Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Merry Joy Joy!!!

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus, and Happy Whatever-you're-celebrating-this-weekend! And to show you how much I appreciate you, here's something extra semi-edible-special!

Isn't it sodalishus!

Happy Holidays! ;-)

The Naked Truth About "Anonymous Critics"... & The Restaurants' Relationship With Them

Just this week, another huge "outing" scandal emerged when a Beverly Hills restaurant, Red Medicine, not only refused to seat LA Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila... But then proceeded to post a photo of her as well!

So yet again, the debate rages on about the role of reviewers and the purpose of criticism... And of course, the need (or lack thereof) for "anonymity".

Gustavo Arellano at OC Weekly thinks Red Medicine crossed the line in outing Virbila...

I have never cared much for Virbila's writings, either, but the actions of the restaurant is the height of douchery: honestly, you can't take what someone may think of your restaurant, so you won't even allow them to try it? It's your right to do that, but expect everyone to ridicule you.

But their taking and posting of Virbila's picture is a different monster.

Anonymity among food critics was once a much-treasured illusion--we all know the stories of Ruth Reichl putting on wigs, and critics making reservations under different names. But with the advent of social media, should food critics even bother for anonymity? I still believe in that, but I remember speaking at a UC Irvine class earlier this year where a student food blogger maintained that letting people know you're reviewing them does nothing to change how they're going to serve you, a disturbing thought that, like fraternity initiation rituals and streaking, I attributed to his young age.

But is it really that big of a deal? Mr. TLV (Mike Dobranski) offered another take after the outbreak of our own critic controversy here in Las Vegas.

So let’s talk a wee bit about “food journalism.” How can a journalist give a proper story when they have relationships with the chefs? My argument is how can they not? Do readers want industry news through the eyes of what a news room tells them, or through the eyes of someone who witnesses it in the real world? Why do you think these embed reporters during the war were so popular? Because they were showing you shit the way it happened, not through some filter of a news room and a bullshit journalism class.

If more writers spent some time in kitchens as well as talked with people in the industry after hours, there is a perspective of reality that is born that is invaluable. How many facades of how restaurants work are continued to be propped up by “journalists” that don’t experience the real world? That’s why John Q. Public actually thinks Wolfgang Puck is still baking bread and that the guy in freshly starched chef’s whites that come out to shake your hand actually cooked your meal. It’s a false, glamorized view of the reality of a restaurant that is purveyed by these “proper journalists.”

I can’t help that I get recognized when I go to restaurants. Anyone who’s seen me in real life understands that I’m not the most difficult fellow to pick out in the room. But I never ask for special treatment, and I certainly never announce I’m going somewhere if I haven’t been to the restaurant several times unannounced. And when I do announce I’m going somewhere, it’s only in the sense that I usually just try to get my Twitter followers to come hang out in real life. I’ve NEVER called a place ahead of time to tell them I was on my way.

So is it that big of a deal that S. Irene Virbila's identity was revealed? Most likely not, since Red Medicine had obviously already figured that out.

But was it wrong for them to treat her the way they did? Absolutely IMHO! That's just not the kind of "hospitality" any restaurant should show any paying customer. PERIOD. And by resorting to personal attacks on Virbila as they kicked her to the curb and proudly beat their chests about it on Tumblr, Red Medicine just looked incredibly petty... And afraid. Seriously, why wouldn't they let her eat? Were they that afraid of her finding their grub unsatisfactory?

Still, despite all the safeguards S. Irene Virbila put into place, she got outed. And maybe it isn't all that big of a deal.

That whole scene, said San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, sounds "very stupid. I think it's very short-sighted. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn't be afraid."

But at the same time, Bauer said, "the whole idea of anonymity is almost a moot point these days. … After you've done it for any length of time, a year or more, your image gets out, especially now with camera phones." Virbila said she tries to keep a low profile, not appearing at food and wine events or establishing a Facebook page.

If anything, this seems to prove the point Mike Dobranski made last month about the death of "anonymity" among food critics. So why should local critics like John Curtas be chided for not hiding who he really is? Are food critics really ineffective if they're not "incognito"? And in this age of Facebook, Foodspotting, and Foursquare, is it even really possible to be "anonymous" these days?

Without a doubt, this raises questions of whether 20th century restaurant reviewing standards can really be applied in a 21st century techie foodie world.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Quick Bite: Spago at Caesars Forum Shops

For ab fab, gourmet California style pizza, reworked Vegas style, I had to go to Spago! I had to stop at Spago before I left town for a lunch break during my holiday shopping spree, and I just had to order my fave mushroom pizza. It's obviously still my favorite!

I also tried the pumpkin bread pudding for dessert, and I was amazed by the complex pumpkin and spice flavors, the rich custard interacting so well with the hearty bread, and the delectable vanilla creme anglaise and house made ice cream that went so perfectly with the pudding.

All in all, another great lunch at what may be my favorite lunch spot on The Strip!

Style: Elegant Casual
Price: $$$
Open: Lunch & Dinner

The Rating

Food: 4.9 (out of 5)
Service: 3.0 (out of 3)
Ambiance: 1.9 (out of 2)
Overall: 9.8 (out of 10)
Outstanding, Destination Eating!

Spago (Caesars Palace) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

SoCal Report (& Vegas Preview!): Comme Ca

When I arrived in LA this week, I wanted to treat my dad to something special. And because I haven't been to LA and tried a David Myers restaurant in a while, I wanted to come here. So we did.

And from the start, we were quite impressed with what we found. The bread we were served tasted fresh, and the wine was a great vintage.

And from there, it was onto my French Onion Soup. And wow, what strong flavors I found! The sweet onion and savory jus went perfectly with the nutty, slightly sweet melted gruyere. Just wonderful.

I soon had a chance to jump into the gruyere and shallot quiche I ordered. And my goodness, I got another grand slam! The quiche was done just right, and the flavors of the shallot and gruyere went along beautifully, alongside the spring greens providing some refreshing, crisp contrast.

Finally, I jumped into my apple tarte tatin dessert. And yet again, I was blown away! The apple was sliced so thinly, I was wondering how it happened. And even better, the apple was caramelized and provided the perfect, hot, tangy sweet bite that went alongside the cool vanilla ice cream (that I'm pretty sure was house made... It had strong vanilla flavor!).

All in all, I had a great lunch here. And more importantly, so did my dad. (He had the roasted beet and goat cheese salad and vol-au-vent au poulet.) I enjoyed my meal at Comme Ca West Hollywood, and I can't wait to try the new Comme Ca at Cosmopolitan soon!

Style: Elegant Casual
Price: $$$
Open: Lunch & Dinner

The Rating

Food: 4.9 (out of 5)
Service: 2.8 (out of 3)
Ambiance: 2.0 (out of 2)
Overall: 9.7 (out of 10)
Outstanding, Destination Eating!

SoCal Report: Nello Cucina

So my dad and I were at South Coast Plaza yesterday. And Dad was starting to grumble about his hunger. What was I to do? Luckily, Nello Cucina was nearby. And since I hadn't yet tried any of the Antonello ristorantes, I figured I might as well start now, while I'm in OC.

First off, I should make a note of the slow service we experienced today. I would usually be quite annoyed by what can be considered lack of attention, but considering this is high holiday shopping season and how PACKED (!!!) Nello was today (along with other nearby SCP restaurants), I'm just chalking it to that... And hoping next time I'm back, I'll get more attentive service.
OK then, on to the food! Thankfully, there was nothing to complain about here. The starter bread was very fresh, very soft, and very perfect for gnawing on while waiting as the frantically busy kitchen was catching up on our orders.

Eventually, our bruschetta plate arrived. And interestingly enough, the green onion actually worked! My dad commented that it reminded him of pico de gallo salsa. And yes, in a sense, the bruschetta did taste a bit like "Italianized Pico de Gallo" topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. Oh, the joys of Californication!

From there, it was onto the mains. My dad ordered the "Pizza Siciliana", which meant an artisan thin crust (perfectly crispy and slightly charred outside, soft and chewy inside) topped with sliced artichoke, herbs, and mascarpone cheese. It was quite delicious! And so was my linguine con (basil) pesto, which was perfectly cooked FRESH (!!!) linguine topped with a pesto made from fresh, sweet basil and nutty parmigiano reggiano. This was fabulous, solid, delicious food that startled me.

And if that weren't wonderful enough, dessert just made me even more blissful! I ordered a crostata filled with rich dark chocolate and "built" on a buttery, flaky crust. The vanilla ice cream served alongside was a cool complement, along with the fresh strawberry.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found here. Tucked in a corner of South Coast Plaza's West Wing by the Bear Street entrance and bank of elevators, Nello Cucina may just be the best Italian restaurant I've tried so far in OC. :-)

Style: Elegant Casual
Price: $$
Open: Lunch & Dinner

The Rating

Food: 4.8 (out of 5)
Service: 2.2 (out of 3)
Ambiance: 2.0 (out of 2)
Overall: 9.0 (out of 10)
Excellent, Worth the Detour

Monday, December 20, 2010

Greetings from "The OC", Bitch!

If you ever wondered where I got my crazy from, then wonder no more.

And amidst all the crazy here, I am finding some time to eat. In the coming days, I'll let you know about what's cooking.

And of course, I'll keep an eye on all the big news coming out of Vegas. Oh jeez, I'm already excited about going home!

But in the mean time, I guess I'll have to settle with this.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Betting on Michelin Stars: La Cave at Wynn

Next up for review is La Cave, the brand new wine bar and "Modern American Tapas" joint at Wynn. And as (what hopefully will be) always, the photos are just below the review. Enjoy! :-)


Last week, I decided I might as well try out Wynn's new tapas bar for late lunch/early dinner. And hey, why not? It's already getting plenty of buzz, and I was already getting mighty hungry.

And thank goodness curiosity got the best of me! I started off with the Buttermilk Bleu Cheese plate, and a lovely wedge of this stinky goodness arrived alongside toasted mini baguette slices and fig jam. For some reason the bread was at room temperature, but that was quickly forgiven when I dove into the heavenly cheese paired with that divine fig jam! (Hopefully in the future, they'll make fresh batches of toasted baguette.)

From there, it was onto my pizza... err, "flatbread". I ordered a flatbread with roasted tomatoes, micro mozzarella, and capers, which is essentially a pizza margherita shaped more rectangularly, and with the basil swapped out in favor of the capers. But whatever one wants to call it, one can't deny it's tasty! The roasted tomatoes were sweet and tangy, and the salty capers provided the perfect balance and contrast. The mozzarella melted beautifully, and the crust was soft and pillowy. This definitely makes my "Top 10 Pizzas in Vegas" list!

And of course, what good meal is complete without dessert? I couldn't help myself, I HAD to try the "American Chocolate Cake". And trust me, if you're the kind of American who can never get enough chocolate, you'll LOVE this cake! Actually, there's a thin layer of cake hidden somewhere in the midst of a beautiful mold of chocolate mousse covered in chocolate ganache. Oh, and there's a thin chocolate wafer cookie on the bottom. And oh my, this was so perfectly sweet and smooth and creamy that I had to hold myself back from licking the plate!

All in all, my first impression of La Cave was quite strong. Again, my one small quibble was over the toasted baguette, and that can easily be fixed. Otherwise, the food was terrific, service was strong, and I'll likely be back soon to take full advantage of their wine list!

Style: Elegant Casual
Price: $$$
Open: Lunch & Dinner

The Rating

Food: 4.7 (out of 5)
Service: 3.0 (out of 3)
Ambiance: 2.0 (out of 2)
Overall: 9.7 (out of 10)
Outstanding, Destination Eating!

La Cave (Wynn) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ready, Set, Eat! Vegas Uncork'd Returns in 2011!

This year, I had the pleasure of doing some fabulous events at Vegas Uncork'd... And I can hardly wait for May 2011 to come so I can taste even more!

