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

Born + Bread Bakehouse – Lakeland, FL

As cooks, we steal. No one in the field can claim to be 100% original all the time. Maybe Escoffier? I’ll ask around. Someone had to teach us basic technique, perhaps peppered with a few tricks here and there to make us what we are but not what we can become. A good cook doesn’t stop at simple thievery, no, he borrows, gains inspiration and makes it his own. In the immortal words of Frank Black, try this trick, and spin it…yeah.

Here is the difference between us and them. We don’t usually open a cookbook or periodical of note and recreate a recipe verbatim. If you’re in that habit, the results are generally poor. We all have different palates and taste buds. We also live in different unique climates. Then again, when we find a recipe or interesting combination of ingredients, we steal it anyway. When you steal, you should do so for only these three reasons.

1. To learn a technique
2. To spin a plate you love while using your own style
3. To make something better than the “original”

Born & Bread logo

The moment you sink your teeth in the mignon of Jennifer Smurr’s interpretation of the baked good known nationally as a  morning bun, you’ll instantly realize that this form of appropriation is perfectly acceptable. This city is at long last progressing. I’ve campaigned for competent bakers in town ever since my first real adult trip to New York City, when I finally experienced a real baguette, not to mention pastry and now we have them. To taste a thousand flaky layers all in one bite is the result of science, math and art all being tied together like a perfect braided apple strudel. It takes a special set of hands to delicately craft baked goods in a way that can change the landscape of an entire community. To sustain people and make them smile in the same bite. I have a feeling the hands attached to Jenn have the passion to achieve these things.

Born & Bread 1

A classic American beauty with hair adorned in golden braids like something you’d read about in Greek mythology, the life of a model would be an easy career choice for her to make. One that actually played out to fruition. There was one problem. The passion, the spark, and the desire to create something she wanted to create just wasn’t there. By no means is modeling an easy career. As an outsider, due to my grotesque physical prowess, I can assure you that field is as cut throat as it gets. As a friend and ex-postal supervisor of her delivery area, I have had the opportunity to sample some of her early experiments. From the sweet potato biscuits with bacon jam, to the all the pastries and breads, she has totally immersed herself into the art of baking, taking cues from her travels all over the world. Nothing depicts her individuality better than the triumphant spin on the classic morning bun made famous by San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. An item she fell in love with during recent a trip to the west coast. She made it her own and made it better than the original in my opinion. There are artisans who have created empires based on one thing. If that were the case in this instance the morning bun would be her rise to power.

 There is a flawless bite nestled into each one to help focus your oral aperture. In what is in theory, a croissant shaped to mimic a cinnamon roll perfection is found. The lead up to that one perfect bite literally unwinds like a king cobra striking its prey, and like a king cobra, this French pastry has an enormous range as it is flaky, buttery, crisp, chewy, bright, spicy and sticky sweet all in the same bite. And like a king cobra they can be deadly. Really if you think about it a certain way, these are more weapon than breakfast item. This perfect representation of a classic morning treat reminds me of one the best of the very best NOFX songs, “And Now For Something Completely Similar” from the album – Pump up the Valuum. Compare the progression of the bun with that of a song. Better yet, get a bun and play the song in unison while eating. Whatever you do, do not play the song backwards or you run the risk of pulling yourself into a Faul McCartney-esque vortex.  As it starts off with the singular driving force of a guitar track. As the song unravels (physically start eating your bun by pulling apart the pieces from the outside in) you are greeted with the harmonious beat of a double kick pedal on the drums in time with the lead (the cinnamon sugar swirl with a hint of orange zest). As you reach the crescendo, right before the lyrics come in, a pulsating slap of the bass bombards your speakers (taking a bite from the center in all its ooey goodness). Finally, Fat Mike’s angelic voice comes in (savoring the combined efforts of all flavors involved) and everything begins to move so fast you can barely stand it!

Born & Bread 2

Fast forward through a stint in an intense 3 month-long training program in Miami at ZTB Bakery, and then another few more months working on her business plan. She has zero need to carry the persona “Jenn the apprentice” any longer. She’s got her technique down to rival any patisserie in the country, with flavors that are going to leave few heads unturned. After a few more months of business planning has passed, she is ready to knock you down and make you curse all the days in which you unknowingly went without her goods. “Born + Bread,” her first foray into public legitimacy as a professional baker has finally risen. If you can breathe you should go find it.

And find it you shall, in two incarnations. She will be setting up a spot at the Lakeland downtown curb market on Saturdays to give people a taste of what’s in store. Secondly, look for her work showcased prominently at another exciting endeavor coming this spring to the Dixieland village. Concord Coffee is soon to be Lakeland’s truest version of a craft coffee shop, with Born + Bread on full display.

The Bookstore – Bethlehem, PA

Prohibition spawned an amazing institution known as the speakeasy. These secretive sanctuaries were often hidden away under mom n’ pop hardware stores, or down the darkest alley. If you knew where to look, and ran in the right circles, you could have a grand old time downing as much rot gut as you pleased, all while dancing until the sun came up. While the constant need to hide from the law in order to imbibe has disappeared, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the hey day of the speakeasy is long gone. Or are they? Unfortunately for us Floridians, real speakeasies require a basement or some other dark subterranean space to really achieve the correct atmosphere. Up north however, practically ever building has a basement. One lucky structure in downtown Bethlehem, PA happens to contain in its depths, a cozy little establishment straight out of the 20’s, The Bookstore.

The Bookstore entry & menu

Even though the space used to house an Italian joint, I wouldn’t fault you for thinking they’ve been there for decades, what with the entire space being lit with candles, a pre-war piano lazing in the corner waiting for the weekly jazz night, and a rich wood bar lining the wall where the barman is mixing old school drinks like a champ. Speaking of which, my cousin and I took full advantage of the extensive cocktail menu, all with names to evoke some sort of whimsy for a bygone era. The Brown Derby (or “The Derb” as the waiter referred to it) called my name, twice, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, honey syrup and a grapefruit twist. My supper mate chose the aptly named Violet Tendencies, a diabolic concoction of four different kinds of alcohol including absinthe. Neither of us had the stones to try the Shirley Temple of Doom, possibly because of the disclaimer limiting it to one per person or maybe it was the requirement of “a strong constitution, backbone, courage and a dash of chutzpah”.

With drinks in hand, we plotted our course through the menus half-dozen sections. Agent M showed this hardened carnivore that even vegetarian courses can satisfy. Wild mushroom toast with fine herbs, goat cheese and leeks was meaty and full of luxurious flavor. I’m sure a healthy slab of butter helped things along. For me, it was sweet potato crisps with a smoked onion dip. Not too sweet, as these sometimes tend to be, they were a perfect match for the savory dip, of which I ordered a second cup. I’ve never been good at rationing my sauces. It was reminiscent of the dip we tried at Garde Manger.

  The Brown Derby, mushroom toast & sweet potato chips

As starters go, the toast and crisps were great, but I wasn’t finished with the appetizers yet. Seeing as we were in Bethlehem, PA, where a large population from Eastern Europe settled decades ago, I felt it was only proper to spring for the smoked yukon pierogis with duck confit and brandied date gastrique. I’m human, I make mistakes, but this wasn’t one of them. They were tender on the outside, and creamy at the center, perfectly seasoned. My Baba would be proud. The duck confit-date mixture acting as a chaise for the trio of pierogis reminded me of the slowly braised beef dishes that my grandmother’s family mastered in the Ukraine, albeit with duck instead of some oft discarded piece of beef.

Yukon Potato Pierogis

M kept it light for her entrée with the watermelon salad with walnuts, feta and a honey lemon vinaigrette. The dressing tied this dish together. I’m not sure of the ingredients, but despite its sugary demeanor, it ironically managed to tame the sweetness. I’m not usually a fan of watermelon, but in this application paired with the tangy feta, it was a hit.

Watermelon salad & braised short ribs

I decided to keep it light as well (as light as any option I choose can ever be) with the Belgian mussels surrounded by bacon, shallots, garlic and a beer cream sauce. Sadly, I was informed that they had run out! So I forgot about being light and went with another Eastern European type dish, braised short ribs with red skinned potatoes and demi-glace. You’d think we had walked in out of a blizzard by the selections I’d made. I guess the Bookstore has that effect on you. The short ribs were definitely warming as they bathed in a bowl of brown liquid. There was nothing cute or fancy about this dish, it was all about showcasing the beef as simply and deliciously as possible. They were fork tender as you’d expect and über rich.

Vanilla & Orange Creme Brulee

It’s the last paragraph, that can only mean one thing, dessert. We left our waiter with the choice and he promptly returned with the vanilla-orange crème brulée. It reminded me of a fancy orange julius, topped with strawberries. It was wonderfully creamy, just firm enough to require a touch of force from the spoon to scoop out a mouthful. It was only my second visit, but The Bookstore will always be an automatic visit when I can make it to Bethlehem. Here’s hoping the speakeasy can make its way farther south. If anyone needs a dark hole in the ground to enjoy a good meal and a stiff drink, its us sun drunk Floridians.

The Bookstore Speakeasy on Urbanspoon

Farmers Market – Lakeland, FL

Getting back to my old self is really easy when you have lots of fruit in the house. It’s super simple to pack lunches when you can throw some nectarines or plums in for a snack. That’s why I love visits to the farmers market. My local one isn’t that wonderful unfortunately. It’s very one culture specific and when I go I feel like #1 I’m always going to find the same ole same ole. And #2 I feel like I’m Manute bowl. I did come across some great finds like dandelions and Chinese yali pears. And it is winter in Florida, which can only mean one thing. STRAWBERRIES!!! Yeah they looked real good too. Nice deep red color=saaaaweet. Enjoy your food and the rest will fall in line.