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Fear and Lotus in Las Vegas - Asian dining


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As I type this I’m sitting on the tarmac near JFK airport’s new terminal 5, aka T5 (which incidentally represents the new pinnacle of human aeronautic achievement), on JetBlue flight 187, soon to take off for Las Vegas.

I’m going to Las Vegas primarily to attend the Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the USA awards ceremony (edited to add: click that link for companion topic), conference and gala on Monday (5 January 2009), about which I’ll post separately when the time comes. However, I’m flying out a couple of days early in order to explore some Las Vegas Asian dining spots.

Today’s plan is to meet up with two fine gentleman, John Curtas and David Ross, and together visit an unholy number of Asian restaurants. I intend to post updates and photos throughout the day. I have already warned John and David that at the conclusion of each snacking event I will need a few minutes to upload photos and key in comments. Actually, I think I forgot to tell them that.

David Ross is, among other things, the newest addition to the eG Forums hosting team. It’s a great pleasure to have him on board. David lives in Seattle, but thanks to his storied career as an “in-flight supervisor” with one of the airlines he’s able to jet to and fro at his pleasure. I won’t know, until shortly after I land in Las Vegas, whether David was able to escape from Seattle (the meteorological situation there has been grim of late), but I’m optimistic that if even one aircraft makes it out of Seattle today it will be the one that carries David Ross.

I don’t quite know how to describe John Curtas. He seems to have a hand in just about everything. He’s a food writer, radio-and-television personality and blogger. He’s a relentless advocate for Las Vegas dining. There always seems to be at least one depressed, out-of-work New York or California chef crashing in his extra bedroom. He’s also an attorney. I think for a time he was a judge. He hangs around with people in law enforcement; if you get a parking ticket in Las Vegas he’s the guy to talk to. He’s somewhere between the ages of 35 and 90 – nobody is sure. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he has no children, or eleven. He dresses well. He knows everybody. He has unpopular political views. Needless to say he has a gorgeous girlfriend despite being not the least bit gorgeous himself.

Las Vegas is full of luxury restaurant properties, based in the casino hotels. I’d love some day to dine at Robuchon et al., but that will have to wait for another trip. For years now, ever since my friend Matt Seeber moved out to Las Vegas to take the executive chef position at Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the “real” Las Vegas that lies beyond the strip: the part of Las Vegas where all the people who work in the casino hotels, not to mention the attorneys, judges and food critics, live, raise their children and eat.

And I have a particular interest in Asian restaurants at the moment. I’m currently working on my second Asian-restaurant book project. Shortly after the publication of “Asian Dining Rules,” the editors of Chinese Restaurant News (the industry journal for America’s more than 43,000 Chinese restaurants) contacted me to ask me to do a book project for them: a Chinese-restaurant guidebook based on the annual Top 100 Chinese Restaurants awards (it’s actually 100 restaurants in each of 10 categories). So I have a great excuse to continue my life-long habit of eating more Asian food each day than any real Asian person. For professional reasons, of course.

I’ve known for some time about a Las Vegas restaurant called Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant in a shopping center. Many reliable people have represented to me that it’s the best Thai restaurant outside of Thailand. John has promised us dinner there. The rest of what we’ll do today will be uncharted territory for me. There is, according to John, a several-mile stretch of Las Vegas-area highway that has in recent times developed into a Little Asia, with restaurants and shops representing all the usual suspects and then some. This is the area through which John will be leading our expedition today.

John sent me an itinerary enumerating all our planned stops. It’s not clear to me whether he’s serious. If he is serious, it’s unlikely that we’ll survive the day. If we make half the stops, we’ll probably make it despite severe gastrointestinal distress.

When we land I’ll post this, find John Curtas’s blue Acura at the passenger pick-up area, track down David Ross (whose flight arrives around the same time as mine) and we’ll be on our way. In the meantime I will resist the temptation to consume delicious in-flight snacks, so as to begin the campaign on an empty stomach.

(A shout out to my dear friend and colleague Chris Amirault for the topic title.)

Edited by Fat Guy (log)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don’t quite know how to describe John Curtas. He seems to have a hand in just about everything. He’s a food writer, radio-and-television personality and blogger. He’s a relentless advocate for Las Vegas dining. There always seems to be at least one depressed, out-of-work New York or California chef crashing in his extra bedroom. He’s also an attorney. I think for a time he was a judge. He hangs around with people in law enforcement; if you get a parking ticket in Las Vegas he’s the guy to talk to. He’s somewhere between the ages of 35 and 90 – nobody is sure. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he has no children, or eleven. He dresses well. He knows everybody. He has unpopular political views. Needless to say he has a gorgeous girlfriend despite being not the least bit gorgeous himself.

Put on your safety belt, Steven. John Curtas will take you on a ride more exciting than the ones at the Stratosphere. And yes, you will eat at all those places. The culinary itinerary that John has planned is not for wimps. Of course, everyone knows that when you eat Chinese food, an hour later you'll still be hungry ... :rolleyes::rolleyes:

When I go to Las Vegas, I don't usually eat at Asian restaurants, since I can do that in the Los Angeles area. I'll be very interested in your reports about local Asian cuisine in Las Vegas.

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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As we approached our first stop, things seemed inauspicious. The doubts about John’s leadership ability were palpable. We pulled into the parking lot of the least glamorous casino imaginable – the Gold Coast – and walked through a terribly depressing scene of people gambling away their disability checks at slot machines while chain smoking. The restaurant, for its part, was named Ping Pang Pong.

The dim sum at Ping Pang Pong, however, turned out to be world class. An oasis.

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And here’s our guide, John Curtas, credibility restored.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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We left the Gold Coast (on Flamingo) via the back parking-lot exit and drove a mile north on Valley View to almost the intersection of Spring Mountain Road (the Little Asia area in Las Vegas lies along a three-mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road). We pulled into an unfortunately located shopping center -- you'd have to know about it to find it -- containing a Hunan and a Yunan restaurant:

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We started at the Hunan place, Dong Ting Spring, which is so humble they can't even afford to replace the old sign.

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We ordered a snack of 1- shredded pickled cabbage with hot peppers; 2- stir-fried smoked pig tongue; and 3- spicy fish fillets. Very impressive.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Looks fabulous!. I want to be you.

While you are there check out Sushi Boko on the shops at Caesar's. I know it is Japanese, but it is sooo good and you are right there.....

Do the omikase

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While you are there check out Sushi Boko on the shops at Caesar's. 

Our day is programmed. I have little input.

Yun Nan Garden, next door, was next. John strictly limited us to ordering two dishes, so we ordered three: cumin lamb, Yunnan-style pork with green beans and chicken with a whole lot of bones in it. Again, all terrific. Both restaurants incredibly cheap, by the way -- most entrees under $10.

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We also noticed that Yun Nan Garden is a candidate for Top 100 honors.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Can you say more about the chicken and bones dish?

I wonder if it's similar to Grand Sichuan's in New York, where they chop up the small sections of the wing as the protein? And cook it with about 100 chilis.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

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It's not remotely like that dish, except for the bones part. The name of the dish was something like "sauteed chicken" -- very generic. It consisted of a whole lot of hacked up chicken with bones, skin and everything, stir-fried with hot peppers and a white vegetable we could neither identify nor get explained. It was tasty but a lot of work to eat. I filled a small plate with bones in order to get about an ounce of chicken.

After the chicken incident we took a driving tour up and down Spring Mountain Road. The three-mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road that is Asian-dominated is quite dense with Asian-language signage and shopping centers full of shops, restaurants and massage parlors. If you study the photos you may catch a few details I found interesting.

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This is the unprepossessing restaurant Raku, which we will not be going to because they closed for the week after New Year's. It's a tiny izakaya that's very popular with local chefs.

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For our next food stop John took us to China Mama, where he said the dumplings (called "pastries" on the menu) are the thing. We had a variety of dumplings: 1- pork soup dumplings, 2- pan-fried pork potstickers, 3- steamed shrimp-and-egg dumplings, and 4- pork-and-leek buns. All top-of-the-form examples.

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The restaurant, it turns out, is also a Top 100 challenger and is conveniently located across from a massage parlor and a dumpster.

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This concludes the Chinese phase of the day. So far today we haven't had a bad dish. Granted, John Curtas carefully selected all the spots, and the dim-sum people knew we were coming and treated us like super-VIPs, but the Vegas Asian-dining scene, so far, has been quite impressive. We're now off to take an hour-long break before heading for Lotus of Siam.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is the unprepossessing restaurant Raku, which we will not be going to because they closed for the week after New Year's. It's a tiny izakaya that's very popular with local chefs.

No Raku??!! How could John let this happen? Perhaps it's time to try Asian cuisine on the Strip ... hehehe ...

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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This is great! Ms. Alex and I drove along Spring Mountain a couple of weeks ago on our way to Rosemary's. We were wondering which of the myriad Asian restaurants would be worth a visit. We will wonder no more.

Edited by Alex (log)

"There is no sincerer love than the love of food."  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 1

 

Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

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Lotus of Siam exceeded my expectations, which were already pretty high. We turned the ordering over to the kitchen -- John is a regular there, what else is new? -- and the kitchen delivered.

We started with several flights of appetizers. First some house-made sausage with a great deal of kaffir-lime leaf and a variety of other herbs. Use of copious amounts of fresh herbs is a signature of the restaurant and when we asked about some of the herbs they always turned out to be things we'd never heard of. Standing alone, one herb (pia pia?) tasted a little like soap and another a little like fish, but as components of dishes they were wonderful. A number of dishes were also garnished with bunches of herbs and vegetables that were meant to be eaten with the dish and really served to enhance each dish.

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Shrimp, similar to Chinese salt-and-pepper shrimp:

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Along with a combination platter of Thai beef jerkey and bacon-wrapped fried shrimp.

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With our first group of appetizers we had the Donnhoff Riesling Kabinett 2007. As mentioned earlier, Lotus of Siam has an incredibly deep list of German wines (as well as lot of other wines -- but I've never seen anything close to this many German Rieslings in one place).

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Then green-papaya salad, a superb rendition:

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This is a puffed rice dish similar to Indian bhel puri. Sorry I'm not doing better with dish names, but maybe Dave Ross will come along with some of that later on. I was too busy eating and photographing to take notes.

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Soft-shell crabs:

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This was a pretty amazing dish, illustrating some of the chef's non-traditional bent: tuna tartare with cumin.

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We had another Riesling with that second wave of appetizers, a spatlese this time, 2004 Emrich Schonleber:

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We then had tom kai kai, the Thai coconut soup with chicken. The soup itself was the best rendition I've had of that soup, though the chicken itself was unfortunately dry and overcooked.

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We then moved into entrees, which were all surprising. They utilized first-rate proteins like you'd get at a fine Western restaurant, but they were interpreted in a rustic Thai style.

This is actually advertised as a noodle dish with bamboo-stick noodles, but you can't see the noodles under the short rib meat. Once you serve the dish the noodles reveal themselves and they're delicious.

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Moist, tender duck:

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Thinly sliced ribeye steak on a bed of cabbage:

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Finally, the most beautifully cooked and excellent piece of sea bass I've ever had -- by a significant margin.

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For the entrees we allowed ourselves to be talked into a red wine, the Starlite Zinfandel 2003, a very limited-production wine that turned out to go very well with the flavors (except for the bass, for which I held on to some of the Riesling).

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For dessert, fried banana, ice cream and sticky rice:

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The restaurant has received a ton of press. I felt like the other places we visited today were discoveries, whereas here we were making a pilgrimage -- a pilgrimage that lives up to the hype.

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Here's our posse (David Ross, me and John Curtas with chef Saipin Chutima):

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Because the meal was so extensive, and because it was so good we had to eat it all, it ended our eating day. So we didn't get to hit the Vietnamese or Korean places we had hoped to visit to round out our Asian categories. Nor did we get to have bubble tea or a bunch of other stuff. Next time!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Damn, that looks so good. Over the years and a number of visits to Vegas, I've sampled many of the dishes your party was able to enjoy, along with the great hospitality of the staff and the wondrous selection of wines. I've even told Bill that I thought he could make a real good go of it in NY if he wanted to opend a LOS here.

I've never had the short rib dish, which looks absolutely amazing. The Thai jerky, puffed rice, and house-made sausage all bring back wonderful food memories...thanks for sharing.

Don't forget, if you get hungry in-between meals, Mike Mills Memphis Championship BBQ isn't too far off the strip (I like to stop there on the way to the airport back to NY and get some to go).

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Damn, that looks so good.  Over the years and a number of visits to Vegas, I've sampled many of the dishes your party was able to enjoy, along with the great hospitality of the staff and the wondrous selection of wines.  I've even told Bill that I thought he could make a real good go of it in NY if he wanted to opend a LOS here.

I've never had the short rib dish, which looks absolutely amazing.  The Thai jerky, puffed rice, and house-made sausage all bring back wonderful food memories...thanks for sharing.

Don't forget, if you get hungry in-between meals, Mike Mills Memphis Championship BBQ isn't too far off the strip (I like to stop there on the way to the airport back to NY and get some to go).

Shoot, I didn't realize Mike Mills had a place in Vegas! Next time.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Damn, that looks so good.  Over the years and a number of visits to Vegas, I've sampled many of the dishes your party was able to enjoy, along with the great hospitality of the staff and the wondrous selection of wines.  I've even told Bill that I thought he could make a real good go of it in NY if he wanted to opend a LOS here.