Executives at Bon Appetit have confirmed that they are returning to Las Vegas on May 5-8 for the fifth annual culinary festival Vegas Uncork’d. Tickets go on sale Jan. 25 for the 30-plus events. Additionally, the January issue features a guide to recommended top spots here. Bon Appetit reports: “Everything is larger than life in Vegas, including the food. From Michelin-starred French chefs to off-The-Strip gems, Sin City is more delicious than ever.”

The picks include Bellagio, Caesars Palace, The Venetian, The Palazzo, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Wynn, Encore, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and dining explorations at Sage in Aria, Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand, P3 Commons at the Cosmopolitan, Noodles at Bellagio, Aburiya Raku at 5030 West Spring Mountain Road, Amber Unicorn at 2101 S. Decatur Blvd. and Encore Spa in Steve Wynn’s Encore. The January issue hits newsstands Tuesday.

And oh my goodness, might my wish actually be fulfilled already? And by Bon Appetit? For quite some time, Raku has been mostly a not-very-well-known Chinatown hideaway where Strip chefs and foodies in the know go for fantastic robatayaki cooking. But now, it's getting some serious national attention with its feature in the "Eating Las Vegas" guide, followed by this mention in Bon Appetit.

Hopefully, this means Raku will get some serious loving next May during Vegas Uncork'd weekend. And perhaps we'll see more homegrown talent get the limelight they so thoroughly deserve soon.

Cosmo: A Catalyst Is Born?

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is set to open tonight, and The Strip is ablaze with chatter, rumors, optimism, concern, and so much more. John Unwin keeps saying he sees this not as a "book end" or "end of an era", but rather as "a new beginning". Could this be true?

John Curtas seems to be especially hopeful.

Interestingly, most of the big name restaurants: Jaleo, Comme Ça, Milos, and Scarpetta are located on the third floor, and essentially adjacent to each other as they wrap around the main escalator. The effect is striking (and very convenient for galloping gourmets), and gives the appearance of the ultimate, up-, upscale food court — featuring the best of Spanish, French, Greek and Italian cuisines.

None of them are especially intimate (a quick scan puts each at around 175 seats), but if the hype and reputations of these places is to be believed, the only place in America that comes close to such an intense concentration of gourmandia is the Time Warner Building in the Big Apple. [...]

You heard it here first: The Cosmopolitan is going to shake the gastronomic ground in the High Mojave Dessert, and the whole world is going to feel the shudder.

A few days later, Mr. ELV wrote this stunning critique of how most casinos do business with your tummy (and your wallet).

What we’ve been thinking about is the difference between hotels who own their own restaurants (à la Wynn/Encore, Caesars, Bellagio, et al) and those who four- wall (i.e lease out) their food service operations (à la Venetian/Palazzo, Palms, and the soon-to-open THE Cosmopolitan).

We won’t bore you with all the pros and cons of one business model versus another, but suffice it to say the big, corporate hotels who dominate the Strip (and who own their own restaurants), are always teetering on the brink of reverting to the Vegas of old — when hotel gourmet rooms and coffee shops were almost indistinguishable from one another — and whatever personality the dining spots had was confined to cossetting the guests and getting them back to the tables quickly. Food wasn’t the point back then, the illusion of luxury was, and metronomic operations were the rule. [...]

The trouble is, big, corporate gambling palaces aren’t that good at food service operations. What they’re good at is running hotels and casinos. If any of them were being honest, they’d admit they don’t even want to run restaurants, they just have to. Since 1994, when MGM made the first big splash with Emeril, Mark Miller, and the original Charlie Trotter, the hotels have been locked in the restaurant equivalent of a cold war arms race — each feeling it has to top the other or risk being forever marginalized by the upscale tourist market they are all aiming to attract.

So how might Cosmo change this? Well, they're not even trying to take full control of the restaurants. They're simply leasing out their restaurant spaces, thereby allowing the chef-owners to have more control over their operations than the typical casino restaurant overseen by F&B (the casino's food and beverage department, that is).

