Best Festival Bites

The best things we ate and drank at the 2015 Austin Food + Wine Festival

The best things we ate and drank at Austin Food + Wine Fest

Janina O'Leary Austin Food + Wine Fest 2015
Janina O'Leary wowed the crowd at Sips and Sweets. Photo by Matt McGinnis
Jack Gilmore Fire Pit Austin Food + Wine Fest
Chef Jack Gilmore at the popular "Fire Pit" demo.  Photo by Matt McGinnis
Chef Hugo Ortega at Taste of Texas Austin Food + Wine Fest
Chef Hugo Ortega at Taste of Texas.  Photo by Matt McGinnis
Chef Tim Love Rock Your Taco Austin Food + Wine Fest
Chef Tim Love wins Rock Your Taco. Photo by Matt McGinnis
Janina O'Leary Austin Food + Wine Fest 2015
Jack Gilmore Fire Pit Austin Food + Wine Fest
Chef Hugo Ortega at Taste of Texas Austin Food + Wine Fest
Chef Tim Love Rock Your Taco Austin Food + Wine Fest

The fourth annual Austin Food + Wine Festival survived multiple ominous weather threats and entertained thousands of guests over the course of the weekend. The event mixed noted names from television like Andrew Zimmern and Graham Elliot with local and regional talent during a weekend of tastings, seminars, competitions and meet-and-greets.

One sizable change from the 2014 was immediately evident: The restructured ticket prices ($550 for all events and $250 for daytime only) led to the event's first sold-out year, and the "all in" price seemed to strike a chord among local attendees. The revised plan let go of priority admission lines and VIP tasting hours: The $550 pass simply meant you could attend three extra evening events. C3 Presents' Patrick Dentler explained Sunday, "We tried to make everyone feel like a VIP with this format, and it seems to be going well."
The festival kicked off with Friday night's Taste of Texas event. Highlights from the evening included a pork jowl char sui from Fort Worth's Grace; a fermented goat laap from Hot Joy, served San Antonio-style on a tostada with coconut sour cream; and our personal favorite, a delicate and complex mussel escabeche with English pea juice and dill pollen from Casa Rubia in Dallas.
The crowd favorite seemed to be local hero Ramen Tatsu-ya, who brought beloved Ajitama (marinated boiled eggs) with grilled maitake mushrooms and a chicken skin chicharon. Food aside, it was impressive how the chefs kept their serving temperatures consistent during the event in rather extreme conditions: It couldn't have been easy.
Following that event, the Sips and Sweets after party drew big crowds. The atmosphere was jovial, but lengthy lines were an issue, mostly for Janina O'Leary's elaborate pastry setup showcasing laV. Other hits included bites from Arro — and the copious amounts of bourbon flowing at the bar.
The day sessions at Auditorium Shores marked the fest's return to the infamously dusty site of the first event. Due to their smaller capacity than the chef demos, the fest's wine seminars drew long lines all weekend. LaV sommelier Vilma Mazaite had a crowd of 100-plus for her sparkling wine talk, and Whole Foods Market Master Sommelier Devon Broglie drew similar queues for his talk on rosé. Ray Isle's wine seminar featuring Texas wines pitted against worldwide competition showed just how far Texas wine has come over the past decade.
Some of the biggest lines and hits of the weekend were the "Fire Pit" areas with big names cooking outdoors. Jack Gilmore brought his popular fire truck outfitted as a rotisserie and served Texas grilled shrimp for good measure. David Bull's grilled redfish with pickled green tomatoes and fresh garden peas was impeccable. Houston's Pass and Provisions also drew huge crowds for the delicious pastrami-influenced beef taco with a rye tortilla and cabbage slaw. It was served it in such huge portions that many opted to share a plate (we didn't care to).
Wine selections in the tents were diverse and plentiful. There were insightful regional showcases from Greece and France's Provence area, allowing guests to discover their dominant flavors and styles. One could also drink quite a lot of fancy red: Bottles like Torres Mas La Plana, Stonestreet Cabernet, Treana Red and Northstar Merlot were easy to access without lines. Many opted for refreshing lighter picks instead, going with perennial favorites like New Zealand whites from Villa Maria (whose single vineyard Taylor's Pass Sauvignon Blanc was outstanding) or a selection of world rosés.
Saturday night's Rock Your Taco bites were top notch once again. (Note to visiting chefs: If you don't make your own tortillas, you're highly unlikely to crack the top five.) Opinions on the best dish varied greatly, but our top picks were Antonia Lofaso's crispy octopus taco (which drew crazy lines on word-of-mouth), Tyson Cole's applewood smoked masu sashimi taro taco, and Jason Dady's duck confit carnitas taco with pineapple and jalapeño.
Judges Andrew Zimmern, Gail Simmons and Graham Elliot chose Tim Love's beef tendon taco as the winner; Jonathan Waxman's mushroom and hominy creation finished second. Aside from the tacos, soul singer Lee Fields was a surprise highlight for many. Fields is riding high again after years away from the spotlight, and festival guests flocked to the stage in a way we've never seen for a band at these evening parties. Fields' amazing voice, classic style and sharp dressing were a perfect fit for the party.
As the festival wound down Sunday, the casual vibes of Friday and Saturday gradually morphed into a final push for glory. Those who had splurged on a weekend of gluttony were determined to finish strong, so wine and food were consumed at an ever-increasing pace. Winemaker Austin Hope debuted his new rye whiskey at a brunch cocktail seminar with Brian Floyd of Weather Up, who combined the spirit with lemon juice, fresh strawberries and a jasmine syrup that wowed the audience.
Later in the day, wine author Mark Oldman emceed the most over-the-top panel of the beverage seminars, "Wine for IPO millionaires." Oldman served up Perrier Jouet, Silver Oak, Rochioli Chardonnay and more to give the crowd a taste of luxury pours they might never spring for.
Sunday chef showcase winners included Sonya Cote's (Eden East) complex smoked axis venison with horseradish dijon and preserved lemon salt and carrot flowers. We also enjoyed Eric Silverstein's (The Peached Tortilla) cauliflower three ways, especially the nori butter and cauliflower puree component.
As the event sped to a close, chefs Tim Love and Jason Dady scaled the DJ platform to pour tequila shots for revelers dancing to DJ Mel's crowd-pleasing finish. After four years, C3 Presents, Love and the team behind AFWF seem to have dialed in the winning formula: make it egalitarian, keep the booze and tunes flowing, and keep it light.
They may continue to tinker here and there, but the event feels like it has found a real identity and personality — a great accomplishment heading into year five.