The last formal event I attended at “Uncork’d” was the Saturday evening “Gala Dinner.”
The dinner was presented by Chefs from the fine dining restaurants at Bellagio, including:
Chef Todd English and Chef Isaac Carter, Olives Restaurant
Chef Akira Back, Yellowtail Sushi Restaurant and Bar
Chef Michael Mina and Chef Anthony Amoroso, Michael Mina Restaurant
Chef Julian Serrano, Picasso Restaurant
Chef Robert Moore, Jean-Georges Prime Restaurant
Chef Jean-Phillipe Maury, JP Patisserie, Bellagio
The wine pairings were sponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, including “wines from Icon Estates and Champagne by Remy Cointreau USA.”
The festivities were hosted by Barbara Fairchild, Editor-In-Chief of Bon Appetit and Mr. Alan Richman, who is, among his other associations and talents, a special correspondent for Bon Appetit.
Presenting a “Grand Gala” dinner to an audience filled with professionals of the culinary world is a daunting task to say the least. The mere thought that Ducasse and Robuchon would be dining at the front table, (they were seated next to one another), and tasting your food is enough to make any Chef nervous.
I’ve attended a number of these events, and every time I walk into the ballroom I have an expectation that I’m going to be served a memorable meal.
When a customer dines at one of these Chefs restaurants, they should always expect an exceptional meal-but those expectations rise for an event intended to celebrate the culinary arts-an expectation that the food will be at the highest level possible. -What’s it like to watch some of the top Chef’s in America select products and craft a five-course dinner for hundreds?
I had prepared this question based on the billing on the program that promised-a “Stroll through the Bellagio Marketplace alongside eight fabulous chefs while they handpick some of the most delectable products and create an exclusive and intimate five course dinner.”
In the days building up to the Grand Gala, I was corresponding with some other attendees of “Uncork’d” and everyone asked me the same question-“where, or what, is the “Bellagio Marketplace?”
I assumed that the producer’s of the Grand Gala would be transforming a meeting room into a marketplace that mirrored a farmer’s market, perhaps with an Italian theme to echo the style and theme of the Bellagio hotel. And I imagined that we would actually “follow” the Chefs as they hand-picked the ingredients for each dish. Unfortunately, my assumptions of the format of the opening act of the Grand Gala fell short of what I found.
We entered into the “Bellagio Marketplace” through a long corridor where we were greeted by a group of lovely Las Vegas showgirls and strolled onto a patio over-looking the pools and gardens.
The architecture and settings of the Bellagio hotel are remarkable and ornate, and the patio setting for champagne and hors d’oeuvres was lovely on a warm evening in Las Vegas. Yet I quickly realized that there wasn’t really going to be an opportunity to stroll through a market with the Chefs.
We were offered wine and hors d’oeuvres prepared by Todd English of Olives.Piper-Heidsieck “Cuvee Brut” Champagne
Cloudline Pinot Noir, Oregon, 2007
Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2008
Lobster Salad with Blueberry French Toast
Melon and Prosciutto
Frogs Leg Lollipops
Artichoke and Goat Cheese Drumsticks
I’m sorry to admit I didn’t indulge in the hors d’oeuvres as I wanted to save my appetite for the grand 5-course feast to come.
There were stations throughout the area where guests had the opportunity to see some of the products that would be served at dinner and meet some of the Chefs. (It wasn’t really what I would call a “marketplace.”)At the top of the photo you see the fresh Japanese Snapper that would be served as the fish course, (sadly, when I asked, the Chef told me we wouldn’t be having a taste of the fresh geoduck clam at the bottom of the photo)-This purveyor supplied the pork belly that would be served as one of the meat courses-The grade A5 Wagyu beef that would be served as the second meat course-A certificate of authenticity for the Wagyu beef, A5 grade, (the highest grade of Wagyu)-
As is sometimes the case when we dine at a restaurant-what we are promised on the menu is often not what is presented to us at the table. Such was the case regarding the introduction to the Grand Gala dinner.
