Sunday, September 4, 2011

Los Angeles Times Food & Wine The Taste - Food Fest Marathon Days 1 & 2

When I first heard about LA Times' Food & Wine event The Taste, which seemed set to take food fests to a whole new scale - with celebrations throughout LA over 4-days - my first reactions were excitement, then denial and despair, when I realized prices were way out of my budget at $125-$150 per event. 

Despite the experience at the single-day Paramount Studios event last year, which left many attendees skeptical, I had been excited to see event descriptions reflecting significant changes addressing last year's main concerns.  Like offering unlimited samples of food and wine - so you don't have to pay extra or deal with drink tickets once you get in.  Like having a much larger selection of high-end restaurants, and more cocktails vs. just wine.

Food fests are ideal for gourmands on a budget - they bring together lots of fine-dining places you've always wanted to try, and lets you sample before you commit to a full-blown, full-priced dinner. But the events themselves can get pricey too, so it was great when 40% off promotional codes for The Taste started popping up.  However, I would still only be able to afford 1 or 2 events.  So this lil blogger was pleasantly surprised and ecstatic when Wagstaff, the media agency managing The Taste, was kind enough to grant me a press pass - that provided admission to all 9 events!!!!  (Thank you Wagstaff!!!)

With 'golden ticket' in hand, I stepped up to the self-designed challenge that would do right by the name of this blog - to get the most out of the experience.  Real Ironman triathlons, I was never built to do (don't have a single atheletic gene in my body), but a food marathon I would enjoy tackling.  So I set out to check out as many of the events as time and stomach space will allow. Highlights from the first two days of my food fest marathon:

Burgers & Beer (Beverly Hills, Friday 9/2 7-10pm) - regular readers know I'm not into beer, but enjoy a good burger when it's more than just patty, cheese, bun, done.  And some of LA's top restaurants gathered to outdo each other in the kick-off event outside the Beverly Hilton hotel, with their take on an American classic.

With overlap between two Taste events, I speed-walked through Burgers & Beer.  Lamb and short rib burgers and pulled pork sandwiches were everywhere. Delphine caught my eye with their inventive presentation of burgers on skewers.

Waterloo & City went against the grain with chicken liver mousse, which I loved (though the pickles were a bit overwhelming), as much for taste as well as breaking up the barrage of 20+ burgers/sandwiches. The real show-stopper, and my favorite burger of the night hands-down, was Rustic Canyon's super-juicy brisket and short rib burger topped with arugula, pickles, slow-cooked onions, and a herb-infused creamy remoulade. The brioche buns were also amazing - perfectly light, warm and pillowy. There was a poll that ran all night with guests given a single ticket, to cast their vote for their favorite burger - I left before results were announced but it was great to hear afterwards that Rustic Canyon won!

From there, I raced over to Paramount Studios for the Art of Mixing event (Hollywood, Friday 9/2 9pm-12am) - the focus here, of course, was on libations (and KCRW's Jason Bentley was there mixing it up as opening DJ), but there were plenty of food samples as well. 

I knew we were off to a good start when I spotted truffle at the first stand:  Katana Sushi offered a refreshing tuna sashimi salad with avocado, cherry tomato, arugula, cheese, delicious in itself, but taken over the top with a shaving of black truffle.  The fragrance of the truffle alone was intoxicating, and I didn't even get to the cocktails yet!  They also had a beautiful display lined with orchids for an island vibe.

Other samples I loved: maitake mushroom soup with toasted buckwheat from Eva Restaurant, and Bar Pintxo's paella (made fresh from a giant vat next to their tent!).  I loved the idea of Alex Reznik's (chef of La Seine) Halibut Cheek with Beef Tongue, that was beautifully plated with garlic blossoms, but found the halibut a tad overcooked (granted, they were cooking with portable stoves due to the limitations of the event space) - the tongue was great though!

The highlight of the evening was the cooking demo featuring Chef Ricardo Zarate (Picca Peru, Mo-Chica), Chef John Rivera Sedlar (Playa Rivera) and Mixologist Julian Cox. 

It was interesting to see all three demo creations based on themes of fusion and the 'global village', drawing inspiration from their backgrounds: Japanese-trained Chef Zarate's knife skills were impressive as he showed us how to properly filet and slice sea bass, while Chef Sedlar made sauces inspired by three different regions: Europe, Asia and Mexico to use with the fish.  Julian Cox then finished out with a 'fusion' drink made from sake, chartreuse and mezcal.  Definitely want to go back to Picca Peru, and to visit Playa Rivera, soon!

