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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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Quiche Lorraine

Ask any Joe Bagodonuts on the street what he knows about French cuisine, and most likely he will name crepes, escargot, or quiche.  In all three examples, the ingredients are simple but it’s technique that reigns.  For our Bastille Day dinner, Chef Zach made individual quiches lorraines with bacon that, while great for dinner, can also be eaten as breakfast.  Leftovers are easy to transport and heat, so these are convenient to bring to work for lunch, as well.

Makes 6 individual 4″ quiches

2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups of rice or beans

1 cup of cold butter (we highly recommend Straus for butter and milk)

1/3 lb. of cave-aged Kaltbach Gruyere cheese

10 oz. of bacon

3/4 cup of heavy whipping cream

3/4 cup of whole milk

3 cage-free eggs

1/2 cup of ice water

1 bunch of fresh chives

1 1/2 tsp. of kosher salt, plus 1 tsp.

1 tsp. of sugar

1/2 tsp. of black pepper

1/8 tsp. of freshly ground nutmeg

A dusting of flour (for rolling dough)

raw dough ingredients

raw dough ingredients

Combine the flour and butter in a food processor.  It’s best to precut the butter in tablespoon-size pieces and put in the freezer to cool for an hour before mixing with the flour.

pulsed

pulsed

You don’t want the butter to fully incorporate with the flour, so pulse until the consistency is lumpy but not too fine, like a coarse corn meal.

add water

add special water

Dissolve the sugar and 1 1/2 tsp. of salt in the water.  Pour this into the food processor with the flour and butter in a slow, steady stream with the food processor on the whole time pouring.  It should not take more than 30 seconds to do this, as you do not want to overwork the dough.

dough

dough

After the dough is combined, it needs to be divided and chilled.

divided

divided

Use a bench scraper to make a rectangular loaf, which is easier to eye and portion out.

form

form

Some of you might think that Zach is overworking the dough, but he’s barely touching it.  The whole thing about this dough is that the butter creates the flaky layers, so it can’t get too hot before even cooking it.  Quickly round the dough, without squishing it, so that it can be flattened into a circle for the miniature tart pans.  Just work fast and don’t play with it like PlayDoh.

wrap it up

wrap it up

Wrap each flattened circle of dough with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.  During this time, prep the filling.  Start by chopping the strips of bacon into small pieces and frying them; render them well, because you don’t want any chewy bacon pieces in the quiche.  Drain in a strainer or on towels to get rid of excess grease, and let cool.  Shred the Gruyere cheese, but make sure to remove the rind first.  Finely mince the chives.

roll out

roll out

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  After the dough pieces have chilled, remove from the plastic wrap and, with a rolling pin and a dusting of flour, roll out each piece to be wider than the tart pans.

press in

press in

Make sure to dust off any excess flour before pressing into the tart pans (there shouldn’t be much, but look out anyway).

remove the edge

remove the edge

Pinch off the excess dough.  Don’t reuse this excess for other quiches, because it will be overworked if you try to reform it.  Instead, you can make cracker-like snacks.  Toss in cinnamon and sugar, and bake on a cookie sheet for about 18-20 minutes.  Put the six tart pans with dough in the freezer for 20 minutes (remember, we can’t let the butter warm up).

rice keeps the dough from rising

rice keeps the dough from rising

Pour 1/4 cup of dry rice or beans in each tart.  Do not press into the dough, just pour it in and spread it out evenly; its purpose is to keep the covered part of the dough from rising.  Place on a baking sheet, and bake for 18-20 minutes.  The goal is to puff the dough but not cook it entirely, so don’t wait for it to be golden brown.  This process is called “blind baking.”  Once the tart pans have cooled, carefully remove all rice/beans.  Professional bakeries will save the rice/beans for future tarts, but you’re probably not going to be baking that much, so you can discard it.  Reduce the oven to 350 degrees F.

egg mix

egg mix

Combine the cream, milk, eggs, remaining salt, black pepper, and nutmeg.  Whisk until thoroughly mixed and some bubbles have formed on the surface from the incorporation of air.  You can mix the chives in at this point, too, but Zach prefers to sprinkle them on top.  It’s just a matter of choice.

filling up

filling up

Evenly distribute the shredded cheese and bacon into the bottom of each tart.  Pour the egg mixture in, up to the very edge of the dough.

almost there

almost there

Just before putting the quiches into the oven, Zach sprinkles the chives.  Bake for 30 minutes on the center rack.  You know they are done if you shake the sheet pan, and the fillings are firm.  The quiches shouldn’t brown on the top too much, because that will affect the velvety texture.

voila

voila

Make it a more complete meal for lunch or dinner by serving with a side salad.

Chantal Guillon, San Francisco CA

chantal guillonIf you focus on one or two themes at a time, you can be an expert.  This applies to a number of things, like learning a musical instrument, going to college, and developing the perfect product.  Chantal Guillon, purveyor of macarons and fine teas, excels in pastry making.  August got a delicious iced tea for the road back from celebrating Bastille Day in San Francisco, and we couldn’t leave without one of each of the macarons to try later at home.

macarons!All of the macarons had crisp exteriors hiding rich and sometimes unconventional fillings, ranging from standard buttercream to jelly, and even whole peanuts.  One of the flavors had run out by the time we got to Chantal Guillon, but the sixteen available were still beyond all expectations.  Pictured above we have:

Tahitian Vanilla

Red Velvet

Caramelized Whole Peanuts and Cinnamon

Coffee

Almond Amaretto

Lemon

Apricot

Cherry Amarena

Passion Fruit

Jasmine Green Tea

Valentino Raspberry-Lychee

Orange Blossom Strawberry

Persian Rose

Dark Chocolate

Salted Caramel

Italian Pistachio

Readers, the first of you who can correctly match the names with the macarons in the picture above before July 19 will receive a $20 gift certificate to Chantal Guillon!  We vouch for the veracity of the cookies’ flavors, so expect nothing less than true taste when you take a bite.  The Cherry Amarena, for one, had the mild tartness of rich deep cherry, and it seemed like there was even a small candied cherry in the center.  Similarly, the Orange Blossom Strawberry had a creamy buttercream that enveloped a small square of strawberry jelly.  The Red Velvet, even, had a filling with the flavor of real cream cheese frosting.

Are you already in San Francisco, looking for a new spot to satisfy your sweet tooth?  Or are you from out of town, planning a trip to the city by the bay?  Either way, you cannot pass up this little shop.  There’s plenty of public transportation and parking lots, so there’s no excuse.