Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dish du Jour Magazine's 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting

A Feast Fit for Queens
Written & photographed by Bradley O’Bryan Hawks for Dish du Jour Magazine

(An endlessly replenished assortment of freshly rolled sushi from JJ's Asian Fusion)

What do you get when you combine nearly fifty restaurants, bakeries, and beverage purveyors with a prestigious cast of renowned authors, celebrity chefs, and television personalities, joined by nearly five hundred ravenous foodies, shutter-clicking bloggers, and drooling restaurant enthusiasts?  Besides over-stimulated senses, an appetite satisfied by nearly every cuisine imaginable, and an uncanny new wish list of restaurants to visit in the upcoming weeks, you get Dish du Jour Magazine’s 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting Event featuring the Cuisine of Queens & Beyond.

When I awoke the day of the event, I sprung from bed, plugged my camera battery into its charger, and polished my lenses before even pouring my morning glass of O.J.  It can be simultaneously exhilarating and daunting being faced with the prospect of not only sampling, but documenting and accurately describing such a kaleidoscope of flavors.  Pencils sharpened and camera ready, I peeled back the foil lid of a single container of yogurt (raspberry fruit on the bottom, of course).  I cannot skip the most important meal of the day, but in light of the feast that awaited just before dusk, it would be gluttonous to consume much else prior to the event.

Camera strap flung diagonally across my chest and shoulder, pencil and notebook in hand, and an orange wristband secured on my wrist indicating that no, I had not in fact crashed the event, I eagerly stepped through the French doors opening into the Grand Ballroom of the exquisitely beautiful Astoria World Manor. 

Momentarily blinded by the refracted rainbows dancing from monstrous chandeliers, as my eyes came into focus over the room, so too did my olfactory gateway swing wide open, allowing waves of tempting aromas to rush in, instantaneously triggering an excited growl from deep inside my stomach.  A breeze of curry and the yeasty scent of charred naan bread whirled around me, followed by the unmistakable autumnal smell of grilled sirloin and caramelized onions.  Unsure where to begin and afraid I might consume too much too rapidly, I decided to first peruse the gourmet displays, each steaming chafing dish and sizzling hotplate screaming for me to dive right in.  Like comestible tidal waves, the aromas poured over me, redolent pastries, savory meatballs of every size, shape, and herbal accent, salmon being seared at the table by a culinary torch sending elements of fire and ocean floating up toward the ornate ceiling.

Often heralded as one of the most heterogeneous communities anywhere in America, Queens boasts a unique array of rich cultures, many of which make themselves manifest through their culinary traditions.  One of the most magnificent aspects of an event like this is the accessibility to such a broad spread of culturally-diversified dishes.  What would ordinarily take months and months to visit so many restaurants, Dish du Jour brought them all together under one roof for an evening of nibbling, sipping, laughing and sharing.

Proud Astorian and patron of the Dush du Jour Food & Wine Tasting for the past five years in a row, Rosina Savva won a free VIP ticket to this year’s event through a contest on Dish du Jour’s Facebook page.  When asked what stood out about this year in contrast to past events, she responded, “the five ingredient cooking challenge… not that I would put myself out there to compete with trained professionals, but it sure was fun observing” and “more exciting than a cookbook signing,” she added.

The cooking challenge was presented on a large dais at the front of the ballroom, where celebrated local chef Rocco Sacramone of Trattoria L’Incontro along with Cookbook author and Top Chef contender Andrea Beaman competed against one lucky VIP ticket holder chosen  as an aspiring chef competitor.  Featuring five mystery ingredients revealed just moments before the cook-off, the challengers were asked to prepare a dish utilizing organically raised kangaroo, espresso coffee grinds, hen of the woods mushrooms, asian pears, and chestnuts.  Judged by Peter Vallone (Queens City Council Member), Sara Gore (LXNY television host), and Tony Tantillo (WCBS Channel 2 Food Editor), the competition was heated and close, with the two celebrity judges edging neck-and-neck above the aspiring chef (who walked away with a handsome prize of gift cards, gift baskets, and books).

(Leaving her apron behind in order to peruse this year’s selection in preparation to participate in next year’s event, Ornella Viterale of Ornella Trattoria in Astoria poses with celebrity judge Tony Tantillo of WCBS Channel 2)

Though the cook-off was undeniably entertaining and the opportunity to shake hands with local celebrities exciting, the true obvious headliners of the night were the actual dishes so eloquently prepared and displayed for this year’s attendees, all of whom left with satiated appetites.

Dish du Jour’s Facebook contest winner, Rosina Savva’s favorites of the evening included the soutzoukakla from Aegean Cove, hearty Greek meatballs in a robust tomato & leek sauce over a bed of seasoned rice.

