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.

E spread 1

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.

E spread 2

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.

E spread 3

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.

E spread 4

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.

E spread 5

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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Sushi Pop – Oviedo, FL

I’ve noticed a trend recently of small towns, that less than a decade ago offered nothing more than aging diners and fast food chains, are sprouting innovative restaurants serving stunning cuisine on par with the best in the country (i.e. Indigenous, Red Door and Rooster & the Till). It could be that these youngsters are tired of killing themselves trying to compete with the heavy hitters in the big cities, or maybe it’s a desire to bring their talent and creativity to a new and less obvious markets. Whatever it is, these little towns are not only benefitting, but reciprocating the trust shown by these restaurants with their patronage.

A great example of this trend is Sushi Pop, a high energy, day-glo wonderland of Japanese cuisine that’s more Omotesando than Oviedo. On an otherwise sleepy street, the bright pink signage serves as a beacon to the hungry masses…in a town of less than 50,000 people. Yet when you cross the threshold, it seems as if the whole town simultaneously had a hankering for hamachi.

Sushi Pop sign & interior

For the better part of two years, a certain sibling who will remain nameless (Lobe) had been pestering me to visit Sushi Pop.  Every month or so I’d get an email detailing their latest uni shipment or some other enticing menu creation by Chef Chau (can you think of a more perfect name for a chef?). However Oviedo is not exactly convenient to get to from Miami or Sarasota. I’ve been known to travel insane distances for great food, but I was having a hard time getting in the car for a multi-hour road trip for sushi.

After finally getting the chance to visit, I am humbled. The food being created at Sushi Pop is the real thing, this ain’t some Nobu knockoff, peddling the same “high-end” Japanese that has become so tiring. Even when you see similarities, like local rock shrimp tempura with tobanjan aioli, Chef Chau and his Chef de cuisine Cesar Cruz put their own spin on it. The crudos offer a glimpse into the Valhalla of fish that is Tsukiji market where Sushi Pop sources much of their seafood. Flavor packed scallops from Hokkaido give a nod to Korea with a punchy kimchee salsa that elevates the succulent bivalves. The ominous sounding hamachi hara kiri takes the bygone samurai tradition to heart with tender cuts of yellowtail belly, fresh from a jaunt through Southeast Asia with chili garlic sauce, Thai basil, shallot oil and toasted peanuts.

Sushi Pop small plates 1

The tour of Asia’s finest cuisine isn’t confined to seafood, as is demonstrated with Sushi Pop’s take on KFC (Korean fried chicken). Sweet and spicy gochujang lacquers the crispy wings which give way to the moist meat below, spiked with toasted white sesame and scallion. You want veg? Sushi Pop executes on that front with a beautiful plate of hibachi grilled asparagus, meaty garlic braised mushrooms and soy glazed pea shoots.

Sushi Pop small plates 2

Perhaps the miso braised short rib open faced ravioli is more your speed? And why not, what with a truffled brown butter quail egg under an avalanche of tome cheese. Of course pork belly is always an option. That night the dish was a superb trio of Kurobuta tacos with braised Berkshire pork belly, hoisin bbq sauce, scallions, micro cilantro and avocado.

Sushi Pop small plates 3

It’s easy to get caught up in the early stages of the menu and forget all about Sushi Pop’s namesake. Naturally there’s an extensive list of maki rolls, many with touches of Korea, France and Porkbellistan, but the initiated will know to sample the nigiri and sashimi section first. All of the usual suspects are here, fresh from Tsukiji and priced to move, even the Otoro and Uni remained attainable. However the nigiri specials beckoned.

It’s one thing to fly in high-end fish from Japan and call it a day, it’s an entirely different thing to take said fish and start riffing. It’s a bold move, one that could easily lead to over sauced, sickeningly sweet concoctions that waste the beautiful protein. Thankfully these Oviedo otaku display incredible reverence for the seafaring treasures they serve, bestowing each with complimentary flavors that only elevate the fish. A belly duo seemed appropriate, in both salmon and yellowtail varieties. The former, adorned with Chinese ginger, shallot salsa, white soy and radish sprouts was revelation. The fat striped salmon, with it’s subdued, buttery flavor was countered with the fantastic acid from the ginger and shallot. The yellowtail, took a page out of Mr. Matsuhisa’s Peruvian inspired book with jalepeño, lime zest sauce and cilantro sprouts, fantastic.

