I was pleased to be included in a story about video strategy for restaurant brands in restaurant-hospitality.com, talking about our campaign for the Emeril’s Las Vegas restaurants.
I was pleased to be included in a story about video strategy for restaurant brands in restaurant-hospitality.com, talking about our campaign for the Emeril’s Las Vegas restaurants.
FOR UP-TO-DATE POSTS ON MY ADVENTURES WITH RESTAURANTS, CHEFS AND FOOD, AS WELL AS LINKS TO PUBLISHED WORK ON BONAPPETIT.COM AND ELSEWHERE, PLEASE VISIT NOWIMHUNGRY.COM
My interview with Giada…
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
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
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
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…
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
This 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.
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.
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…
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
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.
“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.
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?
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).
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
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
A pleasantly simple salad of small iceberg wedges with blue cheese and lardons followed.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Desserts were a tiramisu mousse and crème brulee with raspberry glaze.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
*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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Look for other blogs on the festival from:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
[More headline gold...lol]
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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).
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).
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.
Looking forward to trying more. I’m a fan.
Would you believe me if I told you one of the most creative, satisfying and entertaining dinners I’ve had so far this year was at a country club? In Palm Desert, no less? I’ll avoid repeating what I wrote in the article for The Tasting Panel (see below) and just post some pics… Chef Ralph Fernandez, I like your style.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL MENU
I rarely endorse corporate branded foods. Even if they might be found in my home pantry, I’m always a little bit suspect of what goes in with mass food production. But I’m making an exception for this recent random discovery: Lay’s Lightly Salted.
Potato Chip fans already know Lay’s as one of the most reliable, satisfying basic chips: light, crisp, and not too greasy. But let’s face it, like most chips, they’re basically a salt delivery system.
Lay’s lightly salted cut the sodium down to 85 mg per 1 oz. portion (15 chips), but healthfulness is not the only benefit. With less salt (and relatively neutral oils–see below), you can actually taste the potato. These chips taste better, in fact, than many house-made restaurant chips I’ve had. Seriously. They’re not plain, either–there’s still enough salt here for anyone but the most sodium-saturated palate.
Not to be confused with low-fat Lay’s, these do not have creepy Olestra in them. The fat is good ol’ sunflower/corn/canola, one gram saturated to 9 unsaturated per 1 oz serving. Apparently, they’re also kosher, gluten-free (duh) and have good doses of vitamins C, B6, E, Niacin, Magnesium, Thiamin and even a little Zinc and Iron. In short, they’re way better for you and your kids than a lot of so-called “natural” snacks.
Check the nutrition info at this link.
FYI: I am not affiliated with Lay’s in any way, and bought these chips myself (twice already) at the local Vons supermarket.
Sometimes you have to take a stand. Sometimes you have to accept a difficult task. The kind of task that just can’t be left to amateurs. Sometimes, you have to judge a hot salsa contest. And that sometime, for me, came on February 15.
To answer the first FAQ, no this was not a salsa dancing contest. Although I may have my opinions about hot salsa dancing, and certainly hot salsa dancers, I am by no means an expert. This was salsa, as in Mexican food, and in that world, yes, I think I have some experience. So it was that on the day after Valentine’s Day, Hussong’s Cantina-Taqueria in Mandalay Place on the Las Vegas Strip invited me to join restaurateurs, a hot sauce entrepreneur and a dedicated Hussong’s regular in judging the Burn a Hole in My Heart salsa-off between Executive Chef Noe Alcala and chefs Tino Guzman and Michael Vargas (one of whom is his former and the other his current sous chef, I think).
I tried to be pure about the process, but before I knew what was happening, Noe was plying all of us with shots of silver Patron, and I couldn’t turn it down. At least we’d all be on a level field. I suspected a fix when I saw Noe got to use the robocoupe and the other chefs were given bar blenders but honestly, I don’t think that affected the outcome too much. Beyond the obvious ingredients–tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime–each took a different approach. All were far superior, by the way, to what you get at the original Hussong’s in Ensenada, where the chips are topped with a very plain, relatively dry pico de gallo of tomato, onion, cilantro and jalapeno.
The first of the three we judged used more fresh peppers and was the most traditional–a little heat, a lot of vegetable flavor. The second used a lot of smoked chilis, making it extremely hot on the back end, with a thick, almost mole-like texture. It almost won. But ultimately Alcala’s recipe prevailed with a “kitchen sink” mentality, using a wide variety of fresh peppers, two hot sauces, almost a dozen dried spices, for an all-encompassing flavor with a lot of heat from beginning to end, that stayed with you (it took me holding a gulp of margarita in my mouth for 30 seconds to calm it down). It wasn’t just the heat that made it a winner though, but the variety of “heats” and flavor complexity–also the wet but thick consistency, which helped it stick well to tortilla chips.
Photos courtesy Bryan Steffy/Magnetic PR
You know that we live in a weird, wild, wonderful world, when you can celebrate Chinese New Year, Singapore style, in Los Angeles, with an Austrian!
