It’s a Tuesday night, and you’re hunting for a feast in a most unlikely location—near the airport, set way back from Sunset Road, in a corner of a very dark, lonely industrial park. But there’s a fire going, right there in the parking lot, and lamb hanging over that fire. It smells great.
Inside, there’s a small gourmet-foods shop with a sizable kitchen, and the kitchen is full of some of this city’s greatest culinary artists. The feast will take place shortly in the connected warehouse space, where massive tables are set, a band plays classic rock and two artists are live-painting a mural. There are several event dinners in Las Vegas every week, but this one is special, odd and assembled with a greater purpose.
The Feast of Friends, hosted by Artisanal Foods on March 1, sold out its 40-some seats in a matter of days, even though no one who bought a $125 ticket knew what they’d be eating. They knew the participating chefs—Nicole Brisson, Brian Howard, Geno Bernardo, Jamaal Taherzadeh, Desyree Alberganti and host Johnny Church—and trusted their talent and creativity. That’s why it sold out, and that’s why this feast was created. Because Vegas can do these things. Because we have talent and creativity, and the big-name restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard represent only the surface of the scene. And it’s time to do some serious scratching. –Brock Radke
Lionfish stare from a tank in the middle of the Artisanal Foods showroom, puffing up in response to the gorgeous people leaning on the glass as they sip an Andrew Pollard masterpiece called Deer in Headlights—Glenfiddich 12-year-old with boutique aperitif Contratto Vermouth Bianco and Giffard’s juicy pink grapefruit liqueur, the crisp taste embellished with lemon, basil, cardamom and a delicate little bloom. It’s absolutely charming, as is the vibe of this big-ass family dinner for a bunch of strangers exhilarated by the roster of chefs.
They’re prepping like mad as we nibble on snacks from Brian Howard and Jamaal Taherzadeh. Howard’s sturgeon caviar blini with Persian cucumber and dill crème fraiche defies its dainty beauty with bold, scarf-able flavor. And the toast with silky calçot onions and bright romesco from Taherzadeh reminds me how special a simple dish can be.
With good Scotch blooming on our tongues, we find our seats at long tables set with rustic flair. (More than one person mentions the desire to steal some silverware.) On each plate is a commemorative menu signed by Pollard, Howard, Taherzadeh, Geno Bernardo, Nicole Brisson, Desyree Alberganti and host Johnny Church. It’s a novel of food, with five full courses in addition to those dedicated to drinking Glenfiddich.
The first course comes from Bernardo. The executive chef of Herringbone did the Aria restaurant’s seafood focus proud with his supple Bluefin tuna crudo, green dots of olive oil and citrus wedges elevating the clean flavor and seaweed pesto lending some distinctive backbone. He talks about the ranch-raised fish, how powerful it was for him to see the sustainable operation and understand the quality. It makes me appreciate the jewel of a bite even more. Sharing the plate are veal cheeks braised in Barolo, extra-fatty and served in a traditional tonnato sauce of pureed fish, capers, lemon juice and olive oil—a creative tuna twofer. But to me, it’s no match for the glistening slabs of raw decadence next door.
I reach for my glass of Glenfiddich 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve with a little too much enthusiasm, and my arm bumps my neighbor’s glass all over the table. Including my special menu. I am that girl. And I am bummed about the menu stain, until I realize that it’s a much better memento soaked in the guest-of-honor spirit. The other guest of honor is a direct descendant of William Grant, the man who founded the Scotch, and she is just as warm and lovely. Throughout the night, we’ll be getting an education, from how to pronounce Glenfiddich to how to properly bellow when cued by its native brand ambassador. (Our side of the warehouse totally wins. Go Edinburgh.)
The second course is a Tuscan stew of meat parts still not commonly eaten in America, though chefs like Brisson are helping to share its appeal. She dresses the tender cockscomb, wattles, kidneys and liver with grilled ciabatta and a sweet little finish of citrus peels and spicy herbs. I would have eaten a bowl of that roughage, especially up against the strong metallic notes of the meat. I sop up all the aromatic broth with my bread and nibble the rest, feeling like a total wuss who can’t hang with these legit foodies. My tablemate finishes her bowl, but laments that it’s impossible to Instagram.
The third dish is a hard smack of whimsy, courtesy of Johnny Church. I’d like to hang the rectangular landscape of tastiness on my wall, but I want to eat it more. Savory dust, green and red tomatoes and skins play among bacon-wrapped pork belly, the delicately thin and crispy bacon saving the bite from being overwhelming. A tentacle of grilled octopus drapes the plate, another section hugged by charred squid. Never thought I’d eat that and pork cracklins together, but it’s damn good. For a fun visual pop and play on Glenfiddich, Church adds tomato jam with a teensy Scotch egg. Even though the breading has lost some of its snap by the time it reaches us, it’s deliciousness makes up for any textural lack.
For the intermezzo, we’re given numbers and sent back into the showroom for another killer cocktail by Pollard. He understands that Scotch can be intimidating, and deftly plays up its charms while softening the overall character in the balanced Honey Bunny. With the rich bourbon notes of the 14-year-old, he mixes Amaro Montenegro, complex Lustau Oloroso sherry and fresh lemon with a honey-lavender syrup and sparkling yuzu sake by Bunny. It’s just the right amounts of floral, herbal, deep and sweet. I’m serious—this man can mix.
The numbers come out, and I am stoked to be 11, because that means I’m in the first throng to line up at the meat pit in the parking lot. Howard has been slow-cooking lamb, and the smell wraps itself around us. I make my way back from his station with medium-rare slices that were marinated in herbs, yogurt and sumac, smoked over acacia and grape vines and brined with charred orange, pepper and rosemary. The meat is nestled on a stew of fall-apart lamb neck and harissa eggplant, and it is a smoky, voluptuous bite. There’s a reason Las Vegans are clamoring to see this chef open his own restaurant in a neighborhood spot, but for now, we’ll meet him in the parking lot.
One of the delights of the night is the family-style element. With Brisson’s stew we got chilled spinach squares, and Taherzadeh does not mess around with his sides to Howard’s entrée. He plays to his Iranian heritage with a dome of saffron-stained rice with barberries, almond and preserved orange, the bottom cooked into dark and crispy tadig. There’s a Persian frittata served inside a retained shell, with peas, fenugreek and creamy yolk. My tablemate declares it very Instagrammable, and another pours it all over her rice. Tied for my favorite bites of the night are two other complements by Taherzadeh. His wheels of pink grapefruit, orange and blood orange topped with pistachio and drizzled with rose water, red wine vinegar, honey and olive oil is bliss. I’m so full. Painfully. And I can’t stop myself from raiding the table for leftovers. It even has strips of pickled rose petal, a clever flourish that the chef says was a surprise when it actually worked. Another pickled accent is the turnip with succulent nuggets of lamb tongue over a tangy spiced yogurt sauce with sliced pickle and heels of toasted sesame-seed bread. I’m not a huge fan of tongue, but I go back again and again, gingerly reaching toward the plate next to the guy whose Scotch I spilled. There’s couscous spiked with pomegranate, too, but I can’t eat another bite.
Luckily, the next thing in front of me is Glenfiddich Gran Riserva, a 21-year-old single malt that kicks hard. Brand ambassador Jennifer Wren says it’s “aggressive,” and she’s not kidding. But it stands up to all of the rich flavors still swirling on our palates.
I know dessert is coming, and I resolve to eat one bite. Until I have that bite. Gelatology mastermind Alberganti’s tartufo is a sweet velvet cloud, melding tart passion fruit and funky banana with a Maracaibo chocolate ganache center. Subtle tobacco hints make the gelato and cookie crumbs a fitting mate for Glenfiddich spuma, and I have many, many more bites than planned. And I would do it again! While we’re luxuriating in all the textures, Pollard brings in Broken Spanish, with 15-year-old Solera Reserve, chile liqueur, sherry, bitters and Avuá Amburana Cachaça. The macerated cherry soaked with the concoction is the literal cherry on top of this incredible experience.
It ends with one more taste of 26-year-old Scotch called simply, Excellence. It's just the right thought. –Erin Ryan