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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Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

Vizcaya Restaurante – Tampa, Fl

I haven’t been getting out as much as I used to. So many things pull us in different directions these days. We always say that being so busy takes away from what we really want to be doing. But really, don’t we all deserve to take a moment to let things slow down? To get back to ourselves, just for a night? Recently, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how I choose to enjoy a meal. Actually, this choice is really an observation I’ve gleaned from the restaurants I’ve visited. Small plate concepts are being thrown at my head as if Randy Johnson decided to trade pitching for cooking. It’s no small thing (at least here in the States) to say to a prospective diner “there’s no rush, just take a seat and stay for a few hours”.

I arrived late to an event held at Vizcaya by my newfound friends at the helm of TastingTampa.com. Not really knowing anything about the food, the chef, the space or even the location, it was a bit of an unknown for this Lakelander. The only thing I knew at this point was the word tapas. But as many of you know, this can mean many things to many people.

Almost immediately I was greeted by a long narrow plate of gigante Langostine wrapped in bacon and dressed with toasted almond, arugula, crimini, what I believe to be a sprinkling of feta and then a final light shower of balsamic. Was it feta? Sweet and creamy with a twist of tang because of the goat’s milk cheese, it was a surprisingly well thought combination for the enormous, what seemed to be, U-1 prawns.

Bacon Wrapped Langoustine Pan-fried Sea Bass with Red Pepper Coulis

I should say at this point, that I finally realized that the meal would be a selection of the chefs choices as they came out steadily. Next came a beautifully contrasting dish of lightly pan-fried sea bass, with over easy fried egg, red pepper coulis, chorizo oil. It reminded me of my mothers arroz con pollo with the flavors of red pepper and saffron. The chorizo was so slight that it almost felt like it was my imagination, like it wasnt really there, but I knew it was. It was a clever way of putting classic flavors together in a peculiar way.

Grilled Octopus with Cauliflower Purée

Grilled octopus with cauliflower purée, paprika oil, buttery, viscous and tender with little to no bounce back. I’m used to my octopus sharing the texture of a kickball. Well, my milk toast strength teeth eviscerated these tentacles with the ease of a berserker barrage. Mellow flavor not too charred lingered for a few minutes until I cleansed it with a mellow Spanish white.

Plates were being dealt to the table at such a rapid pace I thought I was at the World Series of Poker!

Oxtail stuffed piquillo peppers with bechamel. Very rich and creamy with a beautiful “gravy” made with the oxtail drippings. One of the best things I ate but not as complicated as many of the seafood presentations.

Oxtail Stuffed Piquillo Peppers Squid Ink Paella

Squid ink “risottoesque” paella had great spice. The pepper lingered on the tongue. There were spikes of spicy, yet in a way, floral punches of pepper that brought things to a crescendo at every other mouthful. The rice was expertly cooked, with some contrasting texture with some of the grains crisp but not burnt on the bottom like some paellas tend to be.

Iberico pork cheeks, rioja wine gravy, cheese grits, fatty fork tender, the richness of the gravy along with the cheesy polenta was like a blanket on the tongue, leaving my head floating. I’ve never been to the Basque region but I’d imagine many farmers would choose this as their last meal. I was ready to die. It still lingers. You can tell the chef’s heart still lies in España. He wasn’t afraid to aggressively season the food, and we as diners, deserve that attention. I get the feeling that if I were to be a regular at this place, this would be my go to dish, and quite possibly be my cause of death when the paramedics arrive to wheel me out.

Iberico Pork Cheeks Ricotta Stuffed Dates & Bacon

The final touch of brilliance came when we were presented with a small plate of dates stuffed with house made ricotta, wrapped in bacon. Like little crispy devils on horseback galloping down my esophagus. The slight burnt sugar and that not so easy to explain perfection, dinged in my brain as if a perplexing question had just been asked, and the sweet salty morsel was obviously the correct answer.

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