Monday, March 3, 2014

FoodTrek: Hungry Like the Wolf at SWFE

When I attend a big food/beverage tasting event, it's exciting, and it's also like that moment in the movie Gladiator, where Russell Crowe's Maximus is preparing for battle, the tension is palpable, and he calmly instructs his army: "At my signal, unleash hell." I imagine that's probably how the food/drink vendors feel right as the doors open and hundreds of people pour in, with that gleam of hunger in their eyes. Seattle-town takes its food and drink seriously. We'll dedicate a whole Sunday to wandering the rows in Exhibition Hall of Seattle Center, pacing our way through dozens of restaurant samples and a literal ocean of wine/spirit/beer/cider sips. You'll never get through every single thing, but it's a challenge to try all your favorites, while making new ones. Get ready to rumble - Seattle Wine and Food Experience just rocked Seattle's world.

SWFE - endless rows of perfect miniature bites! Prawn salad from Purple Cafe and Wine Bar - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I'm going to say it right now, there's no way I can cover everything that happened at this year's Seattle Wine and Food Experience (SWFE), just like I couldn't taste/sip every single thing. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to share this year's rundown of what was sampled and tips to stay at the top of your tasting game when you go to any large food/drink festival like this.

Seattle food and drink in action at SWFE - Photos by Wasabi Prime
If you've never been to SWFE before, it's a one-day showcase of local restaurants, regional foods and culinary products, local and international wines, as well as local spirits, ciders and beers. A culinary cornucopia, as it were. And it's been happening every year, around this time, since 2009. Tickets usually sell out and it attracts a sizable crowd. At the busiest time of the event (usually around the first hour of the general admission open time), you could be slowly making your way through a crowd of a thousand people, but there's samples at every turn, so you literally taste as you meander. I recommend getting the VIP ticket, which gets you in an hour earlier, which allows a smaller crowd of 5 or 600 in and you get first dibs on everything. For myself, the early entrance gave me a much easier time snapping photos of things before things got crazy, plus you had a little more time to chit-chat with the chefs and winemakers.

Gnocchi Bar goodness, prepared right in front of you - Photo by Wasabi Prime
My main bit of advice for SWFE would be to go with an appetite, but don't be ravenous. I actually had a big biscuit n' gravy breakfast over at Skillet Counter at the nearby Seattle Center Armory an hour or so before the event. It sounds counter-intuitive to arrive with a satisfied belly at a food event, but this really is all about the experience of taste. Sure, you can shotgun endless bites of steak, shrimp and wine but at that point, you're not even taking notice of the flavors or ingredients, and frankly it's an express-train to Superdrunkytown in record time. You want to remember what you've tried, and not completely dull your palate with too much alcohol. You don't buy a ticket to the opera to nap (well, maybe some people do), so why not make the most of every single taste at SWFE?

Carrot panna cotta, foie tofu, lamb sugo, fresh macarons - fine dining in bite-sized portions - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's nice to have the equivalent of a fine dining experience in small, taste-sized portions, from a multitude of restaurants at SWFE. Bites of note included the savory carrot panna cotta with poached prawn from Serafina, Ray's Boathouse had smoked salmon bites with avocado pineapple chutney, Miyabi had their signature foie tofu, Cafe Juanita served a lamb sugo over square-shaped gnocchi alla romana, and airy macarons from Luv Macarons. It's also a great opportunity to sample bites from new places like Hollywood Tavern's flavorful corned beef tartine and Gnocchi Bar's tender gnocchi with caramelized cauliflower and bacon.

Beet and chayote salad from La Bodega - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Even with small tasting portions, the food is vibrant and exciting. Amid all the rich dishes, La Bodega's beet and chayote salad was a refreshing standout. Chinoise Sushi Bar and Asian Grill had Vietnamese eggplant over rice noodles. Meat-eaters could just hover around the Washington  Beef Commission's Beef Butcher Block area, or jump between Bill the Butcher's tables, snagging bites of their smoky beef bacon sausage. I couldn't have been the only one doing that.

Chinoise's Vietnamese eggplant over rice noodle salad - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Yes, there's plenty of sweets, if you're more of a dessert fan. Top Pot never fails to impress with their massive pyramid of doughnuts. They had about a dozen different flavors, all miniature-sized, along with a coffee bar that had a steady line all throughout the day. I kept my sweet tooth in-check, sampling a little of Gelatimo's chocolate porter gelato and not much else. Not that I don't love sweets, but I know Me, and Me gets wicked heartburn if I overload on too much sugar.

Homer Simpson would be proud - Photo by Wasabi Prime
So much food! Where's the drink? That's another helpful bit of advice with events like these -- eat first. Resist the temptation to immediately get your tasting glasses filled, and start off with a good food base to slow alcohol's roll through your system.

Local Washington wine favorites getting accolades from SWFE - Photos by Wasabi Prime
There's a LOT of wines being poured, and multiple vintages from multiple tables -- it's okay to be selective. And don't drink, just taste -- there's dump buckets on every beverage table and no one thinks it's rude to not drink everything, not when there's literally hundreds of potables under one roof. Try a few favorite wineries with new releases, sample wines from regions you're not familiar with, and if there's an award around a bottle -- get a sip. 

Wines from Oregon, California, Idaho and international imports - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I sampled some wines, but ended up trying more of the distilled spirits and the ciders. All the rich, flavorful food, I wanted something strong to cut through all the flavors. Sun Liquor was mixing up mini-cocktails using their spirits at their elegantly displayed table. I sampled It's 5 Distillery's Eve's Apple Pie liqueur and Skip Rock's Spiced Apple liqueur.

Sun Liquor's rainbow of distilled flavor - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Something I noticed with a lot of the ciders and distilled spirits was a showcase of bold or unusual flavors. Pepper or fruit infusions were everywhere, Finnriver Farm had a seasonal Solstice Saffron cider that was really herbaceous and unique. Flavorful items definitely tend to stand out and be more memorable than neutral-flavored spirits, so it makes good sense that distilleries were pushing the infused spirits. I was bouncing between unusual infusions and seasonal releases, like Tieton Cider Works' Blossom Nectar Cider, a pleasantly sweet springtime bottle that's hard to miss with the Hello Kitty-pink cap.

A spirited revival of local distilleries in Washington - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The effervescence of cider and sharpness of a Triplehorn IPA really helped revive my SWFE palate, so that's mostly why I stuck so closely to the beer/cider tasting area. Even with the wines I was sampling, I found myself gravitating towards sparkling wines and Italian Proseccos.

Cider and Beer, hanging out together like BFFs at SWFE - Photos by Wasabi Prime
A trend I liked seeing was the marriage of food and drink at SWFE. Jonboy Caramels, a really delicious local treat, has an absinthe caramel, using Pacific Distillery's Pacifique Absinthe. If you don't think you like absinthe, you will love the caramels -- the anise flavor with the sweetness of the candy are a perfect balance. Snoqualmie Ice Cream was making moscow mule floats with their ginger ice cream, ginger beer, lime, and Bluewater Organic Distilling's vodka -- super-refreshing and super-gone in no time, so a crowd favorite.

A true harmony of food and drink - in dessert! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
At the point where you're sipping your way through SWFE, it's good to seek out the snacks that can be enjoyed with one hand, since the other hand is busy holding a wine glass. See, there's a clear method and plan of attack when attending a food/wine festival!

Delicious infused olive oils from Queen Anne Olive Oil - Photo by Wasabi Prime
My non-wine glass-occupied hand was free to pick up bites like a bit of pita and hummus, flavored with Baklouti Green Chile Olive Oil from Queen Anne Olive Oil. They were handing out cute little sample bottles, which I can't wait to use. It was cheese heaven, with QFC's lounge area full of Murray's Cheese and Kerrygold Cheese's table full of samples. The little bites of KIND bars were easy snacks to grab, as were the elegant dried fruit slices from Simple and Crisp. I totally spaced out on grabbing a bag of Tim's Cascade chips (addicted to chips and I love theirs), but probably because I was still in a dreamy food haze from Olli Salumeria Americana's chorizo, which was fantastic.

Snacks aplenty, and all the Good Stuff - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You would think your stomach would burst, grazing all day at such a feast-like festival, but small sips and bite-sized portions allow you to sample an incredible variety without falling too deep into a food coma. I departed SWFE satisfied, but not shamefully full. I think being leisurely and selective is key, plus not showing up starving-hungry, and being judicious about sampling the wines are the best tips for making the most of an event that can seem overwhelming at first -- take your time, browse before taking a bite, survey prior to sipping. Words to live by, my friends.

Tips for surviving SWFE: food base first, sample slowly, and HAVE FUN - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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