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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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Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco CA

Having a car in San Francisco can be a hindrance.  Besides the traffic of the metering lights on the Bay Bridge and the lookie-loos taking pictures on its new span (and that’s just approaching the City), finding a parking spot once there can feel like a never-ending battle against one-way streets.  In the end, testing your brakes in a parallel spot on a super steep hill several blocks away from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is so worth it.  Owner/mastermind Tony Gemignani puts the everyday pizza joints to shame with the wonders coming from his kitchen.  Eight ovens of different kinds (gas, electric, wood fire, coal fired, rotoflex) at a range of temperatures from 525 to 1000 degrees F, means the varieties are seemingly endless from crusts to toppings.

the barcelona

the barcelona

Honoring our native state and August’s favorite European country simultaneously, we ordered the Barcelona for its toppings, wood fired California style at 900 degrees for a mere 90 seconds.  The result was a soft and chewy dough with a burnt bottom, but that was the intention.  A light layer of mozzarella was the base cheese, as it is for most pizzas, but this one had the added bonus of Spanish Manchego cheese, named for the region of La Mancha where it is produced.  Don Quijote likely would have loved Manchego cheese, if he were real.  It is slightly piquant, which works well with the other quintessentially Spanish flavors on this pizza.  Nora peppers (another name for paprika peppers) and smoked paprika chorizo tomato sauce both brought a deep spiciness, but with almost zero heat.  The chorizo, being Spanish and not Mexican, was neither greasy nor spicy but more like what an American would call a fancy, flavorful pepperoni.  Another famous Spanish ham product, jamón, was plentiful and delicious.  Considering the tender bits of scrambled farm egg, it wouldn’t be wrong to have the leftovers of this pizza for breakfast.

white pie with clam & garlic

white pie with clam & garlic

Cole fired from a 1000 degree F oven for about four minutes was this “white pie with clam and garlic,” plus bacon for an extra charge.  That’s about all that the description said, really.  With such a description, we did not anticipate that simplicity would taste so glorious.  There was mozzarella cheese but a different kind than the Barcelona, this one being a whole milk, milder, Brooklyn style – to go with the East Coast vibe, naturally.  It was a creamy backdrop for the bold bacon and plentiful, sweet garlic.  The clams, those in the shell as well as the minced meat on the pizza, were nicely chewy, smoky, and very fresh.  This pizza had the perfect combination of flavors reminiscent of a hearty clam chowder, but in a cheesy bread bowl.  There were overwhelmingly more toppings than crust, since it was thinner than the Barcelona yet harder, but don’t be scared by a little work.

detroit style red top

detroit style red top

As much as the white pie reminded us of clam chowder, the Detroit style red top reminded us of grilled cheese Texas toast.  Funny, since the two places aren’t even in the same time zone.  Anyway, Zach says he may have found his new favorite type of pizza, and we really lucked out since only 25 of these are prepared each day and we got the last one.  Baked in a gas oven at 550 degrees F for 25 minutes on a blue steel pan from Detroit, the kitchen knows how to recreate authenticity.  What else would the owner and first American to win the World Pizza Championship strive for, but authenticity?  With its own mozzarella unlike those of the other two, Wisconsin brick, as well as white cheddar, this was the cheesiest pie of the night.  Where the edges met the pan, a delicious garlic butter edge was formed, with caramelized corners adorned by mini cheese skirts.  The dough under the bed of toppings was thick, soft, and slightly buttery.  Poured over the top were ladles of a tangy and mildly sweet tomato sauce, rich and fresh.  All that is just the basic “red top” Detroit style pizza, without your choice of toppings, and we couldn’t do without trying a couple of the roughly ten.  Just like almost everything else here, the high quality sausage was made in-house.  August is not generally a sausage fan, but this was mild for her and pleasantly savory.  The pepperoni we requested provided the classic meatiness expected in an American pie.  All the elements, from the caramelized cheese to the crust, the sauce to the meat, balanced incredibly well.

Chris, our server, made excellent recommendations and conversation, while the rest of his crew worked together seamlessly to keep the tables happy.  A few people waiting for a clear table looked a teensy bit peeved, on the other hand, since reservations are impossible (literally, they don’t book them).  When you come, be prepared and ask for the first table available, inside or out.  If it’s cold outside, don’t worry because the heaters are set right above each table to keep guests warm and cozy while watching the sun set.  We came without coats or sweaters, and we were just fine with our single layers.  Across the way, if the door is open, you might catch some live jazz music coming your direction, so the ambiance outdoors is unique and can never be repeated.  We intend to return to try Tony’s other types of pizzas and non-pizza items, and just like jazz, there seem to be countless possibilities on the menu.