Might this be a model for Strip casinos and restaurants in the future? We'll have to wait and see. Venelazzo and Palms have done this for some time, but it hasn't seemed to catch on yet.

Honestly, there are upsides and downsides to splitting the casinos from the restaurants. We'll see where that goes.

But believe it or not, that may not be the biggest change coming with Cosmo. Mike Dobranski could hardly hide his excitement on Monday about this. While he originally expressed doubt about Cosmo being all that much of a game changer, he's been warming up to it since.

Finally the resort us fans of food have been waiting for, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, will be open to the public on Wednesday, December 15th at 8pm. If I had to pick the three or four restaurants I’m most looking forward to, I’d have to tip my hat to both of José Andrés’ places with Jaleo and especially China Poblano, David Myers’ Comme Ca (pronounced ‘come saw’ for We-The-Frenchy-Deficient) and Block 16 Hospitality’s (folks that brought us LBS Burger) Holsteins.

Jaleo is Chef José Andrés’ Spanish tapas emporium, so obviously the tapas slut in me is excited about that. For me, the most exciting restaurant in the building is Andrés’ China Poblano, and original concept of his that will be a Mexican / Chinese fusion. Sounds good to me…and oddly logical considering I don’t know of that combo being done anywhere else. While Comme Ca is an import from Los Angeles, it will be nice to have an accessible, centrally located French Brasserie in town to go to. Last, but not least, Holsteins will be the requisite burger joint, but feature natural and organic ingredients and house-made sausage.

While most of Cosmo's "new" restaurants are either LA or NYC imports, they are from chefs who have not been exposed to Vegas before. And some of what they're offering, such as Milos' fine, authentic Greek food, hasn't been experienced here before. Hopefully, we'll be in for good eating.

However, what's even more exciting is that Jose Andres and Scott Conant will actually bring original concepts to Vegas! Andres will open China Poblano this week, which will be a very unique Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant... Talk about "East Meets West"! Meanwhile Conant will open DOCG, and Italian wine bar and small plates joint that's coming first to Vegas. Not since Steve Wynn hand-picked previously little known chefs to come to Vegas and become culinary superstars (such as Julian Serrano, Alex Stratta, and Jet Tila) have we seen a Strip casino bring such exciting new concepts to town.

For such a long time, Vegas' culinary star-power has relied on New York, San Francisco, and Paris superstar chefs bringing "photocopies" of their restaurants here. And while just this alone has helped improve fine dining here, it's nonetheless no substitute for real, homegrown talent. Thankfully we are starting to see more homegrown talent emerge, but they've yet to achieve the sort of "critical mass" of attention that celebrity superstar chefs regularly get when they import more restaurants here.

Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future we'll finally see this happen, but in the mean time it's encouraging to see some new culinary ideas shine through at Cosmo.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Betting on Michelin Stars: Picasso at Bellagio

Yes, we're back! After a long hiatus, Betting on Michelin Stars has returned. And of course, it just makes sense to have our series on Vegas fine dining right here at Bite of Vegas!

In my debut review here, I want to share with you what may perhaps be the best meal I've had so far in my life... Or at least tied with Joel Robuchon! So now, I present you with Picasso. Bon appetit!

(And by the way, you can see photos from my fabulous experience here just below the review.)


I went into Picasso not quite knowing what to expect. There is occasional criticism over the "antiquated" menu, often challenged by praise of the quality of the ingredients and precision of the cooking. So once and for all, I had to try it all for myself.

So I did.

I started with a pomegranate martini. The martini was superb. I could taste the earthy tang and sweetness of the pomegranate. All in all, my cocktail was quite refreshing.
Then from here, it was onto the full menu degustation. Oh yes, I was all in for all five courses, plus amuse bouche and petit fours!

I began with the amuse, which was a luscious potato soup with potato "micro chips", alongside a skewer with quail egg and smoked salmon. The flavors were perfectly balanced here, despite all components being so rich. I was pleasantly surprised.

