The pleasure is all mine…

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be selected to judge for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience’s Fleur de Lis awards. Aside from gorging myself in some of the city’s best restaurants, I was able to hang with food professionals like writers Dale Curry, Sharon Litwin, Gwendolyn Knapp, Brenda Maitland, Lisa LeBlanc-Berry, Kendall Gensler and photographer Romney Caruso.

What is most stunning, aside from being able stuff myself silly in two 7-hour periods, is the miraculous creativity and enthusiasm we encountered from each and every chef. Although, I thought almost all of the dishes were phenomenal this year, there a few dishes that really stood out to me as being above and beyond the typically fabulous cuisine we have available to us here in New Orleans.

Palace Cafe blew me away with these Flambeed Duck Hearts served cold on toasted brioche, a dish I was actually afraid to try. Let me tell you, once I had my first taste, I scarfed down the rest with ease and avid enjoyment.

Now, it should come as no surprise that Chef Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace wowed us, but I am still raving about this Jamaican Jerk Pork served atop “island paella” with pickled fruit and aqua fresca. My mouth is watering as I type…

After tasting this next dish, I cannot wait for Tableau to open inside Le Petite Theatre…it was an adorably delicious Creole French Onion Soup with andouille sausage and a baby croque madame on top made with Chisesi ham and a quail’s egg.

Chef Chuck Subra at the JW Marriott nearly destroyed our appetite for anything else when he presented this Green Tomato Courtbouillon with Louisiana seafood (a.k.a. oysters, shrimp, crab and crawfish) served atop buttery grits. They also offered us some warm, crusty French bread that we all couldn’t help but devour, using it as a spoon to scoop up the luscious courtbouillon.

Finally, the last dish I’m going to mention is from 8 Block at the Hyatt Regency. It’s last not because it actually was last or because there weren’t anymore superb offerings, but because if I keep talking about this, I might just eat my keyboard. Also, when I was presented with this delectable dainty, I literally inhaled it after being so incredibly full, I didn’t think I could manage another bite. It was Petit Chilled Raviol de Royan with roasted Creole tomato, arugula salad and burratta cheese.

Just from the twenty or so dishes I tasted, I wouldn’t miss the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience Grand Tasting event for the world…and you shouldn’t either.

Glorious gluttony ensues…

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Never in my wildest imaginings would I believe that I could not only score tickets to the 2012 New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, I got to be a judge. Oh yes…this simple glutton from the suburbs, this flyspeck on the global culinary radar, was actually fortunate enough to sample more than 17 dishes from some of the finest restaurants all over this wonderful city in a dizzying tour-bus adventure that lasted a day and a half.

Although I was ecstatic about gorging myself on dishes like a Mayan Quinoa Salad from Chef Guillermo Peters at Canal Street Bistro

…or these Crab & Avocado Shooters topped with tiny crab beignets shaped like donuts from Chef Randy Buck at the Hotel Monteleone

…or even this decadent, Southern Style Louisiana Voodoo Shrimp with a sweet and spicy sauce, portabello mushroom, fried green tomato and cheese grits from Chef Duke LoCicero at Cafe Giovanni

…the best part of the trip was that I was able to meet so many interesting people, all of whom possess a great passion for food, just like me!

On the first day, I got to hang out with fellow judge Dale Curry; former food editor of the Times Picayune, writer for New Orleans Magazine and author of New Orleans Home Cooking. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated at first, but this incredible woman is very familiar with New Orleans cuisine including fads that have come and gone, the rise and fall of chefs and a discerning palate…thank goodness she is super-cool to boot!

I was also finally able to put faces with the names Robert Peyton, columnist for New Orleans Magazine (and bad-ass civil defense attorney) and Doug Brantley editor of Where New Orleans. The stunning shots by Photographer Romney Caruso both taught me about styling, equipment and light while effortlessly putting my food porn to shame. We were also lucky enough to have Executive Director of NOWFE Jamie Peckenpaugh and her texting, Tweeting, Instagram-wielding, on-the-ball, side-kick Chelsea from Georgia who came along with us to chronicle the tastings and to join in on the the fun.

As if this were not enough to make me giddy, I was able to experience things that would otherwise be denied to me because there is no way in hell I would be able to afford it! The most glaring example of this would be our short stint sitting at the chef’s table in Commander’s Palace. Two mountains of large, ripe, Louisiana strawberries set the scene as we watched Executive Chef Tory McPhail demonstrate his “super-strawberry” dessert.

