Easter Bunnies in Colmar, France (2005) Photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
go to my web site, in which I will update food
travel information and help link readers to other first-rate travel
& food sites, click on: home page
WHAT’S NEW IN VEGAS FOR
2006 by John A. Curtas
NEW YORK CORNER: LCB Brasserie by John Mariani
WHAT'S NEW IN LAS VEGAS FOR 2006?
by John A. Curtas
What's new in Vegas? These days the three catchwords are: Wynn, Moonen, and Robuchon.
First to the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino (below): Here’s all you need to know: It’s huge (3,000+ rooms); it got pretty thoroughly trashed by the media for being tacky looking when it opened a year ago; and now everyone loves it. And it has nine good restaurants, five of which are great. In fact of the town’s top ten or so eateries, five are located at
That tackiness kind of grows on you: it’s tacky in a tasteful, Vegas sort of way. Lots of red, lots of oversized over-decorated rooms, but that has calmed down a bit as things have been re-jiggered and tweaked since the opening bell. There is a "Designers Gone Wild" feel about the place that spilled over into some of the restaurants, but one of the cool things about the gambling industry, especially the mega-casinos, is the speed at which they change the design of anything (room, retail shop, casino floor, restaurant, etc.) if it doesn’t seem to be working. It’s Vegas, Baby! and if something doesn’t have the chops to be a hit straight out of the gate, it’s put to sleep.
I'm happy to report that "Chefs Gone Wild" doesn’t describe any of the food, which ranges from very good to spectacular. There were some lumps in the gravy to be sure. Chef Jimmy Sneed was tossed off the property days before the opening after problems develeoped with the management. Stephen Kalt’s Corsa Cucina was a victim of terrible design from the get-go (it has since reopened), and Daniel Boulud discovered that no one in Vegas (except yours truly) is interested in eating good food for lunch, for which reason he is now closed.
Executive Vice President of Restaurant Development Elizabeth Blau and VP of Food and Beverage, Kevin Steussi, who hand-picked the chefs and designers, have left the company. The drudgery of daily operations apparently paled in comparison to the sexiness of jetting about the world on the corporate dime, seducing high-priced talent.
With their departures, the day-to-day management of all these top shelf eateries became the domain of Antonello Paganuzzi (formerly of Le Cirque 2000 and Osteria del Circo Las Vegas), at least until a few weeks ago when he was shown the door. As Wynn’s Director Of Fine Dining, Paganuzzi had the difficult job of keeping the customers happy, the operations smooth, and the chefs' egos in check. From this patron’s perspective, he seemed to be doing an admirable job. Reportedly there were tears aplenty among many of Wynn’s chefs and managers when the announcement was made. So even though their stamp is everywhere on the restaurants of the Wynn, one year after its opening Blau, Stuessi and Paganuzzi are gone.
The wonders of the restaurants Bartolotta and ALEX (right) have been well documented (both were among Esquire's "Best New Restaurants of 2005"), but hidden gems like Tableau, where Mark LoRusso holds sway, The Country Club Grill, where David Walzog has more than compensated for the loss of Sneed, and Eric Klein, who has taken Vegas steak to a new level at SW Steakhouse, give Wynn Las Vegas a murderer’s row of restaurants no other hotel's can compete with.
Daniel Boulud Brasserie (below; 702-770-3310) is hardly a hidden gem but may be the town’s most consistent and enjoyable restaurant right now. It closed for lunch after five months of trying to upgrade Vegas’s woeful track record for that meal but has hit its stride at the one meal a day it does serve. Chef Philippe Rispoli, formerly of Aureole Las Vegas, renders a menu that echoes the one at DB Bistro Moderne in
What hasn’t been compromised is a superior plateau of fruits de mer containing an assortment of East and West coast oysters, cold lobster and shrimp, mussels and clams, and various tartares and ceviches that are never less than impeccable. From there you may proceed to a charcuterie of house-made pâtés, spicy saucissons, and paper-thin prosciutto, all served with cornichons cured in-house. The kitchen is as justifiably proud of this selection as it is of the Danish-style smoked salmon that always strikes the right balance between smoke and fish flavors. Entrees have been simplified, with only three seafood offerings: salmon, scallops and tuna (yawn), and eight others, of which the crispy duck confit, braised veal cheeks topped with a sweetbread schnitzel, and the wine-drenched braised short ribs, cooked by the Sous-vide process, are the clear winners.
But one expects something close to perfection from a Daniel Boulud restaurant; even one that is playing it safe, and the Brasserie lives up to the billing. From the "Original NY DB Burger" to the rotating artisanal cheeses to its classic warm apple tarte for two with a pâté d’amandes, apple reduction, and lavender honey crème fraîche; this operation hits its notes, almost all the time.
A bit off the beaten track at Wynn LV, Tableau (below, right; 702-770-2220) provides the nicest three meals a day as any restaurant in town. Chef Mark LoRusso cut his teeth as the main man at Aqua in the Bellagio, but here he proves himself up to the task of serving superlative surf and turf at any time of the day. A recent meal of creamy Kummamoto oysters, followed by crispy frogs' legs and a perfect rack of lamb, showcased the clean and direct approach LoRusso brings to his food. The frogs' legs came circled by tiny roasted garlic ravioli; the lamb, which actually tasted like lamb and had not had all its lamb-ness leeched out, was accompanied by a chestnut flan the size of a mini-cupcake, and an ancho-infused lamb sausage that was both slightly smoky and spicy, and so good you’ll want to order a plate of them.
Our amuse of panko-crusted scallops with crème fraîche and lime emulsion disappeared just as quickly, and everyone at my table was fighting over the quail-egg topped beef tartare and a picture-perfect Muscovy duck breast resting atop butternut squash and duck confit risotto whose creaminess was offset by the earthiness of the baby beets that surrounded it. If you are looking for cartwheels in the kitchen, LoRusso’s food may seem straightforward, but for cooking that respects good ingredients and is never overwrought, he delivers the goods.
Go a mile and a half down the Strip and you’ll find another
The sleek, nautically-themed dining room is one of Vegas’s smallest and provides a luxurious, cruise-ship ambiance for Moonen’s cuisine, ably executed by chef de cuisine John Tesar. A recent meal began with maybe the best steak tartare in town. Chunky, peppery, and spiked with capers and cornichons, it is a unique and gutsy rendition of this often bland classic. Another cliché, tuna tartare, floats in a cucumber broth with pungent bits of black truffle playing off the texture and taste of the fatty fish. Both are worth a special trip.
Moonen is a huge promoter of sustainable fishing practices, and when he serves something as savory and delicious as Hawaiian Rainbow Runner ceviche with mint, yuzu, and coriander--the latter giving the dish a compelling bitter finish--you can eat up without guilt. His Maya prawns in a green curry, carrot and coconut foam are equally addictive, and even the blood orange and pomegranate salad with blue cheese and walnuts will have everyone sharing forkfuls at the table.
Main courses are no less spectacular, with flaky and rich Dover sole with a Dungeness crab brandade atop a mustard and chive beurre blanc, a perfect example of a confident chef doing just enough to accent the main course without overwhelming it. Moonen surrounds barramundi, a northern Australian freshwater game fish with firm, finely-grained white flesh, with sweet potato and foie gras hash, and a red wine and foie gras emulsion that again successfully plays off the earth-and-sea theme that characterizes much of his cooking. I’m usually too busy working my way through a perfectly sautéed turbot with braised leeks, or almost candy-sweet diver scallops in a shellfish and basil minestrone to notice that half the room is diving into the 18 oz. Prime sirloin or the huge and spoon-soft short ribs that Moonen says are among his best sellers. And even though his wine list is stocked with an excellent assortment of reasonably-priced and off-beat whites, Sommelier Chris Janz is equally adept at pouring over-priced Silver Oak for whoever wants it.
In an upcoming report, I'll write about the third in the current top line-up, Joël Robuchon.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
It was one of those rare days when I had no idea where I would go for lunch in New York.
I found myself in midtown at midday, very hungry but undecided as to what I wanted to eat. I could go to Patsy's for a plate of rigatoni Sorrentino, or go to the Bar Room at The Modern at MOMA, or have perfect Greek seafood at Estiatorios Milos, or have a brace of lamb chops at Ben Benson's. And then it hit me full in the face--like the ethereal smell of beef and onions luring Wimpy irresistibly to a hamburger stand in a Popeye cartoon--the aroma of garlic wafted my way as I walked down West 55th Street and decided where I would eat: The aroma was coming from LCB Brasserie, one of my favorite restaurants, yet one I had not been back to in more than a year. I pushed my way through the revolving doors, and I felt home again.
LCB Brasserie is the awkward abbreviation for La Côte Basque Brasserie, whose name hearkens back to a famous French dining salon, La Côte Basque, opened by chef Jean-Jacques Rachou in 1979 east of Fifth Avenue, where it became famous as the title and focus of a biting Truman Capote story published in Esquire many years ago when La Côte Basque had inherited the dubious mantle of The Colony and Le Pavillon as New York Society’s prime watering hole. Some years later the restaurant moved to premises on West 55th Street, taking its nostalgic murals of the French seaside, its dark timbers, and its little red-and-white striped awnings. It also maintained its staff of captains in tuxedoes. The kitchen, always under the watchful eye of Rachou, graduated some of the finest American chefs and restaurateurs of the present day, including Drew Nieporent, Charlie Palmer, Gray Kunz, Waldy Malouf, and Rick Moonen.
