Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Popping Off! A 2010 Vegas Uncork'd Recap with Top 10 "Best Bites" List

It's hard enough blogging about a long weekend in Las Vegas under normal circumstances, but try doing a proper recap after Vegas Uncork'd, a three-day wine and food festival featuring hundreds of delicious bites served by over 50 world-class chefs.

By all accounts, the 4th Annual Vegas Uncork'd, presented by Bon Appetit, was the biggest and best yet. This was my first Uncork'd, so I was curious to see if it could live up to all the pre-event hype. It did, and then some.

The weekend got off to a bubbly start with a VIP grand opening reception hosted by Bon Appétit's Editor in Chief, Barbara Fairchild, at miX on top of THEhotel. Master chef Alain Ducasse took a sabre to a bottle of Champagne with explosive results (see bonus video below!), and Uncork'd was officially underway. It was pure chefophile nirvana. "Chef of the Century," Joel Robuchon was joined by such culinary superstars as Bobby Flay, Hubert Keller, and Cat Cora, just to name a few of the headliners.

We also met Julie Murry, the CEO of Three Square, the official charity partner for Vegas Uncork'd. This event raises much-needed funds for Southern Nevada’s only food bank, and Julie couldn't say enough about how gracious the chefs were with their time and energy.

After the reception we had a behind the scenes tour of the various Masters' Series Dinners at Caesars Palace, hosted by Rao's, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, Restaurant Guy Savoy, and our final dinner destination, Bradley Ogden.

Watching all the various plates and platters going by, it was clear these chefs were not about to be outdone by each other. They understood what a special showcase this was, and the guests were the beneficiaries.

Day one came to a wonderful end with a sushi and sake celebration at the ultra-slick and very sexy Shibuya in the MGM Grand. If it's possible for something to be decadent and demure at the same time, this was.

As several lovely young ladies danced on the bar in furry white bikinis to the Black Eyed Peas greatest hits, revelers snacked on oysters and sushi, washed down with a seemingly endless variety of sake.

Day two started with a very special Masters' Series Lunch hosted by Bon Appetit's Barbara Fairchild, and featured the one and only Wolfgang Puck showing off his considerable skills at CUT in The Palazzo. It was a magnificent meal, prepared by a chef still very much on top of his game.

Then it was off to Cocktails and Cuisine at the Wynnn/Encore. Bon Appétit's Steve Olson, the Wynn's Patricia Richards, and the Michael Jordon of modern mixologists, Tony Abou-Ganim, demonstrated five amazing, Italian-inspired cocktails, which were each paired with beautiful bites from chefs James Benson and Theo Schoenegger. The event started off with perfectly made white peach bellinis, and just kept getting better.

As great as the Puck lunch and Cocktails and Cuisine were, the highlight of day two had to be the epic Grand Tasting, held at the Garden of the Gods Pool in Caesars Palace. Fifty of the city's top restaurants set up stations around the glistening pool, most also featuring their star chef right alongside to explain what was being served, as well as to pose for pictures and soak up the admiration of the giddy crowd.

There really were too many outstanding bites and sips to name, and I can say with all sincerity that this event alone is reason enough to attend Uncork'd. Had a statue of Bacchus suddenly come to life, and took a stroll around the pool, I can't help but think he would have been very impressed.

The night ended with the Celebrity Chef Blackjack Tournament, held poolside at the Encore. It was so interesting to watch the chefs (a competitive breed by nature) interact with each other, feigning cordiality, while trying their best to crush each other and take the prize. Paul Bartolotta, chef at Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare, and suspected card counter, won for the third year in a row.

While the night officially ended with the blackjack tournament, it unofficially ended way too late at the properties signature nightclub, XS. Besides a few people mistaking me for an undercover cop, it was a great time, and a lot of fun partying with fellow food bloggers, Sara (aka Average Betty), Mark (aka No Recipes), and Mika (aka Food Fashionista). One tip to anyone organizing a food and wine event – invite lots of food bloggers to cover – trust me on this.

