Wednesday 16 May, 2012

Puck Pops, Richard Scores: Vegas Uncork’d Day One


uncorked11I’m a bit of two minds about Vegas Uncork’d 2012, the sixth annual food festival (of which I’ve attended five) by Bon Appetit , acting to enshrine Las Vegas’ culinary scene.

On one hand, it was as always a wealth of fine fare, a remarkable conflagration of famous chefs, and certainly for me,  a very memorable long weekend (and I certainly appreciate all the consideration offered me by the festival hosts, and particularly Caesars Palace). Apparently, it hit historic attendance records this year, a wonderful bellwether for Vegas dining.

On the other hand,  at the risk of getting myself banned henceforth,  I went away feeling an air of “same ol’ same ol” about much of the weekend, and a spirit of dutifulness rather than inspiration from many of the chefs. Despite Bon Appetit Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport’s sincere efforts to revitalize . That could just be that I’m a jaded jerk, or that I just missed the truly special moments, but I also didn’t seem to have the sort of “gee whizzy” interactions with paying customers and newcoming media that I have in years past.

I’ll get the misgivings out of the way, and if you aren’t interested, just skip to the good stuff:

I’m sure it’s my fault. But, having attended several festivals  in other cities recently, if I had to point out one continuing difference, it comes down to Property Politics. No one force behind Vegas Uncork’d is to blame (including the LVCVA, MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, and this year, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas), but when they consider each other competitors throughout the remainder of the year, there seems to be an inability to work together even for one weekend towards the greater cause of showing Las Vegas’ undeniable city-wide strength as a dining destination. As it was again—maybe even moreso—this year, events were not interactive or collaborative overall, but divided up between properties as if no one would notice: Caesars Palace hosted all the Master Series Dinners, Bellagio held nearly all the wine and spirits events, Mandalay Bay touted Alain Ducasse, Hubert Keller and Charlie Palmer, all per usual… Even at the Grand Tasting, booths were divided into neighborhoods representing the properties, to a great extent.

When you have major Vegas-bred talents like Brian Howard and Geno Bernardo and even Mitsuo Endo doing nothing more than handing out bites at booths, you really aren’t celebrating the best of Vegas.

Don’t even get me started on a festival which calls itself Uncork’d, in the world’s greatest city for Sommeliers, with such a scant representation of that talent, and mediocre wines being poured.

And since major food properties Wynn and Venetian/Palazzo were not involved this year, star chefs like Batali and Lagasse were no-shows (though that’s nothing new). No Collichio either.  Though that was arguably made up by the appearance of Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, the Bromberg brothers, Costas Spiladis, etc… there was, in the end, even less formal interaction between chefs than in previous years. What is the point of getting chefs together in one place, if not to hear what they have to discuss, or even cook together? What kind of a block party do you have  if you won’t allow your kids to play with the neighbors?

Ask certain persons very high up in the Bon Appetit hierarchy about this, and they will agree, with a heavy sigh. Maybe they, and I, just have a different vision of a festival than the marketing powers-that-be . Maybe that’s because we’ve seen other festivals in other cities large and small work so well.

Now to the happy stuff:

The festival started on Thursday with a lunch commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Spago in the Forum Shops, an event that arguably deserved even more pomp. Not only was Wolfgang Puck the first world-class chef to stake a claim in Vegas in the early ‘90s, even more remarkable is the fact that his Spago is virtually the only fine dining destination from that era still operating on the Strip, and still respected.

Chef Puck and his right-hand man David Robins both shared memories with Adam Rapoport, before a simple but delicious lunch of white asparagus salad, grilled branzino and strawberry shortcake.

Afterward, Eric Klein, the actual Chef of the room, gave me his own unsolicited testimonial about what a positive experience working for Puck has been. It’s a tale I’ve heard from many, at several of his restaurants, and it speaks volumes (not to mention the who’s-who of now-famous chefs that have passed through his kitchens).

From there, the assembled guests decamped to the Strip front of Caesars, to watch Wolfgang saber a bottle of Mionetto prosecco (shameless sponsor plug!) before a carefully curated and arranged selection of Vegas Star Chefs (ahem) and Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins. Having dispensed formalities in the Vegas heat, all gathered tightly on the North patio of Serendipity 3 for some of that prosecco and a few rather impressively elegant bites by S3 Exec Chef Michael Wolf.

During the afternoon, Mionetto  and Bon Appetit wine editor David Lynch  hosted a vertical tasting of some of their Italian labels at Old Homestead, including Castello  di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva ‘Il Poggio,’ dating back to 1964, and Villa de Capezzana Sangiovese, showing remarkable variances in vintages.

Then it was time for the Master Series Dinners: Although Guy Savoy, François Payard, Bobby Flay and Rao’s Chef Nicole Grimes all hosted dinners, I chose to attend Michel Richard’s, simply because I expected it would include a level of cooking not normally available at his casual Central. I was rewarded, surprisingly, with being able to dine with the tres jolie chef at his table, along with Mr. Lynch and fellow critic Max Jacobson.  Travel maven Sophie Gayot co-hosted and Central Event Director Rebecca Coles announced the courses.

Conversing with Mr. Jacobson in French (which they must have assumed the rest of us didn’t understand), Chef Richard admitted the restaurant wasn’t delivering to his expectations as of yet, and that doing a 24 hour venue was a new challenge, but that he couldn’t be more committed to making it work—since his own money was invested!


Chefs Jean Joho and Michel Richard

However, none of that was a concern for this meal , which was lovely at all turns. As fellow expat French chef Jean Joho joined us for the meal, we enjoyed five excellent representations of Richard’s minimalist dishes with maximum flavor, in leisurely succession:

• A creamy light and savory cold asparagus Vichyssoise, paired with Ferrari Carrano Fumé Blanc 2010

• An enchanting tomato tartare, full of sweet, bright flavor and texture, paired with Chateau D’Esclans “Whispering Angel Provence Rosé 2010

• An excellent piece of seared halibut, snow white, tender and moist, in a lemongrass emulsion with one perfect carrot and some rather large English peas, paired with Lucien Albrecht  Riesling 2010 (palate of apricot, honey, pear, peach and lemon)

• A small but very savory piece of braised short rib in a syrah reduction with some very cheesy polenta and a cheese crisp, paired with D’Arenberg “The Footbolt” Shiraz  2009

• For dessert, a featherlight  strawberry and rhubarb cheesecake filled with dense puree  and paired with sparkling Banfi Brachetto d’Acqui


Softshell Crab Taco by Todd English P.U.B.


A day like that might be enough to put the most intrepid gastronome into a coma, but it was not over yet! Finally,  I ran over to the Bellagio for Follow That Food Truck, a timely new event pairing some of Vegas’ food trucks (Haulin’ Balls, Lola D’s) next to street food by some MGM restaurants, including Todd English P.U.B., Jean-Georges Steakhouse,  Julian Serrano Tapas, and even Michael Mina. It seemed  a bit odd that Vegas’ premier trucks Slidin’ Thru and Fukuburger weren’t included, but  the Star Chef street food and Jack Daniels punch made up for any sins…including entertainment by Zowie Bowie. Jus t kidding.  The night ended sharing Moet Ice Imperial champagne with departing Bellagio mixologist Matt Myers. Bon chance en Vietnam, Matt!

Thanks to Sabrina Chapman for some photography , and to Caesars for one stock shot of Central ;-)

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