Showing posts with label Las Vegas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Las Vegas. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 1)


Every December when I do these "year in review" posts, I conclude with something my grandfather used to say: "Always better, never worse." Sorry, grandpa, but it didn't work this time. 2020 sucked. It's been a miserable year, for people who have lost their family members and friends, their health, their jobs, their businesses, their sense of security, their ability to enjoy companionship and community. It's been a year that's also brought into painful focus how race and class lead to fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in our country, and how hatred and intolerance are still alive and well. 2020 was worse, not better, in just about every way.

So it feels more than a little bit frivolous to be posting one of these "Best of 2020" posts in a year like this. And yet, if there's one thing we can all do right now, it's to support those people and businesses that we care about. The restaurant world I focus on here has had a particularly hard year, repeatedly whipsawed back and forth by closures and rule changes while getting little in the way of leadership or support from government at any level.[1] The industry is a challenging one in the best of circumstances; over the past year, mere survival seems to me an incredible achievement. I've always admired the dedication, resiliency, resourcefulness and creativity of those who've devoted themselves to this craft, but especially now, as so many struggle to balance the safety and security of their teams, the comfort and experience of their customers, and the sustainability of their businesses.

So as weird as it may seem in this disaster of a year, it's also gratifying to be able to celebrate the work of those that amidst it all have provided so many of us some moments of joy. Here is the first of three installments of The Best Things I Ate in 2020.

Million Dollar Salad - Navé
Million Dollar Salad - Navé (Coconut Grove)

One of my favorite new restaurants of late 2019 was Navé, the Italian seafood themed next-door neighbor to Michael Beltran's Ariete which he opened with Justin Flit. Navé quickly became a regular multipurpose spot, good for a quick bite at the bar, a date night, or a get-together with friends. There were a lot of things I liked: the seafood towers, the snapper milanese, the pasta with bottarga, uni and cultured butter. But the one must-order every time I was there was the simple but pitch-perfect "Million Dollar Salad" with crisp, bright gem lettuce, fresh herbs, and a Sicilian pistachio vinaigrette. I'm thrilled that after going into pandemic hibernation, then periodically resurfacing for some "Navé Seafood Shack" pop-ups, Navé reopened earlier this month. (All my pictures from Navé).

ankimo - The Den at Azabu
Ankimo - The Den at Azabu (Miami Beach)

In the early part of the year, pre-shutdown, I had a couple very happy omakase sessions at The Den at Azabu – a solo visit in late January, and then a follow-up shortly after with a jealous Mrs. F. My first round was with chef Shingo Akikuni behind the counter; round two was with chef Yasu Tanaka. Both meals were outstanding. Maybe my favorite bite among many was this ankimo (monkfish liver): lush, silky, and fully deserving of its nickname as the "foie gras of the sea." The Den has reopened for dining and is also doing a take-out omakase (which makes an appearance later in this list) if, like me, you're not yet doing dine-in. And I'm excited to hear that Chef Akikuni is now at Hiden in Wynwood, which recently reopened and is also doing a take-out omakase for two. (All my pictures from The Den at Azabu).

wagyu beef tartare - Eating House
Wagyu Beef Tartare - Eating House (Coral Gables)

It had been a minute since I'd last paid a visit to Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House in Coral Gables. But it felt like old times when I stopped by in February, taking a seat at the front bar counter, munching Sazon-spiced popcorn with an NBA game on the TV while waiting for my order, and eating tasty fun dishes like this wagyu beef tartare with shio koji, shallots, braised and pickled carrots, and lime zest, every bite bouncing with umami, depth, freshness and acidity. (All my pictures from Eating House).


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

é by José Andrés | Las Vegas

There's a phenomenon on social media lately that whenever a celebrity chef expresses an opinion on political or social issues, a chorus of those whose sensibilities diverge insist that the chef should "stay in their lane." In other words, talk about food all you want, but keep your politics to yourself. The reaction seems inherently ridiculous to me – if you don't like it, the "unfollow" button is a simple, elegant solution – and hypocritical. Unless, that is, all these "stay in your lane" folks are actually career political scientists themselves, or perhaps professional life coaches.

