American Wine & Food Festival
Universal Studios Backlot
3900 Lankershim Blvd
Universal City, CA
If there’s one food event I look forward to each year, it’s this one. I’m not the only one – my family flies down from San Francisco each year for this experience. For the most part, the festival works similar to many others; food and drink stations are scattered throughout the venue, and you are free to go and sample whatever you please.
In its 28th year, this annual event is hosted by Wolfgang Puck and ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff on the Universal Studios backlot. It always features a “who’s-who” of chefs from around the country, this year including (just to name a few) Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jose Andres, Scott Conant, Charles Phan, Julian Serrano, Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel, David Myers, Francois Payard and Sherry Yard. To go along with the food, an impressive list of 80+ wineries and spirits is offered. All you can eat, all you can drink. Need I say more?
Of course I will! Some pictures of the backlot from top left – the red carpet that greets you at the entrance; top right – stations and tables are set up throughout the whole venue; bottom: Spartacus Square is one of the main sections featuring live music on stage and a silent auction.
From 5-6pm, Wolfgang Puck hosted a cooking demonstration for VIPs. We caught the tail end of it as Paul Prudhomme was cooking.
The first restaurant we hit was Bouchon…because, well, Thomas Keller was there.
Similar to last year, Bouchon offered a variety of chilled seafood. Kumamoto oysters, Prince Edward Island mussels, Shiny Sea oysters, Luna oysters, shrimp and crab were all laid out for you to eat as many as you wanted. On a frickin’ large ice table. Seriously. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I tried a piece of each and everything was good. Fresh, clean flavors on each one – my favorite was probably the shrimp.
The soon-to-open Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas showcased a number of their restaurants, and their booths were nearby – we gravitated there next.
Milos Estiatorio is a Greek restaurant opening its second American location in December.
Ionian Sea Lavraki Crusted in Handpicked Sea Salt Finished with Greek Olive Oil and Capers
Stunningly presented in its salt cast, each piece was carved to order. Moist and meaty, this was a pretty damn good piece of fish.
Next to that was Blue Ribbon Sushi, which was offering customized hand rolls with a variety of fishes to choose from. I got a blue crab handroll with some avocado.
The crab was in nice chunks – sweet, really good. I wish I could’ve kept ordering more rolls, but I had to save room.
Next was a duo of stations, Jose Andres’ two new restaurants in the Cosmopolitan, China Poblano and Jaleo.
Jicama Crab Siu Mai
These siu mai are Andres’ take on the Chinese dim sum, filled with crab. I thought these were enjoyable, however the station next door kept distracting me. There, a whole jamon iberico was presented and being carved, and topped with caviar (what!).
Jose’s Taco Jamon Iberico and Caviar
This was Jaleo’s dish. Two decadent components, that’s it. The briny saltiness of the caviar, combined with the richness and more subtle saltiness of the jamon made a nice bite.
Next was Scarpetta which, technically speaking, was representing its upcoming LV location, though it will be opening up in LA next month.
Raw Yellowtail with Pickled Onions, Flaked Sea Salt, Olio di Zenzero
Good piece of fish here. Fresh with good flavor, the salt and oil add just a little bit more to the fish.
Moving away from the Cosmopolitan’s area, we found ourselves by Redd’s booth where Richard Reddington was serving a duo of tacos – halibut and spicy carnitas.
At first, I thought to myself “why is this Yountville restaurant coming to LA and making tacos?” However, these were exceptional. The shells were crisped nicely, and added some great texture to both the delicate fish and the subtly spicy carnitas.
Next we stopped by the Nobu station where, conveniently, Jose Andres came by to talk to Nobu.
Beef Tataki in Lettuce Wrap
Steamed Sea Bass
Both of these dishes were solid; however, the sea bass stood out most to me with its moist and delicate meat.
Next, Las Vegas staple Picasso’s Julian Serrano was plating up peekytoe crab cakes with a spicy gazpacho coulis.
I would have preferred a little more body to these crab cakes, as it broke apart fairly easily. The gazpacho coulis was nice and lended some nice acidity to the dish.
Next, Charlie Palmer was representing his South Coast Plaza restaurant with an avocado gazpacho with shrimp.
A welcome dish considering it was still pretty hot outside, the soup’s flavor was quite good and the sweet shrimp and crunchy nuts rounded out this nice dish.
Nancy Silverton of Mozza was offering chocolate-dipped frozen bananas, caramel corn, corndogs and hot dogs.
Palate Food & Wine served a pork terrine with spice melon, radish, and pickled shitake.
I’m not a huge fan of terrines, and this one did not break me out of that thinking. The texture was a bit too mushy for me, and the chunks of fat in this terrine, I thought, were too large.
Next was one of the best stations of the night for me – Marinus of Carmel, California.
Monterey Bay Red Abalone gravenstein apple, pumpkin agnolotti, black truffle vinaigrette
This was a good portion of fresh abalone, and it was very tender. The pumpkin agnolotti was good as well, with the pumpkin’s autumn flavor adding a bit of sweetness.
The Slanted Door (SF), where I had eaten just a few weeks ago, was serving a braised pork belly bun.