While day two seemed like a very tough act to follow, day three turned out to be just as much fun. I attended Culinary Theater: All the Kitchen’s a Stage, which featured a sort of Top Chef Masters rematch between Rick Moonen, Hubert Keller, and Susan Feniger.

The event took place at Moonen’s RM Seafood in the Mandalay Bay. He attempted to redeem himself with another go at what he calls, “Moon Doggies.” These spicy shrimp mousse corndogs were not a hit with the judges on TCM, but the chef showed everyone, when given enough time to properly prepare them, how delicious they really were.

Hubert Keller was up next and did his famous lobster macaroni and cheese. If you're a fan of the show, you may remember him having to use a dorm room shower to drain the pasta. I'm happy to report a regular sink was used this time, and it was as rich and tasty as you'd imagine.

Lastly, Susan Feniger from the Border Grill, made a beautiful ceviche, served on crunchy, fried plantain chips. It also happened to be Feniger's birthday, and the other chefs led the room in a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday. In true chef fraternity style, she was toasted with cold beer and warm, gratuitous kidding.

I have to give a shout out to Bon Appetit's Andrew Knowlton, who hosted the event. In addition to somehow keeping the proceedings on track (no easy feet with those three personalities on the same stage), Knowlton also went above and beyond the call of duty; personally making sure all the guests at this standing-room-only event got to taste all the dishes.

It was refreshing to see, and I noticed VIP's from Bon Appetit and Uncork'd shoulder-to-shoulder all weekend with guests and chefs alike, making sure everyone was taken care of and having a good time. It's that type of culinary camaraderie that's at the heart of Uncork'd's success.

The last formal meal of the weekend was an amazing dinner at Chef Michael Mina's StripSteak in the Mandalay Bay. This is a gorgeous, modern American steakhouse, and the food was truly exceptional.

Any restaurant that starts each table out with a complimentary order of duck fat fried potatoes is clearly showing they know what the hell they're doing.

Uncork'd ended around the pool at the Palazzo with Crushed: Wine That Rocks. In addition to the usual stellar food and drink, and wall-to-wall culinary celebs, this event featured restaurateur and winemaker, Joe Bastianich who sat in with the band Six Foot Nurse. Also on stage was Scott Ian of Anthrax, who sports the best rock-n-roll beard since ZZ Top.

I got there very late, and after three days of non-stop eating and drinking, my only real goal was to not fall in the pool. As I sipped my last Stella in the warm, dry breeze, listening to the band finish with a stirring Led Zeppelin medley, two thoughts came to mind… how much more I enjoyed music before autotune was invented, and what a truly fantastic weekend of food and drink this had been.

Thanks to Bon Appetit, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, R&R Partners, and everyone else involved with Vegas Uncork'd. It was every bit as much fun as I'd heard, and I can’t wait for the next one. Cheers!

It sure wasn't easy, but here's a list of my…
2010 Vegas Uncork'd Top 10 "Best Bites"

Herbert Keller's Crab Salad Crostini Over Green Gazpacho

Whenever I'm at one of these tastings, I employ a simple strategy. I first visit the chefs that don't have anything to prove. Chefs like Herbert Keller from Fleur De Lys. Nothing wrecks a great bite of food like trying too hard.

This brilliant pairing consisted of a simple, but perfect crab salad crostini sitting on top of a shot glass of green gazpacho. The iced-out presentation kept the soup frosty, and made the whole station glow. Speaking of glowing, Chef Keller is pictured here with well-known San Francisco foodie, my wife, the lovely Michele Manfredi.

I was pretty impressed as soon as I crunched into the crostini, but after I chased it with the vibrant soup, getting the full effect, I actually closed my eyes and smiled. I repeated that procedure three more times.

Duck Fat Fries Trio at StripSteak

If you ever find yourself in some sort of high-stakes French fry contest, do yourself a favor and procure some duck fat. This trio of perfectly crisp fries (which I believe were paprika-dusted, garlic, and herb-flecked) were served with housemade ketchup, creamy truffle dip, and barbecue sauce. StripSteak starts each table off with this steakhouse-sized version of an amuse bouche. Talk about a great first impression. Yes, they had me at "duck fat fried."

