On September 22 and 23, The Greenwich Wine + Food Festival took over Roger Sherman Park. 2017 marked the seventh year for the festival, which has grown in popularity thanks to its line-up of celebrity chefs, restaurants, beverage sponsors, and musical acts.
This year saw the return of Adam Richman, widely known for hosting the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food,” and Alex Guarnaschelli, Iron Chef and restaurateur. Greenwich resident and festival staple Kathy Lee Gifford also came back to highlight her wines and moderate celebrity panels.
2017 brought exciting new additions as well; Chef and television star Mario Batali added his name to the roster along with others like Scott Conant, Mary Giuliani, Kevin de Chenes, and Julia Deane. Multi-Grammy and Billboard award-winning band Train headlined the evening concert.
Saturday kicked off with the Grand Tasting, an enormous showcase of food, wine, and spirits held under the festival’s main tent. I spotted several familiar Connecticut restaurants like The Ginger Man, Washington Prime, Gates, Rowayton Seafood, Back 40 Kitchen, Baldanza, Char, Geronimo, Fjord, and more. However, I also noticed an assortment of out-of-state restaurants and newcomers. Chef Chris McPherson was there representing Flinders Lane, an Australian restaurant that just opened in downtown Stamford.
“Reception has been great,” McPherson told me. “The underlying tone is Southern Australian, but there are Asian, Greek, and Italian influences too.”
Though the tent was filled wall to wall with eateries and vendors presenting dishes, a few stood out above the rest. Washington Prime served bite-sized portions of steak tartare with shallots, black pepper, and scallions. The tartare sat on a thin slice of toasted bread and was topped with a dollop of parmesan-truffle crema, which gave it a decadent and earthy finish. Rowayton Seafood also won diners over their Hamachi Crudo made with Piri Piri and compressed melon. The spicy spread, hidden in the center of the fish, added heat to an otherwise light and delicate dish. It was the perfect mix of flavors. Another favorite came from The Lodge at Woodlach, located in Hawley, Pennsylvania. The destination spa has an excellent culinary program that focuses on farm-to-table dining. Their tiny bao buns were filled with pickled slaw made fresh from their garden, sriracha aioli, chicken, and cilantro. They were outstanding in both flavor and presentation.
For sweet tooths, Empire City Casino put out highly instagrammable “galaxy cakes,” half orbs adorned with glitter, golden stars, and otherworldly hued icing. The Drunk Alpaca Bake Shop brought together booze and dessert with items like Stout Brownies made with Two Roads beer. The best tasting treat came from Sweet Lisa’s Exquisite Cakes, a Salted Caramel Cookie Crunch cake.
The Grand Tasting also gave us the chance to try wines, ciders, brews, and spirits. Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits showed off an addition to their popular line of Josh wines, a North Coast Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Retailing at $19.99, it’s meant to provide a higher end alternative to Josh’s core wines. 90+ Wines presented new products too. They poured samples from their Magic Door line of wines, which, like the Josh Reserve, is a step up from their entry level brand. The Oakville Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and refreshing while the La Cle de La Femme Champagne is both tasty and affordable at around $30.
A second round of food offerings started at 4pm. The “Tailgate Party” portion of the afternoon featured renowned pit masters, BBQ joints, and comfort food classics. Meanwhile, a “Bud & Burgers” tent opened up to give participants a chance to try an array of burgers, like Hapa’s famous purple handheld, and vote for their favorites.
While this half of the festival clearly had the most substantial individual portion sizes, the lines proved formidable. Hoodoo Brown, who enticed us with a huge fire pit of hanging meats, had a line that stretched past the music stage and back around the lawn. The burger tent was mobbed, with people packed shoulder to shoulder waiting for their shot at a patty.
In the chaos, I did manage to snag a giant, delectable fried chicken wing from The Blind Rhino. The upscale sports bar finished it in a Togarashi Brown Sugar Dry-Rub, with flavorful flakes so large I could lick them from my fingers. I also squeezed my way through to Knot Norm’s Catering Co, a new addition to Norwalk’s restaurant scene. A fried oyster finished with cilantro embodied their soul-food-meets-seafood concept and provided a rich, savory experience in a single bite.
While the cuisine is certainly enough to draw crowds to Greenwich, the true backbone of the festival is the celebrity chef interviews, demonstrations, and panels that punctuate the afternoon. Participants could watch prominent local chef, Matt Storch, converse with headliners in the “Celebrity Green Room.” Book signings provided more chance to interact with special guests over the course of the day.
Cooking demos unfolded in one of two Dacor Kitchen Stages. I had the opportunity to watch a personal favorite, Alex Guarnaschelli, show us how to make spinach artichoke dip, roasted carrots, and stuffed peppers. Her impressive resume includes NYC’s Butter restaurant, time at The Darby, and appearances on Chopped, Iron Chef America, All Star Family Cook-off, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
“The most rewarding was Iron Chef, without a doubt,” she declared. “I really appreciate it.” She fought for the win, even competing for a second time when she lost in her first season.
After the demonstration, Guarnaschelli joined Adam Richman, Scott Conant, and Mary Guiliani for a “Meet the Masters” panel moderated by Kathy Lee Gifford. They swapped stories about their childhoods, learning how to cook, and their experiences on cooking competition shows. The Greenwich Harbor was a beautiful, glistening backdrop for the conversation.
When Mario Batali took the Dacor Kitchen Stage at 4:30pm, the tent was filled to capacity (and more!) with people spilling back out onto the lawn in the hopes of catching a glimpse of his presentation. I even spied Mary Guiliani hovering over my left shoulder to see Batali in action. He showed the rapt audience how to make Italian classics before signing cookbooks.
The Grand Tasting concluded at 5pm, but the Tailgate Party continued until 8:30 for latecomers and concertgoers. VIP guests had the opportunity to partake in a VIP Ambassadors Chef Dinner with Scott Conant, cocktail party, and Lawn Dinner. Train took the stage around 8:30pm, bringing Greenwich Wine + Food Festival’s seventh year to a grand close.
Now we’ll have to wait and see what the eighth year has in store!
[Photography courtesy of Andrew Dominick]