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.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Eating Out: Rollin Smoke Barbeque in Las Vegas

By Dru Chai

Finding good BBQ in Vegas is one thing, but finding an open BBQ restaurant in Vegas is another. Even before I even dived head first into the world of low and slow BBQ, I had heard of several BBQ restaurants in Sin City. The Salt Lick at the Red Rock Casino, Rub BBQ at the Rio, Lynard Skynard BBQ at Excalibur, just to name a few. Heck, there was even a BBQ place out in the middle of nowhere on the way to Vegas in Baker, CA. But that fizzled out rather quickly.

Running a BBQ restaurant is already a tough business with the challenges of consistent quality control and relatively low profit margin. I can just imagine how much the lease is inside a casino, especially on the Strip. There's only so much money that people are willing to pay for BBQ. So it's no shock that many BBQ restaurants have shut down in and around Las Vegas over the years. While the chains like Famous Dave's and Lucille's have the deep pockets to expand (Lucille's is opening in Red Rock), it's the mom-and-pop places that will likely struggle.

Rollin Smoke Barbeque just passed its 1-year mark -- no small feat for any restaurant, as 90% of restaurants fail in the first year. Just a few months ago, I had never heard of them, so it's a testament to the power of online reviews, word-of-mouth marketing, and social media. I recently had the chance to check them out. Located practically underneath the freeway near a couple of strip clubs in a tiny industrial area, to say the place is a hole-in-the-wall would be an understatement. It's a hole-in-a-wall within a hole-in-the-wall.

Once you spot the bright red and yellow signage and the big smoker in the parking lot, that's all you need to see. Inside, there are two areas. On the right side, you order your food at the counter and there are several sitting booths along the side. The other side is the main dining room with a colorful, painted mural depicting families enjoying their BBQ in a picturesque setting. The owners are originally from Arkansas, and you can definitely tell by looking at the wall. A razorback serving up some 'Q -- now there's something you don't see everyday!

Right away, I could tell that is a real BBQ restaurant that smokes their meat, unlike those other horrific chain restaurants. At the front counter, Lee happily explained some of the choices on their menu and told me that they use hickory wood to smoke their meats. I went for the 2-item combo with the brisket and spare ribs, and chose a side of bacon potato salad. It also came with a roll and a drink. Heck, I couldn't resist adding a beef short rib too. They usually pour a little BBQ sauce on their meats, but I requested mine with no sauce. Total cost including tax was about $19, which was very reasonable.

When the food arrived, I was a bit disappointed in how the brisket was presented -- it looked like they were leftovers hastily chopped off along the grain. But it had some good flavor, was nicely seasoned, with just a touch of hickory smoke. Although it wasn't dry, a few douses of their housemade BBQ sauce really added a fantastic peppery profile to the meat. When I say peppery, I mean peppery! They use some very large, coarsely ground cracked black pepper in their sauce. I had to do a double-take when I saw these black particles floating around in the squeeze bottles and made sure it was really black pepper and not something funky.

As for the spare ribs, there were a bit bland on its own. There was no crunch from the exterior bark, but it was tender with a nice, pink smoke ring. The ribs definitely needed a heavy slathering of the BBQ sauce for more flavor. My favorite item by far was the beef short rib. Although not a prehistoric, monster-sized rib by any means, there was enough meat clinging on the bone to satisfy. The beef was so tender and juicy, with just a kiss of hickory smoke. I could probably eat about a half dozen of them like beef lollipops.

The bacon bits in the potato salad added a salty, crunchy element and helped provide the carbs to the protein-heavy meal. Overall, I was satisfied with my meal. This is a no-frills, non-pretentious place to enjoy some solid BBQ. I would rather eat here than any of the BBQ chain restaurants, that's for sure. All of the employees were friendly and made me feel comfortable, like I was a guest eating at their home. This was my first time eating BBQ in Las Vegas, and it hopefully won't be the last. BBQ, strip clubs, and gambling? Shh, I think I died and gone to heaven.