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You kind of know what you’re getting into going to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. Swap Times Square with a closed-off strip, and fill it with a sea of women tottering in stilettos and stuffed like sausages (bratwusts and pepperoni sticks) into skimpy casings. I consider this going-out look to be LA style because it’s certainly not NYC style unless you frequent the meatpacking district.

My criteria were to stay indoors, to avoid restaurants with jacked-up prix fixes and to steer clear of so-called ultra-lounges. Based on Twitter-checking, I could see that the food media was having fun at the newly opened It casino, The Cosmopolitan, but my brief peek on New Year's Day at the glossy complex full of oglers, families (I was more surprised at the number of restaurants and shopping centers/casinos that had No Stroller signs posted than the fact that many parents thought it was good idea to tote infants in the middle of the night through clouds of cigarette smoke and drunken mobs sipping two-foot-tall whalebones. Clearly, I’ve been in Brooklyn too long because babies in bars now seem normal) and the mob roughly lined up to get into Marquee, had me turning right back out the door (besides, I've already eaten at Jaleo in D.C. and we have Blue Ribbon Sushi and Scarpetta here). That’s just Vegas being Vegas, I suppose. I have low glitz tolerance, which is why I prefer the dowdy '90s casinos. I will be happy to return to The Cosmopolitan in 2025 when it will be nicely patinaed.

Fleur, Huber Keller’s freshly retooled (some would say dumbed down) Fleur de Lys, was a welcome antidote even if small plates aren’t the height of fine dining. (Alex at the Wynn just closed this week, so restaurateurs do what they must to stay in business.) The extensive wine collection is still visible behind glass upstairs, but gone is the $145 tasting menu, tablecloths and calm privacy (the open seating provided no buffer from the classic rock cover band blasting from a central pavilion, which I doubt was unique to New Year’s Eve). Now it’s just the flower, no lily and certainly no gilding it…well, for $550 you can order the entire menu and there’s always the $5,000 foie gras, Wagyu, truffle burger served with a bottle of 1995 Petrus.

Fleur sliders tartare

I was fine with an inexpensive bottle of prosecco and angus sliders (I know, technically mini-burgers) with blue cheese, bacon and pear. The fries were almost superfluous. My favorite dish was the rectangle of steak tartare with dollops of béarnaise vinaigrette and a raw quail egg. Not a forced small plate, just a little delight by design.

Fleur ribs shrimp

The unusually sticky, maple-glazed smoked pork ribs were served with flourish; a dome is lifted at the table and a poof of smoke is released. I wouldn’t say that the theatrics add to the flavor, though the presentation is fun. The filo-wrapped shrimp in a tropical banana curry sauce combined interesting flavors, but were gone in a second. Maybe too fast for their $17 price.

Fleur pate mushrooms

Similar to the tartare, I appreciate a simple fatty terrine. The rustic French dishes excelled over the shrunken American comfort food. This slab paired nicely with the tartly dressed salad full of sliced cornichons. However, our server said it wasn’t very popular and I noticed that it has been removed from the current menu online. The wild mushroom ragout was a concession to the vegetable-deficient meal we had assembled and with the exception of marinated olives, the softened fungus sautéed with thyme and garlic is probably the healthiest, non-meaty dish on offer. They do advertise a $45 “vegetarian indulgence” tasting.

Not that anyone cares about such things in Vegas. In fact, at 9pm, we were practically the only ones at Fleur focused on dining. Cocktails, and a plate or two shared amongst a group, was how Fleur was functioning on New Year’s Eve and how I imagine the newly casual restaurant will be utilized in the future.

I wondered where I’d end up when the clock struck midnight. Who knew it would be at an uncool, no cover bar in the Excalibur, next to a theater advertising Carrot Top, drinking a frozen pina colada from a machine with a shot of rum floating on the surface. I toasted the elderly woman sitting alone (what appeared to be two teenage granddaughters showed up shortly thereafter and I felt better) in a booth next to mine and saw my future.

Fleur * 3950 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV

Vandaag: Pining Away


When I first started hearing burbling about Noma—was it years ago? Months ago? It now feels like Rene Redzepi has always been present—the first thing I thought was that I’m never eating pine needles no matter how en vogue it becomes (then again, I also said I’d never wear leggings when they started reappearing in early ’06 and now I do occasionally. Next stop, pajama jeans).

Buckthorn, hay, nettles, fine, but pine needles—even though the prickly leaves and menthol perfume aren’t radically different from rosemary—conjure up a depressing Pacific Northwest dampness from my childhood. Hobbitty, green and moist with moss clinging to tree bark, mushrooms sprouting in suburban lawns, sidewalks slicked with drowned earthworms after a hard rain, larvae the size of two grains of rice wriggling from filberts you’d crack open with rocks during recess and slugs, nearly black and glistening like a turd with feelings, soft little giraffe horns moving. Were they looking at you? No matter where the gastropods appear, they always surprise and spark a guttural repulsion (just looking at photos makes my stomach upset). But I never wanted harm to come their way. I just didn’t want them in my life. I still don’t.

But to my knowledge, modern Scandinavian cuisine hasn’t added slugs to their repertoire yet. They certainly weren’t on the menu at Vandaag (more Dutch and vaguely Northern than Nordic) where I spied many signifiers of this growing trend: juniper, rye, mead, kelp, sea beans, caraway and yes, pine needles (in a duck for two special that I now kind of wished I had tried). Things were being pickled and smoked with wild abandon.

The hefty toast triangles that came with my clams in an vanilla-aquavit broth (prettied with a few flower petals— along with long-stemmed leaves, another phobia of mine that I’ve come to terms with) weren’t merely grilled, but smoked with a wood that our server couldn’t identify for sure but knew had to be a conifer. And the subtle resiny, charcoal flavor was wonderful. I could be wrong about this pine thing.

My spice tree cocktail, a blend of Applejack (I’ll always try anything with this sprit, and it’s certainly the season), honeycrisp apples and ras el hanout aquavit, was more fruity than spiced and definitely not tree-like. There’s not a single pine needle on the drinks list.

The kicker turned up on the dessert menu. A six-dollar-item simply called pine cone. What the heck? I did not order the pine ice cream drizzled with pine syrup in a cone that may or may not have been pine flavored because I imagined something garish and beautifully emerald (I am a freak for unnaturally hued foods, particularly green and blue ones) like a Shamrock Sundae even though I doubt Vandaag would employ artificial dyes, and couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to take a photo.

Despite my goal of weaning myself from photographing restaurant meals, I had indeed toted my camera along—only to discover that I’d forgotten the memory card at home. This had to be a sign. But I’m not superstitious, don’t believe in higher powers and think resolutions are a crock, so I hope to return soon, camera in hand and plans to go pine crazy. I’ll be open-minded until I start seeing slugs appear on menus.

Vandaag * 103 Second Ave., New York, NY

Images from nikao and Arj

They Really Did Close All the Dunkin’ Donuts in Oregon

Approximately 17 years ago my dad shared a story about how they ran out of cheese at a Pizza Hut in Tigard, Oregon. That makes me think of this. The Pizza Hut’s probably still in business, though.

Prime Time


New Vegas, which is to say the amped-up theme park strip that’s captured Middle America’s heart since the ‘90s, has its merits. I like fun, so I stayed in the Palazzo, home to gondolas that will ferry you beneath a Barneys New York store and past commedia dell'arte performers across from Mario Batali’s Otto. And there’s steak. A lot of steak. In the Palazzo/Venetian complex alone, there are five steakhouses. I even ate at one, Wolfgang Puck’s Cut. It was the most expensive meal of the entire mini-vacation.

Cut nebraska 35-day-aged rib eye

But my heart will always belong to downtown (which is technically uptown from the strip), the old Las Vegas they’re trying to revitalize with electric light shows on ceiling canopies beaming Queen and Kiss on the hour and stages blaring Aerosmith cover bands. There are panhandlers, wheelchairs, women in their 20s who look two decades older, dolled-up in satin Playboy Bunny suits, luring tourists to take photos with them for a fee.

This was my great-grandma’s Vegas when she lived there in the middle of last century. I’m half-convinced she’s haunting (this is the only context where I want to see that adjective–I've seen a lot of big names use haunting to describe food and that will never seem right) the Four Queens, her old favorite, because it was the only casino where I won any money: $18 on an antiques roadshow-themed (lowercase because it was just Antiques Roadshow-esque) slot machine and $35 on caveman keno. Plus, $5.25 cocktails when the Venetian’s standard well drinks were $11? You could buy a lot of prime rib with that winnings-to-savings ratio. Grandma Weaver knew best.

Yes, prime rib rules downtown Vegas. Every casino has a bargain prime rib special. Corn-fed? Grass-fed? Dry-aged? Wagyu? Who cares? It’s meat, it’s cheap and probably comes with a baked potato and a pile of frozen vegetables. I certainly only captured a fraction of these advertised specials. $7.95 seems to be the going rate.







One more day in town, and there would be no doubt that we would've sampled Binion's bargain chopped steak.


Pescavores need cheap eats too.


Beef-avoiders might also enjoy Pasta Pirate, announced in barely-readable-from-a-distance neon. Huh, they serve crab rangoon (my favorite junk food) for a penny more than the average price of a downtown prime rib.

Inexcusably Unpalatable

Even though I don’t know many who are as crazed about Asian food and chain restaurants as I am. And despite my traveling 70 miles to Cherry Hill, NJ to make a frakking video (which I just deleted from YouTube, so don’t even bother) about Pei Wei for their Blog Asia contest, I didn’t genuinely think I would make it to the final five (oh my, another BSG reference). Perkiness and enthusiasm will always triumph and I have neither.

I so wanted 2011 to be about understanding rather than judging. For a while I’ve been pondering what makes a person American-Idol-contestant confident in their average abilities? Were they loved too much as a baby? Was the part of their hypothalamus that regulates self-awareness damaged? Maybe they’re just really positive and try hard. There’s something to be said for that. I’m also grappling with stereotypes/archetypes, some represented by these contest finalists. It’s too easy to make fun of stay-at-home mommies, do-gooder Christians, tiny Asian girls who eat like pigs,  mavericks and Yelpers, so I won’t.

But I am still going to have to put Pei Wei and their parent company P.F. Chang’s on my shit list. It’s not that I  have a problem with crimes against Chinese food. In fact, I openly embrace them—crab rangoon, sweet and sour pork, even egg foo young—I will eat you all.

But crimes against the English language?! No, never. I cannot patronize a company that lets contest-winners use the phrase, “sophisticated foodie palette.” Fuck understanding; 2011 is going to have to be about tough love. From now on I will be on palette patrol (what that entails, I’m not sure yet).  If you’ve made it to adulthood without mastering middle-school grammar, then someone needs to help you. Ignorance is not bliss for the public subjected to palate abuse.


This is a palate. Technically, it’s the roof of your mouth not your tongue, but we associate the word with taste. Someone with a discriminating one would hopefully know how to spell it.


This is a palette. It can mean a few things, but commonly designates a wooden board where an artist places and mixes paint. It can also be used to describe a range of colors–or even flavors. A chef may employ a palette of spices but you’ll taste them with your so-called palate.


This is a pallet and has little reason to show up in anything written about food unless you’re talking about Sysco or Costco.

I don’t mind running the risk of becoming a crotchety fuddy-duddy clinging to outmoded concepts (such as eighth-grade reading levels) like an old-guard food writer who won’t leave Manhattan (or one of those Twitter scolds). You can keep your copious exclamation points, yummies, to die fors, nom noms, melts in your mouths and best-I’ve-ever-eaten hyperbole, but you must get your homophones in check. It’s no longer optional. And when $10,000 and a trip to Asia are at stake–or should I say steak–it’s no longer harmless.

Photos from bohone and Getty Images


Chain Links: Comtemporary Border Cantinas

Mos-eisley First Red Lobster started going all Bar Harbor, now Chevy’s is getting a makeover. Lowell Petrie, CMO, said “Chevys is a border cantina with loud signs and lights and neon. We don’t want to lose that energy and fun, but we want to make it more contemporary.” I’m trying to imagine contemporary border cantina and can only picture copious granite and adobe. They do have tasteful design in Mexico, you know. [NRN]

I was hoping to see Napa Valley Grille in its natural element instead of inside of a Paramus mall on my fall Yountville excursion, but it was no longer in operation. The original spot, though, is being turned into an R + D Kitchen, a Hillstone (formerly Houston’s) brand, so at least it will be keeping with the spirit of things. [Eater]

Smashburger and Fatburger always blur together in my mind as chains we don’t have in NYC and that I don’t think about, but if three Smashburgers are coming to Brooklyn I could get interested. [Metromix]

I watched this CNBC documentary Behind the Counter: The Untold Story of Franchising right before the holidays and had no idea it was controversial. Chains have images to uphold, of course, and now CNBC has pulled the program after  Cold Stone Creamery sent a threatening letter. [Blue Mau Mau]

I don’t see a branch of North Korean Okryu-Gwa opening up in the US any time soon. Dubai gets everything. [NPR]