Savva was also a huge fan of one of my personal favorites, Iavarone Brothers.  Pictured is their Next Generation Panini of roasted chicken, broccoli rabe, fresh mozzarella, and roasted peppers.  One of the tables with the broadest offerings, attendees eagerly waited in line to also try their pumpkin ravioli in sage and brandy cream sauce, along with apple cornbread and sweet potato stuffed autumn chicken.  In my opinion, this was the restaurant that most deliciously embodied the event theme, “Spice it up with the flavors of fall.”

Rosina was accompanied by her lovely and effervescent daughter, Alyssa, who assured me that one of the best dishes of the evening could be found at JJ’s Asian Fusion.  More specifically, I had to try the Astoria roll, filled with crabmeat and wasabi tempura crunch flakes, topped with salmon that was seared to order with a torch, garnished with scallions and a spicy cream sauce.  I will certainly trust the Savva’s future suggestions, for they both steered me to mouthwatering, topnotch samplings.

Joe Lisi of Astoria-based comedy troupe Sunday Morning Mimosa was at the event to enjoy some of his longtime favorites, like Mojave, and find some new favorites, as well.  One of his recommendations for the evening was Seva Indian Cuisine, where they were cranking up the heat with curry-spiced vegetable samosas, warm and fluffy triangles of naan bread, and buttery and spicy chicken tikka masala.

The ballroom was filled with several newcomers to the Queens food scene, including the mega-hit from Manhattan, Five Napkin Burger.  Juicy grilled beef burgers were served on a soft white roll, layered with caramelized onions and rosemary aioli (their signature burger, minus the gruyere cheese).  I have to confess it took restraint not to ask for a second slider.

Youssef  Echaybi, owner of one-month-old French restaurant, L’Artiste on 31st Avenue, continually removed his chef’s gloves to graciously shake hands with potential new patrons.  Behind him, a team of cooks meticulously prepared culinary masterpieces of one of his signature hors d’oeuvres, a pickled beet terrine with dollops of goat cheese and honey walnuts.  Genuinely delicious artwork.

Also on the lighter end of the spectrum came this panzanella from Monika’s Café Bar, a traditional Tuscan bread salad composed of creamy ricotta, heirloom tomatoes, and a drizzle of pesto oil.

Deluge Restaurant from the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in the heart of Flushing offered a selection of smoked salmon tartar with a dollop of crème fraiche... 

...alongside glazed Chinese pastries stuffed with green tea rice paste.

One patron of Austin’s Steak and Ale House nearly knocked me over as he rushed the table for what I overheard was his third helping.  While my face remained a flustered shade of crimson for a few minutes, as soon as I tasted their ridiculously tender and flavorsome glazed skirt steak with buttery shrimp scampi, I had no alternative but to go easy on the guy.  Their surf-n-turf really is that good.

I’d be negligent not to mention that in between bites, I paused to enjoy several spirited concoctions.  A spiced rum with pineapple juice and nutmeg from Tommy Bahama rum stands out as one of the most refreshing, reminding me of vacationing in the Virgin Islands.  Brooklyn Brown Ale is always a malty and smooth brew that I can never refuse, and again stood out as a highlight of the evening.

Just when I thought that not a single corner of my body had room for another morsel, I witnessed a woman pointing to an adjacent room, exclaiming to her friend, “there’s a whole separate area filled with rows and rows of desserts!”  It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it… and so somehow, I found a little extra room.

One of the most delicious treats from the confectionary side of the ballroom came from one of my recent favorites, Chef George McKirdy of the brand new Astor Bake Shop.  His pastries are always extremely fresh, and steps above the other bakers in his neighborhood.  For the tasting, he spoiled us with a gala apple-hazelnut tart, blanketed with Jacques Cardin Cognac anglaise. Sophisticated, sweet, seasonal, and downright delicious.

The visual standout of the desserts came from LuLu’s Bakery, with a gargantuan chocolate chip cupcake that easily stood at least two feet tall.  Though I resisted the urge to stick a spoon directly into the cake, I did treat myself to their frangelico-laced tiramisu...

...and a superb hazelnut cheesecake topped with cabernet apple compote and chocolate coated crisp rice.

And last, but certainly not least, just before I raised my white flag in unwilling surrender, I enjoyed a unique and phenomenal palate cleanser from Wine Cellar Sorbets.  Okay, okay, so I couldn’t decide which one, so I tried both the ruby port (pictured) and sangria sorbets.

With both my camera and abdomen bursting at the seams, I contentedly staggered from the Astoria World Manor, and although decidedly ready for an early bedtime, reinvigorated and renewed in my claim that Queens is one of the most delicious places to live in New York City.

No comments:

® All Rights Reserved by Bradley Hawks
© Copyright 2011 Bradley Hawks
All images & articles are the sole property of Bradley Hawks unless otherwise specified. Please email for permission to use.


Related Posts with Thumbnails