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Our next report will be about a dinner not formally associated with the events of Vegas Uncork'd--a dinner that Jeff and I had with friends at Chef Rick Moonen's RM Seafood at Mandalay Place at Mandalay Hotel.

As many of you know, Chef Rick Moonen is currently recognized for his appearances on the "Top Chef Masters" series on Bravo. And just last week, Chef Moonen won a James Beard Award for the Best On Location Television Show for an admirable piece he did for the PBS Series "Chefs A'Field" titled "The King of Alaska" about the nobel King Salmon and how it is tied to the lives of the Native Americans of Alaska.

While the Bravo drama is in the forefront today, Chef Moonen has been a steadfast advocate of sustainable seafood for over 30 years, far before the term was in fashion and he continues to be a leading voice among Chefs in the effort to inform his peers and the public about being more responsible with the seafood we harvest and eat.

But our review will focus on another aspect of a Chef's work, the foundation if you will, that allows all of the other opportunities to arise--the daily work in the restaurant kitchen and the food and dining experience of the customer out front. It is an aspect of the Celebrity of a Chef that is often overlooked today, but one of importance nonetheless--the experience of the customer in the restaurant that takes place each day outside the spotlight of the cameras. I think you'll find our perspective quite interesting.

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Saturday, May 8-

RM Seafood, Mandalay Place, Mandalay Bay-

The formal event at Vegas Uncork’d on Saturday night was billed as the “Fashion Feast Gala: A Delicious Evening of Style and Taste,” at the Bellagio. I have not been a fan of past banquet events at Uncork’d, so I decided to pass on the banquet this year and join Jeff for dinner at RM Seafood and my plan, (more on that story later), would be to attend the after-hours Uncork’d event at the pools at the Palazzo hosted by Restaurateur and Winemaker Joe Bastianich, “Crushed: Wine That Rocks,” a combination of wine, food and music.

Now I did hear later that the “Fashion Feast Gala” delivered on the promise of ‘style,’ (e.g., Las Vegas style that is), in the form of Cat Cora and Olympic Figure Skater Johnny Weir in ‘fashion’ on the ‘catwalk.’ Honestly I don’t think we missed anything, but those in the banquet hall said they had fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, Chef Moonen is currently quite popular for his appearance on Top Chef Masters on Bravo. You can read about Top Chef Masters here. For this report we’re going to focus on our dinner at Chef Moonen’s Las Vegas restaurant, RM Seafood.

Let me begin the review of RM Seafood by starting with a little background. Earlier in the week, we had planned on dining at the informal RM Café downstairs. The menu features a raw bar, sushi and more casual seafood grills and fry-ups, fish and chips, chowders and steaks. There is an extensive list of wines and micro-brews.

We made the decision to change our plans mid-week and dine at the more formal restaurant upstairs. The upstairs restaurant area includes a large bar and the menu in the dining room includes both ala carte selections and a tasting menu. The service is intended to be more formal than the service downstairs.

While the focus of the report is our dinner and the food and service, it’s important to give you some background history so you can weave it into our report and you can be thinking about this introduction as we go along. In the end, I think you’ll understand how this piece of the story fits into our experience.

That afternoon there had been an event associated with Vegas Uncork’d at RM Seafood hosted--“Culinary Theater-All the Kitchen’s a Stage with Rick Moonen, Hubert Keller and Susan Feninger.” The event was hosted by Andrew Knowlton, Restaurant Editor of Bon Appetit. Attendees had the opportunity to meet the Chefs and taste their dishes while listening to their adventures on “Top Chef Masters” and other forays in the restaurant business. While I am sure it was great fun, there were customers to serve that evening in both RM Café and RM Seafood Upstairs, so after the event the staff had to go to work.

When I arrived, the hostess was unable to find our reservation. I explained that we had made prior arrangements to change our reservation from the Café to the upstairs dining room. She was unable to locate the reservation, but was more than kind in accommodating our request for a table for four. I had noticed the Café was busy, but the upstairs bar was virtually empty at 7:15 pm., and the dining room was not full. The hick-up with the reservation was minor, (at that point), and after a brief meet and greet with Chef Moonen we went to our table.