I bring this up here because Chef José Andrés is a powerful retort to that kind of nonsense, someone whose talk has been backed up by meaningful, thoughtful action. The day after Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, he was in Houston feeding people. A month later when Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, he was there within days serving meals. Over the past weeks, he's mobilized a brigade of food trucks and canteen kitchens to serve 100,000 meals a day, while getting minimal support from the federal government, in a territory with an almost entirely broken infrastructure.[1]

But this shouldn't come as a surprise. His charity work is not simply a reaction to recent events, but a commitment that dates back to at least 2010, when he founded a non-profit, World Central Kitchen, as a response to a devastating earthquake in Haiti. When, in mid-2016, then-candidate Trump described Mexicans as criminals and rapists, Andrés – an immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen himself – didn't just gripe about it on Twitter. He pulled out of a multi-million dollar restaurant deal at a Trump property in DC, risking the inevitable lawsuit from the litigation-happy candidate. (Andrés countersued, and the case settled in April on undisclosed terms.)

All of which is to say: José Andrés can cruise in any lane he wants, as far as I'm concerned.

While the work he's doing now in Puerto Rico is infinitely more important, those lanes do actually include chef and restaurateur as well. Andrés' restaurants include the Michelin two-star Minibar, along with a mini-empire of places in DC, LA, Miami, and Las Vegas, the last of which I visited recently for a conference.[2] While there, I squeezed in a dinner at é by José Andrés, an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" inside Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan.

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés - Las Vegas flickr set).

The format of é is patterned after the original iteration of Minibar in DC with a dollop of Vegas glitz. Its roughly 20-course tasting menu is unabashedly inspired by the creations of Andrés' mentor, Ferran Adrià, with whom Andrés worked at El Bulli in Spain before going on to tremendous success in the U.S. I'd visited é once before, though I hadn't realized how long ago it had been – nearly six years. The room, centered by a polished metal chef's counter surrounded by walls lined with tiny drawers and odd tchotchkes, hasn't changed much. One of the chefs said it was meant to make you feel like "You're inside Chef Andrés' head." (It kind of does.) The menu was almost entirely different, though there were some echoes of prior meals.

Guests are corralled at a table in Jaleo and offered a drink before the dinner at é starts. After a few minutes, the hostess divulges that the centerpiece on the table is also the first course: a cracker flavored with black olive, stuck with edible flowers.

Then upon entering the cloistered dining room, a cocktail: sangria, frozen and powdered to a slushie-like consistency, with compressed melon, sour cherry pearls, and fresh mint leaves.[3]

A cheese course of sorts: a soft-frozen manchego and beet rose topping a walnut cracker, "stones" of idiazabal cheese with a jamón and rosemary glaze nestled atop a bowl of river stones; and a "pizza" of San Simon cheese topped with oregano cream, dried tomato, and fresh shaved truffle.

(continued ...)

Monday, January 16, 2012

City Snapshots - Las Vegas Dining

Our experience at é by Jose Andres was the most exceptional of our recent Las Vegas visit, but it certainly wasn't our only good meal. Some like to deride Vegas, including its culinary options, as phony and Disney-esque. And that's understandable: while many big-name chefs have established outposts in the desert - Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Masa Takayama, among others - they are satellite operations, with perhaps varying degrees of attention and inspiration.

And yet we've always eaten well in Las Vegas, and not necessarily always on a  high rollers' budget. Indeed, sometimes you have to get off the Strip and back into the real world to find it, but even in the belly of the beast, there is much good eating to be had. Here, then, some briefer snapshots rather than full posts on some other fine meals we had in Las Vegas: Sage, Aburiya Raku, China Poblano, and Lotus of Siam.