It can be as subtle as forgetting to garnish the gnocchi with the promised fried basil leaves, or as egregious as leaving the lemon buerre blanc off the Dover sole. It can be a lovely display of ingredients-yet not meet the expectation of the promised opportunity to walk with a Chef through a marketplace. It may be an oversight and unintentional-but failed expectations lower one’s experience to a level less than desirable level.
Details-following through on what is promised and exceeding the guests’ expectations is just as important as presenting a beautifully fresh tian of perfectly prepared Spring vegetables.-Should, or can, a menu created by a group of Chef’s for a banquet, have a cohesive theme? Or, are gala banquet menus merely a showcase for each Chef’s to demonstrate examples of their cuisine?
The second question I pose may or may not be appropriate in your opinion. I do think the individuality of each Chef at these events should be a showcase of their talent-and that talent should come shining through.
Additionally, in the context of the Grand Gala dinner, I think that individual stars should stand to the side of the stage so to speak and that the menu should have cohesion through the flavors of the individual ingredients in each dish. The dishes should be served in a progression that links each to the next through those flavors. The beautiful table settings and crystal glassware-Our co-host, Mr. Richman, introducing Chef Akira Back, Yellowtail Sushi Restaurant and Bar-
Chef Back recently became popular for his appearance on “Iron Chef America” where he cooked against Chef Bobby Flay in “battle Spinach.” (He lost). But his appearance on Food Network is but a small piece of Chef Back’s impressive resume and dedication to serving fresh fish.
After a night of service in the kitchen at Yellowtail Sushi Restaurant, Chef Back arose at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning to drive with his assistant Chef to the Los Angeles airport, arriving at precisely the time an airplane landed from Japan carrying the Japanese Snapper that would be served in our first course.
Chef Back explained to the guests that true Japanese Snapper is very expensive and difficult for him to procure. The fish is wild and caught on single lines off the coast of Japan. “Japanese Snapper Carpaccio, Micro Shiso, Tosazu” served with “Loimer Riesling, Austria, 2006”-
One merit of a great Chef is having the ability to recognize restraint-restraint in not over-powering the flavor of a delicate fish like Japanese Snapper, and then simply dressing it with a subtle “Tosazu” sauce-a blend of soy, rice vinegar and dried bonito flakes.
The next course was without a doubt the star of this grand evening-a dish one would expect from Chef Julian Serrano of Picasso restaurant. “Roasted Scallop, Green Asparagus, Hollandaise Mousseline, Confit of Leeks” served with “Torres Nerola, Cataluyna, 2005”-
Another merit of an exceptional Chef is the talent to leave the guest in a state of wonder-wonder at how such pure, deep flavors can be drawn from what appears to be a simple ingredient like a scallop and a spear of asparagus.
As we know, not all scallops are alike. Chef Serrano had selected the finest live, dayboat scallops and simply seared and roasted the beauties in butter.
Typically we serve Spring asparagus with a heavy dose of traditional sauce “Hollandaise.” Chef Serrano’s delicate craftsmanship was displayed by elevating the Hollandaise into a light “Mousseline” by simply adding whipped cream to the traditional sauce and spooning a quenelle of the delicate mousseline to the side of the scallop.
In a city that promotes having more “Master Sommelier’s” than New York, one would assume that the wines served at a culinary event in Las Vegas would be perfectly matched to the food.
Now I’m far from an expert on pairing wines to food-I hold my own in general discussions at the table-“the white wines served with the seafood courses seemed a bit bitter and didn’t accent the sweet flavors of the fish,” is about as far as I can go to support my critique of the wines served with the first two dishes.
I did speak to two friends who were at the dinner, both Food Writers and both serious students in the art of pairing wine with food. Both agreed that the wines served at the dinner, while quite good, fell short of the expectations for such a grand event-a bit of constructive criticism that will be shared with the hope of serving higher-quality wines at next year’s event.
I would appreciate our wine experts sharing their thoughts on the pairings of the menu.
