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

Eat a Duck in Singapore

I recently returned from a trip to Singapore, tagging along with my parents as they attended an aviation conference.  I’d researched the country ahead of my visit to gain at the very least, a basic understanding of the culture and history. It was a British trading post, separated from Malaysia making it it’s own city-state, and resulting in English becoming the official language.  There are four major cultures in Singapore: Malay, Japanese, Chinese and Indian.  As you’d imagine, as a result of this collision of culinary cultures, the food is remarkable.  I was told that Singapore is very much a city of commerce and cosmopolitan life, not the normal nitty-gritty, cheap and dirty Asian experience I have come to crave and love. In fact, Singapore has earned the nickname “Asia-Lite.”  Armed with this information, I sought out Anthony Bourdain per the advice of my dear Diana.  Surely he would find the food culture I was searching for, and boy, did he.

Maxwell Food Center spread

I was the first to touch down, arriving at 7 am. After a morning nap following my 20 hour trip, I set out in search of a meal.  Bourdain’s first stop was the Maxwell Food Centre, a bustling set of hawker stalls all under one roof. One of the famous dishes in Singapore is chicken rice, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Chicken on top of seasoned rice with various condiments. I chose the Hong Xiang chicken stall, which came highly recommended by Bourdain and did not disappoint. The chicken was beautifully moist laying on top of a bed of steaming rice.  The lady at the stall took out a spray bottle and sprayed my entire dish before handing it to me.  I don’t know what it was, but I assume it was a spray bottle of delish. Accompanying the chicken rice was an extremely thick hoisin sauce and chili sauce. It was heaven, a perfect glimpse into what Singaporean food would hold in store.

Our next adventure into Singaporean cuisine was recommended to us by our cab driver. We were headed to Long Beach restaurant on East Coast Park only knowing that we wanted the best chili crab Singapore had to offer.  Obviously picking up on our ineptitude, he recommended drunken prawns, boiled in a cognac stock, the fried rice and black pepper crab. Not all cab drivers are to be trusted, but in this case, our man knew his stuff.  The cognac stock was so smooth, and had us lapping it up long after the prawns had been devoured.

Long Beach spread

Chili crab was the star of this trip. Crab, steamed and smothered in a tomato, garlic, chili sauce. Equal parts sweet and savory, this sauce was everything you could ever want, worthy of being used on any food item throughout the day, we couldn’t get enough. The same driver recommended we order sweet buns with which to sop up the sauce after we were done with our crabs, like I said, he was a smart man. Next came black pepper crab. This is the same dish as chili crab but with a black pepper paste smeared liberally over the steaming crustaceans. This version was much spicier and in your face, and perfect counterpart to its sweet chili crab cousin. While you’re eating these two dishes, be prepared to get extremely dirty. Sauce all over your face, arms and hands, but gladly so.  It proves you’ve truly enjoyed your dish.

It seems inevitable that any tourist to Singapore will hang around Marina Bay for a little while. Within the Marina Bay Shoppes is a great food court featuring various cuisines from around the continent, but of course, I went for dim sum because, well, I am Jimmy’s sister. The siu mai and shrimp har gao were up to par. It was a perfect, close spot to beat the heat and grab some delicious food as well.

Iced coffee is definitely a must when exploring Singapore. It is HOT, crazy hot, and the combination of ice and caffeine kept me running. It’s available pretty much anywhere, but I preferred to grab it at the hawker centers.