Sushi Pop sushi

Ah it’s the end of the post, you all know what that means, dessert. Granted, Japanese restaurants aren’t typically known for their desserts, but I think we’ve established that this isn’t a normal Japanese restaurant. This is the kind that takes Japanese sweet potatoes and makes bread pudding out of it. Toasted marshmallows and a reflecting pool of Saigon crème anglaise join a nice scoop of praline ice cream, complete with a bacon hat. Not to be outdone is the P.M.S., the diabetus (sic) inducing combination of peanut butter crumbles, molten chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream.

Sushi Pop desserts

It’s rare for a restaurant to deliver dish after stunning dish with such consistency, especially with a packed house on a Saturday night. I just hate that Sushi Pop is so far from me, or anything else for that matter! Hey Chef, keep us gulf coasters in mind when you open up your next outpost. I know a bunch of serious sushi savants who’d love a chance to savor your Tsukiji fare…just saying.

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Rebel House – Boca Raton, FL

For something to make an indelible impression on my mind, a truly impressive feat has to be achieved. I am speaking, quite cryptically, about my experience at Rebel House in Boca Raton. It was a momentous occasion indeed, and though it was over 3 months ago, it still resonates in my lobes, both cerebral and the fatty lobe my liver has been transformed into. A transformation that would cause a rag-tag gang of mutants to assemble to fight for the greater good of mankind.

Rebel House interior

So here goes an attempt to wax poetic about something that happened such a long time ago. An evening in which I have no historical, pictorial, electoral or maybe even pectoral data for that matter, to back up my braised and brazen proclamations of excellence. Luckily, James was there to document the occasion.

The beef essences that transferred from popped corn to lips, was an amazing introduction between two new acquaintances, myself being the lesser in the relationship of human and tallow. I had studied this menu online for months, to the point of obsession. Ever since Rebel House opened for business, I had eyed it as a potential food suitor. However the daunting three hour drive stymied our would-be affair. But if you want something bad enough, all you need is an opportunity. To get just one foot in the door. Who knows what could be if distance didn’t separate us?

The table ordered around 12 dishes. We were all drawn to the left side of the menu that harbored the smaller plates meant for sharing.

Rebel House spread

I will say that I wasn’t blown away by my first taste of voluntarily ordered food (the beef popcorn was a gift and a welcome amusement). Homemade tater tots filled with cheeses of varying viscosity. I feel in hindsight they were ordered more for the little man at the table. They weren’t completely ready to come out of their hot oil bath, but things drastically rocketed skyward when my Korean BBQ lamb ribs arrived. With each bite, the thick sweet soy heavy sauce struggled valiantly to remain on the bone with caramel-like tension. The meat had no problem. It was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. As I often do, I was mindful of the techniques and time it took to achieve such complex flavors. Though lamb ribs are a protein usually forgotten, this dish bestowed it with a distinct personality. That, along with the rice vinegar quick pix (pickles) that served perfectly as a pairing to the ribs, I quickly forgot the miscues of the first course. I was then tapped on the shoulder due to excessive pondering. Next course, sweetbreads with citrus, frisee, and fennel. There hasn’t been an odder couple working so harmoniously since the powerhouse duo of Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty. I have to say, Rebel House is quite the flavor matchmaker. The tart citrus sliced scimitar-like through the rich, crispy morsels.

Then came the fried rice. In the back of my mind I was worrying. I worry that restaurants sometimes stretch themselves too thin. Giving me too many cuisines to choose from in one meal gets me nervous, as is my eyes will rebel against my better judgement resulting in a muddied dining experience.

Rebel House spread 2

The fried rice at rebel house is a complete meal all on its own. I may not have appreciated it as much as I should have, based on my fullness level at that point. The combination of the fresh springtime vegetables, with crispy bacon, a fried egg oozing a spellbinding golden yolk all over the plate, ribbons of spicy mayo intertwined with crispy fried red onions being the last bow atop this mound of mouth-watering magnificence. I mean, you can’t find it this in any modern Chinese establishment. Stop looking, it’s over Johnny. Some other items we sampled were a dish of grilled asparagus, drizzled with hollandaise and shaved cheese, pork potstickers in a sweet hoisin-like glaze and a dish of ravioli with snap peas, roasted mushroom ragu and shaved parm.

Ravioli with Shaved Parm and Roasted Mushrooms

The table enjoyed two amazing ice cream desserts for our last cattle call. It was just about time to go to slaughter. These marvels of modern science in sundae form were presented to us in gigantic goblets fit for King Ralph.

I can’t exactly remember what they were but one had chocolate, praline, pretzels and candied almond. While the other, had a cinnamon roll at the base with bacon bits, caramel, and walnuts swarming the perimeter.

Rebel House dessert

You have to try this place if you are ever within 50 miles of Boca Raton. It’s worth the drive. This place has gotten a lot of buzz as being stiff competition to its counterparts over in Miami, and for good reason. And when you do go, because you will, bring your story of rebellion back to your hometown and demand that a place like this find its way into your city streets.

Rebel House on Urbanspoon

Sardinia Ristorante – Miami Beach, FL

Ah, the anniversary dinner. The one time of year I can be sure of having an amazing meal, since my wife always manages to sniff out something tasty as a present for me. This year, while a bit belated, was no different. It seems we’re in a different city for every anniversary, which increases the level of suspense, because I have no frame of reference to even make a guess at where we’ll be going. I’m a known addict of Italian food, so Ashley figured she’d scratch that itch this year and take me to Sardinia Ristorante on Miami Beach.

Now I won’t try to wax poetic about how Sardinia Ristorante captures the essence of the local cuisine from the island just south of Corsica, because frankly, I haven’t been there. Not even watching No Reservations Sardinia will help. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters, is that Sardinia Ristorante is pumping out some damn tasty Italian food. So let’s get to what everyone wants to see, the food.

We started out with a bevy of antipasti which arrived all at once, just the way I like it. Sfoglia di burrata hit the table first, accompanied by prosciutto di Parma and fresh asparagus. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this may have been the best asparagus I have ever had. Bet you thought I was going to say something about the cheese. Well that was good too, but I have to say, the two sides may have overshadowed the main event. While the cheese was extremely fresh, I probably should’ve ordered the straight burrata and done without the cured meat rolled up with it. Next was a classic carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, shaved parm, olive oil and lemon juice. The steak was pounded so thin that we didn’t even have to cut it, just place your fork down and pull. Perfectly executed, fresh and delicious.

A cheese trio of my choosing followed. My selections were: 18 month Grana Padano, Pecorino Tartufato del Mugello and Taleggio d.o.p. from Valtaleggio paired with a bowl of what we assumed was preserved persimmon as a palate cleanser. My wife and I are cheese hounds, and these three are some of our favorites. The gooey Taleggio will always be a staple on my top cheese board of my mind and anything containing truffles is on the list as well. The 18 month Grana Padano was also a must have because you just don’t find genuine aged Grana Padano in the States outside of specialty food purveyors and high-end Italian joints.

The fourth dish was cipolline al forno con funghi trifolati. The “al forno” part lead me to believe we’d be enjoying some piping hot, caramelized onions with a trio of mushrooms simmering in their own juices. So I was surprised when I bit into one to find it was actually on the chilly side. Not a bad thing though. They were sweet and refreshing and probably the best partner for the heavy, tongue engulfing cheeses. A bite of cipollini, a bite of cheese, heaven!

