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Scotty-Moore-2007

Scotty Moore: “Elvis Presley, What Kind Of Name Is That?”

‘Elvis Presley, what kind of damn name is that?’
An interview with legendary guitarist Scotty Moore

By E.C. Gladstone

Scotty Moore should need no introduction. Unfortunately, his name is hardly well known, though his music is among the most popular around the world. How? Because Moore, one of the “three wise men” of rock and roll, if you will, was the guitarist on the earliest, and best, Elvis Presley records, including those originally credited to “Elvis Scotty & Bill” or “the Blue Moon Boys”: “That’s Alright. Mama,” “Blue Moon,” “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” “Blue Suede Shoes” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”…yes, all of these, and a lot more.

In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that without a Scotty Moore, there wouldn’t be an Elvis Presley. Back in 1954, Moore (already a Korean war Navy vet) was playing semi-professionally for the Starlite Wranglers, who recorded for Sun at the Memphis Recording Service, when the subject of “an interesting boy singer” came up in conversation with Sam Phillips and his secretary Marion Keisker. Even lesser known is the fact that Moore was also Presley’s first manager, as detailed in his recently published memoir That’s Alright, Elvis. But we’ll let Scotty tell the story…

At 75, with notable successes as a label owner and producer also to his credit (not to mention sigcant work with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others) Moore is still active, playing around the world and enjoying his rare “living legend” status (not only is he in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, but almost every other guitarist there owes him a huge debt). Rhino.com caught up to him at the 5th Annual Ponderosa Stomp Festival in downtown Memphis, TN, right where the whole thing started.

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Scotty, let’s start with the obvious. Elvis, Scotty and Bill were put together by Sam Phillips, right?

“There’s a couple of different sides to that, that I wasn’t privy to. I didn’t know that he [Elvis] had been there [Memphis Recording Service.] before, the stuff with Marion, all this came out later. But when I did the first [Starlight Wranglers] record  I became good friends with Sam. That record probably sold 8 copies, but we became good friends. And the job I had, I’d go by Sun in the afternoon, and if he wasn’t recording anybody, we’d go next door to Miss Taylor’s restaurant, drink coffee and just chit-chat about the business in general.

So you always had an interest in the business side of things as well (Moore later had success as a label owner, producer, and studio manager)?

“Oh yeah. Right. And actually Marion Keisler, she was having coffee with us one day and she turned to Sam and said ‘What about that boy that was in here ‘couple weeks ago? Did you ever call him?’ Because she had actually cut the demo acetate on Elvis. She was struck by it. And he said, ‘No I never did.’ But I hadn’t heard the [boy’s] name. This went on about 2 weeks, every time I’d go by, I’d say ‘Ever talk to that boy you was talking about ?’ No. And then about two weeks, ‘What about the boy?’ Still hadn’t heard his name. And he said to Marion, ‘Go get that guy’s telephone number,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘listen to him and tell me what you think.’ I looked at the paper and said ‘Elvis Presley, what kind of damn name is that?’ [laughs]

“That’s the first time I’d heard his name. This would’ve been the 3rd of July. The 4th was on Sunday, and we actually cut on the 5th. So I went home and called him, and his mother said ‘he’s not here but when he gets in I’ll have him call.you.’ Which he did, and I asked him to come over to my house. He came over to my house on Sunday, and it seemed like he knew every song in the world. I’d name things, do me a country song, do me a pop song, whatever you’d want to name. Bill Black [Starlite Wranglers bassist] lived just a few doors down from me at the time. And he came down and listened. And after Elvis left, Bill came back down and I said ‘What’d you think about him?’ And he said ‘Well, he’s got real good meter.’ That’s what really impressed both of us.

By ‘meter’ you mean… a sense of rhythm?

“Sense of rhythm. He’d sing a song, he’d quit playing and sing it and come back in and it was perfect, every time. So Bill said, he’s got good timing, and I said, yeah he does. That’s what our impression was. That’s about all that was said. And I called Sam and told him, ‘knows all the songs, got good timing.’ And he said ‘I’ll call him and see if he’ll come in tomorrow night, Monday. Can you and Bill come in?’

“Now, tape recording was very new at that time. You had disc machines and stuff. He said ‘I want to hear what he sounds like on tape, and I just want a little music behind him to see what he sounds like.’ So Bill and I went on Monday night, worked 2-3 hours, same old deal, say ‘you know so-and-so [song],’ and I guess it was around 9:30, it was getting time to get home ‘cause Bill and I had to go to work the next day. I was working as a hatter at my brother’s cleaning plant, University Park Cleaners. Blocking hats, cleaning ‘em. I think I had already pulled my guitar case over and was starting to put my guitar in it, and Elvis stood up and started slapping his guitar and singing “That’s All Right.”

“Now I don’t know to this day—of course, Sam had released this song before on [Arthur] Crudup [editor’s note: actually, Crudup recorded the song in the ‘40s for RCA] and Elvis knew the song. Now whether he was trying to impress Sam, it was never mentioned. I hadn’t heard it, Bill had never heard it. Sam stuck his head out the door, the door was cracked open, he said ‘What’s that you guys are doin’?’ We said, ‘just goofing around,’ and he said, ‘well everybody get back on mic, let me hear a little bit more. With about three or four takes, that was the first record.

Other than that, what’s your favorite memory of Elvis?

“Oh, I don’t think I could break it down to just one. See, when he was onstage, it was really a joke to him, too. It really was.

You know, I’ve noticed when you look at the old films from ’56, he’s cracking up.

“He’s cracking up! I’d have to go back to…the first thing we played before a live audience was at the Overton Park Band Shell [in Memphis]. There was always ‘extra guests’ [on the shows] and Bob Neal put us on there. And there was several little girls sitting in the front row. We only did two songs, maybe three. If you’ve ever played guitar, try playing rhythm, raising up on the balls of both your feet, in the big britches that they had back in those days, and see what happens. It tore those girls up. They thought he was doing it on purpose [the hip wiggling]. But he was a great learner, anything you’d do, he’d pick up on

Both of those stories, about ‘That’s All Right,’ and the hip wiggling, really point to the fact that Elvis was a very ad-lib type of musician and performer.

“Yeah. He didn’t talk a lot on stage, either. But he’d do little things. I think he thought if all of those little girls laughed, well he’d do it again. Never planned anything.

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[A fan interrupts the interview to confirm what a website had said was their first professional gig]

“There was a nightclub in Memphis, out on Summer Avenue–the Holiday Inn was there–where the highway turns, called the Bonaire club.

[The website says something different]

“Well, he wasn’t there… It wasn’t the first professional thing, it was a club, but it wasn’t the first live audience. We took [the gig] to see how the crowd was going to react to him. See I had the other thing, Starlight Wranglers, and the reason we quit that is because, see it was just me and Bill that backed up Elvis on the record. And we went out there and played one night, I think it was only two or three times we played there, and Bill said ‘wait a minute, this ain’t working out, all the rest of the guys [in the Wranglers] get a break, and I’m playing through the breaks.’ That’s why we quit that.

Your book says right in the subtitle that you were not only Elvis’ first guitarist, but also manager, something not a lot of people know. How did that come about?

“How that came about, [after] we did the first record, Bill, myself and Elvis were down the studio one day, and Elvis mentioned to Sam ‘All these people are calling me asking questions and I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to handle it.’ And it was actually Sam’s idea, he said, Scotty, why don’t you sign a contract with Elvis, so he won’t be lying, a legit contract, so that when people ask him something, he can tell them ‘Talk to my manager.’ And I did, I had a one page contract drawn up for one year, and that’s how all that came about. And then Bob Neal, who was a disc jockey here in Memphis, and had been booking him in some clubs around here [Memphis], he became the second manager before Parker.

So the burning question I’ve always wanted to ask you: which was a harder boss to work for, the US Navy or Col. Tom Parker?

“Well, Parker didn’t like me and and I didn’t like him, from day one. ‘Cause I could see straight through what he was. He was just an old carny man, knew the business, knew how to deal with people to get what he wanted. He did a lot of good things for Elvis, and he did a lot of bad things too, as we know.

Now, the ELVIS TV special in 1968 [a/k/a ’68 Comeback], that was the last time you worked with him I believe. Because you had gone off and done a bunch of other things, record labels and engineering…

“Yeah, especially when he started his movie thing. He didn’t do anything but movies for a long time. And he was very nervous when he did that TV special. That’s why they wanted to get all the old guys, DJ and myself, back out there. And he had a couple of other guys who had been traveling with him also sitting there. That was just strictly for him. But after he did that first song, it come back real quick, and next thing, he stood up. See, we were supposed to be sitting down, nobody had guitar straps or anything. And he stood up, put his foot on the chair—you remember ? The next thing, he looked over, and I think it probably dawned on him, ‘Hell, that guitar’s plugged into the amplifier, you can hear him.’ That’s when he took my guitar! [laughs] If you look at it close, you’ll see the look I made on him too!

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Scotty Moore on the ELVIS special, after Elvis has traded guitars.

You’re looking like ‘Uh, okay?”

“What? What?”

Was that a fun moment?

“Yeah, it really was, ‘cause it was good for him. He’d been tired of the movies for a long time, but there again, Parker would sign the contracts on him. It just got to be junk, let’s face it.

Just one more question, as a guitarist, who are your favorite guitar players?

“Gosh, I got so many I don’t know…

Who influenced you coming up?

“Well, actually, when I started playing, see, the records, everybody that was playing guitar on ‘em was fine, but I didn’t know who they were. Les Paul and Chet Atkins were the only two that I can really remember where you’d see their names. On a lot of other records with guitar players on them, you didn’t know who they were. So I just picked up bits and pieces from different ones and tried to incorporate it, I guess.

And I bet you never knew that there were two or three of Les Paul [with overdubbing] on his records!

“No [laughs], I didn’t know. Hank Garland was another one who I loved later on. And the story that’s told on him is that when he heard some of Les’ records with all that overdubbing, he’d go in and figure out how to do it all at once! He was something else.

I heard you mention earlier today that you just had an injury?

“My shoulder. I had an operation on it about two weeks ago. I won’t be playing tonight. I’ve got about 3 or 4 more weeks of rehab to do, then I think I’ll be okay.

Originally posted on Rhino.com 2005

Love This City: Mastercard Travel Site

In 2015 I got the opportunity to blog about Las Vegas for Mastercard’s Love This City site for travelers and locals. The nice thing about this site is that it allowed for bloggers to approach topics from atypical angles, and not just regurgitate the same content everyone else does. Here are some of my posts:

Shopping Downtown Las Vegas: Discover The Alternative

Las Vegas Attractions For Adrenaline Junkies

The Best Restaurants In Las Vegas For Two

Get Your Game On: Golf Courses & More

Go Off The Vegas Strip For Excitement, Romance and Relaxation

Bellagio Magic: Rediscover The Fountain of Joy

Lavish Suites: The Best Hotels In Vegas

About E.C. Gladstone

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Maroma Resort and the Riviera Maya

Earlier this year, I enjoyed a memorable visit to Waldorf Astoria’s excellent Riviera Maya property, Maroma, a resort and a region where natural beauty, history and spirituality combine to create a very unique escape. Click on the link below to read my story for Dallas/Ft. Worth’s 360 West magazine, and view the gallery for more of my candid shots.

360 West Maroma Resort E.C. Gladstone

Click above to download full article PDF

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Exploring Champagne–the Place and the Product

Which would you choose as your dream vacation: luxury escape, historical tour or nature retreat? It’s such a common conundrum that you find it on personality tests.

But what if you could combine all three? Even as a seasoned traveler, I wouldn’t have thought it possible — not in equal proportion, surely — until I spent time in a storied destination worthy of rediscovery: France’s Champagne-Ardenne.

The home of the world’s best bubbly also happens to be a place of pivotal European history (from the ancient Romans to World War II) and — who knew? — even surrounds a forest offering camping, bike trails and geological wonders. All of this is accessible within a two-hour drive radius.

Champagne has, in effect, two capitals, and which city you chose as your embarkation point (less than an hour from Paris via the high-speed TGV rail) can have some influence on the balance of your experience. Reims and Epernay are both quintessential regional French towns with proud local traditions. Reims is larger and has more history and diversity; Epernay, a bit quieter and simple, is considered the true heart of Champagne country — not to mention home of the mother-ship Moet & Chandon plant and majestic Maison Perrier-Jouët. Depending on your outlook, you might prefer Reims’ five-star Château Les Crayères, nestled within its own park; the simpler but modern Le Clos Margot, a bed-and-breakfast connected to Champagne Doyard in tiny Vertus; or, if you’re inclined to roughing it à la française, one of nine camping and caravan sites in the area. Bring your own beer or wine if you decide to camp….

READ THE ENTIRE STORY BY CLICKING BELOW FOR THE PDF FROM MARIN MAGAZINE… and scroll down for additional photos from my trip!


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Scottsdale for Guys

This piece for Marin magazine was definitely a lot of fun–getting to check out the top golfing resorts in Scottsdale (and dining, and spas, and activities) including The Boulders, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Four Seasons Scottsdale, Montelucia, and the legendary Arizona Biltmore. Here’s the piece as it ran (click to download the PDF)…and a few more outtake shots (most of the photography is also mine).


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Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton: Making Elegance Hip

Toronto remains a singular city, combining European sophistication with American approachability almost seamlessly. My recent visit there was certainly influenced, though, by staying at the new Ritz-Carlton, with one of the most impressive Concierge levels I’ve experienced, and a truly destination-worthy restaurant, Toca by Tom Brody.

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Singular Staycations: Gourmet Bachelor style

For my friend Chad Carns’ blog TheGourmetBachelor, I contributed a series of my favorite West Coast staycation destinations, including Calistoga (Napa)’s Solage, Santa Monica’s Casa Del Mar, and San Diego’s La Costa resort. Enjoy them… I did!

La Costa

La Costa

A Silents Tribute

The original history of film studios in Los Angeles has been a topic of interest for me since my role in opening the Edendale Grill restaurant. To give the Oscars a local spin, Patch.com editor Anthea Raymond asked me to pen a blog focusing just on the elements of the Academy Awards which connected them to the original Edendale studios (many of which pre-dated the studios in neighboring Hollywood).

Here it is:

About.com guest contributor E.C. Gladstone

About.com Guest Blogs

About.com guest contributor E.C. Gladstone

Zeke Quezada has been the GoVegas Editor for About.com pretty much as long as anyone can remember. As such, he’s essentially the single most-read voice on Las Vegas anywhere on the interwebs (in other words, Anywhere, Period), and is remarkably humble about it. Well, humble relative to many other writers whose readerships are considerably less significant.

Every so often, though, I will experience something that my good friend and colleague hasn’t (it’s rare, I admit) and so, he’ll ask me to guest-blog for About.com. Here are some of my contributions there:

Gay Marriage Is Legal in Las Vegas: How To Celebrate

What It’s All About In Downtown Container Park

Los Vegans in Las Vegas

The Best Late Night Food In Vegas Isn’t On The Strip

20 Places To Eat In Las Vegas Right Now

Why Festivino is Not Your Ordinary Vegas Food Event

Hawaiian Fish Is Very Fresh At Wynn Las Vegas’ Lakeside Grill

Do You Trust Gordon Ramsay With Your Beef?

