Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting–Michael Manley’s take

I almost didn’t make it to the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting, held poolside at Caesar’s Palace on May 7th.  Despite my being here for a year, I still don’t know the magic, secret routes that would say, convey one via automobile from I-15 to a parking spot at Caesar’s.  Better to arrive by cab, limo, helicopter, or chariot—they sure don’t make navigating the parking lots easy here.

Just made it in time to meet Mike Dobranski and Kerry (aka The Wife) at check-in, and get my press pass.   We score some face time on the red carpet with Rick Moonen (whose off-hour haunts include Yellowtail and Honey Pig, and who is the rare ‘star chef’ to make Vegas home), Charlie Palmer (“you can get anything in Vegas.  The idea that you can’t get fish, fresh produce, it’s bull—t”), and Sage’s Shawn McClain (Me: “What menu item are you most tired of?” Chef McClain: “Anything slider-related.  If it gets to the point where Jack-in-the-Box is doing it, you know something is overdone.”)

Sadly, scoring face time with Charlie Palmer deprives me of the opportunity to get my pic taken with fabulous figure skater Jonny Weir, who was disappointingly free of controversial dead-animal fashion accessories.  Is Jonny a secret foodie?  Or is Cirque wooing him to replace Criss Angel in Believe?  Well, we can dream.

A backstage shot from the red-carpet area:

(pictured: Jean Joho, Guy Savoy, Bradley Ogden, Francois Payard and Rick Moonen)

Sadly, there was no cheat-sheet of chefs/dishes available at the event, though we did get a list of chef pics so we could easily put names to faces.  I’ve requested a list of all restaurants/dishes present via email.  In the meantime, I must rely on my memory and the few notes I was able to take—not easy, when standing up juggling wine, fork and plate.  Or was it a Knork?

After orbiting the culinary star-field that was the press area for about an hour, we were collectively starved.  I approached the first booth and grabbed the first plate I could get my hands on—which turned out to be French Toast with maple ice cream, offered by the Wynn’s Tableau restaurant.  Might as well start with dessert, I thought.  It is a fine rendition of French Toast, though a quick peak at the Wynn’s website suggests this dish only hints at the talents of Tableau’s Chef David Spero.

What next? Well, a glass of red wine for starters. Then, oh, how about an artichoke and mushroom soup shooter, with a side of mushroom brioche? That was a stunner by the way, offered by Guy Savoy. While you could argue that serving a hot soup in May is like wearing white shoes after Labor Day, you can only have so many crab salads and tartares.  In the end, the soup was a smart choice for Guy Savoy—it proved a welcome contrast to the slider-seafood-tartare pack.

The soup is followed by some strawberry-shortcake-y morsel, which was then followed by—naturally—scallop ‘crudo’ from (I recall) Bobby Flay.

There is a kind of necessary randomness to what is eaten, and when, at a Food/Wine tasting.  While the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting was, happily, very well attended, this meant that navigation was less a personal choice than a physical law—the crowd ebbed and flowed to those whims of higher math that explain fractals, or the clustering patterns of migratory birds.  We were, in essence, a skittering mass of well-dressed seagulls.

While I have to wait for the cheat-sheet for a more detailed download, here are some ‘Best’s’ that stand out.  This reflects only those dishes I tried, which was probably only 50-60% of what was offered, but here goes:

Best Presentation:

Shrimp and Crawfish Terrine, Andre’s/Alize (Monte Carlo/Palms)

Chef Andre Rochat offers a perfect, individually-molded ball of shrimp and crawfish flan perched on an herb chip, that ingeniously doubles as a handle:

While the chip’s thickness made it a bit hard, the flavor was outstanding.  And since no plastic utensils or plates are used, this dish takes the “Best Green Dish” award as well.

Joel Robuchon’s delicate crab, nestled in an impossibly thin, perfectly fried rice paper-y capsule, is a beauty to behold and comes in at a close second.

 

Best Tasting Dish, Savory:

 

Shrimp ball, Beijing Noodle 9 (Caesars Palace)

A humble morsel packed with flavor.  And like Robuchon’s crab, a wonderful contrast of tender seafood and crunchy exterior—in this case a nest of filament-thin, delicately fried threads (shredded rice paper? Wonton skin? I’ll have to pay a visit to Beijing Noodle 9 to find out).

What’s great about attending Uncork’d as a local is discovering new places that may not be on your radar screen.  You can’t throw a rock—or dumpling—on the strip and without hitting an Asian restaurant, so I was grateful for the chance to sample Beijing Noodle 9.  It’s on my short-list of places to try.

Lamb Tagine and Couscous, Simon (Palms Place)

 

Dear Chef Kerry Simon,

I’ve eaten your lamb tagine, and now I must eat my words.  I admit I’ve only sampled your food twice—one dinner years ago (back at Simon Kitchen in the Hard Rock), and one brunch (at Palms Place).  Love your homemade granola and smoothies; thought the homemade ‘Hostess Snowball’ was something of a culinary abomination—but then, I hate the original—and the Bloody Mary bar was, for me, kind of silly.   And I do believe I was confronted with the sight of some faux rock person wearing a robe, slippers, and ray-bans.  Still trying to block that out, as well as the presence of candy corn on the dessert plate, though it was around Halloween when I visited.

In short I found the whole menu and vibe of Simon, well, a bit facile.

And yet.  And yet, this lamb tagine.  A risk at an outdoor tasting, but again a nice contrast to the parade of mostly-cold seafood canapés.   Aforementioned words—bitter, with a hint of acid—have been baked into a humble pie, now being consumed by yours truly.