Speisekammer Restaurant, Alameda CA

There really is a little bit of every cuisine in the Bay Area.  Last night we went out with friends to Speisekammer to see for ourselves if the German food merits the good reviews – and it does.  Four distinct menus with tantalizing options (specials, regular items, beverages, and desserts) are fun to read, and potentially embarrassing to pronounce when ordering, making for an all-around enjoyable meal.

radeberger pilsner

radeberger pilsner

We contemplated writing a Specialty Brews post for the boot, but thought instead we’d feature it in its proper context.  Radeberger Pilsner clocks in at 4.8% ABV and was too hoppy for most at the table, so it was up to August to make a dent in it but she didn’t get very far at all.  It’s just so much beer in a 2 liter boot!  Check out the Radeberger website; it’s almost like a movie trailer.

schnecken in knoblauch-buttersoße

schnecken in knoblauch-buttersoße

The escargot on the day’s specials menu were stuffed in button mushroom caps with garlic herb butter.  Typically we see tiny snails but these were gargantuan in comparison!  Protruding from the mushroom caps, they were tender and not like eraser bits that we’re accustomed to expecting.  The butter sauce was rich and hearty with garlic and fresh herbs, and the mushrooms were a nice change from plain escargot or puffed pastry wraps.

kalte fischplatte

kalte fischplatte

This was an appetizer that everyone dug into, for all at the table liked seafood and there was plenty of variety here.  Poached shrimp, gravlax, pickled herring, and smoked trout came on a mound of greens.  The shrimp were very fresh and slightly warm still actually, prepared in a good, spiced boil and somewhat buttery.  Gravlax, or raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill, was different – none of us expected fish to be sweet, but regardless it was a pleasant flavor.  Pickled herring is one of August’s favorite snacks from childhood, so she took full advantage of having it here.  The smoked trout had a relatively flaky texture with its smoky flavor and a hint of sweetness.

käsebrett mit früchten

käsebrett mit früchten

“A variety of domestic and imported cheeses served with seasonal fruit” was super impressive.  Surprisingly, Zach the Supertaster wasn’t able to identify immediately all the cheeses; for example, we had to look up the sage derby with mild flavor and bright green veins.  We added a pretzel for a tiny upcharge, and one of our friends who loves pretzels highly approved of this one.  All the fruit was exceptionally fresh and great pairings for the cheeses.

gebratene rehmedallions mit pflaumensosse

gebratene rehmedallions mit pflaumensosse

August and the pretzel-loving friend both tried the sautéed venison medallions in plum sauce served with spätzle and red cabbage.  Be prepared, this is game meat, so it’s not the most tender but it is full of flavor because it is very lean.  The sauce was sweet but not sugary, blending in well with the buttery and tender spätzle.  The red cabbage took our friend by surprise because she didn’t think it would be more sour than sauerkraut, but August grew up with red cabbage so she welcomed the pucker.

gegrillt

gegrillt

Our other friend got the bratwurst with cracked spices, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  He ate every morsel and was so distracted he didn’t say a word, therefore it must have been good!

gratinierte käsespätzle

gratinierte käsespätzle

For a side we got creamy spätzle baked with caramelized onions and European cheese, plus we added bacon for a fair upcharge (black forest ham was another option).  Like what came with the venison plate, the spätzle was tender but amped up, made super creamy and gooey with cheeses and smoky with the bacon.  The caramelized onions added a sweet/savory flavor.  For basically being a German-style mac n cheese, it puts a lot of American versions to shame.

gegrillte fleischplatte

gegrillte fleischplatte

With five different sausages and a grilled smoked pork chop served over sauerkraut, this is a platter easily for two to three people, or Zach and a whole lot for Bea the Dog back at home.  It included bratwurst, thürlinger, bockwurst, two kleine nürnberger sausages, and a mystery sausage that wasn’t on the menu nor could the server identify it.  Each was very high quality with no gristle chunks, very juicy, and great snap to the natural casing.  Bockwurst is Zach’s favorite in general, and here was a good version and he liked that he could see actual chives in the mix.  Being a ham fan, the smoked pork chop was essentially an extra lean pork loin with a bone, smoky yet tender and juicy.  The sauerkraut didn’t have an overwhelmingly processed sour flavor; he could tell it was made in house, and it had a slight sweet flavor that set it apart from other sauerkrauts we’ve tried.

We will definitely come back to Speisekammer another day.  It’s worth multiple visits to enjoy the food, and also the live music that plays two to three times a week starting at 8:30.  Despite having a very, very extensive alcoholic beverage selection, this is for sure a family place, welcoming to all ages.