Bubbles and Brunch at The Cosmopolitan

Top Burgers In Vegas, 2011

More on What Makes A Great Burger, and Holstein’s Lamb Burger

The Cosmopolitan’s Secret/Nameless Pizza Joint

Downtown Vegas’ Revamped Classic El Cortez Casino

Aureole Wine Weekend

Zeke's on the left. ;-)

Zeke’s on the left. ;-)

Reconquering Downtown Vegas: El Cortez on About.com

What the classic El Cortez sign looks like from the roof. shhhh.... pic ECG

What the classic El Cortez sign looks like from the roof. shhhh.... pic ECG

While many Downtown Las Vegas Casino Hotels have been slowly updating themselves, the El Cortez–one of the oldest, in continual operation since the ’40s–has done a particularly good job of reclaiming past glories while inserting bits of hip modernism. Here’s my most recent report, as a guest blogger on About.com, as well as some extra pics….

Yes, those are still Coin Slots ;)

Yes, those are still Coin Slots ;)

The Big Sleep Suite

The Big Sleep Suite

Yes, that is a glowing tumbleweed. Jealous?

Yes, that is a glowing tumbleweed. Jealous?

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The Flame Steakhouse (courtesy El Cortez)

The Flame Steakhouse (courtesy El Cortez)

 Best matzoh ball soup in Vegas... and maybe anywhere??

Best matzoh ball soup in Vegas... and maybe anywhere??

Too Much Is Never Enough: Indulge LA

Most food festivals tend to emphasize the savory over the sweet, but Indulge Los Angeles flipped the script, focusing on chocolates, pastries and beverage pairings. With two world-class pattissiers demonstrating, as well as the winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, the event benefitting St. Jude Children’s Hospital (tix only $35!), it was pretty impossible to pass up.

The event, held this past Saturday (9.24.11)  was appealingly sized, with about 50 participating companies, and the tone was well set at one of the first tables with Armand de Brignac Ace of Spaces champagne. One glass of this haute, hip cuvee would justify the price of admission alone! From there, in every direction, were bon bons, parfaits, mini cupcakes, macarons…you name it. As I tweeted during the show, a diabetic probably shouldn’t even breathe the air!

Both Stephane Treand and Jean-Marie Auboine demonstrated their wow-factor work–and each informed me they’re in the final stages of opening pattissier schools, Treand’s in San Clemente, Auboine’s in Las Vegas, NV. That’s like Tiger Woods offering to help you improve your game (and you can take that any way you want).

Marcel Vigneron was a no-show (it would appear he double-booked) but Annette Starbuck of the Goodie Girls fulfilled the Food Network quotient, while probably the most impressive creations belong to the Montage Resort’s Exec Pastry Chef Lee Smith  (yuzu chili macarons? I’m a believer). Several local handcraft chocolatiers (many of whom barely have any retail presence) offered impressive goods, like Ococoa’s Diana Malouf, and the all organic chocolate covered gummi bears (made from black carrott puree?) from OM snacks also got my attention. Ditto Ecuador’s fair trade/organic Pacari and Sacha chocolate bars. Not only “nice” but NICE.

Other beverages worth mentioning included Patron tequila and Patron XO coffee liqueur, Veev açai liquor, Hypnotiq, Moreno Beverly Hills sparkling wine, Little Vineyards pinot, Cortage champagne. There were also some vitamin drinks and flavored coconut waters offered… though by the end, I would’ve killed for just some plain water. And a couch.

Thanks to Cutie Pies LA‘s Mollie Brown, who shared camera duties with me on this one…

Revisiting the West Memphis Three

nvg9744-03The recent release of the West Memphis three brought back memories for me. Back before my current career focus, I wrote a vanguard independent film column for Alternative Press magazine. One of the edgy, controversial films I was happy to champion was Paradise Lost, the documentary about the West Memphis Three that brought their story to light, even before Henry Rollins and others were championing them.

I will scan the original article as soon as I locate it, in the meantime, here’s the original text, submitted July 17, 1996:

Head: The Reel Deal

Sub: The art of documentary film and “Non-fiction storytelling”

Despite the nominal success of such films as *Hoop Dreams* and *Roger And Me*, despite the proliferation of “reality-based” TV programming, despite the aping of documentary style in films like *Natural Born Killers* and *To Die For,* documentaries remain an underappreciated art and infotainment form.

“Hollywood is totally about money and power,” says filmmaker Joe Berlinger. “[Those] people don’t ultimately think a documentary has true breakthrough potential.”

When compared to blockbusters like *Independence Day,* Hollywood may have a point. But the films of Berlinger and his partner Bruce Sinofsky, who prefer the term “non-fiction storytelling” to “documentary,” neverless offer gripping drama for theatergoers.

Their new film *Paradise Lost,* which will appear in theaters at the end of September (after premiering at Sundance, and airing on HBO in June), is as harrowing a story as anything Hollywood could have dreamed up. An unintended sequel of sorts to their breakthrough *Brother’s Keeper,* *Paradise Lost*  begins seemingly as a “real-life *River’s Edge*”: In West Memphis, Arkansas, the bodies of three eight year old boys are found in a shallow creek, mutilated, drained of blood, and tied up with shoelaces. Three teenagers are arrested for the crime: a17-year-old with an IQ of 72, who gives a factually erred confession to the police, a mullet-wearing 16-year-old, and Damien Echols, 18, who wears black, listens to heavy metal and confesses a certain “interest” in Wicca, Steven King, and Anton LaVey.

“So what if he wears black pants?” says Damien’s father, one of the many involved parties interviewed by the filmmakers, “Johnny Cash wears black pants.”

As it progresses, the story begins to seem more like the Salem witch trials, in which questionably guilty parties are railroaded just for being outcasts. Myriad intrigues emerge as the two trials progress, particularly when one victim’s stepfather gives the filmmakers a knife which may have been used in the killings. Without any conclusive evidence, and much contradictory testimony from all sides, the three defendants are accused of a satanic ritual killing. Ultimately their convictions prove more about the town of West Memphis, and the American justice system than guilt or innocence.

“To go out into the real world, capture this kind of drama, edit it so that it makes sense dramatically, and is truthful, I think is harder than making a feature film,” says Berlinger, who worked with a crew of four people over a 10 month period, shooting 150 hours of footage on 16 millimeter and video, and spending even more time gaining interviewees’ trust than actually shooting them. “We had no idea where the story was going to take us, and it could have easily fallen apart.” *Paradise Lost* is long, at two and a half hours, but thankfully, never falls apart. It’s also the first film to feature the music of Metallica, who gave permission for free usage because they liked *Brother’s Keeper* and were interested in a story where their music is implicated.

Another documentary due late September in theaters (after premiering at Sundance) also implicates music as a guilty party. *Hype!* tells the story of the rise and fall (or at least, plateau) of Seattle grunge, mixing interviews and live performances from both the famous and lesser-known players of the most recent musical revolution, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Seaweed, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Supersuckers, Mudhoney, the Fastbacks,The Melvins, Gas Huffer and the Gits.

But more than the music, *Hype!* follows “the story about how America packages things,” as director Doug Pray puts it. Soonafter he began filming, Pray recalls, “Everywhere I turned grunge was on the cover of a magazine, grunge was everywhere, and the difference between what was there and what I was reading about was so striking.” Thus *Hype!* includes “grunge” fashion,  the “grunge” effect pedal, “grunge” pencils (from Seattle cartoonist Peter Bagge), Pearl Jam’s appearance as a Jeopardy question, Nirvana muzak, even Seattle band trading cards. It also reveals much about Sub Pop’s abilities to exploit the media, from the initial Everett True story which arguably started the furor, to Megan Jasper’s interview with the New York Times, in which she made up an entire lexicon of non-existent grunge jargon. “75% of what Bruce and Jon say is a lie” says Sub Pop publicist Nils Bernstein of his bosses Pavitt and Poneman, “but it’s served them well.” Behind-the-scenes players Jack Endino, Conrad Uno, Susan Silver and Charles Peterson are also interviewed.

Like Berlinger and Sinofsky, Pray, whose previous experience is limited mostly to music videos, Pray spent more time in the Seattle community (the entire process took three years) gaining trust than just shooting film. Sub Pop, of course, will be releasing the soundtrack.

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Sexy, Savory, Sophisticated Santa Barbara

Somehow I managed to stay away from Santa Barbara–a quick 90 minutes north of Los Angeles–long enough for it to grow some very interesting contours. They all talk about the ‘Sideways’ effect, but I think it’s more than that. Great wines, great vistas, great people. Here’s my story for 360 West, and a few personal pics:

Click above to download full article PDF

Click above to download full article PDF

Aureole Wine Lounge: A Secret In Plain Sight

Some things in Las Vegas have a way of hiding in plain sight. Aureole Wine Lounge is a fine example of this. Late last year, the Charlie Palmer restaurant in Mandalay Bay decided to update it’s rather austere entrance, opening up a huge window to their famous wine tower and dining room; it was a great idea, and arguably overdue, the first real change to the restaurant since it opened in the late ‘90s. At the same time, they also thought to gather some energy from the casino floor by creating a small “wine lounge” in front of the window, with a few select wines by the glass, and some small bites to accompany them.

It was just a modest idea. The only thing is, the team at Aureole (including Exec Chef Vincent Pouessel, Wine Director William Sherer and Pastry Chef Megan Romano) don’t do anything modestly. They do it as well as it can be done, or they don’t do it–and they let the results speak for themselves. Which is perhaps why so few local media have talked about Aureole Wine Lounge.

The lack of attention is perhaps understandable: If you don’t jump up and down and scream your lungs out on the Vegas Strip, you’ll get drowned out by every business that does. Aureole’s style has always been much more low key, quietly maintaining one of the best dining rooms and wine programs in the city without over-promoting it (take a look at their wall of awards, positioned inside the restaurant). Such exceeding expectations matched with quiet humility is the exact opposite of how things are usually done here. And while I myself have always had Aureole on a short list of reliable top recommendations, I too neglected to sit down and experience the wine lounge.

Once I did, I realized it was my loss. Because Aureole’s own standards are so high, doing an “impromptu” lounge for tourists and conventioneers means creating a place that far exceeds other much more “serious” stops at the same price point. And surprisingly, it’s not only better quality, but even better value, no matter what your budget.

In addition to a broad selection of almost 20 wines by the glass and several fine cheeses (all competitively priced–with the wines half off during happy hour), AWL also offers a menu of “small bites” in the $10 range that are easily some of your best food values on the Strip. Check out what I got to sample, all of which were great, and some out of this world:

Four Miyago Oysters for $10? You might find them a tiny bit cheaper elsewhere (most places they're $3 each). You surely won't find them better.

Four Miyago Oysters for $10? You might find them a tiny bit cheaper elsewhere (most places they're $3 each). You surely won't find them better.

Spicy tomatillo gaspacho with watercress sandwiches. This really is almost a meal.

Spicy tomatillo gaspacho with watercress sandwiches. This really is almost a meal.

Ahi tuna rolls with edible flowers: pretty. yummy.

Ahi tuna rolls with edible flowers: pretty. yummy.

Wagyu sliders with bacon: It was a tragedy we couldn't finish these.

Wagyu sliders with bacon: It was a tragedy we couldn't finish these.

Mushroom egg rolls, for you vegetarians in the house (and those of us who love you).

Mushroom egg rolls, for you vegetarians in the house (and those of us who love you).

Piece de resistance: St. Louis Ribs–meaty, tender, sweet and savory, incredibly, the BEST ribs I've had in Vegas. 3 for $10 might seem pricey but THESE ARE WORTH IT!

Piece de resistance: St. Louis Ribs–meaty, tender, sweet and savory, incredibly, the BEST ribs I've had in Vegas. 3 for $10 might seem pricey but THESE ARE WORTH IT!

In on the skim: The Las Vegas Mob Experience

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There is a certain irony in the fact that the first official “tribute” to organized crime in Las Vegas is in the casino hotel which was discovered to be skimmed by the mob more than any other, the Tropicana. Of course, the resort has long since changed ownership several times, and this “Mob Experience” –not to be confused with the Mob Museum in the works for downtown Las Vegas–is one aspect of a major property overhaul which has done wonders with the old dame.

The first indication that this is more irreverent “edutainment” than a serious exhibit is your entrance through the gift shop, selling shirts like these:

This reminds me of the "Henchman #1" sweatshirts they used to wear on the Batman series in the 60s

This reminds me of the "Henchman #1" sweatshirts they used to wear on the Batman series in the 60s

We are talking about people who murdered and maimed in cold blood, stole millions of dollars, and did all kind of other illegal, nasty, destructive things, right? Okay, I’ll lighten up.

The Experience begins as you are given a badge with an “alias” which will be your identity throughout (I was “Two Hands”). You walk through a replica landing dock, reading background on how organized crime started in the US: The Black Hand, New York gang leaders like Monk Eastman (Jewish) and Paul Kelly (Italian) and so on. Then you’re directed to take a “Visa” photo at “Ellis Island,” and suddenly face a hologram of Tony Sirico (you know, from The Sopranos) explaining prohibition. The holograms–there are more to come–are one of the most impressive elements of the Mob Experience. The other element is the role playing actors, like the guy running the hidden liquor warehouse you find yourself in next, who gives you an envelope to deliver to “Big Leo” at a sidewalk cafe, then the police sergeant who interrogates you, and the enforcer in Las Vegas who enlists you to help take care of business.

Recreated archaic brands on a speakeasy shelf

Recreated archaic brands on a speakeasy shelf...Bottled Romance on the rocks, anyone?

Several more recreated tableaus–speakeasies, casino floors, eye in the sky hideouts–try to bring you into the story, as does the hologram of Steve Schirripa (also The Sopranos, and a Vegas guy himself) explaining the “skim,” but it’s all a bit “Hollywood” until you enter the center of the experience, a series of galleries displaying actual property of the famous mob bosses, from Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s Studebaker (gorgeous) to Sam Giancana’s living room furniture (tacky) to Ben “Bugsy” Siegel’s home movies (mesmerizing) to Meyer Lansky’s diaries, bow ties and Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Mickey Cohen’s boxing gloves and monogrammed pajamas.

Vintage showgirl/mobster "girlfriend" outfit.

Vintage showgirl/mobster "girlfriend" outfit.

Luciano's Studebaker (they even have his signed owner's manual)

Luciano's Studebaker (they even have his signed owner's manual)

Meyer's ties.

Meyer's ties.

The Rat's Pajamas

The Rat's Pajamas

Then you’re back into the role-playing, blowing up a casino from inside a library (not sure I got that) before stepping into a warehouse to find out your fate from the Mob Boss hologram of James Caan (The Godfather I and II).

