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NEW YORK TIMES

A rat pack of reviewers

By Julia Moskin
New York Times

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 27, 2012

LAS VEGAS >> “The food industry and the sex industry have a lot in common,” Al Mancini, the restaurant critic for Las Vegas CityLife, told me over pork buns on a recent blindingly bright morning.

He should know. Mancini has been reviewing restaurants here for 10 years, but his first writing job was reviewing strip clubs, a feat he pulled off elegantly in serious columns evaluating establishments that the “entertainment” columns in most cities tend to ignore.

Mancini is not a typical restaurant critic, but of course Las Vegas is not a typical restaurant city. Brooklyn residents are incensed at the mere prospect of a Hooters in their borough. Here, when popular former Mayor Oscar Goodman decided to open (yet another) steakhouse, he gave it the name Oscar’s Beef - Booze - Broads.

The city has been engaged in a high-stakes restaurant arms race since it welcomed Spago 20 years ago. Money, entertainment and food are uniquely entwined here, and even the city’s dozen or so food writers can barely keep up.

Feeding the city’s tourists — who will number 40 million this year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority — is a vast endeavor. Restaurants on the Strip alone employ about 35,000 people, and in Clark County overall, upward of $8 billion was spent in restaurants last year, said Brian Gordon of Applied Analysis, a Nevada economic analysis firm.

This translates into ever more spectacular dining rooms, themed restaurants (last year’s opening of Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ and Beer inspired feverish coverage) and culinary concepts like China Poblano, the delicious Mexican-Chinese meditation that the chef Jose Andres opened last year. And because most restaurants on the Strip are owned by hotel casinos, the writers must navigate among the competitors and their publicity teams, who dole out access as carefully as truffle shavings.

“We are big fish in a small but well-stocked pond,” said John Curtas, a lawyer who was the longtime food critic for Nevada Public Radio and now writes at the website Eating Las Vegas.

They are wooed with press dinners, celebrity-studded opening parties and a veritable avalanche of perks and free food.

“There is no such thing as an anonymous food critic in Las Vegas,” said Max Jacobson, who worked at the Los Angeles Times food section before moving here in 1999; he now writes for Vegas Seven.

The restaurant reporter for the Las Vegas Sun is the hardly anonymous Robin Leach, who was the host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Mancini is almost as conspicuous as Leach, although he writes for an alternative weekly that suits his mohawk, tattoos, chin beard and the skull-print T-shirts he wears (under nattily tailored suits, when the location demands it).

Mancini, Curtas and Jacobson are collaborators on a lively and smart guide to the city, “Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants.” The three rarely agree about anything, but they have managed to produce two annual editions.

When Mancini arrived on the scene, his hair configurations, his previous column and his lack of fine-dining experience made him both conspicuous and unpopular among other writers.

“You can’t be anonymous if the way you look is designed to attract attention,” said Heidi Knapp Rinella, the critic for the city’s newspaper of record, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who says she eats anonymously and does not attend press dinners or accept free meals.

(Mancini, for his part, says that since the Review-Journal has failed to review important new arrivals like Twist by Pierre Gagnaire and Restaurant Guy Savoy, the newspaper has lost credibility as a restaurant arbiter.)

Curtas, a lawyer, belongs to the old school of restaurant criticism, which dictates that a certain amount of high-end culinary experience is a necessary education. Jacobson has traveled widely, speaks numerous languages (including Japanese, Finnish, French, Italian and Cantonese) and has been writing about food for 30 years.

Neither man greeted Mancini with open arms. The three argued constantly (as they still do) about whether the best tapas in the city are at Jaleo or Julian Serrano, about whether Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Mix is “one of the most dramatic restaurants in the world” (Curtas) or “absolutely horrible” (Mancini), and about which restaurants operate to serve the casino’s owners rather than its customers.

The book is a remarkably frank distillation of those arguments. Its first section is devoted to the top 10 restaurants in the city, anointed by mutual agreement of all three writers. The next section profiles another 40 favored institutions, with an occasional note of dissent. And another section, “Vetoes,” includes some truly strident arguments over restaurants that were nominated by at least one member of the group but smacked down by another. Vetoes are allowed to be unreasonable (“from personal gripes to grand philosophical arguments”), but the reasons must be put in writing.

For example, Mancini is a fan of the food at Bratalian, where the kitchen is run by Carla Pellegrino, one of the city’s few female chefs. She came to the city to open the Las Vegas branch of Rao’s, her family’s business, and Mancini says the restaurant has “top-notch ingredients and spot-on execution” of classic Neapolitan food.

But in his veto essay, Curtas wrote, “Italian-American food is as overdone as Joan Rivers’ face, and Vegas needs another version of this food like I need another ex-wife.” (He has three.)

Mancini, 44, graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1995. During his 10 years in New York, he tended bar at the short-lived CBGB’s Pizza, saving up to explore ethnic restaurants and, occasionally, luxurious spots like Daniel. He moved to Las Vegas to cover the city for ABC News and was looking for more work when he was offered the strip-club column in Las Vegas Weekly.

He has taken pains to educate himself about haute cuisine (learning to appreciate the truffle artichoke soup at Guy Savoy helped, he says) but firmly believes that hospitality is hospitality, whether at a Michelin-starred restaurant or a strip club.

“As a guest, it’s the establishment’s job to make you feel comfortable, well taken care of and pretend that they are not just after your wallet,” he said.

When he was working the lap-dance beat, Mancini usually took along his wife, Sue; they’ve been together for 26 years, since attending high school together in Haddon Township, N.J. He felt it was important to evaluate how his wife was welcomed; whether the club hired women who looked diverse (on many fronts: skin and hair color, breast size, tattoos and piercings) or only busty blondes; whether the liquor was watered down; and, as he put it, “how hard the hustle was.”

In Las Vegas, the hustle is hard even at a place like Twist, in the Mandarin Oriental, although it takes different forms. The glassware and porcelain are extraordinary, the number of amuse-bouches overwhelming, the seafood flown in from Maine and Marseille.

At most Strip restaurants, the notion that local ingredients can be as prestigious as Sevruga caviar and Santa Barbara shrimp has not taken hold.

“As a city, we are behind the curve compared to an Austin, Texas, or a Portland, Ore.,” said Dominic Scali, who chronicles the scene on Facebook and Twitter as The Vegas Foodie and has worked in many kitchens here.

Las Vegas is not surrounded by farmland like those cities, but a few chefs, notably Doug Taylor, the pastry chef of the three Batali-Bastianich restaurants in the Palazzo, are incorporating the desert’s fruits into the food.

“Anything that grows in the Middle East — almonds, plums, dates, onions, pomegranates — we can grow here,” he said.

But “if God wanted shrimp in the desert, she would have put them there,” Curtas joked over a remarkable tartare of prime beef, ahi tuna, clams and cuttlefish, served at Twist under a crisp slice of daikon radish marinated in Campari.

Mancini, although (or perhaps because) he is new to the beat, has a more solemn perspective than his co-authors have: He seems more interested in carbon footprints than wine vintages. Defying the city’s public relations army, he wrote an expose of how many hotels on the Strip covertly stash and serve the illegal ingredient shark’s fin.

With his tattoos and night-owl habits, he has bonded with renegade chefs like Jolene Mannina, who runs a late-night food-truck gathering that draws off-duty cooks into cooking competitions. And like Sheridan Su, who has cooked alongside some of the biggest names on the Strip (David Myers, Joel Robuchon), but whose kitchen now consists of two burners and a refrigerator in a salon in a strip mall. It is dedicated to reproducing the stuffed Taiwanese buns he grew up on in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.

“I needed a break from the Strip,” he said.

Young chefs like Su move around at dizzying speed on the Strip — partly, Scali said, because of the constant influx of new steakhouses, where few chefs with ambition stay for long.

Mancini is modest, thoughtful and soft-spoken by daylight, not the raging punk whom publicists seem to fear. The most radical thing about him may be that although he is a Las Vegas food writer, he is not a fan of steak.

“I like steak, but it’s not interesting,” he said on the way to another salon, to get fresh stripes for his mohawk. “I always go for interesting.”

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