Plan: Vegas Uncork'd 2012
Posted 10 May 2012 - 09:23 AM
Don’t imply from my review of the failings of the Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan that I am not a fan of their other restaurants. As you’ll remember from my report last year, my experience at Jose Andres e’ was the highlight of my trip to Las Vegas in 2011. Now I can add Comme Ca to the list of unique and memorable dining venues in Las Vegas, one that on many similar, yet different levels, rivals my Tuesday dinner at the celebrated Le Cirque.
Comme Ca Las Vegas is the outpost of the Los Angeles flagship helmed by Chef David Meyers. The cuisine is best described as based in the traditions of French Bistro dishes with a focus on fresh, seasonal, American ingredients and a boldness to test the limits of flavor and the pairing of unusual ingredients. If the best results in a dish come from braising, pressing, then sautéing pork cheeks to crisp the skin, they will do it. If the best technique for the frozen fruit lollipops comes from the employment of liquid nitrogen, they do it.
This pattern of using unique ingredients in unique dishes not found at any other restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip is a hallmark of the food and beverage program at The Cosmoplitan. They’ve opened their guests palates to a whole new world of flavor and how we think about food and dining.
Chef Brian Howard mans the kitchen at Comme Ca. He arrived at Comme Ca after stops in Las Vegas working for Thomas Keller and Kerry Simon. The food tells us the art of the craftsmanship of a Chef, but Chef Howard’s bio one an insight into his creative process. “I get to work with like-minded talent who want to push the envelope” he says, and “We do not take applications, we accept commitments!”
Décor is not the high-point of the Comme Ca dining experience. It’s the view that counts in the physcial property of the restaurant and what a view it is, a panorama that is literally worth millions of dollars. The large dining room fronts the Las Vegas Strip with floor to ceiling windows. While the view is stunning at night, the din and noise of the room, (exacerbated by the slate floor), reaches a level where it’s nearly impossible to hear the Hostess ask if she can seat you, (and then apologize for the noise). It’s a sign that the raucous crowd is enjoying themselves, yet also a sign that your experience is going to suffer from noise distraction.
The Cosmopolitan is noted for its hand-crafted cocktail program at the bars and restaurants throughout the property. Like the food found throughout the hotel, (The Wicked Spoon Buffet withstanding), the focus is on creating unique cocktails not found at other properties.
I chose a cocktail off the “18A” menu, so named for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited the consumption of “intoxicating liquors.” Thank your lucky stars that the temperance movement has long passed into history and today one can sip on the “Thyme for Bourbon,” a fragrant, sweet elixir of bourbon, fruity crème de cassis, sugar, fresh lemon and thyme sprigs.
Now I know that many of our Members are intensely strict about not only their cocktails but the ice that goes into the glass. I’m far from an expert, but I have to say the large, 1” ice cubes used in the cocktails at Comme Ca make all the difference in both the temperature and texture of the drink.
Las Vegas is a town where people come to party and the party atmosphere is in full swing at Comme Ca. Tray upon tray is brought into the dining room by the waiters, holding forth plates of steaks and huge mounds of frites. The couple seated to my left were tucking into the Shellfish Tower, a massive, tiered display of chilled lobster, prawns, raw oysters, and clams, all washed down with at least two bottles of vintage Cristal.
I selected some dishes listed on the menu, then I let Chef Howard take the reins and serve some additional items listed on the regular menu and some dishes his team crafted in the moment.
-Chef Howard sent out a starter of “Fried Lobster with a Roasted Tomato Sauce,” (not on the menu). The lobster chunks had a thin, crispy, batter crust akin to Chinese-style fried prawns. A ribbon of smokey, roasted tomato sauce was painted on the plate, the acid from the tomato countering the richness of the lobster.
-Next up was an item from the menu, “Marinated Butterfish with Black Pepper, Citron and Tarragon in a Citrus Vinaigrette.” Butterfish is delicate with a texture and flavor like sea scallops. The fish was garnished with fried garlic chips and espellete pepper.
-Another off-menu item was served next, “Prosciutto, Bone Marrow and Preserved Strawberries, Au Jus, Basil.” Set on a black, stone slate, this is the type of dish where Chef Howard’s creativity shines—ingredients whose flavors stand alone, yet when married into an oddball relationship you wince and think, “can this work?” Think of salty ham, rich, buttery bone marrow and tart, yet sweet strawberry with the peppery, licorice flavor of basil. You taste, then you realize it does work.
-Another off-menu item created in the moment in the kichen, “Rosemary Skewer with Frozen Mozarella with Romesco Sauce.” Immediately after it is presented at the table, you dip the skewer of frozen yet soft cheese into the tangy romesco and tug it off the rosemary sprig in one bite, the cool textures melting in your mouth.
-From the menu listed as a Hors d’Oeuvres, (but a portion that is more than adequate to sustain a main dish), “Duck Confit, Melted Leeks, Blueberry Compote.” A hot, crispy-skinned duck leg and thigh nestled atop a creamy stew of leeks and blueberry compote served in a deep bowl. The Chef infuses the buttered leeks with some of the blueberry pickling liquid which enhances the play on sweet and sour, cutting through the rich, salted duck.
-From the menu, “Foie Gras Terrine, Country Ham Chutney, Marinated Strawberry, Miner’s Lettuce.” If your tastes are like mine, you love foie gras, you love country ham and you love a fresh, sweet strawberry—but have you had those ingredients together in one bite? You must. A log of silky-smooth foie gras terrine sits on a soft cracker and is accented with salty, chewy strips of country ham and a country ham reduction with compressed strawberries. Sweet, smokey and rich. And to send the dish into another world—a garnish of thin, crispy chips made from country ham fat. This is Kentucky ham cooking on a new level.
-Wednesday’s special at Comme Ca is billed as “Offal” day and so I selected an intricately-crafted dish that obviously had been crafted days in advance, “Pork Jowl and Tail.” Sounds simple doesn’t it? It wasn’t. The jowl of the pig was braised and served cut into a "steak." The tail meat was braised and then stuffed into a wonton-style wrapper and fried until crisp and golden. The belly of the pig had been slow-cooked, then cooled and sauteed in a hot pan to crisp the skin. The dish was garnished with spring peas, pea flowers and fava beans. A rich, dark, pork jus was liberally sauced around the plate with a garnish of crisp pork cracklings.
-Chef Howard brought out an in-the-moment dessert composed of four frozen fruit “lollipops” on sticks stabbed into a glass dish of coca nibs, (with instructions to pot them into your mouth immediately before they melted and lost their bursts of flavor).
-For the main dessert, I selected the “Lemon Tart with Lavendar, Marshmallow and Lemon Verbena Ice Cream.” This was obviously not the trendy “S’more” concoction one finds at some restaurants. The marshmallow had been taken to the torch, broiled gently on the outside to give it a burnished crust which married well with the tart lemon and cool, fragrant, herbal ice cream.
Chef Howard told me he and his Staff are given full creative control over the dishes they put on the menu at Comme Ca, (as opposed to other Strip hotel properties where some Chefs must subscribe, at least in part, to the direction of the hotel’s Food and Beverage Department).
Is Chef Brian Howard the best young Chef in America? One could argue the point, but he is most certainly, in my opinion, the best young Chef in Las Vegas.
Posted 10 May 2012 - 09:52 AM
Coffee and Bran Muffin from the Hotel coffee shop. And a glass of Clamato, (that should have been enhanced by the bottle of Skyy Vodka that is chilling in the fridge).
Posted 10 May 2012 - 11:36 AM
Posted 10 May 2012 - 03:07 PM
Posted 11 May 2012 - 02:37 PM
The first official event of Vegas Uncork’d 2012, began with the “Spago 20th Anniversary Lunch,” hosted by Chef Puck and Bon Appetit Editor Adam Rapoport.
Its been a busy week for Chef Puck, who won the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award earlier in the week, cooked in Las Vegas for our Uncork’d lunch, then jetted to Los Angeles in the afternoon to cater dinner for George Clooney’s private affair for President Obama.
In some of our other discussions about the relevance of ground-breaking Chefs who have seen better days, we discussed whether or not Chef Puck's best days were behind him in terms of his cuisine and cooking skills. I didn’t agree then that Chef Puck's better days were behind him and I certainly don’t after lunch on Thursday. It was evident that Chef Puck was in the kitchen earlier in the morning and then checking on the crew throughout the lunch between meeting and greeting guests in the dining room. He personally selected the asparagus for the first course, the wines for the meal and led the team selection of both the hors d’ouevres and luncheon menu. Had you been at this lunch you would have realized that Chef Puck is still relevant, both as a businessman and a Chef, and continues to be one of the major driving forces influencing how we dine.
As I mentioned in my earlier post about Le Cirque, to survive 14 years in a city where a new restaurant can be forgotten just mere weeks after opening, 14 years is virtually unheard of. Spago has survived for 20 years and was the first wave of the “Celebrity Chef” driven restaurants to arrive in Las Vegas. There have only been two influential Executive Chefs at Spago Las Vegas, David Robins and Eric Klein, and many of the crew, including the Managers, Waiters and Servers, have been with Chef Puck the entire way, a remarkable achievement in a city that often puts trendy, chi-chi, in-the-moment popularity ahead of quality. Chef Puck said that the menu for lunch was inspired to be a “celebration of fresh, seasonal, simple, ingredients.” And that it was.
The Spago dining room is only opened for dinner, (the Café out front serves lunch), so our group had the entire restaurant reserved for lunch. We started with small bites passed by Waiters, including-
-Fire-Roasted Crispy Quail “Drumettes” with Orange Glaze
-Rock Shrimp Tempura
-Prime Beef Sliders
And this spicy mince of savory lamb-
Stir-Fried Lamb in Lettuce Cups with Chili Oil and Basil-
Austrian White Asparagus Salad
Roasted Baby Beets, Cherry Tomatoes, Wild Watercress, Creamy Yuzu Vinaigrette
Served with a Hirtzberger, Gruner Veltliner “Axpoint” Smaragd, Wachau, Austria, 2009
The opening course was in recognition of Chef Puck’s Austrian heritage and the rite of Spring in Central Europe. Each Spring for a limited 6-week period, hearty stalks of white asparagus are harvested in the lush farmlands of Austria. The menu description that the dish was composed of “Austrian” asparagus was genuine—Chef Puck called his purveyor in Austria and the spears were shipped to Las Vegas specifically for our lunch. The white asparagus were quite large as asparagus spears go, yet incredibly tender and delicate. The flavor of the white asparagus isn’t as bold and doesn’t have the strong, earthy notes of its green cousin.
I should be congratulated for attempting to eat a beet. A roasted beet at that. I haven’t eaten a beet since I fought with my Mother at the dinner table over 40 years ago. But I tried these tender, sweet nuggets and actually found them quite placid and not at all the horrific, pickled red devils that Mother served. I just might eat a baby beet again.
Grilled French Sea Bass “Loup de Mer”
Shaved Fennel Salad, Red Onions, Heriloom Tomato Vinaigrette and Basil Oil
Served with a Williams-Selyem, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, California, 2010
Typically the fishouses in Las Vegas serve you a portion no larger than a baby’s fist. Whole fish, if you can find them on a menu, will cost you a small fortune, so I was surprised that each guest was served a whole filet of fresh sea bass flown in from France. Simply dressed to give the mild fish a touch of moisture and a punch of basil, this dish best exemplified the theme of “simple, clean cooking.” The pinot noir lended flavors of spice and red berry notes we wouldn’t have tasted had we been served a more traditional white wine with the fish course.
Strawberries and Cream
Market Strawberries, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, Aged Balsamic, Mint Syrup
A crunchy streusel rimmed the silky panna cotta, (a mousse really), with the sweet flavors of Spring coming from the fresh strawberries.
Chef Puck is undoubtedly an astute businessman, somewhat of a showman (as noted in his gregarious greetings of the guests), a celebrity and a cook. Yes, a cook.
Chef Eric Klein has been the Executive Chef at Spago Las Vegas for just over 4 years now. Chef Klein was born into food and cuisine, having been raised on a cattle farm in Alsace, France.
I took Chef Klein aside to ask him if he was still crafting some of the delicious charcuterie I remembered from my earlier visits to Spago. (If it isn’t offered on the menu, make a special request). Chef Klein remarked that earlier in the day Chef Puck arrived and immediately asked him what was in the walk-in. Chef Klein presented the boss with a fresh head-cheese that he had crafted earlier in the morning. He told me that Chef Puck’s eyes opened wide with delight at the sight of homemade sausage.
As I left Spago, full of thoughts of the memories this restaurant has evoked for its customers over 20 years in Las Vegas, I thanked Chef Klein for a delicious lunch and his personal reflections on Chef Puck. “It’s who we are,” he said. Indeed Chef, it is who you are and what Spago Las Vegas has always been to so many people.
Posted 11 May 2012 - 02:52 PM
Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
Posted 11 May 2012 - 04:24 PM
I agree, they've got a very good cocktail program throughout the hotel.
Great write-ups, David. Glad your experience at Comme Ca was a good one. I enjoyed mine last winter. Had a table along the windows with a very good strip view. No noise issues that night as the restaurant wasn't that crowded. Totally agree on the cocktails there. Very good. Just like they are at the other casino bars in the Cosmo. I think people who like the casino bars in Cosmo should be sure to head to Comme Ca, even if it's just for a drink.
Posted 11 May 2012 - 05:10 PM
Tuesday lunch, Lobster ME
Tuesday night, Le Cirque
Wednesday night, Comme Ca
Thursday lunch, Spago
Thursday night's dinner at Central at Caesar's Palace, part of the "Master Series Dinners," wouldn't live-up to my expectations. To coin a gambling phrase since we are in Las Vegas, "moving down the stretch, the trailer is........"
I'll be providing you a detailed report why Central failed to make the grade and suggesting areas of concern in order to turn a trailer into a winner.
Posted 11 May 2012 - 07:59 PM
Comme Ça has been on my list of place to try- LA or the Las Vegas branch. Excellent cocktails with a cocktail menu designed by Sam Ross, and French bistro food, a perfect combo as far as I am concerned!
Posted 11 May 2012 - 08:38 PM
The lobster roll sounds pretty close to authentic if the bun was top-split, grilled, and buttered, and there was a full lobster and lemon. Mayo is optional--or I should say, debatable as everything about lobster rolls is a subject of deep division. Lobster mac and cheese and lobster grilled cheese are more recent favorites. Never heard of a lobster lollipop but love the idea--will have to try it this summer when I am in RI.
Tuesday, May 8-Lunch
What? You ate fast-food for lunch on your first day in Las Vegas? And you're attending a culinary event? Some would say that's sacrilegious, but today I broke the boundaries of that conventional thinking and ate lunch at what is billed as a fast-food joint, Lobster ME. Now let me just state right here and now that I'm no expert on either Lobster or Lobster Rolls. I hail from the Pacific Northwest and I can lay claim to being somewhat of a culinary expert when it comes to Salmon, Halibut and Dungeness Crabs, but I'm no expert on Lobster Rolls. But I can report back that after today I am hooked on this quintessential New England sandwich.
Lobster ME opened in the past year in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. They bill their Lobster Rolls as the "World's Best," a marketing ploy that no doubt could be tested by any number of our Members who hail from the New England states. They employ only cold-water lobster from the North Atlantic, and serve it in any number of various lobster guises-from the Lobster and Waffles ($9.50), and the Lobster Benedict ($9.50) served at breakfast, to the "Lobsicle," (fried Lobster on a stick), to Lobster Grilled Cheese, Lobster Mac'n Cheese and Lobster and Chips served later in the day. But their signature menu item is the Lobster Roll, served in a "large" and "extra-large" portion. The large Lobster Roll carries the meat of a 1 1/2 pounder and the extra-large a 2lb. Lobster. For $20.00, one gets a large Lobster Roll, very good, crispy fries and a drink. I think that's a reasonable price for a delicious roll with 1 1/2 pounds of meat, including claw, tail and body meat.
The roll is nestled in a buttered, toasted brioche roll split down the top lengthwise and then filled with the lobster meat, mayonnaise, lemon and what they call "special spices." Those "spices" turned out to be dried oregano and were an after-thought better left on the shelf. A dusting of Old Bay would have been a better choice, but in all honesty this delicious, buttery, tender, fresh Lobster didn't need anything other than it's natural beauty to proclaim a Northwesterner a fan of a New England classic.
No, I didn't try their frozen version of Lobster.
Posted 11 May 2012 - 08:58 PM
I have always been a fan of Puck and agree that he is a cook.
Posted 12 May 2012 - 09:04 AM
When Chef Michel Richard made the decision to expand West from Washington, D.C., with an outpost of his restaurant Central in Caesar’s Palace, he was making a bold move—redesign the traditional 24-hour casino “Coffee Shop” into an American-Bistro style restaurant and bar that would be open all hours. A place where someone could have a glass of wine and an appetizer of deviled eggs at 4 a.m., or a plate of French toast and fresh berries at 3 p.m., in the afternoon. Literally located in the main lobby and check-in area of Caesar’s Palace, (and just a few steps away from the slot machines), Central opened in the Fall of 2011 to great fanfare.
Central is a huge space, seating 300 customers primarily in the main restaurant with additional tables on a small patio that faces the Eastside entrance to Caesar’s. Glass walls staggered throughout the dining room showcase the restaurant’s large collection of wine.
Given his impressive background as a leader in both pastry and savory cuisine in America for decades and the liberal press accolades that Central has received, I was looking forward to this dinner, one of the traditional “Master Series Dinners” at Uncork’d held on Thursday night.
Dinner at Central was hosted by David Lynch, Contributing Wine Editor to Bon Appetit and Sophie Gayot representing Gayot.com.
Unfortunately, the entire evening, from the wine service to the food, fell short of expectations. The experience proved to be especially egregious considering the fact we were at a major culinary event with a dining room full of people serious about food. One would think the staff would make an extra effort to demonstrate their abilities both in the kitchen and the front of the house on such a grand occasion. With the exception of a very good opening course and some delicious components in dishes, the food was inconsistent with the exception of the fabulous dessert presented by the unassuming Pastry Chef. So in my pursuit of honesty and integrity in reporting back to you from Las Vegas, here are some thoughts about dinner at Central.
Typically at any Uncork’d event you are served wine in appropriate glasses, often crystal, to enhance the varietal and it’s flavor nuances. At Central, the white wines were served in small glasses that looked as though they came out of a catering closet—the type of wine glass you might see on tables at other “24-hour” restaurants whose menus include dozens of varieties of eggs and waffles.
And then there was the wine staff. At most of the Uncork’d luncheons and dinners, the staff and Sommeliers are more than gracious in showcasing the wines they have chosen to accompany each course. They want you to enjoy yourself while also showing-off their wine cellar. Of course, aside from your enjoyment as a guest at a private event, they are suggesting, in a most subtle way, that you come back again for a meal at their restaurant. Being gracious with the pour at such an affair is an important factor in your decision-making process.
Seated at a table of 10, I asked for more of the white wine that was served with the first course. The response was a rigid “no, we are only serving small portions of each wine with each course!” I was a bit surprised, as was the gentleman to my left. We joked about the “you, no more wine” incident, (reminding us of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld), for the rest of the night. Later in the evening, someone got the same response when asking for more red wine with the meat course. The waiter, sensing our frustration, walked over to the Sommelier who clearly motioned to the poor fellow not to pour additional wine. The waiter came back to our table and did it anyway.
The tables were crowded, as often happens at these events, but at least there should have been a bread plate squeezed into the array of tableware. Round rolls without a bread plate create a sort of bread roll around the table as it were.
Served with Ferrari Carano, Fume Blanc, Sonoma, 2010
A delicious cold soup presented in a triangular glass dish set over a large bowl, (missing the requisite crushed ice to keep the soup cold), with tiny dice of peeled, poached asparagus. Serving fresh, green asparagus in a cold guise brings out the natural flavors of this popular Spring vegetable, with the dice of poached asparagus adding a different layer of texture to the creamy soup. Dinner had started on a high note, but we would soon find the rest of the tone of dinner would turn sour.
Served with Chateau D’Esclans, Whispering Angel, Rose, Cotes de Provence, 2010
When the dish was introduced we were left with anticipation that this wouldn’t really taste like a true Tartare. I thought that the comments were odd since any Tartare, whether it be meat or vegetable, should, for my tastes, be a reflection of the natural flavors of the main ingredient. The Tomato Tartare was presented as a round of diced tomato with a dressing that tasted as though it included balsamic vinegar. (As opposed to most menus presented to each diner at Uncork’d, the menu at Central only provided a basic description, making it hard for one to accurately portray what was served).
Oddly enough, comments around the dining room ranged from “that’s the best Tomato Tartare I’ve ever had,” following with “but it doesn’t taste anything like tomato.” Gosh, wouldn’t you want a Tartare to taste like Tomato? Isn’t that the point? Fresh, seasonal, tomato, thinly sliced and arrayed on the plate in a fan—and tasting of the essence of tomato. Isn’t that what you would expect from a Tomato Tartare?
Seared Halibut, Lemongrass Emulsion, English Peas and Carrots
Served with Lucien Albrecht, Riesling, Alsace, 2010
At least we got more of a description with the Halibut dish. As you know, I come from the Pacific Northwest and I know Halibut so to speak. I know the delicate methods that must be used to cook Halibut, lest it be overdone and dry. Yet one can’t undercook Halibut either, for the meat will be the texture of goop and won’t bring forth the buttery flavor and meaty structure of Halibut.
In this case, the Halibut had just passed the over-cooked stage. It was flavorful yes, but had just gone about a minute past its prime. I leaned to the right to ask the Gentleman next to me if he could taste the lemongrass in the sauce and he bravely said “Yes, I’m getting a lot of lemongrass coming through.” Unfortunately, I think my Halibut was only napped with a white wine butter sauce.
The plate was in stark contrast to the delightful, pleasing presentations we expect at these private affairs. A filet of halibut dressed in white sauce, then some green peas, then three little carrots. No herbs, no garnishes. The look of the dish reminded me of a Swanson frozen dinner. The peas were fresh, yet looked quite naked on the plate. The three baby carrots, sweet and tender, would have looked more comfortable under a garnish of fresh Spring pea greens to offset their vibrant orange color.
Braised Short Rib with Syrah Red Wine Sauce
Served with D’Arenberg, “The Footbolt” Shiraz, McClaren Vale, 2009
The meat was lusciously tender and flavorful, but owing to the sparse menu description, I wasn’t sure whether the beef was sitting on top of potato puree or a puree of another starch. I knew it had a tangy cheese whirled into it. I again leaned over to the Gentleman on my right, the fellow who previously told me he tasted lemongrass in the sauce on the halibut. This time he told me it wasn’t potato puree but polenta—and it had corn in it. At that point, I stopped considering his comments on the sauces and side dishes.
