Friday, March 27, 2009

Coral Gables Food and Wine Festival '09

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, this is my second time attending the Coral Gables Food & Wine Fest and last year I wasn't at all impressed by what was on offer. I had a better time of it this year, but, looking over my notes, I'm not sure if that was due more to changes in the food or in my attitude. There was certainly room for improvement in both.

Before we get to the individual dishes, some more general observations. I'm pretty sure there were fewer restaurants representing this year. Probably the same amount of booze vendors although they were notably stingier on their pours.

I think it was a smaller crowd, too, particularly for the VIP section. What crowd there was seemed to arrive earlier, but I'm not sure about that since I was busier taking notes and pictures this year than last and the time did get away from me (resulting in a parking ticket as I stayed well over the hour and a half I fed the meter for).

Another thing I noticed was that the women were dressed significantly better than the men. Even discounting the booth babes in their little black dresses, there were plenty of women in their party get-ups and dangerously high heels while the men had a standard uniform of slacks, golf shirt and a pall of cigar stank. Not a lot of actual smoking at the event, but I think there must have been a cigar-centric event immediately preceding. Is that normal? The style differential, not the stank, I mean? Any idea why? Should I have worn a tie? I kind of feel like I should have worn a tie.

I think I hit most of the tables. A few, like the folks serving cesar salad and Puchetta's plain risotto, I skipped on purpose and a few, like Bangkok Bangkok, ran out and vanished before I even noticed they were there. I only tried a few of the wines and the only hard liquor (mostly candy-flavored vodka--the gentleman's roofie) I sampled was a berry-infused vodka with the questionable innovation of being carbonated. Just as foul as you'd imagine, of course. I'm no great expert on wine, particularly not from the South American as most of the wineries represented were, so I won't bother you with my thoughts on them.

But, the food, sure, I'll bother you with that.

First up, John Martin's Irish Pub served a balsamic-glazed chicken breast, sautéed mixed vegetables and a scoop of colcannon. Nice texture on everything, but the flavors and conception were dull. Just a little innovation anywhere would have saved it from tasting like weeknight home cooking.

Fleming's Prime Steak House served a slice of filet mignon and macaroni and cheese. Same as last year, it's just plain filet which doesn't have a huge amount of flavor and dry noodles with a bit of bread crumbs and light cheese flavor from some mysterious source. Not exactly to my taste, but it's probably a fine example of whatever it is. (Real mac and cheese should have an emphasis on a creamy cheese sauce. Not a cheese-flavored bechamel and not this dusting of cheese powder. I'll post my favorite recipe one of these days.) The filet is too rare, really. The connective tissue hadn't cooked down to give it the tenderness you're really looking for and without a knife, which I don't recall seeing any of the whole evening now that I think about it, it was inedible. So I didn't eat it.

Gusto Fino Deli offered pasta rustico. There was a choice of pesto or garlic sauce; I went with the garlic. It's buffet table fare, but plenty of eggplant, onions and peppers that appear to have been roasted boost the flavor up a bit. I didn't eat it all, but I didn't regret trying it.

Here's Red Koi's tuna tartar on a malanga chip. I just looked it up and found that a) I spelled malanga right first try and b) it's taro. The tuna is sushi-grade or close enough to it for a good texture and is in a citrus/soy dressing that doesn't overpower it. There are enough chives and caviar to be proper flavor components and not just visual interest and texturally, the chip is crisp and the caviar goes pop. Very nice, and, unlike it's ubiquity last year, this is the only seafood I saw all evening. I'm generally skeptical of pan-Asian places, but this puts Red Koi on my to-try list.

Por Fin offered a caneloni. In a smart move, they kept them in a hot box and dished them out to order. On the other hand, the pasta was mushy and the filling was, I think, badly overcooked salmon with a catfood reek. So maybe the hot box plan needs a little work. The cream sauce was fine though and I thought the vinegary drizzle was a nice touch.

Caffe da Vinci had three dishes on offer, but only one per customer per visit. I chose the truffle and cheese sacchetti. I didn't recognize the word, but that's beggar's purse pasta--big squares filled and pinched together into a bundle. Difficult to make I understand. It was in an earthy mushroom sauce with noticeable specks of truffle and firm pieces of mushroom with an intense flavor quite distinct from the sauce. Very tasty and rather better than this crowd deserves. Well, these guys are from Bay Harbor so maybe they don't know the Coral Gables scene.

Ideas served a vegetarian paella. That's rather a contradiction in terms to my mind, but given the poor way the seafood held up in paella last year, maybe it's for the best. The idea required some selling, but dishing it up from a giant paella pan is definitely the way to do it. Unfortunately, paella doesn't keep well: the vegetables are a little overcooked and the rice mushy. I can't fault their flavors, though. The rice is full of warm spices--saffron and paprika mainly, I think--and the vegetables brightly flavored against it. I'd put the fault on the street setting more than the restaurant.

Indian Palate's up next with a chicken tikka masala on a curry cashew risotto. An interesting choice for this restaurant as this is a dish designed for the British palate, not an Indian one (or Miamian for that matter). The risotto, which is closer to mashed potatoes in texture than a proper risotto, is an interesting choice too as Indian cuisine usually calls for dry separate grains. Not bad for what it is. The chicken is dried out, but that's chicken tikka for you and that's why there's a tomato cream gravy. The flavors are mild but harmonious and the sauce works well with the rice. I'd rather not have picked out the inedible whatever-they-are leaves, though.

The nameless restaurant in the Courtyard Marriott had West Indian-spiced short ribs and cole slaw flavored with candied ginger. Steam table standards but at least they're making an effort with the flavors. It's not an effort that paid off, but I appreciate the attempt.

Novecento served chicken empeñadas. Is a cream sauce normal for a chicken empeñada? Because this tasted like Betty Crocker-style chicken à la king with Pillsbury crescent rolls. I do have a fondness for that sort of junk cuisine, but not really best foot forward for Novecento. I don't recall what they served last year but I liked it enough to take their card. I never actually went there for dinner so I don't know what's more typical of them.

I got to Forchetti's table too late to try whatever meat they were serving, but they had a bit of their zucchini, broccoli and carrot cream soup left. And maybe I've been brainwashed by my CSA, but I really appreciated that the flavors of the zucchini and broccoli came through cleanly (not so much the carrot), bolstered but not thinned out by the cream and without too much spice getting in the way. Nice on its own, but you can tell it was designed to accompany charred meat so I needed to find a bit of that before dessert.

Luckily the Grill Club wasn't far away. True to their name, they were cooking their meat over an open flame. The piece I had was kind of gristly and slightly burnt which, combined with the chimichurri sauce, made it a lot like my father's barbecued London broil. Took me right back, it did.

And on to dessert. I tried Quatro Leches' eponymous creation. That's not a giant cookie in the picture, it's a tiny cup with a tiny serving. I wonder how they cut the little circles of cake to go in the bottom. This is a standard tres leches cake topped with a dulce de leche frosting to make up the numbers. It's also half frozen which screwed up the texture a little. But the bigger problem is the mismatch between the creamy/crumbly cake and the blob of gooey, overpowering dulce de leche on top. Both of those dishes were invented in the same place decades ago and if putting them together was a good idea it would have become the standard version long ago. So, points for cleverness and points taken away for naming yourself after a dish that doesn't really work.

I missed out on all of Chuao's pretty chocolate confections, but I managed to snag one of the last almond hazelnut pralines. It was an unphotogenic little brown brick so I didn't bother with a picture, but it was a perfectly serviceable praline. And as it's Chuao I appreciate the restraint of leaving out liquor, hot pepper or guava. Some things are fine just the way they are.

And finally, the evening's most interesting dish. Miccosukee Resort served a three layer parfait: strawberries on the bottom, then tomato mouse, then black olive mouse topped with an almond macaroon. The olive flavor is light but identifiable--kalamata, I think--and a remarkably good match with the strawberries. I'm definitely stealing that idea for an ice cream flavor. The tomato was less pronounced, but that may just be because of how well it blends with other berry flavors. There was a nice mix of textures too with two different densities of mouse and the jam-like strawberries on the bottom and light crisp cookie on top (I don't think it was actually a macaroon despite what I was told). Very daring for this crowd and remarkably good.

So, more misses than hits, but enough quality that I did enjoy myself overall. Did any of you guys go? What did you think?


LaDivaCucina said...

Great photos but sounds like it was a bit of a fizzer. Nothing worse than bland and flavorless food.

billjac said...

Could have been worse. There were some high points and, unlike last year, nothing actively offensive. I don't think you can expect much better from Coral Gables. I really do need to start venturing further afield.