eater's digest: new york city wine & food festival, part 2

In the flurry of activity that is the New York City Wine & Food Festival - from dinners, to lectures, classes and parties - there is one central stronghold : The Grand Tasting. This tented festival at Pier 57 takes place over two days, featuring small bites from some of the city's best restaurants, as well as cooking demos from the Food Network's band of celebrity chefs. It's an almost overwhelming celebration of the city's food, but somebody's got to taste it. Lucky for me, I'm that somebody. Here's the rundown on my favorite small bites:

I've always been a fan of thai/larb-inspired lettuce wraps, but Kittichai's version was more refreshing than most. An excellent choice for an over-saturated tasting event, with acidity and spice that cut straight to the palate.

This is the second time I've sampled newcomer AG Kitchen's cuisine, and I have to say, I'm impressed. Sandwiches usually don't strike me as addictive, but I had to stop myself from grabbing seconds of this spicy, tangy medley of pork, ham, swiss, pickles and hot mustard.

My main complaint at such tastings is that there's usually too much meat. But in the case of MexiBBQ, I was more than pleased by the unusual tequila/oregano sauce. Hot and herbaceous in the most unusual way, this was elevated Mexican - comfort food 2.0.

One of the major surprises of my second day at Pier 57 was Benares' lentil and potato dumplings. A medley of textures differentiated this surprisingly sweet - but not saccharine - dish from the Indian food I've eaten in the past. Definitely a restaurant I've added to my list.

I love lobster bisque, as I do most things seafood-related. But I've had enough bad bisques to last a lifetime. Not so with Brasserie Cognac. This thin soup beats out its creamier cousins with the distinct addition of umami, from mushrooms meant to mimic the texture of tender lobster meat.

At an event where most chefs come at you with a one-two punch, it's always a surprise - and often a relief - to taste something subtle. Nios set itself apart with medley of fresh, mild flavors that proved more isn't always more.

Ian Kittichai managed to show up his namesake's dish (the aforementioned lettuce wraps) with an even more spicy thai dish from Ember Room. At first, the spice startled, but was quickly - and cleverly - cooled by the bitter crunch of an endive leaf.

In the end, however, there must be a winner - or at least, a dish I wish I could taste again. For me, that was Northern Spy's soup. Pickled, but not so much as to be briny, it was an enticing spoonful and a palate cleanser in one. To boot, I've yet to taste a less-than-impressive bite at Northern Spy's day-to-day digs, making for an extra-confident endorsement.

eater's digest: new york city wine and food festival, part 1

This weekend, I had the pleasure of covering the New York City Wine and Food Festival for Honest Cooking. From wine tasting in the chic boutiques of the Meatpacking District to a hands-on oyster shucking lesson at the Standard Biergarten, it was a dynamic, whirlwind tour of the New York City food scene.

If there was one highlight out of the many events I attended, it was - without a doubt - Morimoto's "Rock & Roll", a sushi and karaoke soiree at the Harvard Club. Upon arriving in the ivy league digs, I was immediately struck by the incomparable decor. Taxidermy of all shapes and sizes (including an imposing elephant head), dim-lit chandeliers and dark wood paneling bedecked the cavernous hall where the city's best sushi chefs were already busy at work.

Having been to a number of tasting events, I know the food can range from utterly disappointing to extraordinary. Raw fish is one of my favorite ingredients, so I was a bit anxious to sample the chefs' small bites.

Happily, I can report that every bite stood up to the challenge. At $150 a ticket, the event - whose proceeds benefit the hunger-relief programs of Food Bank For New York City and Share Our Strength® - seemed a bargain, and I would readily recommend that any fish lover jump on the tickets the next time this sushi party rolls around.

Here are some of my favorite bites:

I've had sepia tagliatelle before, at Txikito in Chelsea (one of my favorite restaurants). Marea's take was distinctively fishier, but enjoyably so, and the "pasta" was cut a bit thicker. But unlike good Italian pasta, the texture wasn't al dente - in fact, it was surprisingly tender for cuttlefish. Overall, a bite that redoubled my interest in dining at this highly praised restaurant.

If nothing else, Esca deserves an honorable mention for this simple, fish-forward dish. Sardines are a hard sell, and it was an excellent opportunity to present them - in their highest quality - to a crowd of eager pescatarians. It wasn't the most impressive dish of the night, but its subtlety would not have been lost on a true fish lover.

I'll admit, I had actually not heard of Blue Ginger before tasting this dish. But out of everything I ate that night, this hamachi sashimi was one of the most interesting dishes. The spicy seasoning was an unexpected twist, while the crispy rice was a pleasant textural contrast with the sashimi.

Corton's dish had so many layers of unexpected flavor, it was mind boggling. Yet, somehow, they all went together really nicely. The thinly sliced, slightly smokey fish was an exciting match for the bold broth - a surprise that definitely merited a second bite.

I love ceviche, and I have been hearing raves about La Mar's distinct Peruvian style. The texture of the fluke was absolutely stunning, as was the shockingly bright, pop-in your mouth citrus. Coupled with a few al dente vegetables for textural contrast, this dish was an absolute stunner.

This fruit and fish combo quite literally blew my mind. A just-sweet enough peach sauce, clean snapper slice and smokey spike of citrus. It was a combination that should have overwhelmed the fish, and it didn't. Which officially makes Crave Fishbar the restaurant I want to check out the most after this outstanding city sushi tour.