On our first night in town we were looking for something easily accessible from our home base at the Cosmopolitan, and Sage, in the Aria resort next door, fit the bill. Like most Vegas venues, it is a second project of an out-of-town chef, in this instance, Chicago's Shawn McClain (Green Zebra, Custom House). On the slow Monday following Christmas weekend, it appeared they had the main dining room closed and were serving only out of the lounge area in front, which was fine by us. With lots of leather settees, dark wood, and soft lighting filtered by pleated lampshades, it was comfortably posh without feeling stuffy. Also nice is that the restaurant is not situated right in the middle of the casino area, and has the feel of a sophisticated, placid refuge from all that hubbub.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sage - Las Vegas flickr set).


It was just as well we were sitting at the bar, because Sage has an excellent cocktail menu featuring both traditional and contemporary concoctions. Their Sazerac, made with Sazerac Rye, Marilyn Manson Absinthe, and Peychaud's Bitters, was as good as any I've had in New Orleans. They carry an extensive absinthe list and are fully equipped for a traditional service, absinthe fountain and all.


Sage's four-course "Signature Tasting Menu," at $79, is a relatively good bargain, even if adding the "Foie Gras Brûlée" for a $10 supplement makes it slightly less so.

foie gras brulee

It's still a good call: this is an excellent, if more than a bit decadent, dish, a rich foie gras mousse topped with crispy burnt sugar crust, a little fruit jam tucked underneath a shower of shaved torchon of foie gras as the final garnish.

Iberico pork loin

The rest of the tasting menu was equally refined, if not quite as exciting. A bacon-wrapped rabbit loin was perfectly cooked, paired with multi-hued roasted baby carrots and herb-flecked, cheese-filled ravioli, but nothing about the dish really jumped out to grab your attention. A pork-on-pork-on-pork composition of Iberico pork loin, pork-stuffed cannelloni, and thin shavings of Creminelli mortadella, served over tender baby eggplant with a dark pan sauce, was every bit as precise with its cooking, with the cannelloni in particular standing out for the lusciously soft but still intensely flavored filling of braised pork shoulder.

This is classy, refined cooking at a very good price point in comparison to many of its neighbors, at least if you go with the tasting menu. Maybe not so much with the regular menu, where appetizer prices hover close to $20 and main courses congregate around $45. If for no other reason, I'd go back just to have a cocktail and another taste of that foie gras brûlée.

3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S, Las Vegas NV (Aria Resort)

Sage (Aria) on Urbanspoon

I've written before about Aburiya Raku and won't do so in great detail again, other than to say that this is easily one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas, and if it were in my town I'd be there every week. You can see the photos from our most recent visit in this Aburiya Raku flickr set. A few favorites from this meal:

kanpachi sashimi

Gorgeous kanpachi sashimi off the specials board. The aji was also outstanding.

uni and wakame soup

An unimpressive looking, but deeply satisfying, bowl of uni and wakame soup. A simple combination of dashi, wakame seaweed and a couple pinkish-orange tongues of uni made for a majestic end result. This was umami at its finest: incredible depth of flavor, without any heaviness.

Kobe beef tendon

One of my favorite single bites anywhere: Kobe beef tendon robata. Gelatinous, sticky, crispy on the edges, intensely meaty and rich. Great stuff.

Raku is truly an exceptional restaurant and a highlight of any trip to Las Vegas.

Aburiya Raku
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas NV

Raku on Urbanspoon

(continued ...)

Monday, January 9, 2012

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas

é by Jose Andres

If Ferran Adrià is thought of by many as the great inventor of contemporary Spanish cuisine, than José Andrés is surely its great ambassador. Where Adrià, chef of the now-closed el Bulli, has dedicated his culinary career to the relentless pursuit of creativity and creation, Andrés (who trained with Adrià at el Bulli) has been equally dedicated to the promotion of both traditional and contemporary Spanish cooking in the U.S., and has perhaps achieved more recognition and success in doing so than any other chef of the past twenty years.

