Judgment of Paris
This was the first year I was able to attend some of the events of the five-day long festival: the Judgment of Paris dinner, The Grand Tasting, the Sip & Stroll, and the Bistro Brunch. (I’m not sure why it’s called the Bistro Brunch. It’s not in a bistro and doesn’t focus on typical bistro dishes, but whatever…)
My favorite by far—and the one that went most smoothly—was the first in the series: the Judgment of Paris dinner. The Sugar Land Museum of Natural Science was a great setting for it. I was happy to wander around before dinner, with sparkling wine and canapé in-hand, and check out the bat exhibit, the giant, sparkling geodes and the fossils. This satellite campus is much smaller than the main Houston Museum of Natural Science, but the exhibits are well-chosen and artfully curated. (The canapés, by the way, were quite good. I loved the tiny quiches and the cheese puffs and had to exercise some control to not fill up before dinner.)
The five-course dinner was elegant without being fussy, my tablemates were wonderful companions, and John DeMers of the Delicious Mischief radio show did a fine job of hosting. It was fun to blind taste and score a French white against an American one and then repeat the process with the red wines. The overall judgment of the crowd, by the way, was a split decision between the two countries: France won the white category with a 2011 Henri Darnat La Jumalie Chardonnay from Burgundy while America won the red category with a 2009 Reynolds Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa.
If you love wine, semiformal dinners and a good time, I strongly recommend you get tickets to this event if they repeat it next year. Tickets sold out well before the event date this time around, so get them early.
The Grand Tasting
The Grand Tasting, held in the ballroom at the Sugar Land Marriott Town Square, had high points and low ones. Among the high points was the area featuring the chefs, cuisines, and beverages from Mexico. The very first bite I had was the mahi mahi ceviche from chef Yolanda Yanar of Velas Vallarta and the tangy, meaty, spicy combination was a great one to start out with. At the table of chef Arturo García Mogollón (of El Taller del Chef Baja Mediterraneo), I had the pleasure of trying “chocolate water” for the first time, which tasted much the same as it sounded: cool, lighter than chocolate milk, refreshing, and slightly sweet.
We were seriously impressed by the mountainous display of cheeses, breads and meats by H-E-B. Our Texas-grown grocery store chain knows put on a Texas-sized show, bringing in an excess of food—so much, in fact, that there was a great deal left over. Some departing guests were lucky enough to be gifted with loaves of bread and the like as they headed out the door.
In stark contrast, some of the restaurants were seriously underprepared and understocked, running out of food as early as an hour and half before the event’s ending time. This situation was repeated over and over again at the subsequent events: the Sip & Stroll and the Bistro Brunch. It seems like it would have been communicated to the participating restaurants as to how many people would be attending. I don’t know which side fell down: communication by the organizers or preparation by the restaurants, but something went awry.
Kudos to the restaurants that prepared appropriately and didn’t run out ridiculously early, including Haven, Brasserie 19, Fluff Bake Bar, Artisans and Quattro.
The other issue was that the venue was overcrowded and uncomfortably warm. I feel sorry for the guys that wore jackets and heard several people complain. I hope that the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair either sells fewer tickets next year and allows attendees to have some breathing room or finds a bigger venue.
My "best bite" of the event was the “pastrami sandwich” served by Brasserie 19, with in-house cured and seasoned duck pastrami, Dijon aioli, brussels sprouts, and homemade sauerkraut. It was served on marble rye crostini and topped with crumbled Gruyere and chives.
Sip & Stroll
The event time was from 1 to 4 p.m. By 2:30 pm, at least three of the restaurant booths were out of food and/or abandoned. (I’m looking at you, Ray’s Grill.)
The booth serving the “official cocktail”—Sheridan Fay’s winning “Explorer's Seaside Tipple”—had run out of a crucial ingredient and couldn’t make any drinks except gin and tonic.
I was really looking forward to the remarkable gathering of Houston authors at the Pop-Up Book Shop sponsored by My Table Magazine. I got to visit with Erin Hicks, Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Robb Walsh (Houstonia’s restaurant critic and serial cookbook author), chef Michael Cordua, John DeMers, and Paul Galvani. And those were just a few of the writers present. How often do you see all of these subject matter experts in one place at the same time?
The problem? There was not a single sign directing visitors to this extraordinary gathering of talent. I wandered around the grounds for 30 minutes before I came back to the front and figured out that I’d initially walked right past the “Char House. I’m sure many attendees would have loved to see and perhaps even purchase one of the many useful books inside, but they would have had to have seen them, first. To top it off, it was hot inside and both vendors and patrons alike ended up sweaty and thirsty.
The "best bite" of the event (that was available to try) was the truffled potato and leek soup by Sorrel Urban Bistro.
I really love walking into an event and being greeted with a glass of Prosecco. That gets any celebration off to a great start. My sense of fun was short-lived, however.
The event ran from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. At 11:45 a.m., I got in line at the Fadi’s booth for a savory Mediterranean-style tart and a little cup of hummus. By the time I got up to the booth around noon, they’d ran out of the tarts and I guess I was lucky to get the hummus, because by 12:15 they were entirely out of food. This left the poor chef standing there with nothing to offer disappointed attendees but advertisements and apologies.
I was heartened when I saw a giant, impressive batch of gumbo simmering in something that looked like a giant paella pan. But when I went to Victoria Country Club’s booth to get a sample, I was told it wasn’t ready yet and to come back in 30 minutes. This was around 12:45 p.m., about midway through the event. I eyed Jupiter Pizza & Waffle Co. across the way and wondered if I wouldn’t be better off if I headed there for brunch. I resisted and gamely stood in line after line.
I waited in line for another 30 minutes at the Big Daddy's Hot Sauce booth for a spicy Bloody Mary. (At this point, I’d had a sum total of a tablespoon of hummus, a Ritz cracker, and a glass of Prosecco.) Thank goodness the Bloody Mary was absolutely wonderful, with a hearty dose of A-1 and a rim of fajita seasoning. It was brilliant and actually worth the wait. I want the recipe.
I can’t say the same about the “poutine” in the next booth I stopped at, which had the wateriest brown gravy I’ve had in my life. Wet French fries? No thank you. I wondered if water had actually been added to the gravy to stretch it out for the masses.
The best bite—which was actually a composed plate—was the offering from The Burning Pear. At the end of a long line was a spiced waffle with a big bite of Southern fried lobster tail and a dose of honey vanilla butter. As if that weren’t enough, a sizable hunk of jalapeño-stuffed quail wrapped in bacon and garnished with jalapeño jam rode alongside. It was the best food I had for all the events combined and a reminder that it’s been far too long since I’ve been to The Burning Pear. Perhaps they had an advantage at this event by the fact that their kitchen was just across the street.
Overall, the events of the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair left me with mixed emotions. I’m glad there’s a big-deal, five-day event that highlights our area’s culinary aspirations. When you compare ticket cost to value, though, is it worth it to consumers? I think it is for the Judgment of Paris and even though I didn’t get to attend, the $40 ticket to the Bartender’s Competition and the $50 tickets for the wine, whiskey and beer seminars sound like they were a reasonable value.
I question whether that is the case for The Grand Tasting ($125 per person) and the Bistro Brunch ($50 per person). For that kind of money, you can have a sit-down dinner at The Burning Pear or a lovely brunch at Aura. Part of the draw of these types of festivals (besides the readily available wine and spirits) is being able to try a variety of restaurants. This year, that was a weak value proposition.
Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement and the issues from this year’s festivities are something that both organizers and vendors need to seriously discuss before 2015 rolls around.