Sunday, March 20, 2011

2011 Worcester Food and Wine Festival

It isn’t often I get to try 15 different dishes for dinner. It isn’t often they’re accompanied by sips of a few different fantastic wines. Luckily for me, the Worcester Food and Wine Fest allows me to indulge once a year –- a chance to sample tasty foods from more than 25 local eateries and wines from all over the country is well worth the drive up 290 for me.

This year’s event was held March 7th, at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester. The food and wine fest, now in its ninth year, is sponsored by Austin Liquors of Worcester and serves as a fundraiser for the Worcester Jewish Community Center. Proceeds go to fund the scholarship program at the JCC.

The evening’s special and long-traveled guests were members of the Benziger family -– the owners and operators of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California. The family brought several of their wines, including Tribute, a newly-released wine well worth its $80/bottle price tag. Their booth was packed with eager tasters all evening.

Walking into the ballroom, I did a lap around to scout out which booths were in which corners, which had the most visitors, and then I went in for the kill. First stop –- Baba Sushi.

If you know me personally or follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you probably know that I eat sushi. I eat sushi a lot. I eat a LOT of sushi. I’m not discriminating, and while I have my favorites (I really could live on salmon), I’m willing to try anything once.

So it should come as no surprise that I have actually eaten at Baba Sushi before. I was eager to see though, since they ran out of food very early at last year’s festival, what kind of presentation they’d have and how they would handle so many guests who may not be keen on eating something with raw fish. The answer: perfectly.

Chef and owner Wilson Wang was gracious and charming, and delighted to hear that I’d try anything offered to me. He handed me a plate full of goodies with a piece each of seven different rolls -– among them eel. I’m not normally a fan of eel, but this eel wasn’t the least bit fishy or gamey. All Wang’s creations were as fresh as can be and delicious.

I moved on to the Rodney Strong booth and sampled their Chardonnay, which was the perfect wine to start off the evening. It was light and fragrant and didn’t leave an aftertaste. They’re a Sonoma-based label with many, many accolades to their name. Now I know why.

Next up were the tuna wontons from Not Your Average Joe’s. I knew these would be good –- putting tuna in a wonton, how can you go wrong? -– but I had no idea they’d be THIS good. I stopped by the booth and chatted with Chef Seth Caplan about the restaurant.

Located right on Route 9 in Westborough (just across from Herb Chambers), Chef Caplan told me the restaurant makes all dishes –- start to finish -– from scratch. The menu shows a diverse and affordable offering to suit any palate. Try the ahi tuna wontons, definitely “not your average” appetizer, for a very reasonable $11.

I made a stop at the 90+ Cellars booth and tried a glass of their full-bodied Argentinean Malbec (Lot 23, if you’re shopping their website). Delicious!

I also made a festival buddy: Rachel Healy, one of the pourers from 90+ took a walk around and sampled a few dishes with me.

We both went back for seconds (maybe thirds) for guacamole from Mezcal Cantina. I can only imagine what it’s like to have it prepared at your table as it is at the restaurant. Even feeding a ballroom full of people, the guacamole didn’t show even a hint of sacrificing quality for quantity.

We stopped quickly at the Publick House table and grabbed Thanksgiving paninis, which I’d write more about, but they were gone far too quickly! At last year’s festival, the restaurant did sweet potato ravioli with a Kahlua cream sauce (so good I haven’t forgotten!). I have never dined at the restaurant, but it’s been made abundantly clear that they do comfort food, and they do it well.

Next I ventured over to the Struck Catering table, and tried something I never eat – lamb. This wasn’t just any lamb, it was really something special. They offered honey corn cakes topped with a smoked lamb hash, hard-boiled quail egg and a hollandaise drizzle.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, because, well, I don’t generally eat anything like this, but I wasn’t let down. While the quail egg wasn’t really my style (speaks nothing of the way it was cooked, only my palette), the lamb was deliciously flavorful. I could taste the smoke in a very good way, and the corn cake was the perfect accompaniment. Well done.

I decided on one more sampling of wine before hitting the vast dessert selection, and I chose to end the evening with a lovely glass of Flip Flop 2009 Washington Riesling.

This wine –- which is only about $6 or $7/bottle -- is surprisingly fruity (I tasted pineapple, but not overwhelmingly) and delicious. It made for a great lead-in to the sweets I was about to devour.

If I talked at length about each of the desserts I ate, this blog would go on for pages. I can say I wasn’t let down with a single offering.

On the Rise Baking’s spongecake with berries, chocolate cookies with a hint of cinnamon and triple chocolate cupcakes were absolutely fabulous. Chef Elizabeth Casey couldn’t have been nicer, and even let me snag a second cookie. Anyone offering me EXTRA dessert deserves top billing in my book!

Next up was one of my favorites from last year’s event -– Webster House. Greeted with the same smiles I saw last year, I will admit I grabbed two of their bite-size lemon ricotta cheesecakes. Come on, it’s cheesecake! I don’t regret it for a second, they were tiny bites of heaven.

My last dessert stop was the Sweet table, where I spoke with Chef Alina Eisenhauer. She mentioned Sweet was being featured on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars the next evening, and I tuned in. She didn’t take home the title, but made it to the second round and for good reason – her margarita cupcakes were deservedly the stars of the show.

I was absolutely amazed… these cupcakes genuinely taste like a margarita! While they were the only selection I tried, I suspect Rachel went back for more! Here she is with Chef Alina.

I’ll definitely be stopping by Sweet in the next few weeks. Aside from private catering and even “College Care Packages,” the Shrewsbury Street location has a pastry shop open until 1am on Fridays and 2am on Saturdays (!), and a private dessert bar that would be a perfectly romantic end to any date night.

I left full and happy, as any foodie would. I look forward to this event each year, but especially now with the flavors of this year’s still fresh in my mind. Looking forward to trying some of the restaurants from the festival in the next few weeks, and seeing what else they have to offer. Thanks to the Worcester JCC for letting me attend, and to all the restaurateurs and chefs for the delicious eats.

No comments: