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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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!
There is only so much that can fit on a plate. By no means was this all we tried!
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.
Al pastor is one of our favorite styles of meat when dining at a Mexican restaurant. The actual making of the special pork marinade and the tacos themselves is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is waiting for hours for delicious food while the meat marinates for up to a day in the fridge!
Makes 12 tacos
2 lbs. of 1/4″-thick sliced pork sholder
12 corn tortillas
1 1/2 cup of chopped fresh pineapple
1 roughly chopped white onion
3 dried ancho chili peppers
3 dried guajillo chili peppers
3 chipotle chili peppers (from a can of adobo sauce)
2 tbs. of adobo sauce
2 tbs. of apple cider vinegar
2 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tbs.
2 tsp. of kosher salt
1 tbs. of butter
1 tsp. of ground cumin
1 tsp. of Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp. of ground cinnamon
Salt to taste
Boil about 5-6 cups of water in a small saucepan to rehydrate the dried peppers. Once the water is boiling, remove it from heat, then add the ancho and guajillo peppers and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain from the water, remove the stems, split in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Put all ingredients except the meat, tortillas, onion, 1 tbs. of olive oil, butter, and salt in a food processor, and pulse until smooth.
Coat the meat with the sauce on all sides. Marinate in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours in a glass or ceramic dish covered with plastic wrap – do not let marinate on metal, because the pineapple would soak up a metallic taste. The longer you marinate, the deeper the flavor. However, if you happen to use canned pineapple even when the recipe calls for fresh, you will need to marinate the meat for at least 24 hours.
After marinating, you can either grill the meat on a propane grill over high heat for roughly 3 minutes on each side, or pan fry in a nonstick skillet, also over high heat and for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove the heat from the heat source – at this point they are nearly 2/3 cooked – and transfer to a cutting board.
Trim away any excess fat and take the meat off the bones. Cut the meat into 1/4″ pieces. Heat the remaining 1 tbs. of olive oil and butter to a frying pan over medium-low heat, and cook the chopped onion for about 10 minutes until roughly caramelized. At this time, turn the heat up to high and add the chopped meat. Cook for another 5-6 minutes until the meat gets nicely brown and caramelized.
Warm the tortillas on an ungreased nonstick frying pan or griddle. Load up the tortillas and add some optional garnishes: lime wedges, chopped cilantro, sour cream or crema mexicana, salsa verde, cotija cheese, Oaxacan cheese, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
Mondays are the toughest night to find a restaurant open for dinner. It’s even tougher for those with special diets, like vegan or gluten-free. Any diner, special diet or not, can rest easier knowing there is a delicious Mexican restaurant in the East Bay that caters to all clientele – AND it’s open on Monday nights! Picante in Berkeley is open seven days a week with extended hours on the weekends for brunch, so you’re bienvenido no matter what day it is.
August was recently working with some of her students on compound words, and manchamanteles is one of them. It’s a style of meat called “tablecloth stainer” because the sauce of the chicken will surely make the linens dingy. The tostada salad can come meatless and even gluten-free if you request it without the tostadas, even though it would no longer be a tostada salad if you didn’t have the fried tortillas; without the meat and tostadas, though, it would be one of the healthiest, most nutrient-packed items on the menu. We love our vegetarian friends, but for ourselves, we had to try the special manchamanteles. The sauce is made with a grilled pineapple red mole, so there was a deep earthiness from the array of chiles used, plus a mild sweetness from the caramelization of the pineapple. Chunky pico de gallo had its own tomato-based tangy acidity, and the cabbage also was faintly sweet. All together, those three elements on the sweet side fooled the palate into thinking it was a lighter meal than it really was. In reality, it was super filling and beyond satisfying. Fresh, crunchy greens, locally made Mexican-style cheese, and stewed and lightly spiced black beans completed this salad. There was enough going on that we didn’t need the dressing, but it added a delightfully fresh bite.
Ordering is done at the counter before you seat yourself, and we asked our cashier lady what she would recommend. August had already been eying the sopa de mariscos, so when the cashier said it was good, that finalized our decision. There was a little bit of heat, but it wasn’t uncomfortable (although it may be for the timid). At least the heat didn’t travel past the mouth, making our faces flush or throats burn. Beyond the heat, it was a very rich broth with intense seafood flavor, tangy tomato, and a slight buttery quality. Hunks of tender rockfish swam with lots of clams, mussels, and prawns, and it was a pleasant surprise that all the shellfish was very clean as well as fresh – prepared well, there was no hidden sand to grind our teeth. That would be an unwanted texture, while the carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes were cooked just right so that they retained a touch of their natural textures. With the fog coating this part of the Bay tonight, it was a wonderful way to warm up.
While ordering at the counter, we chanced an encounter with the manager, who offered us samples of different meats. They all tasted great, but the pork chile verde was one of the most impressive. It must have been intuition that that was the third item we ordered, before trying the meat samples. The pork was fork tender, almost to the point of melting in your mouth. Its sauce was made with tomatillo and Anaheim chile, marrying the flavors with the perfect balance to enhance the meat without overtaking the plate. On the side came rice cooked with tomato, garlic, onion, and mild spices, and Zach called it “spot on with flavors.” The pinto beans were both salty and smoky; the flavors were basic, but extremely well done for what they were. Between the beans, rice, and pork sauce, this dish required the use of tortillas for sopping. One of Picante’s claims to fame is their corn tortillas – GMO-free corn is used daily to make masa for the restaurant’s housemade tortillas.
The GMO-free corn goes into the tortillas as well as chips and masa for other dishes, so eat those corn-based items without worry. For diners who appreciate in-house, scratch cooking, this restaurant will meet or exceed your expectations. If you really love the food, catering is available for your next fiesta. Picante nos place and we bet you’ll be pleased, too.