Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: Dean & Deluca Jalapeno Peach BBQ Sauce

By Dru Chai

Chances are, if you're reading this blog post, you probably have one or two more bottles of BBQ sauce in your fridge or pantry. I'm a sucker for BBQ sauce -- I will spontaneously buy a bottle just to try it out, no matter what the cost.

I was recently at an upscale home and garden store, and I came across a small display of specialty and "gourmet" goods. After looking around, I was quickly fixated on the collection of BBQ sauces from Dean & Deluca. One bottle in particular called to me -- the Jalapeno Peach BBQ sauce.

I instantly picked up the bottle and thought nothing of the $8 price tag. I certainly wasn't about spend an exorbitant amount of money on a tree ornament -- something that will appear once a year for a few weeks at a time. Now if it's food, count me in. I picked up the bottle and headed straight for the register.

Now there were a couple of other sauces on the shelf as well, Carolina and Memphis style. Were they intriguing? Certainly. I was a tad curious to discover how a high-end gourmet goods retailer would interpret these classic BBQ sauces. But nah, been there done that. I wanted something new.

Recently, I cracked open the bottle and sampled it with some grilled chicken breast. I glazed the chicken for a few minutes on my Craycort cast iron grate, and also used it as a dipping sauce once the meat was sliced. My first impression was that it was... peachy. Right off the bat, I could definitely taste and overpowering sweetness from the peach. I had to wait a while for the jalapeno to kick in.

I know the jalapeno isn't the hottest pepper on the Scoville scale, but I could tell that they toned down the spice level. The jalapeno definitely plays second fiddle to the peach, that's for sure. If the spice level was upped a couple more notches, it would've been a nice balance.

Dirty Smoke rating (3.0 out of 5 stars)
Because of the predominant sweetness of this BBQ sauce, I would recommend it with either grilled chicken or pork chop -- even shrimp (as the label says). Unless you're a big fan of Dean & Deluca, I would pass on this sauce.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Trip Report - Judging BBQ at World Food Championships '13

By Dru Chai

From a judge and visitor's perspective, the 2013 World Food Championships trumped the inaugural 2012 event by a wide margin. The event was held at the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown Vegas -- a vast improvement over the crowded Strip location last year. There were no grumpy bodyguards shadowing Adam Richman's every move.

400 competitors, 7 categories, and $300k in prize money. That's a lot at stake, for sure. Thousands applied to be a judge, and I was lucky enough to be selected (having a BBQ blog doesn't hurt either). Here's my quick and dirty Vegas trip report:

11/7 - I arrived in Vegas around noon and my first stop for lunch was Monta Ramen. I slurped my bowl of Kuro ramen (with black garlic oil) within a matter of minutes. People barely sat down and I was already out the door. I was really, really hungry.

Kuro ramen has black garlic oil -- perfect to keep the vampires away

After a satisfying lunch, it was time to visit my favorite casino -- The Mirage. It doesn't have that glitz like the newer hotels, but its location and comfy casino keeps me coming back. I played several sessions of double deck blackjack, hit some lucky streaks, and cashed out on top. Next, it was on to the sportsbook. Between college football, NBA, and the Lakers, I sat my ass on a plush leather chair for the next 5 hours. Yes, I was in heaven.

I got my fruit and vitamin C for the day

Having to wake up bright and early the next day for recipe judging, I decided to turn in early. Visions of ramen, blackjack, and the Lakers awesome 1-point win over the Rockets (take that Dwight Coward!) danced in my head as I slept the night away.

11/8 -  I woke up feeling refreshed and headed north on the 15 to downtown Vegas. There was some light traffic but not too bad. When I arrived at Fremont St, it was still bright and early, so I did a walk-through of the entire venue. Kitchen stadium was impressive, with dozens of stoves and ovens lined up row after row.

Smack dab on Fremont St in downtown Vegas

Look at all that exposed wiring... good thing it didn't rain!

After checking in at the judges table around 9am, it was time to judge the recipe category -- both pasta and mac 'n cheese. The group of judges included chefs, B-list food TV personalities, bloggers, and foodies. My six pasta dishes were less than impressive. One dish was overpowered by bleu cheese and another looked like something a 5-yr old could make -- it was just spaghetti with bolognese sauce.

I judged these mac 'n cheese entries --  good thing I like cheese.

The mac 'n cheese entries scored a lot better. One dish had awesome presentation -- huge lobster chunks in a mini skillet. Unfortunately, some of the lobster meat was a bit overcooked and chewy. My favorite was the shrimp mac 'n cheese. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, the pasta was al dente, and the cheese sauce was nice and creamy. I asked other judges if they were going to eat their leftover lobster and shrimp. I know, I have no shame.

After about an hour break, it was time to judge BBQ (preliminary round). The top scoring teams would then move on to compete in the final "World" food round -- given the choice of using different meat and more elaborate presentations.

Just in case anyone forgets.
Behind the judging tent... lots of happy judges eating BBQ.

Unlike KCBS sanctioned BBQ competitions, this one was missing the chicken category -- so just ribs, pork, and brisket. The ribs were the best of the three, by far. Most all of them were sweet, juicy and meaty -- not overcooked. Some ribs even had a slight hint of spice in the background, which was a welcome surprise. Usually competition ribs have a very sweet profile.

Leftover ribs after judging... gone within minutes.
This judge described BBQ like a seasoned CNN reporter.

The pulled pork and brisket weren't impressive at all. Perhaps one decent entry per category. It was a far cry from last year's judging experience, in which everything I had was excellent. After judging was done around 4pm, I was asked by the A&E crew to do a quick interview. Must be the shirt I was wearing, or they wanted some diversity (I'm not an old white guy with a pot belly).

"Uh, do I have anything stuck in my teeth?"

After a long day of judging 12 pasta dishes and 15 BBQ entries, I was more than stuffed and needed a nap. Talk about carb and protein overload! This was a well organized event, and kudos to all those involved. Fremont St is the perfect venue and brought a lot of energy into downtown Vegas. I definitely hope to be back for next year's World Food Championships -- whether as a judge or as a media member.

To view more pictures, check out the album on the Dirty Smoke Facebook page.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How To Be a KCBS Certified BBQ Judge

By Dru Chai

It seemed like only yesterday that I sat through a BBQ judging class. People from all walks of life were crammed into a hotel conference room in San Diego, eager to learn about the strict judging standards set forth by KCBS. Since then, I've judged over ten BBQ competitions. Each judging experience is different from the other, but one thing's for sure -- I always get excited when I'm sitting at the judge's table, ready to dig my fingers into another meat category.

So it's no surprise that the most commonly asked question is "how do you become a BBQ judge?" When I tell them that all they need to do is take a class for a few hours, the usual response is "that's it?" Yes, that's it. But the problem is finding a class that's local. You can search for the nearest class on the KCBS website, or simply go to Las Vegas on November 7.

The World Food Championships official logo...
See the fork and spoon in there? Yes, intentional.

Yes, Las Vegas! The 2nd annual World Food Championships will be held from November 7-10 and luckily for those who are in Southern California or nearby states, now is your chance to become a BBQ judge. Classes just don't happen very often, especially on the West Coast. So if you've ever wanted to become a BBQ judge, now's your chance.

This year's World Food Championships is a bit more low key, taking place in downtown Vegas. Last year's event was hosted by Adam Richman (who has since slimmed down) along with other celebrity judges and chefs. While it was a fun event to judge and attend, I felt like the food competition was overshadowed by all the glitz and glamour of the Strip. I can already tell that for this year, the focus will be on one thing, and one thing only -- the FOOD!

Sign up to become a certified BBQ judge.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How to Choose a Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker

By Dru Chai

Ahh, it seemed like only yesterday that my beloved Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker (WSM) arrived at my doorsteps. Hard to imagine that was over 2 years ago. Below is a picture of the smoker fresh out of the box, brand spankin' new, and clean as a whistle.

Brand spankin' new, fresh outta the box

So how does it look now? Well, just the complete opposite. The smoker is just filthy, greasy, and borderline disgusting... and I love it. Sure, I'll do a few wipe downs on the exterior, but I haven't touched anything inside.

Why? Because all that smokey residue, smell, and gunk that has been accumulating inside for over 2 years helps with the seasoning and flavor for future meat smoking. That's why I will never smoke any fish in there -- I'll have to buy another WSM, one that is dedicated just for smoking fish and seafood.

Shhh, the smoker is sleeping

Amazon is the best place to buy a WSM. Weber currently makes 3 different sizes for their popular Weber Smokey Mountain. So how do you know which one is right for you?

22.5" - The biggest one available. There's more than enough room and rack space if you need to smoke a lot of meat at one time, especially for a very large BBQ party. On the downside, it requires a lot more charcoal and wood. Buy the 22.5" Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker.

18.5" - The most popular size, the sweet spot. It's perfect for medium-sized barbecue gatherings -- you can comfortably fit one type of meat per rack. I can smoke a couple slabs of spare ribs on one rack, and either a 10-12 pound brisket or pork shoulder on the other. Buy the 18.5" Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker.

14.5" - This "personal" sized WSM was available in the market at one time (long before I got started into BBQ). Now, Weber decided it was time for a comeback. According to Amazon, it will start shipping sometime this month. If you're more of a one-man BBQ wolf pack on a budget, then look no further. Buy the 14.5" Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: Trader Joe's Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce

By Dru Chai

Trader Joe's has always been one of my favorite stores to grab snacks, drinks, and some frozen stuff. If you're not familiar with the Trader Joe's markets, or if you don't have one where you live, it's a popular specialty retail grocery store with a cult following. To me, it's not really a one-stop grocery shop, but it's a great place to grab a few goodies. But certain popular items will fly off the shelves and even experience a national shortage.

Case in point -- the Speculoos Cookie Butter, one of Trader Joe's top selling items. It's basically like peanut butter, only ten times better, unhealthier, and laced with crack. Okay, no crack -- but you get the idea. It's made of ground-up cookies and oil, with the flavor of graham crackers and gingerbread cookies. I recently bought a jar for the first time and I found myself licking cookie butter off my finger. Not a pretty sight.

Anyway, enough with the cookie butter. I wanted to share my thoughts on the Trader Joe's Carolina Gold BBQ sauce. A relatively new addition to the family of Trader Joe's BBQ sauces -- the "All Natural" and the "Bold and Smoky" Kansas City style. I gave my thoughts on them a couple of years ago, and they served its purpose as a compliment when grilling and smoking meats.

While those BBQ sauces were just okay, the new kid in town is a hit. At $2.69 a bottle, the Carolina Gold is bit higher than the $1.99 for the other sauces. But it's worth it. I bought a bottle home and have been hooked ever since. Even the slogan is catchy and subliminally pays you a compliment -- "For BBQ that's as good as gold." Why, yes... I do think my BBQ is as good as gold. I'm buying it!

All kidding aside, what sets this BBQ sauce apart from the others is that it's a mustard-based sauce. It's a little tangy, smoky, with just a hint of sweetness. I think it's a perfect combination of flavors -- a nice compliment for pulled pork or grilled chicken. I even use it as a dipping sauce for veggies (believe it or not!). If you're a fan of mustard, I think it's a worthy addition to your pantry.

Dirty Smoke rating (out of 5 stars)
Trader Joe's Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce - 4.5 stars

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Surf & Turf Grilling: Tips From Your Local Whole Foods Fishmonger & Butcher

By Dru Chai

It's pretty evident that I love meat, but I'm a big fan of seafood too. For me, I would happily mix and match some juicy ribeye or NY strip steak along with some sweet and succulent dungeness crab or Maine lobster. Throw in some greens and potatoes, and I'll be grinning from ear to ear with my ultimate "surf and turf" dinner plate.

I love to dine out on special occasions, but those high-end steakhouses can really put a dent in the wallet. Lately, I've been heading over to my local Whole Foods to pick up some quality protein. Whole Foods has the reputation of being "Whole Paycheck," but at my local store they've really been ramping up the one-day or 3-day sales -- there are some good deals if you know when (and how) to shop.

When you're grocery shopping and checking off your list, there's no doubt that protein will likely cost the most. Whole Foods tends to start their sales on a Friday, going through the weekend and ending on Sunday. Holiday and long weekends are the perfect time -- this past Labor Day weekend saw a good amount of sales, especially in the protein sections.

Whole Foods was nice enough to give me a quick behind-the-scenes tour of both the seafood and meat sections, and I even chatted with their expert fishmonger and butchers to gather some insight about how shoppers can maximize their surf and turf cookout -- especially when it comes to grilling and smoking.

I started off at the seafood area, where I met Rusty, team leader who has been with Whole Foods for over 14 years. He's one of the selected few competing in the The Best Fishmonger/Butcher Face-Off in Portland, Oregon. In the competition, fishmongers and butchers from around the country compete in a series challenges in front of celebrity judges/chefs (one of them is Aaron Franklin from Franklin BBQ) and a live audience. Not only is it the speed of breaking down a fish, but it's the precision as well -- like how good the filet is presented with little or no waste.

Rusty showed off some of his nifty knife skills, did a quick demo breaking down a fish, and talked about Whole Foods' fish selection and their process of smoking the seafood in-house. When I asked what the most popular smoked fish was, Rusty didn't hesitate and headed straight for the candied chilean sea bass to give me a sample. The fish was moist, tender, and flaky with just a hint of sweet and smoke. They'll use either mesquite, apple, or hickory wood chips -- depending on the type of fish.

The most popular fish that people buy is either the farm-raised or wild salmon. Everyone has their own preference between either farm-raised for wild fish, and it when it comes to salmon there is a difference in taste. Farm raised salmon has a higher fat content, which some people prefer when grilling over high heat. On the other hand, wild salmon is more lean, is higher in omega-3's (good fat), and has more of that "ocean" taste.

Tips for Grilling Fish
  • Choose a firm, meatier fish that can take high-heat and still hold together -- salmon, tilapia, halibut, ahi tuna, and swordfish are some top choices.
  • Always lightly oil the fish before placing it on the grill. This will reduce the likelihood that the fish will stick to the grill, which is a common problem with grilling fish.
  • When it comes to flavor and seasoning, less is more. Keep things simple with some lemon and citrus flavors, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Other seasonings in my pantry cabinet that I like to use on fish include Old Bay, paprika, and cayenne (for some cajun flavor).

After the surf, it was time for the turf. I headed over to the meat section to visit Vince, butcher and team leader. When you approach the meat section, the sheer size and selection of all the different cuts of beef can be overwhelming at first. Many people know to head straight for a popular cut like ribeye to get their red-meat fix, but did you know that Whole Foods also sells dry-aged steak as well? You'll pay several dollars extra per pound, but if you're looking for that intensified-beefy and rich flavor, it might be worth the splurge.

Another service that Whole Foods provides is a quick 30-minute marinade for the meat and flavor of your choice. If you don't have time to marinate something for hours or even overnight, you can give the butcher the meat to "tumble" while you shop. It's a cool contraption that simply speeds up the marinading process for the meat. 30 minutes later, the meat should be full of flavor and good to go.

Of course, as a BBQ enthusiast, I looked forward to asking some questions about their in-house smokehouse. Vince gave me an up-close look at their Southern Pride -- a popular commercial smoker that a lot of restaurants use. They strictly use mesquite wood logs, which I found surprising because mesquite can be quite powerful if used too much. After sampling some of their smoked tri-tip and brisket, it was actually lacking on the smoke flavor. Go figure! 

As you can tell by the picture above, they smoke their brisket fat cap side up, and they don't do any fat trimming or separating of the point and the flat. It's just one hunk of brisket like how they serve it at the meat station at a high-end Vegas buffet. So if you're buying their brisket by the pound, make sure to tell them to trim some of the fat off.

Vince mentioned that one of the best low-cost and alternative cuts for families looking to stretch their dollar is the top sirloin. It will never win a popularity contest going up against the ribeye, NY strip, or filet mignon, but top sirloin is a good choice that's just as delicious (for the non-picky meat eater) but much more affordable.

Do a Google search and you'll find plenty of tips and advice on how to grill the perfect steak. When I first started out, I would either undercook or overcook the steak. Now I can cook a perfect medium or medium-rare with my eyes practically closed (okay, okay... maybe not, I still need pay attention!).

Tips for Grilling Steak
  • Buy good quality meat -- it makes all the difference, it really does. Splurge for USDA Prime for the special occasions, and go for the Certified Black Angus or Choice for the more affordable, but yet still good quality meat. Select? Don't... just don't.
  • Use charcoal (with no lighter fluid) -- you know I had to go there. I know it's convenient, but I'm just not a fan of gas grills. With a hot charcoal grill, you can get that char-grilled flavor and nice sear on the outside. You can really taste the difference.
  • Let the meat rest -- always! Once the steak is off the grill, always let it rest for 5-10 minutes. This lets the juices re-distribute and settle down throughout the steak. If you cut the meat right away, all the juices will pour right out and you'll be left with shoe leather.

Thanks to Whole Foods for giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of their seafood and meat sections, and to Rusty and Vince for taking a few minutes of their time for a quick chat. It's always great to be able to talk to people who are equally passionate, if not more, about food -- especially when it comes to surf and turf!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ultimate BBQ & Bacon Guide to the OC Fair

By Dru Chai

Somehow, I just can't seem to pry myself away from the OC Fair. First it was deep fried Kool-Aid in '11, then it was the Big Beef Rib last year... so what will it be this year? What grease-covered, deep-fried concoction will they think of? What's the one media-hyped item that everyone just HAS to have at the fair?

It was essentially the same 'ol same 'ol at the OC Fair '13. Sure, there was somewhat of a slight buzz about the Krispy Kreme sloppy Joe sandwich introduced by Chicken Charlie's. But it just didn't sound very appetizing so I couldn't tell you how it tasted. I know what a Krispy Kreme tastes like by itself, and I know how a sloppy Joe tastes like... in the third grade. Ehhh, not for me.

Truth be told, I was on the lookout for something really weird. After all, the theme was "Come and Get It!" When I won 5th place in the chili contest at the fair, I heard the announcer asking the audience if anyone had tried the bacon root beer. BACON root beer? Nobody had ever heard of it and the announcer didn't even know where to buy it. But I knew just the place.

Bacon A-Fair
If you're going to the fair and you want to eat something wrapped in bacon, then there's none other than Bacon A-Fair. The name says it all. You can't miss the huge, neon green sign with a picture of a nurse holding up a defibrillator. Bacon wrapped turkey legs, bacon dogs, deep fried bacon, bacon wrapped jalapeƱos, bacon wrapped portobello mushrooms, the list just goes on and on. And yes, this is where I tried the bacon root beer.

I think one of their more popular items is also their most overrated. The bacon wrapped jalapenos may look and SOUND good, but there's just not that much value (relatively speaking). Most of them are sloppily made, with rubbery bacon barely clinging onto a jalapeno stuffed with a little bit of cream cheese inside. Two small to medium sized pieces for around $7.50, I believe. That's highway robbery, even by overpriced fair standards. You're better off just making them at home.

Speaking of bacon -- it's better to have no bacon at all than to have rubbery bacon. That's just my own philosophy. Take the bacon wrapped "caveman" turkey legs, for instance. Who wants to spend most of their time giving their jaw a workout by chewing on some rubbery and fatty bacon before even getting to the turkey meat? Not me.

Which brings us to the item that I actually tried this year -- the bacon root beer. I watched a pimple-faced teenager pump the bacon syrup into a plastic cup, then fill it with root beer from the soda fountain. When the teenager looked at me and said "uh, you better stir that around before you drink it," it was at that point when I knew this wasn't going to be good.

I took a precautionary sip -- okaaaay, not too bad. I like root beer and it only had a subtle hit of the bacon flavor. But after stirring it up and drinking some more, that bacon syrup became really heavy and downright nauseating. It coated the entire inside of my mouth and just completely overpowered my taste buds. I managed to drink about half before throwing it out. I'm thinking just a one squirt of that bacon syrup is enough. Maybe even half.

Chicken Charlie's
They are one of the more popular fair vendors, traveling all over the country and stopping by countless fairs along the way. I would say that Chicken Charlie is probably the most innovative when it comes to deep frying something new every year. They even had a reality show on the Travel Channel a few years ago, which gave a behind-the-scenes view of their multi-million dollar business.

This is where I tried the deep fried Kool-Aid a couple of years ago, and I've also tried the deep-fried Oreo as well. It's greasy and heavy on the batter, just like you would expect from fair food. Aside from good marketing and a personable owner, they also get prime location spots. One of their stands even features a giant, custom LED display which advertises their food while blasting music. They were playing "Gangnam Style" non-stop on my particular visit. I wonder if they had to give PSY a lifetime supply of deep-fried Twinkies.

Last but not least, there is Juicy's. They are a mainstay at just about every fair, and they focus on oversized classics. And when I say oversized, I really mean oversized. Their top selling and most popular items include the "Texas sized" turkey legs, "Giant Western" sausages, jumbo corn dogs, "Outlaw" burgers, and curly fries the size of a shoe box.

I believe they have the most locations set up at the OC Fair, and it just seems like there's a Juicy's at every corner. Their self-proclaimed World's Largest "Outlaw Grill," essentially a big rig truck with a very long grill attached to it, is located by Centennial Farm. Juicy's also dominates at Fair Square, a large area which provides covered bench seating for fair-goers, especially in the hot afternoon sun. Just listen for the pre-recorded marketing announcements blaring over the loudspeaker: "We've got lemonade, lemonade, and MORE LEMONADE!"

Something that fair-goers may or may not know, or perhaps don't even care, is how all this food is prepared. Most of these wide-open grills give the impression that they are cooking fresh food. As they say, people eat with their eyes first and nose second, so the display draws in hungry people. But one thing I noticed with Juicy's on this particular trip -- I saw the workers taking out frozen turkey legs and putting them on the back grill. These were hard-as-a-rock frozen legs covered with ice crystals.

When I asked one of the workers how long it would take for the turkey legs to defrost and be ready to serve, he gave me a shrug and muttered something before walking away. Either he didn't speak English or he just didn't want to talk about it. I know with the amount of food some of these vendors are cooking, using pre-frozen meat is inevitable. But there are vendors out there who cook fresh food. Just sayin'.

'Til next year!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Bellagio's BBQ & Beer at Tuscany Kitchen

By Dru Chai

It's no surprise that BBQ and beer go hand in hand. I find that a light Belgian pale ale helps to offset some of the saltiness and smokiness of smoked meats, but just about anything cold and refreshing goes well with BBQ. When I saw that Bellagio was offering a "BBQ & Beer" live cooking demonstration and lunch during the long July 4th weekend holiday as part of their Epicurean Center cooking series, I was immediately intrigued.

The event took place inside Tuscany Kitchen, the first and only full service demonstration kitchen of its kind on the Strip. It's tucked away behind all of the convention and meeting room spaces at the Bellagio, near the tram entrance that connects to Aria and Monte Carlo. Upon arrival, I was immediately greeted with a cold and refreshing beer cocktail called the "Belgian Bee" -- it consisted of Stella, Jack Daniel's honey, and ginger beer. The sweetness from the honey and subtle hint of ginger was a perfect compliment with the beer. 

Once inside Tuscany Kitchen, I was hit with the aroma of hops. With its wheat-green color and texture, the hops may look a bit like... something else that you may or may not be familiar with. Safe to say, they're just smoking the meat here, and nothing else. Nevertheless, it was an impressive display and it was a sure sign that all of the attendees were in for a treat. 

Each table had a tub full of assorted types of Belgium-style beer, from Stella to Leffe to Goose Island. Ironically, Goose Island is a client from my employer, so I knew a little about them from reading their success story posted on the website. They are an excellent craft brewery from Chicago, and both of their vintage ales -- the Sofie and the Pere Jacques -- paired well with everything.

Bellagio's executive chef Edmund Wong kept the atmosphere casual and entertaining, but he didn't divulge on any particularly special BBQ "secrets." They were more like best practices and tips that most home chefs and backyard grill masters should already know about and easily Google online -- things like "don't open the lid and peek at your BBQ too often."

Chef Wong also talked about various ways of smoking meats -- he had a tiny, portable Weber kettle grill sitting on the countertop along with with a robata-style grill with charcoal and wood chips. He said he preferred charcoal over gas (I agree) because it imparts more flavor into the food. I had a good seat towards the front of the kitchen, but the giant flat screen mounted high above gave a great vantage point with extreme close-ups and views of the food.

The chef went on to talk about different types of dishes and briefly demo'd a grilled beef Thai salad. This was my favorite dish from the lunch because every flavor was so pronounced and paired well with the Goose Island Pere Jacques 2010. The flank steak was so tender and cooked perfectly medium rare. The mango, cucumber, green papaya gave the salad a fresh and crunchy texture -- with all the Thai food influence and signature flavors. The mint peanut dressing just tied it all together.

After this dish, it was all just a blur. Plate after plate just kept pouring in, and before I knew it there was a beautifully presented plate with a trio of refined barbeque meat dishes sitting in front of me. If you look at the picture above (from left to right), there's braised pork belly, cedar plank salmon, and roasted herb chicken. Every protein was accommodated with not only a small side dish, but larger ones as well. Fried pickles, grilled broccoli, truffle mac and cheese, watermelon and tomato salad, biscuits, just to name a few.

As if the entrees weren't enough, they even brought out dessert -- peach and blueberry pie, honey and chocolate nougat, and ice cream sundae. At this point, everyone at my table had the look of food coma written all over their faces and was about to explode. At the end of the 2-hour demo, every attendee was given a goodie bag containing some cedar wood planks, some glassware, and recipes for all of the dishes.

So was this worth the $95 per person? If you're already a home cook, don't expect to learn anything new. The price is about the same as any other prix fixe tasting menu at a high-end restaurant on the Strip. The once-in-a-year event is more about the experience, interaction, and the celebration of food -- with the privilege of sitting down at the Tuscany Kitchen inside Bellagio in Las Vegas. The food and beer pairings were all-around excellent, but whether you can eat (and drink) your money's worth all depends on the size of your stomach.