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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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Pan-Fried Halibut with Dill Cream Sauce and Asparagus

Our orzo recipe could almost be a passable dinner by itself, but if you need protein at each meal, then this light fish is a great choice to pair with the orzo.  It doesn’t require a lot of attention to make it, so invite the kids to treat the parents for dinner one night by whipping this up for the family.

Makes 2

1/2 of a bunch of large asparagus

3/4 lb. halibut filet

1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream

1 tbs. of freshly chopped dill

1 tbs. of olive oil

The juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

shock the spears

shock the spears

Steam the asparagus until the spears are al dente.  Once removed from heat, add ice to keep the asparagus from continuing to cook itself.

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If the filet is large, cut it in half.  In a large saute pan over medium-medium-high heat (like NNW is right between north and northwest), add the olive oil and butter.  Bring the pan to full heat before adding the fish.

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Add the fish pieces one at a time, with about 15-20 seconds in between so as not to shock the pan.  Fry on each side for 4-5 minutes.  At the same time, in a small saute pan over medium-low heat, combine the cream, dill, lemon juice, and optional salt and pepper.  Cook until reduced and thickened to achieve nappe.

pan-fried halibut with dill cream sauce and asparagus

pan-fried halibut with dill cream sauce and asparagus

Optional: toss the asparagus spears in melted butter before serving.

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, Berkeley CA

Spenger’s is a landmark of Berkeley with a history spanning over a century, famous the world over for its seafood.  Zach ate here often growing up, and not much has changed in nearly thirty years of his experiences.  Some restaurants simply know how to please their customers and keep them coming back for generations with tried and true practices.  In terms of service and attention, this restaurant shines like the Sather Tower campanile at night.

One of the favorite starters here is the spinach, crab, and Parmesan dip.  It was extremely rich, creamy, and thick with a cheesy top that was nicely browned.  There was an abundance of spinach and artichoke heart morsels to balance the shredded crab meat.  The bread wedges were like a buttery flat bread, with a crispy exterior and fluffy center.  It looked like a lot of bread at first for the amount of dip, but to savor the starter, just a little on each wedge went a long way.

salmon and mushroom sauté

salmon and mushroom sauté

August found it very challenging to make up her mind among three different entrees, their descriptions all sounded so good.  She went with the salmon and mushroom sauté and was very happy with her selection.  The shallot sherry cream was delicate and worked well to marry the salmon, mushrooms, and asparagus.  Hunks of moist salmon were plentiful and substantial, not to be broken by the tender asparagus spear bits.  The mushrooms brought an autumnal earthiness, and the rice helped to add another texture and sop up all the juicy remains.

captain's platter

captain’s platter

Zach’s entree, the Captain’s Platter, had a selection of Spenger’s best seafood, fried.  Oysters, fish filets, and “shrimp scatter” (a handful of bay shrimp) were turned into crisp, succulent morsels and nibbles.  The shrimp were mildly sweet, and the crunchy panko breading did wonders for the oysters to offset their soft creamy insides.  The flaky fish was perfect for dipping into sauces, including ketchup, tartar, and cocktail.  Sweet, tangy, and creamy cole slaw with fresh vegetables provided a refreshing break between bites of fried goodness.

chocolate bag

chocolate bag

Chef Dan came out to meet us and present this masterful creation.  Decadently rich dark chocolate was melted, painted, and cooled to make a “bag” into which sweet cream chantilly was loaded.  On top of the chantilly and garnished all over were bright strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, some of them resting in stripes and swirls of chocolate sauce and strawberry syrup.  Two waffle cone “chips” perched in the “bag,” but this was as far from snack food as we could get!  To satisfy the post-dinner sweet tooth with something not too heavy, this refreshing dish does the trick.

Our server Emily was patient and professional with our every request.  We hope that patrons sitting in other sections received service as good as ours.  In reality, we’re fairly certain they did – what else could bring people back for 123 years?  Food can be replicated, but experience never.