I've never had the short rib dish, which looks absolutely amazing.  The Thai jerky, puffed rice, and house-made sausage all bring back wonderful food memories...thanks for sharing.

Don't forget, if you get hungry in-between meals, Mike Mills Memphis Championship BBQ isn't too far off the strip (I like to stop there on the way to the airport back to NY and get some to go).

Shoot, I didn't realize Mike Mills had a place in Vegas! Next time.

This is John Curtas, a k a TheDiningAdvocate, a k a www.eatinglv.com. I couldn't have said it better than Steven did, and it was truly an Asian food extravaganza for the ages...and I won't be hungry for a week....although those dumplings are looking mighty tempting for a mid-Sunday repast!

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...and I forgot to mention that China MaMa is located in what used to be a dry cleaner!

For all of Las Vegas's soulless, corporate, "Hospitality Group" restaurants, the Asian explosion on and off Spring Mountain Road is a culinary gem waiting to be discovered by adventurous and galloping gourmets. It restores some balance to our bloated, overpriced, celebrity-food "culture," and I was honored to give Messrs. Shaw and Ross a tour.

Edited by TheDiningAdvocate (log)
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For once, I took no notes and very few pictures -- preferring to enjoy the company and the food without making it a research project (I left that to my companions) -- but FYI: the tuna tartare with cumin at Lotus is called "koi soi," and it's equally good with raw beef -- although Chutima spices it much more agressively then.

And BTW: Although I fully admit to not being gorgeous (and having a girlfriend {The Food Gal} who is :rolleyes:), let the record reflect that all of my ex-wives considered me to be so at one time or another. :biggrin:

Edited by TheDiningAdvocate (log)
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For once, I took no notes and very few pictures -- preferring to enjoy the company and the food without making it a research project (I left that to my companions) -- but FYI: the tuna tartare with cumin at Lotus is called "koi soi," and it's equally good with raw beef -- although Chutima spices it much more agressively then.

And BTW: Although I fully admit to not being gorgeous (and having a girlfriend {The Food Gal} who is :rolleyes:), let the record reflect that all of my ex-wives considered me to be so at one time or another. :biggrin:

Without heading off into a discussion of Johns ex-wives' taste, I would be jealous if not for my lunchtime Lotus fix on Friday. I am glad you enjoyed what our little burg has to offer Mr. Shaw, and hope you come back again soon to delight in more of the not-so-commercial fare we have.

B W Dining

bwdining.blogspot.com

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Well--it was an event for the ages and one that we will definately have to repeat. As you can see from the photo above, I have the waistline that allows me the room for such gargantuan feasts.

I was in such a state of gustatory pleasure I forgot my camera and journal of notes so I won't be posting much today. The camera and journal will be flying North soon and once they arrive back home, I'll add to some of Steven's delicious photos.

I had no idea there were so many wonderful Asian restaurants scattered not far off the Strip. So just when you are thinking about blowing your cash on one of the over-priced Strip hotel dining rooms, call a cab to take you to one of the above restaurants we dined at.

No doubt when you see menus with three turtle dishes, four eel dishes and pickled parts of pig, lamb, chicken and other creatures you know you are in for a dining adventure. (And the company of Curtas and Shaw was a rare treat).

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(And the company of Curtas and Shaw was a rare treat).

Each individually is something. Together, I can only imagine. :laugh:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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(And the company of Curtas and Shaw was a rare treat).

Each individually is something. Together, I can only imagine. :laugh:

Yes, the conversations were quite lively-and as you can imagine, inquiring palates dissect every single detail-

"Is that Thai basil?" "No, I don't think so." "It tastes sort of 'soapy' doesn't it?"

"The pickled pork tongue has an interesting texture doesn't it?" "It reminds me of the taste and texture of beef heart."

"See those tiny dried shrimp inside the dumplings?" "I pick up just a hint of five-spice."

"Now tell me Chef, how do you make the spice mixture that you used to dust the tuna?"

"And Chef, what kind of apple did you use in the salad under the soft-shell crab?" "Ahh, we use THREE kinds of apples-Granny Smith, Gala and....." (the third apple variety escapes me).

Shaw, Curtas and Ross. It was wonderful.

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(And the company of Curtas and Shaw was a rare treat).

Each individually is something. Together, I can only imagine. :laugh:

Shaw, Curtas and Ross. It was wonderful.

You don't happen to be a lawyer, do you? :raz::laugh: Sounds like a good law firm.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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