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.