Far be it from me to give this a deep analysis as a historical cultural experience: but as an alternative to Madame Tussaud’s or the CSI Experience, LVME is a little bit fun, a little bit serious, a little silly, and a little real. Play at your own risk.

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Las Vegas Mob Experience

Tropicana Las Vegas

(702) 739-2662 (-2MOB)

Rocket Fizz is a Supersonic Blast

Enter The Dragon

Enter The Dragon

Have you checked out Rocket Fizz? While the Burbank store hardly originated the idea of selling every retro candy and soda pop available–shout outs to Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park and Powell’s Sweet Shop in Belmont Shores (and 17 other locations)–I’ve been so overdue to check it out that, while I slept they’ve expanded to branches in:

I shot so many pictures that I uploaded them all to a flickr album here (also link from the photo).
Four out of Five Dentists Agree: We Need The Business ;)

Four out of Five Dentists Agree: We Need The Business ;)

Galco’s, Powell’s, and Rocket Fizz all have their merits–Rocket Fizz’s strengths lie in a few interesting aspects:
1) They have undoubtedly one of the biggest arrays of “salt water” taffy flavors I’ve ever seen–at least two dozen (above)–with flavors like Mango, Lemon Meringue and my daughter’s favorite, Cotton Candy. The miracle of science!
2) In addition to full ranges of many retro and esoteric soda companies, they have their own line of sodas with flavors like Green Apple Jalapeno.
3) They offer not just the expected retro candies, novelty toys and metal signs, but also modern international candies, including a good sampling of British Cadbury varieties like Yorkie and Flake, and some Japanese treats including even a sampler of their offbeat KitKat flavors (not cheap, but unique). I’d be thrilled if they got even deeper into International candy varieties.
Rocket Fizz is not just for kids. Even more serious foodies (and certainly mixologists) can find inspiration here. Check it out sometime.

Didn’t Get The Memo: Arty Party Dim Sum Fun

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It’s been a while since I’ve attended an art gallery opening where you can’t buy the art. Not because it’s obscenely expensive, but because it’s actually not for sale.

Also, it was all behind thick glass. Which makes me think either someone feels this gold-lame flecked Technics 1200 is the new Mona Lisa, or they weren’t kidding when they called this event Party Animals.

Gold Soundz

Gold Soundz

Royal T in Culver City, for those who haven’t been here before (which includes me, shocking since it’s apparently been here since ’08) is part gallery, part kooky retail, and part cafe staffed by cute girls (mostly Asian) in French Maid costumes. Which is not at all kinky at all. Certainly not. Perfectly innocent.

Lauren doesn't like living in Venice anymore. I should've told her my servant's quarters was vacant.

Lauren doesn't like living in Venice anymore. I should've told her my servant's quarters was vacant.

It’s very much the kind of place you would’ve found in New York maybe 15 years ago, except that, well, it’s 10x bigger than it could ever be in Manhattan. [Turns out it was the locale of one of the early LudoBites. Which shows you how out of the loop I've been in covering LA food for the previous few years. Catching up quickly ;)]

Anyway, they had this gallery opening, and as much as I’m a fan of cool art (and it was mostly cool) my main motivation–at least as far as this blog is concerned–was chowing on the noms from Dim Sum Truck, which catered the event.

"I'm not a creep, I'm a blogger," I told them. Small difference, I know.

"I'm not a creep, I'm a blogger," I told them. Small difference, I know.

The Frasian Maids got the hint and were beelining to me with their trays before long. I suppose I should’ve taken more foodporn pics, but to be honest, most of the dumplings didn’t look that exciting. That is no reflection of their quality, however: these are excellent bites, all of them–mostly traditional preparations, vegetable, pork, chicken and ground shrimp-based. The latter were my favorite, flavor-wise, the pork bao probably least successful. But I wouldn’t have complained even if I paid for them!

some 'sum

some 'sum

Everyone at the event (or nearly) was dressed in some kind of kooky Rennaissance Festival Fanfic Plushy Geekout. There were bizarro balloon animals and face paintings and a dress-up photo booth, and of course a DJ who thought his music was much better than it really was. I wore a white shirt and jeans, because I’m a loser (or incredibly contrary, take your pick).

RoyalTbutterfly

Royal T’s big bearded and tiny spectacled mixologist (didn’t get the name, but there’s probably a Dr. in it) made me a very nice fresh watermelon, basil and soju cocktail as well.

sup sup

sup sup

At some point I had to leave, or become the creepy guy who was taking voyeuristic pics of the guests and the maids. Luckily this one came up to me offering one of these professionally-childish sugar cookies. Which we all know is code for GET THE F**K OUT.

RoyalTgirl

Just kidding. ;)

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Find Royal T at 8910 Washington Blvd, Culver City, 310 559 6300

“Party Animals” exhibition runs until Labor Day-ish

Oh, P.S. Mental note for next Mother’s Day present…

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Due Forni: Meet Vegas’ Hottest Twins

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There might be no greater leap of faith in the culinary world then going from the cosseted confines of a Vegas Strip Casino dining room to an off-Strip independent restaurant. On the Strip, a chef can enjoy some of the best kitchen operations in the country, efficient supply channels (with economies of scale), expensively-designed dining spaces, mighty-muscled PR and Marketing teams, and almost certainly a steady stream of customers.

Off-Strip, in a community that is bizarrely more attracted to national chains than local stars, and continually seduced by dining deals, you can get more attention being an ignominious flop than actually making good food.

So it certainly took some guts for Carlos Buscaglia, formerly one of the best Italian chefs on the Strip at the MGM Grand’s Fiamma Trattoria, to take that leap and open up a pizza place on Summerlin’s Town Center Drive, particularly in the middle of a severe economic downturn. Thus far, Due Forni Pizza & Wine seems to be doing fine… but if it fails, don’t blame the food.

Carlos obsessing in the glass-enclosed kitchen

Carlos obsessing in the glass-enclosed kitchen

The concept here is a play on duality: Due Forni has “due forni,” i.e. two ovens in Italian, specifically two Italian-designed pizza ovens which constantly rotate to cook evenly. They are electronic, not wood-burning, which is somewhat heretical to traditionalists who feel that a pizza needs to be unevenly cooked and half-charred to be “authentic.” Apparently the actual Italians who make these ovens disagree.

The concept is further spun to offer the two dominant types of pizza in Italy, Napoletana—which we all know—and Romana, which is thinner and more crispy. One is cooked in each oven, the former for 90 seconds at 900 degrees, the latter 500 degrees for three minutes. Both are offered as a margherita and six other intriguing varieties (though likely Carlos will put any variation you want on your pie–he is not one of those “no substitutions” pricks) for $13 up to $21 for the fanciest, a black truffle and egg Tartufo so rich there’s no way you could finish it.

Moody PR shot of the dining room with ovens at rear

Moody PR shot of the dining room with ovens at rear

For wine, they offer 38 labels, dominantly red, dominantly Italian, but with a few Californians, one or two French and New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay SB. Every single one is available by the glass–20 of them, as the menu points out, under $15 (and nine of those under $10, as are all ten beers). Of course, there’s also California cult The Puzzle and Super Tuscan Tignanello if some Summerlinian wants to splurge.

ahi tuna crudo

ahi tuna crudo

Like any pizza place, they offer some starters too, though here, Buscaglia clearly goes past the expected, delivering fine-dining level salume, assagnini and salads. You’ll notice one glaring omission: pastas (as Carlos explains to me afterward, those two ovens are actually the only heating elements in the entire operation, and at least by my visit he hadn’t figured out a good way to make pastas with them. That may change, but in some respects I like the idea of an authentically Italian restaurant bucking expectations).

My visit was a proper tasting, which means Carlos knew I was coming, but didn’t know what I’d be ordering, and for those who assume that only anonymous reviewing is valid, I’ll just point out two obvious facts: no one in the restaurant appeared to be getting any less attention than my family, nor did their food look any different than mine (it’s not like a chef can replace their normal ingredients with some ‘special’ better stuff, and it doesn’t guarantee everything comes out perfect). As it happens, the chef sent out a lot of samplings which allowed me to have a far greater idea of the menu than any normal person could in one visit.

prime beef carpaccio

prime beef carpaccio

We started with two of the “Cold Apps” and all three“Hot Apps:” tuna crudo, beef carpaccio, scampi prawns, turkey polpette, and semolina gnocchi. On the cold side, I  loved the carpaccio: prime beef, wraped around arugula and pignoli like cut sushi, and topped with shaved parmesan and black truffle vinaigrette. The ahi tuna crudo, mixed with Fresno pepper, capers, olives and lemon-infused truffle oil seemed to have a slightly grainy texture and was dominated by the lemon essence.

turkey polpette

turkey polpette

Of the hot apps, I absolutely loved the semolina gnocchi, shaped like pencil points and served in a sort of carbonara with black truffle crema, smoked nueske bacon and peas, a hearty portion which could easily work as a second entrée with a pizza. The black tiger prawn scampi came with fregola, a kind of Sardinian cous cous, and had a lovely fragrance, but something about the garlic and white wine in the recipe left a bitter aftertaste. The ground turkey polpette came in a wonderfully bright, fresh san marzano tomato sauce, but the meatballs themselves were a bit bland, despite nice texture. More seasoning or just adding in pork or veal would help.

mozzarella trio: from bottom, stracciatella, affumicata, classica

mozzarella trio: from bottom, stracciatella, affumicata, classica

Normally the mozzarella bar here is offered as one of three Campagnia mozzarella choices and a side such as roasted red peppers, Sicilian anchovies, marinated roman artichokes, prosciutto San Daniele or three others. Lucky for me, I got to sample all three cheeses with some plain pizza dough on the side. The stracciatella was by far my favorite, soft creamy and light; the classica was fine but nothing special, and the smoked mozza was smoked with the wrong wood, methinks. It just tasted like it’d been left in a house that burned down.

Then. Came. Pizza.

Three of them.

Due Forni Napoletana

Due Forni Napoletana

We sampled Neapolitan versions of the house signature Due Forni, an adaptation of the margherita with san marzano tomato sauce, campagnia bufala mozzarella, house made crumbled sausage, nueske bacon and pequillo peppers. This was just a pure, perhaps slightly Americanized pie, with juicy savory sausage and peppers. While these ovens avoid the charring that wood ovens give you, as the pics show, you still get hot spots on the dough, which was that classic chewy/crisp crust that you want in a Napoli pie.

The second Neapolitan was a fancy Tartufo, layered with sliced black truffle, roasted cremini mushrooms, parmesan crema and fontina, with an egg barely cooked on top, then spread over it at the table. This thing was as rich as you could imagine, incredibly earthy , creamy, actually heady. If there’s such a thing as “orgasmic” pizza, this is it.

Tartufo Napoletana

Tartufo Napoletana

Speaking of table service, one thing Due Forni does that I like a lot: they deliver the pizza uncut, Italian style. And then at the table, they give it two quick slicings, almost like stamping its passport. Nice.

The last pizza was a Bianca al proscuitto cotto, Roman style, which as the name indicates, was simply white pizza with cooked ham, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, fresh oregano and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. That too was rich, the crispy Roman dough more like a delivery system for the meat and cheese than a strong flavor component itself.

I had a glass of Sella & Mosca Cannanou Riserva ’09, which went particularly well with the Due Forni pizza, but didn’t clash with anything.

They insisted on bringing me some dessert as well, but I’ll be darned if I could remember it. I was absolutely food-coma’ed by then.

Mille Grazie, Carlos!

Sexy PR Shot, Carlos!

Sexy PR Shot, Carlos!

Due Forni’s official website

The Failure of Punk Rock in America: Where It All Started

…well, at least for me.

For curiosity seekers, this is my thesis paper from 11th grade on why punk rock never made a foothold in America (which was quite true at the time). It failed to take into account the influence of commercial radio, but otherwise, in many respects, it still holds up. At least as a document of a cultural moment.

Click to download PDF of full paper!

Click to download PDF of full paper!

Get Yr Ducats In A Row: Aureole Wine Weekend 2011 is coming

Will Sherer and I pose with one of the more esteemed dead soldiers.

Will Sherer and I pose with one of the more esteemed dead soldiers.

I’ve attended Aureole’s Wine Weekend for the past two years, and I remain convinced that this small, rather under-publicized affair, is among the best annual food and wine events in the country. The first year, 2009, I documented on this website, here. The second, 2010, on EscapeHatchDallas.com, here.

But I wanted to wait until this year’s schedule was announced to publish my full album of photographs from last year, so that everyone could see just what an impressive event this is. You can now see the full album here, on flickr. The number of pics was too many to post here!

This year's schedule: Click to enlarge

This year's schedule: Click to enlarge

I can’t recommend this event highly enough, especially since this year will not only feature three days of events hosted by William Sherer, MS, Chef Vincent Pouessel and Patissier Megan Romano, but also CEC Charlie Palmer himself, and a member of the Mondavi wine family. Yes, this price tag is not small, but when you break down what you get for the cost (including the hotel room) it’s a steal.

Aging Gracefully: Vintage Hollywood

photo-124This just in: Rich people drink wine, too. As I was reminded at the Vintage Hollywood Foundation’s annual fundraising wine & food fest (cum live auction), at a private home in the Pacific Palisades. This year’s beneficiary was the Ocean Park Community Center, a multi-program organization to help the less fortunate in Santa Monica.

La Fenetre's winemaker Josh Klapper

La Fenetre's winemaker Josh Klapper

Locals providing nice bites included Bouchon, Bar Toscana, Jar, Literati, Mozza, Simplethings pies, Tavern, and Waterloo & City. But perhaps more notable was the uncommon selection of California wineries pouring, including Clos Pepe, Hitching Post, La Fenetre, Terra Valentine, Malibu Family/Saddlerock and Ampelos, who introduced me to the surpisingly impressive wine of actor Kurt Russell, called Gogi.

photo-122

Just after MC Jim Thornton (from KNX-AM) announced that “The Wolf Blitzers” had made a significant donation, my friend Kasey (from Pourtal) kept looking at one of the Waterloo & City chefs trying to figure out how she knew him (I couldn’t help think it was a flirt—the guy was blond, six foot something, with piercing green eyes). But it turned out I was the one who knew him…sort of. It was actor Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans) who I’d interviewed ten years prior in my former Hollywood life, and remembered as a surprisingly grounded actor. Turns out he invested in Waterloo specifically so he could spend some time in the kitchen (and no, not as some vanity ‘celeb’ chef, he doesn’t work the tables). Guess that’s what actors call therapy…

Kip cooks.

Kip cooks.

I saw another former interviewee of mine, David Arquette at one point (he’s one of the charities’ chairs), but unfortunately Kasey wasn’t able to flirt with him for me to get a pic ;)

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Later, I was sucking down the chocs at Valerie confections when I pointed to something on the table for Kasey to try, and auctioneer Kevin Pollak (helping out Greg Proops) asked me if I was putting in a bid, for whatever they were auctioning at that moment, at 22,000.

valerie

“No! Nooooo!” I shot back, slapping my arm like Dr. Strangelove. I was tempted to say I’d double the bid if he’d do his Shatner impersonation, then realized that was a pretty dated request. Oh, and that was more money than I had in the bank.

auctioneers

It was the kind of event you see in a movie, where there’s a spy sneaking into the house to steal a piece of microfilm? Unfortunately, nobody uses microfilm anymore. Maybe the spy would settle for some gelato?

Ghetto Fabulous: The Gorbals at the Alexandria

Vintage Postcard Back Inna Day

Vintage Postcard Back Inna Day

There are so many “hip” spots in LA these days, that I feel like I’m continually catching up. One I missed during it’s opening flush was The Gorbals, run by Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. So during a recent evening with reluctant DTLA queen Amanda Leon, I grabbed the chance to finally sit down there.

Na Gorbals, for those without access to the internet, is the grittiest part of Glasgow (where Hall’s father grew up), once even considered the worst part of the entire UK. The reference is obvious when you consider The Gorbals’ location, carved out of the lobby of downtown’s hundred-year-old Alexandria Hotel, once the jewel of Los Angeles, but for decades, a flophouse (though remarkably intact).

This is what the lobby looked in its heydey. Gorbals is just to the right...

This is what the lobby looked in its heyday. Gorbals is just to the right...

Glasgow’s Gorbals also happens to have been the Jewish Ghetto at one point, which explains some of the culinary reference points on Scottish/Israeli Hall’s everchanging menu, particularly his signature bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, and on the current menu, fresh matzoh (who makes fresh matzoh??) with favas, garbanzos and horseradish; gribenes (the kosher version of chicharones, made from chicken skin) and latkes with smoked applesauce.

One could dig further in to the Jewish/Alexandria connection with the fact that it was the gathering point for the nascent film industry in the silent era, many of whom were Jewish (and almost all of whom were immigrants), but hey, this ain’t a thesis paper.

The apparently everchanging menu is all “shared plates,” divided by ingredient source –pig, cow, lamb, sea, chicken—and then a section which is supposedly veggie, “herbivore.” Dishes generally range from $5 to $15, but without warning there will be larger treats such as (on the night I visited) a half-cut roasted pig’s head for $50 or a whole dover sole for $37. You have to organize your meal yourself ;-)

Nancy Drink (I think 'Nancy' is slang along the lines of 'Fruitcake" but don't quote me)

Nancy Drink (I think 'Nancy' is slang along the lines of 'Fruitcake" but don't quote me)

The bar is an equally serious part of the operation, which has tended to be overshadowed in most reviews I’ve seen. They have some intriguingly clever, deceptively simple house cocktails here, such as the two we sampled, Charlize TheRum (Starr African Rum, geddit, with mint and yellow chartreuse) and the Nancy Drink (Fair Trade Quinoa vodka, Carpano Antica, rhubarb bitters) –which was an “up” drink, served in a tumbler, with no garnish whatsoever. They also have a rotating selection of clever craft beers and a small but carefully curated wine list—on which everything is available by the glass.

Bacon-wrapped matzoh balls. One got snatched up before the camera even came out!

Bacon-wrapped matzoh balls. One got snatched up before the camera even came out!

This was a short visit, so Princess Amanda and I just shared the classic bacon wrapped matzoh balls and the Bahn Mi poutine along with our cocktails. The former was exactly as advertised: soft bacon wrapped around smallish matzoh balls, in a horseradishy béchamel sauce. More whimsical than impressive, to be honest, I think Hall might need some better Matzoh ball makers—these were fairly dense and flavorless (and yes, there is a difference between a good and bad matzoh ball) beneath the bacon and sauce.

GorbalsBahnMiPoutine

The Bahn Mi poutine though, was a messy delight, spicy Viet-inspired meat, vegs and sauces layered over fries that hit all five tastes at once: rich, savory, buttery, meaty, spicy, you name it. Umami for ages. Bingo.

Gorbals is essentially a gastro pub in the purest sense: tie one on and have some amazing bites in a loud convivial room without pretensions. I would love to come back with a feast of friends and order the whole menu…whatever it is that night.

Wonder if they’re taking reservations for Pesach?

Mother Dough… or Mother Something…

Shhh... master at work

Shhh... master at work

Pizza has always been one of those ‘Holy Grails’ of LA food… for some reason, it’s generally accepted that no one can get it “right” here, though what defines “right” is an equal matter of debate. There is also no small irony in the fact that Wolfgang Puck was the chef who really influenced the whole world to take pizza more seriously (and more creatively)—and he did that from LA’s own original Spago. But let’s leave cultural insecurities alone for a second and get to the table.

Having been raised on Connecticut and New York City pizza, and sampled it in Italy as well (though not in Napoli, pizza’s mecca, I confess), I feel I have a pretty solid grounding on the subject, as I’ve written previously. I can also say that the state of pizza in LA now is generally a lot better than it’s ever been, and not just because of Batali & Silverman’s Mozza.

Regardless, it was hard for me to resist the hue and cry of pizza freaks about Mother Dough, which opened on the finally happening stretch of Sunset Blvd. in Los Feliz a few months ago where Umami, Covell and a few other destination spots do biz. In a simple brick-walled space with an open kitchen featuring a Napolitano wood-burning oven, Mother Dough’s concept is direct and dripping with “authenticity:” Before the pizza even gets to that 850-degree oven, it’s made from fine 00 flour, risen without refrigeration, the yeast “mother” taken from the previous days’ dough. It’s imperfect, on purpose. Then it’s topped, naturally, with sauce from San Marzano tomatoes and Italian buffala mozzerella. So, obviously it’s perfect. Imperfectly perfect, that is. Because, you know, it’s correct.

When I arrived, I was pleased to find that the guy at the door was attitude-free, and that my friend had actually managed to get a table pretty much immediately. Did I mention it was a Saturday night? That would never happen at Casa Bianca…

I want this guy making my pizza. #justsayin

I want this guy making my pizza. #justsayin

The menu, which comes on replica butcher paper, is simple and direct as well, something I appreciate. There’s a margherita and four varieties available (two veggie-based and without sauce, two with meat), six starters and two desserts. I rarely do this, but since I know it makes a difference, I asked the server both where the burrata comes from, and the charcuterie (interesting that they used the French word, instead of the Italian ‘salume,’ but whatever). In this regard, I know I’m in the minority: most chefs and diners alike seem to have a softness for imported burrata and salume. I find fresh burrata and housemade salume far preferable (except proscuitto).

The server told me she would check, but that the chef was typically very secretive about his sources. I thought that was kind of weird and old school; these days, everyone brags about their sources. At any rate, she revealed that the burrata was imported from Italy (“because you can’t get buffalo mozzerella made here,” which isn’t true) and the salumi was from a variety of local purveyors. That got my interest, so we ordered the salumi—sorry, the charcuterie—to start, and my guest wanted the duck crostini as well. We ordered the pizza with whiskey fennel sausage, making it a meat-lovers meal.

An authentic Italian pizza calls for wine—nothing fancy mind you, just a nice medium-bodied red. A quartino of decent rosso would’ve been fine. Only, Mother Dough doesn’t have any quartinos. In fact, their modest wine list (which is to be expected) barely had any Italians on it, was equally divided between whites and reds, and only offered about six by the glass. Six. Including only Californian reds, which I knew wouldn’t pair well with pizza. It was an interesting list, but it bore no relation to the food being served.

Luckily, my friend had just been to the wine store and bought a Sicilian red which she offered to open. The server informed the corkage fee was $15. Fifteen dollar corkage?? In a pizza place? With less than 20 bottles on the list? There’s only one word for that, and it’s not polite at the dinner table. We opted for the one Barbera on the list, which was $35 for the bottle, reasonable (even if I’m sure that’s still a substantial mark up), but regardless, basically the only decent choice available. If the chef needs some recommendations on Italian reds, I’d be happy to guide him. Or, of course, he could walk down the block to Covell.

The starters arrived, a very pretty and nicely varied charcuterie, with a particularly yummy paprika-laced salami, a house-made dill goat cheese, pickled cipolini, two proscuittos, and a somewhat dry pate. All in all, very nice, though at $12 they could’ve toasted the bread to order.

Salumi! Oh, sorry, Charcuterie.

Salumi! Oh, sorry, Charcuterie.

Duck crostini, a thin layer of duck proscuitto over ricotta spread on three toasts, was disappointing, though. Ricotta dominated over duck, and it felt very insubstantial for $8. We ate it, don’t get me wrong, it just seemed  skimpy.

Duck crostini. Magnified to show detail ;)

Duck crostini. Magnified to show detail ;)

Then came pizza. Piping hot. Saucy. Fragrant. Imperfectly perfect. And, all of 12” big. I can’t recall the last time I was served a 12” pizza in a restaurant—14” seems pretty standard, as far as I can tell, for Napoli style. The whiskey fennel sausage was great, meaty and succulent, in chewy chunks, though again, maybe a little skimpy. The tomato sauce is fresh, bright and sweet. The crust is thin and fairly light, actually. A bit less chewy than I would expect, and not terribly substantial in the flavor department either.

Mother has answered your prayers.

Mother has answered your prayers.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice pizza. But is it a godlike lifechanging pizza? No. And I have had such a thing, too. In fact, I’d venture to say I preferred a pizza from Antica in Marina Del Rey over this, and have had two better Napoli-style ones in Vegas as well. Did I mention that this one cost $18? Because, that’s more than a 14” one costs ON THE LAS VEGAS STRIP.

Service was friendly and efficient. No complaints there.

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The “New” Ritz-Carlton: Downtown at LA Live

It’s hard to find a better definition for modern urban luxury without ostentation than the Ritz-Carlton LA Live. I recently reviewed the hotel and it’s adjoined twin JW Marriott for 360 West magazine (see below) but thought I would also post some more details on the property…

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

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The Executive Suite is a perfect expression, serious but sumptuous. Modern wood and earth tone appointments, with textural constrasts, glass and chrome, sliding heavy doors to bathroom & powder room, large dressing area with full length mirror, makeup mirror, dvd players with large 60” flatscreens in bedroom and living/dining area (the second, BluRay).

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Leather desk chair, wet bar with full minibar and Nespresso coffee maker. Bedroom has thick pillowtop bedding, padded tall headboard, gooseneck reading lamps, Ipod docking radio. His and her closets with valuables safe and complimentary shoe shine service.

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Bathroom has large Japanese style soaking tub and rainfall/wand shower, Bulgari products and extensive amenities (loofah), makeup mirror, ceramic hair dryer, digital scale, TV in mirror, two sinks, thick towels and soft robes. A single callalilly on the marble countertop is a nice touch.

Inside the stylish spa

Inside the stylish spa

There is also a hotel car for guests (per availability) complimentary within a 3-mile radius.

Happy hour.

Happy hour.

Taste of the Nation LA, You Got The Flava

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

For anyone who still questions Los Angeles’ legitimacy as a food town: It’s a good thing you didn’t make it to Taste of the Nation LA yesterday in Culver City’s Media Park. Because it would have blown apart every preconception you have, like Gallagher on a watermelon (dated reference?).

Kerry Simon and company

Kerry Simon and company

LA is an incredibly complex food town, and its strengths are so far flung, geographically and philosophically, that it’s easier to find the weaknesses. You just follow the hype. But what may sum it up best, if not quality of ingredients and blending of cultures, is the flexibility between haute and street. It’s a booming trend now, but I do think LA–perhaps the fancy food truck capital of the country (even if Portland was there first)– may “get it” it much better than other cities. How else to explain that high-end spots like Hatfield’s and Patina could go cheek-by-jowl with Jitlada’s family-style Thai and Starry Kitchen’s clubkid Crazian at TOTN, and everyone was in on the joke.

What it's all about

What it's all about

Considering the entire event is a fundraiser for child hunger (via Share Our Strength), I felt terrible not finishing half of the bites I tried. But really there were so many impressive, creative, pretty, delicious things to eat, I had to try and pace myself. And still, I teeter on the edge of a cataclysmic food coma as I write.

The Spare Room sips with style

The Spare Room sips with style

I could blather forever, but let me just hit up some personal highlights before they fade:

Gorgeous lamb chops (each differently done) from LA Market and Culina…Fig’s beef tongue bahn mi, an amazing tamale from Rivera…perfect paella by Joe’s…a complex short rib dish by La Seine’s Alex Resnik…that hellagood fried chicken from Lex Social…awesome tacos by both Loteria and Ray’s and Stark…killer spicy chicken skewers from Mo-Chica…a complex short rib dish from La Seine’s Alex Reznik (of Top Chef repute)… a toast with I think a foie gras custard dip at Street… and other great nibbles from Chaya, Church & State, City Tavern, Craft, Lukshon, and Hatfield’s. Hey, even amazing food starts to blur at a certain point. But that quinoa and kale by M Cafe was still my favorite.

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Several upcoming places also offered previews, including Michael Voltaggio’s hotly awaited spot Ink (though his booth was only available to VIPs…boo!), Mo-Chica sister Picca Cantina, Nancy Silverton’s Short Order, fonuts, and Pour Vous, a new bar filling the old 40 Deuce space.

Speaking of blurring, I blame the many fine beverage options, including La Descargas sexy daquiris and other killer cocktails from The Spare Room and Pasadena’s hot 1886 … The Bruery’s Belgian Trippel ale with Thai spice, nice brews from Eagle Rock and Firestone Walker, and a deadly Golden State float at the beer block… and of the several impressive small-volume wineries pouring, I particularly enjoyed a nicely balanced Sauv Blanc and structured Cab from Santa Barbara’s Grassini, an uncommon 100% Cinsault from Sonoma’s Frick, and Pinots from Baker Lane and La Fenetre.

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

Did I mention the star chefs? Besides Kerry Simon, Top Chefs Voltaggio and Resnik and Hells Kitchen’s Sively, the revived Mary Sue Milliken and perennial partner Susan Fenniger were in full effect, as was Mark Peel, Sang Yoon, Joe Miller, Eric “Elvis” Greenspan … Alas, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless did not represent.

If you attend any number of these kinds of tasting events, you start to be able to recognize when they work well, and when they don’t. TOTNLA hit a lot of high marks: the selection of participating restaurants was very strong and varied, there was a nice sampling of California wines, local beers, and some very serious cocktails by some of our best mixology bars, some fun desserts; the charity and auction aspects were well represented if you were interested, but easily avoidable if you felt you “gave at the gate.” It was also a good size, and though it was sold out, it still wasn’t overcrowded, and the location had incredibly convenient parking (free 2 hours covered lot across the street). And despite a certain unavoidable amount of corporate sponsorship, obnoxious branding was kept to an impressive minimum. Egos were, in almost every case, clearly left at the door.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

In fact my only criticisms were that water was a bit hard to find at first (turns out nearly every booth had a jug, but they didn’t always make them available) and there weren’t enough garbage cans. Oh, also, the VIPs were given reusable plates, but for the rest of us, each bite was given out on a disposable paper plate which, biodegradable, recycled, whatever it was, it was still wasteful. Those are very small complaints, though.

EGStarryNguyen

Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran needs to take himself way less seriously.

