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.
The foundation of all Western rice-based entrees, paella is Spain’s crown dish. Regional varieties offer some with all seafood, some with surf and sky, some even with rabbit. But the three things that unite all paellas are saffron, fresh ingredients (from sources as local as possible, preferably), and an open flame. Cooking on a stove top instead of in the oven results in the desired texture of rice with just slightest bit of firmness.
48 oz. of organic chicken broth
3 cups of arborio rice
3 cups of water
3 bone-in chicken thighs (pull the skin off yourself; you want them skinless, but save the money)
1 lb. of large, cleaned, peeled, raw prawns
18 farm-raised black mussels
12 farm-raised little neck clams
1 1/2 cups of white wine
12 oz. of frozen peas
12 oz. of kielbasa
5 organic carrots
5 stalks of organic celery
1 large onion
1 large red bell pepper
6 whole garlic cloves
4 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil
1 tbs. of saffron threads in 1 cup of warm water, having soaked for at least 3 minutes
2 tsp. of kosher salt
1/2 tsp. of cracked black pepper
Roughly chop the carrots and celery. Peel and halve the onion. Cut one of the onion halves in half again, and put this with the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves in a large stock pot with 2 tbs. of olive oil over medium heat. Cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the vegetables begin to caramelize.
Deglaze the stock pot with the wine. Add the chicken stock, saffron, saffron water, and 3 cups of water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and let simmer for no more than 30 minutes; too much time can cause the vegetables to make the stock bitter. Strain the vegetables when done and discard the solids, leaving just the liquid.
In a large paella pan, heat the remaining 2 tbs. of olive oil on medium heat. Put the bone-in, skinless chicken thighs on the surface and begin to lightly brown the meat, about 5 minutes on each side. In the meantime, remove the seeds of the bell pepper, then evenly dice the pepper and the remaining onion.
Move the chicken to the side of the pan, and add the bell pepper and onion. Cook for about 7-8 minutes until the onion is translucent and the pepper softened, but you don’t want to brown these yet – if you see them starting to brown, reduce the heat.
Cut the kielbasa in 1″ chunks, and add to the paella pan. Let cook for an additional 4 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pan so that it is easier to stir in the rice. It is essential that the rice grains all have the chance to be evenly coated by the pan oils, and ingredients need to be evenly mixed. Nestle and somewhat submerge the chicken back into the rice, evenly spaced, after the rice has been sufficiently coated.
Pour in 2 1/2 to 3 cups of the stock. Bring back to a simmer, still on medium heat, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is about three-quarters of the way cooked. Keep adding stock through those 15 minutes, with 1/2 to 1 cup at a time to maintain the rice continuously submerged.
When the rice hits the three-quarter mark, add the frozen peas. Also add the seafood, slightly nestling it similar to how you placed the chicken. Whatever stock remains, add that as well. Cover the pan with foil (it may require a few pieces to span the width). Let sit for 10 minutes more, then remove from heat and let sit for an additional 5 minutes, still with the foil cover.
Peel away the foil and serve immediately.
Hours of vehicle service left us on foot to explore downtown Martinez, and we thought, what could we recommend to people here due to business at the county seat? Where can they go that’s quick and delicious? Today we sampled from three restaurants, to provide a spectrum of what’s not just available, but also great quality.
Honey walnut prawns are hard for us to pass up. Luckily these at Sunflower Garden came without sesame seeds (on Zach’s “must not eat” list, walnuts are also); August liked the candied walnuts and they added a great crunch to the dish. We both loved the honey sauce, which was rich, creamy, sweet, and tangy, with mild orange notes. The prawns were many, large, and cooked well. The meat was almost buttery and the batter was light but crunchy.
Neither of us had tried black pepper scallops before. We love scallops and wanted to see what these were like. This came out so fresh, it was hard to get a clear picture because the dish produced so much steam.
It’s easy to mess up scallops, but Sunflower Garden knows what they’re doing. August doesn’t necessarily like lots of black pepper so she was nervous since that ingredient is in the title of the dish, but in the end she had no reason to worry. With the other spices and elements in the sauce, the black pepper wasn’t overpowering and it complemented the fried scallops very well. It was like a rich light brown gravy with black pepper, garlic, and onion flavors, and a good saltiness to set off the sweet scallops. The scallops were in a batter similar to that of the prawns, and the meat was fresh and juicy. The broccoli was tender but still a little crisp, and the sauce went really well with it.
There is a lunch menu here with super competitive prices, so if you’re in the mood for some great Chinese cuisine with only a few minutes to walk from whatever it is that has you in downtown Martinez, come here. Zach has eaten here since he was a kid and the owners have been the same all this time, friendly and keen on the quality of their food.