"The Oyster Lover" by Honoré Daumier (1836)
IN THIS ISSUE
HIZZONER OPENS A STEAKHOUSE IN VEGAS
By John Curtas
NEW YORK CORNER
CULL AND PISTOL OYSTER BAR
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE ROSÉS OF FRANCE'S SOUTH LAND
by Andrew Chalk
A STEAKHOUSE IN VEGAS
By John Curtas
When I first arrived in Las Vegas in 1981, Goodman’s reputation as a mouthpiece for the mob was already well established. As that career was winding down, Goodman did not want to go quietly into that good night, or feet first like many of his clients. Had it not been for his desire to stay in the spotlight in his later years, this highly visible criminal lawyer would have retired with a legacy of getting rich by representing a murderer’s row of model citizens with names like “Fat Herbie,” “The Knife,” “Ace,” “Lefty” and “The Ant.”
As various inconvenient circumstances (prison, murder, witness protection) befell his paying customers throughout the '80s and '90s, Goodman saw the handwriting on the wall. But exhibitionist/egomaniac that he is, he couldn't resist another chance to be on stage, and thus was his political career launched fifteen years ago. That career, from 1999 to 2011, was audacious on many levels. To say he had a blast as a three-term Mayor of Las Vegas would be an understatement. To say he got away with enough guffaws, gaffs and gasps to sink a thousand political ships would also be overly modest. No one saw him smoking crack in a hotel room, or running over people in City Hall, but it's a fair bet that his boozy, impolitic behavior---he told a fourth grade class his hobby was drinking martinis--would have had any other politician in America thrown out on their ear.
Not Oscar though. Acting the clown just made him more popular, and you’ve got to hand it to someone who can seduce a landslide majority of the people to vote for him, in three consecutive elections. (Local law prevented him from seeking a fourth term.) No doubt Oscar Goodman could talk a tadpole out of a mud pond. What he can't do is run a restaurant.
And he doesn't even try to. Whatever licensing deal he has with The Plaza Hotel and Casino has nothing to do with his culinary skills or restaurant business acumen. He is unabashedly in it for the ego, the money (which he doesn't need), and one more chance to enhance his big-shot status. He probably also enjoys eating and drinking for free, and always getting a table with his name on it, but take it from me, it doesn't take much in Vegas to accomplish that.
When I first heard of the gimmicky concept for Oscar's Beef Booze & Broads three years ago, I was less than impressed, and said so. My meals there were, to be kind, underwhelming. About a year and half ago, I stopped by for a quick bite and noticed that the place had rounded into form--the service smoother, the staff more professional, and some dishes (especially the beef) were more carefully cooked. Even with these improvements, though, nothing about the place showed me that it belonged on even the second tier of Vegas’s great steakhouses.
Were it not for the entreaties of executives at the hotel to come check it out again (and give them my honest opinion), I might never have given hizzoner, or his steaks, a second thought for the rest of my life. But as a favor to them, I went, ate and was pleasantly surprised by some dishes, blown away by others, and seriously disappointed by a few.
The strong points--the service, decor, bar--have only gotten better, and some menu weaknesses have been ironed out (the bread and butter much improved). The meat may not be Japanese A-5, but it is B+ to A- American steer, and they know how to handle it on the grill. Where Oscar's deserves demerits, though, is in the careless execution of the lesser dishes, and for something vague and inchoate that's missing from the formula: It's a feeling, an emotional response to the food that is strangely absent, and a room that evinces more corporate calculation than nostalgia and charm.
A great steakhouse is equal parts attitude and appetite. Steakhouse fare is iconic American restaurant fare. We invented the steakhouse and still do the best ones on Earth. If you want to see what the early ones looked like, plan a pilgrimage to Peter Luger's (est.1887) in Brooklyn, where the 19th century beer hall ambiance remains as untouched as a Grover Cleveland diet book. The best ones are in New York City--where the genre first took hold--and whether they are sleek and new, or hallowed and ancient, they reek of beefy masculinity so strong you could cut the testosterone wafting about with a knife.
America's second best steakhouse town is Las Vegas. The great ones have a swagger about them that is palpable--sort of like a certain gin-loving ex-mayor we know. In Oscar's case, as you can see, much of the food is not oh and ah worthy. Take the crab cakes (right). They are perfectly fine, plump with more backfin than lump meat, but lightly bound with a minimum of filler. They sit somewhat forlornly on a big white plate, flanked by two schmears of sauce that lack in both volume and piquancy. There is nothing wrong with these crab cakes, but they won't have anyone leaving the joint saying, "Damn, I can't wait to come back for those crab cakes."
The same could be said of the shrimp cocktail--big and juicy and plenty shrimpy, but also looking like they were thrown on the plate as an afterthought.
Truly terrible was the creamed spinach (left), looking and tasting like barely wilted greens swimming in milk. The Caesar salad looks right but tastes as if lemon, anchovy and garlic had never made its acquaintance. It's not a bad salad; it's just a bland salad.
On the plus side, the Alpine Village Famous Chicken Supreme Soup makes up in flavor what it lacks in appearance. It also tastes exactly like the original (if our 25-year-old taste memory serves). All that's missing is the bathtub-sized bowl of raw veggie crudités that used to be on every table at the German restaurant on Paradise Road.
The mac n' cheese is a thick, gloppy, cheesy delight (if you love such things), as were the au gratin potatoes. And the veal chop is terrific, not the quality of the one at Picasso, but as good as you're going to find in town, for about ten bucks less than is charged on the Strip. That bone-in rib eye is no slouch either, and a bargain compared with what you'll pay two miles to the south. The same can be said of all steaks here. They're so good that anyone who even thinks of ordering fish or chicken should have their head examined.
The wine list is short, but well chosen, with plenty of bottles under $100; try finding that at the Wynncore.
Just about the time those delicious cuts were erasing all memories of the Caesar and spinach, the desserts showed up and laid an egg. There was an apple thing laden with globs of cornstarch and a tiramisu thing that looked like snowball cupcakes. I should’ve quit while I was ahead.
So-so vittles or not, Oscar--the man, the restaurant, the boozy, spotlight hogging politician--is clearly ahead of the game. The popularity of all three incarnations remains high, and even on slow weekday nights this place will still be half full.
Patrons from all over the country book tables in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Mob Lawyer Mayor. Maybe some of his odd charisma will rub off on them (they hope). Maybe Oscar’s will be a once-in-a-lifetime, only-in-Vegas experience. Maybe his steakhouse will be everything Goodman the man is: outrageous, over-the-top and one-of-a-kind.
Instead, what they will find are some very good steaks served amidst hits and misses on the menu, in a room that ought to feel like a stage set in the movie of Oscar Goodman’s colorful life, instead of a fancified hotel dining room with a domed ceiling at the foot of Fremont Street.
And when it comes down to it, that’s really the problem with Oscar’s. For a steakhouse in a steakhouse town named after a guy with chutzpah and personality, it has none of one, and very little of the other.
Oh, the irony.
In The Plaza Hotel and Casino
1 Main Street
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
CULL & PISTOL
75 Ninth Avenue
The diversity of restaurant styles in NYC never ceases to amaze me. Once upon a time the city’s ethnic restaurants fit into pretty standard categories—haute cuisine classic French, Italian-American, Sichuan and Hunan, teppanyaki, and so on. But the variations on all genres keep NYC first among American cities, as this week review shows.
The maze of eateries in Chelsea Market is like one of those “Laughter in the Dark” rides at amusement parks where you turn a corner and are surprised by what pops into view: Amy’s Bread, Bar Suzette, Buddakhan, Doughnuttery, The Green Table, l’Arte de Gelato, Morimoto, One Lucky Duck, and The Lobster Place. At this last, some of the city’s finest seafood is sold, and attached to the market is Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar, a slip of a seafood restaurant where exec chef David Seigal is going way beyond the typical seafood menu.
A cull is a lobster that has lost one of its claws, a pistol one that’s lost both, and in addition to a wide variety of oysters written on a blackboard (right), there are some delightful lobster dishes like lobster pho ($19) with vermicelli noodles, mussels, hake, chili, coriander, mint, lime, and bean sprouts, as well as a fine rendering of a Maine-style lobster roll (below) made with chilled lobster salad with mayonnaise and scallions, or Connecticut Style, warmed in lobster butter and lemon with mayonnaise toasted top split bun accompanied by excellent French fries (market price).
Seigal grew up on the shores of Long Island, during college worked on a fishing boat, and became an accomplished sports fisherman. His culinary cred comes from stints at Jean-Georges, Bouley, and top-tier restaurants abroad before returning to NYC to become chef at Mercat and now at Cull & Pistol, where his menu changes daily, wholly dependent on what’s fresh in the Lobster Palace next door--which must be every chef’s dream. With this cornucopia of raw product he creates dishes like baby octopus braised in tomatoes with blue corn grits, oregano and olives ($16) and one of the best pasta dishes in NYC--bucatini carbonara with sea urchins, whitefish, and bacon lardons ($15 to $21). Everything just clicks into place.
There is a nightly salt-baked whole fish done simply with lemon, thyme and garlic marinade ($27) and his miso-glazed hamachi collar with a mushroom dashi, scallions, honshimeji mushrooms, and yuzu koshu oil ($24) shows his global reach. You can also have a Clambake Dinner for Two ($79), teeming with a 1.5 lb lobster, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, corn on the cob and fingerling potatoes, served family style in a rich shellfish broth.
The premises are dominated by a long, very popular metal-topped counter in front of a spanking white tile wall. Here people slurp up their Wellfleets, Apalachicolas, belons, and other nightly species. Opposite is a brick wall lined with tables and hanging light bulbs. The waitstaff is extremely knowledgeable about the night’s offerings, and the wine and beer list is crafted to go with Seigal’s seasonings and components, and most wines are under $50. By comparison, the desserts like pear galette and a chocolate-peanut butter semifreddo ($9) are all right if nothing unique.
Cull & Pistol is always a happy place, loud, as you might expect, but not ear-splitting, and by being as small as it is, the guarantee of freshness and creativity is evident in every dish.
Open every day for lunch and dinner.
By Andrew Chalk
Provence. The word conjures up
fields of lavender and sweeping hillsides of vines
set against craggy stone backdrops and mountains immortalized by Cézanne
and Picasso. Since the 1989 publication of Peter
Mayle’s classic A Year In
Provence and the movie version called "A Good
the region has also stood for a certain bucolic
lifestyle set in a land of nature’s bounty.
Perhaps it was
the growing popularity of Provence rosé that led
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to purchase an estate
there and release its wine, Château Miraval, which received positive
expert reviews. While Hollywood
producer Scott Rudin may consider her “a minimally talented spoiled brat,” she
and Brad were hands off, leaving the winemaking to
one of France’s most respected winemakers, Famille Perrin.
Provence is 100 miles
wide, stretching from Nice to Aix-en-Provence and
from the Alps to the Mediterranean sea. Both the
climate and the soil change as one moves around the
region. The French classify the best designated wine
regions as AOP (Appellation d’Originé Protégée). AOP
delimits an area of grape production, sets rules
regarding which grapes can be used, and sets
production standards, such as maximum permitted
yields. Beyond knowing the producer itself, it is
the consumer’s best guide to a wine’s quality. In
Provence there are three AOPs, reflecting three
distinct growing areas within the region. Côtes de
slopes/hills of Provence), Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence
(hills of Aix-en-Provence) and Côteaux Varois en
Provence (hills of the Var in Provence). You will
see Côtes de Provence wines most of all as it
accounts for 72% of total AOP Provence
All of the rosé
wines are made from some blend of four key grapes:
Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Tibouren.
Additionally, Syrah, Counoise and Cabernet Sauvignon
are sometimes used. The method of production is to
crush the grapes and let the juice macerate with the
skins just long enough for the color to turn pink.
At that point the juice is run off from the skins
into tanks to ferment into wine.
Fortunately, more and more of the best wines are becoming available in this country. Here are some that I can recommend. Most will be 2013 vintage, with the 2014s appearing later in the year.
These folks are extremely proud of their wine. Hence the pricing at about three times everybody else. This is an elegant wine. However, it is down to your palate to decide whether it is worth it.
Domaine Houchart, Côtes de Provence. $15 (below)
Bargain example of Provence wine. Some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The Cabernet Sauvignon give this wine the grippy backbone associated with Cabernet-based rosés. Fruity rather than terroir-driven.
Mâites Vignerons de la Vidaubanaise, Le Provencal, Côtes de Provence. $15
Another bargain. Made from 50% Grenache, 20% Cinsault, 20% Carignan and 10% Syrah fermented separately for maximum varietal fruit extraction. The bottle is the traditional Provencal flute à corset. This wine has a complexity beyond what its price would lead you expect.
Château de Berne, Terres de Berne, Côtes de Provence. $20.
Glorious salmon color. Made from 50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The distinctive square bottle belies a wine that scored 90/100 points in The Wine Enthusiast. The pinkness of the color differs from the wines above. Light, herbaceous nose and raspberries in the mouth. Plus, more oomph than the pale pink color would lead you to expect.
Domaine de Rimauresq, Rimauresq, Côtes de Provence - Cru Classé. $24.
Barely tinted pink, this wine is a blend of all four core varieties, plus Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and the white grape Rolle (the French name for Vermentino). Light, with raspberry, melon and floral notes. Chalky minerality.
Commanderie de la Bargemone, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. $19.
This wine uses 6% white varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Rolle) as well as the standard red grapes. Robert Parker gave this wine 90/100 points, noting its “pretty notes of mineral water, melon rind and orange blossom . . . .” I would concur and add reference to the limestone mineral backbone.
SORRY, SIR, WE'RE ALL OUT OF CHEEK
A tip-off to police in Anambra, Nigeria, led to the discovery at the hotel restaurant of two human heads wrapped in cellophane AK-47 guns and other weapons were also seized. One local told the Osun Defender newspaper: "I always noticed funny movements in and out of the hotel; dirty people with dirty characters always come into the hotel." A local pastor said they sold human meat at the price of 700 Nigerian nairas (about US$3.56).
"The building that houses Santina, the charismatic new restaurant from the Torrisi crew, is a gleaming glass box tucked under the High Line, like a festive sock drawer for twinkle toe delight. It’s filled with brilliance, bright blues and more shades of pink than a skin flick. . . Through hidden speakers, the tinny Italian classics of the ’50s and ’60s clamor like an unchecked 3-year-old. There are palm fronds in bright pots and Sambuca above the bar in neat Warholian lines. Even the waiters, in their Rod Laver sneakers, virginal white pants and SoBe-hued polo shirts seem extruded through a super-saturated Insta-filter.--Joshua David Stein, "Bringing the Tastes of the Mediterranean to the Shores of the Hudson," NY Oberserver (2/3/15).
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