Ten Best Spring Menu Dishes: 2014

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us once again; flowers bloom, seeds sprout, and chefs on the strip change their menus.  With a cornucopia of fresh, seasonal ingredients from around the world become available to experiment with.  For the most dedicated of foodies and industry pros, this is the NFL Draft, the Oscars, and The Bachelor season premier all in one.  Through pain-staking research and much caloric-intake, brought before you here are the best of the best, displaying the great skill, creativity, and utilization of spring’s great green bounty.

Marinated Scallops, Carnevino

Anyone familiar with the cooking style of Executive Chef Nicole Brisson knows the near-Sisyphean lengths she takes to procure seasonal vegetables, even ones with such short windows of availability like pea greens and ramps.  She utilizes the half-dill/half-basil flavor of fresh, living pea tendrils in many of her dishes when she can, and crisp, flavorful watermelon raddish in her marinated scallops.  Light, sweet, very rare scallops are topped with a salad of root vegetable, herb, and English pea puree, a perfectly fresh and clean taste of the sea.


Uni Buttered Corn, Yonaka

There is never an unoriginal dish at Yonaka, and this dish shows the kind of outside-the-box thinking they are known for.  Creamy, savory uni butter and bits of salty uni “bottarga” top a simple split cob of fire roasted corn.  It’s a very interesting combination, but Chef Ramir can always be counted on to bring items from any cuisine together in great ways.


Les Cuisses de Grenouille, Le Cirque

With each menu changeover, Chef Paul Lee has ventured further and further into unique territory, further cementing Le Cirque as one of the most expressive, artful menus on the strip.  Dishes like this one exemplify that, taking sautéed Florida frog’s legs and creamy potato gnocchi, pairing it with spring ramps (a member of the leek family with a slightly garlic flavor), tomato confit, parsley coulis, and mimolette ‘crisps’.  The result is a wonderful palate, highlighting the quality of the ingredients and dazzling the palate with its savory, bright flavors.


DiverSeaScallops, RM Seafood

It is of course fitting that one of the premier seafood restaurants in Vegas would have a stellar scallop dish.  This one in particular takes soft, seared scallops and perches them on a shrimp carpaccio with octopus medallions.  These are in a lemon buerre blanc and bouillabaisse gel, with shaved fennel, micro carrots, and blistered tomatoes.  Owner Chef Rick Moonen and Executive Chef Johnny Church knock it out of the park with this one, with an old-world set of flavors presented in a perfectly unique, complex way.  The quality of the seafood is on amazing display in this dish.


Instant Bacon, StripSteak

It was big news a while ago when Chef Gerald Chin went from the Wicked Spoon buffet to head up Michael Mina’s steak house, and now with this spring menu changeover, we have his first original dishes on a set menu.  Among several real winners (a foie trio with a cured mousse macaroon is a notable one), perhaps the most exiting dish is the “Instant Bacon”.  It is a cube of pork belly, rubbed in Chinese five spice and roasted, with a tempura oyster, soy glaze, and perched on a jicama salad.  The “Instant” part that makes it bacon, it is placed under glass and inundated with hardwood smoke.  Calling it bacon doesn’t do the justice, because the final product is so complex and unique, it has shot past the realm of bacon into a whole new territory.


Loup de Mer, Comme Ca

Chef Daniel Ontiveros is the new Chef de Cuisine at the Vegas location of Comme Ca, taking the place of now Corporate Executive Chef Brian Howard, and among a great collection of new dishes is their Loup de Mer.  First coated in aromatic tumeric oil, the fish is pan roasted for a crispy exterior and served with charred lemon butter, green garlic sauce, and melted spring onion.  It is a great departure from less risky Loup de Mers too commonly seen, and the trio of strong flavors only compliments the fish, not overpowers it.  Fun tricks like tumeric oil (or the saffron aoli on their seared foie dish) are portentous of even more great things still to come from Comme Ca.


Warm Duck Salad,Marche Bacchus

This menu change represents the efforts of both consulting Chef Alex Stratta and new Chef de Cuisine Jose Aleman.  After a period of experimenting and training, nearly the whole menu has been revamped, including this extremely fun duck salad.  Moist, rich duck balanced against crisp julienne pink apple and sweet heritage grapes, it’s the perfect balance of sweet and savory, fat and acid.


Madrid Style Tripe and Tongue Stew, Fleur

Chef Jose Avila has been doing some really impressive things for the various beer or wine dinners the Mandalay Bay hosts, and using that outlet to build a great menu with the hits.  Using offal to great success, this spicy soup of tripe and tongue has a big spice flavor, but is addictively savory.  It’s rustic, but dishes like this (and the best octopus I’ve had in a LONG time) that will assert Fleur ahead of less adept small-plates.


Colorado Lamb Loin, Sage

I can honestly say I have never had a poorly executed dish at Sage.  Chef Richard Caramota is almost superhuman with hitting just the exact right notes with a dish, and the lamb loin is no exception.  The lean slices of loin were complimented by morels and a charred spring onion reduction, and plated on top of a spring pea/wheat berry salad (imagine if bulgur and lentils had a baby, and it was raised by flax).  Then, the real kicker, leaves from celery hearts.  The green, young bitter leaves add such a unique aromatic flavor, and from such a humble source.  Yet another great dish among many great dishes on that menu.


Wild Washington Halibut, Aquaknox

As I’ve said in the past, Chef Steve Aguglia has taken Aquaknox to new and exiting levels every menu change.  I wanted to put their incredible Chicken Tandoori on this list as well, but in the interest of round numbers, let us just imagine I did that one too.  The dish that tied with the chicken but I felt displayed more of their spirit was the Wild-Caught Washington Halibut.  Harvested on a Quinault Indian tribe and processed that day (Halibut is rarely ever day-boat), they poach it in butter, sear it, and plate it with a shrimp, corn, and edamame succotash with basil-butter.  The fish has a ton of meaty, buttery flavor, and goes well with the super fresh and unique succotash.  Aquaknox has been going way above and beyond with their sourcing (much of their produce, herbs, and microgreens comes from Pahrump and surrounding farms), and really taking the task of churning out exiting food every menu change.  Dishes like this are rising them to some real specific prominence.

Public House Hosts Beer vs. Booze Showdown

The Public House in The Venetian has many reasons to celebrate, and allowed them to culminate in the popular form of a course pairing dinner showdown. Reason One to celebrate: The grand old time that is the Nightclub and Bar Show was in town, a thing that to liquor professionals is like a week-long bacchanalia. Reason Two: Grant Grill of San Diego Mixologist Jeff Josenhans was in town for the NCB Show, and a friendly competition with hometown-hero Cicerone Russell Gardner seemed like the natural thing to do. Reason Three: Do we really need a reason?It sounds amazing! After the little knot of other food writers said their hellos, the staff wasted no time in getting starting this off right.

The first course was their crispy duck egg roll, with a little bit of apricot jam. This was paired with a truly great beer by Jolly Pumpkin, Bam Bier. The white pepper tastes and funky tartness from their famous wild yeast cut the richness and the oil of the fried roll. Jeff’s cocktail, the Asian Cowboy Sour, did a great job contrasting by using High West White Whiskey, pressed Meyer lemon, purple basil and Cointreau. Right into the second course was a Public House favorite, and a running item in all of Anthony Meidenbauer’s menus, grilled octopus salad. The light salad and sweet charred octopus was paired with a kind of yeast-forward and slightly bitter Grimbergen Blonde Belgian ale and a cocktail called the “Venetian Arrangement.” It was made with Sarpa Di Poli Grappa Moscato, Antica Carpano Sweet Vermouth, a sweet aromatic wine from the barachetto grape, Fee Brother’s Lavender Water, pressed Genoa lemon and muddled rosemary. The cocktail was so complex and so unique, but its execution came off perfectly. It was aromatic, floral, and balanced against the dish perfectly.

The “main” course was a braised short rib, cooked and reduced in Deschutes Black Butte Porter, with a side of English pea mashed potatoes. Now, being braised in a rather smoky porter, both the mixologist and the cicerone went in the direction of smoke. Russell went for something of a wildcard with Aect Ochlenferla Urbock Rauchbier. Smoked beers are often heavy-bodied and semi-sweet, but this kept the smoke but was more clean and crisp, like an urbock lager usually is. Jeff created a cocktail called “Spirit Grocer’s Soiree” using Templeton Rye, smoked dark muscovado simple syrup, Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned Bitters, and a Guinness foam topped with just a touch of smoked paprika. The whole course was smoke-central, and both had their own distinctive qualities towards the dish.

This next course was somewhat obtuse in the description, “Beer, Cheese and Booze Trio.” What it actually was is a trio of cheeses, each one paired with one beer and one small cocktail. The first cheese/beer/booze bite was a St. Andre triple cream, a soft rind buttery cow’s milk cheese, paired with a citrusy trippel-Anchorage Brewing Co.’s The Tide and Its Takers, and a “Little Jig” of Tito’s Vodka, St. Germain, tangerine champagne and cardamom. The aged English cheddar went with a nice malty Firestone DBA and a Beefeater Gin, Graham’s Tawny Port, bruised parsley, lime and Luxardo Syrup Cocktail. Lastly was a slightly salty and in-your-face American style blue cheese, Roquefort Blue, paired with a very American-style Sculpin IPA, and a cocktail of Pusser’s 15 Rum, a sauternes wine, and fresh pressed pineapple juice. The realization that the mixologist went for the classic pairing of wine and cheese, but using wine-centric cocktails, was quite stunning. This one cheese course was like a meal in itself, but there was still dessert to go.

The final course was a dark chocolate mini-tart with a little layer of crumbled peppered bacon. Both masters of pairings went top-notch with the finale, with Russell choosing the very heavy bodied and complex Firestone 16, full of toffee, bourbon, and especially chocolate notes. Jeff went with a cocktail called “Smooth Criminal,” a mix of Breaking and Entering St.George Bourbon, white creme de cacao, Funkin Raspberry Puree, and cinnamon-infused whipped cream. Honestly, dinners like these only have one winner: the diners. Both Russell Gardner the Cicerone and Jeff Josenhans the Mixologist did an amazing job of not only creating a wonderful dinner of libations, but showing to everyone how true masters of their respective crafts operate.

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This was a ton of fun!

Cicerone v. Sommelier Showdown at Aureole

Cicerone: Sarah Johnson
Sommelier: Cristophe Tassan

With the importance of craft beer and the profession of a cicerone rising, traditionalists in the wine community may be leaning back on their heels at the hottest new staple in the Food and Beverage scene. While both practitioners of the fermented arts are no doubt dedicated to their service and education exploits, there is something of a friendly rivalry between those who plant their flag on the beer or wine side of the border. While there are so few beer-lovers expert enough out there to call themselves a cicerone, and essentially none that can be called an expert at both, the position of beer as a pairing has been received well by even the neophytes of the scene. And why not? What beer lacks in the pedigree and subtly of wine, it makes up with variety and approachable nature in spades. That said, there is still much debate on the pairings of both, right down to a dish-by-dish basis, with great points and criticisms for both sides. As something of an inauguration for the Mandalay Bay’s new Director of Food and Beverage and our city’s first lady cicerone, Sarah Johnson was charged with making a beer pairing for a five-course meal at Aureole. The twist was that Aureole’s wine director and resident sommelier, Christophe Tassan, made his choices on the same menu, with the diners to decide which pairing is the victor.

Of the five courses, there were stand out winners in both categories, and even a few “too close to call” moments. Wine truly won out on the first course, Charlie’s onion soup with foie gras, truffle and gruyere puff pastry being paired with Pommery “Pop” extra brut champagne, dry enough to cut through the richness, but with a sweet and complex flavor to complement the earthiness. On the beer side, the cheese course of a rock blue and poached pear tart, alongside a fromage blanc with artisanal maple syrup, fit best with the Rochefort “8” Trappist quad. The Oloroso sherry was an interesting match with the sweet portions, but it may have lacked the effervescent and full bodied properties needed to work with both strong aged and creamy cheeses. Dessert was also a big win for beer, mainly carried by the spiced mini-carrot cake with super light cream cheese frosting from the “American dessert sampler” being a nearly perfect pairing with Old Rasputin XV Anniversary Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout. The heavily roasted and chocolaty brew played off the cake so well you’d imagine they were made for each other.

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Fun With Beer: Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale -or- The Problems With Complexity

There’s a trend in all things consumable these days, and very likely in entertainment as well, for the insatiable need for more and more stimulation in the form of complexity.  A look at your average recipe-swap on the internet, and you’ll find that the ones that garner the most attention are the ones that shove as many flavors as possible.  Cranberry pomegranate green tea buttercream ganache cupcakes with coconut lemon basil frosting.  Cherry chocolate Dr. Pepper marinated pulled pork with aged, roasted, and pureed serrano, chipotle, jokola, habanero, jalapeno, shoshito, hatch, and bell peppers.  Snickerdoodle cookie dough and birthday cake batter ice cream, peanut butter and jelly ice cream, and cayenne dark chocolate truffle and Earl Grey tea ice cream neopolitan sandwich on oatmeal bacon salted caramel cookies.

Why am I proving my own point wrong by describing such seemingly delicious food?  Imagine a musical super team-up of Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Nirvana, and Yo Yo Ma.  Could be amazing, right?  Unless Freddy and Elton were playing the guitar, Jimi the drums, Nirvana was a flugelhorn section, and Yo Yo Ma was the leading vocalist.  Ok, this may be a bit of an extreme example, but the fact is that so many of these recipes are coming from people who MIGHT not be the best judge of these things.  There’s an ‘event horizon’ of complexity in all things, and putting every pepper you can name in or just loading on as many combinations is a sure fire way to make it all taste like a mush.  We learned the basics of this in kindergarten; mixing all the paints together doesn’t make rainbow paint, it makes deuce-brown.  Combined with the battle call of “More bacon!”, there’s much to dodge out there for this reason.
Thankfully, this is a trend that has hit beer minimally.  There have been certain transgressors (I’m looking at you, Maple Bacon Voodoo Doughnut!), but the serious connoisseurs have universally reviled them.  Some, however, skirt this universality and can be very polarizing.  Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale is one of these beers, and taking a look at the big-two review sites highlights this.  Beer Advocate gives it basically a C+, Rate Beer an abysmal 33.  Now, in matters of this, I try to forget that Beer Advocate owner (Todd Alstrom) is one of the biggest douches on planet earth (something about Hurricane Sandy and Storm Nemo and terrible schadenfreude).  Generally I consult both, but my own experience puts me in the Rate Beer camp (also, I have to admit I really like their App), this beer is downright disappointing.  As a brown ale it’s far too light-bodied, as a nut brown ale it’s hardly nutty, but as a maple nut brown ale…  Well, you can taste SOMETHING like maple.  It’s just cloyingly sweet, like imitation maple breakfast syrup in a just passable brown ale.  I’m not dissuaded from trying Tommyknocker’s other stuff (I hear the imperial maple nut brown ale is better, maybe), but this is one I won’t trifle with again.

Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill: The Big Guy Lets His Hair Down

In an absolute flurry of restaurants opening on the strip, one after another, Gordon Ramsay seems to be digging his roots deep here in Las Vegas. Of the three (so far) we know about, there is a steakhouse in the Paris, an upscale burger restaurant in Planet Hollywood, and, perhaps the most unlike the other two, a pub and grill in Caesar’s Palace. A far cry from the pristine white tablecloth and haute cuisine of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon where Chef Ramsay trained. After being the popular face of fine dining for so long, has the perfectionist Chef switched gears for this Pub?

Duo of rillettes

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Fun With Beer: Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Brewing Co. - Fire Rock Pale Ale

Kona Brewing Co., I have to admit, has some pretty solid beers.  I picked up their summer 12 pack to satiate that kind of “just whenever” kind of beer need a brew-loving household has.  It had four each of their Lonboard Lager, Koko Brown Ale, and Fire Rock Pale Ale.  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting too much out of any, especially the Pale Ale.  With poi, pineapples, and papaya, Hawaii has never really struck me as a place to enjoy the bitterness of things.  Despite this, and with certainly permitting weather to enjoy a summer brew, I picked it up.

For the botanists among us, the specific hop varieties in this brew are Galena, Cascade, and Mt. Hood.  In addition to this bitter-floral melange, there are a blend of roasted malts giving a very distinct copper color.  Quite a few Kona beers, and Hawaiian beers overall, include some kind of special tropical ingredient to remind you that “hey, this beer is from Hawaii.”  Their Wailua Wheat has tropical passion fruit, the Koko brown ale has Coconut, Pipeline Porter has Kona coffee, but the Fire Rock has none of these fanciful ingredients.  Not even any macadamia or Spam.  Now, there’s two trains of thought I came to with this: either they are being purists about this and want to make a good Pale Ale stand on it’s own, or they just wanted a pale ale on the roster to kind of fill space in a 12 pack.  Can’t say I know too much about Kona as a company, but just looking it up, they don’t seem the type.  They may do a bit of remote brewing with a craft beer network, but they’ve got the whole solar power, sustainability, and giving back thing that has become a hallmark of good semi-large craft breweries.
This ale pours a very nice amber/copper color with just a finger’s width of head.  It’s not super clear, but you can certainly see just a bit of carbonation going, slow and steady.  The aroma certainly gives a hint of pine and citrus hops, with a good backing of those sweet caramel malts.  I could already tell this wasn’t going to be one of those super light -bodied pale ales, nor was it going to be a let down in the hops category.  The first taste was more of the piney hops, but definitely more of a floral breath to them.  In fact, the floral along with the citrus gave a bit of a pineapple taste to it.  Very enjoyable, and fitting with the Hawaiian style.  There is also quite a bit of a brown sugar sweetness from the malt, and even more in the mouth feel.  It had a definite sticky viscosity that added to the malty sweet taste.
A very solid pale ale overall, very easy to drink.  It may not satisfy those looking for lip puckering bitterness, but it will satisfy lovers of just well balanced, full bodied, hop-forward ales.  A great pairing, just like their website suggests, with a very wide variety of foods.  I’ve had it with a chili, a salmon, and a creamy dessert, all of them were properly complimented by Fire Rock.  A great candidate for what I was looking for, a drinkable “just whenever” beer.

Lucky Rice: Las Vegas Night Market


This saturday you could hear a dial tone all over the Cosmopolitan, because the LUCKY RICE night festival was off the HOOK.

Saturday the 23rd, lovers of Asian-inspired cuisine were treated to select bites by chefs hailing from Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, and beyond.  A sold-out crowd is certainly a good omen for the inaugural Las Vegas stop on this New York based food festival.  Innovative, unique, and world-class flavors were the name of the game and our home-town heroes were bringing out an amazing array of bites right alongside some of the biggest names in Asian cuisine.

The Cosmopolitan’s own mixologists, as well as some recognized names from the bar and nightclub industry, were in charge of the night’s libations.  They shook, stirred, strained, measured, and poured their masterful concoctions through the night, each of them highlighting the Asian influences.  One of the sponsors for the LuckyRice Night Market was Bombay Sapphire East, which is their Asian botanical ingredient infused blend.  Tony Abou-Ganim, drawing from his experience pairing with Chef Jet Tila’s cuisine, was mixing up “Bubbling Rose”, a mix of Bombay East, homemade hibiscus syrup, lemon, and champagne.  Jet Tila himself was bringing out pork belly steam buns, and a braised short rib taco with brussels sprouts and a spicy, savory Kochujang salsa.  The buns themselves were very unique in that they were fried, kind of like a doughnut (pictured below).
Another standout dish was from Ari Kolender of Red Medicine in LA; chicken dumplings fried crispy on the outside with caramelized sugar, pork fat, lemongrass, and a little side of savory confitures to dip.  Colin Fukunaga and Robert “Mags” Magsalin of the Fuku Burger food truck were making bite sized versions of their Fuku fried chicken: honey sesame chicken with a cinnamon sugar fried andagi, drizzled with jackfruit maple syrup.

Ari Kolander's chicken dumplings

Chris Hopkins of the Cosmopolitan was making his aptly named cocktail, “Year of the Dragon”.  It was made with caramelized pineapple, Bombay East, yellow chartreuse, jalapeno tobasco, and a cardamom lemongrass syrup, topped off with a black pepper and sugar rim.  This beautifully complex concoction was ready right as you enter, alongside fellow Cosmopolitan residentAnthony Meidenbauer’s Thai pork ‘bahn-mi’ style slider.  With a coconut curry aioli, asian slaw, and thai basil.  It paired well with his nutty and botanical pandan cupcake with coconut cream.  Shirley Chung, already adept at the Asian fusion game at China Poblano by Jose Andres, was making a “Ro Jia Mo” red braised pork belly street sandwich and Escabeshe marinated pork ribs in a mole Amarillo sauce.  Paul Qui, Uchiko owner and Top Chef Texas winner, was making a sunchoke dashi with summer vegetables, a fried zucchini flower, and Bottarga, a cured sea urchin roe.

Cocktail by Hopkins, Burger by Meidenbauer

Naturally, someone was going to take a bao steam bun and crank it up to eleven.  Eddie Huang of Baohaus NYC, naturally, made a sous-vide char sui pork bao with Chinese salty relish, Taiwanese red sugar, and crushed peanuts.  Right next door to his booth was Southern Wine and Spirit’s sake tasting booth where Sake Sommelier Louis de Santos was serving up samples from the best of their sake catalog.  Charles Phan was on the upstairs deck serving his garlic beef rolls with thai basil and dotted with just a bit of their fiery house made sriracha.  A bit smokier and with a fruity note from the chilies, this was head and shoulders above your average rooster sauce.

Pichet Ong's Dessert

There were a few members of the LuckyRice culinary council, those charged with being the drive and spirit behind the event, serving up food from their own booths.  Susur Lee, a veteran of Top Chef Master and owner of Lee in Toronto, made a juicy rack of lamb Thailandaise with mint chutney and curry sauce.  Fellow council member Pichet Ong (Qi, NYC) was the only dessert station, serving up olive oil torrejas with strawberries, maldon salt, and a big dollop of fresh whipped cream (pictured above).  Angelo Sosa of Top Chef All-Stars and Social Eatz in New York was behind one dish that really knocked it out of the park.  This sideways version of surf and turf was served on top of a hollowed bone with a few slices of fluke sashimi, with a scoop of bone marrow mixed with parmesan reggiano.  With just a little slice Japanese cucumber and finished with a blowtorch to get the parmesan just a bit toasty, this was one amazing little bite.  The line was consistently around the corner after word got around about this delectable dish.

Bone marrow and fluke sashimi

After such an uproarious first year here in Vegas, the LuckyRice Night Market is sure to visit us again.  With such amazing dishes and cocktails from so many talented chefs and mixologists, this event stands as one to clear your calendar for.