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Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast at Vegas Uncork’d 2015

And so it is Spring, the time when Las Vegas sees a flood of people emerging from hibernation and eager to revel in whatever Sin City has to offer. It is thus the time for a broad variety of festivals, concerts, and celebrations of all sorts to entertain the tourists – and locals, of course, have the luxury of indulging in it all in their proverbial back yard. We are not locals (even though we’ve spent enough time here to know Vegas well), but we called the city our home for a weekend of relaxation after the best buffet experience we’ve had to date at Vegas Uncork’d 2015, hosted at the breathtakingly decorated ARIA Resort & Casino.

our empty table, pleading to be filled - and it will be

our empty table, pleading to be filled – and it will be

Uncork’d is a four-day culinary weekend of the best food and wine Vegas can provide with multiple events in a variety of settings, from intimate plated courses at family-sized tables to near chaos of thousands of eaters swirling around sampling stations. The Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast was a buffet so there were no courses, but neither were there thousands of eaters, just a few hundred. Wristbands printed with “Bon Appetit” granted us entry to The Buffet at ARIA for this special night, and although the crowd as a whole was numerous, each party was given their own private table. Even before we reached the table, though, we were offered our first glass of limitless champagne (though we didn’t exceed one glass each).

ice bar

ice bar

The Moët et Chandon was kept cold in the sculpted ice bar, and despite a bit of dripping, the bar did not melt away before the end of the night. Nearby were two ice bowls containing charming concoctions, the pretty pastel belying their powerful pours.

We tried the Spring Cooler with Belvedere vodka, St. Germain, grapefruit, lime, and Moët Brut Imperial champagne. It was vibrantly tart with natural flavors, but not to the point of causing a puckered face; rather, we sipped it between bites as a palate cleanser, the citrus and elderflower flavors being more satisfying than a raspberry sorbet. The Bourbon Punch with Bulleit bourbon, lemon, ginger, and Eric Bordelet apple cider looked lovely, but the two flutes of champagne and one Spring Cooler between the two of us was our limit on the alcohol. The libations were above par, but what made these three hours of dinner different from any other The Buffet evening were the guests of honor: Claude Escamilla, Jean-Philippe Maury, Shawn McClain, Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Masa Takayama, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and various ARIA restaurant crews “put their gourmet spin on self-service style dining.”

ACT I: SAVORY DINNER

It’s the Vegas buffet to beat all buffets, but the standard salad and bread options weren’t dismissed. Fresh vegetables and artisan bread were simple but celebrated. Ourselves, we did not get any of this salad or bread, instead saving room for the multitude of tantalizing tastes.

Jean Georges Steakhouse was represented by phenomenal meats and tasty sides. We were most taken by the prawns with chimichurri and the rib roast, although the beef brisket with soy glaze and smoked kurabota pork rack with ancho chili glaze were delectable as well. The sides of lime-chili glazed carrots, spring vegetables in chili butter and mint, asparagus with charred scallion vinaigrette, and potato comte gratin were droolworthy in their decadence. All the non-potato vegetables were treated with care, so while they were not raw, the supremely al dente texture allowed each to retain some of its natural and unique integrity. That is not to say the potatoes were not treated with care; “creamy, cheesy, delightful” were Zach’s first words. A few golden edges of cheese added texture and umami.

Lemongrass is known for fusion as well as traditional Thai food, and tonight they displayed the traditional side. Both of us have had satay before – skewered and grilled meat with a special sauce – but in doing research for this post, we learned that satay originated in Indonesian cuisine and has regional varieties throughout Southeast Asian countries. This was the Thai version with chicken, beef, and sweet prawns all high quality, served with peanut sauce and achat on the side (cucumber relish). From what we recall this is the only type of satay we’ve tried before, so the lightly nippy flavor combination was familiar to us. Unfamiliar was the som tam, a spicy green papaya salad with fish sauce, dried shrimp, and crushed peanuts. There’s nothing like finding a flavor that is new to the palate.

