The 2009 Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting held poolside at Caesar’s Palace was admittedly my first. As one of the early food and wine events ever covered by Daily Blender, I arrived a bit late, uneducated on media call times or red carpet access, my new strappy heels already cutting off circulation to a few toes. I found myself relying heavily on my guest photographer to take the right shots, a local friend who, thankfully, was more familiar with the faces of the Vegas culinary scene than I. Not an hour into the event, my stomach churning from a mix of savory and sweet bites – whatever I was able to snag during my fight with the crowd – I called it an early evening, thankful to pull my shoes off in the cab as we sped away to my hotel.
My second visit to the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting this past Friday was decidedly a much more enjoyable experience. The faces in the chef coats were happily recognizable, many I had interacted with at other events around the country, and I knew better the lay of the land, arriving on time for red carpet shots and sampling from the restaurant booths prior to general admission, a bottle of water in my hand and comfortable flats on my feet. A little more familiar with the speed of things, I was able to focus on the food and wine and less on taking an accidental dive into one of the illuminated pools.
There were standouts, of course, both in terms of chefs and food. Chefs on hand included José Andrés, Scott Conant, Jet Tila, François Payard, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Rick Moonen, Charlie Palmer, Akira Back, and René Lenger, with nearly all of the weekend’s big names making an appearance, even briefly. My favorite plates at the evening’s soiree were the inventive scallop ceviche from Jaleo/China Poblano (“Pop the scallop into your mouth and squeeze the lime juice in,” I was told by the friendly chef manning the booth), a three-meat Italian slider from Rao’s, the mindblowingly awesome albacore tataki from Spago, and a sweet and spicy mango-pineapple shrimp ceviche from Mesa Grill. With drink men Tony Abou-Ganim, Francesco Lafranconi, and Steve Olson also on hand to oversee the spirits offerings, I went for a Bourbon Smash from Bulleit Bourbon alongside a Pencillin garnished with sugared ginger from mixologist Nate at the Cosmopolitan’s Comme Ça.
Post-Grand Tasting, I made my way down the strip to the Wynn/Encore’s XS for my favorite event of the weekend, the Moonlight Celebrity Chef Blackjack tournament. Standing at the entrance beside the well-known Robin Leach, now covering the Las Vegas event and entertainment scene, I found myself all reminiscent of my first visit to the tournament as well, the shock of finding myself within feet of so many award-winning chefs, masters of their profession, trying to hold their own at the card tables. With the stars shining above in a crystal clear sky, chefs and VIP players took their seats, ready for a good-natured card competition.
The unforeseen upset of the evening came in the semifinal round, when chef Jet Tila remained the only one at the table not going “all in” for the last hand, with three-time tournament champion Paul Bartolotta confident in his bet. As the dealer cards were revealed, guests were surprised to see that Tila had come out on top, lucky to be holding onto his last $1000 chip as the majority of the players at his table, including Bartolotta, were eliminated. Surprisingly, perhaps most to Tila, he hung on to take home the title of 2011 Tournament Champion.
Tomorrow, my final wrapup from Vegas Uncork’d, with an amazing Viva Las Vegan event at the Wynn/Encore. Missed yesterday’s Saber-Off and Savoy post? Check it out here.
*Many thanks to the folks at Vegas Uncork’d for inviting me down to cover the event.
**Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender