é by José Andrés: Dine at the Intersection of Dreams + Reality

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é by José Andrés @ Cosmopolitan Hotel
3708 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89109
Web: é by José Andrés @ Cosmopolitan Hotel
Phone: 702.698.7000
Rating:    [learn more]
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"This is a benchmark by which we will judge all future restaurants of its type: assuming you can get a seat at the table, you'll experience the sort of brilliant dinner theater that is reserved for true gourmets, and worthy of repeat performances."

We've been busy this past week with the launch of Apple's iPad 2, so the two major articles we have planned for this week are a few days away. In the meanwhile, we wanted to share this with you - one of the Buffalo Chow articles we wrote before officially deciding to resume active work on the site. The subject: our January 2011 visit to "é," one of three new and inspiring restaurants recently opened in Las Vegas by increasingly famous Chef José Andrés, a long-time favorite of our editors. We're publishing it to help get you thinking about what sort of dining Western New York could offer if it had both chefs with modern molecular gastronomy skills, and the customers to appreciate them. Do such people exist here? We certainly hope so. If not, it's time for all of us to start aiming higher.

That reality is imperfect is a virtually incontestable truism - conventional wisdom suggests that only fantasies are flawless, and that actual perfection is thus the pursuit of dreamers. So it's appropriate, then, that the virtually perfect dining experiences offered at Las Vegas's new é by José Andrés take place behind the wall-sized visage of a sleeping woman, said to be a representation of Chef Andrés' dreams for both é and the larger Jaleo restaurant it's hidden within. Impressive in its own right, Jaleo opened in Las Vegas in December 2010 as a reimagined take on three same-named Washington, D.C. tapas bars created by Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup company; the single-room é was unexpectedly unveiled during Jaleo's opening as a reconceived version of the chef's six-seat, fixed-price D.C. venue Minibar. After a week or so of trial meals, including ones served to Ferran Adrià and other noteworthy friends of Andrés, é opened to the public in early January 2011. We were lucky enough to be amongst its first guests.

It should be mentioned up front that we secured reservations at é without having any idea - beyond the $150 per person price (subsequently raised) - what we were signing up for; our expectations were merely that é would surpass the many other Andrés restaurants we'd tried and loved. The staff was similarly in a state of flux: initial training, reservation procedures, and even the public opening date were still being finalized in the days leading up to our visit; there was no telephone number for é, and each call we made to Jaleo and its Cosmopolitan Hotel reservations line only led to more ambiguity. As it turns out, é solicits reservations solely through e-mail to a single address, reservations@ebyjoseandres.com, and seemingly responds personally to requests only occasionally. Responsiveness to prospective customers is arguably the restaurant's only failing at present, and we'd expect that it will be remedied in the weeks or months to come. Once we were in the door, we found the rest of the experience to be essentially flawless.

Rich in red tones and surrealistic imagery inspired by Salvador Dali, é's cozy dining room was built to resemble a library's card catalogs. Some of the drawers were opened to reveal physical representations of the chef and his staff's accumulated knowledge of Spanish culinary traditions, as well as their modern successors. Elsewhere in the room, teapots, a woman's shoes climbing a curved ladder leading to the ceiling, a small map of the human brain, and a mirror proclaiming that "what you eat in Vegas stays in your dreams forever" are just a few of the engrossing design elements, collectively displaying more thought and whimsy than the entirety of most restaurants ten times its size.

A dark countertop divides the eight seats from a prep area generally staffed by three cooks at once, on our visit including then-head chef Michael Turner, who was brought to Las Vegas from Minibar - temporarily shuttered at the height of its popularity for more than a month - just to train the new staff. Turner and his crew used their stage to tease upcoming ingredients and courses; a single, large black truffle sat in a glass-topped platter throughout most of the meal, and a huge salted lobe of foie gras was presented on a cutting board before being brought out on individual plates to be served. Apart from the price, the experience is as unlike Las Vegas's three Michelin starred French restaurant Joël Robuchon as possible; here, you're not just being served food, but rather learning as you watch it come together.