I was a little surprised as this dish was not necessarily original in any way. I would have preferred the pork seared to add some crispness, as the meat itself was rather limp.
Another standout dish came from Ame (SF)/Terra (Napa). Uni, lobster, okra, shimeji mushrooms and a slow-poached egg were surrounded by a dashi broth.
Seemingly random in combination, each of the components were quite good on their own. However, the runny yolk and dashi broth added a richness and depth of flavor that really brought this dish together.
Boston’s Summer Shack presented fried Ipswitch clams with a coleslaw and tartar sauce.
The clams were delicious – I’m glad Summer Shack decided to bring their local clams out to LA to give us a sample.
Stephan Pyles restaurant in Dallas showcased some Tex-Mex flavors with a short rib with barbecue sauce and a tamale.
Next we went into the “Wolfgang Puck area” where his restaurants were located. First, Spago Las Vegas.
Hamachi and Crispy Rice
I’ve seen this combination of fish and crispy rice a number of times, but this one was well executed. The ratio of rice to fish was excellent.
Spago Bachelor Gulch served up sake-braised Colorado short ribs.
Rich and tender, these short ribs were quite good. A yuzu gremolata added some tart acidity to cut into the richness of the meat.
Next, an impressive scene here – Spago Beverly Hills was roasting a whole lamb in the background.
As host Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, they have to be serving up something good, right? Right. Here, a lamb chop and lamb tagine.
Excellent dish here. The lamb was a generous portion, extremely tender and juicy with great flavor and a nicely seared crust. The tagine provided a tender and flavorful lamb as well.
Next, Spago Maui.
Pineapple and Seafood Curry
I had high expectations for this dish, but wasn’t exactly impressed. The curry lacked the depth of flavor I was looking for. However, nice chunks of fish and scallops were cooked well.
WP24, Puck’s newest Chinese eatery, served a trio of dim sum items: lobster and shrimp spring roll, shrimp & chive dumpling, and a pork belly bun.
All of these were solid, consistent with my recent visit to WP24.
Cut is my favorite place for a steak in LA, and they always have one of the best booths at this festival. When we got there, four American Kobe New York roasts were slowly roasting over a fire.
These were cut up, added with Maine lobster atop a corn succotash, and topped with shaved black truffles. Yes! Tender and juicy, the meat was great. The truffles added their distinctive earthy flavor to the entire dish. It didn’t even need the lobster to be successful, but I was happy to have it nonetheless.
The last of Puck’s restaurants that we tried was Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill. Here, we had marinated and grilled skirt steak with a frisee salad.
Rather unexciting in comparison (seriously, after just having Cut’s dish), there was nothing bad nor exceptional about this dish.
As we exited Puck’s area, we stopped by Valentino.
Eggplant Parmesan, Chicken Sausage, Polenta
I was a little disappointed by their offerings. The polenta was nice and creamy, but the sausage was extremely dry – something hard to do with sausage.
Campanile was serving BBQ baby back ribs, smoked pork sausages, sweet corn succotash, and stone fruit cobbler.
I was pretty full at this point, and unfortunately did not give this a try.
Former Iron Chef Yuji Wakiya (now-closed Wakiya in NYC) served up a few Chinese dishes. Spicy chicken, string beans, rice and lobster spring rolls were on tap.
The spicy chicken wasn’t spicy and too closely resembled orange chicken to me. The lobster spring rolls, however, were very good with a light flaky wrapper.
One of my “strategies” at a festival like this is to eat a bit before starting with the alcohol. Two reasons for this: one, because I’ll get tipsy too fast; two, because I only have two hands (plate, fork, wine glass…camera?).
Consistent with past years, Patron served a number of cocktails (I think there were four) on top of a huge ice-sculpted table.
Ultimat Vodka offered a number of delicious and refreshing ice-blended cocktails on top of (again) an ice table.
We can’t forget about the wines. It is a “wine and food festival,” after all.
Stags’ Leap and Silver Oak were just two of the dozens and dozens offered.
The dessert section (yes, there’s a section dedicated to it!) opened up at 8:30. A number of pastry chefs whip up their creations – the most notable is probably Francois Payard.
A master of chocolate, he offered up a variety of chocolates and desserts including a tiramisu.
Sophie Gayot and host Barbara Lazaroff happened to stop by at the same time. From left to right: Gayot, Payard, fellow pastry chef and fiancee Fernanda Capobianco, and Lazaroff.
Perhaps the most impressive display of the night was in the dessert area, where Ben Spungin of Marinus (Carmel) created an “edible dessert garden.”
In the garden were carrot cake cookies with cream cheese filling, oak tree custard with mint puree, peanut butter chocolate truffles, caramel and fleur de sel truffles, and lemon verbena truffles. Beautiful!
Thus concludes another successful American Wine & Food Festival. Unlike other festivals, the AWFF, in its 28th year, operates relatively smoothly. Lines are not extreme, and food and drink booths are spaced out enough so that the venue feels expansive, yet not overwhelming. Being able to see and talk to various chefs from around the country and sample all of these restaurants and wineries is a pretty unique and memorable experience. I look forward to next year!