Friday, March 5, 2010

Foodie's Paradise: Worcester Wine and Food Festival

I could hardly get through my day at work Monday, knowing that I was heading to the Worcester Wine and Food Festival as soon as I got out. The festival, which is an annual event, is held at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester, sponsored by Austin Liquors and benefits the Worcester JCC. Throughout the day on Monday, I continually glanced over the menu the organizer had emailed me, and couldn't wait to taste some of the fare from the restaurants that were scheduled to appear.

I'm not much of a wine person -- I have a favorite label, but if offered a glass at a party or dinner, I generally just go with chardonnay -- so I planned on spending more time scoping out the "food" part of the event. As a new mom, I don't get a chance to get out of the house (other than for work) often, much less to spend mingling with fellow foodies. Since I was attending the festival as part of Foodbuzz's Foodie Correspondent program, I made it my mission to taste, taste, taste as many items as I could.

Part of the night's festivities included a silent auction -- prizes like vacations, trips to local spas and local eateries attracted tons of bids.

Towards the end of the night, many an excited cheer could be heard as winners were announced over the PA system.

One disadvantage I faced was that since I was heading to the festival after work, I couldn't spend as much time just walking around and taking in the sights and smells. I was prepared to make my rounds quicker than usual, but as I entered the main ballroom where most of the food and wine vendors were, I was slightly disappointed that even though the event was scheduled to end at 9pm, at least a few of the restaurants had already packed up and left by 7:45pm when I arrived. That's not to say that there weren't *plenty* of delicious samples left -- there certainly were.

The first booth that caught my eye was that of the Bean Counter Coffee Bar and Bakery. The shop, which has locations in Worcester and Shrewsbury, had attracted most festival-goers' eyes with a tower of tiered ganache cupcakes.

I snapped the above picture at about 7:50, and I am not exaggerating when I say that there were maybe three or four cupcakes left when I walked back to the table at 8pm.

Another part of the Bean Counter's display was a very elaborate wedding cake. I actually asked the chef's jacket-clad woman behind the counter if the cake was real, because it looked so perfect.

A frame beside the cake mentioned that The Bean Counter was named one of The Knot's Best of Weddings 2010 winners for cake bakers. One look at the cake on display, and it was pretty obvious why the cafe had been given the honor.

Next, I made my way over to a more savory booth (though I planned on sampling PLENTY of the goodies that evening, I wanted to pace myself -- I decided the best way to do this would be alternating the sweet with the savory. Sad? Maybe. Delicious? Definitely.) just a few feet away -- Pepper's Fine Foods Catering.

Admittedly, I was a little intimidated. Though the rich smoky flavor exuding from the booth just wouldn't let me walk away, I was a little hesitant when I saw they were serving duck. Having never tried it, I was leary, even though the entree looked absolutely spectacular.

I told the chef -- who I suspect, after taking a peek at their website, was owner John Lawrence -- that I'd never tried it, and that the only thing I'd ever really heard about duck was that it was rather greasy. He thanked me for being willing to give it a try, gave me a smirk and assured me that in the hands of the right chef, not only was it not greasy, but was tender, flavorful and moist.

Oh, was he deliciously right. The duck was prepared perfectly -- seasoned just right so it wasn't the least bit gamey, sliced thinly so as to be enjoyable to even the novice's palate, and paired so well by the "sweet potato frizzies" that while I assumed it would serve as more of a garnish, it seemed the most natural of accompaniments. Thanks to Pepper's, I will most certainly be eating duck again.

Next, it was time for another sweet treat, so I headed over to the obvious choice -- you can't lose with a chocolate fountain. Savor, the DCU Center's official caterer, had quite the bountiful spread.

Besides several items for chocolate fountain dipping, they also had banana-stuffed strawberries which the chef behind the booth told me he prepared himself.

As I took pictures of them, he told me that now I would have to try one -- no argument there. I sampled one of the strawberries and wasn't disappointed.

I then made my way over to the neighboring booth, Sturbridge's Publick House. They were one of the few vendors I can say I was literally looking for in the room -- having seen on the menu I had what they were bringing, I was eagerly pacing the floor looking for their space ahead of time.

Though it may not look like much -- due in part to the person ahead of me in line bringing a small Gladware container and taking off with half of what was in the pan -- the sweet potato ravioli with kaluha cream sauce were absolutely beyond amazing. Though I was a little nervous that the sweetness of the sauce would make the dish more of a dessert, I wasn't disappointed; the rich kaluha cream sauce was delicious with the hearty sweet potato filling. Fabulous.

At about 8:30pm, I made a quick stop at the Cabot Creamery table. I'm not someone who generally considers cheese a palate cleanser, especially because I'm lactose intolerant, but Cabot's cheese is different -- all varieties are lactose-free. It's readily available at most grocery stores, reasonably priced and melts no differently than other brands, but tastes better. I grabbed a few pieces and headed towards my last booth of the evening.

I'm not a fan of writing in cliches, but evening ended with a bang. My last stop was at the Webster House Restaurant, where I sampled their pan-seared salmon with teriyaki ginger risotto and wasabi aioli. This was one of the dishes I was looking forward to , and one I had told my co-workers about (admittedly, to make them a little jealous) during the day on Monday.

As a big fan of sushi, everything about this dish appealed to me. The risotto was perfectly prepared -- not gummy, and well-flavored. While I generally do not enjoy cooked salmon, this was moist without the fishy flavor that many don't like about the fish. The wasabi aioli was the perfect tangy topping.

In talking with the two servers at the booth, I found out that Webster House, located right in Worcester, not only offers a stellar every day menu, but also hosts special wine dinners. After trying the salmon dish, I'll definitely be taking a trip to the restaurant in the next few weeks.

Though food festivals are pretty self-explanatory, something about this one was different. Most people don't think of Massachusetts as a foodie mecca. Certainly Boston offers its (more than) fair share of top-rated eateries, but the atmosphere seems to be changing. Those of us in southern (or western) Massachusetts don't have to drive the extra hour and wrestle with Mass Pike traffic to find a great place to eat anymore. And judging from the variety of delicious options at the Worcester Wine and Food Festival, Worcester is certainly on its way to becoming a foodlover's destination.


Laura said...

Ok, now I wish I had gone too... damn. It all sounds terrific.

I drive by the Webster House all the time, I must stop in sometime. It has been around for ages and ages.

Deidra said...

Wow lucky you! Sounds like a great night! The food in the photos looks great.

agingjoy said...

Sure enjoyed following you around the food tasting...Hope you got some good ideas!!
Your friend from the "other place"-- AgingJoy

Anonymous said...

What the Web House may not have in atmosphere (it's a family restaurant, not a new trendy hot spot) it more than makes up for with the food. Give a wine dinner a shot, Mike is an excellent chef!

Anonymous said...

The Webster House has just recently updated the dinning room and the bar. Very family friendly with fantasic food for all. The new Chef, Mike, is passionate about his work and it shows, as stated about from the JCC. He's a much needed addition to the Webster House, as are Jo-Ann and Paul. I agree with the person above, the wine dinners are spectacular. If you love wine, you'll love the wine dinners.

Madame Menu / The Onesie Chronicles said...

I most definitely will have to try them. Thanks for the recommendation! :^)