The dining room currently offers a five-course tasting menu for the quite reasonable price of $65.00. Were you to ask me the price of the tasting menu at RM Seafood three years ago before it closed, (and re-opened earlier this year), I would have probably quoted you a price at least double that amount. However, I should forewarn you, it would serve you well to go online and review the tasting menu as four of the courses have a “supplemental” choice with an additional price tag attached to it. Were you to choose four of the “supplemental” choices it could bring the cost of your tasting menu to $120, (still a reasonable price point considering the quality of the food). There is a wine pairing available matched to the tasting menu you choose for an additional $55.00.

Diners have three choices within each of the five courses on the tasting menu. I've listed just a few of the choices in my review-the choice of at least one in our party and then my selection off the tasting menu.

Chef Adam Sobel is the Executive Chef at RM Seafood. For a young man he has an impressive resume, having worked in Las Vegas at Company American Bistro, Guy Savoy and Bradley Ogden. He is venturing somewhat into the creative aspects of molecular gastronomy. His plates can be whimsical and precise, the food playful and the texures interesting.

Yet attempts at whimsy can often be confusing to diners that may not be informed as to what a Chef is intending to do with trends. Such was the case with our Amuse-the kitchen’s interpretation of a “BLT.” (I apologize for not offering you photos, the lighting of the dining room didn’t provide me the ability to portray the food in the manner that would do it justice).

The waiters came to the table with oddly shaped bowls and placed them on the table. We actually thought they looked like they were going to fall over, so we bent down and turned our heads, thinking the bowls were placed on their sides. (They weren’t, they were intended to sit on their sides). The bowl held a spear of romaine, a cherry tomato spiked with a thin slice of bacon and the dressing was a “foam.” The bacon was crisp and smoky, it just was so paper-thin there wasn’t much taste to it and cherry tomatoes in May don’t have much flavor-nor do “foamy” salad dressings.

Another waiter brought warm rolls and a can of what appeared to be caviar. Knowing that Caspian Caviar would not be served at a restaurant that stakes its reputation on serving sustainable seafood, I didn’t expect he would open a can of sturgeon roe. It was a foil for the butter receptacle. The butter tasted as if it had a tangy cheese added to it. It was a nice touch to see a restaurant serve warm rolls throughout dinner.

We had been wondering why there was a large glass in the center of the table filled with herbs and what appeared to be a stalk of sugar cane. A waiter came to the table and poured in some black tea and left, not explaining what he poured in or why. (Another attempt at some sort of creative gastronomy I supposed). We would find out at the end of the meal what this brew was all about.

First Course-

We ordered all three of the first course offerings on the tasting menu-

-“Black & White”

Diver Scallop, Black Garlic, Young Coconut

-“Spider” Crab

Artichoke, Sunchoke, Ruby Red Grapefruit

-Steak and Potatoes

A5 Japanese Wagyu Beef Tartare, Untraditional Garnish

($15 supplement)

I had the “Spider Crab,” served in a porcelain crock. The waiter removed the top of the crock to reveal a rim of Dungeness Crab and a thick layer of Spider Crab and Sunchoke beneath. (I was pleasantly surprised to see the Dungeness being a Pacific Northwesterner). The small supremes of tart grapefruit perfectly accented the sweet, rich crab meats.

Second Course-

We ordered two of the three second course offerings-

-Onion Soup 3000

Caramelized Onion Chip, Gruyère Custard, Onion Velouté

-Bacon and Eggs

Crisp Jamon Serrano, Andraki Farm Egg, Crispy Chinese Noodles, Asparagus Three Ways

I chose the bacon and egg dish which was presented in a deep bowl with the fried egg on top of a thin layer of fried noodles with the bacon mixed in a custard of asparagus. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the dish—I only saw a fried egg on top of crisp noodles—then I broke through the soft yolk of the egg into the crispy noodles and dove into the asparagus custard studded with asparagus spears, mixing the soft, gooey and crispy textures with the different flavors. It was delicous.

The food to this point had been good, but the first lapses in service were beginning to become apparent. There were different waiters serving the courses and the waiter that took our order only appeared sporadically. One waiter brought the bread and uncovered the caviar tin of butter while another waiter poured in the mysterious tea elixir. The wait between the Amuse and first and second courses started to become apparent and the Sommelier who introduced himself and crafted the wines to serve with each course of our tasting menu rarely appeared. Most of the wines were introduced by different waiters.

