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Guest Post: Saratoga Wine & Food Fest

September 8, 2014

Tonight, I’m missing the Soul Cafe in Troy. Man, that’s a city that could use some healing. Getting people from different backgrounds around a table to share a meal might not solve the problem, but at least it’s a good start. One of these days I hope to make it out and break bread with that community.

This weekend I missed a bunch of other good stuff. Thankfully Hollie Miller volunteered to step up and attend the Saratoga Wine and Food Festival in my absence. What follows is her report.

Friday Night BBQ, Blues & Brews

Now BBQ – proper barbecue – has a place in my heart. I own a smoker. I’ve stayed up 12 hours (on several occasions) to smoke a pork shoulder. I use lump charcoal. I brine my meat. I’ve perfected my rub. I make my own sauce. I’m a mustard & vinegar based girl more than tomato & molasses. I’ve started a beer cellar, have an excitement about an old fashioned, and hold at least a case and a half of wine in the house currently. From the title I expected something right out of Price Chopper’s House of BBQ commercial, so i was pretty excited going into the whole event.

Walking into the event is just like every Top Chef event where you see the chefs at their booths trying to finish up the last plating items before the rush of people swarm the tent. It was team Manhattan up against team Capital Region. One thing that was missing immediately was the smell of smoke. I know it’s not the scent that the Saratoga elite wants to take home with them but I was hoping for a hint of that. Overall I was just “whelmed” by the food, not overwhelmed or underwhelmed, just whelmed. There were a few exceptions. I’m not sure if it was that local chefs kept it simple and focused on flavor or if the Manhattan chefs were just above the local palate.

There was a lot of grilled skirt steak, a lot. I say grilled, but the menu says smoked or BBQ, and myself and some true southern friends I ran into didn’t believe anything was smoked. The event also had red lighting so you couldn’t check for a smoke ring. We conspired that it was intended that way. My top three weren’t the top three that won that evening, and and the winner for people’s choice tasted like it was drenched in liquid smoke.

Angelo’s Prime 677 – the sweet corn crema was fantastic, light, sweet, cold so it cut through the strength of the rub on the meat, The steak was cooked well, and was well-seasoned. The sweet potato hash that was on the plate was not memorable enough for me to recall the next morning but I would eat that dish at their restaurant (if I could afford to go there)

Nice Matin & Marseille – They had smoked/grilled salmon. They are a Mediterranean restaurant so they used that as their guide. I really liked the fish. The “burnt ends” of it were wonderful and gave a nice crunch alongside the delicate nature of the fish. My Southern companions, however, were protesting on principle that one does not consider salmon to be a BBQ food.

My top choice was The Brook Tavern – I’ve eaten there before and loved their ahi tuna taco and duck wings. They were the only ones to use a corn tortilla for their vessel to present the food and surprisingly it worked. Normally corn tortillas can break or be stiff or mask poorly developed flavors but here they complemented everything. Their potato salad had a good mix of herbs and was dressed just enough. They were also the only place that gave me a pork rib. I couldn’t see the smoke ring but it did pass the test of not falling off the bone but having an easy tug to it.

It was the festival’s first time doing this more casual event, as previously there has been a gala event on Friday night before the Grand Tasting. I would have loved it to be a bit more down home. The long tables that they had, I wished they just connected them into big rows, and forced you to sit near strangers. The blues band, I wished they got to play true blues instead of light jazz, and the brews part….pair your event’s beers with the dishes. Show people how one can complement the other.

The evenings winners were:

Judge’s Choice – Jamie Ortiz, 677 Prime
People’s Choice – Sean Comiskey, Druther’s
Team – Capital Region chefs

Saturday Grand Tasting

I got a late start on the day. I blame the previous evening and the hot weather but I got there and took Daniel’s direction to heart. Focus on the food. There was a lot to focus on, so much that it was difficult for one person alone to consume in in 3.5 hours. When talking about the price value of the event the Grand Tasting definitely would be worth the $85 dollar price tag. Besides over 30 different food tables with specialties, there was a tour of cheeses and italian cured meats.

I took pictures of all the tables’ offerings because I knew I would lose track of everything that I was going to eat during the day.

Primal is a butcher shop that is is located in Clifton Park in what was formerly The Meat House. This had to of been one of my favorite items of the day. I’m a fan of the savory and love good and hearty food. Primal was able to offer up something very traditional in an untraditional manner and the taste was familiar and very comforting. They offered a bangers and mash with a sweet pea puree topped with a red onion marmalade. The beef was crumbled on the bottom and the mashed potato, sweet pea puree, and red onion marmalade were layered upon each other like a parfait.

Mingle on the Avenue
Braised pork shoulder, miso ramen noodle, corn, shiitake, scallion, pork broth.  On one of my last ventures in Saratoga one of my friends asked if I had tried Mingle. I said I hadn’t tried either the Toga or Albany restaurant so I was excited to try Mingle on the Avenue’s offering. The braised pork was tender and the noodles were ok. I couldn’t tell if they were handmade noodles or not. What I was impressed with was the broth. It was incredibly flavorful pork broth. Not overly salty, the scallions didn’t overpower, the temperature was appropriate for such a hot day.

New World Bistro Bar
Gulf shrimp and local grits. I couldn’t get a handle on what the broth/sauce was that they cooked the shrimp in and poured over the grits. Now, I’ve eaten grits before and I hated them. However, these were silky almost buttery. I tried to push things aside so i could get at some of the grits without the sauce on it and I was impressed. The broth and shrimp were well done but by the time I had gotten to that booth, my palate was overwhelmed and I found it hard to distinguish subtle flavors anymore.

Carney’s Tavern
Diavoli a cavallo, “Devil on horseback,” was a medjool date stuffed with Ewe’s Blue cheese, wrapped with Hudson Valley duck bacon and covered with a Morello cherry glaze. It was by far one of my favorite small bites of the day. Such a sweet and savory combination followed through with the creaminess of the cheese.

The Wine Bar 
Adobo roasted pork tacos with spicy red onion and smoked espresso hot sauce. At first I was put off by the atmosphere of the wine bar’s booth. The meat was in a crockpot, they were toasting the corn tortillas on a frying pan, and there wasn’t anyone around to let you know if you were supposed to take care of this yourself or if they were serving. After a moment, a gentleman came over and dished some pork out on a tortilla for me and explained of the pickled red onions and mentioned the hot sauce. The hot sauce was amazing. It had a vinegar tomato base with had a nice bite to it and then the espresso seemed to mellow out the heat of the sauce. I took out my notebook and wrote “self serve was weird but espresso hot sauce was amazing.”

Druthers sliders were topped with pickled green tomatoes, pickled shallots, Druthers sauce, and then Druthers 7 cheese mac and cheese as a side. The previous evening had me with a bitter taste in my mouth about Druthers winning people’s choice. However, this offering made up for it. A slider is a slider to me but the pickling on both the green tomatoes and the shallots gave the slider the right tang along with the Druthers sauce. The mac and cheese had the look and the texture of a Velveeta mac and cheese which I know isn’t the case in their restaurant. What was missing was the crumbles mixture that they add on top of their mac and cheese in house.

Goodway Gourmet
While I am a person who really enjoys to eat, my sweet tooth isn’t what gets me. I like savory, always have. There was this line in the corner and these two women who were selling the hell out of their rum cake. It was great to watch them talk to each person who came to the booth and explain their three different samples. Ripe Banana, Caribbean, and Malibu. The ripe banana was like a good plantain braised in rum and brown sugar, the Caribbean was coconut but not overpowering and not too sweet, and the Malibu was a mixture of different cinnamons. I found out they are based in Troy, NY which is where I live, and I can certainly see these rum cakes making themselves known at my house parties.

At that point I thought I had hit all of the food vendors, so I finally took out my wine glass and walked around looking for wines to try. Jessica R and I are friends, and she made the suggestions of 1. have a designated driver and 2. pick out a few things that you do not want to miss. I had some really great reds, really great whites, a few nice bourbon selections and one amazing sample of tequila. A list of what I tried and liked will be listed at the end of the article.**

Capital City Gastropub
What was this though, more food? At this point, I was getting full and I had been eating quarters or halves of the selections because it was so much food. I happened upon The Capital City Gastropub booth and their offering was a beet tartare on a crispy potato chip. I really enjoy beets and I thought this was a different and good mixture of high brow meets lowbrow. Salty and crunchy from the chip and the sweet tang from the beet tartare. It was refreshing because my palate was being overtaken by the samples of red wines.

Friends Lake Inn
Offered three items. Housemade wild boar and foie gras sausage, a seared sea scallop with a butter olive oil sweet pea puree, and a pumpkin bisque. It’s past labor day so I feel it is ok to justify the return of the pumpkin. Pumpkin bisque is a guilty pleasure of mine. I get excited when this offering is brought back at Bountiful Bread so I was excited to try Friends Lake Inn’s version. It was great. Texture of the bisque was on point, not overly fake pumpkin spice, it was the true offering of a gourd with the right blend of autumnal spices. It’s something I’d travel out to their restaurant for and want to have with a nice hunk of hearty bread.

Nova Italian Restaurant
This place was serving up chicken mario bites, penne al prosciutto, and grandma pizza. The chicken bites consisted of boneless chicken battered in parmiggiano cheese reduced in a white wine sauce topped with asparagus and sun dried tomatoes. Visually it did not look too appealing and texture wise the chicken was tough and unmemorable. The pasta was very bland, I’m unsure if it was salted, and the sauce had dried around most of the pasta by the time I got to that offering. The pizza, while cold, was a decent Sicilian style pizza. It was one of my least favorite booths at the event.

My other disappointment was Bellini’s signature meatball, a toast point with a dollop of ricotta and a mini meatball on top. The meatball was dense and very difficult to cut with my plastic fork. The ricotta was fresh and lovely and the toast point was still crisp. However, it wasn’t a one bite item and anything over one bite becomes a game of balance at The Wine and Food Festival.

When comparing the two events, each with an $85 price tag, the Grand Tasting is a better value. That is however as long as you enjoy wine and spirits more than beer (the same beer offerings were available at the Grand Tasting as the BBQ event). The Grand Tasting went off seamlessly and everyone seemed to know how the event would go. I understand the BBQ event feeling a little jumpy because it was a first time offering. I would suggest to The Festival that if they were to do a BBQ and beer themed event again, that they take a look at some of the Oktoberfest events around the region. If I loved beer (which I do) I could have been at the Troy Brewfest, or Oktoberfest at Windham Mountain. Also, one distributor’s offerings (Eagle) does not make a well rounded beer event. (Do you hear that capital district? There is more beer than Eagle or Decrescente offers!)

Overall it was a great weekend and I had the opportunity to go to an event that I normally wouldn’t of considered. I thought it would be pretentious and full of older individuals. The crowd was primarily in their Mid thirties to Mid fifties and showcased several different walks of life. If you get the chance to go to the Grand Tasting, I recommend it. It would have been a blast to get several of my friends together for a fun afternoon at SPAC.

** Wines, spirits, beer sampled: Juxtapoz 2012, Complicated Chardonnay 2011, Taken Red 2011, Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon, Tres Generaciones Anejo, Ca’Selva Rosso 55 CAB, Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Bel Serrat. Cliffhanger Vineyards Proprietary Red Blend, Dona Paula Estate Malbec, Palm Bay Vineyards Au Contraire Chardonnay 2013, Hazlitt Vineyards Gewurztraminer, Goose Island Oktoberfest, and Barritts Bermuda Ginger Beer.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2014 11:05 am

    Good job, Hollie!!! An honest, sometimes amusing review of a big deal event – I think you handled it all very well. THANKS! Zena

  2. Katie permalink
    September 8, 2014 4:45 pm

    Great job! I felt like I was there…and need to be there next year!

  3. Randy K permalink
    September 9, 2014 10:26 am

    i’m DROOLING over here! glad you got to experience such a cool event!

  4. September 13, 2014 10:05 am

    Holly, here’s the recipe (sort of) for New World shrimp and grits as prepared by Ric Orlando at the festival. The grits contain a ton of cream which is why they are so silky and lethal.

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