Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Sun Valley Mag Profile of Parry Thomas

You might recall I was up in Sun Valley this past June for an interview with Parry Thomas, the legendary Vegas banker, Steve Wynn mentor and father of Wynn design guru Roger Thomas. At long last, the piece is out in Sun Valley Magazine.

The magazine's website offers it two ways, as a two-part web readout and in the actual magazine configuration. If you'd like to see it in its native format, pictures and all, click on the Digital Edition link along the right side of the home page. (This won't work when the Winter 2011 edition is no longer current, future readers.) It's pages 82-85 and then page 106. My bio is on page 20.

This is also the trip that gave rise to my Las Vegas Weekly columns about why Vegas leaders heart Sun Valley and Thomas' remedies for Vegas . I also posted a blog pictorial in June showing his home and stable, some Sun Valley vistas and Steve Wynn's $250,000 parking space.

Food Critics and Anonymity, Redux

So after the heated debate that my Las Vegas Weekly column spurred last month over the recent book "Eating Las Vegas" and the disturbingly clubby relationships between the three critic authors and prominent Vegas restaurateurs, the topic just erupted in a massive way in Los Angeles, too.

The L.A. Times' food critic, S. Irene Virbila and some companions went to a new restaurant called Red Medicine in Beverly Hills the other night. For 16 years, she has worked as under-the-radar as possible. But someone on the staff at Red Medicine believed he spotted Virbila, who had made reservations under an assumed name. The managers spent a little time confirming it and made the party wait 40 minutes before bursting out, shooting her photo and informing her they would not be serving her at the restaurant.

The restaurant then put out a photo of Virbila on their website, too, and Gawker and Eater.Com also posted it. Her anonymity, such as it was, is gone. She spent 16 years avoiding photos of herself being published.

There is much to say, obviously. Managing partner Noah Ellis thinks he's a hero, telling the L.A. Times that Irene's reviews in the past have been "unnecessarily cruel and irrational." She is said to have immense power over the fate of new restaurants, and she tends to eat at least three times at a place before making a decision.

This situation is a Rorschach test for those who line up on various sides of the debate. I, of course, believe that food critics ought to try their best to visit restaurants unannounced and incognito in order to have as accurate a representation of the food and experience as possible. Those have been the phrases I've been using for weeks on this matter, so imagine how gratifying it was to read Virbila in the L.A. Times story on her outing saying that it is preferable to not make a spectacle of yourself because if you do, "it's not an accurate representation of the restaurant."

If I'm deluded into believing that it's not that hard to be a quiet, effective food critic, then the other side -- including L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold, who thinks there's "absolutely no difference in being recognized in restaurants" -- is at least as equally, but more insidiously, delusional. It's shocking and laughable when Vegas Seven critic Max Jacobson said on KNPR that he doesn't evaluate service because service doesn't matter, showing how insufferably removed from the reality of ordinary restaurant patrons he is. (Jacobson also announced on that show that anyone who needs to try a restaurant more than once to evaluate it is a poseur, someone lacking in "instincts." Good grief.)

Those who believe that anonymity is a total myth, however, point to the fact that Virbila was noticed at Red Medicine and that chefs say they know who the important critics are and coddle them whether they know it or not. The entire charade is worthless and silly, they squawk.

Except there are 72-oz-porterhouse-wide holes in that logic in this situation:

* After 16 years in Los Angeles, it took Red Medicine a great deal of deliberation before they could determine if, in fact, this was the person. Thus, they don't ALL have her photo up in their kitchens or her face memorized. These were veteran restaurant people and they weren't entirely sure.

* The purpose of this outing was to forewarn other restaurant owners and make Virbila's work harder. That implies that she had managed to be successful at her undercover work at least some -- a lot? -- of the time.

* The logical conclusion of this idea that critics ought to give up being anonymous and allow restaurants to shower them with extra goodies and attention is that criticism by the very people who have real culinary expertise -- such as Mancini, Curtas and Jacobson -- becomes disregarded by the public. The reader knows these guys are coddled and that they won't be, so the reader is more likely to discount rave reviews as the result of some nefarious, unfair meddling. That leaves, essentially, the Yelp! universe. I don't mind that -- I look to Yelp! often -- but the odds are the Yelpers don't have the history or expertise that long-term professional critics have. The outcome is the triumph, essentially, of less informed opinions.