It was also nice to put faces to names of media colleagues including Laurel House, Joshua Lurie and even Jonathan Gold–though the event was far from press-saturated, owing to the fact that we all had to have our tickets “sponsored” (no freebies, and who can whine when it’s for a good cause). On that note, an extra thanks from me to Kerry Simon, whose SimonLA and LA Market both held their own in a sea of serious talent.

I almost wish every other foodfest planner had seen this, because kids, this is how it’s done.

Successful simplicity on the Strip: Morel’s, d.vino

I rarely feel compelled to promote corporate brands, but I recently enjoyed tastings at two restaurants in Las Vegas, both of which happen to be somewhat “under the radar;” happen to offer price points slightly below their quality might call for; and happen to be operated by the Los Angeles-based MCC Hospitality Group. It can’t be a coincidence.

Off the hotel lobby in a Strip-side corner, Morel’s bistro has tended to be overlooked for the Palazzo’s more splashy Celeb-chef eateries (CUT, Table 10, Dos Caminos), clubby Lavo and funky SushiSamba…among other worthy options. The fact that it has such an understated entrance (in contrast to an inviting interior) probably doesn’t help. I’ve frequently praised them in the past, but mainly for their unique cheese program (over 60 selections available—possibly the biggest and best in any US restaurant) and strong enomatic/by-the-glass wine program (also around sixty offerings and growing). With Alexandre Brard (ex-Joel Robuchon) now overseeing beverages, expect this department to improve even more, emphasizing worldwide discoveries and values over the showy labels you might expect from a French-trained sommelier.

There are no illusions here that your experience will be like mine—Brard insisted on pairing every single dish I sampled, even each of three cheeses, for example. Still it’s worth sharing not just for bragging rights, but also to emphasize that not a single dish I tried was off key. Which means you’re unlikely to have a mediocre experience here.

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We started with an amuse of tuna tartare atop a delicate potato gaufrette (the world’s fanciest chip, basically), nicely balanced in textures and flavors, paired with a delicate cava.

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Then we had a course of three classic cheeses—aged hook cheddar, stilton, and triple cream, paired respectively with Sanctuary cab 08, Warre’s 10 yr old Tawny Port Optima, and fortified Pommeau de Normandie (of which Brard was most proud).

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A pleasantly simple salad of small iceberg wedges with blue cheese and lardons followed.

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Then came a mild, creamy piece of seared Scottish salmon over lentils in a balsamic reduction, savory but not overly strong. With this, Alexandre paired a wine that particularly impressed: Giardino Le fole 2007 Aglianico, with a grassy nose, smoke and white pepper on the palate

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The meat course was dry aged rib eye, sliced tableside and served with bordelaise sauce, mushrooms and sautéed artichoke. It was perfectly cooked, crusty, chewy and juicy inside. I hate to tell you how rare it is that beef is served so correctly—and if you go here and get some and it isn’t done as well, please send it back. I insist.

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Oh, Brard poured us a nice soft tempranillo/cab with it. Note that barely any French wine was poured, and yet every pairing was interesting and successful.

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For the sweet, the waiter brought a presentation of daily housemade macarons, which he filled with different flavored jams: coffee, pistachio, raspberry, pumpkin. I’m not a macaron fan, but it was a fun finish.

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A couple weeks earlier, Exec Chef Jose Navarro at Morel’s sister property d.vino in the Monte Carlo also did a (slightly less formal) tasting for me. Like Morel’s, d.vino isn’t slavishly traditional cuisine, but it isn’t obnoxiously dumbed down. In the past 18 months or so, all of the Monte Carlo’s food venues have been revamped, and d.vino is no exception. Like many casino Italian restaurants, the space is separated into a more casual front area and a slightly more formal rear room. In the front you’ll find wines by the glass in an Enomatic machine, as well as a raw bar that’s one of the few on the Strip (and I believe, fractionally cheaper than others like Comme Ça, Bouchon, RM Seafood, PJ Clarkes).

The rear dining room is far more pleasant for a meal, however, and hardly stuffy.

I’m tempted to digress about how small touches like bread service can make all the difference in setting the tone of a meal, but I’ll spare you and just point out that the first thing on the table was a wood block with cubed fresh foccacia (three kinds), fresh basil in evoo, and a roasted head of garlic. Simple, but very classy.

dvinobread

Chef Navarro started me off with what might have been my favorite of his dishes (not to be anti-climactic): a stuffed zucchini antipasti (the normal portion is bigger than pictured here) that fills thick rings of Italian squash with bright, fresh tomato sauce, mozzerella, and a heap of herbed breadcrumb. So simple but so good.

DVinoStuffedZucchini

Their relationship with Morel’s means that d.vino too can serve a selection of cheeses—mostly Italian and Spanish, all European—that is abbreviated from Morel’s menu, but at 14 choices is still far more than you see most places. And $21 for seven selections means you could just order that and a couple glasses of wine and have an elegant snack. I sampled Italian Grana Padano, French Valençay Pyramide, and Belgian Chimay Grand Cru along with some San Daniele proscuitto, La Quercia ham and a little Salame Toscano.

dvinocheesesalumi

Of the solid pasta and risotto selections (including a vegetable risotto), I tried some buttery soft gnocchi in a simple bright tomato sauce; a rigatoni with Italian sausage ragout, roasted peppers and onions, with the hearty sausage spices dominating; and soft, savory mushroom ravioli in Bolognese sauce. These pastas measure up to some of the best I’ve had in Las Vegas.

dvinopasta

For mains, Jose offered a taste of his osso bucco, made from slow cooked Amish veal, properly tender but toothy, and rich with flavor over simple saffron risotto. I also sampled a nice Scottish salmon, creamy and mild beneath flavorful crispy skin, in caper butter with garlic spinach and potato–close to the one at Morel’s, though not quite as elegantly accompanied.

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Desserts were a tiramisu mousse and crème brulee with raspberry glaze.

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Morel’s and d.vino may not get lots of attention relative to other Strip restaurants, but they both deliver solidly at reasonable prices, and when you’re on vacation, there’s a lot to be said for that.

Wicked Spoon is Pretty Forkin’ Good

The proving ground of all Vegas buffets: Shrimp Cocktail

The proving ground of all Vegas buffets: Shrimp Cocktail

It’s an odd thing to stake a claim as something of an expert when it comes to Las Vegas buffets…especially when you weigh in at under 200 lbs…but why hide it? I’m probably one of the few people on the planet to have dined at virtually all of the casino-resort buffets, typically in the course of research (see my Orbitz.com Top Ten Buffets, most of which I believe still holds accurate, with the exception of Mirage’s Cravings, about which I’ve heard too many complaints) but occasionally just in the pursuit of a quick, effortless meal. Which is largely the point of these casino smorgasbords, at least historically, as I noted in another piece I wrote on the topic for the Las Vegas Weekly.

Though many critics and gourmands tend to dismiss them—and certainly with valid reasoning—buffets obviously continue to be popular with visitors, otherwise newer resorts like Aria and the Cosmopolitan wouldn’t invest in them (in fact, it’s almost more intriguing to note which Strip resorts don’t have buffets: New York New York, Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Bally’s, Venetian/Palazzo, Stratosphere; Tropicana now only offers a limited buffet for breakfast). And the Cosmopolitan in particular has certainly invested in the Wicked Spoon, a quite elegant entry into buffet land, marked by modern design and polished wood tables that wouldn’t look out of place in any fine dining scenario.

Some of those small pans that are Wicked Spoon's signature... (they should have tip jars for the dishwashers!)

Some of those small pans that are Wicked Spoon's signature... (they should have tip jars for the dishwashers!)

Their main aesthetic distinction—to offer many selections in small-portion china and cute metal pans-is also a serious investment, not just in hardware but also in labor cost in serving and cleaning (as well as making sure people aren’t swiping those cute little sauciers). One might presume the point would be to limit how much you can eat, but I suspect it has more to do with curtailing the typical buffet behavior of piling your plate high with food, and then not finishing, letting it go to waste. That’s as much an ecological issue as it an economic one, and in that aspect, I applaud the Cosmopolitan for the gesture.

But enough musing: It’s interesting to note that of all the places I eat and tweet about, none has aroused more curiosity than Wicked Spoon, so I’m sorry it took over a week to post a full blog.

Typically, I’ve reviewed buffets during weekday dinner service, since it’s their most full array of offerings, without anything special added. But for Wicked Spoon, I went during Sunday brunch, assuming I’d get a bit of what’s available during breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think that held true.

Overall, most of what Wicked Spoon offers doesn’t stray far from the basic buffet formula: standard American breakfast offerings, cold salads, an ample carving station, Mexican, Italian and Asian items, some fish, and lots of decadent desserts. It’s the product quality, overall, and the execution, that sets this apart.

Breakfast items include oversize coffee mugs, an omelet station with a greater-than-usual number of fillings, eggs benedict, chicken-apple link sausage, and perfect applewood smoked bacon.

C'est cheese.

C'est cheese.

One could argue two cold u-16/20 shrimp in cocktail sauce is not really “shrimp cocktail,” but they are fresh and properly cooked. The salad station also features a couple of gazpachos, some ceviches and cold fish, several fine cheeses, fresh-sliced salumi, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes (likely seasonal) and most impressively, fresh burrata with watercress that any restaurant would be proud to serve—one of a handful of dishes here that’s worth the price of admission alone (as long as you eat as much of it as you can!).

Surly carver, tender carving. As it should be.

Surly carver, tender carving. As it should be.

The carving station is even more well-achieved: Virginia ham, prime rib, Andouille sausage, turkey, and yes, slab bacon (that’s a first) are all good, juicy and fresh. And beside them, served two pieces to a pan, is “Wicked” fried chicken. Even most buffet boosters will admit fried chicken is rarely a go-to, but these spice coated pieces were moist, crispy and flavorful, really pretty great. Get two. At least.

Pizza and panini

Pizza and panini

In the Italian section, standouts include creamy/earthy mascarpone polenta with mushrooms (it’s not Scott Conant’s, but it ain’t bad), cavatelli with short rib, and some creative thin crust pizzas—short ribs (again) abd pulled pork among the toppings. The latter was more interesting than inspiring, but really, who goes to a buffet for pizza (and if you’re going to the Cosmo and eating pizza anywhere but D.O.C.G. or the nameless joint, you should be spanked)?

Char Siu and friends: that's unretouched color!

Char Siu and friends: that's unretouched color!

Asian offerings include some of the best char siu pork I’ve ever had—bright red, but uncommonly tender; red curry vegetables with tofu that were light on the vegetables but flavorful regardless; General’s chicken that was crispy, lightly breaded and altogether better than it should be, as well as decent pork belly fried rice and some Korean short ribs that looked good, but also involve more work than I wanted to invest.

One of probably a dozen sample plates (sorry guys, it's a JOB): great cod, good sweets, bland al pastor

One of probably a dozen sample plates (sorry guys, it's a JOB): great cod, good sweets, bland al pastor

A few other nice discoveries were lemongrass cod with asparagus (cooked fish is usually the weakest link in any buffet), crispy sweet potato fries, ratatouille, and a succotash that was perfect, really.

And then there’s dessert: several fudges and barks (that’s another first), dipped strawberries and  marshmallows, all kinds of pretty parfaits and pastries, so tiny you can sample, crumbles and chocolate bread pudding in pans, and16 gelato flavors served in mini-cones. I showed restraint but enjoyed a scoop of creamy, dense, fresh-tasting pistachio gelato.

WSdesserts

There are some weak spots, of course. The tacos al pastor were virtually flavorless, as was ceviche. The pastas in pans were nice, but pesto separates when it’s kept warm (as it did on the gnocchi) and the mac’n’cheese was lukewarm. Sushi rolls here look nice but are also ridiculously bland. There’s an attempt at Asian noodle soups (ramen/pho, whatever) but it’s kind of a joke. And what was labeled as a Caesar salad definitely wasn’t (unless bacon is a part of the recipe I’ve been missing all these years), though I enjoyed it anyway.

The end result is that Wicked Spoon is definitely in the “upper echelon” of Vegas Buffets—and if you’re wondering what company I’m referring to, it’s Bellagio, Wynn and M Resort. Period (there are other certainly acceptable buffets, but none that really aspire to the level of quality and quantity of these folks). Just to make some comparisons, overall Bellagio has by far the best sushi and salads; Wynn—which also does some small-portioning—has great soups, ceviches, and a gut-busting patisserie; M’s Studio B just has a massive array of everything, all very good, along with free beer/wine—and by far the lowest price points among this company. Wicked Spoon fits in well here, and is the most elegant and relatively intimate experience of them all. And I hasten to add, it had the best looking buffet crowd I’ve ever seen. I’m talking model-quality. Shocking, I admit (who knew they even ate, much less “all you can” ate?).

The bottom line with any buffet is that yes, obviously you are making a trade off of quality when you’re eating pre-made food vs. cooked to order. My biggest beef with buffets—and all of the best share this problem, including Wicked Spoon—is when you have to wait on a lengthy line to sit down. I’ve never understood the point of this (it always seems intentional on the part of the management to seat people slower than they could). To me the biggest attraction to a buffet, and it’s initial raison d’etre way back at the El Rancho in the 1940s, was that one could sit down and eat a meal more quickly than with normal service, in order to get back to the gaming tables, or whatever else you had planned. I have to be honest, if I had to wait more than 10 minutes in order to sit down at a buffet, even any of these great buffets, I wouldn’t do it.

Especially when you can grab a great slice of pizza right down the hall in a minute and a half.

Duck, Duck, Goose—no wait, that’s Duck, too.

One of the finest meals you can have in Los Angeles right now is at Drago Santa Monica. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the LA dining scene of the past decade—all of Celestino Drago’s restaurants (including those in Pasadena and downtown) produce well-regarded modern Italian.

But a special spring menu, which is priced at only $59 for six courses (seven including a substantial amuse) or $88 with wine pairings is really worth seeking out while it’s available.

It’s called Tutto Anatra, which you Italian speakers know means simply All Duck. And that’s what it is, six courses all based around the noble quacker. Yes, even dessert.

DragoArancini

You start with an amuse, possibly the same that I had, an arancini fried rice ball with a little crab, crisp and warm outside, tender and creamy inside.

DragoFoieGras

Next comes a simple torchon of creamy, mild duck foie gras on toasted brioche with pickled vegetables and a drizzle of marsala reduction, perfectly balanced in the mouth. Paired with a Scarbolo pinot grigio.

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The second course is also the least common, a 63 degree duck egg over potato espuma, with a potato crisp and greens for texture, rich, creamy and earthy. The wine is an Umbrian chardonnay.

DragoAgnolotti

For pasta you get pillowy but still toothsome agnolotti filled with duck mousse in brown butter, and accompanied by crispy skin,full of pure flavor. Nicely paired with a Lasseter syrah rose from Sonoma.

DragoRissottoConfit

Then comes what is perhaps my favorite course, a buttery, sort risotto with crispy and glistening duck confit floating in a deadly good amarone reduction. The wine is Miura pinot noir from Monterey.

DragoDuckBreast

Sweet and savory, peppery-gamey seared duck breast is accompanied by a ragout of creamy-crunchy faro and collard greens, with a jus of blood oranges. Hearty Fuedo Maccari nero d’avola from Sicily is poured with it.

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All of that is excellently prepared, and artfully presented. But how, you might wonder, could they make a dessert with duck? Well, the answer comes in the form of a sushi roll-like roulade filled with peanut butter and more foie gras, accompanied by tart cherry-strawberry jam and cherry gelato. It’s like a grown up PB&J, and along with a moscato from Veneto, leaves you with a softly sweet ending to a deceptively complex, impressively balanced meal.

Tutto Anatra is available until the end of June 2011, I’m told. The executive chef is Evan Gotanda.

Drago Santa Monica is located at 2628 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA, (310) 828-1585

USA Today’s Best Of Vegas: What year is this?

Strip view from atop the Paris Las Vegas replica Eiffel Tower

Strip view from atop the Paris Las Vegas replica Eiffel Tower

Last Friday, USA Today devoted the better part of a two-page spread on The Best of Las Vegas Nightlife, a pictorial written by Kitty Bean Yancey with the input of Vegas “panelists” Norm Clarke (Las Vegas Review-Journal  gossip columnist), Anthony Curtis (LasVegasAdvisor.com), Sarah Feldberg (Las Vegas Weekly), Oscar Goodman (outgoing Mayor of downtown  Las Vegas), Dan Hippler (Vegas.com), Jack Houston (Las Vegas Magazine), John Katsilometes (Las Vegas Sun), and Abby Tegnalia (VEGAS magazine).

I have to tell you, I was pretty dumbstruck by it. I had to check the date of the paper—and wonder how much input my colleagues actually had. Because without exception, every single one of the choices—most of which wouldn’t generally be considered ‘nightlife’ specifically—could have been made two years ago. If not longer. YAWN.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree that all of the winners are deserving. But if you’re delivering a new article in a daily newspaper which has the word TODAY in its name, shouldn’t you be giving some information that is, well, new? Just for one example, shouldn’t you find a way to at least mention, even name-drop, the Cosmopolitan, the new resort which no one could deny has become an instant game-changer for the Strip? As a destination, Vegas is changing literally every week. If you want to be serious about covering it, you can’t give people information that’s six months old, or even six weeks.

So for those of you that saw it, and are visiting Las Vegas soon, let me offer some alternative Bests:

One of a gazillion images I've taken of the ever-changing displays at the Bellagio conservatory

One of a gazillion images I've taken of the ever-changing displays at the Bellagio conservatory

Best Attraction: USA Today’s winner, The fountains of Bellagio

First of all the category says Best Attraction, not Best Free Attraction. While there’s no denying that the fountains are a Must-See (if you can tolerate all the costumed freaks and protesters that now congregate in front of it), there are an awful lot of other interesting and fun diversions, including other water features at City Center and the Mirage volcano (both also by Bellagio fountain designers WET), the world-class art installations of City Center, Bellagio’s Conservatory, Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef, Tropicana’s Mob Experience, Imperial Palace’s massive Auto Collections, the list really does go on.

A seaweed tasting at Shibuya, MGM. Just one of HUNDREDS of amazing dishes I've eaten in Las Vegas.

A seaweed tasting at Shibuya, MGM. Just one of HUNDREDS of amazing dishes I've eaten in Las Vegas.


Best fine-dining restaurant: USA Today’s winner,  Joel Robuchon

Well of course, the French legend’s only North American fine dining spot (he has another L’Atelier in New York) is de rigeur, as it has been for the last six or so years. But what about all the new and notable restaurants in Aria and the Cosmopolitan, including Sage, American Fish, Scarpetta, Blue Ribbon, Jaleo, Estiatorio Milos and more? Then there’s Guy Savoy, Twist, Michael Mina, RM Seafood, Bartolotta,  Le Cirque, B&B… Vegas has so many truly great restaurants that choosing one “best” when there are so many close seconds is almost unfair.

Andrew Pollard working his magic at Vesper, Cosmopolitan

Andrew Pollard working his magic at Vesper, Cosmopolitan

Best Bar: USA Today’s winner, The Fremont East District Downtown

First of all, that’s not one bar, but a city block full of several cool spots including Beauty Bar, Don’t Tell Mama, The Griffin, Downtown Cocktail Room, The Vanguard, Insert Coins, and Emergency Arts. Which are all fun, but most of them aren’t much different than what you’d find in any typical small city (also, it’s the equivalent to declaring a food court “best restaurant”). If you had to pick one single bar?? I’d send you to Vesper or Chandelier at Cosmopolitan. But that’s just me. Oh wait, that’s not just me, actually. Locals and tourists alike are flocking to both.

Marquee Club press shot: Imagine this packed full of people with a famous DJ killin' it. You will never see it this empty.

Marquee Club press shot: Imagine this packed full of people with a famous DJ killin' it. You will never see it this empty.

Best nightclub: USA Today’s winner, TAO

TAO??? Sorry, but the TAO Group’s own new Marquee club in the Cosmopolitan leaves their original Vegas landmark in the dust, for DJs, ambiance, drinks, everything. Not even a contest.

Someone else's shot of the oh-so-sexy Pho Kim Long... nothing glamorous, but even Daniel Boulud said it was his favorite local spot when he was here.

Someone else's shot of the oh-so-sexy Pho Kim Long... nothing glamorous, but even Daniel Boulud said it was his favorite local spot when he was here.

Best locals’ value dining: USA Today’s winner,  Firefly on Paradise

Sure, Firefly presents passable tapas in a comfortable environment but seriously there are so many happy hour specials around town, you rarely hear anyone talk about hitting Firefly except as a standby. The real exciting scene in locals’ dining is on Spring Mountain, where all kinds of amazing Asian eateries flourish, including—in particular—Raku, Monta, Ichiza, and many Pho spots, none of which you have to make excuses for. Then there’s the unique Bachi Burger (no Angelenos, it is not the Umami Burger ripoff you think it is). If you had to pick one value spot that locals swear by? It’s Pho Kim Long. Duh.

the Finale of Absinthe from my cameraphone. it's a cluster**** in the best way possible.

the Finale of Absinthe from my cameraphone. it's a cluster**** in the best way possible.

Best show: USA Today’s winner,  The Beatles LOVE

Sure, LOVE—celebrating its 5th anniversary–is an amazing show, if you love Beatles music (and by the way, Yancey mentioned Paul and Ringo but neglected to note George Harrison’s integral involvment in making the show happen). But new show Absinthe, while not on the same scale, and much more adult, is also an impressive only-in-Vegas attraction. Then there’s Cirque du Soleil’s O, Jersey Boys, Human Nature, Garth, Celine… what am I forgetting? A lot, actually.

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Best strip club: USA Today’s winner,  Spearmint Rhino

Since I don’t frequent strip clubs, I can’t really comment on this. But every time someone recommends “the Rhino,” which yes, is most popular with locals by far, I ask them “how many other strip clubs have you checked out, and how exactly are you judging them?” Crickets.

Bite This: Vegas Uncork’d Year Five, 2011

Denise Trucello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

Denise Truscello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

Food is everything right now. It’s the new rock’n’roll. It’s the new sex. It’s the new black. It seems ridiculous to point out that it hasn’t always been such a big deal—after all, humans have always eaten, haven’t we?—but for you newbies, food has not always been such a constant hot topic (which means, it also won’t be this way forever). By the same token, food festivals are everywhere, loaded down with whatever star chef talent is available (pity their traveling schedules these days), at least in the overweight-but-obsessed-with-dieting US.

Boy am I digressing. Focus, dude.

Here’s the thing: though coastal city snobs can continue to sneer, few if any cities can come near to rivaling the chef star power that is available in Las Vegas, where over the past 15 years, a fine food scene of remarkable breadth, depth and sheer volume has been gathered  at the major resorts—and increasingly off-Strip, too. And the best representation of that scene, the best assemblage and celebration, remains Vegas Uncork’d by bon appetit.

Julian Serrano Gets Sudsy...check out the faces ;) credit: Denise Trucello

I want to hold my thoughts for a minute just to list the array of world-renowned and locally respected culinary talent who participated this year (Nationally recognized talents in ALL CAPS): TONY ABOU-GANIM, Zack Allen (B&B), Akira Back (Yellowtail), PAUL BARTOLOTTA, Steve Benjamin (L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon), James Benson, ERIC & BRUCE BROMBERG, Kim Canteenwalla  (Society), Stephane Chevet (Shibuya), TOM COLLICCHIO, SCOTT CONANT, ALAIN DUCASSE, SUSAN FENIGER, Jennifer Fournier, OSAMU FUJITA, PIERRE GAGNAIRE, Carlos Guia (Country Club at Wynn), Martin Heierling (Sensi), Scott Irestone (Wolfgang Puck B&G), Masa Ishizawa (Okada), JEAN JOHO, Michael Jordan (Rosemary’s), HUBERT KELLER, Eric Klein (Spago), Gary LaMorte (Andre’s) Claude Le-Tohic (Joel Robuchon), Rene Lenger (Switch), Joesph Liebowitz (Stratta), SCOTT LINQUIST, Phillip Lo (Jasmine), MARK LoRUSSO, STEVE MARTORANO, NOBU MATSUHISA, JEAN-PHILIPPE MAURY, SHAWN McCLAIN, Sven Mede (American Fish), MARY SUE MILLIKEN, MICHAEL MINA, RICK MOONEN, Robert Moore (Jean-Georges), DAVID MYERS, BRADLEY OGDEN, STEVE OLSON, CHARLIE PALMER, FRANÇOIS PAYARD, LUCIANO PELLEGRINI, Eddie Perales (Caesars mixologist), MICHEL RICHARD, PATRICIA RICHARDS, JOEL ROBUCHON, TAL RONNEN, Megan Romano (Aureole), RICHARD SANDOVAL, GUY SAVOY, Ralph Scamardella (TAO Group), Matt Seeber (Craftsteak), JULIAN SERRANO, Theo Schonegger (Sinatra), JASON SMITH MS, David Spero, ALEX STRATTA, MASA TAKAYAMA, Drew Terp, Jet Tila (Wazuzu), JACQUES TORRES, David Walzog (SW Steak/Lakeside Grill), and Edmund Wong (Bellagio Executive Chef). GORDON RAMSAY, currently negotiating a new restaurant with Caesars, also made an appearance, I’m told.

I mean, wow. Between them, enough James Beard Foundation awards, Michelin stars, Mobil/Forbes stars and AAA diamonds to fill a nebuchadnezzar. Really.

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol pic: Denise Trucello

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol (with Payard, Richard and Gagnaire) pic: Denise Truscello

Now in its fifth year, Uncork’d seems to remain an underregarded festival on the national scene. Politics may play some part in that (A lot of media tend to sneer at giving attention to an event so heavily sponsored by another media brand) but this year, it must be said, the festival hardly defended itself.

Why? What was so different about 2011? Well, on one hand, not much—and that’s the problem. Masters series dinners pretty much followed the same pattern they have every year (I won’t single out names, you can see the schedule on the official website), with the notable exception of Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, that has always been the most popular of these dinners… I guess Chef Flay wasn’t available for the event this year.

Other events included luncheons with Joel Robuchon, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina, and brunches with Guy Savoy and Susan Feniger/Mary Sue Milliken, all of which I’m sure were wonderful. A Mandalay Beach “BBQ” with Charlie Palmer and Alain Ducasse, that was a clever twist last year, was repeated with the addition of Rick Moonen, and I’m confident that was also fun. A multi-chef $395.00/plate tribute dinner to Paul Bocuse was regrettably cancelled a few days prior.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

But, not to sound overly jaded, these are just fancy meals with very well known and established chefs. What has made Vegas Uncork’d so essential in the past has been its very unique presentations: Jean-Phillippe Maury creating a multi-course dessert before our eyes; Rick Moonen, Susan Feniger and Hubert Keller demonstrating together; Wolfgang Puck having a frank and uncensorsed conversation with Barbara Fairchild; all the chefs of Wynn cooking a multi-course menu with you [Yes, I made squab with Daniel Boulud two years ago—and he ate mine!], just to offer four strong memories. This kind of stuff does not happen every day, to say the least. No other festival that I know of has done these as creatively or as plentifully as Uncork’d has.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker (that's not a cracker, btw).

Those were notably pared down this year. There was a “Chef Showdown” between Akira Back and Martin Heierling, and I was happy to see three wine-related events on the schedule…though why every one featured Bellagio Wine Director Jason Smith is a head scratcher (he is an eminently qualified MS, and head of the biggest wine program anywhere…but there also happen to be a dozen other Master Sommeliers in town, and many more qualified professionals available). The only significant new event along these lines was Viva Las Vegan, a demonstrational buffet lunch at Wynn where Steve Wynn himself, Tal Ronnen, and the property’s estimable restaurant chefs explained their very groundbreaking vegetarian/vegan food program. I’m writing on for TheGourmetBachelor.com site.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

There was a wine dinner at Theo Schonegger’s Sinatra in Wynn with Tina Sinatra pouring her family’s wines–that I imagine was also special…but I haven’t heard a word about nor seen a single photo from. Seems like more journalists attended the Chef Black Jack tournament, for some reason (Note to self: remember to cover the big BBQ during the World Series of Poker coming up…).

Caesars Mixologist Eddie Perales, overdoing it, as is his style ;) These were lemon meringue coolers, I believe.

Speaking of journalists, instead of Wolfgang Puck or Pierre Gagnaire, this year we had a culinary conversation with local food critic/reviewers John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini [hyperlinks to their summaries of the event]. Now, with apologies to my colleagues and friends (I’m sure they’ll agree), while I know they have valuable insights–and thanks for mentioning me, Al—we had Nobu Matsuhisa himself here… rising TV star Scott Conant… the uber-hot Bromberg brothers…and instead we get a dialogue with three local critics?

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

Other than the veggie luncheon, I was not able to attend any of the above, owing to my own schedule and the rather steep a la carte costs of each*. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is not a cheap ticket, friends, which is why I feel justified arguing that it should be as unique and unforgettable an experience as possible. The Grand Tasting alone was $200 a person—five dollars more than a similar and certainly as lavish event at Pebble Beach the week prior.

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

And yet, the Grand Tasting was, of course, as always, a remarkable feast of fantasy. Of the dozens upon dozens of bites offered, my favorites included Masa’s carpaccio, Guy Savoy’s soup, and others from Comme Ça, Sage, Wazuzu, the Country Club, Social House, and notably generous portions from Society and Mesa Grill. Wine selections were also notably improved this year with names like Chateau Montelena, Duckhorn, Ferrari Carano, Frei Brothers, J. Lohr, Paul Hobbs, Silver Oak, Ste. Michelle—to have these labels poured freely is definitely something.

She's got some balls, eh?

She's got some balls, eh?

Unfortunately, the Caesars “Garden of the Gods” pool area, while quite pretty in normal circumstances, continues to be a very imperfect venue for this event, making the flow confusing, and meaning many booths are given unfortunate positions. Navigation is not easy, and signage year after year remains bizarrely lacking (how they think anyone is going to study a pamphlet map with food in one hand and a glass in the other is beyond me). One of the most special aspects this year was a fantastic mixology lounge hosted by Tony Abou-Ganim and Steve Olson, and featuring the talents of Patricia Richards and Eddie Perales, that should’ve been mobbed. But judging by the numbers there, and reactions from many people I talked with afterward, very few people even knew it was there.

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

Now, look again at the list of participants above and ask yourself, what did most of this talent actually do during the event? Well, as far as I can tell… they took a lot of pictures together. And they stood at their booths while their chef de cuisines handed out amuses. Is that really the best way for these truly great chefs to represent themselves and what they bring to Las Vegas?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

When it comes to the planning and orchestration of this festival, there are so many “cooks in the kitchen” it’s hard to say where the fault or credit lies for its strengths and weaknesses, though that in itself might be a big part of the problem. A food festival needs to be run by people who truly love food, who understand the strengths of the available participants, and who want patrons to have a fantastic food experience, period. Other considerations that come with it, while valuable to the festival’s economic health, need to be treated secondarily. I personally feel it’s a huge misstep to have such an important event in town, and yet have virtually no publicly viewable elements to it, for a number of reasons.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

There’s nothing wrong with Uncork’d (as the saying goes) that what’s right with Uncork’d can’t fix. This could and should be the greatest food festival in the world, an annual event in Las Vegas important enough that perhaps it even rivals the porn star convention!

After all, food is the new sex, right?

Some other coverage of Uncork’d 2011:

Huffington Post

Eater

New York Post

Vegas Deluxe by Robin Leach

The Feast

*Uncork’d’s public relations team was gracious enough to credential me to a few things, but only the Grand Tasting was of genuine interest. Wynn PR invited me to the Vegan event as well. My thanks to them both.

Drinking Pink at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association

A colleague asked me what I thought the “headline” of WSWA 2011 was. “One word,” I said. “Pink.”

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Why pink? Pink is the color of at least two new tequilas (Pasion, Mejor), designed to attract women to the liquor (no, they don’t taste different, they’re just pink). It’s also the color of Chambord’s new-ish liqueur and bottle color of new Rouge vodka, and… I could go on. I’m wondering just how the fairer sex found alcohol before it was color-coded for them. Insert emoticon.

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Smooth Ambler's White Whiskey, herbaceous Vodka and Gin

Pink bottles were certainly not the only innovation in the vodka category, the most popular spirit in the world (and thus, flame, to the eager moths looking to enter the liquor biz). At the Orlando trade show and convention were DeLos, from Texas, promoting itself as the first American vacuum-distilled vodka; from Israel, came L’Chaim kosher vodka for the observant (not the first kosher vodka, of course… that seems to be a growing category all its own); from Britain, the reserved Mayfair English Vodka; and from Holland, Sonnema VodkaHerb…which does not actually taste nearly as herbaceous as Smooth Ambler vodka from—of all places–West Virginia (save the moonshine jokes).

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Packaging is just as often the primary hook. For example, U’luvka Polish vodka’s gorgeous bottles and accompanying bubble-handled shots, SX’s bottles that are so curvaceous, you want some alone time with them… But why beat around the bush when WTF and Jersey Shore-labeled vodkas go for the marketing jugular.

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“Stop the Madness,” declares the ads of Polish vodka Sobieski (Number One Premium vodka in Mother Poland, they say). “Distilled 5x, 8x, 39x … How about distilled enough.” Amen. On the other hand, we might need some clarity between “Ultra Premium” vodkas and “Super Premium” vodkas, like Holland-made Trump vodka (can we see the birth certificate?),  the “world’s finest,” according to… itself. One brand with legitimately different flavorings I tasted was French-made DragonBleu, now with Rose Blossom, White Ginger and Penja Pepper. They deserve the medals they’ve won.

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On the other hand, you might wonder what a “Dude” tastes like. Apparently Three Olives vodka has the answer—or at least a flavored spirit by that name. Ivanabitch vodka has been successful enough to now offer gin and brandy to their female-empowering fans. With a slogan like “Feel The Burn,” Mad Dragon seems proud of going after the fortified and flavored market with eight varieties—none of which is called “dude,” nor “rose blossom.”

Koi Tequilas

Kai Tequilas

By the number of new entries, tequila would seem the second most popular category. It isn’t—it’s rum, actually (worldwide, anyway), which seems to be slow inbeing exploited, though the range offered here, from the premade Sandy Bottom cocktail–in a bottle labeled like an ‘80s soft-porn—to DonQ’s new flavors, Cockspur (that name sells itself!), best-in-show honey-ginger flavored Cayrum to the extremely elegant and refined Agricole rhum of Martinique’s Clement, suggests things are picking up. Tequilas, by comparison, are everywhere, from the exotic dia-de-los-muertos inspired skull bottles of Kai, which had a pleasantly surprising smoothness and caramel notes, up to to a $600+ retail Gran Patron Burdeos Bordeaux cask racked extra-anejo (sorry, didn’t get to sample that).

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Of course there was a great deal of wine on offer as well—some of it even pink, like Moscato sparkling rose, Dinastia Vivanco rosado, and two excellent re-emerging French Rosé wines (Sables d’Azur) I tried. Piper-Heidsieck celebrated the release of a new limited Prestige Cuvee,  Rare 1999. But more intriguing to this palate were some Eastern European offerings: Greece’s Tselepos, Strofilia and Katogi Averoff (bottling indigenous Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko varietals), Romania’s Trei Hectare and Zestrea Murfatlar (the Feteasca Negra grape holds massive potential) and Montenegro’s Plantaze and Stara Soklova brandies. Of course there were  new Italian, Spanish and Argentinian bottlings of note too, as well…particularly those of Opici importers (94 point-rated ’07 Poggio Bestiale) and Luigi Bosca.

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Wine of Japan poured me some excellent sakes while showing me on a map which area’s breweries were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami—and which area’s more popular breweries have had their transportation routes disrupted. Expect shortages.

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Although the show was notably smaller than the previous year in Las Vegas, at least some vendors had their share of wacky promotions—Hairy Cow, for example, who brought a mother and calf to sit in a pen outside the opening night reception. There were the expected leagues of models touting free shots at the show, but my heart belonged to the Slavianskaya ladies, who managed to look cute in Spring 1832’s latest fashions. And there were gimmicks for sale (the prophylactic-esque Wine Shield), hangover cures, and mixers—a buzzed-about standout being McClure’s pickle-juice based Bloody Mary Mix. Tart, peppery and juicy…a genuinely worthy twist on the classic.

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In the middle of it all, I got to take a break and help judge the inaugural Iron Mixologist contest on behalf of The Tasting Panel magazine. Consisting of three “heats”–aperitif, long drink and dessert, all with surprise ingredients–I would say it was a tight race, but clearly certain competitors were more prepared than others. Fort Worth’s Cat Miltenberger, with the focus that only a military background can bring, won two out of three categories handily, and took home the brass ring (a cocktail shaker, actually).

Click to download full article PDF

Click to download full article PDF

Leafing through my pile of collected print matter on the way to the airport, one ad gave me pause, by Palm Bay importers.“Give the Gift of Authenticity,” it read. I couldn’t agree more. Mix some of their Aperol with water,  if you need to think pink.

What A Hamburger’s All About

Say what you want about In N Out–the world of burger fans seems to divide neatly into ‘lover’ and ‘hater’ camps–the California-based chain certainly deserves credit as the catalyst for fresh-ingredient fast food, as well as prioritizing customer service.

On the eve of a new outlet in Fort Worth, TX–the farthest East the chain has yet ventured–360 West magazine asked me to tell readers what the fuss was all about. Luckily, I live no more than two miles from my local INO, making research frighteningly convenient.

Click above to download full article PDF

Click above to download full article PDF

Research: One Animal Style, One Veggie

Research: One Animal Style, One Veggie

The Neapolitan

The Neapolitan

Blue Ribbon: Be The Win

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Among the myriad fine dining grouped on the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ third level, Blue Ribbon appears as something of a sleeper. Unlike the flashy, hostess-heavy Jaleo and STK, the uber-fancy Milos, or classically modern Scarpetta and Comme Ça, Blue Ribbon is in a darker corner and somewhat hidden behind a patterned screen wall. But perhaps its enigma adds to the mystique, since it apparently hasn’t been suffering from attention since it opened at the beginning of the year.

Unfortunately, a plumbing mishap forced its closure for a few weeks, so I held this post until its reopening this week.

A spin-off of the hot New York spot founded by brothers Bruce and David Bromberg, Blue Ribbon offers both more authenticity as well as innovation than the typical Strip Japanese spot.

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There are three experiences here: a small sushi counter at the very front, a woody, sexy lounge with small two-tops, and a much larger sushi counter, tables and tatami rooms in rear, all filled with a funky jazz soundtrack to keep things energetic but sensual. The menu is similarly diverse.

Sushi and sashimi are offered in extensive varieties, divided into Atlantic and Pacific ocean sourcing (expect to see sourcing as a growing trend, coming out of the Japanese nuclear disaster—though Blue Ribbon were doing this much already). Popular fish are all hear, but you may also find Spanish Mackerel (Sawara), barracuda (Kamasu) and jellyfish (Kurage) for example. There are plenty of ingredient-driven maki rolls (no Philly roll or any of that nonsense), Osaka-style box sushi, and ten different vegetable rolls.

Rather than the typical series of platings, Oma Kase here is offered as a platter ($100 p.p.—there are also a $35 veggie sushi platter, a $140 two pound lobster sashimi platter and even a $200 “Blue Ribbon Special” platter, which I can only imagine must be life-changing. Well, it’d better be.)

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The tofu

Of course, not everything here is so pricey—small plates start well under $10, and this is where you’ll begin to see an appealing blend of Eastern and Western influences, such as beef marrow with shaved bonito and teriyaki or a salad of cranberries, pear, cucumber and mizuna with poppyseed dressing. There are two menus here—one sushi bar, one dining room, with different offerings. You’ll want to see both, and spend some time with them to discover specialties. Among the tempura is fried chicken with wasabi and honey; there’s also a full grill menu, another listing of wagyu beef offerings, extensive sunomono, and more under various listings (“Kitchen Specials,” “Sushi Bar Specials,” etc.)

The pork belly

The pork belly

Choosing almost randomly from too many intriguing offerings, I ordered a carafe of Yuuki no Basho sake (because it goes with almost everything—though the selective sake and wine listing goes as deep as an ’82 Bordeaux for $20k) and started with the tofu and seaweed starter with lemon, ginger and soy and the smoked pork belly kushi yaki with pickled onions and baby watercress. A nice study in contrasts, the tofu was light, creamy and refreshing, accented by the tart, chewy seaweed; the pork belly more-than-fork-tender, and dripping with woody, earthy delight.

Got Sushi? My Oma Kase

Got Sushi? My Oma Kase

From my seat at the front Sushi bar (where the chefs work in tandem in a way that bears comparison to both acrobatics and ballet), Oma Kase seemed the way to go. Wondering what you get for $100? Generous portions of no less than 13 different fishes. I had horse mackerel, grilled eel, cornet fish, sea trout, fatty tuna, amberjack, salmon, yellowtail, some ruby red tuna, striped bass, fluke, seared salmon, and a sea urchin roll with foie gras. Advised by the chef to eat them in that order (going from mildest to strongest), I admittedly enjoyed some more than others—particularly the horse mackerel, cornet, amberjack, yellowtail and rich salmon.

Real fish chips!

Real fish chips!

After the finish, they took away the display fish, a ribboned amberjack (I believe), flash fry it, and brought it back to eat like crunchy chips!

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Though I wanted to go deeper into the menu, that was more than a meal already. I was advised not to miss dessert (which I often do), so I chose the most unusual offering, a ginger bread pudding that literally arrived as a shiny golden brick (more than enough to share), spicy, sweet, eggy and mouth-filling tender.

I took half of it back to my hotel room and finished it for breakfast. And I don’t regret a single bite.

Pebble Beach: The Ripple Effect

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In the realm of prominent Food & Wine festivals, few have the cache of Pebble Beach—and it isn’t hard to see why. Take the muscle of American Express Publishing—Food&Wine magazine, Departures, Executive Travel ($$$) and combine it with the captive audience of one of the richest private developments in the country ($$$$) and, well, you do the math (and after you do, add a few more zeros). Lexus, the event’s major sponsor, certainly did.

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PBFW has such a remarkable list of participating chefs that the event program feels like a yearbook. No wonder everyone’s getting them autographed as I entered the Grand Tasting tent(s) on April 30. I had originally wanted to attend more of the four-day event, but considering how overwhelming this turned out to be, it’s probably best that my introduction to the festival focused on the one afternoon.

There are famous chefs, and working chefs (sometimes both) in every direction you turn, doling out small elegant bites of every savory and sweet description. For a foodie, this is something like nirvana.

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Relative proximity to Napa and Sonoma wine countries also amps up the winery participation. While wine tends to be an also-ran at most “Food and Wine” fests—usually corporate-heavy,  typically poured without context—here there are big brands (Trefethen) next to cherished favorites (Perrin et Fils) next to semicults (Paul Hobbs, Paradigm) emerging regions (Ribera del Duero) next to intriguing upstarts (Sonoma’s Scribe, Willamette’s Antica Terra). Driscoll’s berries—based nearby—are one of the largest food brands represented  (Kerrygold butter, AndyBoy produce are two others) with a huge display of their gorgeous fruit, also being handed out cocktail-style by some appetizing servers.

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Serving chefs included Akira Back, Andre Bienvenu, Clark Frasier & Mark Gaier, Stephen Pyles, Michael Schwartz,  Michael Symon, Sherry Yard and literally dozens more. Others like Michel Richard and David Myers, who helmed larger events, were checking out colleagues.

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Still, many stands had irksome lines, some ran out of food, and so like many attendees I expect, I found myself editing by whim. The proliferation of similar events around the country, and world, has probably resulted in ennui for more than a few of these chefs, thus some bites were more impressive than others.

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What I will remember most: Tim Love’s rabbit and rattlesnake tamales; Michael Ginor’s lovely plating of two foie gras (from his renowned Hudson Valley company) and charcuterie; Kent Torrey’s endlessly remarkable table of uncommon cheeses from his shop in Carmel; and Shawn McClain’s just-because Absinthe Taffy.

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Also, Highland Park’s Martin Daraz has to be the world’s greatest ambassador of Scotch Whisky. He makes you want to just bathe in the stuff.

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Afterward, I was able to sneak in a few more events: Got to see Jacques Pepin and his daughter Claudine perform their comedy routine—I mean, prepare some lovely egg dishes. Considering the lack of true personalities on Food TV these days, I found myself wishing they would have a show together. They are truly hilarious to watch.

