the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, as with the martini, bourbon, pizza, sushi, etc., the letter and spirit of the original is honored more in the breach these days.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.)

You’ll find the wine list of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range. Maybe it’s the water of the Venetian Lagoon, or it’s famous fish, but I’ve always found white wines go best with this cuisine…even the meat dishes.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these are what spring to mind when most Americans think “Italian food”.

Venetians love their fine white cornmeal (from the Friuli region) and serve it with everything but pasta and gelato. Good polenta — and at Cipriani it is always good — is much more than mere mush. It stands alone, like great pasta, for its elemental purity and strong sweet flavors of the earth. Polenta is as Venetian as a gondolier and learning to love it is your first step in obtaining your Venetian food diploma.

(Baby artichokes alla Romana)

Of things not to be missed (after that carpaccio) should be an order of baby artichokes “alla Romana” and Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta).

The first will be the best artichokes you have ever eaten — soft, small and delicate — so unlike the woody, giant, indigestible globe artichokes we are stuck with in America.

Americans resist mightily the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich), but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold veal — another exquisite recipe of extreme foreignness to American palates. Vitello tonnato appears on menus from Turin to Trieste, and is an umami-rich, meat-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer.

(Seppie in tecia)

Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by the plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia — a real test of your Venetian food chops — it being a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich.

It would be nice if they could offer some of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea/Venetian Lagoon here (moeche, canoce, barboni, etc.), but a 6,000 distance makes seafood a secondary protein on this menu, rather than its focus. You’ll forget all about the fish, however, as soon as you dive into the pastas.

(Baked tagliatelle with ham)

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two, and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure to any of them could become habit forming.

It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragú as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle — the latter being another must-try signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” (a.k.a. a la meuniere) here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like the Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”:

(Fegato alla Veneziana – liver and onions, Venetian-style)

The Venetians claim to have invented the dish, but as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin. It is true, however, that nobody does it better.” And nobody does it better in Las Vegas than Cipriani. Even if you think you hate liver, you should give it a try.

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease knuckle-dragging Americans) —  but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Something called “YOTTO Japanese Cuisine” is also on the menu, presumably because when people go to an Italian restaurant, what they really want is some Japanese food.

Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-i-est gelato you have ever tasted. No foolin’….it is truly extraordinary gelato, worth a special trip all by itself.

(Best. Gelato. Ever.)

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor horde-imploring. Some people won’t “get it” in the same way people don’t “get” classical music, haiku poetry, new wave cinema, or the lines of a simple black dress. Cipriani is a state of mind. The ease and grace with which it displays its good taste is something new here — refinement and subtlety being to Las Vegas what strippers are to the Piazza San Marco. But there is a seductive reassuring quality to its flavors and its atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. Cipriani is not for everyone. It is for the cognoscenti. You have to go there on purpose.

(Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, with the same menu for both. Most dishes are easily split between two people with apps and pastas running $15-$30, and mains in the $30-$50 range, meaning: a modest lunch or dinner for two can run well under a hundy, or a more extravagant one about $150, excluding booze. My first meal here was comped, my next three have run $72, $200, and $163. They also validate your parking. Anyone who orders “nigiri sushi” here should be (figuratively) shot.)

CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702.770.7390

http://www.cipriani.com/restaurant/?loc=las-vegas

2007-2017: A Decade of Restaurants

http://endoedibles.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/IMG_5022.jpg

2007-2017: IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES…

Ten years is a long time. In restaurant years it’s practically a lifetime. Restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it to a decade are approaching retirement, especially in Las Vegas. With luck, they may continue to glide along deep into old age like those fortunate souls lucky enough to be alive and kicking into their nineties. More likely, the grim reaper will come for them soon enough.

