The 2010 NOWFE Grand Tastings--A Seafood Delight
Posted by perle0 on 2010-05-30 22:48:47
|Once again, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (NOWFE) ended with its big event, the Grand Tastings. With one held Friday night and one Saturday afternoon, they have for the last few years taken place in the Superdome, where there's plenty of room for the massive amounts of wine and food. It's definitely the event of the year for wine-lovers and foodies alike (so often, the two are combined in the same person anyway), and this year was no exception. With hundreds of wines to sample and dishes for tasting from most of New Orleans's finest restaurants, what's not to love?|
First, let's talk about the wine, as the wine is more or less the same on both days. As usual, the primary wines on offer were Cabs, Merlots, and Chardonnays. Sadly, these are not really my favorite varieties. My friend tasted a lot of the cabs and merlots, and I tasted some, but most were too tannic for my personal tastes. There was a high-end Ste. Michelle Merlot that was pretty tasty, though. It might have been this one. Only $40--not completely unreasonable for a Merlot I'd actually enjoy drinking. My friend's favorite Cabernet of the entire show was produced by Egelhoff wines. The winemaker, Bob Egelhoff, is a prestigious maker of top-rated wines for other wineries, and now he's finally gotten the chance to make his own label, and is wasting no time showing his stuff under his own name.
Another wine worth noting was a sparkling almond wine from Jan Kris. It smelled wonderful, just like almond extract. The taste was more subtle; it was a basic sparkling white with a hint of almond sweetness, but not as overpowering as the smell.
Another sweet wine that was a favorite of mine was the Capitello Dolcino Gewürztraminer. The winemaker described a grueling winemaking process which involved freezing the grapes, then pressing them outdoors once the weather was cold enough, slowly over five days. It was sweet and delicious, with the spice of the Gewürztraminer adding a note of interest to jazz things up a little. Not bad for a $20 wine.
I also tasted a number of other wines--mostly Champagnes, plus the occasional Shiraz or Grenache that managed to strong-arm their way into the show. D'Arenberg, as usual, came through with a tasty Grenache in The Derelict Vineyard. I was also pleased to see several
Moscato d'Asti available for tasting; this sweet frizzante wine is perfect for summer drinking and spicy food.
Oh, and there was this
Blueberry Blue semi-sweet blueberry wine from NOLA Tropical Winery, which tasted much better than it sounds. They apparently specialize in wines made from fruit other than grapes, from cranberries to guava to, yes, carrots. It looks like they have a little wine bar at the very foot of Poydras where you can get these unusual wines by the glass. I also very much enjoyed the Meletti Cioccolato Liqueur, a chocolate liqueur from Italy.
On Friday, these were the restaurant samplings I managed to try. At the top of the list with three out of three stars were M Bistro, with a quadruple-whammy. They had a savory threesome of small bites: smoked shrimp fritters with redfish creole sauce, crab cake biscuit, and crawfish cappucino with ghost pepper caviar. (Ghost pepper caviar is, apparently, Louisiana choupique caviar infused with the flavor of the ghost pepper,the hottest pepper in the world.) My bite of the last had such a tiny amount of this that I can't really vouch for the caviar itself. But the crawfish cappucino overall? Delicious. Out-of-this-world good. It was super rich and creamy, and I wanted to lick the little cup it came in. I managed to restrain myself, though. And no, it did not taste (to me) like coffee. As a dessert offering, M Bistro had the chocolate martini Ponschi topped with a hot donut. This was a sort of layered chocolate mousse, topped with a chocolate pudding layer, and a small still-warm donut on a skewer sticking out of it. Yum. There is a reason this restaurant took Best in Show in both the sweet and the savory categories.
Next on the list of Friday's favorites was RAMBLA's cured foie gras torchon with Marcona almonds, grapes, and fleur de sel. This was really good and rich, and the almond on top really made the dish.
Another top-rated (by me) dish was Stephane Derbord's le croque escargot de Bourgogne. This was a little grilled cheese sandwich with escargot added. It was deliciously cheesy and garlicy. I am usually hesitant about escargot--yes, I know, it's all mental--but somehow I didn't mind it in this form.
Then there was gulf shrimp and trofie pasta with thyme-mascarpone from the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel. It looked like a basic pasta dish with shrimp and a creamy sauce--and it was. But it was a very delicate, well-balanced expression of pasta and shrimp with creamy sauce, and it ranked right up there with the other top-rated dishes. Wolfe's in the Warehouse offered a vanilla bean cheesecake with Ponchatoula strawberries, and this was another example of a simple-sounding dish that transcended itself into the top echelon.
Stepping out of the stratosphere, but still worthy of note, Arnaud's had a mushroom sauté that was quite good, but simple. The Flaming Torch offered a Moroccan shrimp couscous that was much better than I anticipated, not being a huge fan of couscous, but this was very tasty. Serrano's Salsa Company offered a seared tuna with mango mint salsa that was nicely done. And finally, the Pelican Club had...take a deep breath...duck breast with asian pulled duck barbecue, 5-spice seared foie gras, toasted jalapeno sweet onion corn bread and Louisiana blueberry and cane vinegar.
And finally, there were the dishes that I just didn't find that personally appealing. The Astor Crowne Plaza had Louisiana smoked oyster with shrimp ragout over a corn tasso bread with Champagne sauce; it was good but I don't think I'm much on smoked oysters. Galatoire's offered lamb shank and lamb sweetbreads with southern-style flageolet beans. Maybe the beans weren't my cup of tea. The Meritage had miniature pulled pork tacos with a Louisiana corn salsa fresca; that was pretty good, but it was more adorably cute than delicious. The "taco shell" was also not really a taco shell, but I can't really describe what it was other than it was something fried and taco-shaped.
We also checked out the Actifry booth, where they were showing various kitchen appliances featuring the
Actifry, a machine for making French fries with only a tiny bit of oil. I tried the fries, because if such a thing were ever perfected, I would need to own it. The fries weren't bad, but they did taste like oven-baked, low-fat fries--ones that were well-browned on all sides and evenly cooked, and reasonably tasty. But $300 seems like a lot for getting to that point. They can apparently also be used to make granola, but I didn't try any of that. They were also showing a breadmaker that could make, among other things, a quartet of miniature baguettes. That might have been a better value.
That sounds like a lot of food, doesn't it? And yet, there were many great-sounding dishes being offered by great restaurants, and as always, you end up missing some of them. I am kicking myself for not trying harder to get to some of the ones that were only there on Friday and had yummy-sounding stuff, like Mr. B's Bistro, which was offering a seared scallop with pepperjack cheese grits that I heard were awesome.
And that was only Friday! The day ended with a small parade, followed by a short show by Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show. The music ends the day's tasting on a celebratory note, and gives attendees a little extra time to sober up before leaving the premises. It was a rockin' show, but sadly could only last a half-hour.
As I mentioned last year, the very best way to enjoy the Grand Tastings, if one is able, is to attend both the Friday and Saturday sessions. For one thing, some restaurants only participate on one of the two days. Also, all of the good swag tends to be gone by the middle of Friday. Plus, you have time to make sure that you taste a reasonable number of wines. Going both days, you can relax a little and not attempt to taste EVERY wine the first day. I tried to focus on the food items that would only be offered on Friday, and sample some wines in between, when we got thirsty. (We drank a lot of water, though, too.) And there are often a couple of little special things that are only offered on Saturday.
For example, in recognition of the whole BP oil slick catastrophe taking place in our gulf, NOWFE dedicated Saturday to a "celebration of Louisiana seafood," with a special appearance by Paula Deen and a special fund-raising dinner at Restaurant August on Saturday night. Though the oil spill has closed some areas of the gulf to fishing, many people may be unaware that fishing continues in unaffected parts of the gulf, including the Louisiana coastline. Most of the western coast of Louisiana remains free of oil, for example, and seafood harvested from there is perfectly safe. Seafood is highly regulated and carefully inspected, and it is highly unlikely that any contaminated seafood could come to market. So if you want to help Louisiana seafood, keep eating it! And reassure your friends that it's safe. Certainly the vast amounts of Louisiana seafood consumed at NOWFE was top quality and safe in every way. I for one will continue to eat Louisiana seafood as long as it can be obtained, just as before the incident.
So, on Saturday, after things had gotten rolling good, John Besh and Paula Deen took to the front stage to do a special cooking demonstration. This drew a good-sized crowd, but even if you couldn't squeeze in, the demo was being shown live on the big screens around the Superdome and the audio was piped in so that you could see and hear it from almost any spot at the Tasting. Paula was her usual good-natured self and joked around with her fellow cooks on stage, and a good time was had by all. Samples of the resulting dish were even passed out to those lucky enough to score a plate. You can watch a video of the whole presentation here.
Another Saturday special event was the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, featuring celebrated chefs from local restaurants and culinary schools. Some fine-looking dishes came out of that competition this year. Chef Chris Lusk from Café Adelaide won first place for his Louisiana shrimp and crab noodle bowl. Chef Diana Chauvin of La Thai took second place with her Louisiana seafood with spicy coconut green curry. Rib Room chef Anthony Spizale nabbed third place with sauteed Louisiana seafood with fine herbs, crab emulsion, and local zucchini and squash.
Saturday also featured several Top Chef Season 5 contestants and winners, offering up a taste of the food that made them famous. More on that in a moment....
On Saturday, the mission was clear: visit all the remaining restaurants, while focusing on the ones that sounded best to me (because if you can't taste them all, taste the ones that sound best). Oh, and taste more wine--lots more wine.
On Saturday, I had a new plan of attack. The Top Chefs and the top prize winners seemed to be centered around the Mumm Napa Lounge at the very middle of the event, so I decided to start there and not stop until those were done. If last year was any indication, the Top Chefs would run out of food very early, and I didn't want to miss them. Unfortunately, their dishes weren't listed in the printed program, so I am going by my very shaky memory for what they served.
Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg offered a salad of some kind, with seafood on it. Top Chef Jaime Lauren served up something with shrimp, and Top Chef Jeff McInnis had a seafood salad. This last one was served in a cute little boat made of (I think) dried corn husk. It made for a nice, eco-friendly dish, lightweight and attractive as well. All were top-notch, of course. (You see? I need the printed menus desperately.)
A friend who'd missed M Bistro's offerings on Friday went on my urging, and due to his unfortunate allergy to crawfish, I was forced to eat his crawfish cappucino for him. O cruel fate! (Nom nom nom nom.) Yep, still awesome. Now let's move on to Saturday's highlights, food-wise.
At the top of the list, 5 Fifty 5 had a rotisserie wood-fired Fudge Farm's barbeque pork slider with creole coleslaw on brioche, and for dessert, a creole cream cheese Twinkie and peanut butter bacon s'mores. Was the line for this long? You bet it was. And it was worth it. The slider was great, while the desserts were inventive and also tasty. The "s'mores," which did not fit my definition of s'mores at all, was still delicious, with a piece of gooey, fudgelike chocolate-peanut butter with just a hint of bacon paired with a toasted marshmallow and chocolate sauce. The "Twinkie" was clever, but almost too rich to be great; I enjoyed it, but liked the other one better.
Also right up top was the American Sector, the restaurant of the National World War II Museum, with an heirloom tomato soup and grilled ham and cheese sandwich quarter. I don't even like tomato soup, but this was really good, and the paired sandwich was perfect with it. I may have to check this restaurant out in the future!
Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar had a buttermilk biscuit pudding with toasted pecans and Barq's Root Beer syrup. I liked this variation on bread pudding very much; the biscuit gave it a distinctive flavor, and it was moist and good. I couldn't really taste the root beer in the syrup, but that was a plus for me as I'm not keen on root beer. I would definitely enjoy this in a restaurant in place of the usual bread pudding.
Ruffino's Italian Restaurant had a roasted moularde duck breast with creamy mascarpone polenta, pickled cherry, and foie gras reduction. The duck I could take or leave, but the polenta (or as we know it, grits) was worth the price of admission. Rich, creamy, and good, I would have been happy just with that in its foie gras sauce. The pickled cherry really made the dish; it added a whole different dimension to the combination, while being very tasty in its own right.
Ruth's Chris Steak House was making sliced tenderloin with wild mushrooms. I must give them credit for not running out of a very popular dish until the very end, when most other restaurants had long ago shut down for the day. The steak was good and the mushrooms complemented it well. And this one definitely won the prize for best-smelling table, with the scent of grilling steak wafting over the long line of people waiting their turn....
At the Epicurean Collection, there was Delice de la Vallee cheese with red pepper jam (though when I made it by, that had turned into a choice of red raspberry jam or Steen's cane syrup). The cheese is a fresh triple-cream cow and goat milk cheese, sort of like cream cheese but with more body and texture; it was very good and went well with the various toppings. Put that on a cracker, and you have hors d'oevres fit for a king.
Besh Steak had a Pere Roux cake, consisting of "layers of white cake and a buttery banana filling with plenty of rum, all topped with a cream cheese frosting." It was good, but wasn't quite my thing.
Mila offered rice pudding with rum raisins. I don't know why I tried this, when I don't care for raisins. The rice pudding was good, but nothing special if you eat around the raisins. Probably it was much better with the intended raisins. (Hey, I ate sweetbreads and escargot. Cut me some slack on the raisins.)
Ralph's on the Park provided lamb cheeks braised in saffron and white wine. I'm a big fan of cheek generally speaking, having had some that was out of this world in New Orleans, but this one was too fatty. The flavor was good, though, and the meat itself was very tender and tasty.
And the ones I didn't manage to try? I understand there were some stand-outs. Zea had a spicy sesame tuna stack with avocado on the bottom that I was told was great. Ditto the Centerplate New Orleans Superdome's cornbread souffle with pan seared scallop with a cajun red bean sauce and saffron cream. But again, if you could try everything, even in two days, it wouldn't be the Grand Tasting.
Once again, the day ended with a parade and this time, the musical end-piece concert was performed by Big Sam's Funky Nation.
The more experience I have with the New Orleans Food and Wine Experience, the more I appreciate it. It's simply an unparalleled opportunity to try out new things, from restaurants you want to visit to wines and liquor you may not have heard of before. With its hundreds of wines and dozens of restaurants, you're sure to find something interesting...and to go home tipsy and full.
The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience is a non-profit organization. The Board of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience donates 100% of the events' profit to support their programs and foundations. Proceeds from the 2009 event benefited University of New Orleans School of Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism, the Louisiana Restaurant Association's ProStart Program, The Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, Delgado Community College Culinary Arts Program, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Girls First, Cancer Crusaders, Animal Rescue of New Orleans, Coach Sean Payton's Play It Forward Foundation and Fore! Kids Foundation.