Sunday, July 13, 2008

My visit to the Mango Brunch

For those who didn't read my previous post, the Ninth Annual Mango Brunch was held today (see this post's header for the date) at the Sixteenth Annual International Mango Festival. The menu included dishes featuring mangoes from seven prominent local chefs. I'll go over exactly who made what as I talk about each plate but I'll just say up top that there was a lot of tasty and interesting food and I had a pretty good time.

The brunch was held in the Fairchild's Garden House. It looked like it held about 150 people at around 20 round banquet tables. The guests were mainly members of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden where the festival and brunch were held. A lot of people knew each other and folks seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was also a stage piled high with 200 varieties of mango taken from Fairchild's collections. Later that afternoon they were all auctioned off, but without samples to taste I presume everyone was just donating money and getting some random mangoes as a thank you gift.

Before heading in we all had to check in with the organizers at a table outside to find out which table we were assigned to. As is entirely typical for me, mine was the one name that got left off the list. So while everyone else was inside the air conditioned room mingling and sipping mango Bellinis, I was outside in the muggy heat waiting for them to set up a card table in the corner. The Bellinis weren't that good anyway.

Actually, I didn't mind. When they found my seat half way through the pre-dinner speeches it turned out to be uncomfortably cramped and I would have bothered people with my note-taking and photography so I went right back. The card table was roomy and they sat a couple guests of the festival there so I wasn't a spectacle all by myself. One of the guests was a fellow from India who, as a hobby, worked to overturn the ban on exporting Indian mangoes to the U.S. That consisted of finding a viable method of eliminating Indian fruit flies from their mango shipments. He traveled to the festival at his own expense to introduce Indian mangoes to the American market. I guess that means there's a more professional element to the festival that we gawping tourists don't get to see. (...OK, I read in the schedule that that was Friday's Grower's Summit, Field Tour and Reception.) We talked a bit about the U.S. public's perception of mangoes and where other varieties than the two standard supermarket types could make in-roads. He hadn't heard of Slow Food so I may have been helpful by recommending he look into working with them.

The meal itself began with an amuse bouche trio. There were a couple slices of mango: one of the tied winners of the previous day's taste test, Nam Doc Mai (described in the brochure's Curator's Choice section as having "a smooth, silky texture and extreme sweetness and bouquet") and the first runner up, Champagne, which didn't make it into Curator's Choice at all. I preferred the Champagne mango myself as I thought it had a deeper, more complex flavor. And there was also a small piece of brie with a mango chutney (out of a bottle from Whole Foods according to the menu). Not a terribly successful pairing I thought. That took us through the speechifying, the contents of which I included in the previous post, and it was time to line up at the various chefs' stations and see what they've got on offer.

First up was the Florida crab salad with mango vinaigrette, citrus mint salad and crispy potato by Chef John Suley from Joley. That's what it says on the menu, anyway. No citrus mint salad was in evidence and the little cubes of mango were unadvertised. It could have used some mint salad; the sweetness of the mango paired nicely with the sweetness of the crab, but the mango's flavor faded fast and then you were just eating crab. Pretty good crab, though. The potato crisp wasn't crisp but it was plenty potato which gave the straightforward pairing some needed complexity. I'm curious if fried potato and mango would work together without the crab. I might give that a try.

Next was a selection of appetizers and desserts from Chef Phillipe Ruiz from Palme D'or. I saved the desserts for the end, but the appetizers included a baby shrimp salad with tropical fruit and fresh coriander, a foie gras terrine with brioche toast and mango chutney (not pictured as I missed it and went back for it later) and a slice of banana in a spiced mango sauce. I didn't much like the baby shrimp dish mainly because these are the same mushy baby shrimp you can buy frozen in the 99 cent store. The flavor combination was nice enough--I've made ceviche with similar ingredients--but the texture was unpleasant. I didn't care for the foie gras dish either. For me, foie gras and mango just aren't going to work together and an over-sweet crumbly brioche toast doesn't help. On the other hand, the banana was very nice, mostly due to the coriander and citrus rounding out and blunting the sweetness of the mango sauce. Maybe that was supposed to be a dessert, but it was savory enough to work at the beginning of the meal. That's Ruiz's version of a mango Bellini in the background there. I liked his flavors better than the one I had earlier, but his mango caviar gave me the creeps the same way bubble tea does. The mango ice in the one that opened the brunch was a better presentation.

The next course was an alligator sausage with white bean ragout, mango chutney and an herbal confetti garnish by Chef Allen Susser from Chef Allen's. I think this is the first time I've had alligator. They say it tastes like chicken and, in this case, it pretty much did. But I like chicken sausage with white beans so that's fine by me. When I cook something like that I'll usually compliment the flavors with cumin and chili, but the cilantro, marjoram, thyme and mango pushed it into a different direction I wouldn't have thought of but makes sense in retrospect. The earthy flavors of the beans and alligator make a base that a variety of bright flavors can work on top of including sweet and herbal. So, not my favorite of the day, but nice.

Next up, a spicy bigeye tuna and mango taco by Chef Sean Bernal from Oceanaire Seafood Room. Despite spicy being there in the name (and a bottle of Tabasco at the chef's table), the taco was more of a fine balance of savory and sweet with a good use of finishing salt to brighten up the flavors and give a little bit of extra texture. The tuna itself was chopped very nearly into a paste so it was a creamy contrast to the crisp shell and crunchy salt.

On the other side of the plate was my favorite dish of the day: coconut encrusted pineapple with smoked duck bacon, mango sauce and tangy mango chutney by Chef Sean Brasel from Touch. I had a very hard time getting my impressions down on paper for this dish because each of the components was multifaceted on its own so the combination had a great deal going on. The pineapple by itself was crisp then chewy, savory then sweet and shocking with the unexpectedness of hot pineapple. The mango chutney is entirely unrecognizable as mango and barely seems like fruit with its deep spice and firm bite. I've had pickled watermelon rind that was similar but that's about it. The mild smokiness of the duck and the sweet mango sauce are more familiar. Despite the complexity, it all came together harmoniously. I was very impressed and I'm definitely going out to Miami Beach for dinner at Touch. [Note from a year later: I didn't.]

And that leaves dessert. Chef Erick Jones from Talulah made Belgian waffles with fresh mango and mango butter. This didn't really work out well, probably because it sat out too long. A good Belgian waffle should be crispy on the outside and airy on the inside, but this was spongy all the way through. Combine that with the almost slimy texture of the mango butter (not mango infused butter, but mango butter in the apple butter sense) that you probably can't see in the back of picture and the experience was rather unpleasant.

But there were still Chef Ruiz's pastry chef's mango profiterole and trifle which were both straightforwardly yummy and beautifully presented. A very nice finish with a cup of Rwanda Karaba fair trade coffee.

And I nearly forgot the basket of mango breads and pastries by Chef Frank Randazzo from Creative Tastes Catering. In fact, I did forget about them during the meal so I wrapped a couple up in napkins and took them home. There's a mango cream cheese strudel. It's interestingly light on the sugar--nearly savory. I wonder if the mango was supposed to sweeten the pastry, but this particular mango turned out to be rather tart. Well, I like it the way it is; a little sugar in the tea compensates nicely. And there's a scone which I thought got the texture just right--bordering on shortbread but slightly more moist. That's incredibly rare in scones which are nearly always either dense, dry and crumbly or far too moist and cakey. Not very mango-y, though.

And that's everything! A lovely meal with a good progression of dishes (completely by happenstance, actually) and serving sizes that weren't so large to leave me stuffed. I learned something about mangoes, too, including some recipe ideas which is a nice plus. And maybe if I write up enough of these sorts of things I'll get some Miami-food-blogger cred and I'll start getting some respect around here. Well, maybe not, but it was still fun. It seemed like half the other diners were taking pictures of their plates; I wonder where else this will get written up. [Note from a year later: nowhere.]

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