Las Vegas restaurants, chefs rally for UNLVino event

Al Mancini    

As the first of more than 3,500 UNLVino guests were streaming into the courtyard of the Keep Memory Event Center in Symphony Park, 1,926 blue, white and red balloons were released to honor legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, who died in January at age 91.

“I thought it was appropriate for the students to recognize Paul for all the work he’s done in culinary, and the work he’s done … for the students,” Michael Severino explained moments before the tribute, flanked by top chefs such as Hubert Keller, Paul Bartolotta, Scott Conant and Rick Moonen, as well as some of the more than 400 UNLV culinary students participating in the festivities.

As the balloons took flight into a gorgeous springtime sky, flanked by the World Market Center, the tower of The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall and Keep Memory Alive’s Frank Gehry-designed hall, it was obvious that organizers of this year’s event had chosen a perfect locale.

UNLVino in recent years has included multiple events at various casino properties. This year, however, it was on a single night, in this one location. Guests split their time between the Event Center, its garden and the outdoor plaza in Symphony Park.

Other highlights of the night included a kagami-biraki (sake barrel opening ceremony), complete with traditional Japanese drummers who played through the night. A team from Naked Fish broke down a whole 300-pound bluefin tuna into sashimi for the guests.

The festival’s longtime supporter Robin Leach, currently recovering from a stroke, was honored in his absence with a 21-cork salute of popping champagne bottles. Ferrari-Carano Winery founder Don Carano was posthumously awarded the inaugural Dom Perignon Lifetime Achievement Award. Students from UNLV’s music school performed in the plaza throughout the night.

More than 50 restaurants were on hand, serving up samples of their cuisine. They included top Strip locations such as Rivea, Libertine Social, STK, Chica, RM Seafood and Black Tap. And the evening offered the first local taste of San Francisco’s Slanted Door, coming to the Forum Shops at Caesars this year, in the form of daikon cakes presented by chef Charles Phan.

Neighborhood restaurants were also well represented, including Lotus of Siam, Raku, District One, both Kitchen Table restaurants, Makers & Finders, Sambalatte and the first public showing by chef Gina Marinelli’s upcoming La Strega restaurant, which is expected to open this summer.

“I’m super-happy to see the changes and what they’ve done with it: bringing it to the Event Center and being outside, how they’ve set it up. There are more restaurants, and more of a local following, which is super-cool,” said Brian Howard, who has represented Strip restaurants at past UNLVinos, but was here for the first time as chef-owner of Sparrow + Wolf.

It was Conant’s first UNLVino since departing The Cosmopolitan and re-entering the Las Vegas market with Masso Osteria at Red Rock Resort. Bartolotta, who no longer cooks on the Strip since leaving Wynn Las Vegas, but still has a home in Las Vegas, made an appearance to serve some mussel soup and support the cause.

“My whole life has been based on having people mentor and give me an opportunity,” he explained. “This is really about celebrating young generations of chefs to come.”

Contact Al Mancini at Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.