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Monday, November 21, 2011

Best Bites at the San Diego Food and Wine Festival 2011

There's no doubt about it - The San Diego Food and Wine Festival is the best culinary event of the year.

The week long event featuring cooking demos and wine classes throughout the week culminates with the Grand Tasting finale, featuring San Diego's hottest restaurants and over 175 booths serving up wine, beer and spirits.  Held each year before Thanksgiving on the Embarcadero Marina Park North, the large grassy peninsula behind Seaport Village, there's cooking competitions, live music, and booth after booth of good stuff to taste.

For three short hours you run around like a chicken with your head cut off pounding down as many gourmet bites and drinking as much as you can.... well I guess a chicken would need a head to do that but you get the idea. I went last year and missed a lot of good stuff, so this year I came in with a strategy.  My plan was to race around the entire event and only grab stuff that looked outstanding the first time around, then go around again to taste the wines, then back one more time to try everything else.  But this plan got shot to hell the second someone handed me a crab claw.

A stone crab claw slightly larger than a baby's arm with a spicy remoulade sauce stopped me dead in my tracks.  And then I got distracted and my strategy started to unravel.  All around me was great food and wine.  How was I supposed to pick the best when everything looked so darn good?

See what I mean?  This isn't some crummy "Taste of Downtown" event where everyone is serving up pasta with marinara sauce, these are gourmet bites like this veal cheeks and tongue.  What?  You've never tasted veal tongue?  Well baby, you haven't lived until you've put a veal tongue on your tongue.  So tender, so tasty, you forget that it's a slice of tongue and instead just push your way back into line to get another piece.

That's what's so cool about this event.  The foods are not your run of the mill freebies.  They're the sort of thing you see on a good menu and wonder if you should go for it.  Well, let's go for it!

This might look like a standard piece of short rib but this one is wrapped with a fig and served with  slices of nuts.  Needless to say it was delicious, a nice mix of savory and sweetness.

Behind the scenes you can watch the chef's preparing the food like this is a Top Chef competition, only here you don't get the mean bald guy ripping on the food.  But how could he?  With food this good, even the meanest TV chef judge would be raving.

And Local Wally wasn't the only celebrity there.  Look, that's Sam the Cooking Guy!  I could tell he was trying to get over to me to take my picture, but I quickly took off the other way because I didn't want to cause a big scene - you know, Sam and Wally in the same spot and everyone trying to get our autographs and stuff.  Besides, I smelled pork.  On a BBQ!

Oh my gosh, the pork was succulent and rich and fatty and crispy and oh so damn good.  I'm guessing it was slow cooked pork belly.  I could be wrong, but there was nothing wrong with this pork. 

Of course, there were plenty of wines to taste along with vodkas and beers and just about everything else.  Now I know that San Diego has a vibrant beer scene and a lot of the breweries were there, but how can you turn down a Stella where you get to keep the glass?  I felt like Homer Simpson guzzling down the beer so I could get back in line to get another free glass.  What?  Pour the beer onto the grass instead of drinking it?  Are you kidding me?

As for the wines, wineries from Napa to Paso to Temecula were represented with some very nice selections.  Just like the food wasn't like the crummy free samples at Costco, the wines were equally top notch and you definitely got your moneys worth with the tastings. The big surprise to me were the wines from Baja, which turned out to be way better than I ever imagined.  Of course, I was drunk by this point so who really knows?  As for the Pomegranate wine, well, you decide for yourself on that one. 

But let's get back to the food, like this wonderful piece of hamachi with a bit of spicy vodka, which had to go down as one of the best sushi bites ever.  After this quick bite, I decided to troll the event and find more seafood bites.  Luckily, I didn't have to go far.

Harney Sushi, one of San Diego's hottest and most revered sushi restaurants, was serving up a spoonful of delight.

And Busters from Seaport Village, a place that most foodie's have ignored, knocked it out of the park with their Ahi Poke on top of seaweed salad.  This was so good with the soy and sesame oil flavors mixing with the ultra fresh fish.  I  WANT  ANOTHER  NOW.  Busters, you rock dude!

Now I love scallops but rarely cook them at home because they can get so expensive.  So you know I was happy to find so many booths with scallops on their tasting menu.  Look at it - a thing of beauty, a nice sear, the attention to detail, the.... Hey, where did it go??  Sorry, I ate it.  Don't worry, there's more.  Unlike La Valencia's Sky Room where they served me one scallop as an entree, you can eat as many of these as you like.  And I like them!  A lot!

Blue Point Coastal Cuisine always seems to have something interesting going on.  What is this chef making? Is that a jar of foam?

Look, a bit of shrimp and pork belly topped with foam and a little syringe with sauce that you shoot into your mouth.  It's not exactly first date food, if you know what I mean.  But it was darn tasty and loads of fun.

Three hours goes fast when you're having this much fun.  As the bottles of port were put away, the last scallop dropped, the final fillet sliced, I realized I had missed an entire row of booths!  And I missed the cooking competition!  But I did get to sit on the grass with friends and laugh as we sipped what was described as a "life changing" basil leaf Acai gimlet, which turned out to be true. This event was a good reminder that life really is good.

You don't have to be a big foodie or a wine connoisseur to love this event.  But if you've read this far, you need to get to the San Diego Wine and Food Festival next year.  Make it your new holiday tradition and I'll see you there.


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