Andrés opened Jaleo, a tapas bar and restaurant offering a wide range of traditional Spanish regional dishes, in Washington DC in 1993. Before the decade had closed, he was recognized as a James Beard Rising Star Chef, followed in 2003 with an award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. That same year, he opened minibar, which showcased some of the products of the culinary revolution that was overtaking Spain, spearheaded by Adrià and others.

The format of minibar was unique. Described as a "restaurant within a restaurant," physically it was really nothing more than a six-seat sushi bar tucked into a corner of an upper floor of his Café Atlántico restaurant, with a few kitchen tools (circulator, blender, fryer, a couple portable burners) jerry-rigged behind it.[1] The menu of 25+ small dishes, many of which were one- or two-bite "munchies" or "snacks," was undoubtedly inspired by the sprawling tasting menus of el Bulli. So were many of the dishes themselves, some of which had direct antecedents in Adrià's work. But the "minibar" format also brought another intriguing element - interactivity, with two chefs working directly in front of the diners to do the final preparation and plating of the dishes. With only six seats and only two seatings a night, minibar is perennially one of the toughest reservations to score in DC.

Since opening minibar, Andrés has expanded the geographic scope of his ambassadorship, moving into Los Angeles with The Bazaar in 2008, and into Las Vegas in 2010 with a branch of Jaleo along with China Poblano, both in the Cosmopolitan resort. Also tucked away within Jaleo is é: an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" featuring only a set degustation menu, very much along the same lines as minibar. Virtually nothing is done to promote é: there's just a one-page website listing an email address for reservation requests; it's not even listed on the website of the parent company for Andrés' ventures, Think Food Group. But it's definitely worth knowing about.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés flickr set).


Unlike minibar, where you're literally sitting in a corner of the main dining area, é gets its own private room within Jaleo. The centerpiece is the kitchen bar, a rounded arc with eight seats circled around an open "kitchen" (though it's really more plating than cooking that goes on here).[3] The effect is decidedly theatrical, and the sense of having stepped into the middle of some sort of performance is enhanced by a space that feels more theater set than dining room, walls lined with card catalog drawers and various knick-knacks. A team of three chefs performs final preparations and plates each of the dishes, which are then handed directly to the diners.[4]

Much of the cooking at é is what got called, until recently, "molecular gastronomy," and now seems to have taken on the sobriquet of "modernist cuisine." In other words, there's liquid nitrogen, and foams, and lots of other textural transformations at work. I'll circle back to the issue of whether, as some might claim, this style of cooking is already passé in light of the advent of what gets called the "New Naturalism."[5] I bring it up here only to note that the interactivity and intimacy has an interesting effect: the ability of the diners to see the preparations, hear the story behind each dish as it's presented, and ask questions of the chefs, creates a connection to the food that might not be otherwise established in the same way. It won't necessarily make a dish taste any better, but I think it demystifies food that some find alienating and inaccessible, without taking away any of the novelty of its presentation.

We visited é in late December and they were serving a special holiday menu loaded with luxury ingredients (and priced quite a bit more than the "regular" menu), so the meal you see here may not be entirely representative. Even so, some of my favorite dishes were those with the humblest components.

gin & tonic

The meal started, as good meals often do, with a cocktail: a "Gin and Tonic," to be precise. With evaporating liquid nitrogen billowing across the workspace, one of the chefs prepared a gin sorbet a la minute, which was then topped with a tonic froth and a grating of fresh citrus zest - a refreshing rearrangement of the traditional drink.


A collection of little snacks followed.

(continued ...)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Aburiya Raku - Las Vegas

I did something on my last trip to Las Vegas that I'd never done before. No, I did not split 10s against a dealer's ace at the blackjack table. I didn't pass out and wake up with Mike Tyson's lion in my room. Nor did it involve any of the fine ladies whose cards are handed out on the strip in the evenings. No, this was something really unusual for me: during a four-day trip, I went back to the same restaurant twice.