Tapas are almost meant for buffet dining since they’re already pre-portioned for easy serving. There was one night in August’s adolescence that she, her mother, and two traveling companions lasted four hours at a tapa bar in Toledo – it’s just too easy to pick up a pintxo and pop it in, one after another. Julian Serrano has brought Spain to Las Vegas with an assortment of traditional flavors. The tortilla was classic with more potatoes than eggs plus onions that were caramelized before incorporated into this all-day omelet. Instead of being served on a piece of bread, the bread was on the tortilla, and even still to top it off, the bread had a pad of garlic aioli akin to a frosting that was both sweet and spicy only the way garlic can be. Padrón peppers are tricky, because without enough salt in the sauteing process, they have the potential to turn spicy. These, though, were just right, and the orange zest and orange glaze brought a new dimension to what is one of August’s all-time favorite tapas. The “choripan” was the Chef’s take on pigs in a blanket, with Swiss bread wrapped around Spanish chorizo. Unlike Mexican chorizo, the Spanish type is mild, not nearly as fatty, and not at all crumbly, so the teeth had something tender to sink into with these wrapped sausages.

first round for august

first round for august

Already there was so much good stuff, but there was no way we could stop yet!

Masa Takayama’s Tetsu brought the freshness of the ocean hundreds of miles inland, as the quality of his ingredients outweighed the distance they traveled. The Chilean sea bass with sansho pepper was both buttery and flaky. If it weren’t for the posted menu we might have assumed the kale salad was seaweed salad, except that pine nuts aren’t a typical element of seaweed salad. The earthiness of the nuts plus the iron-rich greenness of the kale were brightened by a lime vinaigrette.

barmasa sushi

barmasa sushi

Chef Takayama has another restaurant in the ARIA, barMASA, which he holds to equal standards as Tetsu. We got to sample two rolls (salmon avocado; spicy tuna), two nigiri (akami; hamachi), and two sushi canapé (toro caviar; shrimp & scallop). Having cut fish his whole life beginning early in his parents’ fish shop, the Chef has expectations of freshness that translate to quality and sublime taste. As such, all fish brought to barMASA from Japanese waters are served within 24 hours of being fished.

The Buffet itself saved one section for their signature “Fish Market,” not relinquishing every ounce of counter space to the visiting chefs and crews. The fish n’ chips miniature baskets were as tasty as they were cute. The other shellfish items weren’t so cute, but still flavorful: lemon clams, a variety of steamed crab legs, mussels, and giant prawns, crab cakes, and a strictly seafood paella. Isn’t it interesting how all these dishes from the deep blue turn out in shades of orange and brown?

Indian food, having some of the most complex spice combinations, deserved space at this gastronomic fete. Traditionally prepared curries, sauces, and naan are not common fare on the Strip, so even a few chefs behind neighboring counters were fawning over the selection.

Five50 Pizza Bar is Shawn McClain’s claim, but his fame is for more than pizza. On display were two, the Gotham with pepperoni, salami, and Italian sausage (a gourmet yet basic meat lover’s), and the Forager which we tried, topped with mushrooms, spinach, and whipped ricotta over a white sauce. When made with a nice white sauce, we prefer a vegetarian pizza that lets the fresh veggies sing instead of getting too weighted down with proteins. The arancini is most simply described as a meatless meatball: the size, seasoning, and texture were nearly identical, except this arancini was a risotto ball stuffed with fontina cheese and mushrooms, coated with breadcrumbs, fried, and served on marinara sauce. There was also an antipasto variety of pickled and marinated vegetables and cheeses. From what we can tell, antipastos are not on the regular Five50 menu, so this was a little something extra brought specially for the evening.

Michael Mina’s newest endeavor is Bardot Brasserie, which had its grand opening barely four months prior to this event. It’s French food with a twist, and after trying these bites, we’re vying to return sooner than later for a table at the restaurant. The charcuterie was an assortment of fine meats including housemade pâté, jambon bayonne (French prosciutto), saucisson sec (dry French salami), and pork rillettes (akin to pâté). With eggplant caviar which contains no real caviar, and basil pistou that’s like a pine nut-free pesto, the chickpea fries were anything but standard French fries. And while many people think of escargot when imagining French stereotypes, there was nothing stereotypical about Chef Mina’s. No need for shells, each snail was wrapped in a pastry that, despite being so buttery, maintained a bit of crispiness and flakiness. Accented by chartreuse butter lettuce, hazelnuts, and dill, these were so good we had more than we care to admit. Hey, it was a buffet!

second round for zach

second round for zach

There’s never too much when it’s all this tasty!

Blossom is ARIA’s center of Chinese cuisine, with over 100 dishes on the menu. We were privy to sampling a fraction of them tonight, including spicy water cooked beef with tofu and Santa Barbara live prawns in soya sauce (well, not alive when served).

dim sum by blossom

dim sum by blossom

The variety of dim sum was limited, but then again, each contributor was given only so much counter space. The buns, dumplings, and wraps were all rich, the shrimp-filled one above all else in succulence.

ACT II: DELIGHTFUL DESSERTS

If you are a sweet freak and are viewing this while at work, the pictures may make you drool onto your computer. Claude Escamilla, pastry chef with Jean-Philippe Maury at the Jean Philippe Patisserie, pulled out all the stops for the dessert section of the buffet. Being a dessert fanatic herself, August had as many plates of sweetness as she did of savory!

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Cookies, brownies, a dozen gelato flavors, cheesecake, truffles, vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, Jordan almonds, dipped marshmallows, crème brûlée, French macarons, dipped crispy rice treats, chocolate covered pretzels/peanuts/raisins/espresso beans, saltwater taffy, flan, berry coconut cake pops, fruit tarts, raspberry beignets, opera cakes, élcairs, neapolitans, strawberry framboise, tiramisu, berry pana cottas, vanilla millefeuille, nutella millefeuille… The number of desserts nearly rivaled the savory items!

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first round of desserts

There is only so much that can fit on a plate. By no means was this all we tried!

second round of desserts

second round of desserts

From first champagne sip to last spoon lick, this was truly an unforgettable event. The Chefs’ Counter: All-Star Feast should be on any foodie’s bucket list, because there are few opportunities in the world to sample from the repertoire of so many incredible chefs and restaurants in one sitting. Not to be blasphemous, but do we dare compare it to a pilgrimage? We really do feel this is one of those do-it-at-least-once-or-you’ll-regret-it-on-your-deathbed kind of things. Even picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions can be gluttonous to their hearts’ content because it’s a buffet – find what you like and eat as much as you want of it! For the diehards that want to try every last morsel, keep in mind that it is a three-hour dinner. That’s plenty of time, but with too much Moët et Chandon, a person might lose track of the hours. Months of planning, coordination, collaboration, and preparation paid of for this yearly event that sees every attendee leave with a smile, off to bask in the remainder of a Spring Vegas weekend.

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SOMA StrEat Food Park, San Francisco CA *revisited*

Beautiful weather drew us to San Francisco this evening, perfect for strolling around SOMA StrEat Food Park and visiting new trucks.  The food truck craze has made available some of the best examples of food, from comfort to ethnic.  Checking ahead on the Park’s Facebook page is a clear indicator of which trucks are present on any given day, so after seeing what was in store, we had high hopes for the food.

Lil Burma “provides healthy, gourmet street food,” as per the website, and we can’t argue.  We ordered coconut chicken noodle soup but were graciously offered the Indian style curry chicken to try; no wonder, they knew that we would be impressed!  The curry chicken was fork tender, stewed in an Indian blend of spices for a deliciously medium heat, and Zach thought it was the the tastiest he’s tried (in his limited curry experience).  It was served over rice, which in Zach’s opinion, was “the best hands down from a food truck.”  The soup was August’s favorite, being considerably milder.  Abundant flour noodles and meaty coconut chicken hunks in a buttery bean soup would be the chicken noodle soup to beat any cold.  It was not overly spiced yet zingy with sweet onions, fresh cilantro, and lime, achieving a good blend of flavors that any palate can handle.

Best Brazilian Skewer doesn’t have much of an online presence, but when you see the little cart, you will recognize it.  Simple skewer plates were filling and nutritious, with sides we imagine taste like home for Brazilians.  August erroneously thought the skewer would have had one big strip of meat, so she was surprised to see bite-size hunks of savory steak enhanced by a nice marinade; it’s always appreciated when street food is served in a manageable way, since plastic knives really wouldn’t do much for steak.  A large pile of fresh mixed greens tossed in a light oil and vinegar dressing propped up the skewer, providing a good source of crudités, so to speak.  The potato carrot salad was not heavily dressed and the vegetables were cooked to just the right point, maintaining good texture.  The rice, so unassuming, was the underdog of the plate.  It looked simple, but the flavors of garlic, onion, and black bean made it delicious like none other we’ve tried before.

Dessert in the form of a Golden Waffle was a great way to cap off the night.  These waffles aren’t typical, as they are made with Belgian pearl sugar in the true liège style.  Enjoy it plain or add toppings as we did – from drizzles to fruits, there are many combinations available.  We chose Nutella, Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, Three Twins organic vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream.  Granted, when you add toppings the waffle really becomes what you make of it, but we’re sure that anything would taste just fine atop a fluffy yet crunchy waffle.

When the weather is right, everyone comes out to play, no matter what day of the week.  Similarly, the Park is open seven days a week, with standard ploys like movie night Wednesdays at mimosa brunch Sundays.  Just check Facebook ahead of time to see which trucks will be there.

SOMA StrEat Food Park, San Francisco CA

the center of the park

the center of the park

The SOMA StrEat Food Park is a triangle of magic.  Over 50 food trucks cycle so that a variety of vendors congregate every day of the week.  Because it’s a permanent fixture just off the freeway, the Park is laid out with ample room for foot traffic, outdoor patio seating, indoor heated areas, and schmancy restrooms.  Here you can always count on a good meal in a more than comfortable atmosphere.

For a cold night in San Francisco, The Fish Tank Truck offers a great warming soup.  The sweet summer corn and crab chowder was a light pick-me-up, not heavy like the rich traditional cream chowder.  There was a medium spiciness from the pepper, adding a nice touch to the chunky vegetables and savory dungeness meat.  Don’t worry about the corn being sweet – it’s just right.

Adam’s Grub Truck makes sandwiches with a Chinese twist.  Everything on the menu looked pretty tempting, but it was the Falkor that called to us: panko-crusted fried chicken with pepper jack cheese, bacon, and a fried egg topped with “grubbin'” Asian slaw on a toasted brioche bun.  The chicken’s breading was light and crispy, coating meat that was treated with a teriyaki-inspired light marinade.  Even with its own kick the pepper jack cheese, being dairy and gooey, helped tone down the slaw with an even stronger kick.  Crisp, smoky, salty bacon gave it a different kind of crunch to contrast the breading and slaw.  The ideally prepared easy over egg brought a creaminess that united the fusion of flavors.

MeSoHungry Too, the second San Francisco truck of the MeSoHungry family, changes its menu seasonally so who knows for how long the Duke will be around – we say to come and try it sooner than later.  Angus beef, smoked applewood bacon, onion rings, spring mix lettuce, barbecue sauce, and cheesy Texas toast was a tasty combination.  The hand-formed patty of tender beef was extremely flavorful and easy to bite through.  The sharpness of the Parmesan on the cheese bread fostered an excellent balance with the barbecue sauce, which itself was the most classic pairing for the crunchy breaded onion rings and smoky bacon.

Bob Cha had some of the tastiest vegetarian options, including Bibim Bob, their Korean-Mexican fusion of bibimbap.  With zucchini, shiitake mushroom, onion, sprouts, and lettuce over steamed rice with an egg, this was very light yet very filling.  Meaty mushrooms and aromatic, crunchy sprouts gave the dish excellent texture extremes, and the creamy yolk of the perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was the middle ground to bring them together.  We took this one step past vegetarianism and added bacon spicy fried rice, which brought heat without being anywhere near sweat-inducing.

We didn’t eat dessert first, but the CandyBar Dessert Truck was first in its class for satisfying our sweet tooth tonight.  CandyBar is San Francisco’s first “dessert lounge” offering sweets, wine, art, and recreations; the dessert truck is an abbreviation of the lounge with some of the best sweets from the storefront’s menu.  Apparently back by popular demand, we were compelled to try the tres leches.  Both tender and dense, the soft cake was soaked with just the right amount of condensed milk.  Rich and thick caramel was on the lighter side, not too dark and deep, drizzled over fluffy and creamy whipped cream.  The s’mores tart was built on a graham cracker crust with caramel, chocolate ganache, and pillow-like homemade marshmallows.  The crust was as crumbly as the ganache was smooth, so scraping the chocolate around helped to pick up all the graham bits.  Toasted right before our eyes, the marshmallows had a faint vanilla flavor to add an extra element of sweetness.

We did not visit all the trucks tonight since some we had tried before, but it’s a guarantee that there will be something new to experience each time.  Once you’ve cycled through all the trucks, look out for updated and seasonal menus to change.  Bring friends and family, since there’s enough seating, amenities, and diverse food to please everyone.