é by José Andrés – Las Vegas, NV

When all is said and done, the goal of a restaurant, whether it’s fast food or fine dining, is to seat you at their table. If we’re talking about the latter, besides the menu, there are a number of tactics available to a discerning restaurateur. Hiring that hot bearded chef from some hip locavore, farm-to-table joint perhaps, or landing the top floor in the latest Zaha Hadid building. Or maybe it’s touting a one night only tasting menu featuring sustainable heritage bacon.

All of these strategies have been executed in principal, or more likely verbatim, but in Las Vegas, the capital of distraction, attracting diners to your restaurant is an even greater task.  So how do you do it, how do you compete when almost every celebrity chef has a Vegas location vying for those dining dollars? Well for one diminutive dining room, it’s simple, you don’t.

This tactic of isolationism would be suicide for most restaurants, but é by José Andrés is not most restaurants. You won’t see any signs for it as you walk through The Cosmopolitan, it’s not listed on the website, and even if you were to walk by Jaleo, it’s parent restaurant, you’d probably miss it.

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It all started with a call from my dad and a one word question, “Vegas”? The answer was an instant yes, and with that, the meal planning began. Well, I say planning, but it was really just jumping online the second I got home to see if é had two spots open during our trip. I had heard about José Andrés’ semi-secret restaurant within a restaurant a while back, and it had been on my wish list ever since.

A few days later a dainty envelope bearing a faux wax stamp arrived containing two gold admission tickets. I can hear the snickering, but for me, it showed that the staff at é sought not only to provide a meal, but an experience, starting with your own personal Charlie Bucket moment, and it totally worked.

We arrived at Jaleo with golden tickets in hand, and no clue as to what lay ahead. Soon after, our seven dinner companions slowly trickled in. Naturally small talk exposes occupations first, and we were a diverse bunch; two neuroscientists, a spinal surgeon, a PGA rules official, a “businessman” with two young “lady friends”, together with me, an architect in training and my aircraft trading father, formed a group like a strange food loving cast of Gilligan’s Island. Little did we know how important that group would prove to be to the experience. Each of us took our seat at the bronze, horseshoe-shaped bar, surrounded by full height walls of library card files meant to represent Chef Andrés’ mind, filled with flavor ideas. After a quick introduction to the friendly, and thankfully not too formal, staff, our meal of over 20 dishes began.

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Smooth foie gras and crunchy corn nuts, wrapped in what looked like pressed dryer sheets, but turned out to be cotton candy, was a refreshingly playful way to start a meal of this caliber. José is a decidedly serious chef, as his many restaurants can attest, but you can tell he’s having fun at é. Take his “beet-kini” grilled cheese with its two slices of “bread” formed from pressed beet meringue, achieving a color that’d make Willy Wonka proud, sandwiching a thick cream of La Peral blue cheese. Yet the flavors are always the main attraction, concentrated sweetness from the beets against the grassy blue cheese.

At an Andrés restaurant, you’ll never be without seafood for long, so the coca de recapte featuring a pristine Murcia sardine and deconstructed escalivada (a traditional Catalan dish usually made with grilled red pepper and eggplant) piped in neat rows was a welcome sight. Three quick bites followed, mini brioche stuffed with goat cheese and Iberico ham, a smoked Kushi oyster, and one of Eat a Duck’s personal favorite delicacies, a seared chicken oyster set atop crispy skin.

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How about some shark? Why, yes please! A little Cadiz style fried nugget of adobo marinated thresher shark was as impressive as it was simple. Think of a piece of perfectly fried pork belly, and then remove any trace of lean meat, that was the texture. The fish itself didn’t have a distinct flavor, but the combination of spices from the adobo and the sharp sherry vinegar on the crisp shell was intoxicating.

Apparently you can pickle mussels, and guess what, they’re delicious! The creamy little shellfish with their added sourness were paired with little pea-sized olive spheres and a squeeze of citrus that woke up the tongue. Which brings me to Cava sangria spheres! After downing these high-end jello shots, everyone at the table had a smile on their face.

Let me just state that by now, I had become fast friends with the two lovely ladies to my left, one of whom was already starting to get full, and I being ever the gentleman, graciously offered to assist her in dispatching whatever morsels remained from each course.

The next course was a true brought me back to earth as the preparation was explained. I take it there’s no fear on the staff’s part of divulging secrets here, because I was no clearer on how this dish was created after the explanation as I was before it. From what I gathered, (and José would probably cringe, or laugh if he read this) you take fava beans, purée them, mix them with some molecular something or other, and then reformed them into their former fava shape. The result is an impossible smooth “bean” creme floating in a comforting jamon consommé. Two schmears in the roasted and black garlic varieties packed an incredibly concentrated flavor, playing off the subtle ham tinged broth.

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A return to the sea with two prawns from Palamós, barely cooked on the grill to keep their creamy texture. If you’ve ever had ama ebi nigiri, it was a similar mouth feel. The flesh was exceedingly sweet with just a hint of smoke. Sucking shrimp heads seems to have become the cool thing to do after years of Bourdain and the like preaching the gospel of guts. Seriously though, when the opportunity arises to wrap your lips around a crustacean of this quality, you’d better suck every last succulent drop out of that shell.

The grilled Txocoli style cod jowls that followed brought the dreaded “wall” within sight. It didn’t help that I had a double portion after sharing with my generous neighbor! The garlicky pil pil sauce mingling with swirls of squid ink was almost too luxurious. In keeping with the cream theme, we were then presented with a steaming package of champagne cork sized mushrooms in a creamy bagna cauda.

I won’t lie, I was reaching my limit, but the sight of an enormous grilled Australian Wagyu ribeye was enough to generate a second wind. The color was unreal. Their grill must’ve been screaming hot because it had an amazing crust, but the deep crimson flesh beneath was still wobbly to the touch. Piquillo chips and white asparagus joined the perfect slice of beef, pairing with the grassy notes. A nice layer of fat lent its flavor to an already delicious cut.

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With that exclamation point, the dessert parade began…with an egg, or what looked like an egg, but was in fact thickened cream whites with an orange yolk. A little chocolate drum shell containing a minty chocolate mousse atop cocoa nibs was a familiar flavor, like an intense Andes mint, or Andrés mint if you will.  José’s own take on a Ferrero Rocher was presented as a golden nugget in a ring box. The distinct hazelnut chocolate flavor combo was spot on, and even more pronounced than its namesake.

I’ve had very few dinners where I leave with more friends than I arrived with. I can confidently say that the group you draw at é can make or break the dinner. Without fail, the food will always be incredible, but the people make the experience special, and that goes for the staff as well. Our group was fantastic, the room felt alive, there was laughter and hugs and a common giddiness over this awesome moment we were all able to share. Even the chefs seemed to be having a great time. So if you visit é, befriend your neighbors, chat with the sommelier, joke with the chefs, chat with the assistants, because at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the meal.

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Riso Cacio e Pepe – Inspired by Massimo Bottura

A simple risotto spiked with handfuls of Parmigiano Reggiano and black pepper would have been the safe route to take when putting together a dish inspired by Chef Massimo Bottura, the featured chef from the first episode of Chef’s Table.

I tried to stay away from that, to riff on the theme of risotto, but create something new, something that nods to the classic dish.

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Naturally, the solution was to watch what Mr. Bottura did when he sought to create a dish to showcase the best of Emilia-Romagna. I quickly realized that one item had to retain its star status, the cheese. As I said, this won’t be like making traditional risotto, but it graciously shows its respect. Everything is done separately and brought together at the end. At home, our rice making process is basic. High quality rice, butter and water go into a covered pot on medium-high heat for about 15-20 minutes. For the science of cooking rice, search elsewhere, this isn’t “How to Boil Water.”

Riso Cacio e Pepe

2 cups Arborio rice
1/3 lb chunk of Parmigianino Reggiano  (½  finely grated, ½  finely shredded with rinds set aside)
1 cup milk
4 Tbsp. butter
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

While the rice cooks, in a separate saucepan on medium-low heat, pour in the milk (organic grass-fed or raw if you can find it) and add the rinds from the Parmigiano-Reggiano so they can steep for about 20 minutes. You can steep the cheese on a lower heat and longer to achieve an even deeper flavor.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350°.

On a nonstick or silicone cookie sheet, make four small piles with the shredded cheese, and flatten them out so they are circular and level.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove and let cool. Once cooled, they will be crispy discs of cheese, cracker-like in texture.

Once the rice is done, discard the rinds, and pour the milk into the pot along with the grated cheese and half of the butter. Turn the heat to low and whip the rice vigorously with a spoon or spatula until the cheese and butter are completely incorporated. You’ll end up with a viscous, rice pudding-like product.

Then, fry the eggs with the rest of the butter until they’re over easy, the yolks are going to be very runny.

To serve, divvy up the rice into four deep bowls, making a crater in the middle. Place your egg in the crater and break the yolk. Season with salt & pepper, emphasis on the pepper.

Place a Parmesan disc on top to cover each bowl to make a crispy, cheesy lid

Resist the temptation to stir it all together. I chip away at the Parmesan disk as if it were the top layer of crème brûlée, scooping up a little yolk, a little crispy egg, and a lot of the creamy, Parmesan tinged rice.

Elements of risotto, pasta, with Parmigiano as the star, all combine into one decadent bowl. I sincerely think this dish pays a great deal of respect to episode 1, and its focus on the magic of the Mr. Bottura’s home region. Enjoy!

A Netflix Original – Chef’s Table

We were simply awestruck by the very first episode of the new Netflix docu-series “Chef’s Table”. Ever since we teased the show in our Top 10 food films on Netflix, it has become the darling of my food media world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at least 10% of my Facebook friends are sharing their love and talking about this brilliant new show. It captures exactly what I’ve always wanted in an exposé on the leaders in the world of food, focusing on six chefs and their unique stories of struggle, ascension, and cumulative breakthrough success.

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The structure is honest, thought-provoking, in-depth, and filled with heaps and heaps of seductive, slow motion sizzle reel filmed in crystal clear HD. The first episode takes us to a place we should all be so lucky to visit, the wide swath of northern Italy which makes up a Devastator type food Transformer known as Emilia-Romagna. Based on my heritage, tendencies, appreciation for Parmigiano Reggiano, aged balsamico, hand made pasta, and meat products from cloven animals; this is where I, and many others probably wish they could live out their remaining years.

From the beginning of his story it’s clear that Chef Massimo Bottura loves Modena for all that it stands for. The introduction grabs you with a touching story that helped jump-start the growth of his community following a natural disaster. I don’t want to give anything away. That’s why I’m ending the show talk here.

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We don’t really have a desire to critique or review this series. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some great stuff to talk about. As a team, we rank this show right alongside the other great documentary style productions such as El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, all of Bourdain’s TV work, and of course Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Until recently, I hadn’t been thinking about recipe writing for Eat a Duck. I spent more than two years happily coming up with complete menus for the taste section of the Lakelander magazine. Some of which covered more than a dozen individual recipes per article. To think each one through, most often with zero room for error,  was a logistical nightmare consuming incredible amounts of time and effort. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve since stepped away from being full-time editor to give more attention to other important things in my life, which hopefully means putting more of my energy into creating on this front.

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The goal here is to pay homage to the six fantastic stories from this first series of Chef’s Table. While walking through town, I thought to myself “how can we tie this show into what we do.” What we came up with, was to formulate a recipe inspired by the theme of each show, a reflection of what lingered in our minds from each episode. It could be inspired by a personal story the chef tells, the region in which they’re from, or just our attempt at blatantly ripping off their most famous dish. We hope you enjoy our six dishes, which will include recipes for whatever it is we come up with. Going in order, the first will indeed chronicle Chef Massimo and his restaurant Osteria Francescana.