And details there were. A weekend long event featuring some of the most brilliant culinary minds in the region, preparing carefully selected morsels designed to showcase their talents and passion in a few bites at most. Couple that with relatively inexpensive admission, a short drive and ample parking and I was counting down the days.
Then the Twitter contests began. Various connected people had tickets and were giving them away. Answer this question, win a pair. Missed? Try again tomorrow. And on it went, until finally I was the one answering the question correctly and having two tickets left at the door for me. Let me tell you, for someone on a bit of a budget, freeing up $20+ dollars to spend on a wide variety of culinary treats was such a huge bonus!
And $20 went a long way towards sampling the amazing bounty the evening offered. Not only was there a dizzying array of wine to try, there were very interesting beers as well. And a couple of "other" beverages like slushy Margaritas, Pina Coladas and a really nice cocktail made from sparkling wine and mango puree. I can't even begin to describe the variety of food offerings.
My husband and I decided to wander around first, getting a sense of what was available. The tickets were $1, sold in strips of $10 and most things were between 1 and 3 tickets, with a few things for 4 or even 6. But nearly everything was only a ticket or so, which was pretty amazing.
As I said, my husband and I planned to walk around to get the lay of the land so to speak before trying anything. Until we got only a little ways in and smelled the amazing Sliders being cooked by Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery. It was like walking into a wall of beefy yum! I don't think there was really a choice made. We just stopped, my husband ordered a beer and we handed over tickets for a slider and a pulled pork sandwich, which was good, but paled in comparison to the richness of the burger.
Our hunger distracted, we continued on. We saw fresh oysters being shucked, assorted foods in cones, on baguettes, topped with creams and leaves, sandwiches, cupcakes, cheesecakes, chocolates, seafood, game meat, cheese... There were familiar restaurants, and ones we'd never heard of. And the food wasn't over the top fancy, either. It was creative. It was inspired. But it wasn't fois gras stuffed truffled lobster dipped in the butter of virgin rare breed European mountain goats. It wasn't pretentious at all, really.
After touring nearly the whole floor, and grabbing a glass of Konzelmann Reisling, we came upon the Maritime Lobster booth. They were offering Digby Scallops in (I think) a creamy lemongrass sauce and half lobster tails in (again I think) an apricot and Ice Wine sauce. Or maybe just wine. It's a bit of a blur. My husband and I don't eat "sea bugs" as we call them. I'll tolerate a little shrimp in a Spring roll, if it's chopped finely enough. But to actually eat seafood outright doesn't happen. Largely because much of what I come across in the seafood department is mingled with an overwhelming un-fresh fishy smell. And I don't know how appetizing a lobster lying limp in a scummy tank really would be anyway. But this was really fresh. And for $6 I could have a half lobster tail and a plump scallop. I was still hungry enough to be feeling adventurous (though not so much that I felt drawn to the oyster bar), so I took the plunge. Hubby and I sidled up to one of the many bar height tables scattered about and I struggled with the plastic fork to cut into the ample scallop. It looked a little stringy in texture, which is exactly what it wasn't. Instead I can only describe the texture as being like undercooked chicken with a good deal of chewiness to it. It had a slightly raw quality to it, but it was also a bit rubbery. It was strange. The flavour was alright (I suspect that was mostly the sauce), but the texture was unappealing.
On to the lobster... The texture was better. Only slightly chewy. And a little fluffy. No discernible "seafood" flavour. I imagine I'd try it again, if I could find it that fresh. But only in a very small amount. I doubt I'd want a meal of it. But I did it. As did hubby (he tried bites of mine). He was far less impressed and did not take a second bite of either. And while I don't know a lot about wine and food pairings, I can say that I did not like the lobster with the Riesling.
Having conquered that culinary mountain, we moved on and found ourselves at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel booth. Where the chef was deftly sauteing some beef. But not just any beef. Tender strips of what claimed to be Kobe rib eye. I doubt it was authentic Kobe (think "Champagne" and the trademark on the name... ditto for authentic Kobe beef). Probably more like "Kobe-style" beef. Nevertheless, I was eager to try it. The rib eye was piled on a mini biscuit with fried onions and mayonnaise. I picked a bit of meat off the plate which had fallen from the slider and was immediately in awe. The taste was so intense, so beefy and nothing like anything I've had in recent history. Maybe, way back when I was a kid, before cattle was so intensively farmed and it still had flavour? I don't know. This was just... better. Richer, with a deeper beef flavour and a silky texture. Fat that would normally be gristly on your average cut was meltingly tender. I ate most of the sandwich before realizing that the biscuit was just in the way. It was too sweet and it took away from the savoriness of the beef, rather than compliment it. It was also too heavy. Later in the evening I went back to the Seneca Casino booth and asked for just a plate with beef and a little salt. The chef laughed, piled the plate high and happily sprinkled a little salt on top before handing it over. All for only $1. Yes, only one single ticket for a plate of this amazing beef.
And so the evening went on. Hubby sampled a very strong maple infused beer that would make an excellent barbecue mop sauce. He also tried an apple ale beer float. I tried some strawberry beer, the aforementioned mango and sparkling wine cocktail and a Margarita. We had some Spring Rolls, some grilled pineapple and sausage, a slice of duck confit pizza (I didn't know you could dry out duck confit), chocolates, chocolate dipped strawberries, cheesecake on a stick, cheesecake in a container... We even tried another incarnation of "Kobe" beef. This time in a flat iron steak. It was decidedly less flavourful than the rib eye, and it was on a cold puddle of pureed Sunchoke, which was really quite unappealing, both in texture and temperature. We sat in on a cooking demonstration and got free samples of rice balls, eggplant parmesan and cannolis.
Another absolute highlight came when we wandered past the Niagara Fallsview Casino booth. It had multiple stations, and one featured cured salmon with fruit "caviar." Little beads of pure passionfruit, strawberry and lychee juice, coagulated via the magic of molecular gastronomy, so that they retained their liquid centres but popped in the mouth like beads of caviar. Neither hubby nor I are fans of salmon, and we were pretty much nearing the end of our desire for savoury food, but I really wanted to try these fruit beads. So I asked the chef if we could have a few and he happily obliged. As each bead burst open in my mouth a flood of passionfruit flooded my tongue. It was extraordinary. I must find sodium alginate and calcium chloride in order to replicate this at home!
I hope I haven't forgotten anything. The jazz music was lovely in the background, there was ample space to move and meander, everyone was very friendly and the whole place was well suited to the event, with stations dotted here and there with taps to rinse out glasses (and, as many did, to get much needed free water to stay hydrated) and tables all around to make eating more involved items a bit easier. Even the parking was painless, unlike for the home show hosted at the convention centre earlier this Spring (what a nightmare that was).
Even though I won our tickets, I will absolutely go again, even if I have to pay admission. I hope this event is here to stay. I've done food for ticket/token events at places like the Grape and Wine Fest (sorry, "Niagara Wine Festival") and this was hands down worlds better. The food, wine and beer was not only wonderful, but a far cry more reasonably priced! My husband said it would have been nice if someone was offering coffee or other alcohol free beverages (aside from the $2.50 pop and water cart outside the hall), especially for those driving. There were some free samples (including a cheese booth manned by someone who wouldn't actually offer us any... he just stared at us. Only odd thing all night), but at $1 and $2 for most items, abundant freebies weren't missed. I'm already looking forward to next year.
|so What! Jazz finishing up the evening (sorry about the pic quality -iPhone).|