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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2013 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival – Part I

I used to be a young kid with a whole bunch of energy. From the ages of 16-24, most of my free time was spent going to punk rock shows. I’ve lived in the pit and emerged unscathed (most of the time). I can be sure that there was a change in the tide around 2005 when I slowed my concert attendance. I honestly believe that’s when my favorite genres of music started going stale. There are still great bands out there, but for me, they either aren’t fun to see live, don’t put out new music, don’t play near me regularly or they stopped touring all together. That was also the time that food programming and food and drink based personalities began to gain popularity. They became household names in the American psyche. I’m sure many of you could rattle off a dozen names no problem. Now we have food based shows on their own networks running 24/7. Chances are some of you may have just stopped watching Master Chef Junior Jr. to read this masterpiece. Anyway, at that same time, I became more and more interested in food culture, studying technique and becoming a fan boy to just about every great cook out there. Now there’s a circuit across the country of festivals and special events where chefs can promote themselves like a band through demos, interviews or exclusive dinners.

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Disney as I know it, is not about jumping on the bandwagon. They are about being on the forefront of innovation and trend. That’s why they have long since created what should be viewed as the Space Mountain of Food And Wine Festivals. Their annual fall time parade for the senses usually runs for about a month and a half, right when fall hits at the Epcot world showcase in Walt Disney World. If memory serves me correctly, this is the 18th year running, and it could quite possibly be the largest yet, as I witnessed on my first day.

What should you expect? In two words, sensory overload. The crowds can be daunting if you’re not used to swimming your way through a mosh pit like a king salmon on its way upstream to produce its delicious roe. In my experience over the past decade and a half, they’ve never run out of a single menu item, ever. I can’t compute how they keep the quality at such a high level given how quickly they move through the incredibly long lines.

I would advise you to do a bit of research, especially if you’re on a budget. Figure out how much you can spend per person. For example if $30 a person is your goal, you’re of age and chose to drink, your experience might consist of 4-5 different samplings of food and a couple tastings of wine or beer. Print out a guide, or get one from the front and begin mapping out a strategy. Try and pick some stuff that you can’t get where you live. I think you’ll be pleased by some of the more exotic offerings. As you wade into the fray, you have two options, right or left? I always have a phantom inclination to go left when I’m at Epcot. Maybe its science, I should ask Figment. In any case, my intuition served me well.

The first stall I visited was inspired by Brazil. Each booth has 2-4 food choices and a couple of drinks as well. Most of which are indigenous to the theme country. I chose based on pressure from my good friend Jeff Houck, the crispy pork belly with avocado on a mattress of thickened black beans. Listening to your peers pays off people. Jeff’s play calling was brilliant, reminiscent of Weeb Ewbank in Super Bowl III. The belly was indeed crispy, yet it had been cooked for almost a full work week so that the fat had rendered away just enough to keep my wife interested. She doesn’t like her bacon too fatty. It was rich and tender and was a wonderful contrast to all the vibrant flavor surrounding it. I would take my advice through Jeff’s advice. Make an all out ground assault on Brazil. Attack the belly!

Crispy Pork Belly with Avocado

At this point, I was searching for some Seoul food, by way of the infamous kimchi dog. The addition of Korea to Food and Wine’s stable of countries couldn’t have come at a better time, as I am presently embroiled in a public love affair with Korean cuisine. Meeting the kimchi dog was a premeditated rendevous I have no shame admitting. This might seem to be a normal looking hot dog at a first glance. When you dig into the meat, so to speak, you’ll find all those familiar tastes synonymous to the region. Spicy of course, as there is kimchi throughout, in the meat, in the slaw, in the mustard sauce, on my shirt. The bun and the encased meat lends itself to the sweeter side. Even though this is a festival for the public, you still have a touch of the Tyramine effect from the slightly fermented cabbage. Don’t be off put, it’s a wonderful sensation!

Kimchi Hot Dog

It didn’t take long, once I’d cleaned my shirt, to stumble upon the cheese tent. They offered a selection of cheeses, some of which we might discuss at a later date. I completely overlooked the almond crusted soufflé paired with fig jam. For three bucks, How could I pass it up? I waited in a shorter line than normal, getting looks at what everyone else was leaving with. At least 10 cheese courses flew by with little samples of Disney themed wines. I can’t remember the names, maybe one was Snow White Zinfindel or something. Write that down, I may need to get a trademark! I didn’t see anyone else order the soufflé, so I began to curb my excitement, as there have been a misstep in my future. After I found a quiet spot to take my first bite, I found a little old lady eating a soufflé by herself. I asked what she thought of it. She said in a sweety pie southern accent “I didn’t realize it had blue cheese when I ordered it, otherwise, I wouldn’t have”, but did she like it or not? Who cares if it was a mistake or planned, right? “I loved it! One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten, but it was mighty tasty”. I couldn’t have agreed more. Approach this soufflé as more of the crustless quiche that it is. 

Almond Crusted Blue Cheese Soufflé with Fig Preserves

I made a conscious effort to stop at four dishes this trip because I knew I’d be back before long. So for my last dish, I set my coordinates to Belgium, arriving close to dusk. The sun was fading but the crowds were growing. Rock moms were flooding the walkways and food stalls, perhaps hoping Ken Block might make a surprise appearance. Upon our arrival in Belgium, I presented my papers and promptly joined the longest line of the day. If the Belgians know how to make one thing right…, it’s frites. But if the Belgiumese know how to make a second thing well, waffles or gaufres would solidify the number 2 spot. People were going waffle crazy, with three different variations, two sweet, one savory.  I went rogue, trying my hand at a mashed potato and leek waffle topped with braised beef and a smattering of salty butter. I never thought of taking mashed potatoes and wafflizing them.  I have had savory waffles many times, but not like this. It was a testament to creative thinking.

Mashed Potato & Leek Waffle with Braised Beef & Butter

There’s so much good stuff to be had at this festival, and as I said before, no matter the crowd size, they’ve never run out of food or drink on me. Besides the obvious quality in product Disney is always going to be known for, to me, that is the most impressive part of the whole event.

You can be a fan of food, wine, beer or a combination of all three like me, and have a blast.  Our culture is evolving to include these kinds of gatherings to attract just as many people as the traveling musical festivals that have grown stale. Maybe I’m getting too old to be in a circle pit, or maybe it’s because it’s easier to bring the family.

Stay tuned next week as the boys of Eat a Duck sink their teeth into a food filled day two at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival! If you want to plan your own outing, the festival runs through November 11th, so there’s plenty of time!