If you are interested in Celebrity Chef sightings and gossip as it relates to “Vegas Uncork’d,” you won’t find much of it in this report. There are some other blogs out there in the land of the Internet that will give you the gossippy, “People” magazine treatment of the events.
Yes, I did meet and shake hands with Chefs who carry the “celebrity” moniker-but the intent of my trip wasn’t merely to give you a report, aka “Entertainment Tonight.” If I do mention the name of a Celebrity Chef, it’s hopefully within the context of a discussion about food and cuisine in Las Vegas. I tend to be more interested in the substance behind the façade if you will.
I’m going to divide my report about “Vegas Uncork’d” into two distinct sections. First, I’ll be sharing details about some of the delicious meals I ate in Las Vegas over the course of the week I was in town. In addition to the meals and special events I attended in conjunction with “Vegas Uncork’d,” I also devoted time to dining at some restaurants in Las Vegas that weren’t directly involved in the week’s festivities.
I had the unique honor of speaking directly with each Chef whose restaurant I dined at. It was more than the usual “meet and greet” where one gets a few seconds to shake the hand of the Chef and get a quick photo. Sure, I had some of those moments—but what was most satisfying for me was having the opportunity to spend some quality time speaking to each Chef, and having an intelligent conversation about what they think makes Las Vegas one of the top dining destinations in the country.
I’ll then conclude the report with my thoughts on the question I first posed when developing this topic-a mission to discover the “truth” behind the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas dining scene. (And I’ll be adding more thought to our earlier discussion about the “soul” of the restaurant culture in Las Vegas).
Of course, the scope and number of fine restaurants in Las Vegas is far too great for me to definitively answer these questions with my simple report. But I think you’ll find that the small sampling of restaurants that I dined at during my visit to Las Vegas will give you a little more insight into this exciting, ever-changing, dining destination.
I hope you don’t find the words too descriptive, the number of pages too long, or the personal anecdote’s boring. It’s part of my way of sharing what I think is the truth of Las Vegas dining.
As we go along, please ask me any questions you might have. Whether it’s a question about a hotel, a specific restaurant, a particular dish I had, or a question related to the events, I’ll do my best to oblige. Hope you enjoy the food, the fun, and the photos of Las Vegas.Tuesday, May 6, Dinner at Michael Mina at Bellagio-
Michael Mina Restaurant is located in the Conservatory at Bellagio-an immense, glass enclosed “greenhouse” if you will. The flower arrangements and theme of the Conservatory are changed seasonally, and since this trip was the first week of May, the theme was Spring:
The marble and stone entrance to the restaurant is somewhat imposing and formal-one isn’t really sure what awaits after you step through the door. But once inside, the dining room is light and airy with light earth tones the dominant colors. The tables are comfortably spaced allowing for personal conversations, and there isn’t the blaring, off-putting soundtracks piped into so many Las Vegas restaurants.
Chef Anthony Amoroso spent over ten years honing his skills in the kitchens of Chef Rick Moonen in New York, and Chef Michael White at Fiamma Trattoria at the MGM in Las Vegas before moving into his current position as the Executive Chef at Michael Mina’s seafood temple at Bellagio.
I had the great pleasure to dine with my friends John Curtas and his lovely girlfriend Alexandra. As some of you know, John is quite the “bon vivant” when it comes to Las Vegas dining. Not only is he a studied palate and wine connoisseur, John is without a doubt the most well-rounded restaurant critic in town-he does a weekly commentary on KNPR Radio, appears on KLAS-CBS weekly, and just launched his blog, www.eatinglv.com. Oh yes, he also represents the James Beard Foundation in Las Vegas and writes for too many publications to name.
We were given a bit of the Las Vegas VIP treatment-we were seated at a semi-private table next to a large picture window overlooking the lush gardens surrounding the pool at Bellagio. Part of the excitement and fun of dining in Las Vegas, regardless of your VIP status, is the bevy of staff that fawn over your every need. No crumb goes without being whisked away, no water glass goes unfilled. (More on the ruse of water in Las Vegas restaurants when we get to day number two).
Chef Amoroso introduced himself to our table and asked if we had any restrictions. I think he was pleased to know that the only challenge we tasked him with was to show us his creativity. While Chef had a general idea of what he would prepare for us, there was an element of surprise and improvisation added to the menu once he met us and realized there would be no restraints placed upon the kitchen. (And now you are starting to read about the “soul” behind the creativity and the food in Las Vegas).
Michael Mina is known for presenting dishes as ‘trios’-an example off the printed menu is the trio of “Seared Diver Scallops Ceviche”-one with Meyer Lemon and Caviar, the second with Sweet Corn and Black Truffle and the third with Scarlet Beets and Maine Lobster.
Chef Amoroso took the concept of “trios” to a higher level with our table, serving us seven courses of “trios.” Yes, if you do the math correctly that is twenty-one dishes for the three of us.
Now the bane of the food blogger is when his little digital camera decides to take a break during dinner-when he is writing what he hopes is one of the better blogs on Las Vegas dining and the Bon Appetit events.
After the first few photos, my battery went dead and I had no backup with me, so you’ll have to imagine what the dishes at Mina looked like based on my descriptions.
I will note that the exceptional service provided by the dining room staff didn’t simply stop with the service at the table. When one of the waiters overheard my disappointment with the camera, he actually offered to recharge the battery for me! Can you imagine? Had I been smart enough to bring the battery recharger with me I would have obliged his gracious offer. Now that is customer service.
I did get a photo of the beverage I always start with at a fine dining restaurant, a perfectly made Champagne Cocktail. (As you can see, there are a number of other crystal stemware pieces waiting for our special wine service).
The first course was one of Michael Mina’s “Signature” dishes-the much-loved “Caviar Parfait,” served with Chef Mina’s own branded French Champagne.
The dish begins with a base of crispy potato cake, followed by a layer of finely diced egg, then crème fraiche, alder-smoked salmon and a generous dollop of Wild Missouri Sturgeon Caviar. One taste of this fresh and salty American Caviar and you won’t miss the banned Caviar from the Caspian Sea.
The adventure of the cooking began with the next course, “Fluke, Coconut Foam, Sweet Potato,” served with a “Schoss, 2005 Cabinet Riesling.”
I was a bit apprehensive when I heard that a strong flavor like sweet potato was going to be paired with slices of raw, delicate fluke. The sweet potato was cut into the tiniest little cubes you can imagine-an ingenious technique that gave us a sweet little nugget of potato with a taste of tender fluke. Had the cubes of sweet potato been any larger, it would have certainly interfered with the flavor of the fish. The coconut foam was pretty, as foams tend to be, but also added another sweet note and exotic scent to the dish.
The main fish course was simply described as “Crispy Black Bass with Maitake Mushrooms” served with “Dujac Fils and Pere, 2004 Puligny-Montrachet.”
I probably gave away my cards at the table-true lovers of black bass eat the crispy skin-and it was delicious. I so love black bass-creamy, solid and oily all at the same moment.
The maitake, a somewhat rare and expensive mushroom that I’ve only had in a few Asian dishes, was prepared two ways-fried in a tempura batter and braised. The flavors were balanced while still being distinct in their own right.
We moved on to the meat dishes next, and a spirited debate about the merits of Wagyu, Kobe and “regular” beef followed.
The first of the meats was a dish of “Olive Oil Poached Lamb, Taboulleh Salad with Red Pepper Puree Reduction” paired with “Chateau de Pez, 2004 Saint-Estephe Bordeaux.”
Chef Amoroso started the lamb by poaching it in olive oil and then finishing it with a quick, hot sear and roast. Poaching meat in oil can be a snare waiting to trap a cook-if the temperature of the oil isn’t right the meat will soak it up like a sponge. This wasn’t fortunately the case; the olive oil gave the lamb a silky, soft feel along with a hint of olive flavor.
The fresh, clean Taboulleh salad was studded with bits of tomato, mint and onion, and the red pepper puree accented the Mediterranean flavors of the dish.
