I got a golden ticket. It wasn't from Willy Wonka, though. It was from José Andrés. He's basically the Willy Wonka of Spanish cuisine in America — you've probably seen him on TV delivering the boundless joy of good food to people like Anthony Bourdain or Conan O'Brien
. My golden ticket did not include meeting José, but it was a requirement for entry into what is possibly his most whimsical restaurant — é by José Andrés — in what is probably the most whimsical (and deranged) town in America — Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is not a typical dining town, and é is not a typical restaurant. It seats exactly eight people, who all sit around a crescent-shaped bar in a room that is about the size of a family dining room. The decor runs from the strange (a pair of empty shoes climbing a ladder up into the ceiling) to the stranger (a doll peering out into the room from behind bars, clearly envious of the diners below). Salvador Dali is an obvious inspiration, as are the 37 or so Cirque du Soleil shows that seem to be playing Vegas at any given time. The chefs do all of the assembly (though not all the cooking) right in front of you, then personally deliver each plate over the bar. It is something akin to dining as performance art, or at least theater, and it is loads of fun. To say this is simply dinner is akin to saying you're going to hear a few songs when you go to a Lady Gaga concert (and, no, I haven't been to a Lady Gaga concert, but you can tell she would dig the madness that takes place in this little room — "let's have some fun, this beat is sick, I want to take a ride on your pintxos schtick").
The mood is set right away by a haze of liquid nitrogen doing its magic on a frozen gin and tonic. Plates in the shape of José's hand appear, offering edible "flowers" made from raspberries. A gold-dusted piece of jewelry appears in a box, to be placed on your finger (or someone else's) and then consumed. And they're just getting warm ... there's a crazy combination of green apple and blue cheese that looks like a giant aerated crunchy marshmallow, and later a cava sangria in the form of a gelled orb with chunks of fruit encased within. Fried bone marrow makes an appearance, as does a spherified olive ode to Ferran Adria (of El Bulli fame). But it's not all smoke and mirrors. The simplest bite of the night is one of the best — a thin and luxurious slice of Iberico ham topped with caviar that you simply roll up together and put to a glorious end in one slow, satisfying bite. The dish's name? José taco. If only every "taco" could be this good.
- Do not pay attention to the shoe in the background
After three hours and roughly 24 small "courses," the experience comes to an end and you are let out to stagger into the not-so-real world of Vegas revelers at midnight. Your mind is spinning with thoughts of "How did they do that?" and "Did I really eat and drink all those things?" You realize you could have spent the last few hours seeing Jabbawockeez, or Elton John, or Zumanity. Oh, the humanity. And then you thank José for bringing a bit of surreal Spain to the madness that is showtime in Vegas.
And then, since it's Vegas, and since it's midnight, you hop in a cab and head to a place that has a lot more action ... In-N-Out Burger. Double double "animal style." Now that is something magical.