Chef Michael Mina is a highly-recognized, award-winning Chef. He has four restaurants in Las Vegas, including Stripsteak at Mandalay Bay and Seablue and Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand. Chef Anthony Amoroso heads the kitchen of “Michael Mina” seafood restaurant in Bellagio.“Crispy Pork Belly, Vegetables a’la Greque, Wild Arugula, California Ranch Olive Oil” served with “Domaine Ott Rose ‘Clos Mireille’ Cotes du Provence, 2007”-
I have recently become a student of cooking pork belly. My personal tastes call for pork belly with a blistered, crackling skin, an underlying layer of juicy fat and a foundation layer of meat with a deep, pork flavor.
Now I am not specifically criticizing this treatment of pork belly as I assume it was prepared and sliced in the manner in which the Chefs intended. But I prefer my pork belly cut into a thick steak if you will, so that each bite has the taste and texture of each element-crispy, (the skin), juicy, (the layer of fat), and meaty, (the layer of pork).
This rendition of pork belly was cut into thin strips which had the effect of basically cutting out any taste texture found in a thick layer of crackling skin. The pork suffered from a lack of natural flavor and was under-seasoned for my tastes.
The subject of the beef served in Las Vegas, or across America for that matter, is a topic unto itself-and a topic that spirals into a discussion of grass-fed versus grain-fed, Wagyu versus Kobe, grade A1 or A5, dry-aged versus wet-aged, Angus versus Charolais.
The restaurants of Bellagio serve a ratio of 70% beef to 30% seafood, an indication of the preference of customers to indulge in beef that is often priced much higher than live Maine Lobster.
If you sense some cynicism in my voice as I enter into a description of the beef course served at the Grand Gala dinner then you are correct. But you should realize that my cynicism regarding “Wagyu” beef is born more out of my heritage as descendant of Oregon cattlemen rather than being a defendant of the intricacies of prime beef.
I do find it hard to defend eating a 7 ounce steak that runs upwards of $159 dollars in a Las Vegas steakhouse-but such is the cost of what some perceive to be the best.
Chef Robert Moore heads the staff at Jean-Georges Vongertichten’s Prime Steakhouse in Bellagio. Chef Moore presented us his rendition of Wagyu with Asian flavors.“Dry-aged A5 Wagyu Rib-Eye, Grilled Shiitake Mushrooms, Radish, Sesame Mustard” served with “Chateau Goulee, Medoc, Bordeaux, 2005”-
My steak was cooked to a perfect medium-rare and it was delicious-just not something I would care to order in a steakhouse.
Now maybe I haven’t eaten enough Wagyu or Kobe to appreciate the strands of marbled fat that ripple through the meat, and maybe that is why I tasted more fat than beef in this cut of Wagyu. It must be my heritage, it’s that taste memory that will never be erased-the flavor and texture of old-fashioned beef cattle raised on the pastures of Oregon have jaded my tastes for “super-premium” Wagyu.
After dinner ended, we were escorted back onto the patio for a dessert extravaganza presented by Chef Jean-Phillippe Maury-one of the world’s great French Pastry chefs.
The displays of pastries and sweets was seemingly endless-everything from fresh-roasted hazelnuts and pecans, (actually being roasted at the display), artistic sugar sculptures, all manner of chocolate creations, candies, ice creams, sorbets, cakes, tarts and tortes.
The sweets were accompanied by “Inniskilin Vidal Blanc, “Ice Wine,” Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada, 2006.” I am quite a happy man when I end a wonderful evening with French pastries and Ice Wine.One of the whimsical dessert displays-
I suppose I can use at least one gambling metaphor since we are discussing Las Vegas.
As fate would have it, just before dinner started, I was moved from “Table 9” at the last minute to what I thought would be the less desirable “Table 21” in the back of the ballroom. But then I remembered that “21” is supposed to be a lucky number in Las Vegas. I found myself the only gentleman in the company of two ladies from Las Vegas, two ladies from New York and two ladies from Calgary.
Aside from a few details that probably only a cranky Food Writer would notice, the Grand Gala Dinner was a great success. What do you think? Can a meal at a banquet be as good as a meal at a restaurant?