Last week a slow-moving car knocked British food critic Toby Young off his bike and onto the pavement. One bloody ambulance ride and a dozen forehead stitches later, Young is scarred, but recovering.
If you haven’t lost your appetite yet, read on.
Toby Young arrived in Las Vegas last week. He can’t confirm whether he’s here to reprise his role as guest judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, but given the Rules of Television, which state that every reality program must have at least one British judge, it’s a safe bet.
Young distinguished himself last season with a wealth of witty one-liners (e.g., “I thought the fish was overcooked. The whole dish was under-seasoned; it was the bland leading the bland”; “The avocado sorbet was like Tom Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder: an unexpected treat.”) He took flak for this, for ostensibly trivializing the cable cooking competition, but remember, brilliant trial attorney Johnnie Cochran took flak for ostensibly trivializing a murder trial with a one-liner, too (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”). Well, Cochran’s line won the case, and Young’s quips made for good TV. But don’t take my word for it; look at last season’s ratings.
Last Wednesday, Young and I dined at Botero, Chef Mark LoRusso’s new restaurant at Encore Las Vegas. We pushed through the massive revolving door and walked past the shelf of colored concoctions in asymmetric decanters. The shelf stretches all the way up the back wall and across most of the ceiling; standing under it, I felt like an extra on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (even though the movie took place in space and didn’t utilize extras).
The hostess seated us at a comfortable table beside a giant sculpture of an obese nude. Beside the ass, to be specific. Botero the artist, by the way, is best known for painting and sculpting overweight people. The restaurant is chock-full of Botero originals, and they made me feel svelte by comparison—a clever business move on the part of whoever designed this space. If I’m going to sit down for a decadent dinner, I don’t want images of super-skinny supermodels surrounding me; I don’t want to second-guess my choices. If I want to order the Hudson Valley foie gras with caramelized apple and Calvados sauce—I did; it was spectacular—I don’t want to feel self-conscious about it. And I suspect I’m not alone; remember how quickly the Macpherson-Turlington-Schiffer-backed Fashion Café closed?
The waiter brought us tastings of ahi tuna tartare with mango and crispy ginger, tastings of roasted Alaskan crab with scampi sauce and tastings of Dungeness crab with jalapeño and carrot reduction.
“A very pretty plate,” Young remarked of the crab selection. I don’t know much about food, but I know that he was right.
Young began his stint as Evening Standard food critic seven years ago. “My editor told me, ‘Don’t write more than a paragraph about the food—nobody wants to read that. It’s boring. Talk about the people, the atmosphere, the scene—that’s what people want to hear about.’” But don’t get the wrong idea; Young knows food. I found the most exotic thing on the menu and questioned him about it:
“Bone marrow? Isn’t that what people donate to leukemia patients?”
“Actually, yes. It’s the soft tissue inside the bones. A chef named Fergus Henderson is famous for serving marrow with parsley salad. His philosophy is, if you’re going to kill the animal, you should eat the whole thing.”
Young ordered the petit filet; I selected the Shellfish Tower, a quadruple-tiered, triple-sauced mountain of Maine lobster, crab, Gulf prawns, oysters and mussels. We supplemented our entrees with the roasted bone marrow, potato gnocchi and a bottle of Chablis. We followed them with a quintet of miniature ice-cream cupcakes.
Over dessert, I asked Young whether his four y/Young children had any concept of how famous their dad was and whether they understood that their dad’s life story was made into a major motion picture starring Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst (How To Lose Friends and Alienate People).
“My oldest is starting to understand that her daddy is on television and her friends’ daddies aren’t, but that’s it. When we were watching Spider-Man 3, I pointed to Kirsten and said, ‘See Spider-Man’s girlfriend? Well she’s Daddy’s girlfriend in a different movie.’ She replied, ‘But if she could date Spider-Man, why would she date you?’”
Our conversation and meal stretched three luxurious hours, and by the end, my plate was clear and my stomach full. Not full enough that Botero (the painter) would have wanted me as a subject, but full nonetheless.
I tell ya, being a food critic is hard work. Now if only I can get Young to help me tweak these quips, I’ll be ready for prime time: 1) Chef LoRusso’s oysters were fresher than a Rick’s Cabaret dancer struggling to pay off her mortgage. 2) If the Chicago aldermen had dined at Botero, they never would have banned foie gras.
Oh, he’ll have to help me with my English accent, too.