Vegas Uncork’d 2013 (Rao’s, Border Grill, The Grand Tasting, KÀ & Blueberry Hill)

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Several years ago (in 2008, to be exact), I covered Vegas Uncork’d, Bon Appetit’s Las Vegas food festival, for the Food Network. That was a whirlwind of a trip; I interviewed so many chefs and attended so many meals, it felt like I ran a marathon. The nice people there invited me back many times but I was never able to justify the flight from New York. This time, though, I realized I could go just by driving. So I said “yes” and brought along my friend Diana.

The drive to Vegas was easy enough, especially listening to Alec Baldwin’s podcast interview with Patti Lupone on the way there and his interview with Debbie Reynolds on our way back (could we get any gayer? Actually yes: at some point I was blasting “I Am Who I Am” from La Cage while passing a biker Easy Rider style).

We were put up at the Mandalay Bay which is one of the less gaudy Vegas hotels. After checking in to our room, we decided to try our luck at the Sex & The City slot machine:

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I don’t mean to brag but I won $5 by matching Miranda’s dress to another dress in the video bonus round.

Our first Vegas meal, at a Mandalay Bay restaurant called Citizens, wasn’t notable enough to include here (it was a chicken tarragon sandwich) but the funny part was when the hostess asked us if we wanted to sit on the patio. See this picture?

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The patio is the area by the hostess stand. That’s Vegas for you!

That night we gussied ourselves up (here we are smoldering for the camera):

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Took a tram to the Excelsior and then started the big walk to Caesar’s Palace for our dinner at Rao’s. It was a big walk. We passed New York New York:

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A pop-in wedding chapel:

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And, once in Caesar’s, Elton John underwear from his gift shop:

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At 7:30, the dinner started at Rao’s.

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In case you don’t know the mythology surrounding Rao’s, the New York restaurant is so exclusive nobody can go there unless they “own” a table. So Woody Allen owns a table, as do all kinds of celebrities, and a normal person like you or me can’t go there unless we call in a favor. Unlikely to happen.

The one in Caesar’s Palace, though, is much more accessible and a great chance to experience Rao’s famous food without the fanfare. This particular evening was hosted by Frank Pellegrino, Jr. who was a really charming host.

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At some point he came to our table and asked if he could get us anything. “A reservation in New York?” I joked. He laughed knowingly then told me they’re opening up in L.A. “Will it be as exclusive as the one in New York or more open like the one here?” He replied, “It’ll be more like New York.” So much for eating there!

We shared our table with two very fascinating people. The first, Greg Morago, is the food editor of the Houston Chronicle. We discovered a shared love of musicals (don’t mention Bernadette Peters to him, he can’t stand her) which our other table mate, Elsa Navarrete, from Mexico City, didn’t quite share. But we talked to her all about her upcoming wedding and where to eat in Mexico. Here we all are at our table.

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As for the food, it was served family style. You might think this is bread and tomato sauce:

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But that’s actually an orange marmalade condiment to go with this bone marrow:

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This plate of pastas had lots to recommend it (my favorite was the meatball):

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(The one on the left was fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta, the one on the right was gnocchi with duck ragu.)

The entree plate had halibut on the left and venison on the right:

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The dessert involved bread pudding, grapefruit sorbet and lemon tiramisu:

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Clearly, we had to be rolled out of there we ate so much. Look it’s Donny & Marie on a hotel:

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That night, we slept the sleep of very full, fat people. The next morning we woke up to start it all over again.

There was breakfast at that Citizens place again (well, just a muffin and a coffee), then we walked around until it was time for our “Three Margarita” lunch at The Border Grill which was right in our hotel.

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Without question, this lunch was the highlight of our whole trip. Mary Sue Milliken is a national treasure, an incredibly knowledgable, lovable chef whose deep enthusiasm for learning and cooking is positive infectious. She did something so extraordinary, I’m going to put it in bold: she demo-ed every element of every dish from a three course tasting menu over an hour and a half without breaking a sweat.

She was sharing a stage with Bon Appetit editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, who was a charming host and the Vegas Border Grill executive chef Michael Minor. Here she is holding a lobster:

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Diana and I were so impressed by her. It really made me miss the old days of the Food Network when chefs like her and Mario Batali and Bobby Flay and Sara Moulton would really teach you how to cook. Maybe that’s a separate post.

The three Margarita lunch started, incredibly enough, with a margarita: an Acai Margarita that Diana declared “one of the best drinks I’ve ever had.”

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Turns out that was a bonus margarita, there were still three margaritas to come.

But first, look who’s sharing our table: Robin Leach from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Does that make me rich and famous if he was at our table? (One look at my bank account and I can answer that question: NO.)

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The first official margarita was an amazingly refreshing Cucumber and Cilantro Margarita:

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Such a classy touch: Mary Sue Milliken provided everyone with a little booklet of all the recipes she demo-ed/served that day. So that margarita? It’s made by muddling 1 cucumber cut into 1/4-inch wheels and 1/2 bunch of cilantro in a cocktail shaker. Then you add ice, 1 1/4 ounces tequila blanco, 1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice (Diana says that ratio can’t be right, you can’t have more lime juice than tequila), and 1/2 ounce agave nectar. Then you shake and strain into a cilantro salt rimmed glass filled with ice. How do you make cilantro salt? Chop 1 bunch cilantro very finely and add to 1/2 cup salt.

Before the first course came, we ate the most incredible guacamole:

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The first course was a Corn Arepa with lobster salad and a fried egg.

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Oh my gosh, this was tasty. And there was so much going on: lobster in the salsa (Milliken cuts it in half while it’s still alive so she can poach the raw meat in butter, which she demo-ed), a bright guajillo salsa but, the best part, was that corn arepa made by mixing fresh corn with corn meal, cooking until thick, and then stirring in crème fraîche. At the end it’s fried in butter. Oh my.

The next margartia involved Milliken throwing tamarind pods into the audience so we could see what they’re all about:

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The margarita inspired by it was a Tamarind Chinchon Margarita with Casamigos Reposado Tequila (George Clooney’s brand), fresh-squeezed orange juice, Spanish anis sweet liqueur, tamarind puree.

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If you look at that picture, you can see three margaritas happening on the table at this point. I was feeling the buzz.

That margarita was paired with a Pepita, Flax Seed and Sesame-Crusted Spring Lamb Chop served with jalapeño jelly, mint, sherry vinegar chutney, fried crispy yucca, and quickly seared spring pea tendrils.

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I was so impressed by this dish because Milliken was cooking for a lot of people this day–these events are almost like catered affairs. So to make something so complex for so many people all at once was really a marvel. And the technique required to prepare it is complex, as Minor explained when he began searing the chops. “You don’t want the heat too high or you’ll burn the crust.” You try doing that for 60 to 70 people and you’ll understand how impressive this was.

The final course came with my favorite margarita of the day: a Pineapple Vanilla Margarita with pineapple brown sugar vanilla infused Patron Silver, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar.

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(The rim has dehydrated pineapple on it.)

The dessert was La Bomba Rice Pudding with spring fruit compote.

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I’ll confess I only knew Mary Sue Milliken from Top Chef Masters before this (I somehow missed Too Hot Tamales) but now I’ll be a lifelong, die-hard fan. I was lucky enough to cook with Susan Feniger for my cookbook, for my next book I’m writing the whole thing about Mary Sue Milliken. Consider me obsessed.

After this lunch, we took a much-needed nap and then, believe it or not, we attended a Grand Tasting at Caesar’s Palace.

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This is a great event if you want to experience lots of little bites from Vegas’s most celebrated chefs. So there was Joel Robuchon, the legendary French chef, wandering around outside his booth for L’Atelier Joel Robuchon:

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(You can’t see him in that picture but he was there.)

That’s Rick Moonen outside his RM Seafood booth:

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And my new hero, Mary Sue Milliken, cooking up a storm after cooking up a storm earlier that day in our cooking demo. This woman is a goddess!

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At Michael Mina’s booth, they served Shepherd’s Pie in these adorable disposable dutch ovens:

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I don’t think Gordon Ramsay was in attendance, but here’s Diana with one of his sliders next to a chef making a funny face next to a picture of screaming Gordon Ramsay.

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It was a good slider if a bit raw on the inside.

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Can you see Bobby Flay posing for pictures at his Mesa Grill booth?

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At this point, the crowd grew so intense I had to slip away, I was feeling a bit claustrophobic. Diana did one more round and then we left to go see Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ at the MGM Grand.

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I’m a big Cirque du Soleil fan and really enjoyed this show, though I liked it less than “O” (still the best in my book) and The Beatles show which we saw last time we were in Vegas.

The next morning, it was time to leave Las Vegas though, sadly, we missed the Bellagio Block party where, at the Chase Sapphire Preferred Grill Challenge a Cordon Bleu culinary student named Todd Huelsman won a $20,000 scholarship after winning a grill-off with his partner Todd English. (Funny enough I competed against Todd English and Lorraine Brocco in a cactus cook off when I was there in 2008. But I didn’t win $20,000. I didn’t even win.)

On Saturday morning, Diana and I packed our bags and followed one of your suggestions for breakfast at Blueberry Hill Family Restaurant.

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This place was totally off the strip, four miles away, and was a perfect way to experience a very different side of Vegas. (I know a lot of you wanted me to try Lotus of Siam but that’s not open for lunch on Saturdays.)

Here’s an Instagram picture to give you a feel of the classic diner interior:

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Here’s my diner coffee, which hit the spot.

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But you don’t go to Blueberry Hill for coffee you go for one thing and one thing only: the pancakes. And these were damn fine buttermilk pancakes.

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Fluffy and clean-tasting, they’re made from scratch right there in the back. I got mine with eggs and bacon as part of the bonanza breakfast, as did Diana:

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And that, my friends, concludes our Las Vegas adventure.

Thanks so much to everyone at Bon Appetit, especially Frederika Brookfield and Matt Duckor, for having us out. We had a blast and now I’m going to spend 40 hours at the gym to burn it all off. See you again next year!

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