Winners and Losers at the SoBe Wine & Food Fest Grand Tasting Village

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Saturday and Sunday marked the South Beach Wine & Food Fest's premier event, the Grand Tasting Village, which cordoned off a huge strip of South Beach the size of three or four football fields and filled it with hundreds of restaurants, distributors, wine vendors, and wineries, all flinging so much free product you'd think it was Silicon Valley in 1997. For just $213 a ticket (yikes) folks could come in and sample from local restaurant fare, drink dozens of classes of wine, or watch celeb chefs like Emeril and Rachel Ray do live food demos. The chef stuff I could care less about personally - I was there for the tasting village. I wanted to gorge myself and gorge well. And here's what I found.

The tasting portion of the show was separated into two huge tents, lined with booths on either side for the food and a center isle with mostly wine and liquor vendors. The set up is decent, but the big problem you notice right away is it's cram packed in there. I don't know how many thousands were in attendance, but every single booth was punctuated by a line of at least 10-20 people stretching out into the area where everyone was trying to walk. To put it short and sweet, "excuse me" became the most popular phrase used, whether it was said with politeness or extreme frustration.

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OMG I see the front of the line!
 All that could be ignored if the food and drink were stellar. And, well, the drink was quite good. But the food portion? It was largely OK. There were some samples that were great, but there was a whole lot of mediocre. And some downright bad. The last time I had went to the tasting two years ago, it was the same thing: my favorite dish in the whole place that time was Legal Sea Food's oyster booth, where they just sat and shucked thousands and thousands of oysters all day. And even then, I felt like there was more variety among the presenters. This year's show came down to sliders, sliders, sliders. Everyone was serving a slider of some sort, which makes sense considering the nature of the sampling booths. But come on. After my 8th slider I was about done with them. Other trends: Caiprihinas are everywhere, chefs love using plantain chips, and tropical fruit salsas/compotes/relishes are on everything. Hey, this is Miami after all.

OK, on with the highlights and lowlights. Note, I'm going to skip wine, because I'm not expert - I just know it get's me wasted followed by a horrible headache. Click any pic for a bigger version.

Sliders:

God, a whole category for sliders? Well since half the show was sliders, I guess it makes sense. Anyway, these two were both very good bites, and clearly the best little sammiches in the village:

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Restaurant at Le Meridien's braised pork belly sliders with arugula, aioli, and tomato.




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Ortanique's seared tuna slider with pineapple salsa and tropical BBQ sauce.



While Le Meridien's caramelized pork belly was pretty rad, and had the upscale take on typical hamburger acoutrements to go with it, the tuna slider at Ortanique's booth was just better. It was seared perfectly, topped with a nicely balanced fruit salsa and moistened with a squirt of very decent tropical BBQ sauce, which tasted of papaya. And it had some nice textural variations since the tuna was diced up and molded like a hamburger patty instead of being one piece. The slider was just well executed, and it showed, because Ortanique's line was always miles long and they ran out of food fairly fast.

And the losers in the slider category? Larios' flavorless roasted pork slider wasn't even good enough to finish. It was just plain and boring - not at all the thing you'd use to impress ten thousand drunkards into hopping across the street to your restaurant after the fest was over

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Larios' roasted pork slider.


Town Kitchen and Bar also put out a laughable slider - the exact opposite of the perfectly seared tuna slider at Ortanique. This one was simply a very unsubstantive tuna tartare on a crumbly biscuit that I nearly forgot about before I finished chewing it.

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Town Kitchen and Bar's tuna tartare slider



Cocktails!

There were some badass cocktails, at the fest, many made with obscure or novelty liquors. Caipirinhas, a Brazilian cocktail that's similar to a mojito, were among the most popular at the show. I had a stellar one, full of fresh lime, at the center bar for Sagatiba, a Brazilian cachaca.

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I expected to hate this fru fru looking drink from Andu, a cilantro martini with aloe vera foam, but hot damn if it wasn't crisp and refreshing and delicious. By the way, get used to seeing my fingers, people.

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Andu's cilantro martini with aloe vera foam.


But the best cocktail at the fest clearly goes to Morgans Hotel Group, representing the Florida Room at the Delano and the Shore Club, among others. Their berry mojito/mixer/whatever you call it was amazing. The barkeep muddled fresh strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries with sugar, lime, and mint, and then mixed it with Oronoco Rum, raspberry fraise, and a "secret blend" of something or other. Highly drinkable, not too sweet, utterly delicious.

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These folks were making drinks.



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Finished product. Mmm.


The Rest of It

Good:

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Clean Sea Seafood's sustainable, farm-raised hiramasa, also known as kingfish. It's low in mercury and makes delicious sashimi.


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Tiramesu's pasta line, with pesto penne, truffle-cream butternut squash stuffed pasta, and sundried tomato stuffed pasta, was all good.


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Florida Alligator farmers had a booth hocking the "just like chicken" meat. Here's some gator picadillo with plantain chips - good stuff.



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This poached duck on a purple potato chip from Essensia at The Palms was meh, nothing very bad or good about it. But they were pretty.



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Joey's walnuts. He he. Parmesan and walnuts, along with some cured beef and papardelle. Joey's kept things simple, letting ingredients speak for them, and it worked.

Bad:

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The molecular gastronomy contingent was a little limp. (My notes say this is from Bistro One LR, but that doesn't sound right). These parmesan-like cracker was topped with foie gras popcorn, tomato, and microgreens, but everything got lost and the cheese "chip" tasted stale as hell. No good.















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Cita's truffled chicken wing and butternut squash puree was horrible. Soggy wing, flavorless puree.





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The festival booth, sponsored by the Miami Beach Convention Center, served salt cured wahoo on a plantain chip that was - surprise, surprise - way too salty, along with some equally subpar winter vegetable slaw.


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Biggest loser: Anything with a pipette. This caprese was fine but seriously, fuck pipettes. I feel like a gerbil sucking on them.

Overall, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to go, but i doubt I would pay over $200 for the village again.
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