It’s hard to miss 6-foot-5-inch Marc St. Jacques, executive chef at Michael Mina in Bellagio. He fairly towers over everyone else on the line in the kitchen. He is French Canadian, as his name might imply, and his appreciation for fresh ingredients began early in life, during summer trips to his grandparents’ farm. He came to the United States at age 19 and earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. He’s been cooking for Mina for several years now, and before moving to Las Vegas with his wife last year, he manned the stoves at Mina’s restaurant at the MGM Grand in Detroit.
St. Jacques, like most chefs of his generation, prefers to cook with products in season, as demonstrated by his choice of a spring vegetable, asparagus, for this first-course dish. Either white or green asparagus is fine, but if you use the green, do not use the poaching liquid included here, but rather just salt water, to blanch the asparagus before serving. White asparagus is balanced by the poaching liquid, says the chef, but for the green, it will turn it an unappealing shade of brown.
Asparagus with Smoked Ham and Mustard Vinaigrette
4 stalks jumbo green or French white asparagus
For the poaching liquid
- 4 cups dry white wine
- 4 cups water
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup salt
- ¼ cup whole-grain mustard
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 or 5 thin ham slices (Michael Mina uses Allan Benton’s smoked ham from Tennessee, but prosciutto, speck or Serrano ham works as well.)
- 1 shaved radish, in thin slices
- Picked herbs, such as tarragon, sorrel or chervil
- Sea salt
- Extra virgin olive oil
For the asparagus: Peel in long, even strokes, removing any skin. Combine all ingredients in the poaching liquid or salt water and bring to a light boil. Turn down heat to a simmer and poach about 12 minutes. Trim bottom section and cut on the bias into four or five pieces. Season with salt and oil.
For the vinaigrette: Whisk both mustards together and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season to taste.
To plate: Drizzle some of the vinaigrette on surface of plate. Place the asparagus and slices of ham. Toss on the herbs and radishes with the leftover olive oil and salt, then artfully arrange the radishes and herbs.
Asparagus has a reputation for being especially difficult to pair with wine, but Michael Mina has an ace in the hole, master sommelier Joe Phillips. For this dish, Phillips has chosen a 2007 Domaine Drouhin Arthur Vineyards Chardonnay from Oregon ($87 on the wine list here; about $33 retail). Assistant sommelier Sabrina Benedetto, speaking for her boss, says it was chosen for its crisp acidity and stand-up fruit, a nice match for the ham and herbs.