2007 seems like an eternity ago to many of us. If you remember, it was the last “boom year” before the big bust of 2008. Ten years ago, social media wasn’t a ‘thing,” Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with grown-ups, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics. In 2007, no restaurant had its own Facebook page, no one knew what Yelp was, and if you wanted to know what your meal might look like at a Strip hotel, you had to buy a guidebook, or find a review in a magazine or newspaper. If you were lucky, that review might include a single shot of the interior and perhaps a couple of photos of featured dishes.

In 2007 there were only a few people in America taking pictures of their food, and a lot of people watching us do it, (including my then 83-now-93 year-old mother) thought we were nuts.

A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were ALEX and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Hotel. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden (the man and the restaurant) and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2002 and 2004. Boulud Brasserie (also in the Wynn) was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-California cuisine at Fleur de Lys in the Mandalay Bay — at the time perhaps the prettiest dining room in town.

There was no downtown dining scene in 2007; there was barely a downtown drinking scene. No one knew what xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings) were, and high-toned Japanese cooking (like Raku, Yui, Kabuto, Yuzu Kaiseki among others) was unheard of. Food trucks were still called “roach coaches,” and were looked upon with disdain by anyone with a taste bud in their head (or more than $5 in their wallet).  Everyone was living high off the hog ten years ago, employment was full, the restaurants were even fuller, and the whole world wanted a slice of the Vegas food and beverage pie.

https://www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/5830044-1-4.jpg(Michael and Wendy Jordan were the best chefs in the ‘burbs, until the recession did them in)

REALITY BITES

Then, reality set in. Faster than you could say “credit default swaps” people stopped coming. Restaurants cut back hours, high rollers and conventioneers stopped blowing a house payment on dinner, and lay-offs were everywhere. Out-of-work chefs either left town or started food trucks; big hotels like Wynn started unloading high-priced talent; and by 2013 all of those restaurants mentioned above had closed their doors. For the next five years (2009-2013), it was the serious doldrums.

There were some stalwarts who stemmed the tide, to be sure. Even the Great Recession couldn’t blunt the enthusiasm for CUT and Carnevino (both of which opened in 2008). and their success in the most dire of times proved the axiom that every restaurant in Las Vegas secretly wishes it was a steakhouse. The support of a big hotels helped the Aria (December, 2009) and The Cosmopolitan (December, 2010) lineups to remain afloat, but a mom-and-pop operation like Rosemary’s (which saw its gross revenues cut in half from 2008-2011), was a dead man sinking from the moment Bear Stearns drowned itself in debt.

Through it all, some places prevailed. Marche Bacchus actually grew in popularity after 2007, thanks to new owners (Rhonda and Jeff Wyatt) and its lakeside venue providing a welcome respite from all the financial gloom and doom hanging over the suburbs. The aforementioned Raku opened in January 2008, and immediately tapped into the smaller-is-better zeitgeist of the times. In the process, it kick-started a Chinatown renaissance that has continued unabated for the past nine years.

https://desdemialacena.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/chinatown-las-vegas.jpeg(Chinatown Plaza opened in 1995)

The Chinatown as we know it has been around since 1995, but it wasn’t until people started pinching their pennies that they discovered the glories of izakaya eating, ramen noodles, and obscure Asian soups. Even with the economic upturn of the past few years, this enthusiasm continues to grow — now expanding to upscale sushi (Yui Edomae Sushi, Kabuto, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Kaiseki), as well as the glories of lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles at Shang Artisan Noodle), high-quality Korean bbq (8oz, Hobak, Magal, Goong), and even inventive Thai (Chada Thai) and Vietnamese (District One, Le Pho). Downtown’s revival has proceeded in fits and starts, but there’s no denying that Carson Kitchen and EAT (two early pioneers now celebrating their third and fifth birthdays, respectively) are here to stay.

Some suburbs, however, have remained problematical. In the past ten years, Henderson/Green Valley has turned its back on Bread & Butter, David Clawson, and Standard & Pour (three excellent, chef-driven restaurants) and a non-franchised meal in those parts is harder to find than a pork chop at VegeNation.

