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 & Food Festival

Let's get ready to rumble. On Twitter, the New York City Wine & Food Festival quickly became #nycwff (seemingly to the credit of the Twitter-happy Andrew Zimmern).  Something about this abbreviation immediately made me think of professional wrestling, and – considering the crowds I combated at this Sunday’s Grand Tasting – the comparison is not entirely undue.

If this were a culinary wrestling match, the heavy-hitters were certainly there to show off their signature moves.  I saw Alton Brown saber a champagne bottle and Morimoto massacre a heap of live crabs.  Michael Symon waxed rhapsodic on both pork products and healthy living, while Anthony Bourdain reassured us he really, really doesn’t “give a fuck”.

And somewhere in the midst of these high-stakes culinary games, I entered into the “ring” myself: the Grand Tasting.  This signature NYCWFF event was held at Pier 57 for the first time this year, an ingenious move that offered waterside breezes and easy Highline access to the Tasting’s ambitious attendees.  The Grand Tasting essentially consisted of two rings: (1) an “outer ring” of up-and-coming restaurants and (2) an “inner ring” of major sponsors including Nutella, Buick and Bertolli.  I quickly decided that eating anything from the “inner ring” would increase my risk of over-saturation, so I focused solely on the up-and-comers.

At the risk of not doing justice to wide array of chefs that were present at the event, I have decided to highlight –high school yearbook superlative style – the standouts.  (A full list of Sunday’s restaurants and purveyors can be found HERE).

Best Braised Meat: Marble Lane at Dream Downtown, Guinness-Braised Kobe Short Rib This Guinness braised meat had deep, complex flavor that kept evolving with every chew. (5 Ninth’s Oxtail Ragu – like a gourmet philly cheesesteak – was a close second).

Best Soup:

Salinas, Codorban Gazpacho Crunchy, garlic-y, and spicy – it was as much an elevated Virgin Bloody Mary as a soup.

Best Pasta:

Vai Spuntino Bar, Burrata Ravioli I love burrata anything, but it was the incredible, ever-so-slightly-undercooked texture of the fresh pasta that blew my mind.

Best Presentation: The Hurricane Club, Crab & Avocado Corn Cake Served in a convenient little bamboo boat, this was a surprisingly light and stylish corn cake.

Best Re-Vamp of a Classic: Millesime, Lobster and Pumpkin Bisque with Tarragon Foam Lobster Bisque has always been a personal favorite, and the lobster-pumpkin blend with an herbaceous kick was an intelligent (but not over-thought) revision of a classic.

Most Unusual Dish: Danji, Spicy Whelk with Watercress and Buckwheat Noodle Salad Simultaneously spicy and refreshing, like a Pan-Asian spin on escargot

Most Surprising Dish: Spice Market, Shaved Tuna with Chili Tapioca I’ve never tasted savory – let alone spicy – tapioca, but the translucent reddish pearls married beautifully with the refreshing raw tuna and crunchy bits of near-raw ginger.

Friendliest Service: Armani Ristorante, Quail Egg Ravioli with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta & Shaved Black Truffle This unctuous ravioli underscored the never-ending pleasure of a runny egg yolk, and the chefs’ personalities were as pleasing as the food.

Restaurant I’m Dying to Try: Aureole, Ruby Red Shrimp in Coconut Lemongrass Broth with Asian Pear and Cilantro In a sea of braised meat, ravioli, and raw fish, the carefully layered flavors of this exquisite dish were more than memorable.

Smartest Dish: Commerce, Korean Braised Pork Belly with Vidalia Onion Marmalade served on a Pork Rind I’m “so over” the pork belly craze, but the contrasting textures in this dish were ingenious!

Most Disappointing Dish: Plein Sud, Boudin Blanc with Carmelized Onion and Apple Mustard on a Baguette The boudin was a bunch of floating meat particles that were not “set” properly underneath the casing – the texture was greasy and just wrong all around.

Best Single Bite: Talde, One-Bite Perilla Leaf Salad with Bacon, Tamarind Carmel, Toasted Peanut, Candied Chili and Dried Shrimp This was a flavor-packed “one-bite”, and despite being my final morsel in more-than-filling afternoon, it still stood out as the most attractive, intriguing and flavorful dish of the day.

We’ve all watched enough TopChef to know that these large-scale, salon-style events are not easy, and I was truly blown away by the majority of the food I tasted.  There was a significant amount of braised meat, raw fish and pasta, and no restaurant that I saw chose to take on dessert.  But apart from the obvious irony of stuffing your face to end hunger (all proceeds from the New York City Wine and Food Festival benefit the Food Bank for New York City & Share Our Strength), the Grand Tasting was a surprisingly successful and worthwhile event.