At least, that’s how I felt when I attended a celebration luncheon on February 8, with Wolfgang Puck and Rocksugar Chef Mohan Ismail at Puck’s WP24 in Downtown LA’s new Ritz-Carlton, hosted by the Singapore Tourist Board and YourSingapore.com. The Singaporeans threw the event to celebrate the exploding Western interest in their island republic, particularly in the culinary world. Puck is about to open a new CUT there, and other star chefs with new Singapore restaurants include Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Mario Batali, and Daniel Boulud. Not that Singapore’s renowned pan-cultural food scene really needed their help!
Anyway, enough of my yakking, here’s some pics of the elegant, flavorful meal we enjoyed (along with Singapore Slings and Tiger Beer)…just to make your mouth water.
It’s not often I get to announce big food world news, but a right place-right time conversation with Scott Conant this morning about his wine program brought this bombshell. Master Sommelier Paolo Barbieri, late of the recently shuttered Restaurant Alex in the Wynn resort, has joined Conant’s team as Wine Director of both Scarpetta and D.O.C.G. in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
This is not just a coup for Conant and the Cosmo (Barbieri is one of the most respected Somms in the entire US) and Las Vegas (ibid) but in a way for Barbieri as well, since it means he doesn’t have to move, and gets to shift focus from selling big French and California labels to Italian wines, of which the native Roman is undoubtedly well versed.
Well, I expect it’s a coup for him… I’ll look to get a quote from Paolo as soon as the p.r. people get over being upset with me for breaking the news (apparently) early.
UPDATE: Look for my interview with Paolo in the May 2010 issue of THE TASTING PANEL.
BTW, Barbieri is also a winemaker, so no doubt we can expect his California Syrahs to be among the few domestics on Scarpetta’s list.
Conant informs me that Scarpetta and D.O.C.G.’s wine programs, already quite serious, will be expanding even further.
With all the talk of the new cuisine in Cosmopolitan, a few other smaller restaurant openings on the Las Vegas Strip this season have been largely overlooked. One is so hidden, you can hardly blame anyone for missing it: SEA Thai, in Bally’s–a resort that’s long suffered without any significant food updates.
Nestled next to the Steakhouse, “SEA – The Thai Experience” (as it’s rather ostentatiously called, officially) is an outpost of an expansive chain around Metropolitan New York (including the peep, spice and Eat= restaurants), and befitting that background, the compact rectangular space combines modern and traditional décor to create an intimate but casual metropolitan-style environment. Beyond some funky-retro bubble chairs in the front, there are simple bare wood booths surrounding a pool reflecting a large Buddha statue, with a few more secluded booths to one side and a private dining room to the other. In a typical city this would be pleasant enough, but on a Strip full of huge spaces it’s uncommonly appealing (the Steakhouse’s intimate size is also one of its enduring strengths). I can’t imagine a more atractive spot for a casual but potentially romantic date.
Of course, the irony is that most of SEA’s spaces in NYC are very large and Vegas-flashy. Thankfully, the chain understands counter-programming. By the same token, SEA’s concept from the beginning has been to make no secret of their American-friendly twists on Thai cuisine. One can poke them for “inauthenticity” all you want, but then again, any US Thai restaurant is likely just as inauthentic when you consider that we don’t generally have the same fish available in America that they do in Thailand (it’s likely our land animals taste different as well), and that any cuisine is going to adapt to a different culture whether it’s trying or not. But that’s a whole ‘nother essay.
The shortcut on this subject is to say that I didn’t find SEA Thai’s dishes to be particularly “fusiony” or “dumbed down,” just prepared with a slightly stronger eye toward pretty presentation.
The menu, which actually offers Thai and Vietnamese dishes (on separate sides), covers the expected classic noodle dishes, salads and curries as well as house specialties—enough variety, but not so much as to be overwhelming, or exhaustively inclusive, as many Thai kitchens can be. Just the fact that they offer four kinds of rice–jasmine, brown, sticky and coconut—makes an impression.
From the Thai menu, I started with duck lettuce wraps, which were not Chinese-style lettuce wraps (as I expected) but spicy tender duck breast wrapped with steamed lettuce inside a spongy wrap bread (rice-based, I believe), and covered in two sauces—sweet, savory comfort food. Then I tried two Thai standards: a papaya salad, and an order of drunken noodles with shrimp and tofu.
The papaya salad, I have to tell you, was everything it should’ve been: crispy, crunchy sweet and spicy, with all the ingredients finely juilenned, so the flavors mixed better than they typically do from a coarser chop. The drunken noodles had solid rad na and firm, flavorful tofu, and to be honest, I found myself returning to it as I sampled the following dishes—which is one of the most meaningful compliments a food reviewer can offer.
From the Viet side, I also stuck to a couple of standbys: spring rolls, which were typical, but delicately crisp and not too greasy, and a bowl of classic pho. The latter came to table not only generously portioned (which is typical) but with a large array of sauces and spices to season. That much again, made an impression. But the soup itself was just okay, nothing terribly special, the noodles just a bit overdone. There’s a lot of pho in Vegas–even a judicious amount on the Strip–so that’s a busy road to travel.
I’m not saying SEA Thai threatens Lotus of Siam or Archii’s to take Vegas’ local Thai crown (Nor does it supercede Wazuzu or Lemongrass on the Strip). But it certainly sidestepped the predictability I’ve felt in most American Thai restaurants for at least the past five years. Prices are not Spring Mountain cheap, but they’re not unreasonable. And staying open until 2 AM certainly makes it a preferable choice to the standard casino cafe.
The restaurant also offers some creative cocktails, but as I was visiting at lunchtime, I abstained. That’s enough of an excuse to make me plan a return, and try some of the kitchen’s more creative dishes.
That there Al Mancini has been goading me for a week now on Facebook. He’s understandably proud of the project he spearheaded—Eating Las Vegas, The 50 Essential Restaurants—a unique collaboration between him and fellow leading food critics John Curtas (from whose blog the name comes) and Max Jacobson (can’t believe Heidi Knapp-Rinella didn’t want to participate!). Because I am nearly as active a food writer in Vegas as they are, Al has been teasing me about the “secrecy” of the list, to be released Wed Nov 17 at a special event at Joel Robuchon (Guess he made the list. Well, duh).
What I’ve been trying to say to Al, without becoming “that guy,” is that I really don’t need to see the list. I know what it is. That’s not to say I’m uninterested in seeing how they ranked the restaurants, and who loved/hated what. But the Top 50 spots in Vegas? Since I’ve had the really fortunate opportunity to experience almost as much as they have, I pretty much know what they picked—partially because I know which places are the best, and partially because I know which places the guys all have soft spots for (and also, hard spots).
I know myself well enough to know I’ll be dying to respond to their list, and I’ve been wrestling with that because I have no desire to start some bitchfest. We all have different palates, and amen to that. So I realized the only way to prevent myself would be to blog about the book before I even see it.
Thus,the list. Well, it’s A list, anyway. I have to admit I have a bit of an issue with the word Essential. Personally, I don’t feel there are really 50 essential—as in life changing, unique, incomparable—food experiences in Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, there are many many solid, worthwhile, even excellent restaurants in town. At least 100 by my count. Which is an incredible amount for any city. But essential? I’m sure New York has 50 essential restaurants. San Francisco might. I doubt Chicago does. I know Los Angeles does not.
I was undecided about whether to make this My list or what I think Their list will be. I decided to split the difference, so first I’ve listed what I expect we can all agree upon. Then there are a few that I can predict they will include but that I wouldn’t necessarily. The next bunch are ones I think are essential but I expect they’ve left off. They’re numbered, but I haven’t obsessively ordered them (in other words, #12 isn’t lesser than #9, okay?). And after that, a “slush pile” of other restaurants in Vegas which I think are excellent but not necessarily altogether life-changing.
Did I forget something? Probably. I know, I suck.
1. Guy Savoy
2. The Mansion
8. Michael Mina
12. RM Upstairs
15. NOVE Italiano
17. RM Seafood
18. Bradley Ogden
19. American Fish
20. Los Antojos
23. Jean-Georges Steakhouse
24. Lotus of Siam
26. Border Grill
27. The Country Club
On their list but not mine:
Most of the following are absolutely exceptional restaurants, they just don’t necessarily fit my own conception of “Essential,” as above.
29. Bar Masa
30. Bosa 1
33. China Mama
35. Fleur de Lys
36. Honey Pig
37. Julian Serrano
38. Le Cirque
39. Marche Bacchus
41. Origin India
43. Sen of Japan
47. Todd’s Unique Dining
Mine but probably not theirs:
29a. Luv Its (okay, it’s not a restaurant, but it is one of the landmark eateries of the city. You can’t get it anywhere else)
31a. Max Brenner (not only kills a category but seals it in concrete)
32a. Morel’s (As an overall experience, Morel’s is meh. But with over 60 cheeses to choose from and as many wines by the glass, that in particular is a very unique opportunity. Dig in.)
33a. Serendipity 3 (not just whimsical, but actually good quality and clever flavor combinations. Don’t over-order)
34a. Strip House (good food in a fantastic atmosphere)
35a. Studio B Buffet (a buffet? Yes, this buffet)
36a. SushiSamba: (Japanese/South American fusion, excellently executed, in a unique atmosphere)
37a. Tender (Not sure why this doesn’t get more notice—they have a category-killing game menu).
38a. Verandah (for breakfast)
[and let me add, of the restaurants coming to Cosmopolitan, I expect Scarpetta/DOC, Jaleo, ChinaPoblano, that Greek fish place, and Comme Ca to be worthy of essentiality]
Very very good, but just shy of life-changing
Beijing Noodle No. 9
BOA (Yes, I’ve called this the best steakhouse in Vegas, in the balance. But I don’t think that makes it essential, just enjoyable. Other steakhouses have bigger imperfections,but also more unique strengths)
Eiffel Tower Restaurant
Joe’s Stone Crab
Mon Ami Gabi
Simon for Brunch
Tea Lounge, Mandarin Oriental
Top of the World
Okay. Go eat.
In 2010, I took a position that brought me back to writing regularly about Los Angeles, blogging for Haute Living. While HL covers all things luxury, food is a strong focus, and one I certainly felt comfortable covering. Here are some of my blogs on LA’s great restaurants and chefs:
Follow That Food Truck: Coolhaus Ice Cream
Haute 5 Locavore Restaurants In LA
Haute5 Summer Wine Recommendations
Haute 5: Places To Watch World Cup
Haute Reservation: Rick Bayless’ Red O
Local Dish: The Haute 5 Favorite Restaurants for Locals in Los Angeles
Dining with Our New Top Cheftestants: Alex Reznik
Vive Le France: The Haute 5 Restaurants in Los Angeles
Keep Your Lid On: Hollywood’s Haute Hatter
This Monday, Try Missing The Mea
Sumptuous Lazy Sundays: The SLS Hotel Brunch
Wakey, Wakey: The Haute 5 Places to Eat Breakfast in Los Angeles
Hidden Haute: Westwood’s Glendon Is A Spot Worth Seeking
Sweet Sensations: The Haute 5 Ice Cream Shops in Los Angeles
Star Power: The Haute 5 Celebrity Hangouts in Los Angeles
Santa Monica Place: A Blessed Re-Opening
It Gets No Hauter: Petrossian Caviar For All Occasions
Plate By Plate Gathers LA’s Best Chefs
Easy Does It Indeed: Upper West A Satisfying Spot
Kiss the Chef: The Haute 5 Chef’s Tables in Los Angele
Haute Daycation: Paso Robles Wine Country Olive Fest
Haute Plates: Get Ready for the Taste of Beverly Hills
Sugar High: The Haute 5 Bakeries in Los Angeles
The Haute 5 Burgers and Fries in Los Angeles
StarChef Score: Scott Conant Comes to Montage Beverly Hills
Roll with It: The Haute 5 Spicy Tuna Rolls in Los Angeles
Found Horizons: The Sexy Scene at Shangri-La
Sugar Shock: The Haute 5 Desserts in Los Angeles
When You’re Haute, You’re Haute: LAT Food and Wine Fest
Haute off the Grill: Your Neighborhood Butcher
Go with the Flow: The Top 5 Fish Restaurants in Los Angeles
Caliente Cantinas! The Top 5 Mexican Spots in LA for Independence Day
Japanese Elixir: The Top 5 Sake Joints in Los Angeles
Haute Hamburger: The Counter Sets The Table
Hungry? Puck, Matsuhisa and Keller Have Some Nibbles For You
Midnight Munchies: The Top 5 Late-Night Restaurants in Los Angeles
Petite Ermitage: West Hollywood’s Most Exclusive Club
Over my career, I have produced several press releases, marketing kits and publicity bios for various companies. I will post them here as time allows, but for the moment, the best example of this work is the marketing kit I created for the restaurant I helped open with me (now ex-) wife, The Edendale Grill in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 2002.
Click the image above to download the marketing kit PDF.
Click the image above to download the original Edendale Grill Menu (Also written by me). Note the inclusion of Red Velvet Cake before it became a national trend…Oysters Rockafeller…and handcrafted Prohibition-era cocktails.
Click above to download my History of Edendale and details of the original historic photo display that I curated.
And click here for a related Edendale history post on Patch.com/EchoPark
From cover stories, to small breaking news items, I’ve done a wide variety of work for the Las Vegas Weekly–one of the stronger Weekly newspapers in the country, with an award-winning website. Some links are below…
COVER STORY: How A Downtown Hotel Helped Turn Las Vegas Into The Ninth Island
Local Grindz: Best Hawaiian Food In Las Vegas
COVER STORY: At Home With Burlesque Queen Dita Von Teese
I Tappa Keg: The Freakin’ Frog’s New Cask Society
Delmonico Steakhouse’s Secret Whisk(e)y Stash
It’s In the Shake: How To Analyze Your Bartender
10 Things You Need To Know About Hakkasan
Inside Vegas’ Most Influential Bar
Forte lands a special delivery for Rainier Cherry Day
The Candy Man Can: Jean-Marie Auboine Opens New Chocolate Institute
Funk Legend Jimmy Castor Dies At Henderson Hospital
Vegas Feels Fuku Envy as favorite food truck sets down LA roots
Pat DiNizio’s Rock Star Confessions
Drinking like Jay-Z with the Ace Of Spades
Why Las Vegas is the Real Burger Capital of the Country
COVER STORY: Step Into a Vegas Cab And You Might Be Taken For a Ride
Atomic 7′s Revolutionary Ice Cream
SnoBar Booze-pops Head For The Strip
City Center’s Cell-Phone Techno-Fail
Inside The First US Bodypainting Championships
Crime (Kinda) Pays: Vegas Mob Lieutenant Frank Cullotta
Pursuing The Perfect Vegas Buffet
Playmate Vs. Food: Laura Croft Meets Vegas’ Biggest Burrito
Inside the Palms’ New Barbie Fantasy Suite
A Vegas To-Do List for President Obama
Three Questions with Ernie Isley
Previewing the Hardbat Table Tennis Tournament
It’s a rite of nearly every publication to do both “Best of”s and Readers’ Polls, but few seem as equally anticipated and dreaded as the Review-Journal’s “Best of Las Vegas,” a readers/staff/celebrities selection, that never fails to engage yet enervate the community. Of course, as long as it’s talked about, it’s a success for the R-J (let me pause to note that I consider several staffers there friends and colleagues), which is probably why the two-decades-plus old poll’s enduring flaws are never cured, and possibly get worse.
No portion of the poll seems to get heads scratching so much as the “Food & Drink” section—restaurants, basically—whose categories are as random as the choices made. The R-J seems to choose genres as they suit them (or perhaps advertisers?), neither reflecting accurately the full breadth of eateries in the valley (and virtually ignoring the “drink” in “Eat & Drink”) nor bothering about how many overlaps there are in the ones they chose (both “Best New Restaurants” choices this year belong in other categories). Why the R-J staff and readers both tend to shun the Strip like a quarantine zone baffles me. It’s the center of the city. Nine out of ten times, casino resorts offer the best eating in town. And no, it is not all priced to gouge tourists.
I “get” that the readers of the R-J are not the same as restaurant critics, and I also get that there’s a great deal of food in the affordable range worthy of praise. What I don’t get is why R-J readers—and staff members, who are presumably more informed—continue to make uninspired or even embarrassing choices at least 50% of the time. I don’t buy the “what ordinary folks like” theory: go on yelp.com and you’ll see all kinds of intelligent, informed reviews by “normal” people about all kinds of eateries in town. (Let me add an extra thumbs-down to the design of the Best Of Eat & Drink page, which makes you click and click back on every category. Is the R-J trying to snub the Sun’s award winning design by being the worst designed website possible?)
Every year, those in the know groan over the choices but rarely put any reactions in print. This year, I decided enough was enough. I’m posting on my personal site so as to be clear that this is my position, and mine only. Feel free to RT, share, Digg, etc..
I can’t fault the choice of Freed’s, a Vegas stalwart responsible for great whimsical creations, but when it comes to savory breads, both Wynn’s general baker, and the baker for Guy Savoy’s Trolley du Pain make many remarkable creations (unfortunately neither available at retail).
I confess I haven’t sampled the myriad chicken wing creations of many Vegas Pubs, so I might have to beg off this one. But the happy hour menu at Society in Wynn holds many pleasant surprises, and the seared tuna burger at Brasserie Puck in Crystals, City Center is also remarkable for the price, with perfect fries. That’s right, I used the word “perfect.”
I have been warned away from more delis in Vegas than I’ve tried, but Earl of Sandwich in Planet Hollywood makes fine toasted sandwiches—and Enoteca San Marco makes their own deli meats on premises, so how much better can it get than that?
The choice of Cheesecake Factory here just makes me realize how little most Las Vegans get to sample what their city has to offer. There are several award-winning pastry chefs making miracles on the Strip. Those at Sage, Guy Savoy, American Fish and Aureole are just a few that come to mind right now. M Resort’s buffet desserts are also fantastic, to a one. And again, the dessert trolley at Guy Savoy? It isn’t better in heaven, I’m sure of it.
Dunkin Donuts? Winchell’s?? WTF? The category isn’t “biggest” donuts. At least please pick Ronald’s, a Vegas legend that still holds its own with creative (and vegan) choices. Though really the best donuts in town are the the fresh-made nutella-filled ones at Stratta in the Wynn. Go try them and tell me I’m wrong.
This is a tricky category—not all restaurants ideal for families necessarily bill themselves as such, Having said that, R-J’s staff pick Red Robin is actually a solid choice, but in reality, any of the Station casino’s buffets, Seasons at Silverton Lodge or the buffet at Main Street Station are better family pleasers (especially if they let the under-six kids in free)
I was scared to even peek at the choices here. There are no shortage of restaurants attemping fine French food in Vegas, though few are inspired. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Marche Bacchus, and I’m happy for them getting the attention, but really, in a town where Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire are plying their trades, be serious. On a more traditional level, Mon Ami Gabi and Bouchon both deliver solidly
Far too vague a category. I abstain.
This category drives me crazy. I spent more time than I’d want to admit last year trying burgers around Vegas. I know what I’m talking about. There are at least a dozen burgers served in town that are far, far, far better than In N Out at its very best (see my Top Ten Burgers here), but I will spare the snootiness. Just go get a fresh-ground five dollar burger at the snack bar in Binion’s. Eat it next to an In N Out. What are you afraid of?
Well there’s nothing wrong with a Costco hot dog, especially for the price, and toppings aside, I haven’t found anything in town that necessarily beats them. Although really, considering this consistent winner just makes food to feed its shoppers, is this category necessary?
Do we have to reserve choices to only ice cream, by technical definition, or are we allowed to include fro-yo, gelato, custard, and other frozen options in town? Because frankly, I couldn’t begin to list the things that beat Cold Stone.
Haven’t sampled enough Indian in Vegas to comment, but I have had a very fine lamb shank curry with all the proper sides at MOZen in Mandarin Oriental.
An even bigger category in Vegas than French—and one with a significant tradition. So that’s why folks chose Olive Garden? Sigh. I could get angry, but really, what I feel is closer to pity. Please—PLEASE—go to the Palms, get on an elevator, and eat at Nove Italiano. It’s really not that expensive. If not there, the Grill at Valentino, Fiamma at MGM, Lupo in Mandalay Bay or Stratta in the Wynn. Olive Garden doesn’t love you. Olive Garden doesn’t need you. They do. (see my Top Ten Italian)
Another massive category, especially when you include sushi, robata, and everything else. But certainly neither R-J’s staff pick Raku or celebrity pick Ichiza can be slighted. In a more Americanized vein, I’ve also had a very good meal at Sushi Roku recently.
Considering the tradition of amazing Graveyard Specials in Vegas, one would have to choose one of those, right? Oops, guess that would require some thinking. The Flamingo’s Burger Joint gives you a burger and fries for ONE DOLLAR after midnight. It’s not the best burger in town (even at midnight) but guess what: It’s just as good as In N Out! Buy ten of them for your friends, big spender.
So… we’re supposed to distinguish this from taqueria, I imagine (see below)? Unfortunately, that’s difficult in Vegas, but Dos Caminos and Diego are solid choices—and Hussong’s delivers on many levels. Get the elote. (also see my Notes on eating Mexican)
Not a lot of choices here, but along with the R-J staff, I’ve been impressed with the quality of several brews by Chicago Brewing Company. Color me shocked that I’m agreeing with them in more than one category.
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
I’ve yet to try an Middle Eastern in Vegas that’s worth remarking upon. Not saying there isn’t any that’s good, just saying I haven’t found anything. I’ll defer to my favorite Greek, John Curtas.
Another category I confess might deserve more of my attention (there’s a few funky places on my to-do list), but for the moment, I’ve never been disappointed by Memphis Champs. And the pulled pork sandwich at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill is one of the best I’ve ever had—even in Memphis proper.
I don’t really know where to go with this category… how does someone compare Cuban to Cajun or whatever “Ethnic” is supposed to include or exclude? So I’m going to go with the Hawaiian specialties at the Californian Hotel café. Just Because.
A pyrrhic victory at best—I’m sorry to tell everyone, as a East Coaster, that even the best Vegas pizza is only passable by serious standards. But those best pizzas are found at the obvious choices—Settebello, Grimaldi’s, Anthony’s (R-J’s staff pick) all have their strengths—as well as Stratta at Wynn and Grotto at Golden Nugget. Particularly memorable: the Paul & Young Ron at Anthony’s, the Bosco at Stratta.
By my definition, a Power Lunch spot is a place where atmosphere and service dominate over food itself, which shouldn’t be too distracting. With that in mind, I can’t think of any place better than Country Club at Wynn, Verandah at Four Seasons or Olives at Bellagio. Unless it’s a catered meal by Wolfgang Puck in Steve Wynn’s villa (unlikely, I know).
Maybe I should’ve saved that last snarky answer for this one… the best breakfast I’ve had in Vegas was at Tableau in Wynn when Mark LoRusso was still running it. Nowadays? It’s probably Verandah.
The restaurant is very specific—all Italian pesci–but how can you compete with the one-of-a-kind Bartolotta in this regard? Or all-sustainable RM Seafood? Or so many places in Chinatown? I guess you do that by putting coupons in the newspaper, right Red Lobster?
The Archi’s vs. Lotus death match must soldier on, but without slighting either, I personally don’t get the obsession with heat over ingredient quality in this cuisine… Lemongrass in Aria certainly does some nice dishes.
No strong opinion here—I think really excellent coffee is more and more rare actually—but I have had very fine coffee at Verandah in Four Seasons, and have a soft spot for Coffee Bean on Maryland Parkway.
My only reaction to Outback winning the Reader’s pick this year is to breathe a sigh of relief that the serviceable but uninspiring Circus Circus did not win a 21st year. For a chain, I’ll admit Outback is edible, if only. I also researched this category extensively within the last year (see my Top Ten!)—there are many fine choices, to which I would add most recently Jean-Georges in Aria. On a more reasonable level, you’ll get a solid slab at Binion’s Ranch, the Carmel Room at Rampart, or The Flame in El Cortez.
