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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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Sumo Sushi & Steak House, Livermore CA

We didn’t try the steak at Sumo Sushi & Steak House, because with Zach’s brother Will tagging along with us for dinner, we went all in to try to convert him to liking sushi.  He claimed that he didn’t like it even in rolls let alone sashimi, but after trying six items, he’s changed his mind about the cuisine.  Sumo Sushi House has an extensive menu including hibachi dinner shows available in one half of the restaurant, and glancing over in that direction once in a while, we were impressed by the flair not seen at other hibachi dinner restaurants.

soft shell crab

soft shell crab

Inspired by a reader who asked us about soft shell crab, when we saw it on the menu here we had to order it.  Sumo Sushi House does it very well, so if you’ve never had soft shell crab before, this is the place to try it.  A very light and crispy panko crust coated the entire portion, though it was nowhere near oily.  The frying process rendered the entire crab to be easily devoured, shell and all – well, it is called “soft shell crab.”  The chunky meat was tender, flaky, and enhanced by the “spicy mayo sauce” (as it reads on the menu), but that name doesn’t describe it in full.  The dipping sauce was creamy and tangy with a mild chili taste, and while it was bright and flavorful, it did not overpower the savory crab.

crispy spicy tuna wonton

crispy spicy tuna wonton

Crispy and crunchy wonton skins had the perfect texture to hold their delicious insides.  A creamy meaty center of spicy tuna and cream cheese was tasty for a filling, but the “chef’s special sauce” put these bites over the top.  It was mildly spicy but the flavors of the sauce were so provocatively tangy, the spiciness was barely discernible.

sumo roll

sumo roll

With artful precision, the sumo wrestler can take down his opponent just as a sushi master presented this dish.  The Sumo roll was Will’s favorite above all, proclaiming it to be “the best!”  Lobster tempura was super meaty and crunchy at once, and we all surprised ourselves at how well it went with mango.  Actual mango chunks were in the rolls, as well as used in the spicy sauce drizzled over the tops.  Like the crispy wonton sauce, this was billed as “spicy” but was more tangy to complement the other components.  Asparagus was also rolled in, providing an additional layer of crispiness for it was cooked but not to death.  Liberally over the tops came spicy tuna, avocado, and black roe for a hint of fresh saltiness.

spider roll

spider roll

The Spider roll is likely popular because of its simplicity – picky palates might even appreciate this because it is so mild.  Crunchy soft shell crab, cucumber, avocado, and mayonnaise come in Sumo Sushi House’s version, with just a touch of orange roe pressed into the rice.  This was the only one that Will wasn’t too fond of, because the dainty saltiness of the orange roe with snappy texture was where he drew the line, while August reached for the pickled ginger to add a teensy bit of zing to the overall delicate roll; just goes to show that taste is relative.

angry dragon

angry dragon

With pink soy paper wraps, the Angry Dragon rolls looked menacing but made us happy, not angry!  These wraps can be requested to substitute the traditional seaweed wraps, and since they do have their own distinct flavor, it would be interesting to try different rolls with this kind of wrap in the future.  Again here, “spicy” on the menu translated to “tangy,” and while we don’t deny that there was a touch of heat, it was not the focal point of the dish.  The yellow sauce was yuzu miso eel sauce, which was where most of the tanginess came from, along with a bit of citrus.  Shrimp tempura, avocado, and spicy tuna were rolled together and topped with kani (a kind of salad/relish) and King crab.  The shrimp was tender and sweet, with the crispiness of the panko offset by the creamy avocado.  The flaky King crab brought more meatiness to these already huge bites, and we didn’t think Sumo Sushi House could do anything more extravagant to a roll.

lady gaga

lady gaga

Sumo Sushi House can go even further with extravagance, as we saw with Lady Gaga.  This roll is just as crazy and wild as her style and persona, all the way down to the glowing light (we did not alter the photo, it actually came glowing green).  Yellowtail and avocado were together inside, with spicy tuna, spicy salmon, and white tuna adorning the outside, along with a paper-thin jalapeño slice, jalapeño sauce, and more of the wonderful spicy mango sauce – it’s a whole lot of everything, but all the elements complemented each other very well.  The soft texture of the tender fish was emboldened by the tangy and mildly sweet mango sauce.  The heat from the sauce was very faint, so we can unequivocally say, based on what we tried, that people who don’t like spicy food will still enjoy themselves dining here, no matter what the menu describes.

Years ago Will was told that “if you don’t like a California roll, you probably don’t like sushi.”  He tried a California roll and didn’t like it, so he had written off all things sushi all this time, until tonight.  All the fish was fresh and assembled with other ingredients of very high quality.  Even the presentation was like none we’ve seen before, sushi restaurant or not.  Attention to detail and fine service made for a wonderful experience – and we didn’t even see a full hibachi dinner show!  The highest commendation, though, is for having made Will like sushi.

Sushiya, Oakland CA

It was a busy day, so dinner had to be quick and easy for us.  Sushi seemed like a good idea.  We hadn’t tried a sushi restaurant since relocating to Oakland, and online searching doesn’t show us anything immediately available in our neighborhood.  So, we took a drive to Broadway and found lots of parking behind Sushiya.  If we lived just a little closer, we would have taken advantage of Sushiya’s popular delivery service.

pretty platter

pretty platter

The thing about quality sushi is that not a whole lot can fill you up.  When we walked in we anticipated ordering a few rounds, but we ended up getting only four items, three rolls and two inari.  The inari was ideal, sweet and tangy flavors shining through the simplicity of tofu skin and rice.

kirin roll close up

kirin roll close up

While studying the menu, our attention was first grabbed by the Kirin roll, with fried soft shell crab, unagi (freshwater eel), and avocado.  There was such a variety of textures between the very crispy and crunchy crab, the flaky unagi, and the creamy avocado.  Even with two types of prepared meat, not raw, there was no oiliness.  Strongly differing from the sweet inari this roll was more umami, a word borrowed from Japanese to describe a pleasant but not salty or sweet taste.

new mexican roll close up

new mexican roll close up

Presented next to the Kirin roll was the New Mexican roll.  Again we had creamy avocado, but this time wrapped with shrimp tempura, crab, cucumber, cilantro, tomato, and sriracha.  The bite from the cilantro and sriracha helped to highlight the sweetness of the tender shrimp, and the chili flavor of the sriracha fit right in with the other flavors, even the fresh vegetables – we don’t picture sriracha with tomato and cucumber usually, but it works in this combination.  The tempura batter was crispy and fried just right, so that it maintained its crispiness even when wrapped tightly with other ingredients.

hungry roll

hungry roll

The name says it – if you’re hungry, try this roll.  It is deep fried with a filling of tuna and hamachi (Japanese amberjack aka yellowtail).  The crispy exterior was dressed with a sweet sauce drizzled over the top.  The filling was very meaty, fresh, and tender.  This was a simple roll, but extremely flavorful.

Unlike some other sushi places we’ve been to, what makes Sushiya stand out is that the food is humble, modest, and unpretentious, yet excellent.  Artful drizzles on fancy plates are not necessary to impress a palate.  Yes, we eat with our eyes, but our tongue has more sway with our taste preferences.