Crazy Delicious

The festival disappoints slightly, MIAMIntelligence tanks, Aquabooty continues to rock

Miam-uh has bent the South Beach Wine & Food Festival to its will; in only five years, the event has morphed from a one-day, academically affiliated, kitchen-rich conference for the cuisine world's crme de la crme into a 100-hour party of consumption — conspicuous and otherwise. Yet those fortunate enough to gain entrance, like the residents of Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace, seemed not to mind the emphasis on fetes over feasts, and emerged laughing if not smiling.

Bubble Bath at Ocean Drive's Victor Hotel on Thursday was a disappointment from the get-go, when the advertised "models bathing in Veuve Clicquot" turned up wearing frumpy gold spa robes. Plenty of champagne was poured for sure, but no water or snacks were available, and guests unaccustomed to the 100 percent humidity and the heady potency of bubbly became quite inebriated, dehydrated, hypoglycemic, and overheated in short order. Ditto the Croc vodka bash Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.

The Best of the Best, held Friday night at the Fontainebleau Resort, has been by far the festival's top attraction for the past two years. It represents what the SBW&FF should and would be if it weren't so darn hungry for corporate dollars. The affair paired 25 of the nation's top wineries (Au Bon Climat, Gypsy Dancer Estates) with delectable victuals cooked by great chefs including Azul's Clay Conley and Angelo Elia of Casa D'Angelo in Fort Lauderdale.

South Beach was awash, as usual, in debauchery
The Bitch
South Beach was awash, as usual, in debauchery

Food Network personalities such as Iron Chef America's Cat Cora were the main attraction at just about every other cooking event, from Saturday's Kidz Kitchen sessions given by Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray to Lidia Bastianich's Barilla pasta "interactive cooking lunch" on Sunday.

Granted, charismatic television stars draw crowds and sell tickets, but it doesn't seem right that Nobu Matsuhisa should be one of the few trade seminar participants who makes his living behind a stove instead of in front of a camera. A wine and food festival that pays tribute only to television cooks is like a film fest that focuses only on movies made for TV. (Another way to avoid turning this into the South Beach Food Network Festival would be for the Books & Books tent to sell a few classic cooking and wine books not authored by headliners from these food shows.)

The Mot & Chandon BubbleQ (Friday at the Delano) has gone from being the crown jewel of the festival to the wet blanket. We can't blame the organizers for the downpour that drenched the guests, but because the same thing happened last year, they could have made contingency plans. This used to be a casual, relaxed event where guests could stroll about booths offering every kind of slathered meat from Georgia short ribs to Alabama baby-backs (though The Bitch sticks with the cornbread and coleslaw) and then sit down at a table to eat. There was even room to get up and dance. This year crowds were so dense that it was far easier to get elbowed in the ribs than to eat them.

But guests like Donna and Mark Laken of Dallas, Texas, seemed not to mind. Mark: "We can get a plate of great barbecue ribs back home, but it doesn't come with a beach or champagne."

"Or all these people," added Donna, staring in wonder at the throngs of revelers filing past.

"We're having a fantastic time," said Debbie Ginsberg of Chicago. "And it's such a beautiful night." About half an hour later, the skies opened.

The Grand Tasting events Saturday and Sunday proceeded smoothly enough. There was plenty of food and drink for all, and while crowded, not overbearingly so. On the minus side, there was way too much hard booze (Frida Kahlo tequila, 10 Cane rum, Hypnotiq and Pama liqueurs, Shakers "artisanal" vodka) and not nearly enough wine from distinctive vintners.

As The Bitch noted in 2005, liquor isn't compatible with food or wine, and as such, isn't featured at other festivals of high caliber. If the fest insists on repping the hard stuff, organizers should at least make sure there's lots of coffee available; as it stood, the Illy café was nonoperational both Saturday and Sunday. "We had power issues yesterday," a nonbusy barista told The Bitch on Sunday. "And today it looks like it might rain."

A burst of showers and wind chased away some of Sunday's other prominent exhibitors, including Dewey LoSasso of North One 10, whose business cards fluttered away from the restaurant's abandoned booth. Quite a few caterers — heavily represented again this year — stood their ground amid the scattered raindrops. Hendrik Cornelissen of Fare to Remember in Coral Gables and Tamara Cohen of Eggwhites gamely handed out samples of pastries and crab salad until the very end of the show.

Why the profusion of gazpacho and mango salsa? "Look," intoned a prominent local chef who asked The Bitch not to use his name, "I have to have 20,000 samples over two days and have it be okay at room temperature.... What would you do?"

Other observations: Pointing at a milk-chocolate fountain into which Peeps (yes, the indestructible marshmallow candy) on sticks were being thrust, Marta Soros of Coral Gables sneered, "This is a sign the festival has officially jumped the shark." Bottled-water company Voss has finally figured out that its pretty glass packaging was too heavy, debuting plastic bottles at the fest. Francis Holder of Paul (an Aventura eatery) is darn generous; he instructed his staff to distribute enormous baguettes to guests. And the FIU students holding the "Ask Me" placards weren't well prepared. "What is the purpose of my life?" The Bitch inquired of one female student. "To be happy," the girl responded. "Where are the restrooms?" the hound pursued. "I don't know," came the answer.

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