There were a number of places on my "hit list" for this Vegas trip, but after going to Aburiya Raku late on the night we arrived, some of the list had to be thrown out. A repeat visit violates one of my basic travel rules, but this is really my kind of place.

Though I'd hazard a guess that roughly 99% of the visitors to Las Vegas have never heard of the restaurant, it has hardly escaped notice. It was a semifinalist this year for the James Beard Foundation's Best New Restaurant Award, has been much talked up by various bloggers, and is a favorite of local chefs (who must also appreciate that it is open till 3am). The focus is on charcoal-grilled robata style items, but the menu ranges well beyond that and features a broad variety of izakaya-style small dishes. The ingredients are immaculate, and the preparations are precise and loaded with flavor.

About 15 minutes off the strip on West Spring Mountain Road, Raku is situated in a nondescript little strip mall, next door to a dingy-looking Korean BBQ place. But once you step inside, a different atmosphere takes over. It's a much smaller place than I anticipated, only about 8 tables total plus a a small bar (I've heard an expansion is in the works), subtle halogen lighting, dark walls, and pretty blond wood tables. The waitstaff are friendly, charming and eager to talk through the menu as well as a long list of daily specials. Those specials include a number of fresh seafood items, many flown in from Japan.

On our first visit, my dining companion and I started off small, ordering about 3-4 things mostly from the specials. After about four more rounds of ordering, we had happily worked our way through a good portion of the menu. We began simply, with Tofu Two Ways (this "two way" option was a common theme among many of the specials, which is a great idea). First came simple cold tofu hiyayakko, with accompaniments of slivered scallion, minced ginger, and katsuobushi (dried bonito) flakes. The house-made tofu was a revelation, with a luxurious creamy texture and a light, milky, slightly nutty flavor. Our server recommended using a dash of the green tea salt with it, which brightened and enhanced the flavors. The second take on it was agedashi style, the tofu fried and lightly crispy on the outside, in a warm pool of soy-stained dashi broth dotted with scallions and little honshimeji (beech mushrooms), and topped with a generous dollop of ikura (salmon roe) and julienned strips of nori.

From the specials we also had Asari Sakamushi, small clams simply steamed in a sake broth. They had a deliciously pure seafood flavor, and the broth, rich with clam liquor, was just as good. Also from the specials we had Unagi Two Ways: the eel was presented with the two filets side-by-side (cut into roughly two-inch pieces for ease of handling), one side dabbed with wasabi, the other with the more traditional sweet-soy "barbecue" glaze. It was tender and meaty, and I just barely preferred the simpler wasabi preparation, which allowed the eel's flavor to come through more cleanly.

Next, a cold dish, Poached Egg with Sea Urchin, with the gooey egg (reminiscent of an immersion circulated 63C egg) in a thick, slightly sweet soy-based broth, along with tongues of uni, more ikura, tiny cubes of sticky yamaimo (mountain yam) and diced scallion. This seemed as much a meditation on slippery textures as it was about the flavors, and it was something of an adventure to go after this with chopsticks. Shortly after that came one of my favorite items of the night, a Foie Gras Chawan Mushi,[1] the quivering dashi-inflected egg custard elevated by the rich earthy perfume of the duck liver.

From there we moved into our robata phase, which we divided into animal themes. We started with Kurobata Pork Cheek and Pork Ear. The cheeks were just delicious, meaty but tender and loaded with porky flavor. The ears (which our server recommended anointing with a chile-infused vinegar on the table) were chewy with a hint of crisp on the outside, and that visceral toothy bite from the strip of cartilage in the middle.