This was just one small part of an epic meal we enjoyed, which included some of the most delicious steaks and side dishes in recent memory, like this gorgeous Caesar served with olive dressing and white anchovies. I enjoyed a perfectly prepared Kansas City strip steak, over which I spread roasted bone marrow and seared foie gras. Hey, I was trying to make the fries jealous.

Wolfgang Puck's Banana Cream Heaven

Since I'm not really a dessert person at heart, it takes an extra special preparation to pique my interest, let alone make it on a 'best bites' list. This was some kind of special. Banana ice cream, banana custard, crispy crust, topped with baby banana brulee – it was a light yellow block of pure inspiration.

Paul Bartolotta's Pesce In Crostate Di Sale Profumato

One of the most sought after events at Uncork'd is the All-Star Interactive Luncheon. Held at the Wynn/Encore, guests were able to cook along with three of the resort's top chefs; David Walzog, Alex Stratta (see risotto below), and Paul Bartolotta. It was Bartolotta's whole fish baked in salt that brought the whole room to its knees (a few guests, literally).

The coarse salt was laced with copious amounts of star anise, fennel pollen, and citrus, then bound with egg whites. The fish was roasted, and when that salt crust was cracked off, the succulence of the fish underneath was stunning.

It was one of those things you eat that leaves you questioning why you would ever cook that particular food any other way. I will be doing a video on this magical technique soon, so stay tuned for that.

Bradley Ogden's Roasted Petaluma Free Range Chicken with Butter Roasted Spring Onions, Poached Egg, and Chorizo

It takes a certain amount of courage to do a plate of food like this. There is no built in excuse for failure, like the chef was trying some exotic new flavor combinations. The only way this works is if every component is done just right.

The chicken must be seared crisp on the outside, moist and juicy inside. The chorizo well cooked, but not dry. The poached egg's yolk must be tranformed into a hot, thick, golden sauce – the cook that did this had about a 20 second window for perfection. This choice is dedicated to that cook, and the chef that taught him.

Alex Stratta's Interactive Sweet Pea Risotto

It's not everyday you get to enjoy a perfect risotto prepared table side. But what made this one even more enjoyable was the fact it was stirred into submission by my friend, and fellow reporter Sara.

At the All-Star Interactive Luncheon, each table of eight came with a chef and cooking station, and a volunteer would be selected to come over to make the course. What you see here, compliments of chef Stratta, is an exceptionally delicious, sweet pea risotto with wild mushrooms, and more than a touch of Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and cream.

The women they call Average Betty on the internet, claimed this was the first risotto she'd ever made. It was so good I'm questioning her claim, and offering a $100 reward for pictures of her making a risotto.

Wolfgang Puck's White Asparagus Salad

I'm not sure how many "best bites" lists this simple salad will make, but I loved everything about it. It was such a handsome plate, delicate, yet masculine enough to hold its own on any steakhouse menu. The dressing was spot on, the tempretures optimal, and most impressively, the thick asparagus spears were cooked to absolute perfection – firm, tender, and creamy.

Cat Cora's Lamb Sliders

This is kind of an ironic choice, since I'm so quick to make fun of the sliderization of America, which is now reaching ridiculous new heights. This little grilled lamb and olive burger was no joke. Expertly cooked and super flavorful, it came with a tangy, creamy garlic sauce.

It was paired with a blueberry cocktail that worked very nicely, much to my surprise. There is no real way to explain why it worked, so I'll give you the standard Sin City answer, "It's Vegas, baby!"

By the way, Cat Cora was unanimous choice for nicest chef at the event. She is a font of positive culinary energy, and never once did I see someone standing next to her who wasn't smiling. Also, if you're ever looking for her in a casino, head towards the "Wheel of Fortune" slot machines. I'm just saying.

Bobby Flay on the Half Shell

There may have been chefs with more stars, or longer resumes, but no one stopped a room like Bobby Flay. When Flay walked in, conversations stopped and the attention quickly redirected. Which was exactly what was supposed to happen. Guests with champagne in one hand and something delicious in the other, soaked it all in.

