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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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Picante, Berkeley CA

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.

tostada salad with manchamanteles

tostada salad with manchamanteles

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.

sopa de mariscos

sopa de mariscos

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.

pork chile verde

pork chile verde

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.

Street Food Extravaganza: Cooking For Solutions 2013, Monterey CA

at the entrance

The Cooking For Solutions dinner on May 18, day 2 of the events hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, took a bold turn.  In the open air and far more casual than the previous night, thirteen chefs made their own versions of street food.  We walked, talked, and sampled some of the most gourmet finger food imaginable; granted, a few forks were used, and some items would never be produced in a roach coach, but the theme inspired the chefs to outdo one another in the quest for flavorful bites that highlight the importance of sustainable food harvesting practices.

oliva abbey saison

oliva abbey saison

Sierra Nevada collaborated with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA to make this saison, a pale ale brewed in a Belgian style.  Locally grown mandarin orange mingled with lemon and pepper for spicy but very refreshing sips to go along with the food.

stewart & jasper orchards

stewart & jasper orchards

Stewart & Jasper of small Newman, CA brought many goodies to drool over, and we sampled four types of glazed almonds.  Cinnamon, strawberries and cream, and apricot pepper were all good, but the red velvet cake stole the show.  These could easily become an addictive snack.

Chef Sarah LaCasse with Earthbound Farm Organic tossed us another delicious salad, this time with a mustard vinaigrette.  With it she paired a rich curried sweet potato soup and an immaculate grilled cheese sandwich of fontina d’aosta, balsamic onions and mixed baby kales.  Grilled cheese, soup, and salad is a standard combination, but the flavors and quality found here were anything but standard.

Some of the patrons walking by were impressed by the big fish at Chef James Waller’s table for the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.  Zach knew, though, from growing up in Martinez, CA where the sturgeon are giant, that this was just a baby sacrificed for the sake of presentation.  Regardless, the roasted pico de gallo sturgeon tostado was good, and the spicy creamy slaw only made it better.

Chef Art Smith was up to his usual wonderfulness of providing “healthy comfort,” tonight in the form of shrimp and grits.  August feels that grits are good at any time of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner) so why not make them accessible in any kind of venue?  Grits, too, can have their place in street food, especially when accented with big, succulent, well-seasoned shrimp.  For being very hearty, it was very light calorie-wise.

We were happy to be able to chat with Chef Sam Choy a little more this evening while sampling his char siu pork with firecracker fried rice.  His team was busy assembling all the elements that made an impactful flavor combination.

korean mung bean pancakes with shiitake mushrooms and kimchee

korean mung bean pancakes with shiitake mushrooms and kimchee

August has always liked Asian-style pancakes, but these rank high on the list of favorites because they were so decadent.  Freshness is key in order to achieve quality, something that chefs Susan Feniger and Kajsa Alger take seriously at Chef Susan’s STREET.

scallop and pork belly taco with a cilantro mango slaw

scallop and pork belly taco with a cilantro mango slaw

The deep fried sea marshmallow topped off this extravagant taco with a bed of fruity mango slaw and smoky pork belly.  The Whole Beast‘s Chef John Fink delighted our palates with the naturally sweet and savory mix, and it seemed to be one of the favorites among the crowd.

arancini

arancini

Chef Michele Ragussis was working the crowd for the second night, personally preparing and serving up arancini, or Sicilian fried rice balls.  Her talents are further proof that vegetarian can be anything but boring.  Zach would love this in a sandwich with marinara, mozzarella, and fresh sauteed spinach.

clam chowder

clam chowder

Affable Chef Tim Wood created a clam chowder that would have made the Santa Cruz chowder competitors shake in their boots.  We’re going to have to plan a trip to visit his restaurants at Carmel Valley Ranch soon, and make an excursion out of it by doing the beekeeping experience, as well.

crispy clam rolls with uni tartare sauce and geoduck sashimi

crispy clam rolls with uni tartare sauce and geoduck sashimi

Now we can cross geoduck off the list of weird foods to try.  Chef Richard Blais combined geoduck sashimi with crispy clam and uni (sea urchin roe) tartare sauce – odd on top of odd, but flavorful and rich.

The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa provided one of the desserts of giant strawberries, scratchmade marshmallows, chocolate sandwich cookies, and candied pineapple for three different melted chocolates (milk to dark to more dark).  They used Tcho chocolate from San Francisco, practically in our backyard, so we want to take a factory tour sometime soon to see the process that goes into the delicious confections.

churro tots

churro tots

Chefs Mary Sue Milleken and Mike Minor impressed us yet again with these ideally textured churro tots.  Crunchy outsides coated in sugar and cinnamon encased fluffy, tender insides, and each tot sat on dollops of chocolate, a marshmallow-like sauce, and caramel to be dipped/swirled/rolled.  There is no such dessert on the Border Grill menu, so were were happy for two reasons: 1) we got to try something totally unique for this event, and 2) there’s so much more waiting for us for our next Las Vegas trip.

chocolate sea salt cookies with marscapone filling

chocolate sea salt cookies with marscapone filling

Chef Emily Luchetti of Farallon and Waterbar brought four kinds of sandwich cookies.  Dulce de leche was delicioso, as were the walnut cookies with milk chocolate filling and the raspberry filled delights, but the chocolate sea salt cookies were mighty tasty with a creamy marscapone filling, turning these into the most decadent Oreos you could find.

50% off?!

50% off?!

While we waited in line, a man handed us each a promotional $10 gift card for Macy’s that expired in less than two weeks.  We were a bit perplexed, but then we saw the huge display table tempting us.  Not only did we have $20 between us to spend for free, but everything presented was 50% off, no kidding.  We thought they first said 15% so Zach selected an eight-quart enameled cast iron round casserole from the Martha Stewart Collection, but then it was rung up and we realized that it was at 50% plus the $20 discount.  Oh, wow!

imagine the scraps he found...

imagine the scraps he found…

We felt like we made out like bandits with the steal-of-a-deal casserole, in addition to the fabulous fare and casual conversations with the chefs.  All the while, Chef Carla Hall had a mock-studio and interviewed various chefs who were willing to talk to her (some were too busy preparing food for the guests, sorry Carla!).  But after all the outdoor eating, we know of someone else besides us who was a very happy camper – this brazen seagull.  He probably had the meal of his lifetime!