The lamb is cooked perfectly; no small feat given this is a 3 hour outdoor feeding frenzy.  And I went close to closing time, so it made the not-at-all-dried-out-or-overcooked perfection even more impressive.  Sweet hints of dried fruit and preserved lemon temper the gaminess of the lamb, and the couscous too is spot-on.  There is a lot going on with this lamb; it is so not-at-all facile.

So thank you chef Simon, for reminding me that you are indeed a talented and serious chef, snowballs, candy-corn and preconceptions aside.

 

Best Tasting Dish, Sweet:

Spiced Melon soup, Mix (Mandalay Bay)

Any chef that can make me rave about cantaloupe has really performed miracles.  Though I am normally nuts about the color orange (hell, I drive an orange car), Cantaloupe is one of a set of orange foods I normally find intolerable.  These let’s call them “Code Orange” foods include Pimento cheese spread, marshmallow circus peanuts, and instant butterscotch pudding.  Sea-foam hued honeydew?  Love you.  Cantaloupe? You have a weird aftertaste that turns me off big time.

And yet, there is this spiced melon shooter from Alain Ducasse; to say nothing of my second use of ‘and yet’ as a qualifier.

This is a lovely little orange-and white shooter, with bits of melon in the bottom.  So you get three layers of texture/flavor in one shot: creamy foam, spicy ‘soup’ and chewy fruit.  There is something vaguely Indian in the spicing—cumin? cardamom?—that is hard to pin down.  The complexity in this one shot of soup is calling out the laziness of those chefs choosing the ‘let’s slap some tartare on a cracker’ school (you know who you are…).  Cantaloupe be damned, this is a winner.

Cardamom and Poppy dark chocolate truffle, Vosges Haut Chocolat (Forum Shops, Caesars)

 

This isn’t really fair, as the Vosges truffles were not actually cooked or prepared at the event.  But honestly I have never had a bite of anything from Vosges that has not been amazing, and this truffle is possibly my favorite of their offerings.

Here’s something that 99% of chocolatiers and pastry chefs don’t get: sugar is the enemy of cocoa, the way that salt can be the enemy of protein.  What I mean is, sweetness is a note in the flavor profile instead of the subject of the dish.  Vosges gets this—their truffles perfectly ride the almost-not-sweet line without emphasizing the bitter/sour notes that can occur if chocolate is under-sweetened.

Here’s a test—eat a Vosges truffle and a Godiva truffle side-by-side.  Notice how cloying and one-note the Godiva truffle is after tasting the Vosges chocolate; it’s quite revealing.

Note: Charlie Palmer and his Aureole team based their offerings on chocolate; sadly I did not get to sample their items before closing time.  I imagine they would have given Vosges some stiff competition here…

Most Risky:

Pickled pig knuckle, Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant (Caesars Palace)

God bless Sea Harbour Seafood, and their wonderfully redundant Engrish name.  As a lover of offal and all things strange, I was hoping some of the chefs at the Grand Tasting would take use the opportunity to challenge and surprise the attendees.  Some of them came through—Rick Moonen and rm seafood offered a chorizo-tinged octopus crudo and strawberry dippin’ dots, which made me even more excited to try the new rm upstairs tasting menu (Chef Moonen and Adam Sobel are the Batman and Robin of Las Vegas dining—redeeming our metropolis from the overpriced steak-and-bread-pudding-homogenized-hell to which we have been lately damned).

While rm’s octopus impressed, it really takes cajones to serve pickled trotter poolside.  Does this highly acidic pig play well with my cabernet?  No it does not; the pig knuckle steals the wine’s toys in the sandbox, and makes it cry for its mother.  But Sea Harbour Seafood doesn’t care, they are putting that pig’s foot out there and if you don’t like it well $&#$@# you and your frilly wine.  And we love that.


Most Ingenious Packaging:

Wine Ice Cream Push-up Pops (Silk Road)

“I’m sorry, can you tell me what this is?” I ask, picking up a plastic tube of white-and-crimson-marbled something.  Why, it is a wine-ice cream push-up pop, of course.  Props to Chef Martin Heierling for finding a cool, functional and elegant way to serve ice cream.  He was clearly sensitive to the ‘how am I to eat this standing up in a crowd?’ question, and the flock of foodies appreciated it.  The thing was frozen solid but did fit nicely into the inner breast pocket of my jacket, where I wore it for like 5 more courses as it thawed.  Oddly, this was neither as awkward nor unpleasant as it sounds.

The taste was first-rate, and made a good case for wine ice cream—something that initially strikes me as a stupid gimmick. I plan to hit Silk Road (which is open for breakfast and lunch) soon; this first taste makes me very curious.

But what about the wine? I hear the oenophiles lament.  Well I’ll be honest–I don’t have an exhaustive wine knowledge, but I do know that the stemware one drinks from makes a huge difference at least for me.  So as handsome and sturdy as the plastic goblets were, I found they made any detailed tasting kind of impossible.  But that’s not really the point of a Grand Tasting.  Intelligent pairings became quickly impossible, so hence the heavy red wine being sipped with dippin’ dots.  You just accept the randomness as part of the seagull-vibe fun.

Well intrepid foodies, that about sums up my first whirl-wind Grand Tasting.  The following night we attended a more casual “Crushed” wine-and-rock band event, which I’ll be reporting on soon.  Until then, Keep your Knork sharp and your taste buds open…

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Michaelmanley.tlv@gmail.com

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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