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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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Kanishka’s Gastropub, Walnut Creek CA

For the folks who profess their love of all cuisines, Kanishka’s Neo-Indian Gastropub would be a real treat. Not everyone likes Indian food, but this is not entirely typical Indian food. The owner/chef is heavily inspired by her grandfather’s Bengali recipes with a few servings of her travels through all hemispheres. Her menu is filled with ingredients that combine flavors from all lands where she’s stepped foot, bridging India to all of them like a global network of small plates. Dining here is an experience to take your taste buds on a trip around the world through the perspective of one cuisine in one sitting.

special brussel sprouts

flash-fried brussel sprouts, chef’spices, lemon curry aioli

We began our dinner with the Brussel sprouts, flash-fried and seasoned with “Chef’Spices” and served with lemon curry aioli. Blanching before frying helped cook the bitterness out, allowing so many other flavors to shine. They were seasoned with a mild curry and cumin spice blend, and while the outer leafs gained so much of the savory flavor, towards the center the sprouts retained an al dente texture with natural vegetable flavor. It was a fine balance of fresh and savory, crunch and cooked. A creamy aioli with light lemon flavor and a bit of curry was vital, not just a hastily added condiment; the sprouts, while tasty, were better with it.

The Street Side Duets was really more of a three-in-one small plate with typical Indian street snacks, or chaat, a term referring to savory snacks sold from stalls or carts. The five pastry-looking puchkas are also known as pani-puri, consisting of a hollowed pastry fried and then filled. These were much like the standard found throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The pastry cups were so surprisingly thin, yet sturdy enough to contain the semi-smooth potato and chickpea filling with mild curries and the heat of a chili pepper. The sweet tamarind glaze helped balance the heat, but it was far from the hottest item on the plate. From the silver bowl we enjoyed bhel puri, kind of like an Indian Chex Mix made with puffed rice, a few peanuts, a small amount of fresh cucumber, and a tamarind sauce. It was spiced, but not spicy. Zach didn’t like it at first bite, but the second and third and so forth kept getting tastier, like a consuming addiction (part of the comparison to Chex Mix). To appreciate it more, we would recommend eating it slowly because it is an experience for the mouth to feel in contrast to what the eye sees. Despite looking like having a cracker texture, it was almost salad-like with a mix of crispy and chewy. The tamarind cilantro shooter itself was not so bad, but the shot glass was rimmed with a tamarind chili pepper dust and that was a real kick to the tongue. It can be used as a sauce to drizzle over the plate with the puchkas, but we took it down like resilient older Indian women tend to do, according to our server Lindsay. The small plate was nowhere near lacking flavor.

papas bravas re-invented

papas bravas re-invented

The papas bravas were strikingly similar to what August has tasted in Spain, but decidedly different here at Kanishka’s. Large-diced potatoes were tossed with Indian spices as well paprika, served in a pool of tomato fenugreek cream sauce that tasted essentially like a curry ketchup. The same lemon curry aioli as the Brussel sprouts proved to be just as integral here as it was for the sprouts, adding a layer of flavor that made this memorable.

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nicoya breeze salad

Just have to say, what came out to us what not what we expected when we ordered “warm seafood salad (fresh catch & shrimp), zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, avocado, butter lettuce, devilish egg, Chef’s tangy dressing” but that’s okay because it was still tasty. The eye tells us so much about what we eat, but we become so accustomed to certain standards of plating that “seafood salad” would probably not be dreamed of like this by too many people at all. The fresh catch was mahi mahi, and three large bites of it plus three shrimp sat in the hollowed-out half of an avocado skin. The fish was lightly seasoned; sometimes simplicity is delicious when the ingredient can stand alone in its purity. The shrimp had a little extra flavor to it, a touch spiced but not overwhelmingly. The squash and carrot salad had a latent heat from the tangy tamarind dressing, so August was thankful for the avocado half to keep her tongue cooled from this and the other spicy components of the dinner.

tandoori-tini

tandoori-tini

The tandoori-tini was creative in its plating, that’s certain. Made with tandoori BBQ chicken thigh meat, the same paprika potatoes as the papas bravas, spicy pico de gallo, and Indian spices, it was the type of dish a small eater would fill up on easily. The spoonful of classic Mexican guacamole was not listed on the menu, unless that’s the pico de gallo, as it did have lots of fresh tomatoes and onions. A garnish of pickled onion offered a bit of tanginess to break up the hearty “meat and potatoes” vibe this gives off. But, we didn’t realize that this was going to be almost identical to the papas bravas so we recommend that you choose one over the other.

shikampuri lamb sliders

shikampuri lamb sliders

To our delight, as we are lovers of this not-too-popular meat, there were more than one lamb dish on the menu. We went for the sliders as the lamb was from local Superior Farms of Dixon; lamb is tasty (barring mutton), but the closer to home is better and this dish was another tally in the column of evidence. Patrons can choose between Indian flatbread and eggless bread but the owner recommended the wrap style with flatbread so of course we took her suggestion. With arugula, chutney, aioli, and onion straws, the crunchy wrap with a tortilla-like texture enveloped the crispy onion straws and fresh greens, creating excellent layers of texture. Simple flavors and few ingredients make for a great dish.

