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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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Coconut Chicken Noodle Soup

Who doesn’t love chicken noodle soup?  Well, maybe not vegetarians.  This recipe can be amended easily: swap chicken for tofu, chicken broth for vegetable broth, and fish sauce for soy sauce.  It’s a noodle soup good for everyone… even those who think they don’t like coconut.  If someone you know doesn’t like coconut (like August), you might get them to like it at least in this soup (she does).

coconut chicken noodle soup

coconut chicken noodle soup

Makes 4

2 14-oz cans of coconut milk

3 cups of chicken broth

1 lb (or more) of udon noodles

3/4 lb. of boneless, skinless chicken breast

1/4 cup of fish sauce

The juice of 1 lime

2 tbs. of peeled and grated lemon grass

2 tbs. of sriracha

1 tbs. of grated ginger

1 tbs. of peanut oil

1/2 tsp. of turmeric

Mung bean sprouts, minced cilantro, and lime wedges for garnish

2 coconuts halved for serving vessels, if you want to make it cute

Thin slices of Serrano peppers, if you want to make it spicy (not pictured)

Heat the oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat.  While the oil is heating, slice the chicken in thin strips width-wise.  Saute the chicken in the sauce pot for 3-4 minutes, until lightly golden brown – it doesn’t have to be fully cooked.

Add all the ingredients except the noodles and the garnishes.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the noodles and continue simmering for another 3 minutes.  Serve immediately, garnished with a large pinch of bean sprouts, a sprinkling of cilantro, and a lime wedge.

Old Weang Ping, Oakland CA

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So many times we drove by this building, wondering what lies within.  The ornate bargeboards representative of serpents definitely stand out on MacArthur Blvd.  Our research, and a subsequent craving for Thai, prompted us to finally make our way to Old Weang Ping.  Once past the barred exterior, walking to the restaurant is a moment for contemplation and peace, like following a path through a jungle towards a monastery.

thai iced tea

thai iced tea

August ordered a standard Thai iced tea, which had a good ratio of tea to cream (unknown if it’s condensed milk, evaporated milk, coconut milk, or regular milk, but it was tasty).  A surprising touch was that the water poured at every table was mixed with a hint of tea, giving it a light golden vanilla flavor.

chicken satay

chicken satay

From the appetizer section we ordered the chicken satay, and we overheard many other tables ordering it, also.  No wonder it’s a favorite.  The chicken was moist and tangy with a nice char.  The pieces were cut into perfect bite-size portions, with enough flat edge to pile on the peanut sauce.  The sauce was rich and creamy, both sweet and savory, making this a plate that was lip-smacking and left us wanting more.

barbarian soup with beef

barbarian soup with beef

Admittedly, we got Barbarian soup because of the name.  There’s no description on the menu, but we were offered a choice of meat; the owner and his server traded off in assisting us, but it was the owner who recommended we try this with beef.  The beef was tender, but nearly overshadowed by the mix of vegetables, herbs, and spices.  Broccoli, tomato, Thai basil, mushroom, and chili combined for a strong and complex flavor symphony, highlighted by bright spices that made the soup fairly picante.  The owner said it wasn’t spicy, but for people who detest spiciness, this would be spicy.  For those who thrive on the burn, this would be mild.  Diners who appreciate a little heat will really like the warmth of the spices here, so it’s like the three bears’ porridge – just right.

pad thai with seafood

pad thai with seafood

The soft, tender noodles of the pad thai were sweet and tangy, as they themselves not just were coated in the traditional sauce, but soaked it up as well.  Rich throughout, the flavors of the sauce (and noodles) made the succulent shrimp taste even sweeter.  The shrimp were juicy and, Zach says, “cooked perfectly.”  August liked the skin on the spiced tofu, savory and just a little chewy.  Fresh, crunchy onions and bean sprouts helped to break up the texture of the most widely recognized Thai dish.

pompano sauteed with 3 spicy sauces

pompano sauteed with 3 spicy sauces

A special for the evening was pompano fish, something entirely new for both of us.  We learned there are around twenty varieties of pompano so we don’t know exactly what we ate, but it was good.  The meat was very moist and flaky, and with few bones, it was easy to extract large mouthfuls of flesh.  As much as the “not spicy” Barbarian soup was spicy, this fish with “spicy sauces” was more spiced than hot.  The sauce reminded us of a very flavorful oyster sauce, and it complemented every one of the fruits and vegetables in the saute.  Tomato, pineapple, onion, mushroom, carrot, and ginger were not the anticipated mix of vegetables, but worked together seamlessly.  Trust us, a bite of carrot, mushroom, and pineapple in this sauce is better than you’d think.

roasted duck with pumpkin

roasted duck with pumpkin

By mistake we got the roasted duck with pumpkin from the special menu instead the roasted duck with massaman curry that we ordered, but that’s alright because we actually really enjoyed the duck with pumpkin and other unexpected ingredients.  The fowl was far from foul, as it was moist and very tender.  It swam in a deep-flavored and savory broth with exotic spices, and there was plenty of broth to spoon over the excellent sticky rice (not pictured in this article).   Pineapple, bamboo shoots, pumpkin, and Thai basil reflect a broad spectrum of vegetation and, while it’s a combination that never would have occurred to us on our own, we’re so glad that someone here put it together and we got to try it.  Zach wants to add that he is sensitive to curry, but it was very mild in this dish and he had no reaction to it.

Be prepared when you come, and we say “when” because there should be no “if.”  First, there is no parking lot in this primarily residential neighborhood, so you may need to parallel park on the street.  Second, due to security, it is highly recommended that you call ahead to make a reservation or call within minutes of arriving so that someone will unlock the door for you (the number is 510-430-8771).  Third, only cash is accepted, but if you don’t have enough on you, there is an ATM inside the gas station convenience store just up the block.  Fourth, don’t be surprised by a soundtrack that clashes with the ambiance – we listened to Nat King Cole tonight.  With all that in mind, enjoy a meal at this sanctuary and savor the delights for all five senses.