Monday, November 17, 2008

Too Hot to Handle: The 2008 San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival's Grand Event

If you don't live in San Diego and instead live in a cold climate, I apologize in advance. You're craving warmth, and a chance to walk around in shorts and flip flops. I understand. But, 90 degrees in November just isn't natural and we're fed up with it here. And, it's completely irritating when you attend a large outdoor food and wine festival.

That was the challenge organizers of the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival faced on Saturday. The Grand Event, held downtown at a gorgeous bayside setting, should have been a breezy stroll from one wine maker's booth to the next, with culinary fortification from some 60 chefs. But the heat wave wilted me before I even got started. I'm a lightweight anyway when it comes to wine but the temperatures kept me from trying any of it. Instead I was relieved to find some beers and the last bottle of water offered in icy tubs.

The food was what I was actually there for so I had high hopes. The quality should have been high. After all, among the restaurants represented were Arterra, Crescent Heights, Currant Brasserie, The Oceanaire, Nobu San Diego, Quarter Kitchen, Cowboy Star, Urban Solace and Sea Rocket Bistro. But, it seems that cooking for thousands at one time is more of a challenge than most were up to, particularly during a heat wave.

One of the first purveyors I hit was Brandt Beef. I was thrilled to see them grilling up a brisket. They had done a splendid job at last summer's Taste of Slow Food San Diego in Old Town. The brisket was like eating candy. This time it was good, but not divine. A bit disappointing.

Not much better was The Oceanaire's seafood shooter. With a raw quail egg, oyster and uni swimming in soy sauce with tobiko caviar, it should have been a winner.

But, while each of these ingredients can shine on their own, together, and particularly in the heat, it was pretty much of a mess going down. Of course, chef Brian Malarkey was having fun tossing sake shots down an ice luge, and he had everyone at his booth completely entertained, as usual.

Saveur Magazine made a big mistake with its cardboard-like slices of pizza.

There were, of course, some culinary highlights. I enjoyed the ceviche from Sea Rocket Bistro. There was a lovely little tamale from Indigo Grill. But, the best, by far, was something unexpected, a sensational grilled lamb chop with tabbouleh salad, punctuated with pomegranate seeds. This was offered at the Mondavi wine tasting and chef demonstration. They also had a lovely piece of seared tuna with a spicy white bean salad.

I also enjoyed the creativity of the folks at Arterra. It was county fair time, what with little root beer floats and bags of duck fat truffled popcorn.

Then, of course, were plump corn dogs.

And, given the temperatures, thank goodness for Vignette sparkling drinks. These non-alcoholic beverages come in three flavors: Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir. I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay, with its burst of freshness.

And, while I was happy tasting all sorts of wonderful desserts, the ones from Opera Patisserie I found to be simply terrific. The raspberry pastry was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, as were the lovely petite Parisian macaroons.

I think these large events have their place, but my preference is for the smaller tasting events like Celebrate the Craft. The chefs don't have to prepare as though they were fast food joints and can really focus on the ingredients and technique. And, perhaps if the weather had been less of a daunting presence I would have enjoyed the event more and tried some of the wines. But, if nothing else, The San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival is an opportunity for those unfamiliar with many of San Diego's chefs to get a taste of what they might find in the restaurant.

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