Only months removed from my previous epic eating trip to Vegas, last week I again ventured west, to the neon soul of the desert sands. My main purpose was to glean some knowledge at a distribution software user conference, which in Vegas is something like fight night, the super bowl, spring break, and the start of March madness combined. Except with all nerdy dudes talking in acronyms. Aside from the worst airline chicken breast conference lunch ever, I of course played the part of blogger and pulled away from the group and ate some good food on my own dime.
The planned pièce de résistance was to be a meal at é by josé andrés, the “secret” eight seat restaurant at the Cosmopolitan inside of a restaurant (Jaleo) in the vein of Minibar in DC and Saam in Los Angeles. They serve as creative outlets for José’s caché of chefs, and create an air of excitement and exclusivity for food jerks like myself.
The reservation is tough to get, and once successful, they even mail each diner a Wonka style golden ticket. I was stoked. I read up about the meal on a couple websites, each of which offered significant praise. And it looked fun. I have dabbled in modern cuisine at home, and sampled a few orbs and foams out in the wild, but they were never a significant part of the meal, and I was eager to see the chemists/cooks in action and see what creative taste concoctions they could dream up.
Our group of eight assembled in the intimate and goofy space, talking amongst ourselves, yes, about food, and quickly the show began. Naturally, I took pictures, though not of every single dish, as I didn’t want to annoy the staff too much, a nicety I forgot after a drink or three into the pairing I opted to add.
A few photos are below, but the full set can be viewed on Flickr. I won’t describe each dish, a loose term, as many of the 25 listed courses are simply a small bite. Favorites included the “bocata de bacalao” crispy fish sandwich, nitro almond cup, lobster with citrus and jasmine, the turbot with bone marrow (photo below), and the pan con chocolate (also below).
For the most part, the dishes I liked most were also the most substantial. The lobster and the turbot themselves were lovely. And they were real food. Many of the bites, the cava sangria, or the famous Ferran Adria “olive” were neat, but offered more entertainment than nourishment. Even if satisfying hunger isn’t the intent of each dish, I wouldn’t say techniques like spherification are all that exciting to me anymore. I have the sodium alginate, calcium chloride, and xantham gum at home. It’s sold as a kit for $18. I got bored with it after a few days. You can have my leftovers if you want. I also have some meat glue (transglutaminase) in the freezer if you’re interested.
I enjoyed watching the precision of the chefs at é, the speed and teamwork of the two person assembly line, as dish after dish was knocked out. It was quite the show, but the visual entertainment greatly out weighed the satiation, and in some cases there were dishes which were far from delicious. The biggest let down to me was the secreto of Iberian pork, which was chewy, with little flavor, and cold in parts. I’ll also admit that it was disappointing that two of the dishes which people told me were the most amazing, the josé “taco”, and the salt baked foie gras, were missing from our menu.
The drink pairings, which cost $130, were also, how do you say, a bummer. Two of the drinks were provided to everyone, whether you purchased the pairing or not. Beyond that I recall two wines, a beer, and a cocktail. Portions were far from frugal, but save for one white Spanish blend I really enjoyed, they were not anything to get excited about. At a total cost of $430, this is the most expensive meal of my life, and while I had a good time, the food and wine is not worth that price to me. But it is a show, and to put that in perspective, $430 gets you middle of the road seats to see Garth Brooks at the Wynn.
Spanish “Clavel” and Idazabal “Macaron”
Bocato de Bacalao
Turbot with amazing bone marrow nuggets
Pan con chocolate – scrape the custard and chocolate through the olive oil – excellent idea
The next night I stopped for a margarita and duck tongue taco at China Poblano. Squiggly.
Then I went over to Blue Ribbon for a sushi omakase. I quickly learned that their idea of omakase is to give you a massive plate of fish all at once. I love the ritual of omakase, the progression from the chef, the idea that each piece or two should be made and eaten quickly. While the fish was fresh, the nigiri (my favorite part) was lifeless and I was disappointed. My whole $100+ omakase experience lasted less than the time it took me to have one beer.
It was beautifully presented though, and much of the sashimi was excellent. There was a giant uni and ikura boat in the back, which, by the way, is the finest method of traveling the seas.
Corned beef hash breakfast at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
The last night I had a red eye flight back, so after the conference I had a few hours to spare and stopped in for happy hour at Sushi Roku in Caesar’s, a West Coast chain with a few different Japanese inspired brands. There was no one there, so I spent an hour talking with the sushi chef while he did his prep. His product was also top notch, including these velvety tongues of Santa Barbara uni, and the best Japanese halibut ever to glide down this gullet. The menu may be filled with flash, but the chefs are the real deal.
Finally, with just an hour before I had to head to the airport, I had my Vegas vindication meal. Kabuto just opened a few miles from the strip in the Chinatown area, in the same strip mall as Abriya Raku, the extremely popular and industry-friendly robata grill restaurant.
Kabuto is a sushi-ya in traditional sense, more so than any I’ve ever seen. The space is sparsely decorated. Natural wood colors. Quiet.
Two chefs work the ten seat bar in the tiny room, the only other seats being two four tops. The menu arrived, with basically two options – nigiri omakase and full omakase. I opted for the nigiri omakase – appetizer, ten pieces of sushi, a hand roll, and dessert for $49.
The appetizer was the finest, most foie like ankimo (monkfish liver) one could imagine. Pure.
A few moments later, the chef serving my end of the bar looked at me and asked if I was ready, and he quickly grabbed fish out of the wooden box, sliced it, thrust his other hand into the rice, made a few motions with his hands, brushed the nigiri with aged soy sauce (there is none on the table) and set the one piece on the board which he had prepared in front of me.
It was heavenly. Slightly warm rice, but not the least bit gummy, a deft touch of vinegar, and pure, outrageous fish, touched by salt. Magical.
This procession lasted less than ten minutes. I’d eat the piece, thirty seconds later a new one arrived. Amazing fish I’d never tasted like bronzino, tuskish, cherry salmon, triangle tuna, shad. And a few other favorites, elevated to a status I’d never seen, like tamago, scallop, snapper, and chutoro. When it ended, I couldn’t help but order three more pieces for the fair price of $15.
triangle tuna & chutoro (medium fatty tuna)
shad & bronzino
I snarfed the hand roll and the crazy good mochi, and stumbled out in a daze. With two beers, and the addition of three pieces of sushi, I spent $80 on the most excellent nigiri experience I’ve ever found. Off strip. In Las Vegas.
Oh yeah…so when my cab didn’t show up, I walked next door to the Italian Japanese place (!) called Trattoria Nakamura-ya and sampled their miso carbonara. The sauce was thin and too abundant, but hey, I like the idea!
If you made it this far in the post, I congratulate you. May it help you in your quest to find good food in Vegas. If you have any ideas on how to not lose at blackjack, do let me know.