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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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Doggy Style Hot Dogs, Alameda CA

doggy style

doggy style

July 23 is National Hot Dog Day.  It’s also Woody Harrelson, Slash, and Daniel Radcliffe’s birthday, so of course we celebrated with the most unique hot dogs we could find in the Bay Area (apart from making our own).  Doggy Style Hot Dogs in Alameda serves Asian fusion hot dogs, drawing from the cuisines of many cultures.  They say on their website that they “are second to none in [their] innovative style” and after trying six styles of doctored kosher beef frankfurter hot dogs, we agree.

all american

all american

All dogs come on the same seeded French roll, soft and grilled.  There are many links to choose from, like linguica, calabrese, and veggie, but being National Hot Dog Day, we had to stick strictly to classic frankfurters.  Doggy Style uses links made by a local company with decades of experience, and we tasted a finely tuned recipe for quality meat.  Large, smoky, slightly spiced, and flavor packed, the dogs were delicious and the different assortments of toppings just made them enchanting.  We started with the All American, with toppings of cole slaw, cheese, bacon, and barbecue sauce.  The crunchy cole slaw with a vinegar base was super crispy and fresh, offering an excellent texture contrast.  The shredded cheddar cheese and bacon were both abundant, piled almost to the tipping point!  The bacon was crispy in its own way and even lean, and its smokiness was highlighted by the sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.

umai

umai

The next dog took us to Japan, and it was very umai – August looked it up, it means “delicious,” a very fitting name.  The umai dog has seaweed, pickled radish, teriyaki sauce, and Japanese mayonnaise.  It tasted like hot dog sushi, and as weird as that sounds, it tasted fresh and flavorful.  The teriyaki added a bit of tang to the sea and earth essences of the seaweed and radish, respectively.  It’s the standard teriyaki sauce you’d have with sushi, and you’d never think it works with a hot dog, but it does.

banh mi

bánh mì

Continuing on our globally inspired hot dog tour, our palates visited Vietnam for an interesting twist on the traditional sandwich.  Pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, and mayonnaise adorned this dog, with a dash of sriracha on the side.  This is kind of like everything you’d want in a bánh mì sandwich – soft but crunchy French roll, exceptionally fresh vegetables, and a bit of kick.  We’ve seen some bánh mì with interesting meats (liverwurst, anyone?), so in all honesty, hot dogs aren’t so big of a stretch.

ka-re dog

ka-re dog

There were a few specials today in honor of National Hot Dog Day, so we couldn’t pass them up.  Probably our favorite savory dog of the evening was the ka-re dog (sounds like curry).  With homemade Japanese curry and pickled radishes, this was a beautiful combination of Japanese, Indian, and American flavors.  The curry is slow-cooked with potatoes, carrots, and onions, resulting in a sauce that is mildly sweet with all the spices of curry but zero heat.  The pickled radishes, also Japanese (Takuwan and Fujin Zuke, as per the menu description), were an amazing pairing with the curry, not just for flavor but also for contrasting crunchy mouthfeel.  It was a flavor symphony of sweet, tangy, and spices.

nut-n-jelly "crunch"

nut-n-jelly “crunch”

The other special threw us for a loop – a dessert dog!  The Nut-n-Jelly “Crunch” has Chex cereal, peanut butter sauce, strawberry jelly, and a granola mix with almonds.  The peanut butter sauce was special with the addition of just a touch of honey, making it very rich and decadent.  The house-made strawberry jelly was naturally sweet and tangy.  All the crunchiness of the cereal, granola, and nuts made this quite a mouthful, like eating a crazy version of Chex Mix.

waffle dog

waffle dog

Even after trying five dogs, we had to do one more because, well, it’s a waffle dog!  Doggy Style’s take on the corn dog is dipped in waffle batter and griddled in a waffle iron shaped specially for a hot dog.  If you like fun food and/or waffles, you’ve got to try this.  It’s highly recommended that you use the maple syrup; think of this as bacon or sausage in maple syrup, something that more Americans do with their breakfast than would admit.

We had the luck of meeting Mike, one of the owners, who made all of our special hot dogs this evening.  He’s a very talented guy with a creative mind, and we cannot wait to go back to try more dogs (once we recover from this binge for National Hot Dog Day).  Eight varieties are standard on the menu but with various specials, we’re sure there will always be something to surprise and delight us.

2013 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

We came to Japantown in San Francisco for the day so that we could find every delicious bite at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.  At this Japanese/Japanese American/Asian American cultural celebration, around a dozen food vendors had their own block sectioned off and we were more than happy to support the various community groups that brought out their best for the day.  We enjoyed walking around, shopping, enjoying dance and musical performances, and obviously the food.  We’re proud of all the food providers today, and we want to specifically highlight our top favorites.

chinese chicken salad

chinese chicken salad

The Rotary Club of San Francisco Chinatown, District 5150, made an excellent Chinese chicken salad.  Fresh lettuce, cilantro, ginger, crunchy wonton strips, juicy chicken, and sesame seeds combined for this classic mix, but the ingredients were supremely fresh.  In fact, ginger isn’t usually tolerable for August, but she really liked this and Zach suggested that she stop eating or else she wouldn’t have room for all the rest!  It was a refreshing start to our eating escapade.

red bean soup with mochi

red bean soup with mochi

More like a dessert, this red bean soup from the Japanese American Association of Northern California was a warm respite when the wind gusted strongly.  Giant mochi were like gummy dumplings; August likes gummy candy and tapioca pearl drinks, so again, she had to stop herself from eating a lot of it.

sushi & gyoza combination

sushi & gyoza combination

Miwa Kai Dance Group impressed us with this selection of inari, California rolls, and gyoza.  Inari has always been one of August’s favorites but it was Zach’s first time.  For how simple it is, it was still full of flavor, sweet and tangy from fried tofu, and really delicious.  The vegetables in the California rolls were exceptionally fresh and crunchy.  With seven yummy gyoza, sharing was a hard compromise.

spam musubi

spam musubi

Boy Scouts Troup 58 made delicious musubi – grilled spam with teriyaki glaze, wrapped in rice and seaweed.  Zach worked his way from Webelo to Cub Scout to Boy Scout, thus he respects and understands the efforts put in by the families.  We like spam but don’t eat it that often; usually we find it as a heavy Loco Moco, or we even tried the Spam Festival but that didn’t pan out, so this was a real treat to have here.  The green oceany flavor of the seaweed added a nice layer.

báhn mì

báhn mì

Since finding a great Vietnamese restaurant on Concord, we really like báhn mì sandwiches.  The Vietnamese Community Center of San Francisco made these, like the combination that we tried (others had just pork, just chicken, just veggies, etc).  The bread was great, more like a sweet roll than a french bread, because it had a bit more pull and not as much crunch in the crust.  All the vegetables were fresh and some were pickled.  The chicken and pork were tender and marinated well.

unagi bowl

unagi bowl

San Francisco Taru Mikoshi, besides providing the traditional taru mikoshi, or mobile Shinto shrine, also made this unagi bowl.  The eel meat was super moist and buttery with great seasoning and a somewhat sweet glaze.  The pickled ginger was a nice touch.

The line for the riblets was really long, and multiple grills kept up with the demand.  Asian American Recovery Services, Inc. had a big crew cooking up lots of pork and coleslaw (this picture shows just one of several grills).  Sweet, savory, tender, and for the price as a combo, this couldn’t be beat; plus, you can’t go wrong with Asian-inspired slaw and Hawaiian rolls.

kalua sliders

kalua sliders

This picture does not do justice for how great it was.  Hula Sistas, innovative Hawaiian crafters, offered kalua pork sliders with wasabi mayo.  The mayo was “creamy and with just enough spicy zing that it shook you, but you just had to go back for another bite” (as per Zach).  The shredded pork was moist, succulent, and tender, and the vegetables were crisp and fresh.  Supported by sweet Hawaiian rolls, it was now Zach’s turn to keep himself from eating the whole thing!

kelly's cranes, in collaboration with cynthia sasaki designs

kelly’s cranes, in collaboration with cynthia sasaki designs

August’s thing is to look for a pair of unique earrings at each food event we attend.  She had luck at the Chocolate Salon and the Taste of Yountville, and she was delighted when she saw these delicate origami cranes by Kelly, niece of Cynthia, of Cynthia Sasaki Designs.  August loves everything miniature to begin with, so of course these showed up in her radar.

Zach found some goodies too, from Arakawa Pottery.  We spoke with Thomas Arakawa, the owner and artist, and while he doesn’t have a store front, we will be following him because we want to have a collection of his beautiful ceramics.  Plates and platters, serving and soup bowls, sake cups and carafes, all made with an extremely labor-intensive process, are works of art – but according to Thomas’s Artist Statement, it is half complete as art until it is filled and used. These are dishes that you’ll start to see in future recipe posts!

The Cherry Blossom Festival spans two weekends this year, and today was just the first day.  Make your plans to come April 14, 20, and/or 21 and taste for yourself the array of delights!