A chefly challenge, spicy by request and Union’s new do’s

Food trends are changing more rapidly than ever, making it hard for a chef to remain at the vanguard for more than a generation. But Wolfgang Puck is the exception. He’s a creator, but also an innovator open to new ideas from his talented team.

Recently, he challenged five of his chefs to create a new dish, and I was privileged to be included in the tasting, held at Cut in the Palazzo. Nineteenth-century Frenchman Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “The discovery of a new dish contributes more to happiness than the discovery of a new star.” No argument here.

Aram Mardigian of Spago Atlantic City started it off with Armenian dumplings in chicken broth, followed by an unusual lobster Thermidor with smoked bamboo by Tetsu Yahagi, the new chef at Spago Beverly Hills, who is a Tokyo import and a brilliant technician. Scott Drewno of Puck’s The Source in Washington, D.C., contributed a lamb carpaccio paired with a spring salad of radishes and ramps plus the first white asparagus of the season, and Ari Rosenson of Cut in L.A. did sea bass in an edible pasta envelope in bouillabaisse broth.

But my favorite dish came from our own Eric Klein, resident genius at Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars. Using Chino Farms baby vegetables, duck breast he cured himself, cherry tomato aspic, fresh shrimp, a garlic aioli and sauce Romesco, he created an edible palette of flavors and colors. At present, the dish is unavailable, but will be later in the year.

Though he didn’t declare a winner, the boss was pleased: “I’m going to do this more often,” he exclaimed.

Last week, a friend came to town craving spicy Chinese food. I could only think of one choice, J&J Szechuan Cuisine (5700 Spring Mountain Road, 876-5983). This food is not for the faint of heart. A large number of dishes on the menu are a burnished red from mouth-numbing fagara peppers, those deadly, cylinder-shaped things that occasionally creep into your box at Panda Express. Try the crunchy pig’s ear, stir-fried lamb with red chili, or the delicious, somewhat milder chicken with fresh bamboo.

Finally, at Union (in Aria, 693-8300), Light Group’s always interesting executive chef Brian Massie has jumped on the small-plates bandwagon with an eclectic seven-dish menu. The best dishes include crispy, baked mozzarella with a Parmesan garlic breadcrumb crust as well as gyro-like wood-grilled lamb kabobs served off the skewer, wrapped in pita, and seated in one of those metal taco trays along with tzatziki sauce.

Hungry, yet?

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Brian Massie

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To deep-fry macaroni and cheese, from a health nut’s perspective, is to add insult to injury. Yet fans of the dish insist it’s worth every finger-licking calorie. Light Group introduced Las Vegas to these delicious diet-busters when Fix opened its doors at Bellagio in 2004. Today, the Very Adult Mac & Cheese is the eatery’s most popular appetizer, with staff serving some 60 to 70 orders on a typical Saturday night (that works out to more than 250 sticks of golden-fried pasta and cheese).