At the table next to us, a party of three ordered a plate of Sushi and then waited, and waited, for what seemingly was an endless amount of time for their next course. One of the Managers appeared, and after numerous hand gestures and handshakes, a tray of martinis appeared, then more handshakes and martinis, and apologies, and their dinner continued, and continued……

Third Course-

For the fish course one person at the table ordered the supplemental menu item-

-Roasted Turbot with Saffron Chorizo Congee, Mussel and Rice Cracker,

($15 supplement)

-Baked Alaska King Salmon, King Crab, Yellow Endive, Salmon Roe, Orange Carpaccio

I chose the Salmon. Baked salmon is not a preparation that you would typically see in a fine-dining restaurant, but Chef Moonen had properly trained the kitchen to cook the fish to a perfect medium-rare so that it retained moisture-a refreshing alternative treatment from the typical seared and roasted salmon.

The bitterness of the endive and orange carpaccio was the perfect accent to the rich salmon, and who would refuse the crisp, refreshing texture of King salmon roe?

Up to this point the superior food had overshadowed the inattentiveness of the service staff, but the beautiful plate presentations and delicious flavors could no longer mask the lack of attention to detail. We waited so long between the third and fourth courses that the Sommelier, who we hadn’t seen in a very long time, came around with a second glass of the wine he had poured in anticipation of our fourth course, the red wine for the meat course. It was apparent that the second glass of wine was in deference to the long wait for the meat course to arrive at the table, yet no apology was offered.

Fourth Course-

Three in our party ordered the lamb dish while I ordered the supplemental rabbit dish-

-Rabbit Trio-Rack, Crispy Rillette, Morel Risotto, Fried Quail Egg,

($15 supplement)

A “Rack of Rabbit” is a cute little thing. I referred to it as eating a nice little “bunny” at the table, definitely an unpolitical thing to say I am sure. It was a delicious tidbit I can assure you.

The most delectable part of the dish was the Crispy Rillette--the tender meat wrapped in smoky bacon cuddling next to the morel risotto, made all the more buttery with the rich yolk of the quail egg.

Now the ultimate service mistake would happen next. An error that is inexcusable and unforgiveable.

After an interminable wait for our fifth and final course of desserts, the waiters paraded up to our table with………..another set of main courses. Yes, displayed at the table were four sets of dishes and the waiters proceeded to announce, “And here we have for you Gentlemen, the Lamb and the Rabbit………….”

You can only imagine the looks on our faces, and the faces on the waiters at that moment. We looked at each other, they looked at each other, we looked at them. They looked at us. “Er, excuse me but we already had the Lamb and the Rabbit…………….”

I cannot tell you, (nor do I remember as I was too stunned), to even think if an apology was offered. I honestly think the embarrassment was probably too much for the poor fellows to muster up anything to say. They removed the plates as quickly as they could and whisked them back to the kitchen. And then we waited, and waited, and waited. For dessert.

Fifth Course-

Jeff chose the Italian style dessert and I went with the Tropical theme-

-Italian Citrus

Lemon Mascarpone Cannelloni, Olive Oil Ice Cream

-Tropical Crème Brûlée

Passion Fruit Curd, Marinated Pineapple, Papaya-Aloe

The Tropical Crème Brulee was simply presented in a large bowl. The brulee was proper and the passion fruit curd and pineapple sweet. The papaya and aloe had a bitter and metallic taste not to my liking, although I have a friend who apparently likes aloe gelee so who am I to judge aloe desserts?

At this point the wines apparently had been forgotten, but Jeff made a valiant attempt to ask for the wine that had been intended to be served with the dessert course. It came, at least I think it did. I forgot the vintage.

At times the cuisine at RM Seafood can be confusing, a struggle between simple preparations showcasing the beauty of the bounty of the open sea and the freshwater seafood the restaurant is known for and the trendy, molecular gastronomic creations of Chef Sobel. Sometimes the phrase less is more is noted by the example of our opening BLT. Yet that is a minor point in terms of the food at RM Seafood.

The food overall was superior. The stunning dishes I tasted were the Rabbit and the King Salmon. And that is as it should be. The King Salmon should be the best dish at RM Seafood-“The King of Alaska,” the title of the PBS show that earned a James Beard Award for Chef Moonen.

We would come to find out later that the spotlight shown on the event that afternoon would throw both the front of the house and the kitchen staff into a frenzy that evening--and we had become the unsuspecting victims, (along with at least three other tables), of their confusion. Apparently the event had thrown the reservations into a twitter, causing the Café and the restaurant to have additional customers they had not planned for. That’s certainly a symptom, not an excuse.

The Uncork’d event had been planned months in advance. One should assume that an event like this would in turn inspire attendees to choose to dine at the restaurants, which in turn would cause the staff to be prepared for the dinner rush and staff appropriately. And following on that thought, one would make more than every reasonable effort possible to insure that the seamless service the restaurant performs every night is offered to the guests on this special night, including having extra Manager’s on the floor.

For us, the expectation of a wonderful evening of exceptional food, (and some of the dishes were quite good), and exceptional service fell far short of the mark. And due to the four-hour length of dinner at RM Seafood, the event at the Palazzo was nearly over by the time I got in the cab line to leave RM Seafood.

Long waits between courses, a primary waiter that wasn't primarily overseeing our table, a Sommelier that didn't seem to be overly concerned with attending to our table after the initial pour, multitudes of waiters serving plates at all the tables, confusing, confusing service, nary an apology in the house and then the ultimate horror of the second serving of the main courses. Should there ever be a chapter written on how not to perform fine dining service this will be included in the course.

So it begs the question, was the experience at RM Seafood so far off the mark as to cause me to not dine there again? That’s not a question I can necessarily answer with a simple yes or no. As you’ve read through the review, you’ve seen that the food was superior, the salmon and rabbit dishes were exceptional. I’ve dined at RM Seafood in the past and it was exceptional, both the food and the service.

Does one off-night of service scar a restaurant for life? No. Does this poor experience mean that the restaurant deserves another chance? Probably. Will that chance happen the next time I travel to Las Vegas? Probably not. There are far too many new and current restaurants in Las Vegas that serve equally stunning seafood and cuisine at this level along with attentive service that I’ll be more willing to patronize before I return to RM Seafood.

As you’ve seen in our reports so far, we’ve dined at new restaurants like MOzen Bistro and Sage, with rising Chefs and innovative cuisine and detailed service. We cooked with Paul Bartolotta, who continues to offer the freshest seafood in the stunning settings of the Wynn. Those are restaurants I won't hesitate to dine at again on my next trip to Las Vegas should the opportunity allow. No question.

As the economy very slowly improves in Southern Nevada, the dining scene in Las Vegas is again moving forward. In the coming months, Chef Scot Conant will open Scarpetta and Chef Jose Andres will open one of his highly popular restaurants-both will find a home at the new Cosmopolitan Hotel and Resort. These restrauteurs are no doubt keenly aware that the combination of their cuisine and the experience of their guests must be flawless the moment the doors open lest they lose those customers to their competitors.

Exceptional food is just a part of the equation, but another element has to be an attention to focusing on the details of superior customer service. Lackluster service will only leave a restaurant behind when the market is moving forward.

And that silly little glass of tea? After dessert a waiter came to the table with a dish of Petits Fours, three small confections actually. He brought forth a small pot filled with liquid nitrogen, (more of the molecular experience) and proceeded to pour it into the tea glass. The brew began to spew white smoke and he instructed us to pour some of the steaming tea into our small glasses as it was intended to end the "dining experience." It had, indeed, finally ended our "experience."

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I'll add a little bit to what David has already mentioned about the meal at rm seafood. Overall, I thought the food was fine. I didn't really have any issues with that. One of my fish courses was a steamed Wulu. I really enjoyed it and the way it was prepared. But the service lapses really marred what should have been a much better experience.

David and I met Chef Moonen the night before at the Grand Tasting. He was talkative and enthusiastic. While waiting for our table, Rick stopped by to say hello and welcome us to his restaurant. It seemed like things would go very well. Sadly, they didn't. I think I started to realize things were off between our first and second courses. Just a really long wait. It never got better. It just continued like that the whole meal. It just dragged out over a LONG period of time. The dining room had a good number of tables, but never looked totally full. I would say maybe 75% full.

It's too bad we had the experience we had. I had become a fan of Rick's and was really looking forward to dining there. Now, I don't know what to think.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Sunday, May 9-

After the embarrassment displayed by the staff at RM Seafood on Saturday night, I returned to my hotel wondering if this dreadful experience was going to ruin what had otherwise been another memorable trip to Vegas Uncork'd.

Yet there was one more event to follow on Sunday morning that would redeem my faith in Las Vegas and its wondrous culture as one of America’s great restaurant cities. Hundreds of creative, talented Chefs, restrauteurs and staff members ply their trade every day throughout the city. One off-night at one restaurant is not going to mar my long history as a supporter of the dining scene of Las Vegas or take away from the achievements and hard work of these talented professionals.

A year ago at an Uncork'd event, I had the occasion to meet a genial Frenchman and spend just a few moments chatting with him about a cookbook he wrote in 1991, far beyond what anyone was thinking about in Las Vegas at Uncork'd last year.

On Sunday, May 9, 2010, precisely one year after visiting with him about a humble dish of “Puree de Pommes de Terre” last year, I again met with this kind French craftsman and we sat down and talked about simple home cooking just as we did one year ago. It was delightful and that was the moment that brought my week at Uncork’d full circle. I won’t reveal the full depth of the story, but I think you have an idea of where the story will lead.

Now mind you, this kind man has won upwards of 25 Michelin Stars—the third of the French Masters that I dined with during my stay in Las Vegas during Uncork’d.…

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Sunday May 9-

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, MGM Grand-

Champagne, White and Red Wine, Monbizillac with the Sweet Course

As we waited for the earlier seating to finish brunch, we were ushered into the intimate setting of the formal Robuchon restaurant at the MGM. As you enter, there is a small bar to the left of the reception foyer. To the right, we were given entrance into the private dining room, an exclusive table that I would imagine is rarely seen by the public-a small room really, with a long black table seating no more than 12 very lucky guests.

The décor of the dining room is currently in the “Spring” theme with bright greens, yellows, orange and crimson colors with vintage bird cages decorating the small room. To the right is a small terrace with brick and flora and fauna-a very quiet oasis you would not imagine is planted next to the very busy MGM casino and "KA" Cirque du Soleil showroom just next door.

The Manager noted that Robuchon is noted for their legendary cart services and while they are offering a variety of menu options with limited options of courses right now, the most popular menu is still the sixteen course menu “degustation” currently priced at $395.00. The restaurant is full nearly every night of the week and is typically booked three months in advance.

The best seats at L’Atelier are always at the counter where one can watch the army of Cooks, Chefs, Servers, Managers, Sommeliers and Hostesses scurry through and around the tiny confines of the kitchen and behind the counter. I counted upwards of 25 team members tending over the preparation of our brunch plates. In the center of the team, hovering over each plate and quietly dictating service was Chef Joel Robuchon himself.

Before the first plate arrived, I reached into my pocket for my camera and to my horror, I realized that I left the battery recharging in my hotel room. I wouldn’t have a photographic collection of my brunch at L’Atelier. I was crushed. But later I realized that photos of the brunch dishes wouldn’t harm this final Vegas Uncork’d report in the least. A few photos of cookbooks would do just fine.

The servings at L’Atelier were not large-each plate offered skewers of no more that two or three bites-but one doesn’t need an excessive amount of food when you are experiencing such rich, natural flavors. Each plate was precisely sculpted yet without pretense, inviting the customers senses to say “I am not so fussy, please, go ahead and enjoy tasting this delicious morsel of French cuisine.”

And so we begin-

Assortment of Breads and French Butter

First Plate-

Tomato, Olive Oil, Basil

Second Plate-

Maine Lobster, Sherry Vinaigrette, Romaine

Third Plate-

Zuchinni, Tomato, Mozzarella

Fourth Plate-

Scallops, Sugar Snap Peas, Black Pepper, Chives

Fifth Plate-

Scampi with Tumeric Oil, Peppers, Carrot, Espelette Pepper

Sixth Plate-

Dover Sole, Scallion, Dill Oil

Seventh Plate-

Frogs Leg, Garlic and Parsley Purees

Eighth Plate-

Foie Gras Teppanyaki, Tomato Confit, Arugula

Ninth Plate-

Grilled Asparagus, Artichoke, Tomato, Maitake, Zuchinni,

Spiced Carrot Sauce

Tenth Plate-

Quail, Asparagus, Sweet Teriyaki Sauce

Eleventh Plate-

Duck Wrapped in Smoked Bacon, Bitter Orange Marmalade,

Twelfth Plate-

French Angus, Confit of Peppers

Sweets-

Cup of Chocolate, Fresh Berries, Pineapple, Nougat, Confection, Cookies, Marshmallow, BonBon, Truffle

As brunch was ending, Chef Robuchon came into the dining room and met with each of the guests to give us a personally signed copy of his new cookbook, “The Complete Robuchon-French Home Cooking for the Way we Live Now.”

Chef Robuchon has a bit of difficulty with English, so he was escorted by the Manager who had given us the tour of the formal restaurant.

As I shook his hand, I asked the Manager to remind Chef that one year earlier when we met in Las Vegas I had the occasion to have Mr. Robuchon sign my copy of “Simply French,” written by Paticia Wells many years ago. Robuchon’s recipe for “Puree de Pommes de Terre” went on to spark a revolution throughout restaurants in America, yet few are able to duplicate the silky, lush texture of the original rendition to this day.

Simply French.jpg

Suddenly, Chef Robuchon’s eyes lit-up, “Ah, Oui, Oui, Yes, Yes, David, David, I remember, I remember,” he said in his broken English. “Pommes Puree, Pommes Puree.” I must tell you it gave me chills. The French Master and the man from Spokane, meeting again in Las Vegas and remembering this simple potato dish. It wasn’t about Michelin stars, it was about cooking a potato puree at home and Chef Robuchon remembered. I was thrilled.

Simply French 2.jpg

From our “Klatsch: Popping the Cork in Vegas,” report of 2009,

“David, the condition of these pages show that this recipe can be made by the home cook for the family. A pleasure. Joel Robuchon. Las Vegas, May 8, 2009.”

Simply French 4.jpg

When one travels into the culinary unknown of Las Vegas and the week we call “Uncork’d,” we don’t know how the story will turn out. It may start with a wondrous dish of “Foie Gras Custard Brulee with Salted Brioche,” at Sage. It then turns to a quiet conversation over lunch with Alain Ducasse about Oregon Morels and spills into a raucous Friday night with 2,500 people crowding around the pools at Caesar’s, scrambling to see Bobby Flay. We found ourselves stirring, and stirring, and stirring a pea risotto and packing salt around a whole Sea Bream at the Wynn. Vegas Uncork’d offers different experiences for different tastes.

For me, the week of Vegas Uncork’d isn’t just about the food, it was also about customer service at dinners not formally associated with the events.

I encountered a delicate service touch when I sat down to dinner at MOzen bistro at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A place card was put at the table setting with a rarely seen, old-fashioned custom-“Welcome David Ross” hand-scribed in ink with a fountain pen.

Yet we also suffered the indignity of inexcusable service at RM Seafood, a restaurant whose Chef should be setting a far better standard regardless of the night you dine at his restaurant.

Such are the highs, and the lows, of an incredible week of food, dining and learning that we take away from our week in Las Vegas.

And then, in the end, on a quiet Sunday afternoon after most of the attendees-the editors of Bon Appetit, the press, the PR people, the photographers, the “beautiful people” and the like, have all left the environs of Las Vegas and “Uncork’d,”-I once again found myself chatting with a French Chef about a cookbook he wrote intended for the home cook.

Aside from the ornate trappings of Robuchon’s formal dining rooms, the crystal bottles of cognac in the bar, the mahogany bread trolleys and the Michelin Stars, these two cookbooks, “Simply French” and now “The Complete Robuchon-French home cooking for the way we live now,” are symbols of why I go to “Vegas Uncork’d,”—to learn about food, flavors and cooking.

“For David,

For Delicious simple and tasty French cuisine

With friendship, Joel Robuchon, Las Vegas, May 9, 2010.”

Complete Robuchon.JPG

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  • 10 years later...

I thought it would be fun to look back to 2010 and this report and photos I filed about Vegas Uncork'd.  Founded by Bon Appetit, it was a grand culinary affair that included classes, seminars, plenty of parties, private dinner and a grand tasting. It was the best of times for dining in Las Vegas and the big French names had come to town as fine dining was replacing some the old, tired casino hotel restaurants.  Sadly, the even dwindled over recent years and was merely a shell of itself, but the early days were memorable. 

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