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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Boqueria – New York City, NY

Like any respectable romantic comedy, whatever you’ve been looking for has usually been right in front of you all along. So it was with Boqueria, which is situated along my daily walk to work on Spring St. Since I don’t normally have the time (or the money for that matter) to go out and indulge in a tapas feast, I never really gave it much thought, regardless of how enticing their daily quips about sangria and pirates on the blackboard out front were.

Recently though, my wife and I had a chance to come to the city and actually enjoy its most valuable commodity, food. I already had a couple of places in mind, Boqueria and Perla, but that’s for another post. All I needed to see was the fresh cheeses and cured meats in the window and I was sold. Despite the risk, I was fairly confident that we’d be in for a great meal even after doing little to no research (out of character I know).

The danger lies in the fact that many restaurants wrongly tout themselves as “tapas bars” when they don’t understand what that means. It’s similar to how Logan feels about “fusion”, yet another word that American eateries have re-purposed to take advantage of the whimsical imagery that one gets when they think of tapas. A wonderful seaside niche, serving up small dishes of freshly caught seafood and locally sourced meats and cheeses, along with endless glasses of simple (yet delectable) house wine and sangria. Sadly this is rarely what you get when you enter a restaurant advertising tapas in the States.

Boqueria rectifies that sorry state of affairs. As we sat, my eyes were immediately drawn to the enticing list of tapas items. My wife and I settled on three dishes and a salad to compile our midday feast:

To start, a simple organic mixed green salad with herbed croutons and a citrus vinaigrette. This was no tired house salad. The greens were vibrant and the citrus vinaigrette sparkled with freshness, excellent olive oil didn’t hurt either.

Sangria & organic mixed salad

Skewered Colorado lamb marinated in lemon and cumin and slathered in a salsa verde (more like chimichurri but no complaints here)

pintxos-morunos

Beef and potato croquettes with salsa brava and garlic aioli were moist and tender with great heat from the salsa offset by the creamy tang of the aioli.

bombas-de-la-barceloneta

Sautéed wild mushrooms with shaved Manchego and thyme. These were reminiscent of the wonderful sauteed cepes we had in Paris. Tender and juicy, the Manchego-thyme flavor was a winning combination.

salteado-de-setas

Wash all that down with their refreshing house made sangria, and you’ve got yourself a Barcelona Teleporter right there on the table. Boqueria is the perfect spot to grab a few nibbles on an activity filled Saturday afternoon, especially since it doesn’t leave so full that you ruin the wonderful Italian meal you have planned that evening. More on that later…Boqueria everyone, get your tapas on!

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Murray’s Cheese Shop Will Melt Your Face!

Sometimes you just feel like a grilled cheese. When that feeling comes over you , there isn’t much to do but slap a few pieces of your favorite fromage between some generously buttered bread and go to town. Well when you can’t do it yourself, Murray’s Cheese Shop at 254 Bleecker St has got you covered…and I do mean covered, when it comes to a “warm your soul” grilled cheeser.

I was feeling cheesy at lunch today, and I knew about Murray’s, so I decided “hey it’s Friday, I’ll make the 12 block trek to get my cheese fix”. Upon entering Murray’s, I was welcomed by a wall of parmigiano of various types, looked mighty tasty, but not what I was looking for. Tucked into the right corner nearest the window is a small grill station with a couple of sandwich presses. Murray’s only has a handful of choices but it wasn’t hard to find something I wanted. I had heard about a sando ominously called “Da Bomb” consisting of braised short ribs, a slab of taleggio, grilled onions and arugula on buttered sourdough.

I thought it was going to be a slam dunk to order until I kept reading below. The equally epic sounding “Nor’easter” was a manwich of braised pork belly, smoked mozzarella, pesto, piri piri and red onion on sourdough…seriously I could’ve died after eating that (from ecstasy not a heart attack mind you).Unfortunately Murray’s failed to have a sufficient amount of bellys on hand. So my colleague and I decided to spring for “Da Bomb” and another cheeser called “The Spaniard”. This little guy was fully involved with some Serrano ham, young manchego, creamy membrillo spread and marinated red peppers.

I think you can tell by the photos that this was a gooey ordeal. The Spaniard had a little tinge of sweet and sour from the membrillo and the peppers to counteract the salty Serrano ham, and the Manchego had a wonderful earthy, nutty flavor to round it all out. However the winner by far, and I don’t want to sound cliche here, was “Da Bomb”. The short ribs were so tender and juicy and the arugula tasted like it had just been picked. Since Tallegio is one of my favorite cheeses, I was in sheer heaven. Da bomb rightly deserves it’s name because this thing was exploding with flavor. Don’t get me wrong I’d order the Spaniard again, but in this moment the bomb was hitting all of my buttons. As if simply having this place in the neighborhood wasn’t enough of a danger, they have little cards at the counter where you can collect stamps for any grilled sandwiches you purchase, devour 10 of them and you get one free. Yes please!

However the sandwiches are just a small piece of the the larger puzzle that is Murray’s Cheese Shop. There are a large assortment of cured meats, foreign sodas, fresh pasta and sauce, chocolate and more. They also have a cheese cave under the store that you can access through the red door in the back where, according to them, you can “experience the best cheese you’ve ever tasted”. A tall order to be sure, but I’ve heard rumblings that they have been known to carry Mont D’or, which as you know from my Paris post, was one of the finest gastronomic experiences of my 26 years.

But that ladies and gents is a tale for another time. Until next time, stay cheesy!

Murray's Cheese on Urbanspoon