Bobby, as we call him in Vegas, served a lovely sea scallop "crudo" with red pepper, charred corn and avocado relish. I thought this really captured the chef's culinary point of view. It was bold, flavorful, and like it's creator, showed a measure of swagger.

Benson and Schoenegger's Brasato di Vitello with Kobe Beef and White Asparagus

This amazing braised veal bite, topped with a buttery slice of perfectly marbeled Kobe was the last savory course at the Cocktails and Cuisine event. Bon Appétit's Steve Olson created a cocktail called the La Buona Vita – an extremely potent blend of tequila, Mezcal, and vermouth – to pair with the decadent dish.

The drink was ready just before the food was severed, and as people sipped, waiting happily, more than a few twisted smiles appeared. Olson made note, and said that we would be pleasantly surprised how much the drink's character would change, once enjoyed along with the rich meats. He was right on – when sipped after a forkful of this dynamic duo, the cocktail smoothed out beautifully. This was my favorite bite of the event!

Bonus Video Coverage: Day One
Here are a few video clips and some images capturing the sights and sounds of day one. Stay tuned for more!

FTC Blogger Disclaimer: I was invited to cover this event as part of the Vegas Uncork'd press group. My trip was made possible by R&R Partners, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.


Micah - Coffee machine said...

All the foods look appetizing. Perhaps the people had a hard time deciding on which food tasted best.

Mika Takeuchi/ Food Fashionista said...

Delectable recap of Vegas Uncork'd John! So much fun with you and Michele. Cheers!

Chef John said...

Thanks! Right back at you!

averagebetty said...

Hmmm. You know, come to think of it, I never did see you and that undercover cop at the same time. Great article, John. I am truly flattered to be included as a Best Bite... I may change my name to Sweet Pea.

Unknown said...

Great pictures, now the only thing left is for you to do some demos on how amateurs like us can make such delicacies at home!

Razors Edge said...

Great video (almost missed the kiss at the end *laugh*) Is AverageBetty as insane in real life as she is in her videos ??

Jayne said...

Lovely food, but your wife is even lovelier.

Unknown said...

Great job, thanks for sharing what must have been a food lovers heaven. Loved your comments and references to other things. Too much fun?

Anonymous said...

Chef. Do you take all of the pictures? If so, how long have you been photographing?

Anonymous said...

Chef. Do you take all of the pictures? If so, how long have you been photographing?

Becky said...

All this looks so delicious - and it's prompted my first Food Wish!

I'm shipping off to college come August, and this is exciting and depressing, exciting because it's college and depressing because the cafeteria is of the Sysco/Monsanto variety. Also, college usually means alcohol for all the wrong reasons, so my first food wish is for an unusual (and tasty!) non-alcoholic smoothie. My hope is to extract from your foodie genius something so delicoius that my future roomates lose their appetite for cheap beer after their first taste. I'm fighting windmills, sure, but it's worth trying!

In unrelated news, I had the accidental chance to try an amazing dessert - mango slices in a lime sauce, topped with papaya grated to look like cellophane noodles and tiny sprigs of mint. Maybe this ties into the smoothie, and maybe it's regular for you, but overall I just want to thank you for showing me (and so many others) how amazing food can be.

Rita said...

we're having brunch right now - and reading this, it's still making me hungry. AHAHAHA! all those food look so amazing! good to see that they served one of our favorite belgian bier, Leffe. thanks so much for sharing.

Razors Edge said...

I should issue an apology to averagebetty. I'm sorry that I said that... I've watched all your videos (this is true lol) and I love them all. What I said was rude I'll try thinking before I post again.

Chef John said...

Believe me, Betty would never be insulted being called insane. She is the best kind of insane. Also very nice, smart, and talented!

Anonymous said...

=) Chef John, you have no shame showing us half-naked ladies on your Vegas recap. lol!!! Looks like you had a lot of fun. How much does it cost to attend such events?

Chef John said...

Cost? What is this cost you speak of? I was invited there as part of the press group. Everything's taken care of. I'm living the food blogger dream. ;-)

Neil said...

Hey Chef john, saw u on Youtube & just had to visit ur site. Its awesome & i love the way you present ur recipes. Great going & thanks for the recipes!
- Neil