The fifth and final antipasto was a heavyweight. Animelle, veal sweetbreads with brown butter, aged pancetta, sage and brussels sprouts. Not the prettiest of plates I’ll admit, but dear lord did it pack in the flavor. I was a little worried that the mellow flavor of the sweetbreads might be overpowered by the ultra-salty pancetta, but it held up nicely. The sweetbreads were tender and juicy thanks to the nice glaze of brown butter. The big surprise of the dish, for me at least were the brussels sprouts. Never in my life have I tasted sprouts like these. No bitterness to speak of, savory and salty, almost meaty. They joined the other proteins and matched them note for note. There’s nothing I love more than having one of my preconceptions turned on its head. If all brussels sprouts could taste like this, you could call me a fan.

Honestly, that could’ve been a meal in itself, but this was an anniversary dinner, so we had to do it right. So we placed our entreé order, Colorado lamb shanks with porcini and Cannonau wine reduction for Ashley, and two half orders of pasta for me. The first, malloreddos, Sardinian teardrop pasta with ragu of braised Colorado baby lamb, followed by the orecchiette, with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and roasted pinenuts.

The meat dish was akin to an osso buco, except with lamb. There was even a tiny morsel of buttery marrow at the end of the bone. It was more than fork tender, if you looked at it hard enough it would fall off the bone. The tender meat was flanked with just enough succulent fat to really drive home the flavor. Luckily my wife isn’t a big fan of straight animal fat, so I stepped in to take care of it for her. She was a little disappointed in the accompanying veg, as it seemed like an afterthought with very little seasoning, a little surprising given the amazing asparagus and sprouts we enjoyed earlier.

Now that I think back, these pastas are very similar to what I ordered at Perla up in New York City a few months ago. The malloreddos, which looked like little maggots, was tossed with the same Colorado lamb that Ashley was enjoying. They might have even just stripped the meat off the bone with some of the tomato sauce they used for her dish and mixed it in with the pasta. In any case, it was delicious, perfectly al dente and very comforting.
 The orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and pinenuts was also a winner. I’m really digging this pairing of pesto and gamey sausage. Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve just started to notice this combination appearing on Italian menus. In any case, the duo of sausage and bitter rapini is a great one. The bitterness isn’t overwhelming, but it’s just enough to counter the fat of the sausage, although boar is naturally pretty lean. I had to hold off and save the rest of this dish for lunch the next day.

For dessert, a chocolate almond cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries. The cake was a bit dry and fluffy for my taste. The frosting was delicious, but it made me feel like a dog who just got fed peanut butter.

It was another successful anniversary meal and while it’s going to be hard to ever beat our meal at Uni, it definitely made an impression. So if you’ve got a hankering for some serious Italian cuisine, Sardinia Ristorante is the real deal.

On a side note, there was a small negative that I want to address. I brought a bottle of 2011 Conundrum white table wine to have with dinner. Now I’m accustomed to restaurants adding a corkage fee, usually around $15 or so. Here’s what happened, I had my bottle put on ice to chill, a few minutes later, the manager comes to our table to let us know that they usually don’t allow people to bring bottles in that are already on their wine list, but that this one time would be alright. That was the key phrase for me, “this one time will be alright”. No mention of a corkage fee, nothing. We had mentioned prior to making our reservation that we were celebrating our 6th anniversary, so I figured she was waiving it for that reason. As the bill arrived at the end of the meal, I come to find she had a $30 corkage fee added to my bill. Now I’m not an unreasonable person, had I been made aware of this when she came to the table, at least I could’ve prepared. I would’ve been able to tailor the meal to cover that added cost, but no. It wasn’t like I cheaped out on dinner either, I went all out, the least she could do was waive a silly corkage fee. It was the one breakdown in service for the night, as the rest of the staff was very friendly, attentive and polite.

If you’re reading this ma’am, I want you to know that on my way home I actually considered never returning to Sardinia based on your performance, it came off as rude and sneaky. A customer should never be made to feel swindled, especially from the manager, and when a restaurant serves such amazing food, one would expect the service to be just as palatable.

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