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I also snuck over to the Inn to take in the Marcassin wine tasting. But as Helen Marcassin herself was a no-show (pretty sure that was the drawing card for the event), instead I joined the blind tasting of cabs led by Rajat Parr (Mina Group restaurants) with fellow somms Damon Ornowski, Dustin Wilson, Emily Wines and SF Chronicle’s Jon Bonne (and Laura Maniec MS chiming in from the audience). The seven selections offered a wide variety of expression—2006 Silver Oak and ’05 Chateau Palmer Alter Ego were among them—but to me the most interesting turned out to be a citrusy, fresh Greg Norman. Go figure! Almost none of the wines were accurately identified by the way, indicating what a variety of expression in terroir and winemaking exists today.

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Then I realized the real scene was the Inn’s patio bar, where F&B rainmaker Lee Schrager and TV Chef Guy “Badboy” Fieri were holding court amid a wonderland of chef whites. Fieri apparently didn’t get the dress code memo, but I suppose it was nice of him to make sure that nobody, but nobody, would ever mistake him for, say, Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller. Which I guess makes sense, since I can’t imagine anyone ever mistook his former restaurant Johnny Garlic’s for the French Laundry.

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Look for other blogs on the festival from:

Al Mancini

Rona Lewis

Table Hopper SF

Shutterbean

Kamran, the 18-year-old “Sophisticated Gourmet”

Cooking and Bartending Contests

I’ve been honored to help judge a variety of cooking and bartending contests throughout my career, speak on panels, and occassionally even mentor students. Here are some recent examples:

Judging the inaugural Iron Mixologist event at WSWA Orlando 2011

Judging the inaugural Iron Mixologist event at WSWA Orlando 2011

Click here to download my Tasting Panel story on Iron Mixologist…

Hussong's Hot Salsa contest

Hussong's Hot Salsa contest

More about the Hussong’s Hot Salsa Contest below…

Blessed by a HaLo

Trefethen 2005 HaLo Cab, 2007 Estate Late Harvest Riesling

Trefethen 2005 HaLo Cab, 2007 Estate Late Harvest Riesling

I’m not one to be starstruck–often–but there’s always something cool about meeting the namesake of a wine, and Hailey Trefethen can claim that twice. Not only is she a daughter of the well-known Trefethen wine family (the scions of the Oak Knoll A.V.A.) but their single vineyard reserve HaLo was named after Hailey and brother Loren.

I was going to say I've never hugged a wine before...but then I realized...

I was going to say I've never hugged a wine before...but then I realized...

So sharing a tasting of Trefethen’s new releases with Hailey last week was even more fun than it would’ve been already: it also happened to be at Julian Serrano, one of my favorite restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip (in Aria, City Center), and with two of my favorite sommeliers, Desmond Ecchavarrie, A.S. (currently at Julian Serrano) and his mentor, Robert Smith, M.S. (of Serrano’s fine dining establishment, Picasso in Bellagio).

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling, 2008 Estate Chard

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling, 2008 Estate Chard

Proudly but without arrogance, Hailey reminded us that Trefethen has always used only the grapes they grown themselves, from vineyards that are all Certified Napa Green, and using 100% sustainable farming practices, such as a host of cover crops, and owl and bat boxes for natural pest control.

Jamon Serrano... what else? ;)

The wines were pared–loosely–with a selection of Serrano’s signature modern tapas (only some of which I photographed–it was a feast). Here are some quick tasting notes:

09 Oak Knoll Estate Dry Riesling: green apple, guava, peach, ripe grapefruit, lime and a little slate. Moderate acid. Bright but not blaring.

08 Estate Chard celebrates the 35th bottling of the wine which triumphed in the ’79 World Wine Olympics. Eight months in French oak (18% new), no malo. Harvest and tropical fruits, great mouth feel.

Isn't this exactly the perfect woman to be serving your paella? The Estate Merlot paired well with this...

Isn't this exactly the perfect woman to be serving your paella? The Estate Merlot paired well with this...

07 Estate Merlot: Notes of plum, grape tomato, black cherry, with a little toasted anise and chocolate in the finale. 95% merlot, 2% cab, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. Smooth and balanced.

07 Estate Cab: Plum, blackberry and pepper. Not complex, but pleasing. 94% cab, 2% Cab franc, 2% malbec, 1% merlot, 1% petit verdot

2005 HaLo: Blackberry dominates, with chocolate, black cherry and ripe plum, a little bay leaf and pepper spice, finishing with dying embers, earth and a wisp of tobacco. Balanced, complex, and rewarding. Firm but not overbearing. The winery’s 508-case premier bottling, 94% Cab with 4% petit verdot and 2% malbec, all grown in the Trefethen’s Hillspring vineyard, rocky volcanic foothills where Hailey and Loren played as kids. Aged 29 months in French Oak, then bottled for two years prior to release.

We finished with the 07 Estate Late Harvest Riesling, which was a nice, light, pleasantly sweet wine but not cloying.

Rob Smith, Desi Ecchavarie. These guys are the real giants.

Rob Smith, Desi Ecchavarie. These guys are the real giants.

Thanks, Kazia.

LaMorte Le Magnifique!

Dropped by for a quick visit with Chef Gary FX LaMorte at Andre’s Monte Carlo this evening, and the chef waylaid me with an unexpected menu tasting! I would complain, but every dish was remarkably creative and well-executed. While Andre Rochat, one of Las Vegas’ longest-established haute cuisine chefs, is very classically-minded, LaMorte has taken his namesake restaurant in exciting new directions (ask about the foie gras martini!) for which he’s relatively under-appreciated. This food is quite seriously up there with the finest in the city–and served formally in a gorgeous, cheerfully romantic, intimate dining room. Incidently, LaMorte told me it was the first time he’d actually sat down in his own dining room to experience the service, but I bet he tells all his dates that ;)

savory smooth amuse bouche of sweetbread "salad" with pistachio and lotus root

savory smooth amuse bouche of sweetbread "salad" with pistachio and lotus root

sweet corn puree, warm truffle gelee and lobster butter over which was poured classic rich lobster bisque

sweet corn puree, warm truffle gelee and lobster butter over which was poured classic rich lobster bisque

Braised beef tongue, smoked lentil, herb crepe and whole grain jus

Braised beef tongue, smoked lentil, herb crepe and whole grain jus

Smoked Berkshire (aka Kurabota) pork loin with cassoulet bean puree & frisee

Smoked Berkshire pork loin, tarbaise bean custard, frisee with confit truffle vinaigrette and lightly truffled pork jus... before a little fresh perigord was grated on top

Chocolate concord with blood orange and mint

Chocolate concord with blood orange and mint

LaMorte, LaMouth

LaMorte, LaMouth

Come See! Brian Howard Behind Burners at Comme Ça

With Chef Brian Howard and the glorious Comme Ça burger

With Chef Brian Howard and the glorious Comme Ça burger

It may not quite be a SCOOP, but it seems to have not been reported yet that Brian Howard has taken over the day-to-day reins as Executive Chef at Comme ça in the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort. Howard is known as one of the more ambitious chefs in the local dining scene, most recently executing a very molecular/fusion menu at Nu Sanctuary in Town Square that should be remembered as one of the most adventurous culinary experiences in Las Vegas dining (particularly off-Strip–and joining Carlos Guia at Louis Osteen in the Town Square too good/too soon club).

Bone marrow and oxtail starter

Bone marrow and oxtail starter

Howard, who executed a very French-leaning classic menu at the under-regarded CatHouse under Kerry Simon, is just what Comme ça needs. While top toque David Myers (of Sona/LA Comme ça fame) is devoting more of his time to the Vegas outlet than many other out-of-town chef/restaurateurs, Howard understands the competitive nature of Strip dining. In particular, Vegas has more serious French cuisine–both classic and modern–than perhaps any other American city at the moment. Just on the Strip, there’s the justifiably well-regarded Mon Ami Gabi, unjustly maligned Andre’s (and sister Alize at Palms), Aureole, Bouchon, Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Fleur (if that still counts), Le Cirque, Morel’s, Payard, Picasso, Pinot Brasserie… not to mention the world-class Mansion and L’Atelier of Joel Robuchon, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, and mIX by Alain Ducasse (no wonder Restaurant Alex couldn’t do enough numbers to combat its closure–btw, it’s closing week was allegedly one of its best ever.) Even off-Strip there are the well-regarded Marche Bacchus, Rosemary’s, the enduring Pamplemousse, and certainly more I’m overlooking. That’s a very big field, in which it’s easy to become regarded as an also-ran, even if you do a respectable job–and even having an impressive raw bar with a strong selection of oysters is, well, not that uncommon. CC also walks a tightrope between being a casual brasserie (which it is in name) and a more elegant dining room (which it is in some pricing).

Housemade charcuterie

Housemade charcuterie

Howard definitely does not want to be an “also-ran” kind of chef, and is in the process of revamping everything, along with a new Summer menu. Already, he’s tweaked Myers’ already-great burger and buzzed-about bone marrow and oxtail starter, and put together an impressive charcuterie (even Batali’s salumi master Zach Allen should check it out) and is promising more in the next couple weeks.

Oh, that burger

Oh, that burger

In the meantime, there’s already something else very exciting there for late night diners: from 10 p.m. to closing (typically 1 am, but they will stay if busy) Comme ça’s entire “Hourglass” Menu is priced 50% off. That includes, among other things, that great burger (certainly the best you’ll get for $9 bucks), and even their Grand Plateau of raw bar/cold seafood (an insane deal at $65).

They also have an excellent classic cocktails menu that, even in a property filled with fantastic libations, is a worthy contender for top tippling.

Comme ça’s official website

With Executive Chef David Myers

With le grand fromage David Myers

Best of the Wurst!

[More headline gold...lol]

GermanColdCuts

Whenever I have some spare time/calories, I love to explore the corners of Los Angeles for under-regarded gems, of which there are many. While LA’s position as a haute cuisine destination is constantly challenged (for every truly great fine dining destination, there’s at least two over-hyped ‘scene’ restaurants), it may qualify as the casual eating capital of the country–or the ethnic eating capital. There is a such a wide variety of excellent inexpensive eating in the County, from Santa Monica to Monterey Park and beyond, that it’s hard to even encapsulate (despite Jonathan Gold’s endless quest).

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courtesy GermanFoodGuide.com

Though it’s been around for years (35 to be specific), and I’ve driven by it several times, I finally got the gumption to check out German Cold Cuts. With such an imaginative name (ahem) not to mention the most nondescript location imaginable (not only is in Woodland Hills, not only in a tiny strip mall, but actually in the rear/side of a tiny strip mall in Woodland Hills), you can hardly blame me.

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courtesy GermanFoodGuide.com

But it’s been my loss: Inside, German Cold Cuts offers a cold case featuring dozens–no exaggeration–of wursts, salamis, smoked meats and cheeses, from the Fatherland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. I don’t care how much you know about Spanish Jamon, French Charcuterie and Italian Salami. I don’t care if you’re Mario frickin Batali. There’s stuff here you’ve never heard of much less seen, or tasted. And their sandwiches are extremely reasonably priced–pretty much the same as [meh] Quizno’s, in the 5-7 range.

courtesy GermanFoodGuide.com

courtesy GermanFoodGuide.com

You want to get the “cold cut combo” and choose your meats (otherwise, why are you here?), but then you will be very challenged to decide on 3-4. Luckily, they’ll let you sample, if you strike up a conversation. I chose smoked pork loin, Hungarian salami, and…something else kind of spicy bologna-like, with some Havarti cheese (or was it smoked Gouda?). Yes, I got it on a very non-German sub roll ( I could’ve gotten rye or pump, certainly) . Not gonna apologise for that, either. The neutral bread was a perfect canvas for meatycheesy brilliance. Standard trimmings are strong mustard, mayo, thin cut tomato, onion and lettuce. Which just tells you that they know they’re really in California (the fact that the store is better stocked than any place I’ve ever visited in Germany also tells you that).

As you can see from the pics I “borrowed” from their web page, the store also has an impressive selection of German imports–hella candy, sauces, beers and wines, etc. stuff you are still mostly not going to find at Cost Plus or Gelson’s. I should not neglect to mention that there’s also a charmingly indifferent, ridiculously tall blond behind the counter. As is only fitting. They’re not open early, or late, and closed on Sundays, which tells you two things: it’s a family business, and they’re not Jewish (bet you knew that already).

Did I mention, good pickle too?

Did I mention, good pickle too?

For More Info (even their website is minimal) It says here they cater: I would choose these guys over some Costco deli trays in a heartbeat.

Keep On Truckin’: Fresh Fries Declares Freedom!

Hey, remember Freedom Fries? No? Good.

Because the best executions of this BELGIAN dish (like many Belgian things, regrettably colloquialized as ‘French…’ Jacques Brel, for example) ignore cultural and political boundaries, finding endless expression in double-frying, seasoning and topping the Luther Burbank hybridized potato. My, I’m using big words today, aren’t I?

Anyway, in my haphazard traipse through LA’s booming Foodtruckland, I came across the estimable Fresh Fries and knew that they had me at hello. And not just for the cute logo…

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Take a look at this creative menu. When people tell me I’m being too harsh on less creative bricks-and-mortar-bound chefs, I’m going to use this as an example. This is just a great way to take a universally-loved and understood food and spin it in every way they can imagine, but not so much it makes your head spin (except, perhaps, with what to choose).

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Wasabi ketchup. Curry ketchup. Curry sauce! Peanut Buttercup! Goat cheese! A Monterey Park/Alhambra-inspired “626″ recipe with hoisin and crispy noodles! Even a rip-off of InNOut’s overhyped “Animal Style” called “Stinky Pinky” (no comment). The fries are fresh cut like In N Out–but from better potatoes, it seems–and double fried and served in a paper cone (except for the “Fancy” recipes), very classically Belgique. They actually taste of potato (one of my usual pet peeves with fries) and the sweets are solid, not soggy or mealy (ditto).

Sweet potato fries with hummus, smoked paprika and sesame seeds

Sweet potato fries with hummus, smoked paprika and sesame seeds

After serious deliberation (during which my old friend Larry Hardy turned up, which not only made for a nice reunion, but more importantly, opportunity to share a few items!), I ordered the hummus above, and a small plain cone for my daughter, while Larry and his soon-to-be-Mrs got some curlies and more sweets with a couple other sauces. Every one was good, even the plain potatoes. And portion-wise, my $5 basket was as good as a meal, let me tell you.

Curly fries with chipotle mayo

Curly fries with chipotle mayo

Sweets with Two Kindsa Ketchup

Sweets with Two Kindsa Ketchup

Straight, No Chaser

Straight, No Chaser

Looking forward to trying more. I’m a fan.

twitter.com/freshfriesla

Whisky, Women and Song…

Well, maybe not so much song. But the Universal Whisky Experience, which gathered together dozens of distilled malt beverages from around the world at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas March 19-20 2010, was both educational and entertaining. Covering for The Tasting Panel, I took some candid snaps. Here’s the album:

And here’s my Tasting Panel Magazine story:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge