Saturday, May 21, 2011

May Vegas 7: And the music plays on

After several days of eating during this trip, I noticed that what I had gotten the most enjoyment of wasn't the food but the photographs in 2 galleries, Jeff Mitchum in Bellagio and Peter Lik at the Venetian. Their glowing landscapes made more of an impression on me than anything on my plate. Coming to a big foodie event and enjoying some art more than food reminded me of the old joke, I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out. That's partly because the big event in Vegas wasn't Uncork'd, but a title match between Congressman Pacman (No, I'm not making that up) and some other guy. Apparently 20,000 people were in town for the fight, many from the Philippines where the fighting congressman could be the next president. Images of the fighters were equally as ubiquitous as the Philippine fans. Walking around, shooting reflections (which is what I'm usually doing when the weather's good) and seeing the fight posters reminded me of the Steely Dan song Kid Charlemagne, which they say is about a boxer. So I put the two together. As every server who served me anything in Vegas said, "Enjoy!"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May Vegas 6: The Last of Uncork'd

The last two Uncork'd events were Eating Las Vegas, a culinary conversation, and Viva Las Vegan, Steve Wynn's vegan options for his hotels, complete with cooking demonstrations and introductory lecture by Steve. The conversation was particularly enjoyable and I have to pick up the book the 3 critics wrote together, Eating Las Vegas 2011, The Essential Guide. One critic had a great line describing Wolfgang Puck's descent into Las Vegas: that isn't cooking, it's eating, reminded me of what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road: that's isn't writing, it's typing. I'll definitely get a copy of their book before going to Vegas again.
The Vegan event thankfully started with sangria (mocktails also available). It was a little bland by my sangria standards but when I dived into the vegan fare, the drink went very well indeed.
I finally learned what to do with Gardein Chick'n: put heirloom tomatoes on it. Chef Kim Canteenwalla had a tomato soup and an heirloom tasting that were the high light of the event for me. Unfortunately, in the menu giveaways and cooking demonstrations, Kim's great tomato dishes were neglected (he described making a salad that had ingredients I couldn't eat). Chef Alex, whose restaurant mysteriously disappeared before I could make good on my reservation in Feb, demonstrated making an eggless pasta and someone else demonstrated making crabless crab cakes. None of the demonstrations were that well presented. The best talk of the event was actually Steve Wynn's moving tale about how he became a vegan the previous year. I left the event very inspired.
Outside of the Uncork'd events, I breakfasted on some wonderful grapefruit (and a great apple crepe) at Mon Ami Gabbi, every bit as good an experience as the server from Robuchon had told me about. When I went back to Bouchon for its great grapefruit I'd had there in Feb, I was told it wasn't on the menu so I had a bowl of berries instead. The crepes upstairs from Mon Ami, at Eiffel Tower were as good as Feb, as was the gnocchi and little pizzas called flambes at Fleur. I only had an appetizer, the gnocchi from Mix this trip- actually I ate a lot of gnocchi, and suspect that my diet is going to become a lot more gnocchi and crepe based in the future. The only full meal I consumed during my 5 days of this trip not part of Uncork'd was the swordfish wrapped lobster at Valentino. The restaurant had come highly recommended to me and though I had intellectually known what a VIP was, I had never had the actual experience before visiting Valentino. The waiter, Shawn and the manager Joe gave me the sort of service I would have expected if I were Barack Obama, not just a customer. When nothing on the cocktail list seemed to pair well with my entree, a glass of sangria was promptly created. Later, another waiter had remembered a new lemony grappa they had just gotten in and unlike the vile spirit I'd had in Italy, this grappa was exquisitely lemony. A serious discussion about what green vegies to have with my fish brought forth a wonderful plate of green and white asparagus spears covered with Parmesan. In my opinion, the foundation of Italian cuisine is tomato sauce. Great towering structures can be built upon that foundation. This lobster was one of the towers. A great meal, greatly enhanced by the service that came with a restaurant tour. As memorable meal as my Feb experiences.
Some jumpy footage of Steve is here:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May Vegas 5; Blue Man Chef

Oobear Keller rocked out at the end of the Grand Tasting for 2011. I can imagine what he did in his own place, Fleur, also a party destination on Saturday night. Fleur rocks with its great drinks. I tried their sangria, which is best I had in Vegas, as well as a pear cocktail that was delicious. The absinthe was a better picture than a drink; it's ok if you like liquid licorice. Keller also conquers with small meals; this time I had the fig flambe and on another occasion, the heirloom tomato flambe, a kind of rectangular pizza- best lunch items that I'm aware of in Vegas, it is always a treat to go to Fleur. The experience is even further expanded by the service of Mariso, as generous as Scrooge reborn; the friendliness of Faryal erupts into reality like the Bellagio fountains, and Jill, whom I met only briefly on my last (4 trips in 5 days) visit to Fleur, and who seems to have just stepped out of a Beatles song (All you need is, Love). Wish we had a place this good in Vancouver.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

May Vegas 4: The Chefs

One reason I wanted to attend Uncork'd was to meet the chefs and have whatever conversations possible. The night before the event began, dining with an interweb pillar at Twist brought forth the chef, or some other reason. He hovered over us, momentarily, not speaking English that I heard. I pointed to the Zezette dish and said, "c'est magnifique" which he acknowledged and moved on. Later, at the grand tasting (in the sense that "grand" is a word in the dictionary, and not a description of anything) I observed Chef Gagnaire conversing with professional celebrity Gordon Ramsay. They didn't appear to be speaking French. So when the chef was alone, I came up to him and said I loved his food, and also his novel/cookbook. I bet he never hears that. Then I described my reaction to eating his John Dory dish in February. He looked at me as if I'd just escaped from a mental institution. And hopefully, would be recaptured REAL soon. He went off to acclaim and nourishment and I then met Martin from the Chef Cook off thing I visited for lunch. He was so delightful, no matter what else had happened that day, if it were only relentless badness it would be cancelled by Martin's enthusiasm for ingredients that interest me. I have to go to his restaurant.
Earlier in the throngs of Tasting folks, I met chef Akira. I told him we shared a common Japanese moniker, most unusual for non-Japanese.. He asked if my mom were Japanese and I said no, my last name is from my wife. But I wanted to talk to him about his mushroom dish, and how the pickled mushroom set everything off so elegantly, yet thirst quenching on a hot day. His restaurant is called Yellow Tail and I would like to ask him how sustainable is his yellowtail supply? It is on the Avoid list from the aquarium. I want to be on Akira's side. So I trust that he is on the side of his sustenance.
The Grand Tasting gave me the opportunity to meet Jose Andres. I told the ebullient chef that I'd dined superbly at Jaleo in DC. He told me I had to dine at his places in Vegas. I didn't tell him of my adventures there, and regret saying all the negative things I posted in my two blog posts about them but told him I'd like to eat at his new mini-place E. I mentioned that my wife and I had spent a month feasting on tapas throughout Spain in 02 and he hugged me and told me I was his man. Does that mean I'll get a seat at E? We'll see. I would have liked to have asked him what he thinks of the proliferation of tapas places in the US, and specifically ask if he'd had the Basque Tapas that so enchanted me in Milford Connecticut during my recent trip to the East. Maybe I'll ask him some other time. It was great to see the Andres Vegas empire represented by the little scallops and limes I had enjoyed in my singular visit to that restaurant. Always lead with your best dish.
Actually the only dish I found memorable (not counting stuff I'd had before like Guy Savoy's truffle soup) was a little crab tidbit at the American Fish booth. I had introduced myself at the Savoy booth and mentioned I'd had the soup when I dined at Savoy in February. The woman working there called me by name and said they'd all read my blog review of Savoy. Made my week. The only thing I found truly vile was a tiny pineapple stuffed with fiery hot things. More of a bomb than dish, from Bobby Flay. It truly flayed my tongue. Thankfully one booth was serving Proseco. For a while, some good cocktails were also available but they ran out. One other chef I wanted to meet and had the opportunity was Jean Joho. I told him how much I enjoyed the vegetarian crepes at his Eiffel Tower restaurant in Feb. I also told the chef that it was my last meal in the Feb. trip and would be the last meal of this trip, on Sunday evening. He introduced me to his sous chef and assured me I'd eat well on Sunday. This was Friday, and on Saturday morning, I'm enjoying the great grapefruit at Mon Ami Gabi and see Chef Joho walking by. I discover he's an owner of Gabi as well. I tell him how much I enjoyed the apple crepe when I had previously breakfasted at Gabi. "They're completely different kinds of crepe" he instructs. Thankfully he's in charge of both of them.
I had wanted to meet Alain Ducasse since eating the amazing prawns at his restaurant Mix in Feb. The day after the Grand Tasting, with the Bocuse dinner cancelled, there was something called Better by the Bay at the artificial beach at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. There were only a few chefs compared to the Grand Tasting the previous night. I noticed Rick Moonen, famous for sea food, seemed to be serving hot dogs at both events. I got a tray full of Ducasse food including lobster and a fine bouillabaisse while Ducasse walked around like a scientist in a horror movie who has to deliver the bad news to the president. Waiting in line for half an hour for the food while being inundated with BBQ flames and loud music was not a lot of fun so I decided to leave without bothering Ducasse. On my way to the exit, I bumped into Hubert Keller, whose cuisine I've vastly enjoyed at Fleur and whose music I'd video'd at the grand tasting the previous night (see next blog post). Hubert invited me to the after party at Fleur at 11. Probably would have been more fun than the beach event He seemed full of joie de vivre. I would have liked to ask him about the hamachi (yellowtail) on the menu at Fleur, yet around the corner, in the same building, at the Shark Reef Aquarium in the sustainable seafood guide 2010, we are told to avoid yellowtail (imported, farmed). But he was having a good time and I didn't want to bother him.

