Ultimo 2016 — dining doesn’t get much finer than this

Restaurants are the new casinos in Las Vegas, and smart celebrity chefs have capitalized on the paradigm shift that’s taken place in recent years. To wit, the international roll call of high-end eateries that now exists here has given Sin City a reputation for fine dining that’s easily on par with — if not outranking — its appeal as a gaming/entertainment destination.

Las Vegas Strip view from hot air balloon, credit Amy Lynch.jpgOh sure, you can still find an old-school $5.99 steak dinner if you look hard enough, but why would you? The new breed of Vegas foodies is savvy with discriminating tastes, seeking out upscale meals in trendy venues.

Ultimo may just be the superlative Las Vegas dining experience of the year. And in this town’s current culinary climate, that’s saying something.

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I had the great fortune to attend “Le Grand Voyage” festivities Dec. 9 to 11 at The Venetian and The Palazzo, the fourth incarnation of the annual event (during which I believe I drank my weight in champagne).

Belvedere cocktails, credit Amy Lynch.jpgPick-up from McCarran International Airport in a Rolls-Royce Ghost kicked off a weekend of sheer indulgence, followed by a Friday night reception fueled by caviar and Belvedere cocktails. Later that evening, a dessert buffet awash in Dom Perignon Vintage 2006 capably kept the glow going.

Ultimo Dining Table 3- credit Anthony Mair.jpg

Ultimo dining table – Anthony Mair

The 2016 party culminated in a black-tie dinner of epic proportions hosted by Robin Leach with dishes prepared by a star-studded roster of chefs that included Thomas Keller, Curtis Stone, Jerome Bocuse and Ming Tsai. A dining table dressed for the occasion spanned the length of the Venetian’s showy frescoed Colonnade, where candlelight, artful video projections and Lalique vases filled with calla lilies and orchids set the stage for a dramatic meal before the first plate ever arrived.

Chef Pierre Thiam - Red Snapper Caldou with Sorrel Relish over Fonio with Fermented-dawadawa Powder - credit Anthony Mair.jpg

Chef Pierre Thiam Red Snapper Caldou with Sorrel Relish over Folio with fermented dawadawa Power – Anthony Mair

Ranking the six impeccable courses is like choosing a favorite child, but a few of the plates I’m still dreaming about a week later — Chef Paul Bartolotta’s decadent white truffle-laced broth with tortellini, a kicky red snapper caldou with sorrel relish from Chef Pierre Thiam, and Chef Vikram Vij’s luscious lamb over fenugreek cream curry.

Chef Vikram Vij - Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry -credit Anthony Mair.jpg

Chef Vikram Vij Marinated Lamb Popsicles with Fenugreek Cream Curry – Anthony Mair

Wine pairings from Dom Perignon, Metaphora, Marques de Murrieta, Pio Cesare and Memento Mori took the feast over the top.

Dom rose vintage, credit Amy Lynch.jpg

In keeping with the Grand Voyage theme, this year’s Ultimo itinerary went well beyond the table to include a Rolls-Royce driving experience that let attendees chauffeur themselves up and down the Strip, a hot-air balloon adventure provided by Las Vegas Balloon Rides, a Dom Perignon picnic in Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, a Louis Vuitton fashion show and a Patron-sponsored farewell brunch on Sunday morning.

Dom Bouchon picnic, credit Amy Lynch.jpg

Sebastien Silvestri, vice president of food & beverage for The Venetian and the Palazzo, organizes the annual event, traveling the globe to assemble the spectacular roster of chefs, winemakers and sponsors.

brunch margarita and taco, credit Amy Lynch.jpg

A portion of Ultimo proceeds goes to benefit Ment’or BKB Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to educate, inspire and support a new generation of American culinary professionals.

For more information, visit venetian.com/entertainment/ultimo.html.

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Cooking by the book

In my book, you can never have too many cookbooks. My collection spans three shelves of a bookcase positioned in the corner of my dining area, where the books, booklets, pamphlets and clippings can inspire culinary prowess through their mere presence.

my cookbook corner

I can’t remember when I really started collecting cookbooks, or if I ever did. They seem to simply appear over the years, sometimes as gifts, sometimes through personal purchase, sometimes via former books of my mom’s that I’ve borrowed from my dad’s kitchen and conveniently forgotten to give back. I look over them fondly, and often. To me, browsing through a cookbook holds every bit the same satisfaction as reading a great novel. I spend hours poring over them, drooling over delicious-sounding dishes that I dream of whipping up in my own kitchen. Some I make, some are destined to remain wistful imaginings.

Here are a few of the standout culinary tomes in my collection:

“The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the balls to actually attempt any of the insanely nitpicky recipes in here, but with its attention to detail and absolutely gorgeous photography, the book itself is a work of art worthy of any coffee table.

Darina Allen’s “Ballymaloe Cookery School Cookbook.” Ballymaloe is a renowned Irish culinary school, and this book is the definitive collection of recipes covered in classes there. The instructions are detailed and geared toward a student audience, making them easy to follow and offering description in great detail. My Irish in-laws have also gifted me with Darina’s “Traditional Cooking” and her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen’s “Bake” as well – welcome additions to my section on Irish cuisine.

“Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.” Well, it was new back in 1968 when my mom bought it. For ages, this book has been one of my go-to resources for general cooking instruction. It’s definitely old-school, but many of the recipes have held up well over the years. And the big trend toward retro comfort food is only helping its cause. I use it primarily for classic cookies; the peanut butter recipe is my fave. I also own the updated 1996 version, but refer to them both equally.

Various volumes by Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten. Love them or hate them, those Food Network bitches do turn out some good food. Ina’s “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and “Barefoot Contessa at Home” are the ones I use most often because her cooking style is probably most similar to my own, although I have memorized the lemon spaghetti recipe from Giada’s “Everyday Italian” and adopted it as my own.

“A Homemade Life” by Molly Wizenberg. This isn’t really a cookbook per se, it’s more a food-themed memoir with recipes interspersed, but what recipes they are! I’ve made several of the mostly vegetarian offerings, all with great results. Next up – pickled grapes. Molly also writes a column for Bon Appetit magazine, and maintains a blog called “Orangette.”

I pull out other books at random, when I need something specific, or if I’m bored and just looking for something new to make for dinner.

What’s your favorite cookbook and why? There’s always room on my shelf for something new…