With such a menu to take a culinary trip around the world, it would be foolish not to return. Being that the restaurant is still young, there is room for adjustments to be made. We did try an additional dish not featured here, because we learned that it will be axed soon so we would hate to lure you here under false pretenses. The menu, though, is nearly a piece of art for all its details and subtle references. There are main categories for the different types of small plates (vegetarian, seafood, land-based meat, etc), each with a corresponding song title that ties in to the theme in some puzzlingly metaphorical way. For each item there are thoughtful beer and wine pairing suggestions, but like our honest server Lindsay pointed out, most people that order more than one item wouldn’t necessarily care to have a dedicated drink for each. It is nice to have the options; if August still worked in downtown Walnut Creek like she did for a year after college, she would make this her lunch break stop on the regular, a plate a day with a little something to sip it down. If you were to take just one of our recommendations, though, let it be this: make a reservation, but be prepared that you still might wait for your table anyway. Kanishka’s is the cool kid at school and everyone wants to hang out with her.

Aroma Cuisine of India, Castro Valley CA

Zach surprised himself last night at SOMA when he fell in love with the Indian fare.  Emboldened by the experience, we sought an Indian restaurant for dinner tonight so that he could further explore the cuisine.  Online searching brought us to Aroma Cuisine of India, an establishment that is as small as its food is flavorful.  With only 32 seats inside but an expansive variety of dishes, this restaurant hosts an intimate environment with many tastes of the great subcontinent.

chicken samosas with chaat

chicken samosas with chaat

To ease into the meal and test our palates, we began with two chicken samosas, garnished with chaat (a smattering of street food-style toppings).  Deep fried patties shaped into irregular triangles held shredded white meat chicken.  The fried dough was light and had a flaky crust, and despite being deep fried, these were not oily.  A mild curry spooned over the top had a deep cumin flavor, and a tangy yogurt sauce helped to balance it.  Tender garbanzo beans, crisp red onion, and refreshing cucumber added an interesting sweetness – as sweet as vegetables can naturally be.

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Few Indian dishes can be eaten without naan, a traditional flat bread that is ideal for sopping up tasty curries and sauces.  We tried four of the vegetarian naan, including garlic, pesto, olive, and muglai.  The bright yellow of the garlic naan was attributed to the other spices blended with the garlic – what is Indian food without spices?  Pesto here also had a few spices, so don’t expect Italian pesto, although Indian pesto is some tough competition for the Italian one.  Minced olive was hidden inside the naan, not spread over the top; this way we could taste the naan itself and appreciate the fluffy texture, with moments of salty, bright olive here and there.  Muglai was essentially another Indian pesto naan, but with the additions of spinach, cheese, and more garlic.  We had to contain ourselves and hold back from nibbling these up, lest we run out before sopping up the juices of our entrees!

l to r: goat curry, chicken coconut curry, chicken tikka masala

l to r: goat curry, chicken coconut curry, chicken tikka masala

An Indian feast is not just for smelling and eating, but for gazing.  The colors of the sauces in these meat dishes were so vivid and enticing.  Zach had never tried goat before, so of course we had to order it to see if it was something he’d like.  Beyond tender, the meat was easily forked off the bones.  Of the three dishes this was the spiciest, although we would still consider it medium – nothing to make you shriek from the heat, as this traditional curry is onion-based.  The chicken coconut curry was the favorite at our table, surprising even August who usually avoids coconut.  In this trio the chicken coconut curry was sweet thanks to the coconut, but the sweetness was not overpowering and was very well balanced by savory mild spices.  Our server recommended chicken tikka masala, and we’re glad she did.  If the goat was spicy and the coconut curry was sweet, then this was the tangy dish among the selection, as tomatoes are the base of classic masala.  The white meat chicken in both the coconut curry and the tikka masala was very tender, just like the chicken in the samosas.

If you ever lived in close proximity to an Indian family, you’re already familiar with the hypnotizing scents of the cuisine; but if you haven’t actually tried the food yet, Aroma Cuisine of India is an excellent place to try this rich food for your first time.  Even the basmati rice was nicely spiced with flavors of India, proving that no detail is overlooked here.