From there, it was onto the bread basket! And yes, I tried the baguette, the walnut raisin bread, and the olive loaf. All were fantastic! The walnut raisin bread was subtly sweet and soft, while the baguette had a crunchy crust and fluffy, soft texture inside. And the olive loaf was slightly fruity.

The official first course soon arrived, which was the Maine Lobster salad. The lobster's own natural sweetness shone through, and the apple champagne vinaigrette only enhanced this. The micro greens added a crisp component here, and the tartness and acidity of the cherry tomatoes helped in balancing the rich sweetness of the Maine Lobster.

Next were the pan seared scallops. These also had great natural sweetness, and the potato mousseline and jus de veau helped to balance this.

Following this was the sauteed steak of foie gras. I otherwise never eat foie gras for moral reasons, but last night I decided to make an exception for this dinner. And wow, now I understand why it's so appealing. When cooked well, it can be quite rich. And the poached pear and huckleberry jam added some fruity sweetness that went harmoniously with the foie gras.
The sauteed filet of turbot came next. It was done perfectly. It still tasted quite fresh and light, with only the hollandaise adding some richness and creamy heft to this and the beautifully done green asparagus.

Then finally, it was dessert time! I wanted to try the reserva cream sherry, and it went down beautifully. Yes, I admit I have quite the soft spot for sherry! And thankfully, it played well alongside the warm chocolate fondant and walnut ice cream I ordered. The fondant was essentially a molten chocolate cake, and the rich, smooth, not too sweet but still satisfying, chocolate flavor was just perfect. The ice cream added a surprising nutty note to this sweet treat.
Oh, but wait, I was not finished yet! Before I had to go, the petit fours arrived! I especially enjoyed the mini pumpkin pie and the mini chocolate bar, but all were beyond belief in "delicious factor".

All in all, my experience here was exquisite! The surroundings were breathtaking, especially with the fountains just outside. The service was impeccable and quite polite. And to my biggest surprise, Picasso did not feel anachronistic in any way. If anything, it was more timeless to me... Oh yes, and the paintings were pretty as well. ;-)

Style: Fine Haute Cuisine
Price: $$$$$
Open: Dinner

The Rating

Food: 5.0 (out of 5)
Service: 3.0 (out of 3)
Ambiance: 2.0 (out of 2)
Overall: 10.0 (out of 10)
Best of the Best! RUN, Don't Walk! :-D

Picasso (at Bellagio) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 12, 2010

How 'Bout This for a "Money Saving Meal"?!

H/T Eating Las Vegas for this!

Come on, look at that! That's what we call "real cooking".

I know I'd rather spend/save my money on that than this...

Why the hell does Food Network (FN) have not one, but TWO shows featuring this crazy lady? In my fantasy world, FN's lineup would consist of real chefs cooking us real food. When did we stop caring about real, good food?

And the Adventure Begins!

Ah, nothing like Bellagio's Dancing Fountains to ring in our new blog!

This is wild. This is crazy. This is gourmet. This is hole-in-the-wall. This is home cookin'. This is haute cuisine. This is radical. This is avant garde. This is tried and true. This is VEGAS, baby, and we're on our way to munch through all of it and more!

And I'll be holding your hand along the way.

Welcome to Bite of Vegas!

For all of you coming to visit from Nevada Progressive, get ready to see another side of me. I'm leaving the public policy there (mostly, unless you really want to get all food wonk on moi!) to get all gourmand here! OK, OK, and I'll get down and dirty in those holes in the wall with you as well.

And for all of you more familiar with my foodie writing, welcome aboard! I'll be posting more good stuff here. Expect restaurant reviews, kitchen side chats on cooking, and maybe even some dishing on those food TV shows we love... And love to hate.

Maybe we'll even shift to other, broader topics. Who knows??!! Honestly, this feels like a new experience all over again. I feel like I'm moving out of my comfort zone in running my own blog that leaves my political life behind, so please don't be too hard on me in these first few days and weeks. Let's see what happens.

I hope you'll be joining me on this adventure. Just remember to buckle your seat belts. It's going to be a an exhilarating ride! :-D