Monday, October 17, 2011

Los Angeles Food & Wine: Lexus Grand Tasting - Well Engineered Inaugural Fete

Pebble Beach Food & Wine was one of the best food events I've ever been to, one that I had saved up to attend with "Foodie Mentor" several years back (pre-blog!), but which time has not worn down in my memory - I still remember every detail of the single event we attended - the Lexus Grand Tasting - distinctly.

So, when it was announced those same organizers would be bringing LA its very own food & wine festival, I was beyond excited.  The format mirrors that of Pebble Beach - themed events, featured chefs, all over the city over several days - but with more of a celebrity emphasis given that it is, afterall, LA.

The LA fest was also a logistical feat, with over 55 events over the span of 4 days.  Of these, the ideal one for food lovers on a budget, would have been the Lexus Grand Tasting, which was to bring together 30 chefs and 200 wineries so that you can experience tastings from all at once.  This event was spread over Saturday and Sunday, with varying chefs and wine purveyors.  At $195 for one day's general admission, it was still well beyond my budget - and I was getting ready to live vicariously through other bloggers / twitter when the good news came that event organizers had miraculously approved me for a press pass (thank you)!! 

It was a gorgeous Saturday when I headed downtown to join in the festivities at LA Live.  Apparently there's a deck towards the back, beyond the Mariott, where they had set up tents for the event.

Both indoor/outdoor spaces were abuzz with food and wine lovers, flitting from booth to booth alternately tasting and sipping.  Wineries far outnumbered chefs, and I tried to strategize to hit food booths first - but ended up just going with the flow and letting plates reveal themselves among the glasses as I went down the aisles.

The stellar line-up of some of LA's finest chefs included Mark Peel and his Campanile team - I didn't get to meet him at the booth, but made myself at home with their Mussels with sausage and aioli a delicious dish, that was somehow light (with an amazing broth) and hearty (with sausage and rich aioli) at the same time.  At food events, with limited stomach capacity, it's sort of the measure of how good something is - the number of times you go back for a plate.  I had about 4 of these (no shame, at all).
Ricardo Zarate and his Mo-Chica / Picca Peru team also brought two best-of-show dishes:

Alpaca Chorizo Crostini (alpacas are a South American species of camelid that look like llamas!), exciting as it was the first time I've had this.  The meat was pretty tender, and evenly infused with seasoning, so I'm not sure what the natural flavors of the meat is like, but I liked the way Chef Zarate prepared it!

...and Diver Scallop Anticucho, perfectly seared with a mix of crunchy and leafy greens on top.
Of course, with the celebrity focus of the festival, the Grand Tasting would not be complete without a Food Network star.  The featured one was Tyler Florence, who not only gave a cooking demo that morning to VIP ticket holders - but was also on hand at a booth, preparing samples of Hamachi Tartare Cauliflower Panna Cotta for guests.  For me, the fish 'blanded' into the cauliflower panna cotta, in taste as well as texture - but great for Tyler fans to get the personal service - he pretty much stayed at the booth, prepping samples or giving interviews, throughout the event.
Speaking of celebrity chefs - Todd English also had a booth at the event for Olives, though I did not see the chef while I was there.  Say what  you will about celebrity chefs, but at the Pebble Beach event Todd English's booth had one of the best bites of the show the year I went, a succulent pork belly on the most unbelievable, fresh made flatbread. 

At this LA Food & Wine event, the Olives team presented an inventive plate, with a fuschia-colored Roasted Beet Risotto with Blue Cheese, Corn Raita and Ginger Soy Skirt Steak.  I would never think to put all of those things together, and despite the unnatural-looking coloring of the risotto and all its accompaniments, everything worked unexpectedly well together, and I thought everything besides the dry and overly chewy beef was some of the most creative and delicious bites at the event.  Too bad I only saw this towards the end of the show, and was too full to go back for seconds (would have had 3-4 plates if I had room!)
One of my favorite things about food festivals is the element of discovery - being able to take restaurants for a test drive before committing to a full on culinary journey with them. 

