Taste of the Nation's Tasty Freshman Class, New VIPish Room, and the Ritz on the Key is Practically Giving Rooms Away to Celebrate

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Let the chowdown countdown begin!  The 21st annual Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation is just four weeks away today in Miami, but event organizers already have a healthy crop of 19 restaurant newcomers confirmed for the July 30 orgy of eats. 

Is it promising or disconcerting that this freshman class currently outnumbers alumni?  Some of last year's participants hit the obits section like Prime Blue Grill, Tuscan Steak, and the KOBE Club. Others seem to just be holding out on us and the kids, like Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, and North One 10.  The Fontainebleau restaurants are noticeably absent from the proceedings, where other major competitors of our Ritzy host set rivalries aside for the good cause.

Without further adieu, here are the newbies and the returnees, so you can play judge...  

Newbies: 1 Bleu, Alta Mar, Andu Restaurant, Area 31, Asia de Cuba, Au Pied De Cochon, Bar Rosso, Bulldog Barbecue, Fratelli Lyon, La Cofradia-Ceviche Bar, Lola's on Harrison, Meat Market, Porto Vita, Prime Italian, RUMBAR, The Grill on the Alley, The River Oyster Bar, Whisk Gourmet Food, and Wish at the Hotel.

Returnees: Aruba Tourism Board, Bizcaya, Blue Door at The Delano, Bourbon Steak Miami, Cantina Beach at the Ritz-Carlton, Chef Allen's, China Grill, Cookies by Shar, Ghirardelli, Jennifer's Homemade, Joe's Stone Crab, Ortanique on the Mile, Sushi Sobe, SushiSamba Dromo, Timo Restaurant, Whole Foods Market, and "W" Hotel in South Beach.

Tasting items include popcorn shrimp fritters featuring fresh rock shrimp dusted in cornmeal, fried until crisp, and served with a remoulade sauce of capers, basil, nuts and mayonnaise -- a new menu item at the Ritz's homage to Havana, RUMBAR.  Chef Allen, longtime orchestrator of the hullabaloo, is preparing a surf and turf of seared scallops with a short rib and shitake hash.

For all you tree huggers out there, we asked if the Ritz would continue to conduct an eco-friendly event, its convenient theme of the moment last year which was absent from this year's press release.  Good news is that they will be recycling of all water bottles and are in the process of securing eco-friendly plates and utensils.  It is in the end up to what donors will provide.

New this year is a special lounge for VIP cardholders, consisting of a sectioned-off area within the main ballroom and amounting to not much more than couches and a private bar.  There may be a dedicated cocktail concierge to fetch drinkypoos for the too pooped or stuffed to handle the task themselves.

The auction is still a work in progress, but so far tempting items include a 5-day stay at Jade Mountain resort in St. Lucia (including airfare) where Chef Allen consults, wine tours in Sonoma and Napa Valley, and a tour of the Food Network studios and show sets in New York City for six people (includes airfare and hotel.)

The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne is offering a special Taste of Nation package to include deluxe overnight accommodations, 20 percent off all spa therapies and complimentary valet parking for $169 per room. For more information about the Taste of the Nation package, dial the resort at 305-365-4138.

To purchase tickets call 1-877-26-TASTE or visit the event website.  The VIP champagne reception and sneak preview begins at 6 p.m.,

followed by the official kick-off at 7 p.m.  Cost for general admission

is $100 ($125 at the door) per person and $200 ($225 at the door) for


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