Of course, there's a space between the true-anonymity and the critic-as-rock-star poles. In there, food critics simply try to keep a low profile, to not draw attention to themselves, do their best and at least maintain the implicit contract with the reader that they're working on their behalf. They don't make chums with chefs and owners any more than I'm chums with top casino executives I cover or Jon Ralston is chums with politicians or Mike Weatherford is chums with actors and directors. You can be friendly and civil without it becoming a friendship, you can maintain a detachment that allows you to assess situations and information through a prism that enriches the public that you serve.

There is a reason why this topic -- and now the Red Medicine event -- is so fascinating. There is also no other discipline where an artist or purveyor of creative goods is permitted to select their critic. No author or film studio can stop a critic from consuming the material and rendering a response. Only in food criticism is it even possible to alter the product for a person's specific tastes or actually exclude them altogether from being able to evaluate it.

That's why the Virbila situation is so weird. No matter where you stand, it ought to be instinctively offensive that Ellis would actively work to out this woman and refuse to serve her. That reflects, to me, two things:

* The restaurant must truly suck.
* The owner is incredibly bitter.

LVW Col: The Next Little Things

Here's a Las Vegas Weekly column that's three scoops in one! Yippee! Of course, if you listened to The Strip, you heard about all of this two weeks ago. Just saying. Enjoy! -sf

With Cosmo open,
welcome to the Era of the Next Little Thing

“You know what would be phenomenal?” Oscar Goodman bellows as we stride from City Hall down Las Vegas Boulevard to a menorah lighting on Fremont Street.

This is the guy who got the performing arts center and Cleveland Clinic to sprout from a toxic train yard, moved the notion of a mob museum from appalling to brilliant and, most recently, poached Zappos from Henderson to occupy a city hall that didn’t need replacing but will be replaced nonetheless.

Yes, sir. Tell me. What would be phenomenal?

“See, what I’d like to do when I’m not the mayor anymore and can invest out here, I’d love to buy this property over here and put in that ‘giant eye’ Ferris Wheel that they have in London over there,” he gushes, pointing at an empty lot on the east side of the road.

“You want a Ferris wheel Downtown?” I answer, disappointment disguised as deadpan.

“It’d be phenomenal.”

To which I resist the urge to retort: “What is the obsession Vegas has with building a fucking Ferris wheel?” Caesars Entertainment chief Gary Loveman hankers for one, too, near Flamingo Road, but Wall Street won’t give him the money. Several have been considered for parcels around the Strip through the years, but you know what attraction no Vegas tourist has ever told me he misses here? A fucking Ferris wheel.

Welcome to the Era of the Next Little Thing.

Read the rest at LasVegasWeekly.Com

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

R-J Publisher On KNPR, Two Weeks Late

Just as Miles and I were tearing out of Vegas for our NYC sojourn earlier this month, newly installed R-J publisher Bob Brown appeared on KNPR's State of Nevada. I caught up on that today while baking my special brownies for Miles' KSNV potluck tomorrow.

I continue to be accosted by various quarters as "rumor-mongering" for my coverage of the wholesale replacement of the entire upper management of the Review-Journal as having been a result of the disastrous jeremiad against Sen. Harry Reid by ex-publisher Sherm Frederick and editor Thomas Mitchell.

But a few crucial moments on that show can be seen as evidence I was correct:

* Brown said his selection as R-J publisher was very sudden and unexpected, that he took a couple of minutes to deliberate, if that. So the idea that an orderly succession was planned for a long time is hereby debunked. This actually surprises me; I was willing to believe that Frederick stepped aside willingly and had planned on it for at least a little while. Evidently not.

* Brown said the first person to call to congratulate him was . . . Sen. Harry Reid. Now you would think it would be -- assuming this all was friendly -- Sherm Frederick, his allegedly voluntarily departing predecessor. Or maybe some of the many gaming execs he knows from his years as the ad director. But, no, somehow word got to Reid first and Reid was on the phone with Brown asap. Hmm.

* Brown repeatedly rebuffed the notion that the R-J or Stephens Media were in any sort of financial trouble. It's no crime to acknowledge that these are challenging days for the newspaper industry, but Brown seems to be describing the local newspaper as actually being in very good health. That means that the change of chiefs was not related to revenues or circulation.

* Brown agreed with the SON host that the paper found itself in an awkward and untenable position during the Reid-Angle race and spoke about the importance of earning a better reputation and credibility with the local public.

Brown didn't so much throw Frederick under the bus as lay him gently on the median of a busy thoroughfare and wave buh-bye. His unwillingness to heartily defend the prior leadership was refreshing.

Also refreshing was Brown's stated insistence on letting the news side do its work. While I had worried that his history as an ad guy with no journalistic background could portend a publisher willing to compromise with advertisers at the expense of his reporters, I had forgotten that he's certainly been on the receiving end of countless angry calls about coverage from local companies who buy space in the papers. He has had practice dealing with these matters, so we ought to give him a chance.

The only trouble spot I heard in the KNPR chat was Brown's comment that the R-J's website is great. It's not. It's a train wreck. Hopefully he was just being polite and knows how badly it needs to be overhauled.

All in all, I'm encouraged by this interview. Also, I'm validated by it. That's always fun.

Cosmo Conclusions, A Week Late

By now, everybody has said pretty much everything that's important to say about The Cosmopolitan and, in a very rare occurrence, I find myself in agreement with the consensus. As I discussed or concurred with on KNPR and on The Vegas Gang, The Cosmo:

* Is elegant and pretty in an accessible way that doesn't leave middle America feeling out of place.
* Took advantage of its peculiar, narrow footprint to enhance its urbanistic concept.
* Is what CityCenter claimed it would be -- a metropolitan-esque Vegas resort -- but is not.
* Has all sorts of nifty artistic and design details that make it worthy of exploration.
* Is going to have a murderous problem with ingress and egress because of its narrow porte cochere and garage ramps
* Will be bought by either a large casino conglomerate or someone aching to be on The Strip in a year or so.
* Has some major service problems that are likely to be worked out over time but people might want to wait a few months before booking.

You can peruse my Flickr set on the Cosmo opening here, by the way. It includes about 90 pictures and five short videos taken by my gala companion, Trevor.

Of all the assessments I've read, I find those by David McKee of Stiffs & Georges and Mike E on VegasTripping.Com to be the most insightful. McKee has a round-up post in which he points to several reviews and commentaries and chides me for not having issued my verdict in the milliseconds after Opening Night. Sorry, I was tired after talking about it on those shows and then, as of this weekend, was felled by a heckuva cold. (Good news! In a moment of unusual restraint and decency, I opted not to Tweet the image of a bunny made of phlegm in a tissue yesterday. Growth!)

On Saturday, I took The Olds to Cosmo for an upcoming Las Vegas Weekly column, so I'll hold my fire on that experience so as to not scoop the people who actually pay me to write such things.

However, this should give you some idea what The Olds thought:

I've got some fun, quirky images to share in another forthcoming post. I also will be posting to the podcast feed the audio tour provided by David Rockwell of Cosmo, along with photos from my visit to his studio in New York. So stay tuned, now that I'm back to some vague semblance of health.

Video: Reid Giving Choi His Ring Back

Harry Reid Returns Dan Choi's West Point Ring

Well, that's a nice way to end a tumultuous year, huh? In Las Vegas last summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised Army Lt. Dan Choi he would hold Choi's West Point ring in safekeeping until Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed. Today, President Obama signed the repeal bill that passed first and foremost because Reid indefatigably navigated it through the treacherous waters of the U.S. Senate against some mighty tough odds. What was left for dead two weeks ago is now the law, and American national security will no longer be unpatriotically compromised by irrational bigotry. Reid Tweeted that image, above.

This outcome forces me to eat my words, and I'm delighted to do so. I've faulted gay activists in Las Vegas for not pressuring Reid more, especially during the election. But the work of many both in front and behind the scenes has paid off indeed, not just with Reid's commitment to taking care of this matter but also in somehow persuading Republican Sen. John Ensign to vote to repeal the ban on openly gay people serving in the military. I've never been happier to have been wrong. It is Reid, far more than Obama, who gets the credit here.

Choi, who was committed involuntarily to a mental ward of a VA hospital earlier this month because the stress of the effort to repeal DADT overwhelmed him, had an amusing Tweet:

Here's the emotional scene in Vegas last summer that led to this triumphant one above: