The scope of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival is tremendous: This year's edition seemingly encompassed two seasons, with attendees switching from wool hats to flip-flops just after the event's halfway point.
I'm still thinking about everything I ate, drank and learned over the course of four days. But a few initial impressions before the formal debriefing begins:
1. High prices equal high expectations
It doesn't take a festival to remind restaurateurs that you can't please everyone. But I was surprised by the amount of whining that occurred at seated dinners. At The Grocery, where Kevin Johnson and Marco Canora served a resolutely lovely meal, my neighbor at a communal table insisted on scrutinizing every dish for evidence of over- and under-cooking. And the next night, CNN's Kat Kinsman tweeted about a fellow diner at The Macintosh who "to chef said 'I don't like this' when a dish hit the table. Hadn't even tasted."
I missed The Macintosh, because I was enjoying a pretty magical meal at Xiao Bao Biscuit, prepared in collaboration with visiting chefs from New York City's Uncle Boon's. Guests were treated to a menu including superb shrimp paste-fried pork ribs with caramelized fish sauce; salt-crusted beeliner snapper; ground pork and pork blood, steamed in banana leaves; and a pair of terrific curries, all of which were supplemented by stimulating, freewheeling conversation at my table of strangers.
Yet the talk elsewhere in the room reportedly took a sour turn, with guests griping about the family-style service. I'm not typically a fan of communal dining, but that's a ludicrous complaint: The chefs were sending out platters of Asian food, not piles of sole meuniere. And they were far from stingy with the portions: Following the ribs were sliced duck, two salads, fried mushrooms, rice and noodles (among other dishes), and our table of eight received three whole snappers. Nobody went hungry.
I've worked in enough restaurants to know there are always guests who like going out because it gives them cause to complain. But I suspect the high price of the dinners has increased their numbers (Dinner at The Grocery cost $175; the Xiao Bao dinner was $150.)
As I tried to explain to my tablemate at The Grocery, perfection isn't the goal when you're serving more than 100 people at once. Under those conditions, getting out impressive food in a timely fashion is a real achievement. But festivalgoers still tend to believe they're buying a complete restaurant experience, and are unlikely to forgive any deviations.
The economics here are tricky, of course: A restaurant can't take a night off from regular service without a guarantee it will recoup the money lost. But I wonder if more restaurant takeovers, in which visiting chefs re-create the spirit of their home restaurants in a borrowed space, or at least put a few of their signature dishes on an a la carte menu, would help ameliorate the annoyances. What doesn't pair perfectly with great food is grumpiness.
2. Best food is not always found in expected places
That's almost always the case, but it's especially true at food festivals. Maybe because the folks who aren't on the official program have more to prove (or slightly fewer stresses to distract them), the cooking at auxiliary events was exceptional. Among the items I most enjoyed this weekend were Duane Nutter's clam succotash, served at the Lambs N Clams after-party on Friday; Nathaniel Chamblin's biscuits at the Brown Water Society party; Nathalie Dupree's shrimp and grits at the Southern Foodways Alliance party; and Michael Anthony's fried oysters at the Le Creuset party.
And if you didn't feel like partying incessantly, restaurant kitchens also brought their A-game for the occasion: The mackerel ceviche at The Ordinary was especially excellent this weekend.
3. Lo! Lunch!
I didn't pay much attention to the lunches on the festival schedule when I first reviewed it. But BJ Dennis' Gullah-Geechee lunch at Proof, accompanied by smart rum cocktails, persuaded me that midday is the perfect window for a leisurely, seated meal.
4. Marion (Square) . what can I say?
If anything at the festival was ballyhooed, it was the Opening Night's party return to Marion Square. Having never attended the event at the S.C. Aquarium, I don't have a clue how this year's event stacked up against previous iterations. But based on what I saw, the move didn't merit much whoop.
All of the constraints of an outdoor party were very much in evidence. The ground was soppy and guests fretted about the cold weather, even though the festival spent extra money to make the party more bearable by adding flooring and heaters. It's too bad that cash couldn't have gone toward decor, since the party's unimaginative science fair layout, with chef booths lined up along the tent's perimeter, was notably uninspiring.
Post-party, per usual, Marion Square functioned as the festival's hub, with a good number of festivalgoers flocking to the Grand Tasting Tent. Personally, I don't get the draw of the tent. It housed a few quality vendors, including Food for the Southern Soul and French Broad Chocolates, but they were eclipsed by forgettable set-ups of mass-prepared food from second-rate restaurants.
The $85 entry fee to the Culinary Village included admission to the Southern Foodways Alliance and Virginia Wine Board tents, so it was theoretically possible to eat, drink and learn your way to a decent value. But if I was spending that kind of money, I might instead gravitate toward one of the outstanding beverage sessions held at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. I'm only sorry the festival didn't operate a shuttle from the Square.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560. or firstname.lastname@example.org.