The only small, very small, criticism that we had with the lamb is that it didn’t have the bold lamb flavor that John and I personally prefer. I got an agreeable response and chuckle when I mentioned to the Chef that I would have been quite happy with a little serving of “Mutton Stew.”
Such is the argument we often face when discussing lamb today. I won’t bore you too much, other than to direct you to the discussions you’ll find on eGullet about the issue of the “flavor” of lamb today. Basically, much of the “Spring Lamb” one finds in the supermarket and on restaurants menus today has the flavor of mild beef.
The second meat dish was the beef course-“Kobe” Rib Cap, Bordelaise Sauce, Mushroom,” served with “d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, Australia), Dead Arm Shiraz, 2005.”
I am certainly not an expert on the inner-workings of the “Kobe” beef classifications, nor am I studied in the methods of how these precious Japanese cattle are raised.
What I can say is that the Chef took a somewhat unusual cut, the “cap” off the rib, to create a solid beef dish. The meat of course was incredibly tender. One would not want to gussy-up such an expensive cut of beef with anything more than a perfectly executed red wine sauce accompanied by earthy wild mushrooms.
Our table agreed that this was a quite good beef dish. But we also agreed that there should be an open debate as to the merits of the current fad with Kobe and Wagyu beef.
I am not the biggest fan of “Kobe” or “Wagyu” beef because I can’t say that it honestly tastes “beefy.” Understand that my family history in cattle ranching goes back over 150 years long before restaurants and distributors began selling “boutique” cuts of meat.
My judgment must be clouded, because I don’t feel that it takes a beer-fed, spa-treated cow to give me a good steak. If Mr. Hereford has grazed in open meadows of alfalfa in the high-country of Eastern Oregon and then had the pleasure of fattening up on good grain and corn, he’ll give me a good Strip Steak.
Las Vegas is a city of excess in many ways-beef being one of the excesses. There are some steakhouses in town that are currently selling “tasting” plates of “Kobe Done Three Ways” that will set you back $150 bucks for about 8 ounces of meat. But does it really “taste” like “beef?” Is it “worth” the price? It’s a discussion that could go on over many bottles of fine red wine, but in Las Vegas, the beef traditionalists probably won’t win the argument.
Remember-people are in town to enjoy themselves-and taste foods and spend money-in a way they wouldn’t dream of doing back home. If the Kobe beef is expensive, it must be good.
My special request was rewarded when Chef presented us with a delicious trio of cheeses, served with “Jean-Marc Brocard, 2005 Chablis.”
I was served the most adventuresome cheese of the three-an unpasteurized ewe’s milk cheese from Portugal garnished with “caramelized chorizo.”
I anticipated the ewe’s milk cheese having a strong aroma and bitter flavor, but it was actually mild in flavor with a wonderful, creamy texture. The caramelized chorizo was too bitter and strong to be paired with the cheese, and we agreed a simple caramel sauce drizzled over the cheese would have been a more appropriate garnish.
My dessert was a small tube of chocolate cake filled with a chocolate mousse and served with candied apricot. It was served with a sweet and delicious “2006 Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvee” from Austria.
Recognition must be given to the entire staff-from the Receptionist who allowed me to use her cell phone, to the Manager’s, the Wait staff and the Wine Staff. The wine pairings took thought and discussion with the kitchen to insure that they progressed with the food courses and that they accented Chef’s delicious cuisine. Bellagio is fortunate to have Chef Amoroso and the staff at Michael Mina in their hotel.
Keep note of the name Chef Anthony Amoroso. To use a cliche-Chef Amoroso is a rising-star on the Las Vegas dining scene. He has a lot of creativity and talent to share and no doubt will continue to grace Las Vegas with his cuisine.
Next up-Wednesday, May 7, and lunch at "Louis's Fish Camp" and a chat with Chefs Louis Osteen and Carlos Guia-and a meeting with friends who like a good fried oyster-including Alan Richman.
Dinner will be at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the MGM-a food experience in Las Vegas on a very high level.