As a counterweight, look to the explosion of good food in the southwest. Rainbow south of the I-215 has become its own mini-Chinatown, Andre’s and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have both opened to great acclaim in the last year, and Other Mama, Japaneiro, Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Cafe, Sparrow+Wolf, and Rosallie Le French Cafe,  continue to draw passionate foodies in search of the good stuff.

On the Strip, some venerable joints (Le Cirque, Twist, Picasso, Guy Savoy, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) just keep getting better, while newcomers like Libertine Social, re-boots like the new Blue Ribbon, and the extraordinary food at Bazaar Meat, give us hope for Vegas’s dining out future. Thankfully, the small plates thing is subsiding, as are celebrity chefs. Caesar’s Entertainment wants you to get excited about whatever licensing deal it has struck with Gordon Ramsay, Giada and Guy Fieri, but most serious foodies look at these craven exercises in marketing with a big yawn. Real food cooked by chefs who are in their restaurants is what creates a buzz these days — witness the success of Harvest by Roy Ellamar — not some branding deal that has all the authenticity of a gordita.

All of which raises the question: What keeps some places alive, through thick and thin, while other, equally worthy businesses fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Cafe kept itself afloat (and is now thriving in a new location). Circo and Valentino bit the dust but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it a year in Green Valley; Carson Kitchen downtown (with a similar menu) is packed day and night. Glutton closes; EAT across the street thrives. What gives?

http://thedivinedish.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/2alexstrattaphotobyalexkarvounis.jpg(Alex Stratta had the goods…and a great restaurant)

THE PRICE OF FAILURE

I have two theories on this, one food-related, one not. The less sexy one involves real estate, contracts, and accounting — three of the most boring subjects on earth. The Strip is a numbers game pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it; investors demand it; and the food and beverage honchos think of little else. Restaurants to them aren’t amenities like swimming pools, they’re more like fancy, big-box retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of a cold green eye-shade.

When the lease is up (a la Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Circo et al), the focus shifts from how nice a place is to which tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Sappy, romantic notions of soft dappled lights in an architecturally-perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce means nothing to the bean counters. Exit the Maccionis, enter Lago: a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station (slinging pizzas and pastas to the nightclub crowd) and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. ALEX, Circo, Fleur de Lys, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.

THE FOOD ABIDES

Theory number two concerns food. Specifically what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook — something to make people remember you. At Marche Bacchus it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest  onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion concoctions (like French toast caviar) that get your attention.

Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. One hundred feet away, one bite of EAT’s yeasty pancakes (or dense corned beef hash), and it becomes everyone’s favorite breakfast spot.

Even on the Strip, it seems more and more like it’s the food that’s getting the attention, not the absentee chefs. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past ten years, and the big splash these days are made by the over-the-top showiness of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, and the table-side ministrations of Carbone.

Big and showy fits Las Vegas like a Wayne Newton leisure suit, but the places that last another decade are going to be all about what’s on the plate, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed ten years ago, before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance. Now, the downsizing is over and it’s time to get cooking.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EPILOGUE FOR A DECADE

http://www.eatinglv.com/wordpress/wp-content/gallery/last-night-at-bradley-ogden/last-night-at-bradley-ogden-044-large.jpg(These guys were da bomb. Their replacement is a wet firecracker.)

3 favorites that bit the dust too early and why.

Circo (1998-2013) – The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after fifteen years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine. I also think the family had had enough of Vegas. New York is their home and that’s where they all want to be, and who can blame them?

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (2005-2013) – Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America.

Bradley Ogden (2002-2012) – Caesars had a choice to make: continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world class chef and his ground-breaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a sad, huge, downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which concept won?

If you loved….

If you loved Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.

If you loved Rosemary’s, try Marche Bacchus.

If you loved Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos.

If you loved Andre’s (either downtown Las Vegas, or in the Monte Carlo) try Andre’s Bistro & Bar or Sparrow + Wolf.