A Tasty Tease: Las Vegas Epicurean Affair 2013
Local Las Vegas food crits seem to love poking fingers at Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d, the biggest annual culinary event on the Vegas Strip. And yet somehow, they grow mute about the many other (albeit smaller) food fests in Vegas—perhaps because most are charity-related (and a good cause is a good cause), or because they are locally generated.
As a current contributor to BonAppetit.com, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to weigh in on Uncork’d, pro or con—though I don’t think anyone would say there isn’t room for improvement. And I’m not saying all this just as a set up to slam the Las Vegas Epicurean Affair, a well-established and well intended tradition, and a lovely social event.
But it’s hard to reflect on this year’s Epicurean and not see something of a split personality. Maybe that in itself represents the Las Vegas food scene, especially at a time when world-renowned Michelin-starred chefs seem to be wrestling each other for dominance in the world of hamburger slinging. So for every person in a chef jacket at this purportedly elegant upscale event, it seemed as if there was at least one dancer or model. Almost to the point where even a healthy libidinous Vegas-acclimated straight guy might say “what’s going on here?”
There were girls in cotton candy bouffants and pink shortie dresses at the entrance. Cute enough. Then there were girls dancing on platforms by the pool. Okay. Then there were more models standing by various liquor booths in branded bathing suits. Then there were the two models prostrate by the pool in “realistic” mermaid tails. Then there were the two bodypainted models standing guard by the Laguna Champange bar. And then, oh wait, there was another pair in silver sequined bikinis bouncing around in the VIP section. Not to mention the Carnevale performer on stilts, bringing her bikini line exactly to eye level. Thanks for that.
In effect, it made the evening feel as much like a trade show as a charity evening.
As for the food, that too reflected different extremes of Las Vegas, fine dining establishments such as Bouchon and B&B juxtaposed with Señor Frog’s and Gilley’s. The beverage side was equally farflung, with spirits ranging for example from the gorgeous Herradura Port Cask Reserva 2012 to the extremely questionable Sizzurp “Purple Drank” (still or sparkling), apparently endorsed by Lil Wayne. It was also nice to see off-Strip stalwarts like Ferraro’s and Lawry’s get equal play (along with newcomers like Poppy Den and Vic’s) alongside the big guys—not to overlook the warm presence of Valentino’s Luciano Pellegrini, dishing out the good stuff despite a big question mark hanging over his next career move.
But it wasn’t all just food for thought. There were plenty of good calories to be had. Attend enough such events and you can’t help notice predictable patterns--pasta, tuna, ceviche, beef, rinse, lather, repeat—but also that the lesser known restaurants tend to make a bigger effort than the celebrity brands. Aquaknox offered lobster ‘corn dogs’ (more like beignets, but who’s griping, they were great); Wolfgang Puck’s poolside Solara (always an overachiever) had butter-soft shortrib with English peas; Treasure Island's Seafood Shack offered cute clam chowders in mini-bread bowls; Venetian’s Public House went overboard with (maybe the best dish of the whole event) rabbit pierogi as well as, a lemon pie-parfait thing, and a caprese salad.
Of the many ahi taco variations, STK’s Stephen Hopcraft brought a nice one in a taro ‘tortilla’ with a smear of avocado cream. And an even more notable exception among the big guys was a ‘foie gras panecotta’ with cherry chutney and candied pecan by another of Puck’s restaurants. Two of the country’s better liquor ambassadors (and Vegas stalwarts) Mariena Mercer and Gaston Martinez represented their respective brands Bacardi rum and Milagro tequila with excellent original cocktails. Beers were relatively, and surprisingly, underwhelming…but thanks for the T Shirt, Newcastle!
Don’t let me sound like I am hating on Epicurean, a fine, fun event. But I’m sure like everyone who is passionate about the Vegas culinary scene, I always want to see it represented at its best. I might argue that’s better achieved by spotlighting local products and ambitious chefs than by Purple Drank and sequined go-go girls--but sometimes great minds beg to differ.