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Puck's American Wine & Food Festival at Universal Studios

  • t

Saturday night was the 22nd American Wine & Food Festival at the Universal back lot (the "Back to the Future" set) organized by Wolf Puck as a benefit for Meals on Wheels. This was by far the best in recent memory. Not nearly as crowded as in previous years, it seemed like the lowest attendance since September 2001. We didn't feel like cattle and you could actually find places to sit and eat. We drank only water all day Saturday so that we could truly sample as much as possible until we burst.

The line-up of 40 Chefs was broader than in previous years. There was no primary food sponsor (ie, Alaska Seafod Council or American Lamb Board) so the variety of dishes was great and one didn't OD on rare lamb (tough to do, though). Almost everything was 100% delicious, sort of like a gigantic chef's tasting menu with unlimited wine pairings. The top dish for me was a tie: Jasper White's (Summer Shack) simple fried clam bellies with tartar sauce. I must have had 6 servings. Why can't someone in LA abandon clam strips with dreary breading and go for whole bellies with a light cornmeal dust? Even better (but close) was Hiro Sone's (Terra) foie gras ravioli with a wild mushroom broth. Impossibly thin pasta and devilishly rich FG made a beautiful pairing.

With an apparant nod to David Kahn, Mark Peel had whole roasted pig and collard greens. The meat was incredibly moist and flavorful, and the skin/fat combination was both chewy and meltingly tender at the same time. I didn't try them, but Mrs. Swift reported that Nancy Silverton's house-made peanut butter cups with scratch Oreo crust, creme fraiche, butterscotch sauce, Spanish peanut ice cream and Spanish peanuts was thoroughly addictive. Silverton scolded her as she was describing them to someone else in line, telling her that her description didn't "do justice" to the treat.

Nobu Matsuhisa had his signature spicy tuna handrolls and, after Wolf had eaten his fill, rolled out the uni for handrolls for the rest of us. Sublime. Piero Selvaggio had grilled Margerita pizzas, grilled veal with a tomato-based sauce that would make old tires taste great, and house-made shells stuffed with a goat cheese/spinach mixture. Very tasty. Dean Fearing (Mansion on Turtle Creek) had the best soft mini-tacos with grilled pork and one of his signature salsas. Yuji Wakiya (Wakiya Ichiemicharo, Tokyo) offered grilled Maine lobster with a red chile sauce and unreal french fries, which were great but not as good as those fried in been tallow from Frank Ostini of the Hitching Post. Ostinii's pork ribs were good but not great. Bradley Ogden (Lark Creek Inn) had the most delicious twice baked Maytag Blue cheese souffles, about an inch high and the size of a silver dollar. Melt in your mouth.

Mario Batali, who looked older than he does on TV, had a simple bruschetta with sliced salamis - it was musical to hear him pronounce the name of his dish. Alan Wong had a delicious tandoori yellowtail, very mildly flavored. Robert Del Grande (Cafe Annie), Mark Miller (Cayote Cafe) and Stephen Pyles (Dragonfly) offered Southwestern dishes heavy on the cumin. Laurent Gras (Fifth Floor) had pan seared sea scallops with a champaigne sauce. Great carmalized flavor. Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill) had this delicious poached Maine lobster with crispy sweetbreads and carmalized endive. Lee Hefter and crew (I didn't see Wolf actually cooking) plated roasted beet salad, sauteed goat cheese with hazelnuts, and baby greens with a shallot-citrus vinegrette. Lydia Shire, Norman Van Aken, Todd English, Jimmy Schmidt and Sam Choy had dishes which tasted great at the time but which escape me now.

All of this chow was washed down with Chandon sparkling, Jordan 2000 Cab, Patron tequilla, Belvedere vodka, Johnnie Walker black and others too numerous to mention.

And to top off the evening (although it happened at the start) we ran into another LA Hound, John, on the tram from the parking lot. It made me think that perhaps next year we could organize an LA Hounds table or two - that way we'd have guaranteed seating and a "home base". Overall, a thoroughtly delightful evening that ended all too soon at 10:30 pm.

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  1. Thanks for your post..I was pondering this event but didn't get it together to go.. Great descriptions & details !

    1. t
      tokyoastrogirl

      Wowza. Sounds downright orgasmic! How much were the tickets? Please tell me they were over-the-top expensive since I will kick myself otherwise. I had no idea this was going on last weekend!!!

      2 Replies
      1. re: tokyoastrogirl

        $250 per person. But that is a lot cheaper than the seated dinner with some of the chefs each contributing a course on Sunday night at Spago for $600 a pop.