But the really disappointing part of the Short Rib dish were the green beans. Drab Army Green actually, the minute I saw the plate I knew the beans weren’t freshly prepared. Haricot Verts, the French darling of green beans, are so simple to prepare—just a quick blanch in boiling, salted water, then a dip in an ice cold bath. Just before service, a quick sauté in butter. This method helps the little green bean spears retain their intense green hue while keeping them crisp. I was so disappointed when I saw those faded poor bastards nestled next to the Short Rib.
Strawberry and Rhubarb Cheesecake
Served with Banfi, Rosa Regale Brachetto D’Aqui, Piedmont, NV
Again the menu description didn’t do justice to the depth and presentation of the best course of the evening. The Cheesecake was presented in the round on top of a streusel crust, a generous strawberry-rhubarb sauce drizzled around the plate and garnished with a wafer of sugar spun to the hard-crack stage. The cheesecake was silken, yet not so rich as to draw away from the fresh flavors of the berries. All too often strawberry is added to rhubarb to cut the tang and cater to the tastes of those not bold enough to try the unvarnished flavor of rhubarb. In this case, the strawberry only provided the sweetness, yet didn’t draw away from the tart flavor and fragrance of the rhubarb.
Details are everything to a restaurant. Failing to provide your Staff with the encouragement and training to please the guests, (the infamous wine snub at our private affair), can be the death of a restaurant. More importantly, flavors must be evident and clean, whether you operate a 24-hour Coffee Shop serving hash and eggs, or a Bistro opened all night.
I'm told that the Food Truck Event on Thursday night was a raving success, especially Chef Julian Serrano's huge pans of Rabbit Paella cooked "in the street." In reflection of the terribly disappointing evening at Central, (which is hindsight), I wished I'd joined the Food Truck Revolution instead.
Posted 12 May 2012 - 09:36 AM
The woes of finding a good breakfast in Las Vegas continued this morning. After the terrible breakfast at The Wicked Spoon Buffet, I thought I would turn to the old-standby—the Las Vegas coffee shop. Now mind you, there are very good coffee shops in Las Vegas that serve breakfast—the spot at the Flamingo hotel is very good and appears to not have changed for 40 years. Also good is the Peppermill, a hangout for locals and a restaurant that is stuck in the disco era. There are a number of great breakfast, “coffee shops,” off the Strip and there are a few “sit-down,” more upscale places serving breakfast on the Strip-Morel’s at The Palazzo, Mon Ami Gabi at Paris and Bouchon at The Venetian to name a few. But most of us want breakfast in Las Vegas fast and cheap—and depending on our physical state in the morning and our willingness to walk a mile for an egg, the possibilities become limited.
Planet Dailies in Planet Hollywood bills itself as the traditional Las Vegas coffee shop, yet this isn’t a place where you’ll find a waitress named Gladys whose been refilling coffee mugs for 40 years. Hundreds of flat-screen TV’s line the walls and pop rock music blares into the dining room while you tuck into Fish Tacos at 6am. The waitresses are outfitted with retro-style uniforms tailored to an exact fit so to speak.
I’ve eaten at Planet Dailies in the past for both breakfast and lunch and it was quite good compared to some of the other 24-hour joints on the Strip. But after today’s breakfast, I won't be back.
I ordered the Cheese and Bacon Omelete served with Breakfast Potatoes and Toast. Oh, and a skewer of one piece of pineapple, one chunk of honeydew and a strawberry.
The prerequisite skill of any diner cook—how to cook eggs. Scrambled, fried, poached, shirred, baked, in omeletes or for the fancy cook “en cocotte,” knowing how to cook an egg must be at the top of the resume. The bacon in my omelet was generous, but the eggs had been over-cooked and the cheese was barely melted. A good omelet is made up of a soft blanket of warm, cooked eggs encasing a filling of melted cheese that oozes onto the plate under the light touch of your fork.
So as my week in Las Vegas continues, I search for a better breakfast. Maybe I’ll suggest that Bon Appetit host a “Let’s all Cook Eggs” breakfast at Uncork’d 2013.
Posted 13 May 2012 - 08:29 AM
Having grown up in the Eastern Was farming town of Ellensburg, (home to one of the noted Lamb producers in America), Chef Michael Mina spent his early days in kitchens in the Pacific Northwest. After gaining a foundation based in formal training at the Culinary Institute of America and the requisite stints in noted kitchens, ten years ago Chef Mina formed financial partnerships allowing him to open restaurants in Las Vegas, including his highly-regarded namesake seafood restaurant Michael Mina at Bellagio. Chef Mina’s fine-dining empire has now grown to include five restaurants in Las Vegas and restaurants reaching from Seattle to New Jersey.
While other Chefs have taken the moniker “Celebrity” literally by expanding into soups, sauces, numerous television shows and the marketing of bottles of mayonnaise, Chef Mina has kept his focus more in line with the craftsmanship of a Chef-creating memorable dining experiences for his guests. His cuisine is refreshing and creative, with small unique touches you won’t find in other Las Vegas rooms that feature what some call “New American” cuisine. Molecular techniques aren’t employed if it’s simply to be trendy yet doesn’t have enhance the flavors on the plate.
In the six years that I've attended Uncork’d events at the Bellagio, I’ve never been disappointed by the caliber of the wines that have been served. Like no other resort hotel in the world, Bellagio’s wine staff includes three Master Sommeliers and a deep cellar and experienced staff dedicated to working with the Chefs to create the ultimate taste and flavor combinations.
Michael Mina is located in the Conservatory at Bellagio where themed gardens bursting with fresh flowers change with the seasons-
The theme of our luncheon was “My Favorite Things,” playing off some of Chef Mina’s favorite ingredients and his penchant for weaving Asian flavors into his dishes.
The Violet Femme
Encanta Pisco, Crème de Violette, Honey and Lavendar
The sweet and sour cocktail was presented with a garnish of a fresh, intensely-perfumed lavender flower. It was light yet creamy, yet the alcohol of the Pisco was tempered and didn’t inflame the other delicate flavors. The experience of having my first Pisco cocktail was enhanced by our Argentinian Server who schooled us in the intricacies of one of his country’s treasured brandies. And at the end of lunch he was gracious enough to provide each of us with the specific recipe for the Violet Femme.
Sake-Cured Cucumber, Sea Bream Emulsion, Wasabi Oil
Served with Yoshinogawa Winter Warrier Junmai Ginjo Sake, Niigata Prefecture
One finds Hamachi appearing on menus throughout Las Vegas—but it’s the way it’s treated, the garnishes that accompany it, that lift the delicate flavors of the fish. The cucumber had been vacuum-sealed and compressed to enhance its herbal flavor. The sea bream emulsion, a delicate fish essence, added notes of the sea and the wasabi oil added heat.
While I’ve tasted numerous Asian-inspired dishes at Uncork’d over the past six years, this was the first time at any Uncork’d event that the Sommelier has been sensible enough to realize that a cold, sweet Sake is the natural accompaniment to Hamachi.
Liberty Farms Duck
Stewed Rhubarb, Foie Gras Kumquat, “Forbidden Rice”
Served with Au Bon Climat, Sanford and Benedict, Santa Rita Hills 2007
The duck showed Chef Mina’s creativity yet the lengths to which he and his kitchen staff will go to craft a dish with unique flavors. The ducks had been hung and chilled for 48 hours to concentrate the flavor of the meat and allow for a crisp skin at the point of cooking the breasts. The livers of the ducks were combined with foie gras which was then stirred into the “Forbidden Rice.”
The carving of the duck breast was a pleasant surprise. Rather than thin slices of rosy-red, rare duck breast, two large cuts the size of a steak were presented on each plate. The skin was crisp and the medium-rare meat had a strong texture and concentrated flavor, no doubt coming from the aging process. The plate was garnished with sautéed Swiss chard and kumquats. Ah, those dear little kumquats had been poached to soften the skin and the inner fruit removed before foie gras mousse was then stuffed into the kumquat. On first taste, a burst of tangy citrus and then you were taken to the soft, rich, unctuous flavor of foie gras.