Vacuum-packed strawberries are steeped in strawberry jam and sugar overnight, then dressed with more strawberry jam, strawberry whipped cream, strawberry Pixie Stick dust and strawberry Pop Rocks. Served alongside this childhood-candy-fantasy-come-true, Chef whipped up a delicious strawberry hurricane made with Old New Orleans Rum.

All of this was possible thanks to my friend Kendall Gensler who is editor and publisher of Culinary Concierge Magazine as well as an excellent food stylist…among many other accomplishments. Kendall, if you are reading this, know that I will definitely be available for this again next year…and thank you!

A veritable feast! NOWFE Grand Tastings

Thanks our friend (and sometimes employer) Kendall, John and I were able to attend this year’s Grand Tasting event at the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. We left the house early on Friday, both hungry and anxious to get to the Morial Convention Center downtown. Believe it or not, we hopped onto a streetcar, got off at Lee Circle and trudged our way through the sticky heat to Convention Center Boulevard, only seven blocks away. Fortunately, we were able to enter the convention center lobby and cool off in the air conditioning before we reached the center of festivities in Hall J.

The darkened hall was already packed when we finally arrived at 6:30 PM and I had to harangue John a bit for not believing me when I said we should get there early. After some minor bickering (ain’t love grand?), we headed for Lüke, the first offering in front of us. Besh’s “Franco-German” brasserie was serving “Shrimp en Cocotte” with brandy and green peppercorns over grits. I looked up the word “cocotte” because I wanted a clearer definition of the cooking process and I didn’t learn that one in French class. Apparently, it means either an individual serving-sized, fireproof dish OR a prostitute…I’m assuming they meant the former, but either way it was delicious! The shrimp were not overcooked (which is stunning in such a setting) and I watched them cook it in tons of creamy butter in a huge saucepan. It seems my next Besh outing now leans heavily towards Lüke.

Though I wanted to get back in line and go for another round, John urged me towards another table just across the way displaying a huge bucket full of crawfish.  We got in a short line for Palace Cafe’s Creole Tomato & Louisiana Crawfish Poached Beef Tenderloin, say that ten times fast. The dish was actually quite good, though I am not a huge fan of any type of red sauce. Best of all, due to a half-hearted joke about wanting to eat the boiled crawfish display, the chef gave us one to try. The crawfish was delicious and seasoned so perfectly, though different from what we were used to. John even ate the claws and sucked the head!

Right next door was a table that was crowd-free and I’m really not sure why. Galvez Restaurant was serving Chef’s Laura’s Summer Gazpacho topped with fresh cucumber and it was perfect! The cool tomato soup was  so tasty, with just the right amount of spiciness and kick.

After slurping down our gulp of gazpacho, we turned to the Red Fish Grill’s offering, a beef tenderloin-wrapped yellowfin tuna served with a squash puree. Talk about surf & turf! John and I quickly gobbled it down and headed for our next treat which turned out to be Arnaud’s wonderful Chicken & Andouille Sausage Gumbo. There was no line at the table when we arrived, but as we left carrying our bowls of gumbo and its rich, heady scent wafted into the crowds, people started to eye our food as we passed and a queue soon formed.

Our wanderings really had no rhyme or reason, except that we avoided lines that were way too long, the only exception being the St. James Cheese Company. I simply couldn’t have been more pleased with the selection of cheeses we got to try, among them black truffle goat cheese, cranberry chipotle cheddar, brick cheddar and burrata (a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) which was served on a thin water cracker. The cheese was all fabulous. I even got to eat John’s serving of burrata since he didn’t quite dig the texture, which was fine by me!

Right after I popped the last bit of cheese in my mouth, we turned around for the grand display by M Bistro. The Ritz Carlton Hotel restaurant was serving two items, a Peaches & Cream “shot” and Corn & Crawfish Crepes with creole tomato jam, goat cheese foam and ghost pepper caviar. Admittedly, I loved the dessert with a fan of cotton candy on top and buttery crumble on the bottom, but the star of the show – the whole show, mind you – was the Corn & Crawfish Crepes. The crepe was a light, airy affair filled with creamy corn and crawfish, John inhaled his serving and nodding in delight before I turned around after picking up the dessert. We both agreed that it was easily the best dish we tried at Friday’s Grand Tasting, although I think the shrimp from Lüke ran a close second.

By this time, we were both getting pretty full and we hadn’t even hit half the tables in the hall. We forced ourselves to move on and headed next for Martin Wine Cellar who was serving Smokey Abita BLT Shrimp. As I understand, they were supposed to be serving the shrimp on a sweet potato biscuit (which I think would’ve been awesome), but it was getting toward the end of the evening and they must have ran out. Anyhow, the shrimp was still very good with a both sweet and savory sauce with large bits of bacon.

We rounded the bend to see something we’d both been craving that day, New Orleans Coffee Company’s CoolBrew. We got a shot of our favorite flavor, Toasted Almond, over ice with milk and finally found a place to sit down and enjoy some time off of our feet. While taking a much-needed breather, we noticed people walking away from the Wolfe’s in the Warehouse table with an interesting dish, so I sent John over to investigate. He returned with a cute, black plastic ramekin filled with Vanilla Bean Braised Short Rib with goat cheese and green onion blue grits. It was oddly sweet, yet nonetheless delectable and as I took the last bite, I realized that this was indeed my last bite.

Okay, not quite my absolute last bite. As we were heading back around the room towards the exit, we passed the Cochon 555 seminar and while we listened for a bit, we sampled some of the remaining luscious charcuterie scraps left on the table. Filled to the brim, I knew it was time to head home.

You’re probably asking yourself, “She said this was a food AND wine experience right? So where does the wine come in?”  Well, we did indeed drink wine, lots and lots of wine, but being the grape newbies that we are, I didn’t know what to say about it. We tasted Chardonnays, Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Shirazes, Pinot Noirs and Bordeauxs…all of them were good to us, but what do we know about wine?

Essentially, we were there for one thing and one thing only, the food! Thanks NOWFE!

It’s going to be grand…

Last year around this time, I whined to all of you about how I wouldn’t be able to attend the magnificent Grand Tasting at the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. Well, it seems my prayers have been answered because this year, this week in fact. John and I will be at Friday’s Grand Tasting event in the New Orleans Convention Center! I’m so excited I can barely breathe!

For this week’s cheat, I will be dining on food presented by 75 different chefs and tasting wine from 175 different wineries from all over the world. It’s going to be a feast of Bacchanalian proportions! As if that wasn’t enough, on Friday there will a preview of Cochon 555 (an event that’ll be happening at the Foundry on Saturday) where Michael Sullivan, a Blackberry Farm charcutier, will be leading a discussion regarding the preservation of heritage breed pigs. We’ll also get to sample cured meats paired with the perfect wines from guest vintners for the event!

I’ll be bringing my camera and my appetite, so look out NOWFE because here I come!

The pain of a penniless foodie: 2010 NOWFE Grand Tastings

At the end of next month, one of the most spectacular dining events of the year will take place in the New Orleans Superdome and I can’t go.  From May 25th-29th, this city will be steeped in the throws of a Dionysian celebration of epic proportions for the 2010 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a singular celebration that will have attendees and their taste buds dancing through a whirlwind of epicurean excellence with wine dinners all over town hosted by the finest restaurants the Crescent City has to offer.

There will also be “Vinola” wine tasting events at the Harrah’s Theater, a “Wine Lovers Musical” at Le Petit Theatre, a variety of food and wine seminars, the ever-popular “Royal Street Stroll” combining art, music and wine on Royal Street in the French Quarter and last, but definitely not least, there will be the Grand Tasting events held at the Superdome.

In May 2007, I was fortunate enough to attend NOWFE’s Grand Tasting event where over thirty different wineries and about the same number of restaurants participated in one of the most delicious events I have ever experienced.  I will never forget the fabulous grilled shrimp from the Rib Room, almost large enough to constitute an entire meal, the endless variety of wines I tasted and, lucky us, our table was situated right next to the New Orleans Ice Cream Company where Adrian Simpson, the Ice Cream Man himself was scooping out samples of Chocolate City and Ponchatoula Strawberry.

This year, the Grand Tastings will be offering wine from almost fifty different vitners and culinary delicacies from about fifty different local restaurants including  Commander’s Palace, GW Fins, 5 Fifty 5, La Cote Brasserie, Le Meritage, Luke, M Bistro and much, much more!  My mouth is watering in anticipation of an event I won’t even be able to attend!  What is a girl to do?

Due to lack of funds, I am throwing a virtual hissy fit because I wanna go!  I am totally jealous of all you folks who are able to attend and you know what?  I don’t want to hear about it!  Don’t you even dare rub you good fortune in my face while I sit at home on the nights of the Grand Tastings, crying my eyes out in despair and pounding my head against the wall.  Don’t you dare come tell me how delectable the wines will be, how perfectly executed the cuisine…don’t you even think about it!

That is…unless…you’ll take me with you?