May Vegas 3: Chef Showdown

The Chef Showdown was actually my 3rd Uncork'd Event. On Thursday I attended the Locovore's Delight dinner with Bradley Ogden and then a party after that at Tom Collicchio's restaurant in the MGM Grand. The one memorable dish from Bradley was his halibut with morels in Meyer Lemon sauce. Exquisite. He also served some scallops, which didn't impress me, some fois and a lamb dish, neither particularly edible, as well as a delicious desert of strawberries in a boozy sauce. The highlight of my meal had to be the company, 3 couples from LA who were very entertaining and far more knowledgeable about food than me (I'm sure that's the case with most guests at Uncork'd). Tom's late party didn't seem to have anything I could eat, just sushi and steak tartare so I had a glass of champagne and left before the dueling grand pianos could induce deafness. The Chef Showdown, in a large educational space called Tuscany Kitchen at the Bellagio, was my first opportunity to actually learn something. The two young chefs, Akira Back of Yellowtale and Martin Heierling of Sensi, both surprisingly restaurants in the Bellagio, were tasked with producing one dish with scallops and the other with assorted mushroom. It could hardly be called a competition because the meals were already prepared for us, though we did get to watch the chefs at work in the kitchen part of the room and on big TVs throughout. Martin showed his fondness for southeast Asian food by adding tamarind to a seared sea scallop dish what also benefited from fermented rice flakes, ginger, lime, cilantro and compressed pineapple. A fantastic dish. Akira answered with a scallop pizza made from diver scallop carpaccio, Kewpie Mayonnaise and truffle oil on a grilled tortilla and the intriguing introduction of smoke from a new kitchen machine. That's what I learned from this event: get a smoke machine. Would also love Martin's recipe for that pineapple sauce. A very tasty Riesling accompanied the scallops, working very well with both pineapple and smoky scallops and pretty good by itself too. The mushroom course really contrasted the chefs. Akira stuck to just mushrooms. One part of his dish was an oyster mushroom dumpling. though its skin was rather tough the oyster mushrooms, braised in soy cream and mushroom broth and garnished with yuzu and cilantro, with some amazingly refreshing pickled mushrooms on the side. Delightful! Martin's mushroom dish was overwhelmed by the bacon wrapped rabbit loin. I would have enjoyed more of the Parisian gnocchi braised in mushroom stock, garnished with fava beans, peas and ramps. A red wine accompanied the mushrooms with its appropriately earthy terroir. The chefs also shared some interesting stories while they cooked. Akira told about using garlic that had been braised in milk 7 times. Someone asked him if he could tell if it was only 6 times. He could. That's why he's the chef and we're just there to eat.

Friday, May 13, 2011

May Vegas 2: Twist. Again

Of all the great restaurants I ate at in Feb, only Twist has remained in touch with me since then. I appreciate that. Whether email updates about new items on their menu, the news that Chef Gagnaire would be in the kitchen in May and I should take advantage of that, to the fact that they'd actually read my blog account of dining there, I feel that Twist has my palate in mind. After deciding to go to Uncork'd, the first restaurant I wanted to go back to was Twist. Even with the John Dory off the menu, I'd read great reviews of the chef's Zezette broth and wanted to try some other seafood on his menu.
I found out about Uncork'd from a post by Eguletteer David Ross. David had been to all of the Uncork'ds and I had the privilege of hanging out with him first at Twist, and throughout the Uncork'd events, greatly expanding what I was able to learn from them all. I had no idea what he looked like, but he apparently recognized me from my tiny Egullet photo at the entrance to Twist, and we were then lead to the Chef's Table, overlooking the busy kitchen. They wouldn't have done that for me.
As you can see in the vid, we were bombarded with amuse bouches, just like my Feb. visit. The best one for me was what I called the little hamburger (actually a curry disc and goat cheese, and I am NO FAN of curry). The pastis cube was interesting. Not that it tasted good, particularly. What I like about the "modernist" food movement, of which Gagnaire is a star, is the idea that you can do anything with anything. Why not turn a beverage into a cube? Pastis doesn't make it for me any more than the Jack Daniels/Guiness delicacy made it for me in Feb, but I can imagine a cocktail or a liqueur I liked turned into a jelly and enhancing something I was eating. A sangria cube perhaps?
My Zezette broth was as good as I was expecting. Endlessly complex, as I would expect from Gagnaire, but also more filling than I expected for an appetizer. The cod cake is delicious, and the ratatouille pure opens up a lot of possibilities (we use ratatouille as an ingredient in yaki soba in our house) . The problem was I was too tired to enjoy the food. I had ordered the halibut, before realizing not only couldn't I eat anything else, I was in danger of falling asleep in my soup. Not a good thing to do in a restaurant. I usually wake up around 9 or 10. In order to catch my 6:20 flight to Vegas Wed morning, I had to get up at 3:30 to get to the airport on time and it was catching up with me. David had ordered the whole tasting menu, something I'd have loved to try to get a rich sense of the chef's possibilities but I was too tired even to finish my soup, or even my cocktail, the same one I raved about in the Feb experience. In later conversation, David said his food was good but not good enough to return considering all the great restaurants in Vegas he had yet to experience. I feel the same way about all those great places yet undined at, but still think there will be more Gagnaire goodness in my future.

Vegas Uncork'd 2011

After the February trip, I wasn't planning to visit Vegas anytime soon. But in early April, I discovered in Egullet that a great epicurean event would occur there in May. It seemed like a good time to revisit that city. In particular, I was intrigued by the planned Toques off to Paul Bocuse event, a dinner prepared by the best chefs in France, among other places in honour of the French culinary icon. Alas, this was cancelled at the last moment, but some of the other events looked good on the Uncork'd website. By the time I discovered Uncork'd, some of the dinners I would have liked to have attended were already sold out, but I put together 8 events and made reservations at Twist, Mix, Valentino and Eiffel Tower for when I wouldn't be event-hopping.
Oddly, the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks seemed to frame my trip. My first dinner, Locovore's Delight with Bradley Ogden (I thought he was a city in Utah. Turns out to be the pioneer of the Locovore movement), I found myself sitting next to a couple from Sherman Oaks, actually a few blocks away from my parents house there. My last dinner in Vegas was at the great Italian restaurant Valentino, which has a branch in Sherman Oaks. I'm positive my restaurant loving parents would have dined there. Maybe.their spirits were following me around this trip.
After all the events in Uncork'd and the other restaurants I visited and revisited (must have gone to Fleur 4 times in 5 days) I never had food as good as the Feb. trip. Obviously restaurants take dishes off the menu as the seasons change. I was expecting to eat something other than John Dory at Twist. Was looking forward to eating the Gnocchi my server had reccommended in Feb. at Mix. Delighted that Chef's Joho's vegetarian crepe was still on the menu at the Eiffle Tower and the gnocchi were the same at Fleur, though in both cases I noticed less pesto in both dishes, compared to their Feb. presentations. As the February trip was transformationl, this trip seemed more structural. Feb. was about overthrowing the pharaoh of my food expectations. Uncork'd more of an instructional experience. I left individual events, such as Viva Las Vegan and the Chef's Showdown, very inspired to make new dishes and try new techniques, which is what Uncork'd seemed to be about. When I wasn't eating interesting food and guzzling premium wines, I had the opportunity to talk to many knowledgeable people at some length, as well as meet many of the chefs whose food so delighted me. A very satisfying 5 days. Would have been better if it wasn't 97 degrees outside, but you can't have everything.