Two years ago, at a time when formal French restaurants like Lutèce, Lespinasse, and La Caravelle, were closing one by one, Rachou transformed La Côte Basque into its present situation as a less expensive brasserie, with all the right fixtures--brass railings, etched glass, a shiny zinc bar, dark leather banquettes, and pretty lighting--the hallmarks of a fin-de-siècle typical decor that never seems to date and that always looks inviting, no matter how often you see it. Rachou, now 70, is daily in the kitchen in his chef's whites, keeping everything as it should be and as he wants it to be, never straying into culinary speculation.
And so I entered, to be greeted warmly by the beautiful hostess, Gabriella, cordially shown to a table for four though I was dining alone. The table was well set with bright linens, good glassware, and delicious bread and butter. The room was not full for lunch, but I dined among a wide array of people, including obvious regulars, businessmen and women, tourists from Europe, several young women who seemed enchanted to be in such a happy place, and, like me, a few solo diners, perusing the menu and reading their papers.
The winelist still carries rare mementos from the old days of La Côte Basque along with a judicious selection of bottles under $40. The menu, with a cartoon of a cheery Monsieur Rachou approving a cook's pot au feu (above), has more than enough breadth for lunch, with an appended 3-course menu du jour at a downright steal price of $26--all the more remarkable in that it hasn't changed in two years, along with à la carte options; at dinner, main courses range from $22-$38. At the original La Côte Basque lunch cost $38 and dinner $68, and yet many of the same exact dishes then considered specialties are still on the menu at LCB for far less, including the wonderful potage Saint Germain ($6.95 at lunch), onion soup gratinée ($7.50),
On the menu du jour at $26, there are five appetizers, six entrees, and four desserts offered. When I asked Rachou (left), who prowls the dining room at the beginning and end of service, about the bay scallops (it was late in the season), he wagged a finger and said, "I make you some better sea scallops," returning after a few moments with a hot plate of plump sea scallops napped in a rich saffron-lobster cream sauce. With this I ordered a half-bottle of Sancerre and was already very happy I'd chosen to be here. For my entree I chose calf's liver sauté lyonnaise--huge slabs of very fresh liver, lightly seared and pink inside, smothered with soft, caramelized onions. With this I was treated to a glass of red bordeaux, which I tried to make last to make the moments go slower. It was all I could do to finish one lovely profiterole with chocolate sauce (three per order) and a well-made espresso before I reluctantly gave in to the need to make an appointment.
Then, having been lured to LCB by that wonderful aroma of garlic, I noticed that I didn't actually order anything with the ingredient in it!
Leaving a place like LCB seems always to be on one's way to something certain to be less pleasing. Good French bistros and brasseries have the effect of making one want to linger and allowed oneself to be absorbed into the atmosphere before blasting back into New York's frenzies. Fortunately New York has many places with the traditionalism of LCB--La Goulue, Orsay, L'Absinthe, and Pastis to name but a few (in the current issue of Saveur Magazine, James Villas has a delightful article on Le Veau d'Or)--and, unlike the grand dame French restaurants that have gone the way of crinoline and Citroëns, they persist because they have everything down pat, from the kind of food one loves to eat three times a week to the bonhomie that seems completely natural, nonchalant, and flattering to the receptive spirit.
AND THEN THEY ALL LIVED ON PEPTO-BISMOL FOR THE NEXT 72 HOURS
The world's largest pot of curry, weighing 40,000 pounds, was recently cooked up by restaurateur Abdul Salam, proprietor of the Eastern Eye, in Lichfield, England. It took 24 hours to make, measured 4 feet deep and six feet wide and fed 50,000 people. "I was pleased with my three-ton curry in 2000," said Salam, "but I want this record to stand for tens, if not hundreds of years," he said.
OH, PLEASE, JUST SHUT UP!
"If we approach Wordsworth's concept of feeding through the mechanics of assimilation, as described in Romantic Naturphilosophie, we find that the feeding mind naturally exists in a precarious state of tension with its own abjected matter."--Denise Gigante, Taste: A Literary History (2005).
"THE SWEET LIFE" CRUISE
This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine, will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche. There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more. Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.
* On April 23, some of the rarest and richest wines from
Call 534-2155. Visit www.tristandining.com
* On April 29 & 30 the 9th Annual Hudson Valley Beer and Food Festival at Hunter Mountain, NY, will be held, with over 80 beers representing many styles, fro breweries from Brooklyn to Buffalo, with food prepared by chefs from the area's best restaurants and culinary demos. Visit www.tap-ny.com/invited.htm. Tix may be purchased at https://huntermtn.ixwebhosting.com/secure/redicart/eski_tap-ny.html
* On May 6 in
* On May 6 & 7 a jury of small, independent
* On May 8 The Taste of Sonoma will be held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in
* On May 8 at the Yerba
* The Rosé Avengers & Producers (RAP) will hold tastings in NYC on May 8, at Pink Nightclub, and in
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.