Next, a beef round, for which we tried the "Kobe" Beef Filet with Wasabi, and the "Kobe" Beef Tendon.[2] I usually don't get that excited by beef filet cuts, which I generally find lacking in character. But this was so tender and luxurious, almost silky, its flavor brightened by the dab of wasabi, that it overcame my usual scorn for the tenderloin. But possibly the single greatest bite of the evening was the beef tendon. I'd never seen tendon grilled before, and this arrived as basically quivering cubes of beef jell-o, just barely in solid form, and with a rich, buttery "essence of beef" flavor. If you like bone marrow, you'll really like this. If you don't like bone marrow, well ... never mind.

We closed out the robata phase of our meal with a poultry round, featuring chicken breast with skin (terrifically moist and flavorful), tsukune (ground chicken, suprisingly one of the few items that didn't really excite, even though our server said it was a house specialty), and duck with balsamic soy sauce (also very good). Not quite ready to be done yet, we closed out with onigiri (grilled rice ball) in a dashi broth, topped with "bonito guts." This none-too-appealing translation (I think the Japanese word for it is "shuto") refers to an item that is similar to shiokara, salted and fermented fish innards, which I've previously only seen done with squid. I actually found it much milder than shiokara which I've tried before, and it gave a pungently salty, funky tweak to the rice and dashi broth.

According to Wikipedia, "shuto" means "steal sake," supposedly in reference to the commonly held belief that it is good to drink sake with such things. Whether or not that's true, we did have some good sake with our meal. I don't know my sakes that well, but I am intrigued by the richer tasting, cloudy nigori style sakes, so we tried a couple. We started with a small bottle of a Tozai Nigori ("Snow Maiden", I think), which I found a bit too sweet for my taste. Even better was the Kamoizumi "Summer Snow," which was much more balanced and nuanced. The sake, and several of the food items, were enhanced by beautiful ceramic sake cups and dishes. Despite the somewhat casual atmosphere and the (generally) low prices, the presentations were in many ways quite elegant.

On the return visit a few nights later, we re-sampled several items to equal acclaim, and also tried a few different specials (an almost completely new list from our last visit). Though we had made a reservation, it was nearly a half hour after our reserved time when a table finally cleared. I understand that for early reservations they do now put a time limit on the tables, though I can see how that can be somewhat difficult to enforce in the moment (and if I was one of those earlier diners, I can empathize with not wanting to leave). When we finally sat, they assuaged us with a free pitcher of Sapporo, some nice crispy salted shrimp (which can be downed heads, shells and all), and some tiny little whole fried icefish. It worked.

Grilled salmon belly was luscious and decadent, rich with fatty fish oils underneath the nicely crispy skin. A special mackerel was one of the biggest I had ever laid eyes upon served whole, simply grilled and served with daikon oroshi. I actually might prefer smaller fish, as this was a bit dryer than I like, missing some of the oily texture of these "blue-skinned" fish that I enjoy. And we were completely taken in when we saw another table get a Kobe-style steak flambeed with brandy and cooked on a hot stone, ishiyaki style. Meat - fire - hot rocks? The caveman in us insisted.

A few things worth noting: (1) it is a very small place, and I suspect that reservations are a must; going later is probably better than going earlier, so as to avoid hungry people hovering and waiting for you to relinquish your table; (2) though most of the items on the regular menu are incredibly reasonably priced (many of the robata items, like the pork cheek, the chicken breast, and the beef tendon, are $3 and under, and both the foie gras chawan mushi and the poached egg with uni were under $10), some of the specials can be quite steep (the unagi and mackerel were both $30+, the steak ishiyaki was $60); if you're concerned, just ask; (3) this is a place worth breaking rules for.

Aburiya Raku
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV

Raku on Urbanspoon

[1]A note on the menu: items are listed in Japanese, and in translated English, so that the chawan mushi is listed in English as a "steamed egg custard." I actually found this to be somewhat confusing, as I'm fairly accustomed to the Japanese names for many things even though I'm entirely unable to read the Japanese characters for them.

[2]I did not ask if it was true Kobe beef from Japan or Kobe-style, but I'm guessing the latter.