Somebody Scream: Our AC Food and Wine Fest 2013 Experience

It started on a sour note.

One of our cars broke down on the afternoon we planned on leaving for the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival. It simply refused to start. One tow later and we were on road, albeit much later then expected. The car issue only added to our uneasiness as we zipped down the Parkway; the schedule for this year’s edition of the festival was more scaled down than in previous years. We’d already decided to skip Thursday”s Kickoff Party, as even in previous years the food, drinks and mad crowds  just weren’t worth arranging the extra day off of work and night of babysitting. Sigh, maybe it just wasn’t  going to be as fun as previous years…

Sadly, Friday night turned out to be a wash. Too late to get our media credentials and get over to the Grand Market, we soothed ourselves with a beer and a cheese steak from Tony Luke’s over at Tropicana. Not the best cheese steak I have ever had (Gaetano’s still and forever holds that distinction), but it certainly can cure what ails ya. Then it occurred to us that we had forgotten our camera equipment (yikes!), so Lisa’s iPhone was going to have to do.

Saturday was the big day for us, but even we had no idea how big. We grabbed our media stuff and some coffee and started our stroll down to House of Blues for the Blues, Brews & BBQ event. On the way, we stopped by Phillips at The Pier to say hi to Ed Hitzel as he was doing his weekly Saturday radio show on location for the special Spiked Brunch going on there. As usual, Ed conducted himself in his typical buttoned-down and serious manner…

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Heh heh.

Anyway, we made our way IMG_0086over to House of Blues, took the loooong escalator up, and got a lay of the land. Plenty of ‘cue to be had, music was going just fine…but where was the beer? After a scary moment when a misinformed bartender told us it was at the bar and it was only Miller Lite, we discovered it hiding in the “Heart & Soul” room. One thing seemed to be missing from both the BBQ and the beer: a local presence. Last year’s event was filled with local brewers and BBQ eateries; this year,IMG_0088 not so much. I  think Lisa was really disappointed not to sip some local beer and see some friends from the likes of Turtlestone or Tuckahoe.And many people were simply shocked that Flying Fish, Jersey’s best-known brewery, was nowhere to be found. But the BBQ that was being served was good enough and a few samples of Weyerbacher’s Blithering Idiot kept us in a fun-loving mood; we had to laugh at a friend’s insistence that barbecues are supposed to be outside, and the House of Blues’s dark, moody setting made it seem like the “BBQ of the Apocolypse”; I think it depends on how much you need the air conditioning, really.  The Neelys took over the stage for a little while, chatting with the crowd…and singing with the band. Gina Neely has got some pipes, let me tell you.

The surprise of the event was that there was , in fact, twoIMG_0100 rooms for food. The second room, a smaller, more intimate affair, had an old-school jazz band called Baby Soda who were bringing you back to the days of the flapper girl. They were a delight.

Also a delight was meeting up with Marilyn Russell, morning DJ at 95.7 BEN FM out of Philly. We had been tweeting a few days before and arranged to meet up at this event. Besides her love of music she seems to be a bit of a foodie herself.

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Then it was the Chef Robert Irvine portion of the day.

IMG_0105It was back to Caesars to be part of a roundtable discussion with Mr. Restaurant: Impossible himself. In his upbeat and smooth style, he talked about everything from his experiences on the show, including the person who almost punched him in the face, his love for challenges, his dislike of red peppers and cinnamon, and his line of power bars that will be launched in September. But what really came through was his drive to be helpful to others, something that he was asking everyone to do in their own lives, multiple times that day, in fact.

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Then came the unexpected bits.

Thanks to a good friend at Caesars we were able to sneak into one of the seminars being hosted by Laurie Forster. Ok, so it was at the tail end and were were plunked into one of the few empty seats, but we got to sample cocktails that represented the decades from the 1950s to today. I was most at home with the daiquiri of the 1970s, by the way, but Lisa was digging on the either-love-it-or-hate-it Negroni Gin Cocktail. We then got a chance to chat with Laurie afterwards. We didn’t know too much about her, but we can say that she was immediately likeable.

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As we were chatting, Lisa suddenly gets a text from a fellow food writer that they cannot use two tickets to Robert Irvine’s dinner and would we like to go. Ummm, yes. Well, we now had dinner plans.

At Arturo’s at Bally’s, Chef IMG_0124Robert charmed the pants off of everyone and even gave a few good laughs as he walked us through his three-course dinner. He answered a whole slew of questions, made some people do embarrassing things (all in good fun), and even had to deal with someone at our table wanting to propose to him…with her fiance sitting right across from her. And, well…Lisa might have played a role on getting Chef Robert over to the table. -John

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Ok, my turn! I will say that the Irvine dinner was a whole load of fun, and the wines were exceptional (Deadbolt, a California blend and Trapiche Burquel Malbec were a few of them), but the actual meal did disappoint me somewhat. The “Trio of Beef appetizer (braised cheek,beef heart ravioli -no, you wouldn’t know it unless someone told you- and tartar) wasn’t very visually appealing, and one of the components looked dried out on the surface (a casualty of sitting under the heat lamps too long). The Steak and Pomme Frites entrée was very tasty, but the meat had a weird, pasty texture even though it was medium rare and the pomme frites were naturally soggy from sitting on top of the sauce and under the steak. The dessert was quite good, however: Strawberry Shortcake with pickled berries, sabayon, spiced pound cake, and meringue. Let’s face it: with his constant appearances at the festival and tight schedule, you know he’s not the one  cooking.

IMG_0140But after a brief break, it was on to the Beach Soiree. It was high time they did something with the beach! Walking in, it really was like a romantic beach fantasy: the moon rising within a clear sky, warm ocean breezes and the surf, sand between your toes (the shoes came off almost immediately),  lanterns and glowing tables, and food, food, food. A lot of it. I know in recent years there have been complaints of the scaling down of the food at these events, but this wasn’t one of them: conch fritters, shrimp wrapped in bacon, little cups of ceviche…and desserts like dulce de leche and what looked like chocolate petit fours on a stick. After the big dinner we couldn’t really eat that much, but drinks were also plentiful (and passed around in healthy doses by wait staff).  I am not a fan of Barefoot Wines (though you have to admit that as a sponsor this is a no-brainer), so I really didn’t get into the iced cups of wine and wine spritzers. There were, however, clear pina coladas, that were tasty but not cloying and milky-but after a few, you just felt like you were having too much sugar. IMG_0138All of the headliner stars showed up about an hour later, and were relegated to one corner if you wanted to fight the crowds to get to them. But  John and I were content to stay on the far end of the party, listen to the DJ’d music, and watch the ocean waves (OK, we were getting all kissy face, too). Suddenly, though, there was a ruckus up in front, and we headed up to the DJ stage to find The Sugar Hill Gang had suddenly appeared to do a set. It was time for us old folks “jump on it” and kick it old school…yeah, I’m showing my age, but I think our friends who went to see Crystal Waters at Harrah’s Pool got the short end of the deal.  And they didn’t just perform  “Apache” and  “Rappers Delight”; we also got an earful of their versions of hip hop hits off their label. Somebody scream!…IMG_0143

The next morning we dragged our tired selves to what I think was one of the best parts of the weekend, even though it wasn’t part of the Festival per se, nor was there much fanfare over it-yet. I’ve written about Chef Keith Mitchell at Nero’s Tuscan Steakhouse at Caesar’s in my freelance work; and yeah, he’s still doing his farm-to-fork thing and has a phenomenal relationship with Masters Farm in Galloway. Even though they offer what looks like your typical, over-the-top brunch, look closer.IMG_0152 The Bloody Marys are to die for this time of year, because they are made with only fresh squeezed Jersey tomatoes. The hot dishes include gorgeous cauliflower with zucchini in a pesto sauce; the sauced beef includes the most delicious kale you’ll ever have; and they are constantly experimenting with what they get from the farm. That morning I tasted a colorful dish of fresh mozzarella dressed with Jersey tomatoes, basil, peaches, and vinaigrette: acidic and sweet, savory and herbal. Yum.IMG_0154 Caesar’s has finally taken notice, and you’ll start seeing them promote their “Garden State To Plate” campaign. About time! I also  think what happened next at the brunch was a good omen; as I was attempting to gracefully slurp down a screamingly fresh local oyster on the half shell, I noticed some hard pellets in my mouth. I attempted to remove them as politely as possible, but did a double-take. These weren’t oyster shell fragments -they were three very small pearls.

Our overall impression? Well, not every event is going to be a hit, but this Festival is still worth checking out, even if you are not a big celebrity chef fan. It seems there are always pleasant surprises to be had. -Lisa

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