Marina Bay dim sum

Since the shopping is near legendary in Singapore, my Mom and I hit up Robinson’s, the big department store, where we discovered delicious snacks like green tea kit kats and squid jerky.  On the basement level of Robinson’s we stumbled upon a gyoza restaurant called Gyoza-Ya. There was a hefty list of delicious things to try but we had to settle on a select few.  We started with chilled eggplant with miso paste. Give me anything with miso paste. The eggplant was delectable, tender, but almost too difficult to grab with chopsticks, as the thick, savory miso paste made for a slippery affair. Next was cucumber with miso paste. Those delicious Asian cucumbers. You can really tell the difference. The miso paste on this dish was presented in little pearls that broke apart in your mouth, spreading the heavenly miso all over your palate. I ordered what was described on the menu simply as “Ramen Egg.” I thought it was going to be some sort of egg drop ramen soup. I’m so glad I was wrong. The waiter sets down a chilled soft-boiled egg on a plate in front of me, and I look at Mom not knowing exactly what to do. What I can infer after taking a bite is, the egg was soft-boiled, and then marinated in some sort of ramen stock or soy sauce? I don’t know for sure but holy whoa it was delicious. The white of the egg flavored with sesame paired with a silky, runny yoke on the inside was perfection. I want it for breakfast daily. Of course we ended this lunch with both vegetable and pork gyoza. It was Gyoza-Ya after all.

Gyoza-Ya spread

Still, the chili crab lingered in our mouths and brains.  So this time, we sought out Jumbo Seafood restaurant, recommended by multiple former Singapore residents. We ordered all the usual suspects, chili crab, black pepper crab, fried rice, shrimp in miso paste (I can’t quit the miso paste) and steamed Snapper with cilantro.  The crabs here were much larger than at Long Beach, but I’m at a loss as to which restaurant prepared them better. I just want access to chili crab at all times.

Jumbo spread

Our flights were extremely late at night, so our last dinner was back at Maxwell Food Centre, since the parentals hadn’t been. This time I had ban mian, a soup with pork and rice noodles and of course, plenty of condiments with which to customize your dish. I washed it all down with starfruit juice, something I’d never seen before but had to try. Our meal was accompanied by three old dudes drinking beer with their portable radio blaring, chilling at the table next to us, like I assume they do every night. True, Singapore doesn’t have an abundance of cultural sites, but it definitely makes up for it in an abundance of delicious foods.

 

Hakkasan – Miami Beach, FL

I don’t know what’s going on at the Fontainebleau hotel, but I like it. Whoever is in charge of food, drink and hospitality deserves a raise, if they aren’t already being paid handsomely. First Scarpetta delivers an eye-opening Italian spread, and now Hakkasan, their in-house purveyor of traditional Chinese cuisine, knocks it out of the park. Two for two ain’t bad folks.

hakkasan-logo1

When comparing high-end Chinese eateries, I use Mr. Chow as a measuring stick. Both New York locations, as well as the one in the W on Miami Beach, are outstanding. The Hakkasan brand has long been known as a heavy hitter in the Chinese ring, both London outposts have earned Michelin stars. Naturally my expectations for Florida’s own Hakkasan were high. I’ll spare you the suspense, my expectations were met and then exceeded, not only by the food, which was outstanding, but the decor, ambiance and especially the impeccable service. I felt like Don Draper in my favorite New York hangout minus the smoke and infidelity.

But this is Eat a Duck, and unlike my esteemed colleague who is unmatched when it comes to spinning an intriguing pre-review yarn, I’m an anti-Lorax, I’ll let the food speak for itself. At first glance, the menu looks to be in lock step with tradition, until you notice some luxurious interlopers. Sure the typical standbys are here, Peking and roast duck, dumplings etc., only at Hakkasan they pair these items with Petrossian caviar, foie gras and black truffles. Some might say those ingredients are cliché, a simple gimmick to lure dummies with too many greenbacks. I assure you, there are no gimmicks here, the crew at Hakkasan wields their flavors with care and respect. Not once did the gourmet additions take away from the traditional soul of the dish, on the contrary, they only served to enhance it.

We began with an order of duck rolls and foie gras Shanghai dumplings. Neither looked particularly fancy, which was a good sign, the chefs didn’t feel the need to impress with flash, they let the flavors do all the work. The duck rolls were moist and tender, with flecks of green onion interspersed among the fowl. Fried to a crunchy perfection, the wrappers picked up globs of tangy hoisin, delivering a satisfying crunch before your teeth hit the meat. It was basically fried Peking duck to go. Somebody open a drive-thru where I can pick these up after a night of heavy drinking!

