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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Eat a Duck’s Top Meals of 2014: Part II

I finally had the opportunity to travel a good amount in 2014 after years of being grounded. Naturally this led to of amazing meals. Apart from the food which, let’s face it, I wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t unbelievable, the company with which I shared these dishes is really what bring these dishes to the forefront of my mind. While these five dishes run the gamut of price from nearly free to exorbitant, each one delivered something new and special. I chose my list based on how badly I want to go back and have them again. It was a difficult task, but here are my entries for the best of 2014!

  1. Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

spicy-chive-pork-dumplings

Very few dishes bring a smile to my face as easily as steaming hot dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling King served up this beautiful bowl of tender, savory and spicy pork and chive dumplings, swimming in a sea of sesame and chili oil and it was a wonder to behold. They’ve got their mixture down perfect and it’s habit forming as all great Chinese food should be. Logan may not believe in umami, but that’s exactly what we experienced that night in San Francisco.

  1. Thresher Shark Nugget at é – Las Vegas, NV

Thresher Shark Nugget

Have you had thresher shark? Have you had any shark? Yeah neither had I. I’m usually one to question the ethics of killing such a beautiful animal, sadly however, my moral compass went haywire when this thresher shark nugget, fried in a sherry vinegar tinged batter was presented to me. Think pork belly, but just the fat. That’s what this was like, gelatinous but tender with a depth of flavor rarely seen in most seafood.

  1. Veal Sweetbreads with Gnocchi Parisienne at Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

Sweetbreads

I feel like we talk about the “Anton Ego” moment around here a lot. How that one bite of food can instantly transport you through time. This veal sweetbread dish from Rooster and the Till did just that. As it touched my tongue I was somehow taken back to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with much more finely composed flavors. Very few dishes can match the balance of flavors and textures that this one achieved.

  1. Basil Pesto Ravioli at Beauty & Essex – New York, NY

Basil Pesto Ravioli from Beauty & Essex

Speaking of flavor, these precious little pockets of pesto contained a flavor so intense you’d be forgiven for thinking you were eating basil straight out of the garden. Aside from the freshness, who puts tomato sauce and pesto together? Chris Santos, that’s who, and it works so shut it. Too bad it’s not on the menu anymore!

  1. Sea Cucumber Roe at NAOE – Miami, FL

Sea Cucumber Roe from NAOE

Sea cucumber gonads…are you listening? The reproductive system…of a sea cucumber. Just so you understand how incredibly delicious this delicacy is, I’m going to completely ignore the beautiful tongue of uni sitting just to its right. This tiny morsel gave me an experience that I haven’t felt since my first taste of foie gras. A completely new and luxurious flavor like nothing I’ve ever eaten, silky, sweet, melt in your mouth, like if foie and crème brulée had a baby. I seriously considered a move to Hokkaido so I could hoard these little guys for myself, as if they aren’t rare enough as it is.

The Bazaar by José Andrés – Miami Beach, FL

A short time ago, I discussed the importance of remembering the old timers, the stalwarts of the food world who have been executing their traditional specialties for decades. Well today, I’m serving up the antithesis, the cutting edge, the new. I had the incredible fortune to make a new friend, in the accomplished and well-traveled food fanatic, Mr. Todd Sturtz. He happened to be visiting South Florida for a few days and needed some company for his supper time jaunt. To my delight, he had chosen The Bazaar by José Andrés, a place that has been on mine and Logan’s list for years.

bazaar-interior

photo: www.honestcooking.com

For those of you who don’t know him, José Andrés is one of the most well-known practitioners of molecular gastronomy. Todd gave the waiter and I a quick schooling on the subject, the trend was started by Ferran Adria, and made famous here in the states by Wylie Dufresne. I’ve eaten at Wylie’s, now famous, WD-50, and while The Bazaar shares some techniques, I found the meals to be on two different ends of the spectrum that is molecular gastronomy.

Neither of us were planning on drinking, a useful trick for anyone who wants to try as many edible items as possible without throwing money at alcohol. However, when we spotted the $7 liquid nitrogen caipirinha, (yes it was really $7, we asked) we couldn’t resist. It may be a cliché, but I’m a fan of tableside service. Our man arrived with a bowl, a bottle of caipirinha solution, pre-mixed and a bottle of liquid N². If you’ve ever seen Terminator 2, you know what liquid nitrogen can do. In this case, it freezes the sugar, lime juice and cachaça into a sorbet. The best part is, when it starts melting it doesn’t water down your drink. The result is an extra stiff cocktail that delivers that refreshing caipirinha flavor, with a slight liquid nitrogen burn to the tongue.

Liquid N2 caipirinha

Both Todd and I had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to have before we arrived. The menu is split into two, one side focusing on new school molecular gastronomy, the other offering up traditional Spanish dishes. As we read our choices aloud, we both let out “oh definitely”, or “yup, uh huh”. The first of nine courses in our seafood-centric feast arrived, the Japanese tacos. Three dainty cucumber skins filled with grilled eel, shiso, wasabi and crispy pork chicharrones lay in a section of corrugated aluminum. The grilled eel was the star, savory and tender with a slight ocean twinge.

Japanese Taco

Liquid Mango Nigiri

Following close behind was the liquid mango nigiri. Normally, seeing fruit and sushi pairings on a menu will scare me off right away, but this is José, I knew I could trust him. A translucent block was set before us with three sheets of nori, topped with a tongue of uni a little bubble of liquid mango, shiso and pickled sansho peppers. The briny uni was perfectly paired against the slightly acidic sweetness of the mango liquid. The untreated nori kept the flavors distinctly Japanese, and gave the uni some context, delicious.

We swerved off Ocean Ave. for a moment with the wild mushroom soup with Idiazábal cheese and egg yolk. We both agreed, if you wanted to make the perfect rendition of the traditional mushroom soup, this was it. The soup was gently poured over the cheese, egg yolk and wild mushrooms, and we were instructed to mix the ingredients. It was nice to see a dish with seemingly no fancy science behind it. This was mushroom soup, expertly crafted, and it held its own against its more techno savvy menu mates.

Wild Mushroom Soup

The next dish was reminiscent of one Logan and I shared at Joël Robuchon a few years back. Playfully named “Not Your Everyday Caprese”. It appeared to be a simple arrangement of cherry tomatoes and mozzarella on a bed of walnut pesto. We were advised to handle the mozz gently as it was actually liquid in a very thin membrane. The ideal bite included a cherry tomato, liquid mozz ball and a slathering of pesto. As it entered my mouth, the mozzarella immediately burst and coated the other components in a rich and creamy coating. This was quickly cut by a tomato flavor, so intense, it made my eyes widen.

Not Your Everyday Caprese

Like Madison in Splash, we returned to the sea with the arrival of the sea urchin cream. It was described to us as more of a yogurt, paired simply with a light ponzu and seaweed foam. This dish was Japan in a cup, wonderfully sweet uni swathed in almost literal sea foam. I imagine José dreamt this one up after a day spent downing uni on the shores of Hokkaido.

Bazaar-sea urchin cream-bao con lechon

The second in a flurry of dishes landed, the bao con lechón, Chinese buns with pork belly. These were unreal, fatty pork belly with a slice of what may have been daikon. They were simple and packed with flavor.

Our last seafood dish was smoked oysters with an apple mignonette. A smoke-filled dome was lifted to reveal five perfect little oysters. The mignonette came in the form of a foam dabbed on each bivalve. The first flavor was one of intense applewood smoke, I had flashbacks of sitting by a campfire. The sour foam seemed to expand in my mouth as the sweet oyster coated the tongue.

Smoked Oysters

Next up was one of my most anticipated plates of the night, the foie gras PB&J sandwiches. They arrived with a warning that they tended to explode, not unlike Kramer’s Dominican crêpes. Sure enough, the first bite caused the bread to rupture in a fountain of foie. No issue there. It was a delightfully informal dish, the perfect thing for a big kid with grown up taste. A lot of restaurants would skimp on the foie to PB&J ratio in an item like this, not here, I was completely satisfied as foie was easily the dominant flavor.

Foie Gras PB & J

To finish off the night, bone marrow with Caribbean white truffles, Florida citrus and fried capers. If I’m honest, this was the disappointment of the night. Of course that’s all relative, at another restaurant this may have been the best thing. Here though, after that parade of wonderful flavors, this fell flat. First, the bone marrow was lost among the other more pungent ingredients like the citrus and caper (which for me was the star here). Second, the server shaved an insane amount of hearts of palm over the dish. It added a crunchy texture but not much else. Bone marrow is a very delicate protein and needs to be treated simply for it to stand out.

Bone Marrow

Even though we ended on a slightly bitter note, it didn’t diminish the amazing meal we’d enjoyed. The most profound thing I took from the dinner was how markedly different José’s take on molecular gastronomy is from Wylie’s. While WD-50 strives to disconnect your eyes from your tongue by using clever disguises and pairing seemingly incompatible ingredients to create completely new and delicious flavors, The Bazaar uses new techniques to re-imagine classic dishes in totally new ways. I have to say, I’m a big fan of both.

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