Republic Square Park was alive Friday night with a star-studded lineup of some of Texas' culinary big shots at the New Taste of Texas Kick-off bash for the inaugural Austin Food & Wine Festival. As the heat of the setting sun made its way behind the western sky, 13 celebrated chefs turned up the heat from their individual cooking tents offering up everything from fresh Texas strawberries to whole-hog tacos.
A special event for VIP ticket holders, the sip and taste mingling guests meandered at a leisurely pace from station to station having time to shake hands with chefs and savor each little bite served — which was perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the evening.
The added bonus was having a soundtrack of bluesy tunes from Lucinda Williams playing live on a center stage to help set the tone.
Sure, there were lines — some of them longer than others — but unlike many food festivals of the past, where it’s every man for himself to get some grub and move on to the next line, the New Taste of Texas event, with its lighter crowd of devoted food and wine fans was a lot more relaxed.
Yes, most attendees paid a premium for the event, but as they say, ‘you get what you pay for,’ and the ease and friendliness of the evening was no doubt worth it to those who made the investment.
Among some of the top tastes:
Laura Sawicki, La Condesa: Chocolate custard with fresh blackberry gelée that packed a concentrated punch of tart and sweet flavor.
Jason Dady, Jason Dady Restaurants, San Antonio: Butter-poached shrimp with tangy carrot-daikon slaw and sriracha aioli and basil salad.
Andrew Weissman, Il Sogno/The Sandbar, San Antonio: Salt-cured scallops with yuzu caviar and sesame oil.
Sarah Grueneberg, Spiaggia / Top Chef, Chicago: House marinated sardines with orange and olives on toasted rye.
Some chefs went big, like Dallas' Tim Byres of Smoke restaurant roasting a awhile hog and serving everything down to the cracklin’s — upon request, while others went small-but-powerful like Barley Swine's Bryce Gilmore with a play on deviled eggs with crispy pickled Brussels sprouts leaves.
The winner for having perpetually long lines was a tie between the bar and Franklin Barbecue proving that what people really want in life are the simple things: beer, wine, and great smoked meat.
The added bonus was having a soundtrack of bluesy tunes from Lucinda Williams playing live on a center stage to help set the tone. The accompanying concert from a big marquee name like Williams was a first for this kind of food festival in Austin. And while people certainly took in the show, the constant flow from the food tents, to the bar, to the stage made the added music component a welcomed addition, though not one that commanded the entire evening.
“I really like that everyone is still walking around to taste food and talking at their little tables while listening to the concert all at once,” said Becka Brown, one of the evening attendees. “The music isn’t overpowering, but really fits with something like this.”
The party met its end around 8pm and the crowd slowly dissipated into the Friday night buzz of downtown. But the evening was hardly over for many who made their way to “after parties” at Malverde and Hotel Saint Cecilia.
Some people may ask if the hefty $850 price tag for the extra VIP events is worth it. The answer is up to you, but if the success of Friday night’s event is any indication of what the rest of the weekend has to come, I’d say yes. For a nationally-recognized festival to maintain a quaint-yet-lively attendance (less than 1,000) for great food, wine and music, without making guests feel overcrowded or like they were being cattle prodded through lines is a pretty significant feat. And one well worth the extra bucks, if you can spare them.
Friday night was simply a little taste of what the weekend has to come and so far, this new Austin Food and Wine Festival is successfully setting a high bar and showing big city chefs and attendees alike that Austin is indeed a very special city.