é has effectively been designed to accommodate a new type of dinner theater: a private two-hour opportunity to watch top chefs cook Spanish-influenced haute cuisine, performed twice per night for groups of up to eight people. Each patron commits to the minimum of $150 for a chef-selected 20-course meal before drinks and a mandatory 20% gratuity, princely sums and ambiguities that will scare off most potential patrons, but thrill those who are looking for a triple-A-caliber guided tour through everything from traditional cooking to molecular gastronomy. (The price was subsequently raised to $250 and now includes drinks, as well.) When you consider the number of opportunities a 20-course meal presents for dishes or servers to disappoint at least one patron, it really says something that each member of our group of five people left é saying that the meal had been either the best or amongst the best we'd ever eaten; the price and gratuity were neither debated nor discussed.

Part of the appeal is the service, which is as crisp as at any of Andres' other restaurants; é similarly maintains just the right balance between smart attentiveness when needed and distance after food and drink have been handed over. Guests are encouraged to ask questions of the chefs during the meal, which feels like a one-night course in modern preparation and plating; smokers, blue flame torches, and metal precision placing chopsticks are pulled out as needed, giving patrons a glimpse into how the world's best dishes are being made. Better yet, as each dish is at least half-complete when you arrive, the finished items are even more impressive than what an Iron Chef could muster in an hour-long battle.

The star attraction, of course, is the food. Andrés explained before é opened that the concept was to be "pure product" - the world's best caviar and other perfect ingredients, served simply - but the reality is different, including both pure, Spanish-inspired recipes and entirely new dishes with ample influence from molecular gastronomy. Indeed, the number of culinary tricks on display from Chef Turner's arsenal outnumbered the "pure" preparations two to one, each of the 20 items coming as a surprise before being summarized on a menu that's presented as a keepsake at the meal's end. They were, in order and brief summary:

Frozen Sangria with Grilled Strawberries. Dramatically chilled on the spot with liquid nitrogen, this palate-cleansing sorbet remained frozen just long enough for its four bites to be eaten from plain white cups with a small spoon, each intense with the flavor of fruity red wine. Two grilled strawberries on a skewer were supposed to be eaten in alternation with the sangria, accentuating the sweetness of the wine.

Spanish "Clavel," Beet Jewelry, and Caramelized Pork Rinds. Presented together, these three courses were served from cast molds of Jose Andres' hands, an antiqued wooden box, and a porcelain faux pouch, respectively. The first was a flower made from delicately dried and puffed yogurt as thin as actual flower petals, topped with a tiny dab of pomegranate, the second a ring of thin beet strands woven together with gold and silver dust, and the third a packet of sweet, seemingly oilless deep fried pork fat reeds. While the beets were merely pricey Terra Chips and the pork rinds more delicate versions of another snack food, the Clavels were beautiful, disarmingly sweet and sour, and ephemeral.

Membrillo and La Serena Cone. Like a miniature sushi hand roll, this delicate pastry cone mixed the apple-like sweetness of Spanish quince paste -- Membrillo -- with the modest sourness of Spain's La Serena sheep milk cheese.

Apple "Brazo de Gitano." Playing off the name of a traditional Spanish variation on the Swiss Roll, E's version consisted of a tube of sweet apple cream filling surrounded by an impossibly light dissolving sugar frame, topped with nuts. Like the clavels and sangria before it, the Brazo de Gitano was almost magical.

Jose Taco & Artichoke with Caviar. A single strip of raw Iberico ham and a gently crisped artichoke heart were served separately on the same place, each topped with sublime white sturgeon caviar. Chef Turner warned the group to remove the paper from the ham before wrapping the slice around the caviar; "people would invariably eat the paper if I didn't warn them."

Bocata de Calamares. Upscaling the Spanish pauper's simple sliced bread, squid, and mayonnaise sandwich enjoyed by a young Jose Andres, this version of the Bocata de Calamares featured ingredients Andres would prefer today, including a slice of sea urchin that was as perfectly wonderful cooked as it was when served raw at Jaleo.

Ajo Blanco. This deconstructed Spanish white gazpacho soup arrived with its constituent ingredients -- almonds, garlic, olive oil, and parsley -- distributed into piles before a creamy base was added to the bowl as a finish. We were encouraged to enjoy the individual items separately before blending the parts into the broth to create the typical finished soup, a beautiful and educational gesture.

Smoky Oysters in Escabeche. After each individual's portion was infused with applewood smoke before our eyes, raw oysters were served suspended in delicate gelatinous pouches with a clear yellow, lightly sour and salty escabeche sauce, evoking thoughts of the sea; the explosion of the oysters in one's mouth made them unlike any we'd tasted before.

Cigala with Roses. Though the star item on this plate was the lightly grilled tail of langostine or cigala, a miniature lobster known as the Norway Lobster or Dublin Bay Prawn, the genius was in the presentation: the surprisingly flaky but perfectly tender tail could be enjoyed in five or so segments with accompanying foam made from the langostine's meat, with the residual liquids forming a pool atop a plate designed to look like a relief map of the ocean floor. Rose petals evoked the orange/pink color of the shellfish.

Catch of the Day. Turbot. More often seen here in Chinese restaurants than European ones, the white, halibut-like fish turbot is appreciated in Spain and elsewhere for its delicate flavor, left here to stand almost unadulterated with lightly sweet citrus balls the size of corn kernels, and a black piece of sweet garlic that added modest flavor when it was desired.

Whole Lobe of Foie Gras Baked in Salt. Teased to the group in its uncut form before "baking," a huge lobe of foie gras was taken into Jaleo's kitchen for individual slicing, yielding several-ounce pieces that were all but raw with lightly salty edges. Quite possibly the best foie gras we've ever tasted, it was notable for its smoothness and yielding texture, free of the organic grain and iron hints found in most foie gras. A buttery sauce was poured into each bowl to spiff up the meat.

Secreto of Iberico Pork. Three thick and lightly grilled sticks of Iberico pork from the now-prized neck of the pig were served atop a rectangular slate dish, then garnished with copious slices of black truffle. Fans of the rare mushroom, which alone fetches a $40 upcharge at Las Vegas's vaunted Joel Robuchon, will find no shortage of the earthy, bitter fungus here.

Clementines with La Serena. Separating the savory and sweet courses, a second cheese plate posited a curled and unevenly thin slice of fried cheese atop a larger dollop of the soft La Serena cheese, leaving circles of clementine-hinted sauce on the plate.

Frozen Apricot Coulant. Though all of the dishes required preparatory skills beyond the scope of even frequent diners, it was this one - the first true dessert - that required one person to wait briefly for a substitute dish to be brought out when the first one was melted during preparation by the caramelizing blowtorch. Gelatin and freezing enable these miniature and intense apricot tubes to stay intact around a caramel core, even as they're heated by flame and served with two dollops of fruity cream. Quite possibly one of the best desserts we've ever tasted, and a credit to the oft-ignored apricot.

Apples & Red Wine "Fredy Giradet." Were it not for the perfection of the prior dish, this one - alternating red balls of solid apple and gelatin-bagged wine, served with homemade ice cream - would itself stand as a testament to pure culinary genius. The differences in texture and salmon roe-like bursts of liquid persist in sense memory a week after dining; a lesser restaurant could make its name serving only this dish, properly prepared, as a house specialty. Coffee and after-dinner cocktails were served immediately before this course.

25 Second Bizcocho. Another slate-styled plate, this one with a ragged-edged white and yellow cone served upside down. "Pick it up to eat it," we were told, discovering a soft piece of cream-filled cake that had edges just dry enough to grip without wetting our fingers - save for a small squirt of cream near the end of the two or three bites. Sweet and light, this offered us the joy of the childhood "eating cake with your hands" experience without the extended cleanup at the end.

Chocolates. Served in a wooden box as a "gift," two chocolates per person included a handmade aerated dark chocolate akin to an Aero bar, and a miniature three-by-four square milk chocolate bar with dots of sweet fruit on two corners. Both were nice, though less adventurous than the courses that preceded them.

Will anything like é ever come to Western New York? That's hard to predict. Many people have claimed that Buffalonians wouldn't appreciate quality like this even if it was available right on Main Street, and there's little doubt that the price tag alone would scare off all but the area's most elite customers - and tourists. But in our view, something like é is certainly worth doing here: José Andrés and his team have used a small venue to transform dining into entertainment, earning their premium asking price with breathtakingly delicate food that educates even before it tickles the tongue. As you may have noticed from our past reviews, we rarely award perfect four-star ratings to restaurants, but this one is a benchmark by which we will judge all others of its type: assuming you can get a seat at the table, you'll experience the sort of brilliant dinner theater that is reserved for true gourmets, and worthy of repeat performances.

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