Foie gras dumplings & duck rollsAs I said before, the foie gras only enhanced the already silky flavor of the dumplings. There was just enough foie to feel it on the tongue and detect its buttery flavor. It added a whole other dimension to an otherwise ordinary, though incredibly delicious dumpling.

Scintillating conversation made the time between courses fly by, and soon our entrées had arrived. Spicy assam prawns in a baby coconut had almost a Polynesian look to it. The broth was savory with a glowing heat that lingered on your lips. Little doughy puffs allowed the ever satisfying dunk, soak and slurp ritual that begged to be performed. The stir-fried Chilean sea bass was out of control. We’ve never really discussed the black cod miso from Nobu in any detail, (which must mean it’s time to visit again) but this dish was like having a bowl filled with it. Each slab of fish flaked away to reveal pearly flesh, sweet as could be. They were lightly tossed in a sanpei sauce, a mixture of soy, rice wine and black sesame oil that gave the fish an attractive sheen without crossing the line to gloppy syrup you find at most Chinese joints.

Hakkasan Miami spread

A handsome plate of hand pulled noodles tossed with wild mushrooms and a whole other side order of mushrooms arrived to the exclamation, “mushroom party!”. I’m a sucker for a good plate of noodles, and this was a great plate of noodles. The medley of mushrooms made this a most comforting dish, something I’d love to eat when it’s cold outside and I’m feeling a little sniffly. The main event for me though, was the black truffle roasted duck. Have you ever heard of a more appetizing dish? I can just hear the chefs who thought this up, “roast duck, how can we make it better?…”, a rookie line cook raises his hand and mumbles “…truffles?”. Yeah that’s how it happened. It was genius. The broth gave off an aroma so full of truffle essence that they could charge for that alone. Thankfully they actually include the food as well. As with each dish before, the duck was cooked perfectly, crispy skin glazed with five spice and truffle, tender meat luxuriating in the broth, and if that wasn’t enough, large slices of fresh black truffle on top.

Black Truffle Roasted Duck

Dessert is not a course usually enjoyed at many Chinese restaurants I’ve visited. But I just couldn’t pass it up, seeing how fantastic the meal had been up to this point. Lately I’ve been distancing myself from chocolate options as more refreshing and tropical items lure me with their siren song. Tonight it was a mango custard with grapefruit, calamansi and coconut sorbet. It was bright and tangy and hit you right in the back of your jaw. The tiny globs of concentrated mango added shiny bursts of flavor that were gently mellowed by the sorbet. I believe the calamansi was nitro frozen and sprinkled like bacon bits. The grapefruit slices added a welcome bitter note, without overpowering the natural sweetness of the mango.

Mango Custard with Grapefruit Calamansi and Coconut Sorbet

Meals like this are rare, where every dish is a winner and no complaints. I may sound like a brown noser (it’s only hoisin don’t worry) but sometimes restaurants just get it right. The Miami branch of Hakkasan may not have a Michelin star of its own, but that doesn’t take away from the amazing cuisine they’re producing nightly. I’m looking forward to returning soon to sample their dim sum service that they offer at lunchtime on the weekends. Lord knows Miami is in dire need of it. Until next time!

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon

Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market – Tampa, FL

Sometimes, we here at Eat a Duck have to find new eateries through hard research and much brow furrowing disappointment, often bordering on real world detective work. Other times, a tasty feast just seems to fall in our lap. Regrettably, we seem to find ourselves in the former situation more often than not. However, this was not the case when I stumbled upon Boca while searching for a place to eat in Tampa. I realize that last sentence makes no sense if you skipped the title of this piece (shame on you!). While Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market had been on Logan’s radar for weeks, it was a surprise for me. Nestled among the nondescript law firms and chiropractic offices, we found a little gastropub that looked as if someone had plucked it straight off the foothills of Santa Barbara.

Boca Sign Boca Patio

It didn’t take long after we were seated to realize that we were probably in for a treat. As our server explained, everything was sustainably sourced, “farm to table” to coin a hip phrase. It’s all well and good to throw buzzwords around as many establishments do, and not to sound insulting, but Tampa isn’t the town I think of when I want to sample a forward-thinking menu. Thankfully, after a short scan of the menu, I could tell Boca was the real deal.

Boca Lunch Menu

Let’s get down to business though, you’re here for the food, no? On this first visit, I was joined by the girls of Eat a Duck for a balmy outdoor lunch, sadly Logan couldn’t make it, I’ll get to the next visit in a moment. The first thing to catch my eye was the rye braised bone marrow accompanied with rye caramelized onions, stone ground mustard and lightly toasted baguette slices. For an entrée, I was driven more so by the desire to keep my wallet somewhat filled rather than my stomachs urges, not a common occurrence mind you. Not that my choice of the OMG prime house burger was in any way settling for less. It was topped with the traditional fixin’s, lettuce, white cheddar, pickled onions, tomato, BKBM sauce and a side of pomme frites, truffled at that!

Braised Bone Marrow OMG Prime House Burger

Had money been no object, a few options would’ve included a braised short rib with potato hash and burrata tomato gratin, or slow roasted porchetta with tuscan potatoes, exotic mushrooms, grilled chinese long beans with a blood orange and purple watercress salad. The lobster pot pie with shrimp, clams, fingerling potatoes, mirepoix and bouillabaisse was another contender. Luckily, mine and Logan’s better halves were there to fill the table with two more tasty items. Penne with tomato dusted jumbo prawns, baby heirloom tomato, wild mushrooms, truffle butter, Parmigiano Reggiano joined a glistening “black and bleu” flatbread of smoked tenderloin, caramelized onion and braised wild mushrooms.

Penne with Prawns Black & Bleu Flatbread

It was a joyous occasion when everyone took their first bites of food, with well-balanced if carefully planned flavors. The one surprise was the tomato in the penne dish that turned out to be what I suspect were green tomatoes as they had a pleasantly sour twinge. It was the perfect combo to the earthy cheese and mushroom combo.

We recently visited Boca for brunch before our long trek back to the east coast. This time, the other half of Eat a Duck was there for the party. Brunch isn’t usually my meal of choice, what with my usual breakfast avoidance tactics. This time however, an item appropriately named “the hangover panini” had me at first sight. Sausage, bacon, cheese, caramelized onions with two scrambled eggs? It was a no-brainer. I’m glad Logan was there though as he manned up and ordered the mystery “staff meal”, not knowing what to expect, only that he’d “love it” according to the chef. Leave it to one aspiring chef to blindly trust another, and with good reason. His dish arrived, with a generous dollop of fresh made grits, flanked by prawns and drizzled with a sweet and spicy sauce. If I’m honest, it kicked my panini right in its toasted buns. I didn’t let on, but I would’ve finished off the whole plate by myself.

The Hangover Panini Staff Meal - Shrimp & Grits

The table winner had to be the bread and jam board. Despite a small kerfuffle involving a certain “nutbutter” that tasted suspiciously of peanuts, it was a delicious spread, including pineapple, strawberry, and a tart cherry jam with a possible cranberry twist. Various breads in both toasted and untoasted preparations accompanied the preserves. It was sort of a breakfast antipasto.

Bread & Jam Board Baguette w: Pineapple Preserve

After a write-up like this, I think it goes without saying that Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market should be on your radar if you’re looking for good eats in Tampa. But what do I know?

Boca Kitchen Bar Market on Urbanspoon

Update 1/2/15: Boca recently opened up a second location in Winter Park, so we decided to show a few more photos from previous visits.

image

image

image

It should also be noted that Boca placed 2nd out of 12 in our innagural burger crawl competetion of the Tampa Bay area. You can check that out from 3 past posts entitled “Apocalypse Cow.” Enjoy!!

image