Sunday, September 11, 2011

LA Times Food & Wine The Taste - Food Fest Marathon Day 4: Picnic in the Hills

The last day of my food fest marathon fell this past Monday, Labor Day, and I headed back to Beverly Hills with mixed emotions: excitement about the format, Picnic in the Hills and sadness that this was the final day of a culinary journey that I didn't want to end, even if I was running out of steam from the now 4-day race.

It was apparent from the moment we arrived, that this would be the most popular event of the entire weekend.  Cars were lined up bumper to bumper, waiting for their turn into event parking (not the case any other events at The Taste), and there was another huge line of people at the ID check tent.

This time though, the crowd was very different - there were kids literally everywhere, probably because the format (picnic) was family friendly, and kids 14 and under got in for free. So everyone who had spawn, brought them. And their friends.

Picnic in the Hills (Beverly Hills, 12-4pm) initially evoked visions of rolling green hills overlooking the city, but we were actually back in the parking lot of the old Robinson's May next to The Beverly Hilton hotel.  However, Target, the event sponsor, did a fantastic job of transforming the venue into a vision of greenery and retro cool, with turf laid out in the outdoor area, and red/white blankets and umbrellas set out amongst picnic tables. 

Beyond the giant tent filled with a who's who list of restaurants serving gourmet food samples, and wineries / liquor vendors pouring every kind of merry libation (more on those later!), there was a quaint little 50's style lemonade stand, surrounded by cute produce displays and take-home fruit. 

This is where Target served up fresh lemonade in mason jars (with handles for easier, er, handling) with watermelon or strawberries and sprigs of fresh basil.

This was the perfect drink for a scorching day, appropriate for the entire family, and served in a 'glass' convenient to use out on picnic blankets (lid minimizes kiddie spillage).  Plus, the jars were a great souvenir to take home - I plan to use mine to make watermelon rind pickles!

The picnic area was surrounded by baby lemon trees - well, trees decorated with lemon 'ornaments' with cute red & white ribbons on top.  Loved the attention to detail (nicely done Target, perfect way to reinforce the brand)!

So on to the food then - I would say this day had the best gourmet food samples overall, after Secrets of the Kitchen & Cellar!

The Curious Palate served Watermelon Gazpacho (when many others were serving tomato) that was refreshing as an accompaniment to their Pork Slider, which also broke out from the herd. What I like about The Curious Palate is that they don't just go safe and 'classic' - as implied by their name, they love to experiment with food - and the pork slider is a great example of this.  Each slider featured three kinds of pulled pork, cooked three different ways - cheek (braised), belly (smoked), and butt (roasted), served with apple cabbage slaw and aioli.
[Thanks, Nomster for letting me crib off your notes! :)]
Breadbar also offered sliders - Veal Meatball Sliders, on a brioche bun!

M Street Kitchen and Stella Rossa Pizza Bar had fresh Burrata Crostini (I'm a sucka for good burrata) topped with grilled grapes and a bit of basil.  I loved the combination of cool, creamy burrata with juicy sweet/tart warm grapes.

Lexington Social House was the dark horse of the event - I hadn't really heard too much about them, and though I enjoyed their pork belly at Art of Mixing Friday night, it didn't sear itself into memory as a place I absolutely had to return to.

But other bloggers raved about their fried chicken, so we went to check it out.  And ended up going back for 3rds, 4ths...

The Fried Chicken was served with corn salad, cherry tomatoes and shallots on the side - but it was really the little chicken drumstick that made a big impression.  A clean, crisp, lightly battered shell yielded to juicy, flavorful and tender meat with every bite - and I literally sucked each one down to the bone, they were that good. 

I wouldn't have immediately associated Lexington Social House with great fried chicken, but after tasting the samples I would say it could possibly give Kyochon a run for its money.
Pizza Antica had a trio of samples, starting with BLT salad served in a paper cone which I skipped (not a salad fan...), and an amazing Bruschetta with Avocado, Tomato, Olive Oil and Garlic-Rubbed Ciabatta.  If I hadn't been gorging non-stop for 3 days straight, I would have stuffed down many more of these - all the ingredients tasted farm fresh, and they used really good olive oil that I'm not a connoiseur enough to identify by taste, but that I can safely say made my eyes roll back.
Pizza Antica's third sample was a sweeter Bruschetta, with Three Cheeses (ricotta, goat, and blue), Black Mission Fig, and Nipitella (Italian mint) on Garlic-Rubbed Ciabatta. Another luscious interpretation of bruschetta.

Aside from Fig & Olive's Mushroom Crostini (same as what they served at Fashion Bites Brunch), this and the tomato avocado bruschetta were some of my favorite bread+topping bites.

Momed's Duck Shawarma was a welcome break from all the pork and tomato offerings.  A tad dry, but still delicious.  On the side was a farro salad with pomegranate, first time I've ever had the combination - it was an interesting one that appealed to me more in concept than taste.

Inn of the Seventh Ray in my view had the Best-in-Show sample - for visual artistry as well as creative pairings of ingredients and craftsmanship in putting it all together. 

It was a Mole Braised Short Rib with Cauliflower Escabeche, Quail Egg and Crisped Carrot Slivers over Honeycomb Polenta.   This one set off fireworks in my mouth, with its rich, succulent beef counterbalanced by tiny bunches of crunchy cauliflower and crispy shreds of carrot, and the creamiest polenta - crowned with a runny quail egg, which took it over the top in a great way.  LOVED!
Any LA food event meant to showcase what the city has to offer would be remiss not to include Korean food.  And the Korean Cultural Center was there to represent, with a delicious Bibimbap served up by a friendly couple dressed in traditional garb.

At the next table over, Beseju and Koonsoondang sampled rice wines, including raspberry and ginseng-infused ones.  The latter had a very pronounced ginseng flavor, which I thought I could use to justify daily dosage, with its 'health benefits' (it tastes healthy, at least!) - but of the two, I preferred the sweeter raspberry one.  Though market fresh cocktails are still more my thing than either wines or rice wines.

Kate Mantilini confusingly brought an ethnic street food  - I've always thought of the restaurant - founded by the family who originated Hamburger Hamlet - as serving modern American fare / elevated American comfort food, so the Lamb Lollipops with Curry Dip kind of threw me for a loop.  It was pretty good, but reminded me more of middle eastern street food than what I would intuitively associate with Kate Mantilini.
The other sample from Kate Mantilini was more 'on brand', a white chicken and bean chili that was delicious even for someone who doesn't normally like chicken anything.

Angelini Osteria served up a Spinach Lasagna, topped with fried spinach for textural contrast. 

I was excited to try Pitfire Pizza's Heirloom Tomato Pizza - it looked gorgeous, tasted fresh from the oven - and there's a location fairly close to my office!  The sample had a great balance of flavors, and the tomatoes tasted at peak ripeness.  Definitely going to stop by for lunch one day.
Terroni was also on hand at the event with fresh-made pastas, again made right at their booth.  I was too full to fill up on carbs, and skipped since I had been able to try their samples at the Food Noir event.  But did look longingly at the fresh made Spaghetti, and Tagliatelle with Ragu

Vinoteque on Melrose brought a few tapas style bites.  My favorite was the Roasted Tomato Herbed Cheese Tart.  They also had Key Lime Cheesecake Bites with Toasted Coconut, and Peanut Butter Empanadas with a dollop of Marshmallow Fluff and choice of Chocolate or Strawberry Sauce (I liked the idea of these two, but both needed bolder flavors and the empanada could have had a lighter, crisper, warmer shell). 
Another innovative item from Vinoteque is the Curried Chicken Pot Pie Bites with Carrot Puree.  This one I also liked more in concept than execution - the filling needed to have a stronger presence overall, and the pot pie 'shell' could have more buttery flavor and be a bit lighter - as it was, its blandness overwhelmed the 'bite', versus being something to complement and enhance the would-have-been 'exotic' spicy filling. 

Clementine featured a Summer Fruit Crisp filled with peach and rhubarb, topped with a dollop of mascarpone.  These were in adorable, perfect bite-sized little tin cups - loved!  They also apparently had Sloppy Joes, which we missed and didn't get to taste.
Richard Ruskell Pastries of Montage of Beverly Hills brought a huge spread of different cookies, including ginger snaps, various sable cookies, classic chocolate chip, and oatmeal fruit bars.  Loved every single one.  And the best part?  They served Iced Chocolate with the cookies, which was so thick and creamy it could have been a shot of milkshake.  Delicious, and refreshing - wish I could have gotten more!
B Sweet brought an array of baby cupcakes including a bacon chocolate one that had a slice of bacon poking out of the middle.  I wanted more salty lardon flavors in that cupcake, but heard that the matcha green cupcake was fantastic.

Other desserts included RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen's Ovaltine Shaved Ice.  I grew up with and love Ovaltine, but not a big fan of shaved ice (don't see the appeal, it's...frozen water with flavoring poured over it...?) so not the best person to comment on the piece - but kudos for originality in using Ovaltine. Green & Black's Organic was also on hand to sample their chocolates. 

In terms of cocktails, I loved the refreshing Goslings' Dark and Stormy again (first tasted at Taco Tequila Tryst) and YES vodka's Bloody Mary (though not as much as Avion's Bloody Maria).

And thus ended Day 4 of the marathon! Total run time: 4 hours. 

Overall, The Taste was an unforgettable series, and I came out of it with a new record for new experiences of LA food/wine/cocktail purveyors (who were new to me anyway) on consecutive days, great memories, and awesome new foodie friends.

If I hadn't gotten the press pass, would I pay $125-$150 per person per event?  As a foodie on a budget, I would say I would have definitely taken advantage of the 40% off offers - and chosen 1-2 events very carefully based on participating restaurants and format (with the benefit of having experienced 7 of 9 events, I would say the best value in my opinion were Secrets of the Kitchen & Cellar, Picnic in the Hills and Fashion Bites Brunch).  Overall, I enjoyed the 'city-wide' series - though if I was paying admission again would have rather had a consolidated 1-2 Grand Tasting events (a la Pebble Beach) where I could maximize experience of different restaurant/wine/cocktail offerings - but I do see how this format offers more varied themes and groupings for people to 'choose their own adventure'. 

[For more photos from these events, check out The Taste photo album on my Facebook page!]


Los Angeles Times Food & Wine The Taste 2011
Picnic in the Hills (9/5 12-4pm): 9900 Wilshire Blvd Beverly Hills, CA 90210

$150 pp (Children 14 and under free)



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