Chef Mina came to the table holding forth a copper pot of “Forbidden Rice”—ebony black with the flavor and texture of wild rice—and stirred in a good measure of foie gras before serving each guest.
My only quibble with the duck dish was a lack of any flavor of rhubarb, one of Spring’s most fabulous fruits. But the dismissal of rhubarb didn’t harm the success of the duck given the plate was drizzled with duck “jus” and had the richness of foie gras in both the rice and stuffed into the kumquats.
Passion Fruit Panna Cotta
Served with Kracher, Cuvee Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria, 2008
Typically served from a round mold, the panna cotta was brought to the table in a chilled dish and the Waiter poured lemongrass consomee into the bowl. The silken panna cotta was garnished with citrus supremes and a refreshing coconut-lime sorbet.
From the personal service to the thoughtful flavors of each course, gathering together to create a theme of “My Favorite Things,” lunch at Michael Mina spoke to a Chef and his Staff who do things in a unique, yet subtle and delicious manner.
Posted 13 May 2012 - 09:36 AM
After I had booked the aforementioned luncheon at Michael Mina, I received an email invitation to attend Chef Ramsay's press conference at Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris Hotel. The press conference, billed as "an exclusive opportunity," was apparently only open to a few select members of the food press. How I passed the muster to even be invited is still a mystery. However, owing to a proper upbringing by my Mother who schooled me in manners, I declined the Ramsay invitation and stuck to my previous engagement at Michael Mina. Who in their right mind would pass-up an invitation to attend a private press conference with Gordon Ramsay who would be preparing Caesar Salad and Beef Wellington no less? If you subscribe to the theory that press conferences are more important than honoring previous commitments to a private lunch with Chef Mina, then you would count me as delirious. One hopes if you enjoyed the above report on my luncheon at Mina you'll agree that I made a civil choice.
As one who appeared on the original American version of BBC's "MasterChef USA," I've struggled with trying to swallow a taste for Ramsay's derivation of MasterChef on Fox, and to an even lesser degree, the distasteful "Hell's Kitchen," another Ramsay reality series appearing on Fox. But Ramsay's portrayal of a character throwing soup pots and liberally shouting out profanities to cowering Chefs is not a fair measure of the man who is Gordon Ramsay. As we go into the latter days of Uncork'd, I'll share more thoughts on Gordon Ramsay's opening act in Las Vegas.
Posted 13 May 2012 - 03:19 PM
The Grand Tasting is viewed as a fabulous opportunity to meet all of the Chefs in attendance at Uncork’d and to savor small bites of the best dishes from their restaurants. It is still, after six years, the most popular of all the Uncork’d events both in terms of guest preferences and overall ticket sales.
The setting for the Grand Tasting amidst the pools at Caesar’s Palace truly reflects the “Garden of the Gods” title. The architecture evokes a Roman bacchanalia and the Grand Tasting delivers on that front. The food is especially good given the limitations placed on the Chefs. An immense amount of prep work must be done back at the home kitchen to prepare over 1,500 servings, then the whole lot has to be trucked over to Caesar’s, loaded into portable warmers, blast chillers, buckets and ice chests and slogged through the back entrance of the massive Caesar’s empire before it reaches the booths poolside. This is catering on a monumental scale.
I was fortunate to be given early access to the Grand Tasting before sundown so I could snap some photos and before the thundering herds stampeded onto the grazing pastures. Once the red velvet rope is pulled to the side, literally throngs of people rush forward. Within half an hour there are so many people clamoring for Bombay Sapphire Cocktails and Sweet and Sour Black Cod that you want to fold your hand, place your cards on the table and call it a night. Which I did. Then I walked back to my hotel and ordered one of the best cheeseburgers in Las Vegas at the Skybox Sports Bar at Aria.
In an effort to give you a fair portrayal of this beautiful setting and the intense preparation undertaken by the Chefs, I’ll offer a photo essay of the Grand Tasting. Mind you, there are plenty of guests who rate the Grand Tasting as the highlight of their journey through the Uncork’d events. Since I’ve attended the Grand Tasting for six years, I think I’ve had my fill. Robuchon and his Foie Gras Sliders were starkly absent this year, as was any notable restaurant from either The Venetian or The Palazzo. Maybe they’ve tired of the event like I have.
There is always a red carpet and fawning paparazzi trying to capture the best shot. Most of the Chefs work in kitchens behind the scenes and they are somewhat amused by the attention-
An amazing amount of pre-planning and prep work goes into the Grand Tasting-
One of the best, Chef Laurent Tourondol-
Chef Kerry Simon employs these ladies to serve his burgers-
Posted 13 May 2012 - 03:30 PM
Gordon Ramsay in a quiet moment. For the rest of the evening he would be
mobbed by women who were elbowing in for a photo op. The large, menacing
body guards kept the common folk away-
The best dish of the evening was this delicious, huge portion of Beef Wellington
served by Chef Ramsay and the staff from Gordon Ramsay Steak. (And the Sticky
Toffee Pudding wasn't too bad either)-
Macaroons from Chef Francois Payard-
New to the 2012 Grand Tasting, Old Homestead Steakhouse from New York which
opened in Caesar's Palace earlier this year-
Posted 13 May 2012 - 08:22 PM
No doubt you have seen the iconic American film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” starring the enduring beauty, Audrey Hepburn. On Friday morning in Las Vegas, my version of the morning meal was titled “Breakfast From Walgreen’s.” No, Walgreen’s hasn’t resurrected the Five and Dime Store Soda and Luncheon Counter at their new flagship store on the Strip, but Walgreen’s does have a selection of groceries including fresh eggs, passable bacon, butter and bread.
I’ve taken up temporary residence this week at the Vdara hotel in a room larger than my home and outfitted with a full kitchen, Thermidor refrigerator, range, oven, microwave, dishwasher and All-Clad cookware. I figured that cooking breakfast ala’ Walgreen’s certainly couldn’t be worse than the Wicked Spoon Buffet or the Planet Dailies coffee shop.
Assisted by proper French press coffee and pastries from World Champion Master Pastry Chef Jean-Phillipe Maury just steps from Vdara in the Aria Hotel, it was time to get back to the kitchen. Breakfast was hot and delicious, the eggs seasoned just the way I like them with lots of black pepper, the bacon hot and crisp.
And yes, this morning I remembered the chilled vodka and bottle of Clamato in the refrigerator. "Breakfast From Walgreen’s" ala Chez David Ross was the best breakfast of the week—so far.
Posted 14 May 2012 - 07:36 PM
Saturday's private luncheon at Prime restaurant was hosted by Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his wife Marja. In addition to a global restaurant empire, Chef Jean-Georges, (who needs no introduction as to his culinary talents), and Marja host the “Kimchi Chronicles” program that appears on PBS.
“Kimchi Chronicles” takes us on a journey to Korea, weaving together the cuisine, culture and food to tell a story of self-discovery for Marja and Jean-Georges. Their love, appreciation and respect for one another is reflected in their passion for cooking using ingredients they find in the markets of Korea-Marja creating traditional Korean dishes and Jean-Georges marrying Korean ingredients with influences from his native France. But the “Kimchi Chronicles” takes a different fork in the road from mainstream food programming by not simply focusing on a couple in the kitchen. Born to a Korean Mother and an African-American soldier, “Kimchi Chronicles” documents Marja’s re-discovery of the cuisine of her homeland--a re-awakening that allows her to fully embrace the Korean culture after years of feeling as though she was an outsider in her native country due to her mixed-race.
Jean-Georges and Marja are a gregarious couple—he the soft-spoken Frenchman with a quiet, yet devilish sense of humor, she the naturally out-going personality never without a smile and a laugh-
Given their schedules, it's hard for the couple to find time to cook at home. Yet home is where Jean-Georges develops most of his recipes and it’s at their country home in New York state where they cook on the weekends. According to Chef, Marja makes the best Mac’n Cheese in the world. Marja favors Jean-Georges traditional Alsatian dish “Baeckeoffe,” a slow-cooked stew with layers of lamb and potatoes.
The setting of the dining room at Prime evokes a gilded, Edwardian age with high-ceilings, ornately-carved, gold-accented, dark wood pillars and heavy silk drapes, but today the focus wouldn’t be on the décor. As Marja explained, “today we are having Korean peasant food.”
The tables were set with eight traditional Korean “Banchan” (side dishes), including Spinach, Seaweed, Daikon, Bean Sprouts, Fermented Eggplant Pickles, two type of Kimchi and housemade Chili Sauce. We were encouraged to taste the Banchan with both the First Course and the Meat Course-
Herbed Mung Bean Pancakes with Smoked Salmon and Caviar
Served with a 2009 Von Buhl, Kabinett-Style Riesling, Germany
Korea was represented by the Mung Bean Pancake with an earthy, tangy soft pillow of Mung Beans enveloped by a crisp crust. The Pancake was sitting next to its French cousin, lush, lightly smoked slices of salmon and salty caviar. As Jean-Georges said, “you can’t have Smoked Salmon without Caviar”-
Kobe Ribeye “Bulgogi” Style served with Rice and Lettuce Leaves
Served with a 2009 Joseph Drouhin Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
As I looked around the dining room, I noticed some people using their knife and fork and taking individual bites of each component of the dish. But you'll never experience the bold mixture of flavors if you eat a bit of lettuce, a spoon of rice and then a bite of steak. Bulgogi served in this style is really intended to be eaten as it would in the streets of Seoul--wrapping the meat, rice, chili sauce and other condiments of your choosing in a lettuce leaf and eating it with one's hands-
Jean-Georges purveys grade 9 100% Kobe beef from Australia. Apparently most Steakhouses in Las Vegas only vend grade 6 Prime US beef. But it’s not merely the grade of meat that matters when it comes to Kobe. Too many Las Vegas Steakhouses get it wrong when it comes to cooking premium beef. Imagine a 2” thick Kobe Ribeye weighing in at 16 ounces--not only would it cost you a fortune, your taste buds would be slathered with fatty beef that isn’t intended to be eaten in that manner. The staff at Prime treated the ribeye with respect by marinating it in the Korean manner, then grilling and thinly slicing the steak so you taste the texture, flavor and marbling of this exceptional experience-
"Passion" Fruit Sunflower with Crisp Meringue, Vanilla Pastry Cream
Dessert evoked both Gallic technique in the crisp meringue and cool Asian flavors of exotic fruit in the pastry cream-
After lunch we had the opportunity to ask Jean-Georges and Marja questions about their lives in food. When asked who his favorite Chef is today, Jean-Georges first hesitated then finally relented and named Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant in Chicago. But he did qualify his answer by saying that “molecular went too far, but now we are going back to local, small producers in our local communities.” (And maybe a few scientific twists added to the plate). Then the conversation turned personal.
I sensed a deeper meaning behind the journey of the “Kimchi Chronicles.” I asked Marja about her favorite episode of the show and she said it was the emotional episode where she revisited her extended Korean Family back in her homeland. She said, “I learned the Korean culture through the food. It was the food of Korea that always tied me to my heritage, yet until that journey I always felt like an outsider.” Marja had lost contact with her Mother for many years, but eventually re-connected with her when she surprisingly found she lived near her own home in New York City.
The food at Jean-Georges was exceptional, as were the wines, the service and the conversation. But my lasting memory will be the story of Marja’s journey back to Korea in search of her culture and her life with Jean-Georges. It’s a personal and insightful portrayal that we rarely see behind the façade of what we know as the “Celebrity Chef.” It’s a story about family and love and how a shared passion for food and cooking can bring people of different colors and cultures together at the table.
Posted 15 May 2012 - 05:51 PM
One thing people always ask me is "how do you survive a week of such gluttony and copious amounts of wine and drink?" Well the answer is really quite simple and it takes basically two things, rest and water. I tend to only eat big breakfasts on days prior to the formal luncheons at Uncork'd. If I am dining at a mid-day event, I'll try to keep breakfast fairly light. After lunch, (which can start at 11:30 a.m. and include wine and champagne), I'll go back to my room and nap anywhere from one hour to three hours. I'm one of the fortunate souls who can nap for three hours without waking up feeling as though I got slugged by Manny Pacquiao. I wake-up feeling refreshed and ready for another round.
Now at dinner the level of drink is somewhat more intense--a four-course lunch may turn into a six course evening extravaganza starting with cocktails, two white wine varietals, a vintage red, or two, dessert wines and sometimes an after-dinner aperitif. Should you not have the stoic bearing of Dean Martin, simply have a few sips. If you are of the mettle of the Rat Pack, just know when to stop, then do as I do. Say your goodnights, shake the host's hand and gracefully return to your hotel. Keep a large glass of ice water on the bedside table and retire no later than 11:30 p.m. While "after-hours" parties are tempting in Las Vegas, I decline knowing that I've got more engagements the next day. I've seen poor fellows staggering home at 7 a.m. in Las Vegas just as I'm heading out on my early morning walk. It's really not a pretty sight.
Posted 15 May 2012 - 06:46 PM
I don't have youth on my side, I'm 54. But I suppose with age comes reason, and reasonability, when it comes to these gustatory affairs, (yet sometimes I still question my own better judgement).
Goodie, I look forward to the parating words.
Appreciate the "how I do it"--you are fortunate to be able to nap, and to have the discipline (sips?!). Still, I fell you must have youth on your side as well.
Posted 17 May 2012 - 07:34 PM
In year’s past, the planners of Uncork’d have pulled out all the stops for the Saturday evening gala. In the early years, we were treated to sumptuous, multi-course, sit-down meals presented by the Chef’s. Everyone was dressed in their finest as we sat down with crystal goblets of vintage Champagne to tables decorated with towering cut-glass vases of exotic flowers. No doubt those feasts at Uncork’d were in part responsible for depleting a vast amount of the caviar resources of the Caspian Sea.
I used to say that if a bomb went off over the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday night at Uncork’d, nearly all of the world’s great Chefs, (including the Four French Masters-Ducasse, Savoy, Gagnaire and Savoy), would be lifted-up through the clouds into a dining room in the sky.
In recent years, a combination of the sluggish economy and the changing trends of tastes have caused Uncork’d to go with a more casual theme for the annual Saturday night event. I was so looking forward to the “Surfside Beach Clambake,” set on the beach at Mandalay Bay, (mind you, a “beach” planted along a “lake” with “waves” as only Las Vegas can build). The billing on the Uncork’d website tempted me with these words “alongside the waves of the Mandalay Bay Beach, guests will enjoy live music, cocktails, and fresh seafood. Chefs Charlie Palmer, Rick Moonen Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger will dish out their unique twist on this family-style American Classic as attendees pull up a seat at the long communal tables located under the stars.” I envisioned those long tables I see on the PBS program “Outstanding in the Field,” where the Chefs visit local farms and purvey fresh, seasonal ingredients. Guests are seated at a communal table, often set in a lazy peach orchard with the sun setting in the West, and feast on the bounty of what the farmers and craftsman have gathered that morning.
I’m a romantic when it comes to food, I can’t help it, and so I was anticipating that the “Surfside Clambake” would be my Las Vegas version of “Outstanding in the Field.” Certainly with Chefs Moonen, Milliken, Feniger and Palmer cooking for us this would be an evening that I would list in my diary as one of the most memorable from the six year history of Uncork’d.
There was no “long, communal table” at the Surfside Clambake. Round tables seating 10 were plotted on the sand, (making it incredibly difficult to walk on with a full plate in one hand, drink in the other). Across the “lake,” a band played hits from the 70’s and 80’s, (and as the evening and drink wore on, guests jumped into the water and sang along).
Looking toward the “lake” at Mandalay Bay-
I was expecting someone from Bon Appetit to come to the microphone and introduce the Chefs and the dishes we’d be tasting—yet no such introduction came, at least not that I noticed when the gates opened and we sat down.
I was also naïve in thinking that the Chef’s would present each course to the table in large serving bowls so that we could dine ala “family-style.” Alas, I was convicted to the line of another “buffet” and the crowded atmosphere of the “Grand Tasting,” as each Chef had their own station where we traipsed through, filling our plates. There were no printed menu cards, only descriptions of the dishes at each booth.
Chef Charlie Palmer has two restaurants within the Mandalay Bay complex-Charlie Trotter Steak and the famous Aureole. The most stunning display of the entire Clambake was this gigantic haunch of beef that Chef Palmer was slicing-
And a little piggy who had been marinated in the Cuban-Style with orange juice and oregano. (Unfortunately, piggy’s meat was better than his leathery skin offered as “crackling)-
Chef Palmer’s crew also presented a number of side dishes and sweets.
I sat next to a couple from Cincinnati. The gentleman was attending culinary school and his wife had given him tickets and a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate his birthday and his pending graduation. What a great gift for someone planning a career in cuisine. I didn’t let on how disappointed I was that the Chefs didn’t make an introduction, nor did they come to our table to introduce themselves as most Chefs do at Uncork’d events. But the aspiring Chef’s night was made whole when Chef Moonen doused the lobster on his plate with clarified butter. Of course you are well aware that Chef Moonen is the owner and Chef of RM Seafood and RM Café at Mandalay Place.
Now if you’ve followed our Uncork’d reports over the years, you’ll remember that Chef Moonen is no fan of this writer owing to an honest review that excoriated the service at his restaurant in 2010 when I was attending Uncork’d. (And jsmeeker can attest to the disaster that night as he was at the table). For the full review, click here.
I started through the line at Chef Moonen’s display, loading my plate with the fixin’s of a traditional New England Clambake—Corn on the Cob, Red Potatoes, Mussels, Steamed Clams, and Grilled Lobster—but I stopped short of a personal offering of butter from the Chef lest it bring to his mind the depressing review I had penned of his restaurant two years earlier. I made a quick turn-around and went back to my table in the sand. The grilled lobster was buttery and tender, the clams and mussels fresh, the corn and potatoes drowned, over-cooked and mushy. It was a passable dish with some individual elements that were quite good. And that is really what you'll find at any number of Las Vegas buffets. But the odds at the table turned in my favor when I went over to the Border Grill booth.
As always, whenever you meet them, whether it be at a large public gathering, a book signing or in one of their restaurants, the “Two Hot Tamales,” Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken shine with their vivacious personalities, broad smiles and enthusiasm for the flavors of Mexico they are so well-known for.
Chef Feniger and Milliken, Chef-Owners of the inimitable Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, cemented their popularity with the public through their food and appearances in the early days of cooking on commercial television. It would be years later when they re-appeared on television competing on “Top Chef” on Bravo that they would discover a new fan base. Yet behind the veil of the public eye, their success in the restaurant business and cookbook publishing has never waned--and their skills in crafting dishes with pronounced, spicy flavors are as clear and vibrant now as they were twenty years ago.
I asked Chef what type of fish they were using for the Fish Tacos. “We couldn’t get fresh Copper River Salmon because the season won’t open for another week, so we contacted our source in Oregon and discovered this beautiful Columbia River Chinook Spring Salmon.” My spirits were lifted. Imagine, a boy from the Northwest finding fresh Columbia River Salmon in Las Vegas. No other Salmon is so precious to those of us who live in the Northwest-no salmon as rich in oil, it’s belly laced with deliciously rich fat. To find this rare Salmon swathed in Pico de Gallo, sauced with Creamy Avocado Sauce and wrapped in a Grilled Corn Tortilla, (on the sands of a fake beach in Las Vegas no less), will forever be one of the most memorable dishes from my year’s at Vegas Uncork’d. That one moment in time made-up for the failures of the rest of the evening.
Aside from the spectacular Columbia River Salmon Tacos at the Border Grill booth, the Bombay Sapphire “Mix your own gin cocktail” stand was outstanding—Las Vegas’s version of an adult lemonade stand. The mass-market white wine on the tables was underwhelming to say the least.
One can’t resist associating the cost of a meal against the value of the food and the experience. Given the price of a ticket to the Surfside Clambake was $175.00, I left the beach to the sounds of the band playing “Good Vibrations,” but I didn’t feel the beat. Another evening event at Uncork’d had paled in comparison to the private lunches I had tasted with Chefs Puck, Mina and Vongerichten. I had that empty feeling you get when you come away from the table unsated, muttering to myself, “is that all we got?”
Posted 18 May 2012 - 06:29 PM
As the sun rose over the desert on a clear, beautiful, Mother’s Day in Las Vegas, I had to shrug off my disappointment from the Clambake on Saturday night and hope that my return trip to Mandalay Bay for Mother’s Day Brunch, (the second event to be hosted by Chef Charlie Palmer), would be a success.
James Beard Award-Winning Chef Palmer followed the path of other noted New York City Chefs when he opened an outpost of his signature Aureole restaurant at Mandalay Bay in 1999. The stunning, Adam Tihany designed dining room, (which I describe as “Swedish Modern”), is recognized by the dramatic, four-story, glass wine “tower” that fronts the entrance to the restaurant. Wine “Angels” soar to the sky, (they are lifted by electronically controlled cables actually), to retrieve vintage bottles of Bordeaux. Aureole Las Vegas has consistently been recognized by Michelin and the Mobil Travel Guide not only for the cuisine but the wine program and pastry kitchen.
Aureole Las Vegas-
The iconic wine tower-
The tables were set with crystal vases of lilies and Spring pastel shades of purple, orange, yellow and red in celebration of Mother’s Day. (The one major complaint at our table was the quilted tablecloth that had such a rough texture you couldn’t leave a flute of champagne unattended lest it fall into Mother’s lap)-
Each seat was adorned with a cloth bag full of Lindt Swiss Chocolate Bars and Truffles-
Ryan Scott, “Bon Appetit Collection Chef,” co-hosted the event with Aureole’s French kitchen brigade-Executive Chef Vincent Pouessel, Pastry Chef Vincent Pilon and Sommerlier Christophe Tassan. Mr. Scott was the most visible of the Bon Appetit staff at Vegas Uncork’d. He is recognized by his appearance on “Top Chef” on Bravo, and is responsible for marketing the “Bon Appetit Collection” on QVC. (Prior to reading Mr. Scott’s bio listed in the Uncork’d program, I wasn’t aware Bon Appetit even sold cookware on QVC).
We were greeted by waiters holding silver trays with flutes of Mimosa’s and Santa Margherita Sparking Rose from Italy. Two wines were poured at the table, including a 2009, Iberian Remix Albarino, Central Coast, California, and a 2009, Limestone Pinot Noir, Russian River, California.
Brunch was set as a buffet, but this wasn’t the steam-tray, groaning counters of tepid food one finds at the casino buffets. Chefs manned each station and were sautéing the breakfast steaks a’la minute, slicing the salmon, whipping the creamy scrambled eggs and fussing over every last detail of each petits four and cupcake.