I don’t even want to see what was chosen, but the most authentic, savory and satisfying tacos I have had recently in town are actually at Hussong’s in Mandalay Place. Really. Los Antojos obviously has some satisfying options as well (particularly the chicken mole).
Best Asian Restaurant
Would this be best Asian, except for Chinese, Thai and Japanese? Nice categorization, editors. Anyway, can’t argue much with Wazuzu, the R-J staff choice, since it’s literally an “Asian” i.e. fiercely pan-Asian restaurant, with a strong chef at the helm.
Speaking of categories, why this gets one and Wine Bar, or Tapas, or many other growing categories do not, is beyond explanation.
…that you didn’t vote for in the “Asian” category, that is. I doubt even the owner of P.F. Chang’s would say he serves the best Chinese food in Las Vegas. But he’ll take your money.
Since we’ve already been asked to vote on best breakfast, best burger, best meal under $10, best coffee…what role does this category serve? I don’t know many places in Vegas that would even classify in my concept of a traditional Diner/Coffee Shop (besides the fact that there’s a decent one in every single casino, but so what?). So I’m going to be “that guy” and pick the Vegas-adjacent Peggy Sue’s in Yermo, CA. Hey, they’ve got a bobble head of Oscar Goodman over the pie case. And some damfine fried chicken.
This would have been a different choice before Top of the World significantly remade their menu in December, but they are now the obvious pick weighing the view and food equally. Mix, Voodoo Steak, Sushi Roku, Eiffel Tower, Veloce Cibo, Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse and Panevino are also all solid food-and-view selections.
Best New Restaurant (Opened in 2009)
It’s Sage. Period. No, you’re wrong. It’s Sage (opened December 16, 2009)
Mark Andelbradt, Paul Bartolotta, Geno Bernardo, Osamu Fujita, Martin Heierling, Jean Joho, Emeril Lagasse, Scott Linquist, Shawn McClain, Michael Mina, Rick Moonen, Bradley Ogden, François Payard, Luciano Pellegrini, Guy Savoy, Kerry Simon, Alex Stratta, Masa Takayama, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Actors, Directors and Personalities
Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Alison Anders, Greg Araki, Samaire Armstrong (Entourage, Dirty Sexy Money), David Arquette, Desmond Askew, John August (Go, Charlie’s Angels)
Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Banks, Roseanne Barr, Kristin Bell (Heroes, Veronica Mars), Lorraine Bracco, Wayne Brady, Michelle Borth (HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me), Steve Buscemi
Kelly Carlson (Nip/Tuck), Kristin Chenoweth (The West Wing), Steve Coogan (24 Hr Party People, Alan Partridge), David Cronenberg, Russell Crowe, Jon Cryer
Matt Damon, Jonathan Demme, Ted Demme, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taye Diggs, Robert Downey Jr., David Duchovny, Kirsten Dunst
Jon Favreau, Jerry Ferrara (Entourage), William Fichtner (Prison Break, Black Hawk Down), Clare Forlani, Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Wristcutters), Edward Furlong (Terminator 2, American History X)
Beau Garrett (Turistas, Fantastic Four), Janeane Garofolo, Rebecca Gayheart, Larry Gordon, Maggie Grace (Lost), Greg Grunberg (Felicity)
Anthony Michael Hall (Breakfast Club, The Dead Zone), Eddie Izzard, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Spike Jonze, Tommy Lee Jones, Mike Judge
Kim Kardashian, Stacey Keach, Arielle Kebbel (American Pie Band Camp), Ben Kingsley, Neil LaBute, Diane Lane, Heath Ledger, Tea Leoni, Doug Liman, Eva Longoria, Baz Luhrman, Robert Luketic
Ewan MacGregor, William H. Macy, Romany Malco (Weeds), AnnaLynne McCord (90210), Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Jay Mohr (Action, The Ghost Whisperer), Sophie Monk, Mandy Moore, Bill Murray, Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy)
Anna Paquin, Audrina Patridge, Bill Paxton, Jesse Peretz, Todd Phillips, Matt Pinfield (MTV, VH-1), Joe Piscopo, Whitney Port, Jaime Pressly
Sam Raimi (Spiderman), Keanu Reeves, Brad Renfro, Ryan Reynolds, Emmy Rossum (Phantom), Geoffrey Rush
William Shatner, Vinessa Shaw (Eyes Wide Shut, 3:10 To Yuma), Ally Sheedy, Jamie-Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos), Kevin Smith, Brittany Snow (Hairspray), Kevin Spacey, David Spade, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Julia Stiles, Ben Stiller, Domenique Swain (Lolita)
Noah Taylor (Shine, Pirates of the Carribean), Dita Von Teese, Charlize Theron, Christopher Titus, Stanley Tucci
Gabrielle Union, Amber Valetta, Gus Van Sant, Vince Vaughn, Natasha Wagner, Paul Walker, Patrick Warburton, Estella Warren, John Waters, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Williams, Owen Wilson, Scott Wolf (Party of Five, Everwood), John Woo
David Zucker (Airplane!, Scary Movie 3/4)
Musical Artists and Producers
Atari Teenage Riot, Dan the Automator (Dr. Octagon/Gorillaz), Burt Bacharach, Beastie Boys*, Beck*, Natasha Bedingfield, Archie Bell, Tony Bennett, Jello Biafra, Bo Bice, Mary J. Blige, Boss Hog, Holly Brook, Bobby Byrd, Mariah Carey, Nick Cave, Citizen Cope, George Clinton & P-Funk, Bootsy Collins, Julian Cope, John Doe, Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers), the Dust Brothers, Hillary Duff
Earth Wind & Fire, Elastica, Perry Farrell, The Frogs, Greg Ginn, Girls Against Boys, Greyboy, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/Nirvana), Gwar, PJ Harvey, Richard Hell, Robyn Hitchcock, Holland, Dozier & Holland, Jamiroquai, Jawbox, the JBs, Wyclef Jean, Jesus Lizard*
Kool Keith, DJ Keoki, KMFDM, Gladys Knight, Korn, Ben Lee, La Ley, Lords of Acid, John Lydon (Sex Pistols/PiL), Ian MacLagan (Small Faces/the Faces), Mazzy Star, Meat Beat Manifesto*, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Ministry, Monster Magnet, Scotty Moore (Elvis’ guitarist), Mudhoney, Wayne Newton, Nickelback
Ohio Players, Yoko Ono, Ozomatli, Prince Paul, Pavement, Pigface, Portishead, Phil Ramone, Red Hot Chili Peppers*, Royal Trux, Gil Scott-Heron, Adrian Sherwood, Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park/Fort Minor)
Slash, Smashing Pumpkins*, The Smithereens, Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, Soul Coughing, Jon Spencer (Pussy Galore/Blues Explosion)*, Spinal Tap, Candi Staton, Supergrass, John Taylor (Duran Duran), The Temptations, Thrice, Thrill Kill Kult, Urge Overkill, Dave Vanian (the Damned), Veruca Salt, Vitamin C, Don Was, Craig Wedren (Shudder To Think, film composer), Ween*, Weezer
Moguls and madmen
Author Terence McKenna; Industrial/interior designers: Dodd Mitchell, Thomas Schoos; Master mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim; LPGA Pro-golfer Natalie Gulbis; Music Supervisors Karen Rachtman; Chris Douridas, Randy Poster, Happy Walters; Brett Gurewitz (Epitaph Records); Nightclub owner Jason Strauss (Tao, the Mansion, Lavo); Photographer/filmmaker Richard Kern; Rockstar Games’ Sam Houser & Terry Donovan; Skincare guru Kate Somerville; TV producer David Saltz; Water feature engineer Mark Fuller (WET Design); Professional poker player Jennifer Harman
No two spaces are alike for hot LA-based interior designer Dodd Mitchell (click here to download PDF) who continues to top himself with one impressive restaurant or nightclub design after another. I was lucky enough to be able to print one of the more rare lengthy interviews with him.
Other intriguing designers I’ve interviewed include Thomas Schoos and Roger Thomas.
I met Chad Carns a few months ago at a wine tasting event and was immediately impressed by his genuine enthusiasm, curiosity, and humility—qualities that aren’t common enough in food writing. He sent me a copy of his book for my reaction. Here it is.
The Gourmet Bachelor
By Chad Carns
(Carns Concepts, thegourmetbachelor.com)
At first glance, The Gourmet Bachelor looks like another of those facile coffee table cookbooks, with glistening food photos, slick design, big print and indifferent recipes. But crack it open and you’ll glean a lot of smart insights, experience-based tips and a nice variety of dishes–dinner entrees, some lighter fare, desserts and even breakfast–most of which seem easy enough for any semi-capable cook (while the brevity of instructions is nice for the knowledgable, a true novice could misstep).
Carns structures the book around his personal experience in Greenwich Village, organizing recipes into four weeks of meals, each with varietal wine pairings by Justin Cristoph (a wine expert for Christie’s and others , see www.winechristoph.com), who also provides a smart “Wine 101” chapter. Chef Rob Fitzhenry and others helped Carns develop the book. His locale alone is an unintended endorsement: If Carns can make these recipes in a tiny Manhattan apartment kitchen, they can’t be too difficult.
Of course, the implication within a phrase like the “Gourmet Bachelor” is that these are dishes made to impress a date (if not enliven your solitude). To that end, the enticing book might work almost as well just sitting around the living room—or even the back seat of your car—implying you’re sophisticated and worldly enough to appreciate the international cuisine.
I’m going to try that method first, and let you know how it works out
Photography by Sasha Gitin and Lou Manna, is of course, gorgeous.
[also posted on Amazon.com product page]