And there were quite a few chefs / restaurants that I've not heard of (some from other parts of the country) that I was glad to have the chance to try.

A local find is Savory, from Malibu, which brought a Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Candied Hazelnut and Black Truffle Creme Fraiche.  The soup was a little sweet, and takes a little getting used to, but I liked the sampler with the crunchy candied hazelnut and of course the dollop of super fragrant black truffle creme fraiche, which hits your nose first and then sets your synapses firing on all cylinders in a split second.

An out of town discovery was The Bristol (Chicago), which had an incredible seafood plate that made you forget for a moment you were in downtown LA, and transported you to some seaside fishing village where some kind soul has just lifted the crab and mussels from the ocean and plopped them on your plate.  Complete with foam and the lightest whipped pommes puree.  The chef told me the name of this dish, but it was long and in the chaos of the event, I'd simply condensed it in my mind to "OMGaaaaaaahhhhh".  The only sad thing is that since The Bristol is in Chicago, I won't be able to just 'pop over' for that full meal.

Another favorite at the show from an out of towner was the spicy Soppressata (dry-cured salame) from Old Town Social of Chicago, served in a paper cone!  Another one I'll be sad not to be able to visit easily.
For dessert, I've been wanting to try Madame Chocolat, otherwise known as Mrs. Jacques Torres (Mr. Torres' shop is a must stop on the rare occasions when I make my way to NYC).  There were what looked like chocolate marshmallow pops which went very quickly so I didn't get to try, and a lovely dark chocolate bark with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. Made a note to myself to visit her shop soon.
There were a few booths that had beautiful displays - one of these was the Four Seasons Resort Maui Wailea, which had an appropriately ocean-themed table, and served up Salmon Tartare in adorable bite-sized waffle cones. 

Rosa Mexicano had a massive pan of duck that they made for their tacos fresh at their booth - I at first wasn't going to use up stomach space for this, but after the scent of stewing duck wafted over, I caved and loved every bit of the bite.
Joe's Restaurant had a roasted pig head on display at their booth, perhaps to indicate a nose to tail approach, where they served up Pulled Pork Sliders and fresh-made paella.  I literally got the last scoop of paella in the pan, so perhaps that impacted the sample, but to me it was dry and didn't bowl me over with its flavors - the rice wasn't as rich with saffron / seafood flavors as I would have liked.
There was of course plenty of alcohol on pour, and it was great to get to sample everything from France's #1 champagne, to LaMarca prosecco, to Portugese white wine, to Ice Wine from Canada (including a Cabernet Ice Wine!).  Not into wine? Beer drinkers could grab Stella, Hoegaarden and Leffe on tap at the Stella Artois space, where they also gave away souvenir beer glasses in velvet bags. 

As a total lightweight, I couldn't get through more than a few tastings at select booths, and collapsed into a food/wine coma as soon as I got home.

All in all, the event was technically well run, very organized and vendors did not run out too early - but just needs a little elevation and extension next time round.  The food samples were not at the caliber of the Pebble Beach event, with just a smattering of luxe ingredients and innovative preparations - but granted it was also not nearly as expensive. As "food" comes before "wine" in name, would be good to pump up the food offerings versus wine - and to extend the event run time to allow people to sample everything without having to literally race through the venue. 

So, a solid start as part of a well engineered festival, that by its sheer scale helps put Los Angeles on the map to gain greater recognition as a dining destination.  Looking forward to seeing what they do with the next one!

[To see more photos from the event, visit my Facebook page]


Los Angeles Food & Wine: Lexus Grand Tasting 2011
Saturday October 15 12pm-3pm General Admission, 10am-3pm VIP with cooking demo
Sunday October 16 11:30am-3pm General Admission
L.A. Live - Event Deck
800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015
General Admission: $195 one day, $350 both days; VIP $250 one day


1 comment:

  1. wish we could have gone to the sat event as well, these guys know how to put together a food fest huh?



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