Overall, Art of Mixing was a good combination of live music, free-flowing cocktails and wine, delectable bites and a cooking demo with talented chefs (I liked that they featured 'real' chefs vs. 'celebrities') - all while providing 'insider' access to a Hollywood studio backlot, strung with lights and lit-up facades for unique ambience.

A few hours rest, and I'm up, excited and sprinting over the next morning to Secrets from the Kitchen & Cellar (Beverly Hills, Saturday 9/3 11am-3pm) - this turned out to be my favorite event of the first two days!  Not only did it feature a who's who list of restaurants offering the best samples, but there were multiple panel discussions and demos featuring some of the most talented minds / artists in LA's culinary scene!

I made a beeline on arrival, to the Scarpetta table.  I've been wanting to try their food, but not quite ready to spend Michelin prices for pasta.  Their samples turned out to be two of my favorites - I can still taste them in my mind a day later, and wish I had grabbed more - the creamy polenta with wild mushrooms was phenomenal (it's been hard for me to find a good polenta that is not rubbery or too grainy), and yellowtail crudo, was a beautiful and perfectly light dish to counter the hot weather.

Tender Greens also had one of my favorite samples of the day:  heirloom tomato gazpacho - perfectly controlled acidity / sweetness, a shot of cold soup that was perfect for the sunny SoCal afternoon.  The soup was made with heirloom tomato, green bell peppers, cucumbers, red onion, sherry vinegar, olive oil and parsley - simply delicious! 

They also offered a great Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon salad with arugula, corn, roasted peppers, red onions, cherry tomatoes and lemon basil aioli, and Agave Cupcakes with mascarpone frosting, caramelized puffed rice and market fresh black mission figs - yum!

Sotto served a Crispy Pork Belly Porchetto that made my eyes roll back.  All the way.  To the back of my head.  It was the perfect amount of fat to skin to meat ratio, and was rich in flavor, juice and crunch.  The green tomato mostarda though was what really set the dish apart - it was sweet and tangy at the same time, and cut through the pork nicely.  Malibu wild fennel added some textural and color contrast to the plate.

Several others at the event served pork belly, but in my view Sotto left everyone in the dust.

Something else I noticed about the event that changed from last year's - there are Fiji water stations in very visible places all over the event, the better to to combat dehydration from alcohol and heat (awesome!).  There was also plenty of table seating all around, so that you actually have a spot to enjoy your samples instead of juggling them while sitting on the curb.
But back to the food: Wood & Vine sampled a lovely plate of foie gras terrine, pork terrine, chicken liver pate and peach jam.  They had me at foie gras - but every piece on that plate was amazing and I scraped up every last bite. And made a mental note to visit the place soon - it's just down the hill from my office and would be a nice place for cocktails and small plates or dinner!

Another favorite (there were many!) was from Craft - a beautifully marbled, thin slice of Sonoma pork sat atop the most flavorful heirloom bean salad I've ever had (I feel like they must have cooked it in pork fat or something - it was so addictive, I all but inhaled the whole plate). 
With very little stomach space left from continuous gorging since Friday, I still had to make a stop at Cafe del Rey - they drew me in with the vibrant little spoons of lobster ceviche, soaked in vanilla, lime, and coconut water, with red onions, bell peppers and a plantain chip.  It made me think of some tropical vacation!  And the chef let me know that they serve this dish at the cafe - in a coconut shell!  Adding to my list of places to visit soon. In the meantime, downed two spoonfuls of the stuff.

Though I was ignoring wines for the most part, the Bloody Maria at the Avion booth caught my eye - and I developed an instant addiction.  It was not like most Bloody Marys, which are too thick and spicy for me - this was light, refreshing with just a bit of heat on the finish.  I went back for 3rds. 

After completing a quick circuit for food, I got myself on track for two panels with some of the most fascinating talent in the LA culinary world:  Interview with Ludo and Krissy Lefebvre, and Tasting & Tweeting: The Use and Abuse of Social Media in Restaurants, a discussion featuring Wolvesmouth (Craig Thornton), Walter Manzke and Michael Voltaggio, moderated by the inimitable Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold.

Highlights from the Ludo & Krissy Lefebvre interview:
  • Ludo spend 4 years as apprentice before ever working on the line, and 8 years to become sous chef.  Cameras may portray an 'overnight sensation', but Ludo put in, and respects, hard work and passion for cooking.  And encourages chefs just starting out, to really hone their craft with patience and passion. 
  • Ludo: "I was tired to cook for 'frou frou' or critics...I did not want to be, how do you say, like in hospital (Krissy jumps in with "straitjacket")". "We cook for the staff, for the people."    
  • The first night of their first pop-up at Breadbar, only 6 people showed. Then bloggers discovered the concept, started evangelizing, and in 1.5 months it begin to get crowded. So crowded that a hostess unknowingly turned Jonathan Gold away one night -Krissy says jokingly that's when you know you've made it.  They chased him down and made sure he had a table when one cleared.
  • 'Before they were stars': LudoBites made headlines for crashing OpenTable's online reservations system, and then recently selling out weeks of bookings in less than a minute. But in the beginning, it was challenging: Krissy managed reservations via email and they hired students off Twitter for staff.  It was only after LudoBites 3.0 they were able to hire professional cooks.
  • Advice for chefs interested in pop-ups: you don't need a lot of money to start, but really important to find a good partner. Start by marketing to people who are already there, don't try to go too big too fast (LudoBites 1.0 marketing was postcards on Breadbar's tables).  Do it because you love it - not for the money (Krissy joked servers make more money than Ludo right now!)
  • When asked about 5-year plans, Ludo stated that he does hope to have his own restaurant 'one day'!
Next was the social media panel: Tasting & Tweeting: The Use and Abuse of Social Media in Restaurants a lively discussion from three talented chefs' perspectives on how Twitter impacts what they do, moderated by Jonathan Gold. 
  • The JGold had the best intro for Craig: "...I first became aware of him, when he sent me an email detailing his scheme to be on the sidewalks of Echo Park, feeding people foie gras."
  • MVoltaggio: Twitter is a chance to get feedback on what he's doing, and he has opportunity to choose to respond / adjust or not.  You also have to be careful what you put out there - once it's out you can't take it back - even with the delete function (people reply/retweet so fast!).
  • CThornton: Twitter is great in giving chefs the opportunity to directly respond to feedback / news (e.g. explain creative decisions for his often paradigm-shifting dishes, and address recent flak for frozen dinners with 'Wolf' in name, that have nothing to do with him)
  • Who they would recommend following:
    • Wolvesmouth: @ideasinfood
    • MVoltaggio: @LATimes @LAWeekly @MVoltaggio 
It would have been great to hear more about the chefs' creative process as well, but this was a timely panel with entertaining personalities.  And as the JGold noted, so meta - many in the audience were tweeting about the panel, as they were discussing Twitter.

Later that evening, I stopped by Taco Tequila Tryst (Hollywood, Saturday 9/3 7-10pm) - of all the events, this one attracted a crowd more focused on booze than food, and the event had more of a party vibe than any of the others, albeit with twenty to thirty-somethings versus college kids.

I was there for the food - and standouts were: Steven Fretz (of the recently shuttered XIV) with his pork cheek carnita with liquid corn 'queso' and pickled green tomato salsa with double flour tortillas, Chichen Itza's cochonitas, and Yamashiro's signature fusion miso-sake glazed black cod taco with wasabi guacamole.  I was excited to learn from Chef Brock Kleweno, at his booth, that he will soon be opening Komida in Hollywood in October, serving up his signature tacos and more.  Fantastic news for those of us who were wondering where we would get our black cod taco fix after the seasonal Yamashiro Farmers Market closes in September - now we'll have a go-to spot, the very next week after!

Kudos also to Corkbar for their fresh fried (juicy and flavorful) fish taco, Malo/Mas Malo's fresh fried beef taco with pickles (that they ran out of very quickly), and Red O's Jicama shrimp taco (that included caviar and with a 'tortilla' made of jicama).

In terms of drinks, I'm not really a tequila girl, but appreciated and enjoyed other drinks on offer at the event like Goslings' Dark & Stormy, a refreshing drink made with black rum and ginger beer, and Agua Fresca made with watermelon and basil from Red O.

All in all, a great finish for the first leg of the marathon!

Days 1 & 2 total run time: 7 hours 35 minutes.

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

Up next: Days 3 and of the foodie marathon!


Los Angeles Times Food & Wine The Taste 2011

Burgers and Beer (9/2 7-10pm) 9900 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90212 $125 pp
Art of Mixing (9/2 9pm-12am) Paramount Studios on Melrose $125 pp

Secrets of the Kitchen & Cellar (9/3 11am-3pm) 9900 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90212 $150 pp

40% off all The Taste events except Picnic in the Hills with code "Web" or "Family"



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