        1. re: tokyoastrogirl

          The basic ticket is $250. And bear in mind that you'll get a tax deduction for about $200, although as self-respecting Hounds we ate and drank far, far more than $50 worth of food/drink. The prices go up from $250 depending on whether you want a table of 10, special priority admission to the event, admission to a Friday night reception (hosted by Batali) or admission to the Chef's Tasting Dinner Sunday night at Spago.

        2. Thanks for bringing it all back to me with better clarity than I could muster. My favorites were the aforementioned divinely flavorful foie gras ravioli, Wakiya's fried lobster with the french fries, and from Eric Ripert the seared hamachi with cucumber that was so incredibly light that I had to have two of them. Craft had an kobe flatiron steak with mushrooms and tomatoes that absolutely blew us away with the amount of flavor it carried, and Chinios had a divine barbecued pork that was beautifully balanced in its fat to meat ratio.

          They had different event planners this year and I think that is partially why it was less crowded. The space flowed much better than it has in the past but as always the lines for Lydia's fried pork and lobster roll were about 30 minutes.

          This is one of the best events in Los Angeles if you are even remotely interested in food because you really do have the best chefs in the country putting it all out there for a great cause.

          4 Replies
          1. re: pwdmom

            I somehow managed to miss the flatiron steak. And I thought we were so methodical. But the lobster rolls were well worth the wait (all the while munching on other food, of course).

            1. re: TomSwift

              by lobster rolls, do you mean new england lobster rolls on pepperidge farm top-loading hot dog buns or do you mean lobster handrolls (like at sushi bars)? also, if it is new england lobster rolls, what was the restaurnat serving it, i'm looking in earnest for a great or even a mediocre main lobster roll in the la environs. thanks.

              1. re: kevin

                New England lobster rolls. The chef is Lydia Shire but her restaurant, Locke-Ober, is in Boston.

                1. re: TomSwift

                  They weren't lobster rolls, but rather lobster "hotdogs" or "sausage". No pepperidge farm bread, served hot on a small round bun with a spicy tuna mayo.

                  Tasty, though.

                  Coachboy

          2. It was ton's of fun...this year, having missed Lydia Shire's last year, we waited on the long (25min) line. A huge pork chop and lobster hot dog - both very tasty, however it's a complete meal. Advice in future, one for four people would be more than enough.

            Other comments: Le Bernadin's yellowtail was dish o night for me, Alan Wongs vegetable salad incredible, Batali's "salumi" good, but disappointing. I mean, cold cuts are sorta boring. Hitching post good, but fries are better than sweet potato fries. Vert's Paella was mediocre, Mark Miller's lamp chops w/mole were weak. Susan Spicer's food was good, and Chinois on Main was excellent. Matsuhisa, yet again, has a sushi bar serving spicy tuna and sushi. Considering that he is known for cooked dishes and variations on traditional sushi, I find this odd.

            Other comments: They should step up the wine program. As a certified wine geek, there are very few interesting tables. Actually, I ending up at the red bull and patron boths. Also, a map would have been nice.

            Anyway, lotsa fun and was good to contribute to a good cause.

            Coachboy

            2 Replies
            1. re: Coachboy

              You're right about the map.

              1. re: Coachboy

                This year the event had a new producer. They pretty much had only Southern Wines and Spirits wineries which meant that the Patron booth was the best game in town. The wine selection was definitely more corporate than in years past. The layout was easier to navigate but a map would have meant that we would have had a better chance to hit each and every food line.

              2. It's that time of year again... What hounds will be attending?

                *raises hand*

                1 Reply
                1. re: Veggietales

                  I am really looking forward to finally attending!
                  Wow, the chef list is mighty impressive.

                2. wow! thanks for the wonderful review of the event. i am looking forward to attending the event next year!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: wilafur

                    Wilafur, the event for this year is this coming weekend at Universal, as that long review from Tom Swift is dated 2004, even though I thought it was from 2005, but definitely was not from 2006. Just want to eliminate any confusion there. Go on the mealsforwheels website for details, economics, etc.

                    1. re: carter

                      doh! i need to pay more attention when i peruse the board. thanks for clarification carter!

                      too bad i will be in SF this weekend. bah!

                  2. See you there this Sat! 06'

                    1. i will be attending --- it is this saturday night --- gonna be such a fun night! see all the hounds at universal for a wonderful evening of the finest dining and wines!

                      1. If I wear my Chowhound pin, (a large square pin with a knife/fork and dog, that says "Chowhound") do all of you promise to come up and say hello?

                        1. This year's event was sold out and fantastic! The date has not yet been set for 2007, but keep your eyes on the event website www.awff.org. I recommend getting tickets early...before it sells out again!