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.

Click to add a blog post for é by José Andrés on Zomato

Garde Manger Revisited

After only two visits, Garde Manger has entrenched itself deep in my heart. It’s not simply because the food hits the mark with near perfect accuracy, or that they’ve achieved such a warm and inviting atmosphere, but because it has quickly become forever linked to happy times with friends and family. On my most recent visit, I was bestowed the honor of minting two new oyster lovers. Only Garde Manger, with a constant supply of the most pristine bivalves North America has to offer, has the power to turn people’s preferences around on a dime. I ordered a beginners pack of oysters, featuring a pair each of Cooke from PEI, Chipaganne from New Brunswick and Montreal’s own Trésor du Large (thanks to Meggie for the spelling!). I’ve said it before, but in my opinion the oysters here set the bar, no where else even comes close. As a tasty accompaniment, we chose a tidy bowl of buttery smoked salmon and pickled onion.

Garde Manger spread 1

With five people, we planned on sampling a majority of the menu if possible, starting with a crisp beet salad with apple radishes in a buttermilk dressing. As you’ll tend to do at Garde Manger, especially in the winter, we left the light dishes behind and dove headlong into a plate of pork and mushroom bread pudding topped with mizuna and a soft-boiled quail egg. Keeping the rich train rolling was a hot reisten brioche topped with foie gras and cranberry sauce. The thick lobes of buttery foie linked up perfectly with the tangy cranberries. The brioche standing by to soak up all the glorious drippings.

Garde Manger spread 2

Everyone at the table, all loved ones of mine, did me proud with their selections. As this was Montreal, the lobster poutine was an automatic choice. Fresh cheese curds, thick gravy and a sprinkling of chives were mounded over succulent chunks of lobster meat. Somehow the frites managed to sustain the moist barrage and kept things crisp and salty, flavoring the crustacean nicely. On the other side of the table, the walleye with quinoa, artichoke and rosemary crisps was a hit with the ladies.

Garde Manger spread 3

A handsome plate of seared scallops soon arrived joined by Romanesco broccoli, buttercup squash and bacon topped with healthy slices of black truffle. Scallops are a tricky protein to get right. The chefs at Garde Manger will take you to school in the art of scallop searing, achieving a perfect caramelized layer on the outside, while leaving the interior pearly and loose, sort of like a medium rare steak. Speaking of medium rare, a grouping of slice venison looked like little targets, their deep crimson centers indicating where the choicest bites would be found. The sometimes gamey nature of venison was noticeably absent here. A smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée and crispy bits of kale gave contrasting textures to the beautiful meat. I was leery of the last seafood dish, a seared fillet of cod surrounded by clams in a fennel purée. I’m a notorious fennel hater, but I have full trust in Chuck Hughes and company, and with good reason. The purée was delicious, maybe it was the mixture of saffron and butter that tamed the licorice tinge that I so abhor, or it could have been the sweet caramelized endives. Either way I found a preparation for fennel that I could swallow, and dare I say, enjoy.

Garde Manger spread 4

Nothing could have prepared me for the dish I chose. Whole Cornish game hen, swaddled with winter veggies, stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and red cabbage topped with truffle butter. The smell coming off this bird was enough to induce a truffle aroma coma. I will admit, I was simultaneously excited and intimidated by the fowl. The prospect of an entire bird, with ribcage and all replaced with a foie gras, mushroom mixture was almost too much to resist. Needless to say, I dispatched the bird along with the truffle infused veggies.

Loyal readers, I feel that I’ve made this clear in last post on the subject, but if there’s one restaurant you visit while in Montreal, make sure it’s Garde Manger.

Piquant – Tampa, FL

As I stood, hunkered down under a small awning, the rain began to sway horizontally, denying me any chance of staying dry. Impatiently, I kept hoping for those doors to open, as I yearned for the privilege of being first in line, to get the pick of the litter.

piquant-hyde-park

The rain fell harder. I then attempted to secure a better spot to hide more successfully than the last, behind a small wall, intermittently coexisting with the glass windows that wrapped around the entire façade.

When the doors opened promptly at 8:00 A.M. the host jumped back a bit, as did I when I heard the door abruptly cause a loud clang. She didn’t know I was there, I am certain.

Piquant display

Before I could speak she inquired as to my intentions. You see Piquant is known for selling out of a particular item everyday almost instantly at 8 am. I am allowed to say the formula for creation they’ve figured out is the illustrious cronut. They however do not, as the original idea has since been trademarked by its celebrity pastry chef. If you find yourself searching in their display case, just look for a scientifically rule bending crown of pastry. Do not be intimidated by the height of each individual cronut. Although on the outside they kinda look like puffed up hockey pucks, you will find on the inside hundreds of layers butter, pastry and air. They are as light and as sweet dream creating as a Sobakawa pillow. Piquant offers a cavalcade of rotating flavors from a basic plain, which should be the first choice if this your maiden voyage, to a fantastically compatible vanilla creme filling which adds depth, but thankfully not too much sweetness. As the quarter Cuban that I am, I’m always magnetized to anything guava related. Their guava cronut is reminiscent of the best guava turnover you might find down in Little Havana

Guava Cronut Piquant cronut display

Not to go unnoticed, I sampled an individually sized brioche-like muffin thing that housed a sugar cube, which melted quite nicely into the dough. Try one of those too!! We also enjoyed a cinnamon roll that my brother deemed the best he’d ever eaten. He said it wasn’t what he expected, as it had a touch of golden raisin purée or maybe some crushed baked apples that mingled with the gooey cinnamon sugar swirls. I had just a small bite but wouldn’t disagree with his opinion. It was indisputably a special cinnamon roll. One which I could only compare to Dough’s stellar version, or if you happen to a child of the 90’s, a certain Buddy’s Bunz that might hold a special place in your heart.

Cinnamon roll

As I was handed my order, a thought crossed my mind. On a whim I ask if they had any baguettes. There were none on display. My host said that one could be baked on command if I was willing to wait ten minutes. I obliged and ten minutes later, a hot, toasty, crisp skinny baguette was presented. How sweet was that? I don’t deserve this kind of specialized service, but I get the feeling they treat all their customers this way.

Assorted cronuts

Piquant is a full service restaurant with quite possibly the best selection of French pastry and bread in the area. I have failed to enjoy an actual meal though, and struggled contemplating if Eat a Duck should only speak of one specific menu item. I’d have to say the sweets merit a whole bunch of words all on their own. See above for such words.

Piquant on Urbanspoon

2013 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival – Part II

Nearly a week after Logan’s merry jaunt around Epcot, I had the great honor to join my colleague in an all out attack on the world, the world showcase that is. I’ve compiled another half-dozen menu items on offer at the festival, along with a few pro tips for anyone planning a visit.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in Florida, and I must sheepishly admit that this is my first year at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. I may not have over a decade of experience with the event like Logan,  but I do share his years of experience in the mosh pit. Let me first say that his comparison of said pit, to the hungry hordes of Epcot is terrifyingly accurate. Having spent the beginning of our day at the other Disney parks, we were somewhat acclimated to the crowds. Nevertheless, it was still amazing to see that many people milling around the 30 booths around the World Showcase Lagoon.

Food & Wine Festival Day 2

Let’s get the first pro tip out there straight away…

Pro tip #1: Grab a map and plan your route!

If your family is like ours, the days schedule will likely get stretched out beyond your expectations. So when you get to Epcot, get a map if you don’t have one already, and figure out which booths you want to hit before you even pass the Coolzone. Which brings me to…

Pro tip #2: On a budget? Limit your alcohol!

Purchasing adult beverages will drain your bankroll quicker than marrying Kim Kardashian. If you want to maximize the amount of dishes you get to try, grab a swig of Kinley or Smart Watermelon from the Coolzone, located in the last building on your right, just before you reach the bridge to the world showcase. If you’re dying for some booze though, there are many budget friendly options in the $2.50 – $3.00 range that’ll hit the spot.

But enough chatter, this IS a food blog after all. So let me dish out the meal Logan and I put together on our recent visit. Since Logan went left last time, we went right. First stop on our map was Canada, our eyes and stomachs set firmly on the wild mushroom beef filet with truffle butter sauce from “Le Cellier”. People in line were raving about the cheddar soup, which I’m sure was fantastic as well, but the tender filet with its truffle aroma had a stronger pull. I received a nice chunk of beef, smothered in mushrooms and truffle sauce. Naturally I would’ve like it to be cooked just a touch less, but when you’re feeding the masses, medium is a safe bet. No matter, the flavor was there and it was a great start to my first Food & Wine visit.

"Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce

Pro tip #3: Divide and conquer!

While I was in line for the filet, Logan wisely moored himself at the Refreshment Port, aiming to get his hands on the Dole pineapple fritters. Take this strategy and you’ll efficiently plow through multiple lines at once, garnering a couple of different dishes in the time it usually takes to get one. The more friends you have the better! We met up and exchanged our ooo’s and ahh’s, and promptly dug in. The fried batter had a light sprinkling of powdered sugar that stayed crispy despite the juicy pineapple below. It was refreshing and decadent all at once.

Dole Pineapple Fritters

With two dishes secured in our bellies, we made a beeline for France and its escargots persillade en brioche. You get three little snails tucked into puffy, golden and thoroughly buttered brioche pouches. I feel like snails are gaining in popularity in America as people get over their squeamishness at the protein. If you’re still on the fence about them, try them here, it’ll change your mind. They’re coated in a butter, garlic and herb glaze that gives them a rich flavor and ultra creamy texture, no balloon-like chewiness in sight.

Escargots Persillade en Brioche

Once again, while I was in line in France, Logan headed to New Zealand. We deliberated between the venison sausage and the lamb meatball and eventually agreed on the sausage. You get a nice, plump sausage link with generous amounts of pickled mushrooms and baby arugula, drizzled with a black currant reduction. This was definitely the “entrée” of the night. The sausage was hearty and full of flavor. Venison often tends to be gamey, which can taste like licking an iron tree. This had no sign of that off-putting taste. The meat was tender and almost sweet, with just enough fat content to keep things juicy inside the casing. The pickled mushrooms and black currant reduction threw their tangy and sweet weight around and balanced the dish perfectly.

Venison Sausage with Pickled Mushrooms

On our short walk past Japan, we lamented the missed opportunity to showcase some of that countries finest dishes. Instead of serving a hot cup of rich ramen, there’s a California roll. A slick stand serving takoyaki (diced octopus in a wheat batter, served with a variety of toppings) would’ve been more exciting than the chicken teriyaki you can get anywhere in America. It may be the result of demographic, but in my opinion, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival should serve to expand people’s culinary horizons…but there’s always next year (hint hint).

Just off the main path as you cross the border into “America”, you’ll find the “Hops & Barley” booth. We skipped over Ireland’s lobster and seafood pie in favor of a traditional lobster roll with lemon herb mayo. Let me sing my praises here, Disney does not skimp on the lobster and this ain’t no claw meat only roll either. You get a heaping mound of lobster with a good variety of meat from all corners of the crustacean. It hit all the marks you want in a lobster roll. Fresh meat, a nice coating of butter and just the right amount of mayo to give the whole affair creamy citrus twinge. It may seem expensive at $7.00, but you’d be lucky to find this quality, or quantity for that matter, at a better price point anywhere else.

Lobster Roll with Lemon Herb Mayonnaise

With our bellies filling and our feet aching (well my feet, Mr. Postman over there was running circles around me) we stumbled upon the cheese booth on our way to a previously planned stop at China. Logan had already sampled the tempting almond crusted blue cheese soufflé, so we went with the artisan cheese selection. We both consider ourselves major cheese heads, and not in the Green Bay Packers sense, but we were both impressed with the trio on offer here. First in the photo below we have La Bonne Vie Triple Cream Brie with apricot jam. Ultra creamy, buttery and full-bodied, unlike most average Brie you’ll find in the store. In the center, Beecher’s Flagship Reserve, a special cow’s milk cheese made only on days where the milk is just right. Here it’s paired with a small drizzle of honey to play off its rich, salty notes. Last but in no way least, Wygaard Goat’s Gouda with crispy Craisin bread. This had the salty kick of a fine Gouda with the creamy, sour notes from the goat’s milk. Surprisingly one of the best cheese plates I’ve had in a while, and I wasn’t even sitting down to enjoy it.

Artisan Cheese Selection

Sadly we didn’t make it to China and Singapore as was planned, but I’m sure we’ll be back soon, so stay tuned. My first visit to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival was a resounding if exhausting success. Where else can you eat delicacies from around the world, WHILE you exercise? It’s a win-win. There’s less than a month left, so get it while it’s hot! See you there!

The Last Meal

Let’s exercise our brains shall we. Here’s a scenario for you. Your about to be executed for some reason we need not get into. Make your own crazy situation up for that. So the warden comes up to you and asks you to give him a list of food that you want to eat as your last meal. What do you choose? I posed this question to a couple of buddies of mine, and their answers were quite disturbing. However, with their high levels of logic I really can’t argue with what they said. Both of them gave similar answer. They both began ranting about why you would want to eat something terrible to remind yourself of how horrible life was so that you would actually welcome deaths sweet embrace. I guess that would make sense from a person that did something worthy of execution. At the end of it all they were just mad at me for even asking such a question. I think that what you choose tells a lot about the person you are, and I guess I’m spot on with these two bitter people. So Tom’s last meal is as follows:

A piece of excrement with a side of razor blades.

Dans last meal would be his own boiled foot.

I suppose to freak everyone out.  I get their reasoning but when I was thinking of this, it was during a wonderful meal of sushi, so I was leaning toward actually eating good tasting things, and not eating either human waste, or your own foot. To each his own. So that perfect meal for me as I’m about to buy the farm is

Starters
A trio of fatness. foie gras from Victoria and Albert’s, pork belly from Balthazar and marrow on brioche from Prune.
Main
Veal loin from Joel Robuchon, with wild mushroom risotto (preferably matsutake and porcini) with a little shaved summer truffles.
Dessert
Basil cheesecake from Sideburns. (It’s the one dessert that always comes back to me. It’s been at least 5 years since I’ve had it but I will think about it every once and again.)

There’s more I could choose from. From dim sum to duck fat fries or maybe Grimaldi’s pizza, but what jumped in my head first is what I selected.

You might steer toward the negative way to eat your last supper. Or you might just think of the most rich and decadent delicacies like me. Some people lean toward comfort food, but there’s no wrong answer. Not even your own foot.

Logan