One glance at the menu and I sensed we were in for a delicious brunch-
-Iron Waffles with Bacon and Chives
-Rosemary Roasted Ham Croque-Monsieur
-Hand-Sliced, House-Smoked Salmon and American Caviar
-Maine Lobster and Tarragon Souffle
-Kobe A5 Grade “Minute” Steak
-Fresh Organic Eggs
-Assorted Mini Danish
-Lemon Raspberry Macaroon
-Chocolate Raspberry Linzer Cookie
-Orange Chocolate Tart with Chocolate Streusel
-Almond Cake with Strawberry Compote
-Hazelnut St. Honore
-Banana Cream Pie
-Assorted Mini Cupcakes
Smoked Salmon, Lobster Souffle and Croque-Monsieur-
The kitchen had obviously used the finest grade of fresh salmon available and it was top-notch—lush yet oily in texture with very subtle, briny, tangy notes. It must be an incredibly difficult task to craft a number of mini-souffles over the course of a three-hour brunch, yet continually bring them to the table hot, airy and uplifting. With a ham sandwich that has hot, gooey cheese and a crisp crust you have a “soufflé and sandwich” combination that only the French can present.
One minor issue arose when I approached the board with slices of housemade, cured-smoked salmon. The garnish of sliced lemon and large caper berries was cute, but I didn’t spy the “American Caviar,” that was listed on the menu card at the station. In fact, I think I was the only guest who noticed it was missing. When I asked one of the Sous Chefs where the caviar was, he was clearly embarrassed that someone forgot to put it out. Seconds later he returned from the kitchen with two small glass dishes placed on ice. The labels revealed the caviar was sourced in Idaho from farm-raised sturgeon. I was delighted to see that once again, (the fourth time it had happened during my time in Las Vegas), an ingredient from my native Pacific Northwest had made it’s way into a starring role in Las Vegas. After I urged the Chef to deliver on the promise on the menu, we would be blessed with enough black pearls of gold to feed the court of Csar Nicholas II.
This was one of the best preparations of Kobe beef that I’ve ever had in Las Vegas—thinly-sliced, (no more than ¼” thick), these little “breakfast” nuggets of supple meat were grilled “a’la minute” on a huge, cast iron flat-top akin to what one sees in Mongolian grills.
If you are a historian of cuisine, you’ll note that the “breakfast” steak was popular on menus and in homes in America throughout the early half of the 20th century. Sadly, as the pace of society grew ever faster, the “breakfast” steak was replaced with fruit smoothies and energy bars. Who would turn away a waiter who comes to the table and asks if you “would like another steak Sir,” (served by the waiter in the cherished 1970’s “Continental” manner from a tray employing a knife and fork in one hand).
Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Breakfast Steak, Scrambled Eggs with American Caviar, House-Smoked Salmon-
The selection of Mini Cupcakes-
Hand-Crafted Chocolates, Truffles and Confections-
My plate of sweets including Macaroons (upper right), Coconut Cupcake (upper left), Almond Cake with Strawberry Compote (center), Mini Hazelnut “St. Honore” with Raspberry (lower left). And yes, dear friends, another delicious spoonful of Creamed Eggs, Smoked Salmon and Caviar-
What a wonderful way to spend Sunday in Las Vegas at my final, formal event of Vegas Uncork’d 2012. Only two things would have made “Charlie’s Steak and Eggs Brunch” absolutely perfect. First, I would have loved for my dear Mother, Janet Pink Ross, 88 years young, to have been sitting next to me in that grand dining room, sipping on champagne and tucking into Breakfast Steak and Eggs. (A dish that no doubt her Mother Edna Pink served in their home in Twin Falls, Idaho, circa 1938).
There was one other element that was conspicuously missing at Sunday morning’s “Brunch with Charlie Palmer.” Charlie Palmer. Either Chef Palmer had come down with some sort of infliction after carving that huge joint of beef on Saturday night at the Clambake, or, more realistically, he left town early, apparently not understanding nor caring that his physical presence at an Uncork’d event he was hosting was imperative—especially to guests that had paid dearly for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sup and sip in his presence.
Situations arise that can change plans, but it was inexcusable that there was no explanation as to why Chef Palmer wasn't present. The lack of the presence of the Host Chef demonstrated a lack of attention to the guests in the extreme and relegated the affair to a worthy yet unmemorable status. Another Uncork’d event that tempted, and came close, very close, yet didn’t ultimately deliver on a promise.
Posted 18 May 2012 - 07:51 PM
BTW I had a decidedly mediocre meal at Border Grill in Santa Monica recently. Won't return.
Posted 19 May 2012 - 06:37 AM
"One can’t resist associating the cost of a meal against the value of the food and the experience. Given the price of a ticket to the Surfside Clambake was $175.00, I left the beach to the sounds of the band playing “Good Vibrations,” but I didn’t feel the beat." That is a very nicely written line. And fits your description of the overall experience and venue. Never having been to Uncork'd, I cannot really judge, but it is beginning to sound like yet another thing that is "not what it used to be." It feels from reading this year that last year was significantly more satisfying?
BTW I had a decidedly mediocre meal at Border Grill in Santa Monica recently. Won't return.
I would say that at the 6-year mark, Uncork'd is showing its age and I would agree that this year's experience was less-satisfying overall than in year's past. I wouldn't say it was "significantly" less-satisfying, but I'm left with the sense that what was once a grand event has faded. I'll be adding some more thoughts on what I think Bon Appetit could do to revitalize Uncork'd and continue to make it an annual event that is relevant.
Posted 19 May 2012 - 01:34 PM
On Sunday evening I went off-Strip to Asiatown for dinner with some local friends. Taking time to dine like the locals in Las Vegas has become a relaxing Sunday evening, post-Uncork'd tradition. While the Strip restaurants in Las Vegas suffered through the toughest years of the economic downturn, (and many closed their doors forever), the Asian restaurant community has seemingly boomed, providing local residents with an exceptional range of dining options.
I asked my friend, John Curtas, co-author of "Eating Las Vegas, The 50 Essential Restaurants," and the man who writes the inimitable blog, "Eating Las Vegas.com" why there was such a large Asian community in the middle of the desert. He said that it goes back nearly 20 years to when some of the larger Asian restaurants in Southern California started opening outposts in Las Vegas. As the boom in building in Las Vegas grew, more people moved to Las Vegas for the thousands of jobs that the mega-resorts were offering. It only would be natural that the Asian community would bring their traditions and cuisine with them as they migrated to Las Vegas. When the boom went bust, (and hasn't yet recovered), a large part of the community turned from working for large hotel corporations to opening small Mom and Pop restaurants.
J an J Szechuan was probably a Dairy Queen or a small appliance repair shop in a former life. Set in a non-descript cement block shopping mall, the menu and dishes are anything but pedestrian. If you like chilies and heat, lots of heat, this is the place for you.
A selection of items on the menu-
Listed simply as "White Fish" and looking quite bland, this dish of tender chunks of fish was hot, hot hot-
The tongue-numbing, Szechuan Peppercorn Lamb Ribs, with just a few dried red chilies added as a garnish-
It would take six large glasses of ice water and 3 bowls of steamed rice before I could temper the heat on my palate. After a twenty
minute rest, I was ready to take on more of the intense "White Fish."
Most of the Asian restaurants in Las Vegas converge along a swatch of blocks on Spring Mountain Road located just West of the Strip. It's a short drive or cab ride, and the local bus system makes it an easy trip for Tourists. One can reasonably dine at any Asian restaurant off-Strip for a fraction of the cost you would pay in a large hotel Cantonese restaurant catering to less authentic tastes. The entrees at J and J are in the $9-$12 dollar range. You'll pay nearly double that for an appetizer at a high-end Asian restaurant on the Strip. It's well worth the short trip.